Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a collection of interrelated short stories set in coastal Maine and revolving, quite loosely, around the willful, spiteful, tart figure of Olive Kitteridge herself. Her story itself is scattered throughout this collection: She married a good man, a pharmacist named Henry, and loved him without much passion. They had a son who moved away–to California and New York–who largely proved uncommunicative as he grew older and passed through his first to his second marriage. At midlife, Olive fell in love with a man (a fellow teacher) who seems to have committed suicide by driving into a tree, perhaps out of guilt about his feelings for Olive. And after Henry dies in a nursing home (a stroke victim), Olive tumbles into the arms of a man she doesn’t much like but needs–she’s 74, he’s about the same age, a widow and a widower seeking solace from their grief and loneliness.
Olive’s spitefulness, her sharp tongue, her deflating views on the follies of life make her an interesting character. She has the whiff of reality about her and perhaps some of the laconic humor that characterizes many of the citizens of Maine.
Other characters in the book exhibit similar qualities of longing, desperation, and self-contradictoriness. They populate their town the way Sherwood Anderson’s characters populated Winesburg, Ohio–all of them, all of us, are somewhat freakish when seen up close and in private, which is one of Strout’s greatest strengths as a writer. She proves once again the novelistic fullness of the short story form when one tale is linked together. Think Alice Munro. Think Flannery O’Connor. Not as good as either of these writers, but very good, especially in her ability to find a polyvalent ending for her stories.
The narrowness of life in a small town in Maine is seldom penetrated. From time to time someone leaves by bus or appears from New York or Boston, and this provides a certain relief, but the essence of this book is its quality of people going nowhere, deeply ingrained in their families, habits, community, and sometimes their jobs.
In one outstanding story, Olive visits a woman whose son is in prison for stabbing a woman to death 29 times. The woman lives in self-ostracized seclusion, somewhat like a poisonous spider in an out-of-the-way web, just waiting for anyone to get close enough to bite, because she knows the whole town is curious about her and not very sympathetic. Her bite–what she does to Olive, a formidable person–is spectacular. Of course she’s a lunatic but a crafty one, and her sense of timing as she lets Olive have it repeatedly is exquisite. Here’s where Strout reminds me of Flannery O’Connor exploring the damned delights of wickedness.
This is a quiet book, well-written, and worth reading.

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Why We Lost …the War on Global Terrorism by Daniel Bolger

Last night I went to a talk by retired Lt. General Daniel Bolger where he discussed his recent book, Why We Lost … the Global War on Terrorism. I have not read the book, but Bolger talks fast and is comprehensive. His argument basically is that he and other generals lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because instead of making the wars’ wrongheadedness clear to policy officials they tried to carry out their orders. In Bolger’s view, the U.S. military is designed for quick, decisive action, and then withdrawal. It is not designed for long wars against irregular forces or terrorists. When pressed into such duty, the military fails. So the military has to accept responsibility and now, at least on Bolger’s part, provoke a soul-searching debate.

Having served in Iraq and followed Afghanistan closely for almost forty years, I went to Bolger’s talk with a clear idea. My idea was that those wars should never have been fought. At most we should have targeted and eliminated al Qaeda and any Taliban who got in the way defending Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. We should not have made the Taliban a primary target in and of itself and definitely should not have proposed that we help build a strong Afghanistan capable of maintaining order within its borders. That is impossible, but this is not the military’s fault. It is George Bush’s fault. The most important decision a president can make is whether we should go to war. Once made, that decision to go to war entails unforeseeable hazards. Anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan knows it cannot be organized. In fact, Afghanistan is of no interest to the United States. But as we proceeded to tear it apart, we assumed a moral responsibility to put it back together again. Fault Bush for that, not the military; then fault Obama for following Bush’s lead. Obama turned a campaign theme into a policy. That’s a bad thing to do. Policy and campaigns are quite different. Now we are considering, or Obama is considering, leaving more U.S. forces on the ground than previously decided. The most crucial error Bolger made in all this was constantly conflating the Taliban and al Qaeda. If I am not mistaken, the Taliban did not commit the acts of 9/11. The Taliban represents a noxious force, without question, but even a senior general like Bolger seems to think that it has to be punished and eradicated. He’s a softly spoken man, not a vengeful man, but he just confuses things unhelpfully when he misrepresents a country in which he served for several years.

