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When I was in college, I wrote a short story, “The Book,” that was about a book that revealed the date of death for everyone who was living at the time it was opened. The questions the story asked were whether or not you would want to know that date, and if you did know, how would it shape your remaining life.

The story (which I overly-optimistically sent out to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other out-of-reach magazines) no longer exists. It was part of a literary funeral pyre a few years ago when I returned a stack of fiction and poetry back into the universe. But those two questions have stayed with me, and I imagine with others, my entire life. The story and questions came back to me when I started reading The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

The novel is similar to my old story because the mystical knowledge is not so much what the stories are about. Like my story, the novel is about what people do with the knowledge. (In my story, one of the three main characters chooses not to open the book.)

The novel starts in 1969 in New York City when four adolescent siblings go to psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die.

The prophecies do change their life paths, though not in always obvious ways.

In an interview, Chloe Benjamin was asked if she was given a date for her own death, would she be living her life in a different way? Her answer is the kind of cheating answer many of us would give.

“I have thought about whether I would want to know my date of death, and I always say only if it were good. It’s a paradox! But would I live it a different way? I think yes. I think it would be impossible not to, depending on what it was. Maybe I wouldn’t live it differently if it was very far in the future, because that’s sort of the supposition that we all go on, and hope for, but certainly if it were soon, I think that that would impact the decisions that I made.”

The novel’s adolescents who learn their fate go in different directions. Simon heads to San Francisco for a new liberating gay life. Klara becomes a magician where reality and fantasy can be toyed with as a career. Daniel, the oldest, becomes a doctor, perhaps hoping to  put some human control on Fate. Varya becomes a researcher specializing in longevity and comes the closest to actually testing the space between science and immortality. I won’t include any spoilers here about whether or not the prophecies hold true, but religion, free will, fate and magic do enter all their lives in some way.

It is ironic that the book is called The Immortalists because knowing their fate means they all know they are not immortal. (The title comes from the name of Klara’s magic act.)

Of course, no one reading this really believes in immortality through this life. But we do think about the possibilities of life after death. I won’t go into religious territory here, but there is lots of research into near-death experiences (NDE).

One large study I found concluded that consciousness can be preserved for a few minutes after clinical death. Dr. Sam Parnia of the State University of New York spent six years examining 2060 cases of cardiac arrest patients in Europe and the USA. Only 330 of those survived as a result of a resuscitation procedure, and 40% of those reported that they had some kind of conscious awareness while being considered clinically dead.

When I was 10, my father had to have brain surgery for a tumor. This was the 1960s and a procedure like that was probably quite crude compared to today. His surgeon was writing a book about NDEs and questioned him after the surgery where he was clinically dead for a short time. My father did not have any extraordinary NDE story, but I became quite fascinated with the idea of these experiences. I read things that will well beyond my years and grasp, but the fascination remains with me.

What happens after we die? What do those who “die” and come back to life report?

Many of those people recall their resuscitation and recount details about sounds in the room or the actions of the staff. The most common reported experiences and feelings include: feeling calm and peaceful, a sense of no time passing, the now clichéd “going into a light,” and sensing or seeing yourself separated from your body. Some report seeing a person, sometimes a person they know who has died, sometimes an unknown “guide.” I found it interesting that the smell of bread baking was often noted as a smell they recalled.

What did all this mean to a ten-year old who was thinking about his father’s death and his own, and who was grappling with the things he had been taught as a Catholic by the church?

I took comfort in it at the time. All of it seemed to indicate that there was something after death – and it didn’t seem like something to fear.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. That is the law of conservation of energy. I was not the only person to consider that in relationship to the human soul. If that soul, or human consciousness, is energy – and we all have seen EEG and EKG tests that measure the electrical energy in our heart and brain – that means it cannot just die or disappear.

Then, what happens to that energy after physical death? What form does it change into?

Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that or to whether or not there is some “life” after death.

I love science, but it treats consciousness as just a product of the human brain. Near-death experiences seem to point in another direction.

Robert Lanza, known for his Biocentrism theory, believes that consciousness moves to another universe after death. He claims that consciousness exists outside the time and space and the physical body. And that would mean that it survives physical death.

The biocentrism theory isn’t a rejection of science. Biocentrism challenges us to fully accept the implications of the latest scientific findings in fields ranging from plant biology and cosmology to quantum entanglement and consciousness. By listening to what the science is telling us, it becomes increasingly clear that life and consciousness are fundamental to any true understanding of the universe. This forces a fundamental rethinking of everything we thought we knew about life, death, and our place in the universe.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet to Horatio. I think Hamlet is correct.

