The Flamethrowers

She wasn’t shopping for experience. She was trying to survive. I was the one shopping for experience.

I read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers on the basis of James Wood’s rave review in the New Yorker. Other reviewers have been equally praiseworthy; the novel has been on the short list for several prizes.

Yes, on occasion I thought the novel was magical. Yet at other times I got lost in one of the several stories Kushner tells. It is clear she likes crafting them. No matter how many, most are vivid, informed and sometimes perceptive. And the novel skips around between them.

It opens with one about motorcycle racing, more generally the meaning of speed, going fast, breaking records. The heroine, Reno (where she was born), is driving her Moto Valera motorcycle across the great Nevada desert to enter a speed racing event on the Utah Salt Flats.

Nevada was a tone, a light, a deadness that was part of me…the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve—those were the colors here…pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet…but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue…

We are taken to the art world in New York during the 1970s, then to an upper class villa in Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy, the family home of her lover, Sandro Valera, the scion of a wealthy family, whose wealth was made on the rubber plantations in Brazil.

They also made motorcycles, the kind Kushner rides on the Utah salt flats and in New York. We shift to Rome, where Reno falls in with a group of radicals during the years of the Red Brigades and then back to the downtown art scene in New York.

Lorzi said the only thing worth loving was what was to come, and since what was to come was unforeseeable—only a cretin or a liar would try to predict the future—the future had to be lived now, in the now, as intensity.

The book finally came alive for me when Reno and Sandro spend two tedious weeks at his family villa high in the hills above Lake Como.

The villa was at the top of a steep incline, just a fifteen-minute drive from the lakeside promenade of Bellagio proper with its double-parked Lamborghinis and its women in furs. Its regal-looking car ferries, which arrived from Varenna, across the sparkling water. And along the waterfront, its white tablecloths, cold prosecco, rich and subdued families gazing off. But in that fifteen minutes traveling uphill from the lakefront to the Villa Valera, one left that world behind, passed horses and cows grazing lazily, handwritten signs advertising farm made honey and yogurt, and roads choked with blackberry and young chestnut trees.

In spite of its beauty, Reno found it an alien place, the way his mother treated her, like one of the servants from the wrong class, not at all befitting her son. “All this beauty led me back to a sense of cruelty, to the people kept out, and those kept in, in the kitchen, the washing shed, the servants’ little stone cottages.”

In an interview about her novel, Kushner commented: All these things I was interested in—motorcycles, art, revolution and radical politics—don’t seem connected, yet I thought they could become so, in the space of a novel, [and like all her risky interests], there had to be the real possibility that the novel could be a disaster.

On balance, I didn’t think it was a disaster, although at times, it gets a bit confusing. But The Flamethrowers never loses its vitality, its bizarre characters, or vibrant sentences.


Night Train to Lisbon at the Cinema

Was it possible that the best way to make sure of yourself was to know and understand someone else?

Ever since I read Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon (“an international best seller”), I heard rumors that a film might be made of it. Finally, they did and finally I saw it the other day. I found it as splendid as the book, one of the best I’ve ever read.

Most everything is there, the adaptation, unlike so many others, is true to the novel. The casting matches my notion of the characters--Jeremy Irons as Gregorious, the scholarly classics and linguistics teacher, Jack Huston as Amadeau de Prado, the Portuguese physician/writer, Melanie Laurent as the young Estefania, Prado’s love, Lena Olin as the aged Estefania.

The film begins, as it does in the novel, with Gregorious rescuing a young woman who is about to take her life jumping off a bridge. The encounter leads him to a bookstore where he discovers Prado’s volume, A Goldsmith of Words, is so entranced by it that he abandons his class and take the next train to Lisbon in order to find out more about Prado’s life.

…he had the amazing feeling, both upsetting and liberating, that at the age of fifty-seven, he was about to take his life into his own hands for the first time.

Once there the people he meets come alive on the screen—Prado’s teacher, Father Bartholomeu, and we hear every word of the rebellious speech Prado gives when he graduates. We are introduced to Mariana, the optician, who prepares a new set of glasses to replace those Gregorious broke in rescuing the girl on the bridge, and serves as his guide around Lisbon.

