Ways of Going Home

17934556Alejandro Zambra, 2011
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

“To read is to cover one’s face, I thought.
To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.” (50)

Ways of Going Home was a nice little surprise of a book. Written in four parts, it starts out as a childhood recollection of a young boy’s interest in his classmate who asked him to spy on his neighbor.  The first-person narrative of the boyhood story had an engaging sense of mystery set against the backdrop of a true to life historical Chilean earthquake. That mystery is abruptly turned upside down as the second part abruptly reveals itself to be the written from the voice of the author of the first part. Set several years in the future, the author discusses his struggling relationship with his ex-wife and his desire to share his story with her.

“She asked me later, half-joking, if the characters stay together for the rest of their lives…”it’s never like that in good novels, but in bad novels anything is possible,”… afterward I tried to keep writing, I don’t know which direction to take. I don’t want to talk about innocence or guilt; I want nothing more than to illuminate some corners, the corners where we were.” (48)

The third part revisits the story of the boy as a grown adult as he rekindles a relationship with that same childhood girl and the fourth revisits the author’s voice. The novel’s blend of a novel within a novel and a voice of self-awareness allows a reflective perception upon the intentions of the text that explores ideas of identity and family relationships. The childhood story and the earthquake take place during the Pinochet-era Chile and the author’s story takes place in the more democratic present. The reflection on the past and how those experiences influence one’s views and opportunities is an consistent theme throughout the book:

“Now that I think about it, there was a time when everyone gave advice. When life consisted of giving and receiving advice. But then all of a sudden, no one wanted any more advice. It was too late, we’d fallen in love with failure, and the wounds were trophies just like when we were kids, after we’d been playing under the trees. But Rodrigo gives advice. And he listens to it, asks for it. He’s in love with failure, but he’s also, still, in love with old and noble kinds of friendship.”  (54)

The fluid transition from a fictional perspective of a historical reality to authorial awareness and back to fiction allows the novel to achieve a blended sense of light somberness that questions universal ideas that extend beyond the Chilean history that sets the backdrop for the multi-perspectives of the book:

“Our story isn’t terrible. There was pain, and we’ll never forget that pain, but we also can’t forget the pain of others. Because we were protected, in the end; because there were others who suffered more, who suffer more.” (97)

 

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Signs Preceding the End of the World

21535546Yuri Herrera, 2009
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, 2015

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a special book. With brevity of page and word it manages to explore ideas and themes that most books 10 times its length only attempt to explore, and it does so with a compelling plot and a fascinating protagonist worth celebrating as an original and powerful heroine. It is up there in the unique family of books that compelled me to take a second look and reread to better savor the beauty of its prose and the diversity of themes that cover ideas of identity, culture, family, inheritance, mafia, the dangers and promises that inspire border-crossing, the complexities of race including cultural and racial stereotypes, the location of power, human relationships to technology, and most importantly, the significance of language and its relevance to all the ideas just mentioned.

This is a translated work and on my initial reading, the words used in the linguistic style of English-translation captivated me. I can only imagine the beauty of the original Spanish. In my reading, I recognized a compelling similarity to Cormac McCarthy’s unpuctuated, vaguely broken and sparse, poetic prose. Gone are the quotation mark. Conversations between characters flow across the page with only a Capitalization indicating the change in voice. And there are prosaic moments that stand out with a biblical voice revealing spiritually universal truths that apply to all. After my initial reading, I was pleased to read the translator’s note from Lisa Dillman who confessed that in translation she was inspired by McCarthy’s The Road as a voice of inspiration to express the tone of Herrera’s original Spanish text.

An example of the McCarthy-like prose is expressed here in the following passage describing the protagonist, Makina, awaking on a bus:

“Makina could never be sure of what she’d dreamed, in the same way that she couldn’t be sure a place was where the map said it was until she’d gotten there, but she had the feeling she’d dreamed of lost cities: literally, lost cities inside other lost cities, all ambulating over an impenetrable surface.” (32-33)

A moment of awaking from an unknown dream is transitioned into ideas of location and one’s connection to understanding and personal awareness. These ideas aren’t as macabre as McCarthy, but they are explored with the same succinctness of prose that captivate and enthrall the reader’s attention toward the significance buried in the ideas behind the words.

