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What I read last month, with a 2014 emphasis on 15th and 16th century books, and much more.

This month--from/about the later middle ages:
Bocaccio's The Decameron
Machiavelli't The Prince and the Discourses
Mallory's Morte D'arthur
Erasmus's The Praise of Folly
15th century murder mysteries by Margaret Frazer

And the more modern books:
Kerman's Orange is the New Black
Mistry's A fine Balance
Bernhard's Extinction
Morrison's Beloved
Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five


The Cage is Full: Orange is the New Black, by Piper Chapman Kerman
It is hard to conceive of any relationship between two adults in America being less equal than that of prisoner and prison guard.  The formal relationship, enforced by the institution, is that one person's word means everything and the other's means almost nothing; one person can command the other to do just about anything, and refusal can result in total physical restraint. That fact is like a slap in the face. Even in relation to the people who are annointed with power in the outside world--cops, elected officials, soldiers--we have rights within our interactions.  We have a right to speak to power, though we may not exercise it.  But when you step behind the walls of a prison as an inmate, you lose that right, and it evaporates, and it's terrifying.  And pretty unsurprising when the extreme inequality of the daily relationship between prisoners and their jailers leads very naturally into abuses of many flavors, from small humiliations to hideous crimes.  Every year, guards at Danbury and other women's prisons around the country are caught sexually abusing prisoners. Several years after I came home, one of Danbury's lieutenants, a seventeen year corrections veteran, was one of them. He was prosecuted and spent one month in jail.

One thing is clear:  Piper Kerman is NOT Piper Chapman.  Jenji Kohan used Kerman's true story (educated, privileged middle class woman's youthful drug activity catches up to her a decade after the fact, and she ends up in prison, rubbing elbows with the unprivileged; culture shock ensues)  as a vehicle for a gritty, dramatic TV series of the same name that has maybe a passing acquaintance with the real thing.  Good thing for Kerman.  Kerman's actual fiance Larry, in contrast with the feckless, can't-handle-it dork on the TV show, supported Kerman throughout her ordeal, and became positive he wanted to marry her due to the pain of having to be apart from her). The prison officials, while sometimes nasty, were not even close to the psychos on the show; and the other inmates---they were reserved.  Not even a tenth of the high drama, and almost none of the backstory.  

There's really a Russian mob lady who runs the kitchen, but when Kerman puts her foot in her mouth complaining about the food, the Russian simply cusses at her. She does not starve Kerman by withholding food.  There is a mean 'pornstache' guard, a transgender woman, a "Pennsatucky", a "Big Boo", an older yoga lady and a prisoner of conscience nun, all of whom appear only briefly, and none of whom do what they do on the show.   The woman who got Kerman into drug activity in the first place, and who may have ratted her out a decade later, is nowhere in the Danbury prison, nor is the creepy homophobic counselor, the track star, the Haitian killer, or the chicken.

You know who is there?  Martha Stewart.  Sort of.  Kerman's time coincides with the conviction of Martha Stewart, and the likelihood of Stewart going to the Danbury prison is a hot topic of conversation and Kerman's journal for much of the book.  Stewart, of course, goes instead to the cushy Club Fed for the rich in West Virginia and is never seen by Kerman.

Even the Danbury prison is minimum security, and luxurious compared to the "real" prison in Chicago where Kerman gets transferred for the last month of her sentence. The last two chapters of the book are markedly grittier and more disturbing than what comes before, possibly even more disturbing than the dramatic, violent Kohan series, because it really happened, and is in fact, still happening to the down and out of both genders, right here in America.

Kerman herself is, thankfully, a far cry from "Piper Chapman".  Unlike Chapman, she grows from her experience, listens to her unprivileged cellmates, and even gets a clue about the effect her long-ago, long-forgotten trafficking may have had on the drug addicts whose pain she encounters at Danbury.

