Wednesday, March 4, 2015

All Quiet on the Western Front

This past week, both to honor a family trip to Germany and to honor the 10th grade World lit curriculum and my attempts to home school while here, I read and prepared lessons for All Quiet on the Western Front.  It's been more than thirty years since I read this novel about WWI from the perspective of a German soldier; all I recalled was that is was good, and very dark.
It is impossible not to think of our own US soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan while reading this book.  It is a compelling condemnation of war in any time.  The futility of the enterprise and in particular, the brutality and uselessness of the trench warfare employed along the western front is the theme around which the novel revolves, and with it, the intimacy between soldiers in wartime, the interdependence and intense comradeship, and, finally, the inability of these men to return to their prior lives.   This is the lament that protagonist Paul Baumer returns to frequently.   In the most poignant and painful Chapter 7, wherein Paul returns home on a short leave, (and, arguably, the book's climax), Paul allows himself a measure of emotion not permitted while at the front.  He sits in his bedroom at home, and waits, in vain, to feel as he once did:

I feel excited, but I don't want to be, for that is not right.  I want that quiet rapture again.  I want to feel the same powerful, nameless urge that I used to feel when I turned to my books.  The breath of desire that then arose from the coloured backs of the books, shall fill me again, met the heavy, dead lump of lead that lies somewhere in me and wake again the impatience of the future, the quick joy in the world of thought, it shall bring aback again the lost eagerness of my youth.  I sit and wait...nothing stirs; listless and wretched like a condemned man and the past withdraws itself.  And at the same time I fear to importune it too much, because I do not know what might happen then.  I am a soldier, I must cling to that.  

The loss of youth, the loss of innocence and the loss of life permeate every moment of the novel.  Interspersed with the protagonist's musings are horrific accounts, replete with gory detail, of the war's violence.  Bodies are cleaved in two; torsos stand without heads or limbs; men run, panicked, on stumps of blown-off legs.  Remarque doesn't leave much to the imagination here.  It isn't his purpose to elide; this is testimony and lamentation for a lost generation.   Paul Baumer--and Remarque, whom we know was a war veteran--means to testify and tell us the truth.  He wants us to know, and to remember the horror of this war, of the violence and terror and destruction forced upon an entire generation.  He does so eloquently and with great feeling.

Through the years our business has been killing--it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death.  What will happen afterwards?  And what shall come out of us?


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


A lone traveler
 When film is good, it is like visiting a foreign country, going to another time and place, out of my own world and into another.  That can be escapism, and it can be something more.  What I look for is the sense of discomfort and discovery, the feeling of not knowing the rules or understanding the customs, the laws (be they natural or man-made), being as a child again.   Of course, film is nothing like traveling.  But the motivation can be similar: the quest for new experience, the moment of diving into something that has no basis for comparison in one's own life.  Travel, as distinct from vacation.
    Manakamana was one such film and my favorite at last year's Riverrun Film Festival (  Why?  Here's part of the description in the film program:
Non-fiction filmmaking can't get much more formally stripped-down than this hypnotic conveyance of sensory ethnography from high above the rugged foothills of the Himalayas.  From the confines of a gondola suspended thousands of feet over the budding valley beneath we observe ten separate, equally-timed voyages between the Manakamana Temple and the cable car terminal below from a single, unchanging perspective.

     It was indeed a "hypnotic conveyance," a slice of life I'd never seen, stories compacted into eight-minute slivers.  Some of the journeys happen in silence, as with the pair above.  Others are filled with talk.  The physical space of the cable car encompasses the entire frame.  We feel the movement of the gondola as it moves its way along the massive cables, swaying, to and fro, moving up and down the mountains; the viewer becomes part of the journey.  The start of each journey begins in the darkness of the terminal and I felt a strange anticipation each time the gondola came into the light, the passengers revealed.   Oddly entrancing.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Her Last Death


Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg, is a readable, shocking memoir by a daughter about her mother.  This mother's identity revolves around her sexuality--and by extension, so does her daughters' (for Sonnenberg has a sister).  Men, drugs, fashion and a lifestyle filled with the famous, fabulous and well-connected characterize Sonnenberg's upbringing.  Extended vacations in Barbados, where a wealthy grandmother owns a home complete with full staff, long trips to Venice and Paris, fashion and rock shows are all part of the experience.  Sonnenberg's mother, though, is both drug-addicted and ill and has no idea how to parent without ego.  At eight, she takes Susanna to her first gynecology appointment; at twelve she is fitted for a diaphragm.   Dramatic, engaging, manipulative and dishonest, Sonnenberg's mother, and the author's love-hate relationship with her, form the spine of the story.  Sonnenberg's life choices turn her both towards and away from her mother, and her mother's example.  She is behind every move, especially when Sonnenberg has a child of her own.
This book was well-written, and like the author's mother, frequently engaging.  Finally, though, what does such a memoir have to teach us?  I  puzzled over this question again, as I did after reading The Glass Castle a sensational memoir by Jeanette Walls, a tale of a childhood raw with deprivation the hands of extravagantly intelligent, self-absorbed, mentally ill parents. (I consider that last statement as possibly redundant, as being mentally ill is perhaps synonymous with self-absorption.  How else to be when locked in the prison of your own  mind?)  There is certainly a voyeurism, and the pleasure of escape (for those of us with sane parents) and the peculiar pleasure that horror can sometimes bring.  The ethical dimensions of such reading is problematic.  Why am I reading this? Is it to obtain knowledge of another?  If so, is this the sort of knowledge that maybe Levinas would consider a form of violence?*  I think I know something about these authors having read their stories, but what does that mean?  The compulsion to turn the page to in these books is troubling.

Yet perhaps there are insights to be had that are separate from the voyeuristic pleasures of the autobiography.  The writers here are the ones with the most to gain through the homeopathy of the blood-letting, the telling of the trauma.  Sonnenberg's most reflective moments are the most literarily rewarding.  Moving beyond the recitation of her mother's antics and abuses, it is becoming a wife and mother that forces Sonnenberg to distill her experiences and break through into something new.   Recalling a moment in which her mother behaved in a way that was uncharacteristically nuturing, drying her and wrapping her in a towel after a bath, S repeats the scene with her own child, writing  "I stored this gesture....I yielded to an instinct."  Sonnenberg learns how to parent selectively, fighting to find her path.  Instructive here is the consideration of how much we learn from those who raise us and in examining what come to us innately.  Maybe that sort of reflection is what these memoirs have to give.

*I almost resisted the urge to put this in; I am not well-versed in critical theory.  These are questions worth considering, however.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Hunt

The Hunt (Jagten)Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's latest offering is Jagten ("The Hunt"), a meditation on community, trust and  fear.  Kindergarten teacher Lucas, living in the small Danish village where he was born  is accused of sexual abuse of a student, who happens to be the daughter of his best friend.   Fab Danish actors Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen head up the cast.  Mads Mikkelsen may be one of the most distinctive looking actors on the planet and yet he disappears completely into the role of Lucas.

  Many will remember the infamous McMartin Preschool case from the 1980s in Manhattan Beach, California.  This case resonates with echoes of that, including fictitious subterranean rooms and manipulative psychologists.  This film is not about child abuse, however. Like the McMartin case, it is about hysteria, media manipulation, and much more.  A child's remarks (rooted in a number of things that happen over the course of several days) are heard, expanded upon and then acted on.  The adults here are indicted by their well-meaning, but ultimately unthinking actions. The "hunt" that follows is terrifying in the smallest and largest of senses, as Lucas is presumed guilty, because "children don't lie"; the desire to protect the innocent creates hysteria in the village, as most of the community turns against Lucas in violent and sadly predictable ways.  The tragedy of this is the degree to which Lucas is rooted in this community and the people around him.  His isolation becomes extreme and is contrasted with scenes of domestic harmony during the Christmas season when the action takes place.  The camera moves us in and out of doors, looking through windows and stepping through thresholds with the characters as Lucas moves in and out of his position in this place where he and his family have always lived.  The film is framed by seasons and by actual hunts for venison--a continuous play on the ideas of being bound to time and place.

The Hunt resonates in no small part because it reveals the fragility of the communities to which we belong. We might believe that our friends will stand by us, give us the benefit of the doubt, not turn on us, but that faith is not always rewarded.  The ending of the film--an ending which some critics have argued is "unearned"--is largely symbolic, representative of the unpredictability of human relationships.  Even in our natural, familiar environment, the terrain can become suddenly dangerous.
This film struck a chord, because the instigation for the events is eerily similar not just to the McMartin case, but to something that happened to me when I, too, was a kindergarten teacher.  A child reported to his father that I had taken him, alone, into a classroom and asked him to take off his pants.  I had wanted to spank him without clothes on, this child said, and I had asked if he liked it, and if his father did it at home.   The father immediately went to the principal.  I was utterly baffled and distressed by the allegations.  Unlike Lucas, however, I worked for a supportive and astute administrator  who understood that 1) children do lie, and many lie easily and lie often and 2) young children often have difficulty distinguishing between reality, wish, and dreams.  The whole thing was over quickly and nobody called the police.  For me, it was a heart-stopping couple of hours.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The novels of Tana French

     I am a wholly indiscriminate reader: I read almost everything, often without plan or purpose.  This month, I have been reading mysteries, which I normally eschew, since I don't care for the genre much.  So many mysteries are formulaic and often end with a "suspenseful" chase scene or showdown with a killer.  Bo-ring.  Nothing is more enervating to me than a chase, in books or films.  Don't know why.

