Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sofia Petrovna

Lydia Chukovskaya (1907 - 1996) was of Jewish origin and was the daughter of a beloved writer of children’s books in Russia.  Lydia married Matvei Bronstein, a promising young physicist.  In the late 1930s, Bronstein was arrested as a part of Stalin’s purges, and was put to death as an enemy of the Communist Party.  The government refused to give Lydia any information about her husband, and for a number of years, she did not know that her husband had been executed.

Lydia Chukovskaya as a young woman.

Between 1939 and 1940, Chukovskaya wrote her most famous work, the novella Sofia Petrovna.  Sofia Petrovna is the widow of a medical doctor.  After the Communist Revolution, her apartment is confiscated by the government and divided up among several families.  Sofia and her son, Kolya, live in a single room of their former house in Leningrad.

Lydia's husband, Matvei Bronstein, who was executed by the Stalinist Regime

While her son studies to be an engineer, Sofia takes a job as a typist in a government publishing house. Life is more or less good for Sofia and her son.  Sofia performs well in her job and is promoted to supervisor.  Kolya does well at his studies and shows great promise as an engineer.

Lydia Chukovskaya and her daughter in the 1940s.

However, conditions rapidly change when many formerly prominent people begin to be arrested as traitors and saboteurs.  First, Sofia meets the distraught wife her husband’s former medical colleague who has been arrested.  Next, the director of the publishing house is arrested and denounced.  The relatives of those arrested and exiled to “remote camps” in Siberia are themselves sent into exile or worse.  Finally, Sofia’s beloved Kolya is arrested.

Lydia Chukovskaya, the Soviet Dissident, in the mid 1960s

Now Sofia enters a nightmare world of standing in line at the prison and the prosecutor’s office in an attempt to get any information.  Finally, she is told that her son has been sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian labor camp.  She is told that he has “confessed.”  Sofia’s best friend, Natasha, and Kolya’s girlfriend is fired from her job because she made a typographical error in typing “Rat Army” instead of “Red Army,” and because she is suspect because her father was an officer of the Tzar.  Natalia eventually commits suicide.  Kolya's best friend Alik is also arrested.  Sofia slides into madness.  When she finally receives a letter smuggled by Kolya out of the labor camp which says that he cannot make it very much longer, Sofia burns the letter and sinks totally into her fantasies.

The picture of Soviet life under Stalin is fascinating.  Religion has been banned, so Soviet citizens put up “New Year’s Trees” which are topped by a Red Star.  The Christ child has been replaced  by  pictures of “the Child Lenin.”  Children are given candy with a card which says “Thank You Comrade Stalin for giving us a Happy Childhood.”

The story of how Chukovskaya’s manuscript survived is just as interesting as the novella.  After her husband’s arrest and execution, Lydia fled her home in Leningrad.  The manuscript was hidden in a friend's house.  The friend died of starvation during the German seige of Leningrad but the manuscript was discovered and was finally returned to Chuskovskaya after the war.  During the political thaw introduced by Kruschev in the early sixties, Sofia Petrovna was prepared for publication.  However, it was decided that enough anti-Stalin literature had been published and publication was tabled.  A manuscript of the novel was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and was published by a French publisher without Chuskovskaya permission under the title “The Deserted House.”

Sofia Petrovna is a very good novel which deserves a wide readership and is a warning why we must be ever vigilant against tyranny.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Confederate General Rides North

When I first read a review of Atlanta author Amanda C. Gable’s 2009 novel The Confederate General Rides North, I immediately knew that I would have to go to Amazon and order a copy.  I’m glad that I did. Ms. Gable has written an outstanding work of literature.

The “Confederate General” referenced by the title is eleven year old Katherine McConnell, an only child from Marietta, Georgia who spends most of her free time studying Civil War history and fantasizing about putting herself into her history books as a Confederate General.  The novel is set in the late 1960s.  Ms. Gable has done a masterful job of evoking the time and place of the South in the late sixties.

