Tag Archives: English literature

The Reckoning

Penguin’s Little Black Classics Series introduced me to number of authors I hadn’t read before; among them Edith Wharton – admittedly a rather embarrassing omission from my reading list until now. The Reckoning, a small booklet that contains apart from the story of the same name only one more piece, Wharton’s first ever published story Mrs Manstey’s View. 

Mrs Manstey’s View appeared 1891 and marked the beginning of the career of one of the most important American author’s of the first half of the 20th century, and although Wharton was later very critical regarding her early stories – most of them are not reprinted in her Collected Stories -, it is of course very interesting to get a first-hand impression of her writing before the novels that made her famous, following the publication of The House of Mirth.  

Mrs Manstey’s View is one of the most devastating portraits of lonely widowhood I have read. When the view from the window of her rented room in a boarding house to which the title is referring and which is her only joy is threatened by the construction of an extension building, the elderly Mrs Manstey, practically forgotten by her daughter who lives far away and considered as mad by her few social contacts because of her obsession about her view and her inadequate attempts to stop the construction work that will destroy this view for good, comes up with a last desperate idea to put a halt to the extension plans, an idea with catastrophic consequences…

While the language and the setting of the story are rather conventional, and while the story is too short to get a really deep inside into the character and psychology of the protagonist, this piece works nevertheless well as a short story, and although the more mature author found certain flaws in her early stories, it is already with this first work that appeared in print that the author made a mark in literary circles in 1891, the date of the first publication. 

The Reckoning, first published in 1911, shows Wharton already at the height of her powers as an author. It is considerably longer than the first story, and is also more elaborated in more than one respect. 

The story’s main character, Julia Westall, is married to her second husband Clement since ten years. Her marriage can be considered a “modern” one: in a time when divorce was – especially for a woman – a social stigma, Julia has left her first rich husband without regrets. Too socially awkward, too “impossible” was John Arment, and the friends of the Westall’s, among them the upper-class Van Sideren’s consider this, together with Julia’s obvious disinterestedness (her second husband is moving slowly upward the social ladder, but is not a really wealthy man) as something that makes an otherwise in such circles scandalous divorce acceptable. When Westall, a verbal advocate of “modern” ideas also regarding the institution of marriage, takes a serious interest in the daughter of the Van Sideren’s, Julia finds herself from one moment to the next in a situation where her orderly and seemingly happy life collapses. The surprising climax of the story sees Julia in the home of her first husband. But I will not reveal more details here…

With its six more elaborated characters, and especially with a heroine that has considerably more depth than the protagonist of the first story, The Reckoning is a really fascinating story. It is also a strong, almost brutal analysis of the power balance between men and women in the society in which Wharton was living. Once a husband decided to discard his wife, it meant for her usually that she lost everything, including her position in society (which considered women mainly as an adornment of their husbands). What is additionally tough for Julia is the fact that she doesn’t exactly understand why it happens, the marriage having been over ten years a happy one (at least by superficial standards), and her visit at her first husband is acknowledging the fact that now she knows that he also didn’t understand what happened when she left him ten years ago…

Altogether, The Reckoning is a remarkably fresh story that resonates long in the mind of the reader. 

I am glad that I started my personal Edith Wharton Reading Challenge with this teaser; now I am curious to read not only her most accomplished novels but also her Collected Stories!

Edith Wharton: The Reckoning, Penguin Books 2015

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

My personal Edith Wharton reading challenge

A phenomenon with which every reader is familiar: no matter how much you read, there will be nevertheless always important books and authors that you will miss. A reader’s life is too short even for compulsive readers like me to have a complete overview regarding all important books and authors.

Despite this biological limitation, I am making an effort from time to time to fill in a few gaps; authors whose names are well-known to me and considered as important by authorities I usually trust; books that are on my personal TBR pile since a long time but which have constantly evaded my attention in the last moment. 

One such author is Edith Wharton, and since I have no less than five books by her on my shelves, I will read and review these books in the next weeks, and form my own opinion of this generally very well-reviewed author.

Have you read any of Edith Wharton’s books? Or are you willing to join this personal reading challenge of mine? If so, drop me a line here, or in the next weeks under one of my upcoming Edith Wharton blog posts. 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why I rarely publish negative reviews

Since I started this blog, I have reviewed approximately 120 books here; I share these reviews also in Goodreads and in Facebook. But I read much more books, which means that I am by far not writing about all the books I am in fact reading.

The reasons for this are mainly the following:

Reviewing takes some time; if you want to write something more than just a few superficial remarks, something meaningful, you need to spend a comparatively big amount of time – time I sometimes don’t have, or time I prefer to invest in something to me more valuable in that moment – for example in reading, travelling, working on my actual book project, or spending quality time with people that matter to me! And imagine, I have a job too, haha.

