‘Karoo’ by Steve Tesich

The idea of the ‘Great Amercan Novel’ imagessuggest that each epoch has its own novel. A piece of work so good that it both captures the times and stands as a great work of literature in its own right. The “Grapes of Wrath’ in the 30’s, “Catcher in the Rye” in the 50’s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the 60’s; each time seems to have revealed its memoire. I’d suggest we have found our own in “Karoo” by  Steve Tesich.

I am ashamed to say that although this book was published in 1998 I had never heard of it, nor considered it, until a week ago. During a long drive between Wales and Scotland it was discussed on the BBC radio book programme. The enthusiasm of the reviewers was so great that, the minute I got home. I purchased a copy on the kindle. A few days later I had finished it and was awed by the skill of the writer.

A term like “tragi-comedy” might be employed to define it and certainly it manages the rare trick of being at times hilariously funny while at others being heartrendingly sad. The main character, Saul Karoo, is our anti-hero through the book and is our present day version of Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Babbit’ or Updike’s ‘Rabbit’. A man who seems to be able to fail at almost anything and has the reverse Midas touch, and able to destroy just through casual acquaintance. However, sometimes by looking at the grotesque we are able to see out own flaws more clearly. Seeing someone fail on this epic scale it is easier to consider our own, much smaller, foibles and failings.

Steve Tesich was a script writer and this is evident in this book. The reader can visualise every scene in Karoo’s monologue and some of the visual humour will make you laugh outloud (His mother’s shovel dance for example). It is difficult to review this book without giving away and  plot surprises. It would be unfair to do so, as there is great pleasure in the book waiting and anticipating the catastrophy you know is around the corner. If you have not found this book then I’d suggest you start looking.

 

The Silence of our Friends (Ed West)

This is a short but important book. Part of the Kindle Single series, it is 51gAccSIyJLonly 58 pages long, and I must admit I took it on a whim after seeing it in my “Prime Reading” suggestion list. However, despite its small size it contains a great deal of important material and tells a dispiriting and worrisome story.

This book is about the ongoing war against the Christians who live in the middle East. There is a campaign of religious cleansing in progress and already the number of Christians in the area has dropped dramatically. Much of the violence and death is a consequence of a war waged in the name of Islam and, unfortunately, for fear of appearing Islamophobic , this is not being reported. Major atrocities create barely a ripple in the world’s news.

I was ashamed, as I read this book, that I was ignorant of the horrors that were being met by Christians in the area. I had some awareness of the terror campaign against the Copts in Egypt but not the extent of the problem nor the problems besetting other religious minorities. The mainstream media in Europe has a preoccupation with the Arab-Jewish in the area to the extent that it sees no other problems. This focus is often partisan and does not wish to admit problems that islamofascist groups in the region pose.

If we wish to be libertarians and support freedom of thought and association, if we are liberals and support freedom of religious expression, or if we are anti-fascists and wish to fight developing fascism, then this is our fight. We need to promote awareness of this problem and assist our friends and brothers under threat.

 

 

 

 

The Sense of an Ending

This short novel was the book chosen by my The_Sense_of_an_Endingbook club this month. I am doubly thankful for this. Firstly because it is an excellent novel and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it,  and secondly as it is a book which sticks in the mind and prompts many questions which will benefit from discussion in a book group.

The title both  references Frank Kermode’s book of the same name and also the intention of this novella – to explore how we make sense of our lives and the stories we create for ourselves. The title may also humourously allude to the feelings the reader may have on finishing the story.

As we expect from Julian Barnes, it is well written – dialogues are believable and uplifting, difficult and weighty topics are handled with ease and often with genuine humour,  emotions are conveyed with accuracy and empathy. There are few writers who handle the English language this well.

Not wishing to spoil the story it is difficult to give much information. It concerns itself with life, love and memory, with yearning and regret. However, it touches on many, many things, as it is reported in the novel :-

“The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls.”

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Many writers had commented that 17880067George Orwell’s “1984” had made its way back into the best sellers lists on Amazon and elsewhere. The general opinion was that the concerns with “fake news” and fears about the growth of the popularity of right-wing populist politicians had driven this resurgence of interest in a great classic. It is excellent that this book is being re-read as it is an excellent warning about the dangers of limiting free speech and a clear exposition of how those who control language and discourse also control thought and opinion. However, an interesting article suggested that this book was not the best guide to the recent events, to which we are witness, but rather another dystopian classic, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″, held that distinction. It was for this reason I reread the book.

This book has not aged at all in the 55 years since it was published. It is still a fresh, fast-paced exciting read today and I can imagine if feels even more urgent now than it did then. It describes a frightening future when literature is banned, thought and discussion discouraged and, as an alternative, an overstimulating popular culture full of noise and movement is provided (with adjunctive psychotropic drugs as needed). In this future the duty of the fireman is to find and burn books.

