Civil disobedience has an honorable history, and when the urgency and moral clarity cross a certain threshold, then I think that civil disobedience is quite understandable, and it has a role to play.
FRIDAY: My Book World | Debbie Cenziper's Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America
My Book World
Egan, Jennifer. Look at Me. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
I read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2012 to study how nonlinear plots work and enjoyed it very much. This earlier book, her second novel, is a bit more traditional although she does some very interesting things like presenting the main character’s chapters by way of first person but the rest of the chapters in third person; she also cuts, rotating quickly from one character’s point of view (omnisciently) to the next in one of the final chapters, to sustain suspense and perhaps coalesce their views into one. It would seem that the basic plot is that one Charlotte Swenson, a beautiful young fashion model is involved in a car accident, and the surgeon who puts her face back together does so (and I find this hard to believe) with eighty titanium screws just beneath the skin. Her face is still beautiful, but it is no longer her face. People don’t recognize her. She is invisible.
But Charlotte is not without curiosity, a certain inventiveness, to keep her life interesting after losing her livelihood (her booker can no longer get her any modeling jobs)—including a festive sex life. By her own recognizance she can identify what she calls the shadow self of almost any person with whom she comes in contact. Later in the novel, she encounters a man who will now direct a television special about her accident and recovery, in which she plays herself. Even though outwardly he is somewhat fit and sophisticated, she limns his shadow self as an insecure fat kid, the one lurking just beneath the surface of his life, his skin. Though Charlotte’s character is flawed, she leads us to believe she is an astute judge of character, and we tend to believe her.
As with any fine novel, there is a lot going on here. Egan weaves together the story that Charlotte and two other characters are destined to tell, along with a cast of supporting characters, who, in themselves, are fascinating: for one, Z, a young Middle Eastern would-be terrorist who seems to adapt to America quite well; also, a recently recovered alcoholic detective; a mysterious teacher who is seduced by a young female pupil (one of the three main characters) and has also come from some distant or foreign background (one almost thinks that he and Z could be one, but no, ‘tis not true). Jennifer Egan is one of those novelists who meticulously create plot, who meticulously create believable characters to carry it out, all in the service of larger literary themes which are also captured by a title as apt as Look at Me.
By the way, this is an “Advance Reading Copy” that claims it is “Not for Sale.” However, I paid twelve dollars for it at a used book store, and I wuz robbed. I can now see at least one good reason publishers do not want readers to see this sort of copy sold. It had (I always mark them) a variety of twenty-one typos, averaging more than one per chapter. And those are just the ones I caught.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Debbie Cenziper's Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America
TOMORROW: My Book World | Jennifer Egan's Look at Me
FRIDAY: My Book World | Jennifer Egan's Look at Me
FRIDAY: My Book World | Jennifer Egan's Look at Me
My Book World
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Andrew H. MacAndrew and with an introductory essay by Konstantin Mochulsky. New York: Bantam, 1970.
Another book that sat on my shelf unread, this time since 1986. 936 pages. This was nineteenth-century entertainment: a book that might take readers twenty hours to read. I’m not sure twenty-first century readers believe they have twenty hours to spend on one book. Even the denouement and epilogue take up the last one hundred pages. My mental image of this book was always four brothers kicking their heels up, Cossack style, in great revelry, but, ah, no.
One of the four is said to be illegitimate, Smerdyakov. The eldest of the remaining brothers is Mitya or Dmitry. Next is Vanya or Ivan. And the youngest is Alyosha or Alexei. The Russian literary custom of assigning multiple names to a character broadens his or her dynamic, more so than the Anglo/American Bob and Robert or Jim and James. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the author uses a different name depending on the context.
No need to belabor the plot: Readers become acquainted with all four brothers. Certain conflicts arise between father and sons, particularly father and Dmitry. Father is found dead and one of the sons is accused of his murder. Like all epic novels, the author spends a great deal of leisurely time acquainting readers with each character, even the minor ones, so that one’s curiosity nearly rivals the curiosity one has in waiting to see what happens next in, say, a soap opera or an evening TV series. Only with much more gravitas. I’m certainly glad I spent the time reading this novel with a time-worn theme that surprisingly still reads fresh almost two hundred years after its writing.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipeligo
TOMORROW: My Book World | Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
FRIDAY: My Book World | Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
FRIDAY: My Book World | Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
Watson, Robert P. The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II. Boston: Da Capo, 2016.
Even as a child, I was a sucker for disaster reads, particularly those taking place at sea: Titanic, Andrea Doria, and others. Watson seizes upon the fame of the Titanic to make a case for his story about the German ship, Cap Arcona (German for Cape Arcona). Without the Titanic reference in the title, the book might not have much shelf appeal. I’m not sure that there are too many real parallels between the two ships except that they both sank.
Nevertheless, Watson’s book is a fascinating one about the extraordinary history of a German luxury liner that services travelers from the Baltic to South America from 1927 until 1939. At that time the Nazis expropriate the ship and transform it for war purposes. Its most important history comes at the end of its life, in 1945, and I’m not going to spoil the read by giving away the ending. Suffice it to say that the Cap Arconastory is one that has been overlooked, and we have Robert Watson to thank for keeping it and its historical significance alive.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov
TOMORROW: My Book World | Robert P. Watson's The Nazi Titanic
[If you missed yesterday's post, please scroll down. This will make more sense.]