There are a couple of lessons one can draw from Kerman's memoir.  Squint one way, and Kerman is a prime example of empowerment in adversity and "making lemonade when life hands you lemons".  Few things are worse than going to jail, but Kerman translated her ordeal into a best-selling book that became the basis for a TV series, got married, and went on to become, according to the book jacket, "vice president at a Washington DC-based communications firm." Proof that, among all the prisoners, she didn't belong there, she's different, she's a self-starter and a natural success, right? The others don't succeed because they are natural criminals, a whole different species from Kerman.  Squint the other way, though, and you might start wondering WHY those other prisoners don't go writing books and becoming famous.  The privileges that, unlike Kerman, they were not born into and never came close to, the insufficient educations they got in their urban, underfunded school districts, the people who influenced them in their formative years, the constant poverty, the want of support circles and influential ears willing to hear what they have to say.  

Think it over. Every sentence has a story.  Very high recommendations.

The Florencebury Tales:  The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio  
"I must, though fain were I not, and though 'tis neither meet nor right, crave of thee that which I know thou dost of all things and with justice prize most highly, seeing that the extremity of adverse fortune has left thee nought else wherewith to delight, divert and console thee; which gift is no other than thy falcon, on which my boy has so set his heart that, if I bring it him not, I fear lest he grow so much worse of the malady that he has, that thereby it may come to pass that I lose him.  And so, not for the love which thou dost bear me, and which may nowise bind thee, but for that nobleness of temper, whereof in courtesy more conspicuously than in ought else thou hast given proof, I implore thee that thou be pleased to give me the bird, that thereby I may say that I have kept my son alive, and thus made him for aye thy debtor.
No sooner had Federigo apprehended what the lady wanted, than, for grief that 'twas not in his power to serve her, because he had given her the falcon to eat, he fell a weeping in her presence before he could utter so much as a word.

This book's jacket proudly boasts of containing the greatest work of Italian prose ever written.  If true, it sells Italian prose a bit short.

It's similar to Chaucer in prose, with better structure, theme continuity and probably better stories, but with forgettable storytellers and at least equally obnoxious elements to the tales.  The general prologue contains a harrowing description of the black plague, which drives seven interchangeable women and three interchangeable men out of Florence, where they pass the time telling one story apiece each day for ten days, for a total of a hundred tales.

The tales are a mixed bag, running the gamut from very short fables and parables, where the whole point is a character's bon mot that puts a poorly-behaving churl or fop in his place, to tragic love stories and pathos (the falcon story quoted from above is one of the best known), to rascals getting a comeuppance (The story of Fra Alberto pretending to be an angel in order to bed wenches and ending up chained in the market square being pelted with refuse is one of the best of those).  The most common kind of story, though, is bawdy, and involves young couples finding new excuses to friggle, usually cuckolding a husband or wife in the process and making the cheated-on spouse appear ridiculous to boot.  There is mind-boggling misogyny; the basic Taming of the Shrew plot is here, without the humor--a henpecked husband is advised by the village sage to beat his scolding old wife until she submits to him, and by golly he does, and lives happily ever after!  Another "simpleton-hero", suffering from unrequited love, actually kidnaps his rejecting beloved on her wedding day to someone else, is chased and captured by the angry fiance, but escapes and kills him and takes the woman to his estate and lives happily ever after with her, with never an indication that the woman has cause to change her mind and love him, or that she actually does.  The last tale of the hundred is the same variant on Job given in Chaucer, where a husband treats his wife with incredible cruelty, including removing their children and pretending to have killed them, JUST to test her obedience, and when she is in fact obedient and submissive throughout, he says "Just kidding", brings the kids back and showers her with luxuries for the rest of her life--as God will do for you, says the storyteller, if you meekly submit to every wrong done to you  by rich overlords during your earthly hell.  This is understandably one of my least favorite plots of them all.

Don't be like me and read several of these at a time and go through the whole book in a month.  It's like eating a whole box of chocolates in one sitting, including the ones with the fillings you don't even want.  It's fattening to the imagination and prone to give sugar rushes and bellyaches.  Some few, however, are magnificent.

