Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Maybe it’s the national chaos this election year, but I felt it was time to read something mired in panicked imperialism. Thus, we’re looking at Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee this week.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Jim Crace and 9th for Jim Shepard.)

Waiting for the Barbarians focuses on the Magistrate, the empire’s minor official who has been running his tiny town on the barbarian frontier for thirty years. It isn’t an important place, but it’s peaceful. There’s been talk for forever about the barbarians massing to take them over, but on the ground the Magistrate has seemed to see nothing of the sort. He doesn’t even have facilities for prisoners. Bandits swipe one or two cattle here or there, but for the most part they keep to themselves and concentrate on their nomadic lifestyle. However, things change when a visiting officer from the empire arrives to do something about the barbarians.

For one thing, the Magistrate is a good and peaceful man. He lives by the law, which he understands is the best that they have rather than perfect justice. Still, he is utterly unprepared for the kind of pointless cruelty of which the visiting officer (and indeed the empire and eventually most everyone around him) is capable:

“These are the only prisoners we have taken for a long time,” I say. “A coincidence: normally we would not have any barbarians at all to show you. This so-called banditry does not amount to much. They steal a few sheep or cut out a pack-animal from a train. Sometimes we raid them in return. They are mainly destitute tribespeople with tiny flocks of their own living along the river. It becomes a way of life. The old man says they were coming to see the doctor. Perhaps that is the truth. No one would have brought an old man and a sick boy along on a raiding party.”

*****

“Nevertheless,” he says, “I ought to question them. This evening, if it is convenient. I will take my assistant along. Also I will need someone to help me with the language. The guard, perhaps. Does he speak it?”

“We can all make ourselves understood. You would prefer me not to be there?”

“You would find it tedious.”

*****

Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing.

Horrified by what he sees done by the empire, he obsesses over a barbarian girl who had been blinded and had her feet broken, taking her in and performing odd quasi-sexual rituals involving washing and oiling her. Eventually, he takes a few soldiers on a long and dangerous journey to return her to her people, but upon his return he is arrested under suspicion of aiding the barbarians. He is tortured by the empire, though not as badly as what they seem to do to the barbarians, and is abandoned and laughed at by his own townspeople.

Of course, then things go badly for the empire. The barbarians, who had left things relatively alone for so long, cunningly manage to destroy crops, troops, and more. The empire’s soldiers all flee, leaving the town to its fate. The Magistrate just steps back up again, quietly trying to help the people of the town figure out how they’re going to get through the winter.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an interestingly spare exploration of imperialism and human cruelty. The writing is solid, though some of the paragraphs can swell a bit. For the most part the lines are clean though, and the descriptions are tangible. I liked how concrete everything was at the same time that the exact empire and place was left vague enough that it could be so many places. Waiting for the Barbarians is not going to be one of my favorite books, but it might be one of my favorite Coetzee books.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This is late. So very, very late. My apologies, I was trying to get through a different book and wasn’t able to finish in time. I switched to Beloved and read it as quickly as I could in order to talk to you guys about it.

I still have no clue where my Top Ten book walked off to this time.

I have not had a lot of sleep in two days so I feel a bit foggy right now, just an observational thing I felt you all needed to know.

I urge you to read Beloved if you have not already. I do not urge you to read Beloved if your stomach or mind are not equipped to deal with violence. Because in some things, Beloved is brutal. It is a story told over a decade after the Civil War. It is a story told about the present of former slaves as well as their past while still in slavery. Morrison drips description and metaphor alike from the page until you are as immersed in it as one of the characters is in an “emerald closet” (a bunch of shrubs that have formed a small hidden room) she uses as a play room and a dream escape as she grows older. So, when Morrison describes one of the characters telling about having an iron bit in his mouth, it’s not just “hm, ok, random detail to get over to get to the rest of the story”, you can taste the metal in your mouth and feel the skin at the corners of your mouth going tender and stretched out.