In the case of Iraq, Bolger seems to think that at the time Bush had no alternative and since we were already overflying and bombing Iraq, it would have been all right to conduct a land invasion to oust Saddam, just as long as we pulled out fast. He noted that Saddam’s links to WMD, the primary reason for the invasion, were discredited, but he talked about old canisters that could have been used for chemical weapons (none existed), and he fuzzed Saddam’s links to al Qaeda because Saddam was, after all, in league with other bad guys.

I intervened at a certain point to say this: We could not have avoided losing wars that should not have been fought. Two presidents, with Congress in mealy-mouthed absentia, prosecuted these fiascos. No doubt the military is to blame for a great deal of the carnage, but war is a senior level political decision, not a military decision.

In his soldierly way, Bolger accepted too much responsibility. That is noble on his part, but what we have seen is feckless political leadership. The ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are written into centuries of history. Literate people can read that history. It’s no secret. Military tactics cannot change the Shia/Sunni/Kurdish splits in Iraq, nor can they assemble Afghanistan, a much more complex place, into anything resembling a country with a government enforcing the rule of law.

One cannot help liking Bolger unless one is adamantly anti-military. I’m not anti-military. Ultimately, Bolger knows what the military can and cannot do. But the problem lies not in tactics, it lies in military leaders telling civilian leaders not “Yes, we can,” but “No, we can’t.”

Will presidents and congress listen? Probably not. As Madeleine Albright once said to General Colin Powell about the Balkans, What good is it to have this wonderful military you tell us about if we aren’t going to use it?

What good indeed?

How about simply doing what the military is supposed to do–defending America?

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Suffer the Children, a novel by Robert Earle

My new novel, Suffer the Children, is now available on Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Google Books,  Kobo, and Barnes and Noble.  If you’re interested, here is a synopsis followed by links to each of these stores.

After an elementary school massacre, Pru Malveaux reignites her affair with disgraced General Budge Kleeforth by urging him to develop a way to keep kids safe in the classroom. Kleeforth takes his ideas to his Connecticut hometown, Glenwood Park. The anxious community approves a pilot test—training children to maneuver into safety while teachers employ the prototype of a sophisticated, nonlethal device called the Defender that the arms industry fears may undermine its markets.

Local teenagers regard the adults as clueless. They think they know the community’s misfits well enough to identify any sociopath dwelling in their midst. But they miss the possibility that the next shooter might be their de facto leader, Mike Houghton, the police chief’s grandson.

To kill Kleeforth’s project, influential gun interests undermine his relationship with Pru and buy control of the Defender, which they will jettison. The ensuing crisis raises the troubling question: If America can protect  its weapons, why can’t it protect children, too?

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books/1121412809?ean=9781681059228&isbn=9781681059228.

https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Robert_Earle_Suffer_the_Children?id=14MtBwAAQBAJ

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/suffer-the-children/id976375974?mt=11&uo=4 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00UMB7PXW

https://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/suffer-the-children-9

https://play.google.com/store/books/details/Robert_Earle_Suffer_the_Children?id=14MtBwAAQBAJ

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/suffer-the-children/id976375974?mt=11&uo=4 http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00UMB7PXW

https://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/suffer-the-children-9

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Seneca: Moral and Political Essays

The selection of moral and political essays in this volume, translated and edited by John M. Cooper and J.F. Procopé, is a tough read; it’s somewhat like going to several churches all day Sunday and into Monday.

Seneca writes about anger (he’s against it; it isn’t reasonable), mercy (he’s for it; it’s virtuous if appropriate), the private life (Stoics thought there was an inner man, who could be private and free, and a corporeal man, if you will, who had to adapt to circumstances and mortality), and favors (he’s for them,the more the better.)

The issue all these essays present is the puzzle of the adviser to Nero (ultimately an amoral beast) offering sage advice to . . . whom? Clearly Nero wouldn’t have been, at age 17, able to comprehend and internalize Seneca’s exhortations on mercy. This essay, like the others, demonstrates a broad intellect operating with its foot on the peddle; it anticipates every objection to being merciful and it proposes every reason for being merciful. An adolescent, even an emperor, could not have absorbed it all.