The Murders of the Roses: The Servant's Tale; The Bishop's Tale; The Boy's Tale; The Prioress's Tale, by Margaret Frazer
"Tumbling?" Meg said. Tumbling was what children did on a summer day down a grassy slope.
"Like this." Rose stood up with swift grace, her arms raised over her head, then, as if it were a natural thing, bent backwards, doubling over the wrong way for any body to go. Too quickly for Meg to quite understand what she was seeing, Rose's hands touched down behind her, and with a twist in the air she was over and upright.
"God grant mercy!" Meg breathed, crossing herself for protection against such looked like something demons would do to mock God's proper ways.
--from The Servant's Tale

Sir Philip's gesture gave him excuse to straighten, swing around, and make a flourishing, apologetic bow to everyone at the high table, and another to the widow and Bishop Beaufort in particular. Then he caught up the goblet from between himself and Lady Anne, held it high, and declared in a voice that carried end to end of the great hall, "But if I am wrong in this matter, may God strike me down within the hour!" As dramatically as he had bowed to the high table, he downed what was in the goblet at a single toss, set it down with a defining clunk on the tablecloth, looked all around at everyone, and sat down abruptly, straight-backed with pride and enjoyment of every eye on him.
--from The Bishop's Tale

Master Naylor was no more easy in his mind about the outlaws than she was about Maryon's claim to be the children's mother. And there was another thing.  "Sir Gwain was wearing a breastplate under his doublet. I think his squire is too, from the way he moves."
Master Naylor frowned over that, following her thought. "The roads aren't so unsafe that men usually go armored. Or if they do, they wear it openly, to warn attackers that they're on guard and ready."
"So they were expecting that they might be attacked, and at the same time they wanted to seem like no more than plain travelers."
"And now neither of us thinks they are," Master Naylor said.
"No", Frevisse agreed, "We don't."
--from The Boy's Tale

Lady Eleanor, as if oblivious to the girl's fury, said thoughtfully, "You could possibly change your mind and marry Benet, you know. He's an uncomplicated boy and there's property to be had with him when he inherits."
"All I want from Benet is his death!"
"Ah,". Lady Eleanor said. "But if you married him first, my dear, you could then be a widow, and that's frequently a very pleasant thing to be."
--from The Prioress's Tale

This month's historical mysteries bring four by Margaret Frazer, who takes up England where Doherty leaves off, in the reign of Henry VI.  For my money, Frazer is the better and more important of the two writers, going beyond whodunnits sprinkled with historical details, and actually making commentary on the lives people lived back in the day, particularly the less privileged ones whose stories are seldom told by the historians.  In Frazer, the spotlight is on nuns in their cloisters, servants in their sculleries, and landless strollers on muddy roads, often at the mercy of brutal, stupid nobility, clergy, and husbands, yet getting stuff done and finding power from within themselves. The sleuth is sister Frivesse of St. Frideswide's, who has a bit of the female Cadfael in her; while the police foil is an obnoxious oaf of a sheriff, who Frazer seems to take particular delight in having Frivesse outwit.

The Servant's Tale involves some traveling actors accused of a series of murders in the village and nunnery. Montfort the obnoxious sheriff is ready to hang them out of hand because prejudice against the riff-raff, but Frivesse--who has more than a touch of compassion for them due to her pre-clerical past, looks further.  The Bishop's Tale has higher ranking characters, but is decidedly a lesser story--the quoted part above is, as you may have suspected, pretty much Sir Philip's last words, resulting in an investigation of possible poisoning, in which a high ranking bishop's reputation is at stake, and the unmasking of the killer turns on an improbable coincidence that isn't even necessary for the rest of the story.

The Boy's Tale is where Frazer really begins to run to Brother Cadfael territory. It begins with an innocent child suddenly pulled away from home under escort of his family's armsmen, who are ambushed on the road to Wales and wind up under sanctuary at St. Frideswide's, with the usual conflict involving fretting nuns wanting to kick the children out "because they'll bring trouble, mark my words", and Frevisse in the role of knowing all and doing the right thing because it's God's work--and even the villains have moments of redemption under it all.  Finally, The Prioress's Tale goes even further Cadfael, as the murder doesn't even take place during chapter 18, as an obligatory afterthought.  The real story has to do with the new prioress and her loutish brother and his even more loutish retainers, who take up residence in the priory, eat up its resources, and use the place as a base from which to carry on a family feud.  Frevisse's mission is to put a stop to all this, and murder, and the threatened financial ruin of the priory.  More highly recommended the longer the series goes on.  

