Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book #65 (Part 1) - Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz)

It used to be when you got a gin and tonic in a bar, or made one at home, you'd get some rotgut gin mixed with some Schweppes or Canada Dry tonic water and a slice of lime.  QED, done.  But thanks to the invention of hipsters, even this simple drink has now gone upscale.  In addition to the obvious plethora of fine gins, many of which have been discussed in detail in this blog (which really should be focusing on fine literature but often gets remarkably distracted by booze), one can find all kinds of "artisan" tonic water.  Naturally it comes at a premium price, because capitalism, but the advertisements and word of mouth make it seem so worth it.  Delicious, sparkling, GMO-free, vaccine-free tonic water, ready to add to your expensive gin and a slice of fresh, locally-grown, orchard-to-market lime, and you're off to paradise! And this insanely spectacular hand-made tonic water is available at a semi-reasonable price that's only five-to-ten times that of Schweppes.  Go for it, dude!  Your great-grandfather drank Schweppes, and now he's dead, probably from the tasteless gin and tonics he was forced to drink because there were no hipsters around yet to imagine up the idea of artisan tonic water.  Poor guy!  It's your duty to your dead ancestors to drink an abundance of the awesome premium gin and tonics that today's technology has made possible.  I jumped on this peculiar but totally reasonable bandwagon myself tonight by making a gin and tonic using Plymouth Gin and Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water, plus not one but TWO slices of lime.  Fuck yeah!  If the British had this gin and tonic 100 years ago they'd still have an empire!  It's that good!  Or maybe I'm just writing that because this is my second one, and they're pretty stiff drinks.  That would explain my overuse of exclamation marks.  Meh, whatever, I'm having a good time.  Maybe a third is in order?  Definitely...hold on a second!!

Aaah, now that's refreshing.  Wait, now where was I?  Oh yeah, "Palace Walk" by Naguib Mahfouz.  This is one of the best books I've read in a long time, hands down.  I mean, I really loved this book, almost as much as I'm loving this third, very delicious and refreshing artisan gin and tonic.  This book is brilliant.  And why do I say that?  Is that just the gin and tonic talking?  Well, maybe, but let me try to explain and then you can decide.  Naguib Mahfouz was an Egyptian author, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.  Apparently it was only after he won the Nobel Prize that this book, "Palace Walk", as well as the two other books in this trilogy (called the "Cairo Trilogy"), were translated into English, even though this book was first published (in Arabic) in 1956.  How sad.  Especially because this book is brilliant!  Did I mention that?  This book takes place in the very early 1900s, during and just after World War I, and focuses on the lives of a family living in Cairo, Egypt (not Cairo, Illinois...a totally different place.  Trust me, I've been to both and there's no confusing the two).  The culture and way of life of this family is totally different from what I experience as a white guy in 21st century America.  I mean totally different, starting with the fact that the family is Muslim, and religion plays a big role in their lives.  And they live in an entirely different social and political world as well, one totally alien to what I've experienced in my very long, gin-soaked, and almost completed life.  And yet, the characters!!!  Mahfouz's writing and insight into his characters is exquisite.  Even though they lived in a distant time and place, with different social norms, a different religion, and a different culture, they are so human, so like the people I know in my life, and so like myself.  The author is a brilliant observer of how humans think and behave, and despite the differences in the character's background and my background I could totally relate to how they felt and thought and behaved.  This book really hits home that humans behave like humans behave, and it doesn't matter if it's in Trump's America or in British-occupied Muslim Egypt 100 years ago.  People are people.  Fuck this book was good.  It's the work of a great writer.  If you like literary fiction, you should read it.  I can't wait to read the next two parts of the trilogy.  Woah, this third gin and tonic is fully kicking in.  Hmm, maybe I need a beer chaser.  Would that be prudent?  

This novel doesn't really have a central character, because it's about a whole family, but the central character in that family is Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, or Al-Sayyid Ahmad for short.  Maybe for the purpose of this blog I will just call him Al, because that's easier to type out post-gin and tonic.  Al is the father, or more accurately the patriarch, of the family.  Al lays down the law!  His friends and co-workers (he owns a general store) love the guy...always laughing, always friendly and in good spirits...a real nice guy and everybody's pal.  But they only see half of his personality.  Because when he's at home he's a complete tyrant, who is feared by his entire family.  He's stern, he's angry, he's fearsome.  His wife, Amina, is the exact opposite...very sweet, docile, and submissive.  In fact, so submissive that she hasn't been out of the house in years, except to visit her mother, and all travel must be approved and accompanied by her husband.  However, I must say that this seems not untypical for this society, as everyone else acts like this is normal for wives to be so cloistered, although Al seems to lay a heavier hand on his family than most.  One time while Al is out of town for a few days, Amina's children convince her to take the opportunity to get out of the house.  They encourage her to have the youngest son, Kamal, accompany her to the local holy mosque that she has always longed to visit (she's a very pious woman).  After much hesitation and angst, she does so, and the visit to the shrine means a lot to her, but on her way back she freaks out due to guilt and to all the commotion in the street (which she is not used to) and faints in the street, breaking her collarbone.  Her children urge her to lie about what happened, but she cannot do that, so when Al returns home she tells him everything that happened.  He waits until her collarbone has healed, and then he kicks her out of the house for daring to leave without his permission.  She stays with her mother for awhile, and thinks the marriage is over, but eventually Al summons her back when their youngest daughter gets engaged.  But everyone gets the message:  don't fuck with Al.

The family has five kids:  Yasim, a son from Al's first wife (they divorced), Fahmy (another son), Khadija and Aisha (daughters) and the youngest son, Kamal, a smart and sensitive 10-year old who apparently is closely modeled on the author himself.  Again, these characters are all wonderfully drawn.  Every one of them feels so real to me, and they all have such distinct personalities.  Damn, this guy is such a great writer!  Fahmy is very idealistic and practical and earnest, but always seems like a character bound for an ill fate (Spoiler alert: he is).  He's a law student who gets obsessed by politics, and becomes active in the revolution against the British that occurs near the novel's end.  Khadija, the eldest daughter, is not a very physically attractive girl, but has a very strong personality.  She's quite smart, and uses her caustic and bitter wit to constantly cut others down.  Aisha, the other daughter, is the opposite.  Everyone is in awe of how physically beautiful she is, but she takes more after her mother in her personality...very upbeat and pleasant and pretty mellow.  Kamal, the youngest son, as I said, is a very smart, sensitive, curious and fearless ten year old.  When the British soldiers occupy their street, terrifying the community, Kamal goes up and befriends them.  But perhaps my favorite of the children is Yasim, the eldest.  Not because he's a good guy, but quite the opposite, because he's so bad.  Yasim takes after all the worst traits of his father.  He's a total hedonist, who lives a life of wine, women, and song.  Which is what his father does when he goes out at night, leaving his family behind.  In fact, fairly early on Yasim accidentally encounters his father while out whoring around one night.  Yasim secretly observes his father womanizing, laughing, and drinking.  All Yasim has ever known of his father is the unsmiling angry tyrant at home, so seeing his father in this manner is an eye opener.  It gives Yasim a newfound respect for his father, and makes him understand where his own bad tendencies come from.  Remember, these people are all supposedly pious Muslims, and the father is very religious and strict, so drinking is a total non-sequitur.  But then again, that's the human condition, isn't it?