The advice here, regardless of its immediate recipient, clearly was being directed at Roman society at large, which makes us understand that Rome in the times of the Caesars was angry, not merciful, stinting on private life and downright cheap when it came to favors.

Seneca wrote these essays as philosophy, apologia pro sua vita, and exhortation. In American public life, the only comparable documents produced by statesmen-level individuals would be, in my experience, the majority and dissenting opinions of the Supreme Court, which aren’t written by the justices, but rather by their brilliant “clerks.” One exception to this thought would be–at the risk of offending some of my readers–Henry Kissinger, whose books are broad in scope and profound in insight, whether one agrees with their conclusions or not.

In simplest terms,Seneca is advising his readers on how to behave, on what is good and what is bad, on how to distinguish between the good and the bad. His Stoic view was essentially that all emotions are distractions. Reasoning should prevail, and he is on hand to provide that reasoning.

Here’s a current example: The Clinton Foundation took money from the Saudi Arabian government. That government endorses unfair treatment of women. The Clinton Foundation supports the rights of women. Is it better to take money for a good purpose from a bad donor, or turn it down, and not advance your good purpose?

Here’s another example: When Michael Dukakis was asked in a televised debate how he would respond to his wife having been raped and murdered, he took the reasonable position that he would want justice to take its course and displayed no anger . . . for which he was belittled.

I could go on,but the point is that the issues are real, and, as far as I know, we do not have in American public life the equivalent of a Seneca, someone whose monumental rhetorical gifts and intellectual thoroughness would let no question rest. BUT, I hasten to add, someone who assisted Nero in some of his worst crimes; for instance, Seneca wrote the false explanation of why and how Nero’s mother met her untimely death.

Going back to the church reference I made earlier, I went to church six days a week for five years when I was at boarding school. I haven’t been back since. But it’s possible that some of our preachers get after things like anger, mercy, and favors from the pulpit with Seneca’s vigor, albeit in an attenuated fashion.

The point Seneca obsessively makes is that one can think one’s way into doing the right thing in accord with the order of the cosmos and the most temperate, middle-of-the-road path available to a man or woman. But this can only result from the exercise of reasoning.

I wonder about this. I have two forms of anger. In a given instance, once every five or ten years, I will explode in anger. I undoubtedly have my reasons, but they are not in the forefront of my explosions. Generally, after this happens, I’m not entirely happy with myself. In fact, I’d advise against outbursts of anger, small or large. But I have another kind of anger that essentially nourishes me over decades. This is anger–real anger–against guns, racism, discrimination, exploitation, violence, war, and self-serving sanctimony. I don’t think divorcing this kind of anger from reasoning makes sense. Emotions matter. Thinking matters. Stoics like Seneca, in much less regulated and policed circumstances than 21st century America, fought hard on behalf of reason over anger because there was so much anger, caprice, sadism, etc., all around them all the time.

Ultimately Nero asked Seneca if he had ever considered suicide–hint, hint–and Seneca complied. Yet Seneca clearly was a man determined to have the last word, and he did . . . he just didn’t take a realistic view of who should live or die–a statesman philosopher or a sadistic emperor. We can be consoled, I suppose, that Nero was hounded into death only a few years after Seneca’s demise.

Read this book if you want a synthesis of Stoicism or an indirect picture of what it was like to live in the Rome of the Caesars–an abysmal, cruel, selfish fiefdom that ruled by force and cunning, not reason.

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The Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

The Penguin Classics Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges is one of the richest compendia of a single author’s short fiction. Borges wrote in a class occupied by Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Edgar Allan Poe, and few others.

As always I find it difficult to summarize dozens of stories in a single volume, so I thought I would approach this work thematically.

The Themes Themselves: Borges’ themes were the doubleness of consciousness, the unreliability of memory, the simplicity of perfect narrative, the interaction of dreams and waking life, labyrinths, time, the Arabs and the Jews of centuries ago, and death–both permanent and impermanent, which is to say: cyclical.

