Sat, 29 Sep 2007

A Fine Balance

— SjG @ 5:49 pm

Rohinton Mistry, McClelland and Stewart, 1995.

Looks like I’m keeping to the theme of literature about grief, suffering, religious violence, and terrible situations here.

A Fine Balance is the interwoven story of four major characters and a handful of secondary characters, all trying to survive in an unnamed city that is almost certainly Mumbai. These characters, a widow trying to live an independent life in the city, a college student who pines for his home and life in a Himalayan hill station, and two chamaar “untouchable” villagers who have become tailors, all end up living together for a brief time in an apartment in the city against the backdrop of military law.

Mistry is a very good writer, and he creates an engaging storyline that shows the continuous struggles of life in India, whether an internal struggle (as in the case of Maneck), a financial struggle (Dina), or a struggle with roles dictated by tradition (Dina, Ishvar, and Om). The struggles continue in the face of overwhelming bureaucratic apathy, caste warfare, exploitive companions, official corruption, grinding poverty, religious conflict, and common thugs — yet, the continuation of the struggle is fueled by the will to survive, all-too-rare acts of kindness, and the finest gossamer strands of hope.

My only criticism would be that the various plots of the book revolve around a large number of improbable coincidences involving meetings of people. In a country of a billion people, having the same few individuals repeatedly running into one another in disparate locations felt a little forced. Obviously, fiction is fiction, and Mistry is interested in making some strong points about power, corruption, cruelty, and kindness, and by giving us characters we know, the situations gain that much more power. Still, he manages with a remarkably light touch in places (the Sikh cab driver when Maneck returns, for example), where we feel an individual’s plight when we scarcely know a thing about them. This is especially true in contrast to the many appearances and reappearances of Rajaram the hair-collector or the Monkey Man.

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Mon, 24 Sep 2007

Assorted Autumn Notes

— SjG @ 9:45 am

1. I got in trouble trying to buy an assortment of walnuts, almonds, filberts, etc, with their shells intact. I asked for “unshelled nuts,” and was roundly mocked by the grocery store concierge (serves me right, going to a grocery store that has a concierge. What ever happened to the good old grocery store information counter? Or grocer, for that matter?).

Now, to be fair, the concierge may not have spoken English as her first language. But seeing as you shell a nut to remove its shell, it seems to me that unshelled means remaining in the shell. I take it as one of the many delightful perversions that make up the English language, that a shelled nut has no shell, but an unshelled nut does. Evidently, though, the only online dictionary to include “unshelled” as an adjective, Princeton’s WordNet, disagrees with me.

2. Late last night, after many of the revelers had left, Peter noticed two new visitors coming to celebrate the arrival of Autumn. Two fairly large raccoons were nosing about on the deck. One was coming up to the screen door, possibly hoping to come inside and partake of an autumn repast. The other was inspecting the cooler, perhaps hoping to sample some Cyser or pumpkin ale. I chased them off, but their departing attitude was one of “whatever dude. But you might as well get over it, ’cause we’ll be coming back.”

3. On my weary walk to work this morning, I was nearly bowled off the sidewalk by a crow/red-tail hawk dogfight. This time, it was a single crow on the tail of a single hawk, and they were swooping and rolling and skimming between the branches. Man, can those guys maneuver.

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Wed, 19 Sep 2007

Grief Girl

— SjG @ 8:03 pm

Erin Vincent, Delacort Press, 2007.

Say you’re fourteen years old, and your parents are involved in an accident. Your mother is killed instantly, and your father is severely injured. A month later, your father succumbs to his injuries. You, your older sister, and your toddler brother, now need to strike out on your own. Along the way, you deal with unsympathetic family friends, thieving relatives, insensitive news reporters, nattering classmates, questionable school counselors, predators of many stripes, and, thankfully, a few helpful friends and neighbors.

Vincent writes her true story in the frank, direct voice of her fourteen year old self. She not only describes her navigation of the emotional rapids, but also gives honest voice to the thoughts and feelings that one is not “supposed” to have. She includes enough humor to get the reader through the experience, although she made me cry several times before she was done.

Unlike most books billed as “uplifting,” Vincent’s doesn’t end with a triumphant epiphany, or a blazing message of hope for all humanity. There is a accomplishment, a victory of sorts, but it’s a much shakier, more human: an emerging-from-the-crucible kind of victory. There really is a message of hope for humanity there, but it’s not writ large, nor accompanied by the swelling of the orchestra. The message is much quieter. People experience terrible things. And people can, and do survive them, but it’s not easy and there are no guarantees.

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Tue, 4 Sep 2007

Curious Tale of a Clown … and Clowns

— SjG @ 5:40 pm

Sarah was kind enough to send me this link: Clowns Kicked KKK Asses, which really made my day. You see, it’s not just the great story of neo-Nazi idiots being mocked and overwhelmed, but it’s a story that has a bit of personal history. You see, I know their leader.

Back in 1986, I was in Marburg, Germany as part of the Pomona College study abroad program. As a college radical, a leftist and activist, I was apprehensive to find that Alex Linder, right-wing columnist for the student paper, would be on the program at the same time.

