The Olive Field, by Ralph Bates

This novel belongs to 1936, the era in which it was published. It does not read like a novel of today. Nor even like a novel of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, both of whom introduced a new style and a new literary attitude.

What I mean is that this novel has a rich vocabulary, but not a rich reality. It is about a small town in Andalucia, Los Olivares, that produces olives on a vast scale. And while we learn a lot about different kinds of olive trees and how they are cultivated, it is difficult to sense the reality of the village, both its geography, which is liberally described, and its people, who more often represent various political and spiritual viewpoints.

And that is my major problem. The characters do more reacting to the events around them than, as individuals, reacting to and influencing each other. Indeed, the movement of the novel is geared more to the calendar and the seasons. And each event within the calendar brings out the culture or the politics of the town, but they are isolated events, linked by the novel’s theme rather than by the actions of the characters. Moreover, it is often difficult to separate and identify each character, given their lack of interaction, and given that the characters are often identified by their titles rather than their names. Is this latter point, in fact, why at the end of a later 1966 edition there is an extensive list of the principle characters?

There are many events presented here that seem intended to illustrate the Spain of the 1930s, the political changes taking place and the economic dependence of this town on its single industry. Thus, there is a religious procession and a counter demonstration, with a subsequent trial. There is intrigue between two priests. There is a major storm that ruins the olive crop. There is rebellion by the olive workers. There is even a rape and an attempted abortion. But the events are not tied together. They seem to be included primarily to draw a complete portrait of this town and its people just prior to the explosion of the Spanish Civil War.

I write this as I am half way through this novel. I shall continue reading, however, because this work received many notable reviews when published. Let us see if I will revise my opinion over the second half.

 

No, I do not. Bates continue to portray life in the olive fields, the harvests, the problems and violence the workers face, their rebellion against the landowners and the supporting civil authority, finally resulting in the massacre of workers as they attempt to demonstrate against the town leaders. There is also the fate of Don Fadrique, the town’s leader and main landlord, as he discovers the betrayal of his mayordomo, a quiet interval that adds richness to the town’s atmosphere but does not advance the novel.

There is also the birth of an illegitimate child, a boy, to Lucia Robledo, in which the entire town becomes involved. This is followed by the unexpected death of a minor character. Which leads, arbitrarily, to the transfer of the two main characters to the north of Spain, to Asturias.

Those two characters, both advocates for the workers, as is the author, emerge from this conflict between the landowners and the olive workers. Joaquin Caro is more thoughtful, a negotiator, a peacemaker, while Diego Mudarra is more aggressive, more violent, more physical. Both love music and the guitar, both earn respect from other workers, and because both fall in love with the same girl, Lucia Robledo, they are both personal rivals and political companions.

It is Joaquin who makes the (author’s?) decision to move the action to Asturias. He does so because of the sudden death of his brother Marcial and because of the town massacre. He no longer feels tied to Los Olivares, and he feels disillusioned by the defeat of the olive workers. And, perhaps more significantly, Lucia has moved there (although I missed the author telling us why), and he still loves her.

Whereupon, the novel makes to two time jumps. First, Joaquin has found Lucia and has married her, and the reader encounters a lengthy discussion of how well they love each other, largely based on whether or not he will allow her illegitimate son to join them in Asturias. Which, again, does not advance the flow of the novel, even as it is an interesting psychological issue that enriches their portraits.

The second jump in time confronts the reader with a precursor to the Spanish Civil War. It is 1934, and suddenly the aggrieved workers in the north rebel against the center right government. The latent tension in the air seems to arbitrarily explode. And with this development, the entire tone of the novel changes. Joaquin and Mudarra are still prominent, but the novel’s action no longer revolves around them. Instead, they are used by the author to portray the uprising against the government. The action is conveyed more through narrative than through dramatization. One even wonders if Bates has chosen this premature rebellion in order to end his novel with a moment of high drama.

