The Paris Attacks


November 12th, 2015: A Peaceful Day

It has been a week since the Paris Attacks.

The fact that both my wife and I were there in Paris the night of the attacks still doesn’t feel real.

Social media and news sites have been plastered with stories about the attacks, the ongoing threat of ISIS, the perceived threat of refugees, the complexity of the Syrian war, thoughtful analysis of the situation contrasted by racist xenophobic fear, an overwhelming barrage of pundit opinions, the disgusting American right-wing political pandering of the situation to support arguments for expanded open-carry laws and closed borders, the quick retaliation of the French bombing of Raqqa, the Russian jet crash, the Russian retaliation, and the quibbling on-line debates about the introduction of Facebook’s perceived racist/classist French flag profile and “I’m safe” function that ignored the conflict in Beirut, ignored the conflict in Kenya, ignored the conflict of people of color. It goes on and on.


The Blue Dot in the map is our apartment and the Red Icon is the Bataclan Theatre where the largest massacre occurred – 5 minutes away

Normally I keep a safe distance from world events by capably remaining informed while maintaining a healthy stance of self-aware necessity for taking a step back and tuning out when I sense myself growing overwhelmed and overstressed by opinions and incidents that are beyond my control. My ability to tune out hasn’t been very strong with this most recent event. Understandably, it has been hard to stay focused on the normalcy of getting back to “real life” after our trip to France because the trip ended unlike any other trip with us living through one of the most significant attacks on European soil in recent years. They say it is the worst atrocity to happen in France since the second World War. Considering that three of the six incidents on the night of November 13th had occurred blocks from where we were staying, the simple act of getting back to work, getting back to “normal” life has been shaded by a foggy but euphoric sense of gratitude coupled by an intense curiosity tied to the dread about what it was that had actually happened. This feeling stems from a very real catharsis: I could have very easily been one of the victims. My bloodied body could have easily remained on French soil at this very minute, but it didn’t.


The Casa Nostra Restaurant was a block away from our apartment

This isn’t the first time that my life has been spared by chance. I am not new to this hyper-awareness of the fragility of life that I am currently feeling. From watching a friend fall off a cliff that could have been me, to dodging the poor choices of my young adulthood that should have landed me in jail or dead, to walking away from a car accident unscathed, to surviving the depression that was suffocating me during the collapse of my first marriage; I have lived through much and continue to live. Each of those events I briefly mentioned have had a personal nature tied to chance, circumstance, and perspective. Although these personal events are unique to me, their existence are part of the realities that make up the normal tribulations of a life well-lived life and are part of the multitude of experiences that make any one of us human individuals. Our experiences, including personal low points and moral challenges, are unique to each of us and affect us differently, but in living through them we all have a common opportunity to climb above the difficulty and redefine ourselves as better, more whole, more grateful humans. I believe I am such a better person, imperfect as I am. I have no regret for having experienced difficult times because such experiences have made me who I am and have increased my compassion for others.


Le Petit Cambodge Restaurant was two blocks from where we were staying

Every life is touched in some way by such personal events. However, this most recent event that I have managed to live through has a global  and unpredictable nature that none of us can or should expect to live through. The atrocities and senseless violence at the hands of others such as what occurred on November 13th are shameful to consider. It is hard to believe that random terrorism can be part of what makes us human. It is hard to believe that this is part of the human story. Friends and family will die from accident or illness. We expect that. We do not expect anyone we love to die at the hands of barbarism. We do not expect anyone to be murdered by fanatical idealists while out on the town enjoying dinner, enjoying a concert, or simply enjoying life.

Joie de vivre. Life is good. Life should be enjoyed. Life is worth enjoying.

What brought me to France this month was a desire to experience, a desire to cherish opportunity and travel to a place I’d never been, to taste the richness of a culture I had not yet tasted.

My wife and I were in France primarily for her work and my fun. She had a conference to attend in Paris and I was along for the ride. Although work commitments were her primary motivation for the trip, we left for Paris a week prior on November 6th to enjoy some time together before her responsibilities usurped our mutual enjoyment. In our time together we journeyed to Lyon via bullet train, enjoyed a day trip to the Alps, and stayed in a castle for a night in Burgundy. It was a really pleasant time enjoying the French food and scenery. I won’t forget it. The good times are all the more valuable after what happened last Friday night. However, retrospect prompts me to recall that there was a moment that stood out mixed within all of those good times. That moment had occurred six days before the fateful night of Friday the 13th.


November 7th, Place des Terreaux

On Saturday, November 7th we were wandering the streets of Lyon and in our wandering we stumbled upon the Place des Terreaux were we noticed an unusual amount of noise. Traffic was at a standstill. There was a protest of some kind with a large group of people chanting in the middle of the plaza. Protesters were waving what appeared to be the Palestine flag.

