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The Doorman – Reinaldo Arenas

I love magical realism. I discovered Borges and Calvino in college and fell in love with them. I saw Arenas’ book on a list of magical realism novels somewhere and looked for it for ages, and I was so excited when I found it at a used bookstore.

This book was so disappointing. The thing that makes Borges and Calvino and Murakami and other fantastic magical realism authors so good is that their “magic” does not feel magical for the sake of being magical. It follows some kind of logic, however twisted, and it propels the story, and it feels like it could be something that actually happens, even though it’s impossible. Arenas’ book felt magical for the sake of being magical. The first half of the book dedicates brief chapters to each of the wacky tenants of a ritzy New York apartment building and – here’s the kooky twist – their animals, who include an orangutan, stuffed dogs, and a group of dancing chihuahuas. The second half of the book connects the doorman to the animals who, it turns out, can talk and need his help plotting an escape.

It all becomes kind of exhausting, trying to keep track of which animal has which weird power and how the tenants interact with each other and what the doorman has to do with any of this, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

This was my fourth Kawabata book – the other three were Thousand CranesSnow Country, and House of the Sleeping Beauties. As a writer, he snuck up on me. I enjoyed Thousand Cranes, but I didn’t necessarily intend to read a lot of his work. Over the years I’ve purchased his books when I see them at used bookstores, and I’ve ended up reading one every winter. His writing is perfect for winter. It is quiet and understated and simple. Many of his stories take place in winter, and those that take place over longer periods often include descriptive passages about the seasons.

The Sound of the Mountain is the longest book of his that I’ve read, and it felt like the most complete in terms of the depth of its characters and its story. At its most basic level, it is a story about a dysfunctional family and its quiet elderly patriarch, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the sorrow of getting older, the agony of determining your legacy, and the realization that you cannot be responsible for the choices of others.

January 2016

One month down and I’ve read seven books. I didn’t do full posts on most of them (already a bad blogger), but some thoughts below.

The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

This was my fourth Kawabata book – the other three were Thousand CranesSnow Country, and House of the Sleeping Beauties. As a writer, he snuck up on me. I enjoyed Thousand Cranes, but I didn’t necessarily intend to read a lot of his work. Over the years I’ve purchased his books when I see them at used bookstores, and I’ve ended up reading one every winter. His writing is perfect for winter. It is quiet and understated and simple. Many of his stories take place in winter, and those that take place over longer periods often include descriptive passages about the seasons.

The Sound of the Mountain is the longest book of his that I’ve read, and it felt like the most complete in terms of the depth of its characters and its story. At its most basic level, it is a story about a dysfunctional family and its quiet elderly patriarch, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the sorrow of getting older, the agony of determining your legacy, and the realization that you cannot be responsible for the choices of others.

The Doorman – Reinaldo Arenas

I love magical realism. I discovered Borges and Calvino in college and fell in love with them. I saw Arenas’ book on a list of magical realism novels somewhere and looked for it for ages, and I was so excited when I found it at a used bookstore.

This book was so disappointing. The thing that makes Borges and Calvino and Murakami and other fantastic magical realism authors so good is that their “magic” does not feel magical for the sake of being magical. It follows some kind of logic, however twisted, and it propels the story, and it feels like it could be something that actually happens, even though it’s impossible. Arenas’ book felt magical for the sake of being magical. The first half of the book dedicates brief chapters to each of the wacky tenants of a ritzy New York apartment building and – here’s the kooky twist – their animals, who include an orangutan, stuffed dogs, and a group of dancing chihuahuas. The second half of the book connects the doorman to the animals who, it turns out, can talk and need his help plotting an escape.

It all becomes kind of exhausting, trying to keep track of which animal has which weird power and how the tenants interact with each other and what the doorman has to do with any of this, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

The Problems of Philosophy – Bertrand Russell

I was a philosophy minor in college, and I’ve been meaning to go back and read a lot of foundational texts on the subject for awhile now. Russell’s book seemed like a good place to start, as it provides basic context on the major “problems” of philosophy. I first read the “problems” in the title as actual problems, i.e. the things that philosophy gets wrong, but it’s “problems” as the challenges that all philosophy grapples with, mostly the concepts surrounding knowledge and how we know what we know.

It’s probably too simple for someone who knows a lot about the basics of philosophy, but it was a great refresher for me and gave me some good ideas of texts to read next.