Furthermore, a lot of the books I am reading are not really creating this urge in me to write about them. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe the book is kind of dull and boring, or it is more or less ok, but nothing special and I have already forgotten the plot after a short time, or the topic is too special to be of any interest for a wider audience. So what’s the point to bother someone with my thoughts in such cases?

A special case are awe-inspiring books, books where I feel that at this moment they are beyond my capacities as a reviewer – recent example: Dostoevsky’s Demons. I would need to write a 10,000 words text if I wanted to review it, otherwise I would have to neglect important aspects of the book as I understand it. And if I will ever be able to express my limitless admiration of and fascination with Hans Henny Jahnn’s strange behemoth of a novel River without Banks – a book that literally changed my life and my view of life in general – in an adequate way remains a big question for me. (I reviewed the first part here; the biggest part of the novel was never translated in English.)   

The fourth category are the hopelessly bad, crappy, worthless books that you come across sometimes. I am not particularly inclined to write reviews about books I didn’t enjoy or that I even strongly dislike. In general, I prefer to be silent in such cases instead of wasting valuable time to indulge in negative feelings. In general, I believe that I am usually much better in positively raving about the qualities of a book than to give it the thump-down. Therefore, only about 5% of my published reviews so far are negative; if I would write a review about every single book I am reading, this percentage would be much higher, maybe more like 25-30%.

So, in which cases of this fourth category I am nevertheless making the effort to publish my negative opinion about a book? There are of course, as I see in retrospect now, a few reasons:

There are books and authors that have acquired the status of a “classic”, or at least of being extremely popular. While I have no problem with popular books and authors in general, I have experienced a couple of times the situation that I read a book that was praised as a “masterpiece”, or even as “one of the best novels of the 20th century” – and it turned out to be awfully bad from whatever standpoint you look at it. That’s what I call the “Emperor’s-New-Clothes syndrome”, and in such a blatant case as this one I feel obliged to raise my finger and voice my objection. This specific book and author get in my opinion much more attention than would be deserved if we look just at the – according to me hardly existing! – literary quality of the work; it is more a result of the successful efforts of the author during his lifetime to turn himself into a brand, than of the genuine quality of his writing that he occupies such a prominent place in literary history, and this book is praised by so many people although it is obviously no good at all (admittedly not all books by this author are as bad as the one I reviewed). The purpose of my review is to be a small contribution to a re-assessment of this specific book, and thus maybe also to a re-assessment of other, much better novels published during that period by authors who were not so good in self-marketing, but maybe better writers with some meaningful message in their works, written in a much better prose.

Another category of books are those by contemporary authors, who – supported by an aggressive marketing, a devoted group of friends in the media, and a similarly devoted crowd of “groupies” in social media – blow the horn and thus make a lot of noise around their silly, shallow, obnoxious books and turn this kind of attention into a mass phenomenon, and in extreme cases even into a movement that shares certain elements with a sect. That’s what I call the “One-million-flies-cannot-go-wrong syndrome”, and again I find myself every now and then in a position that I simply must voice my objection against such a book, and may it even be in a very succinct way, like in this case. (This review by a fellow book blogger sums it up very nicely in more detail what is wrong with this book and its author.)

Closely related to the last category are books that are lacking a basic quality a book (and its author) should have in my opinion: intellectual integrity. When the content and the message of a book is in stark contrast with the personal behaviour of its author, it is clearly a case of hypocrisy and lack of integrity. Intellectual impostors like the author of this book, should be always exposed.

Some books simply make me angry. A lot of people like this book and similar one’s by the same author – but to me it is obvious that the book is just an alibi for something else. This author makes his living by providing arousal templates for the needs of a very “special” audience. His sick anal-sadistic torture fantasies are poorly written, and as a reviewer I really hope that I prevent a few readers from exposing themselves to this revolting stuff.  

Very young and inexperienced authors will be usually treated with kindness by me; most bad books I read by such authors will be never reviewed here. In exceptional cases, when for example the publisher is to blame for not editing a book by an inexperienced author at all (and thus doing him a very bad service), like in this case, I will make an exception. Not because I want to slam the poor author for his shortcomings, but because I find it unethical when some publishers don’t protect authors from seriously damaging themselves.

Another exception are cases (like this one) in which a young author who in my opinion lacks literary talent is “made” by a publisher, in co-operation with key figures of the literary scene; a system that manipulates the public, arranges that such an author gets literary awards, and plenty of media attention that will in turn help to generate additional money and influence for this person in the literary scene, damages the chances of other young authors with real literary talent (but maybe with less talent for self-promotion), and even corrupts the readers and potential young authors, because a system that systematically ignores literary merit must in the long run have negative repercussions on the literary life in general, especially when the book market in that country is very small. Also in these cases, a reviewer should speak out and make it clear when such a “hyped” book has no literary value, and is obviously more a media or lifestyle phenomenon than serious literature.  

