Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women

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Hemingway is a fascinating character. Many tell stories, but Hemingway lived in an epic poem. He traveled the worlds, participated in wars, hunted, fished, went through four marriages only to commit suicide. If I needed source material for an epic tragedy, I wouldn’t need to look further. I wouldn’t even need to add themes – masculinity, romance and war are constant themes in Hemingway’s life. This fascinating Hemingway is the only good thing about Men Without Women.

Nowadays, Hemingway’s prose reads more like a parody of realism. He didn’t understand the purpose of it. When he talks about his Iceberg Theory, he talks about hiding things from the reader. Yet holding back information isn’t good storytelling. It’s how cheap thrillers keep us hooked by hinting that if we invest more time, a revelation will come. The purpose of minimalism is to reveal using few words.

Carver came years later and saw it through. When you read Carver, you don’t need to dig deep to find buried ideas. Rather, Carver’s bare prose makes everything float up to the surface. If something is hidden or implied, it means that the mere fact of it being hidden is important. At the end of “One More Thing”, Carver tells us the man doesn’t know what to say. That’s enough to show us how confused, how broken that man is. If Hemingway wrote that story, it would end with “The Man said.”, as if not telling the reader what he said is somehow more profound than showing the man is at loss for words.

These aren’t stories of beginnings, middles and conclusions. They’re snapshots of life, which is fine. “In Another Country” is a story that goes nowhere, but it’s so lifelike. That story must be close to him since it deals with war wounds. He’s not worried about being obvious there, but just let the images stand on their own. In it, there are machines that are supposed to cure body problems. Despite being the first of their kind, there are images of before-and-after. It’s not a complex image and perhaps not a very subtle one, but it’s more powerful than anything here.

“Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the most famous story here both shows where the style works and where it generally fails. It’s routinely praised for only implying it’s about abortion instead of saying it, but what’s the point? If you insert the word ‘abortion’ there, would it change the story drastically? Often that word dies to appear on the page, especially if you read an analysis of it. Hemingway writes it while struggling not to mention it for fear of being obvious. It’s like a band who stumbles upon a great melody, but repeats it only once in fear of being ‘poppy’ or ‘mainstream’.

This isn’t being concerned with literary quality, but with literary image. A story that aims for critically-approved traits like subtlety and depth misses the whole point. Even if you do switch the word ‘operation’ with ‘abortion’, the story would remain excellent. It’s really about a couple who reached a stumbling block in their relationship and don’t know where to go. There’s a reason they spend the whole story in a train station.

If you found his dialogue stiff and repetitive before, it’s even more so here. Some stories have sections like a broken record. “The Killers”, an otherwise excellent expression of fear of organized crime, has at least a page worth of unnecessary dialogue. Whenever Hemingway slips into this, you can feel him dying to say something but too afraid of ruining his image. He’s not completely awful in his style of omission. He said he left out the whole Chicago thing from the story and that’s a wise decision since namedropping the city wouldn’t add anything. Organized crime is scary regardless of where you’re at, but killers who repeat the same words ad nausam just don’t make sense.

Across his books, Hemingway’s flaws are as repetitive as the dialogue. Yet I keep reading because there’s something beating here. Discovering Hemingway lead an epic life isn’t surprising once you read a few pieces of prose by him. There’s distress, a desire for more, an obsession with concepts that fuels great people. It’s also not surprising Hemingway killed himself. Literature was an outlet for his troubles, but he couldn’t let it out.

Again, his Iceberg Theory stabs him in the back. Being a stereotypical man means bottling up your emotions and going fishing. Men are supposed to be tough and invulnerable. A vulnerable man can’t protect your children, after all. The stories try to dig into these masculine troubles, but end up conforming to stereotypes instead of breaking them.

The troubles are distinctly masculine. Violence and heartbreak often plague our characters. The violence is either for glory or for survival. As for women, their role is to provide a respite from this life. Perhaps that’s why the man in “Hills Like White Elephants” is so vague, anxious both to make the abortion and telling her she should choose. He’s afraid of losing her because if she’s gone, all he will have left is bullfighting and war. There’s glory in bullfighting and connection when you’re at war with your buddies, but these things can also be your downfall. Then again, in Hemingway’s stories women can also be the downfall.

