Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Universal History of Iniquity by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges via
Reviewed by Susanna Allred

Published: 1935

It's about: Borges appropriates and tweeks lives of historical criminals--Chinese pirates, Old West gunslingers, New York street toughs--to explore paradox. Each entry into this collection masquerades as a truthful historical narrative; however, Borges liberally diverges from his source material, essentially turning factual events and people into props through which to set up elaborate philosophical ironies and paradoxes. For example, the protagonist of the first story in the collection, "The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell", is a bloodthirsty and pious con man who induces enslaved African Americans to run away with his band of thieves, promising that if they allow him to sell them back into slavery, only to "steal" them away again, they will eventually be escorted North to freedom. Every time, of course, Morell eventually kills his victim when he begins to suspect the true nature of his "Redeemer." Eventually, one of Morell's confederates denounces his scheme to the authorities. Morell, ironically, believes his only hope of salvation lies in fomenting an insurrection among those slaves who still believe rumors of his benevolence--essentially taking on sincerely the role he had only maliciously affected before. The greater irony however, is that rich possibilities afforded by the potential turn of events are thwarted when Morell himself is robbed and killed by a petty thief who does not recognize him.

Part of the richness of A Universal History of Iniquity stems from Borges' ability to weave his dense, darkly humorous paradoxes into genres that tend to be consigned to the pulpy end of the high-low cultural divide. Borges sets his short stories into contexts modeled after Westerns, crime stories, and orientalizing adventure tales. His nominally historical characters participate in the theft, murder, and warfare endemic to these genres, but remain essentially flat characters who exist to be irony incarnate. One of the most intriguing stories, "Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv" purports to be the tale of a prophet who rises up in the Middle East in the 8th century to spearhead the meteoric rise of a blasphemous religion. Claiming that communion with God had made his face too brilliant for mortals to look upon, Hakim goes about imposing his religion through warfare while veiled, promising that men will be able to look on his face when they have accepted the truth. Hakim's truth is typically Borgesian.
The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it. Revulsion, disgust, is the fundamental virtue, and two rules of conduct (between which the Prophet left men free to choose) lead us to it; abstinence and utter licentiousness--the indulgence of the flesh or the chastening of it.
This being a collection of tales about violence and deceit, Hakim's charade is spoiled when one concubines lets slip that his supposedly glorified body is, in fact, riddled with leprosy. The suggestion, seemingly, is that an entire religion of degradation and heresy had sprung up to justify one man's physical corruption.

I thought: The entire collection boasts similarly clever, circuitous ironies that can be revisited endlessly. While the tales are all philosophically dense, they contain enough swashbuckling adventure to sustain interest in casual readers as well. The tone of scholarly historicity is a playful contrast to to the elaborately constructed labyrinths of plot twists that Borges builds into each story. The one entry into the collection that wears less well is "Man on Pink Corner", Borges' attempt to write a wholly fictional crime store that pivots around a knife fight between two Argentine street toughs. While exotic backdrops are a favorite for Borges, the setting and dialogue feel oddly forced or stilted in this attempt, as if Borges still needed to lean heavily on specific historical and literary texts in order to create lively literature of his own at this point.

While Borges eventually moved away from drawing so explicitly on other historical and literary sources (though his writing always remained famously inter-textual; many of his stories are literally books about books), the edition of A Universal History of Iniquity I read, which is part of Penguin Classics Collected Fictions, a complete anthology of Borges' short stories, contains helpful footnotes to each story. The footnotes are most enlightening and intriguing when highlighting Borges' divergence from his source material. For example, they confirm the existence of an actual set of "Rules for Pirates" in a book Borges cites in "The Widow Ching--Pirate" but the footnotes also reveal that Borges has (perhaps deliberately) appropriated and changed several other minor details of the story for apparently no reason. None of this really detracts from the stories themselves; rather, it adds to their enigmatic character.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf or Rubbish Bin? On the shelf. 

