Monthly Archives: May 2012

Freedom, By Jonathan Franzen (The ever-changing role of today’s woman)



Freedom by, Jonathan Franzen, takes you into the depth of an all-American family. A book that tells the struggle of the Berglunds. The struggle to discover themselves, to raise children into successful citizens of the world, to find communication within the family circle, and finally to survive in a world full of corruption, desire, and competitiveness that seeks to destroy the foundation of their bonds. Freedom is a major work that is a masterful read. I can’t but think that Franzen, uses each character in this work as a way to introduce great social and political themes of our times. Each characters presence in the work is relative to the size of issue/problem Franzen is trying masterfully to get across to the reader. He never allows one to get bored, by constantly shifting the focus between complex characters. The work is an honest, sometimes all too harsh view of the current American family, that would surprise and educate the foreign perception.

Jonathan Franzen’s themes some times seem redundant in this work, and it’s true that his major, impossible to miss, themes such as freedom, competitiveness, overpopulation, governmental corruptness in the Bush regime, are all at times nauseating.  I at times in the work, found myself as sick of Walter, as I did of Al Gore and his global warming propaganda that captivated the world for a brief period, and then faded of the map, once Al Gore got the publicity he apparently needed to validate himself as a human being. However the interchanging point of views with in the novel, never allow Walter’s political views to make the work unbearable. Franzen’s skill of characterization, rewards a reader who looks deeper, beyond the obvious. I, for example, found Franzen’s deep characterization of the major female characters in the work enlightening and educating on the ever-changing role of woman in todays society.

Inside Freedom, there are two camps of women. There is the American housewife type that consists of Patty Berglund and her son’s teenage love, turned college long distance detached girlfriend, and finally wife, Connie. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Franzen gives us the independently driven urban woman. This type is embodied in Jenna and Lalitha.

The Berglund men, Walter and his son Joey, all seem to land the same type of woman. One who loves endlessly, throws herself into the family life, and devotes her whole life to keeping the household running. The Berglund women’s excessive love is overwhelming and suffocating. While this may speak to some genetic make up of the men, that is encoded in the underlying of the fundamental search for a partner. In my opinion it has more to do with the type of women that calls middle America home. Patty ran away from the city lights and competitive life style for the quiet rural life of Minnesota. Little did she know her whole life would end up a competition between the urban rock star Richard Katz, and, her tree hugging rural husband Walter.

Failing to have an affair in college, with a city rock star Richard Katz, Patty’s mission becomes to establish a loving household with Richard’s intellectual dedicated roommate Walter Berglund. Patty throws herself into being the perfect wife and mother. In this she finds her ego fulfilled. As Patty’s love is excepted and praised not only by her household, but by the community it self, Patty manufactures more and more of this love. Love becomes the only thing she is good at, and the overwhelming proportions, are taken to a dangerous level. Her love eventually begins to suffocate its subjects.  The subjects start to avoid her like a plague. Walter her husband acquires a job with the requirement for long work trips. She focuses her love on her son Joey. He unbelievably at 16 moves next door to escape it and live with Connie, his girlfriend, and, Carroll, her mother. Having alienated both men, she focuses on Richard Katz. Richard gives in for a time at the Summer House, but soon escapes her himself. In Patty one finds a sad character, who tries to conquer all with love, but never grasps how one dimensional, suffocating, and, uninteresting, she becomes as a woman.

Joey, who escapes his mom like a plague, moves in across the street with his childhood love Connie. As he becomes more independent, and career oriented he finds Connie to be a carbon copy of his mom. Connie has no motivations, other than being there for Joey.

“ I only want to be with you. That’s all I want in my life. You’re the best person in the world. You can do anything you want, and I can be there for you. You’ll own lots of companies, and I can work for you. Or you can run for president, and I’ll work for your campaign. If you need somebody to break the law, I’ll do that for you. If you want children, I’ll raise them for you. “  (p.250)

Joey moves away to school in Virginia, then eventually the quest for capital gain brings him to New York City, ironically the city his mother Patty escaped with her first chance at freedom. While Joey is chasing dreams, Connie is stuck at home being abandoned, and working as a waitress in a local dinner. Joey in the work, puts his dreams first and Connie second, or third or fourth, depending on the situation (Since he knows she will always be there, no matter what).This abandonment forces Connie into manic depressions, similar to Patty. The lack of enthusiasm outside the housewife life and playing the supporting role, makes her dull and unimportant in Joey’s life. He is almost ashamed of her, and feels that she ruins his image. Too embarrassed to even tell his roommate Jonathan about their relationship or hiding from his hall mate Casey that he and Connie are shopping for wedding rings.  Much like Patty, the only way Connie is able to keep Joey around is by forcing him to feel terribly sorry and indebted to her.

