What I read last month. Of special interest here--I finally got around to reading and reviewing American Taliban.
Plus, Herodotus, the autobiography of Alexander Herzen, and a surprisingly political horror novel in which the shambling tea party is represented, not by zombies, but by things more appropriate to their intellectual level. Enjoy.
Teahad: American Taliban, by Markos Moulitsas
Aided by the deep pocketed propaganda organ of Fox News, abetted by multiple satellites on talk radio and in pulpits, it's no wonder that an alarmingly high percentage of Americans share more core beliefs--ignorant, dangerous ones--with Islamic fundamentalists than with their fellow citizens. Now, if we were only talking about someone's odd views on the age of the planet, or their misguided and private notions about the proper amount of skin a woman is allowed to show in public, few would care. But both sects of the Taliban, Muslim and Christian, embrace the absolute commitment to forcing adherence to these views on the rest of us--whether by the force of law or just force.
It can be masked in the lingua franca of science, as at the Discovery Institute, but make no mistake about what the final agenda is: a restriction of knowledge, as the school board cases show. As the case of Janet Jackson's breast shows, it is for the government to be used as an adjunct arm of the Moral Police. As David Horowitz's crusade against academics and pluralism shows, it is about delegitimizing critical thought and multiple viewpoints. It is, in the end, about undermining the very values upon which this country was founded: freedom of thought and expression.
The agenda of the American Taliban is radically, deeply undemocratic. It is, to put it bluntly, anti-American.
You may know that Uganda’s government recently voted to make homosexuality punishable by death, but did you know that their government was egged on by evangelical missionaries from the United States, who falsely told them that all homosexuals were predatory pedophiles, come to get their children?
You may have heard of how Jamie Leigh Jones was kidnapped and gang-raped in Iraq by her Halliburton employers, who hid behind an employment contract specifically denying her legal redress for sexual assault, leading to the "Franken Amendment" prohibiting the government from doing business with companies that used such contracts--but did you know that 30 Republican Senators (all white males) voted against the Amendment and in favor of a corporate entitlement to rape female employees in a consequence-free environment? Or that there were 40 other sexual assault complainants against Halliburton besides Jones, none of whom have been allowed their day in court?
Of course you haven't. In an age when the extreme right has taken over most of the American media, to the point where more actual news is available from Comedy Central than from any broadcast news source in the country, where the Christian Dominionist "Tea Party" is proclaimed to stand for "less government spending" instead of Christian Dominionism, and where people aren't even allowed to remember events as recent as 2008 (it was Bush, not Obama, who demanded and got the TARP bank bailout, for instance), you have to turn to the blogosphere as the news source of last resort. And Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog, is here with the facts you need to counter the big noise machine.
You'll see the real values of the Tea Party/American Taliban exposed for what they are: Dominionist Patriarchal Christianity, anti intellectualism, repression of sexuality, censorship of non fringe-right ideas, and the use of violence and the replacement of facts with ideological talking points, when useful in the pursuit of political power. You'll see the links between the dozen or more "lone crazies" who have killed since President Obama took office; the links between the several dozen anti-gay Republicans who have been caught with their same sex lovers, and why their repressed homosexuality is so much more dangerous than the healthy, open sexuality of the left. More than anything, you'll be relieved that the fanatics of 9/11 Islam and Teahad Christianity have a different God and hate each other as a result, for their values and their hatred for American freedom are so identical that they would otherwise be ideological soulmates.
American Taliban has my highest recommendations. Read it, look around you, and get involved for America in the struggle against They Who Must Not Be Named.
AAAACCCK, I Feel Fat!: My Formerly Hot Life, by Stephanie Dolgoff
YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL!!!*
*Some restrictions apply. Not available in all areas or to all socioeconomic groups. Void where prohibited by law. "All" includes unlimited guilt for never feeling as if you’re giving anything its proper attention. In having it "All", we make no representation that you will have enough of any of it, or that having it "All" will make you happy. By that we mean that while you may have a relationship, you will likely be unable to nurture it; you may have children, but you will almost certainly not see them as much as you would like; you will have money, yet you will never feel as if you have quite enough. Your plants will die (even the spider plant the florist assured you was unkillable) because you’re too tired from having it "All" to water them. You will be ignorant of the important matters facing your nation because you haven’t read a newspaper in forever. We are not liable for any slip-and-fall accidents that result from your marbles spilling out of your head and onto the floor, and waive any responsibility for losses and/or damage having it "All" might cause to yourself and your loved ones. You should give it "All" up and contact a health care provider immediately if agitation, depressed mood, changes in behavior or thinking that is not typical for you is observed, or if you develop suicidal ideation or suicidal behavior. In short, you may feel like shit, and wonder what’s wrong with you that you need an antidepressant just to drag your ass out of bed in the morning, because doesn’t everyone want it "All"? And that’s not our fault.