I think next I will read Chloe Benjamin’s earlier novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.  Dreams and particularly lucid dreams are also things that I have had a lifelong interest in studying.

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bildungsroman shirt

Wear your coming of age proudly

The word bildungsroman showed up in an article I was reading.  It is a German word that you are only likely to encounter in a literature class. It describes a novel of formation, education, or culture. In English, we are more likely to call a novel or film like this a “coming-of-age” story.

Generally, these are stories of youth, but reading it now much later in my life got me wondering about when coming-to-age ends. In some ways even with six decades passed, I still feel like one of those protagonists.

The typical young protagonist is a sensitive, perhaps a bit naïve, person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions. They believe that these experiences will result in the answers. Supposedly, this happens in your twenties, but I don’t know if I have finished this journey yet. I suspect I am not alone in having this unfinished feeling.

Young adult novels certainly deal with this, but so do literary novels whose authors would not want the YA label stamped on their book’s spine. These are good novels to teach. They often focus on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood and character change is very important.

Scanning my bookshelves I see lots of books that fall into this category, from The Telemachy in Homer’s Odyssey from back in 8th century BC, to the Harry Potter series. I would include that early novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding,  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by Aldous Huxley and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

When I taught middle school and high school, teaching The Outsiders, Romeo and Juliet, The Pigman, To Kill a Mockingbird and other bildungsroman works just seemed like the right places to spend time with my students.

In our western society, legal conventions have made certain points in late adolescence or early adulthood (most commonly 18-21) when a person is “officially” given certain rights and responsibilities of an adult. But driving a car, voting, getting married, signing contracts and buying alcohol are not the big themes of bildungsroman novels. Society and religion have even created ceremonies to confirm the coming of age.

I’ve passed all of those milestones, but I still feel like I haven’t arrived.

Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We are all the protagonists of our own lives. But hero…  I’m not so sure.

Since I am still coming of age, I am a sucker for films and television live in that world of transition.  If I was teaching a course on Bildungsroman Cinema, I might include Bambi, American Graffiti,  The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me,  The Motorcycle Diaries, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Boyhood, and Moonlight. I could include many other “teen” films of lesser quality.

On television, series like The Wonder Years, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Goldbergs are all ones that deal with coming of age. They are also all family sitcoms. Coming-of-age has a lot to do with family. And it can be funny as well as tragic. It’s good materials for books and media because it has all that plus relationships, sex and love. On the visual side, it means physical changes that you can actually see, while the internal growth is often hidden and slow to catch up with physical growth.

I have read plenty of things that contend that adolescence is being prolonged and therefore adulthood and coming-of-age is being delayed. The new Generation Z cohort is supposedly an example of this. I have also read about the Boomerang Generation. This is a very Western and middle class phenomenon and the term is applied to young adults who choose to share a home with their parents after previously living on their own. They boomeranging back to their parents’ residence.

I remember reading about the “Peter Pan syndrome” which was a pop-psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. It is not a condition you’ll find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a specific mental disorder.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, a character refers to men who are “Peter Pans” as “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” He uses Adolf Hitler as an archetype of this phenomenon.

Do some people never come of age? How old were you the last time someone told to “grow up” in some way or another?

Huxley’s Peter Pans are a problem, but what about people who are quite mature and adult but still are in search of answers to life’s questions and the experiences that might result in the answers? What’s the name for that syndrome?

This earlier post is now updated to reflect the recent release of a film, The Lost City of Z, based on Grann’s book of the same name. Both tell the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett who went into the Amazon in 1925 with his son looking for an ancient lost city. They both disappeared. For decades, explorers and scientists have tried to find evidence of his party and the Lost City of Z. Since then, perhaps another hundred people have died or disappeared searching for Fawcett.

I read David Grann’s The Lost City of Z in 2010 and halfway through it I realized what attracted me to it. It takes me back to a book of my youth – The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – which was a novel I loved as a kid.  I probably read the Classics Illustrated Comic version before I actually read the book, as that was the case with many books from Treasure Island to Hamlet.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is much better known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Even if you have never read any of his fiction, you probably know a few of his stories and characters because, according to the Internet Movie Database (love that site) there are at least 215 films based on his writing.

