Friday, May 17, 2019

Book #69 - Persuasion (Jane Austen)



After a long day at work and a rainy commute home I'm drinking a snifter of Hennessy VSOP Privilege Cognac. I know almost nothing about cognac. It's a type of brandy, made in the Congac region of France, and Hennessy, founded by Irish immigrant Richard Hennessy, is the largest cognac producer in the world, with 40% of the market. No, I don't know that off the top of my head...that's why Google exists. Anyway, I don't have much experience with cognac, unlike with bourbon, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, etc. etc. but I have to say this glass is mighty tasty. The Hennessy website says the taste has "notes of apricots, apple, clove and cinnamon". For me I get notes of alcohol with a side of booze. It's good though...Jesus turned water into wine, and then Hennessy turned wine into cognac. Upward and onward. Anyway, my glass is almost empty and now I'm thinking I'll move on to a Tecate, which is pretty much the opposite of cognac, but the taste buds want what they want. Plus Tecate is the only beer I know of that has its own app, which they promote on their website. You know back in my day we didn't need a damn app to enjoy our beer! But that app discussion is a non-sequitur. And now for another non-sequitur: Jane Austen's "Persuasion".

Um. Yep, I said "Um". Let me explain: normally when I blog about a book I try to write my entry within a few days of finishing it. That way it's fresh in my mind, which seems to be less and less able to retain any thoughts that are more than a few days old. So when I say "Um", I'm really saying "WTF was that book about again?" Because dammit, I waited two months after finishing the book before sitting down with my booze to write this, and now I can't remember much about the book. A mind is a terrible thing. Anyway, I do remember the broad outline. Back in merry old England Anne Elliot is in her late 20s, single, and living with dad. Seven years ago she had a romance with Frederick Wentworth, a navy captain. They were briefly engaged, but because he was just a low ranking navy sailor at that time, and she was from the landed gentry, her family persuaded her to break off the engagement because the groom was not worthy. Also, she was just 19. Anyway, after seven years of no contact, they both move into the same neighborhood. During those seven years, her family has been slowly going broke, while Wentworth has become the well-compensated Captain Wentworth. They keep meeting up in humorous ways, and antics ensue, societal and emotional struggles ensue, and finally a reconciliation and new proposal ensue.

The fascinating thing about the Jane Austen novels I've read (this one, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma) is the rigid social structure and manners of 19th century England. It's such a foreign world from the one we live in in the United States today. There were so many times in this novel I thought "Oh come on, just be open and honest about your feelings" and then I remembered that was just not how they did things in those times. Makes me wonder if people 200 years from now will be reading novels of our day and age and thinking "These guys were idiots". Probably. Although I suspect they'll be saying that about what we did to the planet, rather than about David Foster Wallace's books.

Anyway, unfortunately that's all I've got. Well, except for the rest of this bottle of cognac...








Thursday, January 17, 2019

Book #68 - Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)



I'm a bourbon man from way back.  Back in the days when you could find Van Winkle Bourbon on most liquor store shelves for around $35-50.  Van Winkle is a classic bourbon...so smooth and so delicious, and made in small batches with great care.  It's so good that it became tremendously sought after, so that nowadays you can't find it at all, and if you do it can be over $1000 a bottle.  Ah, the times they have changed, and not for the better.  I still have some Van Winkle stored away, but tonight I'm drinking New Riff Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the rocks.  And it's good....damn good.  New Riff is a new microdistillery based in Newport, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Microdistilleries, like microbreweries, are all the rage these days.  But in my experience microdistilleries that make bourbon for the most part just don't make stuff comparable to the bigger distilleries.  And I think the problem is age.  Bourbon whiskey must be aged in oak barrels...four years is usually the minimum, and even longer is better (well, up to a point), and a new microdistillery usually can't wait that long to sell their products because they need to make a profit...so the result is often an underaged, harsh whiskey.  But this New Riff stuff has been aged four years, and in my opinion is quite tasty.  Unlike Van Winkle bourbons it has a high rye content (Van Winkle, like the more famous Maker's Mark, is high in wheat, not rye), which makes it rather spicy.  Good going New Riff!  The classics are nice, but new stuff that upholds the standards of the classics while taking a new riff on things (the pun is theirs) is also nice.  There is pleasure in both the old fashioned and the newfangled.

