Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Review - Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Manuel Puig

I have just read the novel Kiss of the Spider Woman, the 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. It is probably his most famous novel, particularly since it was adapted into a Brazilian-American film in 1985.

The novel is, first of all, not what it sounds like. It is not a paranormal story, and it is barely a romance (at least not the modern sense of the term "romance novel"). Instead it contains Marxism, claustrophobia, diarrhea, homo-eroticism, long conversations, summaries of old movies, Freudian analyses of homosexuality, and nonlinear stream-of-consciousness dream sequences. The novel takes place in Argentina in 1975, in a prison cell. Two men share the cell, and they have nothing in common. One man is Valentin, a political prisoner who was arrested for his involvement in anti-government protests. The other man is Molina, a gay window-dresser who was arrested for "corrupting minors." The novel, I have read, was controversial from the start: Puig had trouble having it published, and this does not surprise me. There is nothing "appropriate" about the book, nothing that seems especially pleasing.

To put it bluntly - it is a comfortless, stark, bizarre novel. It criticizes leftist activity, since Valentin left his true love (a girl named "Marta") in order to participate in his rebellions; but it also criticizes the status quo, since the prison warden uses terrible, inhumane methods to extract information from Valentin. It is not a homophobic novel, but it portrays Molina as alienated from society, disinterested in intellectual pursuits - essentially as a depressingly useless person. Molina passes the time by describing the movies he has seen in the past, emphasizing the look of women's dresses, the passion shared between a pair of lovers, the fear and chaos created by imminent danger.

Valentin has little interest in these retellings of films at first - particularly the second film, which turns out to be a Nazi propaganda film. I don't think Valentin mentions it in this book, but I remember that, in the movie with Raul Julia, Valentin points out the irony of a gay man adoring a movie produced by Nazis, since the Nazis were known for executing homosexuals. But Molina does not care; the aesthetic qualities of the films captivate him. Valentin believes in causes; Molina believes in happiness. "In a man's life," Valentin says, "which may be short and may be long, everything is temporary. Nothing is forever." To which Molina responds, "Yes, but let it last a little while, at least that much."

Kiss of the Spider Women is, I suppose, a book about the things in life that obligate us, that entrap us and force us to do the very things that later destroy us. The "Spider Woman" is a fictitious character that Molina and Valentin imagine together, a woman "that traps men in her web" and gives them venomous kisses. We all have these "spider kisses" in our lives, whether they are our innate fears, or our unquenchable thirsts, or poisonous ideologies, or hunger for power, or else they are the tender passions we have for one another.

Gradually the two prisoners come to understand each other, relating to one another's problems. The novel shows that people can change, yet the role of fate in this novel is a malevolent one, and I think it manages to obliterate any chance for either of them to succeed in creating a tangible destiny for himself. The last of the movies Molina remembers is a tragic love story between a reporter and a singer. Each of them ruins oneself for the other, until they are both left with absolutely nothing, and I can't help but wonder, Why the hell couldn't they have just lived sensibly and worked things out? Why does a person think that his life can't be interesting until he spontaneously falls in love, or instantly fly into a rage? Why couldn't these stories have a bit of hope to them?

But hope may have been a distant concept to Manuel Puig at the time. He wrote this novel during a violent time period, when in fact Puig had gone into exile in order to escape persecution.

I have not seen the entire 1985 movie, and so I do not know to what extent Raul Julia's and William Hurt's performances heightened this awkward tale. Good performances will save a bad story, George Bernard Shaw once wrote. I would not call Kiss of the Spider Woman a bad story; but it manages to create nothing, and it is strangely unimaginative (even the films Molina describes are not the product of Puig's imagination; each is based on one or more preexisting films, except perhaps the last film, the one about the reporter and the singer). The novel is extremely minimalist in style, existing only in the dialogue between people, without any further narration. I was tempted, at first, to compare it to the brilliant Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, which is also a very minimalist novel; but Trumbo's book was far more daring, drastic, and original, while at the same time the point Trumbo wanted to make was crystal-clear. With Puig's novel, I get a muddled look at two rather confused men who try to learn from each other and just end up getting more confused, although perhaps they do not know it, perhaps they have the fortune to feel enlightened when they in reality are not. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a multi-layered novel of ideas and passions, and its aftertaste is the feeling that humans are a miserable species because, in the end, ideas and passions just don't mix.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review of the President - The Spirit of the Constitution on the Bench

I recently read an article regarding the “terrible character and extent of the departures of the present Administration­ from the word and spirit of the fathers of our Constitution and country that has yet been in a single speech or article.” It was, in short, a scathing indictment of the current Administration.

The article consisted of an imagined courtroom scene, in which the President was on trial. The author conjured up the spirits of “a number of historical characters,” former patriotic figures of our country “who had assembled for the trial of the present incumbent of the Presidential chair, or charges of the gravest and most serious character. These charges were numerous, and were brought out in the course of the examination, which was conducted before the Spirit of the Constitution, who occupied the bench of Justice.”

