Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Thoughts on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was searching the tables in a book store a while back, as I am wont to do, and came across this book. I had read The Buried Giant by Ishiguro and loved it, so I decided to give this one a read, especially since it was one of the books that influenced the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

The story follows a group of friends from a special school, whose students face a grim future. While the main plot of the story is thought-provoking, it is the subtle explorations of humanity that makes this an incredible work of art. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it, but I will say this deserves a spot on everyone’s “must read” list.

OK, let’s take a look at a few passages that stood out for me.

“But that wasn’t all,” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.”

(p. 175)

I have always believed this. Art provides a way for an individual to express aspects of their being that cannot be conveyed through standard conversation. And yes, stories and poems are comprised of words, just like common speech, but it is what is unsaid, the cadence of the language, the metaphors and symbolism, which all combine to allow the artist to share something so deep that only a poem or well-crafted story could possibly come close to imparting that hidden part of the self to another human being.

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have denied it, though Tommy wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth…

(p. 195)

In this passage, Kathy is remembering how she participated in the psychological bullying of her friend Tommy by staying silent and not speaking up. It is a painful lesson that too many of us learn the hard way. I learned it when I was quite young. I had a friend named Mason, and one day, a kid who usually bullied me directed his anger and hatred toward my friend instead, and I did nothing, grateful for the respite from my own torment. But the real torment came afterwards, when Mason confronted me for not standing by him. I made some lame excuse, but he was wise enough to see right through it. It’s a memory that haunted me for a long time. But I learned a valuable lesson, that silence is not acceptable when facing injustice. Not taking action makes you just as guilty in the end.

“… You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.”

(p. 268)

This is the ultimate existential dilemma. We all know what’s in store for us. So what’s the point? Why struggle like Sisyphus? For me, it is precisely my lessons, my art, my writing, and my relationships with the people I love that give this life meaning. And in fact, knowing that death is inevitable makes me cherish my limited time here. It inspires me to do things that have lasting meaning and value. It’s not the end that matters. All ends are the same. It’s what you do while on the road that gives life meaning.

To sum up, this book is powerful, disturbing, inspiring, and elegantly written. If you have not read it, I highly recommend doing so. His Nobel Prize is certainly justified.

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Dylan Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

bobdylan

As a musician and poet, I’ve always understood the connection between song lyrics and poetry, and now this seems to have been validated by the Swedish Academy. Few could argue the impact that Dylan’s words have had on the world. I have to say, I am grateful to have lived at the same time as Bob Dylan, and even more grateful that I was able to see him perform multiple times. He truly deserves this award. Congratulations to one of the great living wordsmiths.

Click here to read CNN article.

Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a’ changin’!

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“The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

GirlsAtomicCityWhen I first saw this book displayed at a local bookstore, I was intrigued. I had been to Oak Ridge, Tennessee several times. My daughter, who is a competitive rower, competes in Oak Ridge. I had a vague idea that the city was connected to the development of the atomic bomb, but did not know the history. Anyway, on a recent visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., I noticed they were selling autographed copies of the book, so I bought one.

The book is an historical account of the development of Oak Ridge and its involvement in the Manhattan Project, focusing on the role of women. Essentially, Oak Ridge was a secret government city whose primary goal was the enrichment of uranium into weapons-grade material. Workers were recruited by the government to live and work at the site. Since a large number of men were overseas fighting, Oak Ridge offered numerous opportunities for women. Much of the book is dedicated to the lives of these women and how they dealt with life in a top-secret military installation where discussing what you did was strictly forbidden. In fact, until after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, most workers at Oak Ridge had no idea what they were working on. They were given a task, told their job was helping the war effort, and that was all they knew.

I was not surprised that women played such a significant role in the advancement of nuclear science, nor was I surprised that women’s contributions were written out of much of the male-dominated history. I for one had never heard of Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist who escaped Nazi Germany and was part of the team that discovered fission; in fact, she actually coined the term. But not only did her male colleagues get credit for her work, she was often mistreated because of her gender, being “banished to research in a basement workshop because a superior thought women in the chemistry labs were dangerous—their hair might catch on fire.” (p. 58) Later, when Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fission, Meitner was “referred to in the press as Hahn’s junior associate.” (p. 293)

Kiernan points out that young women were preferred as recruits to work on the project because, in those days, women did what they were told and didn’t ask questions.

The Project liked high school girls, especially those from rural backgrounds. Recruiters sought them out relentlessly, feeling young women were easy to instruct. They did what they were told. They weren’t overly curious. If you tell a young woman of 18 from a small-town background to do something, she’ll do it, no questions asked. Educated women and men, people who had gone to college and learned just enough to think they might “know” something, gave you problems. The Project scoured the countryside of Tennessee and beyond looking for recent graduates. (p. 69)

One of the things briefly discussed in the book is the secret medical experiments administered to unsuspecting individuals, where people were injected with plutonium without knowledge and then watched to observe the effects. Ebb Cade, an African-American worker at Oak Ridge, was the first test subject.

Ebb Cade was not the only test subject. It turned out that between 1945 and 1947, 18 people were injected with plutonium, specifically: 11 at Rochester, New York, 3 at University of Chicago, 3 at UC San Francisco, and 1, Ebb Cade, at Oak Ridge. Several thousand human radiation experiments were conducted between 1944 and 1974. In 1994, President Clinton appointed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) to investigate these and other experiments funded by the United States government. Their final report was published in 1996. (p. 293)

If this is something that interests you, I recommend reading The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome. I read this book when it came out and it had a strong impact on me.