Hey, before I forget it – I know some authors personally. Some of them are nice people, others not so much. It is just like in all other spheres of life. Would the fact that I am in good or maybe not so good terms with someone influence my judgement (as imperfect as it may be) regarding the quality of their respective writing?

The answer is obvious: never!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Nobel Prize for Literature 2016 for Bob Dylan

Robert Allen Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature 2016. Congratulations!

I am really amazed by the echo of this news in the electronic and print media and in the social networks. Since a few days, the choice of Dylan by the Nobel Committee in Stockholm and the following discussion, the question if Dylan has “deserved” the prize or not, and why not a “real” author has received the award, has side-lined much more important events in the world.

And since everyone did it, I feel somehow also entitled to give my two stotinki regarding the question of the “worthiness” of this years’ Nobel Prize Winner.

Just for clarification: I grew up with Bob Dylan’s songs, I love and adore him, and without the shadow of a doubt he is one of the most important living cultural icons on this planet. I am not saying more, just this: Bob Dylan is in a way larger than life, and for sure also much more relevant than an award or the people who decided to give him this prize according to criteria that are usually difficult to understand.

Let me say a few words about the criteria on which the decision for the award is based. This prize is not a kind of “Writer’s World Championship” where the best author with the best literary work is supposed to win. The surprise of the public that Dylan has won this year comes in my opinion from the fact that few people are aware of the criteria. The testament of Alfred Nobel that defines the criteria that should be the basis for the award, is very unclear. The two main reasons to award the prize to an author seem to be a certain literary value of the work, and the ideal/idealistic direction of the work – again: this is a very vague and in the original Swedish very unclear formulation; are there any interesting or valuable works of literature that are not idealistic?

Are those people wrong who argue that – without being disrespectful to Bob Dylan – the Nobel Committee should have awarded the prize to someone who devoted his life to produce “serious” literature, not a singer-songwriter? I admit, these people have a point, but they missed what I said in the previous paragraph: this award is NOT primarily a literary excellence award, and therefore such an argumentation (Dylan vs. “real” authors) is futile.

Should we take the Nobel Prize for Literature for so important as most of us obviously do? I think not. It comes with a lot of money – good for the author! -, but it comes also with a lot of obligations (speeches, interviews, requests, media attention, etc.) that make it more difficult for the prize winner to produce anything meaningful after he/she got the award, simply because it will be much more difficult after the award to focus on his/her work. So it is a very mixed blessing, but I am sure Bob Dylan will survive also that.

The main reason why I am not so interested in this prize anymore is the very long list with decisions that have obviously nothing to do with the literary value of the author and his/her work. A committee that awards Mommsen instead of Cechov; Prud’homme instead of Tolstoy; Benavente instead of Kafka; Pearl Buck instead of Joyce; Echegaray instead of Proust; Heyse instead of Henry James; Eucken instead of Musil; Spitteler instead of Edith Wharton; Quasimodo instead of Cavafy; Churchill instead of William Carlos Williams; Scholochov (for a book that was written not by him) instead of Babel; Solzhenitsyn instead of Shalamov, Avram Terz, or Herling; Cela instead of Borges or Nabokov; or Neruda, the NKWD henchman and member of the Trotsky assassination team, instead of Mandelstam, Sutskever, Celan, or Ingeborg Bachmann? I just don’t think very highly of the competences of a committee that comes to such decisions. 

Another reason why I am upset about the choices of the Stockholm Committee is the quota according to certain criteria that obviously exist. Or statements like that of a very influential member of the Committee who bluntly stated years ago, that American literature and American authors (from the United States) are in general uninteresting and shallow and not worthy to receive a Nobel Prize, and that as long as he is in charge never ever will such an author be considered for the prize. It seems that the Nobel Committee wanted to say this year: “OK, we cannot any longer ignore American literature, and Bob Dylan was the best author we could find. Leonard Cohen would have been of course the much better poet among the singer-songwriters, but you know, this year we had to give it to an U.S. author.” – Obviously, this award is also meant as a slap in the face of all important living American authors, as Aleksandar Hemon pointed out correctly.

The Nobel Prize for Literature has a lot to do with (literature) politics, and comparatively little with literature. The discussion about the Nobel-worthiness (or un-worthiness) of Dylan is therefore a rather pointless matter. The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded a few times to authors who deserved it, and many times to people who were just second-rate authors. Therefore, we shouldn’t consider the award as something necessarily related to literary excellence.

If Bob Dylan, a life-long pacifist, should accept the Prize that is funded with money that comes from the royalties for the invention of deadly weapons, is another question. He doesn’t need the money, so it would be great to see him standing true to some of his early convictions and politely refuse the Nobel Prize.

The best comment I read on the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, because it is making fun of the Committee in Stockholm that considers itself as oh-so-important, comes from Gary Shteyngart. On Twitter he commented: “I totally get the Nobel committee. Reading books is hard.”

