Friday, January 27, 2012

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Source of book: I own this

Another entry in my series of books I should have read in High School. I read The Grapes of Wrath several years ago, after reading some excerpts in 11th grade. (See note below for further information on The Grapes of Wrath)

Two things have, in my opinion, caused Steinbeck to become a controversial writer. First, he wears his heart on his sleeve a bit too much for modern tastes. In this, he is a throwback to Victorian times, despite that his writing generally tends toward the realistic style. Second, his underlying socialist philosophy caused him to be rejected by the political right despite his merits, and embraced by the left, despite his defects. And then, there was the allegedly obscene scene at the end of The Grapes of Wrath.

Sadly, all this drama obscures the fact that Steinbeck was an excellent writer. His talents are displayed particularly well in Cannery Row.

This work might loosely be described as historical fiction. The characters are a mix of real and imagined, although the exact events are fiction. Cannery Row was a real place in Monterey, California. Amanda and I spent a portion of our honeymoon in the area, and walked along the waterfront between the decaying foundations of the old canneries and the weed filled vacant lots that seem to have changed little in the 60 years since the book was written.

The central character in Cannery Row is “Doc”, who is based on Steinbeck’s real-life friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Doc’s laboratory was located exactly where it is described in this book – and in fact still exists. Ricketts was a significant figure in his field, and has no fewer than 15 species of marine life named after him. He was killed when his car was struck by a train. (Oddly, this was also the cause of death for James Weldon Johnson – the subject of one of my posts from last year.)

Cannery Row is more of a novella than a full length novel; and yet, it is perhaps not exactly that either. I would describe it as a collection of vignettes set in a single locale and involving a set of characters, but with only a loose narrative arc connecting them. There is Doc, of course; and Lee Chong, the Chinese grocer; Dora Flood, proprietor of the whorehouse; and Mack, the leader of a group of bums. These characters, rather than a detailed plot, drive the narrative.

The opening prelude (which is not numbered as a chapter) is one of the single best descriptions in any book I have read. Not only does it set the stage for the story to follow, but it captures the setting and mood beautifully. Too often, an author will make a beautiful description; but it will turn out to have little if anything to do with what follows. Steinbeck’s descriptions are simple, short, and intimately connected to the characters and the events that follow. Like Hemmingway, he is able to use a minimum of words for a maximum of impact.

Those unfamiliar with Steinbeck might first notice his pessimism. This is not the despair shown by some authors, but it is very much in line with the writing style of his time. Representative is an extended description of the heartless food chain in the tide pool ecosystem. Animals hunt, kill and eat each other, and then, “A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil, lovely and murderous again.”

Another line that struck me in that chapter concerns the character Hazel, whose mother was exhausted after seven children in eight years and was careless about his sex. She named him after an aunt rumored to have some money, and never bothered to correct the mistake. “Hazel grew up – did four years in grammar school, four years in reform school, and didn’t learn anything either place. Reform schools are supposed to teach viciousness and criminality but Hazel didn’t pay enough attention.”

I loved the aside on Model T Fords, although it is too long to quote. (It also contains a reference to female anatomy that some might not find quite as amusing as I did.)

Steinbeck also captured a grain of truth in a discussion about whether people will believe a true explanation. Doc gives up trying to explain his love of knowledge and exploration because others look at him suspiciously. Instead, he makes up ludicrous stories that are somehow easily believed. This is true even on the subject of why Doc has a beard.

“A man with beard was always a little suspect anyway. You couldn’t say you wore a beard because you liked a beard. People didn’t like you for telling the truth. You had to say you had a scar so you couldn’t shave.”

The center of the plot, such as it is, is the contrast of two parties that Mack and his friends attempt to throw for Doc. The first is an unmitigated disaster, although it is quite amusing. The second, is, well, a mitigated disaster. As Steinbeck says, “The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.”

I would say that this book is a better introduction to Steinbeck than The Grapes of Wrath. For all the merits of that book, it has been tainted by its tendency to be preachy and by the controversy that surrounds it. Cannery Row is both more fun and more natural. Steinbeck simply tells a story, or a series of stories, without trying too hard to be about something.

 One of the old canneries.

 Modern Cannery Row. In this section, some of the old canneries have been converted into tourist shops. 

 On the north end, only remnants of the canneries remain, and the weeds grow in the empty lots. 
Ed Ricketts' old laboratory still exists.