Having lived through years of protests while living in Berkeley, and having witnessed several protests during my travels in Bolivia, I really thought nothing of it. But I noticed that my wife was visibly bothered by the event. She asked that we stay away, articulating thoughts I hadn’t even considered, saying “This isn’t like home, there are real threats here.” On reflection, I recognize that this Palestine protest was totally unrelated to the ISIS attacks, but in hindsight I realized that her premonition of fear for safety was grounded in a reality I had not recognized. This thought now gives me chills. Then I had thought nothing of it, but as we were to learn a week later, those fears were alarmingly valid.


Our Innocent Text Exchanges

The night of November 13th in Paris I was separated from my wife.

She had a long day of work and was finishing the night with some of her colleagues at a happy hour. I had just suffered through a long and arduous day of sightseeing and dining on French foods. I had just finished dining alone for the third night in a row (people don’t really dine alone in Paris, I was quite the oddity) and after a 3 days of hardly seeing each other, we were looking forward to meeting up and enjoying the Paris nightlife. I was located in the Rue des Lombards area, which was very lively and exciting with plenty of Friday night bars packed with people unwinding from a long week. We were in the middle of trying to coordinate where we should meet me when everything changed.



As soon as I received that text I began to realize that the sirens I had been hearing were more than just normal city background sirens. I looked around and realized that there was a steady sequence of police and ambulances speeding past the main road in front of me.

Something was terribly wrong.

I was alone, didn’t speak the language, and had no idea what was going on.

From what my wife’s texts told me, the explosion was at the République station, just two stops away from where I was at that moment. This was only a 15 minute walk.

I had to get home fast.

As I looked around me I realized that most of the people weren’t yet aware of any danger. I turned on my phone’s data to map the best way home but realized that from where I was, it was a 30 minute walk to our apartment and the best route would taking me directly through the République area where the supposed explosion was. This route was also in the direction of all the police and ambulances I saw rushing past me. Just as I was looking down at my phone a police car cut the corner I was standing on, nearly swiping me.

Things weren’t right and I didn’t want to be on the streets. Taking the subway was a risk, but it appeared to be the most direct route and best way to get off the streets. I let my wife know my plan, which she didn’t like, but in the panic my options seemed slim.

IMG_7321As I entered the subway at the Rambuteau station the mood of the people was different than those on the street. Three teenagers jumped the ticket stall immediately in front of the ticket agent with no repercussion. There were about 15 people looking at the transit maps with a dazed and confused look on their faces. There were announcements in French that I didn’t understand, but I figured that if the trains weren’t running I would figure it out soon enough. I hopped on the M11 towards Goncourt, my stop, and as soon as I got on the train I heard an announcement mutter something in French, listing the familiar names of stations: Arts et Métiers, République, Goncourt. Wait Goncourt? That was my stop. The trained started moving and then as we passed through each of the stations it slowed slightly, but never stopped.

Watching the familiar advertisements, station seats, and tiled walls pass by me as the train continued on was erie. It was like seeing a life pass by. When would this train stop? Would I get home? What was going on?

Fortunately, the train didn’t travel much farther as the M11 stopped at Belleville, the next station North East from Goncourt.

This whole time my wife and I were texting ceaselessly, and I could tell her anxiety was ramping up. Mine was too, considering that the train  had just passed by my stop, but we agreed to hold off on texting until I could figure out if I could get home safely or if I needed to change my plans.

When I got to the street, the confusion of the crowd was ramped up. Rue du Faubourg du Temple, my street and the direct route home, was blocked off with police tape and guarded by two policemen wielding Uzi machine guns. There was also a faint smell of smoke in the air. This was not good. As I turned my data back on to figure out an alternate route home I received the following text.

FullSizeRender (1)

I couldn’t handle that text at that moment. After using my maps, I really was running low on power, but I hardly knew what was going on in front of me and needed as much focus to get myself to safety as soon as I could. As worried as my mom may have been at that moment, her text caused me much greater worry because whatever was going on was so big that news had already reached the states even before I had a full understanding of the situation.

This wasn’t good.


The fork and knives are where I was eating. The cocktail glass is Jenn. The bed is our apartment. And all those red stars… well they are attack sites.

Although Rue du Faubourg du Temple was closed off, I decided to take a risk and scope out the parallel street. It was open and there were people walking on it, which was promising. I started the 10 minute walk and as soon as I got to my cross street, I was elated to see my building. Rue du Faubourg du Temple was still closed off, but our building was near the corner. Just as I walked near our building, I saw a television in a bar showing me the first glimpse of the carnage: a bullet riddled restaurant and body bags on the street. Through my travel home all I knew was the sound of sirens, the smell of smoke, the sight of police, but that image in the periphery of my vision on the television screen told me that people were dead and I was glad that I was not one of them.

I walked right past the police and signaled to the building and they let me go by. They must have been on guard for someone that didn’t fit my description.

After climbing the four flights of narrow stairs I entered our apartment with elation. I was safe. I immediately let both Jenn and my mom know that I had gotten home safely I began to attempt to try to figure out what was happening.FullSizeRender (3)

As I tried to connect to the news online my phone blew up. I received several texts from friends and coworkers, emails from family, Facebook messages from friends I hadn’t spoken to in months: all asking about my safety. As confused as I was about what was happening, I felt the obligation to respond. So, before I ever connected to the BBC or any other news, I began answering emails, texts, and messages: letting all who expressed their concern that I was safe, but I had the somber and ominous news to share that Jenn and I were not together.