One turning point in the book is the night Aisha, the youngest, extremely beautiful daughter, gets married.  Her father has arranged a marriage to the son of a distinguished and wealthy family.  There's a big party, and Yasim gets drunk, while hiding his drinking from his family, of course.  Yasim returns home very late at night, and feeling very horny, he tries to rape the family servant who is sleeping outside in the courtyard due to the hot evening.  This woman has been with the family for years, and is quite old.  When Yasim climbs on top of her as she lays there sleeping, she awakens and jumps up and screams, awakening the entire family.  Scandal ensues.  Al decides that the best thing for Yasim would be to get married, to give him an outlet for his physical desires, so he arranges a marriage between Yasim and the daughter of a friend.  Yasim is totally pumped...woo hoo, a chance to have sex any time he wants!!  But after a few months of marriage, he starts to get bored and goes back to his old ways of whoring around town.  Ah well, nice try.  Eventually they get divorced, because while Al's wife may put up with this type of behavior from her husband, Yasim's wife is younger and more modern and isn't going to put up with any of this bullshit.  Poor Yasim.  He eventually goes on to try to rape another servant (and fails once again, and the whole family finds out once again to great scandal) but that's another story.

More things happen.  Khadija marries Aisha's brother-in-law, Fahmy gets caught up in the revolution, etc. etc.  The times they are a changing through the course of this novel, and that's the point.  The ancient ways are giving way to the modern age, and Al is trying to hold it all together with his angry authority.  Will he succeed?  It's getting more and more difficult as the book goes on.  And the family receives a staggering blow at the end of this first novel of the trilogy.  I've just started on the second novel, "Palace of Desire", which occurs five or six years after the events of "Palace Walk", and the reverberations of this tragedy, and of the continually changing times, are being made clear.  Changes are coming, and I will get into that in my next post.  But for now, like the Egyptians struggling to come out from under British rule, I need to escape from the effects of these delicious gin and tonics.  Time for a lot for water and sleep...

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Book #64 - Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift)

We're now a couple of days into the year 2017, and it's time for me to take stock. I started this blog nine years ago, when I thought I was old but I was actually NINE years younger than I am now, which makes me really old now. The years of drinking and swearing and reading great literature have slowly taken their toll: my knees hurt, I have to eat antacids like they're candy, and my brain doesn't remember things the way it used to.  Wait, where was I?  Hmmm.  And then there's the whole 2016 election, which has thrown me for a loop.  I have never gotten political in this blog, but the thought  of Donald Trump with his hands on the nuclear codes makes me feel like the whole world has gone topsy-turvy.  Fortunately my aching knees and a steady diet of martinis keep me from thinking about this all the time.  And right now I'm drinking an ice cold Plymouth Gin martini.  Long time readers of this blog, of which there are none, will recognize this as one of my "go to" gins for martinis...smooth, delicious, not too forward.  And I have in it habanero-stuffed olives, which gives the drink a nice kick at the end.  And since my brain doesn't remember things the way it used to, this can mean a pleasantly unexpected surprise at the bottom of the glass.

Taking more stock: when I started this blog, book blogs were a thing.  Are they still?  I think everyone has migrated to sites like Goodreads and their ilk, making solo book blogs like this one a throwback.  But that's OK, I am so old that I'm considered "retro" and am thus now hip again.  Or so I tell myself.  But it's OK, in a few minutes my martini and encroaching senility will have wiped the memory of these thoughts out of my brain and my mind will have happily moved on to some other thought, like how much my knees are hurting.

But I need to try to focus my rapidly decaying and gin-soaked mind on the issue at hand: Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels", the full title of which is "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships".  Whew!  This book couldn't be more relevant in this day and age.  The strange reality in which Lemuel Gulliver travels through is no less strange than the reality where Donald Trump is elected president.  I mean, what the freaking fuck??  Donald Trump?!?  Wait, I digressed again, didn't I...?

Lemuel Gulliver is working as a ship's surgeon when a violent storm cause a shipwreck that kills all of his crew mates. He manages to swim ashore and falls asleep in exhaustion. When he awakens he finds he's been tied town by tiny ropes, as illustrated in the photo above. I don't know about you, but this is the one image from "Gulliver's Travels" that I have had since childhood, but it's also the only thing I really knew about the story.  Turns out that Gulliver has washed ashore onto the land of Lilliput, which is occupied by tiny people a few inches tall.  At first the residents are freaked out by him, hence they tie him down, but eventually they learn to trust him, and Gulliver makes the effort to understand them and learn their language.  As he does, he becomes a favorite of the Royal Court.  He also learns that some of their ideas are crazy and capricious, as illustrated by the fact that bitter political rivalries have formed over such things as a disagreement over which end of an egg should be cracked first.  Swift is a master satirist, and this is one of the many times that he skewers English society in this novel, here making fun of how bitter disputes can form over seemingly small differences in custom and religion.  I take the egg-cracking dispute to satirize the differences between Protestants and Catholics, which caused centuries of bitter warfare in Europe after the Reformation, even though both sides were Christian, read the same Bible, and worshiped the same God.  Gulliver helps the Lilliputian emperor by attacking their rivals, the Blefuscudians (whom they disagree with on the egg-cracking issue), and stealing their naval fleet, which he does by wading through the channel separating their islands.  But the Lilliputians turn on him when, in one pretty hilarious scene, he puts out a fire in the royal palace by urinating on it.  While he saves lives and property, the Lilliputians cannot forgive him for this, even though it seemed like a pretty resourceful idea to me.  When he learns that they have decided to punish him by blinding him, he flees to Blefuscu, where he finds a "normal"-sized boat that is shipwrecked offshore.  He manages to recover and fix up the boat, which he sails back to England.  There he makes a living exhibiting miniature animals he has taken from Blefuscu.  All's well that ends well.
And yet, Gulliver can't resist the urge to travel once again.  Come on, dude, stop pressing your luck! Still, he sets sail working on another ship.  All goes well for awhile, then they put ashore on an unknown island.  As Gulliver is puttering about on land, he sees the ship taking off without him due to a giant chasing after the boat.  Turns out Gulliver is stranded in Brobdingnag, which is a land populated by giant creatures, including people.  Basically it's the opposite of Lilliput...this time it's Gulliver who's the little person.  Gulliver is discovered by a farmer and is cared for (in a cage) by the farmer's daughter.  The farmer makes a good amount of money carrying Gulliver around in his cage and showing him off at fairs, until the queen purchases him from the farmer.  So then he hangs out at the royal court where they are amused by his tiny size.  He has discussions with the king about England and its politics, which the king finds ridiculous since Gulliver and his people are so tiny.  How could they have any significant thoughts and politics since they're so tiny, the king wonders, and it's perhaps a good point.  How can such tiny creatures think themselves so important and take themselves so seriously?  Gulliver is offended and tries to impress the king by telling him about gunpowder, which the Borbdingnags have no knowledge of, only to find the king repulsed by the invention when he realizes the horrible things it could be used for.  The end result is that the king has even more scorn for England and its people, the opposite of what Gulliver intended.  The passages where this is all described are pretty funny, and a pretty good satirical damnation of western society and its ways.

