Two Volcanoes

My reading topics have really come in pairs this year, like my last post, Two Mysteries. But the choice to read Volcano by Shusaku Endo and Krakatoa by Simon Winchester nearly back to back was a bit more deliberate. I thought it would be interesting to read one fiction and one nonfiction books ostensibly about the same topic.

I picked up Volcano because I had been so blown away (no pun intended) by Endo’s Silence last year.  Like Silence, Volcano is set on the southern island of Kyushu, but Volcano is set in contemporary times in the city of Kagoshima, which is right at the foot of the real-life volcano Sakurajima.

In Volcano, Sakurajima is called Akadaké, and it is a looming symbol of evil and wretchedness in the story. One of the main characters, Jinpei Suda, has spent his life working at the local weather bureau which overlooks Akadaké. He developed such an obsessive interest and knowledge of the volcano that he’s known as the “Demon of Akadaké.” He’s arrogantly confident about his knowledge of the volcano, asserting that it is dying and won’t erupt anymore. But Suda is a dilettante. His blindly follows the theories of a now-deceased scholar, dismisses contrary scientists, and ignores obvious signs of impending eruption when he visits the island. His whole life is so wrapped up in his work and the self-importance of his so-called expertise that he is blind to reality — the reality of the volcano’s dangers, the reality that he is not as widely respected as he believes, and the reality that he has failed to develop meaningful relationships with his colleagues or even his own family.

Just as Suda is about to retire, Father Sato, the young local priest, wants his expert assurance that the volcano is dying and won’t erupt anymore. Sato has used the church’s precious funds to buy a plot of land at the foot of Akadaké where he wants to open a spiritual retreat center. Of course, this would be a very poor idea if Akadaké were still active. Father Sato turns to the Demon for his “expert” opinion, and the Demon ignores all evidence to the contrary and reassures the priest. But as he is cast adrift in his retirement, he is consumed by guilt and loneliness.

The Western counterpart to Suda is the old priest  Father Durand. Father Durand is ill and near the end of his life. As he sits by his window looking out over the volcano, he recalls an earlier time when he was arrogantly confident in his religious beliefs and his feelings of superiority over how the Japanese live and follow Buddhist customs. At that time, a young female doctor came to him for help with her sickly, frail only child, but he was convinced that the only thing wrong with the boy was being indulged by the mother. He harshly scolded the doctor, and convinced her to let him put her son in Catholic mission boarding school. The child detested the school and Durand and eventually fell ill and died, devastating the mother. For all Durand’s religiosity and confidence, he has no answer for the boy’s mother as to why god let the boy die. Now, in old age, he is consumed by guilt:

But in his own case, whatever he tried in wanting to do God’s work had ended up ironically in disaster, in tragic consequences. Moreover, God was always silent. God did not answer his prayers. God was only trifling with Durand.

…’Go ahead and explode! Go ahead and explode!’ Durand was actually hoping that some day without warning the mountain would vomit its fire and smoke, retch with its lava, destroy everything — as he had destroyed it all with his own life.

Endo chases around his obsessive themes about the arrogance of Christianity while the great Akadaké/Sakurajima looms in judgement over the characters in the book. It was a powerful symbol to center the novel on.  I visited Kagoshima and drove around the perimeter of Sakurajima about 10 years ago. It’s beautiful and rather scary — the volcano regularly erupts and always has a thick plume of smoke drifting up from the crater. It feels crazy to drive around on it! I think it added to my enjoyment of the novel because I could really visualize this volcano.

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester is everything you ever wanted to know about the world’s biggest and baddest recorded volcanic explosion on August 27, 1883. Krakatoa island, situated in the strait between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, blew itself out of the water and out of existence that day, but the effects of its demise were felt globally for years afterwards. Winchester explains the geologic history and chases down vague reports of earlier possible eruptions. He also explains the social, economic, and technological reasons why this particular explosion in 1883 was poised to be so widely observed and studied, and the impact the explosion had on the global economy, the scientific understanding of the proliferation of species, and even, possibly, the spread of Islam in Indonesia. And be warned: a new volcanic island, the restless Anak Krakatoa or Child of Krakatoa, has already been born from the waves in the same spot.