Stephanie Dolgoff is my generation’s answer to Erma Bombeck and Nora Ephron, and she coined the noun "Formerly", to mean someone in the twilight zone between adulthood and middle age, the way a "tween" is in the twilight zone between youth and adulthood, as though leaving one age-centric stereotype without being ready to fall into the next is some sort of existential crisis.
By rights I should be making fun of My Formerly Hot Life all over the place. I am SO not the target demographic. Not only am I a man reading a gynocentric book about the situations and milestones of female "Formerlies", but I have practically zero sense of loss in reaching the age I am now and having certain youthful doors close behind me. Where Dolgoff’s intended readers are assumed to have a history of trendy fabulousness in metropolitan happening places or upwardly mobile suburbs, I associate my youth with constant alienation, loneliness, poverty, and being picked on by bullies and snubbed by the Fabulous people. As a man of "Formerly hot" age, I’m smarter, stronger, wealthier, more confident, happier, and, yes, hotter than I ever was at age 20. And yes, that’s even considering my waistline and pattern baldness.
And yet, Dolgoff does two things that made My Formerly Hot Life a good read for me, target demographic or no. One is that she walks my path, the Path of the Frosted Mini Wheat, in which opposites are embraced. If she had ONLY the message of a neurotic Cathy prototype, wringing her hands about unwanted body hair and clothes that no longer fit, I would have been bored. If the message was ONLY, "Life begins at 40! Chin up, the best years of our lives are just starting!", I would have been annoyed. Those themes have been done to death. Instead, Dolgoff promotes both extremes at once, being both self-deprecating and fabulous, hot and "Formerly". And yes, that strikes me as both the truth and a healthy way of looking at life. Seems to me, a certain amount of humility earns one the right to be proud. Consistency be the hobgoblin of small minds and all that.
The second thing she does right is—she’s funny as all get out, in a Bombeck/Ephron sort of way, only more relatable to my generation. High recommendations, especially to women between two certain ages.
Nada: Nadja, by Andre Breton
I have always, beyond belief, hoped to meet, at night and in a woods, a beautiful naked woman or rather, since such a wish, once expressed means nothing, I regret, beyond belief, not having met her. Imagining such an encounter is not, after all, so fantastic: it might happen. It seems to me that everything would have stopped short—I would not even be writing what I am writing. I adore this situation which of all situations is the one where I am most likely to have lacked presence of mind. I would probably not even have thought of running away. (Anyone who laughs at this last sentence is a pig.) At the end of one afternoon, last year, in the side aisles of the "Electric-Palace", a naked woman, who must have come in wearing only her coat, strolled, dead white, from one row to the next. This in itself was upsetting. Far, unfortunately, from being extraordinary enough, since this section of the "Electric" was the most commonplace sort of illicit sexual rendezvous.
Early 20th Century French writers are weird. Having seen this one to the confusing end (it was under 150 pages, thankfully, many of which consisted of old photographs of places in Paris, and reprints of surrealist art), I’d appreciate it if my bookpost readers could explain to me what it was about and why it’s considered worthy of consideration as literature.
I don’t know whether it’s supposed to be autobiography or just fiction. A narrator tells a bunch of not really related vignettes: dreams, ideas he considers profound, random things he saw in the neighborhood the other day; that sort of thing. He meets a young woman, and they go to cafes and discuss more random vignettes, and after a week or so of this she goes away, and that’s how the story ends. It was like being at a party where some drunk, moderately attractive person buttonholes you and talks intensely about some philosophical insight, or the real meaning of life, or the meaning of the works of some film director he admires, and he’s all intense about it, and the next day you barely remember what he said. The book went in one eyeball and out the other.
As happened on one blog with my flippant treatment last month of Doctor Zhivago (which I appreciated, as it told me some things I had failed to understand in my reading of that book), I anticipate some Breton fan coming forward to tell me what a wrong philistine I am for not seeing Nadja’s literary greatness. Bring it on; ‘tis charity to teach me.