The President was charged with many crimes, including the following:
  • “having declared war against independent and sovereign States”
  • “having arrested citizens of the United States…without process of law”
  • “having suppressed the liberty of speech, thereby denying to the citizens the constitutional right of criticizing the acts of his Administration”
  • “overthrowing State sovereignty”
  • and “having approved, endorsed, and partially carried into execution” an “unconstitutional act of Congress”

When the President stated that he only suppressed certain freedoms in order “to preserve the integrity” of our country, a Historical Figure replied with Speech A: “Free speech…is not to be thrown into controversy. It is as undoubted as the right of breathing the air and walking on the earth. It is a right to be maintained in peace and war. It is a right which cannot be invaded without destroying constitutional liberty. Hence this right should be guarded and protected by the freedom of this country with a jealous care unless they are prepared by chains and anarchy.”

When the President stated, “The Government is obligated to have recourse to such measures if it would preserve its own existence,” another Historical Figure countered with Speech B: “It is to the last degree vicious and infamous to attempt to support a government which manifestly tends to render the persons and property of the government insecure. Some boast of being friends to the government. I am a friend to righteous government, to a government founded upon the principles of reason and justice; but I glory in avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny.”

When the President stated, “I thought that the people would be willing to relinquish some of their Constitutional rights for a time, if their liberties could be preserved in the future,” another Historical Figure scolded him with Speech C: “Is the relinquishment of the trial by jury and the liberty of the press necessary for your liberty? Will the abandonment of the most sacred rights tend to the security of your liberties?...The first thing I have at heart is American liberty.”

When the President stated that he wished very much that he could have acted in accordance with the Constitution, another Historical Figure declared in Speech D that, upon the Constitution “depends our harmony and our peace,” and that, without the Constitution, “this country would be deluged with the blood of its inhabitants.”

The President then insisted that his actions were necessary, and that the measures of his Act “must be enforced.” A Historical Figure scoffed at him with Speech E: “It is under such sophistry, couched in general terms, without looking to the limitations which must ever exist in the practical exercise of power, that the most cruel and despotic acts ever have been covered…Disguise it as you may, the contest is between power and liberty.” Another Historical Figure concurred in Speech F: “The more I reflect on the use of force the more I doubt the practicability, the justice, and the efficacy of it when applied to a people collectively and not individually.”

When the President protested, “Without force it is impossible to preserve the Government,” another Historical Figure asked incredulously in Speech G, “How can this force be exerted on the states collectively? It is impossible.”

The President insisted that our country cannot survive “unless the State Governments sustain the General Government to the fullest extent.” Another Historical Figure made a sarcastic Speech H, “Let us, then, at once destroy the State Governments, have an executive for life, or hereditary, and then there will be some consistency in giving full power to the General Government…I warn you against pushing the experiment too far. Some people will support a plan of vigorous government at every risk. Others…will oppose it with equal determination.”

The President then admitted, “In my endeavor to sustain the Constitution, it is possible that I have transcended the powers with which that instrument has invested me,” but insisted that he has done so in order to maintain both the country and the Constitution. Another Historical Figure argued in Speech I that the foundations of Federal Power “must be laid in the affections of the people, in the security it gives to life, liberty, character and property…The legitimate authority of the government is abundantly sufficient for all the purposes for which it was created; and its powers being expressly enumerated, there can be no justification for claiming anything beyond them. Every attempt to exercise power beyond those limits should be promptly and firmly opposed; for one evil will lead to other measures still more mischievous; and if the principle of constructive powers, or supposed advantages, or temporary circumstances, shall ever be permitted to justify the assumption of a power not given by the Constitution, the general government will, before long, absorb all the powers of legislation, and you will have in effect, but one consolidated government.”

When the President then asserted that state governments “must submit to the authority and power of the general government,” another Historical Figure reminded him in Speech J, “The Constitution is framed upon truly republican principles, and as it is expressly designed for a common protection and a general welfare of the United States, it must be utterly repugnant to this Constitution to subvert the State Governments or oppress the people.”

The President then pleaded, “What does government mean, but power and authority over the governed? If the people will not sustain the Government then it is clearly the right of the Government to sustain itself. It would be impossible to do this if I am bound by the checks and restraints of the Constitution.” In response, another Historical Figure observed in Speech K, “Government is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence…I see with the deepest affliction the rapid strides our Government is advancing towards usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States.” Another Historical Figure reflected in Speech L, “It is important that the habit of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding, in the exercise of the power or one department, to encroach upon another.”

But the President insisted, “I repeat in my own defense, that power is necessary to government, and that the life of every able-bodied man in the country should be at its disposal to preserve the integrity of the country.”

At this point, the Spirit of the Constitution rose and pronounced a plethora of Final Indictments upon Our President:
  •  “He has erected a multitude of new officer, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
  •  “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their pretended acts of legislation.”
  •  “He has taken our characters, abolished our most valuable laws, and altered, fundamentally, the powers of our government.”
  •  “He has suspended our Legislatures.”