Note on The Grapes of Wrath:

Since I live in the area of California’s central valley described in that book, it would be interesting to explore those issues in a future blog. Nationwide, the book was controversial due to the nudity in the last scene – surely the least sexy use of nudity possible – but apparently librarians in the 1940s didn’t get out much. Here in Bakersfield, the controversy was over Steinbeck’s lack of accuracy in the facts presented. He changed a few things to make the story more dramatic – changes that did not reflect well on the situation here in Kern County. My wife went to an event at the site of one of the old labor camps specifically described by Steinbeck, and interviewed nine of those who lived through the dust bowl days for a college term paper. Interestingly, those who were migrant laborers confirmed that Steinbeck changed details to better suit his narrative and his socialist philosophy. Perhaps I can talk Amanda into rewriting her paper as a guest blog post.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias

Source of Book: Purchased for the occasion

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. I am the token male member, so I will have to work even harder to prove that I was selected on my merits alone. If you want to join in or see what we are reading, the link to that post is here:

Reading to Know - Book Club

The books fall into four categories:

  1. Books I plan to read.
  2. Books I plan to read with the kids.
  3. Books I have already read. I will comment on these on the Reading to Know blog post for these books.
  4. Books I am not planning to read.

Beyond Opinion is written by about a dozen authors, one of which is editor Ravi Zacharias. While the topic is apologetics, it is not really a primer or a “how-to” instruction book. (Apologetics is the defending of a position, in this case Christianity, through the rigorous use of information and logic. The original Greek word referred to the rebuttal, or “defense” that the defendant would make in a trial. This is the word that was used by the apostle Paul to describe his “defense” of his faith given to Felix.) Rather, it presents perspectives from various authors on the common challenged given by modern thought and modern culture to the Christian faith.

I agree with Zacharias that one of the worst failings of the modern, Western church is that of systematic thought. We have come to base our explanation of our beliefs on personal experience, and have not trained the younger generations to think logically and carefully about belief. This is not a failing limited to the church, of course. Our entire culture seems incapable of any sort of explanation for its worldview, simply acting on unspoken and unacknowledged assumptions.

The key point is that anyone can claim that a particular religion or worldview, or discipline, or whatever, has changed his or her life. Personal experience is not a valid foundation on which to base one’s view of the profound questions of life. I have been moved by a number of pieces of music throughout my life, but would not wish to make the mistake of making the aching sadness of Tristan and Isolde a guide for my behavior or aspirations.

The book is divided into four sections. (They are actually labeled as three sections but with a subdivision of section one, but I found that a division in four made more sense to me.)

In the first, the question of responding to difficult questions is raised as it applies to postmodernism, atheism, Islam, Eastern religions, and more. I particularly was struck by the concept of a “worldview”. This is particularly evident in discussing the so-called debate between religion and science. The underlying worldviews are that of naturalism (the observable world is all that exists) and theism (the belief in god as a distinct person – as opposed to pantheism). Science does not and can not answer the big picture questions of life: why does the universe exist, and what is our purpose in life. In this way, each of the major worldviews (atheism, theism, and pantheism) is, at its core, a belief, rather than a provable certainty.

I was reminded again that the vast majority of us humans simply make assumptions about the nature of reality without ever noticing what our assumptions are. We choose our course of action without even thinking about why we do so. In this way, we make decisions – even good decisions – for the wrong reasons. Then, when our worldview is challenged by someone who has done a minimal amount of thinking, we are stymied. Similarly, we risk losing the next generation because we cannot pass down a logical and thoughtful defense of what we believe. This might explain why it seems increasingly popular to deny belief in anything: good or evil, truth or falsehood. We as a culture have forgotten how to think.

Because of this lack of thought, we are unable to respond to those who hold strongly opposite opinions. I enjoyed reading the writings of the late Christopher Hitchens, who died late last year. Obviously, I disagreed with his underlying worldview, but I appreciated his honesty and intellectual rigor. His aggressive atheism did illustrate an observation presented in this section of the book. The stance of atheists like Hitchens is thus:
1.      God does not exist.
2.      I hate Him.
The origins and implications of this interesting paradox are explored further in the second section of this book, which addresses the questions behind the questions.

As humans, we are an odd combination of logic and emotion, neither of which is completely separable from the other. The argument has raged among philosophers as to whether we determine our behaviors from our logically held beliefs, or whether we come to our conclusions emotionally and then seek logical justification for what we have already decided.

I personally would take the middle road, or perhaps embrace the paradox that our beliefs affect actions that we will to occur, while what we will to occur affects what we choose to believe. The two are inseparable, and we must assent to an idea while we embrace its consequences emotionally if we expect to see a consistent result.

For this section, I want to particularly highlight an idea that was new to me before I read this book. The “problem of pain” is a consistent, recurring issue throughout the ages of philosophical debate. Why, if there is a loving and powerful God, is there pain and suffering in the world? Here is the paradigm shift: if all we are is neurons that fire in a manner predetermined by natural selection, why do we feel emotional pain? Does that pain actually mean anything? If it is just neurons, why not just dull the pain with heroin? The very fact that we feel pain, and are angry about that perceived injustice in and of itself demonstrates that we believe that things should be fair, that they should be different. Does not that very belief undermine the idea of evolved neurons?