He sang, Yodel-ay-hee, I Ain’t No Untarnished Galahad: The Ill-Made Knight, by TH White
The curious thing was that under the king-post of keeping faith with himself and others, he had a contradictory nature which was far from holy. His Word was valuable to him not only because he was good, but also because he was bad. It is the bad people who need to have principles to restrain them. For one thing, he liked to hurt people. It is for the strange reason that he was cruel, that the poor fellow never killed a man who asked for mercy, or committed a cruel action which he could have prevented. One reason why he fell in love with Guenever was because the first thing he had done was to hurt her. He might never have noticed her as a person, if he had not seen the pain in her eyes.
People have odd reasons for ending up as saints. A man who was not afflicted by ambitions of decency in his mind might simply have run away with his hero’s wife, and then perhaps the tragedy of Arthur would never have happened. An ordinary fellow, who did not spend half his life torturing himself by trying to discover what was right so as to conquer his inclination toward what was wrong, might have cut the knot which brought their ruin.
Book Three of the Once and Future King quartet is the longest in the series and contains the bulk of the Arthurian legend (the love triangle, the coming of Mordred, the quest for the Grail, the discontent that settles over Camelot as the dragons and giants are vanquished and there is no outlet for the quixotic urges to run where the brave dare not go) while shifting from Arthur to Lancelot as protagonist. TH White is a genius—most depictions of Lancelot have made me think of him as an asshole: conceited, narcissistic and the ultimate home-wrecker. White made me almost cry for him.
In The Ill Made Knight, Lancelot is in fact physically ugly and so painfully aware of his limitations that he becomes the most capable knight in the realm as a defense mechanism to compensate for his low sense of worth as a basic human being. I’ve been there myself—minus both the becoming Mr. Kickass and the civilization-destroying fall from grace, of course—and found myself identifying with him intensely, when before I had mostly seen him as the handsome lout who would raise his status by giving wedgies to nerds.
The whole Once and Future King is the kind of book, like Tom Jones and Gargantua and Pantagruel, that you can come back to again and again, while learning different and new things from it, each time. Highest recommendations.
She Is Always There: At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald
North Wind laughed merrily, and went tripping on faster. Her grassy robe swept and swirled about her steps, and wherever it passed over withered leaves, they went fleeing and whirling in spirals, and running on their edges like wheels, all about her feet.
"No", she said at last, "I did not eat a baby. You would not have had to ask that foolish question if you had not let go your hold of me. You would have seen how I served a nurse that was calling a child bad names, and telling her she was wicked. She had been drinking. I saw an ugly gin bottle in a cupboard."
"And you frightened her?" said Diamond.
"I believe so!" answered North Wind, laughing merrily. "I flew at her throat and she tumbled over on the floor with such a crash that they ran in. She’ll be turned away tomorrow—and quite time, if they knew as much as I do."
"But you didn’t frighten the little one?"
"She never saw me. The woman would not have seen me either if she had not been wicked."
"Oh!" said Diamond, dubiously.
"Why should you see things," returned North Wind, "that you wouldn’t understand or know what to do with? Good people see good things; bad people, bad things."
"Then are you a bad thing?"
"No. For you see me, Diamond, dear," said the girl, and she looked down at him, and Diamond saw the loving eyes of the great lady beaming from the depths of her falling hair.
"I had to make myself look like a bad thing before she could see me. If I had put on any other shape than a wolf’s she would not have seen me, for that is what is growing to be her own shape inside of her."
"I don’t know what you mean," said Diamond, "but I suppose it’s all right."
C.S. Lewis had a trope whereby he would describe someone who died, and shed the physical body that confined her soul, and would pass to the hereafter and see God for the first time, and her eyes would widen in delighted recognition and she’d say, "Why—it was YOU, all the time!" I mention this because I’ve put some thought into it and, if I were to have an experience like that, the God I would see and joyously recognize as an old friend would look (but for the color of Her hair) and behave a lot like the North Wind, as described by George MacDonald in this wonderful, simple, beautiful fairy tale.
The boy in a story like this is almost always given as a mentor some bearded old Merlyn prototype with superpowers and twinkly eyes and a tendency to assign "wax on, wax off" training exercises and withhold crucial plot details until The Proper Time. Here, the boy’s mentor is a kind, wise, powerful, beautiful, nurturing female, and it struck me how RARE such a pairing is. The only other example I can think of offhand, with a male learner and a female mentor is Charlotte the spider and Wilbur. We need more stories like this.
