I’ve crossed another classic off of my “to read” list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors’ virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck’s book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father’s admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book’s Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book’s last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.In early 1938, at the behest of the Vatican, Graham Greene traveled to Mexico to report on the anti-Catholic initiatives of President Lázaro Cárdenas. The Lawless Roads, his account of that trip, opens with a disclaimer: "This is the personal impression of a small part of Mexico at a particular time, the spring of 1938," he writes. "Time proved the author wrong in at least one of his conclusions - the religious apathy in Tabasco was more apparent than real." During his visit Greene pronounced the situation calm, but only a month later the peasantry erupted into violenceThe reliability of the narrator is a central issue in any book, but particularly a travel story where the author by definition treads in unfamiliar waters. As a colonial era Brit come to Mexico, possessing limited Spanish and a meager tolerance for the food, Greene appears at first to be a tenuous interpreter. On his way down the Gulf coast to Mexico City, he remarks with a breezy confidence on the "sexual impertinence" of a young maid and the "sensual" look on an indigenous girl's face, and later levels an incurious verdict against the character of his guide. "He had a feeling of responsibility," Greene writes, "and no Mexican cares for that."But there is also a measure of hesitation in Greene's voice. 1938 is worlds removed from 1838, and Greene is not the obstreperous H.M. Stanley stepped boldly into Africa. He acknowledges early on the caveat familiar to anyone who has ever written an email home from a foreign country. "The danger of the quick tour," he writes, "[is that] you miscalculate on the evidence of three giggling girls and a single Mass, and malign the devotion of thousands." While Greene has some of the cocksure colonialist in him, he's just as much a modern pilgrim, approaching his journey with epistemological caution and an awareness of how far he is from home.The heart of Greene's journey is a rugged trek through the remotest parts of Chiapas. He makes his way by barge, prop plane and mule back and often arrives at the next town well after dark, when all the locals have claimed sleeping spots for the night and only the floor remains. Greene rarely misses an opportunity to comment on his discomfort - the heat, the cold, the beetles, the food - but what he does is more important than what he says, and it's hard not to admire the lengths to which he goes to get from place to place. When a rainstorm prevents a plane from landing to take him to Las Casas, he hires a team of mules instead. The trip takes three days over an undulating, spiraling track through the mountains. Greene writes of the constant way he exhorted his beast, "After nine hours I began to feel that the words 'Mula. Mula. Echa, mula' were graven on my brain forever." Greene fails to gain any real insight into the religious situation in Mexico, but that aspect of his trip becomes almost beside the point. The book is sustained by the adventure along the way, and the honest, personal way he describes it.1938 was of course a momentous year in world history. German troops annexed Austria nearly the same week that Greene began his trek through Chiapas, and while he does not dwell on the events in Europe, his writing is accented with premonitions of change. Arriving in a small village high up in the central plateau, Greene encounters an expatriated German "who kept a tiny photographic store." Looking around, Greene notes the torn covers of magazines decorating the walls and "among them, rigidly, the face of Hitler." As Greene makes his way through the mountains there is a feeling, particularly with seventy years of hindsight, that this journey is the last of its kind. Europe was set to burn and the jaunty colonial prerogative would not survive the war, to be replaced as it were by the ambiguous opium haze that Greene later described in The Quiet American.But as Greene goes along, recording his impressions of Mexico and complaining about the bulbous mosquitoes, he seems already to have a foot in the remade world. Reading Trollope, he grows momentarily homesick for London, missing his bookshelves and chairs and the buses going by on the street. But he snaps out of it and reminds himself, "it wasn't real: this was real - the high empty room and the tiled and swarming floor and the heat and the sour river smell." The genocide in Europe and the horror of Hiroshima ushered in a long postmortem skepticism, which challenged our claims to know much of anything about the world. Greene shakes his head free of Trollope in favor of what is right in front of him, and while a hot and swarming floor might not explain Mexico, it's true to what he saw and better than any fanciful alternative.The result is a precise, modest book that does not try to explain more than it can. At the celebration of a saint's birthday in a small town, Greene observes a fireworks display. "A Catherine wheel whirled in the road," he writes, "and the rockets hissed up into the sky and burst in flippant and trivial stars." It is a small moment, over almost as soon as it began, and yet one that lingers where a more percussive racket might have been forgotten already. I would say the same of The Lawless Roads.
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You wouldn’t expect the intricacies of Tudor baking, brewing, ploughing, cooking, needlework, painting, dancing, and card-playing to hold an audience rapt, and yet Goodman makes the minutia of everyday life a half-millennia ago tremendously interesting.