Georgia Author Amanda C. Gable

Kat’s beautiful but erratic mother, Margaret, packs up one day, throws Kat in the car, and heads north to where she is from in Maine.  Katherine fantasizes that the trip is a Civil War campaign and that she is a Confederate General leading troops north.  Gable has brilliantly woven the real history of the Civil War together with the story of Katherine and her mother.  Through a series of flashbacks, Gable has also done a great job of slowly revealing the dark secret which haunts Katherine’s mother.  To begin with, Katherine does not understand that her mother is seriously emotionally disturbed.  As they travel from one Civil War battlefield to the other re-living the campaigns of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson,  Margaret’s mental illness reveals itself in more pronounced ways as the campaign continues, finally reaching its high water mark at Gettysburg.  Gable’s portrait of Katherine’s mother, Margaret, is simply brilliant.  This has to be the best portrait of a person suffering from bipolar disorder which I have ever read.

I cannot say enough good things about this novel.  It is a fun read, but it is also serious literature.  As other reviewers with similar experiences have said, the young Civil War buff from Marietta, Georgia also resonates with my personal experience.  I’m about ten years younger than Katherine McConnell, but my experience growing up in Norcross, Georgia, also a suburb of Atlanta, is very similar to that of young Katherine. Growing up, I visited the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield and the Atlanta Cyclorama.  I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time at the Fox Theater in down town Atlanta.  Like Katherine, I grew up hearing stories about my Civil War ancestors.  Like the 1960's Atlanta described by Ms. Gable, the Atlanta of the 1970s that I grew up in was saturated with Civil War history.  I grew up feeling like Sherman had burned Atlanta just the year before.  I had a copy of the American Heritage History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton and poured over the pictures and practically memorized it.  And I remember souvenir Rebel and Yankee hats at every gift shop at a tourist destination (I had one of each.)

If you haven’t read The Confederate General Rides North, don’t wait, go to Amazon right now and get a copy.  You’ll be glad you did.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Irving Wallace's THE PRIZE

The Prize (1962) is prolific author Irving Wallace’s magnum opus on the Nobel Prizes.  Reading a novel by Irving Wallace is like eating potato chips, you know that it's junk but it tastes good and you just can’t quit.

Despite the painless lesson on the history and process of awarding the Nobel Prizes, like every other book Irving Wallace ever wrote, The Prize is a giant soap opera.  The Prize tracks the story of a group of Nobel laureates as they are notified of their prizes and travel to the award ceremony in Stockholm.

The book centers on Andrew Craig, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.  Craig’s wife died in a car wreck a few years before.  Craig blames himself for her death and has sunk into alcoholism.  There are plots and subplots and subplots of subplots.  And there are lots of characters, some of which serve no particular useful purpose other than to allow the main characters to respond to them.  Since this is an Irving Wallace novel, there is, of course, SEX.  Lots of SEX.  This was some pretty racy stuff for 1962.

Claude Marceau, part of a French husband and wife team which has won the Prize for chemistry, is having an affair with an attractive fashion model.  His wife begins an affair with a man that she does not really have any feelings for in order to make her husband jealous and win him back.  Andrew Craig apparently never saw a woman he didn’t try to sleep with - except for his homely Sister In Law that wants to marry him, but whom Craig finds repulsive.

In many respects, The Prize was a conventional spy novel.  The Physics Laureate, Max Stratman, is wanted by the Soviets.  An elaborate plot is developed to convince Stratman to defect.  This plot involves Stratman’s niece, Emily, who was sexually abused by the Nazis in the Ravensbruck concentration camp during World War II, and her father who everyone thought was dead.  Of course, Craig has the hots for Emily and pursues her.  Poor Emily is depicted as trying and failing to get over her emotional problems with sex.  However, Wallace’s alter ego Andrew Craig is there to help her.

Like most Wallace novels, The Prize is an entertaining old pot boiler.  If you tackle it, be forewarned, at 600 pages  it’s about 200 pages too long.  But all, in all, old Irving’s pot boilers still hold up pretty well.