Why am I so negative about this novel which received much high praise when it was published? I wonder if it was the times—in another sense. That because it sympathized with the workers, it was regarded favorably by the anti-fascist intellectuals who were the critics. Certainly, Bates draws here an effective portrayal of the tensions within Spanish society in the 1930s. And he clearly favors the workers, even as he acknowledges the violence on both sides.

But Louis Kronenberger sums up my reaction in his 1936 New York Times review: Bates “can paint an exciting scene, stage a moment of telling drama, record a sharp conversation; but the sure, steady vividness which results from the march of events themselves, the creative breadth which makes the narrative and the meaning of the narrative inseparable, are things beyond his power. ‘The Olive Field,’ for better or worse is intensely episodic….[and] not, as it was plainly intended to be, a successful panoramic novel.”

I, too, admire the effort, but, less so, the result. (October, 2016)

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Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

This 2015 work is a beautiful novel, a surprising novel, a tender novel. It is the most unusual love story I have read in a long, long time. It is about a couple in their seventies, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, neighbors whose spouses have died long ago, and who are now lonely. Especially at night.

Without any prelude, on page one, Addie walks over to Louis’ house and proposes that they sleep together. Every night. And just talk. Perhaps also hold hands. But no sex. She just wants the warmth of another person at night. She misses it. And Louis is flummoxed. Indeed, the reader is caught off guard as well. It is such an unusual beginning to such an unusual novel. Indeed, any novel.

The author died at age 71, shortly after completing this novel, and one wonders if it was not his own age and his own emotional life at that time that prompted him to consider looking into just such a situation. At that age, as one’s friends drift away, and frequently die, a sense of loneliness does enter one’s life. One may or may not consider it foolhardy for Haruf to conceive of such a proposal. And for Louis to consider it. But one has to be grateful that the author did explore it.

The story works because Addie and Louis are both very good people and very considerate of the feelings of both each other and their families. Which enables one easily to identify with them. Louis admits to Addie initially that he does not know how to react to her proposal. Which helps to make the situation work, as it draws the reader into the unusualness and seriousness of her proposal. But he accepts, because he recognizes the same need, the same loneliness, within himself. The title clearly refers to a relationship that is at the level of their souls rather than of their bodies, even as it satisfies the emotional needs of their bodies.

We also identify with this couple because both are making a last attempt at happiness in their lives, lives that have not been marked by family accord, and both believe that they should strive for such happiness. “I made up my mind I’m not going to pay attention to what people think,” Addie also says. “I’ve done that too long — all my life. I’m not going to live that way anymore.” And as we get to know them, we readers also feel they deserve the happiness they seek.

They begin slowly, sporadically, until they become comfortable with each other; and then they persuade themselves that what they are doing is natural, is normal, and is nothing that needs to be hidden from their neighbors. They even flaunt their relationship by going together downtown into the fictional Holt, Colorado, and lunching together. Lurking, however, in the reader’s mind, and eventually in theirs, is the presence, the possibility, of sex. Will they or won’t they? And before the end, Haruf beautifully resolves this issue.

But conversing in bed each night is not going to justify a short novel of barely 175 pages. A back story is needed. And so Addie and Louis tell each other the story of their marriages, including the betrayals and the failures, and how each lost their spouse to death. But, in addition, complications are needed. These begin with the death of a neighbor, a friend, making the reader aware of the couple’s own fragile future. But more significantly, complications come with the arrival of Addie’s son Gene and her grandson, six-year-old Jamie. Gene and his wife have separated, and so he leaves his son temporarily with Addie. Upset about the turmoil at home, Addie finds, the boy has withdrawn into himself, crying at night. And gradually, she realizes that Gene has been treating his son in the same aloof, uncaring way his own father treated him.

So, much of the novel concerns Addie’s and Louis’ efforts to restore her grandson’s emotional life. And Louis is very successful at this, which begins to further antagonize her son. At Louis’ suggestion, for example, the couple buy the boy a dog, which gives him a living being to relate to. They also resume their nights together, and help Jamie to see it as normal. But, ah, those complications. By the time Jamie is comfortable with Addie’s and Louis’ situation, his father returns. And from this point, the novel slowly winds down to its moving conclusion.