The Goncourt Station

As I began to get connected to the media, the full scope of the situation became apparent. Several restaurants were attacked by gunfire and bombs. There was an ongoing hostage situation at a theatre and apparently a bombing at a football stadium. Looking at the maps of what was being reported I realized that it wasn’t just at the République station; there were several attacks in our neighborhood. I made it home out of fool’s luck and there wasn’t a chance in hell that I would let Jenn take the same chance. It sucked that we were apart, but she was with several people in an apartment above the bar they were at and as long as she was with other people she knew I was happy knowing that she was safe.

FullSizeRender (4)Listening to the BBC videos reporting the incident I kept hearing the ongoing sound of the French sirens blaring. I turned off the newsfeed but the sirens didn’t stop. They continued right outside my building rushing to the scene in panic and carting off the injured and dying to the hospitals. It took me hours to get any sleep with those sirens blaring. It was terribly uncomfortable knowing that Jenn was somewhere out there, exactly where I did not know. Just as I was drifting off to sleep I received another text from her saying that she was now in “the burbs” with two other girls. I was finally able to sleep peacefully.


The Police on our corner at 9am November 14th

Morning came abruptly. I fell asleep sometime around 3:30 and was up by 8. I was fully awake. Our scheduled flight was the following day, Sunday the 15th but there were reports that the borders were closed to prevent escape of the suspects. I contacted our airline and confirmed our flight. At least that was taken care of. Not knowing the train situation I contacted Jenn and we agreed that I would pick her up on foot. She was about 45 minutes away to the east. As I got to the street, there were police still on guard at the corner of our street and the Goncourt train station was still closed. My plan to walk seemed like the right idea. The streets were relatively quiet, but businesses were still in operation. I still got my morning croissant and espresso fix taken care of no problem.

Along the walk I passed a synagogue that was guarded by four military personnel holding M-16s. Although the shops were open, this wasn’t just another day.

After seeing the synagogue and sometime as I continued walking I had a strange thought pop in my head. The thought went something like this, “I hate Muslims.” The thought startled me. I told myself, that is silly, I don’t hate Muslims. It is totally unlike me to harbor feelings like that. If there is anything I hate, it is a culture of blame. It wasn’t Muslims that were responsible for this. It was idolatrous, psychopathic fanatics and it wasn’t right to stigmatize and blame an entire religion for these terrible actions that had occurred.

As I searched within myself to find the root of that thought I realized that this is how it starts. This is how the bigotry and hatred of xenophobia starts. A simple fleeting thought grasps onto an emotion, it takes that emotion grounded in experience and holds onto it like a parasite, infecting the emotional being with a new system of belief. I realized that this thought was disgusting and I didn’t want any part of it. Such thoughts are rooted in fear and I didn’t want any part of that. That was not who I am and is not who I would allow myself to become after living through this experience. I was grateful to be alive and I wasn’t going to let bigotry and fear taint that gratitude. With that moment of self-realization I let go that thought but I realized that the existence of that thought was very human, very reactionary, and very common.  I may have been able to let it go, but there are many others in this world that may not let it go. They are the ones that let that fear and hatred take root.


November 14th, Business as usual

That thought told me that the days ahead were going to be complicated. This event was going to shape policy in Europe and at home in ways that I would disagree with. Fear and reaction would taint decisions. And that is exactly what these terrorists wanted. Giving in to fear and hatred is giving in to terrorism. It is surrender. I looked around me and saw the open businesses and was relieved that the people of Paris had not surrendered. Sure they were confused and saddened. There were military and police on roads, but life went on. Shops were open. Life must go on.

When Jenn and I reunited we simply embraced, holding each other and savoring the lives that were wrapped within our arms. I won’t forget that moment. It was our moment. It was a moment unaffected by hatred or terror or fear. It was a moment of pure love.

I learned that her night was very different than mine. Unlike myself, who had walked the streets confused and uninformed, she had been with many people and they had been receiving news from many different perspectives. Shortly after the first news of the incidents they learned that the attackers were targeting restaurants and bars. Not knowing if the attackers were at large they had moved from the bar into an empty abandoned apartment above the bar. This apartment was being refurbished and it had no water or electricity. There were 11 of them gathered on the floor in the dark for several hours and she likened the experience to living in Anne Frank’s shoes for a night.

Since she was with several people, she had the opportunity to observe how people react to crisis. Some shut down, some indulged in uncomfortable humor, and since they had liquor available, many simply drank. She was with a group of mixed coworkers: serious lawyer types and younger grass-roots political types. As the group collected in an empty abandoned apartment above the bar, they turned into a crew of castaway refugees hiding in the dark, debating about the best plan of action. Eventually as they got word that the situation was calm they had split into twos and threes, taking cabs and going to different apartments for the night.

This is were I met her, at the apartment of a colleague that she hardly knew. Safe but exhausted, the night was over and we were together. It was time to move on.