Aside from the similarities to McCarthy’s work, which work ideally for the setting of the Mexican/American border, what really stood out were the non-standard and unique words that Dillman used throughout the text. Most prominent was the word verse used to describe a sort of going from one place to another. Dillman explains that Hererra used the frequently used “neologism: jarchar…the word is derived from jarchas (from the Arabic kharja, meaning exit)” (112) and Dillman chose to use the word verse in its place because like jarchar it is a “noun-turned verb, a term clearly referring to poetry, and part of several verbs involving motion and communication,” (113). In so doing, Dillman manages to adeptly express the importance of language as a core aspect of both personal and cultural identity in the pages of Signs Preceding the End of the World.

This is the story of a confident, street-smart, and headstrong woman who choses to cross the Mexican-American border to seek out her brother who left for America some time prior. Her brother left in search of the fortunes promised by a supposed mafia deal, but Makina, the heroine, is crossing only to find her brother and discover his fate. In that crossing she is faced with challenges, her life and safety is often at risk, and she is constantly bargaining to find her way. Through all of this, her connection to language, her ability to cross the border of her native and the “anglo” tongue, help directs her passage from one land to the next. Her awareness of the importance of language reveals truths that extend beyond her Mexican heritage or her “illegal” crossing into the “anglo” lands:

“Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me light, what is not to be learned about fire, light, and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes: promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, bye there they are, doing their damnedest.” (66)

This connection to language is most powerfully explored in a scene wherein Makina is rounded up with a group of fellow illegal immigrants by an overzealous police officer. The officer, hands on his pistol, discovers that one of the shocked immigrants is holding a book of poems. In his zeal, the cop attempts to humiliate the man by forcing him to write out a poem at gunpoint. In his fear the man cannot write, but Makina snatches the book and writes a powerful poem in English for the cop, who on reading it, loses the strength and confidence in his actions as his confident voice is reduced to a whimpering whisper that causes him to stumble away, his power lost by Makina’s written word.

In many moments such as these Signs Preceding the End of the World convincingly uses language to explore complex ideas. One such idea is the relation of identity as relevant to time and an individual’s intended commitment to location. As she embarks upon her journey, Makina is committed to return to her home, however she isn’t sure that her brother will return with her since time and distance will have changed his relation to his home, heritage, and the identity that he left behind. He has been gone too long to capably return to his former home and remain the same person he was when he left:

“at any rate long enough too long that when he came back it turned out that everything was still the same, but now somehow all different, or everything was similar but not the same: his mother was no longer his mother, his brothers and sisters, they were people with difficult names and improbable mannerisms, as if they’d been copied off an original that no longer existed; even the air, he said, warmed his chest in a different way.” (20)

And ultimately, Makina also learns that she is unable to return to her land, her home, for in her crossing she is changed and no longer the same person. The “end of the world” is ultimately a transition from one’s past identity into a new identity, as Makina finds that she is “with another name, another birthplace. Her photo, new numbers, new trade, new home. I’ve been skinned she whispered” (106). The old has ended, the new is made into something unrecognizable, and all is transitory.

“When she’d reached the top of the saddle between the two mountains it began to snow. Makina had never seen snow before and the first thing that struck her as she stopped to watch the weightless crystals raining down was that something was burning. One came to perch on her eyelashes; it looked like a stack of crosses or the map of a palace, a solid and intricate marvel at any rate, and when it dissolved a few seconds later she wondered how it was that some things in the world – some countries, some people – could seem eternal when everything was like that miniature ice palace: one-of-a-kind, precious, fragile. She felt a sudden stab of disappointment but also a slight subsiding of the fear that had been building since she versed from home.” (55)

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God’s Hotel

download (3)

