Monday, November 20, 2023

Plants and People

Lab Girl
Lab Girl 

"People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed---a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be." - Hope Jahren

Are people like plants? Can you hear plants grow? These and other questions are raised and answered or at least discussed in this fascinating book by geobiologist Hope Jahren. I have enjoyed reading about science throughout my life, from biographies of Michael Faraday and George Washington Carver in my youth to works by scientists and histories of science in my adult life. 

Lab Girl changed the way I perceived trees. It forced me to consider the incredible grace and tenacity of a seed. Most notably, it introduced me to a very fascinating woman, a scientist who was so enthralled with her work that I could practically feel it in every page. This is a clever, captivating, and successful debut. With her passion for science, Hope Jahren's Lab Girl teaches us in the best way possible. Its profundity made it a book that is powerful and unique. The result was as interesting a read as any I have had in quite a while.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Beasts on an Island

The Island of Dr. Moreau
The Island of Dr. Moreau 

“By this time I was no longer very much terrified or very miserable. I had, as it were, passed the limit of terror and despair. I felt now that my life was practically lost, and that persuasion made me capable of daring anything”   ― H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau

Over the period of a decade beginning with The Time Machine in 1895, H. G. Wells wrote some of his most popular fictions in the form of scientific romance novels, what I refer to as speculative fiction. These books have captured the imagination of readers ever since and are arguably as popular today as they were more than one hundred years ago. Among these perhaps the strangest and best is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Undoubtedly influenced by Robinson Crusoe, but also by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island which was published only thirteen years earlier, this book goes far beyond those deserted island tales and looks forward to the twenty-first century and beyond. In its day it was considered blasphemous, but in the age of cloning its depiction of vivisection takes on new meaning while the blasphemy recedes into the background.

The story is an insightful allegory of civilization as only the tip of the evolutionary tree and humans the only highly evolved animals. By using his cold-blooded scalpel, Moreau is, in a way, quickening the pace of evolution and giving his creatures two features that are exclusive to humans: primitive speech and a terror and wonder combination that is essential to religious belief. Their lowest impulses take over after the death of their god, Moreau, as exemplified by Montgomery's reckless actions, which spearhead the subsequent frenzy of self-indulgence. Observing the beast's plunge into self-destruction, the narrator Prendick is left alone when Moreau and Montgomery are slain.

After the terror passes, Prendick acknowledges that he might have acquired part of the "natural wildness" of the animals he had coexisted with. He senses the "animal [that] was surging up through them" and travels among humans in terror for a long time afterward, even though he knows this is unreasonable because he lives among "perfectly reasonable creatures" who are not bound by their instincts. The Island of Dr. Moreau is another warning about human reasoning put to the wrong use, and it offers more evidence of Wells’s inner debate on the issue. Above all this is a good story with suspense that holds even after the first breathless reading that it usually inspires.

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Darkness and Ghosts

All Down Darkness Wide
All Down Darkness Wide 

“There was desperation in his eyes. As he looked at me, it was as though he were looking into me from another world, trying to reach across some void, but everything he said was somehow falling short, not quite carrying its meaning across.”   ― Seán Hewitt, All Down Darkness Wide

This memoir is shaped by the story of a poet who writes of his friendship with a man whose unhappiness was causing him great suffering. In it, the author felt he had to prove "that I was good, that I was kind, that I followed the rules" while growing up in England in the 1990s and 2000s, despite the fact that he "was brought up vaguely Catholic" and "had a secret to keep." 

The mystery was that he came out as gay during a period when the Catholic Church was fighting a bill in Parliament that would have legalized equal marriage. That is only one of the numerous difficulties Hewitt writes about in this memorable memoir. Hewitt was reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poem "The Lantern Out of Doors" serves as the title of this book, after his partner passed away while he was a student at the University of Cambridge. The memory of or experience of Hopkin's poetry permeates the narrative in a way that I have seldom encountered. That is a good thing.

