So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski
This novel tells the story of a young boy who wanders through the eastern regions of an unnamed Central European country during World War II. As Nazi Germany invades the country he is sent east by his Jewish parents for safety. The boy ends up, with no friends or resources, wandering from village to village seeking refuge. As a dark-eyed, black-haired youth he is referred to as a Gypsy orphan by the blond, blue-eyed Slavs of the area. Mistreated as an outsider, he is like a painted bird who seeks to join the flock but is rejected because of its different appearance. In each village he is bullied and abused and only finds refuge in the most unsavory of situations, always under the threat of being turned over to the Nazi invaders as a Gypsy. Through all of this, the youth tries to understand the cruel and violent world with which he is faced, developing theories and philosophies of life and discarding them as they fail to help him cope with the primitive lives of the peasant farmers and their harsh treatment.
Describing all of the cruelty and horror of war in the voice of a young child, this book is not easy to read and may be too upsetting for some readers. For those readers who manage to endure, the story reveals the war in a personal way that can only be possible through the eyes of a child.
The author was born in 1933 in Łódź Poland. So he was the same age as the boy in the story during the war. He and his Jewish parents survived the war in eastern Poland by assuming false identities and living as Catholics with the help of local Polish families.
First published in 1965, this 1976 Second Edition has an Introduction by the author that tells the amazing story of the book and its reception both in the West and in Poland where it was banned. He responds to criticism that the book dwells too much on the horrors faced by people in Poland during the war. Although the book stands on its own, this is a really useful addition to understanding the author and the initial reaction to the work.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary: Investigations in the Shadowy World of Early Jazz-Blues in the Company of Blind Willie McTell, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Irving Mills, Carl Moore, and a Host of Others, and Where Did This Dang Song Come from Anyway? by Robert W. Harwood
Robert Harwood does a very good job of tracing the roots of the legendary American song St. James Infirmary, finding similarities with the 18th century British folksong The Unfortunate Rake and also the American ballad The Streets of Laredo. He also uses the history of this song to show the beginnings of the music industry's creation of Race Recordings, the recording of African American artists for sales to the Black community. In addition, he uses a copyright trial over the name of the song to illustrate how folk musicians borrowed and changed music and lyrics to make songs their own, and how the music industry used copyrights on sheet music and recordings to profit from the musicians' work.

For those who want to research these topics further, this is a good piece of scholarship with extensive notes, a three page bibliography, and four appendices. I found the writing could have benefited from the hand of a good editor as whole paragraphs appear more than once in the text. It was an interesting and enjoyable read for a fan of this classic song that has been recorded by many musicians in a diverse range of genres including folk, blues and jazz.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Hua Hu Ching: The Teachings of Lao Tzu

Hua Hu Ching: The Teachings of Lao Tzu by Lao Tzu and Brian Walker

Most people who have heard of Lao Tzu know him through his book the Tao Te Ching, a fundamental Taoist text. The authorship and history of the Tao Te Ching is still being debated. And so it is also the case for the Hua Hu Ching which is also often attributed to Lao Tzu. The text has come down to us largely through oral tradition although fragments, although a partial manuscript was discovered in a cave in China.< In 1979 the first English translation by Hua-Ching Ni of the Hua Hu Ching was published by Shambhala Press under the title Hua Hu Ching : The Later Teachings of Lao Tzu.
This 1992 translation of the Hua Hu Ching by Brian Walker, who is famous for his highly accessible translation of the Chinese text The I Ching or Book of Changes: A Guide to Life's Turning Points, is equally accessible to Western readers. Having not read Hua-Ching Ni's translation, I cannot compare the two. However, I have read various translations of the I Ching, and I can agree that Walker's translation makes a very good starting point for a Western reader to the concepts outlined in the text. I found it inspiring and only slightly unclear in certain spots where I felt a Glossary with fuller descriptions of certain terms would have been helpful. E.g. he seems to translate "Tao" as "The Integral Way" without ever sitting the reader down and explaining either term. It is a wonderful companion to the Tao Te Ching and I recommend it to anyone who, after reading the Tao Te Ching, wants to find something else to read to get more information.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Discovery of Heaven

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch

If humans have free will, how does God know how everything is going to turn out? More significantly, how can God create a given outcome using these humans?