Reading Recommendations: An interesting discussion of Borges the man and his propensity for certain themes.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Titus Andronicus

Possible illustration of Titus Andronicus

Reviewed by Susanna Allred


It's about: Titus Andronicus, a Roman general, and Tamora, wife of the Roman emperor engage in a bloody, bitter feud. Their mutual enmity begins when Titus conquers Tamora's tribe of Goths, takes her family captive, and sacrifices one of her sons to avenge the deaths in battle of his own sons. Tamora feigns reconciliation with Titus and marries the Roman emperor, Saturninus. With the assistance of her Moorish lover, Aaron, she engineers gory, violent revenge against Titus' family. The ensuing cycle of violence far outstrips other Shakespearean bloodbaths in graphic intensity. Where Hamlet featured stabbings, accidental and duelling-related; poisoning, and off-stage drowning; Titus Andronicus proudly makes human sacrifice, dismemberment, maiming, cannibalism, rape, beheading, what can only be described as honor killing, and a final, uniquely vindictive execution central plot points.

I thought: The violence in Titus Andronicus is so sensational that this play has traditionally been the least critically-regarded of Shakespeare's. The critic Gerald Massey famously excoriated it as "a perfect reeks of blood, it smells of blood, we almost feel that we have handled blood." Other critics have defensively tried to claim that it isn't Shakespeare's at all, so graphically over-the-top is the violence. Current  consensus holds that Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare's, but an early, unrefined effort in the mode of Renaissance-era revenge plays.

The play's most intriguing dimension is its attempt to personify pure evil. While Tamora and Titus begin their violent rampage as bereaved parents, Aaron, Tamora's lover, gleefully lends his manipulative genius to her campaign with no other motive than his own sadism. In one particularly illustrative scene, Aaron overhears Tamora's sons Demetrius and Chiron fighting over the right to romantically pursue Titus' daughter, Lavinia. Aaron's ingenious solution to the conundrum is to encourage the young men to take turns raping Lavinia, then cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so that she can neither speak nor write the names of her attackers. Unlike most of Shakespeare's other villains, who are compelling in part because their motivations are innate to human experience (such as Claudius' ambition or Iago's jealousy), Aaron's evil is so unmoderated that it actually becomes rather enigmatic. When Aaron is asked if he is not sorry for his many evil deeds, he retorts "Ay, that I had not done a thousand more." At his execution, he exclaims

I am no baby, I, that with base prayers 
I should repent the evils I have done: 
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did, 
I do repent it from my very soul. 

This actually has the odd effect of making Aaron seem rather modern as a character type. Like the serial killers, sadists, and psychopaths who haunt contemporary film, television, and literature, Aaron is compelling because he is alien. Murdering to avenge one's dead child is ghastly but comprehensible. But, like Hannibal Lecter or Joffrey Baratheon, Aaron engineers suffering simply because he is compelled to. He hungers for cruelty in a way that normal humans hunger for love.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare's foray into literary psychopathy goes flat when he uses Aaron's blackness to characterize him as evil. While associating darker skin color with evil certainly isn't Shakespeare's innovation, he uses a tired trope in a ham-handed and pointless way. When Aaron brags that his evil makes him "like a black dog" it feels more like a stupid pun than clever symbolism. I think this actually makes Titus Andronicus valuable as a metric for Shakespeare's development as a writer. Othello, a deservedly more popular play, also makes use of the association of dark skin with evil, but with a much more nuanced understanding of the way such stereotypes might pervert a good man to do evil. Othello's rival Iago plays on Othello's fear that his skin color makes him repulsive to Desdemona to manipulate him into murdering her in a jealous rage. Othello is a man hounded by a stereotype; Aaron might well be the stereotype hounding him.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf or Rubbish Bin? In-between. 

Reading Recommendations: Nick Schifrin studied American motivations for war in the Middle East through Titus Andronicus in this essay.