A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

Victoria Sweet, 2012

Laguna Honda Hospital is a unique part of the San Francisco healthcare system. Many of the most difficult and challenging psychosocial patients that come to my unit at UCSF are Laguna Honda residents. Being residents at a hospital may sound like an odd term, but Laguna Honda serves as a longterm care facility for the poor and chronically ill and its patients can stay there for many months or even years and therefore earn the “resident” status. The hospital does not have an Emergency Department and if the patient-residents develop new complications they must be transported to one of the city’s medical centers such as UCSF or SFGH for an advanced diagnostic workup. Despite these limitations, Laguna Honda is capable of maintaining and delivering complex medical regimens such as IV therapy and being a hospital it can deliver care that many skilled nursing facilities cannot. It is a public funded non-profit facility that serves the community of San Francisco. Speaking from my role in the medical field, I am extremely grateful that Laguna Honda exists because there are many patients we send there to where I do not know where else they could go if Laguna Honda wasn’t an option.

images (2)Since Laguna Honda is located just up the hill from me, I drive and bike by the hospital all the time. However, in the 10 years I’ve lived in San Francisco I’ve only been inside Laguna Honda once. This was in 2010 when I was a student nurse doing an internship at an SRO in the Tenderloin. One of the SRO residents was at Laguna Honda due to his kidney failure and the SRO’s onsite nurse was asked to participate in a goals of care meeting with the Laguna Honda staff. I was able to tag along as a learning opportunity and I was impressed at the collaboration of Laguna Honda’s inpatient medical, nursing, and social work staff’s dedication to work with their patient’s outpatient nurse and case manager to develop a plan to work with this patient and facilitate a safe and feasible discharge from the hospital back to the SRO.

During my visit, the nurse I was working with gave me a brief tour of the Laguna Honda facility and although I was impressed by the dedication of the staff, I was less than impressed by the facility. This was the century old Laguna Honda facility and not the current, modern, new facility that is open today but was under construction when I was at Laguna Honda in 2010. The patient wards were mid-century style, with at least 18 or more beds in one unit with curtains being the only separation of privacy in the larger ward. The windows were small and everything had an worn down, old feeling to it. It hardly inspired optimism and seemed kind of depressing to me. As I have mentioned, Laguna Honda has since been remodeled and apparently the new facility has private or semi-private rooms and has done away with the larger multi-patient ward style of care.

download (4)So, having a little bit of appreciation and a little bit of leeriness towards Laguna Honda, I was excited to read Victoria Sweet’s memoir God’s Hotel (an account about one physician’s time working at Laguna Honda) as an opportunity to learn more about this facility that serves such a unique function in the San Francisco community. Sweet has worked at Laguna Honda for over 20 years, starting off as a part time physician in the admitting ward and then she  moved on to spend several years in both the dementia ward and the complex medical ward. Sweet writes with a lot of nostalgia for the old Laguna Honda and its rag-tag style of “slow-medicine” that was off the radar of the joint commission for many years and allowed its patients to leave the grounds to smoke, promoted the patients and physical therapists to participate in gardening together, and even had a chicken wandering the halls of the AIDS ward. None of these activities meet the modern model of efficient medicine and as Laguna Honda was faced with several inspections and lawsuits, it was forced to modernize its facility and modify its healthcare model by reducing the patient population and promote discharge to the community. Sweet writes of these changes with begrudging, disappointed judgement towards the changes enforced upon Laguna Honda.

As a book I found God’s Hotel to be a disappointing read and a lot of the excitement I had at the start of opening its pages was quickly deflated as I discovered that this book was less a chronicle about Laguna Honda and more a memoir about this particular doctor’s time at Laguna Honda. During her early years at Laguna Honda Sweet was studying medieval medicine with a focus on the medical writings of the 12th century nun Hildegard with the goal of obtaining a doctorate in medical history. So, with this in mind, much of the book is written in a formulaic style that goes like this: a brief story about a patient and what Sweet learned from her diagnosis of the patient, a little discussion about the politics of Laguna Honda, and then a little discussion about her studies of Hildegard. It goes on and on like this and after Sweet gets her PhD in Hildegardian historical medicine she later replaces the discussion of her studies with discussion of a pilgrimage walk through France and Spain that she embarked upon in sections over 4 years; but the formulaic style is pretty much the same. The way she speaks about the patients and how they offered her something to learn from was annoying. I’m sure that Sweet is a very giving and compassionate person, one has to be in order to work with the Laguna Honda population for such an extensive period of time, but her style of writing was less compassionate than I’m sure she intended and came off as somewhat dishonest and self-centered as it is consistently celebrating what the patients teach her about her approach to medicine and rarely speaks of what many of us feel, frustrations with the patient’s choices or the inevitability of their poor prognosis. As an example, take this following passage about how great Sweet feels about herself after getting a present for her patient for Christmas:

