Book Review: The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Scholastic, Inc. 1987

I’ve always liked stories that begin, “Once upon a time.”  Those four simple words impart a timeless quality to the narrative that follows, and all by themselves, do a commendable job of setting the mood for the rest of the story.  I like them also because they evoke memories of my early childhood, when almost every story I heard began that way.  In any case, that’s the way The Cat Who Went to Heaven begins:

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  His housekeeper had gone to market, and he sat sighing to think of all the things he wished she would bring home.  He expected her to hurry in at any minute, bowing and opening her little basket to show him how wisely she had spent their few pennies.  He heard her step, and jumped up.  He was very hungry!

But the housekeeper lingered by the door, and the basket stayed shut.

“Come,” he cried, “what is in that basket?”

What is in the basket?  Perhaps a few of the rice cakes so beloved by the artist, or little cakes filled with sweet bean jelly?  No, it is a cat that the housekeeper bought from a fisherman in the market.  The artist is angry at first about the new arrival, but grudgingly agrees to keep her:

“Let us see the creature,” he said, pretending he scarcely cared whether he saw it or not.

So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid.  Nothing happened for a moment.  Then a round, pretty, white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim.  Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little white cat jumped out on the mats, and stood there as a person might who scarcely knew if she were welcome.  Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw that she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit’s, and that she did everything daintily.

“Oh, a three-colored cat,” said the artist.  “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning?  They are very lucky, I understand.

Was it just luck that brought the cat into their lives, or was it something else, perhaps the kind heart of the housekeeper?  Whatever it was, the artist decides she may stay, and at the housekeeper’s suggestion, they name her Good Fortune.

Initially, the artist merely tolerates her presence in his house…

But one day he was forced to admit that Good Fortune was not like other cats.  He was sitting in his especial room watching sparrows fly in and out of the hydrangea bushes outside, when he saw Good Fortune leap from a shadow and catch a bird.  In a second the brown wings, the black-capped head, the legs like briers, the frightened eyes, were between her paws.  The artist would have clapped his hands and tried to scare her away, but before he had time to make the least move, he saw Good Fortune hesitate and then slowly, slowly, lift first one white paw and then another from the sparrow.  Unhurt, in a loud whir of wings, the bird flew away.

“What mercy!” cried the artist, and the tears came into his eyes.  Well he knew his cat must be hungry and well he knew what hunger felt like.  “I am ashamed when I think that I called such a cat a goblin,” he thought.  “Why, she is more virtuous than a priest.”

It was just then, at that very moment, that the old housekeeper appeared, trying hard to hide her excitement.

“Master!” she said as soon as she could find words.  “Master!  The head priest from the temple himself is here in the next room and wishes to see you.  What, oh what, do you think His Honor has come here for?”

It turns out that the head priest has come to commission a painting of the death of Buddha to hang in the temple, a commission that would mean a complete reversal in the fortunes of the artist, for as the priest remarks, “What the temple approves becomes the fashion in the town.”  The next day, the artist undertakes to begin the painting, but before he sets out his silk, ink, and water, he first meditates on the Buddha.  He realizes that “…he must strive to understand the Buddha before he could paint him.”  When he has finished painting the Buddha, he begins to meditate on all the animals he has yet to paint, animals that came to honor the Buddha on his deathbed: the snail, the elephant, the horse, the swan, the water buffalo, the dog, the deer, the monkey, and the tiger.  While he is reflecting upon them…

Good Fortune came out from his shadow.  When she saw the tiger she trembled all over, from her thistledown whiskers to her little tail, and she looked at the artist.

“If the tiger can come to bid farewell to Buddha,” she seemed to say, “surely the cat, who is little and often so gentle, may come, O master?  Surely, surely, you will next paint the cat among the animals who were blessed by the Holy One as he died?”

The artist was much distressed.

“Good Fortune,” he said, gently taking her into his arms. “I would gladly paint the cat if I could.  But all people know that cats, though lovely, are unusually proud and self-satisfied.  Alone among the animals, the cat refused to accept the teachings of Buddha.  She alone, of all creatures, was not blessed by him…”

The Cat Who Went to Heaven was the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal for children’s literature, but it is one of those rare books – like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia – that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.  There are lessons to be learned from it by readers of all ages, not the sort of lesson we learn consciously, but longer lasting lessons that we absorb without knowing it, lessons learned by example.  It is, of course, a story about an artist, a housekeeper, and a cat, but it is a great deal more.  It is a story about sacrifice, compassion, and mercy.

Illustration by Lynd Ward (Click to enlarge.)

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Book Review: The God Delusion

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; A Mariner Book, New York, 2008

“I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”                                                                              Attributed to Mark Twain

The God DelusionRichard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was first published in October 2006.  According to Wikipedia, Dawkins had wanted to publish a book critical of religion for a long time, but was advised against it by his publisher.  By 2006, however, Sam Harris had already published The End of Faith, and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great would follow early in 2007.  The public was clearly receptive to their underlying theses.  The God Delusion quickly reached number four on the New York Times Hardcover Non-fiction Best Seller list, and to date has sold more than three million copies.

In his preface to the hardback edition, Dawkins defends his use of the word ‘delusion’:

The word ‘delusion’ in my title has disquieted some psychiatrists who regard it as a technical term, not to be bandied about.  Three of them wrote to me to propose a special technical term for religious delusion: ‘relusion’.  Maybe it’ll catch on.  But for now I am going to stick with ‘delusion’, and I need to justify my use of it… The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder’.  The first part captures religious faith perfectly.  As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity.  When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.’

What was Dawkins’ purpose in writing The God Delusion?  What did he hope to accomplish?  I’ll let Dawkins himself speak to that:

As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave.  Years later, when she was in her twenties, she disclosed this unhappy fact to her parents, and her mother was aghast: ‘But darling, why didn’t you come to us and tell us?’  Lalla’s reply is my text for today: ‘But I didn’t know I could.’

I didn’t know I could.

I suspect – well, I am sure – that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don’t believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents’ religion and wish they could, but just don’t realize that leaving is an option.  If you are one of them, this book is for you.  [The italics are mine.]  It is intended to raise consciousness – raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one.  You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled…

He goes on to say,

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.  What presumptuous optimism!  Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design).  Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.  But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.  Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.  At the very least, I hope that nobody who reads this book will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I could.’

Nobody will be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I could.’  What a modest aspiration, yet how important!  How does Dawkins go about it?  What exactly will you find if you do open this book?  In the interest of full disclosure, here is Dawkins’ own summary of what lies between its covers:

Perhaps you feel that agnosticism is a reasonable position, but that atheism is just as dogmatic as religious belief?  If so, I hope Chapter 2 will change your mind, by persuading you that ‘the God Hypothesis’ is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analyzed as sceptically as any other.  Perhaps you have been taught that philosophers and theologians have put forward good reasons to believe in God.  If you think that, you might enjoy Chapter 3 on ‘Arguments for God’s existence’ – the arguments turn out to be spectacularly weak.  Maybe you think it is obvious that God must exist, for how else could the world have come into being?  How else could there be life, in all its rich diversity, with every species looking uncannily as though it had been ‘designed’?  If your thoughts run along those lines, I hope you will gain enlightenment from Chapter 4 on ‘Why there almost certainly is no God’.  Far from pointing to a designer, the illusion of design in the living world is explained with far greater economy and with devastating elegance by Darwinian natural selection…

Perhaps you think there must be a god or gods because anthropologists and historians report that believers dominate every human culture.  If you find that convincing, please refer to Chapter 5, on ‘The roots of religion’, which explains why belief is so ubiquitous.  Or do you think that religious belief is necessary in order for us to have justifiable morals?  Don’t we need God, in order to be good?  Please read Chapters 6 and 7 to see why this is not so.  Do you still have a soft spot for religion as a good thing for the world, even if you yourself have lost your faith?  Chapter 8 will invite you to think about ways in which religion is not such a good thing for the world.