Media near the Bataclan Theatre

We had plans for this, our final day in Paris together. We were going to see the Catacombs, and wander through the Christmas markets. We hadn’t had a chance to see the Eiffel tower together and we had planned to see it lit up before going off to the conference send-off party. All of that was obviously cancelled. The official recommendation from the Parisian police was to stay in shelter. All public gathering places were closed, including all tourist attractions. When we returned to our apartment we saw pictures of Notre Dame surrounded by military. We were looking at a quiet night ahead of us. No party, no romantic viewing of the Eiffel tower.


Media near the Bataclan Theatre

We did need food though. We had a late lunch a block from our apartment and after our lunch we decided to just walk around a bit in the late afternoon and find some pastries to satisfy our French foodie cravings. We hadn’t yet mapped out how close everything was, so when we stumbled upon a collection of news crews our curiosity got the best of us. I had never seen so much media in one location. There were camera men and reporters everywhere. I heard French, English (including British, American and Australian accents), German, and Mandarin. As I walked past several cameras I prayed that my nervous parents didn’t see me on the broadcasts they were viewing.


Flowers for the dead

As we walked around we realized that we were near the Bataclan theatre, the sight of the largest atrocity. The entire block was closed off, but I could see the theatre half way down the block. There was a makeshift memorial of flowers set up along a fence. We moved closer to this memorial and gathered among a group of onlookers, a group of mourners. Although the news crews were surrounding us, it was oddly quiet near this memorial. The media were respecting the dignity of this place. I watched a couple climb underneath the police tape and set down a bouquet of flowers among the growing pile of flowers.

My emotions overwhelmed me as tears rolled down my cheeks. People died here. They shouldn’t have. This was stupid. What happened here was so senseless. I felt ashamed for humanity.

After a few moments of silence Jenn and I looked in each other’s eyes and then hugged. We stepped away from that place without saying a word for several minutes. We were both deeply affected.


A rare view inside the Louvre at 4pm devoid of tourists

As we continued to wander the streets we talked about how encouraging it was to see so many people out and about, to see the businesses open. Major chains were closed, but Paris isn’t a city built on chain stores. The independent boutiques, cheese shops, butchers, wine shops, and markets were all open. We found this deeply encouraging. The spirit of the Parisian people infected us with hope. We mentioned to each other that if we were in America, everyone would be at home glued to the TV and everything would be closed. The French don’t live that way. They live.

They aren’t foolish though. As it began to get dark, shops were closing by 5 pm. As we got close to the Louvre and larger shopping areas, the streets were much quieter. As dusk turned to dark we walked near Place de la Concorde to see get a glimpse of the Eiffel tower lit up. The Eiffel tower was invisible. Not a light was lit in the evening sky where the tower stood. The icon of Paris was in mourning. It was time for us to go home.

Our travel home was uneventful. I speak now of our real home, not our temporary Parisian apartment. Security at the airport was well organized and our flight out of Paris was smooth. When we crossed through the US customs at SFO I felt inspired to tell the border agent how glad I was to be home, informing him that we were in Paris the night of the attack. He welcomed us with appreciation and then moved on to the next group of travelers waiting in line for passport inspection.

It has been odd to return so quickly to my life here so shortly after such an event. I went to work Monday morning and before I made it to my office I was stopped by one of my coworkers telling me how happy she was to see me safely home. I’ve told the story many times over the past week and I have been overwhelmed to take in the love and appreciation from so many people who were aware that I was in Paris that night. It is truly a blessing to be safe. It is even more a blessing to feel the appreciation of those so happy to see me safe.


Arc De Triomphe: November 11, 2015 Armistice Day

Every moment we have in this life is an opportunity. Our lives are so brief and there is a multitude of ways in which a life can end. The terrorists that took part in these terrible attacks want us to forget about the joy of living and focus on the risks of dying. The acts of terror are very real, but if we live in fear we let them win. This week I have been saddened by what I observe as a growing fear in the people of my country. The talk of closing the boarders to refugees, the desire to carpet bomb the middle east, the quick retaliation of both the French and Russian military: all of these things sadden me. But when I think of that sadness I reflect on the people on the ground. The media will tell us one story, but the people of Paris tell another. Life goes on. Life does not hide indoors, it is on the street, participating, living and denying fear. This is the encouragement and hope that I take away from Paris. Terror will continue. It is part of life now. But Terror does not define this life. It will not define my life.

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Suspended Sentences

201411-award-books-fall-slide2-949x1356Patrick Modiano, 1993
Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, 2014

“I entered the gardens, slicing through the people massed around the fence. Every bench and every chair was filled and the paths were crowded. Young people were sitting on the terrace rails and the steps leading down to the main fountain, so thick that you couldn’t get to that part of the garden. But none of it mattered. I was happy to lose myself in that crowd and – as Jansen would have said – to blend into the surrounding.” (56)

I chose the above passage as an introduction to my summary of this book to illuminate the hazy images and sense of losing oneself in a crowd that pervades this collection of works. This book titled Suspended Sentences is a collection of Patrick Modiano’s three novellas titled Afterimage, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin. Although not originally written as a collection or depicting a congruent story-line, the translator Polizzotti explains that Modiano had said that “those books form a single work …. I thought I’d written them discontinuously, in successive boughts of forgetfulness, but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences recur from one to the other” (ix).  The use of language throughout the works depicts a feeling of disconnected dreaminess that is vaguely specific to an internal dialogue gathering understanding of what cannot be understood.