These two women, are juxtaposed by two female characters the Berglund men are energized by. For Walter it’s Lalitha, a young Indian female, and partner in Walter’s environmental quests.  While Joey’s prized possession is Jenna, the sister of his college roommate Jonathan. A Jewish goddess, and, intelligent duke graduate.

Lalitha captures Walter’s attention, with her young enthusiasm. She and Walter are united with a mission of achieving a sanctuary for the Cerulean Warbler. Through her determination to bring the difficult project to fruition, Walter gains a deep respect and affection for Lalitha.

“Her success made him feel inferior and unworthy of her admiration, and thus all the more grateful to her. Which then led him to a more general enthusiasm about young people and their capacity to do good in the world” (p.316)

Lalitha in Franzen’s work is a representation of the modern day woman. A strong individual who upon achieving a desired situation in life, doesn’t sit back and work on securing her strong hold. A woman who continues to move forward and fight for everything she receives. This quality within Lalitha attracts the reader, and, captivates Walter’s heart.

“Poor Patty, poor competitive lost Patty, who wasn’t doing anything remotely brave or admirable in Washington, could not help noticing his admiration of Lalitha” (p.323)

Joey, is intrigued by Jenna, another strong female character.  The main reason Joey falls for her, is that she is unattainable. He is warned by his roommate Jonathan, from the start.

“…I’m not going to tell Jenna. I’ll just warn you right now that you’re lacking the key to her heart.”

“And what’s that?”

“A job at Goldman Sachs. ‘That’s what her boyfriend has. His stated ambition is to be worth a hundred million at age thirty.” (p.277)

Jenna’s independence arises from having everything in life. Being born into a high society family with an influential father, perhaps the easiest option would have been to become daddy’s girl and reap the benefits. However Jenna is too bright a character. A duke graduate, she realizes that depending on anyone won’t open many doors.  Much like Lalitha, she refuses to put all her eggs in one basket. Within the novel she is always on the move. We find her among fancy dinners, gatherings in the Hamptons, sky rises of Manhattan financial district, and riding horses in Patagonia. Jenna’s freedom is earned, and not given to her through other people’s achievements. This independence, along with her beauty, makes her a prize worth paying attention to, for any up and coming man on the ladder to success. Every time Joey gets any acknowledgement from her, his body hair stands up, and, Connie becomes a second thought. Joey is so overpowered by Jenna’s strong image, that when he finally gets a chance to fuck her, he can’t even perform.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom strives to bring forth issues relevant to today’s American public. Characters are the transportations for Franzen’s thoughts. They are highly stylized and realistic vehicles that drive the author’s points home. Such a point, is the role of women in today’s world. At first the reader is presented with the old fashioned middle American version of the Housewife. The role Patty and Connie undertake is outdated. It makes the women unattractive, and enforces psychological damage. In todays world the housewife is a fish out of water, unable to swim, a fish aimlessly beating on the dry sand as it dries up in agony. Evolution has changed the woman’s role. It’s now sleeker better and improved. Women have a voice, the open world is no longer along the shore. A woman to be attractive, must follow her man into the depth of the ocean. Must be fearless and exciting, free and not burdened. It’s enjoyable to have a partner who is as capable of achieving the unachievable as yourself. Freedom demonstrates such a point , which make it all the more powerful. A view on today’s ever changing landscape of America.