Last week, a friend’s wife died suddenly and unexpectedly. I wasn’t particularly close to her, for a variety of random reasons having nothing to do with her merits. My friend is understandably devastated. If all I am is neurons, why does this cause me pain? Why do I hurt for my friend? If death is natural, and I am not personally and directly affected by her loss, why do I even give a crap? But I am diminished by her death. My heart hurts for my friend. Even if he died tomorrow, my pain would persist. A purely naturalistic worldview cannot account for this. John Donne, however, recognized the common bond we all have, not as evolved organisms, but as fellow beings, created in the image of God:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

(From Meditation 17)

The third section discusses the internalization of apologetics. We do not seek to defend the Faith purely as an academic challenge. We seek to internalize the reasons for the hope we have within us.

I will particularly mention that the section on the Trinity is an amazing chapter, well worth reading for its own merits, but even better in the context of the greater discussion. The greatest commandment is love, not because of some prioritization of a bunch of rules, but because the very nature of God is relationship. The concept that God is Love does not depend on the existence of man. Indeed, it is completely independent of all creation. This is why orthodox Christianity differs from other religions, and why the Christian view of the relationship of God and man is so different. Love and relationship are the nature of God and of the universe; rules and appeasement are not.

I do not have the space in this review to chronicle my and my wife’s families’ journeys through legalistic, cult-like organizations, although that may be the topic of a future blog post. However, a particular line resonated with my experience, “Christian spirituality is the very opposite of religious showmanship or one-upmanship.”

The final section of the book ties the previous sections together, and makes a cogent call to the church to return to a vigorous teaching of doctrine and development of the mind. For too long, we have been content to focus on emotion and experience, while allowing the mind to atrophy. For too long, we have conceded intellect and discussion of the great issues of life to those who come from a naturalistic or pantheistic worldview. We have invited the charge that Christianity is opposed to logic and coherent thought. Historically, this has not been so. It is through our own laziness and self absorption that we have abandoned the sphere of thought. I might add my own editorial here in asserting that we have, over the last 150 years, focused our efforts on political solutions, hoping that emotion and inertia would suffice to pass our faith on to the succeeding generations. In doing so, we have utterly failed to capture either the intellect or the imagination of those outside our little bubble.

In conclusion, I believe that it is insufficient to come to a correct conclusion. We must wrestle with our faith and come to grips with why we believe. If we do not believe that our worldview best explains reality; past, present, and future; we ought to seek out a worldview that does. It really is that simple. Either our minds and hearts both must believe, or we really do not believe at all. If we do not believe – and demonstrate – that our worldview is supported by the evidence, we will fail.

In this vein, Zacharias puts it best. “That is why I am convinced that the most effective defense of the faith and offense against falsehood must be based on an examination of worldviews.” 


UPDATE 2018:

In a development which greatly saddens me - but at this point in 2018, doesn't remotely surprise me - it turns out Ravi Zacharias is a fraud. 

Over the course of decades, he has lied about his degrees, lied about his academic pursuits, lied about his past, and lied about a woman he engaged in an affair with, slandering her in the process. 

You can get a well researched, documented account of the various issues here.  

In the six years since I wrote this post, much has changed. Most crucially, I have left Evangelicalism for good. People like Zacharias are a significant reason why, although the embrace of White Supremacy in the form of Donald Trump is a bigger one. But Zacharias is a symptom of a greater problem: the need to lie that plagues Evangelicalism. In reading my post again, I am struck by the fact that my belief in the need for a life of the mind, truth, and intellectually honest defense of our beliefs hasn't change. What HAS changed is that Evangelicalism has been proven to have been lying when it came to the above. It had no interest in truth, honesty, or the life of the mind - it just wanted a strongman to carry out their racist goals. Sorry, that's what I take from the events of the last 6 years.

    Sunday, January 22, 2012

    Reading With my Kids: The Phantom Tollbooth

    Source of book: I own it. 

    What if “jumping to conclusions” was more than an idiom? What if you actually jumped, and found yourself on an island named “conclusions”? These and other phrases are interpreted delightfully literally in this children’s classic by Norton Juster.

    Written in 1961, and inspired by Lewis Carroll and the Marx Brothers, it is a modern fairy tale filled with puns and unexpected developments. I remember my mother reading this to me the first time, when I was fairly young. I’m sure some of the figures of speech had to be explained to me then, but I still found it hilarious. I re-read it several times, as a child, as a teen, and even as an adult. It really is one of those books that can appeal to any age – assuming of course that the reader has not been robbed of his sense of humor or sense of wonder by the Senses Taker. See, I cannot resist making a reference to the story even now.

