Archive for March, 2008

Fog of War

Monday, March 31st, 2008

day, A.L Kennedy, 2008

Legendary Avro Lancaster Bomber lancaster11m.jpg

Wonderful writing from Glasgow’s master novelist. The main character, Alfred Day, has grown up in the home of an abusive father and abused mother. To escape, he joins the RAF in WWII. Because of his diminutive size , Alfred becomes a tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber, where he can fit in the tiny tail gun turret. His bomber crew becomes his family as they set out to survive the war (30 missions required).

Typical Lancaster Bomber Crew bomber-crew.jpg

1941 Lancaster Showing Tail Gun Turret lancaster.jpg

The novel is written from the fog that is Alfred’s mind and in the modern manner we alternately find ourselves waiting for or in a mission bombing run, in a German prison camp (or is this a movie set after the war where Alfred is playing a British prisoner of war). The crew and their relationships are strong but vague. The missions are unforgettable but hazy. Characters in the prison camp (or is this the movie set in Germany?) are dangerous and ominous. Then there is the London married woman, whose barely remembered husband has disappeared as Japan overran Singapore at the beginning of the war. Does Alfred have a future with this lonely woman? Will they make it? Will the husband return? The crew is as curious as we are. Will Alfred survive the war with mind intact? One of the best ever writings that takes us into the mind of the common soldier/airman, caught up in world changing events with only his own internal moral compass for guidance. A.L. is a woman of exceptional writing skill.

Cold Mountains

Monday, March 24th, 2008

Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier, 2006

smokymountains.jpeg mingusmill.jpg


This second novel by the author of Cold Mountain again is set in the mountains of North Carolina. The main character this time is Will Cooper, an orphan whose aunt and uncle took him out of school at age 12 and sold him into indentured servitude for seven years to an old man who needed a clerk for his Indian trading post. With a young horse, a knife, and a few dollars he heads off to his new life. Once in the Cherokee nation, his horse is stolen and other Indians direct him to the house of Featherstone, leader of the horse thieves. The thieves refuse to return his horse but when they see he has a few dollars they invite him to join them at a card game. Unfortunately he is a very good card player and soon not only wins his horse and some money, but the pretty young girl, Claire, he assumes is Featherstone’s daughter. The thieves have no intention of letting him leave with his winnings and he runs away with nothing. When he finally arrives at his trading post, Featherstone is waiting with his horse, saying they are now even.

Cherokee Trading Post cherokee-trading-post.jpg

Will makes a go of the trading post occasionally ordering a book to continue his education, particularly in the law. One of his regular customers is Bear, a small time chief who trades primarily for whiskey which he drinks immediately in the store. When Bear learns that Will is an orphan he offers to adopt him and teach him Cherokee ways and the language. Thus, all white Will becomes an Indian. After a few years Will falls in love with Claire and they become lovers. The old owner of the trading post dies and the owner’s son sells the business to Will releasing from his bond. Will hires a smart young clerk for the second trading post and expands his operation. He starts operating as a courtroom lawyer for the Indians mostly dealing in land disputes. When the President decides to relocate the Cherokee out West, Will starts traveling to Washington to lobby for letting the Indians stay. He fails but is allowed to keep some land for himself and Bear’s small clan when the rest of the Indians, including Featherstone are moved. Will learns that Claire is Featherstone’s wife not his daughter. Bear and Will start buying land at auction, accumulating large tracks of steep mountainous land not wanted by white settlers. He converts his trading posts into general mercantiles for the white settlers and grows prosperous. He travels West looking for Claire, love of his life, but fails to find her.

Will becomes a senator, then a Colonel in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Frazier jokes that with the number men claiming to be Colonels after the war, the Confederate army must have had only two ranks; General and Colonel. Will earned the rank by arriving with his own troops provided for from his own pocket. Will gains notoriety when his Indian troops scalp some Union soldiers. After the war, the creditors descend to take away most of the land and the army arrives to relocate the last of the Indians to the West. Will keeps a small piece of land for himself and remains of Bear’s clan in exchange for acting as army interpreter and locating some runaway killers. He had invested in railroad stock before the war, and when the railroad is built through the area (across his place) he amasses a second fortune. Claire returns a wealthy middle aged widow and they briefly renew their affair, but Claire isn’t interested in marriage and she moves on. Will never marries.