   This brings me to the writer I've currently been reading, Tana French.  She has written four novels, three of which I've devoured this month: Broken Harbor, In the Woods and  The Likeness.   All three are detective novels, all three center around detectives who work in Dublin (French is Irish, though she has lived all over.  That sentence may be confusing).  No chase scenes.  No lingering, violent encounters with criminals.  A crime, detectives at work and the solve.  The solve isn't always wrapped up successfully, though.  There are a number of unsatisfying ending and difficulties.  This is a strength, for French is concerned with the psychological motives of the criminals and, most importantly and closely, the detectives.  Each novel is told in the first person by a different detective on Dublin's murder squad.   These detectives have histories, often with one another.  The result is an uncomfortably close look at the inner workings of the people who have the very strange job of investigating crime.
    These books are slow-paced; each day is rolled out for us.  French's writing is painstaking and builds to a psychological realism that is compelling.   She works a complex plot, and complex characters rich with detail.  The reading, though, is smooth and engrossing.  French's writing is fantastic structurally, but also so good on the sentence level.  She establishes a voice and a rhythm, and puts it together elegantly.  Here's a snippet from The Likeness:

This is the part I didn't tell Sam: bad stuff happens to undercovers.  A few of them get killed.  Most lose friends, marriages, relationships.  A couple turn feral, cross over to the other side so gradually that they never see it happening until it's too late, and end up with discreet, complicated early-retirement plans.  Some, and never the ones you'd think, lose their nerve--no warning, they just wake up one morning and all at once it hits them what they're doing and they freeze like tightrope walkers who've looked down.  This guy McCall: he'd infiltrated an IRA splinter group and nobody thought he even knew what fear was, till one evening he phoned in from an alleyway outside a pub.  He couldn't go back in there, he said, and he couldn't walk away because his legs wouldn't stop shaking.  He was crying.  Come get me, he said; I want to go home.  When I met him, he was working in Records.  And some go the other way, the most lethal way of all: when the pressure gets to be too much, it's not their nerve that breaks, it's their fear.  They lose the capacity to be afraid, even when they should be.  These can't ever go home again.  They're like those First World War airmen, the finest ones, shining in their recklessness and invincible,who got home and found that home had no place for what they were.  Some people are undercovers all the way to the bone; the job has taken them whole.

Read all at once French's novels can begin to seem formulaic. That's OK. The formula is a good one.  If you enjoy detective novels, French's are a satisfying diversion.
 See more at tanafrench

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Beautiful Boy


This book scared the shit out of me.

Beautiful Boy is David Sheff's account of his son's drug use and addiction to methamphetamine.  By turns heartbreaking and life-affirming and frightening (at least two of these are really overdone and trite phrases, but I'm writing fast) I found this book riveting and exhausting.  What would you do if your child stole and lied to get drugs?  How far would you go to make sure that child was safe?  How many times would you search for that child, find him, and get him to rehab?  In Sheff's case, as many times as it takes.  I cannot say I wouldn't do the same thing, though I have long believe that there are no interventions, just addicts who are finally ready for recovery.  Sheff does a good job of portraying the agony of parenting an addict, an agony I'm afraid many of us could imagine.

Termed a "fiercely candid memoir", Beautiful Boy started to seem a lot less candid when I read the memoir by  Sheff's son Nic.    Tweak recounts Nic Sheff's descent into addiction, starting with drinking at age 11.  The divorce and shared custody that only get some play in Sheff senior's book hold far more importance for Nic. What in BB is just a relationship with a woman that doesn't work out turns out to have been very important to the young Nic, who feels that a brother was taken from him.  Illuminating, yes.  Unfortunately Tweak isn't very well written.  A compilation of harrowing experiences isn't enough on its own to make it worth reading.  Nic Sheff seems to want to sensationalize  his experiences to some degree.  The writing suffers from this, and from Sheff's youth.  Despite the honest depictions of his actions, I found Tweak dull reading.