“I crossed through the gardens. Was it because of meeting that ghost? Or in the alleys of the Luxembourg, where I hadn’t walked in ages? In the late afternoon light, it seemed to me that the years had become conflated and time transparent.” (153)

Each of the stories is told through the voice of a first-person narrator recounting times-past and fuzzy recollections of interactions with individuals that had an impact on the narrator’s previous life. The narrative recollections are told in such a way that they are depicted as though the narrator is a detective – not a detective of any heinous crime – but a detective trying to piece together the meaning of one’s past in relation to the present. These stories don’t have a strong sense of plot, but that isn’t what drives them. Their purpose is to create a feeling of shadows and mystery that draw the reader into the vague world of memory and disorientation while creating a sense of place that is both particular and universal at the same moment.

“I was losing my memory and couldn’t understand French anymore, as the words of the the women next to me had now become no more than onomatopoeias in my ear. The efforts I’d made for thirty years to have a trade, give my life some coherence, try to speak and write a language as best I could so as to be certain of my nationality – all that tension suddenly released. It was over. I was nothing now.” (57)

Although I’ve indicated that these stories lack a cohesive plot, each story does have a unique identity that could be identified as a plot. Afterimage tells the story of the narrator’s relation to a photographer named Jansen who collected thousands of images through his lifetime. The narrator was a lifetime friend of Jansen’s and much of the story is the narrator recalling his encounters with Jansen as he views and catalogs Jansen’s massive photo collection for a book. The meaning of image and memory bears significant impact throughout this story. Suspended Sentences recalls the narrator piecing together memories of his childhood and in these memories he stares at the odd puzzle of his unorthodox family structure and their  questionably legal trade practices. The story transitions back and forth from a boyhood narrator to the adult narrator piecing together an understanding of his family’s practices that he did not fully understand in his youth. And finally Flowers of Ruin is the most mysterious of the three stories, beginning first as what appears to be an actual mystery story investigating a homicide-suicide of two lovers, but as the story progresses it becomes more clear that this crime had actually taken place a generation prior and is only one of many intrigues gravitating the varied attentions of the narrator.

What gives these stories a distinctiveness is their ability to create an uncertainty with nostalgia, depicting the past as a periphery to the present. These are haunting, elusive works that intrigue with each word on the page.

“It was while waiting on the platform of the Melun station for the branch line to Fossombrone that my mood shifted. The early afternoon sun, the few travelers, and the thought of visiting people whom I’d only seen once, fifteen years before, and who had probably either died of forgotten me, suddenly made everything seem unreal.” (38)

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Big Sur

images (1)Jack Kerouac, 1962

“As far as I can see the world is too old for us to talk about it with our new words – We will pass just as quietly through life (passing through, passing through) as the 10th century people of this valley only with a little more noise and a few bridges and dams and bombs that wont even last a million years – The world being just what it is, moving and passing through, actually alright in the long view and nothing to complain about.” (29)

The spiritual, vibrant core of Jack Kerouac’s signature voice, the voice of the beats, sings through with solemn wisdom in the passage above. This passage is taken from the earliest pages of his autobiographical novel, Big Sur, depicting a moment of tranquil sobriety and awareness with mankind’s momentary and inconsequential place within the greater history of the earth. Kerouac expresses this realization as he is sitting on the shores of the Big Sur coastline during a three-week lonesome retreat at the cabin of his friend, the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kerouac found himself at this cabin on a personal retreat, seeking the escape from the moral and physical drains of binge-drinking and constant partying, the unexpected and unwanted attention of fame he gained the success of his most famous novel, On the Road, and the over-bearing distractions of city life. Big Sur may display many moments of such serene clarity and peace, but this is actually Kerouac’s most gritty novel, exploring moments of desperation, anxiety, and fugue-like madness stemming from his struggles with alcoholism.

It may be my age and my ability to identify with the voice of this novel, but I think Big Sur may be my favorite of the three Kerouac novels I have read throughout my life. On the Road is an important and beautiful book, but it is written from the voice of youthful freedom that celebrates the wandering spirit. With the passing of time and age On The Road loses the impact of its initial significance to an older reader. The Dharma Bums was an interesting intellectual ride that cherishes nature with an exuberance that motivates any reader to get outside and experience life, but at times that book is so relentless in its pursuit to explore spiritual truths that it often loses touch with reality. Big Sur is the most grounded of Kerouac’s three novels I’ve read.  It is written with the same poetic drive with and spiritual excitement of any of Kerouac’s works, with a narrative voice that speaks in fugue, running from one idea to the next, interspersing dialogue with internal thought. However, unlike his earlier books, Big Sur explores darker territory. If On the Road is a novel about frenetic discovery of what life has to offer through constant travel and ongoing experiences and The Dharma Bums is a novel about what life has to offer through meditative peace with nature, then Big Sur is a novel about the internal, looking within oneself and recognizing the limitations of trying to find purpose by simply living through experiences.