“When I woke up that Christmas, the first thing I thought about was Paul getting his vest. I hope he liked it and I hoped it fit. And I couldn’t help notice the pleasure I was getting out him and that vest. It didn’t seem quite right, somehow, but there it was. This got me thinking about charity – its motivations, its emotions, and how, after hospitality and community, charity was the third principle of Laguna Honda.” (255)

Such writing is overly nostalgic and feels trite. Furthermore, this book greatly desired an editor to clean up the mess that it is. In discussing medical diagnosis and medical equipment, Sweet repeats herself over and over again within the same pages, completely unaware that she had just said the same exact thing a few paragraphs earlier. Additionally, her excessive desire to remove any culpability in her writing was annoying. Of course I understand that the names of patients must be redacted for HIPPA compliance, but she applied the same level of anonymity to the extreme, referring to the “county hospital” and the “city’s university hospital,” which I immediately recognized as SFGH and UCSF and she even goes so far as to make the mayor anonymous, simply referring to Gavin Newsom as the “outgoing mayor” and Ed Lee as the “incoming mayor with the baby face.” This level of blanket anonymity gave the book a sense of over cautious CYA out of fear of discrediting anyone or any institution she disagreed with. And it only gets worse as she refers to the light-rail MUNI train as a “trolley,” which totally frustrated me because no one in San Francisco would ever refer to the MUNI as a trolley and I had no idea why she chose to use this word over and over again.

On top of her annoying writing style, Sweet chose some odd moments to unconsciously display some racist undertones in her descriptions of the hospital staff. It is an undeniable fact that many of the healthcare workers in the Bay Area are of Filipino heritage, but Sweet writes about Filipino nurses as though they are animals and not partners in the providing care for her patients, as depicted in the following:

“Allen, our male nurse, was the peacock of the staff…Allen was a peacock in the way that all male Filipino nurses played peacock to the reserved peahens of the female Filipina nurses.” (241)

The above passage is totally belittling and embarrassing to read. The passage below is even more embarrassing as a depiction of a conversation between Sweet and Rose, the Chinese janitor cleaning her office:

“Her face lit up, “Ah, Dr. S! Bird Gone! I clean floor now! And Window! And Walls!” She shook her head. “Bird not belong in hospital!”” (281)

Rarely does Sweet provide quotation of dialogue in her writing, but for some reason she felt it necessary to point out that her janitor has poor English in what she considers a cute way, with emphatic exclamation marks after each sentence and broken grammar. The inclusion of this brief dialogue was totally unnecessary and served no purpose other than to display Sweet’s discomfort with her Asian coworkers.

The overt use of anonymity, the odd racist moments, and the persistent usage of her patients as learning opportunities as opposed to human beings with needs, caused me to dislike Sweet as a narrator. And in being a dislikable narrator she failed to convince me that her nostalgia for the old Laguna Honda and her fear of the changes ongoing at the facility was the right perspective to believe. There were some quality moments in the book. I did enjoy her discussion of moments when she would simply listen to her patients and I really appreciated that it was her practice to go see her newly admitted patients and assess them firsthand before reading their charts because it would allow her assessment to be unbiased. I totally agree with her claim that many new doctors don’t know how to perform an adequate physical exam because their education is overly focused on reading lab values and CT scans. I find many of these criticisms of the practice of medicine to have some measure of truth and quality, however the overall message of the book was weighed down by many of the negatives aspects of her writing and unfortunately it failed to provide me with the insider’s insight into Laguna Honda that I was looking for in these pages.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