WHEN THE BOOK BEGAN
In 2012 I swabbed my cheeks to get a DNA readout from National Geographic Genographic Project. Briefly, the Project determined that my “deep DNA” was about 41% Germanic, 41% Mediterranean, and 17% Southwest Asian. The NGGP results piqued my curiosity about the three generations of Dutch (half), German (quarter), and Welsh (quarter) ancestors immediately preceding me.
HOW THE BOOK PROGRESSED
I wouldn’t know much about those people, except that my mother and to some degree my father saved everything, which brings me to the second stage of my work. Since my parents died in the aughts, I had stored away boxes and boxes of documents and photographs and negatives, some going back a hundred years or more. My intention was to toss everything I could, but I decided that I should examine every document before disposing of it.
WHAT I FOUND
Hundreds of letters my mother wrote (I’d never before read them); letters my grandfather wrote to his hometown newspaper from France when he fought in WWI, with naïve but fresh descriptions of the Atlantic, the British and the French people; letters to and from other relatives; a dozen issues of Jayhawkerinfrance, a newspaper published by my grandfather’s Kansas Army regiment tracing their movements through France; journals my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my great-grandmother kept, as well as my father’s journal covering the two and a half years he spent in the South Pacific during World War II. In addition, I located newspaper cuttings that pertained to many family members, including ornately written obituaries from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I came upon creative writing; art work; photographs, and much more revealing the joys and heartaches of my family.
WHAT I DID WITH THE INFORMATION
First, I felt compelled to write about my nuclear family, portraying how my parents (both with rather nonnurturing mothers) raised my brother and sister and me. I felt compelled to tell about my sister with Down syndrome and how her disabilities affected our family life, both positive and negative. I included a chapter about the tiny house (750 square feet) where I grew up, almost a character in its own right, a dark dwelling where many sad yet joyous things happened. In another section I write about my parents’ youth: my mother’s life on a farm in Kansas; my father’s life in suburban New York City. In the next section, I write about my maternal grandmother and her parents, a great-grandmother who suffers the loss of her first husband to a flood. I write about my maternal grandfather and his parents, even my third-great-grandfather who hails from Wales in 1790 (consulting several books having been written about him by other relatives). I then turn to my father’s parents and their parents, who live in Breda, Holland for many generations before my grandparents emigrate to the US. From my memory and from documents and from extrapolation I glean instances of abuse, premature deaths that cripple the family, shotgun weddings, mysterious decisions (like not placing my grandfather’s name on his crypt in New York), psychological and physical illness, severed hands and time spent in hospitals, missed opportunities for education, and much more. In the fourth section I return to revisit ghosts of my sister and my parents, once again bringing up the past but in an atmosphere of forgiveness, seeing everyone in his or her full humanity. Acceptance.
WHERE I AM NOW
I have written four drafts. In the first I submitted, over a two-year period, one chapter per month, to my writing group. After studying their critiques, I wrote a second draft; this time returning to my research to include information that had, the first time around, seemed irrelevant. In the third draft, I finally abandoned the idea of directly addressing each ancestor and relied on first and third person. Now, most recently, I realized, finally, that the inner chapters were not presented in the most felicitous order, so I am reordering them and dealing with the ripples that such a change makes. I feel close to the end, having read the six-hundred-page MS aloud multiple times for rhythm and to eliminate clunky language, not to mention other errors that only seem to rise to the surface when read aloud (such as omitted articles or verbs). I am ready to give birth to this monster and hope to wrap things up as soon as the thing presents itself to me. I have never enjoyed writing a book as much as this one, but I am ready to be done and move on!
I shall keep you informed!
Take a look at members of my tribe in the slideshow below.
FRIDAY: My Book World | Robert P. Watson's The Nazi Titanic
Writing a Family History | memoir I
Usually when I decide not to post for any length of time I give my readers a heads up, but this time I forgot. I offer my apologies to those who’ve missed me. To those who haven’t, meh. :) So where have I been?
On February 3, I arrived once again at Hacienda María on the grounds of the Native American Seed Company near Junction, Texas—and didn't return home until February 29. Although the company’s main agenda is to raise and sell native grass and wildflower seeds worldwide, they also offer two dwellings as part of their eco-tourism enterprise. Cool River Cabin is located down in the valley and a bit closer to the Llano River, where one can kayak and canoe. For the third time now, I’ve stayed in the Hacienda, a beautiful sort of mini-villa high atop a ridge overlooking the verdant fields and woods of the farm and river valley. My first morning there, a fog rose from the river and engulfed everything in its mist. Each day I hiked at least twice, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, in order to reach my goal of 10,000 steps.
Now I didn’t go just for the gorgeous, pastoral environment, but went there to finish a book I’ve been working on since 2016. Each of the three visits to Hacienda, I’ve toiled steadily through each day, seven days a week, to bring this tome to its conclusion, anywhere from five to seven hours a day—and yet it is still not done (I keep those same hours when I work at home). I chose to watch little TV (two films, Judy and Jojo Rabbit), didn’t necessarily carry my phone with me or play music. February was a beautiful month in the Hill Country. When I partook of my five o’clock constitutional, I would often enjoy it out on the patio in a breezeless seventy-degree weather. The nights were cool to mild, the days mild to warm. Only one cold, rainy spell kept me indoors for half a day. Groceries are a ten-minute drive into Junction itself, a Lowe’s. And if you have enough gumption to go further south, Kerrville has a CVS, an H-E-B, and a Walmart—about a fifty-minute drive on I-10.
So what did I work on?
I guess I’d call it a family memoir. How about I tell you more next time!
Before you leave, check out my photographs below.
TOMORROW: Writing a Family History | Memoir II
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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