One day, on a trip to the beach, Gulliver is in his cage when a giant eagle grabs the cage and carries Gulliver out to sea.  The eagle eventually drops him into the ocean, where he is rescued by a passing ship and returned to England.  Gulliver goes back to his wife and kids but stays only two months before setting out once again (I feel for this dude's family...I mean, he's constantly abandoning them!).  Once again, tragedy strikes and his ship is attacked by pirates, with Gulliver ending up marooned on a strange island.  But then he's rescued by an even stranger island called Laputa that floats in the air!  This turns out to be one of the weirdest places Gulliver visits.  The residents of Laputa are obsessed with math and music, but because of this they are totally spaced out.  They need special assistants who slap them on the ears when they need to listen and slap them on the mouths when they need to respond, because they're so lost in thought they'd otherwise forget and drop the conversation.  Actually, I have encountered a few scientist colleagues myself who are like that.  The floating island is controlled by astronomers, who move around a large magnetic stone to change the island's movement and position in the air.  The king can position the island over lands he controls, and can subjugate the populations by blocking out the sun with the floating island or dropping rocks on the inhabitants below.  In today's political discourse the Laputans would be called "the elites", because they're out of touch with the people below whom they rule over...the royals on Laputa never go to the lands below, and they live in this abstract world of thought and math and science.  Gulliver finally manages to leave Laputa because he is bored to one there is interested in him, because they're lost in mathematical and musical thoughts.  Gulliver then goes to one of the lands below called Balnibarbi.  Here he finds a land that is in ruins, with misshapen houses, and crazy, unworkable farming techniques.  He discovers that years ago some of the inhabitants went to Laputa, where they learned a little science and math, and when the returned they founded an academy to study science and discover new techniques.  However, their newfound enthusiasm for science and math didn't match up to their intellect, and their schemes for remaking society were all crazy and unworkable.  Gulliver travels to the academy where he learns of some of their latest research, such as trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, building houses from the roof down, mixing paint by using smell only, and turning excrement back into food.  Obviously these projects aren't going well, and schemes of this type explain some of the disorder and ruin he finds in Balnibarbi.  Swift seems not to be satirizing science itself, but in its misuse to develop crazy fanciful schemes.  In other words, he worries about what human folly will do when it acquires scientific knowledge.  He foresees both science being a tool of terror (using the floating island of Laputa to rule over others by blocking the sun and performing aerial bombardment) and as a tool of folly.  Both of which are still concerns today, actually, although I like to think that science has also done a lot of good for humanity (see, for example, penicillin, and the iPhone).  Still, his idea of using science for terror purposes presages much of the twentieth century.  After leaving Balnibarbi, Gulliver visits the island of Glubbdubdrib, an island of magicians who conjure up ancient historical figures for Gulliver to chat with, and the island of Luggnagg, where he meets people called struldbrugs, who are immortal.  You'd think being immortal would be awesome, but the struldbrugs don't stay young even though they live forever...they just grow old, stubborn, prejudiced, greedy, and sad.  They have most of their estates away from them at the age of 80 or else they would eventually acquire all the nations wealth and end up destroying society.  Interesting...there's lots of talk today on how we can extend the human lifespan, but Swift has a good point here, in that this might not be good at all for both the individual and for society.  Gulliver then leaves Luggnagg, makes his way to Japan, and from there returns to England aboard a Dutch ship.

Gulliver's last and final voyage is the one I found most entertaining.  He returns to sea (leaving behind his newly pregnant wife....that poor woman!), this time as the captain of a boat, but his crew mutinies and abandons him on the shores of a strange land.  He encounters a savage race of hideous human-like creatures (I imagined cavemen in my mind) called Yahoos (Wow, so that's where the word comes from!  Who knew??).  He then encounters the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses.  It took me a while to get the joke, but if you say aloud the word "Houyhnhnms" in a rough manner it sounds like a horse neighing.  The land that Gulliver finds himself in is a land where horses (Houyhnhnms) are the intelligent rational creatures, who rule over humans (Yahoos) who are brutal savages.  Gulliver sympathizes with the Houyhnhnms, and loves hanging out with them, and tries to get them to appreciate him, rather than classify him as another Yahoo, which they are prone to do.  Gulliver wants to stay with the Houyhnhnms and doesn't want to return home (again, that poor wife of his!).  Gulliver also tells the Houyhnhnms all about European society, but the Houyhnhnms decide that European humans are not so different from the savage Yahoos, they just have more developed systems of government and learning.  Oooh, SNAP!  Gulliver is housed by one of the Houyhnhnms, and is quite comfortable, but his master eventually tells him that the other Houyhnhnms are upset that he has a Yahoo living in his house, and the Houyhnhnms decide that Gulliver must be banished.  By this time, Gulliveer is a total misanthrope, and thinks of all humans as savage Yahoos, so he doesn't want to go back and live with humans again.  But a European sailing vessel finds him and takes him back to England.  He returns to his family, but is miserable and doesn't want them to be near them.  Instead, he hangs out and converses with his horses.  Thus the story ends with Gulliver a rather crazed misanthrope who would rather be with animals (horses) than humans.  And yet the world of the Houyhnhnms that he longs for wasn't really all that great...the Houyhnhnms seemed to just hang out and not really do anything or get excited about anything.  They just existed...they peacefully existed, but there was no life there.  While Gulliver may have gotten disgusted with human society, it's the foibles and failings and quirks of humanity that keeps us interesting.  Gulliver never quite got that.