Possibly one of my favorite nonfiction genres is this kind of study of natural phenomenon and its  social, scientific, technological, artistic, economic, historical and whatever-else impact. Krakatoa was on my TBR for about 5 years. I am so glad I finally read it!

Volcano
Copyright 1959
personal copy
4/5

Krakatoa
Copyright 2003
personal copy
4/5

 

 

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Two Mysteries

I hadn’t read a mystery in a long while, thought it used to be one of my favorite genres. But in the past two months, I read two. Although they were written in different countries (Japan and England) about 25 years apart, they are both in the “classic” murder mystery style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. The reader is given lots of clues to the details of how the murders were killed, and we follow an amateur sleuth in both books to discover the solution.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz pays homage to the classic English village murder mystery. Fictional editor Susan Ryeland reads the latest manuscript by her top-selling mystery author Alan Conway, but is surprised to find that the last chapter is missing. Worse yet, Alan Conway himself is found murdered. His is the second death, as his housekeeper had been found dead under suspicious circumstances but in a “locked room” situation.  As Susan tries to find the last chapter of Conway’s novel, she gets drawn deeper into the mystery of who killed Conway and the housekeeper and the uncanny parallels between the real murders and Conway’s fictional ones. Is it possible for a novel to feel modern and old-fashioned at the same time? Horowitz manages to pull it off.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Shoji Shimada was written way-back-when in 1981. It’s a kind of locked room mystery where the deceased has penned a plan to murder several women, cut them up, and reassemble them into a gruesome sculpture, all based on astrology. The women are murdered and their corpses, all missing body parts, and found all over Japan, but their murders take place after the author of the plan has been found dead. So who murdered him–and them? And where is the sculptural assemblage of their missing parts? The mystery is 40 years old, when the narrator and his friend, an amateur sleuth and astrologer, try to figure it out once and for all. The story is a giant puzzle, and at one point, the author interjects himself and tells the reader that they have all the clues to solve the mystery and the murders. Despite this announcement, I had absolutely no clue who did it, how, or why (I am rotten at solving a murder mystery before the big reveal). But I read happily on and enjoyed the clever solution.

After such a long time not having read any mysteries, it was serendipitous that I read two with such similarities. Both had murdered authors of manuscripts that described the real murders, and both had locked room murders. Perhaps Horowitz read Shimada and that gave him some ideas for his story?  I certainly got my murder mystery itch well scratched for a while.

 

Best of 2017

Bestof2017I’ve only got a few hours left in my reading year, so I doubt I’ll be able to add to my favorites even though I am in the middle of SIX books. I sometimes have two or three books going at once, but this many shows how scattered my reading — and life — has been this past month.

I set my 2017 reading goal at 50 books, but fell short with only 42 read. That’s just one more than last year. Ho-hum. Supposedly, I read 13,277 pages (about 500 fewer than last year) but I was more finicky this year and abandoned several books, some even 200 or more pages in.

Here are my favorites for 2017, in no particular order although Silence definitely rates at or near the top:

  • Silence by Shusako Endo
    Several months after I read Silence, I visited the island of Hirado in Japan where real-life events similar to those in the book took place. At a small, local museum, I saw a rare surviving fumie, a small piece of wood with the image of Christ on it that Japanese officials used to get Christians to apostatize. It was so insignificant looking, but likely had caused such unspeakable suffering. Fascinating and terrible history in a great book.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
    This book languished in my TBR for about 10 years, and took my Pulitzer project to get me to read past the first 20 pages. Chabon’s story set in the nascent comic book publishing world in the 1940s NYC. I’ve never been a comic book reader, but I was glued to this one because I loved the characters and Chabon’s zippy style.
  • Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
    I asked the internet universe for a good new Western and my old friend PJK delivered with this one. The narrator, Jack Crabb, is a Forest Gumpian character, who finds himself in every major wild West historical event you can think of. It’s very different from, but to my mind just as good as Lonesome Dove.
  • The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
    Carson McCullers captures in writing what Diane Arbus captures on film. Sad, but hard to look away from.
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
    The more I read Cather the more I fall in love with her. This book captures the atmosphere of New Mexico, even 100+ years after the events it depicts.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
    This one made it on a lot of best-of lists, so my admiration is hardly unique. Need to get over my aversion to short stories and read more George.
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
    With Alma Whitaker, Gilbert creates one of the most richly developed characters I’ve ever met in a novel. I wish she’d float off the pages and come over for tea. We’d talk about moss.