    Since the plot is part of the fun, I will avoid spoilers. Milo is a chronically bored boy, who thinks nothing is worth doing, nothing is worth thinking, and nothing is really important. He comes home from his boring day at school to find a tollbooth in his room. He jumps in his toy car and sets out – he has nothing better to do anyway. He meets a host of odd characters, finds a quest, and sees it to its end.

    My kids are (currently) 8, 7, 6, 3, and 1. Obviously, the younger two have a limited understanding. They are at the “listen to Daddy read” stage, however, so they get to sit in whenever they wish. The older ones are clearly able to grasp much of the humor. They were particularly fond of King Azaz’s advisers, who say everything in five different, largely redundant ways.

                “Do all of those words mean the same thing?” gasped Milo.
                “Of course.”
                “Yes,” they replied in order.

    They also liked the Everpresent Wordsnatcher, a dirty bird who comes from Context, but is never there.

    “Let me try once more," Milo said in an effort to explain. "In other words --"
    "You mean you have other words?" cried the bird happily. "Well, by all means, use them. You're certainly not doing very well with the ones you have now.”

    There is much more, of course, which makes this book one rewarding for both parents and children. I therefore recommend that you not let your children read this one on their own. Far better to share it than let the kids have all the fun.


    Update April 2020: I read this one to the two younger kids now that they are old enough, and it was a hit. My 11 year old particularly got the wordplay and puns and humor, and laughed all through it. My 9 year old had to have a few things explained, but she had fun as well. This is still one of my all time favorite kids' books, and it has aged well. The ideas of rhyme and reason ruling our world, knowledge and wisdom prevailing over ignorance and prejudice, and the necessity of seeing things from others' points of view are timeless - and particularly timely in our current era of aggressive and intentional ignorance, disdain of knowledge and expertise, and celebration of bigotry. 

    Tuesday, January 17, 2012

    Eight Novellas and Short Stories by Henry James

    Source of book: I own this
    Date originally posted on Facebook: May 20, 2010

    One of the gaps in my knowledge of reading is that I never read Henry James. This was particularly odd given that I am a big fan of James Thurber, who in turn spoke highly of Henry James.

    At a recent library sale, Amanda found for me a Franklin Library edition, for a few bucks. Sadly, like so many used books, the pages had never been turned.

    For some reason, James has a reputation as difficult reading. I found him to be similar to other Victorian or Edwardian authors, particularly those from England. Indeed, James could be considered almost English despite his American birth. He spent a considerable portion of his life living in England, and even went so far as to become a citizen in protest against the United States’ refusal to enter World War I.

    This particular collection has two well known novellas, along with 6 additional novellas and stories. The distinction between the two is not always clear, as all have some form of chapter division, but none is long enough to qualify as a true novel. Even the long forms have a feeling of being an extended short story, dealing with one particular issue or conflict.

    This particular collection presents the stories in the order they were written.

    The Last of the Valerii

    This story introduces one of James’ favorite scenarios: the romance between wealthy American young woman and a European aristocrat. This relationship is typically characterized by a naïve, innocent American contrasted with the more sophisticated, worldly European. This particular story is told from the point of view of an older relative of the girl in question. I won’t spoil the plot, but it involves a buried statue of a Roman goddess.

    Madame de Mauves

    This early novella was probably the first attempt by James at a longer form. It too deals with a marriage of a naïve American woman and, in this case, a French nobleman. Raised in France, Madame de Mauves harbors a fantasy that the most noble, good man would be found only in the person of noble descent. She is wooed by the older brother of her school friend. He is deeply in debt, and of legendarily bad character. They marry, and eventually she becomes fully aware of his philandering. He also ignores her, seemingly uninterested in her beauty and intelligence.
    At that point, she is introduced by a friend to an American also living in France, from whose point of view the story is written. He is the early archetype of another standard James character: the weak willed man, who is unable to rouse himself to action, or to fully live life.
    What makes this story fascinating is that it appears to follow a predictable plot arc, except that the woman in this case has the backbone, and neither man does.

    Four Meetings

    Another short story in which a young American girl’s naivety and infatuation with Europe leads to a tragic end. The young schoolteacher dreams of visiting Europe. When she is finally able to scrape together the money to go, she promptly falls victim to a distant relative living in France. She pities him for his alleged debts, and gives him all her traveling money, and has to return without really seeing anything. To add to the tragedy, the relative’s wife is soon widowed, and comes to the United States to further sponge off the schoolteacher.