And so this novel seems very relevant today, as the Donald Trump administration is about to begin here in the U.S.  The president elect seems irrational and unpredictable, and the world seems to have gone as crazy as a world populated by giants, or little people, or odd intellectuals, or talking horses.  But despite the feeling of losing our bearings, one cannot argue that the next four years won't be interesting, and it's humanity's foibles and failings and quirks that keep us wondering what's going to happen next.  Whatever it is, we're all Yahoos, so it should be interesting.  One thing is for certain, though: the martinis will keep flowing.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book #63 - The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

It took me five long months to finish this latest book on my list.  FIVE months.  That's a long time, even for a middle-aged man with encroaching senility like me.  And so to celebrate completion of this very long, very Russian novel, I'm drinking a rather non-Russian drink, a gin martini.  Now, you might think that if I wanted to commemorate the completion of this Russian classic, I would drink a true Russian drink.  Perhaps a vodka martini, skipping the martini part and just drinking the plain vodka ice cold.  Or maybe sipping on a White Russian, or a Black Russian (does anyone in Russia actually drink those drinks?  I rather suspect not).  But perhaps the gin martini is indeed appropriate, because surprisingly, the martini has appeared in two crucial moments in US/USSR relations.  One came during the Tehran Conference, the first strategy meeting held during World War II between the "Big Three", Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, in the Soviet Union's embassy in Tehran, Iran from November 28 to December 1, 1943.  In order to help break the ice, Roosevelt, a big gin martini fan, made Stalin his first ever martini.  When FDR asked him how he liked it, Stalin famously replied: “Well, all right. But it is cold on the stomach.” And during the cold war it was President Dwight Eisenhower who introduced Nikita Khrushchev to the drink, causing Khrushchev to remark that the martini was "America's most lethal weapon".  So clearly my justification for drinking one should be apparent.  Sort of.  And if not, what the fuck, it tastes delicious.  This one is made with Tanqueray No. Ten gin, which is a delightful gin, and makes a great martini, in my humble opinion.  I like it much better than "regular" Tanqueray.  Anyway, where was I?  Stalin...FDR...oh yeah, Dostoevsky.

Did I mention that this book took me five months to read?  At 776 pages, that's about 155 pages per month, or about 5 pages per day.  Woah.  You're probably thinking that my brain is totally fried from years of gin and whiskey and daydreaming about Chloe Sevigny, and that my reading skills have naturally decaying into a slow crawl, and thus it would probably take me five months to just read a Chinese restaurant menu,  let alone a dense philosophical Russian novel, but I swear it's not that.  Or is it?  How could I tell if my brain is slowly collapsing in on itself like a black hole?  Argh.  Regardless, this book was a very slow read for me.  Ponderous and heavy and philosophical and laden with meaning, 98% of which probably flew right by me like an F-35 flying full speed past a caterpillar.  I wish some literature professor(s) somewhere would wrote a series of books called "Cliff Notes for Adults" where people like me could go and read about what they had just read and get a good explanation of all the complexities and meanings that are flying right by their overworked and under-trained heads.  Because this book has been called one of the greatest novels ever, if not the greatest, and I feel like much of it, if not most, was lost on me.  Sigh.  My martini is empty.

OK, I just took a break and solved that problem.  Anyway, the plot of the book is about the Karamazov family:  the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, his three sons, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, and his illegitimate son Smerdyakov.  Fyodor, the father, is a total decadent and drunken asshole.  But a very wealthy decadent and drunken asshole.  He sired his three legitimate sons from two marriages, but can't seem to remember which son was from which wife.  And frankly, it doesn't really matter because he doesn't give a shit about his sons, and took no part in their upbringing.  He's too busy counting his money, drinking himself silly, and trying to seduce young women (with the help of his money).  One night he got very drunk and sexually assaulted a mentally handicapped woman named Stinking Lizaveta, resulting in the birth of his illegitimate son Smerdyakov, who he keeps around the house as a servant.  And one of the young women he's lusting after is Grushenka, who his son Dimitri is in love with.  As you might imagine, this is a sore spot between the two, to put it mildly.  Fyodor is decadent and disgusting, and no one seems to like him, but what the hell he's rich, so he gets away with a lot.  Until he gets murdered.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Judging from the character and behaviors of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, you would hardly think the three are brothers.  Dmitri takes after his dad...he's a sensualist, and loves to spend his rubles on the booze and the bitches.  Wooo, if you want to have a good time, then party with Dmitri!  Dmitri is engaged to a woman named Katerina, but he dumps her to pursue Grushenka, who as I mentioned his father is also chasing after.  And Dmitri is in a big fight with his father over his inheritance.  In other words, there's bad blood between Dad and Dmitri.  Real bad.  Early in the novel, Dmitri rushes into his father's house and assaults him, and threatens to come back later and kill him.  I mean, this family put the fun in dysfunctional.  Then there's brother Ivan, the cold-hearted rational intellectual.  Ivan thinks a lot about God and how terrible he is because of all the suffering in the world, and WTF God, that's just not cool.  He's not sure if God is just evil or if there really is no God.  His ideas eventually lead to his father's murder after which he descends into madness.  But again I'm getting ahead of myself.

And then there's the third legitimate son, Alyosha.  If anyone is the hero of this novel it's him.  Alyosha is the exact opposite of his father...loving, kind, devoutly religious, and wise.  He's almost a saint, and in fact when the novel begins he's studying at a monastery with an elder named Zosima to live the life of a monk.  But the wise and saintly Zosima, on his deathbed, commands Alyosha to leave the monastery and live his life out in the real world.  So he does, which certainly makes for a better novel, because otherwise he would just pray and study in the monastery through the whole thing.  Everyone loves Alyosha and recognizes his love and wisdom, and Alyosha loves everyone right back.  Yep, he's definitely the odd one out in this family.

Meanwhile Dmitri, also known as Mitya (everyone in this novel has like eleven different names), is busy trying to scrounge up enough money to run away with Grushenka.  He has some money, but he took this from Katerina who asked him to send it to her sister.  Mitya is wild and crazy and passionate, but at the bottom has a good heart, so he wants to pay Katerina back and not feel like a criminal.  But one night he goes to his father's house, thinking Grushenka is there, but she's not.  He sees his father through the window, and clearly sees Grushenka is not there, so he leaves.  But on the way out, things happen, he clubs his father's servant with a brass pestle, leaves the servant for dead, and takes off.  Next thing you know he's got a bunch of money and is throwing a wild party at an inn where Grushenka and a former lover are hanging out.  Mitya thinks she and her old lover are gonna get back together but no, she declares her love for Mitya and they decide to get married.  WOOO!  Then the police barge in and arrest Mitya for the murder of his father.  Whaa??