Warnings: Rape, murder, cannibalism, illegitimate births, mutilation, dismemberment, beheading, stabbing, human sacrifice.

Favorite excerpts:

Tis true; the raven doth not hatch a lark:
Yet have I heard,--O, could I find it now!--
The lion moved with pity did endure 
To have his princely paws pared all away:
Some say that ravens foster forlorn children,
The whilst their own birds famish in their nests:
O, be to me, though they hard heart say no, 
Nothing so kind, but something pitiful!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy


 Reviewed by Susanna Allred

Published: 1979

It's about: Cornelius Suttree, known to friends and his estranged family as "Buddy", has abandoned a life of prosperity and prominence to live among the riff-raff that collect along the shores of the Tennessee River during the mid-twentieth century. By day, he ekes out a living selling what fish he can catch. He passes his nights in mooonshine-soaked carousing, immersing himself in the hedonistic pleasures of his camaraderie with river's hookers and small-time criminals. Yet, even as he periodically loses himself in grotesque adventuring, Suttree's adaptation to life on the river is never quite complete or natural.

In contrast to the underclass crooks and prostitutes with whom he mingles, Suttree is a born philosopher and a keen observer of both human character and the sublime hideousness of the forsaken waterfront he frequents. His life has been darkened by death and his exit from social prominence was tinged with shame. Haunted by the stillbirth of his twin brother, and reluctant to examine his sudden abandonment of his wife, son, and mother, Suttree frequently protests to himself that life--both the work of building up a family, a career, and a community; as well as life in an essential sense--is inherently without meaning.

I thought: Suttree matches its anti-hero's aimless existentialism with a sprawling, episodic structure that never builds up to a definitive climax. McCarthy alternates lovely, dense descriptions of the physical filth and amoral, grotesque characters dotting the Tennessee River's shores. Like Suttree himself, McCarthy never suggests any sharply defined philosophical interpretation to the events of the novel, save to draw out a certain grace and beauty in the polluted river and the half-wild misfits who collect around it.

Suttree, by nature of its setting, heavily descriptive, virtuoso prose style; and deft employment of dark comedy fits in more closely (in some respects) with the works of Southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner than with McCarthy's better-known Western novels. McCarthy excels within the  vein of the Southern Gothic without being overshadowed by his predecessors. He makes his mark, in part by his exceedingly experimental approach to diction and punctuation, and by writing scenes of decay or degradation in prose that is at once elegant, heavy and voluminous.
A row of bottles gone to the wall for stoning lay in brown and green and crystal ruin down a sunlit corridor and one upright severed cone of yellow glass rose from the paving like a flame. Past these gnarled ashcans at the alley's mouth with their crusted rims and tilted gaping maws in and out of which soiled dogs go night and day. An iron stairwell railing shapeless with birdlime like something brought from the sea and small flowers along a wall reared from the fissured stone. 
What connects Suttree with the The Border Trilogy or No Country for Old Men  (besides McCarthy's preference for experimental prose), is its protagonist's paradoxically aloof, yet romantic nature. The novel is mostly told through his point of view, but the audience is allowed to glean few hints about Suttree's past life, or to what degree he truly sympathizes with the carnality of his new associates. Even in the throes of a love affair or in the deepest reaches Tennessee's backwoods, Suttree maintains a persona of cool detachment. For all this, Suttree is clearly enthralled by the rich chaos of life on the river. In one of the most poignant passages Suttree observes in the night sky
A sole star to the north pale and constant, the old wanderer's beacon burning like a molten spike that tethered fast the Small Bear to the turning firmament. He closed his eyes and opened them and looked again. He was struck by the fidelity of this earth he inhabited and he bore it sudden love.
This scene is bookended by a vivid description of an illicit encounter between Suttree and his young lover, Wanda and Suttree's abrupt, brutal attempt to end his affair with her. His appreciation of the North Star is made especially ironic in light of his own inconstancy and by Wanda's unexpected death in a landslide a few pages later. This darkly ironic contrast between the human desire to impose consistency and personhood upon nature with the nature's unconscious cruelty is vintage McCarthy, and a draws a thematic line between Suttree and McCarthy's more popular later works. For fans of either Southern Gothic or McCarthy, this novel is essential reading.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Warnings: Poetically gritty sex and drinking.

