The May Online Book Choice Is:

Fools Crow by James Welch


White Man’s Dog looked up at this hands. His grandfather had said those many winters ago that if you went to sleep with your palms out, the stars would come down to rest in them and you would be a powerful man. Many summer nights White Man’s Dog had tried to go to sleep this way, but his arms grew tired before the stars would come. He lowered his arms and rolled over. The fire was down to embers, glowing softly in the moonless night.

Fools Crow follows the path of a Blackfoot Indian, caught in the time between American Indian dominance of northern America, and the subsequent encroachment of whites.
White Man’s Dog (later Fools Crow) grows from an unremarkable boy of the Pikunis to become one of the tribe’s most successful warriors. But unlike his friends, he keeps things balanced between physical and spiritual, and recognizes the importance of the tribe’s medicine man, Mik-api. Good medicine can mean the difference between a successful or disastrous raid, and White Man’s Dog learns all he can from the Man-of-Many-Faces.

White Man’s Dog had given five of his best horse to Mik-api upon returning from the Crow raid. They had sweated together and prayed together, thanking the Above Ones for the young man’s return. White Man’s Dog thanked Mik-api and gave him a horsehair bridle he had made the previous winter. He left the old man’s lodge feeling pure and strong.

Besides hunting and living off the land, the Blackfeet know the importance of horse raiding, and counting coup against rival gangs by stealing their horses, which was a tribe’s wealth. They also battled to right wrongs. The Pikunis prepare for battle:

Eight sleeps later the men dismounted in a coulee not far from the camp of the Lone Eaters on the Two Medicine River. They put on their paints, their war medicine; then they painted the horses they chose to ride. White Man’s Dog drew yellow jagged stripes down his gray horse’s forelegs and yellow circles on each side of the horse’s rump. he had been thinking about these signs; from now on they would be part of his medicine.

Mysticism, almost a magic realism, is an important part of White Man’s Dog’s growth. He can contact spirit animals in his dream world. They teach him and bestow good medicine upon him. But it seems that no medicine will heal the rift between Anglos and Blackfeet. White Man’s Dog constantly puzzles over the fact that the Above Ones have left them. Should the Pikunis accept the inevitability of Anglo takeover? One of the book’s central questions: When is it right to fight for one’s land and way of life?

The men debate this question in the head chief’s lodge: One of the chiefs of the Lone Eaters band says this of the Anglos:

How long before they turn on the Lone Eaters and decide that we too are insects to be stepped on? Are we to go quietly to the Sand Hills, to tell our long-ago people that we welcomed death like cowards? That is not the way of the Pikunis. If we must go to the Shadowland, we will go with our heads high, our spirits content that we have fought the Napikwans [Anglos] to death.

And another chief laments their lack of action:

We would burn up their square houses and cause all trace of Napikwan to disappear. Our long-ago people would once again recognize this land. It shames me that they grow restless in the Sand Hills because their children do nothing … We have become a nothing-people.

James Welch wrote this as tribute to his Blackfeet ancestors. As part of the growing quilt of literature that makes this nation what it is, it should be on the short list for Great American Novel.

The April Online Book Choice Is:

Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard


There are times when I can’t help thinking about the past. I know the present is the place to be. It’s always been the place to be. I know I’ve been recommended by very wise people to stay in the present as much as possible, but the past sometimes presents itself. The past doesn’t come as a whole. It always come in part.

This little book is classified as fiction, but it has a taste of autobiography about it. Sam Shepard wrote it, later dictated it to family members, as the disease that eventually took his life, took over.

One of the book’s central characters, an old man on a porch, is weakened and ill, but alert. He could be taken as a reflection of Sam himself. And this character takes on shades of another of the book’s characters, so much so that it’s difficult to ascertain who’s who. But maybe that’s the point. At times it seems like the old man is being observed by himself; sort of an out of body experience by himself.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know where he came from. I discovered him quite by accident. Bent backwards, gasping for air. One day I was sitting here much the same way as he’s sitting now, twiddling my thumbs, and I was looking out across the road and I saw this chair rocking back and forth and then I saw that somebody was in it. And there he was. He just appeared. I don’t know whether he rented or bought the house and then invited his people there or whether they were already there and he came to visit them or whether he’s on a short-term lease. I don’t know exactly. Sometimes people appear like that out of nowhere. They just appear and then they disappear. Very fast. Just like a photograph that emerges form a chemical bath.