I found this memoir to be a heartbreaking discourse on "ghosts" like Hopkins and the inability to achieve permanence. It is filled with beautiful scene after beautiful scene, from Hewitt's own father, who confided on his deathbed, "All I want is my boys," to a patient at the mental hospital who laments that his son never visits and remarks, "I knew you'd come." As long as I can continue to spend time with my boys and enjoy listening to the birds while I sit in the garden. I only want that. It is a deeply poignant reflection on mental illness, queer identity, and the transience of existence.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Intellectual Vacuity

The Temptation to Exist
The Temptation to Exist 

“For all sensation is a bond, pleasure as much as pain, joy as much as misery. The only free mind is the one that, pure of all intimacy with beings or objects, plies its own vacuity.”  ― Emil Cioran, The Temptation to Exist

When this eleven-essay collection was first released in France, it caused a literary frenzy on the Left Bank. Cioran writes sharply about writers, novels, mystics, apostles, philosophers, and Western civilizations. Twenty years ago, Richard Howard's excellent translation of this remarkable European thinker's work, The Temptation to Exist, first introduced it to American readers. The book has subsequently turned into an underground classic, and the literary aura around Cioran has only deepened.

Cioran is a typical modern-day exponent of the metaphysical futility school. It is possible to argue that the titles of the first two articles in The Temptation to Exist, "Thinking Against Oneself" and "On a Winded Civilization," perfectly capture the tone and perspective of the entire collection as well as Cioran's body of work. Here, as elsewhere, Cioran presents a series of intensely personal observations on a variety of instructive subjects, including the collapse of Western civilization, the place of the intellectual in modern society, the end of the novel, the benefits of tyranny, the future of utopia, and other related subjects.

Cioran's persuasiveness stems from more than just the content of his argument; his style and epigrammatic tautness are just as, if not more, significant. His much-publicized efforts to master the French language have yielded a style that combines an almost Olympian coldness and intellectuality with an almost hysterical impression of passion. It is fundamentally a teenage style, like so much about Cioran: conceited, confessional, and theatrical, but full of vitality none the less. One of his most blatant rhetorical allusions to Nietzsche is the royal we, which he frequently employs to lend his work an air of authority. Cioran is also highly quotable if one ignores context and misses small details like meaning. Reading these essays is nonetheless engaging and demands the reader's thoughtful attention.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

A Smile and the Words


“She would smile and show no surprise, convinced as she was, the same as I, that casual meetings are apt to be just the opposite, and that people who make dates are the same kind who need lines on their writing paper, or who always squeeze up from the bottom on a tube of toothpaste.”   ― Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch

Hopscotch could irritate more than it impresses because it lacks any narrative action, yielding to characters, or merely voices—very articulate voices, to be sure. It is the epitome of what a modern anti-novel is not. When one is informed that the first half can "be read in a normal fashion" but the second must be read in the numerical chapter order 73-1-2-116-etc. concluding with 131, one can begin to question the work's aesthetic validity. Such a technique (pagination) was unsuccessfully employed in a French novel a few years ago. The first section of the jumbled 560 pages, to put it simply, is about Horacio Oliveira, who is described as "a conscious bum"," during his stay in Paris.

He is living with one La Maga and sitting around drinking and talking—about jazz, painters, empirical ontology, illusion, time, identity, the Sartrean bit, or what he calls the ""giddy discontinuity of existence."" He returned to Argentina in the second section, met up with a couple known as the Travelers, and went to work with them in a mental health facility where they played hopscotch in a courtyard. The final section, which the author kindly calls the "Expendable Chapters," is a back-and-forth between the two universes interspersed with quotes, letters, notes, and other such materials. Cortazar's extraordinary versatility as a language artist allows him to express a wide range of concepts, recollections, and supporting associations. The richness of the cultural allusions makes one think of William Gaddis' recognitions. Then there's wordplay in Spanish, French, and occasionally a tongue that not even pig Latin can match. Since nothing has any reality, we have to start ex nihil."" Having started ex-nihil, one goes nowhere. But it can be fun to relax and enjoy the play of language in this postmodern classic.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Hypnotic Novel of the Sea

The Death Ship
The Death Ship 

The death ship it is I am in,
All I have lost, nothing to win
So far off sunny New Orleans
So far off lovely Louisiana.
(from "Song of An American Sailor")

This was B. Traven's first novel, published in 1934, and it is my favorite of his works. It is a sea story unlike any other in that it is a story of men at sea as a metaphor for men against what Jack London infamously referred to as the "Iron Heel" of modern industrialism. It is a novel with hypnotic power, timelessness, universality, and authenticity. In this work, Traven approaches the ability of Joseph Conrad to make the sea come alive for the reader.

The main figure who doesn't have a name—at least not a true one—isn't a victorious hero. He is an ordinary person who is struggling. His tale alternates between being hysterical and really somber at points. The reader is made to feel like his existence is pointless and that he has nowhere to fit in. It's interesting to note that B. Traven, the author, published under pseudonyms and declined to have his works recognized. His identification has never even been adequately confirmed due to the extent of this. Maybe that's why I found the writing to be so captivating. It was, in part, the author's way of venting his dissatisfaction with the world he witnessed.

