Monday, June 27, 2011

My books in May 2011

Geeeeez ... life has been crazy lately and time for writing terribly limited. June is almost over and I did not even cover my books for May yet. Time to go for it ...

 

Kurt Vonnegut - A Man Without a Country


I LOVE


There are books you do not like - you will put them down sometimes even before you are finished.
There are books you enjoy, but once you got the story you could give them to your friend. You won't read them a 2nd time. You know who the murder is - you are done with it.
Then there are books with a complex story and excellent language. You keep them because they are worth a 2nd or maybe even 3rd reading.
And finally you have books which become friends. You will pick them up again and again, you will quote them, some phrases might even become part of your daily language. "A Man Without a Country" is a that kind of book.


I'll try to summarize the topics of the book and although it might sound a bit strange in a row, I promise - it makes all sense: It's among other things about writing, politics and philosophy, art, ecocide (one of Vonnegut's favorite topics) and his critical view on living in the America of the Bush administration(s).

"A Man Without a Country" was released in 2005. Kurt Vonnegut died 2007. He was 84 years old and I miss him. I of course never met him in person, but often I think that I would love to hear his opinion. What would he say about the Obama administration, about the Osama story, about the nuclear catastrophe in Japan?

What I love about this book in particular ...
  • language - you know how embarrassing it can be when elder people try to use a youngish language? Vonnegut on the other hand writes how my friends or I would talk. He is not doing slang or something like that but it is a fresh, direct and modern language of our time. I am thinking of him now every time I say "I'm kidding" ... which means I do it a lot ;)
  • humor - although he notes himself that it is a human habit to deal with things we are afraid of and totally serious about with humor because otherwise we would be really scared. That's true and even more true with lots of topics in this book, but I still love laughing with him.
  • writing about writing - his McKinsey portfolio style graphs about storyline structures are hilarious (and true). My favorite is the Kafka one. It cracks me up every time I look at it. My other favorite is his little statement about semicolons and how useless they are mostly.
  • politics and philosophy - it would be too much to go into detail here. I did not even make a lot of Kindle clippings because I would have marked complete chapters. I just can say that if you would like to discuss these topics with me, it would help if you first read this book. I many cases I see these things in a very similiar way.
    I will give you just one essential quote:
    "It so happens that idealism enough for anyone is not made of perfumed pink clouds. It is the law! It is the U.S. Constitution."  It would be good if all those people who are using the term "idealist" as a synonym for "fool" would read this.
  • enviromental destruction - we are damn good in destroying our planet and if we want to have a chance to survive we need people like Vonnegut who pull our attention to the extreme stupidity we show in the way we deal with the basis of our existence.
John Steinbeck - America and American & Selected Nonfiction


I LIKE


I will REALLY try to keep this short since there is more Steinbeck to come. I am getting ready to attend the Annual Steinbeck Festival in Salinas in August with reading myself along the festival theme "Friends and Foes" and the attached Steinbeck book list spiced up with some Robinson Jeffers (Carmel is close ...), but that will be in the June and July book postings.

"America & Americans" .... the big bang here is in the harmless sounding subtitle "and selected nonfiction". "America & Americans" itself is a relatively short collection of essays following the "Travels with Charley". These essays contain all the additional thoughts that did not fit in the flow of  the travel diary itself.
The selected texts on the other hand are examples from Steinbeck's whole life as a (nonfictional) writer and that means an incredible lot of output. He writes about (list neither complete nor sorted) cars, dogs, fishing, weapons, love, parenting, traveling, the big depression, wars, writing, friends, politics, trees, places, oceans and a lot more.

I love it because it helps me to do what I do. People often ask me what kind of blog I have and expect to hear a category like: "I am a travel blogger."  "I am an art blogger." "I am a literature blogger." None of this is true, because I do not work on one of these topics exclusively. Not belonging to any regular category might limit for example success / traffic driving things like crosslinking to my blog, but I tell you what ... I do not care. I enjoy my freedom and I take Steinbeck as my idol for this aspect of my work because he claimed also his freedom to write about everything he wanted to write about.

But back to the book. I cannot give a simple "LIKE" or "LOVE" to the complete selection because some of the texts I loved a lot and they touched me deeply. Others like the ones about cars, fishing and weapons were honestly not so much of my interest.

But let's have a closer look on what I liked:
The description of the drive to Positano, Italy, is too funny. "L'Envoi" about the way Steinbeck - let's say - "experienced" the inauguration of John F. Kennedy made me smile, too. I also loved all his very self-critical texts about writing and the relationship to critics. I also deeply relate to all of his thoughts about places - his complex relationship with his Northern Californian home region, about New York, places he travels to. I might not feel the same about the specific locations, but my special relationship (or sometimes the lack of) with certain places is something I reflect about myself a lot. I also love all writing about the ocean and redwood trees (I love both), but the chapter that probably touched me most is called "Friends" with texts dedicated to people Steinbeck loved for different reasons - lots of them written as orbituaries.

The most intense of these texts is of course the one about Steinbeck's best friend Ed Ricketts, which was written when Ed died in an accident. You can feel the grief in evey line. It is like a stream of memories and Steinbeck writes with all he got to fight oblivion. He wants to pin down everything he can think of related to Ed. It is heartbreaking, but I can understand him so well.
I already lost both of my parents. My dad died when I was only 17. My mom died in 2006. Both had to go too early (age 46 and 58 - cancer was our enemy). The moment you lose a person you love you are sure that you will keep the memory of every second you spent together - that you will keep and protect it like the holy grail. But that's not true. We start to forget the moment present becomes past, anyway if we want to or not. We cannot even really decide ourselves which memories are staying and which will get lost first. It seems to happen in our subconscious mind.