If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about.  The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination… The whole matter of religion and childhood is the subject of Chapter 9…

Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.

One of the things I like best about Dawkins’ writing is his precise use of language.  A good example of this appears in Chapter 1, A Deeply Religious Non-Believer:

…The Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg made the point as well as anybody, in Dreams of a Final Theory:

Some people have views of God that are so broad and flexible that it is inevitable that they will find God wherever they look for him.  One hears it said that ‘God is the ultimate’ or ‘God is our better nature’ or ‘God is the universe.’  Of course, like any other word, the word ‘God’ can be given any meaning we like.  If you want to say that ‘God is energy,’ then you can find God in a lump of coal.

Weinberg is surely right that, if the word God is not to become completely useless, it should be used in the way people have generally understood it: to denote a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship’.

Another example is Dawkins’ clarification of the differences among the terms theist, deist, agnostic, and atheist.  I won’t repeat it here, but it may well help many readers understand where they, and others, stand on the subject of the existence of God.

One of the most compelling (to my mind, at any rate) passages in The God Delusion is the account of Douglas Adams’ (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) conversion to atheism.  As related by Dawkins…

In an interview, reprinted posthumously in The Salmon of Doubt, [Adams] was asked by a journalist how he became an atheist.  He began his reply by explaining how he became an agnostic, and then proceeded:

And I thought and thought and thought.  But I just didn’t have enough to go on, so I didn’t really come to any resolution.  I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe, and everything to put in its place.  But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking.  Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’ books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker, and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place.  It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life.  The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it.  I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.

The concept of stunning simplicity that he was talking about was, of course, nothing to do with me.  It was Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser.

This account by Adams is remarkably similar to Dawkins’ account of his own abandonment of religion, as related earlier this month in an interview with Naga Munchetty on the BBC’s ‘Sunday Morning Live’:

Q: When did you stop believing in God?

A: I realized at the age of about nine that there were lots of different religions and they all couldn’t be right, but then I carried on believing in some sort of deistic God, some sort of divine creator, and that disappeared when I finally understood Darwinism and the fact that you don’t actually need any kind of designer whatsoever in order to explain the beauty, the elegance of life, and the apparent design of life.

Interested readers can watch the entire Dawkins interview here.

Whether or not you actually enjoy reading The God Delusion may depend in large measure upon the set of beliefs you bring to it.  If there are some sections, or even whole chapters, that don’t hold your interest as much as others, I’m sure Dawkins wouldn’t mind if you page through them quickly.  I’m one of those who do enjoy it.  I particularly appreciate Dawkins’ light-handed, even humorous approach to subjects which are likely to ruffle some feathers.  As I have indicated, I also appreciate his carefully nuanced language.  You won’t find any sloppy English in The God Delusion, which is usually a good indicator that you won’t find any sloppy thinking either.

Anyone who wants to debate Dawkins on these matters had better bring his A-game.  He’s been doing this a long time, has heard all the arguments before, and is well prepared to meet them.  And to anyone who may be be feeling the vague yearnings mentioned at the beginning of this review – to leave their parents’ religion – but who needs help putting their philosophical house in order, I say: Take heart; in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has done much of the heavy lifting for you.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2016 at 5:00 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,

Book Review: Defending Gary

Defending Gary: Unraveling the Mind of the Green River Killer, by Mark Prothero with Carlton Smith; Jossey-Bass, 2006

Defending GaryIn the summer of 1982, a shadow fell on the great Pacific Northwest, one that extended from Seattle all the way south to Portland, Oregon.  On July 15 of that year, the lifeless body of sixteen-year-old Wendy Coffield was pulled from the Green River in Kent, Washington, her jeans knotted tightly around her neck. I remember that day.  I was on my way home from work when I heard that a body had been found in the Green River, close to the Riverbend Golf Course where I occasionally played.

Within a month, four more young women were found dead at or near the same location, and the phrase ‘Green River Killer’ became a permanent part of our lexicon.  In the years that followed, more and more young women went missing, and more remains were discovered, some as far away as Portland.  The shadow that fell in 1982 wasn’t lifted for more than nineteen years, until November 30, 2001, when Gary Leon Ridgway was arrested at the Kenworth truck plant in Renton where he worked.  He was charged with four of the more than forty-five murders that had by that time been attributed to the Green River Killer.

During his initial questioning, Ridgway asked for a lawyer, and Mark Prothero, who worked for the Associated Counsel for the Accused, was summoned to the Regional Justice Center in Kent where Ridgway was being held.  Prothero became a key member of Ridgway’s defense team, which included, among others, Tony Savage, a well-known Seattle defense attorney, and Todd Gruenhagen, another public defense lawyer.  Defending Gary tells the story of this team’s efforts to defend Ridgway, from the day of his arrest until his sentencing two years later.

One of the most important achievements of the book is the insight it offers into our criminal justice system, including the obligations and responsibilities of the Public Defender’s office, and why that office is so important.  Regarding these duties, Prothero writes:

Even from where I’m sitting, I can hear you saying, “Oh, yeah? What about guilty people who go free?”  I admit that it happens, sometimes.  But in my observation and experience it’s far more likely for an innocent person to be found guilty than for a guilty person to be found innocent.  That’s just the way the system works, even with all the rights we theoretically afford the accused.  And I suppose I would also add this: it’s really far more endurable to our society for one guilty person to go free than it is for our government to limit all of our rights to make certain of catching all of the guilty.  That’s the path to dictatorship.

And in the broadest sense, what we do as criminal defense lawyers is act as quality control for the criminal justice system: to make sure it operates under the rules we’d all agreed upon, more than two hundred years ago in our Constitution.  In a significant way, our most important client is the Constitution itself.” (p. 46)

Another aspect of American justice addressed in this book, one that was at the heart of the Green River proceedings, is the plea bargaining that regularly takes place between the prosecution and the defense.  When new evidence came to light that allowed the prosecution to add three additional murder charges to the original four, the Ridgway defense team was forced to come to terms with their client’s guilt.  They realized that if this case went to trial, his conviction was a near certainty.  At that point, their focus changed from trying to establish Ridgway’s innocence, to doing whatever they could to keep him alive.  Toward that end, they approached Norm Maleng, the King County Prosecutor, with an offer to settle, which was articulated by Tony Savage:

“I’ll get to the point,” Tony said… “We’re here to see if you will consider guilty pleas and resolution to fifty or so cases in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.  It would include the vast majority of the cases on the Green River list and maybe ten others.” (p. 268)

After much consideration, Maleng accepted the defense’s proposal, a decision he later defended at a media briefing that took place after Ridgway’s formal guilty plea was entered.

“My immediate reaction [to the defense’s offer] was ‘No!’” he said.  “The question leaped out to me, just as it does to you: How could you set aside the death penalty in a case like this?  Here we have a man presumed to be a prolific serial killer, a man who preyed on vulnerable young women.  I thought, as many of you might, if any case screams out for consideration of the death penalty, it is this one.  I realized however, that this proposal had huge implications for families of victims, for the men and women of the task force, for the sheriff, and for the entire community.  It deserved thoughtful consideration.

“I have long said that the mission of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is not just to win cases, but to seek justice,” Maleng continued… “But this case squarely presented another principle that is a foundation of our justice system – to seek and know the truth.  I knew that there were many people waiting for the truth in this case.  I spent three weeks considering the defense proposal… I knew that, in the end, this was my decision to make and to defend.

