The Way to Paradise – Mario Vargas Llosa

What if the revolution became a business opportunity for a few rogues?

The Way to Paradise is a double portrait of outcasts, both of whom believe that their purpose is to help humanity transcend its limitations. First, Flora Tristán, the illegitimate child of a French mother and Peruvian father who grew up in poverty, excluded from her father’s inheritance. As an adult, Flora entered into a brutal and unwelcome marriage, bore children, fled to become a writer, publishing a memoir Peregrinations of a Pariah and a manifesto The Workers Union. Now, in the early 1840s, she is traveling around southern France in a vain effort to organize the working class. The second arc takes place some 50 years later on south pacific islands for which her grandson, the artist Paul Gauguin, has abandoned his wife and children in pursuit of people untouched by western civilization. This pursuit, combined with eccentric tendencies, increasingly debilitating syphilis, and only erratic income from his paintings leaves him on the margins of the colonial outpost. Paul is convinced that Western society is strangling humanity, which can only be liberated through artistic expression that recaptures paradise.

Despite certain similarities such as skepticism of religion and their obvious blood-relation, the protagonists could not be more different. Flora has revulsion toward sex, a consequence of her disastrous marriage marked by physical, sexual, and emotional violence, and dedicates herself to a cause: uniting workers for the betterment of the oppressed of society—men and women both. This crusade gets her labeled a potential subversive, though, and Flora is stymied by the police and the church, all the while playing a cat and mouse game with her estranged husband.

Paul, by contrast, is the estranged husband, leaving his wife and children in Copenhagen and abandoning his once-promising career as a stock-trader for artistic inspiration first in Brittany and then Tahiti. Sex, Paul believes, is central to his artistic process, and so he takes up a succession of (mostly young) lovers from the native women who he also believes will bring him closer to culture unconstrained by centuries of “civilization.” His values, moreover, remain the same as syphilis ravages his body, making him increasingly repulsive to behold (let alone touch). As Paul’s health declines, he continues to produce surreal and spectacular paintings and sculptures that capture the sights and sounds of the south pacific, slowly becoming received as critical masterpieces back in France.

The Way to Paradise is a challenging book with deceptively simple structure. The novel unfolds alternating chapters between these two stories, but is also richly textured because the alternating stories a) parallel the events in the other timeline as the two protagonists wend their way toward the grave, and b) consist simultaneously of the contemporary events and character memories sparked by those events. Both characters, moreover, are given arcs that are difficult to read. Flora consciously makes quixotic choices, and her pain, both chronic and inflicted, comes through in spades. Paul is also in pain from his advancing and advanced case of syphilis, but it is harder to be sympathetic when this is (largely) self-inflicted and he repeatedly abuses his treatments. The difficulty of his story, then is in watching his distressing sexual politics, in one graphic rape scene in particular, but also more generally in his obsession with personal gratification that is at such stark odds with the legacy of his grandmother.

I struggled with The Way to Paradise at times, finding Flora’s story on the drab side and being troubled by the treatment of Paul with respect to both the search for pristine civilization and his disturbing relationship to sex. Part of my problem, I think, is that I was reading too much of the author in Paul’s appetite, which led to me to presume that this artistic vision was being presented as accurate. I was hasty in this, and the juxtaposition of the two plots goes a long way toward undercutting Paul’s artistic vision, even while the sporadic reports we hear from his agent back in Paris demonstrate its success. Watching Paul spread his STD across the South Pacific remains difficult to read and feeds his monstrosity, but nonetheless is central to balancing the two portraits. Whatever is one’s obsession, paradise is unobtainable.

ΔΔΔ

I recently finish my first installment in my August of reading books by women, Carrie Fisher’s short, funny memoir Wishful Drinking and am now reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter.

The Storyteller – Mario Vargas Llosa

In a gallery in Florence an ex-pat Peruvian writer (Mario Vargas Llosa) comes across a photograph of a gathering of Machiguenga natives and is transfixed by the sight of the storyteller with a conspicuous birthmark. Familiar with the Machiguenga, but not privileged enough to have met a reclusive storyteller, the narrator is certain that he knows that man, in a past life as a student in Peru. The novel unfolds in two symbolically linked narratives. In the first, the narrator thinks back to his days in Peru, remembering the young jewish man Saul Zarutas, called Mascarita, and everything he knows about the Machiguenga while in school or working as a television producer. These wandering peoples only recently came into contact with the modern world through missionaries who translated the bible into their language, but already their ways have begun to change. In the second, he imagines the tales of the Machiguenga storyteller, etiologies for the indigenous environment and Mascaritas transition to the channeler of these semi-divine stories.

