Sunday, June 01, 2008


Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrar, Penguin Putnam Inc, 1953, 329 pp

My husband gave me this book for Christmas many years ago and it just sat on the shelf. Then I saw the movie which came out in 1997 and starred Brad Pitt, where I found out what it was all about. Much as I liked the movie and was glad for the images it gave me, the book is, of course, way better.

In 1939, the author, who is German, was interred in a POW camp in India. England had declared war on Germany, so while these prisoners were not mistreated, they could not be free. Harrar and some of his friends were mountain climbers and refused to be stuck in a prison camp, so after several attempts finally escaped in order to continue with their plans of crossing the Himilayas and entering Tibet. Harrar's goal was Lhasa, home of the Dalai Lama and center of Tibetan Buddhism.

He and one other man made it mostly by walking, occasionally by yak. It took them two years and because they had no papers, they were under constant danger of being kicked out of the country. Their journey makes Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods look like a walk in the park. I found similarities to The Places in Between, Rory Stewart's record of his walk across Afghanistan.

Finally in Lhasa, Harrar becomes part of the city and eventually tutor to the 14 year old Dalai Lama. He loved it there so much and makes the reader love it as well. He would probably still be there but in 1950, Communist China invaded and he had to flee, as did the Dalai Lama. Tibetan Buddhism, its thousands of monasteries and tens of thousands of monks, was almost obliterated by the communists and Tibet, land of mystery and spiritual practice, will never be the same.

I felt extremely sad about that as I finished the book and suffered from a mild depression for several days afterwards. Though Harrar was a scientist and atheist, he did a fine thing for the spiritual history of mankind by writing this book. Though steeped in superstition, Tibet was basically at peace for a thousand years because of Buddhism.

The Bridges at Toko-Ri, James A Michener, Random House Inc, 1953, 147 pp

This is the only other book about the Korean War that I have read so far in this project. Unlike William Styron's The Long March, it actually takes place in Korea and features a jet pilot named Harry Brubaker, a WWII vet who was recalled from his civilian life as a lawyer and married man with two daughters, to fight another war to save democracy. He is conflicted between doing his duty and wanting his contented civilian life.

Michener manages to pour it on pretty thick about how important the war is and how much the regular American citizen doesn't realize that or even care. Personally I am ready for this author to move on, which he does in 1959 with Hawaii.

The Marmot Drive, John Hersey, Alfred A Knopf, 1953, 237 pp

Oh my, this was a boring book. It is one of those stories about city people versus small town people. Hester, born and raised in New York City, goes home for the weekend with her boyfriend Eben to a small Connecticut village. Turns out that Eben's father, the Selectman of the village, has organized a plan to drive out the marmots (groundhogs) who have overrun the place.

The whole story then is hung on this marmot drive and used to show up a bunch of rugged individualists and to give Hester a chance to make her decision about whether or not to marry Eben. Quite a small canvas after the vast tale of the Warsaw ghetto in The Wall. I suppose a small town is a sort of ghetto but marmots are not Nazis.

The Outsider, Richard Wright, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1953, 405 pp

It was clear from the first page that Cross, a young Black man in Chicago, is doomed. Then you read 400 pages to find out how he engineered his doom. He deserts everyone to whom he has committed himself; he murders several men; he relocates to New York City and acquires a new identity; he becomes involved with the Communist Party. But he never changes. He is so disassociated from humanity that, while he is very intelligent and well-read and has built up an entire personal philosophy, he cannot grow or learn from his experiences.

I do not know what Wright is trying to say here. Something about morality or the lack of it in human beings. Yes, there is the subject of race but he seems to feel that men of any race are deluded and depraved.

I read it to the end and was not left with any feeling of satisfaction. Are we all doomed? Are we all outsiders?

Nine Stories, J D Salinger, Little Brown and Company, 1953, 198 pp

I read a story a day, which is the successful way for me to get through a story collection. I had read a few of them before.

"For Esme-with Love and Squalor" is one I remembered and I still loved it. Salinger does kids so well and in the final story, "Teddy" he wowed me again. A couple others were clearly New Yorker types about odd and messed up adults. I didn't like those as well.

Cress Delahanty, Jessamyn West, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953, 311 pp

Jessamyn West's books fall into a category I call comfort fiction. She takes up the quirks of everyday people but it all comes out right in the end. Not too exciting but I keep reading her because she plumbs the human spirit with a unique voice.

Cress Delahanty is 12 years old at the beginning of this series of vignettes. By the end she is 16. She lives on a citrus ranch, an only child with two decent and understanding parents. Her volatile personality, influenced by reading and nature, makes her a bit more than the usual teen, but all the hyper-emotional world of the teen years is portrayed quite well by West, as well as the learning experiences about boys, men and family.

Still this was not the best of her books so far.

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