In MacDonald’s tale, the mentor is the North Wind, and the boy is a coachman’s son named Diamond, and she shows him the world, from the high seas to the inside of flowers, and teaches him half-practical, half-spiritual things about the world and how to grow and flourish and live.
I loved this book and wish I had found it when I was much younger. We had a few blustery days right after I read it, and it seemed to me, I heard merry, mischievous laughter deep in the wind. Maybe you will, too.
Nothing new under the sun: The History (of the Persian Wars), by Herodotus
I have already described the customs of the Getae, with their belief in their own immortality. Trausian customs are basically identical with those found elsewhere in Thrace, except for what they do at birth and death. Whenever a baby is born, its relatives gather round and grieve for the troubles it is going to have to endure now that it has been born, and they recount all the sufferings of human life. When anyone dies, however, they bury him in high spirits and jubilation, on the grounds that he has been released from so many ills and is now in a perfectly happy state.
The tribes to the north of Crestonia practice polygyny, and when a man dies, his wives are subjected to searching tests (which their friends take very seriously), to see which of them was loved the most by the husband. When a decision has been reached and one of the wives has been singled out for this distinction, her praises are sung by the men and women alike, and then her throat is slit over the grave by her nearest male relative, and she is buried along with her husband. All the other wives consider it a huge misfortune, because there is nothing more disgraceful for them than not being chosen.
Elsewhere in Thrace they have the practice of selling their children for export abroad. They do not restrict the behavior of their young women, but let them have sex with any men they want; however, they keep a very strict eye on their wives. They buy their wives from the woman's parents for a great deal of money. Being tattooed is taken by them to be a sign of high birth, while it is a sign of low birth to be without tattooes. They consider it best not to work, and working the land is regarded as the most dishonorable profession. The best way to make a living, in their judgment, is off the spoils of war. These are their most remarkable customs.
If you haven't yet read Herodotus, just go and read it, not necessarily cover to cover all at once, but pick it up, graze a bit and put it down, and then read some more later. It's one of the hundred or so greatest works of the Western canon, and one of the 30 or so on that list that I come back to from time to time. If you have read it, and it's been a while, consider reading it again. You'll probably pick up something you missed before.
The big arc--really, just the last three chapters out of nine, but everything previous builds up to it--is the ancient Persian King Xerxes leading Sauron's undead army and navy of millions against the beginnings of Greek Civilization, represented by a handful of ragtag warriors with CGI abs and a lot of heart, culminating in the epic land battle of Thermopylae and the equally epic sea battle of Salamis. Along the way, we get such memorable nuggets of ancient history as The Wealthy Croesus, who was warned not to consider himself the happiest man alive until his life was, in fact, over, and who optimistically declared war on Persia when the oracle told him he "would destroy a great empire" by doing so (meaning his own, of course—oops, SPOILER!); the statue of Ozymandius, back in the days when it was shiny and buff and surrounded by Works for ye mighty to look on and despair; the world's stupidest army, that declares war on the Sahara Desert and marches off to be buried in a sandstorm (you can't make this stuff up!) and King Cyrus, captured by his enemies and drowned in a bucket of blood (in the Big Hollywood version, they instead use a Big Gulp of Coca Cola, and the onlooking Massagetae pointedly remark that it's quite the way to go).
Herodotus pretty much invented the idea of writing down true stories from the past so that future generations might know what happened; he called his book The History because, at the time, there weren't any others that the Greeks knew about. The negative of this is, he makes errors that the version 2.0 historians corrected, like the habit of writing down absolutely everything he's told and taking a detached, "I report, you decide" approach to whether any of it is reliable. I envision the enemies of the Persians winking at each other as they tell Herodotus, " Yeah, Xerxes was nuts--when the Hellespont flooded and sank his ships, he went batshit and flogged the water to show the Hellespont who was boss! Oh, and write down that he threw all the iron shackles in. too; that's how the slaves got away!" Or the theme that everything was preordained by the Gods, so that when Xerxes has second thoughts about whether he brought enough guys to take Greece and wants to call off the invasion, a God appears to him in a dream and threatens him with bad luck and death unless he sees it through. We know this is true because Xerxes and one of his ministers fool the God by having the minister sleep in the king's bed, and the minister has the same dream. Too bad neither of them found the pea under the mattress.