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The Sickness, By Alberto Barrera Tyszka


The Sickness, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, winner of the Herralde Prize, turns out to be a worthwhile read. A book designed for a cold winter night, sitting next to a fireplace with a glass of quality brandy and a good cigar roasting between your fingers. At 180 pages, it is short enough to finish during a cold evening and into the night. Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s prose is elegant. The story moves placidly like a small boat on its way into the unknown, gently flowing among the dark waves and turbulent waters that surround it. However small in stature, The Sickness, tackles the heaviest of issues, illness and death, with the courage not to hold anything back. As a reader your transplanted from your surroundings, into the world of death’s cruel calling for the life of an elderly man, and its effects on a strong body, a healthy mind, and, a happy family.

The novel is set in Caracas Venezuela. The main character is  self-centered Dr. Andres Miranda, who’s father, Javier Miranda, is stricken with advanced stages of brain cancer. The discovery of the condition, is brought on by recent loses of balance, forgetfulness, and vomiting, that are experienced more frequently in Javier Miranda’s everyday life. Dr. Andres, performs  blood work to diagnose, his father’s symptoms, which comes back normal. Being a studious doctor, Dr. Andres digs farther, and persuades his old man to take numerous MRIs and X-rays. Through these images, developed after the procedure and his colleague’s expertise, Dr Andres concludes that his father is in stage IV spinocellular carcinoma, with cerebral metastasis.

With the groundwork laid out, the presence of death, seeps inside the pores of every page. Death is imminent, and the reader is aware of this from the opening pages. The awareness of it, conquers your optimism, and takes you on a dark ride into the psychological and physical torments, that come with the territory. Like a horse in a race with blinders on, you’re able to shut out all hope of a happy ending, and, devote all your energy to understanding the vast scope of the topic, that Tyszka is about to unveil in the following pages.

The topic of terminal illness is unveiled, at first from the view of the son, Dr. Andres. Being surrounded by illness, in his working environment, fails to prepare Dr. Andres, to come to grips with it on a personal level. There is no nurse or social worker, he can send to face his fathers loving gaze, while disclosing to him, the unfortunate findings. The responsibility squarely falls on his own shoulders. The inability, to come to terms with it on a personal level, to face his father with the news,  to imagine the world without him, forces Dr, Andres to buy time. This is done through lies and deception. Dr. Andrew shrinks under the pressure, a coward of sorts. As the days follow one another his lies become more extravagant, and encompass more people. Javier Miranda, must learn of his fate, not through the strength of his only son’s character, but through the transparency of his weakness.

“Javier Miranda stared at him, astonished, overwhelmed. He appeared to be trembling or trying hard to keep his body from trembling. He bowed his head, turned, and walked off into the shadow” p. 119

Javier Miranda is finally told of the severity of his condition, on the boat ride back, from a trip of deception. His son comes clean, opens up, and reveals his weakness along with the web of lies he weaved to protect it. The moment of truth,  knocks Javier Miranda of his axis. He spins out of control and never regains the equilibrium to enjoy the little time left on this earth. While the illness weakens his body, depression conquers his mind. After the trip Javier shuts Andres out completely, and lives in secrecy. Javier closes his heart to his son, and the men drift farther apart. The act put on by Javier is childish (But isn’t it often found that older people resemble kids). Instead of taking comfort in family, he searches for comfort in a poor maid, and a support group, full of lost souls from various paths of life, seeking answers from a self help guru. Does he do this because he feels he can’t trust his only son anymore?

There are things to like about these characters, as well (Not all is bad). The relationship they shared after the loss of the mother and wife in a plane crash. The admirable father that Javier has been in raising Andres. The old school values of loving only one women in a lifetime, displayed by Javier and later followed by Andres. The prototype son, Andres, has matured into through the strength of a special bond father and son have established. There are positive qualities within the pages to seek out for a man. However these qualities establish themselves only through Dr. Miranda’s memories of the past. They are found in glimpses of memory.

The juxtaposition of the good/past with the deteriorating/present, aids Tyszka in the work, to demonstrate the raw power of illness. The cancer conquers a strong foundation that took a lifetime to build. A foundation that overcame all challenges.

Dr. Andres had always found strength in his father, the lack of strength, jeopardized by cancer, leads to everything  unravelling, as answers turn into questions.