I first encountered Mulisch's work with his earlier title The Procedure which examines the way that inanimate matter becomes living organisms by telling the stories of a modern day Dr. Frankenstein, Victor Werker, a Dutch biologist who creates a complex organic clay crystal that can reproduce and has a metabolism, and the late sixteenth century Rabbi Jehudah Löw of Prague who creates a golem by following the procedure outlined in a third-century cabalist text that God used to create Adam.

The Discovery of Heaven is a large novel of 730 pages that deals with God's relationship with the human race, predestination and free will, and the lives of two men, the woman they both love, and the child she conceives to fulfill a divine purpose. Translated from the Dutch by award-winning translator Paul Vincent, the book makes a smooth transition into English. I found it easy and compelling reading with a thought-provoking ending. While this is one of the most read and respected novels in The Netherlands, American readers are not always so enthusiastic. I believe that the philosophical and theological questions raised and the literary style that Mulisch uses to covey them may be difficult to translate, sort of like reading an English translation of the Chinese I Ching.

It has a story within a story construction that opens with two heavenly spirits talking to each other. One is telling the other how complex it was to bring together the right genetic profiles to produce the desired child who would be able to fulfill a mission from God. The story the spirit tells begins with astrophysicist Max Delius and philologist Onno Quist meeting, seemingly by chance, in The Hague in February 1967 when Max stops his car at midnight to pick up Onno who was hitchhiking to Amsterdam.

Their friendship forms the core of the book, which tells the story of first Max, and then Onno, falling in love with young cellist Ada Brons. From this love triangle, Ada produces a son Quinten, whose paternity is uncertain, but we watch as he grows to maturity and the fulfillment of his mission.

This is a story of how heavenly predestination looks like free will to the humans involved as the humans exercise their free will, and yet their situations are manipulated from heaven by a spirit with a mission to accomplish. What does God need from humans at the end of the 20th century? Read the book and find out one man's thoughts on this.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

The Sword of Honor, volumes 1 & 2: or The Foundation of the French Republic, A Tale of The French Revolution

The Sword of Honor, volumes 1 & 2: or The Foundation of the French Republic, A Tale of The French Revolution, by Eugène Sue
The Sword of Honor is the 18th volume of a 19 volume series of novels written by Eugène Sue called The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages that was written between 1849-1857. The author, once called "the king of the popular novel," created this series to depict the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes in French history. One family, the descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed, and the descendants of a Frankish chief Neroweg, typifies the oppressors. Down through the ages the successive struggles between oppressors and oppressed are depicted in a series of stories that culminate in the European Revolutions of 1848.

Considered at one time classics of Marxist/Socialist thought, these books are mostly forgotten today, and the English-language editions published at the beginning of the 20th Century have only recently become available through large-scale digitization projects of Public Domain books. Daniel DeLeon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party of America and translator of this series into English, wrote in his Preface to The Gold Sickle that it was owning class influence that kept English translations of this series from being available for over 50 years. A 2004 article entitled "Eugene Sue : Champion of the Oppressed" in The People, written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the English translations, said the following about the series:

"It is by far the best work ever written for giving the working class reader an intimate picture of society as it evolved in France from the days of Gaul, before the Roman conquest, to the middle of the 19th century. It is especially valuable for the picture that it provides of the various phases of feudal society, and the growth of infant capitalism within the feudal womb."