And with that, the Spirit of the Constitution declared, “you have been tried and found wanting. You have been given the opportunity of saving a nation, but have stabbed it to the heart. You were born in the freest country under the sun, but have you converted it into hated despotism. You have violated your oath; you have betrayed the trust reposed in you by the popular will, and with the outraged justice of your countrymen I now leave you with the brand of ‘Tyrant’ upon your brow. They will hereafter inflict upon you that penalty which justice demands, while history will pronounce judgment upon the infamous acts of your administration.”

The article concluded, “Thus ended the midnight trial of the last successor of Washington.”

Every speech in this article from a "Historical Figure" was a quotation from an actual speech (or piece of writing) in American history. Speech A was an oration by Daniel Webster, in 1814. Speech B was from a speech John Hancock made in Boston in 1774. Speech C was Patrick Henry, regarding the Federal Constitution. Speech D was Gouverneur Morris, on January 14th, 1802. Speech E was John C. Calhoun, protesting the Force Bill in 1833. Speech F was James Madison at the Federal Convention that framed the Constitution. Speech G was Alexander Hamilton, at the same convention. Speech H was Elbridge Gerry. Speech I was from Andrew Jackson’s Farewell Address. Speech J was also from Alexander Hamilton. Speech K was from Thomas Jefferson. Speech L was from George Washington’s Farewell Address. The President on trial was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. You can read the complete article in these two files:


If the pictures are too difficult to read, let me know and I can email you the .pdf files.

Monday, November 30, 2015

What You'll Find at This Week's Book Sale

We're calling it our "biggest sale ever" and here's a preview of what you'll find.

Of course, there are holiday-themed books and items. You'll find children's Christmas books, adult Christmas-themed fiction, books on holiday crafts and cooking, a few books on Kwanzaa and Hauukkah, and even holiday Harlequin romances. Volunteers do their best to remove books that have been personalized, so many are suitable for gift-giving.  Most of these items are in the meeting room where you'll also find this table.

One of the baskets is filled with new holiday paperbacks like Joanne Fluke's The Candy Cane Murder. These are perfect stocking stuffers and only $1.00 each.

Those new paperbacks came from Penguin Publishers' northeast PA warehouse.  When Penguin merged with Random House, this warehouse was marked for closure. The contents were donated to area libraries. We got some for the Library collection and A LOT more for the book sale. How often does an opportunity for free new books come along?

We picked up a large number of Penguin Classics. Most are the familiar black spined editions. We've organized 6 shelves of these by genre and/or nationality (biography, poetry, Russian fiction, American/British literature, etc.). We also have some Penguin Deluxe Editions (Proust, John O'Hara, etc).

We also brought back some Europa editions. Europa is a small Italian publisher recently profiled in an article titled "Objects of Desire" in The New York Times Style Magazine. This decade-old press specializes in fiction with a "global outlook" and is known for its "European visual flair."

You'll find more children's gift books in the back room. And that's in addition to the hundreds of children's books arranged by age appropriateness, picture books, chapter books, etc. Why pay $3 to $12 for a children's book when you can buy them at our sale for $.50?

 When the South Side Branch closed, we were able to replace the half shelves we originally used for children's books with full size metal library shelving. That means we can display about twice as many books as we could in the past. Volunteers have placed books for younger children on the lower shelves whenever possible.

We haven't even unpacked the 15 boxes of ex-library children's books that came from the South Side Branch. Volunteers discarded the older, more worn books, and we still ended up with too many to display. Those books will go out on Half Price Day - for $.25 each.

Fiction is sorted by genre - mystery, action, fantasy, science fiction, westerns, historical fiction, LGBT,etc. - and then arranged in alphabetical order. Fiction fills the large meeting room. We ran out of space, so we've had to put more books in boxes on the floor than we usually do. Each box is limited to one author and is clearly labelled.

In the back room you'll find non-fiction for every interest - biography, history, art, religion, science, philosophy, poetry, etc. You'll also find new shelving. If you've shopped our sales before, you'll need some extra time to locate your favorite topics.

Our volunteers work hard all year long, cleaning and sorting books. You'll rarely find one that's damaged or soiled. The sale is easy to shop. Tables and shelves are clearly labelled by subject or genre.

We price to sell! We like to think of ourselves as the $1.00 Book Sale because that's what you pay for most hardcovers, trade (quality) paperbacks, CDs, and DVDs. Small paperbacks and children's books are $.50. Videos are $.25.

The public sale opens on Friday, December 4, at 10:00 am until 5:00 pm. Saturday hours are 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. Monday, December 7, is Half-Price Day from 2:00 to 7:00  pm. Tuesday, December 8, is $5 Bag Day from 2:00 to 7:00 pm. We supply the bags.