Haruf is an unusual writer that everyone interested in literature should know. Simplicity marks both his style and his characterizations. But beneath that simplicity is complexity. As Ursula K. Le Guin writes in The Guardian, “Haruf handles human relationships with fierce, reticent delicacy, exploring rage, fidelity, pity, honor, timidity, the sense of obligation; he deals with complex, barely stated moral issues, pushing perhaps toward an unspoken mysticism.” Thus, in this work, these are good people, sensitive, tender, and kind; yet they are involved in adultery, poor parenting, the death of a child, rigid emotions, and a failure to communicate with a spouse.

The mysticism is touched on lightly, as the couple discuss life after death, and disagree. It is more present in their determination to ignore the world’s opinion and to raise their relationship to the level suggested by the novel’s title.

Finally, the simplicity. In just 175 pages, the author communicates the emotional connections of these two lives, the reaction of a gossipy town, the clash of contrasting moralities, and a generational conflict. That they come across reflects both the directness of his presentation, the bare details needed, and the deep, personal emotions of love, pride, and envy that are prompted simply by two people sleeping together. The complexity of the situation is also simplified by the couple addressing, first, the unusualness of their situation, and then by their refusal to react to the gossip around them.

It is regrettable that Haruf died before being able to create more novels of such simplicity, such tenderness, such independence, and such emotional depth. One suspects, however, that his qualities, which reflect deep human understanding, will outlast those of today’s literary authors whose contemporary attitudes may become no longer so pertinent. (October, 2016)

Jack Gance, by Ward Just

This 1989 work is an ambitious novel that doesn’t quite come off. It is too episodic as it portrays the world of politics. It is most effective when its hero Jack Gance is young and naïve, and discovering the mysterious, hidden compromises behind the conflicts in Chicago politics. He also discovers the road his own life will take, when the Chicago machine hires him as a political pollster and he becomes fascinated by the power and intrigue in a world he never knew existed.

Like many youth in politics, Jack starts out as an idealist. The idea of polling appeals to him because in the Kennedy era ”hope, not fear, animated America at that time; and a campaign needed a narrative as much as a movie did, and for the same reasons.” And, in an apt metaphor, the human political reactions that polling reveals creates the novel’s narrative—that is, Jack’s rise in the political ranks. Ward here introduces the moral richness that lies deep within that political life. Indeed, as Judith Martin summarizes in her New York Times review, this novel “is about the difficulty of weighing loyalties, strategies, and principles in the not-always-successful attempt to achieve an accommodation of conflicting demands in public and private life.”

Jack also has a personal life that makes us interested in these career decisions. His parents are not happy with those decisions, particularly his father, a worldly man who tries to teach him about political life but then mysteriously lets himself be a fall guy. The IRS sends to prison for a crime neither Jack nor the reader understands. The only explanation is that his father has stood for a certain uncompromising standard that Jack himself cannot relate to. And this will later be contrasted with the compromises that Jack himself makes with E.L. Mozart, a Chicago lawyer deep inside the Chicago political machine.

Jack’s personal life also includes two affairs, one a true love affair and one a merely physical affair with a married women, Carole Nierendorf, when she is ignored by an ambitious husband also in the political world. Her presence seems intended to underscore Jack’s commitment to politics rather than to any personal life. He also somewhat falls into this affair on a rebound from the serious affair, which is with a refugee student, Katrina Lauren, who carries to Chicago the scars she endured in Berlin during World War II.

Except for these two women and his mother, the daily lives and career decisions of all the characters early in Jack’s career revolve around the world of Chicago politics. And, indeed, it is a valid presentation of Chicago and that world. Martin, however, suggests in her review that Jack is portrayed at a deeper level: “One sees a man without malice or inflated ego trying to do his duty to people and institutions but finding it all immensely complicated.” But for me the result is too arbitrary a portrait, because of the novel’s short length.