Downfall is always around the corner, but the sense of dread which the characters feel never surfaces. Hemingway wants to imply so much that the stories feel like a person opening up about his break-up, only to shut up once he talks about the real reason. You, as a listener, is being teased and your curiosity isn’t satisfied. The person who needs a good talk is too afraid to speak, so he doesn’t get any help. The best stories here are “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me”. Hemingway lets himself go in these. There’s a bit more telling, but the emotional punch of them is powerful. Both can slot nicely into a Carver collection without a change in quality. The worst story is “The Undefeated”, where Hemingway flexes his jargon and ruins what could’ve been a beautiful story.

Don’t read Hemingway to say you’re reading the canon. Read Hemingway because you’re interested in his personality. None of his books that I’ve read are truly great (I’m yet to reach Bell though) but they each expand on his unique personality. If you find Hemingway an interesting enough person, read this. It’s not good, but like anything else he wrote it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

2.5 men out of 5 women

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Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

Best Songs of 2015 – Part II

Here we go. This is why I’m excited to be alive for a new year. Who knew music can be so good?

14. Jason Derulo – Cheyenne

I couldn’t believe Jason was capable of such a song. He was a technically skilled singer who made boring ballads and silly sex songs. ‘Cheynne’ is a song that’s as catchy as it is powerful. Jason still sounds like a sex icon but a confused one. It’s a song about falling in love after getting used to getting girls easily and the shock of it all. Even if the title girl goes along with him (“You’re secure to make it”) he’s still overwhelmed by the fact that, for once, he ‘can’t stop’, he’s not in complete power. The musical backdrop suits it, too. A thumping dance track that also sounds a little menacing.

13. Hollywood Undead – Take Me Home

What genre is this, anyway? Hollywood Undead were a great, trashy band at first. This dirge-like song doesn’t sound like they imitate the Metalcore bands that influenced them. The song relies on a stomping drumbeat that makes it all sounds like a funeral march. The hedonistic nihilism now doesn’t sound so attractive. Also, although it has an anthemic side it never explodes into pure stadium-ness. It remains subdued, showing sadness that feels more genuine than any of their previous ballads.

12. Bring Me the Horizon – Happy Song

It’s scary how well it sums up the Nu Metal attitude. It’s emotional release through singing loud and cursing. The use of ‘fucking’ suits the song so well. Sykes sounds depressed, singing weakly throughout the verses and only bursting at the chorus. Sykes never sounds positive or like he’s out of his depression, but he sounds like he’s trying when the band slams and he shouts the album title. It’s one of the best songs about depression. It acknowledges the fact you might be able to solve it, but fuck it, let’s try anyway.

11. Hollywood Undead – War Child

The best example of Hollywood Undead’s attempts at blurring genres. It’s a confusing track which way you look at it. It has a bass drop, only a loud guitar dominates it. The verses are Hip-Hop and the chorus is Pop. All this genre-bending means there isn’t an audience for this. It’s too Rock/Dance/Rap depending on your audience, but it’s also proof you can make music that’s both creative and fit for parties.

10. Everclear – You

Social justice is a big thing now and people now acknowledge males also get raped. This isn’t an MRA anthem about how male victims are proof we don’t need feminism. It’s a chilling song. There haven’t been a song like this since Korn’s “Daddy”. The contrast between the driving riffs and Art’s vulnerability gives us the mix of anger and sadness the situation creates. Everclear always great lyrics, but now they reach a new levels.

9. Grimes – Realiti

We have this perception that reality is harsh. ‘Welcome to reality’ is a phrase we tell people to let them know they need to acknowledge terrible things. This sounds so joyous, though. Reality can be beautiful with mountains to climb. Someone once said Grimes sings like an anime girl and there’s cuteness to her vocals that makes this song even more blissful.

8. Fall Out Boy – Immortals

It’s like “Centuries”, only more friendly. It doesn’t make it any less brilliant. The band’s new found aggression made for an album that’s mostly too loud for its own good but the cockiness here is great. You can imagine the band playing this at a festival, and every band that will play after them will be out of spirits. The vocal acrobatics Stump does destroys anything by Sia or Adele. Vocal acrobatics are a sign of strength, not sorrow.