Looking forward to a fresh start in 2018!

The Sport of Kings

The Sport of Kings does not have a lick of wimpy writing in it. Instead, it’s the kind of prose that hooks two fingers in your nostrils and drags you through it:

In the fifth month Henry’s terror grows steadily in the womb of his mind. What if the Blood Horse is born of Soured Milk? What if there exists no vestige of divinity at all but only a satyr, that beast of horsetail, cloven hoof, and black pugnacious eye? It’s all her fault — seductress! She was too voluptuous, too hot-blooded and luxuriant. She lay in the undulatory grasses under green, fireworking trees, drunk on the liquor of Nature when the other pricked her lip and butterflied her and split the red carbuncle. See how the ordered marvels have been made vulgar! Now the invasive little goat floats in the tendrils of his sodden horse’s tail; he is swilling her dark wine, strangely robust and grinning, that swarthy little fiend already stroking himself erect, good for nothing and unfit for work, a mother’s trouble and Nature’s excess, the child of the a warmongering Orangutan and a woman, Simia satyrus. The bestiaries will designate him an indolent cline.

That’s just Henry Forge, a horse breeder and scion of an old, wealthy Kentucky family,  thinking about his daughter’s pregnancy. This is an extreme paragraph — all the writing is not quite so florid — but it does give a good sense of the intensity of C. E. Morgan’s prose and the way she  lashes together rich vocabulary and syntax to tell the story and layer and sculpt her themes.

I romped through this novel, initially caught up in the language. It’s about a topic and place — horse breeding/racing in Kentucky — that I know very little about. The book starts with the establishment of the Forge family in Kentucky and the many generations of Forges that gets us to Henry and his only child, Henrietta. Henry defies his ancestors by turning their noble plantation into a world-class horse breeding facility.  His daughter turns his family’s long line of privilege on its white, racist head by hiring a formerly incarcerated black groom (with his own long back story) that she gets up to all kinds of business with in the horse barn.

Splitting each chapter of storytelling are “Interlude” chapters where the writer waxes wild about her themes: race, breeding, genetics, blood lines, primogeniture, in horseflesh and human flesh. It was altogether clear that Morgan was playing with the ideas of breeding horses and breeding humans and how miscegenation and racism factored into both the business and the personal.

Looking at them all raising glasses to her munificent grandfather, her ambitious father — panegyrics for the living and the dead. The bourbon Henrietta was drinking was florid and complex, but she tasted only confusion. She had lain under Allmon just this afternoon, curing with want and wanting his need. She was in love, but maybe she was also hopelessly naive. She blinked. Did she actually think that love offered some kind of escape? There is kingdom, class, order, family, genus, species. You could step out of your heels, walk backward down the hall, recede from their collective gaze, but you could never escape the category of your birth and all the morphological categories which preceded it.

Where Morgan grabbed me with her writing style, she lost me with her storytelling. I don’t want to give too much away, but I found Henrietta’s declared love for her groom utterly ridiculous–lust, yes, love, no. Everything about her character was set up to make such a declaration highly improbable (though maybe the preceding quote suggests such awareness). Also, Allmon, the black groom and her lover, was a complex character that I didn’t think Morgan had a good hold of on many levels — his emotions, ambitions, and motivations. I almost stopped reading at the point where Allmon has an emotional breakdown in the horse barn — it really seemed cheesy to me. I wish her storytelling were on par with her wordsmithing, then this book would have been the humdinger it promised.

Despite my uneasiness with the storytelling, I did read all the way to the end. I loved her language and even enjoyed the themes, heavy-handed as they were at times. Anybody else read this? What did you think of the probability of Henrietta and Allmon’s relationship being true love? Did you think that a certain aspect (ahem…) of Henrietta and Henry’s relationship seemed to be added in as an afterthought?