The structure of the sentences have a hint of Gertrude Stein, short and repetitive. And it’s all in Sam’s slow, easy voice. A reconciling of becoming older and remembering the past.

I remember sometimes you would start whole stories. Sometimes paragraphs. Sometimes sentences with the word ‘sometimes.’ In other words not always but sometimes. In other words sometimes, not always. Sometimes this or that. Sometimes birds. Why birds, you would say. Why birds? Sometimes. Why color? Sometimes. Why … wind? Dogs? Sometimes it made complete sense to me. It made complete sense.

The March Online Book Choice Is:

Journalism by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco specializes in journalism delivered in graphic format; i.e. comics. The book Journalism is a collection of his reporting from war-torn areas during the early part of the 20th century. Much of the book illustrates the racial and social disparateness between ethnic and intrusive populations. It is a visual representation of man’s inhumanity towards man.

The Chechen War/Chechen Women chapter shows firsthand the humanitarian crisis that issued from the Russian/Chechen conflict that appeared after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Chechen independence was quickly snuffed out by Russian forces and many Chechens were displaced from Chechnya.

Chechen men were slaughtered or disabled to the point that they could not provide for their families so Chechen women had to bear the brunt of making money and raising families, amidst extreme sickness and poverty. The refugees were moved to a neighboring Russian republic and set up in tent camps, or any abandoned place, factories mainly, and lived in subhuman conditions. The despair and hopelessness lifts off the page:

After the wars in the 90s, small bands of Chechen rebels terrorized Russia. There are still displaced Chechens today.

    


Besides the Chechen wars, Sacco also treats with the migration of African refugees into Europe, and the political crisis that is born from a new people populating a new place. He points his pen towards Malta, a small nation that has been flooded with African immigrants. The racial tensions are striking, and are still occurring in Europe today and also now, in America.

Joe was interviewed and asked about the process he uses to tell his story:

‘It’s important to show what’s going on in the field when you are there because you are usually a foreigner, an outside element. That interaction between the outside element and the people who actually live there is very interesting. I never understood why that’s left out of journalistic accounts. You can observe a people, or a group as an outsider and you’re looking at their interactions, but the fact that you’re there you are leaving a footprint and their interaction, even amongst each other, might be different because you’re there.’

The February Online Book Choice Is:

Spring Storm by Tennessee Williams


This is one of Tennessee Williams’ forgotten plays. It failed to be produced either as a movie or a play, so Williams hid it away in his mom’s basement (and then at a university) for about 60 years until it was finally rediscovered in the 90s.

All the typical Southern themes are here: decay and stagnancy of the Old South, family and lineage, the sense of isolation between young and old, and more broadly, social changes in the post WWII South. These are depicted mainly with the sexual attractions/loathings between the 4 main characters.

One of these characters, Hertha, plays a minor role, but her presence is central to the development of the play. It is Hertha who fully understands her place and her inability to rise above her station. She is ‘The Storybook Lady’ and works at the local library:

Hertha: The Storybook Lady — that’s me! Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, ten o’clock at the Carnegie Public Library.

The irony is she is surrounded by books, stories, that engage the imagination, but she cannot get away. Here is Hertha dreaming:

Hertha: Sometimes I wonder if anybody’s ever gone anyplace — or do we always just go back to where we started? — I guess there’s something significant about the fact that the world is round and all the planets are round and all of them are going round and round the sun! The whole damned universe seems to be laid out on a more or less elliptical plan. But I can’t get used to it, Arthur. I can’t adjust myself to it like you’re doing. You see I can’t get over the idea that it might be possible for somebody — sometime — somewhere — to follow a straight line upwards and get some place that nobody’s ever been yet!