 The prolific Irving Wallace at work (1916 - 1990) 

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Zora Neale Hurston’s first published novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), was loosely based upon Hurston’s parents.  The main character, John Pearson, is the bi-racial son of a poor woman married to a brutal sharecropper in rural Alabama just after the end of the Civil War.  The first half of the novel is taken up with his struggle to make his way in the world.

While working for his mother’s former master, Judge Alf Pearson (who is probably John’s father but the novel never says so), John gets an education and learns to read.  John falls in love with Lucy Potts, the daughter of a well to do black family.  Lucy’s mother strongly disapproves of John and refuses to attend John and Lucy’s wedding.  After injuring Lucy’s brother in a fight, John is forced to flee Alabama.  John re-locates to Eatonville, Florida, an all black town north of Orlando.  Finally able to be re-united with his wife and children, John become a prominent preacher and a prosperous carpenter.

Jonah’s Gourd Vine refers to the biblical story of the prophet Jonah and the gourd vine. (Jonah 4:6-10).  In the Bible story, the Prophet Jonah sleeps under a gourd vine which grows in a day and shelters him from the sun.  A worm comes along and eats the gourd vine, leaving Jonah exposed.  Most critics view John Pearson’s marriage to Lucy and his prosperous career as a minister as being the comforting gourd vine. Pearson’s sins, especially his affairs with other women, are the worm which destroys the fragile sanctuary of his marriage and career.

The Prophet Jonah asleep under the Gourd vine.

Just like John Pearson, Hurston’s father had remarried soon after the death of her mother.  Hurston’s step mother was a cruel women who forced Hurston and her sister from the home.  Lucy Potts, the character modeled on Hurston’s real life mother Lucy, is presented as a tragic figure who stayed loyal to her husband through all of his adulterous affairs and abusive behavior.  On her death bed, Lucy says that she has been to sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots.  In the novel, John’s gold digging second wife, Hattie, brings him nothing but trouble and causes John to loose his position as a pastor.  (Hattie goes to the local hoodoo “root doctor” to be able to cast a spell on John to make him love her and stay with her).

Although John tries to reform and is given another chance at a happy and prosperous life with his third wife, Sally, in the end his sinful and weak nature win out and lead to his death.  Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a great work of American literature.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891 - 1960) was one of the black artists who formed the so-called “Harlem Renaissance” and was a novelist, playwright and anthropologist.  Dying in poverty and anonymity in 1960, Hurston's work was re-discovered by students of literature and black feminist artists like Alice Walker, who found Hurston’s unmarked grave and put a marker on it proclaiming Hurston “A Genius of the South.”

I read Jonah’s Gourd Vine in the Library of America edition of Hurston’s novels and selected short stories. Highly recommended.  There is definitely more Zora Neale Hurston to come on The Eclectic Reader.

Pax Et Bonum.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Black Mischief

Something zany is going on in the East African Kingdom of Azania in the early 1930s.  Seth, the new Oxford educated emperor, wants to modernize the country.  This means that the army must wear boots instead of going barefoot, the cannibalistic natives must stop eating human flesh, they must have an economy based upon worthless paper money just like the Europeans, and they must have lots of birth control.  In support of this mission Emperor Seth brings in his old chum from Oxford, Basil Seal, to run the Ministry of Modernization.

In brief this is the plot of Evelyn Waugh’s 1932 dark comedy Black Mischief.  Waugh wrote Black Mischief after traveling to Ethiopia to observe the coronation of Emperor Haile Salassie in 1931.  Waugh had written a travel book, Remote People, about his travels in Africa in which he was very much not impressed.  

The always politically incorrect Evelyn Waugh smoking a politically incorrect cigar.

Black Mischief is racist, sarcastic, outrageous and over the top.  It is also very funny.  As one reviewer on Goodreads said it’s like reading the script for an extended Monty Python sketch.  The native troops who have never worn shoes boil their new shoes and eat them.  A family moves into an overturned truck in the middle of the highway (this is apparently something Waugh actually witnessed in Africa!).  A group of cannibal natives eat the daughter of the British Ambassador and feed her to her unsuspecting boyfriend. Black Mischief is composed of one farcical scene after another.  