We meet Prado’s best friend, Jorge, and then his sister, Adriana who, after much hesitation, eventually shows him the house where they lived, his study and medical office. Later we meet Prado’s friends in the resistance, fighting the dictatorship of Salazar in the 70’s, led by Estefania who is known to have a photographic memory of the phone number of every resistance member. Eventually this makes it necessary for her to escape to Spain when Salazar’s henchmen attempt to capture her. Prado drives her there.

You’re too hungry for me. It’s wonderful with you. But you’re too hungry for me. I can’t want this trip. You see, it would be your trip, yours alone. It couldn’t be ours.

It is all so familiar after reading the book twice, writing about it, and pondering it’s endless, unanswered questions. This adaptation is so unlike the recent film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, whose character is nothing like one I had imagined for years once I read James Thurber’s short story. That film will be easily forgotten, while the one of Night Train to Lisbon will move the novel even deeper into my mind.



In Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, two old friends Clive and Vernon meet at the funeral of Molly, the former lover of both. Clive is a composer struggling to finish a symphony and Vernon is an editor of a failing newspaper.

They ruminate over Molly’s swift decline. “The speed of her descent into madness and pain became a matter of common gossip: the loss of control of bodily function and with it all sense of humor, and then the tailing off into vagueness interspersed with episodes of ineffectual violence and muffled shrieking.”

When Clive begins to think he is losing his faculties, he meets with Vernon and together they agree to assist each other when the time comes call it quits. Their pact takes on an urgency when Clive finds himself unable to finish his symphony and Vernon is sacked from his editorship for publishing compromising photos of the current foreign minister.

They fly to Amsterdam for the premier of Clive’s never-to-be performed symphony. The two have become bitter enemies: Clive is appalled that Vernon published the scandalous photos and Vernon is shocked by Clive’s failure to help a woman being attacked during a hike he was taking in the Lake District.

At a reception for the members of the orchestra, Clive and Vernon end up drinking champagne laced with a deadly powder they have obtained from euthanasia group in the Netherlands.

Amsterdam, the winner of the 1998 Booker Prize, opens at a funeral and the specter of death and suicide hovers over the novel. Yet it is also dense with McEwan’s typical interests, as well as his talent in writing about them: the pleasures of walking the Scottish highlands, the joy of music, the collapse of “human project.”

When the definitive histories of twentieth-century music in the West came to be written, the triumphs would be seen to belong to blues, jazz, rock and the continually evolving traditions of folk music

…it was easy for Clive to think of civilization as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was—square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the television… roads and the tyranny of traffic.

The moral and creative failures of Clive and Vernon move the novel to its calamitous conclusion. In one-way or another the clock is ticking for everyone and McEwan offers up this advice:

monitor you own decline; then, when it was no longer possible to work, or to live with dignity, finish it yourself.


All the Ships at Sea

A question. What percent of world goods are shipped by sea? Unsure? Oh, about 35%? Not a lot?

The answer is nearly everything, in fact, 90%, although in Hawaii, it is close to everything.

The question is discussed in a fascinating article (New York Review of Books 4/6/14) on container ships by Maya Jasanoff in her review of Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate.

Jasanoff reviews the history of shipping goods at sea, the development of container ships, techniques for loading/unloading them in port and the “byzantine ownership patterns,” where a ship can be registered in Liberia, fly the Greek flag, owned by a Norwegian company and have neither a Liberian or Greek or Norwegian in the crew. The ships are enormous, larger than aircraft carriers and the huge containers are stacked, stem to stern, seven high above the deck and another six below.

She also describes George’s experience on one of these ships, as well as her own, somewhat briefer excursion, and the dangers of Somali piracy. What they reveal is “an industry replete with appalling labor conditions, low wages, physical dangers, personal hardships, and environment costs.”

I happen to have considerable interest in this offbeat topic, not only because I live in Hawaii, but also because I look out at the ocean and wonder about all the container ships and barges heading to and from the Port of Honolulu. I first began noticing giant barges following behind something that was clearly a tugboat. Then I began wondering if the tugboat is used only to pull the barge to or from the harbor and or if it tows it all the way across the Pacific.