    Daisy Miller

    One of the better known novellas. A young American man traveling in Switzerland meets Daisy, a young American woman traveling with her family, at a resort. Does this sound familiar yet? They become interested in each other, but her naïve flirtatious ways alienate her from the more respectable element.
    She eventually ends up in a romantic relationship with an Italian of “sophisticated” but dubious character. This ends badly.
    Although this novella is mentioned more often, I found Madame de Mauves to be a more nuanced tale. Daisy Miller does have the distinction of using malaria, rather than tuberculosis, as a plot device.

    The Marriages

    Ah, this short story is of interest to the family law attorney. Colonel Chart is widowed, with two adult children, and a few younger ones that do not figure in the story.
    The story is told from the point of view of the daughter, Adela, who has probably felt the loss of her mother the most.
    Colonel Chart becomes engaged to a person whom Adela dislikes heartily. Adela takes matters into her own hands, doing her best to torpedo the relationship. While she succeeds, subsequent events cause her to repent of her actions. In its 30 short pages, it gives a snapshot familiar to anyone who has attempted to navigate stepparent relationships.

    The Turn of the Screw

    Is this a ghost story, or a story of insanity? The question has occupied English majors for over a century. James evokes a delicious Gothic atmosphere, similar in a way to the Bronte sisters.
    This story is from James’ middle period. The language has become more challenging, with sentences strung out for whole paragraphs. Still, the structure fits the narrative, causing the reader to sift through the words looking for clues.
    I particularly enjoyed the way he kept almost revealing facts, giving hints, but never coming to a full reveal, until at the end, you realize he is never going to give you that missing piece allowing you to understand. Instead, you must simply feel. Then you are left to wonder whether it was all in the protagonist’s head.
    I am informed that the film, The Others, was inspired by this novella. The plots are obviously different, but they share the ability to wring shivers out of the most mundane events.

    Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie

    Thus short story inverts the usual American Girl/European Nobleman plot in that the tragedy falls on the man, not the woman. Miss Gunton comes close to marrying an Italian nobleman, but insists that his mother take the first step of initiating this relationship. This is contrary to European tradition, leading to a standoff.

    The Beast in the Jungle

    This final short story is from the last period of James’ writing. By this time, the prose had become dense and more challenging than ever.
    The protagonist meets a woman he met ten years prior. She recalls to his attention that he had disclosed to her a great secret at that time, and she had never forgotten it.
    The secret is that he has a premonition that something unusual and terrible will someday happen to him. This is the “Beast in the Jungle” that will someday jump out at him.
    They commence a friendship. He determines never to marry, because he could not risk bringing a woman into his terrible destiny. This continues for years. They grow old, and she eventually becomes ill and dies.
    Before her death, she tries to get him to see what he cannot see. He is finally enlightened when he sees another in the throes of true grief: he has failed to love.
    It is easy to see this story as autobiographical. James never had a serious relationship with a woman. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate an intimate relationship with a woman or a man. He rejected any notion of marriage, and considered himself a confirmed bachelor from a young age.
    To what extent James was revealing his own feelings in this story is a matter of speculation, but it is nonetheless a powerful vision of loveless selfishness finding its inevitable result.

    Henry James, in a 1913 charcoal sketch by John Singer Sargent.

    Tuesday, January 10, 2012

    Nothing Daunted by Dorothy Wickenden

    Source of book: Borrowed from the library

    Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West is the true story of the author’s grandmother and her best friend, reconstructed from nearly 100 letters written by the two young women. In addition to these letters, the author interviewed those persons still alive from the events and their descendents; located other documents, news articles, and other sources; and visited the sites described.

    Dorothy and Rosamond were childhood friends who attended Smith College together, toured Europe together, and generally did the things that upper class young ladies of the time did. However, in 1916, unsatisfied with the endless round of balls and social events, they decided to answer an advertisement seeking two teachers to serve at a small school district in western Colorado. This book tells of their adventures during that year of teaching.

    The story itself is pretty simple, and therefore makes for a short book by itself. The author therefore fills in a good bit of background on the families of Dorothy and Rosamond, the history of the Elkhead, Colorado area, the histories of some of the other main characters, and the story of what happened to Dorothy and Rosamond later in life.

    There are two signs in this book that the author was writing in our very modern age. First, she attempts to keep the narrative as flat and unsensational as possible, She lets the letters do the talking, filling in the details as necessary. Since Dorothy and Rosamond took care to avoid alarming their already nervous parents, the danger and excitement are both underplayed a little. A more natural storyteller could perhaps have made the story a bit more compelling, but that really is a matter of taste. Dorothy and Rosamond wrote with a dry wit, which is enough by itself. It would have been fascinating to have read the original letters in their entirety.

