April 16, 2017

More of Lawrence Durrell

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:11 pm by chuckredman

I introduced my daughter to Justine (see https://chuckredman.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/learning-about-love-in-alexandria/ ) but she introduced me to The Dark Labyrinth. Though it’s not the artistic triumph that Justine is, The Dark Labyrinth is a fine novel of mystery and the search for answers, both factual and moral. Durrell’s prose is flawless and his characters sharply developed. Their lives and fates converge in what is essentially an allegory.

At a time (1948) when Europe was lost and groping in the post-war twilight, these English travelers sail to the isle of Crete on the ship Europa. They set out upon an excursion into a labyrinth of fabled caverns, where natives believe a deadly Minotaur lurks. Each of the travelers is escaping something and searching for something better. Durrell weaves their pasts, brings them together at a critical point in each of their lives, and then leaves them divided and lost in the labyrinth. The careful and powerful manner in which he does all this is the work of a great novelist. It is the work of a deep thinker, as well, who saw a stormy, uncertain future for Europe, with nations divided and searching for light, beneath an angry cloud of nuclear proliferation. Overshadowed perhaps by Justine and the rest of her Quartet, The Dark Labyrinth is nevertheless a book well worth reading for those who enjoy the vast sub-genre of twentieth century post-war fiction.

 

December 24, 2016

It Can’t Happen Here — Sinclair Lewis

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:46 pm by chuckredman

“Aw, shoot, Dad—and you too, Julian, you young paranoiac—you’re monomaniacs! Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!”

I just read the most amazing book I’ve read since 1984 (the book, not the year). Possibly the most amazing since 1973 (the year, not the book). Actually, Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which was published in 1935, predated 1984 (the book, not the year) by fourteen years. Which means that Lewis did not have the benefit of hindsight when he recognized what too few people seemed to recognize around the middle of the Great Depression. Sinclair Lewis saw what was happening in Europe. He also heard frighteningly similar rumblings in this country. His book, written half a decade before the true magnitude of European fascism could be witnessed and understood, was a chillingly accurate forecast.

So did Lewis also predict what we in the U.S. have just witnessed and are struggling to understand: the election as President of a populist demagogue, in the mold of Senator Buzz Windrip in the novel? Well, Lewis’s protagonist, liberal journalist Doremus Jessup, listens only half-concerned to the national radio broadcast of the nominating convention, but the similarity is striking:

. . . every delegate knew that Mr. Roosevelt and Miss Perkins were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

Though Lewis begins his book in satirical tone, we’re not too many chapters in before we realize, along with Doremus, that this story—the rise of a political movement based on anger, hate and false rhetoric—is no joke. It is nearly, in fact, as powerful and sobering as Orwell’s 1984. Here is how Doremus saw Senator/President Windrip’s quasi-official partisans, the “Minute Men”, or “M.M.”, which protected Windrip’s surging popularity by terrorizing the general population and appealing to its basest impulses:

They had the Jews and the Negroes to look down on, more and more. The M.M.’s saw to that. Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on. . . . Their mutter became louder, less human, more like the snap of burning rafters. Their glances joined in one. He was, frankly, scared.

Could Lewis have had the Nazi SS in mind? Seems likely.

I just realized that, for better or for worse, many of my favorite books are about the oppression of large segments of society by vindictive, self-righteous governments or ruling classes. A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, Mother, Doctor Zhivago, Homage To Catalonia, Fahrenheit 451, and the two brave books discussed above. You should probably read these books, all of these books, while they’re still on our shelves. Before they start hurling them into big piles in our city squares and torching them. Which is what happened to Doremus Jessup’s personal collection of books. Which could happen here.

 

September 6, 2016

Follow-up to preceding post re: The Help

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 7:25 pm by chuckredman

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”

He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.

I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.

August 24, 2016

Book, film, life

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:21 pm by chuckredman

Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.

I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.

I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.