The Main Library is located at 515 Church Street between N. 5th and 6th Streets. Metered street parking is usually available nearby if our lot is full. Enter the sale from the Church Street entrance which is handicapped accessible.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review - Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith

I have just finished reading the oddly enjoyable Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, by Seth Graham-Smith. It is the first novel of his I have read, although I have certainly heard of his other works.

The novel is written with a biographer's dispassion, summarizing the defining episodes of Mr. Lincoln's life, based on a series of well-repressed journals that Lincoln penned throughout his life, as well as on interviews that the narrator conducted with several unnamed people - who, I suspect, are vampires.

What follows is a nearly seamless blending of American history and dark, gothic fantasy. It is at once a brilliant satire on revisionist history, a wonderful tale of mythological creatures, and a subtle set of jabs at what we think we know about our beloved 16th president. Lincoln is, after all one of the most controversial presidents in our history. He led an attack against what was essentially one half of his own country; he was the first president to be born in poverty, with very little formal education; he was the first president to be successfully assassinated; and in spite of the fact that more books have been written about him than about any other president of this country, he remains today a subject of debate, inspiring authors even today to raise new questions about him, attacking his supposed rational for trying to "preserve the union." There is even a webpage - and I apologize in advance for bringing this up - that questions the existence of Abraham Lincoln:

But, enough about that. What about the vampires?

Lincoln's hatred of vampires began with an event that took place before his very conception: his father, Thomas Lincoln, witnessed his own father, Abraham Lincoln Sr., being brutally murdered by a vampire. Thomas Lincoln tells young Abe of this terrible day, and then Abe watches in horror as Thomas Lincoln suffers at the hands of another vampire who demands redress (Shylock-style) for a loan which Thomas failed to pay back. Abe makes a wooden stake, confronts the vampire, and stabs him through the heart. But Abe's thirst for vengeance is not quenched, and so he sets off on a journey to rid the country of vampires - only to find that this mission is far more difficult than he would ever have imagined. Abe (thus the author refers to Mr. Lincoln throughout the book) eventually finds help, from the most unlikely source: another vampire.

Henry Sturges, vampire and 16th-century Englishman, claims to be the only survivor of the doomed Roanoke Colony. He carefully advises Abe that some vampires prefer to be left alone and to do as little damage to society as possible, while other vampires crave dominance over the human race. "Judge us not equally," he tells Abe; "We may all deserve hell, but some of us deserve it sooner than others." After this life-changing encounter, Abe begins to receive letters from Henry, instructing Abe to hunt down certain vampires who threaten innocent citizens of this country. These letters increase in number, and this crescendo is paralleled by another crescendo, that of slavery spreading and gaining political justification (as with the Dredd Scott Case, which is mentioned briefly).

Eventually the two issues meet, in a revelation that is at once horrifying and strangely logical: the vampires are in league with the southern confederates. Vampires are planning to take over the country, and the southern slaveholders have agreed to help them in return for a few positions of power in the new undead regime (actually, I do not think Grahame-Smith ever gives a name to the supposed new country that the vampires wish to create; perhaps it would just continue to be called the U.S.A., and other people around the world would come to think of "America" as synonymous with "Vampire"). The vampires like the slaveholders, because the partnership gives them first dibs on the flesh of slaves. Thus, it is with the help of super-powerful "vampire soldiers" that the South successfully fends off Lincoln's armies for four blood years.

Now, I can see a problem here. So easily we can come to the conclusion that we might already be seeking: here's the proof that the Confederate States of America was evil. They were allied with vampires! Aha, I knew it! Those damned slaveholders had a deal with the devil, right there, it's finally just black and white. Yes, it's very easy to say that about a lot of things. Maybe it would be better to think of all southerners as people who are bedfellows with vampires. Swap "southerners" with "Jews," and you would more or less have what a certain Austrian said eighty years ago. The book approaches this idea of absolutism, but does not carry it through entirely, and this ambiguity is one of the book's finest qualities. "Judge us not equally," Henry's refrain goes. There are shades of grey in the humans of the story, just as there are shades of grey in the vampires. Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's rival, eventually comes to support Abe. Jefferson Davis is portrayed as a vile man, but also as a victim of supernatural creatures who give him very few options.

Whatever its messages, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a splendid novel. It is fast-paced, brilliantly researched, and includes many early "daguerreotypes" that show the dark-eyed vampires lurking in the midst of our history. I do not think there is much didactic intent in the novel. The vampires are not models of virtue, nor are they evil incarnate. They are simply higher forms of life (or "un-death"), making attempts here and there to interfere with human society for their own gain. Abe's rashness to kill the vampires gets him in trouble more than once. Toward the end of the novel there is heartbreaking scene. Abe, having just lost his youngest son to a poison administered by a vampiric assassin, admits an apologetic Henry Sturges to his office. Yet anything Henry says will only incense Abe more, reminding Abe of how vampires, whether southern or abolitionist, have taken over his life and turned it into a waking death. Abe grabs his axe and tries to kill Henry, and Henry takes the icon and snaps it in two. When a man has lost so many things that used to define him, what is left? Where does the man begin and his surroundings end? When Abe resolved to spend his life destroying vampires, did his life become a force of destruction, dooming any possibility of peace for the man?