297673Junot Díaz, 2007

I feel that the title of this book is a little misleading. Much of this story isn’t focused on its main protagonist, Oscar, but focuses instead on his family lineage and their country of heritage, the Dominican Republic. I did like the book and feel that it is a well written and engaging generational story. However, the focus on Oscar (an awkward nerd who loves comic books and fantasy; traits that are unconventional for a young New Yorker of Dominican descent coming of age in the 1980s and 90’s) does feel like a slightly contrived postmodern narrative tool to tell the story of the 20th century Dominican Republic’s brutal history through the lens of an individual who vaguely resembles the stereotypical perception of a young Dominican man. There is a lot of talk within the pages about that stereotype – someone who would rather be a womanizing cat-caller.  Oscar is hardly a womanizer, and he is actually quite terrified of woman and would rather plays Dungeons and Dragons, watch Akira over and over, and read Lord of the Rings hundreds of times as he imagines himself to be the next Tolkien writer.

Of course I completely recognize that my criticism may appear laced with prejudice about stereotypical expectations. But my problem isn’t that I expected, nor did I want this book to meet stereotypical expectations: that would be boring and that isn’t my point. I’m totally fine with Oscar not being a stereotypical Dominican man. I found him a likable character with well-defined and believable limitations that I can actually self-identity with. What makes me conflicted about this book is that much of its pages aren’t actually focused upon Oscar’s life, but upon his sister, his mother as a young woman, and his grandfather as a young father. Ultimately the stories of Oscar’s family are used to provide a backdrop to tell the story of Dominican Republic’s terrible and merciless dictator, Trujillo. The many references to Trujillo and his regime are told with heavy reliance on the lore of Lord of the Rings, often referring to Trujillo as Sauron and his henchman as his wringraiths or Nazgul. As a huge Lord of the Rings, fan myself I originally found these geeky similes as cute, but as the novel progresses it becomes obvious that Díaz is a little too over reliant upon them and they started to get tiring and distracting.

A good dose of criticism is a good thing, but I hope that I’m not painting an overly negative perspective of this book. Overall, it is a satisfying read and is a unique story. My knowledge of the Dominican Republic or even the history of any culture within the Caribbean besides Cuba is pretty limited. I had heard a little about Trujillo’s terrible brutality in the pages of Jared Diamond’s Collapse but that view was a brief mention that compares the differences between neighboring Haiti and the D.R. during Trujillo’s regime. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao provides a narrative portrayal of the impact of Trujillo’s regime upon a single family. I simply wish the book didn’t pretend to be about Oscar, had a different title, and was more confident in its narrative focus on the D.R. history and the impact that that history has upon a single family. The book does these tasks well, but in hiding behind the supposed story of Oscar’s life it doesn’t reach the fullness of its narrative potential.

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Saints

download (1)Gene Luen Yang, 2013

Saints is the second part to Gene Luen Yang’s historical graphic novels: Boxers & Saints, an imagined retelling of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1901. While Boxers tells the story from the perspective of one of the leaders of the rebellion, Saints imagines the perspective of a Christian convert who suffers through the conquest of the Boxer Rebellion. Raised in a harsh and unloving family that doesn’t even name her, Four-girl finds solace and belonging in the Christian community, taking the name Vibiana after her baptism. Her blood family disowns her and Vibiana leaves her home to work the simple life as a catechumen, teaching orphans and  learning the ways of the foreign belief system.

download (2)Both novels include an element of spiritual imagining: the Boxers were guided by the the ancestral gods of war to give them strength and in Saints the heroine Vibiana is guided by visitations from the spirit of Joan of Arc. The use of Joan of Arc works well as a narrative tool, as a young woman who fought to defend her native France from the invading English, Vibiana self-identifies with Joan’s struggle. However, Joan’s military background creates some confusion for Vibiana as she believes that she is called to fight the Boxers but later comes to realize that her Christian community is the force of invasion within her native China. Vibiana originally was drawn toward Christianity because her family had deemed her a devil and the “foreign-devils” offered her an opportunity to redefine herself within their community, however as a young girl she vaguely understood the Christian message of peace and community. Ultimately, through maturity molded by adversity Vibiana comes to realize her place is truly within the Christian community as she chooses to make tough sacrifices as the Boxers attack her community.