And speaking of old fashioned, I just finished reading Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women".  This is a book I thought I might have read in my childhood, but clearly I didn't, or perhaps early onset Alzheimer's has erased the memory of it from my rapidly aging brain.  What struck me about the book is how old fashioned it is. The book was published in 1869 and takes place during the Civil War. It follows the story of the four March sisters - Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy - as they grow from childhood to adulthood.  Reading this book makes me think about how much times have changed.  It's a very American book, but the attitudes and mores of the March family are quite different from today.  It's been called a feminist book, but I'm not convinced it really is any more.  I think it was at one time, but I think women have moved beyond that now.  The sisters all end up married (except for the one that dies) and living a more or less settled life with their husbands.  Par for the course for the 1800s, I guess.

The novel is considered loosely autobiographical, with Jo March being the Louisa May Alcott character.  The four sisters all have very different personalities.  Meg, the oldest, is the most traditional.  She gets married, has twins, and runs her household like a good 19th century wife should. Jo is a writer, who starts out making money by writing some sort of lurid fiction (one can only imagine).  This sounds really cool, like she's a rebel and proto-feminist, but then she marries an older professor and with him starts a school for boys.  She says she's always wanted to do this, but it seems weird because she's always wanted to write, and why is she suddenly so gung-ho about a school for boys?  Seems like she gave up something to accommodate her husband.  She continues to write, but it's now wholesome, rather than sordid fiction.  Then there's Beth, a gentle soul who likes to play the piano and have a hospital for her injured dolls, and who (spoiler alert) is not long for this world (today we forget what it was like before antibiotics and vaccines...and don't get me started on those fucking anti-vaxxers).  Finally Amy, the youngest sister, is kind of a spoiled bitch, but is also a very talented artist, who eventually marries Laurie, the boy next door, after Jo spurns him.  She keeps doing her art, and along the way (before she marries him) tells Laurie he's wasting his life away (which he is).  Kudos to her.  And kudos to Laurie because he seem to take this message to heart.

I dunno, this was an easy entertaining read, but I was ultimately disappointed in how it turns out.  And that may be totally due to my 21st century mind.  You want these girls to say "Fuck you, grrrl power!" but they don't, because this book was published in 1869. There are stirrings of modern, liberated women there, but they get subsumed in 19th century morals and ways.  It's a good look at 19th century lives, and these women, especially Jo and Amy, are probably more independent and artistically creative than most 19th century American women, but the book ended up for me to feel a little unsatisfying due to the change in expectations of the possibilities women have these days, compared to 150 years ago.  That's no fault of the author (how could she know what the future held?) but it's a mark of the changing times.

I will conclude with one final anecdote. When I was in college, back in the early 1980's, I worked as an orderly in a hospital. I cleaned equipment, wheeled patients around in wheelchairs, helped make beds, helped lift patients, etc. One day I was wheeling an elderly woman down to get some x-rays, and we struck up a conversation.  I told her I was in college, studying biochemistry, and she said that she had been really interested in astronomy, and majored in physics in college, but that back in her day women just didn't become astronomers, or physicists, and so she gave up science, and got married and raised a family. You could hear the sadness in her demeanor as she told this story. I've always carried this with me...how depressing it made me feel that a fellow scientist couldn't pursue her passion because "it just wasn't done".  We are all trapped in our society and in our times, and this is what comes across to me when reading "Little Women". If only we all had total access to all suitable possibilities!  Or at least easy access to Van Winkle bourbon.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Book #67 - Metamorphoses (Ovid)