A Political Tool; The Prince and The Discourses, by Niccolo Machiavelli
Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred: for fear and the absence of hatred may well go together, and will be always attained by one who abstains from interfering with the property of his citizens and subjects or with their women.  And when he is obliged to take the life of anyone, let him do so when there is a proper justification and manifest reason for it; but above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Then also pretexts for seizing property are never wanting, and one who begins to live by rapine will always find some reason for taking the goods of others, whereas causes for taking life are rarer and more fleeting.

Like many full-year basic humanities courses for college freshmen, mine was divided such that fall semester focused on the Ancient-to-Medieval era (including what the prof thought were the most important representative works from the period I read from in 2011, 2012 and 2013); the second semester ushered in the "modern era" (for which I've allotted the remaining seven years of the decade) with The Prince.  As with the Bible, Machiavelli arouses strong opinions in people who haven't read him.  This is because he was a tool.  He wrote The Prince to toady to the influential Corleone Soprano Medici family for patronage, that he did not get.  The Medicis and other secular seekers of temporal power opposed the church, and when the Reformation hit, the church pushed back and used Machiavelli as a symbol of "what those Godless people opposing Rome think", and presented him in the worst light possible, with the result that Elizabethan era dramatists wrote bucket-of-blood tragedies featuring evil royals who combined the worst features of Lord Greyjoy, Lord Frey and King Joffrey--and had those characters speak cackling mwah-ha-ha soliloquies in praise of Machiavelli.

That's the main reason Machiavelli is considered the embodiment of political evil.  That, and the rotting hypocrites at the top of today's political heap who consider it good political strategy to denounce and condemn amoral political power tactics that they themselves secretly embrace.  Machiavelli himself is more notable for being one of very few who wrote as if it was better to tell the truth than to pretend to be pious.

Example: One of the most famous lines in The Prince , the part quoted by all the haters and the Joffreys is, that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved, because people respect and bow to power out of fear, and attack whatever looks weak.  The part I quoted above is what he says right after that, the part people do not quote, in which he clarifies that above all, the ruler must not be hated.  Machiavelli did not advise rulers to be dicks; he advised them to be badass.  Don't be Eddard Stark, but also don't be Joffrey; be Tyrion.  

Moreover, right at the beginning, Machiavelli explicitly says that he's talking only about monarchies from the point of view of the one ruler to rule them all, having dealt with Republics elsewhere.  That "elsewhere" is The Discourses, specifically analyzing the lessons of the Roman Republic in terms of what was good for the people or not, as opposed to just the rulers. The Discourses is much longer, and probably better worth reading, or at least finding and paying attention to the most important parts.  A lot of the length is due to Machiavelli asserting that it's good to, for example, establish a state religion or build settlements in conquered territories, and then backing it up by pointing out many examples of when doing so turned out well for the state and not doing so resulted in mass misery.  Very high recommendations, and it seems to me The Prince, at least, is something everyone needs to read once.

Love means Never having to Wear a Sari: A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
How much Dina Aunty relished her memories. Mummy and Daddy were the same, talking about their yesterdays and smiling in that sad-happy way while selecting each picture, each frame from the past, examining it lovingly, before it vanished again in the mist. But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair, that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain. So what was the point of possessing memory? It didn’t help anything. In the end it was all hopeless  … No amount of remembering happy days, no amount of yearning or nostalgia could change a thing about the misery and suffering – love and concern and caring and sharing come to nothing, nothing. Maneck began to weep, his chest heaving as he laboured to keep silent. Everything ended badly. And memory only made it worse, tormenting and taunting. Unless. Unless you lost your mind. Or committed suicide. The slate wiped clean. No more remembering, no more suffering.

This is part of the history they don't teach in America: the civil upheaval and state of emergency that existed in India in the 1970s, and especially the degraded poverty that existed--and still exists--not just in India, but in most of the developing world. A Fine Balance is about the balancing act that the poor have to do just to survive in a very out-of-balanced neo-feudalistic world where the rich take what they want and the poor are treated as a cheap commodity.  Thank god such a thing could never happen in America.  Oh, right.