What I mean is that after the learning experiences of Jack’s youth, the author jumps ahead from career step to career step, without detailing for the reader how one step led to the next. Jack has simply moved up—to the White House as an aide to the president, then back in Chicago running for the U.S. Senate. It is as if Just has wanted to describe two worlds, that of Chicago politics and that of national politics, and the compromises that are required to take each step. But until the final approach to Jack by lawyer Mozart on a Chicago golf course, Just offers no connection in terms of those steps. He simply leaps ahead to a new decade, letting the reader fill in the gaps. As if he did not want to double the length of this novel in order to spell out what often takes a lifetime in politics to achieve.

Instead, his primary connection is more thematic. Thus, he introduces a conversation much earlier in the book in which Jack’s mentor, Professor Karcher, a Jewish refugee, tries to awaken Jack from what he calls the innocent hypocrisy of their university. He wants Jack to get out and discover the realities of real-world politics, and recommends a first step, which Jack takes. “City Hall is your graduate school,” he says. “That’s where the fieldwork is.” Which we are intended to recall, as we review the final practical decisions Jack needs to make to advance his career.

Finally, Just ends with a chapter whose idealism offers an ironic contrast to the corruption and deal-making that Jack bought into in order to achieve his final success. That Washington and national politics does work, he says, because of compromise and the art of dealing. But it too obvious an irony, underlining too strongly for me the author’s message that real politics does not preclude the ambition, selfishness, and aggression of political human beings.

Christopher Lehman-Haupt disputes that irony is suggested by this ending, saying that Jack’s words “seem more wise than ironic….He has accepted his figurative castration. He reflects the truth of recent American history.” But this final scene does not work for me because of the obviousness of the message, which is given to a visiting group of receptive, naïve high school students. While their bored teachers, who represent the standard disbelief in politics, respond with yawns.

Most of the individual scenes of this novel do work however. They cover Jack’s visit to a summer lake with his family, the dissolution of his casual affair, deal-making in Chicago restaurants, trading news with a Washington columnist, a phone conversation while looking into the Rose Garden, or making a career decision on a golf course. Author Just captures the atmosphere in each case, and, more significantly, what is not being said directly but which is nevertheless being communicated.

I am ready to read more Just novels, despite my disappointment here. He is one of the few novelist willing and able to portray the world of politics, with all its conflicts, its ironies, its moral issues, and its human ramifications. (October, 2016)

The Drop, by Michael Connelly

This 2011 work is an outstanding mystery, one of Connelly’s best. Harry Bosch is approaching mandated retirement as a cop, and he is given two cases. The two cases are not connected, and they never overlap. But what they both do is examine the idea of justice. From almost opposite directions. They ask what are the ends that justify the means of administering justice. And in one case, the reader leans toward the justice thwarted rather than the justice achieved. And in the other, he leans toward the justice achieved rather than the justice compromised.

The novel works because of the complexity of both cases, but it also works because Bosch is fully human. He is a cop, but he has a personal life that begins with his 15-year-old daughter, Maddie; and he often stops his investigations—as Connelly stops his fast pace—to interact with her. Their conversations may last less than a page, but we see what a good father and a good person he is. Bosch is also a widower, and lonely; and when he meets an attractive therapist, Hannah Stone, on one of the cases, both he and the reader hope she will be able to fill the emotional side of his life. In fact, even his daughter wishes so. Meanwhile, in his professional life, Bosch has an interesting, changing relationship with his partner, Chu, who both helps him and betrays him. Chu himself is also interesting, as he has his own issues, and resents this boss who never confides in him.

The Drop is aptly titled. DROP stands, conveniently, for Bosch’s status in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. Plus, one case he is handling concerns whether George Irving, a man who has dropped from a hotel balcony, has died as a result of a murder, a suicide, or an accident. And why does his powerful politician father Irvin Irving, an anti-police nemesis of Bosch, ask Bosch of all people to handle a case which involves the death of his son?