Wow, it's been nine months since my last post.  It's been so long that I'm not even sure if people still blog anymore.  These kids today, with their Instagrams and Spotifys and Snapchats, do they even know what blogs are?  Or books?  Hell, I'm still reading books printed on paper!  Yes, paper...made from trees!!  Do they even make paper any more, or do they just release books as billions ofd electronic bits on Kindles and similar devices, shoveled through the tubes of the internet?  Fuck, everything is changing except that I'm still drinking gin.  Sweet, sweet reliable gin.  Mmmmm, in fact, I'm drinking an ice cold Gibson made with Sipsmith London Dry Gin.  The drink is ice cold, and smooth, and delicious, and well-deserved after a hard day at work.  Except that now I've reached the age where if I don't take an antacid before I drink a cocktail there will be big, big trouble...and even an antacid is no guarantee that gastro-esophageal horrors will not be visited on me.  Fuck, I'm so fucked, and things are only going to get worse.  I have to wear reading glasses to type this fucking blog now.  I never really thought about reading glasses until a few years back...they were always something old people wore for reasons I didn't ponder.  Then one evening I was in a dark restaurant and I was like "WTF, I can't read the goddamn menu...and I haven't even ordered a martini yet!"  Sigh...I have one foot in the grave and I'm getting deeper and things are only changing for the worse.

Which brings us to my latest read, Ovid's "Metamorphoses", which is pretty much all about change (hence the title).  Ovid was a Roman poet who was born in 43 BC, the year after Julius Caesar's death, and died sometime around 17 AD.  His epic poem, "Metamorphoses", differs from the other epic poem I read from this era, namely Virgil's "Aeneid", because it is not a single long story, but rather a set of about 250 stories, all taken from classical mythology.  In fact, the poem is pretty much an anthology of classical mythological tales, with every story having the theme of change.  People get changed into trees, deer, pigs, iPhones, you-name-it.  And of course the Gods are somehow involved in all of this.  It makes one realize how easier things are these days, with only one God.  Back in Ovid's day, the Gods seemed to play havoc with lots of people's lives, which really made things complicated!  Imagine the difficulty of trying to catch and Uber after you've been turned into a tree.  Yep, you didn't want to fuck with the Gods, or fuck the Gods, that's for sure.  OMG, and all the raping!  Jupiter raped Io, and Callisto, among many others, while Apollo tries to rape Daphne, etc. etc.  So much rape, and attempted rape, and sometimes even consensual sex!  The old Gods sure were horny, like a bunch of randy teenagers.

Ovid's poem goes through many, many famous classical myths, such as Jason and the Argonauts, Odysseus, Achilles, Icarus, Perseus, Aeneas, and such, and he also throws in some historical characters like Pythagoras and Julius Caesar.  Some of the stories in the poem I recognized, while many others I did not.  And some of them I would read and think "Wait a minute, even my rapidly aging and decaying brain remembers that this story was depicted in [insert name of classical work of art here].  For example, a few years back I visited Rom and saw this great sculpture in the Galleria Borghese (a fantastic museum if you ever get to Rome...highly recommended) by Bernini called "Apollo and Daphne".  The statue depicts the God Apollo chasing the nymph Daphne who is turning into a tree as Apollo catches her.  When I saw the statue I thought "That's cool, but there's gotta be a story behind this".  Well, Ovid tells that story.  It seems that Apollo was obsessed by Daphne and totally wanted her bad, whether she wanted him or not (she emphatically did not).  This was all due to Eros, who Apollo had insulted, so Eros took his revvenge by shooting Apollo with an arrow that made him fall in love with Daphne, while shooting Daphne with another arrow that would make her hate Apollo.  So Apollo chased her around like an animal in a frenzied heat, and as he coaught Daphne, she pleaded with her father, a river God, to help her.  So her father turns her into a laurel tree just as Apollo gats his arms around her and that's that.  I've never tried to make love to a tree, because it doesn't seem like it would be very erotic, and apparently Apollo felt the same way.  However, Apollo vows to love her forever, which is why the laurel tree's leaves are ever green.