Did he do it or not?  Doestoevsky's writing makes it unclear...what exactly happened that night at his father's house?  The murder happens "off camera" and we don't learn about it until the police barge in.  Where did Mitya get the money to throw a wild party at the inn?  But we soon learn he's not guilty.  Then we learn who really did it (spoiler alert: Smerdyakov).  Apparently Smyerdyakov was inspired by Ivan who kept saying that if there's no God then who cares what any of us do because there are no rules, so Smerdyakov kills Pops.  Smerdaykov confesses this to Ivan and then kills himself soon afterwards.  Ivan has a breakdown, no doubt inspired by guilt, and becomes physically ill with fever.  There's a trial and Mitya is found guilty, because frankly it really looks like he did it even though he didn't.  The book ends with Alyosha plotting a way for Mitya to escape to America with Grushenka by paying off some of the guards who will be hauling him off to Siberia.  Does this actually happen?  We don't know because the book ends and Dostoevsky is dead so we can't ask him.

This book was not an easy read.  The first half, in fact, was really slow and ponderous for me.  Then it picks up because, well, MURDER!  And then it slows down again.  The novel is weighty with questions of faith.  What is faith?  What does it mean to have faith, and what does it mean to lack faith?  Alyosha has faith, and truly believes in God, goodness, and love.  And by doing so he inspires others and brings out the best in them.  Ivan, on the other hand, has doubts.  He tries to logically determine whether there's a God or not, and can't do so, which leads him to reject God and religion.  But when explaining this logic to others it leads to the murder of his father, and seemingly to his madness at the end of the novel.  Faith involves a leap into the irrational, Dostoevsky seems to be saying, but by taking this leap the practical results are good for man.  Hmm, recalling my college philosophy class, this reminds me of Kierkegaard, who talks about a leap of faith.  Faith is not rational or logical, which, as a scientist, bothers me a bit.  But in the end Dostoevsky strongly makes the case that faith is better than the lack of it.  Hmm, let me ponder that over another martini...

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Nana (Emile Zola)

Relationships are hard.  Really hard.  And I should know because I recently broke up with my girlfriend.  That was hard too.  I don't know if I did the right thing.  I thought I was when I did it, but now I'm sad and lonely and heartbroken and missing her.  Fuck.  In a lot of ways we were bad for one another but in a lot of ways we were good.  See what I mean?...this shit is hard!  Fuck.

To help drown my abundant sorrows I'm drinking a Tanqueray Bloomsbury Gin martini.  I picked a bottle of this gin up at a local liquor store since I'd never heard of it.  Turns out it's a limited edition gin from Tanqueray, based on a recipe from Charles Tanqueray’s son, Charles Waugh Tanqueray, who took over the family business after his father’s death.  Why the hell couldn't my family have been in the gin business?  Actually it's probably for the best, since if they were I'd probably be dead by now.  Anyway, this martini is quite delicious, but since it's a limited edition I'll probably never see another bottle of this gin again, which is too bad, but fortunately not fatal since there are other gins I love out there.  Are you listening, Hendrick's?

Fuck.  Heartache really sucks.  You'd think the booze would help, but it just makes the pain a little more duller rather than taking it away.  I must keep drinking...

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, relationships are hard.  And when they end it's even harder.  Everyone gets their heart broken...just listen to popular music...about 75% of the songs are about heartache.  Or at least that's what it seems like to me as I type through my Tanqueray haze.  Hey, that's a good band name, Tanqueray Haze.  Except you'd get sued bigtime by the Diageo Corporation.

But you know who never gets her heart broken, and who instead breaks everyone else's hearts...and wallets?  It's Nana, the main character from Emile Zola's novel of the same name.  This book has sat on my shelf for years, and I finally decided to read it.  Good timing.  Nana takes place in Paris during the Second French Empire (1852-1870).  The novel opens in a Parisian theatre, where a mysterious new star named Nana is appearing in an operetta called The Blonde Venus.  Pre-show publicity has all of Paris talking excitedly about this Nana, but no one knows who she is.  When the 18-year old Nana takes the stage, she's not very good, and the audience is initially disappointed.  But then comes a scene where she appears as Venus, dressed in thin, see-through clothing.  At that point the audience is completely in her power.  Nana is so sexy and her body so perfect that she drives everyone insane with her sexual power.  From that point on she is pursued by many men of Parisian upper class society who want her as their lover.  And Nana is happy to oblige every one of them...for a price.  She is the hoe of all hoes of 19th century Paris.  The only real plot of the novel is how Nana uses and destroys each of the men that pursue her.  The novel is a litany of men who end up financially ruined because they gave all their money to Nana in exchange for sex.  She fucks them, uses them up, and throws them away.  They buy her houses, sell all their land to pay to go to bed with her, spend everything they own.  Then sometimes they kill themselves.  And she laughs when she breaks them.  She's certainly one of the most promiscuous characters I've encountered in literature.  She even has a fellow female prostitute as a lover.  In fact, one of the more funny scenes in the novel is when her current sugar daddy walks in on her having sex with her female friend.  He is appalled until she tells him not to worry, that all women do this to each other and it's just a thing all female friends do...they just never tell men about it.  His response is basically "Huh, OK.  Sorry I didn't know."  This book must have been a very titillating read back when it was written in 1880.  It seems much more modern than that, although it does get rather moralizing towards the end.

Nana is not a very sympathetic character.  Yet she's not totally unredeemed.  She can have this childlike innocence at times, and then this utter ruthlessness and heartlessness at other times.  She's quite emotionally damaged, and while she uses her sexuality to her full advantage I don't think she's evil at heart...she just doesn't think about the damage she's doing to the men who pursue her.  She's more thoughtless than evil.  Her attitude seems to be that it's their choice so why shouldn't she take advantage of them, which she does.  So bankruptcies occur, marriages are ruined, scandal is thrown about everywhere.  And she's an odd contradiction...she's not very smart, but she can be very cunning in her ways of managing to squeeze every last penny out of the men who flock to her.