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Bulgarian Literature Month 2016 – a few suggestions (2)

In my latest blog post, I gave an overview regarding some of the translated Bulgarian authors and their works. If you want to have a bit more background information about contemporary authors from Bulgaria, I would recommend you to have a look at the website Contemporary Bulgarian Writers.

The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation is since years successfully supporting particularly the translation and publication of books by contemporary Bulgarian authors, and the website is also a result of their work. Apart from short authors’ bios, there are plenty of translation samples that will for sure be a useful starting point not only for publishers, but also for readers. The English-language Bulgarian journal Vagabond (a well-written and edited periodical for anyone with an interest in Bulgaria) publishes in every new edition a story or a chapter of a novel by a contemporary Bulgarian author. So there are now quite a lot of accessible media that can tease the curiosity of readers for Bulgarian literature.

Although the main focus of this first Bulgarian Literature Month 2016 is on the works of contemporary Bulgarian language authors, I want to be not too strict. Also non-fiction works by Bulgarian authors can be included. The same goes for works by Bulgarian-born authors that write in another language than Bulgarian. I am even open for reviews of books (fiction or non-fiction) by foreign language authors that are related to Bulgaria.

Here are a few recommendations for all above mentioned categories:

Bulgarian-born authors that write in other languages:

The only Bulgarian-born author that was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was Elias Canetti. Canetti’s only link with Bulgaria is his birth in Ruse and the first years of his early childhood he spent there, and which had nevertheless a strong lifelong impact on him. More on his childhood in the first volume of his brilliant autobiography:

The Tongue Set Free (Granta Books 2011)

Some time ago, I reviewed the debut of Miroslav Penkov, his story collection East of the West, enthusiastically. The English-language author Penkov has now published his first novel, again focused on Bulgaria and similarly enticing:

Stork Mountain (Farrar, Straus , and Giroux 2016)

Kapka Kassabova, another English-language author with Bulgarian roots, left the country of her birth in 1991. Many years later, she came back for a longer visit and her impressions there brought back a lot of mostly not very pleasant memories. A somewhat controversial book, not liked by everyone in Bulgaria, but definitely an interesting read about the difficult process of transition which is still going on 25 years after the fall of communism:

Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (Skyhorse Publishing 2009)

One of the most prolific contemporary German-language authors is Ilija Trojanow (sometimes transcribed as Iliya Troyanov in English). Of his so far translated works I recommend particularly the following books:

Along the Ganges (Haus Publishing 2005)
Mumbai to Mecca (Haus Publishing 2007)
The Collector of Worlds (Haus Publishing 2008)
The Lamentations of Zeno (Verso 2016)

Together with the photographer Christian Muhrbeck, Trojanow published an impressive book with photos from Bulgaria:

Wo Orpheus begraben liegt (Carl Hanser 2013) – this book, as all other works of Trojanow related to Bulgaria, are still not translated in English

Unfortunately Dimitre Dinev’s books, written in German, are so far also not translated in English. His touching and brilliantly written novel about two families is one of my favourite books:

Engelszungen (“Angel’s Tongues”) (Deuticke 2003)

Several other Bulgarian-born authors write also in German. I can recommend (this so far untranslated book) particularly:

Rumjana Zacharieva: Transitvisum fürs Leben (Horlemann 2012)

Bulgaria is also a topic in the work of a few fictional works by authors that have no connection by birth with this country:

Many of Eric Ambler’s books have a story that is located in some frequently not precisely named Balkan country. The following two books of this fantastic author have a Bulgarian setting (the first one partly, the second one is clearly based on the show trial in Bulgaria in the aftermath of the Communist takeover):

The Mask of Dimitrios (in the United States published as A Coffin for Dimitrios) (various editions)
Judgment on Deltchev (Vintage 2002)

Another author who is using the twilight of the Balkans as a setting for his spy novels is Alan Furst. Bulgaria features for example in the following book:

Night Soldiers (Random House 2002)

Two remarkable novels by younger international authors who spent a longer time in Bulgaria and who received excellent reviews (especially the second one, which was published recently has caused really raving write-ups in all major literary journals and even the mainstream media):

Rana Dasgupta: Solo (Marriner Books 2012)
Garth Greenwell: What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2016)

Julian Barnes visited Bulgaria after the transition and witnessed the trial of Todor Zhivkov. His novel based on this experience is worth reading:

The Porcupine (Vintage 2009)

Two historical novels by men who lived or live in Bulgaria. I haven’t read them yet, but the synopsis sounds interesting in both cases:

Christopher Buxton: Far from the Danube (Kronos 2006)
Ellis Shuman: Valley of the Thracians (Create Space 2013)

A few more books by German authors that have a Bulgarian setting and that I enjoyed (with the exception of Apostoloff, but maybe you think otherwise). Only the book by Lewitscharoff is translated so far.