imagesHaving read both Boxers & Saints in a short period, I really appreciate the dual perspective portrayed in both stories. However, of the two books, Boxers was more enjoyable and well rounded as a stand-alone novel. Saints definitely felt as though it relied a lot upon what was already set up in the much larger vision of Boxers. Additionally, Boxers gives away the ending Saints since both main characters interact within the pages of both books. Saints would have been a stronger story if it wasn’t the story of a character within the pages of Boxers but simply the story of a Chinese Christian convert from the same era. The two books together do provide a unique perspective on a slice of history that is not often explored within American culture and for that they are both valuable and enjoyable reads.

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The Nimrod Flip Out

imagesEtgar Keret, 2002
Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shleslinger and Sondra Silverston, 2006

Good short stories have an odd affect upon me. As an avid novel reader, I am conditioned for the long read that stretches themes and ideas out with the patience of a marathon runner’s endurance. An effective short story inversely feels like a winded sprint, packing a powerful message in an economy of words. With some short stories the sprint is so fast that I miss the message because my conditioning is wanting a grander view and I find myself quickly flipping to the next story in the collection as though it were the next chapter in a larger book. However, really good short stories cause me to pause, close the book and reflect upon the significance of the brief collection of words I’ve just digested. Etgar Keret’s slim collection titled The Nimrod Flip Out contains a little of both type of story: in these pages there are a few that just passed me by as I moved on to the next, but there were several that stopped me in my tracks, satisfying my linguistic desire for the moment’s reading.

With a total of 30 stories gathered in this 167 page collection, most of these stories are no longer than 2 or 3 pages long. With such brevity, Keret’s style is very blunt and to the point. Several of the stories have a surreal or magical element to them, such as Fatso, a story about the narrator’s girlfriend who morphs into a fat, balding, hard-drinking, womanizing, man every night or Pride and Joy, a story about a child who’s parents shrink with each inch he grows. However, Keret doesn’t pigeonhole himself into only using a magical style to get his point across as several of his better stories are poignant with a curt realism. Almost all of his stories do follow a pattern in setting up a believable background and then taking an abrupt turn in the narration by either distorting reality or adjusting the reader’s perspective to an alternate understanding of the situation that was set up.

An example of an effective realistic story that uses this device is the story titled The Tits of an Eighteen-Year-Old about a chauvinistic taxi driver who honks and catcalls young women as he drives his passengers around town. While he’s driving his anxious wife calls him on the radio because she’s heard about a helicopter crash and she’s worried that their military son may have been in the crash. The cabdriver ridicules his wife for worrying, assuring her that their son is fine, but she insists that she’s going to call the army to verify. After he’s off the radio he talks to his passenger about how foolish his wife is for worrying and then continues to catcall the women on the street. Later his wife calls back, to let him know that their son wasn’t in the crash and he responds to her “You dummy, I already told you fifteen minutes ago he was OK didn’t I?” and then continues to drive until “he saw a thin girl in a miniskirt who, turned around, frightened when he honked. “Get a load on that one,” he said, trying to hide his tears. “Say, wouldn’t you like to stick it to her?””(130). The entire message of the story is hidden in that one line trying to hide his tears. With those five words this three page story about an unlikable, chauvinistic, and overly confident man unfolds, revealing that this man isn’t as simple as he pretends to or appears to be. Those tears he tries to hide reveal the doubt, worry, and concern for his son that he would not share with his wife over the radio or in the curt conversations he has with his passengers.