The Storyteller, conspicuously told by an outsider looking back on his native land, deals with the issues of identity, particularly with regard to the duality inherent to some extant in all American countries. The chapters dedicated to Machiguenga cosmology offer insight into the tribe of nomadic walkers, as the tribe considers themselves, and work backward toward Mascarita’s transition. The closer to the modern world they come, the more imbued with western symbolism that is nonetheless presented as universal.

I liked The Storyteller and Llosa is an excellent author, but this was one of the weaker stories of his I have read. For one thing, the dual narrative works, but it is not as tightly linked as in The War of the End of the World or The Feast of the Goat. For another, Mascarita’s transition and Llosa’s nostalgia are poignant, but not as powerful as The Bad Girl. More importantly, though, I simply was unable to connect as strongly as I would have liked to the Native American portion of the story—it was interesting, but there was always some distance that I was unable to close.

ΔΔΔ

My next read is going to be Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.

Dr. Futurity – Philip K. Dick

I picked up Dr. Futurity in a used bookstore recently based on two criteria. First, one of my blindspots in the area of classic science fiction is the work of Philip K. Dick. I am aware of the premises for quite a few books, but I have never read any of them. Second, of the options before me, the synopsis of Dr. Futurity, a future world dominated by the young and fetishizes death, sounded the most interesting. [I should also mention that I believe in the important marketing elements of cover and description when it comes to pre-judging a book.]

Doctor Jim Parsons leaves his wife standing on the porch of their southern-California home one morning in 2010 and takes the expressway north to San Fransisco. On this high-speed commute there is an accident and he is launched four hundred years into the future, into a a world that is barely recognizable. This future world is one in which healing is stigmatized and death fetishized. The population is divided into tribes based on totems, with athletic competitions determining the proportion of the population each tribe gets to have. Men are sterilized at birth and zygotes brought to term through a strict regimen of eugenics; women are without representation and, other than their participation in the competitions, serve to please their male partners and guests as housekeepers and sexual objects. Mars is transformed into a prison colony for dissenters and Venus into a mine, with juvenile delinquents trained to be shupos, violent killers who enforce the government’s positions.

Parsons, with his white skin and hippocratic oath, is dropped into this world and sentenced to Mars. In transit he is rescued by the Wolf Tribe, dissenters of Native American heritage, who need him to save their leader who was killed with an arrow while on a mission to the sixteenth century. Using the time machine, Parsons leaps backward and forward, trying to find a balance between his family back home, a new love in the future, and the vicissitudes of human ambition.

The basic hypothetical Dick poses, the one that caused me to get the book, was the strongest part of Dr. Futurity. In contrast, the plot (and the questions pertaining to time travel) were simply okay, as it hopped forward and back in time. In my opinion, Dick did not add much by way of conversation about history or the paradoxes posed by time travel, and the fact that the story veered away from the future and to these issues weakened the book. In fact, most of the consequences in Dr. Futurity fell back on the question of personalities and power dynamics within human families or societies.

And yet, I had other, bigger issues with Dr. Futurity

  1. Some of the specifics Dick used to place Parsons as the inhabitant of the near future were hilariously out of date. Notably, the inhabitants of the future try to make Parsons feel at home by providing creature comforts of his era, and the go-to taste of home was a Lucky Strike cigarette—a brand that was discontinued in the United States in 2006.
  2. More important was the treatment of women. Where the racial dynamics in the future were refreshing, generally treated just as a fact and not with a moral attached, the book reeked of gender issues. First, while the stay-at-home wife seeing her husband off might have been true of the time of publication (1960), the setting is somewhat in the future and therefore distressingly regressive. Second, in the far future the need for biological mothers is eliminated, and yet the women are further relegated, being sex objects and servants for their men, while it is considered rebellious to even broach the topic of female suffrage. Some of the main characters do not fall into this category, but only because they are exceptional women.