Michael Buselmeier: Hundezeiten (Wunderhorn 1999)
Nicki Pawlow: Der bulgarische Arzt (Langen-Müller 2014)
Roumen M. Evert: Die Immigrantin (Dittrich 2009)
Uwe Kolbe: Thrakische Spiele (Nymphenburger 2005)
Sibylle Lewitscharoff: Apostoloff (Suhrkamp 2010)

Angelika Schrobsdorff (also known as an actress and wife of Claude Lanzmann) came 1938 to Bulgaria as a Jewish child from Germany and stayed there until 1947. Several of her works are based on her experience in Bulgaria or on her attempts to re-connect with friends and relatives at a later stage:

Die Reise nach Sofia (dtv 1983, introduction by Simone de Beauvoir)
Grandhotel Bulgaria (dtv 1997)

And finally some non-fiction recommendations:

The Bulgarian journalist and author Georgi Markov was one of the most prominent dissidents and victim of a so-called “umbrella murder”. The following book is the result of years of investigation and gives an extremely interesting insight into the real power central of communist Bulgaria, the State Security:

Hristo Hristov: Kill the Wanderer (Gutenberg 2013)

Works of Georgi Markov is available in a three-volume edition in German:

Das Portrait meines Doppelgängers (Wieser 2010)
Die Frauen von Warschau (Wieser 2010)
Reportagen aus der Ferne (Wieser 2014)

In the context of the attempts of certain right-wing circles in Bulgaria to whitewash the fascist regime of Boris III from its share of responsibility in the holocaust, it is particularly useful to read the following book by Tzvetan Todorov, who is together with Julia Kristeva one of the most prominent French intellectuals of Bulgarian origin:

The Fragility of Goodness (Princeton University Press 2003)

Another very heated discussion about a particular period of Bulgarian history  was the so-called Batak controversy a few years ago. Whereas in most other countries a conference about certain aspects of 19th century history would go unnoticed outside a small circle, it resulted in this case in big and very unpleasant smear campaign with involvement of Bulgarian politicians and almost all major media in the country who, either without knowing the publication or in full disregard of the content, organized a real witch hunt against a few scholars that had in the end to cancel the conference because they had to fear for their lives. The re-evaluation of certain historical myths that were in the past used to incite ethnic or religious hatred targeted at certain groups of Bulgarian citizens is still a difficult issue. A book that is documenting the Batak controversy and the historical facts behind it is available in a Bulgarian/German edition:

Martina Baleva, Ulf Brunnbauer (Hgg.): Batak kato mjasto na pametta / Batak als bulgarischer Erinnerungsort (Iztok-Zapad 2007)

A book on the history of Bulgaria may be useful for all those who dive into Bulgarian literature. Bulgarians love their history and love to discuss it with foreigners; or more precisely: the version of history they were taught in school…

R.J. Crampton: A Concise History of Bulgaria (Cambridge University Press 2006)

A fascinating book on how tobacco, its cultivation and production, shaped Bulgaria – until today, when there is still a political party that at least on the the surface mainly represents the interest of the – predominantly ethnic Turkish – tobacco farmers:

Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke (Cornell University Press 2012)

A German in Bulgaria is the subtitle of the following book, and of course I read the very interesting, insightful and sometimes funny work by Thomas Frahm (not translated in English, but at least in Bulgarian) with great interest and pleasure. Frahm is also one of the few excellent translators of Bulgarian literature (Lea Cohen, Vladimir Zarev):

Die beiden Hälften der Walnuss (Chira 2015)

And if you are planning a walk through the Balkans or a boat trip on the Danube, the following classical works should not be missing in your luggage:

Claudio Magris: Danube (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2008)

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts/Between the Woods and the Water/The Broken Road (NYRB)

In my next blog post I will give more information on how to participate in Bulgarian Literature Month 2016. And yes, there will be also a few giveaways! 

PS: The information in the two blog posts is of course not complete, and can never be. Still, I think I should include the following as well (which I have simply forgotten):

John Updike: The Bulgarian Poetess – one of Updike’s best stories, available in several of his short story collections, for example in The Early Stories, 1953-1975 (Random House 2004)

Will Buckingham: The Descent of the Lyre (Roman Books 2013) – a beautiful novel that catches the magical atmosphere of the Rhodopi mountains, the region of Orpheus, written by an author who knows Bulgaria, its history and culture very well.

Dumitru Tsepeneag: The Bulgarian Truck – a brilliant postmodernist novel by an author from neighbouring Romania (Dalkey Archive Press 2016)

The online journal Drunken Boat recently published an issue devoted to Bulgarian literature and art. A good selection and the perfect starting point for the Bulgarian Literature Month.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 


Mortality

About 40% of the people that live in the United States – the situation in other industrialized countries is not very different – develop at least once in their lives cancer and although the 5-year survival rate has drastically increased for various types of cancer in the last years as a result of new cures and more efficient treatment, it is still the single most important lethal disease beside heart and coronary-related diseases. Almost anyone of us, even when we are lucky and never get ill from cancer ourselves, have a close person that is or will be ill with this life-threatening disease. Apart from the medical aspects, the main question in this context is: how are we dealing with such a diagnosis? And on a more philosophical level: how are we coming to terms with our own mortality in the face of cancer?