It's obvious Zola doesn't approve of Nana or of the men who chase after her.  Yet he also seems to understand the incredible power of sex, which is why I think he makes Nana almost a caricature of female sexuality.  Men are like moths to a flame around her.  As I said, this novel seems so modern.  Not so much in the moralizing, but the realization that things haven't changed.  In Nana's time, women like her were called courtesans.  Nowadays they're called sugar babies.  There are websites today where young women can go online in search of sugar who will pay their bills and rent, men who will "spoil" them, in exchange for sexual favors.  This novel makes it clear that's the way it's always been...older men have the money and younger women have the sexuality, and a trade is made one for the other.  Zola didn't approve, and you might not either, but it's part of the human condition and will never end.  Unlike my past relationship.  Sigh.  Time for another martini...rock on, Tanqueray Haze!!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book #62 - Confessions (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Tonight I'm sipping on a can of Olympia Beer.  Yep, Olympia a can.  Olympia was once a popular beer in the Pacific Northwest, and in the 1970s Olympia Brewing Company was the 9th largest brewer in the United States.  You can even see Clint Eastwood drinking an Olympia in the movie "Magnum Force".  That's right, classic 1970s cool and manly Clint Eastwood, not the crazy old Clint who talked to a chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.  But then Olympia Beer faded.  Business mistakes were made, and the brewery got bought, then bought again.  Today Olympia is brewed by the Pabst Brewing Company and is hard to find.  And when you find it, like I did, you can enjoy that delicious golden taste, that, um...well, OK, it's kind of a swill beer.  BUT, and it's a big but, this stuff cost me $8 for a 12-pack.  Yeah, sure, I could afford a $15 six-pack of some limited-batch Belgian quadruple IPA, but when I see 12-pack of beer for $8 my inner college student kicks in and I just buy it.  Then I drink the swill and use it as inspiration to type out more swill, which you are now reading.  So be it.  Hold on, time for another can...

Oh yeah, that's delicious.  Well, OK, maybe not delicious, but it's definitely cool and wet.  I put a slice of lime in this one, which helps the taste, plus it prevents scurvy.  Yeah, that's it...I mostly drink this stuff for my health.

And speaking of health, I've been getting what seems like over 1000 e-mails a day, wondering where I am and if I died and if I will ever continue with this blog and my project of reading these 105 books before I die.  And by "what seems like over 1000 e-mails" I actually mean no e-mails.  Regardless, no, I am not dead, and no, I have not given up this blog or on my reading.  Nor have I gotten Alzheimer's or any other brain disease which is preventing me from finishing this project.  Um, at least as far as I know.  Although maybe the Olympia will have this effect...that remains to be determined.  But the reality is that I just haven't read anything on my blog list for quite awhile.  Sometimes you have to put down the classics and just read some crappy stuff for a bit.  You know, to cleanse the palette...which is exactly what this Olympia is doing.  Of course, it's also re-polluting my palette as well.

Anyway, to start out 2016 on a blog-positive note, I got a frenzy of inspiration and plowed through Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Confessions".  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a French dude and one of the philosophes, which was the name given to the intellectuals who spearheaded the Enlightenment in the 18th century.  The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that promoted reason and liberty and tolerance, and pushed back against the abuses of religious orthodoxy and absolute monarchy.  That much I knew before reading this book.  But aside from Voltaire's "Candide" (which it turns out was partially written in response to Rousseau's optimism) I'd never read anything by an Enlightenment writer.  This book wasn't a quick read, but I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would.  Indeed, it's one of those books that I almost enjoy more when I think back upon it than when I was first reading it.

Rousseau's "Confessions" is considered the first non-spiritual autobiography.  Augustine wrote his "Confessions" over a thousand years earlier, but that work is more about his religious and spiritual journey (or so I'm told...I haven't read it yet, but it is on my blog list).  Rousseau starts out his confessions with the words "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself."  And while he doesn't confess as much as a more modern autobiography would, I can imagine that the details he goes into would have shocked the good folk living in the late 1700s.  It's like the equivalent of an 18th century reality show!  For example in the early part of the book he talks about two sexual proclivities of his.  One started when he was about 10 years old, and was boarding with a minister and his wife.  He got into trouble and the wife spanked him, and from then on he seems to have gotten greatly aroused by spanking, especially by older women.  He also as a boy had a penchant for exposing himself to women in public places.  Hehe, whatever turns you on, bro!

One of the fascinating things to me about Rousseau's life story is how different it was growing up in the 1700s than now.  Rousseau's mother died a few days after he was born, and he was raised by his dad until he was 10, when his dad had to flee Geneva (where Rousseau was born) to avoid a lawsuit. At this point, Rousseau's uncle raised him a bit, but then shipped him off to the aforementioned minister's to live for awhile.  At age 13 he apprenticed with an engraver who would beat him, so he ran away and met a Catholic priest who introduced him to a 29 year-old noblewoman Françoise-Louise de Warens.  He ended up living with her on and off (and eventually became her lover), but also wandered around the countryside supporting himself as a servant, as a tutor, or just off of various scams.  I mean the dude just totally bounced around.  There was no high school to college to grad school to job life-path like there is today.  It seems that people, including Rousseau, just had to wing it.  It made me wonder how many other geniuses like him just fell by the wayside because they couldn't figure out how to survive in such a harsh world.  It was also apparent that just knowing someone who could help you went a long way.  It was totally who you knew, who could recommend you to someone else, who knew someone who could help you, etc.  That still matters a lot today, but not as much as back then, I think, when no one had SAT scores or college transcripts to help back them up.

At the age of 31 Rousseau finally got his first "real" job, working as a secretary for the French ambassador to Venice.  Everyone there seems to have recognized his talent and intelligence except for the ambassador, who treated him like shit and stiffed him much of his pay.  He left in disgust after about a year and moved to Paris.  It was here that stuff really started to happen for him.  First, he met his girlfriend and eventual wife Thérèse Levasseur.  Thérèse was an uneducated seamstress, who he ended up knocking up about five times.  When they were born, Rousseau insisted that she give up the babies to an orphanage, which she did.  It's not clear to me why he insisted on this.  He says at various times in the book it's because he couldn't educate them like he wanted, or he wasn't rich enough to raise kids, or he simply didn't want them growing up around Thérèse's family, who frankly sound like a bunch of 18th century Parisian rednecks.  Regardless, the whole giving up his children thing strikes me as a dick move, as it struck some of his contemporaries too, apparently.

It was also in Paris that he met and became good friends with Denis Diderot.  Diderot is a key figure in the Enlightenment, and was the organizer of a huge project called the Encyclopédie.  The Encyclopédie was the world's first encyclopedia, and in it Diderot attempted to write down and systematize all the world's knowledge.  Diderot enlisted many of his fellow Enlightenment intellectuals and writers to write articles for the Encyclopédie, with Rousseau being one of them.  This, along with a winning essay contest entry he wrote about whether science and the arts were morally beneficial, won him widespread fame and regard as a writer.  He also wrote music, and had a successful opera called "The Village Soothsayer" performed in 1752.  Things were looking good for him after his early years of floundering about.