Those five little words are an example of the linguistic adeptness buried within this collection of short stories. Some of my favorites stories were the more realistic ones such as Angle, a story about three friends who play pool. In this story one of the three friends is always on the side, while the two others play. Of the three friends, one is involved in a long term relationship and always on the phone with her, the second is juggling multiple women at the same time and always on the phone with them, and the third takes the game of pool to seriously to spend time calling women. As a twist, the two womanizers end up unhappy and the serious loner ends up happily with the pool hall waitress after his friends abandon him because they are too focused on calling their women and not very good at pool. My Girlfriend’s Naked is a story about a guy contemplating whether he should be upset or jealous that his girlfriend is sunbathing naked but he realizes that he is pretty lucky to have her as his girlfriend and that it would be ridiculous for him to be upset with her because even though she sunbathes naked for all to see, she chooses to be with him.

My favorite story in the collection, however was not a realistic story like those above, but was one that totally twisted reality and literary possibility. A Thought in the Shape of a Story had a simplistic, allegorical message to it, telling of a race of people that once lived on the moon who could make objects with their thoughts. To reduce chaos, the moon society agreed that certain objects would have specified meanings, just as the words of language have a culturally agreed meaning. There was one individual in the moon society who dreamed to travel the universe and he began building a spaceship with his thoughts, breaking down the conformist idea of what certain objects should mean. His actions seemed liked craziness to the moon society, so they destroyed his ship, but the impact of destroying the ship caused the nonconformist to have such intense thoughts of loneliness that the entire society of the moon was destroyed.

With thirty stories in this brief collection, Keret provides a diverse opportunity for a reader’s enjoyment and inspiration. He uses the short story to explore ideas that many novelists vaguely achieve in works hundreds of pages longer than this. The ideas and themes covered in The Nimrod Flip Out explore friendship, family, religion, Israeli culture, love, loss, deceit,  adultery – a broad range of the human experience. He does so with whimsical brevity and sometimes jarring seriousness. There is a lot of good stuff to reflect upon in these pages and I’ll close with this pleasant reflection on death:

“A typical thought by way of example: at night, when we say we’re going to sleep and we get into bed and we shut our eyes, we’re not really asleep. We’re just pretending. We shut our eyes and breathe rhythmically, pretending to be asleep until the deceit grows slowly real. And maybe that’s how it is with death. Himme’s dad hadn’t died right away either. And the whole time when his eyes were shut and he wasn’t moving, you could still feel his pulse. Maybe Himme’s dad had been dying just like someone going to sleep – pretending until it became real. And if so, then it was altogether possible that if only Himme had interupted him in the process, jumped on his bed like a little kid, opened his eyes to make sure, shouted “Dad!” and tickled him – the whole deceit would have fallen apart.” (from Himme, 165)

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Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy

20821465Brendan Simms, 2014

“The fundamental issue has always been whether Europe would be united – or dominated – by a single force: the Universal Monarchy attributed to Charles V, Phillip II (for whom the world was ‘not enough’) and Louis XIV; the caliphate of Suleiman the Magnificent and his successors; the continental bloc which Napoleon so nearly achieved; the Mitteleuropa of Imperial Germany; Hitler’s ‘Thousand Year’ Reich; the socialist utopia espoused by the Soviet Union; and the democratic geopolitics of NATO and the European Union today. In each case the central area of contention was Germany; because of its strategic position in the heart of Europe, because of its immense economic and military potential and – in the Early Modern period – because of the political legitimacy which its imperial title conferred.” (530-1)

Brendan Simms’ powerhouse historical exploration of the European power struggles from 1453 (the fall of Constantinople) through present day (ending at about 2011) is an impressive and comprehensive work. Weighing in at a hefty 534 pages, it oddly feels slim in its ability to cover nearly 560 years of history through engaging writing and a consistent thematic vision. Of course at this digestible length there are limitations in the book’s scope, but we all must recognize that a truly comprehensive history of such a broad time period and diverse geographic and political landscape could easily require thousands and thousands of pages to capture all the nuances of European history. Simms manages to provide an engaging analysis of such a broad time period through a focused vision that rarely digresses from what he aims to illuminate about European history.