Kamouraska – Anne Hébert

I am generally not into the whole “trapped, sad wife in olden times” genre. Edith Wharton is the only writer who has managed to make that story palatable for me, and it’s on the strength of her writing and the fact that her female characters are generally decent people or very entertainingly terrible people (see Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, one of my favorite books of all time).

But Kamouraska was everything that I wished those books were. It is translated from the French, but even with the language barrier Hébert’s voice as a writer comes through. She writes Elisabeth’s story in fits and starts, seamlessly transitioning between scenes from her idyllic childhood, her disastrous marriage to an alcoholic squire, her passionate affair with an American doctor and their plot to murder her husband, and her current quiet life as a wife and mother.

It seems like these types of books often either one of two ways: 1) the woman and her lover end up together happily ever after, or 2) one of them dies or commits suicide. Kamouraska ends with neither, and provides no real closure. It’s another example of how it is such a refreshing entry in the genre.

Full pages on the other three January books here:

Ideas Have Consequences – Richard M. Weaver

Richard_M_Weaver
This is Richard M. Weaver. He probably looks exactly like you thought he would.

This is a book by a man who believed strongly in a great many things that I disagree with. Richard M. Weaver, by all accounts, was a crotchety kind of gentleman, born and raised in the South, who was horrified by the loss of gentility and chivalry and God-fearing that infected the entire United States after the South lost the Civil War.

You may ask why I, a proud heathen liberal, would read a book written by a man such as this. The answer is that I am a student of philosophy and politics, and as such, I both want and need to understand the opinions of other that are extremely different from my own. I started this project last summer by reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, which wasn’t a great overview, but at least provided some basic background on the evolution of conservative thought. I think that Robin mentions Weaver in one of his essays; in any event, Weaver was referenced somewhere in something that I read, and this book is considered a pretty foundational text in conservative thought.

Weaver wrote Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, immediately following World War II. His general gist is that the empiricists and materialists are wrong, their theories have overtaken the world, and they have created a rotting society full of terrible people who don’t understand the value of hard work, don’t talk to their neighbors, and are obsessed with equality to the point of societal ruin. If this sounds familiar, you have probably watched a Donald Trump stump speech lately.

Weaver runs through the particulars of this decay by analyzing different contributors to this terrible new society: the media, science and technology, semantics, the advent of socialism and communism, the denial of religion and metaphysics. The denial of metaphysics and the focus on the empirical world mean that there is no ethics and resulting good and evil, which makes life a free for all.

There are plenty of eyeroll-inducing, Trumpeseque moments in this book. Weaver has a whole chapter on how our language is being overtaken by what we would now call political correctness:

People . . . are so frightened over the existence of prejudice that they are at war with simple predication. The semanticists see in every epithet a prejudice.

My personal favorite, though, was the passage toward the end of the book about how the women’s rights movement has actually been bad for women because big strong men aren’t in charge anymore and:

No longer protected, the woman now has her career, in which she makes a drab pilgrimage from two-room apartment to job to divorce court.

The whole passage is full of scoff-worthy stuff at first read, but it’s ultimately terrifyingly prescient of the current conservative platform. The whole pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and love affair with the natural sorting order provided by capitalism is pure Weaver:

No society is healthful which tells its members to take no thought of the morrow because the state underwrites their future.

For Weaver, there is no such thing as social and economic equality, so why bother?

What surprised me, though, is that I actually did agree with Weaver sometimes. Not on his thoughts about the ills of society or of how to fix them, but some of his thoughts on what is harming American life were way ahead of his time. He denounces “the great stereopticon” of newspapers, radio, and movies, which tells us what to think and how to live – he basically predicted the mass sameness of the 1950s and early 1960s. (Also, he would have hated the Internet.) And he bemoans the loss of liberal arts education in favor of specialization, saying that we’re not teaching our children how to think and reflect, which is still true today.

As we move toward the 2016 election, I plan to read more political philosophy, including more books from the conservative canon. Ideas Have Consequences provides a lot of insight into the conservative mind and how little it has changed in almost 70 years.

Five books in 2016

Finished my fifth book of 2016 on a ride through the Pennsylvania mountains last night. So far in 2016:

Currently reading:

  • The Problems of Philosophy – Bertrand Russell
  • An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume
  • The Complete Stories – Clarice Lispector

As always, updates on Goodreads here.