Something that I found surprising in this book was the number of corporations and universities involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Companies like Westinghouse, Aluminum Company of America, and Eastman Kodak were involved. Even Kellogg was heavily involved. In fact, Kellogg was responsible for the enrichment plant’s design and development. (pp. 99 – 108) From now on, every time I see a box of Special-K on the grocery shelf, I will be reminded of K-25, the name given to the enrichment plant that Kellogg designed. Finally, I found out that ORACLE got its start in Oak Ridge, and that ORACLE is actually an acronym for the Oak Ridge Automatic Computer and Logical Engine.

Some history books can be pretty dull, but not this one. The topic is interesting and the book is very well-written. I recommend this book for everyone. It’s a fairly quick read and very insightful. I think I might have to take another trip out to Oak Ridge soon and visit the museum there. I’m sure I will find it as fascinating as this book.

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“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

I realized that in my last blog post I might have been a little harsh on the modernists, so I decided to balance my criticism by reviewing a modernist poem that I think is truly an amazing work, and that is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This poem is a masterpiece that successfully evokes imagery and emotion in a way that the average person can relate to, while at the same time incorporating allusions and imagery that will challenge erudite readers. I have to say, as far as poetry goes, this is flawless.

The poem is essentially the musings of a person nearing the end of his life and contemplating what he has and has not done. This is a feeling everyone can relate to, regardless of age. Who can honestly say they have not sat alone and relived scenarios from their past, or played out events in their heads where the outcomes were different, running through the endless possibilities?

The poem is prefaced with a quote from Dante’s Inferno (Canto 27; Lines 61 – 66), which is followed by what may be the greatest opening lines ever:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

The first two lines are kind of the set up, creating a pleasant sense that is then slaughtered by the third line. This sets up the motif of juxtaposition that carries through the rest of the poem, where images of sickness and death are superimposed upon those of beauty and life.

The following short stanza repeats several times throughout the poem, almost like a refrain:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

Something about this has haunted me for years, but I could never put my finger on why until today. Prufrock finds himself in a social situation, where people are engaged, talking with each other and comfortably interacting. But Prufrock is alone, an outsider who is unable to participate in the play of life that unfolds before him. He is a classic introvert. This explains why the lines affect me on such a visceral level, because like Prufrock, I am painfully introverted and feel like an outsider in social situations, watching life unfold before me but unable to step in and participate. Even as I write this, I feel like I am somehow going through a cathartic experience.

There is one more line that I want to write about:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

This line is deeper than it appears. While it sounds like what is being stated is that he was not meant to be Hamlet, we must keep in mind the classic “to be or not to be.” It is a rephrasing of the great existential question and he is saying that he is not meant to live, to participate, or to be a part of existence. Hamlet, despite his hesitance, eventually acts, and then dies tragically and magnificently at the end. But not Prufrock. He feels that his life has been little more than a “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

While this has turned into one of the longer blog posts I’ve written, there is still so much to say about this poem. You can read it over and over and continue to uncover new ideas and imagery. This is, without question, poetry at its finest.

Click here to read the poem online.

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“Red Sorghum” by Mo Yan

RedSorghumWhen I read that Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, I figured I should read one of his books. I had never heard of him before he won the award, but hearing that his style of writing was dubbed “hallucinogenic realism,” it sounded right up my alley. I looked up some of the books that he had written and decided upon Red Sorghum.

I really enjoyed this book, but I have to warn you that there is some pretty disturbing material here. The story takes place in China in the 1930s during a war with Japan. The depictions of the atrocities inflicted upon the Chinese peasantry by the Japanese soldiers are brutal. There is one scene where the soldiers forced a Chinese man to flay his friend as the villagers were forced to watch. I am by no means squeamish, but this even made me uncomfortable.

In contrast to the scenes of graphic horror, the novel is filled with a magical beauty reminiscent of Marquez. Family myths and stories are related in a non-linear weaving against a stunning backdrop of rural China. The imagery of the sorghum fields is prevalent throughout the book and works well symbolically, red representing Communist China, as well as the blood of the slain peasants and the bloodlines of the families.

The juxtaposition between the horrific and the beautiful reminded me of Baudelaire. One passage in particular conjured imagery from “A Carrion.”

… the bloated carcasses of dozens of mules had been found floating in the Black Water River, caught in the reeds and grass in the shallow water by the banks, their distended bellies, baked by the sun, split and popped, released their splendid innards, like gorgeous blooming flowers … (p. 39)

The book also contains brilliant sociopolitical commentary. Although the Japanese are depicted as cruel, merciless people, Yan also presents the Chinese as being vengeful, hateful, and willing to turn on each other. In the following passage, the image of a multitude of dead bodies illustrates the concept that all the peoples included in the tale are essentially the same inside.

I doubt that even the provincial party secretary could have told which of them belonged to Communists, which to Nationalists, which to Japanese soldiers, which to puppet soldiers, and which to civilians. The skulls all had the exact same shape, and all had been thrown into the same heap. (p. 203)

During the past year, there has been a lot of tension in the US between the wealthy and those who are less fortunate. One passage in Yan’s book made me think about this, especially the effects of the constant striving for financial success on the environment and humanity as a whole.

I sometimes think that there is a link between the decline in humanity and the increase in prosperity and comfort. Prosperity and comfort are what people seek, but the costs to character are often terrifying. (p. 334)

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is not overly disturbed by graphic literature. Yes, the book is disturbing, but it is meant to be so. It is also beautiful and inspiring. And really, isn’t that how life is, terrifying, beautiful, and inspiring all at the same time?

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