As noted by the passage I’ve quoted from the conclusion above, that vision is focused on the Germanic influence upon Europe’s historical struggle for supremacy. From the disjointed states that comprised the Holy Roman Empire through the present-day economic power center of the European Union, Simms argues that the region and peoples that comprise present day Germany has managed to be in the center of all struggles for power in European history. Of course, this focus on the Germanic influence throughout European history and power struggle does lend itself towards a tendency to make light of the countless nation states, ethnicities, and cultural diveristy that make up the broader European continent, but Simms manages to acknowledge that his focus on the big struggles are necessary to maintain sight of the grand thematic vision of the history presented here. This isn’t a perfect summary of European history, but Simms manages to avoid the fault of seeking perfection by remaining focused on his vision.

Since the German region is the birthplace of Lutheran Protestantism, the center of Republican Liberalism within Europe, the founding inspiration for Marxist socialism, the Bismark imperialism, Nazi utopianism, and present day economic powerhouse, Simms’ argues that not only is its geographic location politically significant for European power struggles, the region has had a longstanding culture impact that has influenced the continent for better or worse through the ages. This German lense on European history does appear fanatical at times, because a well learned reader will recognize that that there is a danger toward geopolitical revisionism in lending so much weight to the Germanic influence upon European geopolitics. However this perspective does provide a lot of intriguing ideas for consideration. Prior to this reading most of my understanding of European history has been presented through the lense of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, Britain’s obvious influence upon the development of the United States and of course the major World Wars of the 20th century, and of course that is a vision of history told through a very American influenced perspective.  Simms’ Europe provides a grand vision of the continent’s history that attempts to transcend prior understandings of what drives the continental power struggles.

Although Simms does consistently circle back to the question of Germanic influence, by no means does he ignore the many conflicting powers of the Ottoman Empire, Spain, Austria, Hungary, Britain, France, Russia, and even the United States once it arises on the scene. Europe’s history is certainly complex, with a multitude of conflicts for power and supremacy, but Simm’s book manages to portray the entangling conflicts as a consistent story, with each conflict affecting and building up to the next. Throughout the book, there is a lot of name dropping of Kings, Queens, Sultans, Generals, Dukes, Princes, Chancellors, Generals, and so on and not all of them live in common knowledge, but Simms aptly expresses the importance and influence of each one clearly.

This text manages to clearly depict the many reasons that led up to French Revolution and why it was so distinct from the American sister revolution and how Napoleon’s rise to empirical supremacy swept the continent. The development of the German Federation in the latter half of the 19th century and the multitude of continental treaties for peace was depicted with drum beats of the impending world war that would come sixty years on. From Simms’ telling, these continental collaborations were always met with a rationale to build areas of buffer from neighboring empirical influence, for instance Napoleon swept over the German lowlands to protect France from Russia, and Germany was always at caution from Russian and French encroachment upon her people’s lands. With Simms’ narrative approach to European history, the second world war appears as unfinished business from the first with Hitler rising to power out of advantage to the global depression, rather than simply an outcome of Hitler’s distorted utopian vision. With the fall out of the second world war, the continent was left with a power vacuum only to be supplanted by American capitalism and Soviet communism with the division of Germany through the Berlin wall as the ultimate symbol of the importance of the region for supremacy in the continent. These events I’ve discussed above are of course the momentous events that are at the forefront of all of our understanding of Europe. I mention them hoping not to diservice Simms’ ability to tie the progress of history together in a consistent story of interdependence that is convincing and engaging.

Probably my major complaint with this book is its lack of maps. There are only a total of eight maps in the entire book and they are all located at the beginning of the book. The first 200 years of history references several smaller states that no longer exist since they have been subsumed into larger nations, and since I wasn’t all too familiar with the European history of 1453-1700, it would have been helpful to have maps readily available throughout the text to provide the geographical context for this time period. Despite this drawback, I really enjoyed this book as an introduction to the big world events that have defined the European continent. However, I am fully aware of the limitations of such a focused vision of the history that defines the vastly broad, diverse, and rich European continent. Simms’ Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present is definitely worth consideration as focused perspective on the influence of the German lowlands upon the politics, culture and national boundaries of all of Europe.

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