The December Online Book Choice Is:

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro


‘Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.’

The narrative of this book hops between post-WWII Japan to England, past to present. It is intentionally disorienting, which is significant for plot development. And there is an underlying thread of horror that pervades the novel. Etsuko and her relationship with Sachiko is a strange one. Sachiko is a mysterious character. With her daughter Mariko, she is living on the tattered edges of post-War Japan and barely making it. Her relationship with her daughter is distant.

The 20th century themes are all here: psychological ambiguities, culture clash, generational conflict, and ghosts from the past; the weight of the past and also hiding from it. For most of the characters, hands are tied, they can’t seem to make a human connection to each other. Remembering, listening, knowing, are all placed in a sort of fog.

The only break from all the strangeness is Etsuko’s close relationship with her father-in-law. Interestingly, by the end of the book there is no difference between Ogata-san’s words and Etsuko’s.

And at the end, the characters Etsuko and Sachiko collide. It is evident that some sort of mental block on the part of Etsuko has been lifted. And it is significant that the definition of the name Mariko means ‘genuine child’.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

The November Online Book Choice Is:

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

‘A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the large waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.’

The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick is available at the Salida Library.

The October Online Book Choice Is:

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

I asked the old woman what sort of a man a sandman was. ‘Oh Nat,’ she replied, ‘don’t you know that yet? It is a wicked man who comes after children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody, and then he throws them into his sack and carries them to the crescent moon as food for his little children, who have their nest up there and have crooked beaks like owls and peck up the eyes of the naughty children.’

A creepy read for your Halloween pleasure: this short story embraces the macabre. Our hero, Nathaniel, suffers lifelong torments from the sinister Coppelius. He passes from lucidity to madness and back to lucidity again. The recurring images of eyes, vision, glasses, spectacles, scopes, all are interwoven throughout the story. What do we see that is real? What is only an illusion? Eventually illusions lead to madness.

‘Madman! How can you have eyes?’ But Coppola had already put aside his barometers and, reaching into his capacious coat pockets, brought out lorgnettes and pairs of spectacles and laid them on to the table. ‘Here, here: glasses, glasses to put on your nose; they’re my occe, lov-ely occe!’ And with that he fetched out more and more pairs of spectacles, so that the whole table began to sparkle and glitter in an uncanny fashion. A thousand eyes gazed and blinked and stared up at Nathaniel, but he could not look away from the table, and Coppola laid more and more pairs of spectacles on to it, and flaming glances leaped more and more wildly together and directed their blood-red beams into Nathaniel’s breast.

Hoffmann wrote many short stories that have the same sinister tone about them. He is best known for writing The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a tale that Tchaikovsky softened by setting to music. The original is much darker, with toys coming to life and engaging in battles with mice, the Lady Mouserinks and her threats of ‘Take care, my queen, that the Mouse Queen does not bite your little princess to pieces!’ or the Seven-Headed Mouse King’s rhyme ‘Don’t go to the house, don’t go to the feast, can’t let yourself get caught like a wretched little beast. Give me all your picture books, give me your Christmas dress, or I’ll nibble Nutcracker all to bits and you’ll never have any peace. Squeak!’

If Tchaikovsky had followed the story more faithfully, it would have turned the Nutcracker ballet into a Halloween event.

Hoffmann died in 1822.

The September Online Book Choice Is:

Greensboro (A Requiem) by Emily Mann


Emily Mann wrote this play in 1996. It is a remembrance of events in Greensboro, North Carolina that ended in violence and the subsequent lack of justice that followed.

In November of 1979, a group of Communist Workers’ Party members, both black and white, demonstrated in Greensboro against the Ku Klux Klan. A shootout occurred and 5 demonstrators were killed by members of the Klan and the Nazi Party.

[demonstrator]
‘We just want the Klan to go – go home. If they live here, go home, if they live there, go there. But we will not have it. We will not tolerate it. If we have to die here, we’ll die here. But there will not be any Klan. Today, tomorrow – NEVER! DEATH TO THE KLAN!’

At the criminal trials, 15 white men were tried and found innocent by all white juries. The demonstrators then filed civil suits and a jury found the Greensboro Police Department responsible for the shootings because they knew beforehand that the Klan had planned violence.

[Lewis]
‘Take the Freedom Riders in the sixties, same thing. The Klan’d go to the local police and say: ‘Hey, these integrationists are comin’ down here. We want to go in and bash some heads,” and the police’d look at their watches and say: “Okay — we’ll give you twenty minutes.” So, the buses full of Freedom Riders would arrive on schedule — the Klan was there to greet them and where were the cops? Well — the cops had “gone to lunch”’.

In 2004, the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that ‘the members of the Klan caravan headed for Greensboro with malicious intent. More importantly, Klan members have admitted since the event that they intentionally came prepared to use deadly force in order to be victorious in any violence that occurred.’

The Commission also concluded that ‘the Greensboro Police Department was fully aware of all this information, and in fact its own paid informant, the Klansman Eddie Dawson, acted in a leadership role in bringing the two sides into contact. Dawson’s police handlers had full knowledge of this role. Based on the confrontation at China Grove, we believe that even a small but noticeable police presence would almost certainly have prevented loss of life on Nov. 3, 1979.’

[Signe]
‘What I’m afraid of now is the same prejudices are operating, just attaching to different people … I mean, once there are categories of people who do not qualify as having full human stature — whether they are gays or communist or black people or whoever they are — I mean, once you can separate humanity that way, then you have already created an entire framework in which you can practice all kinds of oppression on people. And you can get away with it. As soon as you have that less than human thing operating, boy, you can do anything to people.’

After the events in Charlottesville this past August 11 & 12, the Greensboro City Council apologized for the massacre.

