Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Shining by Stephen King

He did see.  He has been too easy with them.  Husbands and fathers did have certain responsibilities.  Father Knows Best.  They did not understand.

I read The Shining years and years ago (I've always loved King's novels, but I probably read most during high school, this one included), and in preparation for Doctor Sleep, the newly released sequel, I figured I'd read it again.  It did not disappoint.  I can't say it's one of my favorite by King, but it's still great.  In his story about the Torrance family, Jack, Wendy and Danny, King creates the feeling of claustrophobia, desolation and depression while slowly ratcheting up the intensity.

I'm sure everyone knows the basic plot at this point: Jack gets the job as the caretaker of a resort outside of Boulder when it closes for the winter.  His son, Danny, has some kind of psychic powers (the eponymous "shining"), which allow him to see the future and communicate telepathically.  Unfortunately for the Torrances, this power attracts the attention of the hotel itself, which is basically haunted.  The hotel uses Jack to get to Danny by slowly driving him insane.  Lots of scary stuff goes down before the climactic end (which, by the way, is different and better than the end of the movie).

What I notice and found interesting this time around was why Jack was so vulnerable.  The Torrances ended up snowed in at a deserted hotel in the first place because Jack lost his teaching job after hitting a student.  Before that incident he had struggled with his raging alcoholism that at one point contributed to him losing his temper and breaking Danny's arm.  Still, Jack and Wendy's relationship had been improving since Jack quit drinking and it seemed like this job would be the beginning of the family's second act.  However, they live in a time when the man was very much expected to be the provider for his family.  Wendy defers to Jack not just because he's an abusive terror, but because he's the man and it's the late 70s.  When the hotel's shenanigans start to escalate, the clear right move is to get Danny the hell out of there, but Jack resists, even going so far as to sabotage the snowmobile, cutting them off from the outside world.  Sure, the nefarious influence of the hotel plays a big role in this decision, but he's vulnerable to its thrall because he is afraid that if he gives up the caretaker job he won't be able to provide for his family.  He doesn't even consider that Wendy could try to find a job to supplement his income, and she doesn't bring it up either.

His growing delusions and insanity are fed by his insecurity and inability to live up to the ideal of the patriarch.  The hotel turns him against his family, but this is how it manifests: "What it really came down to, he supposed, was their lack of trust in him.  Their failure to believe that he knew what was best for them and how to get it."  The ghosts of the hotel continue to stroke his ego, convincing him that he's "management material" and that it's him it wants, not Danny.  It's not until Danny makes him realize that Danny is the hotel's intended prize that he snaps out of it just long enough to avert disaster.

As the economy stalled and women entered the workforce during this era, this bitterness and frustration must have felt very familiar to many men.  A perceived inability to provide for one's family became more than a present, practical problem; it became a threat the men's entire identity and their conceptions of themselves as men.  Just another way the patriarchy negatively affects men as well as women.

Beyond that interesting aspect, it's still a great book, and I look forward to sinking my teeth into Doctor Sleep.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Life of Christina of Markyate by Anonymous

'Tell me, Beorhtred, and may God have mercy on you, if another were to come and take me away from you and marry me, what would you do?'

He replied, 'I wouldn't put up with it for a moment as long as I lived.  I would kill him with my own hands if there was no other way of keeping you.'

To this she replied, 'Beware then of wanting to take to yourself the Bride of Christ, lest in anger he slay you.'

First of all, if you're anything like me, every time you look at the name "Christina of Markyate," you want to read it as "Christina of Mary Kate," as if this were an 11th century account of some Olsen twin associate.  I f only that were so.  In truth--or according to this account at least--Christina was the daughter of nobles in early Norman England who objected to her arranged marriage to a lout named Beorhtred.  (Another misreading: that really ought to be "Betrothed," right?)  She argued that she could not marry Beorhtred because she was literally married to Christ already.

Persecuted by her parents ("In the end she swore that she would not care who deflowered her daughter, provided that in some way this could be arranged") and Beorhtred, a hermit monk helps Christina by allowing her to live in a cell only a few inches wide for, like, years.  When everyone finally calms down and she's permitted to leave, she takes up the monastic life, impressing everyone with her spirituality and having visions, some of which border on the sexually explicit.

I found a couple of things interesting about Christina's story.  First, the anonymous author is believed to have been a monk at the parish of St. Albans, where Christina lived, and this would-be hagiography is to some extent a transparent attempt to bestow sainthood on Christina, thereby making St. Albans an important site of pilgrimage.  That attempt fails (for reasons I'm not familiar with) and so The Life of Christina of Markyate is interesting as an unsuccessful attempt at persuasion.  Second, I'm really fascinated by the way Christina's "spiritual" marriage precludes and overshadows any "earthly" one.  Here (as well as in the next book I'm going to review, the 12th C. letters of Abelard and Heloise) marriage and family are depicted as necessary evils, antithetical to a life of religious contemplation, and to be avoided if at all possible.  How did we get from there to the "family values" ideal of modern American evangelism?

