Sunday, March 29, 2015
A gentle atheist, an academic, encounters varieties of religious fervor
Cass Seltzer, professor at Frankfurter University (a barely disguised Brandeis) has written a best selling book on the omnipresence of religious illusions. Cass’s girlfriend, a fellow professor at Frankfurter, the rather terrifyingly smart quantitative psychologist Lucinda Mandelbaum, is away for the week presenting a paper. During the same week, Cass receives a job offer from Harvard(!), encounters Roz, a former girlfriend who seems to be seriously planning on living to be several hundred years old, is haunted by his memory of Professor Klapper, a larger than life academic who is like a cult figure to his devoted graduate students, haunted again by Pascal, his crazy ex-wife, thinks about Azarya, the son of the Grand Rabbi of a Hasidic sect, and is taken by surprise by an important debate he forgot about with a prominent conservative economist. Premise: God exists.
This is a sly novel of ideas, however, the story really became engrossing when the ideas were discarded, letting the highly vivid and energetic characters took center stage. The first section was for me hard to wade through (why was everyone talking exactly the same?), then I was frankly charmed by several of the larger-than-life characters and ripped through the rest of the book. The characters are trying to achieve ecstasy on earth – some are aware of that, some aren’t.
The alternating scenes between old Cass and young Cass, confused me at first, although that narrative structure was more than sufficient to support a compelling story. In addition, there are cutesy emails to a mysterious night owl who turns out to be not who the reader expects. The stakes were competently raised. The mandatory plot points are handled skillfully enough, except for the debate on the existence of God which a creaky insertion to bring the story to a close. (Maybe it’s supposed to be creaky?) The debate itself is dull, completely undramatic. Also, the arguments don’t seem very persuasive. Cass’ story ends (almost ends that is) with a bunch of well heeled atheists jumping up and down in victory after Cass kicks ass in the debate. Not very realistic. There is an appendix – which details the Thirty Six Arguments for the Existence of God and is boring as the appendix to War and Peace.
The opening section reads like a sneer at religious believers but is so over the top it is apparently a spoof. “…minds that have better things to do have to divert precious neuronal resources to figure out how to knock some sense back into the species.” But at the end, maybe I’m not so sure. Was the book a spoof or a sneer? Perhaps the message is that we should all relax and let Harvard professors run everything. Can’t go wrong that way.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
An old woman acerbically ponders her tragic life
This novel is about the life of Iris Chase Griffen, told in bits and pieces, narrative chunks. The story begins with a fusillade of three deaths, proceeding in alternating sections to tell the tale of Iris’s early life as a sheltered rich girl in Port Ticonderoga (the other Ticonderoga thank you), fragments from a strange fantastical tale a man tells a woman during their Toronto assignations, and scenes from Iris’s elderly life as she views her garden through the changing Canadian seasons.
This book was difficult to read quickly because I wanted to savor each sentence. Though this was the third time I had read this novel, the prose seemed more beautiful than ever. The rhythms of the short sentences are amazing. The humor comes from the fancy pants high lyrical voice contrasted with the deadpan rhythm of the deflating commonplace phrases. I loved the right hand/left hand imagery.
The insights into human nature aren’t that spectacular, but the narrative tricks sort of are. This is a Romance with a capital R. The plot is intricate, and can support a lot, but sags a little with the energetic yet cartoonish villainy of the brother and sister, Richard and Winifred. The last fifth is both baggy and rushed. Iris’s motivations are a little hard to figure out. She's very passive. Laura, Iris’s sister, seems more Aspergery than tragic, but that’s probably the point. Perhaps ultimately love stories have small stakes.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
In order to find his way, a poet interviews the departed in three realms of the afterlife
Thirty-five years old, the poet Dante is lost in a dark wood. From its midst, he spies sunshine atop a mountain, but when he attempts to climb he is stopped first by a lion, then by a leopard, then by a wolf. In despair, he sits down but is soon joined by a ghostly stranger who tells Dante that he’s here to help. A lady sent him. The stranger turns out to be the great Roman poet Virgil, Dante’s hero. Ok, Dante says, now we can deal with this wolf over here, but Virgil tells him no man can handle the wolf, but that he, Virgil, will be his teacher and guide on a journey through some “eternal places.” Though Virgil explains he can only take him part way. The pair enter Hell through a gate (ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER) and then meet and interview many damned unrepentant souls. Coincidentally many of the dead hail from Dante’s corrupt violent hometown of Florence. Crude humor (a military squad of farting devils) and horrible punishments (people frozen twisted in ice for an eternity) abound. In the frigid dark center of the earth, three-headed Satan munches on three traitors. Virgil and Dante begin climbing down Satan’s hairy ass, then at Virgil’s instruction, start climbing up Satan’s hairy ass. They have reached the center of the world and gravity has shifted. Eventually they surface on the island mountain of Purgatory. Here the sinners are repentant, chanting hymns and beatitudes while lugging huge rocks (Pride), running round in circles (Sloth) and enduring their eyes sewn shut (Envy). At the top of the mountain is the garden of Eden, where Dante spies his deceased lady love Beatrice, but when he turns to tell Virgil of his utter happiness, Virgil has vanished. Stern Beatrice takes over as guide. By staring into the sun, she and Dante ascend into the heavens, stopping at each planet so Dante can hear more stories, this time from the blessed. In heaven, souls lack earthly form but are depicted as points of light arranging themselves into pictures and words. (Maybe sort of like a heavenly Ice Capades.) At the topmost layer, Dante sees three spinning circles of light, the light eternal, the love that moves the sun and other stars, and understands how he needs to stick to the straight road going forward.
