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First Impressions of Babbitt

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There’s political propaganda; but there’s fiction more political than propaganda. Babbitt is one such book. Forty pages into the book, I felt like reading the Grand Old Party’s agenda. If only we had a man like George F. Babbitt today. Sinclair Lewis’s satirical 1922 novel Babbitt became a national phenomenon. It’s a comedy but still profound and relevant when read today.

“What we need first, last, and all the time is a good, sound business administration!” This echoes pro-business boosterism of Mitt Romney. There’s prideful anti-elitism of Rick Santorum: “Irresponsible teachers and professors are the worst [menace to sound government], and I am ashamed to say that several of them are on the faculty of our great State University!” Finally, strong advocate for union with Newt Gingrich’s zeal: “There oughtn’t to be any unions allowed at all; and as it’s the best way of fighting the unions, every business man ought to belong to an employers’-association and to the Chamber of Commerce.”

A real estate agent in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith, Babbitt is obsessed with his standing in the community, and Zenith’s standing in the world. He takes beaming satisfaction from his association with prominent local figures. But he begins to dislike this life, to dislike his family, to dislike the cultureless of the middle-class conservative community—and dislikes himself for disliking them.

The most startling thing about Babbitt today is not its satire but the haunting, if brief, moments of introspection. In one scene Babbitt, with a sudden hideous glimmer, becomes conscious of his own mortality. His way of life, he realizes, is incredibly mechanical—a mechanical job, mechanical relationships, mechanical conversations, and a mechanical religion,

[679] The Assistant – Bernard Malamud

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” The years had passed without profit or joy. Who could be blame? What fate didn’t do to him he had done to himself. The right thing was to make the right choice but he made the wrong. To understand why, you needed an education but he had none. All he knew was he wanted better but had not after all these years learned how to get it. Luck was a gift. ” (206)”

The Assistant is the story of Morris Bober, neighborhood grocer, his wife, Ida, and their daughter, Helen. Morris, though a Jew, is an immigrant—he escaped the military draft in Russia and came to Brooklyn just after the Second World War. He had plan to study and become a pharmacist, but, at the prodding of his then-young wife, he bought this grocery store to which he becomes confined all his life. The run-down grocery store takes an irretrievable turn for worse as times goes bad. A new store sprouting up nearby also takes away Bober’s customers. So the Bobers’ life is hard and small, fraught with ill luck and disappointment. The air of misery irradiates from every page.

He followed the Law which God gave to Moses on Sinai and told him to bring to the people. He suffered, he endured, but with hope. Who told me this? I know. He asked for himself little—nothing, but he wanted for his beloved child a better existence than he had. For such reasons he was a Jew. (229)

When Frank Alpine, an orphaned young man from the West, becomes Morris Bober’s assistant, things take a turn for the better. He feels ambivalent about Jewish, but falls in love with Helen, who contrives to cultivate a better life that she believes is obtainable only through higher education, of which she is deprived. But Frank Alpine is himself far from perfect, despite his good intention to help the grocer. He steals from the register and harbors a secret from Morris—that he had unwillingly taken part in a holdup of Bober’s store, that he would never have done on his own. He’s wallowed in self-hatred and remorse.

I felt sorry for him after you slugged him, so I went back to give him a hand while he was in a weak condition. I put the money in the cash register. I told the Mrs the business was getting better. I did it to quiet my conscience. (73)

The Assistant is simple despite the sluggish pace. It reads like a long short-story with epic dreams. There’s a kind of crystalline hardness over the tautly lyrical descriptions of people and scenes. All is kept simple and read—there’s never a literariness or any intrusion of philosophic values in Malamud’s world, despite the fact that the book is all about conversion.

The book concerns more with ethics than religion: the conversion of the self by the power of example. Frank Alpine’s evolution under a Jew’s guidance is incidental, that is, it is Morris Bober the man and not the Jew who impresses and influences and guides him on a new path. It’s the classic theme of redemption—by suffering that marks mankind’s path to maturity. Malamud seems to suggest this Jewishness is not only a question of religion, but a moral norm.

246 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

A Literary Meme

1. What author do you own the most books by?
Charles Dickens, if I discount books that belong to the same series.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Multiple copies of the four different translations.

3. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
The gay baseball player Randy Dreyfus in The Dreyfus Affair by Peter Lefcourt. He’s hot it all: athletic, ruggedly good-looking and smart.

4. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children, i.e. Goodnight Moon does not count)?
The Master and Margarita now ties with The Remains of the Day.

5. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
Ten was a tough year for me. In Hong Kong, ten-year-olds had to focus on doing well in core subjects (Chinese language, English language, and mathematics) in preparation for secondary school entrance exam. There were talks to send me abroad for school. In between all that, I did remember reading a bunch of Roald Dahl.

6. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
The very recent Capital by John Lanchester. Consider how profusely I enjoyed his previous works, the novel about a microcosm of London diverse society was a major disappointment. It is seriously flawed, with its disjointed, episodic structure that reads like a series of newspaper observations and vignettes. It’s a long book (so overwritten and overwrought to make a point about greed and mindless consumption) that just ends with the stories winding themselves out.

7. If you could force everyone to read one book, what would it be?
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

8. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
Milan Kundera

9. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope.

10. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
The Master and Margarita would be disastrous as a film. Once you edit out the offensive things, there’s nothing left.

11. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I read The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner all in one day, cramming for an exam in college. I had weird dreams that night.

12. What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?
Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

13. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
Ulysses and To the Lighthouse need a tie breaker.

14. What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?
I think they’re all obscure except for As You Like It.

15. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
Hands down the Russians. The stories address to the depth of human interest and make inquiries to the meaning of life. I feel like I don’t read about French literature to critique. Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina all occupy a precious spot in my heart and help initiate me into adulthood.

16. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
Ancient and classic literature by time period; poetry by genre.

17. What is your favorite novel?
I can only pick one? Shadow Without A Name by Ignacio Padilla is a great one on war and identity. East of Eden by John Steinbeck for story. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the greatest piece of literature that embodies culture, history, social satire, and cross-genre elements. The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham is a plot-driven story set partially in my hometown. I also enjoyed Maurice, The Go-Between, and A Separate Peace. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner is an ode to friendship and marriage. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is beautifully written book about one’s loyalty and unreliable retrospection.

18. Work of nonfiction?
The Gentleman in the Parlour by Somerset Maugham and Argo by Tony Mendez.

19. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
John Grisham, James Patterson, and Haruki Murakami.

20. What is your desert island book?
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie for the atmosphere because it’s set on an island. The Master and Margarita for the very entertaining plotlines.

Two Novels Set in a Grocery Store

Two books set in grocery store that teaches a moral lesson about goodness. The current book, Bernard Malabud’s The Assistant, reminds me of Jon Hassler’s Grand Opening. It recounts a year in the life of the Foster family, beginning on the day in fall 1944 when they uproot themselves from Minneapolis and move to the country village of Plum, where Hank and Catherine have invested their hopes and their life’s savings in a ramshackle grocery store. Soon the town comes alive under Hassler’s pen as the Fosters become inevitably entwined with the lives of townspeople. Those who attach to them are also social outcasts. Wallace Flint, the grocery clerk, is a misfit who sees in Catherine a kindred spirit. Epilepsy has prevented him from going to college, leaving him moldering in the stultifying atmosphere of Plum. He hates Dodger Hicks, a 15-year-old neglected son of a criminal father, for having insinuated himself in Hank and Catherine’s good graces. A kleptomaniac, Brendan is Dodger’s only friend. It is, however, Dodger who creates in Brendan, and in the novel, one of the fundamental dilemmas of human existence.

The Assistant is also set in a grocery store that had seen better days in Brooklyn. The Jewish owner Morris Bober struggles to make ends meet as his customers fall into misfortune after Second World War. The arrival of a young man from the West helps revive the business. But there are complications. Frank Alpine, who is an orphan and has been on a quest for life’s meaning, has fallen in love with Bober’s daughter, Helen Bober; at the same time, he begins to steal from the store. He feels pepped up for his stealing, because he has helped turn the business around. But he also feels fits of self rages and experiences remorse. Frank Alpine also struggles to reveal a secret that will complete revolt Morris Bober’s trust in him. On its surface, it’s somewhat trite and depressing: Poverty, shattered dreams and the mundane happenings inside a floundering neighborhood grocery. Malabud brings alive a college dropout, a roaming thief, and an old, cantankerous couple alive. He does it, through a combination of honest internal dialogue and a continuously building sympathy for those with good intentions who inevitably fall on bad luck.

Thoughts about Distraction

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore provoked in me some thoughts about books and the industry at large. E-books would no doubt become the predominant medium by which we read, whether we like it or not. They might hurt the independent bookstores in the short run like chain stores putting the small guys out of business. But as e-books become available through indies, books from independent presses that big chains often overlook would be made available to readers. What really kills books is not the platform by which we access the books. It’s the continually changing social psyche. In other words, I’m not talking about the textile pleasure of turning the pages and holding the book. That’s a whole different issue. Technology seamlessly mimics the reading experience but it doesn’t change the feeling of the reading experience. So if I’m talking about missing the smell of books and the feel of holding a book, it’s a matter of nostalgia.