The August Online Book Choice Is:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl


Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived 3 years in the Nazi concentration camp system. Separated from his family, he learned later that his wife, parents, and brother were all murdered by the Nazi regime. After his liberation, Frankl came to terms with camp horrors by conceiving of the psychotherapy known as logotherapy (logos from greek: ‘meaning’), the basis for this book.

Harold Kushner writes in the introduction:

‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.’

How can a person make sense of his world when it has become insensible? Frankl dedicates the first part of the book to concentration camp life and reflects on how he and his fellow camp mates survived, and why some did not survive. Frankl is clear: these survivors surrendered their humanity:

‘On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles — whatever one may choose to call them — we know: the best of us did not return.’

After the shock and apathy towards his situation set in, Frankl (and the other prisoners) began to suppress emotion in order to make his situation bearable and to survive. But the mind can essentially bear anything if it has something to work on, whether it be forming ideas, or thinking of a loved one, or imagining what one will do after one is freed. Frankl mentions the Nietzsche quote ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’ and Frankl survived by using his mind. The Nazis could attack his physical form, but not his mental state.

Where the first part of the book can be read for religious inspiration, the second part of the book is an examination of logotherapy and how its tools can be used to find meaning in life. Frankl used these logotherapeutic tools to come to terms with camp life.

‘Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.’

So, what is the point of it all? Frankl offers that every person’s ‘point’ will be different:

‘One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment, Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.’

Viktor Frankl died in 1997.

The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul

Washington Post article by Philip Yancey

I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life….

The July Online Book Choice Is:

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri


This book of short stories is notable for its crisp delivery; there isn’t a word wasted. Each story is tied together by the teller’s interpretation of or interaction with India and explores the lamentations and celebrations of the Indian, the American, and the Indian American. The book also moves nicely among the cultural differences that arise from Indians who are expatriated from their country of origin. It is a really well-written book.

The following quote is from the short story ‘A Real Durwan’:

’The only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut. It was with this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stairwell, the details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition.’

Though this short story is deftly written, it was the only one where I saw the ending coming from a mile away. It felt a little formulaic. But perhaps that is the point with some stories; reiteration keeps the idea in focus.

Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The June Online Book Choice Is:

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco


Someone is murdering monks in the abbey and it’s up to William and his sidekick Adso to find out who’s behind it. William, a friar and former papal inquisitor, and his apprentice Adso use deductive reasoning to solve the crimes being committed; a medieval Holmes & Watson, if you will.

Forewarning: there is a large cast of characters, and it’s a good idea to keep a Latin dictionary handy since there are a lot of references to the Catholic mass. And William and his fellow monks break into Latin during regular speech without hesitation.

And this book has some great vocabulary: not every day one comes across words like tatterdemalion, hypotyposis, and quodlibetical.

Adso and his mentor William engage in many debates, many involve questioning the path of the church, its past and future, the righteousness of the church fathers, and how both relate to each other. It was a tumultuous time then and the line between politics and religion was muddy.

The nicest parts of the book are the scenes with the scribe monks, who are set to copy out manuscripts in the abbey’s library. The passion that they had for their work can be illustrated in the following quote:

‘The day before, Benno had said he would be prepared to sin in order to procure a rare book. He was not lying and not joking. A monk should surely love his books with humility, wishing their good and not the glory of his own curiosity; but what the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks.’

Monks prepared to sin? Even enough to commit a murder? The mystery deepens.

The May Online Book Choice Is:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf


This book is a good dive into modernist lit; like Joyce & Proust, it is a ‘day in the life of’ for essentially 3 main characters. It unfolds with one continuous train of thought which jumps from person to person. And Woolf uses stream of consciousness technique for all of her characters as well, with plenty of light/dark, life/death symbolism thrown in.

The book follows the preparations of Clarissa Dalloway planning an evening party for the upper echelon of London society. Varying thoughts and actions take place throughout; what people think, and of whom, but then there is the stray ribbon of Septimus, a WWI veteran not in Clarissa’s circle, suffering from post traumatic stress:

‘He would argue with her about killing themselves; and explain how wicked people were; how he could see them making up lies as they passed in the street. He knew all their thoughts, he said; he knew everything. He knew the meaning of the world, he said. Then when they got back he could hardly walk, He lay on the sofa and made her hold his hand to prevent him from falling down, down, he cried, into the flames! and saw faces laughing at him, calling him horrible disgusting names, from the walls, and hands pointing round the screen. Yet they were quite alone.’

Clarissa Dalloway is in the upper stratum of English society, which means rich, vain, bored, empty moments are meaningful only because they are what constitute the rich, vain, and bored person’s thoughts. But there is more to Clarissa than her fluff of party planning. She is recently recovered from serious illness which triggers a looking back on her life and the people she knew. Juxtaposed with this is Septimus (unknown to Clarissa) and his doctors who offer a one-fit cure-all for his post traumatic stress. A change of scenery is all he needs. How can he weather it?

‘Scientifically speaking, the flesh was melted off the world. His body was macerated until only the nerve fibres were left. It was spread like a veil upon the rock.’

And in the end, what can be weathered? And what is important? A man suffering? ‘…It must be the fault of the world then — that he could not feel.’ Or a woman planning a party? Woolf saw the importance in even the doldrum daily life of a bored, rich woman. And deftly, Woolf ties the ribbon of the shell-shocked soldier with the hostess.

There is a lyric quality to this book. One almost needs to read it aloud to absorb the full weight of words:

‘Quiet descended on her, calm, content, as her needle, drawing the silk smoothly to it s gentle pause, collected the green folds together and attached them, very lightly, to the belt. So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all.’