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[826] After the Parade – Lori Ostlund

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“Aaron still had memories of the house his family had lived in and the street where his father died, enough to make his arrival with Walter a homecoming, even though he thought of what he was doing that day as running away. It was all a matter of perspective: whether one was focused on leaving or arriving, on the past or the future.” (Ch.2, 18)

After the Parade is a man’s emotional journey down the memory lane in order to come to terms with who he is. Aaron Englund Is leaving his older partner with whom he has been for over twenty years. The story goes back in time when he was raised in a small Minnesota town, where he led a lonely existence. His parents were in an abusuve, hostile relationship. When he was five, an accident that claimed the life of his father became the defining point for his life and family. At age 16, his mother vanished along with the town’s minister. It is Walter who rescues him from his foster family and gives him his life. He owes it all to him.

Aaron regarded the world as fraught with symbolism, a place where something as ordinary as knotting a tie became a commentary on one’s life.” (Ch.3, 42)

The book begins with Aaron leave his long-term partner, who has supported him all the years. But Aaron feels his life has been controlled by Walter. He leaves their home in New Mexico and moves to San Francisco, where he hopes to start afresh and continues his career as an ESL teacher. Through flashbacks reader gains an understanding of what has shaped Aaron into the man he has become. He is big-hearted and self-conscious but not feeling closure of his past. Any ordinary object could evoke his memories; the world he lives in is fraught with symbolism that justifies his beliefs and feelings.

It is obvious the past heartbreaks, disappointments dictate his mentality in the present. His angry, abusive father, a police officer, was killed in a freak accident. But it was what happened the night before—so horrified and deciding—that unhinged his mother and led to greater consequence. His mother, before her vanishing, vacillated between smothering and distant. His teacher never warmed up to him. He had never felt at ease with himself and was always an object of ridicule. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he learned to “feel invisible” (221) and enjoy it. He encountered a number of people whose differences were either physical or emotional, yet he felt at home with these misfits. Along the way he wrestles his gamut of contradictory emotions and makes sense of them.

After the Parade is a moving story about feeling isolated, feeling different, and how our relationships and personalities are shaped by the things that occur in our lives. Much of the book is about how Aaron, who keeps the world at an arm’s length, is translating into an emotional distance. The story is provocative, but unfolding very slowly as flashbacks often intersects thoughts. The language has multiple layers of meanings.

340 pp. Scrubber. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[825] Paradise Lost -John Milton

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“The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven . . . Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” (i, 254-5, 263)

Paradise Lost is about Adam and Eve—how they came to be created and how they came to lose their place in the Garden of Eden, also called Paradise. It’s the story of Genesis retold, expanded by Milton into a long, detailed, narrative freedom free of rhyme. It also includes the story of the origin of Satan, for whom Milton is actually empathetic. Originally, he was called Lucifer, an angel in heaven who led his followers in a war against God, and was defeated, and ultimately sent with them to Hell. Thirst for revenge led him to insinuate as a serpent, plotting deceit, and causing man’s fall by tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.

… whatever thing death be, / Deterred not from achieving what might lead / To happier life, knowledge of good and evil; / Of good, how just? Of evil, if what is evil / Be real, why not known, since easier shunned? (ix, 695-9)

The epic poem dramatically confronts the fallen Christian nation with its failures, and offers some distant and doubtful hope of an eventual return to grace. While most of the narrative concerns with the events leading to the fall of mankind and the redemption, its focus is on Satan. Paradise Lost acknowledges from the outset that God’s ways are not self-evident, any more than God is. It’s hinted that God sets Satan up to fall. He gives a stern warning that anyone who disobeys him or his son will be cast out of heaven. But since there’s no sin or evil at the time of his speech, why give the warning?

An idea that resonated throughout the poem ponders on the question how one knows anything except by trial? This is why Milton is showing empathy toward Satan, portraying him the most human character whose psychology and motivation are more relatable and comprehensible to us. Milton is courageous to acknowledge our ties are more profoundly with Satan than with God. This is why Satan is not presented as hideous and perverse. It’s rebellion that makes obedience meaningful—what good is the good without evil?

The fall is hardly anything but an easy transgression. It is an intricately linked series of small actions no one of which is clearly understood by any of the participants; and the final outcome is far more the result of ignorance and inexperience than of intentional disobedience. It really boils down to free will and the right to know. What is forbidden to man is the knowledge of good and evil, and specifically the ability to distinguish between them and thereby choose between them. Therefore, the sin has been committed as soon as it is acknowledged that there is another way of looking at things.

This book is very dense, but filled with artistry of lines and archaic lyricism. It has great cosmic vistas, it describes gods and monsters, and creation of the world. And the sublimity of its subject matter is matched by the sustained beauty of its language. Adam and Eve are more human than they are in the bible, with Adam putting his value in his love for Eve. It’s a story about losing perfection, coming to take responsibility for that loss and going on despite it.

330 pp. Oxford World Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading “Paradise Lost”

Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime. (i, 1-16)

Milton’s Paradise Lost, written around 40 years after the death of Shakespeare, is undoubtedly one of the literature’s greatest achievements. The first verse alone is a perfect example of his contribution to the English language. He uses everything to tell the story: syntax (order of words), rhythm, sound, imagery and adjectives set the scene, and the rest of the poem continues with this incredible richness. Milton doesn’t create lines of poetry: he grows fields, trees, forests of words that the reader darts in and out of.