Dina Dalal is the heroine, a woman in a world where they kick women, who married to get away from her domineering brother, is widowed, and is struggling to keep her slummy apartment without a husband.  She takes in a student from the mountains, Maneck, as a subletting tenant, and two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakesh, to do piecemeal sewing work.  The tailors aren't supposed to be tailors, because they are born into the 'untouchable' caste and religious discrimination declares them fit for only the most degrading work.  The sewing work must be kept secret, because the apartment is not supposed to be used for commercial purposes, and the landlord routinely evicts tenants by sending thugs to break all the tenants' possessions.  Tenants fight back by paying protection to different thugs, and the stronger thugs decide what the law is. The government, meanwhile, is busy bulldozing shantytowns without compensation to the down-and-out, enforcing population control via involuntary castration, and accepting bribes from the rich to look the other way while thugs enforce such rules as the rich desire.  This is what Libertarian Paradise looks like in practice.

It gets nasty.  The first half of the book is in sections separately giving the backstories of the four main characters; the rest shows what happens as the four of them huddle together for comfort in their Third World hellhole.  Trigger warnings for descriptions of violent abuse by the high castes against those without rights, but high recommendations as a view that many in the First World need to know about and have been encouraged not to.

The Fall of the House of Wolfsegg: Extinction, by Thomas Bernhard

In Rome I sometimes think of Wolfsegg and tell myself that I have only to go back there in order to rediscover my childhood. This has always proved to be a gross error, I thought. You’re going to see your parents, I have often told myself, the parents of your childhood, but all I’ve ever found is a gaping void. You can’t revisit your childhood, because it no longer exists, I told myself. The Children’s Villa affords the most brutal evidence that childhood is no longer possible. You have to accept this. All you see when you look back is this gaping void. Not only your childhood, but the whole of your past, is a gaping void. This is why it’s best not to look back. You have to understand that you mustn’t look back, if only for reasons of self-protection, I thought. Whenever you look back into the past, you’re looking into a gaping void. Even yesterday is a gaping void, even the moment that’s just passed.

Extinction is an example of the rarest of all books: A 20th century existentialist European novel that I actually found to be an interesting page turner.

The book opens with the narrator, Murau, receiving a telegram informing him that his parents and brother have been killed in a car accident, leaving him the heir to the wealthy family estate in Austria, that he does not want.  He gets the telegram while reflecting on the books he has lent to one of his pupils:  Sartre, Kafka, Broch. (Oh fuck, I thought. This book is gonna suck.  I was wrong).   Murau's family is ancestrally stuffy, conservative, tight-assed, tyrannical, mundane and rich enough to throw their weight around such that the local peasants fawn on them.  They hold hunting parties.  They supported the Nazis in WWII and sheltered them on the estate after the war. They favored Murau's elder brother, spoiled him rotten, and punished Murau for things the brother had done (this was triggering to me. I had parents who routinely refused to believe a thing I said, and took the word of strangers over me, every time.  Asked me harshly what I did to cause the school bully to hurt me, and punished me for letting the bully tear my coat. Murau gets treated like that, and I seethed right along with him, reading about it).  Murau is gentle, intellectual, cultured, naturally rebellious against the values of those who treat him so poorly, and moves from Austria to Rome, to be cultured and bring meaning to his life. Real, passion-filled meaning, as opposed to the colorless, inhumane existence without humanity that those rotten old aristocrats live.  Yes, he's full of himself.

The whole book is two gigantic paragraphs of narrator quasi-stream of consciousness, distinguishable from the final section of Ulysses in that it has punctuation and some structure, like a rambling diary entry.  The first half consists of Murau's thoughts right when he gets the telegram, the instinct to mourn being overwhelmed by a flood of memories hating how his parents and brother treated him, agonizing over old wounds freshly opened in his mind, justifying his disgust at the very concept of "Wolfsegg", the family estate, and resolving to take his inheritance and destroy it like a rabid dog.