The characters Heavenly and Dick love and fight their way to their relationship’s conclusion. Dick is an honest character, but too infatuated with Heavenly to act, though he does give her hints about their relationship’s immaterial nature:

Heavenly: Still watchin’ the river?
Dick: Sure.
Heavenly: Can’t I compete with the river?
Dick: Not right now.
Heavenly: Why not?
Dick: It’s goin’ somewhere.

Heavenly knows that Dick isn’t anything special either. She tries vainly to mold Dick into what she wants him to be:

Mrs. Lamphrey: Richard is such a nice boy. I don’t blame you Heavenly.
Heavenly: For what?
Mrs. Lamphrey: For finding him irresistible. He has that — that sort of — primitive masculinity that’s enough to make a girl lose her head!
Heavenly: Oh, I think I’ve kept mine.

Tennessee Williams places a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay within his play. All four of his main characters could have recited it but he gives the honor to Hertha. And being a librarian, it makes the most sense:

Hertha: This book? There’s nothing sordid about this book, Mrs. Kramer — Nothing whatsoever!
Mrs. Kramer: Oh, isn’t there? I always consult Reverend Hooker about my child’s reading matter —When I showed him this book he turned directly to this passage and asked me if it was the sort of thing I wanted my child’s mind infected with — here it is —

‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning —’

Hertha: You can’t read it like that, Mrs. Kramer!
Mrs. K.: No?

Hertha:

‘What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply:

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.’

[She fixes her eyes on Mrs. Kramer and recites the rest of the poem from memory.]

‘Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.’

– Now don’t you like it better?

Mrs. K.: No, I think it’s outrageous. Next time Dorothea wants a book, please give her one of the Alcott series.

The January Online Book Choice Is:

Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer


‘For the better part of a century, an English bookstore by the name of Shakespeare and Company has served as a haven for artists, writers, and other wayward souls of Paris.’

The setting of Shakespeare and Company is presided over by then-octogenarian George Whitman, owner and king of his bookstore, which is a notable spot for the foreign tourist. Shakespeare and Company is a destination in travel guides and bibliophiles are very welcome. In this store, there are books in every nook and cranny.

George lets his poverty-stricken employees live at the store for free (there are beds in some rooms of the store along with bookshelves), as long as they work a bit selling books, and more importantly, as long as they are writing and reading. The literary pursuit is the most noble profession. George Whitman declared: ‘Not reading is worse than not knowing how to read.’

George opened Shakespeare and Company in 1951 and the expatriate crowd were frequently seen there. Notable writers drifted in and out: Richard Wright, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett, and William Burroughs being just a sampling. Jeremy and his fellow employees were the latest in this long lineage. And Jeremy recalls his luck at finding Shakespeare and Company when he was feeling desperate:

‘In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafes. Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights. That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too.’

At Shakespeare and Company, the dankness of the residents/employees who have no shower facilities along with the books of varying age and the bustle of Paris rolling in day after day, the store is a little earthy. But poverty can be a minuscule problem when one is surrounded by friends and Jeremy learns the cheapest way to get by in Paris. And once a week George serves a communal meal for his employees:

‘The food did smell appetizing, but I was slightly distressed by the state of the kitchen. Along with the dried cockroach husks I had seen the day of the tea party, there were now several live ones scurrying among the sticky jars and empty tins. — ‘Aren’t those a problem?’ I worried over George’s shoulder. — ‘Bahh, they’re nothing,’ he scoffed, and tried to swat a roach or two into the potatoes. ‘More protein for us. Don’t you like protein?’

Regardless of the living conditions, Jeremy is surrounded by books, and is taken care of by his friends. And throughout the book, George always, notably, argues his communist point of view.

‘People all tell me they work too much, that they need to make more money,” George told me. ‘What’s the point? Why not live on as little as possible and then spend your time with your family or reading Tolstoy or running a bookstore? It doesn’t make any sense.’

George Whitman died in 2011 at the age of 98.

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 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 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.