    The second sign of modern sensibilities is the lack of sympathy the author has for the attitudes and values of the society 100 years ago. In a few instances she seems to fail to understand why after a year of employment and freedom, both women chose to marry and become mothers and housewives. This is a general problem, I think, with each age. We hold previous generations to a modern standard, just as those in prior centuries held their ancestors to their own ideals. This is why Huckleberry Finn is now available in a bowdlerized edition. Fortunately, I found the bias to be fairly easy to ignore.

    This book is a worthwhile, quick read that tells of two extraordinary women in a time and place that has become forgotten. I would recommend reading through the lengthy acknowledgements at the end, as they tell of the interviews that the author did. I found these to be fascinating in themselves. I would have loved to have heard the story directly from the sources, as so many of the individuals had stories of their own to tell.

    Friday, January 6, 2012

    The Cypresses Believe in God by José María Gironella

    Source of book: Borrowed from the library

    I have read a few spooky books in my time; thrillers, horror, and suspense. I think that this book, a work of historical fiction, has creeped me out more than any other. What is Cypresses, and why did I find it to be so discomfiting?

    Written in 1953 in Spanish, and translated a couple of years later, it is set in Spanish city of Gerona in Catalonia in the five years leading up to the Spanish Civil War.

    The book assumes a certain knowledge of the historical events, political parties, and major figures. Fortunately, there is an appendix with the characters, figures, and parties for reference. This last one is particularly key as Spanish politics were anything but simple in the 1930s. I also spent a bit of time learning about the history of the conflict.

    The book opens in 1931 during the time of the so-called “Second Republic”. The last vestiges of the monarchy had been banished, and a new constitution approved. However, while Spain was on the brink of unimaginable chaos and destruction, few if any recognized the seeds. Many sound all too familiar for our day and time. Widespread and growing unemployment, the rise of socialist parties with revolutionary rhetoric, resentment against the wealthy. Also present and contributing to the disaster were the rise of the anarchist and fascist parties, control of the land by longstanding families with titles dating to feudal days, widespread resentment of the Catholic Church as a controlling political and economical power, and failure to modernize agriculture. The final piece, which plays a huge part in this book, is the discontent of the Basque and Catalonian regions, which contained much of Spanish industry, and felt that they were not represented by the current government.

    Gironella focuses on one particular middle class family in Gerona, the Alvears. The father, Matías, works at the telegraph office, making him solidly white collar middle class, but a non-professional. He is the sort that most readers will identify with. He wishes to be good-hearted toward all, in conflict with as few as possible, to raise his family in peace, see them established in good careers, and so forth. His wife is deeply religious and fiercely loyal to her family. The oldest child, Ignacio, is truly the protagonist of the story, although the narrator takes a fairly omniscient view, telling certain parts of the story while observing the actions and even the thoughts of other characters.

    Ignacio is also sympathetic to the reader, as he is a young man struggling to decide what he believes. He admirably attempts to think through the various philosophies he is exposed to, but finds himself drawn more to the people he knows than the philosophies themselves. The course of Ignacio’s struggles give the author space to describe in detail the various currents of political thought, without making the book feel like a textbook. Ignacio is not alone, of course, in this dilemma: the book itself is driven by the characters. They act the way they do and adopt the beliefs they do because of who they are, and because of their backgrounds. Thus, when the catastrophe comes, each is hedged in by his or her character and the political commitments they have made.

    For those who, like me, had only a vague idea of what happened during the Spanish Civil War, here are the basic facts. After the parties of the right wing won the election of 1933, the left wing parties became more radical and demonstrative. The anarchists led an uprising, which was put down fairly quickly, but left a mark. In 1935, the leftist parties finally managed to unite long enough to win the elections that year. Acts of violence and reprisals against the parties of the right escalated, and the military began to plot to overthrow the government. At this time, the Falange (the Spanish fascist party, related more to the Italian than the German variety) grew rapidly in numbers from the disaffected members of the right. The communists, not content to have a place in the new government, combined with the anarchists to throw a general strike in an attempt to shut down all commerce until a dictatorship of the proletariat was granted – including confiscation of all private property. At this point, the middle class was ready to panic, the upper classes having already predicted ruin.

    The event that sparked the war was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative member of parliament. The police were involved in the assassination, which was viewed as a follow-through on a threat made by a leftist politician. The military then attempted a coup, which was only partially successful. The south and west of Spain fell into military and fascist hands, while the north and east (where Gerona is located) remained in the hands of the republic, and therefore the leftists. On each side, tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered for their political and religious views. In the leftist dominated areas, roughly 50,000 priests and nuns are believed to have been murdered. In the fascist dominated areas, any threats to General Franco and his allies were exterminated. The conflict continued through the beginning of World War II, essentially removing Spain from the conflict. In excess of a half million lives were lost, and at least that number fled to France and elsewhere for asylum.

