Monday, November 30, 2020

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass



German history obscured by nonsensical humor
The Tin Drum,
published in 1959, is set in Poland and Germany during the rise of Nazism and World War II, but it views this history through a lens (or perhaps more accurately, a fun-house mirror) of absurd humor and obscure metaphor. It is also surely one of literature’s strangest coming-of-age novels, since it features a protagonist who literally refuses to come of age. German author Günter Grass was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 largely on the strength of this, his best-known work. The Tin Drum has been critically acclaimed as a masterpiece of modern literature, but it is a tedious ordeal to read.


The Tin Drum is the story of Oskar Matzerath, who is born in 1924 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland). Oskar relates his story thirty years later from his bed in a mental hospital. Much like the city in which he was born, Oskar’s heritage is a mixture of Kashubian, Polish, and German. His mother has two lovers, and which of them is Oskar’s biological father is a matter of speculation throughout the book. At the age of three, two momentous events occur in Oskar’s life. First, he is given a tin drum as a birthday present. This drum becomes his lifelong companions and primary means of self-expression. Second, Oskar makes a conscious attempt to stop growing, thus suspending his physical development.

The Tin Drum occasionally provides a vivid glimpse of life in Danzig and Düsseldorf during the 1930s and ‘40s, but more often than not Grass opts for deliberately weird, disturbing, and satirical imagery that steers the narrative down a more comical and frivolous path. For example, Oskar discovers that he has the power to shatter glass with his screams. This is pleasantly surprising the first time it happens, but Grass trots out the same image ad nauseam, to the point where Oskar is developing this talent to ridiculous and tedious lengths. Meanwhile, members of the supporting cast begin committing suicide in bizarre ways, further divorcing the story from reality. As he grows up, Oskar becomes precociously horny, and despite his childlike appearance women seem to find him irresistible. This results in a number of sex scenes, all of which have something disgusting about them, such as his partner smells bad or is asleep during the act. Even in its repulsive or tragic moments, the novel is really too whimsical to be offensive, but it seems to constantly invite the reader to laugh at jokes that just aren’t very funny.

If The Tin Drum has a saving grace, it is Grass’s inventive use of language. He plays with words and phrases the way an innovative jazz musician experiments with notes and keys. This would be quite admirable were the book not so inordinately long and relentlessly repetitive. The novel feels like a self-indulgent exercise by an author more interested in hearing himself talk than in conveying anything meaningful to the reader. On the bright side, the 2009 translation by Breon Mitchell does an outstanding job of interpreting Grass’s complex verbal gymnastics into readable English prose.

Though normally I wouldn’t make such a recommendation, before you spend 20+ hours reading this book you might want to watch the movie to see if this story is really your cup of tea. The film adaptation only covers roughly the first two-thirds of the book, but is otherwise mostly faithful to the text. If you like the film and think you want to tackle the novel, be prepared that Grass’s gratuitous wordplay draws out every scene to five times its necessary length.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Project Pope by Clifford D. Simak



Faith from knowledge or knowledge from faith?
Published in 1981, Project Pope is one of the last few novels penned by Clifford D. Simak, a Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master whose career spanned over half a century. This is the 28th book I’ve reviewed by Simak, so I’m definitely a fan. Neither the best nor the worst of his novels, Project Pope could be considered an average work by Simak standards, but it still upholds a higher level of quality than most of his sci-fi contemporaries.


Project Pope takes place in a future in which mankind has populated planets in myriad star systems. Fleeing some legal trouble, James Tennyson, a physician, stows away on a spaceship headed to End of Nothing, a planet situated on the very outskirts of our galaxy. There he finds a society established by robots from Earth, along with a few human citizens. The robots have created a center of religion and research named Vatican 17, complete with a supercomputer as Pope. In their search for a one true universal religion, the robots employ Listeners, humans capable of mental projection, to explore other worlds and gather data on alien cultures and faiths. When one of the Listeners claims to have found Heaven, a political schism develops in the Vatican hierarchy. As dissension escalates, Tennyson and his human companions seek to learn the truth behind this mysterious world propounded to be the one true Heaven.