The other case involves a rape and murder from the past that went unsolved, and had been dropped by the police. Now, it has resurfaced in the LA police department’s Open-Unsolved Unit, where Bosch works, after new DNA evidence has been discovered. Plus, there are also occasions when Bosch is being encouraged to drop each of these two cases.

Connelly spends more time on the first case, in which the prominent politician demands that Bosch find the truth about his son’s death from the hotel balcony. The case brings Bosch into the continual contact with the politics and justice practiced in Los Angeles, and offers the reader frequent insights into the interactions among citizens, the police, politicians, and judges. This case revolves around the son using his father’s political connections to curry favors for his clients. Bosch learns that the son’s situation is more complicated than that, however, and as he explores the son’s connections with politics, the police, and his family, the detective leans toward different explanations of his death. This is what builds the suspense, as the reader is also turned in one direction and then in another.

The rape and murder case is complicated by the fact that the blood on the victim’s body belongs to an eight-year-old child, Clayton Pell, who is now an adult. He could not have committed the rape and murder, of course, at eight years old. Then who did? Bosch uses logic and his powers of investigation to find out, but then the boy emerges as a mayor player as he both emerges as a criminal himself and seeks his own kind of justice. This dark side of society is leavened, however, by Bosch’s romance with the boy’s therapist; and yet at the same time it is complicated by the boy’s evolution into a man whose adult transgressions have been formed by his rough early life. So, when do we sympathize with Clayton Pell, and when do we not? Connolly loves these emotional conflicts, these ironies, and his work is all the stronger for it.

After these two fascinating, complicated cases, it is the book’s ending that helps it to end on a strong point, one that points to the irony and complexity of justice. For it suggests that one guilty man may not be so guilty, after all. And that the department Bosch is so dedicated to appears to have its own kind of guilt.

And so, one wonders how cynical Bosch will remain in Connelly’s next book. Will he be further disillusioned by the police corruption that he terms “high jingo”? Or will he soften, as he shares his heart with someone besides his daughter? No, he has to remain the hard-boiled cynic, even as he remains a needy person. Perhaps, in fact, the cynicism is to shield him from that neediness. On the other hand, maybe the world around him will be lightened by either Hannah or future characters. We shall see. All I know is that this novel has certainly interested me in more of Connelly’s work. (October, 2016)

The World Is Flat, by Thomas L. Friedman

Friedman is a journalist, not an historian. The thinking behind his columns have helped make him one of my favorite sources of worldwide trends. I agree with much of what he says, and I like how he illustrates his points through his own personal experience and using as examples real people and real situations.

He does this again at the start of this new 2005 work. He explains what he means when he says that the world is flat, and then narrates how he arrived at that conclusion. Basically, he says, the economic playing field is being leveled by technology. That is, people can now collaborate and compete on different kinds of work from different corners of the world—and all on an equal footing. Result: a single global network of knowledge.

Friedman offers a provocative prediction when he says the future may bring together social liberals, global service workers, and Wall Streeters on one side, and on the other side social conservatives, local service workers, and labor unions. Twelve years after his writing this, one can see those trends beginning. Such as today’s reaction to free trade.

Friedman asks, “Should I believe in free trade in a flat world?” And his answer: “Even as the world gets flat, America as a whole will benefit more by sticking to the basic principles of free trade.” This will work, he says, as long as the global pie keeps growing and new technology advances. That as long as large companies move overseas, small companies will arise at home and create new jobs. Also, wages will rise overseas, creating wealth and more customers for those here.

But U.S. workers will need to upgrade skills that cannot be outsourced. And government and universities will need to help. The problem, Friedman says, is that we have seen a “steady erosion of America’s scientific and engineering base.” He cites other countries catching up, while Republicans reduce funding of National Science Foundation. One result is fewer students here getting college science degrees. In China it is 60%, in the U.S., 31%. And for engineering degrees: China, 46%, U.S. 5 %. This difference will impact us in 20 years, he says.