I really enjoyed this. When I read the Comedy as a teenager I found it theoretical and boring. (Perhaps because of the translation?) The book works on many levels, including as a Jules Verne-like travelogue, a philosophical treatise on how to live your life, score settling with old enemies, a beautiful tribute to a lost love, and is full of energetic metaphors about human nature. The characters are individualized and full of life (especially in Hell). Also the poetry is great. I read the translation by Mark Musa, but also dipped into the Italian, which seems supremely simple and direct, with effective use of repetition.
It was hard for me to believe this was written seven hundred years ago. Human nature must not have appreciably changed in the interim. The dramatic tension in each canto felt modern, although, as might be imagined, Heaven is a significantly duller place than Hell. Purgatorio, where the most realistic humans seem to be, works as moral education. The reader recognizes Virgil as the loyal father figure and teacher. Beatrice is the harsher educator, but Dante’s love for her helps him recognize his love of God. And when she smiles – well – her smile is the competition, or the complement, to Virgil’s reason. The motive in Hell are hate, the motive in Heaven is love. The footnotes, however, were essential in order to figure out Dante’s strong emotions about the separation of church and state, the importance of a strong central government, his fellow quarrelling Tuscans, and his arch enemy, Pope Boniface VIII. Although part of me would really like to have gotten the Signora Alighieri version. What was she up to when Dante rocketed from planet to planet, if not in a lip lock, but definitely an eye lock with the fair Beatrice? Probably something very terrestrial.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
In the Roaring Twenties, two addled jitterbugs commit a murder
Ruth Snyder, Swedish American party girl, is married to cheap grumpy Albert. Ruth has her various men friends, but once she meets Judd Grey, corset salesman, she embarks upon a sustained, sexually passionate love affair. Ruth gets an idea in her head about buying life insurance for Albert and convincing Judd to knock him off. Meanwhile, Ruth, Judd and Albert seem to be soused all the time. Judd and Ruth sickeningly pull off their murderous scheme, but are such drunken bumblers the cops figure it all out within a matter of hours (minutes?) Rather to their surprise, or Ruth’s surprise anyway, they are sentenced to die in the electric chair.
At first I didn’t like this novel. The dialogue seemed too stagey, but sometime after the first hundred pages, the story became gripping, a mixture of Three-Stooges-like comedy and genuine tragedy, an exploration of the pain caused by murder. Two dim bulbs commit murder thinking it will be easy. However, the actual murder is much harder than they thought, harder still because they are nearly blind drunk. And their trial and condemnation is not that funny either. The Catholic thing? Hmm, I guess the story has a sort of holy conclusion with the description of the execution and their two bodies lying on slabs ready to be autopsied. In the end, I could hardly put it down.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Coming of age story of a Virginia teen
Twelve year old Jesse and her family move to the South after her father, a minister, has lost his faith. Not in God, but in the institutional church. Now he is transformed and sees the divinity in all things. Seeing the divinity in all things, however, does not pay the bills and Jesse’s mother is passive-aggressively upset that they are economically insecure and that her husband has his head firmly in the clouds. Shy Jesse must deal with a new middle and high school, and during the course of the story has anxious encounters with popular girls and less popular girls.
Sister Golden Hair reminded me of Rhoda Huffey’s The Hallelujah Side and Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California. The sensitive girl from the religious family in a deadpan encounter with the secular world. My problem was that the tension felt linear – there was no story arc. The evocative and well written anecdotes felt strung together and did not build to a conclusion. Many of the images, however, were wonderful. I loved the part with the two girls training to be Playboy Bunnies and then the dominating girl ordering Jesse to sit in the closet. The best part, near the end, was when the low status girl with a birthmark does a school presentation of how each morning she conceals the birthmark with makeup. The real story, I suspect, is going on back at the apartment with Jesse’s mother and father