I took out my old comic book version and also my paperback of the novel and rediscovered Doyle’s little introductory verse:

I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.

There was another book titled The Lost World which was Michael Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, but I have nothing to say about that book. To me, The Lost World is the one published in 1912 and it is the fictional story of an expedition to a place in the Amazon where prehistoric animals still survive. (Hmmm, did Mr. Crichton get inspiration for Jurassic Park from it?)  The book introduced the character Professor Challenger who appears in other books by Doyle.

Exploration and lost worlds captured the fancy of the public and authors in the early part of the 20th century. In 1916, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who is better known for his Tarzan and science-fiction stories) published The Land that Time Forgot, which was his version of a lost world story. In that  rather ridiculous tale, sailors  from a German U-Boat discover a world of dinosaurs and ape-men in Antarctica.

I read all of them. I didn’t really pay attention back then to the chronology of publication. If I had noted dates, I would have realized that another one of my childhood author heroes, Jules Verne, had introduced the whole prehistoric-animals-in-the-present-day adventure story with his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth which was published back in 1864. Those explorers find a prehistoric world of people and dinosaurs inside the Earth.

By the way, you can read The Lost World as an “e-book” free online at Project Gutenberg – if you can handle reading on a screen. I can’t.

cover

Now, to get back to where this post started, the setting for The Lost World is was probably inspired by reports about British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett’s expedition to Venezuela and Brazil, in a mountain region called Mount Roraima.

The modern-day non-fiction book, The Lost City of Z , tells the tale of Fawcett who launched his final expedition in 1925 into the Amazon.

His goal was to find the fabled lost city of El Dorado, the “City of Gold.” El Dorado has captured the imaginations of kids, armchair explorers and real anthropologists, adventurers, and scientists for about 400 years – even though there really has never been evidence that it ever existed. That hasn’t stopped hundreds of expeditions from going out looking for it.

Fawcett was financed by the Royal Geographical Society in London.  It humbles me to think that at age 57 he headed out again because he really believed in El Dorado, which he called the City of Z .

He set out with only his 21-year-old son Jack and one of Jack’s friends. He wanted to travel light and fast, eat off the land, and not harass the natives. They vanished in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil.  Subsequent attempts to find Fawcett and the city have failed.

What happened to Fawcett? David Grann thinks he knows. The author is not an adventurer, but he ended up in the jungles of the Amazon to try to find an answer.

Fawcett’s expeditions inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of a lost world. Grann wrote an earlier book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.

I’m not ready for any Amazon adventures, so I’m happy to follow Grann’s digging through Fawcett’s old diaries and logs for clues and doing my own armchair adventuring.

I liked that the book also deals with how in the past 40 years in Brazil alone, the Amazon has lost some two hundred and seventy thousand square miles of its original forest cover. That’s an area bigger than France. Tribes are being threatened with extinction. Many animals and plants, some we never even knew existed, are also vanishing.

Much has been lost in those jungles.

More Reading
Vanished!: Explorers Forever Lost     

The Lost City

umberto eco

One of the extraordinary humans we lost last year who won’t make the celebrity In Memoriam lists is Umberto Eco. He was an Italian semiotics scholar who wrote an unlikely best-selling novel that launched a literary career.

Semiotics was a field I had never heard of when I encountered Eco’s book and looked up the word in a print encyclopedia. It was 1980. It is the study of meaning-making. It turned out to include many of things that I had been trained to use as an English major, such as analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor and symbolism.

The novel that brought him to the attention of many people was The Name of the Rose. It was an unlikely bestseller being a murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. It is filled with  biblical references and discussions of Christian theology and heresies.

It is set in 1327 in a Benedictine Italian abbey that is being investigated for heresy by Brother William of Baskerville who becomes our detective after seven bizarre deaths occur at the abbey. He may be a character in the Sherlock Holmes mold, but he would say he was influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas and Roger Bacon. There are plenty of ciphers,  secret symbols and coded manuscripts in the novel that darkly twists like the labyrinth passages of the abbey.

It was an international best-seller. It even became a 1986 movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

I once described the book to a friend who said, “So, it’s like the Dan Brown books?”  Though it may share some aspects with Brown’s Langdon bestsellers (The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons),  Umberto Ec’s novels have very different intentions. At the risk of sounding snobby, I would say his books are much more cerebral and literary.