Because that image of destruction, however fantastical, epitomizes Lincoln's plight when he became president. In order to keep his country, he had to attack it. Can this plan of action ever be truly justified? The killing of approximately one million American people, just so that a few more million people could be free? If southern slaveholders were so narrow-minded as to enslave their fellow man, then why did Lincoln want so badly to keep them a part of his own country? Might we have been better off without them? Most of the countries in Europe had already abolished slavery by the 1860s; I'm sure the Confederate States would have freed them eventually, though every day of slavery was another day of godlessness.

I think Grahame-Smith's reason for choosing Lincoln as his novel's vampire hunter (as opposed to, say, Jack Kennedy, or Alexander Hamilton, or Cab Calloway, or Regis Philbin), was to show that resolution is simply a part of life. We have to make decisions sometimes. Lincoln made a great and terrible decision when he chose to wage the Civil War. Grahame-Smith focuses on that decision, enhances and exaggerates it, when he portrays Lincoln as a man who has accepted a double-life. I think that, in a way, Abraham Lincoln was the 19th-century Peter Parker, pushing himself to do more than one man would ever be expected to do, while still trying to lead a normal life. No one will ever know if he did the right thing, but one thing is certain: he will never be forgotten.

Judge us not equally. Because how can we ever be sure who a person really is?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: Devastation on the Delaware

Sixty years ago the much-loved Delaware River was transformed into a raging torrent of destruction. From August 18 to 20, the river, fed by tributaries swollen by rains from Hurricanes Connie and Diane, washed out bridges, wiped out homes, and caused the deaths of 99 people in the Delaware Valley.

Bucks County  resident Mary Shafer wrote Devastation on the Delaware, the first comprehensive documentary account of the Flood of '55, for the 50th anniversary of the Flood. She'll be at the Main Library on August 27 for a book talk/signing as the 60th anniversary edition becomes available.

 Northampton Street in front of the Hotel Easton

Shafer first planned to write a series of newspaper articles for the 50th anniversary. When she realized how much research would be involved, she decided a book was the thing to do, especially since she was also interested in weather and history.

Another motivation for Shafer was her desire to make the Flood relevant to today's readers. Mother Nature has helped with that objective, as the floods of 2004 and 2005 reminded area residents not to be complacent about the Delaware's capabilities. Shafer wants to remind us that a flood like the one in 1955 could happen again.

Devastation on the Delaware has three main parts: "The Calm," "The Storm," and "The Aftermath." In "The Calm" we're introduced to people who live along the river from Matamoras to Upper Black Eddy. Some have grown up there; many are summer tourists. Shafer explains that the Poconos had hundreds of summer "getaways" from church and sports camps to full-season resorts with all the amenities. The narrative is heavy with dramatic irony as both resident and tourist look forward to a fun-filled, relaxing weekend.

The tone changes in the second chapter, as it is devoted to Hurricane Connie. Shafer explains the "primitive" weather forecasting methods of the 1950's along with their shortcomings. She includes actual weather forecasts and excerpts from newspaper articles predicting Connie's arrival. The sense of foreboding heightens, especially since we know that Hurricane Diane is forming while Connie drops heavy rain on the area. Between August 11 and 14, for example, Phillipsburg receives 7.28" of rain.

Chapter 3 is an ambitious history of the Delaware River. Shafer goes back to pre-history, before the Delaware was formed, to explain its cycles. She develops the reasons why the Flood of '55 became a record-breaker and why a similar disaster "could, and likely will" happen again. Among them were the lack of strict floodplain zoning and the extensive and rapid development that followed World War II. When Shafer refers to the "amazing amount of permeable soil that has been paved over with concrete and asphalt," one can't help but think of the current rate of development in the Delaware Valley and its role in the floods of 2004 and 2005.

Shafer breaks into this fact-filled chapter three times to introduce more "river people" going about their lives. We, however, are always aware of the calamity that will change their lives and the nature of their communities.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Hurricane Diane. Tension builds with the inclusion of successive weather reports. We're introduced to the people at Camp Davis, a family vacation spot along Brodhead Creek, and to residents of New Hope and Stockton. The carefree atmosphere at the camp and the pleasures of small town life are juxtaposed with reports of the impending storm. Ironically, the section ends with weather reports downplaying Diane's impact. Hurricane winds have weakened to Category 1. Shafer explains that in the 1950's "meteorologists still believe violent winds pose the most danger, and so don't over-emphasize flooding in their forecasts." This mistaken idea is one of the "final elements . . . that led to Diane's high toll in death and destruction."

