The bookseller’s depressing warning

Perhaps the best reason to join a book club asne_seierstad_the_bookseller_of_kabulis that it will encourage you to read books which otherwise you would have missed. This was certainly the case with the “Bookseller of Kabul” which I ignored since its release in 2003 despite having garnered a considerable degree of praise. For some reason it never captured my attention sufficiently to get to get around to reading it. It was clearly an important book but one which passed me.

It passed me by, that is, until our book club decided to have a year avoiding European and American literature in an attempt to broaden our horizons. This was the second foray further afield, Israel having been our first. Am I glad that I have read this book ? Certainly, it was an interesting and educative read. Did the book deserve the praise it has received ? I am not convinced, it is a rather patchy offering, a rather strange hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.

This book is the result of a Norwegian journalist’s four months spent living with a family in Afghanistan. She has taken the interviews she had with the family members and turned them into a readable family saga. The book is well written and well translated, it is easy to read and she creates good character portraits of the family members. She has managed to convey a sense of life in modern Afghanistan which is revealing.

However, it is because it is this hybrid form that it also disappoints. Had it been non-fiction then supporting information about the historical events would have been valuable as well as some analysis of their relevance. As it is the occupation by the Russians and the Taliban are described as nothing more than scenery as the backdrop to this family story. Had this been a novel then there may have been more emotion. The author has tried to be non-judgemental and simply describe the lives of the participants. There are no heroes here, there is no attempt by anyone to change things, there is no questioning of the rightness of the situation. Like the women in the story, everything is passively accepted.

These snippets of daily life are so depressing, no-one fights or rails against their lot. Nobody has any vision of a better life. The lives of these women in a middle-class afghan household is that of servitude and bondage. Even the members who were older, and able to remember better and freer times, do nothing to try for significant change. The way this life, more suited to the medieval era, is accepted as reasonable leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness for the future of Afghanistan and especially its women. So, although this book does open a window to let us see an aspect of life which is often hidden to us, it also hides any causes or solutions (if there are any) from us.

I recommend the book therefore to anyone who doubts the dreadful position that women have in this part of the world; they need the distress of reading this. If you already know this sorry state of affairs it might be better using your reading to search for an explanation or, even better, the start of a solution.

 

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Androphilia by Jack Donovan

Androphilia by Jack Donovan

I had read and enjoyed Jack Donovan’s book “The Way othf Men” and when I came across Androphilia, while browsing the net, I decided to give it a try. I was probably not the author’s target demographic as he describes his book as a ‘rant‘ and ‘manifesto’ for homosexual men to encourage them to throw of the chains of the gay culture and to rediscover masculinity. That being said, only half of the book is about the gay culture and gay identity, about half is also concerned with the nature of masculinity itself.

I suppose it should be no surprise that someone who has found his desire is directed towards other men would have thought about masculinity and have useful and interesting insights into the nature of ‘manliness’. This is not a minor point as Mr Donovan points out :-

“Being male is the fundamental source of identity for every male—before race, class or creed—and being a man affects virtually every aspect of a man’s life”

However,  despite the importance of the topic maleness and masculinity receive scant attention in current culture. Indeed, when it is addressed it is more usually in terms of the problems of masculinity rather than consideration of its essence and utility. This unfortunately leaves men, both heterosexual and homosexual, with little opportunity to discuss how to live a life of a good man. Masculine virtues tend not to be recognised and we have a regrettable tendency to pathologize boyish behavioural patterns. He argues we need to try and re-find the masculine codes of behaviour, and this seems pertinent to all men.

What I’ve suggested here is a loose code of masculine honor, based on values like self-reliance, independence, personal responsibility, integrity, self-respect and respect for other men, that have resonated with males throughout the ages. These values have been common themes in many codes of masculinity, and they’ve inspired countless males to be better men

The other half of the book concerns the gay culture and I am really unable to appraise this aspect as easily. I share his belief that “Men should be defined by what they do, not who they screw.” but I am less certain that gay culture tends to have deleterious effects :-

“The word gay describes a whole cultural and political movement that promotes anti-male feminism, victim mentality, and leftist politics.”

“In response, I believe gay culture is a reproach to manly men. Gay culture critiques, stifles, and qualifies masculinity. It encourages effeminate affectations and effeminate interests.”

Though his arguments sound logical and coherent I have no idea how many gay men reject the effeminate aspects of this culture, nor how many share his  appreciation of manliness. But I would agree that “The gay community makes sexuality a complete lifestyle, instead of merely a part of life.” is a dangerous strategy, a dangerous strategy also promoted by other identity groups.