    The first two issues were troubling enough, but could have been explained in the course of the narrative, but, instead, Dick’s writing slips into a third sexist tic. He tells the story through Parson’s eyes, and often has Parson casually ogle the breasts of female characters. To wit, he describes Loris, the leader of the Wolf Tribe and “the most potent human being alive” as “the powerful, full-breasted creature” who has “energetic loins” and “superb breasts” that “glistened, swayed”. Dick does use these moments to establish sexual interest, but while Loris has her uses for Parsons, the interest in principally coming from the other direction. Had there been a valuable narrative purpose to Parson’s wandering eye that would be one thing, but the above quotes come from multiple passages that offer a troubling discourse on the purpose of women in the world of the story.

In sum, Dr. Futurity brimmed with tantalizing potential, but fell short on a number of fronts. It might well be a setting worth revisiting, but this particular story only flashed glimpses, otherwise proving shallow and problematic.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, about an isolated tribe being acclimated to modern society as a modern anthropology student becomes absorbed into their traditions. Next up I am going to read Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.

January 2016 Reading Recap

I don’t feel compelled to list each book individually for the first time since I started doing these. This is because, for the first time since I started reviewing books I have read here, I actually reviewed all six books I finished in January: The Green House, Darkness at Noon, Water for Elephants, Girl With Curious Hair, The Samurai’s Garden, and Between the Woods and the Water.

January can be a good reading month for me. The combination of holidays, travel, and a birthday mean that I cut myself some slack to read a lot. This year, January also included my version of a New Year’s Resolution to settle in to do a lot of reading and, I am happy to report, I have not yet broken this goal. I am also quite pleased that the six books I finished, while still geared a bit toward dead white men, actually constituted a diverse slate, with one travel-narrative, one short story collection, two books written by women, one of whom is of non-white heritage, and including books originally written in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. I am particularly happy to have read two books by women in the first month, though I don’t have another one lined up for the near future–something that needs to be remedied.

I am also happy to say that I largely enjoyed all six books, with only The Green House and Girl With Curious Hair not being overwhelmingly enjoyed. Among the other four I can’t choose a favorite because none of them really stood out as superlative, but all were excellent and enjoyable for different reasons. For instance, The Woods and the Water swept me onto the Hungarian plain on a trip I want to enjoy, Darkness at Noon was a revelation on incarceration and revolution, Water for Elephants a fast-paced adventure, and The Samurai’s Garden a beautiful meditation. Darkness at Noon is probably, objectively, the best piece of Literature among these books, while Water for Elephants was the most fun to read, and The Samurai’s Garden meant the most to me personally in terms of where I am mentally, emotionally, personally.

In the interest of always striving for the next thing, I do want to make sure I take some time to read non-fiction–in this, Patrick Leigh Fermor hardly counts. Fortunately, I have just the solution: a new biography of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. I looked for a biography last summer, only to find that the available ones were in some sense encomiastic. Last week I came across one newly published in English, a supposedly even-handed account of Haile Selasse written by the king’s nephew.

The Green House – Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa’s classic early novel takes place in a Peruvian town, situated between desert and jungle, which is torn by boredom and lust. Don Anselmo, a stranger in a black coat, builds a brothel on the outskirts of the town while he charms its innocent people, setting in motion a chain reaction with extraordinary consequences.

The Green House, Llosa’s second novel, was the fifth of his I have read and it demonstrates all the hallmarks of his work: a long time span, interwoven plots, intersection of purity and corruption, and nicknames designed to allow the action bleed together, and a story that didn’t pull together until near the end. The Green House had its moments, but yet came across as a promising work rather than a masterpiece, falling short of The Feast of the Goat, The Time of the Hero, and The Bad Girl.

The quote that opens the post comes from the dustcover and it is a game effort to capture some of this deeply inexplicable novel. The factual details are true, but it doesn’t capture the story at all. Even the eponymous brothel, which exists in two iterations, features as a setting with some symbolic weight, but is largely a prop in the story rather than a central feature. Of course, The Green House is a particularly difficult book to summarize because there are at least seven plots that are interwoven, sometimes overlap, and sometimes have a collapsed chronology such that the characters will be having two conversations decades apart on the same page without warning. The effect is dizzying. Llosa’s flaunting of an easily-followed narrative bleeds over into the descriptions of the locations. Simplistically, there are three settings: Piura, a town of moderate size (and growing) between the jungle and the desert, and Santa María de Nieva, a small jungle town on a river, and the rivers and native villages they border. However, in one scene a village (including Piura) will be devoid of electricity, while, the next, characters will wield flashlights and hail taxis. The colors and textures and climates remain the same, but the shapes of the towns are in flux.