The major portion of the book is the chronological narrative of the storm beginning with Thursday morning, August 18, and ending with the crest on August 19. We're transported back to 1955 to relive the storm through the accounts of the survivors. Told in present tense, the narrative recreates the urgency of the  events. Shafer opens with the everyday activities of these people: shopping for a wedding, baking a cake, going to the Warren County Fair. Most are oblivious to the impending disaster, but as the rain continues and the waterways rise and overflow their banks, those living near the river and its tributaries realize the seriousness of their situation.

 Survivors tell of moving to the second story, then the attic, of their homes, only to have the houses swept out from under them. Parents watch in horror as their children are pulled from their arms. Husbands feel helpless as their wives are carried off before their eyes. A fifteen-year-old struggles to save a man caught in the Delaware's current. He "registers the raw, naked terror" in the man's eyes as he misses grabbing his hand by inches. The man's face will stay with him for the rest of his life. Most devastating is the loss of Camp Davis. Only six of the 43 people on the grounds will survive.

This section details numerous acts of selflessness, of people who die while saving others. We learn of the rescue efforts. Scouts and church campers near Erwinna are "evacuated in an unprecedented, 90-minute operation involving more than a dozen aircraft, most of which were helicopters, still a new-fangled vehicle at that time."

"The Aftermath" begins on Saturday, August 20. We learn about the effects of the storm. In Lambertville, for example, the river crests at 28.5 feet above normal. We learn about the damage to bridges, public services, businesses, and homes, and about the massive clean up and disaster relief efforts, especially the enormous contribution of the Mennonite Church.

And we learn the fate of those caught in the Flood. The lucky ones are reunited, but dealing with the dead is a large part of the recovery. Descriptions can be grisly. Relief workers have trouble identifying victims and finding morgue facilities. Near Bartonsville the owner of Miller's Butcher Shop allows the bodies of the Camp Davis victims to be stored in his walk in freezer. Bodies will continue to be found, even a year later.

Near the end of "The Aftermath," Shafer writes about the rebuilding of the Free Bridge, a topic that will interest readers in the Easton-Phillipsburg area. 

The middle span of the Northampton Street Bridge is wiped out 
when debris from the old Portland-Columbia Bridge is swept downriver.

In her epilogue Shafer gets into some of the long-term effects of the Flood. Some people move, but most stay. They love the river. Communities are changed. Some of the railroads, for example, never recover. Most importantly, a dialogue about flood control and responsible water management begins.

Devastation on the Delaware is the culmination of more than three years work. After initial plans for publication fell apart, Shafer decided to self-publish. Jack Opdyke, second-generation owner of H.J. Opdyke Lumber of Frenchtown, NJ, agreed to sponsor the first printing of the book "as a way to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in business." Opdyke Lumber "was actually born in the flood," according to Shafer. Howard Opdyke bought the little that remained of Harry Niece's lumberyard, which had an estimated $40,000 in damage.

Devastation on the Delaware is an important book for many Delaware Valley residents. For the survivors who shared their experiences with Shafer, it's a "validating experience." Shafer believes they were  "somehow relieved to finally be able to relate their memories to someone who could put it all together, in a form that made sense of all the fragmented accounts they'd heard over the years."

For area natives, it's a record of what may have been the single most life-changing event in the Valley's history. For everyone now living here, the book is a reminder of the Delaware's power and of our inability to control nature. Shafer believes strongly  that "people need to think before they build on the river's floodplain and then take responsibility for their decisions to live there." In keeping with this, she is donating fifty cents from every copy of the book sold to the Delaware RiverKeeper Network "to support their ongoing advocacy on behalf of the Delaware's environmental health."

On a final note, this is no dry history. Shafer brings the events of this tragic event to chilling life and includes more than 100 historical photos and maps in her book. As was her intent, Mary Shafer has honored those who survived as well as those who did not.

Mary Shafer will be at the Main Library at 7:00 pm on Thursday, August 27, to talk about and share stories of the Flood of '55. The program is free and open to the public. Copies of the 60th Anniversary Edition of Devastation on the Delaware will be available for purchase and signing.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Recommendations for a Modern Day Belle

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Includes a father-daughter relationship.

Emma by Jane Austen
Bumbling fathers, anyone?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Another brute of a love interest.

Rooms by Lauren Oliver
Ghost stories for settling into a gloomy castle.

Check out other titles from the original post at Book Riot.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Books to Read In Observance: 70th Anniversary of Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

We mark the 70th anniversary of the first and only times the atom bomb was used in war on Thursday, August 6 and Saturday, August 9. Hiroshima's population was about 250,000; by the end of the day, approximately 100,000 had died. On August 9, another 40,000 - 80,000 people died in Nagasaki. Here is a list of books from which you can learn more about the development and use of nuclear weapons.