The book does have a serious point.  Waugh is satirizing “modernization.”  Whatever is deemed “modern” Emperor Seth has to have.  No doubt taking a jibe at the rising fascist states in Europe in the early thirties, Waugh has his English Modernization Minister say:

 “we’ve got a much easier job now than we should have had fifty years ago.  If we’d had to modernise a country then it would have meant constitutional monarchy, bicameral legislature, proportional representation, women’s suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the press, referendums . . .”
“What is all that?” asked the Emperor.
“Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.”

(It is ironic that Waugh took a pro-fascist stance in favor of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini in 1935.)

Although Waugh had recently converted to Catholicism, Black Mischief was not well received by the Catholic press.  Ernest Oldmeadow, the editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet complained that Black Mischief was “ a disgrace to anyone professing the Catholic name.” *    Outraged by the sexual references in the book, Oldmeadow was particularly outraged by Waugh’s description of a Nestorian Monastery which was based upon Waugh’s real life visit to a monastery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:

“A well substantiated tradition affirmed that the little river watering the estate was in fact the brook Kedron conveyed there subterraneously; its waters were in continual requisition for the relief of skin diseases and stubborn boils.  Here too were preserved among other relics of less certain authenticity, David’s stone prised out of the forehead of Goliath (a boulder of astonishing dimensions), a leaf from the Barren Fig Tree, the rib from which Eve had been created, and a wooden cross which had fallen from heaven quite unexpectedly during Good Friday luncheon some years back.”

English Catholics were not the only people who were not too happy with Waugh’s humor.  When Waugh traveled back to Ethiopia to cover the Italian invasion for a London newspaper, the British Embassy, offended at Waugh’s lampooning of British diplomats in Black Mischief, refused to offer him any assistance.**  

If you can overlook the racist nineteenth century “White Man’s Burden” viewpoint and juvenile humor (Waugh was only 31 when Black Mischief was published), Black Mischief is still a great deal of fun.  

* Humphrey Carpenter,  The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends, p. 241.

**  Ibid p. 282.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Well, I understand that I’m only 26 years late. I just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s blockbuster novel about the decadence, excess and injustice of 1980s New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).
Bonfire was Wolfe’s first novel. Prior to that he had specialized in the so called "New Journalism" which sought to apply the descriptive techniques used by fiction writers to journalism. Bonfire was Wolfe’s attempt to write a novel which criticized modern American society in the same way that William Thackery Makepiece satirized 19th century England in Vanity Fair.

The book was first published as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine. The idea of serializing the novel appealed to Wolfe who thought of himself as a modern day Dickens. However, substantial changes were made to the story before publication in book form.

I’m not going to bore everybody with a play by play of the plot and characters. This is easily available elsewhere on the net and this book has been widely read.

Although Wolfe’s characters are almost characterizations, and many of his scenes and situations are grossly exaggerated, I found his exaggerations to be rooted firmly in fact. It is a fact that the Young Turks of Wall Street, making millions of dollars on each trade, viewed themselves as "Masters of the Universe," just like Sherman McCoy does.

Sherman is so wrapped up in his power and wealth that he works all the time and is never home. Although he loves his 6 year old daughter deeply, he has become bored with Judy, his wife, as she approaches the old age of 40.

Since Sherman brings down a million dollars a year, enough to pay his daughters tuition at an exclusive private school, and the $21,000 a month mortgage payment on his Park Avenue apartment, he thinks he deserves sexual excitement which his wife is not providing him with. The exciting beautiful gold digger Maria satisfies Sherman’s sexual fantasies and is the cause of his downfall.