Smoky Mountain Railroad smokyrr.jpg

A delightful, deeply felt, return to a time and a place. Particularly interesting was the prevailing attitude of the time that to be white, you must be 100% white. If you were 1/32 or even 1/64 Indian, you were considered Indian by white society. For the Indians, to be Indian was to be accepted or adopted as an Indian and had nothing to do with blood or birth. Thus many Cherokee, particularly the wealthier Indians, were mostly white, usually Scottish like Featherstone. Bear was more pure blooded Cherokee. The prevailing attitude allowed Will, uniquely, to be fully accepted by both white society where he acts as lobbyist, Senator, Colonel, lawyer, businessman and landowner; and, because of Bear’s adoption, by Indian society.

Streams of Consciousness

Monday, March 17th, 2008

Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee, 2007


The latest from Nobel Laureate Coetzee is uniquely written as three distinct streams of consciousness, one of which is presumably intended to meet the vague contract obligations of a German publisher but consists primarily of ranting about the history of governance, Bush and the complicity of Australian former Prime Minister John Howard in Bush foreign policy, the criminality of the Bush administration, avian flu and viruses, terrorism and the cold war, child pornography, children learning numbers and number theory, Australia’s treatment of Aborigines contrasted to Apartheid in South Africa; you get the idea. The other two streams represent the thoughts of the writer and his typist-hospitality worker alternating with dialog between them and between the girl and her boyfriend discussing the writer. Each of the three streams occupies the top, middle, and bottom of each page respectively, separated by lines. Since the three are unrelated and all have the undisciplined nature of streams of consciousness, reading this book presents a real challenge: Do you read an entire chapter of each stream and then go back and read the next? Or do you read all three streams a page at a time (but sometimes paragraphs and even sentence go on to the next page) until you get a natural break? And how do you keep track of the each matter under discussion? Does it even matter?

The aging writer, who was born in South Africa in 1934, meets the pretty girl with the short skirt and beautiful behind in the apartment’s laundry room. So he can meet her again he asks her to type his latest manuscript as he dictates it to tape. She calls herself his Filipina and is intrigued by this presumed dirty old man, constantly speculating about his sexual inclinations especially as she types the section on child pornography. She grew up in a diplomatic family, living in many countries, but remains surprisingly naive. Her boyfriend thinks the old man, a successful writer, must have money stashed somewhere, and wants the girl to snoop around since, when the old man dies, the money will go somewhere as the vultures descend. She interprets the boyfriend’s curiosity as male competitiveness. When she threatens to quit, the writer tones down his writing to treat more gentle subjects with literary figures and use of language. The boyfriend gets stuck in reflections on the dinner party given by the writer to celebrate the completion of the book where the boyfriends has acted badly and loses his girlfriend.

An interesting experiment in writing.

Mining in America

Monday, March 10th, 2008

Openwork, Adria Bernardi, 2007

Farmhouse in Castelnuovo Tuscany castelnuovo-farmhouse.jpg

Starting in the early 20th Century about three Italian friends from the Mountains North and West of Florence. The sister stays in Italy, marries, and has a family. The brother and friend migrate to America ending up in the coal mines of New Mexico and Colorado. Beautifully written with chapters told from the point of view of each major character.

dawson_mine.jpg <> dawson.jpg

Dawson Mine Site of 1913 Disaster Killing 269 Miners. After the mine disaster in 1913 a poem:

Here lie victims of greed, buried beneath coal.
Engines need fuel. Fires must be fed.
In the belly of the World,
muscles snapped, hearts burst.
The Worker was blamed: he ignited
with his own match
an explosion from combustible particles,
the residue of coal.
The explosion has kill our Brother.
But the flame burns higher.

The sibling’s friend, Antenore, educates himself in English reading Tocqueville among others. He is strong and opinionated who, after the death of the brother in a mine collapse, becomes a union organizer traveling to smaller mines in the American West. He decides that the mines or the owners will sooner or later kill him so we grabs the opportunity to learn stone masonry, moves to Chicago, and finds continuous employment, even through the great depression. He returns to Italy once, looking for a wife in the mountain village just at the time the Fascists are coming into power. He returns to Chicago with his bride who never learns English and earns money cleaning wealthy people’s houses near the El. She refuses to ride in cars claiming carsickness.

“El” in old Chicago chicago-el.jpeg

The next sections of the book deal primarily with the children and grandchildren of Antenore. By the third generation, the children know virtually no Italian so cannot really converse or get to know their grandmother. The second generation Chicago Italians own laundries and dry cleaners and maintain country club golf courses where they manage new immigrant laborers. Antenore’s son sells medical supplies throughout the Midwest and his family live in a modern split level home.

We follow the tribulations, depressions, and deaths both in Italy and America in this tightly written and surprisingly epoch novel. A real good, sympathetic look at the Italian immigrant experience. No Sicilian mafia figures anywhere in sight.