“I was searching for justice – what should be the legacy of this case?  During this search I was reminded of the Biblical phrase from First Corinthians, chapter 13: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face.’  I finally saw a new face of justice.  Before, I could only see the face of Gary Ridgway; but I began to see other faces – the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children of the victims.  I saw that the justice we could achieve could bring home the remains of loved ones for proper burial.  It could solve unsolvable cases the task force had spent twenty years investigating.  It could begin the healing for our entire community.  The justice we could achieve was to uncover the Truth.”

Maleng explained, “We could have gone forward with seven counts, but that is all we could have ever hoped to solve.  At the end of that trial, whatever the outcome, there would have been lingering doubts about the rest of these crimes.  This agreement was the avenue to the truth.  And in the end, the search for the truth is still why we have a criminal justice system…”

Maleng went on.  “Gary Ridgway does not deserve our mercy.  He does not deserve to live.  The mercy provided by today’s resolution is directed not at Ridgway, but toward the families who have suffered so much, and to the larger community…” (pp. 502-504)

Defending Gary provides a compelling argument against capital punishment, much of which is due to Prothero’s vivid account of what Gary said and did during the two years he worked with him.  Through those descriptions, Prothero achieves a remarkable transformation: he humanizes Gary.  Examples of this abound throughout the book, but perhaps none is more revealing of Gary’s humanity than his statement to the court at his sentencing hearing, a statement Gary wrote and recited himself:

“I’m sorry for killing all those young ladies,” he read.  “I’ve tried hard to remember as much as I could, to help the detectives find and recover the ladies.  I’m sorry for the scare I put into the community.  I want to thank the police, prosecutors, my attorneys, and all others that had the patience to work with me and help me remember all the terrible things I did, and to be able to talk about them.  I know how horrible my acts were.  I have tried for a long time to get these things out of my mind.  I have tried for a long time to keep from killing any more ladies.  I’m sorry that I’ve put my wife, my son, my brother, and my family through this hell.  I hope they can find a way to forgive me.  I am very sorry for the ladies that were not found.  May they rest in peace.  They need a better place than what I gave them.  I’m sorry for killing these young ladies.  They had their whole life ahead of them.  I’m sorry I caused so much pain for so many families.” (p. 516)

Defending Gary is not the only book about the Green River case, but it is hands-down the best one, and does the most thoughtful job of exploring the ‘why’ question.  While the last word on what drove Gary Ridgway to commit serial murder may never be written, Defending Gary offers many illuminating theories.  When Tony Savage was asked, “Do you have any insight into what drove Mr. Ridgway to do what he did?” he answered quite simply: “Rage… He was – and is – a very, very angry person.  And the source of that – there are all kinds of theories… I just don’t know, but he was consumed with rage.” (p. 501)

Mark Prothero answers that question this way: “Why did he do it?  In twenty-five words or less: Killing prostitutes gave him power and control over women and others in authority – power and control he wanted but lacked in his own existence.” (p. 526)

A personal note: In 2010, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation about the Green River case given by Mark Prothero to a sociology class at Kentridge High School in Kent.  Afterwards, Mark and I spoke for a few minutes, and he signed my copy of his book.  I was shocked and saddened last month to learn of Mark’s death from cancer at the age of 57.  With his passing, three key figures in the Ridgway drama have now left us: Norm Maleng died in 2007, and Tony Savage in 2012.

For his part, Gary Ridgway, now 65, is incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, where he is serving 49 consecutive life sentences without any possibility of parole.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on May 31, 2014 at 10:56 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Book Review: Timequake

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut; Berkley Books, New York, 1998

timequakeKurt Vonnegut, who was born in 1922 and died in 2007, is perhaps best known for The Sirens of Titan (1959), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973).  Timequake, published in 1997, was his final novel.  Well, not a novel, exactly; more like a farrago of fiction, philosophy, and autobiography.  To convey a clear sense of what this book is about, I can do no better – indeed, not nearly as well – than to quote Vonnegut’s prologue to Timequake in its entirety.  Here it is:

<><><><><><><><>

Ernest Hemingway in 1952 published in Life magazine a long short story called The Old Man and the Sea. It was about a Cuban fisherman who hadn’t caught anything for eighty-four days. The Cuban hooked an enormous marlin. He killed it and lashed it alongside his little boat. Before he could get it to shore, though, sharks bit off all the meat on the skeleton.

I was living in Barnstable Village on Cape Cod when the story appeared. I asked a neighboring commercial fisherman what he thought of it. He said the hero was an idiot. He should have hacked off the best chunks of meat and put them in the bottom of the boat, and left the rest of the carcass for the sharks.

It could be that the sharks Hemingway had in mind were critics who hadn’t much liked his first novel in ten years, Across the River and into the Trees, published two years earlier. As far as I know, he never said so. But the marlin could have been that novel.

And then I found myself in the winter of 1996 the creator of a novel which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place. Merde! I had spent nearly a decade on that ungrateful fish, if you will. It wasn’t even fit for shark chum.

I had recently turned seventy-three. My mother made it to fifty-two, my father to seventy-two. Hemingway almost made it to sixty-two. I had lived too long! What was I to do?

Answer: Fillet the fish. Throw the rest away.

————

This I did in the summer and autumn of 1996. Yesterday, November 11th of that year, I turned seventy-four. Seventy-four!

Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was fifty-five. Enough! My architect father was sick and tired of architecture when he was fifty-five. Enough! American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now. Have pity!

My great big fish, which stunk so, was entitled Timequake. Let us think of it as Timequake One. And let us think of this one, a stew made from its best parts mixed with thoughts and experiences during the past seven months or so, as Timequake Two.

Hokay?

————

The premise of Timequake One was that a timequake, a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum, made everybody and everything do exactly what they’d done during a past decade, for good or ill, a second time. It was déjà vu that wouldn’t quit for ten long years. You couldn’t complain about life’s being nothing but old stuff, or ask if just you were going nuts or if everybody was going nuts.

There was absolutely nothing you could say during the rerun, if you hadn’t said it the first time through the decade. You couldn’t even save your own life or that of a loved one, if you had failed to do that the first time through.

————

I had the timequake zap everybody and everything in an instant from February 13th, 2001, back to February 17th, 1991. Then we all had to get back to 2001 the hard way, minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again, getting the clap again. You name it!

Only when people got back to when the timequake hit did they stop being robots of their pasts. As the old science fiction writer Kilgore Trout said, “Only when free will kicked in again could they stop running obstacle courses of their own construction.”

————

Trout doesn’t really exist. He has been my alter ego in several of my other novels. But most of what I have chosen to preserve from Timequake One has to do with his adventures and opinions. I have salvaged a few of the thousands of stories he wrote between 1931, when he was fourteen, and 2001, when he died at the age of eighty-four. A hobo for much of his life, he died in luxury in the Ernest Hemingway Suite of the writers’ retreat Xanadu in the summer resort village of Point Zion, Rhode Island. That’s nice to know.

His very first story, he told me as he was dying, was set in Camelot, the court of King Arthur in Britain: Merlin the Court Magician casts a spell that allows him to equip the Knights of the Round Table with Thompson submachine guns and drums of .45-caliber dumdums.

Sir Galahad, the purest in heart and mind, familiarizes himself with this new virtue-compelling appliance. While doing so, he puts a slug through the Holy Grail and makes a Swiss cheese of Queen Guinevere.

————

Here is what Trout said when he realized that the ten-year rerun was over, that he and everybody else were suddenly obligated to think of new stuff to do, to be creative again: “Oh, Lordy! I am much too old and experienced to start playing Russian roulette with free will again.”

Yes, and I myself was a character in Timequake One, making a cameo appearance at a clambake on the beach at the writers’ retreat Xanadu in the summer of 2001, six months after the end of the rerun, six months after free will kicked in again.

I was there with several fictitious persons from the book, including Kilgore Trout. I was privileged to hear the old, long-out-of-print science fiction writer describe for us, and then demonstrate, the special place of Earthlings in the cosmic scheme of things.