The story is about a house. A house that has a vengeful baby ghost in it, the toddler daughter of one of the main characters who died very young. A man from her past comes in the beginning of the book and chases the spirit off. The daughter that lived is upset about this, Denver. Her mother, Sethe, Denver and the man, Paul, they go to a carnival in town for Negroes. On the way home, Sethe sees their shadows with linked hands and takes it as an omen of good for the future the three of them can have. Upon arrival home, there is a young woman there, who is sick. Her name is Beloved. It comes about that Beloved appears to be the spirit that was chased from the house, but grown into a woman. Because this is a novel and because a spirit formed into a live human being just isn’t natural, of course things go horribly awry.

This is a book about slavery. This is a book about the power of hope and love and where that power can lead when that love and hope are warped beyond measure by something as ugly as being owned by another human. You can find hope in Beloved but it doesn’t jump from the page. Rather, it sneaks in the cracks and around the corners. The characters have it but squash it.

This is a book about memory. About how memories can entrap us, can impale us and can suffocate us. But it is also a book about how we can entrap ourselves by choice in a memory, while lying and saying we are free as birds.

This book is haunting. It lingers around you even after you’re done, and whispers to you even before you’re done.

Hope everyone has had a great weekend!

 

Books I Quit

Kim had to confess last week that she had, apparently for not the first time, not finished reading The Iliad. I don’t think we can blame her for that. We want a post, but Homer isn’t easy. She’ll get there, but in her own time. That sort of classic should be enjoyed, not forced (unless it’s a student who wouldn’t read it any other way, then go ahead and force). Regardless of any of that, I thought it might make Kim feel a little better to take this week to talk about a few books that gave me trouble as well.

Now, I can’t immediately remember any books that I tried and quit without having come back to them eventually. Usually I do, or at least I have as far as I remember. There are a couple that took me a few tries though, sometimes over the course of ten years or so, so we’ll talk about those.

The first was War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I imagine people can understand this one. I think I first got a paperback of this in 1994. I tried reading it, and then tried reading it again a few months later. I didn’t get very far in. Of course, I was seventeen, but still. I don’t think I read more than a couple hundred pages on either attempt. Those who know War and Peace know there’s a hell of a lot further to go than that. In any case, I stopped both times. Then I quit trying for a while. I thought about it, but I didn’t read it. I can’t remember if I even tried it again until the time I read it. I might have, I might not. Regardless, I had a copy when I got to the semester break during my first year of law school. I figured I wasn’t going to ever have that much time again without work, school, or significant other putting some kind of demands on me, so I gave it another shot…and got through just fine. I think I just needed to get a certain momentum in to carry me through.

Same with In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (alternatively translated as Remembrances of Things Past). I first got the gigantic two-volume silver set with the alternative title I mention in the parenthetical. That was maybe in 1998, or perhaps as late as 2000-2001. I tried to get into it because Kerouac spoke of it so highly and I was still really into him, but I couldn’t get past the bit where he talks in the beginning about dreading going to bed and the confusion he experienced waking up in the middle of the night. You might laugh, or you might know and not scoff. After all, he goes on about this for at around a hundred pages. I just couldn’t take it, especially with the weight of those tombs making my wrist numb as I tried to, and gave up. I tried at least two times, though I can’t remember how many precisely before the summer of 2005. Summer 2005 was when I picked up the 6 volume more modern set with the title above. I was summering at a firm in Kansas City before my last year of law school. Though I lived just around the corner from the Plaza and did do a bit of drinking on the weekend with the other summers (as well as some during the week by myself), I didn’t really know anyone in town and didn’t really have much to do. Sometimes I could watch the young coeds in the pool directly outside my window (it was a large apartment complex with a lot of young college kids), but not all the time. I got a lot of reading done, including just steaming through one volume of Proust after the other. Again, once I got momentum to get through him talking about not wanting to go to bed, somewhere over a hundred pages perhaps, I powered right though.

I’m sure there’s got to be a book I’ve quit and haven’t come back to, but I just don’t remember. I’m sure it isn’t as important a book to me as these two were that I really wanted to read and had trouble making myself do. Anyway, I just wanted to confirm to Kim that she wasn’t alone on this and I’ve failed to get through a challenging book I really wanted to read a couple times myself.

The Iliad

I have an admission to make.

I tried again, and again, and again to read The Iliad. And I couldn’t. Years ago I read parts of it here and there. I always found it interesting. I was excited to read it now. Yet, I’d get lost in the rhythm of the poetry and would get sleepy.