The other half has Murau some time later, looking back and describing what actually happened after he had the first set of thoughts, and when he went back to the palatial home he grew up in to take charge of the funeral, visit the ancestral home he grew up in, encounter the now-older family retainers with whom he claims pseudo-proletarian solidarity, and commiserate with the distant family members who have come to mourn.  And yes, it becomes quite different from his initial thoughts.  Some might see Murau as selling out; others may see him as growing up.  As is the case in the best literature, there's a touch of ambiguity, and the author lets you make up your own mind.

On second thought, let's not go to Camelot: Le Morte D'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory  
SO when Sir Galahad was departed from the Castle of Maidens he rode till he came to a waste forest, and there he met with Sir Launcelot and Sir Percivale, but they know him not, for he was new disguised. Right so Sir Launcelot, his father, dressed his spear and brake it upon Sir Galahad, and Galahad smote him so again that he smote down horse and man. And then he drew his sword, and dressed him unto Sir Percivale, and smote him so on the helm, that it rove to the coif of steel; and had not the sword swerved Sir Percivale had been slain, and with the stroke he fell out of his saddle. This jousts was done tofore the hermitage where a recluse dwelled. And when she saw Sir Galahad ride, she said: God be with thee, best knight of the world. Ah certes, said she, all aloud that Launcelot and Percivale might hear it: An yonder two knights had known thee as well as I do they would not have encountered with thee. When Sir Galahad heard her say so he was adread to be known: therewith he smote his horse with his spurs and rode a great pace froward them. Then perceived they both that he was Galahad; and up they gat on their horses, and rode fast after him, but in a while he was out of their sight. And then they turned again with heavy cheer. Let us spere some tidings, said Percivale, at yonder recluse. Do as ye list, said Sir Launcelot. When Sir Percivale came to the recluse she knew him well enough, and Sir Launcelot both. But Sir Launcelot rode overthwart and endlong in a wild forest, and held no path but as wild adventure led him. And at the last he came to a stony cross which departed two ways in waste land; and by the cross was a stone that was of marble, but it was so dark that Sir Launcelot might not wit what it was. Then Sir Launcelot looked by him, and saw an old chapel, and there he weened to have found people; and Sir Launcelot tied his horse till a tree, and there he did off his shield and hung it upon a tree. And then he went to the chapel door, and found it waste and broken. And within he found a fair altar, full richly arrayed with cloth of clene silk, and there stood a fair clean candlestick, which bare six great candles, and the candlestick was of silver. And when Sir Launcelot saw this light he had great will for to enter into the chapel, but he could find no place where he might enter; then was he passing heavy and dismayed. Then he returned and came to his horse and did off his saddle and bridle, and let him pasture, and unlaced his helm, and ungirt his sword, and laid him down to sleep upon his shield tofore the cross.

Tennyson spoiled me on the Arthurian legend.  T.H. White (Bookpost, November 2010-January 2011) spoiled me on it.  Heck, Camelot and Monty Python spoiled me on it.  Once you've been exposed to any decent telling of the canon, Malory is both too dull and too offensive to be readable. It's ten times the length of Beowulf (See Bookpost, June 2013) and only twice as funny.  

Dull because it's written in an English this side of Chaucer and that side of Shakespeare, with the dull monotony of the Northern sagas whose style influenced it. Fierce battles between familiar names should not be so dull.

Offensive because it showcases the worst side of what we call "chivalry".  As I mentioned in my commentary on Froissart last month, chivalry as I studied it in the SCA is a code of real honor, in which a warrior is supposed to live cleanly, defend the oppressed, refrain from unnecessary violence, and in general hold to a standard that most of us would approve of.  As shown in Morte D'Arthur, it consists of being praised and honored and identified as 'chivalrous' while doing any old thing, starting with Arthur trying to avoid fate by going Herod and committing a holocaust on all the children born at a certain time just to get at baby Mordred--and ending with Lancelot cuckolding his king and instigating a war that nobody wants but which is pressed anyway, because honor. Because Arthur's failure to kill Lancelot and Guinivere would render chivalry meaningless, and we can't have that.