He can be very scathing in this area, as righteous as only an ex-sinner can be, but sometimes in these, more rant heavy passages, his writing does reveal his humour and wit more clearly.

It has always seemed like some profoundly ironic cosmic joke to me that the culture of men who love men is a culture that deifies women and celebrates effeminacy.”

I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject of masculinity, whatever direction their libido takes, there is a lot of meat in this short book. The present kindle version also include a few essays as appendices which are a pleasant addition, especially his rebuttal of same-sex marriage (or perhaps just marriage) which shows a fresh viewpoint on the subject.

 

 

I blame Audrey Hepburn

I blame Audrey Hepburn

I blame Audrey Hepburn. Alright, she wasn’t actingBreakfast_at_Tiffanys on her own but had a number of accomplices. Alongside her winning looks and performance, Henry Mancini’s composition “Moon River” and Blake Edward’s direction make “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” one of the great films.  In fact in 2012 it was recognized as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry . I’d agree with praise lavished on the film as it is one of my favourites. However, due to the film’s success I thought I could accurately, anticipate what would be in the book and, as a consequence, I had never bothered to pick up Truman Capote’s novella and read it. Yesterday, in preparation for the book club later on, I got around to reading the original and was pleasantly shocked.

There are many times when the book and the film are closely related. For example I doubt anyone could find many important differences between the cinematic and literary versions of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451“. Anyone having read, or seen, one could anticipate the other and there would be no surprises; one art form has held a mirror up to another, created its sibling,  and managed to double our pleasure. Sometimes films do take liberties with the content or intention of books and, while the result may be pleasing, they must be seen as two quite separate entities, related but separate, as the messages communicated are potentially very different. This film is so different to the book as to be almost unrelated. Perhaps it is a second cousin twice removed from the original book.

While they have taken the name and the beauty indexof the Holly Golightly character they have cleaned her up and washed away all the complex and untidy aspects of her nature. They have changed the era in which the story takes place. The novella occurs in wartime – a time of austerity, a time of death and uncertainty and it has the wise-cracking dialogue of the time. The book occurs in the post-war period – a period of optimism and growth and abundance. Holly in the book is a very complicated character, lively and enticing as in the film, but much more free in her spirits, partially a libertine and partially a lost soul. She uses her looks and youth to survive though it is clear that she is a character who has many other strings to he bow – she can act, she can sing and speak other languages – but she can not face being tied down or  to live in the mundane world.

“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead”

Both the book and the film convey Holly’s beauty indexand attractions. It is difficult to imaging the character Holly Golightly without imagining Audrey in her sunglasses, elbow length gloves and cigarette holder. In the film the sunglasses carry the glamour of Jackie Onassis and the mystery of the mask. In the book we know that masks do help to hide ourselves  but that also the sunglasses can hide the effects, or black eye, from the night before.

She misses all her opportunities for contentment,  as to be content is inadequate for her. This leads her to a life possibly overful which makes her question her own, and society’s morals, and wonders if she is a prostitute by living off her appearance and favours :-

“Really, though, I toted up the other night, and I’ve only had eleven lovers — not counting anything that happened before I was thirteen because, after all, that just doesn’t count. Eleven. Does that make me a whore? ”

“Of course I haven’t anything against whores. Except this: some of them may have an honest tongue but they all have dishonest hearts. I mean, you can’t bang the guy and cash his checks and at least not try to believe you love him. I never have. Even Benny Shacklett and all those rodents. I sort of hypnotized myself into thinking their sheer rattiness had a certain allure”

She recognizes that love is more important than sex and it is clear that other characters, who have no libidinous interest in her, do indeed love her and, over a generation ago, she suggested that all love should be considered valuable.

“I’d settle for Garbo any day. Why not? A person ought to be able to marry men or women or — listen, if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War, I’d respect your feeling. No, I’m serious. Love should be allowed. I’m all for it”

However, her fears of restraint  or curtailment hamper any attempts at forming deeper relationships. We always know this is going to be a picaresque tale and unlike the film there is to be no happy ending. In the book we know that she will be an ever fading beauty who will slide from view as her looks and allure weaken. It is in this area that the book and film differ most markedly. Both are romances but the film is a romance of fairy tales and dreams coming true, while the book is a tale of loosing your heart to someone while you try and live your dream

 

 

‘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.’