    As in all memorable books, the characters are what bring the narrative to life. Ignacio with his big heart, but youthful lack of self control and mental discipline. Matías as the pillar of the community watching his world crumble about him. Julio, the chief of police, cynical and inscrutable, doing his best to hedge his bets and keep the city from getting out of control: he is the one who foresees the death squads, but they are far beyond anyone’s control. David and Olga, the hippie communist teachers, who unwittingly assist in the rise of violence by giving the leftists respectable cover, but later risk everything to protect an enemy from death. Jose and Mateo, the young fanatics for opposite sides, Jose for the anarchists, and Mateo for the Falange. Cosme Villa, the middle class intellectual who eventually rises to power and becomes a killer. El Responsible, the anarchist with a horrific past, and a heart full of hatred and revenge. All these and more are impartially portrayed in thoughts and actions.

    A few minor details, only loosely connected to the narrative, stood out to me. The first was the description of the prostitutes. “Most of them had tweezed out their eyebrows and replaced them with a black or brown penciled line. Sometimes the line slanted up, giving them a diabolical air. At times it drooped wearily. Exceptionally there was one who had stumbled on the natural curve, and she suddenly seemed a handsome, normal woman.” If Gironella had only seen Bakersfield in 2011.

    The second is the proof that Vince McMahon was not so original after all. During the time of high unemployment, one of the methods used to entertain the masses was a wresting competition series, in which all of the components of WWE are present. The wrestlers wore flashy cloaks with catchy names like Panther or The Ogre. All kinds of foul play was allowed, and even encouraged. The Good and the Bad seemed to always face off, with the contestants playing to their roles. The matches had a reputation for being fixed, but this never stopped their popularity.

    Finally, there is an exchange between the young priest, Mosén Francisco and Ignacio regarding Ignacio’s saint-like younger brother César. Francisco remarks that living with a saint is no easy matter. Ignacio replies, “Dear Mosén, living with anyone, even a normal person, is no easy matter.”

    Despite these lighter moments, and many more that are hopeful and human, the threat of bloodshed continues to grow. As Olga says of the fascists, “When Mussolini or one of the others shouts ‘Long live our historic mission!” you ask yourself how many coffins are going to be needed.” Indeed, this is the problem with both sides. Totalitarianism and fanaticism lead invariably to purges, to massacres, and to hatred in the name of progress. The sad thing is that this book shows that the defenders of Hitler had one valid point: the Communists were equally prone to mass murder. We forget that there was a fairly legitimate point of view in the run up to World War II that Hitler was needed as a counterbalance to Stalin. Then, of course, once it became clear that Hitler was an evil menace to civilization as well, it became necessary to enlist Stalin to counteract Hitler. And both, of course, slaughtered millions. In Spain, this tragedy took place in a similar matter as the basic humanity we take for granted in our neighbors disintegrated into hatred, revenge, and pointless murder. As much as I hate to admit it, the triumph of Franco seems to have been the least of the possible evils.

    All of this is made even more chilling by the conversation between the priest Mosén Alberto and the mayor Noguer over the morality of killing. How is one to know what is self defense when everyone is killing? The priest has no answer, as there can be no definitive answer. When the world is gone mad, what is to be done?

    The book started to terrify me when the city, and by extension, Spain, started to turn on itself. True, unemployment and hardship is a problem, but somehow hardship gave rise to neighbors forgetting their natural bonds, their common humanity, and turned to radical ideas for action. The setting off of a bomb in a church came to be regarded as a good, despite the fact that it fed no one, helped no one. When the legitimate law enforcement and other government institutions lost credibility and power, everyone turned on everyone, as if blood was the only answer.

    There are too many parallels with today around the world for comfort. Just today, I ran across an article about the budgetary problems in Spain. Again, unemployment is dangerously high. Will Spain remember the lessons of the past, or will there be mob rule and terror once again? Will the rest of the world be susceptible to the promises of food for all, of a better life for the poor, if only we could kill the wealthy? Or the educated. Or those who wear the wrong color of shirt.

    This is the power this book holds: to make us ask those questions; to look deep within ourselves and ask if we too would kill; to ask if we could continue to sow love and not hate when the world goes mad.

    The last several scenes in the book are of unbelievable tragedy, but also of grace and hope. On both sides of the conflict, individuals choose to do the right thing, even if they are powerless to stop the insanity. These individual acts of grace remind us of all those who have stood against tyranny and evil in ways large and small. For every Churchill, there are thousands of those who hid potential victims from those who sought their lives.