That being said, I tear through the Dan Brown page-turners too. Eco said of his first novels’ success that he thought that “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

Another Eco novel is Foucault’s Pendulum which in brief does sound like a Brown novel. Three bored editors in Italy create a hoax that weaves in Kabbalah, alchemy, conspiracy theories and connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. The hoax and plot involves a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled. This point is in Paris at the site of the real Foucault’s Pendulum. The Foucault Pendulum is named after the French physicist Léon Foucault who created this simple device as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. It turns out that some of the occult groups included in the hoax are real and not happy about someone’s attempt to wrest away their power.

I met Umberto Eco very briefly after he gave a reading in New York. His talk was hard to follow. More of it was about his teaching at the University of Bologna and the application of semiotics to popular culture like films, James Bond and even the comic strip Peanuts characters. He was funny, even though I wasn’t always sure I got the joke, I knew it was a joke. It reminded me of my undergraduate philosophy classes when I understood all the words being said, but I wasn’t sure what they meant as sentences.

I had a hard time with two of his other novels – The Island of the Day Before (1994) and The Prague Cemetery (2011), but the books always get me thinking and also digging around for more information about the people and ideas alluded to in them.

Novelist Salman Rushdie was not a fan. In writing about Foucault’s Pendulum he said it was “humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.” Then again, I’m not a Rushdie fan.

Someone asked Eco at the reading if he would prefer to live in the Middle Ages. He quickly answered no, and said that he prefered the Middle Ages of his imagination to the actual historical period which was probably a very depressing time to be alive.

Steinbeck

Yesterday was the birthday of John Steinbeck,  born in Salinas, California in 1902. I went through a serious Steinbeck period in my youth when I read just about every book by him. I started with The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that overwhelmed me with its power.

I was about the same age as Steinbeck was when he decided he wanted to be a writer – 14 – and decided I wanted to be a writer and thought the place to start was with reading.

Steinbeck went to Stanford University because his parents wanted him to, but he only took classes in what interested him, which was mostly literature and creative writing. He was not a very regular attendee and sometimes took a semester off to work in a sugar factory or as an itinerant ranch hand near Salinas. He dropped out of college for good in 1925.

One of his smaller novels that I read back then was Cannery Row. It is an almost plotless novel about the inhabitants of a few blocks in Cannery Row in Monterey, California. They are a curious crew that includes Henry the painter who is building a boat, all the girls at Dora’s bordello and Lee Chong in his grocery. But the person who is at the center, though he has no desire to be there, is Doc. He is a young marine biologist who cares for all of them in his way.

It is a neighborhood he also wrote about in Tortilla Flat. I discovered many years after I read it that Steinbeck though of it as a california Arthurian legend. His Arthur is Danny, whose home is the castle, where the knights gather in between their adventures and wine-drinking.

Cannery Row is about accepting your community and also about the loneliness of the individual.

One of Steinbeck’s books that I had not read was Sweet Thursday. I missed this companion piece to Cannery Row in my Steinbeck period. This month I finally read this short novel. It is more plot-driven than the earlier novel, but has many of the same characters. It centers on a love story, or lack of a love, for Doc. Spoiler alert (though I think a reader will see it coming early on), he ends up with Suzy, a not-very-good prostitute, but a good match for Doc.

It is a good tale for anyone like Doc and Suzy who thinks they may never find anyone to love. I should have read this novel when I was 14.

Steinbeck’s first few novels didn’t sell well, but it clicked when he started writing about the California he knew and loved.

I wrote before about my “Steinbeck Summer” and his on the road non-fiction tale of Travels with Charley. But the Steinbeck book that had the biggest impact on my life was Of Mice and Men. The novel really affected me when I read it, but many years later I would begin teaching it to high school freshmen.  I saw it affect them too. I have had a few of those students tell me twenty or thirty years later that it is still one of their favorite books.

And although I hate hearing about banned books in schools, I always get an electric kick when I see that the book still appears on many lists of banned books, because it means it still packs that punch.

esquire 70I go back a long way as a reader and subscriber to Esquire magazine. I bought a subscription towards the end of my high school days after having read many issues at the library.

I still have some “special” issues that I saved and one is the October 1970 issue. The magazine was in a larger format then. I don’t know if that was my first subscriber issue or if I, more likely, saved it because it had Hemingway on the cover.