————

So now my last book is done, with the exception of this preface. Today is November 12th, 1996, about nine months, I would guess, from its publication date, from its emergence from the birth canal of a printing press. There is no rush. The gestation period for a baby Indian elephant is more than twice that long.

The gestation period for a baby opossum, friends and neighbors, is twelve days.

————

I have pretended in this book that I will still be alive for the clam-bake in 2001. In chapter 46, I imagine myself as still alive in 2010. Sometimes I say I’m in 1996, where I really am, and sometimes I say I am in the midst of a rerun following a timequake, without making clear distinctions between the two situations.

I must be nuts.

<><><><><><><><>

So, why open this nutty book in the first place?  First, while Vonnegut is always entertaining, Timequake is laugh-out-loud funny in more places than just about any other book I can think of.  Here is one example:

A boyhood friend of mine, William H. C. “Skip” Failey, who died four months ago and is up in Heaven now, had good reason when a high school sophomore to think of himself as unbeatable at Ping-Pong.  I am no slouch at Ping-Pong myself, but I wouldn’t play against Skip.  He put so much spin on his serve that no matter how I tried to return it, I already knew it would go up my nose or out the window or back to the factory, anywhere but on the table.

Second, Timequake contains a good deal of wisdom, both the folk variety and the solid gold kind, born of a lifetime of experiences both joyful and painful, processed through a questioning, intelligent mind.  Listen to this:

My uncle Alex Vonnegut, a Harvard-educated life insurance salesman who lived at 5033 North Pennsylvania Street, taught me something very important.  He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to notice it.

            He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery, or fishing and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door.

            Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

And this:

I have taught creative writing during my seventy-three years on automatic pilot, rerun or not.  I did it first at the University of Iowa in 1965.  After that came Harvard, and then the City College of New York.  I don’t do it anymore.

            I taught how to be sociable with ink on paper… Still and all, why bother?  Here’s my answer: Many people need desperately to receive this message: “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people don’t care about them.  You are not alone.”

Who would not want to hear messages like that?

Third, Timequake overflows with ideas, some gently subversive or heretical, all of them thought-provoking.  On page 20, for example, he writes about televisions: “… satanic devices, which made imaginations redundant.  They were instantly popular because the shows were so attractive and no thinking was involved.”

And from page 22, “In the only love story [Trout] had ever attempted, ‘Kiss Me Again,’ he had written, ‘There is no way a beautiful woman can live up to what she looks like for any appreciable length of time.’  The moral at the end of that story is this: ‘Men are jerks.  Women are psychotic.’”

Vonnegut apparently knew while he was writing Timequake that it would be his final novel, and from first to last, it feels like a last will and testament.  In places, he seems to be writing his own literary epitaph, and wants to be absolutely clear about where he stands regarding things he considers important.  One of those is kindness, references to which recur throughout Timequake.  At one point, he writes:

When the City of London wanted to give [George Bernard] Shaw its Order of Merit, he thanked them for it, but said he had already given it to himself.

            I would have accepted it.  I would have recognized the opportunity for a world-class joke, but would never allow myself to be funny at the cost of making somebody else feel like something the cat drug in.

            Let that be my epitaph.

To give another example, take this short passage about Eugene Debs:

I still quote Eugene Debs (1855-1926), late of Terre Haute, Indiana, five times the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, in every speech:

            “While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

            In recent years, I’ve found it prudent to say before quoting Debs that he is to be taken seriously.  Otherwise many in the audience will start to laugh.  They are being nice, not mean, knowing I like to be funny.  But it is also a sign of these times that such a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount can be perceived as outdated, wholly discredited horsecrap.

            Which it is not.

In addition to being an epitaph, Timequake is also a leave-taking from those closest to Vonnegut: his sister Allie, his first wife Jane, and his brother Bernie. Vonnegut writes about his first wife:

Jane could believe with all hear heart anything that made being alive seem full of white magic.  That was her strength.  She was raised a Quaker, but stopped going to meetings of Friends after her four happy years at Swarthmore.  She became an Episcopalian after marrying Adam, who remained a Jew.  She died believing in the Trinity, and Heaven and Hell and all the rest of it.  I’m so glad.  Why?  Because I loved her.

And listen to what Vonnegut says about his brother Bernie:

More news of this day in August, halfway through the rerun, as yet another autumn draws near:  My big brother Bernie, the born scientist who may know more about the electrification of thunderstorms than anyone, has an invariably fatal cancer, too far advanced to be daunted by the Three Horsemen of the Oncologic Apocalypse, Surgery, Chemotherapy, and Radiation.

            Bernie still feels fine.

            It is much too early to talk about, but when he dies, God forbid, I don’t think his ashes should be put in Crown Hill Cemetery with James Whitcomb Riley and John Dillinger, who belonged only to Indiana.  Bernie belongs to the World.

            Bernie’s ashes should be scattered over the dome of a towering thunderhead.

If pressed to reveal the single most important message in Timequake, I think Vonnegut might have said that what we need to realize is that for us, today, the timequake has passed.  Free will has kicked in again, and we are not prisoners or robots of our pasts anymore.  Listen to what he says on page 193 of my edition:

What matters now is that, on the afternoon of February 13, 2001, Kilgore Trout roused Dudley Prince from his Post-Timequake Apathy.  Trout urged him to speak, to say anything, no matter how nonsensical.  Trout suggested he say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag,” or whatever, to prove to himself thereby that he was again in charge of his own destiny.

Prince spoke groggily at first.  He didn’t pledge allegiance, but indicated instead that he was trying to understand everything Trout had said to him so far.  He said, “You told me I had something.”

“You were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do,” said Trout.

Conscious or not, this is a clear echo of Candide, in which Voltaire writes, “That’s true enough,” said Candide; “but we must go and work in the garden.”

For all his charm and wisdom, at various points in Timequake, Vonnegut falls prey to what he himself might be tempted to call “Old Fart Syndrome”, a condition in which people reflect fondly and often on an earlier time, bemoan the disappearance of certain aspects of their youth, and make unfavorable comparisons between what they see today and what they knew then.  Take, for example, this passage:

In the early days of television, when there were only half a dozen channels at most, significant, well-written dramas on a cathode-ray tube could still make us feel like members of an attentive congregation, alone at home as we might be.  There was a high probability back then, with so few shows to choose from, that friends and neighbors were watching the same show we were watching, still finding TV a whizbang miracle.

            We might even call up a friend that very night, and ask a question to which we already knew the answer: “Did you see that?  Wow!”

            No more.

Perhaps Vonnegut never saw “Roots”, and of course, he wasn’t alive to watch “Downton Abbey”.

Early in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield muses, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”  I feel sure that, after reading Timequake, Holden would have wanted to call Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut was that kind of guy.  Holden would have agreed with me that, if sitting down with Kurt Vonnegut for an hour or two isn’t nice, what is?

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on August 31, 2013 at 6:04 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: ,

Book Review: “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” by Herman Wouk

Together, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) make up  Herman Wouk’s epic two-volume novel of World War II.  Although, as Wouk (pronounced “woke”) writes in his foreword to the second volume, “War and Remembrance is a story in itself, and can be read without the prologue,” it would be a serious mistake to skip The Winds of War.  You will miss too much of value if you do.  The two books tell one story, published in two volumes for no reason other than its length.

Throughout this story, Wouk focuses on the Henry family: career naval officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife Rhoda, and their three children: sons Warren and Byron – together with Byron’s wife Natalie and her uncle, Aaron Jastrow – and their daughter Madeline.  Through their experiences, Wouk undertakes to tell nothing less than the entire story of World War II – in both Europe and the Pacific – from beginning to end, as well as the Holocaust that laid waste to European Jewry.  It is a story of extraordinary scope, and while some aspects of the war are described in greater detail than others, the result is a picture of this immense conflict that feels complete.