So I searched Google, “Do barges across the Pacific Ocean have engines or are they towed?” And the first listing takes me to page that in a flash answers my question. “A pioneer in ocean towing to Alaska and the islands of the Pacific, X has provided marine transportation services for more than 115 years. Today, the X fleet offers point-to-point towing worldwide with some of the most advanced and powerful tugs in the industry.”

So in a blink of an eye my question has been answered. I think what would I have done in all those days before Google? Nothing. The question is by no means sufficiently important to draw me to the library and those people around here, who I have asked, don’t have the foggiest idea. Moreover, I suspect the X or any other towing company hasn’t written any books that reside in the very fine university library hereabouts.

So now my days of looking out at the sea and staring out at the barges that slowly pass by are no longer times of wondering and I think that is really unfortunate. But I remain hopeful that other questions will drift in as I look out at the sea. Like, why do the airplanes take off and head this way when there’s scarcely any wind? Where are they headed, anyway? Oh yes, who does that gorgeous yacht parked in the harbor belong to?

I don’t know what I’d do without questions. Answering them is far less important. And I know that if eventually I chance upon an answer, it will only lead to more questions, for which I am ever so grateful.

Later I see two large freighters that have been lying offshore for days. I cannot figure out why. No room in the port? They are under quarantine for some reason? Their cargo is suspect? The longshoremen are on strike?

At night I see the lights on in cabin area. During the day, the ships move about as the currents take them. Two large freighters rather close to one another. The pleasures of having a view of the sea. More questions emerge. Where are they from? Why do they remain offshore so long? What type of cargo do they carry?

I see the film Captain Phillips and wonder if the ships are under siege by Somali pirates. I see another film, All is Lost, where Robert Redford sails by himself somewhere off Sumatra. I wonder where he is going. While asleep one night, his beautiful sailboat crashes into an enormous steel box that fell off a container ship. Water cascades into his cabin. Then I watch a TED lecture on container ships.

Again I get interested in these container ships. I learn that in 2010 the Harvard Business School chose Somali piracy as the best business model of year. Funny guys back there.


Rachel Cusk's Outline Part 2

Dickens did it. Alexander Dumas did it. So did Henry James and Herman Melville. And now the English novelist, Rachel Cusk, is doing it. Cusk might be familiar to previous readers of this blog as I admire her work a great deal. Her latest venture is being published in the Paris Review, in each of the periodical’s issues this year.

Part 2 is the most recent in her forthcoming volume that is currently titled Outline. In the first installment, an English writer travels to Greece to teach a writing course. Seated next to her on the flight is an older Greek man who describes the failure of his two marriages and other family misfortunes. He invites her to take a boating excursion with him the next day.

Part 2 begins as they drive to a small boat harbor outside Athens. They continue their dialogue that, at times, is both amusing and stimulating. She swims far out to sea, all the while ruminating. I want only to comment here on a few of her ideas.

She notes that people can never change completely. Rather she believes whatever changes occur are latent, “had lain dormant, waiting to be evoked by circumstance.” I know well such an experience, although it is infrequent.

Once in a while I will meet a person and engage in the kind of conversation I’ve not had in years. It is quick, clever, witty, sometimes hilarious and usually leads nowhere. Only certain people in certain situations can evoke it. It is unpredictable, but when it happens it is worth the wait.

Cusk also comments at some length on a family she observes as she is swimming in the sea. They are gathered together on a boat. She sees how happy they are or seem to be. But then she knows that what she observes is probably not at all like they really are. When she looked at the family, what she saw was a commentary on her own life. She saw “a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn’t there.”

In another language, this is the familiar actor-observer bias. The actors view the situation from their own experience, while those who observe it, see it from their own. The two can be widely divergent. Similarly, when explaining their own behavior, a person is likely attribute it to external events, while attributing other people’s behavior to personal or internal events.

She remembers a scene in Wuthering Heights. “Looking through the window, the two of them see different things. Heathcliff what he fears and hates and Cathy what she feels and desires and feels deprived of. But neither of them can see things as they are.”