Bruce Catton called the book "a startling novel about the horrible things that can happen to a man in the cock-eyed post-war world of Europe if he can't prove he is who he says he is. . . Our sailor is entangled in a world gone mad, a world in which justice and sanity have simply ceased to exist." A few decades later and several wars as well, and the world seems at times to be just as cock-eyed, no more just or sane.

What intrigued me, perhaps even more than this mesmerizing first novel, is the mysteriousness with which B. Traven hid his personal life. Even after many more novels, including the great Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Traven continued to hide behind a post office box in Mexico City. However that does not matter since his novels stand for themselves as exciting and daring adventures into the world of men and nature. This reader found The Death Ship was a novel with hypnotic power, timelessness, universality and authenticity. 

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Memory is a Wound

The Wrong End of the Telescope

The Wrong End of the Telescope 

“Memory is a wound, you said. And some things are released only by the act of writing. Unless I go in with my scalpel and suction to excavate, to clean, to bring into light, that wound festers, and the gangrene of decay will eat me alive.”   ― Rabih Alameddine, The Wrong End of the Telescope

The story narrates the travels of Lebanese doctor Mina Simpson to the notorious Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, after receiving an urgent call for assistance from her friend who manages an NGO there. As a Trans woman, Mina has avoided going so near to her birthplace for decades because she is estranged from her family, with the exception of her loving brother Mazen. However, Mina intends to do something significant during her week off work and without her wife of thirty years, amidst the hordes of Western volunteers who take photos with beached dinghies and the camp's kids.

Sumaiya, a very defiant Syrian matriarch who has terminal liver cancer, is soon transported across by boat. Sumaiya refuses to tell her family about her diagnosis since she is adamant about protecting her kids and spouse at any costs. Sumaiya's secret brings her together with Mina, who plans a course of therapy with the few resources at her disposal, she must face the circumstances that led to the migrants' displacement as well as her own limitations in being able to assist them. 

Told through a compilation of short vignettes, I found this novel a touching and emotionally uplifting story of a trans woman's success in difficult situations. What comes through is the warmth and humanity of the heroine and her modern odyssey in theLevant.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

The Year that Launched Modernism

The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature
The World Broke in Two: 
Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, 
D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster
 and the Year that Changed Literature 
"In 1922, Eliot, Forster, Lawrence, and Woolf each discovered a private literary way to recapture and to bridge the lost time that the (Great) war represented."

Willa Cather stated in 1936 that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts," and since then, college freshmen have been fretting about it like a soup-bone. With its leave-nothing-to-the-imagination subtitle, "Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature," Bill Goldstein's book, The World Broke In Two, which focuses on some of the major figures in the Western literary world in the year 1922, has that unsettling idea at its core. 

The professional and personal lives of Goldstein's key characters and a large cast of others are described with insightful detail ("Hearing of Virginia's latest relapse in May, Tom wrote in sympathy to Leonard"), the founding editor of the New York Times Books website. The year 1922 was indeed "a great literary period," as Ezra Pound wrote to T. S. Eliot. The book was meaningful to me personally as a reminder of the enjoyment I have had reading the books discussed, especially with the added biographical background of E. M. Forster and the others. The book is a tribute to the birth of modernism in literature.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Leadership Strategy

Leadership : Six Studies in World Strategy
Leadership : 
Six Studies in World Strategy 

“A leader does not deserve the name unless he is willing occasionally to stand alone.”   ― Henry Kissinger

This is a remarkable book about leadership, as the title suggests, but it also covers a wide range of other topics, such as history, global political strategy, and the value of moral character on the international stage. Six twentieth-century leaders are chosen by Kissinger, the majority of whom he knew personally. His descriptions of each place focus on the legacies that the leaders of each nation left behind and the strategic vision that each leader worked to make a reality. Importantly, this vision would improve his or her people's standing in the eyes of the international community.

The book also highlights characteristics of leadership including personal qualities, limitations faced by each, divisiveness created by the changes sought, and the policy imprint that endured for each nation as a result of the leadership of each of the characters: Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, and Lee Kuan Kew.