“For the first time, it occurs to him that the illness might take away from himself and his father something he had never thought it would: conversation, the ability to talk to each other. The illness is destroying their words as well.” p. 154

Especially lost is Andres when he discovers his father’s affair. The affair forces him to question everything he ever knew about his father. The affair is discovered from a mysterious phone call that leads to the love letters hidden in Javiers’ bedside stand. He tracks the women down through half a dry cleaning ticket, that was used by his fathers lover to write love notes. The woman (Ines Pacheco) shuts the door on him, without offering any insight. When he talks about the events with Javier, there is no answers to be found in the frail human. Just resignation to the illness and the wish for it all to end. With every day closer to death, Andres is more confused, Javier more depressed and weak.

The story ends, quite sadly, at Javiers bedside. The dying man’s last request is to hear his son’s stories of the past as the illness finishes him off. Dr. Andres how ever stays true to his character with tears and self pity. He is choked up by the very tears, and unable to talk. Unable to grant his father’s last wish.

“Talk to me,” he says again. “Don’t let me die in silence.” p. 188

The gripping relationship between father and son, the honest view of illness, the clever quotes found almost on every page of the text, the beautiful prose used to describe a dark and hopeless situation, the punch the work packs in 180 pages, the lessons of life hidden in the pages, are all reasons this work is high of praise. However as a reader I would hate to think that illness is able to destroy a person so quickly, to corrupt him to the point, where his lifetime of work is torn down by his self undoings through bad judgement and moral character. I hated how the characters behaved themselves, and can’t help to think that Tyszka, to paint the horrid picture of the concerned topic, needed to use such improbable characters (Just as a painter may need to use certain colors to paint a specific picture). Because if this is how we die, and comfort loved ones as they leave us, then we all need to do a better job.

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The Growing Stone, By Albert Camus


Albert Camus beautiful prose takes us on a magical ride deep inside the depths of Brazil. The setting of the story, is unlike any other found in the book Exile and The Kingdom. The location has many advantages to Albert Camus, in helping him get his psychological points illustrated to the reader through the use of wonderful fiction in the depth of nature. There are two main themes dealt with within the story.

  • Finding a bond and kinship with a new community, while at the same time having a feeling of exile due to one’s past.
  • The negative effect of mass religion and politics on people .

The story starts with a french engineer (d’Arrast) and his driver (Socrates), as they are traveling through the dark night. d’Arrast has been hired to begin preparations for a dam, that will control the river and prevent flooding in a remote town. After a long drive through the night, they arrive. Next morning, once in the remote establishment, d’Arrast is very little interested in building the dam, and, more interested in discovering the culture of the locals. His first interest is in seeing a local hut, so that he may satisfy his curiosity on how these people survive in such living conditions. The hut is bare, besides a huge fire pit in the center of the hut that is used for cooking and to keep warm and, a small mattress on a broken frame with a table next to it. The hut peeks his interest, as it grows with every new experience on this journey.

“He was waiting as if the work he had come here to do were merely a pretext, the occasion for a surprise or an encounter he could not even imagine, but that had been waiting for him, patiently at the end of the world”

After the visit to a locals hut, Socrates the person responsible for leading d’Arrast on this journey of self discovery, tells him the story of the growing stone.  The locals found a floating statue of Jesus Christ in the river. They brought it to safety and placed it inside a cave to work on its restoration. The statue once removed, left a stone for ever in that cave, the said stone now always grows ( Hence the name for the story The Growing Stone) . It’s considered a miracle by the locals. During the holidays the locals brake of a piece of stone for blessing. The growing stone sounds like propaganda the local missionaries would use to convert a tribe to Christianity, but d’Arrast goes with it. He visits the growing stone.

Next d’Arrast is introduced to a local ship cook, who Socrates calls “The Champion”. At this point the reader hears a personal account of an experience with God, from a local of the land. We hear how the ship cook’s vessel caught fire, to no fault of his own. The fire engulfs large ship on the river, and the cook must jump unto a lifeboat.  During the night the life boat overturns. While drowning the cook makes a promise to Jesus. That if he was saved he would carry a 50 kilos (110 lbs) stone on his back during the religious ceremonies to take place in town. The frenchman gets a chuckle out of the story. It’s clear that d’Arrast is an atheist and finds the promise silly. But agrees with the cook that once a promise is made it must be carried out. A man of principle, our french engineer.