The primary reason that I picked up The Winds of War in the first place was that I was hoping to find the answer to a question that has troubled me for years:  How could the political and military leaders of one of the most culturally advanced and educated people in Europe have systematically slaughtered six million people in what we know today as The Holocaust?

I have to digress for a minute to talk about that number.  Six million is the most commonly accepted figure for the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis in World War II.  The exact number is impossible to know with certainty, but six million is a reasonable estimate.  Can anyone really grasp how many people that is?  Consider this: the Boston Red Sox play their home games at Fenway Park, which seats about 37,000.  The stadium is sold out for every game the Red Sox play there.  If we were to take all the fans who crowd into Fenway over the course of two seasons – 37,000 men, women, and children for 81 games a year, for two years – and murder them all, we would have killed approximately as many people as the number of Jews who died under the oppression of Nazi Germany.

Six million people!  It staggers the imagination. How was it possible?  How could the leadership of Germany ever have conceived such a plan, much less implemented it?  How could the citizens of Germany have permitted it?  And how, finally, could the Jews have submitted to it?  I have struggled with these questions for years.  These two books finally gave me an answer.  To be sure, it is not a simple answer, and perhaps not a complete one, but the causes were many, diverse, and far from obvious.

Wouk approaches this question from many different points of view.  On page 175 of my paperback edition of War and Remembrance (Pocket Books, 1980), Father Martin, a German priest, says to Leslie Slote, an American Foreign Service official:

You must understand Germany, Herr Slote… It is another world.  We are a politically inexperienced people, we know only to follow orders from above… But we are naïve, and we have been humbugged.  An Antichrist has beguiled us, and with his brutish pseudoreligious nationalism he is leading us on the path to hell.  Our capacity for religious fervor and for unthinking energetic obedience is unfortunately bottomless.  Hitler and National Socialism are a ghastly perversion of an honest German thirst for faith, for hope, for a second modern metaphysics.  We are drinking salt water to quench our thirst.  If he is not stopped, the end will be an immeasurable cataclysm.

Another point of view is provided through the character of the German general, Armin von Roon, whose written history of the war, “World Empire Lost” – entirely Wouk’s creation – adds a fascinating perspective to the narrative as a whole.  On page 198, von Roon is quoted as follows:

It was Adolf Hitler’s political genius to weld the mystique of the nationalist Reich to the rabble-rousing appeal of socialism.  National Socialism resulted, an explosive mass movement.  The modified socialism of Hitler was unobjectionable to the army.  It amounted to Spartan economic controls, and basic employment, health, and welfare measures for all the people except the Jews.

But the Jews were the backbone of German liberalism.  Liberalism had given them the rights and privileges of citizens.  Liberalism had turned them loose to use their energy and cleverness in finance, the professions, and the arts.  These people who had been kept apart were now to be seen everywhere – prosperous, exotic, holding high places, and indiscreetly displaying their new-won gains.  To the Jews, liberalism was their salvation.  Therefore, to a dedicated nationalist like Adolph Hitler, the Jews appeared as ultimate enemies.

Tragically, it all depended on the point of view…

These things speak for themselves.  Hitler exaggerated the threat of the Jews, and badly led astray the well-meaning German people.  The Jews would have served us well.  Their weight in manpower, skill, and international influence, added on our side instead of subtracted from it, would have been most welcome.  Perhaps the war might even have ended differently!

The writings of Natalie’s uncle, Aaron Jastrow, also figure prominently in War and Remembrance, and add another dimension to the question of the causes of the Holocaust.  On page 801, Jastrow writes:

The hospital time passed quickly because I talked a lot with Dr. R_____.  He wants me to bear witness, when I return to the United States, that the “other Germany” lives on, shamed, silenced, and horrified by the Hitler regime; the Germany of the great poets and philosophers, of Goethe and Beethoven, of the scientific pioneers, of the advanced social legislators of Weimar, of the progressive labor movement that Hitler destroyed, of the good-hearted common people who in the last free election voted by an increased majority against the Nazis; only to be betrayed by the old-line politicians like Papen and the senile Hindenburg who took Hitler into the government when he had passed his peak, and brought on the great disaster.

As for what ensued, he asks me to picture the Ku Klux Klan seizing power in the United States.  That is what happened to Germany, he says.  The Nazi Party is an enormous German Ku Klux Klan.  He points to the dramatic use of fire rituals at night, the anti-Semitism, the bizarre uniforms, the bellicose know-nothing hatred of liberal ideas, and of foreigners and so forth.  I rejoined that the Klan is a mere lunatic splinter group, not a major party capable of governing the nation.  Then he cited the Klan of Reconstruction days, a respectable widespread movement which many of the leading Southerners joined; also the role of the modern Klan in the Democratic politics of the twenties.

Later on (page 1092), Jastrow writes more extensively about this question:

For that matter, what sense is there to the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) gas cellars?  I have thought and thought about that for weeks, with dizzied brain.  Calling the Germans sadists, butchers, beasts, savages explains nothing, for they are men and women like us.  I have an idea, and I will scribble it down, with much more certainty than I feel.  The root of the matter cannot be Hitler.  I start with that premise.  Such a thing must have been brewing for centuries, to have encountered so little resistance among the Germans when it happened.

Napoleon forced liberty and equality on the Germans.  From the outset they gagged on it.  With cannon and tramping boots, he invaded a patchwork of absolutist states hardly out of feudalism.  He ground the faces of the Germans in the brotherhood of man.  Freeing the Jews was part of this new liberal humanism.  It was not natural to the Germans, but they conformed.

Alas, we Jews believed in the change, but the Germans in their hearts never did.  It was the conqueror’s creed.  It swept Europe, but not Germany.  Their (i.e., the German) Romantic philosophers inveighed against the un-German Enlightenment, their anti-Semitic political parties sprouted, while Germany grew and grew into an industrial giant, never convinced of the “Western” ideas.

Their defeat (in the First World War) under the Kaiser, and the great inflation and crash, generated in them a terrible frustrated anger.  The communists threatened chaos and overthrow.  Weimar was falling apart.  When Hitler rose from this witches’ brew, like an oracular spook in Macbeth, and pointed at the Jews in the department stores and the opera promenades; when he thundered that not only were they the visible beneficiaries of Germany’s wrongs, but the actual cause of them; when that frenzied historical formula rolled forth as mendaciously simple as the Marxist slogans, but more candidly bloodthirsty; then the German rage was released in an explosion of national energy and joy, and the plausible maniac who had released it had his murder weapon in hand.  Bottomless lack of compunction in the Germans peculiarly fitted the weapon to the man.  Awareness of this baffling trait had to be kicked into me.  I am still puzzling over it.

Wouk also examines this question at length in his own voice.  Beginning on page 959, he writes:

The intention to kill every Jew in Europe – and every Jew in the world, as German domination expanded – was, for Hitler and his trusted few, probably never in doubt.  It crystallized in deeds and documents early in the war.  The paper trail remains exiguous, and Hitler apparently never signed anything; but that the order came down from him to execute his threats in Mein Kampf appears self-evident.

However, old-fashioned notions in the world outside Germany presented difficulties: mercy, justice, the right of all human beings to life and safety, horror of killing women and children, and so forth.  But for the National Socialists, killing was the nature of war; German women and children were dying under bombs; the definition of enemy was a matter of government decision.  That the Jews were Germany’s greatest enemy was an article at the core of National Socialist policy.  That was why, even as Germany in 1944 began to crumple, crucial war resources continued to go to murdering Jews.  To the critical military mind this made no sense.  To the leaders whom the nation passionately followed to the last it made total sense.  In the last will and testament that Adolf Hitler wrote, before blowing his brains out in his Berlin bunker, he boasted of his “humane” massacre of the Jews – he used that word – and exhorted the defeated German people to go on killing them.