7. Everclear – Complacent

You’d think Everclear would’ve ran out of ways to write about depression and failure. They had something that no one else had. Failure after failure makes you detached eventually. On “Complacent” they throw themselves headfirst into that idea of giving up. You can hear how Art desperately tries to convince himself that he’s ‘not angry anymore’, but when he sings about not wanting to be that guy he’s weak and faithless. He promises he will try, there’s no hope it will work. It’s not even the best song the band made this year.

6. Everclear – The Man Who Broke His Own Heart

They say that no one will love you until you love yourself. This is a heartbreak song from the point of view of a man who has nothing. He can barely lash out at his heartbreaker. He ruined it all by first hurting himself over and over. Bad lovers aren’t just assholes who use you only for sex. The guy who can’t stop hating himself is just as undesirable, even if it’s less politically correct to admit it. This both gives him a voice, but explains why it was reasonable to dump him. What a pessimistic song.

5. Melanie Martinez – Mrs. Potato Head

A lot of pop singers tell us we’re beautiful despite what people say. It’s easy to say it when you’re pretty. Melanie is the outcast, and on “Mrs. Potato Head” she finally tells society to fuck off. It’s been a while since someone made fun of our obsession with beauty. Someone needed to write the line “No one will love you if you’re unattractive”. The best thing is how serene Melanie sounds. She’s sneering at society throughout the song and doesn’t even view the Beautiful People as someone worth fighting. They’re just ‘mrs. potato heads’.

4. Celldweller – Heart On

It’s epic. Why Celldweller doesn’t score all sci-fi films? Maybe because they’re not worthy of his music. “Heart On” is a Progressive-Bass-Rock-House music whose every drop is different until it climax in an anthem that sounds pretty hopeless. Klayton sings about all the things he’ll do for the girls, isn’t needing to do all that means she doesn’t care much? The song moves from section to section, never losing its focus. A genius is someone who can connect unrelated things, and here Klayton finds a balance between Progressive, House, bass wobbles, rock and even a pseudo-rap verse.

3. Faith No More – Superhero

It’s worrying at first when Patton screams. We had enough of him doing silly things with his voice. When the chorus kicks in the song reveals itself to be something else. This is the good Faith No More who made angst rock, but weirder. What makes this song so good is how it moves from a simple Nu Metal song to a more progressive atmospheric one. The shift isn’t even sudden. The bridge between the two parts takes the anthemic chorus and the atmospherics of the later part and gives us a smooth transition. Patton also sounds very hateful.

2. Enter Shikari – Aneasthetist

A pattern appears, but then again it’s an ideal one. Songs that encompass multiple ideas and genres are often the best. “Aneasthetist” is barley three minutes long but it manages to do so much – Hip-Hop, Metalcore, Big Beat and sounds effects from a hospital. It’s just the variety. The breakdown is one of Shikari’s best, with hospital sounds making accompanying the saw-like riffs. There’s always fear Shikari will revert to making generic rock (Because this is ‘unoriginal’ because it doesn’t sound like Led Zeppelin) but so far, they’re only getting weirder.

1. Celldweller – Jericho

It’s not as progressive as anything else on the album, but it’s unique. Most songs about wishing for someone’s downfall are anthemic in a way that invites everyone to do vocal acrobatics. “Jericho” always remains subdued. There are no guitars but just a bassline and a stomping drumbeat. All this makes it sound more sinister. Klayton’s vocals doesn’t need to explode, he doesn’t need to convince himself. He sings like he knows that the subject’s person walls will fall, and there’s a cruel smile all over the song.

0. Periphery – 22 Faces

There isn’t anything profound in this song. It’s just perfect. Every part, every line contributes to the whole. The structure is verse-chorus-verse, only every verse and every chorus is different. It makes me wonder why bands who just want to rock out don’t make songs like this. On the final chorus the singer everything explodes, a ‘fuck me’ that sounds spontanous and the riffs hit even harder. There might not be anything emotionally deep here, but this is everything I want in Rock music.

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart is the most famous African novel. It’s easy to expect it to give an unfamiliar portrait of an African society. Hopefully, it will be one that hasn’t been ‘Westernized’, and will show us the unique aspects of that society. It should be in-depth, and perhaps by showing the richness of that culture it will tell us how awful racism is, and that ‘black people’ are also people.

Achebe did show us that ‘black people’ are also people, but his method wasn’t to turn Igbo society into a tourist attraction.