In the evening, after their boating trip, they meet for dinner in Athens with another writer. The talk is lively, serious, interesting. They talk about the meaning of the self, a person’s identity. And Cusk comments to my delight: “I thought the whole idea of a “real” self might be illusory: you might feel, in other words, as though there were some separate, autonomous self with you, but perhaps that self didn’t actually exist.” Yes, I exclaimed as I was reading along, I have always believed this was the case.

I am enjoying her story immensely. We are in Greece, in the summer, it is warm, very much so, and the dialogue is pure philosophy. What is next? A visit to an island in the Aegean? A trek up the Acropolis to the Parthenon? A discussion of Plato’s view of poets in the Republic? I will have to wait, although I’d rather not.


The Archivist

With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition.

Those are the opening sentences of Martha Cooley’s novel, The Archivist. Her novel gives shape to that central theme. There are three archivists in her story.

Matthias is the archivist of a major library, a reader, emotionally remote.

I found myself finally in solitude, the point at which I seem to have been aimed all along, like an arrow that after much delay had finally found its target…Naturally there are individuals with whom I have reason and desire to interact…But behind or beyond these comminglings, I have safeguarded my solitude.

His wife, Judith, is an archivist of the Holocaust, who suffers from a life-long depression that frequently requires psychiatric hospitalization.

Judith was the only fully awake person I’d ever known. She watched and listened; she paid attention. History was anything but abstract for her, and she couldn’t defend herself against it. The war wasn’t somewhere else, at some other time. It was irrevocably present for her.

Roberta, a student at the university, seeks to be an archivist of the letters that T.S. Eliot wrote to a woman, after he consigned his wife to a psychiatric institution. The letters were given to the archives of Mathias’s library and not to be read until 2020.

Do you know what Belladonna means? Literally it means beautiful lady. Also it’s the name of a poisonous plant. Curious, no?

Eliot looms in the background, his poems are sprinkled throughout the novel, his conversion to the Church of England symbolizes the course each of the protagonist’s life. Here conversion is meant to be any major shift in one’s long held beliefs.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Mathias eventually realizes he has failed Judith, failed her because he could not, didn’t know how to provide the emotional support she desperately sought in the depths of her depression.

In turn, once Judith learns her parents were Jewish, she becomes preoccupied by the Holocaust.

She was looking for a way to understand evil, not as a metaphysical abstraction but as a reality—the war’s reality, whose contours swelled and sharpened with each new piece of information we received from abroad.

Similarly, Roberta grapples with the knowledge her parents, who raised her as a Christian, were in fact Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. From time to time she must take leave of the university to care for her mother, hospitalized for another mild heart attack.

But any shrink will tell you that while denial is useful, it has its price. There’s no such thing as identity without history.

Three individuals orbiting around the process of conversion, it’s tremors, insights and regrets. The Archivist is a philosophical tour-de-force, a troubling and morally serious novel of ideas.

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every minute.


A Murakami Tale

Something about her expression pulled people in. It was as if this is something I thought of only later, of course—she was peeling back one layer after another that covered a person’s heart, a very sensual feeling.

They meet when they are twelve, students in the same school. They are quiet, lonely, and enjoy being together. Hajime walks Shimamoto home every afternoon after school. They listen to music, drink tea and talk to one another. They are too young to realize what is happening to them.

These are the central characters in Haruki Mukami’s beautiful novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun. In time, they part ways as Hajime moves to another town to attend high school and later college. While they lose touch with one another, neither can forget their times together. The feel of her hand has never left me.

Hajime marries a woman he happens to meet on the street, they have two children and he goes to work for her father who loans him money to open a nightclub. It becomes popular and with the profits he opens another. They have a home in a posh suburb of Tokyo, two cars, and a life that an observer would call idyllic.

But Hajime knows something is missing. Yes, he has a family, a job and two lovely children. But what then is missing? One night Shimamoto comes into his bar. She had read about it in a magazine. She will tell him nothing about her life. They talk and it is, of course, like old times. But she returns only intermittently and there are long periods when they don’t see each other. Hajime confesses to her one night:

Something’s lacking. In me and my life. And that part is always hungry, always thirsting. Neither my wife, nor my children can fill that gap. In the whole world there’s only one person who can do that.