It is told in blank verse, in twelve books, and its exuberant imagery, lengthy suspended sentences and distinctive sound-patterning can be attributed to the fact that the poem was composed after Milton went blind.

I find it easier to read out loud and keep reading if I stumble upon something that is not immediately understandable. The artistry of lines and richness of sound and composition are far greater than the story itself.

The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City

imageI visited The King’s English Bookshop in the Sugar House neighborhood of Salt Lake City. I knew about this amazing bookshop because of a book I stumbled upon years ago. It’s the house publication that tells in anecdotes the history of the bookstore and it’s relationships with authors.

The shop has eight rooms lined with books floor to ceiling, ranging from non-fiction to adult fiction, often focusing on local authors and topics about the West. My favorite room is the fiction room and the room with books about books. Chairs are scattered throughout cozy nooks, where book lovers are invited to curl up with a new favorite. The staff members pride themselves on being incredibly knowledgeable about their craft, and they’re always happy to offer up recommendations in nearly every genre.

After chit chatting with her and that she found out I’m visiting from out of town, bookseller and co-owner Sue is so kind to gift me a copy of that house publication that I couldn’t find anywhere in California.

[824] The Trial – Franz Kafka

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“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.” (Arrest, 14)

Like 1984, The Trial presents a disturbingly realistic world under a totalitarian reign. Despite having written some 35 years before Orwell’s abd the language more simple, The Trial is by far more chilling. On the day of his thirtieth birthday, Josef K., a bank chief financial officer, is under arrest for some unspecified crime. He is allowed to get on with his daily life, but it becomes tedious as he has to defend his prestige at work and appear in court summon.

Although K. maintains adamantly that he is innocent (he is then told not to make a fuss of his innocence), at no point is there a hint given of the crime he may have committed. His life becomes increasingly dominated by lawyer, judges, and people who claim to have connections with the court but in reality cannot alter the outcome of his trial. His summons take place in courts that are in the attics of seedy apartment buildings, which lead to a growing sense of foreboding.

You don’t have to consider everything true, you just have to consider it necessary.” (In the Cathedral, 223)

Absolute acquittal is soon discovered to be an impossible dream, as is the possibility of a fair trial which is not entirely influenced by court politics and inter-relationships. Over the course of a year, Josef K. gradually weakens in his struggle with the mysterious forces that close in on him. Every effort to take the trial in his hand is thwarted by hideous entanglement of bureaucracy, which consists of corrupt, inane officials in pecking order. They are solicitous about the unknown authority’s cause but have no knowledge of the cause. They are bound by an empty formality.

Kafka might have been credited for his prophetic power in rendering this black world where a once respectable banker is suddenly prosecuted for apparently no reason at all. But there’s more to the book than an attack on totalitarianism and the evil of a mindless bureaucracy. The “system” as life itself and the bureaucracy as fate and man’s useless struggle against the forces arrayed against him by the universe. There’s the mindless judging of men against themselves. Kafka’s style and his world are often reflected most tellingly in passages marked by a sense of unease, perhaps even discomfort. The book, read like a dream without ever knowing what is against Josef K., is an absurdist classic that strikes at the very heart of that which humans fear most: powerlessness.

276 pp. Schocken Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Kafka’s “The Trial”

…which is timely apropos of the recent trial regarding Kafka’s bequests.

Kafka had burned over 90% of his manuscripts during his lifetime. Kafka had instructed his friend Max Brod to burn the manuscripts after his death in 1924 but his friend did not honor that request and took them with him when he fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and emigrated to Palestine.

On his death in 1968, Brod bequeathed the papers to his secretary Esther Hoffe, with instructions to give them to the “Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the municipal library in Tel Aviv or another organization in Israel or abroad”.

But Hoffe, who died in 2007, instead kept them and shared them between her two daughters, sparking multiple legal battles.

In the trial against Hoffe’s heirs, which began in 2009, the state of Israel demanded they hand over all the documents, which included unpublished writings, arguing it was Brod’s last will. The high court ruled in favor of the library, stating it was Brod’s last will that the manuscripts should be at a cultural institution.

Reading Italy

Where I’ll end up going in January on my annual trip is not even on my original list of places that now I have written off due to security concern. Turkey was the first one written off the list, followed by Egypt and Jordan. Italy is an unexpected destination. To read up on it I’ll devote the entire fall poring on the history and literature of Italy.

The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance (Peter Murray, 1969). Heavily illustrated, this classic presents the architectural life of Italy from the 13th through the 16th century.

A Concise History of Italy (Christopher Duggan, 1994). Duggan’s history starts with the fall of Rome but zooms in on the political difficulties of unified Italy over the last two centuries.

A History of Venice (John Julius Norwich, 1977). English Lord Norwich’s engaging account spans more than a century, from Venice’s fifth-century origins to the arrival of Napoleon.

The House of Medici (Christopher Hibbert, 1974). Florence’s first family of the Renaissance included power-hungry bankers, merchants, popes, art patrons–and two queens of France.

A Small Place in Italy (Eric Newby, 1994). A young American couple tries to renovate a Tuscan farmhouse in the late 1960s.

The Stones of Florence (Mary McCarthy, 1956). McCarthy applies wit and keen observation to produce a quirky, impressionistic investigation of Florence and its history.