While Sue's anti-Catholic works The Wandering Jew and The Mysteries of Paris are still known, this Socialist series of 19 novels has been out of print for over 100 years. Here is a listing of them:

The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Age series
1. The Gold Sickle or Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen: A Tale of Druid Gaul
2. The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death: A Tale of Caesar's Gallic Invasion
3. The Iron Collar; Or, Faustina and Syomara: A Tale of Slavery Under the Romans
4. The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth: A Tale of Jerusalem
5. The Casque's Lark; or, Victoria, The Mother Of The Camps: A Tale Of The Frankish Invasion Of Gaul
6. The Poniard's Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan: A Tale of Bagauders and Vagres
7. The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles: A Tale of the First Communal Charter
8. The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine: A Tale of a Medieval Abbess
9. The Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne: A Tale of the Ninth Century
10. The Iron Arrow Head; or, The Buckler Maiden: A Tale of the Northman Invasion
11. The Infant's Skull; or, The End of the World: A Tale of the Millennium
12. The Pilgrim's Shell; or, Fergan the Quarryman: A Tale from the Feudal Times
13. The Iron Pincers; or, Mylio and Karvel: A Tale of the Albigensian Crusades
14. The Iron Trevet; or, Jocelyn the Champion: A Tale of the Jacquerie
15. The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc: A Tale of the Inquisition
16. The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer: A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (2 volumes)
17. The Blacksmith's Hammer; or, The Peasant Code: A Tale of the Grand Monarch
18:1. The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic: A Tale of the French Revolution
18:2. The Sword of Honor: Part II - The Bourgeois Revolution: A Tale of the French Revolution
19. The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn: A Tale of the French Revolution of 1848

Having already enjoyed Sue's The Wandering Jew, I looked forward to starting a work which will unite my interest in serial novels, historic fiction, and Class Warfare. Fortunately, the whole series is now available free to anyone who has Kindle or epub software on their reading device.

The Sword of Honor covers events in France from 1789 to 1832, the period leading up to and including the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. Seen through the eyes of John Lebrenn, a Parisian blacksmith and descendent of the Gallic chief Joel, who relates the events of the time as an active member of the French Revolution. This was the hardest book of the series for me to read because Sue was not writing ancient history. Instead he was writing of recent history for an audience who lived through the events portrayed. Throughout the series Sue portrayed the behavior of actual historic figures as they fit into his narrative. He provided footnotes to document his sources to prove he was not fictionalizing their acts. He was writing this series for his French audience and making sure to set the record straight, which has sometimes been hard for me as a non-French reader. This setting the record straight almost overwhelms the story in this volume. Sue was addressing an audience who lived through the events and he wanted to make sure they were aware of the roles played by the significant personalities of the time. He was writing at a time when the leaders of the Revolution had been vilified and the misdeeds of the ruling classes swept under the rug. He wanted to lift up that rug and portray the leaders of the Revolution as the heroes of the People.

John Lebrenn and his sister Victoria are working class heroes in this novel. They were hard working and intelligent, informed of the class struggle between the Gauls and the Franks by the records passed down from generation to generation of their family - the previous novels of this series, each written down and carefully preserved by preceding generations. This volume is John's contribution to the family record. With them we experience the events of this most tumultuous time in French history. We see their victories and then the treacheries of the Church, the Ruling Class, the Bourgeoisie and the Military that betray the People to maintain their Class privilege. It is a long book and often offers much greater detail than a modern reader needs. Yet, the story is compelling and the characters well developed.