Kissinger's excellent wording and the manner he gave context and history for each of the stories impressed me. What Kissinger referred to as "deep literacy" was one fundamental idea that each leader shared. That is a mind that has been trained by intense reading, and through this reading and their particular experience, they have developed a profound awareness of and the capacity for concentration on the major problems they confronted. Each reader of his book can apply this lesson to their own situation. Overall, this book improved my comprehension of the world I live in and the contributions made by these six leaders.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Family Saga with Complications

Hello Beautiful
Hello Beautiful 

“We’re part of the sky, and the rocks in your mother’s garden, and that old man who sleeps by the train station. We’re all interconnected, and when you see that, you see how beautiful life is. Your mother and sisters don’t have that awareness. Not yet, anyway. They believe they’re contained in their bodies, in the biographical facts of their lives.”   ― Ann Napolitano, Hello Beautiful

This is a novel that explores themes of family, love, trauma, and healing. The book is about the connections between family and love, and how loyalty and honesty can cost and power.

William Waters was raised in a tragically silent home where his parents could barely bear to look at him, much less love him. When he meets Julia Padavano in his first year of college, it's as if the world has suddenly come to life for him. Since she and her three sisters are inseparable, Julia also brings her family with her. Sylvie, the family's dreamer, is happiest with her nose in a book; Cecelia is an independent artist; and Emeline patiently looks after them all. William finds new happiness with the Padavanos; there is loving anarchy all the time in their home.

Then, however, shadows from William's past come to light, compromising not only Julia's meticulous plans for their future but also the sisters' unwavering love for one another. A devastating family rift results, altering their lives for future generations. Will the ties that previously bound them still be strong enough to bring them together when it counts?

Some say the book is a moving and propulsive work that mirrors real life and inspires readers to address challenges in their own relationships. Others say the book is a beautiful story about family bonds and love. But ultimately, it is an elegant homage to Louisa May Alcott's timeless classic Little Women, paints a powerfully touching picture of what is possible when we decide to love someone not despite who they are but because of it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Top Ten Tuesday


The selection criterion this week is “Top Ten Favorite Character Relationships”.

I have chosen the following from my reading over my personal reading lifetime, so some of these are from books that have been favorites for many decades, while other are somewhat more recnt reads. Here are ten of my favorites in no particular order. 

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored  by Jana over at That Artsy Reader Girl

1. Young Harvey Cheyne and the fisherman Manuel in Kipling's Captains Courageous
This book is one I have read and reread over my lifetime and one reason is the development of Harvey under the tutelage of the Portuguese fisherman Manuel in this adventure tale.

2. Frog and Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  Here are two friends who are always there for each other. Frog is enthusiastic and laid back, while Toad is more cynical and uptight. 

3. Achilles and Patroclus in Homer's  The Iliad
The friendship between these two warriors is one of the highlights of Homer's epic poem.

4. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 
The different personalities and strengths of character make this a memorable literary relationship.

5. Frodo and Sam in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. 
Sam is portrayed as both physically and emotionally strong, and sometimes carries Frodo when he is too weak to go on. 

6. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Don Quixote by Cervantes. 
This pair of Knight and friendly sidekick are one of the main reasons this novel has enchanted readers for more than four centuries.

7. Frankenstein and his creation in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  
The world of speculative fiction has seldom seen a duo of this nature in the decades since a young Mary Shelley told her story.

8. Levin and Oblonsky in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  
These two characters were my favorites for their humanity and sincerity. Oblonsky and Levin have a relationship that works because Levin has no one else.

9. Lee and Cal in East of Eden by John Steinbeck. 
This is my favorite Steinbeck novel and one of the reasons for this is the relationship between these two characters. Lee is intelligent, thoughtful, well-read, and kind, while Cal takes Lee's advice that each individual has the power to choose between good and evil in life. 

10. The father and his son in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Of all of McCarthy's novels these two characters demonstrate the best in humanity while facing the most difficult of times in McCarthy's novel of a dystopian future.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

A Lesson Learned

Captains Courageous
Captains Courageous 

"Over and above the darkness and the mystery of the procession, Harvey could feel the land close around him once more, with all its thousands of people asleep, and the smell of earth after rain, and the familiar noise of a switching-engine coughing to herself in a freight yard; and all those things made his heart beat and his throat dry up as he stood by the foresheet. . . somebody waked with a grunt, threw them a role, and they made fast to a silent wharf flanked with great iron-roofed sheds full of warm emptiness, and lay there without a sound."