A short update to say that I was just notified that this is my 100th post. Huzzah!

3/5
personal copy

Time Reading Program 1964: The Big Sky

I read and reviewed The Big Sky before my obsession with the Time Reading Program editions began. So, this will not be a review of that book (you can read that here), but more a reminder that it is a FANTASTIC book that I highly recommend in whatever edition you choose. But the cover of the TRP edition is a smasher, as you can see above, done by George Salter.

As much as I am enjoying these TRP books, I am enjoying researching the artists that did the covers. After all, it was the covers that drew me to them initially. Sometimes I can find very little on an artist, but George Salter is an exception. He was one of the most influential book cover artists in the twentieth century, and I not only found a website dedicated to him, but also a book, Classic Book Jackets: The Design Legacy of George Salter by Thomas Hansen.

Salter was both a calligrapher and a designer. He started his career in his native Germany and became a highly influential book cover designer there between WWI and WWII. He really made a name for himself with the design of Berlin Alexanderplatz, which Hansen describes as “the most famous book jacket for a work of twentieth-century German fiction.” He also notes that “Never before had a book design achieved such a powerful fusion of word and image. The author [of Berlin Alexanderplatz] supplied extra text specifically for this jacket.”

Despite Salter’s success in Germany, he lost his job due to Hitler’s rise in power and antisemitic policies. He was among the first wave of artist refugees who fled to the U.S. Luckily, he had contacts and was able to begin working again rather quickly. And from there, Salter began to make his mark on American book jacket illustration. He worked for many publishers (Simon & Shuster, Afred A. Knopf,  Modern Library) and designed covers for many important books and writers: John Hersey, Ayn Rand, Graham Greene, Steinbeck, Isak Dinesan, E.M. Forester, Gore Vidal, Thomas Mann, more.

Classic Book Covers contains a couple hundred images of Salter’s book covers. The TRP Big Sky does not appear in its pages, but it is included at the back in a comprehensive list of Salter’s design work. The book also notes that Salter sometimes reused earlier designs. I think he did this for The Big Sky because I found noticed a very similar design on the cover of Early Joys by Konstantin Fedin. I like the TRP version better.

Flipping through Classic Book Covers, I recognized a book that I have on my shelf, The Portable Greek Reader. I found this at a thrift store, drawn by the cover, but didn’t buy it immediately because I thought myself silly to buy a book just for the cover (clearly I have gotten over it). I couldn’t get it out of my mind and drove back the next day and nabbed it for a mere 25¢. I only wish I’d also snagged the Thomas Mann book next to it, also illustrated by Salter. You can see it below, along with a few other jackets that I especially admire.

Pulitzer 2011: A Visit from the Good Squad

I’m going to find this book tough to review because — dare I confess? — I really couldn’t follow parts of it. It starts off with a great scene — Sasha’s on another bad first date and heads into the women’s room for some recharging. She spies a green wallet sticking out of a bag, while its owner is busy in the stall. Sasha’s a kleptomaniac, and she’s been working with a therapist to understand why stealing gives her such a rush of pleasure. But the opportunity the unattended wallet presents to give her a rush of relief from her boring date is just too perfect a chance to pass by.  So she nabs it. This first chapter nabbed me, too, even if I did have to wonder — who the hell leaves their bag outside the stall while using a public bathroom? Continue reading

Time Reading Program 1965: The Member of the Wedding

Cover art by Leo & Diane Dillon

This slim novel by Carson McCullers is a wonder — nuanced, sensitive, sad, and sometimes funny. Published in 1948, it tells the story of a lonely twelve-year-old girl, Frankie Addams, at the end of one summer in a small southern town. From the beginning sentences, McCullers announces her major theme:

It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had always been an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.

This summer, Frankie has grown tall and gangly, “almost a big freak,” and she spends hot, monotonous days mostly hanging around the kitchen table with the family cook, Berenice, and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry. Her older brother, an army soldier who’s been living in Alaska, has returned with his bride to get married. Frankie will attend the wedding with her father, and as the book begins, it is this upcoming event that spurs the action of the story. Continue reading