“Really, Don Anselmo?” Wildflower asks. “You were born there too? Isn’t it true that the jungle’s beautiful, with all the trees and all the birds? Isn’t it true that people are nicer back there?”

“People are the same everywhere, girl,” the harpist says. “But it is true that the jungle is beautiful. I’ve forgotten everything about what it’s like there now, except for the color, that’s why I painted my harp green.”

More than setting and plot, The Green House is a character driven story. There is the criminal-cum-leper Fushía, the goodhearted and loving Lalita, the boatman Aquilino, and the pilot Adrian Nieves. However, using the eponymous Green House as the central unifying feature of the story, there are two stories that drive the novel, one from the outset and one at the conclusion. From the outset, there is the story of Bonifacia, a native girl (whose father also appears) who is raised by nuns, expelled from mission and raised by Lalita, marries, is raped [arguably more than once] and becomes a prostitute at the Green House, even while her husband is forced to watch on. She bears slights big and small and does so with infinite compassion and perpetual innocence. On the other end there is the story of Anselmo and, by extension, his daughter Chunga, the proprietors of the first and second Green Houses, respectively. These two entertain the people of Piura–Anselmo with his harp-playing and the offerings of his establishment, Chunga with her establishment and allowing her father to play–and both have their sympathies, but there is a callousness to both characters. This, combined with the issue of morality, arouses the ire of the local priest, Father Garcia, who lives long enough to see what the Green House is, why he sermonized against it, become part of mainstream culture.

I should note that I had some difficulties with the chronology that could be due to the book’s publication fifty years ago this year. It is probable that when it was published there would have been a clear terminus ante quem, as it were, a date that the events clearly took place before, which then makes the early stories fall into a clearer sequence. As it was, I spent too long trying to figure out when the most recent story was set, because it could have been 1960 or 1980, which affected how old the characters were, etc.

This issue with chronology should not distract from the story itself, which certainly has its moments, and I found the ending particularly affecting, but, for me, The Green House tried to do too much–and did too much too successfully, with the result that I suffered from sensory overload. The Green House is a difficult book to read, both for its bewildering structure that, to be honest, still has me trying to piece together things that happened in the first half of the book because the story seemed like a jumbled mess, and for its atmosphere. Even the moments of fun and levity are layered with a sense of oppression and sadness. I might reread The Green House at some point to let myself get lost in its complexity. For now my opinion is that it is a fascinating novel and one that grows with reflection, but not quite a masterpiece. Nothing about it diminishes my excitement about diving into another Llosa novel, The Way to Paradise, in the near future.

Next up, I am about a third of the way through Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants and enjoying it immensely.

December 2015 Reading Recap

PSA: I’ve been doing these monthly reading recaps for the last few years and it has been a good opportunity to give mini-reviews of anything for which I do not write out longer posts. That will still likely be true for such posts, but for the books I have reviewed, I will likely just give a link to the longer review and forego a more detailed summary. The blurbs that accompany the recap post will be used as a chance for further reflection, updating, amending, or otherwise adding tidbits not in the original post.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

The one book from December that I did not review. (Actually, as I write this I am still trying to figure out how to write a review of Don Delillo’s White Noise, though I am going to finish that post before this one is published, so there.) The Name of the Rose is a book that I thought I read years and years ago, but I do not know that I ever finished it and yet it is so ingrained in culture that I consume, through references, through discussions, and through games, that it was as though I had read it. Adso, the apprentice of William of Baskerville, accompanies his master to a rich and esteemed monastery in Northern Italy to attend to a theological dispute, but a series of deaths derails the specific inquest and forces the visitors to dive into a series of other mysteries, including the labyrinthine (and forbidden) library, the inquisition, longstanding philosophical disagreements, heresy, and challenges of living on earth. William is tasked with unravelling the mysteries using the powers of logic that positions the story within the rich world of medieval philosophy. Eco’s work is deep and allusive, but this story is at some level an excellent mystery.