This illustrates my main recommendation for reading this book: you will forever appreciate all the references to the mythological tales you'll read in this book, which permeate literate Western culture.  The Gods, the Trojan War, the founding of Rome...it's all here.  This is the West's cultural heritage, and it's good to get a refresher course!  That's the upside.  The downside is that I found this book to be a bit of a slog.  I just couldn't get into it like I would a novel.  I'd read a few pages, then get distracted and put the book down.  In contrast I've also been currently reading a science fiction series called "The Expanse", which, although I wouldn't call it great literature, is fun and fast-paced and hard to put down, like cotton candy, while reading Ovid seems more like work.  Valuable work, to be sure, but work nonetheless.  Am I being lazy, or is that due to my ever-changing, ever-decaying brain?  Time will tell.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Book #66 - The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer)



War is hell. And that's my rationale for sipping on a Plymouth Navy Strength Gin martini while writing this review.  If I didn't steady my nerves with copious quantities of booze, I might freak out from the trauma of writing about a novel that delves into the horrors of war.  And the Plymouth Navy Strength Gin has plenty of booze.  It's just as delicious as "regular" Plymouth Gin but it's 57% alcohol instead of 41.2%.  Sure it's a bit harsher due to the higher proof, but it gets you there quicker and it's apparently appropriate to use when discussing a war novel because it's approved by the navy.  Although I'm not sure which navy.  Probably the British Navy, but I'm just guessing there.  Ahoy mates, down the hatch!

Anyway, yes, war is hell, even after a martini or two. And this book was hell for me to get through.  Not because its descriptions of warfare are so hellish that I freaked out.  But actually because I found it a bit dull, at least the first half of the book.  In fact, this was my second attempt to read the novel...the first attempt was a year or so ago, and petered out after about a hundred pages.  This time I stuck with it, and I'm glad to say that the novel picked up in the second half in a big way, although the first half was slow going.  War may be hell, but reading about it became less hellish as the book went along.  At least for me, not for the characters.

This was Norman Mailer's first book.  He went into the army after graduating from Harvard (personal note: he was a classmate of my father's at Harvard, although my father never knew him), and served in the Pacific during World War II, and his experiences there formed the basis of this novel.  The theme of this novel is not so much "war is hell" (although it is hell, and some of the characters go through hellish experiences), but more "much of war is absurd and pointless".  This novel follows a platoon of soldiers involved in fighting for the capture of the fictitious Pacific island Anopopei from the Japanese. In the first half of the novel, the soldiers land on the island, have a couple of major battles, and then just hang around in camp while the American and Japanese lines hold tight as they lob artillery at one another.  It's basically a stalemate.  The Americans are a hodge-podge of ethnicities (A Mexican!  Two Jews!) and backgrounds (An Ivy League grad! A working class redneck!), who suffered through the Depression and then volunteered for, or got drafted into, the army.  They're bored and/or scared, except for General Cummings who is in charge of the invasion and is a son of a bitch, as generals are want to be, and Croft, a patrol leader who is a sadistic, hard-driving motherfucker (or in the case of this novel, a motherfugger...Mailer notoriously had to change every "fuck" in the novel, and there are lots of them, to "fug" in order to please his publisher).  Frankly, I found the characters hard to tell apart at times.  Mailer goes into their backgrounds in flashbacks, but many of these are a bit forgettable, and many of the characters blurred together for me.  You can tell this is a first novel...some of the dialog is wooden and not very believable, and the book could have used some editing at over 700 pages.

Anyway, the book picks up in the second half, when the general sends a platoon of soldiers out on a reconnaissance mission.  They are to take a boat around to the other side of the island, where they must make their way inland behind the Japanese lines, to scout out the enemy's positions.  This part of the book is much more suspenseful, and Mailer does a great job with making this part more of a page turner.  But ultimately the mission becomes pointless.  One man is shot and seriously injured, and so four soldiers must carry him back through the jungle on a stretcher.  This makes the platoon smaller, and less capable.  Mailer's description of the soldiers carrying the wounded man back is masterful...it's brutally hot and arduous and completely exhausting, and the wounded man's condition worsens and worsens.  The author really makes you feel the men's pain and exhaustion.  It made me realize, as an old fuck, that war is a young man's domain...old dudes like me never would survive this shit.  In the end, the reconnaissance mission proves pointless...the wounded man dies, and the rest of the men have to turn back when they are savagely attacked by hornets while at the point of complete exhaustion from trying to climb a mountain over to the Japanese positions.  And to cap it all off, while the platoon is on its reconnaissance mission, the Japanese lines collapse due in part to hunger and exhaustion of the enemy, and in part due to a lucky mistake that a junior American officer makes while the general is away, and so the Americans easily take the island without need of the reconnaissance mission.  Mailer is good at making his point that war is absurd and boring and exhausting, and that many people die for pointless and absurd reasons.  But I think Joseph Heller's Catch 22 makes these same points when it came out 13 years later, in what is a much better novel.