I really, really want to be able to read it, because when I was able to get into parts, it was so interesting!

When I was a kid, there was a book of Greek myths I found in the library. It was a kids’ book of myths but they were pretty complex. Just happened to be illustrated too. I absolutely ADORED that book. I’d buy it in a heartbeat if I could ever find it again. (Before anyone asks, I only remember vaguely what it looked like haha).

My favorite myth was the Persephone myth.

So anyway, that was part of the reason reading the Iliad really excited me. And I hate having to sit here and say “whoops, I couldn’t get through it guys, so sorry”, but I have to.

Anna Karenina took me about four times to finally make it through. So, I guess I’ll try the Iliad again in a few months. I’ll make sure to tell y’all what I think if I do get through it finally.

Have a great Fourth everyone! Dave and I will actually be face to face this weekend. He can yell at me then for forgetting the last two times to blog on Thursday. My other big sadness of the week.

*slinks off feeling a little embarrassed*

 

 

William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.

 

In which I am in the same room as STEPHEN KING

First, I apologize for this being a day late. I have no excuse other than I forgot.

Second, on Tuesday past, June 14th, I saw Stephen King speak! Now those of you on my facebook are already aware of this. And the geek excitement that I had. Those of you that are blog readers of this blog, know that I would be geek excited.  So, yes, I was super excited.

So, Stephen King spoke at the Kaneko Center. For those of you in the Omaha metro, I highly recommend checking Kaneko out. (Jeremy, if you’re reading this, I was like “Greg! this is where I met Jeremy!). The Bookworm hosted it. Now, the Bookworm is an independent bookstore here in Omaha. I recommend going there.  It’s always, always recommended that you support your local bookstores.

Okay, so before he started speaking, I heard someone that was working the event say that they had volunteered to work it. My thought was why did I not know about this!? I mean the volunteers got to MEET HIM like in person. Not just hear him talk. Big regret of my life now.

Stephen King is a huge baseball fan. He came out wearing a Huskers baseball t-shirt. He said he was sad that he was here the week -before- the College World Series. He came out years ago with Little League teams. But, he finished that he wouldn’t go again until it was at Rosenblatt stadium.Of course, a bunch of people applauded this.

He said he often hears one of two things (and all language is his, not me adding it in):

“You scare the shit out of me. Can I have a hug?”

“Oh this is great. I can scratch you off my bucket list”. He then said about that “What a fucking creepy word, bucket list”.

He talked about his son, Joe Hill. Hill’s latest book, The Fireman is #1 on the NYT bestseller list. I can say that I recommend it. He went on to say that we should go to the Bookworm and buy a copy. But buy one of his own books first, because he was older.

He also talked about the prevalence of Nebraska cropping up in his books. He saId he first became fascinated when he was 10. During Charles Starkweather’s rampage across the state. He couldn’t figure out why he was fascinated. But his mother found the clippings and said “Steve, I feel like this isn’t quite normal”. He said that the emptiness of Nebraska appeals to him.

He talked about how the Children of the Corn movies (all the sequels) became a household joke with them saying “Children of the Corn in Outer Space” and his son Owen (also a novelist) saying “Children of the Corn vs Leprechaun”.

Next year, Owen and Stephen will have a book coming out that they co-authored.

He talked about how he was really three people.

Regular Home Steve: Yes, dear, go along to get along type guy. No standing ovations at home.

Public Steve: Comes out to speak to the public.

Scary Steve: Won’t travel. Sick guy. Leave him alone. Don’t mess with him much.

He talked about how good stories, you need to feel a connection wit the character, they have to be worth caring about.

He said you can see the difference in Friday the 13th movies, you “go to see what weird fucking ways they die”. Then he contrasted it with Halloween movie, where you rooted for Jamie Lee Curtis to live.

He talked about how it was weird to be in front of a crowd. That writers by nature are introverts, and are supposed to observe instead of being observed. He says he always makes sure his fly is zipped before stepping on stage.

He said that John Grisham once told him that they were famous writers in a country that doesn’t read.

He also said he takes books everywhere, they’re great friends. (See, Dad, if you’re reading this, I wasn’t the only one that ever did this!).

It was an amazing experience and one I am so happy to have had.

Have a great weekend!

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”