But his lifestyle of an independent writer and intellectual in 18th century France never really got easy.  He seems to have been often been dependent on rich patrons to put him up in nice country houses where he could write and think real hard.  (Side note - it cracks me up that it appears that country houses in those days were located a mile or two outside of town, where today you would probably find strip malls and fast food franchises).  And as his fame magnified and his ideas became more well known, he was persecuted by local authorities everywhere for his writings, which the conservative authorities of the day found shocking and sacrilegious.  His books got burned and warrants were issued for his arrest.  Indeed after the period covered by the "Confessions" (they end in 1765 and Rousseau died in 1778) Rousseau had to flee the continent altogether and go hang out in England for awhile to escape persecution.  But what was even more of a problem was his falling out with various noblemen and noblewomen and patrons and fellow intellectuals.  This was one of the more confusing parts of the "Confessions" for me.  Rousseau has falling outs with a lot of people, including his old buddy Diderot.  Rousseau claimed that Diderot and a mutual friend of theirs, a journalist named Grimm, conspired against him.  To me it seemed like, yeah maybe that happened, but it also seems like Rousseau could be a bit of a prickly character himself, so it made it hard for me to believe one could get the whole story from this book alone.  Rousseau also gets in fights with wealthy patrons.  He seems to have hated the idea of being dependent on anyone, and even declined a pension offer from the king of France just because he wanted to be an independent thinker and his own man.  Admirable, yes, but one does have to play the game to get along.

One other thing that's hard to glean from this book alone is exactly why Rousseau became such a popular figure among the people, and why he was so reviled by the authorities.  For this, I would have to read his other works.  I may do this, but if I do it will be awhile (after all, I have to finish my reading for this blog!).  Alas, I will just have to take this part on faith for the time being.  But regardless, this book was a fascinating look at life in the 1700s, and you really feel like you get to know Rousseau, warts and all.  I only wish he were here, so I could offer him a cold can of Olympia and ask him why the hell he abandoned his kids, as we sat back and watched some soft core spanking porn on Cinemax.  Knowing him as I do from reading this book, I think we'd have a good time...until he tasted the Olympia.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Book #60 (Part 2) - Roman Lives (Plutarch)

I'm sitting here drinking my Plymouth Gin martini and trying to figure out how to start this latest blog post.  Usually I try to be witty and funny, and I let the alcohol wash over me like a wave of inspiration, sweeping me up into the vast ocean of wisdom to be found in the world's greatest literature.  Meh, but not tonight.  My martini is good, but somehow it's not quite the drink I thought I was craving.  And my reading of late has been slow going, just because the pressures of daily life have kept me away from the pages.  And finally, the mass shooting a few days ago in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina has made me sad and worried for this country.  WOOO, 'Merica!!  Ugh.  This country is so divided between right and left, common sense and respect for wisdom and knowledge have gone out the window, and the government seems so incapable of doing anything except for what's good for the rich and powerful.  Fuck!

I've been reading a few more of Plutarch's "Lives" lately.  It's interesting to compare what's happening today, versus the events and lives Plutarch tells us about from over 2000 years ago.  Back in Ancient Rome, man, now they knew how to get things done!  No sitting around in fancy cocktail bars drinking $12 cocktails made with artisan gin and pineapple gomme and hibiscus bitters, and moaning about how bad things are getting.  No, when those ancient Roman dudes got pissed off they took to the streets and got it DONE!  Take Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, for example.  What, you never heard of them?  The Gracchi brothers?  Well Plutarch, in his Life of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, tells us about how these two dudes stirred it UP in the old Roman Republic.  You know, before the whole Republic thing fell apart and became a dictatorship...uh, I mean empire.  The Gracchi brothers lived in the mid-100s BC, and came from a wealthy and noble family.  They both served as tribunes, which means they were elected officials who served to protect the interests of the plebeians against the senate.  The Gracchi, in spite of their wealth, sided with the 99% against the wealthy landowners, and decided to push for agrarian land reform.  OK, that sounds pretty dull, but what it meant was that they were pissed off at the rich dudes who hogged up all the farm lands and wouldn't give the little guy a chance to do any farming.  So the Gracchi figured they should pass laws limiting the amount of land any one person could own, and thus take some of the land owned by the rich farmers who were just kicking back smoking weed while their slaves worked their asses off, and give it to the poor and homeless who just wanted a break, and maybe were veterans and all, and deserved a chance at a piece of the pie.  Go Gracchi!!  Occupy Rome!!  Of course, the rich dudes in the senate didn't like this at all, because they themselves owned a lot of farmland and didn't want it to get snatched up.  So the rich fought back against attempts by the Gracchi brothers to redistribute some wealth to the poor, and guess how that turned out.  Yep, the Gracchi were killed.  Tiberius was clubbed to death by his fellow senators, and Gaius killed himself years later after being cornered by an angry mob of political opponents.  Woohoo, violence solves everything!  Anyway, that was the beginning of violence seeping into the Roman political system, which became more and more ingrained as time went on, eventually undermining the Roman Republic.  So what can we learn from this?  We can learn Fight the Power!...and if we do we'll literally get beaten down and killed.  Woo.  I need another drink.

Ahh, feeling better now.  I'm drinking a rum and pineapple now, because rum remotely sounds like Rome.  That seemed like a pretty valid reason to me.  Meanwhile back in Ancient Rome:  after the Gracchi brothers, along came these dudes Marius and Sulla.  And yes, Plutarch wrote two of his Lives about them too.  Under their leadership, the violence in Rome's political system got worse.  A lot worse.  Gaius Marius was born in 157 B.C., Marius became a great Roman general, beating up on Germanic tribes and other foreigners, and served as consul for an unprecedented seven times.  Marius became a Roman hero, but in 88 B.C, another Roman consul, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, was put in charge of a Roman army to defeat an enemy of Rome, King Mithridates.  Marius did not like this, and tried to get the army for himself, and in response, Sulla took the army and turned it against Rome and Marius in an act of Civil War.  Marius was defeated and had to flee Rome.  Plutarch describes his flight, and it's pretty exciting, with lots of close calls and near escapes.  Finally Marius makes it to Africa, where he is safe, and Sulla takes his army and goes to fight Mithridates.  Sulla's absence allowed Marius to raise his own army and to march on Rome, retaking it for himself.  He and his soldiers sought a bloodthirsty vengeance, and killed a lot of his opponents upon his return to Rome.  Then he died in 86 B.C., of some kind of illness.

But the violence was not to end there.  In 83 B.C., Sulla once again marched on Rome, after having won the war against Mithridates.  After a huge battle, he seized control of the city.  Then the killing began in earnest.  Seems like Sulla was the Stalin of ancient Rome, instituting a series of purges where lists of "enemies of the state" were publicly posted, and bounties put upon their heads.  Sulla's enemies were killed, and then enemies of Sulla's friends, and then just rich people so that Sulla could seize their property and auction it off.  It was a bloodbath.  Plutarch's descriptions of the murders and executions are chilling.  Finally, two years later, Sulla surprisingly ended his dictatorship and returned Rome to its Republican rule.  He retired from public life and died a few years later of natural causes.  Nonetheless, his example of being a dictator was not lost on Julius Caesar, who took control of Rome a generation later and finally ended the Republic for good.