And in the end, this novel seems a bit dated.  When it was written, Mailer's journalistic style, his descriptions of not always admirable common soldiers, and the sometimes brutal nihilism must have all come as a shock to Americans in the 1940s.  But today, the world seems to have caught up with Mailer's point of view.  Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket all portray the brutality and dehumanization and absurdity of war in ways beyond what people were exposed to in mid-Twentieth Century America.  And TV shows like Band of Brothers and The Pacific also cast World War II in a more realistic and brutal light (both of which, by the way, are based on real soldiers' stories and are well worth watching, if you haven't seen them).  So yeah, I'm glad I read this book, but it's not one of my favorites that I've read for this blog.  Ah well, so war may be hell, but writing an enduring war novel that remains relevant for centuries may be even more hellish.  Unless you're Homer...his Iliad has certainly stood the test of time.  But then, Homer never got to enjoy a delicious martini.  Poor guy...that in itself is a whole different type of hell.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Book #65 (Part 3) - Sugar Street (Naguib Mahfouz)



Motherfuckers!!  They get me every time!!  So I go to the liquor store, which in my case is Beverages and More (who have now taken to calling themselves BevMo!, apparently because Americans can no longer handle stores with more than one word in their names.  And the exclamation mark?  Is that really necessary?  It reminds me of the time back in the 1980s when the town of "Hamilton", Ohio changed their name to "Hamilton!".  With an exclamation mark.  Seriously, they did that.  Over the years they seem to have dropped it, probably because these days the exclamation mark would more appropriately be a used needle.  But I digress.  I mean, I really digressed!) looking to re-up my gin supply.  My favorites, as anyone who's actually read a couple of my blog posts would know (i.e. no one), include Hendrick's, Plymouth, Tanqueray Ten, and a new favorite Sipsmith London Dry Gin. I'm digressing again, but seriously, that Sipsmith gin is really good shit and makes an awesome martini.  It's from a newish (founded 2009) London microdistillery and these guys have it down...my hats off to them, even though I rarely wear a hat.  Anyway, so I'm at Beverages and More (I refuse to fucking use the name "BevMo!", at least in this post) looking at the gins when a new, shiny bottle catches my eye: Uncle Val's Handcrafted Peppered Gin.  Hmmm, my interest is piqued!  I read the bottle, and this gin is infused with red peppers, black peppers, and pimento.  My interest is further piqued!  It's made by a microdistillery in Bend, Oregon.  I've been to Bend, and it's a lovely town...very outdoorsy, in the middle of Oregon.  So I'm like "Fuck it, Uncle Val sounds like a righteous dude, let's give him a chance".  I pass over Plymouth, Sipsmith, and all my other faves and I take a bottle of Uncle Val's home.  Mmmm.  I make myself a Gibson (more on that in a minute), sit down to start typing out this blog entry, take a sip, and...WTF!?!  This stuff tastes like kerosene infused with gasoline, with maybe a splash of WD-40.  Ugh, not good.  So now I'm stuck with a Gibson made from this rather disgusting gin, while a half empty bottle of Plymouth that I bought previously stares at me from the shelf, as if taunting me about how delicious my drink could have been, if only I didn't stray from the fold.  That'll teach me.  But there are starving children in some country somewhere would would love to drink my Gibson, so I will do my humanistic duty and choke it down, while ranting on and on about booze when I should be ranting about the world's great literature.  Ah well.