This is the novel of a mature, but disillusioned man struggling with addiction and dependence told with brutal honesty often unexplored by a voice speaking with clarity and self-awareness. Kerouac’s relation to self, his family, and friends is always troubled by his spiritual identity, a constant mix of hope and desperation grounded in the dichotomous ideals of his Catholic upbringing and young adult transition to Buddhism. The dichotomy of overbearing guilt and the release of emptiness pervade throughout the book with a vibrancy as he is constantly struggling with the need to be with others and celebrate life through a drunken stupor while he is internally gravitating away from others with a need to escape.

Although the novel begins with him seeking a three week break from drink and city life, he finds that those three weeks were too much to bear (it was originally supposed to be a six week retreat) and he quickly finds himself back in San Francisco, drunk and with old friends. The gang all end up back in the Big Sur cabin time and again, but the original tranquility is desecrated by the transition from house of healing to house of debauchery. What’s more is that Kerouac is plagued by young devotees, readers of his books who follow him around hoping to gain enlightenment from the author of their favorite books. This pressure to be something he no longer is causes him to dive deeper into drink and the pages of Big Sur portray the ravages of alcoholism with a voice that is both honest and foreboding:

“I can hear myself whining “Why does God torture me? – But anybody who’s never had delirium tremens even in their early stages may not understand that it’s not so much physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who don’t drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility – The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you’ve betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for “life,” you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning your sick silliness.” (96)

Big Sur reveals itself not be a novel simply about the beautiful coastline and the peaceful escape provided by the coastline’s tranquility, but an honest expression of struggle, disappointment, and disillusion. The following passage is an expression of Kerouac’s realization that his early meditations upon the passage of time don’t stand up to his hungover, alcohol dependent frustrations and disappointments:

“The once pleasant thumpthump gurgle slap of the creek is now an endless jabbering of blind nature which doesn’t understand anything in the first place – My old thoughts about the slit of a billion years covering all this and all cities and generations eventually is just a dumb old thought, “Only a silly old sober fool could think it, imagine gloating over such nonsense” (because in one sense the drinker learns wisdom, in the words of Goethe or Blake or whichever it was “The pathway to wisdom lies through excess”) – But in this condition you can only say “Wisdom is just another way to make people sick” – I’m SICK I yell emphatically to the trees, to the woods around, to the hills above, looking around desperately, nobody cares.” (97-98)

The novel goes through several cycles of Kerouac seeking healing, finding peace in nature only to relapse in drunken fugues. The narrator Jack Duluoz (I have been calling him Kerouac in this description, but as is the case of all of Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novels, he uses pseudonyms for all of the beat writers of the time) finds himself in a relationship with a young woman, named Billie. Billie has a child from another man and she is abusive towards the child and will encourage Jack to have sex with the child in the room. The circle of friends Jack finds himself around Billie include a man who speaks of molesting young girls. It is acknowledged that none of the beat writers, Kerouac included, give much credit to woman in any of their works (and this may be due to the sentiments of the 1950’s era), but the inclusion of these disgusting behaviors (a girlfriend who beats her son and a friend who openly speaks of molesting children) are examples of how low Jack has sunk. In an attempt to release himself from his patterns of alcoholism and his old friends, he finds himself the worse off, surrounded by people that pull him lower.  These behaviors of others around him are what push Jack over the edge into an inevitable mental breakdown out of total disgust with all that is wrong with the world and himself. He is reduced to a child himself, unable to function with out others, both needing their presence and constantly disgusted by their and his own behaviors:

“I’m clutching at the drapes of the window like the Phantom of the Opera behind the masque, waiting for Billie to come home and remembering how I used to stand by the window like this in my childhood and look out on dusky streets and think how awful I was in this development everybody said was supposed to be “my life” and “their lives” – Not so much that I’m a drunkard that I feel guilty about but that others who occupy this plane of “life on earth” with me don’t feel at all.” (141)

That disgust is rooted in his realization that despite the ugliness of human behavior, life is beautiful, it continues on and doesn’t care about the depravity of man, it just continues.

In one final visit to Big Sur with Billie and another couple, Jack completely loses touch with reality in a state of total alcoholic madness and realizes that he must completely let go of all he is doing, escape back to his roots in New York and get away from the life he is living. The ending of the novel is somewhat abrupt, but it portrays a psychological break from reality and subsequent release from guilt that adeptly expresses the root of Kerouac’s belief that ultimately all the struggle of mankind is momentary in the greater history of world, for the world will continue on, unconcerned.