What I'm reading next: Titus Andronicus

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: The Social Animal by David Brooks


Reviewed by Christine-Chioma

Published: 2011

It's about: David Brooks uses fictional characters to explore "how success happens". To quote the summary on goodreads (cheating): "Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes Harold and Erica from infancy to school; from the “odyssey years” that have come to define young adulthood to the high walls of poverty; from the nature of attachment, love, and commitment, to the nature of effective leadership. He reveals the deeply social aspect of our very minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. Along the way, he demolishes conventional definitions of success while looking toward a culture based on trust and humility."

I thought: The book is kind of a mix between books like "Blink" and "How We Decide" but it has a narrative running through it that makes the facts more interesting.  I really enjoyed the fictional parts of the book. I liked that Brooks set each story in present day instead of the time period it would really occur in. I especially enjoyed the first portion of the book which covered studies about dating, newlyweds and raising children through the experiences of Harold's parents. I felt that the book got too bogged down in details about Erica's work and the policies found there. I'm not interested in business or business models. I think it deterred from the book's thesis about how social interaction and relationships impact success more than anything else. I preferred my facts mixed in with the story.

However, I did love all the new things I learned: You learn better when you vary the environments you study in, you should praise your children for hard work and not for being smart, sleep improves memory by at least 15 percent, a person's friends have more influence on your habits than their spouse, divorce peaks in the fourth year of marriage when it is difficult to transition from passionate love to companion love, Alexander Hamilton was a pretty amazing guy, people who are in love overestimate how attractive, funny, and intelligent their partner is, in healthy relationships you need to say five positive things for every negative thing, etc.

The book really made me think more about my social interactions with others. I love my current job and I know it has more to do with the people I work with and for then the actual duties of the job (cleaning up poop, vomit and urine?) Brooks says  "the daily activities most associated with happiness are all social--having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends--while the daily activity most injurious to happiness-commuting--tends to be solitary." At my work we are constantly planning activities and getting together--it reminded me of how Erica wants to be a connector. I also loved
learning that social professions (corporate manager, hairdresser, health-care providers) correlate more closely with happiness than those that are less social (a machinery operator).

However, at times the novel made me feel discourage as if certain things were set. I felt like characteristics about myself were unconsciously inevitable because of my upbringing or background. Then I remembered that the author was using studies and information that proved certain points. Obviously if i cared enough I could find studies that proved the opposite point. Likewise, I could have researched the studies and looked into their methods and the exact results. But I didn't care that much.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Brooks has a wry sense of humor and insight into human character and personality that was spot on. The book is all about how "succes" happens. But at the end of it, I did not really think Erica was successful or made that many good decisions or had many good relationships. Or at least--she was not successful in ways that I would want to be. Religion did not play a big role in the book, but it plays a big role in my life so I would have liked some more information about that.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. It's a good one to have to reference the studies and facts

Reading Recommendations: This isn't a book that is comfortable to read straight through. I read it in spurts and pieces over several weeks. It's a good book for a book club in that you could talk about the definition of success, nature vs nurture, and the interesting tidbits and facts found in the pages, but it's not a book that one would emotionally connect to.

Warnings: Scientific talk about sex. Some swear words.

Favorite excerpts:

"Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses...We are good about talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say."

"Erica decided she would never work in a place where people did not trust one another. Once she got a job, she would be the glue. She would be the one organizing outings, making connections, building trust. She would carry information from one person to another. She would connect one worker to another."