The Literary Antecedents: Borges surely had read as much as anyone. I think only Harold Bloom has read as much, and I may be wrong about that. His tastes were both catholic and refined. He loved Chesterton, Stevenson, and Kipling. Some of his stories consequently are mystery stories or misadventure stories or accounts of simple actions in which the tale virtually tells itself.

The Approaches: Per the above, Borges liked mystery, misadventure and pure action. He also liked enveloping his tale in a Conradesque “Once upon a time, I heard a man tell this story. I don’t know whether I believe it, but I thought I would pass it along.” Borges could be antiquarian, mischievous, fantastical and metaphysical. A writer with similar breadth of approach is Margaret Atwood. Another is Joyce Carol Oates.

The Style: I first read Borges many years ago in English. Then I read him in Spanish. This volume is a translation by Andrew Hurley, a very fine translation. Borges comes across spectacularly well in both languages but best, of course, in Spanish. Every sentence has an economy and specificity that is remarkable, especially when it appears in a story enshrouded in ambiguity. Borges also eschewed words like eschew. He created learned effects and ambiences with pertinent simplicity, not exotic words. One might argue that Borges was the best prose stylist ever because his artifices are so whole, so consistent, and so vivid. Such arguments are pointless in terms of winning and losing, but they can be educational.

The Imagination: Borges’ imagination, his ability to conceive a situation out of sheer thought, or sheer fantasy, or sheer erudition, or sheer envy, operates at the highest level. Why do I include “envy” in this list? Because Borges was a bookish, eventually blind, urban man who often dwelled on the tango of knife-fights between gauchos. He would have to have been the last man on earth to experience a knife fight, but he wrote about such subjects with a kind of love.

Reading Borges: My sense is that one never stops reading Borges. He’s Shakespearian in a way, or Cervantino. He has that kind of range and subtlety despite his preference for compact fictions.

The Argentine Background: Argentina (and Latin American history) plays a major role in Borges. He presents Buenos Aires as a New York, London, or Rome. It’s a thing of his imagination but real. Argentina’s perpetual torment, its suffering, its self-destructiveness, isn’t really part of this. In Borges, all that is lost will some day be found; that which is harmed will be healed. This is the permanent magic of literature, of course. Literature in Borges’ terms is like St.Anselm’s God: That than which nothing greater can be imagined.

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The Greatest Empire–A life of Seneca by Emily Wilson

The Greatest Empire is an excellent biographical account of Seneca, the Roman philosopher and advisor to Nero. It draws on known facts and makes good use of Seneca’s writings to flesh out the gaps, notably his essays and his plays.

I’ve reviewed other books about Seneca and Roman stoics recently, so I want to spend a little time here focusing on a few issues rather than taking on Wilson’s book as a whole. If you are interested in Rome, the emperor’s, or stoicism, by all means read it yourself. The best chapter is the epilogue, which traces Seneca’s influence over the subsequent 2,000 years.

The Greatest Empire refers to Seneca’s contention to that the inner life was much more important than external affairs. His life problems, of course, were that he ran afoul of the emperor Claudius and after compromising himself as Nero’s apologist, he received Nero’s order to commit suicide, an order he obeyed. Nonetheless he lived into his 60s, wrote widely and extensively, and became fabulously wealthy, all of which represents his quick wits, pliability, and intellectual energy.

The major question about Seneca is whether he was a hypocrite, dismissing worldly affairs in his writings while submerging himself in them in his personal comings and goings. At least, he was a compromised individual. More generously, one might say he was overwhelmed by imperial power and didn’t always have much choice about his fate, except in what he wrote. But something occurs to me when I compare the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius with Seneca. Seneca’s writing is polished, clever, virtually a new style of writing Latin (he was a key figure in what is known as the Silver Age of Latin literature). Marcus Aurelius didn’t conceive of himself as a major literary or philosophical figure,but he wrote much more directly and honestly about his struggles.

This leads one to the question not so much of Seneca’s hypocrisy as his staginess, his coyness, his loftiness. There is a great, great deal of wisdom in his writing and it includes spectacular self-awareness and depth perception in terms of human nature in general. But as a reader, does one trust him, does one take him to heart, does one feel on some kind of a level with him?