Reasons: Chinese youth are ambitious and patriotic. U.S. students have different priorities, many wanting to be lawyers and bankers. Also, U.S. has no national education programs; all are controlled in the states.

Friedman says that the flattening of the world began on 11/9/1989, at the fall of the Berlin Wall. This opened up communication and relationships between the East and the West, and the new technology quickly increased the possibilities of trade. The greatest fear for him is the rise of protectionism. Because trade promotes good relationships among countries, not antagonism. It also promotes openness inside countries, and these countries enjoy the most freedom.

Trade, he says, stimulates innovation and connects knowledge centers. To stop the flattening of the world, on the other hand, would curtail human development. When a society has more memories of the past than dreams of the future, its end is near, he says. It has lost its imagination and its ambition.

To sum up, this book has a theme more than an argument. It is about the world turning flat, about the new technology connecting everyone and allowing everyone to work on an equal footing, including individual workers, companies of every size, and countries at every stage of wealth. But the message is communicated through anecdotes rather than a sustained argument. That is, Friedman quotes individuals from all over the world to illustrate his points, mostly individuals from business. And this is a journalist’s approach, which Friedman is.

The book apparently began when the author went to India to create a television documentary on the business world in India, and this opened his eyes to the economic growth that was happening as a result of the new technology. And then he realized that what he calls the flattening of the world was happening everywhere, not just in America.

His book concludes with an exploration of the Arab-Muslim word. Why the violent agenda there, even if it is not a majority agenda? His answer is that some look at the Western world and see its openness but not its freedom of thought. Rather, they see decadence and promiscuousness. He reminds us that al-Qaeda is a political organization, not a religious one. That the young men who join it have lost their sense of identity, of rootedness, of dignity. That they lash out at a world they see as having deprived them of those qualities. Thus, 9/11.

These terrorists have entered the world of politics, because their lives have not improved as a result of their faith. And the flatness of the world is what has made them aware of this. They want their power of the past, of the 7th century, in this 21st century. But, at the same time, they deny the free inquiry, the creativity of today that is what has left them behind. Result: they are humiliated. The cause of terrorism, Friedman says, is not economic, the lack of money; it is frustration and rage. That I why so many in the Arab world were happy to see the United States humiliated by 9/11. It was revenge for their own humiliation from our support of both Israel and the unjust, backward world of Arab rulers

As the book jacket says, “when scholars write the history of the world [between] Y2K and March, 2004, what will they say was the most crucial development? The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 and the Iraq War?” Thomas Friedman’s answer is this book, and its answer is “the convergence of technology and events that allowed India, China and so many other countries to…create an explosion of wealth in the middle classes of the world’s two biggest nations and giving them a huge new stake in the world of globalization.”

What helps make his work valid today, a decade later, is the explanation of how the flattening of the world has coincided with the expansion of world trade. Each supports the other, he says. And he argues that together they have remarkably improved the standard of living worldwide. Which is particularly important in the U.S., where the expansion of trade has resulted in the loss of factory jobs. His argument, however, is that, long term, U.S. workers will benefit, because more customers will exist worldwide for U.S. products. To benefit, however, U.S. workers must be retrained to have new skills, that the government must support such retraining, and that both must have the patience to wait for the results.

Overall, Friedman makes a good case for the flattening of the world. But it is not a carefully organized case. It is a journalist’s first person accounting of his travels through the world as he talks to businessmen and government officials who support his case. There are no counter-arguments to his thesis here, no data to support an alternate case. What he is intent on is explaining the flattening, how it affects companies and individuals, and what is needed to adapt to this change.

While very informative, indeed educational, the book is somewhat disappointing because it takes the short view of journalism rather than the long view of history. It is more involved in the details of flattening, how it is happening, rather than the long view of how it will change the world.