Unlike “1984” in this future the  state has not forced these changes on an unwilling public but rather has promoted the changes as necessary and beneficial, as a means to protect a diverse community from distress and harm.

‘Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities.’

‘It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.’

‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace,’

It was also seen as a way to ensure the avoidance of distress of all. Choice requires decisions and decisions can be difficult and promote conflict, best to avoid them. Any discomfort, no matter how integral to the human condition, could be used as an excuse to restrict choice and action.

‘You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.’

‘Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.’

Indeed in this nightmare of a future all we need is pleasure and fun and just enough knowledge to allow us to be productive.

‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?’

‘So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.’

This is a libertarian novel, one which clearly promotes the individual over the group, one which warns against conformity, no matter how enjoyable, and promotes responsibility and cooperation with our fellows. There is no wastage in this novel, each page carries the story forward, either adding to the adrenaline rush of the chase or offering interesting and challenging insights into our society. We are often warned that if we ignore history we may repeat our mistakes and this is true. But when we also have warnings as clear as this, about our future dangers, we really have no excuse if we end in trouble.

‘But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.’

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

It is difficult to categorise this novel as it crosses many genres. It a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, science fiction story wrapped up in a family saga and present day morality tale, it contains a fair bit of humour, and  there is a fair bit of economic theory and history thrown in for leavening. Surprisingly it is all the better because of this, it is engrossing. The story follows a number of members of the Mandibles clan as they cope with the changes that follow the economic collapse in America.

The discussion about the problems with fiat money, inflation, central banking and the nature of money itself is well written and manages to explain many things, by using the form of a novel, that many economics textbooks fail to clarify. The impact of these problems is made real by the realistic descriptions of life post-collapse. Time will tell if Shriver is going to prove to be prescient, or rather, in which areas her predictions were accurate.

The characters are well drawn, some likeable, others despicable, but all believable. Shriver’s ability to reveal the darker side of our nature is well known. In this story, as the characters try to survive, many facets of human nature are turned over for assessment. We will sometimes see features we recognise in ourselves and sometimes this will not flatter, but shame, us. It is always better to be self aware and to know our faults and, if it has to be done, it is better to do it to the accompaniment of some dark comic humour.

Leaving the last word to Shriver herself :-

Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

I have read very little science fiction. 51mski9o2bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_I recall, when a teenager, reading some futuristic tales but these were usually the those in the intersection between science fiction and dystopian novels, such as Brave New World. I thought, therefore, as part of my New Year’s resolution that I would broaden my reading and dip my toes in the science fiction pond. After a short browse it was clear that Robert A. Heinlein was highly regarded and that “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was considered one of his best. Hence it became my first novel of the year.

This prove to be a very wise choice as I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It works at many levels. Firstly there is a standard action-adventure story which is fast paced and rewarding. It was no surprise to hear that  the film of the book is in the pipeline and if it remains faithful to the book it should be a success. But more than this it is also a work of science fiction and consequently it discusses broader philosophical points. One of the major themes is the development of sentience by computers and machines, will artificial intelligence cross this divide ?  This is discussed interestingly and also with humour. Indeed, the biggest and most pleasant surprise reading this novel was the amount of comedy it contained. There are many genuinely funny scenes.

Heinlein describes himself as a “rational anarchist” and much of this novel is an exposition of his views. Sometimes this is done by giving his protagonsits moral questions to debate, such as .. ..

‘For example, under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?’

or

what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”

while in other passages there are fairly straightforward explanations of his views .. ..

“a rational anarchist believes that concepts such as “state” and “society” and “government” have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame … as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world …”

However, some of the best explanations of his desire for minarchy are seen in the whimsical advice his revolutionary leader offers to his fellow conspirators :-

‘I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent – the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.’

This is an excellent piece of fiction, provocative, funny and exciting and one you can approach in many different ways. It is well worth anyone’s time and I have no doubt I’ll look back on it as my entry point into a wider range of reading.

 

 

‘I, Pencil.’ L.E. Read

This is an excellent short read. More a pamphlet27831931 than a novel, it is  the autobiography of an HB pencil. By looking at the birth and ancestry of the pencil  a complicated topic of economics and knowledge theory is made easily understandable. As individuals we have only a tiny fraction of the sum of human knowledge and planning, not one of us is able to make a pencil by ourselves. But by our cooperative endeavours every one of us can own and use a pencil.

We are, in part, successful because  we don’t need to know everything about everything. We can specisalise in what brings us most pleasure, and that which plays to our strengths,  in the knowledge that others will be doing liklewise in different areas. By this, knowledge is distributed between all of us and is much more than the sum of its parts. When we act cooperatively, in a dispersed and decentralised manner we achieve much more than we ever could when we work under central guidance.

As the pencil decribes it :-

“This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”

and

“None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies.”