The cook than begs for d’Arrast to join him at night during the ceremonies, so that the frenchman may help him keep his promise. The cook is in fear that he may get carried away by the dancing and be put in a trance. d’Arrast is asked to attend the ceremony and ensure that they leave at a respectable time so that the cook may get rest before the task promised. This annoys d’Arrast, an atheist he feels now responsible for this stranger. He can’t understand how this villager could bestow such a responsibility on him, a man he barely knows. But his fascinations, with the lifestyle and practices continue to grow, and he accepts. d’Arrast is rewarded with a life changing experience.

That night d’Arrast takes part in an out of this world experience. He witnesses the dancing ceremonies of the tribal townspeople devoted to god. This passage of the event is by far the best part of the work, for the vivid images it implants in the reader’s head, and, all the senses the words touch. The writer makes you feel, hear, and smell in his description of the ceremonies.

  • Feel –  “In the reddish, uncertain light a stifling dust was rising from the ground thickening the already heavy air that clung to the skin, D’arrast felt gradually overcome by fatigue; it was harder and harder for him to breathe.”
  • Smell – “The heat, the dust, the smoke of the cigars, the smell of human bodies was making the air completely unbreathable”
  • Hear-”At the same time, everyone began to howl, without letup, a long collective, toneless howl, as if their bodies were entirely knotted together, muscles and nerves, in a single powerful outburst that at last gave voice in each of them to a being which had been absolutely silent.

The leader of the ceremony is described to us as a tall black man wearing a fitted red tunic with a necklace of colored teeth. An image all together different then you’d expect to see in a leader found at a place of warship. The ceremony is also nothing like you’d expect in the house of god. There is dancing, screaming, smoking. Pain and pleasure seem to intertwine. It’s more like exorcism than a religious service. But it attracts our frenchmen, the wild smells, the wild dancing, the yells, it captivates not just the reader but our hero. Until he is kicked out.

“They’re going to dance all night, but they don’t want you to stay now”

Here we run into a theme that runs deep through all the stories found in the book. The theme of exile. Even though d’Arrast is in love with the events, the people and the town, he has overstayed his welcome in a sense. It’s as if d’Arrast may partake in everyday activities, but when things get personal, he is after all an outsider, and asked to leave. d’Arrast realizes this

“Life here was at ground level, and to be a part of it one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or parched earth”

On the next day, d’Arrast is invited to experience the religious festival from the balcony of the judges house. Through out the events d’Arrast is on the look out for the cook. As he takes in the view, hears the firecrackers that echo through the town and disturb the birds from their calm rest, the image of the cook evades him. d’Arrast through the friendship with the cook, has developed an attachment to the community. This attachment traps the frenchman between the old and the new. The old he finds no affinity for, and the new that he can never call his own, or fit in with. d’Arrast is trapped.

“Again he wanted to flee this country, and at the same time he was thinking about the enormous stone; he would have liked this trial to be over”

d’Arrast can’t leave because he is entranced by the villagers, from the stories he hears, the rituals he witnesses, and, the sights he takes in. It pulls him in. This echos what Albert Camus must have felt returning to his homeland of Algeria, after spending so many years living in France.

When d’Arrast finally sees the cook carrying the stone on his head, he runs out into the middle of the street. The cook is utilizing all the strength remaining in his body and feeding from the energy of encouragement supplied by the villagers, that surround him. As he takes his final steps with the stone placed on his head, the cook, is described as, having his muscles perturbing in anguish from his bones. The image painted through words is of a broken down man who has spent every conceivable ounce of energy, carrying this burden. A man who can no longer continue. A man defeated, bleeding and collapsed. I keep asking my self is the stone symbolic of something bigger? Is this society burdened by the western laws and religious practices? It seems like d’Arrast realizes this as he picks up the dropped stone and carries it not to the designated destination of a Christian church, but to the Hut of the cook. The final message here is to bring it all back to the basics. To give the people back their freedom, to respect their practices, to let them practice their own history. We find Albert Camus in this main character. A man who wanted his people to be left alone, to be free in their own land, without the imposed laws and politics of the French government.

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