Stamboul Train, Graham Greene

Reviewed here, I don’t have much new to add about Greene’s entertainment, but am again thinking of the distinction between “serious” literature and “fluff.” To an extent there are structural differences, particularly when judging serious literature by the standards of the Nobel committee, which usually has a preference for books that make the Oscar voters’ choices of movies look downright optimistic. Non-serious literature, by contrast, is designed to be easily read. It is a caricature to suggest that easily read books can’t deal with important issues or profound topics hidden beneath the glitz and glam.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus, Gu Hua

Reviewed here, Hibiscus is Gu Hua’s critique of the Cultural Revolution in 1970s China. He idealizes capitalism and the success of small-businesses, who succeed through hard work and through the support of the town officials and town community. It is a deliberate choice (as often happens) to praise these virtues through the remote, anachronistic, and bucolic village. Nothing is ever perfect, of course, but it is possible to create a healthy and comfortable life if one works hard because the universe of the town is limited to the surrounding villages and the town is thus unpolluted by the wider, impersonal forces that cause people to become disconnected and then to turn on one another. There is probably a parallel story that could be told where the force that corrupts the town is a large retail establishment instead of the government.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Reviewed here, Hyperion is a beautiful and moving work of science fiction that, other than stories-within-story structure, stunning imagery, and suffering of nearly every character, is notable for a major reason: it has no real ending. It is as though Dorothy went with her companions to see the wizard, with the entire story consisting of how the Tin Man came to be without a heart*, etc, and then left off as they approached the Emerald City. There is a sequel to Hyperion, which suggests that this story is nothing but an extended prologue. Yet, I like that this is a story about the intersection of the characters both in the specific case of the pilgrimage and in wider events. In other words, the story is about the journeys, not the destination. I already wonder if the second book (which I have not yet read) will too dramatically shift these messages and leave me wishing that Hyperion existed as a standalone work that just ends without conclusion.

*According to Wikipedia, this story exists and the Wizard of Oz movie would have been even more horrifying had it been told in vivid technicolor.

White Noise, Don Delillo

Live Tweet and (short) review. The college that Jack Gladney works at in this novel is known as College-on-the-Hill, set, of course, in the midwest. Delillo shows that it is possible to flee the unbearable crush of the big city by going to the midwest, but that it is impossible to escape. However, the college (for all its faults) is still presented as aspiring to be a genuine refuge, presumably for both the students and the teachers. I suspect the name is meant ironically, particularly since it clearly does not save Gladney from his family, but I would like for the school to serve as more than just a foil for the rest of society because it perpetuates a vision of an ivory tower that really doesn’t exist.

Siam, or the woman who shot a man, Lily Tuck

Reviewed here, Siam was the only book I read last month that provoked an extremely negative response from me. The knee-jerk hostility has somewhat waned, though I stand by everything I said in the review. Claire’s relationship and situation does not work out in Southeast Asia and I was frustrated by how the story doesn’t much engage with the relationship between Claire and James, the latter of whom is frequently absent, which, in turn puts further strain on the relationship–i.e. I didn’t get a sense of why or how Claire cared a whit about James outside of the physical relationship. However, part of the problem with my frustration is that the story is a psychological study about Claire’s isolation, not a study about the failures of the relationship between Claire and James. I still did not like the book, but I think Tuck is more successful than I gave her credit for.


Favorite from December: Hyperion.
Currently reading: The Green House, one of the early books by Mario Vargas Llosa. After that I have a lengthy list, but no concrete plans. 2016 is a blank slate and I have some ambitions, but those are for another post.

February Reading Recap

I have a chapter due soon and should really be working on it, but have decided to write up this post as a writing exercise anyway. I read five books, four fiction, one non-fiction last month.