Anyway, on to the world's great literature.  No, wait, I promised to discuss the Gibson, my new go-to drink!  I first heard of the Gibson when Cary Grant orders one in Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" (a movie, BTW, which if you've never seen you need to go out and rent it ASAP.  One of my favorite movies of all time, and the one I consider Hitchcock's best).  A Gibson is a gin martini that contains a pickled onion or two instead of olives.  Seems like an innocuous change, but the onion really adds a flavor to the gin that, while subtle, is very different from the traditional martini with olives.  According to liquor.com (and how can you not love a website who's URL is liquor.com?) "the Gibson is believed to have been created by San Francisco businessman Walter D.K. Gibson in the late 1800s, who thought that eating onions prevented colds".  Good for you, Walter, your contribution to humanity lives on over a hundred years later!  But seriously, I love this drink, or at least I do when it's made with a decent gin, and not this petroleum by-product I'm drinking now.

Alright, on to the literature!  A few weeks ago I finished Naguib Mahfouz's "Sugar Street", the third and final volume in the Cairo Trilogy.  I'm going to sum up this review right away by saying this: read these fucking books!  They are so great.  As I said in my previous two reviews, the first book of the trilogy was outstanding, while the second one dropped off a little, but this book, the third and final volume in the trilogy, was so outstanding, and so moving.  In this book, the parents in the original novel both meet their ends, of old age and decay (sigh...where I'm headed next...).  The patriarch, Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd, once a stern, strong, commanding, and fearful presence, is now a withered shell, who has lived long enough to see all of his friends die off (side note: they never tell you that about getting old.  People say "Oh look, she lived to 105...that's so awesome, good for her!" when what they don't realize is that a 105 year old has probably seen all of her contemporaries, possibly including her children, put into the ground.  That has to be incredibly dispiriting).  He finally dies one night from stress brought on by a bombing raid (the novel takes place up to and during World War II).  Time is everyone's enemy in this book, as in life.

Meanwhile Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd's son Kamal, who suffered through unrequited love in the last novel, is still a teacher, still writing obscure intellectual tracts, and still a bachelor.  By chance he meets up with Budur Shaddad, the younger sister of the woman he was so very in love with so many years ago, and they have a brief flirtation, rekindling many of the old feelings in Kamal's heart.  But in the end he can't pull the trigger, and he lets her get away.  It's sad and frustrating, because you want those two to get together, and you want to kick Kamal in the ass for being such a dick, but it's just who he is.  It seems pretty clear Kamal will be a bachelor for the rest of his days.  We are who we are.
Then there are Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd's three grandsons, each of whom takes a remarkably different path in life.  The most successful of the three is Yasin's son Ridwan, a really hot-looking kid who turns out to be totally gay.  He starts sleeping with a powerful politician, which allows him to rapidly rise through the ranks of the civil service.  Meanwhile Khadija's two sons, Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad, take completely opposite courses from each other.  One becomes a Muslim fundamentalist, more and more militantly devout.  The other goes into political journalism, and becomes a committed activist and Marxist.  Ironically, despite these divergent paths, they both get arrested for being politically subversive and end up sharing the same jail cell.  Two divergent roads leading to one convergent end.

Years ago I read "Buddenbrooks" by Thomas Mann, a classic novel of a middle class German family through the generations.  The Cairo Trilogy reminded me of that sprawling novel, tracing the story of the changing fortunes of a family through the generations.  These two works share that sense of time and change and yet the continuity of the bloodline.  But for me, a white dude from middle America, the story of a German family, despite the cultural differences, seems much more akin to the milieu I'm used to than the back alleys of early 20th century Cairo.  But the genius of Mahfouz is that he makes his characters so familiar and so human that they transcend the foreignness of the culture and become instantly relate-able.  Whether we speak English or Arabic or German, we all have the same emotions, and we all grow old and have the same frustrations.  I highly recommend these books, they're some of the best I've read for this blog.  And have a Gibson while you're at it.  Trust me.  Just use a good gin.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Book #65 (Part 2) - Palace of Desire (Naguib Mahfouz)