November 28, 2015

A way with words

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 2:37 pm by chuckredman

Buddy Winkler was a preacher who needed a regular pulpit the way a toilet needed a regular flush. — Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All

In lieu of writing complete blog posts at this busy time, I’m going to just post occasional snippets from Tom Robbins. My daughter loaned me the above book, and I am still chuckling over his amazing wordplay. . . More soon.

 

May 15, 2015

Learning about love in Alexandria

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:34 pm by chuckredman

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

November 27, 2014

A Tree Grows in London, too

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 10:59 pm by chuckredman

You might say that Rebecca West’s 1956 novel The Fountain Overflows is more or less a British version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They do have much in common, subject-wise. But there is a difference: While A Tree Grows has more warmth and poignancy, more emotion and power, West’s novel has not only that wonderful British cleverness, but it has perhaps as much depth of perception and depth of character as anything I’ve read in recent years (which is about as far back as my dwindling memory goes). I can’t claim to have read much Proust, but it seems to me The Fountain Overflows is almost Proustian in its youthful but sublime sensibility.

The book is quite autobiographical, and Rebecca West was a leading feminist of her day. The mother she depicts is such a strong, loving person, regardless of constant adversity, that she will certainly stick in my mind for many Saturdays to come. Every child should have such a mother (I did, thankfully). And I felt so much in common with this family, their love of books and classical music, and refinement without superficiality. Given that Rebecca West wrote this fine book, and given that she and her real family were its inspiration, I have a pretty good hunch that she was at least as beautiful to know as she is to read.

June 22, 2014

Frank Norris’s Octopus

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 3:03 pm by chuckredman

I’ve just finished one of the notable novels about the American West, The Octopus by Frank Norris. Norris, also a talented short story writer, finished the book around the age of thirty and, sadly, only survived the book’s 1901 publication by a year or two. Even so, I believe he proved himself one of the great novelists of his era. In its scope and Naturalism, The Octopus clearly paved the way for later generations of Western writers, like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, or Wallace Stegner in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The Octopus is a fictionalized saga of the conflict between the wheat farmers and the railroad monopoly that raged in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the two decades preceding the book’s publication. Although some critics may be right in finding Norris’s style occasionally too flowery and repetitive, those flaws did not spoil for me the superb storyline and character development. Those wheat farmers and their families became so real and important to me. Much of Norris’s prose is stunning and, though certainly less lyrical than Dickens or Eliot, I believe he may possess as great a command of the English language as any writer in any era – including a fair number of words I had never seen before in my life.

So, if you enjoy reading about the West, right versus might, progressive politics, and even a bit of romance thrown in, The Octopus would be high on my list of suggested novels. As a great novel should, it held my interest continuously, never flagging in its realism and humanity.

May 31, 2014

Didion’s trumpet

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , at 7:34 pm by chuckredman

     I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game? — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)

     I doubt if any portrayal of the sordid side of Hollywood (the entertainment industry) equals the brutal scathing honesty of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Certainly Didion built upon Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which gave us a gritty, grainy portrait indeed of Hollywood’s fiends, misfits, and lost souls. Presumably other works such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice helped lay the appropriate setting and mood for Didion. But she reached new heights (depths actually) in her dramatization of the ruthlessness and decadence that we have come to associate with the so-called Hollywood lifestyle. Play it is a book of intense realism, heightened by its understated narrative. In that respect, and also in its structure and use of alternate narrators, it reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But Didion’s prose is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, and nothing is lost by its unadorned frankness. I was altogether “blown away” by this stark little Hollywood gem.

May 18, 2014

Not exactly light reading

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 7:09 pm by chuckredman

I recently read a very powerful and disturbing novel, The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France. The story is set in the same historical context as A Tale of Two Cities (probably my first choice for greatest novel of all time). Anatole France does not have Dickens’ wit (who does?), but he crafts an intricate and well-woven drama about the French Revolution and its unspeakable Reign of Terror. France’s comprehensive knowledge of history, as well as theology and ancient mythology, make the novel more challenging to read, but a richer experience. If you appreciate the tradition and style of Victor Hugo, you will probably enjoy The Gods and place it in the same distinguished class.