A Curse on Dostoevsky, Atiq Rahimi
Rassoul is an Afghani who studied Russian literature in St. Petersburg during the Russian invasion. Now that Afghanistan is torn between rival warlords he is in Kabul and, in the opening of the novel, kills Nana Alia, who has been prostituting his betrothed, Sophia. As he kills Nana Alia, Rassoul thinks about Crime and Punishment and, through the next weeks of his life, lives out the plot of Dostoevsky’s novel. Some of the individual characters in the work, including family members, friends, and a variety of Taliban members, some of whom support Rassoul, some of whom want to kill him for knowing Russian, were engaging, but the overall plot of the story was not particularly engaging. Perhaps if I had read Crime and Punishment I would have had different feelings.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Reviewed here, Inverted World is a dystopian science fiction novel from the 1970s that revolves around the questions of technology, civilization, and relativity in the perception of others. At no point did it feel like a spectacular novel, but it also moved quickly and built toward a really satisfying conclusion. The longer I think about this one, the more likely it is to appear on my list of favorite novels (albeit likely toward the end).

The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa

The Jaguar, the Slave, and the Poet are classmates in their final year at Leoncio Prado Military academy in Lima. They are not friends, though in their first year they banded together to help each other. The Poet manages to keep others away from him with his glib tongue and willingness to write letters. The Jaguar is a vicious leader. The Slave is viciously mocked and harassed by his classmates, unwilling and unable to defend himself. The jokes, pranks and mockery always had a sadistic edge, but tensions escalate after a copy of a test is stolen in the middle of the night and the cadets are confined to the base. Someone squeals, someone dies–and the tension is not only about resolving who did it, but why.

the Time of the Hero was a scandalous book when it was published in 1963 and Llosa does a good job of keeping the reader guessing throughout, even as the characters, unknown to each other, are bound by mutual acquaintances on the outside. The first half of the novel dragged, but it really picked up in the second half. The book it most resembled was Lord of the Flies, which was probably part of the reason that it took me so long to get into it (I hated LotF in high school). However, The Time of the Hero is more complex and sophisticated, building on how the characters got into the school in the first place and offering the academy as a microcosm of Peruvian society–in which the most honest, most morally upright characters suffer for their goodness.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

My favorite of the month, Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel about the contemporary state of the humanities. Jay Fitger is a creative writing professor at the fictional midwest school, Payne University. The English department is being further staffed by adjuncts, its building is under renovation with them still inside, and Fitger’s students are in all manner of straights, for which he writes them an incessant stream of recommendation letters. More than three thousand of them. Fitger’s letters are glib, impertinent, sarcastic, and marginally focused, but impeccably polite. From the tone of his letters, particularly to repeat recipients, there is a sense that Fitger is by nature a contrarian and not easy to deal with, but the letters are funny for an outsider to read and true to form about much of the circumstances of modern academia.

Going into reading this book, I feared that Schumacher would make Fitger come across as too cynical, academia too fully broken, and the presentation of his relationship with students and colleagues too much of the worst stereotypes about academics. Where she succeeds most is in making Fitger an absolutely flawed, not particularly pleasant person who wants the university to survive, wants the best for his students, and generally has his heart in the right place even when there is someone he doesn’t like.

God and Man at Yale, William Buckley

Admittedly, a strange choice for a fun reading book, this is Buckley’s diatribe against the standard moderate-left consensus of the university. In it he argues that, by teaching the values of economic collectivism and religious atheism, Yale had violated its founding mission and the wishes of the alumni base. He starts with the fundamental position that free-market economics and Christianity are in all ways good things for civilization and continues into the argument that “academic freedom” should be governed by the free market. Namely, Buckley believes that there should be the liberty to research however the professor wants, but that, so long as their research is being funded by teaching students, the professors must only teach the values and ideas sanctioned by the board of trustees. So long as the professor has the option to resign, then he says mandating particular curricula does not violate academic freedom.

Buckley has some interesting and sometimes valid points scattered throughout this book, including that the idea of academic freedom blurs between liberty to teach and to research without interruption, but three points jumped out at me. First, he names graduate instructors by name and dresses them down for what they taught. The thought of this terrifies me in this new age of social media. Second, I largely disagree with Buckley on the issue of Christianity versus Atheism, but it is also interesting to note how these cultural issues vary in the sense of us against them and suspect that one could remove atheism, add islam and republish it with minimal changes so that it would appeal to people today. Third, I couldn’t help but note that Buckley doesn’t have a problem with a standard convention that will indoctrinate young people. His major problem is with what that convention is.

Noted above, I have a chapter due, so whatever I read next will have to wait. Right now I’m not sure what that will be.