It turns out that all of Sherman’s power as a "Master of Universe" is an elaborate house of cards. When Sherman and Maria take a wrong turn off the freeway into the Bronx things go terribly wrong. Blocked on a freeway entrance ramp by a tire in the middle of the road, Sherman and Maria believe they are being robbed. When Maria takes off in the car in a panic she hits Henry Lamb, a young black teenager from a housing project in the Bronx.

And it takes off from there. Henry Lamb, who is considered an honor student just because he shows up in school every day, lies near death in a coma in the hospital. An Al Sharpton - Jesse Jackson type character, the Reverend Bacon, uses the cause of Lamb and his struggling mother as a political football to manipulate New York public officials.

From his posh world on Wall Street and Park Avenue, Sherman is thrust into the criminal justice system in the Bronx. Wolfe describes the crime ridden streets of the Bronx as a jungle and the criminal courts are another jungle for Sherman.

Wolfe’s description of the criminal courts rings very true to me. Although I was an Assistant District Attorney in a rural area in the Deep South, much that Wolfe describes about what goes on at the Bronx Criminal Courts is very familiar territory.

Sherman McCoy is not the only character in this vast sprawling novel who is attached to some vanity which is ultimately cast into the fire. The only characters who come out well are Fallow the muck raking tabloid journalist and the Gold-Digging Maria who is pretty much willing to do anything for her own pleasure and advancement.

This novel still holds up well and has much to recommend it. I have no doubt it will still be being read a century from now.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Feast of Snakes

Flannery O'Connor famously said that "Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."

A Feast of Snakes (1976) by the late Harry Crews (1935-2012) is truly a grotesque novel.  However, it is rooted in reality.  And some of the more grotesque elements of this novel are the most realistic.  A Feast of Snakes is a sordid little tale about a former high school football star who, because of his lack of academic ability, is trapped in a nowhere life in a nowhere town in South Georgia.

Harry Crews (1935-2012)

I have known a lot of people who are not far removed from Crews grotesque caricatures.  Without frugal working class parents who sacrificed to give me a college education, I would probably have been one of Crews' southern caricatures.  As a practicing lawyer in Southwest Georgia for over two decades I have met many people who resemble the characters who populate Crews' fictional Mystic, Georgia.

A Feast of Snakes is the story of Joe Lon Mackey, former star of the Mystic High School football team, The Rattlers.   As the head Rattler Joe Lon gets to date the head cheerleader, Beredine.  Beredine is the daughter of the local doctor.  Joe Lon is the son of the local bootlegger.    At the end of high school, Beredine goes off to college at the University of Georgia, while Joe Lon is trapped selling bootleg whiskey for his daddy.

After Beredine leaves Mystic for college, Joe Lon gets a girl, Elfie, pregnant.  Now he lives in a mobile home with Elfie and their two infant sons.  Elfie is losing her teeth and her looks have been ruined by repeated pregnancies.  Joe Lon's daddy is not only the local bootlegger but also raises pit bulls to fight.  Joe Lon's sister went crazy after discovering her mother's suicide and now sits in bed all day and watches television.

And that's just Joe Lon's messed up family.  The local sheriff, who lost a leg in Vietnam, arrests black girls for the sole purpose of getting them in jail to have sex with them.  As a matter of fact, the black characters in A Feast of Snakes seem to be the most sane.  Although one of the Sheriff's victims will suffer from a mental illness brought on by the trauma of being raped and will gain sweet revenge.

The backdrop of the novel is the traditional rattlesnake roundup which has become a large regional tourist attraction.  In traditional agricultural communities in South Georgia, the community would get together in the fall and winter and try to eradicate poisonous snakes to avoid attacks on people and live stock in the summer.  As a matter of fact, I live about 20 miles from a town that has a yearly rattlesnake roundup which has become a tourist attraction.  It may be the inspiration for Crews' novel.

Other reviewers of  A Feast of Snakes have seen it as some sort of tale of redemption.  I don't see any redemption in this at all.  It appears to me to be coming from a totally nihilistic world view.  Although it has some comic elements to it,  I found A Feast of Snakes to be very dark material.