Simak expresses Christian sentiments and features Catholic characters in several of his works, which leads one to assume he was Catholic. He was, however, open-minded enough not to accept Catholic dogma unconditionally but to thoughtfully question his own religious views through his work. His most overtly Christian work is the 1978 fantasy novel The Fellowship of the Talisman, which concludes with a blatant preachiness almost bordering on the fanatical. Project Pope demonstrates a much more even-handed approach that criticizes organized religion as much as it respects faith. Here Simak examines the dichotomy between knowledge and faith. Should empirical investigation into the workings of the universe lead to the development of a rationally acceptable theism, or should an a priori faith serve as the moral and ethical lens through which man seeks knowledge and defines his relationship to the universe? In Project Pope, Simak gives credence to both views but ultimately settles on the former more than the latter.

If there is a profound message to be learned here about religion, however, it is not carved in stone tablets. The book really raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps that was Simak’s intention. His philosophical investigation isn’t helped any by certain whimsical touches that undermine the gravity of the themes discussed. A planet named End of Nothing seems right at home in a Simak novel, but other worlds mentioned bear unrealistic names that comically evoke the Wild West, such as Gutshot. The humans in the novel designate alien species by cartoonish pet names, such as Bubbly, Plopper, and Haystack. When first presented, these playful word choices may be mildly entertaining, but they do make it difficult to take the story seriously.

To its credit, Project Pope is never boring. It starts out weird and just keeps getting weirder. As the plot progresses, Simak throws logic to the wind and seems to be just making up the rules as he goes along. This is not one of his more expertly crafted novels, but Simak’s visionary imagination still has the power to inspire awe, admiration, and amusement. For newcomers to Simak’s work, this is probably not the best book to start with—try Way Station, City, or All Flesh is Grass—but confirmed Simak fans will find it a satisfying read.
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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow



Hamilton as saint, Jefferson as villain
Based on the fine writing and exhaustive research that went into his book Washington: A Life, I would consider anything Ron Chernow writes on the Revolutionary War and the early American republic to be worth reading. Like his Washington book, Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton is a very detailed, comprehensive, thoroughly researched cradle-to-grave life history of one of America’s heroic Founders. The Washington book, however, takes a very balanced look at the first president, showing both his exceptional qualities and his faults. Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, clearly has an agenda to push. History has unfairly bestowed a bad reputation on Hamilton, and Chernow goes to great lengths to debunk negative and distorted myths. He takes it too far, however, resulting in a book that reads like an argument nominating Hamilton for sainthood.


What Chernow does very well is enumerate Hamilton’s numerous positive contributions to America’s government and economic system. There’s no denying that Hamilton was instrumental to the formation of our nation, and Chernow justly restores his valuable accomplishments to the public memory. Every time Hamilton pulls something shady, however, Chernow writes it off as a momentary “hypocritical lapse” in Hamilton’s otherwise impeccable judgment. By today’s standards, Hamilton was a far-right conservative. He really wanted a monarchy, even if he phrased it as an “elective monarchy,” and frequently showed inclinations toward militaristic and authoritarian rule. He supported John Adams’s Sedition Acts, under which anyone criticizing the government could be prosecuted for treason. Although Hamilton himself was an immigrant, he was against immigration. He may have been the architect of American industrial capitalism, but his policies favored the rich, alienated the South, and he even advocated for child labor. Today’s income equality and Wall Street bailouts would have been right at home in Hamilton’s utopia. Chernow, however, continually presents his subject as the personification of virtue.