The Girls of Atomic City: the Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II  by Denise Kiernan (2014)

Kiernan interviewed 10 women who worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the production sites for the Manhattan Project. Oak Ridge was the main site for uranium enrichment, but it was a city that you wouldn't find on any map of the time nor would you hear the word "uranium" used. The women worked in positions from janitor to engineer. Their common experiences include the secrecy of their work and the discrimination they all endured - racial segregation in the case of the janitor; sexism in the cases of the white women workers. An interesting book for those interested in Women's History as well as the development of the bomb. For more information about Oak Ridge, visit History

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea  Nesbit  (2014)

This fictional treatment deals with women trying to live ordinary lives in Los Alamos, the principal research and design laboratory for nuclear weapons. They are bound by the secrecy of the project and later by the realization of their contribution to the development of the most destructive weapon in history. Nesbit grew up in Dayton, Ohio, one of the lesser known Manhattan Project locations.

109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos by Jennet Conant (2005)

In 1943, a young widow named Dorothy McKibbin was hired as Oppenheimer's assistant to run the Santa Fe office of the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos. At 109 East Palace Avenue, she greeted newly arrived scientists, reminding them to use their aliases while in town and never to identify themselves as physicists. Conant, whose grandfather was a Manhattan Project administrator, mostly sidesteps political issues to focus on the absurdities of day-to-day life at the desert lab. McKibbin fielded numerous complaints from the scientists' wives, who had to struggle with massive coal-belching stoves, hand-churned washing machines, and a chronic shortage of diapers. Meanwhile, their husbands, when not handling plutonium, drank heavily and played pranks . . . .  Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southland (2015)

This book takes us from the morning of the bombing to the city today. In the first five months after the bombing, an estimated 74,000 people died. Southland provides the accounts of five survivors.

Ruin of Rain: a Photographic History of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Donald M. Goldstein and J. Michael Wenger (1995)

President Truman used the phrase "rain of ruin" to warn Japan of the consequences of their refusal to surrender. Published for the 50th anniversary, the book includes over 400 photos of both cities before and after the bombings.

Hiroshima in America by Robert J. Lifton and Greg Mitchell (1996)

This book is a study of the bombings' effects in America and the reaction of the American people. Included is an analysis of President Truman's decision based on the diaries of the President and others involved in the process.

Children of the A-Bomb: Testament of the Boys and Girls of Hiroshima by Arata Osada and Jean Dan (1959)

Dr. Osada collected essays written by children six years after the bombs dropped. The book is divided into four parts by grades: from grammar school through college undergraduate.

Hiroshima Notes by Kenzaburo Oe

This collection of seven essays written between 1963 and 1965 concern the moral and political implications of nuclear war. Oe made frequent visits to Hiroshima and was struck by the dignity of the survivors, who later suffered discrimination, and by the courage of the medical personnel who cared for them.

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)

Originally published as a special edition of the New Yorker, this moving account tells the stories of six survivors. Hersey's book is one of the few required readings I remember from high school. Compelling and sad, it puts six faces on the thousands who suffered the horror of the bombings.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Review - Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

The term "cloud atlas" is an oxymoron - not because an atlas of clouds would be meaningless to the average person, but simply because such an atlas could never exist. An atlas is a bound collection of maps, and the very idea of a map presupposes that whatever the area being represented, that area will continue to take up the same size and shape for an indefinite amount of time. A map of Europe, for example, will always be accurate at least in a topographical sense, because Europe's land does not shift drastically on a daily basis. But clouds do not stay in the same formation. They move constantly - breaking apart, pulling together, traveling with the wind, exhausting themselves in rainstorms, engorging themselves with evaporated water. The title of this book, therefore, refers to something that cannot exist: an atlas of things whose deviating masses resist the defining power of maps.

At its most basic level, Cloud Atlas is a series of short novels that occur at different points in time. Mitchell has arranged six different narratives, in a sort of pyramid structure: we read the first half of the first narrative, next the first half of the second narrative, and so on, until we reach the sixth narrative and read it in its entirety uninterrupted. Then we read the second half of the fifth narrative, the second half of the fourth narrative, until we have finally gotten back to the first narrative and learn what happened to the characters who last appeared four hundred pages earlier. Decades, if not centuries, separate each narrative; the author does not always specify the year.

Doubtless, critics have taken great pains to analyze the different narratives: I will summarize them here. In the first story, we read the diary of an American notary in the 1800s named Adam Ewing, who witnesses the savage treatment of colored natives at the hands of white settlers while he is on an expedition by boat. In the second story, we peruse the letters that the British musician Robert Frobisher writes to his friend while apprenticing himself to an ailing composer in the 1930s. In the third story, an American journalist named Luisa Rey pursues the truth about the safety flaws of a nuclear power plant in the 1970s. In the fourth story, an aging publisher named Timothy Cavendish struggles to prove his intellectual acumen to the world as he navigates an unfriendly world in the early twenty-first century. In the fifth story, we hear the testimony of a genetically-modified servant-woman named Sonmi-451, who criticizes a technologically advanced but morally bankrupt future as she explains her rebellion against it. And in the sixth story, which probably takes place many centuries later and in a dystopian distant future where most technology has perished, a teenager named Zachary ponders how to deal with a series of terrible events when he believes that he has brought bad fate upon everyone with his own actions.