"She was in the camp of the more-emotional-than-thou rather than in the camp of the more-popular-than-thou. This meant she was always exquisitely attuned to her superior emotions, and it also meant, unfortunately, that if she wasn't having an engrossing emotional drama on any given day, she would try to make one up."

What I'm reading next: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Memorial to victims of 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, via

 Reviewed by Susanna Allred

Published: English translation, 1984

It's about: A quartet of European intellectuals attempt to understand the upheaval and oppression of Soviet-era Czechoslovakia through marriage and erotic encounters. Tomas, a brilliant surgeon, is also a dedicated womanizer, driven by a desire to find that which is unique and essential in his female conquests through sexual intercourse. His wife, Tereza, an amateur photographer and auto-didact is despairingly faithful to him. A consummate dualist, Tereza blames her body for failing to capture Tomas' marital fidelity and privately desires to cut her soul free from it, believing that the metaphysical amputation would also free her from sexual jealousy. Sabina, Tomas' mistress and a painter, has come to view betrayal as the guiding principle in her life. In order to establish her own autonomy, Sabina resolutely refuses to be loyal to any political principle, lover, or nation. By contrast, her Austrian lover Franz is a true idealist. He sees his love for Sabina as a gesture of solidarity with the repressed Czech people; in fact, he derives his entire sense of identity from making similar futile gestures that, in his imagination, are full of nobility.

I thought: The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a post-modern novel. As such, it plays unpredictably with structure and delights in peeling back the curtains that more traditional novels draw over real phenomena (such as marriage, infidelity, and sexual intercourse) in order to make their fictitious renderings more appealing. Kundera eschews a linear narrative in order to skip back and forth through time and switch points of view, often discussing the same event multiple times. For example, he describes Tereza gripping Tomas hand tightly on their first night together two different ways, first from Tomas' point of view, and then Tereza's.
He never spent the night with the others....That is why he was so surprised to wake up and find Tereza squeezing his hand tightly. Lying there looking at her, he could not quite understand what had happened. But as he ran through the previous few hours in his mind, he began to sense an aura of hitherto unknown happiness emanating from them. 
Tereza, who is eager for self-improvement, believes the urbane Tomas is a passport into a life softened by high culture and refined emotions, a step forward from her vulgar family.
Even at the age of eight she would fall asleep by pressing one hand into the other and making believe she was holding the hand of the man whom she loved, the man of her life. So if in her sleep she pressed Tomas' hand with such tenacity, we can understand why: she had been training for it since childhood.  
Neither Tomas nor Tereza view the event exactly the same way, though both allow it have a profound influence on the years that they will spend together as a married couple. Tomas comes to believe that love (as opposed to sexual desire) is wanting to sleep with another in the same bed, and being happy to do so. Love, essentially, is contented cohabitation, something quite separate from erotic fascination. For Tereza, love is an irrevocable, all-consuming destiny. While both feel and, at times, resent the difference in their personal erotic philosophies, neither can quite articulate it to the other.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a graceful, nuanced work. In spite of its thoroughly post-modern sensibility, it unifies its quartet's geographic and sensual wanderings by setting up and exploring paralleled thematic opposites. The "unbearable lightness" of the title refers to Sabina's refusal to be tied idealogically, romantically, or erotically to anything. Tomas shares her philosophy to some extent, while Tereza and Franz, who long for idealized love, prefer the heaviness of fidelity and well-defined purpose. This heaviness versus lightness is the central philosophical concern of the novel, and to some extent, the four characters who perform the bulk of the novels action are created to be representations of the tension between weight and lightness. Nevertheless, the characterization of all four remains vivid, touching, and life-like.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.or Rubbish Bin? Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Doctor Zhivago explores similar philosophical territory through similar political terrain.

Warnings: Fairly explicit sexual and scatological passages. If you avoid R-rated movies, this book isn't for you. 

What I'm reading next: Sagas of the Icelanders.