“The empty blue sky of space says “All this comes back to me, then goes again, and comes back again, then goes again, and I don’t care, it still belongs to me” – The blue sky adds “Dont call me eternity, call me God if you like, all of you talkers are in paradise, the man is paradise, the fog is paradise.” (30)

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A Death in the Family

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James Agee, 1938

“When grief and shock surpass endurance there occur phases of exhaustion, of anesthesia in which relatively little is left and one has the illusion of recognizing, and understanding, a good deal. Mary had, during these breathing spells, drawn a kind of solace from the recurrent thought: at least I am enduring it. I am aware of what has happened, I am meeting it face to face, I am living through it. There had been, even, a kind of pride, a desolate kind of pleasure, in the feeling: I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it. It had of course occurred to her that this happens to many people, that it is very common, and she humbled and comforted herself in this thought.” (278)

Many would label this book ‘depressing’ but I would argue that this is a beautiful novel. This book approaches a reality – an inevitability of life: that death comes to all – with a purity of voice that is simply captivating.

There is no better way to say it: this is a beautiful book.

The plot is fairly simple. Jay Follet, a young man in his 30’s and a father of 2 in Knoxville Tennessee of the early 20th century suddenly dies in the middle of the night in a fatal car accident. The first half of the novel builds up Jay’s relationship to his family with charming gestures such as making the sheets for his wife as she cooks him breakfast, an evening spent alone with his young son, and his thoughts about his drunk brother’s desperate need for his assistance alongside their father’s ailing health. The second half of the novel explores the shock of his death upon his wife and her supportive family as well as his children’s struggle to understand that their father is not  coming home tonight, or tomorrow, or ever.

Plot alone doesn’t make a book important, or beautiful, or worth reading. What makes this book significant is its ability to speak with an honesty that transcends the purpose of plot.

Jay’s wife Mary, a religious woman, is encouraged by her brother, aunt, and parents to drink whiskey through the night to settle her shock. She would rather her aunt stay the night with her than her mother due to the ridiculousness of explaining herself to her nearly deaf mother. Mary’s children, Rufus and Catherine, must learn of their father’s death from their hungover mother who is unable to get out of bed to make them breakfast. Rufus is pleased to learn that he is not expected to go to school that day, however staying at home, the stir-crazy children struggle with understanding their father’s demise and quarrel as children do. Rufus is unable to stay at home and finds himself wandering the streets along the way to the school he is not expected to enter. In speaking with his classmates, he feels that his father’s death will give him power over the bullies that have teased him, but his power is deflated as he learns that the parents of the bullies have assumed that his father’s accident was a result of careless drunken driving. All of Mary’s family use religion as a vehicle of expressing hope to one another, but internally they all express their doubts in the goodness or even existence of God or in a possibility of purpose behind the unexpected death of the man they loved.

The novel explores these themes through narrative that flows from each character’s perspective, actions, and thoughts with an attentive purity of voice. The children look up to the adults for guidance and the adults look within themselves for strength. Life isn’t expressed more simply and purposefully than that.

Before the ominous death ever occurred, I was drawn into the book’s introductory pages that describe an outing of the father Jay with his son Rufus. The two go to a Charlie Chaplin silent film and the description of the film’s actions is nearly breathtaking (Agee was a film critic of his time), but what really captivated me was the description of the young son and father sitting outside, away from home after the movie but not quite ready to go home. Jay was simply sitting and taking in the moment of late evening calm, but Rufus looks up to his father, searching for meaning:

“He felt that although his father loved their home and loved all of them, he was more lonely than the contentment of his family could help; that it even increased his loneliness, or made it hard for him not to be lonely. He felt that sitting out here, he was not lonely; or if he was, that he felt on good terms with the loneliness; that he was a homesick man, and that here on the rock, though he might be more homesick than ever, he was well.” (18-19)

Passages such as this are the essence of this book: each of the character looks toward their loved ones with a searching hope for understanding the other, a hope to understand the love that bonds them. The loss of the father impacts them all, but their relationship to one another is what gives them purpose, gives them hope.

It is said that this is a semi-autobiographical book, as Agee’s father had died in a car accident when he was a young boy. Some readers may find that important, but for me this book is simply important because it is a beautiful character study of life, survival, and relationship.

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The Vorrh

download (1)B. Catling, 2015

Unlike anything I’ve read before, The Vorrh is best described as a postmodern fantasy novel. This is an ambitious and artful prosaic blend of multiple characters, perspectives, and timelines written with an originality that is at once confusing, bewildering, and beautifully enlightening with a totally unique and inspiring voice.

My praise is hard-earned.

When I began this book, I was quickly disappointed by what appeared to be a jumbled mess of unrelated characters and inconsistent narrative tangents. In other words, my first impression in the first 50-70 pages of The Vorrh was that this was nothing more than a piece of crap that wasn’t worth my time. Since I’m discerning in my reading tastes before ever beginning a book, I am a fairly patient reader able to give most books that I dislike a chance to grow on me and help me discover why I was initially drawn to its text. Considering this: a book that I begin must be completely atrocious in order for me to abandon it unfinished, yet after beginning The Vorrh I was closer to abandoning this book than any other I can recall.