Achebe’s Igbo culture doesn’t come off as very alien and different. That’s because Achebe doesn’t see it that way. If you grew up in Africa, it wouldn’t seem so exotic and odd to you. It would be the norm. Raymond Carver doesn’t treat his middle-class people as an exotic culture, and instead opts to explore the people in it and how they function in it. Achebe does the same thing here. He cares less about showing an exotic society than telling a story about human beings.

That’s why Things Fall Apart‘s themes and tropes may seem familiar. Maybe it’s not because White People ruined African culture, because there wasn’t so much difference to begin with. That leaves Achebe exploring his characters, without caging them in their culture.

Until the last part, where the White People appear, there’s barely any mention that these characters have dark skin. Instead, Achebe tells their stories dealing with topics such as parenting, childbirth, climbing the social ladder and masculinity. The last one is a big deal. It may be a common theme in a lot of Western literature, but anywhere that there are humans, there will be men and women. It’s a universal theme.

Things Fall Apart is actually more of a critique of the concept of gender, rather than embracing masculinity. Okonkwo being a protagonist doesn’t automatically means he’s supposed to be flawless. He’s not Atticus Finch. He’s sexist, but plenty of time that sexism is being challenged. In Igbo society, men are valued much more than women. “Women” is an insult. That’s why Okonkwo can deal with a son that doesn’t fit the traditional male role. He just calls him a woman and that’s it. When Okonkwo has a daughter that is much better than all his sons though, Achebe starts to question the sexism in Igbo society.

There’s a whole arc devoted to one female character and her devotion to motherhood. It’s not motherhood that’s been forced about the character. Ekwefi’s love for daughter makes her go against a spiritual custom. This is motherhood by choice. If Ekwefi’s motherhood is just a sign of submission, she wouldn’t have rebelled and went against the gods. However, she made a choice, and put what she loves above what society expects from here.

It gets even better when the White Man appears. Achebe’s sympathies may be with the Africans, and there’s no reason to expect anything else. However, it’s not the narrative of noble savages being trampled by the evil conquerer. The White Man doesn’t appear until the last part. By that time, Achebe lets us get used to the African culture, stop seeing it as exotic and start examining where it falls and succeeds. By the time the White Man comes, Achebe already gets rid of that simple narrative.

The part about the invasion is also less about the collision of ‘black’ and ‘white’ cultures. It’s about what happens in general when cultures collide. Just as we tend to view all of Africa as one thing, so do the Igbo view them as just ‘the white man’, although he could have come from anywhere in Europe. When they come, Achebe keeps viewing his own culture with a critical eye.

One of the best parts is Nwoye, Okonkwo’s bad son’s arc. The Christians offer a place for the weak to belong to. Igbo culture doesn’t just have outcasts, but is very mean towards them. They flocked to Christianity not just because the White Man conquered by force, but because something was missing in Igbo culture.

At the same, Achebe also criticizes the White People for their brutal treatment of Africans. That part is less novel, but that’s just because it’s a well-known story. Achebe criticizes less White People for what they are, but the exact method. White People became a problem not when they built a church, but when they decided that their rules should apply to every single one. It’s the lack of dialogue between the two cultures, the decision to stick to absolute morals that caused the destruction. Once one side decided to use violence instead of dialogue – it’s the White Man in this case – everything spinned out of control. Violence, and being unafraid of it, by the way, is seen as a desirable and masculine trait.

Do not get the wrong message, by the way. Things Fall Apart doesn’t say that African culture is obsolete and that the White Man somehow saved them. Rather, Achebe applies the same critical thought that any good author applies to his culture.

Things Fall Apart deserves its fame. Maybe, after devling deeper into African literature I will not find this so great. For now, this is the type of novel that deserves to be representative of the continent, if a novel can represent a continent. It doesn’t celebrate its culture and it doesn’t view its history as just bad people doing things. It respects it by treating it with the same critical eye that every other culture deserves. There’s no greater service to a culture than giving it an honest examination, not flinching from its flaws and successes. Some will think the familiarity is because Achebe is also a victim of Westernization, but perhaps ‘black’ and ‘white’ people are more alike than we think. Maybe, the missionaries have thought like this, Things wouldn’t’ve Fallen Apart.

4 yams out of 5