As an author, I was tempted to interpret this structure in an elemental sense - that is, to classify each story as a representation of a certain general quality, with the different qualities adding up to a sort of philosophical whole that the author offers as an ideal for the human mind. Adam Ewing, with his sympathy for those who suffer the ill effects of colonialism, represents compassion; Frobisher, reveling in a world of music and having an affair with the composer's wife, represents sensation; Luisa Rey, in her relentless pursuit of the journalist's perfect "scoop," represents impulse; Cavendish, who quotes every book he has read (his favorite author seems to be Solzhenitsyn) in a futile attempt to convince the staff of a nursing home that he is of sound mind, represents intellect. These four qualities then correspond to the four elements of Greek mythology: water (compassion), earth (sensation), fire (impulse), and air (intellect).

Sonmi-451's statement just before her execution, however, shows a break from any of these attempts at a philosophical outlook on life. Horrified by the depravity she has witnessed in a bleak world that reminded me of why I don't like the movie Blade Runner, derisive at any pretensions the court officials have about their own understanding of justice, Sonmi-451 coldly tells the attentive Archivist that any sense of order in the world will collapse eventually, that a belief in one's permanence is precisely what causes one's downfall. "As Seneca warned Nero," she tells him, "No matter how many of us you kill, you will never kill your successor." After a life of being manipulated by people, most of whom she has learned to recognize as pompous fools, she sees everything as an illusion. And in the sixth story, the apex of the novel, Sonmi is the deity of Zachary's village. Her ability see past illusions, and to shame people for their hubris, is at once an oppressing force in Zachary's world and a source of hope that someday they will transcend their conditions.

It is not progress; but perhaps we are better off that way.

The writing of the novel is extraordinary. Each story has a unique voice, and I almost had trouble believing that a single author wrote all of it. Every protagonist somehow becomes aware of the previous protagonist: Frobisher discovers the journals of Ewing; Luisa meets Dr. Rufus Sixsmith, the man to whom Frobisher sent his letters decades ago; Cavendish decides to publish a manuscript of "The First Luisa Rey Mystery"; Sonmi-451 watches a "disney" about the life of Timothy Cavendish; and Zachary witnesses a holographic recording of Sonmi-451's testimony, though he does not understand her language at all. The connections between the characters are thin, and Mitchell shows little interest in bridging the gaps in the overall timeline. We have only a vague idea of what destroyed civilization as we know it and brought Zachary's world back to the stone ages. So many causes probably contributed, so many people probably worked so hard to protect one another (or perhaps just protect their own private interests).

Cloud Atlas is, as I noted before, a thing that does not exist. And Mitchell does not try to tease it into existence. We see no grand plan, no progression, no symbolic journey that leaves us with the taste of "true meaning" on our tongues. It is a profound exploration of all the wonderful and terrible things people can do, without the author plastering the inside of the cover with a "map" that shows how it all fits together. The novel has very little science-fiction or fantasy. And while I would not call it a "celebration of life" (as I did with the novel Forever; I get the feeling David Mitchell does not enjoy himself writing a novel the way Pete Hamill does), Cloud Atlas has moments of relief and wonder, in spite of the erratic, destructive nature of the plot. When Adam Ewing's father-in-law chastises Adam for his idealism, his pointless dedication to abolitionism, the father-in-law predicts, "Only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!" Unruffled, Adam merely responds, "Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"

I will confess that I really just don't know what to make of this book. If I had written it, I would have enabled the different protagonists to meet each other, and work together toward some greater goal. But, from what I have read, Mitchell had no interest in a greater goal. Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece, but it is perhaps the least teleological masterpiece I have ever read. Somewhat in the spirit of Nabokov, Mitchell paints a world where nothing quite fits in, where everyone is "doing his own thing" and occasionally elbowing someone in the ribs because we've all been squeezed into a room that's just a bit too small. Because, if everything is connected, then the connections become pernicious snares that restrict our movements. The first four protagonists of the novel operate under the illusion of personal freedom; the last two know that everything influences and is in turn influenced:

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an' tho' a cloud's shape nor hue nor size don't stay the same, it's still a cloud an' so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud's blowed from or who the soul'll be 'morrow? Only Sonmi the east an' the west an' the compass an' the atlas, yay, only the atlas o' clouds.

In 1931, Robert Frobisher begins work on the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," a piece destined to resound throughout the rest of the novel. Whereas some novels manage to be more than the sum of their parts, I think Cloud Atlas aims to expose the weakness of this technique. The stories counter and undermine each other, like harsh waves slapping the ocean's surface endlessly in the middle of a sea that does not care how many ships divide its waters. Cloud Atlas is a thoroughly unique novel, and while I am not sure if I enjoyed it, I highly recommend giving it a try.