The book began with a prologue describing a man apparently committing suicide in a bathtub and then jumped into what was a completely unrelated yet graphic description of a hunter crafting a bow from the skeletal and muscular remains of dead but mystical woman. The hunter is being hunted by an aboriginal bounty hunter within the heart of the mystical forest called the Vorrh. From here there is a disjointed introduction of a young cyclops living in the basement of an aristocratic home and raised by robotic puppets. And then the book jumps from the oddly unrelated narrative of the cyclops back into the heart of the Vorrh, describing an unnamed Frenchman who aims to be the first man to cross through the forest guided by a spiritual shaman. All of this jumble was starting to get on my nerves because it promised directionless nonsense.

Just as I about to give The Vorrh the quits, I was captivated by the introduction of the real-to-life photographer Edward Muggeridge who “was a hollow man. Born that way. A camera without an aperture” (63).  Muggeridge, also named Muybridge, seemed to have nothing to do with the Vorrh and its fantastical world of mystical forests, living archery bows, cyclops, and robot-puppets. That disassociation from the novel’s namesake forest is what oddly drew me into the temptations of The Vorrh as Muybridge’s story took place in the apparent real world of 19th century American exploration, far away from the mystical pseudo-colonial European/African fantastic vision of the forest. Muybridge represented a real man with real problems of self identity and purpose.  His problems of identity are satisfied as he finds purpose in the photography of the American west. It wasn’t just his story that drew me in, it was the richness of the prose that described the scientific development of the art of photography with an air of mystical poeticism that bridged the fantastical of the earlier stories with the realism of his stories:

“He was very different. It was said that he was hunting stillness and that instead of picks or shovels, guns or maps, he carried an empty box on his back, a box with a single eye, which ate time. Some said he carries plates of glass to serve the stillness on. He would eat with a black cloth over his head, licking his plate clean in the dark.” (71)

That description of “hunting stillness” tied him to the hunter with the bow, the “guns or maps” tied him to the Frenchman exploring the forest of the Vorrh, and the “single eye” tied him to the cyclops.  Suddenly, with the introduction of the late 19th century history of the development of photographic arts, the thematic vision of The Vorrh began to come to focus. This wasn’t just a book of purposeless narrative. It had a greater vision that was realized using imagery of the dichotomy of reality and photographic negatives. The Vorrh sought to explore the rich dichotomies of bilateral themes of colonialism and traditionalism, civilization and the wild, science and spirituality, technology and agrarian-mysticism, destiny and circumstance.

With further reading, the earlier disjointed stories began to grow in richness and significance as their themes were flushed out with increasing clarity. As the mystical power of the forest The Vorrh revealed itself as a place that erased the memory of the travelers who entered its area seeking either the riches of its resources or the revelatory promises of its spiritual heart, it became apparent that the mystical forest was a metaphor for the conflicting promises of the dichotomies of power. Be it a conflict of science versus spirituality or colonialism versus traditionalism, or the natural versus the constructed; all is at risk of being forgotten in the blend of time and place, narrative and understanding.

The many disjointed timelines and stories that make up The Vorrh don’t ever come together in a concise package, but that is the postmodern significance of this story. The world, even the fantastical world, is a complicated place with dichotomous and diverging perspectives that both defines and disappoints standard expectations.

“Rumors tend to spread like ripples, circular waves moving out from a point of incident. In cities, they stop for a moment when they reach the outer walls, especially when the city in question is circular. Against those arcs of fact and protection, they are questioned, the hard litmus of stone, straw, and lime interrogating their origin and validity, in the same way as those who camp outside, dreaming of entrance and stability, are made to prove their origins. If the story stands, it is filtered to the outside world in muted or fragmented form.” (259)

What started as a book that I hated blossomed into a book that I loved. The Vorrh is truly original. There is a richness of prose that drives the novel along and the criss-crossing plots each culminate with an individual climatic summaries. With that said, this isn’t a perfect book. Even though I forgave its originally foggy start in favor of beautifully crafted prose and engaging narrative development, it is hard to forgive the chauvinistic narration that includes many female characters but fails to allow any one of them to be the master of her own destiny. The bow is a woman turned object only powerful in the hands of a man, the cyclops gifts vision to a blind woman through copulation during a carnival of masks, and the cyclops also “mates” and impregnates his former friend and protectress. The wives of the Frenchman and several other characters each act as background setting to a larger narrative vision and the most complicated and likable character, Muybridge, is both disgusted and appalled by women as though he is a victim to their desires since his wife had cheated on him and he is later raped by a crazed slave-woman who was the subject of his photographic experimentation.

Never once in the story is it possible that a female character is offered the possibility beyond objective focus. B. Catling additionally invests a considerable amount of descriptive attention to phallic obsessions and violent copulations. I realize that the sexualization and objectification of woman is part of the canon of fantasy writing and that they exist here within the pages of The Vorrh to tie this book to that cannon of the fantasy style. I mention this as a weakness of The Vorrh because it risks damage to the universal appeal of a truly original and engaging novelistic vision. These errors do not fail the book for this reader, but they may distract more sensitive readers from the larger themes explored in these pages.

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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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