A Blessing for the Tsar: Childhood, Youth and Exile, by Alexander Herzen
The difference between the class of nobles and the class of servants is not great. I hate, especially since the calamities of the year 1848, democrats who flatter the mob, but I hate still more aristocrats who slander the people. By representing those who serve them as profligate animals, slave-owners throw dust in the eyes of others and stifle the protests of their own consciences. In few cases are we better than the common people, but we express our feelings with more consideration, and we are cleverer at concealing selfish and evil passions; our desires are not so coarse or so obvious, owing to the easiness of satisfying them and the habitual absence of self-restraint; we are merely richer, better fed, and therefore more difficult to please. When Count Almaviva named to the barber of Seville all the qualifications he required in a servant, Figaro said with a sigh, "If a servant must possess all these merits, it will be hard to find masters who are fit for a servant’s place."
In Russia in general, moral corruption is not deep. It might truly enough be called savage, dirty, noisy, coarse, disorderly, shameless, but it is mainly on the surface. The clergy, in the concealment of their houses, eat and drink to excess with the merchant class. The nobles get drunk in the light of day, gamble recklessly, strike their men-servants and run after the maids, mismanage their affairs and fail even worse as husbands and fathers. The official class are as bad in a dirtier way; they curry favour, besides, with their superiors and they are all petty thieves. The nobles do really steal less: they take openly what does not belong to them, though without prejudice to other methods, when circumstances are favorable.
The first thing that I got out of this one was the realization that show trials, gulags, and exile to Siberia did not begin under Stalin. If life under the Tsar had been all peaches with vodka, there wouldn't have been a revolution in the first place.
Herzen was one of the first Russian revolutionaries (sort of). Not a bomb-thrower, but a writer-reformer who I compare with GB Shaw because of his moderated socialism, his dry wit and his beard. Herzen intersperses his autobiography with snippets of philosophy: he recalls a servant who was mistreated on his uncle's estate, and reflects on the injustice of too-great inequalities imposed upon people. He witnesses instances of officially sanctioned corruption in the government, and lets it sink in that the state murders itself when it causes critical masses of population to lose faith in the system.
For a Russian work, I found it surprisingly readable, or at least, that it was a better than usual translation (by J.D. Duff), and that Herzen showed a surprising lack of gloom, reacting with detached bemusement or defensive sarcasm to some pretty nasty events. After recounting his childhood and education, the second half of the book has him arrested for singing songs offensive to the Tsar, in scenes that may have influenced Kafka's writings in their nonsense and self-parodying officials, who would be more funny if their cruelty hadn't really happened. Very readable, educational and thought-provoking.
Canary in the Catbird Seat: Pamela, by Samuel Richardson
This, my dear Father and Mother, is the Issue of your poor Pamela's fruitless Enterprize, and God knows, if I had got out at the Back-Door, whether I had been at all in better Case, moneyless, friendless as I am, and in a strange Place!--But blame not your poor Daughter too much: Nay, if ever you see this miserable Scribble, all bathed and blotted with my Tears, let your Pity get the better of your Blame! But I know it will. --And I must leave off for the present--For, Oh! my Strength and my Will are at present very far unequal to one another. --But yet, I will add, that tho' I should have praised God for my Deliverance, had I been freed from my wicked Keepers, and my designing Master; yet I have more abundant Reason to praise God, that I have been delivered from a worse Enemy, myself!
Anyone who has seen "Mystery" on public television has seen Pamela Andrews. She's the gossamer-clad Edward Gorey cartoon Gothic horror Damsel who sprawls on top of a Wall during the Credits, clasping the Back of her Hand to her Forehead and wailing, "Ohhh.....OhhhOHHH.....Ahhh....OHHHHH..."
Samuel Richardson was one of the Pioneers of English Novel writing, and his Book Pamela was so influential that both Henry Fielding and the Marquis de Sade began making literary Names for themselves by parodying it--going off in very different Directions, thank God. It seems to me the main Reason Pamela was so influential and widely read was the lack of Competition. People were still discovering what the Novel was supposed to be, and didn't know what it was not when they saw it.
Then again, it’s hard to see what Pamela is, even today. There are at least three Ways of looking at it, and my Perspective kept wavering between the three. On one Level, you can look at it the way Richardson seems to have intended: as a moral Fable for women, in which the virtuous servant Girl Pamela is able to tame and civilize a wealthy country Gentleman with her virginal Purity, her Kindness, Forgiveness, and other "womanly" Virtues. The rakish Man (who is never named, but is referred to throughout the Book as "Squire B." or "my Master") initially wants to use her carnally, and has her abducted and kept on his country Estate by a redcap Housekeeper, ("Ohhh.....OhhhOHHH.....") but repents in an Instant midway through the Story and instead marries her and becomes a reformed Man. The Lesson is older than Chaucer and understandably very popular with privileged Men: Women should submit to Men, forgive their Wrongs, and be the Madonna not the Whore, and if they do so, Men or God will reward them.