Christopher Hitchens was a kind of rock star among the journalists in the Anglo-Saxon world. He was an extremely prolific author on various topics, editor and contributor to the most important and intellectually most stimulating periodicals, author of about 25 books. His most popular works are probably his autobiography Hitch-22, his critical essay about Mother Teresa The Missionary Position, his attack on Henry Kissinger whom he considered a war criminal in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, and his book against religions God is Not Great. There was hardly any public debate which didn’t see Hitchens involved, his outspokenness, his quick-wittedness, his intelligence and charisma, and his ability to write a light-hearted yet passionate prose that gave every reader the feeling that Hitchens was speaking to him personally made him a unique figure with many devoted readers, but also with many opponents or even enemies.

On June 8, 2010, while on a book promotion tour for his book Hitch-22, Hitchens felt suddenly an excruciating pain in his chest and thorax. A medical emergency team arrived at Hitchens’ hotel room and brought him to the hospital.

“I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”

From now on, Hitchens was an inhabitant of what he calls “Tumortown”. With his usual professionalism he decided to write about his experience and the book Mortality we have in our hands as readers is the result of this professional approach. The book is a slightly edited version of a series of articles that appeared during Hitchens’ illness in Vanity Fair, a last chapter written by him consists of aphoristic jottings that are related to the text of these articles but which the author could not edit – Hitchens died on December 15, 2011 from esophageal cancer.

Although the book doesn’t hide the authors’ sufferings, his hopes for a successful treatment, his ordeal of going through a long series of chemotherapies, it is also the story of a man who doesn’t cower in the face of his fate, a man who tries to keep his dignity until the very end.

The most interesting parts of the book were for me those pages in which the author describes how the cancer affected his relation to the people around him, particularly to his family and close friends. Another strong part of the book is the description of the stages through which probably each mortally ill person has to go. And it is probably very good when one can – like Hitchens – answer the question “Why me?” very quickly with a “Why not?”, and focus on more important questions and problems. Cancer is for sure not a punishment for allegedly committed sins, even when some disgusting fundamentalist pseudo-“Christian” activists were cheering loudly when the cancer diagnosis of Hitchens became public.

One of the really fascinating parts of the book deals with what the author calls “cancer etiquette”. How should we talk to a cancer patient? What kind of remarks are appropriate, what kind are not? Too much interest in the details of the disease and the state of affairs of the patient can be really painful for the ill person – but too little interest as well. How to keep the right balance? Also the question if we should pray for a sick person and let him/her know it is rather tricky – in particular when the patient is like Hitchens an atheist.

The chapter that deals with Hitchens’ atheism was for me the least interesting. Also in his other books where he was attacking religions or religious leaders, it was never clear to me why he took anecdotal evidence of misbehaviour of clerics, or any religiously motivated violence as a proof for the non-existence of God. Not that I cannot understand someone who is an atheist, but Hitchens’ line of argumentation seemed to me always rather shallow, and his description of the famous bet by Blaise Pascal is completely misrepresenting the brilliant French mathematician and believer. (I admit that I disagree with quite a lot of Hitchens’ standpoints, and found his unconditional support of the Iraq war as shameful as some of his radically anti-Zionist statements that crossed in my opinion the line to anti-Semitism.) I cannot blame Hitchens for not reflecting the fact that he – in possession of health insurance, and as a personal friend of leading scientists – was in an extremely privileged position; millions and millions of Americans would not have the slightest chance to get even basic tests performed on them in absence of health insurance; also his rather undifferentiated condemnation of people who oppose the “use” of human embryos for the purpose of medical research was understandable for me – but the ethical dilemma in that field was something Hitchens obviously could not see. But who am I to blame a person who is desperate to prolonging his life for such a point of view!

Who wants to understand how the world looks like for an intelligent person after the diagnosis “cancer” should read Mortality. It is – despite the above mentioned reservations – an honest, thought-provoking book. The same cannot be said for all books written from first-hand experience; Hitchens mentions Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture as a bad, “sugary” example:

“Pausch used to work for Disney and it shows.”

Mortality may not be an uplifting read; but a necessary one. 

Front Cover

Christopher Hitchens: Mortality, Twelve, New York 2012

 

Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture, Hachette 2014

see also:

Oliver Sacks: My Own Life, The New York Times, Feb.