Lancelot is described as 'pure-hearted', though his actions don't bear that out, nor do Arthur's support his description as 'wise', nor Guinivere's her description as virtuous. Tennyson and White both rewrite Malory to make the love triangle more sympathetic; in the original, all three behave badly, and Guinivere the worst of all (though if you're inclined to blame Malory as a misogynist for writing her that way, I'm not likely to argue).

Its only advantage over the other tellings is that Malory is the source from which all the other versions are derived.  It's something that serious scholars should read, and writers of Camelot-based historical and fantasy novels should study for accuracy. The rest of us can stick with The Once and Future King.

Two years a slave, many more as a ghost: Beloved, by Toni Morrison
"I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running--from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth.  I took one journey and I paid for the ticket, but let me tell you something, Paul D. Garner: it cost too much! Do you hear me? It cost too much. Now sit down and eat with us or leave us be."

In honor of Black History Month, one of the great American classics.  Yes, I know it only came out in 1987. Beloved is one of a handful of novels that were printed in my lifetime and were instantly recognized as part of the western canon. The Handmaid's Tale and The Corrections were others; Tartt's The Goldfinch might have made the cut less than one year ago.

Another 'recent' American classic, The Color Purple, is joined to Beloved at the hip in terms of the time jumping, the female protagonist of color, the Oprah movie version and the matter-of -fact, throwaway references to the shocking violence that is a fact of life for most American women of color.  Finally, the rustic southernisms, stylistic language and withheld details, such that the reader almost has to read the book twice to truly understand what's happening, brings on comparisons with Faulkner.  All of that said, Beloved is a completely original, and gripping, work.

The central action around which the story revolves isn't revealed till the middle, but its repercussions begin on page one: Sethe, the main character, flees the slave states across the Ohio river, and when the slave catchers come to take her and her children back, she kills her own two year old daughter "to send her to a safer place".  Years later, after the Civil War, she lives in the outskirts of Cincinatti with her surviving daughter, mother in law, and the ghost of the dead child, who appears first in poltergeist form and later, apparently, as a young woman who shows up on their doorstep one day, answering only to the name of "Beloved", the single word that had been engraved on the dead child's tombstone.  Weirdness ensues, as well as a story that needed to be told. Faulkner told them somewhat like this, but not from this perspective.  Very high recommendations.  

Silliness is wisdom: The Praise of Folly, by Desiderius Erasmus
What fools these mortals are to look for eternal youth from Medeas, or Circes, or Venuses, or Auroras, or some fountain or other, when I alone both can and do bestow it! Only I can provide that miraculous potion which the daughter of Memmon employed to prolong the youth of her grandfather, Tithonus. I am that Venus who restored the youth of Phaon so that Sappho fell madly in love with him. Mine are those herbs (if any there be). Mine are the magic formulas, mine is the fountain which not only recalls lost youth but also (what is even better) preserves it forever unimpaired.  Now, if you all subscribe to the opinion that nothing is more desirable than youth, nothing more horrible than old age, you can easily see, I imagine, how much you owe to me, since I preserve the one and prevent the other.

One nice bit of serendipity is that I finished reading this book just as a meme started making the rounds on my FaceBook feed, urging everybody to comment by adding "with a chainsaw" to the title of the last book I read.  It's appropriate.  

Speaking of FaceBook, I like to think that if I took the "What Reformation-era Thinker Are You?" quiz, I would get Erasmus (given the accuracy of those quizzes, it's just as likely I'd get Calvin).  Erasmus was good people.  He was both clever and intellectual, wickedly satirical but ultimately kind, as influenced by Lucian and Juvenal (See Bookposts, November and December 2012) as Cervantes, Pascal, Swift and Twain  (and even Alan Gordon, author of the Fool's Guild historical mysteries I read and reviewed last year) were influenced by him.  And he made the authorities mad enough to chew their own tails. A pity that more people didn't listen to him and More at the time; it might have spared us the excesses of Calvin and Knox.