Time passes until one night they drive to Hajime’s cabin, where Shimamoto wants to scatter in a nearby river the ashes of her only child, who died a day after being born. They end up spending the night together, finally consummating their love. In the morning, Hajime discovers she has left. It was the last time they were together.

No matter where I go, I still end up me. What’s missing never changes. The scenery may change, but I’m still the same old incomplete person. The same missing elements torture me with a hunger that I can never satisfy.

Hajime knows the void will never go away, that he has to get used to it. No one is going to “weave dreams for me.” He knows he must now try to weave them other others.

The novel ends in this unfulfilled way. But it is life, Hajime’s life and the incomplete lives of others too. The hidden truths of Murakami’s tale are many. This is one. Here are three others:

After a certain length of time has passed, things harden up. Like cement hardening in a bucket.

But I didn’t understand then. That I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover. That a person can, just by living, damage another human being beyond repair.

But you don’t know how empty it feels not to be able to create anything.


A Life Built Around Reading

Phantoms on the Bookshelves is the title of Jacques Bonnet’s homage to the books that fill the bookshelves in his apartment, almost 40,000 volumes according to his estimate. He is not a book collector in the sense of stashing away prized volumes, but rather a serious reader, almost obsessed with its pleasures and the books he adds to his personal library.

Like many readers, Bonnet writes in his books, knowing full well that it reduces their value. But he’s not interested in their value or selling them, but in what he learns from them. He remarks the most difficult part of a reader’s life is where to put all the books. Because his collection is so large, it makes it impossible to move. How I wish I never did.

But each move I have made meant discarding all too many books, books that I never wanted to part with. More than once, I have needed such a volume, only to find, of course, that it was gone, making it necessary for me to buy it once again. Bonnet suggests that “To lose one’s books, is to lose one’s past.”

Then there is the minor problem of how to organize them. There are bookcases in every room of my apartment. Fiction books are organized by author’s last name in one room. Academic books are organized by topic in my study. And a miscellaneous collection of history, travel, biography and memoir reside on the bookshelves in another room.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves
takes us on a stroll among Bonnet’s books. We meet their authors who he claims we know very little. We also meet their fictional characters that Bonnet says we know a great deal.

“Authors are just fictional people, about whom we have a few biographical elements, never enough to make them truly real people. Whereas the biography of a literary character, even if it is incomplete—and explicitly so—is perfectly reliable: it is whatever its creator decided. So are his or her acts and words.”

Bonnet reads widely and he introduces us to a great many of those he most enjoys. It is clear, to paraphrase him, that the books that sit upon his bookshelves bring are the closest he will ever come to paradise on earth.

And just recently my favorite bookstore in Paradise (Hawaii), where I spend the winter, closed recently. It was a Barnes and Noble, one of the many in this chain that have closed lately in this country.

I feel the loss keenly. The store was located in the part of town I like most, where I used to go almost every day. Now it is gone. And I no longer go to the area as often as I used to. As if this isn’t enough, it will be replaced for a women’s clothing store, Ross: Dress For Less. “For the latest trends, the hottest brands, and unbeatable savings you gotta go to Ross.” What has happened to this country?

There is still one Barnes and Noble left in town, deep underground in a huge mall, where is almost impossible to find a place to park and with a collection of books that can’t hold a candle to the one that is now defunct. I have no choice, not an enviable feeling.

Now I have to order most of my books online or read them on my e-book, which is a world apart in my view from print editions. I know many readers face this problem now, also not an enviable feeling.

This year before I left for Hawaii, I took a look at all the books in the fiction bookcase and it almost led me to cancel the trip. I thought about the hours I spent reading some of them, the pleasure they brought to my days, the way they made them livable. I picked out a few to take with me, to read them again and recapture some of their magic. Most of them I had to leave, a great loss.

And then I thought about all the books I’ve read on my iPad and realized they weren’t there on the bookshelf. They were nowhere, yet another disadvantage of reading e-books. Verlyn Klinkenborg expressed a similar view in the Times recently:

“…I realize that the physical books are serving a new purpose — as constant reminders of what I’ve read. They say, “We’re still here,” or “Remember us?” These are the very things that e-books cannot say….This may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. Reading is inherently ephemeral, but it feels less so when you’re making your way through a physical book, which persists when you’ve finished it.”