In dealing with the softhearted prejudices of the benighted outside world during the great slaughter, the essential National Socialist policy was hoax.  Wartime secrecy made possible the job of covering up the actual killings.  No reporters traveled with the Einsatzgruppen (“task forces”) or got into Auschwitz.  It was a question first of counteracting the ever-growing flood of leaks and rumors about the slayings, and second of getting rid of the evidence.  The corpse-burning squads of Paul Blobel, and the Paradise Ghetto of Terezin, were complimentary aspects of the great hoax.  Theresienstadt would show that the slaughter was not happening.  The corpse-burning squads would erase any evidence that it had ever happened.

Today the notion of forever concealing the murder of many millions of people may seem utterly crazy.  But the energy and ingenuity of the entire German nation were at Hitler’s disposal.  The Germans were performing many other prodigious mad feats for him.

The most triumphant part of the hoax was directed at the Jews themselves.  All through the four years of the giant slaughter, most of them never knew, few suspected, and fewer truly believed that the trains were taking them to their deaths.  The Germans soothed them with the most diverse and elaborate lies about where they were going, and what they would do when they arrived.  This faking lasted to the final seconds of their lives, when they were led naked into the “disinfection shower baths” which were asphyxiation dungeons.

Today, again, the millions of doomed Jews may seem crazily simple-minded to have swallowed the hoax and walked like oxen to the knife.  But as the patient refuses to believe he has leukemia but grasps at any straws of reassurance, so the European Jews willed not to believe the ever-mounting rumors and reports that the Germans meant simply to kill them all.

To believe that, after all, they had to believe that the legal government of Germany was systematically and officially perpetrating a homicidal fraud gigantic beyond imagining.  They had to believe that the function of the state itself, created by human society for its self-protection, had mutated in an advanced Western nation to the function of secretly executing multitudes of men, women, and children who had done nothing wrong, with no warning, no accusation, and no trial.  This happened to be the truth, but to the last most of the Jews who died could not grasp it.  Nor can we, even in hindsight, altogether blame them, since we ourselves still find this one stark fact absolutely incomprehensible.

If Wouk’s primary purpose in writing The Winds of War and War and Remembrance was to relate the events of the Holocaust within the larger framework of World War II, why not write a history book?  The answer is, Wouk is a storyteller.  He wants to give this drama a human face.  There is a vast amount of valuable and fascinating history in these pages, enough to satisfy any student of this era.  But by writing a novel, Wouk brings the story to life, giving it far more impact and making it much more memorable than if he had written straight history.  Making it memorable was critical to Wouk, who ends his foreword to War and Remembrance with these words: “The beginning of the end of War lies in Remembrance.”

Everyone should read these books.  In my opinion, they comprise the most important novel to come out of World War II.  You may be prompted, as I was, while reading about the role that prejudice played in the devastation of the Holocaust, to reflect on the prejudices that you grew up with, and the extent to which they may yet live on in you.  And, you may also be struck, as I was, by the unimaginable pain and suffering caused by war, and feel a renewed conviction that going to war must never be anything other than the final option, when all others have been exhausted.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2012 at 9:29 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010

As regular readers of this blog may remember, I posted reviews of the first two books in Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” series late last year.  Frugal to a fault, I’ve been waiting to write a review of the third book until it came out in paperback.  My wait came to an unexpected and happy end on Christmas, when I received a Kindle Touch from my wife and an Amazon.com gift card from my older son and daughter-in-law.  Here then is my long-delayed review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

The third installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series begins where the second one ends.  Lisbeth Salander has been shot by Zalachenko, and is airlifted to Sahlgrenska Hospital in Göteborg with bullet wounds in her head, hip, and shoulder.  The surgery to save her life is successful, but her recovery is a lengthy one.

The reader spends much of Salander’s convalescence happily anticipating her trial, but before we get there, we must wend our way through several subplots.  One concerns The Section, an ultra-secret branch of Swedish Internal Security, and a group within The Section charged with handling the defector Zalachenko.  Another involves Erika Berger’s move to Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, Svenska Morgon-Posten, and a determined stalker she encounters there.

As interesting as these subplots are, I found myself growing impatient to get back to Salander’s story.  I began to wish – as I had during The Girl Who Played with Fire – that Larsson had engaged the services of a judicious editor.  Before he actually gets back to Salander, however, I realized that hers is not the only story here.  Larsson wants to tell us about Blomqvist too, obviously, as well as Berger, Annika Giannini, Monica Figuerola, Susanne Linder, and others.  I get the feeling that once he set his characters in motion, he had no choice but to run after them as fast as he could, writing down everything they say and do.  Perhaps the breadth of Larsson’s story stems from his background as a journalist, which required him to report everything with minimal editing.  It’s all important to Larsson, and ultimately, to us too.

In any case, Larsson structures events in such a way as to create a suspense that is positively palpable, and a climax that is exceptionally satisfying.  The loose ends of the story – the tangled strands of the plots and subplots – are all masterfully resolved.

I am generally not a reader of popular fiction – there are still so many classics that I have yet to read – but I have made a three-fold exception in the case of the Millennium trilogy.  Why does Millennium matter?  First, I can’t help but admire Larsson’s ability to bring his characters to life.  They are, in a word, unforgettable, and I want to know them better and to share my enthusiasm for them with others, though given the enormous popularity of the series, my contribution in this area is hardly necessary.

Foremost among his creations is of course Lisbeth Salander.  As Blomqvist says, Lisbeth is “…certainly unique, and she’s the most antisocial person I’ve ever known.”  Although true, this is not the whole story.  Observing Lisbeth’s growth is one of the most rewarding aspects of the trilogy.  The line that reveals it best is something Lisbeth says to Annika Giannini: “I…I’m not good at relationships.  But I do trust you.”  This is a defining moment for Lisbeth, and certainly not something she would have said at the beginning of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Second, Millenium matters because of Larsson’s realism.  His characters and plots all have an unmistakable ring of truth to them.  Not only do we enjoy his series, we can learn from it.

Finally, Millenium matters because of the relevance of its themes, the most important of which is the hatred that some men – many men – feel toward women.  As Blomkvist himself says, “When it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.”  Lisbeth Salander becomes a heroic figure because of her uncompromising fight against this hatred, and her ultimate triumph over it.

As important as this theme is, however, we should keep in mind that Larsson’s view of men is primarily a positive one.  For every man in this trilogy who hates women, there are at least two who treat them with love and respect.

There is one more significant theme.  Larsson was a career journalist and investigative reporter, and well aware that governments are likely to confuse what is right with what is merely self-serving.  They are more than capable of lying to their citizenry, and engaging in massive cover-ups and disinformation campaigns.  As citizens, we need to be aware of this, and strive to distinguish the lies from the truth.  The difficulty, of course, lies in knowing whom to believe.  News outlets are all biased to some degree.  The news they choose to report and the way they report it are all influenced by that bias.  We ourselves are biased too, no matter how strenuously we might deny it.  What we see and hear is inevitably filtered through our biases.  Would we know the truth if we heard it?  How can we be sure?

At one point, the question is put to Blomkvist: “How is it possible that civil servants in the Swedish government will go so far as to commit murder?”  He responds, “The only reasonable explanation I can give is that over the years the Section developed into a cult in the true sense of the word.  They became like Knutby, or the pastor Jim Jones, or something like that.  They write their own laws, within which concepts like right and wrong have ceased to be relevant.  And through these laws they imagine themselves isolated from normal society.”

There are times, Larsson is saying, when it pays to be paranoid.