Reading Plutarch is surprisingly fun, for two reasons.  First, the dude is a natural born storyteller.  He's the kind of guy you'd want sit around the fire with on a cold winter evening, and hear him tell stories about the old days while sipping on another rum and pineapple.  But second, it's fascinating to hear these stories of people and times that are 2000 years gone, and yet still ring true today.  It's not hard to imagine how today's political debates and divides could break out into violence...and indeed, they sometimes do.  The Roman Republic fell, and launched an age of emperors, and that too eventually ended.  We sometimes take for granted that our own republic will always stand, but there's no guarantee.  Reading Plutarch makes one remember that nothing is permanent, and today's strife and struggles will one day be ancient history, and yet they may one day also be repeated in one form or another.  Hmm, so then I might as well have another rum and pineapple...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book #61 - The Trial (Franz Kafka)

You know who fucking kicks ass?  Captain America, that's who!  I mean, first off, the dude has the word "America" right in his name!  America, fuck yeah!!  And then he's got this shield he throws.  I mean, how cool is that?  Usually dudes with shields use them to shield know, as a defensive weapon.  But Captain America doesn't have time to wait around to defend himself.  Nope, he takes his goddamn shield and throws it at his enemies, doing them great bodily harm because NO ONE expects to have a shield thrown at them.  And why should Captain America need a defensive weapon when he can just throw his shield and hurt his enemies before his enemies get a chance to hurt him?  Yep, Captain America kicks ass.  

So why do I bring this up in a blog post about Franz Kafka's "The Trial"?  Am I simply tanked up on gin martinis and just ranting about the first thing that comes to my head?  Well, no.  I mean, yes.  Both, actually.  Because I am drinking a gin martini, made with Mayfair London Dry Gin.  I've never had this gin before...saw it at the store and took and chance on it and I'm glad I did because it is awesome!  It's got nice botanicals but it's not too crazy or heavy on the juniper.  It makes a refreshing martini and would be good in other mixed drinks as well because it's not overwhelmingly "ginny" (is that a word?).  But in regards to Captain America, no I'm not just ranting like a crazy man boozed out of his mind on this fine tasting gin.  Because I had a point, and my point is this:  In the totally excellent movie "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", the bad guys (led by Robert Redford, who surprisingly makes a chilling bad guy...who knew?) are ready to launch these huge drone ships that will hover above the Earth and kill with precision targeting anyone who is a threat to world no one can stop them because the ships are hovering above everyone and ready to be the judge/jury/executioner as determined by an algorithm that no one understands because it's too complicated.  And that reminded me of "The Trial", in which a man, Joseph K., is arrested and subjected to court proceedings and a trial in which the charges are never made clear.   In fact the only charge seems to be a sense of guilt, and poor Joseph K., who may or may not be guilty because we don't know what the charges are, is subjected to a Byzantine bureaucracy of secret courts and judges and lawyers, and we and he never really know what's going on.  Fuck.

OK, maybe the plot of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is not the best analogy, so let me try another one.  A few years ago I was driving from San Francisco to Santa Fe, New Mexico to attend a conference for work.  I decided to drive because I had a friend who was going to meet me in Las Vegas for a weekend, so we would party there for two days and then I would drive on to Santa Fe.  So I rented a car in San Francisco, drove to Vegas, had fun with my friend, and then left on Monday morning to drive to Santa Fe.  On Interstate 40, east of Flagstaff, Arizona, I was pulled over by a highway patrol officer for going a bit over the speed limit.  Oops.  I mean, it's flat, it's the desert, who cares if you speed a bit, right?  Well, he cared.  So he pulls me over and says "You were speeding and I'm just going to give you a warning...but do you mind if I search your car?"  So I say that's fine, since I only had one suitcase and a laptop bag, figuring he'd give just a quick look and knowing that I had nothing to hide.  The officer then proceeds to take every last goddamn thing out of my suitcase, all the while asking me questions like where am I from, and why am I driving a rental car, and how much is my rent (WTF?), and why do I seem nervous (um, because you're totally freaking me out?)?  After about 20 minutes of perusing my luggage he calls up another cop on the radio, who soon pulls up and gets out of his car.  The first officer goes over to him and I hear him say "Yeah, I get a bad vibe from this guy".  The newly arrived officer asks me more questions while the first officer keeps searching my car (at one point he bangs on the inside of the doors and asks me if these are "false panels".  I tell him politely how the fuck should I know, it's a goddamn rental car).  Finally the first officer comes back from searching my car and abruptly says "You can go".  It felt like I was on trial and presumed guilty and subjected to a legal proceeding beyond my control and in which I did not know the rules, which sounds like ''The Trial".  I mean, kind of, right?

This book is really surrealistic.  It's not just Joseph K.'s unexplained arrest and ongoing trial, it's everything that happens in the novel.  One day Joseph K. walks into a back room of the bank where he works to find two of the men who arrested him getting whipped.  Joseph meets an artist who knows the court system well, and helps him out.  An artist?  The artist is harassed by teenage girls living in his apartment building.  The courts are located in obscure, out-of-the-way areas of weird apartment buildings.  Joseph seems to have women throwing themselves at him hard, which seems unlikely.  The whole novel is like this - weird and dreamlike.  But in an ominous way.  Not scary, but ominous.  The novel is foreboding...all the odd things that happen, and the way they are described, lend to the feeling of being in a rather sickly universe, where people get crushed by the machinery of the society around them, but crushed in a slow, impersonal manner.

Anyway, The Trial doesn't end up well for Joseph K., but then the reader never really expects that it will.  The novel is actually unfinished...for some reason Kafka stopped writing it and put it aside, and then died of tuberculosis before getting back to it, if he ever would have.  Fortunately he wrote the ending, so the reader knows the ultimate outcome, but there are other places where there are obvious holes.  Plot threads are left dangling, and we don't know how he ended up in the situation at the end of the novel.  But whatever, the odd incompleteness I think adds to the surrealism and confusion of the novel, and thus actually helps it.  Not that Kafka needed help.  The world he paints in this novel is very, uh, Kafkaesque.  Wow, how does he get his own adjective and Captain America does not?  It's an outrage!  Anyway, it's a dark, grim, soul-crushing world he depicts, and as many have pointed out, foretells the emergence of the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century.  It's an odd and strange book, but one whose message is prescient and more relevant than ever.  Which is why we really need Captain America these days!  Where the hell is he, anyways?