Fritz Zorn: Mars, Kindler, München 1977 (in German)

Wolfgang Herrndorf: Arbeit und Struktur, blog 2010-2013 (in German)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Child of God

The novels of Cormac McCarthy are not exactly cheerful, uplifting books – in the contrary! This author is exploring human loneliness and isolation, depravation, and extreme violence in his work. The subject matter that leaves little to no space for any hope, consolation or redemption contrasts with a prose that is sparse but frequently very poetic. As a reader, I therefore feel usually quite wrought out after I finished one of his books, but at the same time I have the impression that I read something very remarkable and even beautiful. Very few authors leave the reader with such contradicting feelings.

My latest try with a McCarthy book was Child of God, his third novel and published before his devastating masterpieces Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. And it is again confirming what I said in the above paragraph.

Lester Ballard, the main character, grows up in a small town in East Tennessee (the region in which McCarthy grew up) in the 1960s. Although his family seems to have lived in the area for generations – his grandfather was obviously a local Ku Klux Klan leader, and his father committed suicide by hanging himself – the boy is socially rather isolated. Already during his childhood he shows a violent, sociopathic behavior. After he loses his small farm and serving a prison sentence because he is threatening potential buyers of his former property with his rifle, he returns to his home region. He starts to live as a squatter in a dilapidated cabin, lives on stolen corn or squirrels and other prey he is shooting, and is considered as at least half crazy by the people in his home town.

Ballard is shown as practically unable to lead a normal conversation or to interact adequately with others. A conversation between Ballard and a smith who is sharpening an old axe for him is almost comical, but it is Ballard’s complete lack of ability to make a normal contact with women, that will have disastrous consequences for him.

The remainder of the book shows how the main character sinks deeper and deeper in isolation, degradation, even perversion. The social degradation and decline corresponds with a moral one and even a physical one: from squatter to cave dweller to prisoner; from voyeur to necrophiliac to serial killer; from healthy young man to mutilated prisoner to dissected corpse – this is the path Lester Ballard is going.  And yet, he is

“A child of God much like yourself perhaps.”

Although the main character in this book is not a man most of us would be keen to meet, McCarthy is describing him with sympathy and understanding. If Ballard would have ever had a positive experience with others, if he had got as a child at least a little bit human warmth and support, he might very probably never turned out to be the person he became.

McCarthy is also a compassionate storyteller. The men who threaten to lynch the already crippled Ballard if he is not leading them to the corpses of his alleged victims, are full of blood lust and sadistic pleasure in their (self-)righteous endeavor, and as a reader we rejoice probably quite a bit when Ballard succeeds in escaping (temporarily) his tormentors.

The author is using different perspectives – some chapters are told from the viewpoint of neighbors of Ballard – and he is using spoken language for the dialogues which are given without quotation marks, a method that takes a little bit time to get used to as a reader. 

What is it with Cormac McCarthy and the women? I cannot recall any remarkable female character in his books (at least the ones I read). Also in Child of God, the women are marginal figures, mainly victims of men. Not that he is particularly misogynistic, but this virtual absence or marginal role of women in his works is rather strange and I have no real explanation for it.

It would be not true to say that I have enjoyed this book. Too unpleasant, violent and full of graphic descriptions of human depravity is this novel. It is not McCarthy’s best book, but still an important step on the way to the mature masterpieces of his later years.  

Cormac McCarthy: Child of God, Picador 2009 (originally published 1973) 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sociology of organizations – a (kind of) manual

Recently I was asked by a friend with an interest in sociology of organizations if I could suggest to him a good book on this topic (obviously he thought that my working experience in a comparatively big variety of organizations and countries made me a kind of expert regarding that matter).

After some consideration, I suggested to him not a scientific book, but a work of fiction.

In my opinion, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller contains (among many other things) everything you need to know about how any big organization, institution, or corporation works. And I can assure you, none of the absurd situations in the book are unrealistic or exaggerated. 

An example: General Peckem (sic) assigns Colonel Scheisskopf (a word that means “shithead” in German) to write letters 

“to let everyone know how good we are and how much work we’re turning out.”

Scheisskopf’s answer that he doesn’t know a thing about writing is receiving the following retort:

“Well, don’t let that trouble you,” General Peckem continued with a careless flick of his wrist. “Just pass the work I assign you along to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation of responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who do get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part. I suppose that’s because I am a good executive.  Nothing we do in this large department of ours is really very important, and there’s never any rush. On the other hand, it is important that we let people know we do a great deal of it. Let me know if you find yourself shorthanded. I’ve already put in a requisition for two majors, four captains and sixteen lieutenants to give you a hand. While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it.”

Trust me, this is all you need to know about the sociology of organizations.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22, Simon & Schuster

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Missing in Mexico

Ambrose Bierce, Hart Crane, Arthur Cravan, B. Traven / Ret Marut (or whatever his name was), – it seems that Mexico is the perfect place for authors who want to vanish without traces.