Or you can squint at it another Way, with modern Sensibilities, and be utterly appalled at the Values of the past: where people’s Rank or Station, determined by Birth, determines status and privilege even independently of how much Money one has, so that villainous Aristocrats with neither Honor, Competence, or any Merit other than the Star on their Bellies, are considered to be better People than Bare-Bellies of great Intelligence, Character and Ability, and an Aristocrat who kidnaps, imprisons, and attempts to rape a Person of low birth suffers no more consequence than social Scandal. And of course, if you’re a Woman of low birth, your Status is next to that of Chattel. And the Woman subjected to such an Ordeal "wins" by forgiving and marrying the Man who caused her to suffer so! Viewed that way, Pamela is a Parable warning us not to forget the Bigotry and Sexism of the past.
And viewed a third Way, it is possible to read it (as Fielding did) and see Pamela as an artful and conniving social Climber who seduces the Lord of the Manor by putting on an Act the whole Time. The Story is told through her own Letters and Diary, which are later (intentionally?) left for her Master to find and read, and cause him to pity her and reform the wicked Ways into which he has fallen. She has several Opportunities to flee her Captor, and her Reasons for staying where she is (she wants to finish sewing his Waistcoat; she mistakes some Cows in a Field for Bulls, etc.) inspire Skepticism.
Pamela is one of those Books that Everyone should read once, if they’re interested in the History of Novels in general; it’s part of the Canon, and very easy to read, in spite of the odd Habit of capitalizing every Noun.
Lord of the Flytraps: The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham
I remember the first time he lifted me up to look inside that conical cup and see the tightly wrapped whorl within. It looked not unlike the new close-rolled frond of a fern, emerging a couple of inches from a sticky mess in the base of the cup. I did not touch it, but I knew the stuff must be sticky because there were flies and other small insects struggling in it.
More than once my father ruminated that it was pretty queer, and observed that one of these days, he really must try to find out what it was. I don’t think he ever made the effort, nor, at that stage, was he likely to have learned much if he had tried.
The thing would be about four feet high then. There must have been plenty of them about, growing up quietly and inoffensively, with nobody taking any particular notice of them—at least, it seemed so, for if the biological or botanical experts were excited over them, no news of their interest percolated to the general public. And so the one in our garden continued its growth peacefully, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world.
It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots and walked.
This is one of those books that you get more out of on a second reading. At first, it’s a standard, wonderfully told horror tale, in which the Earth passes through a comet field, resulting in a beautiful light show in the night sky that causes everyone—most of the Earth’s population—who looks at it to become stone blind by the next day. Wyndham neglects to point out that the Pacific Northwest is necessarily completely unaffected and that Seattle goes on to be the dominant center of civilization for generations, along with every other place blessed with cloud cover that night. The Day of the Triffids, however, takes place in Britain, which has clear skies and has its sighted population—and pretty soon the whole population-- reduced to roughly the proportions of the plague survivors in Stephen King’s The Stand.
At this point, the menace you’re supposed to notice is the threat of the triffids of the title: sentient, ambulatory, carnivorous plant life that has been bred for the production of high quality vegetable oil, and which has a tall, whiplike stalk with a lethal sting at the end. Humans with eyesight can easily control and farm triffids; blind humans in a state of nature are their prey. Triffids are a less threatening, noncontagious alternative to zombies, but play pretty much the same role: civilization ends and the shambling monsters are coming to get us.
Except that, if you look at it closely enough, it isn’t the triffids doing much of the damage. Once you get past the expository chapter explaining what they are, and the implications of being among them without the advantage of sight, their role is surprisingly peripheral. They appear in the distance now and then, herding and stinging terrified blind victims, and when the band of sighted survivors comes to a new refuge from the chaos, they must start by clearing out a nest of triffids—it’s much easier than closing off and clearing a shopping mall full of zombies. No, the real horror is the collapse of civilization due to mass blindness and the accompanying human nastinesses. Nobody is killed directly by the comet shower. Instead, they kill themselves in despair at their blindness, and die in preventable accidents by being stupid, and fight with each other over supplies, and try to capture sighted people and make slaves of them, and get typhoid from all the other corpses. Triffids are just poisonous cake frosting. Hence my review title/cut-tag, "Lord of the Flytraps". This is a story of human reversion to savage conditions when the behavioral limits caused by civilized society are stripped away. Very high recommendations.