Anyway, the bottom line is this: Brent should name his next kid "Beorhtred."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

She opened her arms to the black bat and they flew to each other, embracing in the air like long-lost souls.  This is love, Ursula thought.  And the practice of it makes it perfect.

But it doesn't make it perfect, according to Atkinson.  In the end it's all rather pointless, I suppose.  At least that's what I think the message ends up being from Life After Life, though I'm not sure Atkinson means it to be.

In Life After Life, we follow Urusla, an Englishwoman born in 1910 after life.  Ursula dies constantly in the book, in a variety of different ways (flu, bombing raids, domestic abuse, etc), but is reincarnated as herself each time.  It's hard to tell if the first time she's born in the book is the first time she's born, but as she goes she picks up memories or flashes of her previous lives, like a strong deja vu.  Sometimes she uses this to her advantage (after three or four times she finally figures out how to avoid the Spanish flu), but sometimes not.  Sometimes her life turns out ok, but usually it doesn't.  She deals with rape and domestic abuse over and over, and struggles with the expectations of being a woman in the first half of the 20th century (though Atkinson's addition of these elements seems to be more about setting the scene than any kind of social commentary).

But still, it all feels kind of pointless, because no matter the outcome, as soon as she dies she has to start all over again.  The dreary lives are plenty dreary (and can be depressing as well), but the happy lives aren't that enjoyable because you know she'll probably end up dying in a bombed out building in London the next time anyway.  Toward the end of the book, after having spent part of a previous lifetime being friends with Eva Braun and getting to know Hitler, she brings enough of her recall into the next life and tracks Adolf down in 1930, sacrificing herself to kill him before he gets started.  I thought the book finally had some kind of closure, but turn the page and boom! here we go again!  Ursula has to do it all over again, this time without the foresight to take out the fuhrer, with the war happening anyway.

So really, no matter what she does, it doesn't matter, because she'll forever be caught in an endless loop, repeating life after life after life.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

But what we have to express in expressing our cities is not to be scorned.  Their intricate order--a manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans--is in many ways a great wonder.  We ought not to be reluctant to make this living collection of interdependent uses, this freedom, this life, more understandable for what it is, nor so unaware that we do not now what it is.

I live in a pretty vibrant neighborhood.  If you've ever watched HBO's Girls, you've seen it--a densely populated collection of vinyl-siding houses interspersed with gritty warehouse and factory buildings that, for the most part, have been transformed into luxury loft spaces, artist's studios, and artisanal pickle companies.  There's a lot of young people and a lot of bars to service them, although it retains its old identity as a middle-class Polish neighborhood.  This vibrancy, of course, comes with consequences--skyrocketing rents, for one.  But also it has become prey for real estate developers wanting to cash in on the neighborhood's success by clearing out vast tracts of space for monstrosities like this one, called Greenpoint Landing:

Jane Jacobs died a few years ago, just before the boom that made such a development possible, but in 2005 she wrote a letter to Mayor Bloomberg responding to a similar plan centering around the old Domino Sugar factory in neighboring Williamsburg that simply and eloquently decried this kind of project.  Reading this letter--it was blown up and framed in a neigborhood coffee shop--made me want to read Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities because I thought it might help me understand what's happening in my backyard, and maybe provide expression to the mute unease that I feel about it.

The central argument of Death and Life is that city planning--the way cities are physically designed and put together--has a tremendous impact on vibrancy and quality of life.  Jacobs is highly critical of the faddish trends of mid-century city planning, which advocated low-density communities with tons of open green space built on cleared land--which you may witness in the rendering above.  What good neighborhoods need to become vibrant, Jacobs argues, is four things: A mix of primary uses, small blocks, old buildings, and high densities.

Jacobs' explanation of these "generators of diversity" is so lucid, so persuasive, that I felt almost embarrassed not to see them as common sense before reading them.  Take the need for old buildings: Without them, Jacobs argues, where will fledgeling businesses find rents low enough to support them?  A quick scan of any major city shows this to be absolutely true; into new buildings go the Starbucks and Subways, while entrepreneurs seek out older storefronts or unconventional spaces, not only for their charm but because they have to.  What businesses are going to be crowded out by the full-scale clearing of the warehouses that occupy the site of the future Greenpoint Landing?

The other generators of diversity seem equally obvious, once Jacobs explains them: Areas that rely too heavily on single primary uses, like the financial district of lower Manhattan, are dead, dull places because they only have foot traffic at very specific times of the day; there are no good restaurants in the financial district because they would have to survive on lunch business alone.  Parks in these areas become breeding grounds for crime because there are huge swaths of time in which they are essentially unoccupied.  The need for small blocks seems silly, but it too makes sense; long city blocks are economic dead zones because they discourage pedestrian traffic.