In a way, all pronounced exercises in literary style must meet two tests: One test is transient and the results rise and fall with time. By that I mean tastes change. Going in and out of fashion is an unreliable measure of an author’s worth. More important is the issue of whether an author’s style emerges out of a desire to take a reader into his depths or is designed to delight and intrigue the reader at a distance. In a sense, this makes us judge a writer’s honesty, whether he is writing for show and admiration or in search of connection and communication. The Greatest Empire as a phrase conveys something of what I mean. It’s a ludicrous phrase, grand, pretentious, and somewhat empty.

One more point, however: it has to be conceded that as the ancient Greeks felt less in control of their fate, they became more inward-looking and, to use Seneca’s favorite word, indifferent to what was going on in the world around them. The same thing happened in Rome under the Caesars. There was a still a Senate,but it had no power. This rendered the nobility much less influential and certainly encouraged a philosophy of indifference such as Stoicism. So Seneca was compromised, twisted, and tormented by enormous political forces that no one–in fact, not even emperors–could bring to heel. In this context, what we have is not so much an issue of the validity of Seneca’s writing but a connection to his mortal personality, one we may not like. He was just a man, and no matter how showy he could be, he seems to have realized that.

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Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.

Having heard of Last Exit to Brooklyn, eventually you will read it. When you read it, you will be engrossed, grossed out, appalled or amazed. Depending on who you are, one of these emotions is likely to be the dominant one while the others play back-up.

This is an expressionistic novel published in the 60s describing lower class life in Brooklyn in the 50s. Some of the characters are exquisite self-creations; others are uneducated abominations. Two writers quickly came to my mind as I worked my way into Last Exit to Brooklyn — Jean Genet and John Dos Pasos. Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers finds a kindred spirit here in a long section about cross-dressers, queens, and heterosexual fascination with a little bisexual experimentation. A lot of what goes on is boring exhibitionism–but it’s realistic and vivid and pulsing; and a lot of what goes on edges into what’s called “rough trade,” which could mean physical violence, sexual perversion, or crudeness.

Dos Pasos hovers spiritually over Last Exit to Brooklyn because of his USA Trilogy, which is written in a wild pastiche, one narrative strand smacking into another, the continuity being provided by the steamy ambiance of New York being New York– a place of dark excess, secrets, frustration, big money, and empty fantasy.

One of the longer sections of the book focuses on a foolish union underling barely surviving his responsibilities during a strike of his metalworking plant. Harry, like Georgina (the queen), and Tralala (a prostitute), and Mike and Vinny (no good husbands) is persuasively self-delusional. His arousal in a bisexual sense creeps into his thoughts and then his actions. He takes foolish risks for lust but he likes the results even though a part of him remains in denial. He’s not a fag; the man dressed as a woman he’s having sex with is a fag, and he’s not even having sex with her, he’s just doing things and having things done to him. Besides, he’s drunk.

The general sexual frankness, frustration and excess works its way into many of these narrative riffs, expressed in the vile language of the day and the culture and further bastardized by Selby’s disregard for grammar and great ear for Brooklynese. Every mangled sentence and word makes sense somehow. It all adds up to an exercise in swollen bombast as men insult women, women insult men, police crack heads, and criminals steal, burn, engage in gang rape, and celebrate with long, soggy, senseless spells of drunkenness.

Today I guess there’s little shock value in all this. More to the point is the question of whether Selby is dead on or exaggerating. Was the life he witnessed and expressed that raw, naked, aggressive, and humiliating? I’d say he’s fairly convincing. In one choral sequence he has women gathered on a bench on the grounds of a housing project: they’re almost wonderful in their cynical heartlessness and low expectations. Who has a husband who works? Not many. Who has a husband interested in fulfilling his wife’s sexual desires? Not many. Who has a husband who plays around, drinks too much, and lives in debt while making the wife do all the work both at home and in part-time tedious jobs? Most of these women do. So most of them express a noisy fatalism and omnidirectional derision toward the facts of life.

Ultimately Last Exit to Brooklyn is a highly moral book in the sense that it makes seamy behavior visible, impossible to ignore. This is what you get when city life is tough, people are detached from sustaining institutions and any sense of community. Here’s a cackling cry from hell–Don’t forget about us! We’re here, too!

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