December 2014 Reading Recap

A bit later than I intended, but things happen. Vacation isn’t really a vacation.

the Feast of the Goat – Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed here, an excellent historical novel detailing the collapse of Trujillo’s reign in the Dominican Republic.

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh
Rarely do I read a book and come away flummoxed by what I read. I did with this book. Happenstance causes Paul Pennyfeather to be expelled from university and without other recourse he becomes a school teacher. Error after error leads him all the way back around. The synopsis on the back cover described Decline and Fall as a good nonsense novel, but I think the unfamiliar (to me) setting caused the nonsense to be exacerbated beyond comfort. It had its moments, but I liked Scoop much better.

The Alteration– Kingsley Amis
What if Arthur Tudor and Catherine of Aragon had a child? What if, also, the reformation never took place, but Martin Luther successfully purified the church and himself became Pope? According to Amis, the church rules, science is a dirty word, and technological development has stalled. This is the setting for The Alteration. Hugh Anvil is ten and has the most divine singing voice in Europe–and the pope would like to keep it that way. There is only one way to keep Hugh’s voice from breaking, but as he becomes aware of what he will give up in service to the church, he decides that he would like to live life. The Alteration is a marvelous work of alternate-history, working in references to other alternate-history works such as Man in the High Castle and historical personages such as Heinrich Himmler and Lavrentiy Beria. Unfortunately I preferred the world to the story.

The Professor’s House– Willa Cather
Pitched as an exploration of introspection, a man in crisis at the onset of old age while at the height of his intellectual powers. There is an element of truth to this and the professor is in a crisis about his move from his old house to a new one and finds respite in working in his old office. But the heart of the story and the root of his family’s crisis is his former student Tom Outland, whose charisma and brilliance create the money and the jealousy that are tearing his family apart.

By far, my favorite of the four was The Feast of the Goat, which is going to appear on my updated favorite novels list. I am currently reading The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk.

The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa

From 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic was ruled by a military strongman named Raphael Trujillo, also known as The Goat. Contradictions defined Trujillo’s rule. He established environmental protections and allowed a middle class to prosper, but eliminated personal liberties and brutally punished any dissent. He granted refuge to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, but promoted a racially-charged anti-Haitian ideology that culminated in the slaughter of thousands of Haitians. He restored Dominican pride in themselves and independence from US occupation, but oppressed them. Political opponents were killed outright or disappeared, their bodies never found, yet Trujillo was a staunch ally of the United States first against Hitler and then Communism and the D.R. was a charter member of the United Nations. Trujillo’s family in particular flourished, despite their mistakes and flaws. This period is known as the Feast of the Goat.

Llosa’s novel is an exploration of these paradoxes and memory, centered on the last year of Trujillo’s reign. The narrative consists of three distinct timelines, two from 1961 and one from 1995, with the later arc forming a frame for the overall story.

Thirty five years after Trujillo’s death, Urania Cabral, the daughter of one of The goat’s most loyal ministers, returns to the D.R. for the first time since she left as a teenager and is immediately swept back into the trauma that precipitated her exile and her excommunicating her family. Those events and thus her memories fit into the context of the other two narratives: Trujillo’s desperate bid to cling to power against internal dissent, international pressure, the incompetence of his family, and the inevitability of aging; and the assassins on the night of their coup. Llosa slowly weaves these three timelines together, bringing them closer and closer until they meet in the assassination of Trujillo, the purges that followed, and the subsequent creation of the modern Dominican state.

Like another of Llosa’s book, The War of the end of the World, the core events of The Feast of the Goat really happened and could be considered more appropriately the province of non fiction. however, Llosa is not primarily interested in causation or change or social structure. His story is much more visceral. Llosa’s tale evokes the experience of life during Trujillo’s dictatorship and the transition, examining the processes and changes on a personal, extremely limited level and thereby bypassing the events as a historian would look at them. Llosa builds on the internal contradictions of Trujillo’s D.R. through the medium of memory in order to explore the characters. Trujillo dies, but it is hard to say the story has a happy ending. Everyone suffers.

I knew nothing about Trujillo and little about the D.R. (other than baseball) when I picked up this book, but am looking forward to reading Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of Butterflies, which focuses on one of Trujillo’s particular atrocities, the assassination of the Mirabal sisters.