To wrap up, I don't think I can summarize A Feast of Snakes any better than Professor James C. Cobb's description in his fine book Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (2005):  In his fiction Crews presented a southern poor-white netherworld inhabited by characters whose desperation, depravity, and grotesqueness went well beyond anything Erkine Caldwell had dared to offer.  Crews's    A Feast of Snakes emphasized the widening chasm between the caricatured, commodified representations of regional culture currently in fashion among upwardly mobile white southerners and the grim realities of life facing those for whom upward mobility did not exist.  The novel is set in "Mystic," a small South Georgia town whose traditional rattlesnake roundup has exploded into a major tourist attraction.  The protagonist, Joe Lon Mackey, is a former high school football star who was considerably more adept on the gridiron than in the classroom.  Unable to pursue collegiate stardom, he descends into a miserable, hopeless existence, drinking incessantly and living in a mobile home with two smelly kids and a pitiful, long-suffering wife with rotten teeth.  Joe Lon finally erupts in a murderous shooting spree and is thrown by an angry mob into a pit of writhing reptiles, rising to his feet for the final time with snakes hanging from his face."

Although I don't really recommend it, A Feast of Snakes is worth reading for the warped "Southern Gothic" atmosphere.  If you are depressed this is not the novel to read because nobody in Harry Crews' South lives happily ever after.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Viper's Tangle

The only good thing about having pneumonia and being bed ridden is that it gives one time to read.  After many years of staring at me on the shelf, I have finally read a novel by Francois Mauriac.

Mauriac was reportedly one of Flannery O’Connor’s favorite authors.  He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1952 and he is supposed to be one of the greatest Catholic novelists of all time.

Francois Mauriac (1885 - 1970)

The novel I just finished, Viper’s Tangle (1932), is the story of a miserly old lawyer, Louis.  Nearing the end of his life (at the ancient age of 68!) Louis begins writing a letter to his wife to explain why he hates her and their children and does not intend to leave them any of his vast fortune.

Over the course of this confession, we find out that Louis moved into a separate bedroom and stopped loving his wife over thirty years ago because she admitted to him that she had once loved another man.  Convinced that his wife, Isa, could only have married him for his money, Louis becomes a hateful miser.  When a beloved daughter is sick, Louis refuses to allow a specialist to be called because it will cost too much.  The daughter dies.

All through his life, Louis has attacked Isa’s conventional Catholic religious beliefs.  Although he allows a seminarian to come in as tutor to the children, throughout his life he ridicules Catholic faith and morals.  On Fridays and other fast days, he insists on eating a steak cutlet in front of the rest of the family who are fasting from meat.

Through the years, Louis has been unfaithful to Isa and has had many mistresses and has even fathered a bastard son with one of his former criminal clients.  While Louis is away in Paris trying to make arrangements to give his entire vast fortune to Robert the illegitimate son so that his own children and grandchildren will not get it, Isa has a stroke and dies.  After Isa’s death, Louis gives his entire fortune over to his children and finds that he is much happier.

Although Louis was a spiteful and hateful man for most of his life, we see that he was the happiest when he allowed himself to love others.  The death of little Marie, who offered her death to God for her father’s conversion, devastated Louis.  Louis also loved his sister in law and, Luc,  the son she died in childbirth having.  When Luc came home from leave from the First World War, Louis tried to give him a large amount of gold coins.  Luc refuses saying there is nothing he can do with them at the front.  Luc is reported missing in action and dies in the war.  All of Louis’ vast fortune can do nothing to save those he loves from death.

In the end, Louis loved Isa deeply and we see that the hate he harbored for her all those years was really a kind of affection.  After her death, Louis finds fragments of letters which Isa tried to burn which she exchanged with a priest asking how to forgive Louis.

Louis says that the “tangle of vipers” is his heart.  But the “tangle of vipers” is probably also the greedy children and grandchildren who are only interested in Louis’ money.  The “tangle of vipers” is sin on all its many levels.  In the end, Divine Grace breaks through to Louis and he is able to see that God’s Grace was there all the time if only he had let it in.