The Praise of Folly  is more of an essay than a book; a simple construct that passes from silliness to actual philosophy while providing deniability to Erasmus in an age when they burned people for writing overly controversial works.  The personification of "Folly" makes a speech asserting that folly is more wise than wisdom. She speaks truth to power like a Shakespearean fool, and when the local scribes and pharisees denounced Erasmus for discussing the alleged foolishness and corruption of many clergy, he could reply that those things were the sort of nonsense "Folly" would say, that Erasmus certainly didn't believe it, and besides that, since (unlike in Dante) no names were named, why on earth would good Bishop Blohardt, who is of course a model of wisdom and holiness, take offense?  Blohardt couldn't possibly recognize anything resembling himself in Folly's caricatures, right?

Folly's assertions begin with a lengthy listing of the 'foolish' things that most of mankind do to cope with pain and fear in an imperfect world: intoxication, superstition, bullshitting oneself. The absurdity of sex. The absurdity of religion, lawcourts, war.  He indulges in sophistical wordplay (example: We hide our valuables securely and leave junk out in the open; we try to conceal our folly from others while displaying wisdom out in the open; therefore, we value folly more than wisdom!  Pay no attention to the distinction between things we hide out of shame and things we hide to keep them secure from thieves).  Further, religious and political leaders must be fools to accept the burden of great responsibility, especially when Christianity holds that the high and mighty shall be bought low. Finally, the foolishness of faith is proudly defended as the great wisdom of folly.

That's the argument in a nutshell, doing no justice to the text.  It's a much more delightful thing to read the original. High recommendations.  

Wisdom is silliness: Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut  
Seen backwards by Billy, the movie went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.  The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames.  The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes.  But there were still a few wounded Americans, and some of the bombers were in bad repair.  Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Another nice bit of serendipity was to read Vonnegut on top of Erasmus. Someone who was a close friend in college wrote to me (mumble) years ago to tell me that Slaughterhouse Five was my favorite book, and that I didn't know it yet, but it took me until now to finally get to it.  During high school, I planned to read one Vonnegut book per month and climax with Slaughterhouse Five, but quit before I finished the list. So it goes.

 Erasmus explained why it is wisdom to be foolish; Vonnegut's best known work shows it in action.

Vonnegut protagonists (Billy Pilgrim in this book; however three protagonists from other Vonnegut books--Elliott Rosewater (see God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, from last month), Howard Campbell and Kilgore Trout play minor roles) seem interchangeable. They bumble through the plots without displaying unique character at all, reacting to events mundane and/or horrific by shrugging and saying "So it goes", or words to that effect. One of his frequent recurring themes is to have an Eichmannesque Nazi who got away, now in the 1960s or 1970s, living in perpetual brain-freeze due to having an evil in his past that cannot be changed, and wondering what he's going to do about it now.  So it goes.

 It's tempting to call them, and Vonnegut, nihilists, except that there's too much passion--mostly expressed by supporting characters--for that to be the case. Vonnegut goes from slapstick silliness to gut-wrenching descriptions of sad events, to moving Hallmark moments, in seconds.  The effect of the constant shifting of emotional impact is to inspire the reader with the same sort of dull resilience displayed by Pilgrim, Trout, etc. As opposed to the nihilists, Vonnegut believes that there is something horribly wrong happening. He just has no more idea what to do about it than the rest of us do.

Meanwhile, Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time", which means that the book tells his story in random order, moving between his experiences as a POW in WWII, his later life as an optometrist in a Sinclair Lewis-ish cookie cutter existence in a small city in upstate NY, a few scenes from childhood, and an episode in which he is supposedly abducted by philosopher space aliens, or perhaps is insane and imagining the aliens, either way providing a rationale for skipping back and forth in time. The pivotal event in the book is the Allied bombing of Dresden in the war, which apparently had little to know military significance and was populated at the time mostly by German civilians and Allied POWs.  "Slaughterhouse Five" is the name of the stockyard where Pilgrim and his quirky, shellshocked buddies are housed, and where they shelter from the bombing firestorm.  Vonnegut implies that this allied atrocity is somehow morally equivalent to the Axis holocaust, and that the moral is that everyone's equally to blame, or all trying to do the right thing and failing, or maybe we should all be forgiven because we know not what we do.  It's not clear. Most of the time, he just paints an emotionally wrenching vignette, steps back from it, and goes "See? So it goes."

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Thu Mar 06, 2014 at 11:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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