It has an excerpt from an unpublished novel that would be his first novel published posthumously. The section is titled “Bimini” and it would be the opening of Islands in the Stream published that same year.

I associated the magazine with writers like Hemingway and  F.Scott Fitzgerald. I read many of the classic articles like Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” by Norman Mailer ,” and “A Few Words about Breasts” by Nora Ephron.

“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese was a piece I was assigned to read for a college class. It is often called one of or maybe the best magazine piece. I doubt any author wants to have to defend such an honor, but it is still an influential and talked-about story.

On the Esquire website, I listened to audio of Gay Talese with David Brancaccio discussing how this piece (part of what is now called the “New Journalism”) evolved. It’s not a spoiler to say that Talese never did get to interview Sinatra and that becomes part of the story.  Talese and Sinatra are Jersey boys, which has additional appeal to me.

But back to Papa Hemingway, who “returned” to the pages of Esquire with that excerpt.

Ernest Hemingway had been published in the magazine while he was alive.  http://archive.esquire.com/issue/19701001 Esquire in 1970 was edited by Harold Hayes and Gordon Lish was the fiction editor. I had read years ago that Mary Hemingway and Gordon Lish had a correspondence about the publication of the “Bimini” segment of Islands in the Stream. Mrs. Hemingway was not happy with Esquire‘s treatment of her husband’s work. Lish and the magazine were hoping a posthumous appearance by Papa would boost the magazine’s diminishing sales and give it some of the literary stature it had lost by trying to be 1960s cool and hip.

I liked the story and immediately bought the book with its green map cover. The open section is “Bimini” and it is about a painter, Thomas Hudson, who lives on that island in the stream. The stream is the Gulf Stream, a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The Gulf Stream is an accelerating current – like a stream – off the east coast of North America and it splits in two, with the northern stream crossing to Northern Europe and the southern stream recirculating off West Africa.

Bimini is the westernmost of the Bahama islands located and is only 53 miles (81 km) due east of Miami.

Thomas Hudson’s house sits on the highest point of land between the harbor and the open sea. On the beach, you can safely swim in daylight because you can see incoming sharks before they become a danger, but at night, sharks do swim close to shore and feed.

The first act of the three-act novel is about divorced Hudson and a visit by his three sons for the summer.  Hemingway is probably a combination of Thomas and Roger Davis, a writer who is one of Hudson’s oldest friends. Thomas bonds as much as a father can given a summer after a long time apart.

Islands in the Stream was intended to revive Hemingway’s reputation, much like that of Esquire,  after the negative reviews of his Across the River and Into the Trees.

He wrote Across The River And Into The Trees in Italy, Cuba and France in the late 1940s. I think it was the first of his novels to really get generally bad reviews. But Hemingway was a celebrity writer. Like the recent publication of Harper Lee’s very disappointing Go Set a Watchman, Hemingway’s novel was still a bestseller in America, spending seven weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller’s list in 1950. Surprisingly, it was Hemingway’s only novel to top that list.

Hemingway started Islands in 1950 and it was rough but seemingly finished at the time of his suicide in 1961.  Mary Hemingway found it among 332 works Hemingway left behind at his death.

It was structured as three parts of Thomas Hudson’s life and originally the sections were titled “The Sea When Young”, “The Sea When Absent” and “The Sea in Being.” The sections were retitled “Bimini”, “Cuba”, and “At Sea”.

After “Bimini” (my favorite section), the novel follows Hudson in his anti-submarine activities off the coast of Cuba during World War II (Hemingway actually did a bit of that himself) and Cuban tales including a long section about the folks at a Havana bar. My favorite of those people is an aging prostitute that is one of Papa’s female characters (never one of his strengths as a writer).

The three stories are a mature Hemingway that I like in some ways better than the younger and more famous one. Even more so in the 1986 posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, there is a Hemingway at work that he never had the courage to show the world.

In Eden, his last uncompleted novel, Ernest Hemingway set back in the 1920s on the Côte d’Azur of a young American writer, David Bourne, and his glamorous wife, Catherine. He worked on this book intermittently from 1946 until his death in 1961 but couldn’t finish it, or perhaps didn’t want to finish it, as it would not be the Hemingway people knew. David and Catherine both fall in love with the same woman and genders get more erotically mixed than in a Shakespeare comedy. I have always thought that Hemingway’s macho bravado was in part mixed with his own questions about his masculinity which he over-compensated for with the behavior that some loved about him and many despised.

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