One lesson I take from both books is this: your understanding of any given experience is incomplete.  Or maybe it is this: we don't really know our children, or what affects them, or how.  It is humbling to come to see this.  I wonder how honest D. Sheff is, by eliding what seem to be seminal experiences in Nic's life, and then being utterly mystified and how this all happened.   This is not to condemn Sheff's parenting; I am going to assume that Sheff was probably doing the best he could at any given time.   There do, though seem to be some no-brainers here.  First, stay in the same town as your kid, if at all possible.  You need to put your own desires on hold when your kids are very young.  Don't start and stop relationships and don't get serious with a new partner too fast and too readily--they are a time and energy suck and your children get confused.  Isn't this basic?  That said, it's all easier said than done.  Do I think any of this cautionary advice would have helped David be a better parent, and somehow have saved Nic from his addiction and spiral into mental illness?  No idea.  Do I think that David Sheff was paying close enough attention all the time?  No.  But what am I missing in my own parenting?  When I look at my children, do I have any idea what harm might befall them?  Do I have any idea what they are thinking or feeling?  I cannot answer those questions affirmatively, nor can I see my own mistakes clearly.  I can just hope my kids will be okay.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Camera Lucida

I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida on the recommendation of a photographer friend.  I was writing about a series of photographs from my own life and she insisted I read it (Thank you, Diana!).   Barthes puzzles over photography in general, but also why we are attracted to, or fascinated by particular photographs.   Some of this has to do with what Barthes identifies as the studium as the content, the subject, the meaning, as separate from the  punctum or that which draws us to a photo, "pierces" or attracts us.   This to me poses a  question: why exactly are the photographs of ourselves, and of loved ones (particularly loved ones who are no longer with us) so entrancing, so magnetic for us?  There is an obvious answer to this, yes, but there is something more at the core of it. Looking at photos on the computer the other day (an exercise which is never quite as satisfying as a photo album, or a physical photograph that I hold in my hand) I noticed that my children are most interested in photos of themselves. This is natural.  The young are self-consumed, and why not?  They are new, and they are beautiful.  My youngest came running across the room when he spied himself on the screen; never are my children more attentive than when contemplating an image of their prior selves. Says Barthes:    
I am the reference of every photograph; and this is what generates my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now?...It is this kind of question that photography raises for me: questions which derive from a “stupid” or simple metaphysics (it is the answers which are complicated: probably the true metaphysics).
Looking at photographs is not the same, though, as contemplation in the mirror, something else I have seen my children do (more now that they are teenagers), something I did when younger, something I avoid now.  Photography is something different, for as Barthes puts it, "[w]hat the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially."  

This may only partially answer the questions to why we are fascinated or drawn by certain pictures, or what evokes the punctum ["A photographer's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)."]  Barthes looks at photographs.  He discusses them, discusses what he sees, but also what he feels as he sees.  What is the photograph designed to elicit in the viewer?  What makes the response to an image?

As I read Barthes I did not realize that he was winding around the topic of grief, of loss, of what photos represent: both presence and absence.  There is that which was, and to have a photograph is, in his words, to “  “   Presence and absence, of course, are at the heart of loss, and it is loss that leads to grief.  It so happens that an essay I am working on---the essay that prompted my friend to lend me this book---had to do with photos of my dead father.  Barthes leads his discussion in Camera Lucida to a single photograph, a photograph of his beloved mother, whom he had lost not long before.  This photo, and its subject (for Barthes would separate these two things) seems to be the instigation for this meditation.  While I loved the book all along the way, here I found a kinship with Barthes in his search for a picture of his mother, in all the pictures of his mother, for a photo that he recognizes.   This is the word he uses, and though Barthes wrote it in French, the etymology of "recognize" is “to know” or "to know again" and this is what Barthes expresses: in this particular photograph, the essence of his mother is apparent to him, he sees and knows her, in ways that he does not in other photographs.  Nonetheless,

The photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.  The distinction is decisive.

Therefore, when I look at a photograph of my father, it does not tell me that he is gone, only that he was.  I search through photos, looking not only for these representations of what has been, but for one that is, truly, my father, one that expresses this “essence”.  There are so many photos, but there is one I stumble across, randomly assigned to a box filled with unsorted pictures from the 1980s.  Luckily, I wrote dates on many of these, or am able to approximate years through certain clues.  This one is taken less than two years before his death.  He is standing in the garage and has turned to look at me and by the look in his eyes he has just told a joke, or is about to. Equal parts mirth and mischief, it is a look I recognize ( a look I know, have known, did know) well.  It is his very self captured there.
 “Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.  There is a here superimposition here: of reality and of the past.”

I find in Barthes simple truths that are simply elusive.  Presence and absence: this is simple, is it not?  What lies beneath that simplicity are the daunting questions of our existence.