Part of the fun of reading Death and Life is that it provides an interesting picture of what American cities looked like at mid-century.  For example, while we often read about how Detroit's woes derive from the collapse of the American automobile industry, apparently it's always been kind of a hellscape:

Virtually all of urban Detroit is as weak on vitality and diversity as the Bronx.  It is ring superimposed upon ring of failed gray belts.  Even Detroit's downtown itself cannot produce a respectable amount of diversity.  It is dispirited and dull, and almost deserted by seven o'clock of an evening.

But it's also fascinating to see what's changed.  Who knew that posh Riverside Drive was once "plagued by trouble?"  More fascinating still is to hear Jacobs' perspective on Brooklyn, decades before its economic renaissance:

If Brooklyn, New York, as an example, is ever to cultivate the quantity of diversity and degree of attraction and liveliness it needs, it must take maximum economic advantage of combinations of residence and work.  Without these primary combinations, in effective and concentrated proportions, it is hard to see how Brooklyn can begin to catalyze its potential for secondary diversity.

Jacobs deserves credit for her prescience here; north and west Brooklyn are all "diversity" and "liveliness" now, and, from what I can tell, precisely because it followed her advice.  But Jacobs also warns against the prospect of too-rapid development that eats itself, infusing areas with what she calls "cataclysmic" money, crowding out slow, healthy development that retains the qualities that made such development possible in the first place.  I can't think of a better example of that kind of mistake than Greenpoint Landing.  Let's hope this idea dies the horrible, fiery death that it deserves.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

They all felt that he had summoned Death.  Death hovered over them, and they were completely unfamiliar with the feeling.  They had been born in peacetime and become officers in peaceful drills and maneuvers.  They had no idea that several years later every last one of them, with no exception, would encounter death.  Their ears were not sharp enough to catch the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War.  A white winterly peace reigned in the small garrison.  And black and red, death fluttered over them in the twilight of the small black room.

When the Kaiser Franz Joseph I is very young, he is saved from enemy fire at the Battle of Solferino by a young Slovene peasant officer whom he elevates to a Barony in honor of his service.  Thus begins the von Trotta dynasty, whose heyday is brief and whose decline mirrors that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself, already withered and irrelevant before the outbreak of World War I.  The Radetzky March begins with the Battle of Solferino, but its focus is on that Trotta's grandson, Carl Joseph, a lieutenant in the Kaiser's army.

Carl Joseph is an unexceptional soldier and a sensitive young man who slowly unravels over the course of the novel.  The military is his birthright, but one which he has difficulty being equal to:

For once, Lieutenant Trotta was rebelling against the military laws that ruled his life.  He had obeyed since earliest boyhood.  And he wanted to stop obeying.  He had no idea what freedom meant, but he sensed that it was as different from a furlough as war is from maneuvers.  This comparison flashed into his mind because he was a soldier--and because war is the soldier's freedom.

Carl Joseph is beset by disasters, some of which are his own making: Alcoholism, gambling debts--and a weak willingness to cover others' gambling debts--but also the death of his only close friend in an honor duel.  The duel itself is a symbol of an old order of prestige that is rapidly passing away, one in which Carl Joseph cannot fit in, but one which threatens to destroy him as it destroys itself.

The Radetzky March is notable for its thorough depictions of Kaiser Franz Joseph, including long passages of the Kaiser's thoughts.  (FYI: Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination sparks WWI, is Franz Joseph's nephew and presumptive heir.)  These passages, which depict the Kaiser as a complex man approaching senility, are the best in the book, I think:

The night was blue and round and vast and full of stars.  The Kaiser stood at the window, thin and old in a white nightshirt, and felt very tiny in the face of the immense night.  The least of his soldiers, who could patrol in front of the tents, was more powerful than he.  The least of his soldiers!  And he was the Supreme Commander in Chief!  Every soldier, swearing by God the Almighty, pledged his allegiance to Kaiser Franz Joseph I.  He was a majesty by the grace of God, and he believed in God the Almighty, who hid behind the gold-starred blue of the heavens, the Almighty--inconceivable!  It was.  It was His stars that shone up there in the sky, and it was His sky that arched over the earth, and He had allocated a portion of the earth, namely the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, to Franz Joseph I.  And Franz Joseph was a thin old man, standing at the open window and fearing that his guards might surprise him at any moment.

Contrast Franz Joseph's serene prescience with the anxious uncertainty of Carl Joseph and the soldiers in the first passage, the "patrolling soldiers" of the Kaiser's imagination to whom he assigns a kind of power.  I doubt very much that this is a historical depiction of Franz Joseph I, but it is compelling one that underscores the great chasm between the perspectives of the powerful and those marked for the trenches.