As I said in reviewing The War of the End of the World, Llosa is an incredible storyteller and, with Orhan Pamuk, is one of my favorite currently-living high literature authors. The added caveats are for simplicity’s sake. I am currently reading Pamuk’s The Black Book and wanted to take a moment to compare the two nobel laureates, whose subject matter and writing styles differ wildly, but whose interests in identity and memory overlap. Llosa is the easier author to love. He paints with every color of the rainbow in sharp, graphic quality every experience and image from the most grotesque suffering to the most titillating encounter to the most poignant loss. At his best, both here and in The Bad Girl, Llosa meshes all three into a single scene. The story can be understated, but the writing itself is not. Llosa’s style tends toward the straight forward and brash, drawing the reader forward with the sheer charisma of the characters. In contrast, Pamuk’s style is understated and subtle. Other than in My Name is Red, where bright colors are central to the story itself, he prefers the muted and the drab. Not shabby, but shades of gray that make colors all the more potent when they appear. His stories give the reader nothing certain, with a path to follow and the answers eternally a step into the darkness.

May Reading Recap

Proud Beggars – Albert Cossery
Reviewed here, Cossery’s 1955 novel celebrates the three beggars–the former professor Gohar, middling bureaucrat El-Kordi, and the drug dealer Yeghen, who he treats as a sort of intelligentsia of the slums. Much like in The Jokers (published 1964), Cossery takes a dim view of middle class society and praises the virtues of those who refuse to play the same game as the rest of society, refuse to be trapped by the obsessions that plague the rest of us. The plot of Proud Beggars is the investigation into a whorehouse murder that stuns most of the people in their little environment, but further heightens how dissimilar the beggars are from the rest of the citizens of their Egyptian slum. In the end, though, the conceit of the novel is that nobody can actually escape from his or her obsessions.

The War of the End of the World – Mario Vargas Llosa
Reviewed here, The War of the End of the World is a literary retelling of the war of Canudos in 1890s Brazil, where Antonio Consulhiero, an itinerant breacher in Bahia Province gathered an enormous following of dispossessed souls, while the new Republican state brought increasing amounts of firepower to suppress the revolt.

Home Land– Sam Lipsyte
When I was a senior in high school, one of my classmates circulated an open letter to most of the school–pre-Facebook, this meant typing up a letter, copying it, and slipping the copies into people’s lockers. I didn’t keep a copy of the letter, but the gist of it was that a certain cadre of the class would go off to fancy colleges and lead miserable lives and those who remained in town with practical careers should just ignore them and be happy. Flash forward fifteen or twenty years…Sam Lipsytes’ Home Land is a pithier and less relenting version of that letter, albeit without the satisfaction of happiness on the author’s end. “Teabag,” as the author is known, is fed up with the shallow, overly rosy updates his classmates are writing to the alumni newsletter. So he writes his own, in serial that are cynical and vicious enough toward his former classmates and former principal that the editors refuse to publish them, at least to begin with. Teabag’s world is not a happy place, but he pitches it as a cold dose of reality, grounding his classmates who continue to aspire to things the way they did back when they were kids. Home Land is dark and cynical and sadly funny.

Throne of the Crescent Moon – Saladin Ahmed
The first time I heard of this fantasy novel was Ahmed himself talking about his premise. Most fantasy novels share a setting, that of medieval Western Europe, so he set his in a Middle Eastern world; most fantasy characters are young, so his protagonist is old. The Crescent Moon Kingdoms and the enormous city Dhamsawaat are facing a crisis between the brutal Khalif and the thief, the Falcon Prince as the later schemes to overthrow the ruling family and harness the power of the ancient throne from a long-past civilization for good. Dr. Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul-hunter by trade and is looking for the source of a series of murders committed by an unusually large number of ghuls, which gets him trapped between this brewing conflict.

Perhaps because I was in need or something lighter this month, my favorite of these four books was Throne of the Crescent Moon. Others were better written or dealt with higher themes and I was sorely tempted to put Proud Beggars in the top spot, but, as I addressed in my review, there were a few parts of Cossery’s story that chafed at me in that for all it exulted in the freedom and vitality of the unattached poor, it was too flippant about the value of a human life.

Currently, I am reading Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.