The villain in this story is Thomas Jefferson, of whom Chernow has nothing good to say. What Chernow fails to admit is that America needed both Hamilton and Jefferson to become a great nation. If Hamilton had his way, presidents would rule for life, the executive branch would have been far too powerful to be curtailed by checks and balances, there would be no separation between church and state, and any dissent on the part of the citizenry would be punished with military might. Of course, despite Jefferson’s contributions to American government, he did own slaves, and Hamilton did not, so Chernow can always use that to negate Jefferson’s accomplishments entirely. Even Jefferson’s atheism and interest in science are treated as insults. John Adams may come off even worse than Jefferson. Chernow’s depiction of him as power hungry, emotionally volatile, and administratively inept bears a surprising resemblance to Donald Trump.

Chernow gives extensive coverage to the deadly duel between Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and really provides the reader with a thorough understanding of its causes and effects. Like Jefferson, Burr is a villain in this story, but more deservedly so. Chernow, however, considers Burr’s triumph in the duel to be cold-blooded murder, which feels like a stretch, given the circumstances.

I have to admit I learned a lot about American history from this book. Chernow does provide a wealth of information, even though I didn’t always care for the way he spins it. This is certainly worth a read for anyone interested in the founding of the American republic, but it will appeal more to conservatives than to liberals.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Stories of Poland by Robin Carver



Polish history for 19th century American youths
Stories of Poland,
a book by Robin Carver, was published in 1834. I don’t know anything about the author, other than he or she was likely a Bostonian who also wrote a History of Boston and The Book of Sports. Carver also did something that probably few Americans of the 1830s could claim to have done—traveled to Poland—which makes him or her relatively qualified to write a book on the nation in question. Despite the word “Stories” in the title, this is a nonfiction book, not a collection of literature. A scanned digital copy can be found at the HathiTrust web site.

Stories of Poland was written for a young audience. Children’s books of the 1830s, however, were apparently a more serious affair than the kid lit of today, since a relatively advanced reading level and substantial attention span would be required for a kid to understand and maintain interest in this book. Carver’s prose is familiar in tone, sometimes addressing young readers directly, but can sometimes be confusing in its relating of events. Most of the historical content is about politics and warfare, with very little softening of the harsh realities for a young audience.


The book contains a dozen engravings illustrating various aspects of Polish life. These are all ganged up at the front of the book, prior to the title page. The text consists of 21 brief chapters, some of which serve as a travelogue of contemporary Poland, such as descriptions of Warsaw and Krakow, a visit to the salt mines, or a fancy ball at the villa of a family of Polish nobility. Most of this travel writing concerns the upper classes, though a brief attempt is made to describe the living conditions of the peasants in their thatched cottages. Carver does succeed in granting the viewer a cursory, sanitized view of what life was like in Poland in the early 19th century.


The majority of the chapters, however, are devoted to tales of Poland’s history, from the 17th century to just prior to the date of publication. These condensed historical narratives read like part history and part folklore, the purpose of which is to present the reader with a series of Polish heroes, including King Jan III Sobieski, King Stanislaw I Leszczynski, Karol Stanislaw Radziwill, Casimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko (these are the spellings from Wikipedia; Carver’s spellings vary). The narrative also occasionally includes villains, like the tyrant Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich of Russia, brother of Tsar Alexander and tyrant governor of Russian-occupied Poland. Carver gives quite a bit of coverage to the recent November Uprising of 1830, a failed Polish rebellion against the Russians. Antonina Tomaszewska, a teenage military heroine of the Polish-Russian War, is hailed as a sort of Polish Joan of Arc.


This book is unlikely to interest youths of today. It will primarily be of interest to adults intrigued by Polish history. Carver provides only the briefest, romanticized summary of events, the details of which are of questionable veracity. This book can, however, generate enough interest to lead the reader to seek out more info on these historical figures and events from other sources. Carver doesn’t cite any references, except for the material on the November Uprising, much of which was drawn from the account of Major Joseph Hordynski, author of the 1832 book History of the Late Polish Revolution. Though Carver’s book may have been written for children, most Americans are basically kids when it comes to knowledge of Polish history, so Stories of Poland can serve as a primer to those readers who are interested in finding out more.

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