Sometimes I look at my life and I ask "What the Fuck"? Especially after a delicious Plymouth Gin martini, like I'm drinking now.  I mean, seriously, WTF??  I used to be an avid jogger, but I had to stop last year because my right knee started bothering me.  And by bothering me, I mean that I was barely able to walk up stairs.  "Osteoarthritis" said the doctor, and I was like WTF?!?  That only happens to old people!  So fuck, I'm now officially old and falling apart.  I mean, I knew that already but to have blatant confirmation of the fact from a medical doctor is very unnerving.  Meanwhile two weeks ago I had to "March for Science", because apparently there are lots of idiots in our government who claim they are "not a scientist" and therefore can't evaluate scientific knowledge and therefore decide they can ignore it with impunity when making decisions that affect the future of ourselves, our children, our nation, and the world.  I mean, seriously?  Get with the fucking program!  I'm a scientist with osteoarthritis and I'm telling you that a nation that ignores science is a nation that's going to fuck itself over big time.  If you don't trust science then stop using your computer and your iPhone and your TV and the electric grid and medicine, because all that shit came from the science you don't believe in.  Motherfuckers!  Am I ranting?  Hell yes, I'm ranting!

Whew, that was the gin talking.  Calming down and feeling better now.  Perhaps it's the second martini that's helping.  But you know who's not feeling better?  Our man, Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad (see previous post).  In the second novel of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, "Palace of Desire", poor Al is getting old just like I am.  The despotic patriarch is feeling his old age when he courts Zanuba, a lute player.  When he was a younger man he could charm any woman he wanted, with or without a little cash changing hands, but now Zanuba will only get with him if he sets her up in her own place and totally supports her.  Damn, she plays a hard bargain!  But speaking of hard, Al is totally infatuated with her, so he goes for it and plays the part of sugar daddy.  Naturally his wife is none the wiser.  Al enjoys himself for awhile but then finds out that Zanuba is fucking another, younger man.  Whaaa?  "Not cool", thinks Al, but then he finds out that the other man is his own son Yasin!  Al is conflicted.  He's jealous, but he also thinks that well, Yasin is a part of him so it's not really a betrayal, and this helps him calm down.  He's sure Yasin doesn't know he's been fucking Zanuba (he doesn't), and he's not sure Zanuba knows that Yasin is his son (she does), so he's actually cool with it.  But then Yasin marries Zanuba and he is not at all pleased, because his son is marrying a whore.  Is that a double standard?  Hell yes.  But they get married anyway, and then Al has a stroke when he goes back to party with his old friends.  He recovers, but the point is made:  Al is getting old and falling apart.  I wonder if his knees are arthritic like mine?

Meanwhile, Al's other son, Kamal, has totally fallen in love.  Since the last novel ended, Kamal has grown up into a soul-searching intellectual who decides to go to teaching college instead of becoming a lawyer or government official as his father had hoped (in one memorable passage, his father (who is not at all an intellectual) can't decide whether Kamal is an idiot or insane for wanting to go to teacher's college and bypassing other more lucrative career options).  One of Kamal's friends is the son of a rich, cosmopolitan family, and Kamal soon falls madly in love with his friend's sister, Aisha.  Aisha is smart, witty, and beautiful, and a couple of years older than Kamal.  Kamal is completely smitten and falls into a terrible, tortured unrequited love.  This part of the book is a great description of young love, and what it feels like, and the reader develops a great sympathy for poor Kamal.  But at the same time, it becomes a bit tedious as it goes on and on and on for pages and pages and you know that Kamal is never going to get with her, and you're like "Jesus, Kamal, this is not going to happen!".  But yet, isn't that the epitome of unrequited love?  To the person in love it's the entire universe, and they can think of nothing else, but to everyone else it's like "Oh God, just fucking get over it and move on because I'm bored to death of hearing about this crap".  So it goes.  Anyway, of course Kamal ultimately gets disappointed when his love is ignored by Aisha and she marries a mutual friend.  Ouch!

This novel was good, but it didn't quite rise to the level of the first novel in the trilogy, which was amazing.  This seems more like a "middle novel".  But I'm anxious to see what happens next, and thus I'm looking forward to reading the third and final part of the trilogy.  Assuming I don't keel over dead from osteoarthritis before I can finish it.

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 them...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...