American Sypphilization: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn
If you had been raised in a village two hundred years ago, somewhere in Eastern Europe, say, or even on the coast of Massachusetts, and your father was a drunk, or a little off, or both, then everyone in the village, those you grew up with, and those who knew you only from a distance, they would all know that the town drunk or the village idiot was your father. It couldn’t be hidden or denied. Everything he did, as long as you stayed in the village, whether shouting obscenities at passing children or sleeping in the cemetary, all would be remembered when they looked at you, they would say to themselves or to whomever they were with, It’s his father, you know, the crazy one, the drunk, and they couldn’t help but wonder what part of his madness had passed on to you, which part of you had escaped. They would look into your eyes to see if they were his eyes, they would notice if you were to stumble slightly as you stepped into a shop, they would remember that your father too had started with promise, like you. They would know he was a burden, they could read the struggle in your face, they would watch as you passed and nod, knowing that around the next corner your father had fallen and pissed himself. And they would watch you watch him, note the days you simply kept walking as if you didn’t see, note the days you knelt beside him, tried to get him to rise, to prop him up. If they were friends and they came by your house they couldn’t help but notice whether you had an extra room, or whether your own situation seemed precarious, marginal. And they might not say anything but they would take it in and wonder, either way it meant something. If this was two hundred years ago you left the village maybe once a month, to bring whatever it was you grew or fabricated—onions or oil, wine or cloth—to a distant market to sell, only to return in a day or two to the village, and you might get the sense, perhaps rightly, that there was nowhere else on earth for you to be, that to leave the village would be akin to banishment, to enter into a lifetime of wandering, to become open to speculation that you’d abandoned your father to his fate, turned your back, left him to die. Taken and not given back. For if you are not responsible for your own father, who is? Who is going to pick him up off the ground if not you?
This memoir is surprisingly poetic under all the street grit, a tragicomic look at the anguish of the author, himself on the margins of coping, his mother dead while he was a teenager, torn between the need to help out his father the no good bum, and the fear that his loser-ness might rub off on him, take him down along with him.
Father and son go through completely separate existences for the first half of the book, Nick losing his mother and drifting through the 70s aimlessly, eventually living on a boat and volunteering at a homeless shelter; Dad hitting the road with a great exuberance without quite channeling it into anything conducive to long term success, eventually losing even the happy song of the grasshopper and going to prison for check forgery. Eventually, Dad, the Falstaff of his time, ends up as a resident at the same homeless shelter where Nick works, and becomes a problem resident, getting barred for chronic bad behavior, none of the other staff able to look Nick in the eye. Eventually the book climaxes into surrealism, and all the homeless are recruited to be salvation Army Santas, drinking and speaking in pseudo-Shakespearean fool dialogue.
Another bullshit Night in suck City is simultaneously funny, tragic, and gripping due to its consistent forthrightness. It is what Naked Lunch (see bookpost November 2010) would have been if it had been more coherent, more structured, and less batshit hallucinatory. I liked it much better than Burroughs. High recommendations.
Something for Everyone!: Captain Corelli's Mandolin, by Louis De Bernieres
By Order of HQ, Supergreccia, Bombardier Carlo Piero Guercio is to report for operatic duty at every and any whim of Captain Antonio Corelli of the 33rd Regiment of Artillery, Acqui Division.
Rules of engagement:
- All those called to regular musical fatigues shall be obliged to play a musical instrument (spoons, tin helmet, comb-and-paper, etc.).
- Anyone failing persistently to reach high notes shall be emasculated, his testicles to be donated to charitable causes.
3). Anyone maintaining that Donizetti is better than Verdi shall be dressed as a woman, mocked openly before the battery and its guns, shall wear a cooking pot upon his head, and, in extreme cases, shall be required to sing "Funiculi Funicula" and any other songs about railways that Captain Antonio Corelli shall from time to time see fit to determine.
- All afficionados of Wagner shall be shot peremptorily, without trial, and without leave of appeal.
- Drunkenness shall be mandatory only at those times when Captain Antonio Corelli is not buying the drinks.
Signed: General Vecchiarelli, Supreme Commander, Supergreccia, on behalf of His Majesty, King Victor Emmanuel.