It was around that time that “diversity” was becoming a hot topic on campus, and “politically correct” was not a phrase in the common parlance, but was still used by activists to chasten one another. Pomona College was, in many ways, the kind of institution for “elite liberals” that the Right loves to attack: in theory, everything was open to academic scrutiny, but go too far off the beaten path, and there would be howling*. Still, philosophy professors could write articles about our debt to Christian Society and Marxists could write blistering attacks on US crimes in Central America, all in the same student paper.

Now, Alex had always had a talent for putting his literary foot in his mouth. In those latter days of the Reagan years, the voices of the Right were Wally George and his rival/crony Morton Downey Jr, whose combative styles were an inspiration to Alex. He tried to write in-your-face political columns for the student paper, attacking affirmative action, for example, and would offend everyone with his unique style of insulting and blunt language, punctuated with as many abstruse words as he could mix in. He could start with a valid question (e.g., if discrimination is bad, then why is reversing this discrimination not bad?), but would blunder around until it sure looked like he was suggesting that only WASPs were capable of being educated.

So, in Marburg, I had some trepidation about being stuck in a small group with Alex. At first, he and I kept on civil, guarded terms. But as the weeks wore on, we discovered we had a fair amount in common. We both love esoteric words. We both collected quotations. His tended towards Mencken, while mine towards Lu Xun (I’d just had a course in Chinese Literature in translation), but he still surprised me. One of his favorites was Steinbeck: “It was a morning like other mornings and yet perfect among mornings.” He had a sense of humor. He was an entertaining guy to be around.

We both liked arguing philosophical issues. In person, Alex wasn’t the bullying, insulting caricature that his articles would suggest. He was articulate, and thought about things. We both came into the semester regarding the other as an inflexible ideologue, I think, but found that, in discussion, we could respect one another’s points (if not conclusions). In fact, we still rarely agreed, but I became convinced that the more extreme positions he put forth in his student paper articles were less rabid opinions than poorly expressed ideas. Needless to say, I was wrong.

In any case, over the semester, Alex and I became friends. We’d play chess quite a bit, and he’d almost always beat me. Being a semester abroad, and in Germany, we did a lot of drinking, and this was one place I could best Alex. Scrawny kid that I was, I could handle two beers — one more than he. Alex was often at his most amusing when drunk — but, in retrospect, also at his scariest.

In Berlin, that May, after drinking plenty of Hefeweizen mit ein schuß grün, we were staggering back along the KuDam, when Alex lurched into a police officer who was investigating the scene (a motorcycle had crashed into a sidewalk display case). Alex launched into a tirade about how the polizei should show more respect — after all, we won the war, etc. Mumbling excuses for him, I dragged him off before the officers decided to dispense some justice.

That fall, back on campus, I defended Alex and even his writing to many of my friends. They thought I was crazy. I thought he was just trying to stir things up, and perhaps a bit clumsy with his use of language. At least one article had the school administration distancing themselves from his opinions**. He was the most popular Public Enemy in the student paper — they even dedicated an April Fools issue to lampooning him.

Alex graduated a year ahead of me. We wrote sporadically, but fell out of touch sometime in the year after my graduation. Last I had heard, he went to intern at American Spectator, where he felt ill used by the proto-neo-cons. Years later, I saw his name associated with the Vanguard News Network and their slogan “Just right. No Jews.” I contemplated writing him, but decided that there was really no purpose to it. I did make a point of admitting to some friends of how wrong I’d been.

So. How could I avoid a smile upon reading this news?

* Eventually, I’ll post some stories here of my own run-ins with authority and the ruthless defense of the image of diversity.
** Then again, before I was able to graduate, I was chastised for similar sins.

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Mon, 3 Sep 2007

Books Fatal to their Authors

— SjG @ 2:26 pm

P. H. Ditchfield, 1894, read as an e-book from

This litany of imprisoned, tortured, condemned, burnt, exiled, hounded, bankrupted, beaten, abused, reviled, and otherwise rejected authors is a fitting followup to god is not Great. While Ditchfield gave brief histories of authors doomed for their writings in a range of fields (which he groups as Theology; Fanatics and Free Thinkers; Astrology, Alchemy, and Magic; Science and Philosophy; History, Politics and Statesmanship; and Satire), the majority in all of these categories were condemned for ostensible violations of theological dogma. Some of these theological associations are pretty tenuous — for example, Ditchfield references “a recondite treatise on Trigonometry” that was condemned “because they imagined it contained heretical opinions concerning the doctrine of the Trinity.”

Ditchfield repeatedly waxes poetic on the plight of the writer, who nobly labors to share intellectual riches with a world that responds with scorn and violence. I can’t find much information about Ditchfield himself, other than that he was a prolific English writer and the Rector of Barkham Antiquary. His biases come through when he writes of critics, who hound poor authors to death. With regard to religion, he tries to maintain neutrality, but can’t help but chide some authors for their theological errors.

Even if the “fatal” of the title is not necessarily our modern usage of “leading to death,” reading this gives me renewed appreciation for where and when and how I live. I don’t have to think twice if I choose to blaspheme, criticize my government, or even write about trigonometry.

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