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Piety and profanity both require devotion. Graham Greene knew that. Greene was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1926, and announced the conversion to his mother by writing “I expect you have guessed that I am embracing the Scarlet Woman.” He later identified as a “Catholic agnostic,” which complemented his baptismal name of Thomas, “after St. Thomas the doubter and not Thomas Aquinas.” He found God, but hadn’t lost his wit. To say that Greene was a troubled Catholic would be the same as calling him a Catholic at all. He dramatized the obscenities of a Mexican whiskey priest hunted by Tomás Garrido Canabal's Red Shirts in The Power and the Glory. In one scene, the priest has been jailed for possessing brandy, and shares a dark cell with others, including a couple having sex. A “pious” woman, jailed for having religious books, calls the copulating pair “brutes” and “animals.” She hates their “ugliness.” The whiskey priest knows better. He tells the woman to not believe that, “Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.” Michael Robbins is our contemporary poet laureate for beautiful sins of language. The New Republic calls Robbins a prankster. He rather reminds me of that whiskey priest, his lines by turns abrasive and aphoristic, but never apathetic. Robbins’s 2012 debut, Alien vs. Predator, set the mold for his poetic play, but I think Robbins’s center might reside in his criticism. In a review of theologian David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God, Robbins punctures the silkscreened divinity portrayed by the New Atheists (they “ingeniously deny the existence of a bearded fellow with superpowers who lives in the sky and finds people’s keys for them”). At the same time, he says “showing up American fundamentalism is about as hard as shooting the deck of an aircraft carrier when you’re standing on it.” His problem, of course, is with literalism: the Word made flat. Critic Matthew Sitman has recently called Christian Wiman the “most important Christian writer in America.” Robbins, then, might be the most provocative Christian writer in America. For Robbins, the “incoherence” of naturalism “is the external warrant for my belief in God.” His one criticism of Hart is the theologian’s dismissal of the “possibility that our bafflement before ontological mystery is the result of our being the kind of limited animals we are. A badger cannot understand differential equations, but that tells us something about badgers, not equations.” It is refreshing to discover a poet critically concerned with God, and to do so with humor. The Second Sex is formally tight and theologically fragmented. In his criticism, Robbins eschews literal pronouncements of the divine. For him, “where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description.” The latter seeks to catalog; the former simply seeks. Books & Culture editor John Wilson was correct in comparing Robbins’s method to that of fellow believer T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. Both poets mixed and matched. In “Springtime in Chicago in November,” Robbins writes “First comes love, which I disparage. / I blight with plagues a baby carriage.” If his entire collection were merely reworked pun after reworked pun, the result might be a trite book. But that would be mistaking his form for his function. The Second Sex is equal parts obscene and oblatory. Robbins, like a good preacher, paces his presentations. The shifts within “Country Music” are emblematic of his entire poetic project: God bless the midnight bus depot, the busted guitar case. God bless diazepam, its dilatory grace. Those lapsed or elapsed in religious faith will recognize a certain method to Robbins’s poetic heresies. Who hasn’t wanted to say, “You must’ve been high as a kite / when you created us.” Whether or not “Country Music” is a genuine hymn, it ends on a particular note: God keep the world this clean and bright and easy to believe in and let me catch my bus all right, and then we’ll call it even. Robbins’s verse is pared to be swift. “Lose Myself” starts flippant: “Yeah, I got the bug. Got razzle dazzle, / dazed and refused. I’m with stupid.” Four stanzas later, it ends with truth: “It takes three miracles to make a saint, / just one mistake to make a man.” The same pivots happen in “Peel Off the Scabs,” where the narrator reminds us that “God became a man, / surely I can do the same.” He follows: O Captain! my Tennille! the Eagles will come and pull out his eyes. Jesus coming back, they say, and we’ll all shout Surprise! Robbins says “most reviews are merely serviceable, because reviewing is a service industry. Readers want to know whether they should read a book or skip it.” Elsewhere, he admits it is “remarkable that we’re driven to write about art--to explain, judge, describe, elucidate, analyze, hate, rhapsodize, tell a story. We can’t let them be--cathedrals, blockbusters, poems, pictures, statues, songs. They demand words from us.” In that vein, to identify The Second Sex as parodic would be reductive. Of course we steal from other poets. What matters is how we sharpen what we steal. Robbins employs a midrashic approach in his poetry. Whether he is pilfering from Led Zeppelin or Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robbins does so with technical agility. The Second Sex is a confident, skillful work that will make readers reconsider poetry. Who could end a poem titled “Sweat, Piss, Jizz & Blood” with “God is great”? A poet who finds divinity in all things, especially “a billion points of glitter / in a fathomless abyss.”
Meno's book makes visible the typically invisible victims of unjust economic policies. It makes these characters people — flawed and beautiful. It resists too much judgment or proselytizing and explores complex situations with appropriate complexity.
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Seeing is believing. And if you don't see the shit you wallow in, maybe you won't mind it as much. Or at least that is one of the tangential points in Jose Saramago's Blindness, a powerful journey into darkness that sheds a light on humankind in a moment of weakness.With a simple narrative and unusual style, Saramago - the 1998 Nobel Laureate for Literature - constantly forces his reader to deliberate a situation that, in the course of the novel, becomes too real to bear in one's mind: all of a sudden and for some unknown reason everyone goes blind one after the other. What happens next?It is a tough question. I am not sure Saramago is trying to provide an answer. Surely not in the predictable plot, which is akin to William Golding's Lord of the Flies: First there is calm, surely the situation can be contained and all will be saved, everyone acts rationally; next there are disputes, power struggles, dehumanizing situations; then there is chaos, expect the worst; finally, there is a resolution.But the plot's predictability does not detract from the quality of the novel by any means. On the contrary, as events unfold as a reader might expect them to, one begins to wonder if mankind's reactions are routinely banal, i.e., consistent over time. Violence and occasional heroics follow each other and rise in magnitude over time; dependence emerges naturally; the impulse to quell chaos dies when individuals seek to satisfy personal needs.Saramago's economic use of words accentuates the grim conditions of a blind country, the helpless life plagued citizens are forced to lead and the speed with which life can turn from normal to a wild unknown. Suddenly, "I'm blind," communicates more what than the two words ordinarily connote.The author's succinct style is remarkable for its clarity. Conversations are embedded in the narrative and commas are their only indicators - yet somehow the lack of quotation marks does not confuse the reader. Blindness flows seamlessly from beginning to end, horrifying the reader with candid observations of humankind and plunging one into deep thought - and depression.Despite his usual hostility to religion, Saramago treads traditional symbols into his novel, and in the process creates a prophet - but one who breaks with the expected and, accepting the situation, sticks to a small group of followers.Blindness is a moving expose on what men will do to each other when backed into a corner. And blindly punching away is just the beginning.
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