Most persons know the French Revolution as a tremendous outburst in human affairs. Many know it as one of the race's great steps forward. That, however, it was the revolution which carried into power the then rising bourgeois, now capitalist, class; that this class, while appealing for and using the help of the working class, secretly hated and feared the demands of the latter, and blocked them at every opportunity; that finally the bourgeoisie, having obtained as revolutionists, by the aid of the workers, their end of the revolution, became as violently reactionary as had been the nobility they fought, and ruthlessly shot and guillotined to pieces the then definite proletarian movement for full political equality and collective ownership of the tools of production--that is an insight into the French Revolutionary period hitherto vouchsafed to few. To that insight Eugene Sue's genius has, with the present thrilling novel, made straight the way for all.
This, The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic, is the eighteenth and culminating unit in Sue's great historic-fiction series, The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages. Following close upon the previous volume, The Blacksmith's Hammer; or, The Peasant Code, in which the popular storm was seen gathering head under the atrocities of the gilded age of the Grand Monarch, the present story portrays that storm breaking in all the accumulated vigor of its centuries of postponement, and sweeping away the empty lay figures of an outgrown feudalism. True, one barrier to human liberty was thrown down only to disclose another. To the empire of birth and privilege was to succeed the empire of the shekel; to the rule of do-nothing kings, the rule of do-nothing plutocracy. But it is in the act of drilling itself for the overthrow of that final parasite class--for the final conquering, in other words, of freedom for the race--that Sue portrays the proletariat in the next and closing work of the series, The Galley Slave's Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn. Though he minimizes none of the difficulties, his message for the future is of hope only.
Nothing is more unanimous among historians of the period than expressions of commiseration for the condition of the French people before the Revolution. Yet nothing, on the other hand, is more unanimous either than the condemnation showered upon this people the moment it seizes the reins and enters upon the task of putting down its age-long tyrannizers. Into this absurd breach of consistency Sue's genius saved him from falling. In his pages Marat, Danton and Robespierre walk to their doom with head erect, clean from the smut slung at them by their bourgeois enemies, for whom they were going too far. Friends of the People once, so they remained to the end; and in that mantle Sue has preserved their memory for all time. For him who would rail at their summary deeds Sue has far from spread a bed of roses. The memory of the royalist massacres in the Vendee and of the triumphant bourgeois massacres during the White Terror, rescued by his pen from the oblivion in which they were sought to be buried, have thrown the Revolutionary Terror into its proper perspective. It is a bagatelle beside the acts committed by its denouncers.
Sue's clear presentation of the maxim, "To the peasant the land, to the workman the tool"; his unflinching delineation of the debauchery of court and ecclesiastical circles of the time; his revelation of the role of the political machine under the guise of religion sending out its arms as willing regicides or agents provocateurs by turn; and his clear depiction of the cowardly, grasping, double-dealing and fraud-perpetrating character of the bourgeois, all of which is presented in the easy reading of a story, make this thrilling work of fiction an unsurpassable epitome of the period in which its action elapses.
Finally, it is the distinctive test of good literature upon any topic, that it does not sate, but incites to further thought and study. Not the least of the values of The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic, is that it performs this reverent duty matchlessly for the momentous period of which it treats.
New York, April, 1910.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I started reading this book after I heard that, in addition to the three books in the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, two new books in the series came out in 2017 written by David Lagercrantz. That renewed my interest in the series. When I looked into it and found out that this first book was originally titled in Sweden Män som hatar kvinnor (in English: Men Who Hate Women), I decided that I wanted to at least begin reading the book. I had seen the Swedish and USA movies, so I knew the basic plot and wasn't sure the book would hold my interest. I was put off at the beginning by the large number of characters and felt I would never keep them straight. However, reading the book was as engaging as watching the movies and I devoured this 590 page book quickly. Now I am looking forward to reading others in the series.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Procedure

The Procedure by Harry Mulisch
The Procedure is about the life of a famous scientist after he has made his ground breaking research, in this case the creation of life from inorganic matter. It starts out with the biblical story of creation, then it moves on to the Jewish esoteric book that deals with how god created life, the Sefer Yetzirah (or Book of Creation), and then to the creation of the golem in the Prague ghetto in the 16th century. It is only after this introductory material that the readers are introduced to the scientist Victor Werker and his research on creating living matter from clay.
However the main body of the novel is about Victor after his famous discovery, and it is a very internal exploration of how his fame and research effect his later life. Struggles with the other scientist in the project, with the mother of their stillborn child, and with his attempts to move on to new areas of study are played out in Victor's thought processes.
The novel delves into the scientific mind as it tries to cope with the emotional and interpersonal realities of life. The translation reads well and the book, while it seemed to get bogged down in details in the middle, was compelling reading for me.