We can well regret that Larsson died after completing just three of ten projected books in this series.  He died in 2004, with a 4th novel 2/3 completed, according to those who knew him best.  Personally, I’m sorry that we never get to meet Lisbeth’s twin sister Camilla, and that the relationship between Blomqvist and Monica Figuerola isn’t given more of an opportunity to develop.  On the other hand, I’m grateful for what we have, and that the series doesn’t end with a cliffhanger.  What we have is a complete story, and a captivating one at that.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on December 31, 2011 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

Book Review: Unbroken

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand; Random House, 2010

One of the words critics like to use (I have used it myself, on occasion) when they particularly like something is the word “definitive”, as in, for example, “the definitive performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto” or, “the definitive history of the Six-Day War”.  What they mean by this is that this performance – or this history – sets a standard by which every other performance of this concerto, or history of this war, will henceforth be judged.  It is high praise, indeed, and often misapplied.  The definitive performance turns out to be the one the critic happened to hear first, and the definitive history the one which provides the most justification for his or her preconceptions.  Nevertheless, I have no hesitation at all in affirming that Laura Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken is definitive in not just one way, but two.  It is the definitive account of survival in a small raft at sea, and the equally definitive description of life as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II.  Once you’ve read this book, there is no need to read any other on either subject.

The hero of Unbroken is Louis Zamperini.  Born in Olean, New York in January 1917, Louie moved with his family soon after to Torrance, California.  To say that as a boy, Louie was high-spirited would be unduly kind.  The boy was incorrigible!  Whether he was smoking at age five, drinking at eight, or thieving whenever he had the chance, he was a clear case of trouble just waiting to happen.  What the reader takes away from his early misadventures, however, is not so much a sense of his delinquency as of his independence of spirit, a strength of identity and will that would be essential to his survival later on.

Early in 1941, while working as a welder for Lockheed, Louie joined the Army Air Corps., and in November, he was designated for training as a bombardier.  While on a search and rescue mission out of Honolulu, his B-24, the Green Hornet, went down in what appears to have been a combination of mechanical failure and human error, killing everyone on board except the pilot, Allen Phillips, tail gunner Francis McNamara, and Louie.  Although McNamara died on Day 33, Phillips and Louie continued to battle the elements, the sharks, and their ever-present thirst and hunger for 47 days, until they were finally picked up near an atoll in the Marshall Islands.

If there were any justice in the world, the story would have ended there, and Louie and Phillips’ ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination would have been rewarded with prompt medical attention and a hero’s homecoming.  This was not to be.  After drifting for two thousand miles and enduring the most appalling deprivations, their tiny raft was finally spotted not by comrades-in-arms, but by sailors of the Japanese navy.  What followed must be read to be believed, but even after reading it, you may still find it unbelievable.  I will say only that if I had to choose between the perils of the open ocean and the systematic abuse and degradation that Phillips and Louie suffered at the hands of their Japanese captors, I would choose the ocean without a moment’s hesitation.

Unbroken both raises and effectively answers a number of questions.  What was it about the Japanese culture of that time that made such sadistic treatment of one’s fellow man possible, and even sanctioned it?  Miss Hillenbrand provides part of the answer in this passage:

Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide.  This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose.  On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people.  Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen.  The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.  The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.  In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.

Later, she writes:

This tendency was powerfully reinforced by two opinions common in Japanese society in that era.  One held that Japanese were racially and morally superior to non-Japanese, a “pure” people divinely destined to rule.  Just as Allied soldiers, like the cultures they came from, often held virulently racist views of the Japanese, Japanese soldiers and civilians, intensely propagandized by their government, usually carried their own caustic prejudices about their enemies, seeing them as brutish, subhuman beasts or fearsome “Anglo-Saxon devils.”  This racism, and the hatred and fear it fomented, surely served as an accelerant for abuse of Allied prisoners.

In terms of numbers, what was the result of this perverted world-view?

In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination.  In the midst of it were the prisoners of war.  Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia.  Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four.  Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935 – more than 37 percent – died.  By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died.  Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway.  Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism.  And as a result of being fed grossly inadequate and befouled food and water, thousands more died of starvation and easily preventable diseases.  Of the 2,500 POWs at Borneo’s Sandakan camp, only 6, all escapees, made it to September 1945 alive.  Left out of the numbing statistics are untold numbers of men who were captured and killed on the spot or dragged to places like Kwajalein, to be murdered without the world ever learning their fate.

In accordance with the kill-all order, the Japanese murdered all 5,000 Korean captives on Tinian, all of the POWs on Ballale, Wake, and Tarawa, and all but 11 POWs at Palawan.  They were evidently about to murder all the other POWs and civilian internees in their custody when the atomic bomb brought their empire crashing down.

And what, finally, was the cost to those who survived?

At the end of World War II, thousands of former prisoners of the Japanese, known as Pacific POWs, began their postwar lives.  Physically, almost every one of them was ravaged.  The average army or army air forces Pacific POW had lost sixty-one pounds in captivity, a remarkable statistic given that roughly three-quarters of the men had weighed just 159 pounds or less upon enlistment…

The physical injuries were lasting, debilitating, and sometimes deadly.  A 1954 study found that in the first two postwar years, former Pacific POWs died at almost four times the expected rate for men of their age, and continued to die at unusually high rates for many years…

As bad as were the physical consequences of captivity, the emotional injuries were much more insidious, widespread, and enduring… For some, there was only one way out: a 1970 study reported that former Pacific POWs committed suicide 30 percent more often than controls.

This is an exceptionally worthwhile book; in fact, I am tempted to say an essential one.  I came away from it, as Laura Hillenbrand writes in her acknowledgments, “with the deepest appreciation for what these men endured, and what they sacrificed, for the good of humanity.”

I came away from it with more than that, however; a renewed conviction that mankind must find a way to resolve its differences short of war.  It would be gratifying to think that we have learned a lesson from the atomic devastation that ended the war with Japan, and that our awareness of the inconceivably horrific and far-reaching consequences of a modern all-out war will suffice as a deterrent, but that is not enough.  We have to stop killing one another.  We must all, finally and unequivocally, accept and embrace the brotherhood of man.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on June 30, 2011 at 10:32 pm  Comments (5)  
Tags: , ,

Book Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson;  Vintage Books, 2010

The second installment of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, begins one year after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Mikael Blomqvist has weathered the tidal wave of attention that followed his exposé of Hans-Erik Wennerström, and Lisbeth Salander, who has been on an extended world tour, finds herself in the middle of a hurricane on the island of Grenada.  Their paths converge shortly after Lisbeth returns to Stockholm, when she is implicated in the triple murder of Dag Svensson, who had been working for Millennium on an exposé about sex-trafficking; his girlfriend Mia Johansson, and Salander’s court-appointed guardian, Nils Bjurman.

The investigation into the three murders takes place on several fronts.  While the police are proceding on the assumption of Salander’s guilt, and Blomqvist is trying to establish her innocence, Lisbeth herself is content to follow the investigation from a distance, until she discovers a link between the murders and a pivotal event in her past, forever identified in her mind as “All The Evil”.  This link involves Säpo – the Swedish Security Police – and as Lisbeth probes deeper into the connection, we are introduced to a motley crew of characters, including men who prey on underage women, a blond giant with congenital analgesia, and finally, to the mysterious Zala himself.

Just as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson’s attention in this novel is focused unblinkingly on men who hate women.  In a telling passage, he writes,

Teleborian was the most loathsome and disgusting sadist Salander had ever met in her life, bar none.  He outclassed Bjurman by a mile.  Bjurman had been unspeakably brutal, but she could handle him.  Teleborian, on the other hand, was shielded behind a curtain of documents, assessments, academic honours and psychiatric mumbo jumbo.  Not a single one of his actions could ever be reported or criticized.  He had a state-endorsed mandate to tie down disobedient little girls with leather straps.