What kills books/reading is largely on our short attention span and distraction. In a society poised for instant notifications of our friends’ doing, for obsessively updating social media, for quick consumerism, books are at grossly disadvantage because of the long delay factor. We no longer read newspaper. We abandon the stories for headlines. We skim for what we find important. We look for the pertinent information. Who has time to read a book from cover-to-cover? How often are we distracted by social media and instant messages when we try to get some reading done? This is the reason I’m so defensive of my private reading time, knowing I could get carried away by texting.

[678] Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan

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” All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. “

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fantasy novel that explores a jumble of questions that confront our digitalized society. Robin Sloan imposes the question whether books are merely stories and ideas, or in some ways irreducibly physical objects. The debut novel is eptly set in San Francisco, Google’s backyard, where its hero, a tech-everyman who is just out of a job from a failed start-up, goes to battle about whether books are precious objects or simply collections of data.

Clay Jannon stumbles across a bookshop (Columbus at Broadway, where the famous City Lights Bookstore is!) in which gains employment as the graveyard clerk. The mysterious Mr. Penumbra doesn’t mind he has no experience. In the front of the store are a few shelves with a tiny selection of well-known books. (Not bestsellers. Mr. Penumbra doesn’t care for them. He makes no allusion to pop culture.) Customers sometimes drop by to browse, but few ever buy anything. The true nature of the 24-hour bookstore is soon revealed to Clay. In the back, where, on several tall, laddered shelves, are thousands of books that are completely unique, but unreadable—nicknamed Waybacklist, which contain long, unintelligible strings of characters. It’s accessible only to a handful of eclectic patrons who seem to belong to a strange book club, but which reveals to be a secret society dedicated to cracking a code and decrypting hidden messages in those books.

There is no immortality that is not built on friendship.

Clay and his tech-savvy friends decide they could scan the books, turn the type into bits, and then let computers solve the puzzle. This endeavor, however, wreaks havoc of the secret society. But, to the utter shock of all of them, none of the Google computers around the world yields any result. “Great Decoding fails.” Genius depleted. The code is either non-existent or too complex to decrypt. Computers, ancient printing presses, secret societies all overshadow this novel. Mysterious buildings and shadowy rumors move and revolve around each other to create an intriguing story that moves back and forth across history, cleverly showing the essential truth of the aphorism about secret hidden in plain sight.

Who do you love books so much?

But the debate turns into an idea Sloan keeps ruminating throughout the book. All of Clay’s associates dedicate to building representations of the real world, and they have different opinions about which factors make for realistic representations. Sloan is not debating between the readiness of digitalized book vs. the nostalgia of textile pleasure, because technology will never replicate the feeling of reading a book. Technology at best mimics the information in books. Sloan, however, does appeal to readers about preserving words and ideas, and how human intelligence transcends the capability of machines. Surprisingly, and a bit of an anti-climax, the answer to the puzzle of the secret society’s books is one that pitched against the very process of scanning and copying. The idea behind that puzzle was to prevent something to the extent of Google’s endeavor—to make old knowledge available to everyone in swift electronic streams. But knowledge and wisdom in people’s head is way beyond the reach of any computer intelligence.

This is a heart-warming book about books, typography, and technology. It reminds us how often we take our surroundings for granted.

288 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Hugo Marston Series

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I discovered The Blood Promise by Mark Pryor at the indie bookstore. The clerk beamed and told me the first two books in the Hugo Marston series, Bookseller and Crypt Thief. This is the beauty of indie—clerk is knowledgeable and passionate about books. Just the covers alone would be enough to take them home.

In Blood Promise, Hugo Marston, head of US embassy security, is stuck with babysitting duty. His charge, blue-collar senator Charles Lake, is a potential presidential candidate. Lake is in Paris to sort out a minor diplomatic matter and bolster his foreign policy credentials. The talks come to a crashing halt when Lake accuses his hosts at Chateau Tourville of going through his papers.

The matter takes on a different complexion when fingerprints taken from the senator’s room link one of the guests at the Chateau to an unsolved crime–a murder that unearthed a secret dating back nearly two centuries. And it’s one that puts Hugo’s close friends in danger.

My dilemma is: should I save these three books until my annual trip to Asia in winter, or I should just read up? This series, all set in Paris, looks like the perfect books to accompany me on long-haul flights and on the Thailand beach.

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