The final part - the "America and Americans" essays are deeply political texts, which would have indeed overloaded "Travels with Charley". A lot of it is very interesting and helps to understand some parts of the American history better - especially for me as an European, but it is important to read them in the context of the late 1960ies.

I would like to close my text about "America and Americans" with a longer quote. Before I start let me tell you that I understand everybody who is kind of dissappointed about the Obama administration and I would never dare to tell you where should make your cross at the next election, but think about the following quote, the fact it was written not yesterday but around 1966 and keep it in mind:

"It is said that the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. What is not said or even generally understood is that the power of the chief executive is hard to achieve, balky to manage, and incredibly difficult to exercise. It is not raw, corrosive power, nor can it be used willfully. Many new Presidents, attempting to exert executive power, have felt it slip from their fingers and have faced a rebellious Congress and an adamant civil service, a respectfullly half-obedient military, a suspicious Supreme Court, a derisive press, and a sullen electorate."

Tom Stoppard - Indian Ink


I LOVE


While I had the two other books saved on my Kindle I read this one in the paperback edition. I will always combine both - Kindle and paper books, because 1) I love physical books although reading with the Kindle is very convenient 2) there are places where I do not take such an expensive and sensible machine to but would love to read anyway.

Number 2) was the reason to squeeze a Stoppard right between these two nonfictional books. The weather was great in May and I went swimming a couple of times, but a public pool is definitely not the place to leave a Kindle unattended in your bag while you are in the water. Time to go back to the good old paperback - at least occasionally.

Anyway ... let's talk about the play.
What I would really like to see one day is Tom Stoppard's library. It must be huge. You remember "Rock 'n' Roll" and how it makes sense to read a whole bunch of books from great Czech literature down to Greek love poetry to prepare yourself? For "Indian Ink" there must be a big bookshelf full of stuff about the history of British colonialism in India, Indian mythology and art, Ghandi and related topics.

"Indian Ink" plays again with several storylines all related to the main character but happening at different times and different locations. Stoppard is switching between his story-layers without further notice - you blink and let your eye glide over to the next line and if you are not totally aware which character belongs to which storyline you missed it and get confused (a theater audience has of course a much easier life seeing  the action on stage). Is that a surprise? No, it's a Stoppard ;)

The story is wrapped around Flora Crewe - a young poetess traveling India in 1930. I love Flora. She is a very modern lady asking sometimes pretty provocative questions about the colonial society (not only the English but also some Indian taking advantage of it) barely hidden behind a sweet naivity and curiosity. She also steps light-fooded over the the borders of racial segregation in a - for 1930 - almost scandalous way.

I adore (like mentioned in other postings before) Stoppard's way of writing romance. This time it is not as heartbreaking as in my all time favorite "Arcadia", but the almost untold love story between Flora and Nirad Das, the Indian artist who was painting her portrait, is - at least in my eyes - very romantic. I have a crush on Stoppard's sweet and subtle kind of love stories - I admit it :)

The other part of the story takes place in the 1980ies. Eldon Pike - a young American academic - is obsessed with Flora and tries to "catch" her with writing about her and her poems. He puts all his energy into getting as close as possible to his idol. He visits Flora's sister but she does not really feel like opening up to the obsessed and instead of showing him all she got she sends him to India, where Flora died shortly after Nirad portrayed her.

But when Eldon is gone Amish, Nirad's son, visits Flora's sister and here we get a totally different picture. The two sit down, put their pieces of the story together and reveal the real portrait Nirad created of the already slowly dying Flora he fell in love with.

The story of the mislead Eldon is a quite universal one. It teaches us that this kind of obsession is not taking us anywhere. It makes the obsessed blind for the real messages and the real chances. It is important to let go and find what you are looking for in yourself and not in somebody else.

Coming to an end for today, I will finish up with my favorite dialogue from "Indian Ink":

Das: Yes. It is better to wait. My painting as no rasa today.
Flora: What is rasa?
Das: Rasa is juice. Its taste. Its essence. A painting must have its rasa ... which is not in the painting exactly. Rasa is what you must feel when you see a painting, or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you.
Flora: And poetry? Does a poem have rasa?
Das: Oh yes! A poem is a sentence whose soul is rasa. That is a famous dictum of Vishvanata, a great teacher of poetry, six hundred years ago.
Flora: Rasa ... yes. My poem has no rasa.
Das: Or perhaps it has two rasa which are in conflict.
Flora: Oh ...
Das: There are nine rasa, each one in a different colour. I should say mood. But each mood has its colour - white for laughter and fun, red for anger, pale yellow for tranquility ...
Flora: (Interrupting) Oh ... is there one for grey?
Das:  Grey is for sorrow.
Flora: Sorrow? I see.
Das: Each one has its own name and own god, too.
Flora: And some don't get on, is that it?
Das: Yes. That is it. Some do and some don't . If you arouse emotions which are in oppostion to each other the rasa will not ... harmonize, you said.
Flora: Yes.
Das: Your poem is about heat.
Flora: Yes.
Das: But its rasa is perhaps ... anger?
Flora: Sex.
Das: (Unhesitatingly) The rasa for erotic love is called Shringara. Its god is Vishnu and its colour is shyama which is blue-black. Vishvanata in his book on poetics tells us: Shringara requires, naturally, a lover and his loved one, who may be a courtesan if she is sincereley enarmoured, and it is aroused by, for exmple the moon, the scent of sandlewood, or being in an empty house. Shringara goes harmoniously with all other rasa and their complimentary emotions, with the exception of fear, cruelty, disgust and sloth.

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