    This was a worthwhile, but difficult read. At nearly 1000 pages, it is long, and requires the reader to keep track of a large number of characters, along with their political connections. Fortunately, the names are fairly easy. Gironella uses a single name for most characters, and keeps the names consistent from the time the character is introduced. The Spanish use different last names for the married women, so it helps to note family connections wherever possible. The appendix is very helpful. Family relationships are noted, as are political connections. Thus, it is easy to determine that a character would be, for example, an anarchist with a sweetheart who is a communist. Likewise, the appendix of political parties is indispensible for determining the ever-shifting alliances and oppositions.

    Note on the Translation: This book was translated by Harriet de Onís. I am curious if some of the recurring phrases have a particular place in Spanish literature, much like our “once upon a time”. In particular, the phrases “life continued to move at a dizzying pace” and its variations and “[insert month] had [insert effect] on the people”. These connecting phrases tend to open chapters and take the narrative from the personal to the public. As is natural with any translated work, the idiom seems different, even if the language itself flows naturally.

    Note on Gerona: In our times, the name of the city is often spelled Girona. Located somewhat near Barcelona, it is one of Catalonia’s colorful and distinctive cities. The Alvears live in a second floor flat on the bank of the river Ter, much as seen in this picture. Matías would fish off of the balcony. Gerona was a convenient setting as it was involved in the military uprising, but not so famously as to prevent the use of fictional characters. 

    Thursday, January 5, 2012

    What I read in 2011

    Key:   Fiction        Non-fiction           Poetry

    Reviews posted prior to June 29, 2011 were posted on my Facebook page only. I will be adding in the old reviews to the blog periodically. All reviews beginning with A Single Pebble were posted to this blog.

    Title                                                         Author                                                          Date      
    The Age of Wonder                                      Richard Holmes                                              1-6-11   
    Within the Context of No Context                  George W. S. Trow                                         1-25-11
    The Mysterious Island                                  Jules Verne                                                    1-28-11
    Grounded                                                   Seth Stevenson                                               2-7-11
    The Adventures of Sally                                P. G. Wodehouse                                            2-11-11
    New Poems                                                G. K. Chesterton                                             2-14-11
    50 Years and Other Poems                            James Weldon Johnson                                     2-25-11
    The Disappearing Spoon                              Sam Kean                                                       3-13-11
    Poems – 1st Series                                      Emily Dickenson                                             3-27-11
    Tristram Shandy                                         Laurence Sterne                                               4-14-11
    Irving Berlin: American Troubadour               Edward Jablonski                                            5-3-11
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog                       Muriel Barbery                                                5-7-11   
    The Well Educated Mind                             Susan Wise Bauer                                            5-16-11
    Paid on Both Sides & Poems 1927-1932        W. H. Auden                                                  5-17-11
    Why Mahler?                                             Norman Lebrecht                                             6-5-11
    Frankenstein                                              Mary Shelley                                                   6-12-11
    Sweetness and Power                                   Sidney W. Mintz                                             6-24-11
    A Single Pebble                                          John Hersey                                                    6-29-11
    Spoon River Anthology                               Edgar Lee Masters                                            8-5-11
    Thy Hand, Great Anarch                               Nirad C. Chaudhury                                         8-10-11
    Cultural Literacy                                          E. D. Hirsch                                                   8-31-11
    Sonnets from the Portuguese                          Elizabeth Barrett Browning                                9-14-11
    The Glass Castle                                         Jeannette Walls                                                9-20-11
    Martin Chuzzlewit                                       Charles Dickens                                               9-26-11
    The Kite Runner                                          Khaled Hosseini                                             10-5-11
    Areopagitica                                               John Milton                                                   10-9-11 
    Twelve Ordinary Men                                  John MacArthur                                               10-16-11
    Early Poems                                               Matthew Arnold                                             10-23-11
    Sevastopol Sketches & other early Stories        Leo Tolstoy                                                  10-29-11              
    The River War                                            Winston Churchill                                          11-6-11
    The Letter of Marque                                    Patrick O’Brian                                              11-10-11
    The Eyre Affair                                           Jasper Fforde                                                   11-28-11
    The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations   Charles Harrington Elster                                  12-4-11
    Hep-Cats, Narcs, and Pipe Dreams                  Jill Jonnes                                                     12-6-11
    A Christmas Carol                                       Charles Dickens                                              12-17-11
    Last Chance to See                                      Douglas Adams/Mark Carwardine                      12-29-11
    Early Poems                                               William Carlos Williams                                 12-31-11

    Fiction:                 12
    Non-fiction:          17
    Poetry                    8
    Total:                    37