May 4, 2014

The Trespassers

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 5:01 pm by chuckredman

I don’t know what book was the first to be written about Nazi aggression and the Holocaust. Certainly The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was one of the first. But I would guess that The Trespassers by Laura Zametkin Hobson, which was published in 1943, was also among the earliest. Considering that it was written in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Hobson’s novel is quite remarkable. She captures much of the terror and misery that pervaded Europe during the very end of the 1930’s. She also foreshadows the increasing magnitude of that terror and misery, which the 1940’s would spawn through war and genocide.

The book especially dramatizes the plight of Europe’s innocent refugees in the face of worldwide immigration policies fraught with xenophobia. I have to say that that theme struck a personal chord in me and made me do a little soul-searching, because of my work. Although Hobson’s style may be a bit soapy or schmaltzy, her book is a very moving saga and as timely now as it was then.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any earlier-published books about the Holocaust?

April 19, 2014

Zeno’s Conscience

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:57 am by chuckredman

My daughter, Rebecca, introduced me to the delightful stories of Italo Calvino. I especially like Calvino’s stories of Marcovaldo, a sweet, bumbling, schlemazel kind of character. Well, I decided to read the other famous Italo: Italo Svevo – his unusual fictional stream-of-consciousness psychological study Zeno’s Conscience. Two years ago I had never heard of these Two Guys Named Italo (why am I suddenly thinking of pizza?). Now I’m reading them and thinking deep thoughts about their work!

Svevo’s subject and style remind me of the little bit of Proust that I’ve read: full of small real-life reminiscences that have secret meaning to their narrator, and add up to a life of inner conflict. Svevo, although years older, was a protégé of James Joyce. Descended from German and Italian Jews, Svevo may even have been a prototype for Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.

Unfortunately, as with Proust, although the writing is rich and full of wit and personality, I simply could not finish Svevo’s book. I wish I had more patience, but the book was just too slow for me, pages and pages of Zeno’s “conscience”: his internal discussions about his day to day life. I appreciate the intelligence and artistry of it, but if the storyline is weak or nonexistent, I can only read so much and then I’ve had enough. Even Shakespeare would become tiresome if his dialogue and descriptions were not plot-driven. I don’t know if Svevo’s other works are stylistically different; Some day I’ll find out.

April 6, 2014

A FLASH of insight

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 2:54 pm by chuckredman

     My son Josh gave me a book for my birthday: It’s called Flash, by a young writer named Jim Miller. The book was published by AK Press, which mainly puts out books relating to anarchist themes. Although stylistically Miller’s novel may not be best-seller material, conceptually and morally the book is a very compelling piece of literature. Anyone interested in California political history, labor issues and human rights might appreciate the book. It delves into the I.W.W. (the Wobblies) and other revolutionary or anarchist movements in the early 1900’s. That historical period is skillfully juxtaposed with present day. Miller’s book makes a good companion, subject-wise, to two of my favorites: Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Wallace Stegner’s The Preacher and the Slave (alternately titled Joe Hill). Read any of the above, and you will have a deeper appreciation for the hardships and courage of the workers of the world.

December 7, 2013

A book you can put down

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 9:22 pm by chuckredman

I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her  by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.

It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!

If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.

Happy holidays, Happy reading, and PEACE to all.

July 18, 2013

The test of time. . .

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 8:15 pm by chuckredman

I wonder sometimes about the literary fiction that has been published during my lifetime, and whether any of it will be known and read in future generations.  The way society is changing so fast makes me a little pessimistic about what the future holds.  Reading and literature are simply one part of the worrisome scenario.

So my question is: Are there any literary or mainstream novels published since Catch 22 that will live on for future generations?

Subquestion 1:  What about The Da Vinci Code, and is it even a literary novel, or is it a genre novel?

Subquestion 2: Am I revealing a deplorable literary ignorance by asking the above questions?

Thanks for any feedback.