 

Ambrose Bierce: The Enlarged Devil’s Dictionary, Penguin Classics 2001

Carlos Fuentes: The Old Gringo, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007 – a biographical novel about Bierce’s mysterious disppearence in Mexico

Works of Arthur Cravan, translated by A.G. O’Meara, CreateSpace 2014

The Complete Poems of Hart Crane, Centennial Edition 2001

B. Traven: Ich kenne das Leben in Mexiko. Briefe an John Schikowski 1925-1932, Limes 1982 (=I know about life in Mexico. Letters to John Schikowski 1925-1932) 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Atticus Finch, the main character of To Kill a Mockingbird, is without doubt one of the most likeable and remarkable literary heroes you will come across in 20th century fiction. Since the novel is very popular (I avoid the word bestseller with its slightly derogative connotation), and most of you will have read the book, I will be rather brief regarding the synopsis.

Scout, the narrator of the story and her older brother Jem grow up in a small town of the Deep South of the 1930s; it is the time of the Great Depression. Atticus, their father is a widowed lawyer with old family ties in town and the whole region.

While a big part of the book deals with a seemingly normal childhood with a good-natured, if somewhat unorthodox father – his children call him by his first name, and he is giving them a lot of freedom – and the small and big adventures that are typical for this age and social surrounding, a really dramatic event takes place that will have a lasting effect on the whole town, and particularly on the Finch family: Tom Robinson, a young man is arrested on rape charges – and Atticus is appointed to be his lawyer. Robinson is a black man, a fact that brings out the not-so-subtle racism of a big part of the local population. And the children of the “nigger-lover” Finch – he is indeed only doing his duty as a lawyer – have to suffer also under this situation. While Atticus teaches his children to never use violence to defend themselves, but their heads, justice is prevailing. No, not justice – the law…and even after the case is closed, the dramatic events triggered by it are not yet at their climax.

To Kill a Mockingbird has of course quite a lot of suspense elements; the court scenes are very dramatic and revealing. The fact that the arrested man is obviously not guilty and the “victim” and the main witness are liars doesn’t prevent the jury from exercising a case of “race justice” that will prove to be fatal for the accused. It is still breath-taking to read how racist the majority of people in the 1930s were (is it different today? – and I am not only talking of the Deep South); but it is also conveying a very humane message: sometimes you just have to do what is right, even when you know that you will lose.

Atticus Finch is standing up for his humanistic principles, even when life would be much more comfortable for him and his children if he would compromise and not defend this man. But in his own eyes, he would lose his dignity and his role as an example to his children if he would. That he accepts this and all the consequences without becoming bitter, makes him such an outstanding literary hero. One of the lessons Atticus is teaching to his children is to always try to “walk for a few minutes in the shoes of the others” – the gift of empathy is what makes Atticus different from some of the other folks in the novel. Although, to be fair, he is not completely alone in his fight for justice. And even those who antagonize him in this particular case have as it turns out such a respect for him as a person that they re-elect him to the local constituency after the court case.

One of the particular strengths of this book is that it succeeds in what Atticus calls “walking in the shoes of others”. In the framework of the novel, we get to know a wide range of characters, black and white, respected and despised, comparatively wealthy and very poor, people with racial prejudices and a few without – but Harper Lee has the gift to make us readers look at them with understanding, even sympathy. The woman who accuses Robinson of the crime is a terribly lonely person and even her father who is the only really bad person in the novel is more a victim of his low social status and it seems he is acting more out of frustration for being looked upon with contempt by practically everyone (except Atticus Finch) than out of a criminal character.

Lee’s story is so convincing because she introduces a wide range of characters that are in itself already very interesting: Dell, the friend of Jem and Scout who comes always for summer holidays – he is a good boy and loyal friend but also obviously a story teller (I avoid the word liar); Cal, the black cook who reigns the kitchen with sternness but also a big heart and who is the female presence in the house that is sometimes a counter-balance to the laissez-faire attitude of Atticus in many respects; the judge, the sheriff, and the newspaper editor – three principled men who in one way or the other support Atticus in a difficult situation; Aunt Alexandra who goes through a process of development while the story unfolds; Maude, a friendly neighbour who treats the children without the condescension that is so frequent among grown-ups; Mrs Dubose, a wicked old woman with whom the children form against all odds (and not completely voluntarily) a bond; the black people with whom the kids are mingling freely and not to everyone’s delight; the children itself that grow not only physically but also as individuals; and last not least Arthur “Boo” Radley, a man who has been confined to home by his family for decades and about whom the children have the strangest ideas – a kind of demon as they imagine him, but as it turns out just a poor soul with a surprisingly good heart, who makes his personal appearance rather late in the book, but in a moment when the children really need him.

All in all, this a very good book with a timeless, very humane message and likeable characters that makes you think about what is valuable in life, a book about how important empathy is – and that the only way for children to learn to stand up for themselves and others is not by teaching moral principles, but by living them in everyday life even when it is difficult for you. What else can you expect from a work of literature?

A book I can highly recommend, not only for young readers.

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird, Vintage Classics

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-6. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.