This is the kind of story that understandably became very popular during and after the major wars of the 20th century: some small part of a huge military occupying force is assigned to set up camp in a peasant backwater that has been doing just fine on its own for centuries; culture shock ensues as good, bad and strange military regulations clash with good, bad and strange local customs, with results that run the gamut from sidesplitting to heartwarming to gut-wrenching. If you've read or watched A Bell for Adano, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, Teahouse of the August Moon, King of Hearts, M*A*S*H or Avatar, you've been here before. The fact that this time, it's Mussolini's troops on a Greek island while the Germans and British fight it out on the mainland is just details.
Captain Corelli and his mandolin don't even show up until page 160, but by then you've met all the stock characters you'd expect: mustachioed Zorba types who laugh at the foibles of the troops and urge them to relax and enjoy life; big but gentle soldiers who don't really want to kill anybody; termagant peasant wives who kill with one blow of their tongues; at least one beautiful spirited peasant girl; at least one handsome, naive soldier; at least one jealous peasant boyfriend; at least one horse's ass in a high ranking uniform, at least one Wee Timorous Priestie, a kid who is Too Young to Die, and the usual assortment of animals that bite or poop at inopportune moments by way of editorial comment.
Then again, if the whole thing is full of cliches, so what? The cliches are arranged in a new and refreshing order, and they became cliches in the first place because they were the best stories. De Bernieres has the opportunity with this kind of tale to do absolutely anything he wants, and he does it, from steamy romance to dry wit to buffoonery to wholesome pastoral to war heroism and cowardice to horrific cruelty to gentle wisdom. The characters and the story are compelling and hard to forget. Very high recommendations.
More Solutions than Suspects: The Poisoned Chocolates Case, by Anthony Berkeley
The porter, alarmed by his appearance, wanted to send for a doctor at once, but Bendix, who was the last man to make a fuss, absolutely refused to let him, saying that it could only be a bad attack of indigestion, and that he would be all right in a few minutes; he must have eaten something that disagreed with him. The porter was doubtful, but left him.
Bendix repeated this diagnosis of his own condition a few minutes later to Sir Eustace Pennefeather, who was in the lounge at the time, not having left the club at all. But this time Bendix added, "And I believe it was those infernal chocolates you gave me, now I come to think of it. I thought there was something funny about them at the time. I'd better go and ring up my wife and find out if she's been taken like this too!"
Sir Eustace, a kind-hearted man, who was no less shocked than the porter at Bendix's appearance, was perturbed by the suggestion that he might in any way be responsible for it, and offered to go and ring up Mrs. Bendix himself as the other was in no fit condition to move. Bendix was about to reply when a strange change came over him. His body, which had been leaning limply back in his chair, suddenly heaved rigidly upright; his jaws locked together, the livid lips drawn back in a hideous grin, and his hands clenched on the arms of the chair. At the same time, Sir Eustace became aware of an unmistakable smell of bitter almonds.
A classic whodunnit problem. The unknown villain sends a box of poisoned chocolates to Sir Eustace at his club; Sir Eustace doesn’t want them and gives them to a casual acquaintance, Bendix, who in turn presents them to his wife. Bendix and his wife both eat some and are poisoned; he survives; she does not. Your mission: deduce who sent the chocolates, who was the intended victim, the motive, and how it was done, before the roundtable of experts assembled to discuss the problem (a defense barrister, a mystery writer, a dramatist, etc.) solve it...six different ways.
This would have been an ingenious challenge, but for one crucial mistake. Berkeley’s very famous short story "The Avenging Chance" (I’ve found it in at least three detective anthologies I happened to read over the years, and it’s getting old. Right up there with "The Problem of Cell 13" and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band") is the exact same problem (minus the roundtable of experts and with a different solution) in short story form, and it is included as a sort of preface in the novel! So, you read the story and learn or deduce one way it could have happened, and then you begin the novel, and the two or three little plot details that differ from the facts in the short version, that you might otherwise have overlooked, jump out and whomp you with a clue-brick, such that the solution is pretty obvious. At least it is to me, who grew up on Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, and who is now marveling at the incredible Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series.
If you’re fortunate enough to have not yet read "The Avenging Chance", don’t read it before reading The Poisoned Chocolates Case, even if it’s included in the edition of the book you read. That way, it ought to be a real challenge to detective mavens.
Other than that, it’s a well-crafted masterpiece, done the way they don’t do them any more. Except for Michael Dibdin, that is.