Unlike its predecessor novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire would have benefited from a little judicious editing.  Larsson dwells at unnecessary length on Fermat’s Last Theorem, and as I wended my way through the novel, it occurred to me more than once that if no one ever hacked into another computer, lit another cigarette, or bought one more Billy’s Pan Pizza, it would be just fine with me.  This small quibble notwithstanding, The Girl Who Played with Fire is in every way a worthy sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Throughout the story, Larsson evidences an unflagging attention to detail and unerring instinct for plot development.  Lisbeth Salander, while remaining – in the words of her friend Mimmi – “the most secretive and unapproachable person I know,” is arguably one of the most engaging heroines in recent memory.

If you haven’t already read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you should definitely read it first.  If, on the other hand, you’ve already read that book, then you hardly need my recommendation to go out and get this one.  Chances are, you already have it.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 11:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson; Vintage Books, 2009

Every now and then, one happens upon a book so compelling that our life is essentially placed on hold until we finish reading it.  Beds go unmade, dishes languish in the sink, social obligations are postponed or ignored; everything waits until we finish the book.  One such book was Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs; another is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.

A copy of this book fell into my hands during a recent trip to Denver, courtesy of my friend Kay Stevenson, and I was up until 2:00 last night reading it.  Briefly, the novel tells the story of Mikael Blomqvist, the co-owner and publisher of the financial watchdog magazine Millennium, and Lisbeth Salander, a socially awkward, abundantly tattooed, fiercely independent private investigator and computer hacker extraordinaire.  Blomqvist is hired by aged industrialist Henrik Vanger to investigate – and if possible, to resolve – the disappearance thirty-six years ago of his niece Harriet, and he hires Salander to aid him in his pursuit.  The working out of this mystery is compelling in and of itself, but more enthralling still is the character development of the novel’s protagonists, especially Lisbeth Salander, who engages our interest and sympathies from start to finish.

Originally written in Swedish, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was first published as Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, “Men Who Hate Women”.  That title tells us a lot about the author’s central theme, which is the tendency of power to corrupt both morally and sexually.  Yet for every character in the book who does hate women, there is a Mikael Blomqvist, Holger Palmgren, Henrik Vanger, or Dragan Armansky, who love and respect them.  It is obvious also that Stieg Larsson himself loves women, or did.  Tragically, he died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a polemic on the evils of men; it is a psychological thriller, and a first-rate one at that.  As such, I heartily recommend it.

Just be sure you don’t have anything else you have to do.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on October 31, 2010 at 11:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

J. D. Salinger (1919 – 2010)

J. D. Salinger on Time Magazine September 15, 1961

J. D. Salinger, American author, who was born on January 1, 1919, died three days ago at his home in New Hampshire, at the age of 91.  (Have you noticed how long people are living nowadays?  Isn’t it great!)  Salinger’s reputation rests primarily on one novel, three novellas, and a handful of short stories, and while the literary world is holding its collective breath over the possibility of new posthumous works, Salinger’s status as one of the giants of American letters is secure, even if nothing new is ever forthcoming.

Salinger’s greatest strength as a writer was his ability to create flesh and blood characters, and infuse life into them.  I know of no other author whose characters come to life more vividly than his.  If I were asked to name just a few of his greatest creations, I would begin with Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, the title characters from Franny and Zooey, Seymour and Muriel Glass from A Perfect Day for Bananafish, and Boo Boo Tannenbaum from Down at the Dinghy.  I could go on and on, and it pains me not to mention a whole host of his minor characters, all of whom are drawn with unerring accuracy and attention to detail.  I must mention, however, the extraordinary success that Salinger achieved in his portrayals of children.  If you are familiar with his short stories, take another look at Sybil in Bananafish, at Lionel in Down at the Dinghy, and at Teddy and Booper in Teddy.  In his portrayals of children at least, Salinger’s achievements have not only never been exceeded, they are unequaled.

A key component of Salinger’s success in characterization was his uncanny ear for dialog.  If there is a writer’s equivalent of perfect pitch in a musician, Salinger had it in spades.  When his characters speak, we can see right into their souls.  We learn at least as much about them from how they speak as from what they say.

To illustrate this, I have reproduced below a short excerpt from A Perfect Day for Bananafish.  One of Salinger’s most compelling works, Bananafish is my idea of the perfect short story.  If you haven’t read it, you should run – not walk – to your nearest library or bookstore, pick up a copy of Nine Stories, and read the very first one.

A Perfect Day for Bananafish (excerpt)

There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.  She used the time, though.  She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called “Sex Is Fun-or Hell.”  She washed her comb and brush.  She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit.  She moved the button on her Saks blouse.  She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole.  When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.  She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

With her little lacquer brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon.  She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left – the wet – hand back and forth through the air.  With her dry hand, she picked up a congested ashtray from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood.  She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds and – it was the fifth or sixth ring – picked up the phone.

“Hello,” she said, keeping the fingers of her left hand outstretched and away from her white silk dressing gown, which was all that she was wearing, except mules – her rings were in the bathroom.

“I have your call to New York now, Mrs. Glass,” the operator said.

“Thank you,” said the girl, and made room on the night table for the ashtray.

A woman’s voice came through. “Muriel?  Is that you?”

The girl turned the receiver slightly away from her hear.  “Yes, Mother.  How are you?” she said.

“I’ve been worried to death about you.  Why haven’t you phoned?  Are you all right?”

“I tried to get you last night and the night before.  The phone here’s been – ”

“Are you all right, Muriel?”

The girl increased the angle between the receiver and her ear.  “I’m fine.  I’m hot.  This is the hottest day they’ve had in Florida in – ”

“Why haven’t you called me?  I’ve been worried to – ”

“Mother, darling, don’t yell at me.  I can hear you beautifully,” said the girl.  “I called you twice last night.  Once just after – ”

“I told your father you’d probably call last night.  But, no, he had to – Are you all right, Muriel?  Tell me the truth.”

“I’m fine.  Stop asking me that, please.”

“When did you get there?”

“I don’t know.  Wednesday morning, early.”

“Who drove?”

“He did,” said the girl.  “And don’t get excited.  He drove very nicely.  I was amazed.”

He drove?  Muriel, you gave me your word of – ”

“Mother,” the girl interrupted, “I just told you.  He drove very nicely.  Under fifty the whole way, as a matter of fact.”

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

“I said he drove very nicely, Mother.  Now, please.  I asked him to stay close to the white line, and all, and he knew what I meant, and he did.  He was even trying not to look at the trees – you could tell.  Did Daddy get the car fixed, incidentally?”

“Not yet.  They want four hundred dollars, just to – ”

“Mother, Seymour told Daddy that he’d pay for it.  There’s no reason for – ”

“Well, we’ll see.  How did he behave – in the car and all?”

“All right,” said the girl.

“Did he keep calling you that awful – ”

“No.  He has something new now.”

“What?”

“Oh, what’s the difference, Mother?”

“Muriel, I want to know.  Your father – ”

“All right, all right.  He calls me Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” the girl said, and giggled…

Isn’t that amazing? Don’t you feel like you know these people, after just a few minutes of dialog?  This is Salinger’s great gift: He creates real people.  Characterization is far more important to him than plot, which serves primarily as a means for him to delve into his characters.  We, the readers, feel that we know them.  Within a few lines, their issues, their lives, become important to us, and we care about them.

If you are unfamiliar with Salinger, I would begin with The Catcher in the Rye. It is a classic, and mandatory reading for everyone.  Then I would pick up his volume of Nine Stories, and read A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Down at the Dinghy, and Teddy.  For your next course, read Franny and Zooey, and if you still hunger for more, read Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction and the rest of the Nine Stories.  You may get hooked on Salinger, but you will never regret a single minute of the time you spend with him.

Derrick Robinson