Although Captains Courageous is not a particularly complex story, it is nevertheless rife with concepts that serve as a foundation. It reflects the author's moral philosophy as well as his way of thinking about life. The relatively short novel focuses on 15-year-old Harvey Cheyne, the sole child of an American business magnate, as he grows up. Harvey, a once-pampered youth, learns what the American dream is via his interactions with unspoiled nature, hard work, and common guys, and he prepares himself to achieve it.

The book illustrates enduring American values while being on one level a sea adventure with a joyful ending. Harvey gains respect for hard effort, honesty, and social equality via his exploits. He also develops a sense of adventure, self-reliance, and pride in a task well done. As a result, he is ready to participate in the developing American drama. This is a great work to read as a young boy, but also warrants rereading when you are no longer quite so young. It bears the telltale signs of the great novelist who would go on to write Kim. one of my favorites.

Friday, September 08, 2023

The Hidden Code

The Lost Books of the Odyssey
The Lost Books of the Odyssey 

“As their song crescendoed I had the sudden conviction that the world, which I had considered the province of meaningless chances, a mad dance of atoms, was as orderly as the hexagons in the honeycombs I had just crushed into wax and that behind everything, from Helen's weaving to Circe's mountain to Scylla's death, was a subtle pattern, an order of the most compelling lucidity, but hidden from me, a code I could never crack.”   ― Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a fascinating and seductive debut book. It retells the traditional Homeric tale of the hero Odysseus and his arduous return trip following the fall of Troy. In it the Trojan War is retold alongside flashbacks as Odysseus travels from Troy to Ithaca. The chapters flow with witty turns or neat bows, more in the style of a short story writer. 

The book is a deft and subtle translation of Greek literature for the present day. Personhood, storytelling, memory, and self-awareness are some of the subjects it examines. According to how much light the story decides to shed, Mason's characters can change shape and become elusive, just like the ones in Homer's original.

The traditional Homer stories are transformed into new episodes, fragments, and revisions using beautiful prose, a vivid imagination, and stunning literary skill. When read as a whole, these additions expose the timeless Greek epic to countless resonant interpretations. The Lost Books of the Odyssey is  It is laced with wonderful wit, elegance, and playfulness. 

I found that it was worthwhile, but only for those who have already read Homer's original epic saga.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Poem for Today

 "The Makers"

By Howard Nemerov

 I frequently draw inspiration from writers of different genres, especially those who write outstanding books. However, in order to convey a message that has significance for readers who value the written word's creators, poetry may occasionally be necessary. The poem, "The Makers" by Howard Nemerov, makes a stronger argument for this.

We can never locate that initial item that got us going, that initial spark that spans generations. In his poem "The Makers," Howard Nemerov strives to trace the history of poetry and comes to the realization that what counts most is that all of those concrete, physical feelings are transmitted throughout time through poetic tropes and pictures. It makes no difference who the first poets were or the specific tree, rock, or star that was first mentioned. What matters most is that we can relate to each other through these descriptions. The repetition of these sensory cues reveals a fundamental truth about the human condition.

                "The Makers"

Who can remember back to the first poets,

The greatest ones, greater even than Orpheus?

No one has remembered that far back

Or now considers, among the artifacts,

And bones and cantilevered inference

The past is made of, those first and greatest poets,

So lofty and disdainful of renown

They left us not a name to know them by.

They were the ones that in whatever tongue

Worded the world, that were the first to say

Star, water, stone, that said the visible

And made it bring invisibles to view

In wind and time and change, and in the mind

Itself that minded the hitherto idiot world

And spoke the speechless world and sang the towers

Of the city into the astonished sky.

They were the first great listeners, attuned

To interval, relationship, and scale,

The first to say above, beneath, beyond,

Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,

Who having uttered vanished from the world

Leaving no memory but the marvelous

Magical elements, the breathing shapes

And stops of breath we build our Babels of.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Magic When Needed


“truth didn’t mean anything without someone to share it with; you could shout truth into the air forever, and spend your life doing it, if someone didn’t come and listen.”   ― Naomi Novik, Uprooted

The dismal, brooding descriptions and magical atmosphere sometimes appealed to me. The storyline, the valley, the tainted forest, the ominous tower, the names of the people and places... You may like this read if you're searching for an atmospheric book that's ideal for fall, with a little romance and a lot of magic to spice it all up.

I can admit, though, that I did not find this to be a particularly compelling read in which I was eager to find out what would happen next. I didn't like this book, even if it was a relatively atmospheric read. Even in the middle of a "action" sequence, I could always put it down. Which may or may not be a good thing. Uprooted can be an excellent option to pass the time if you know you'll be busy at work or your child will interrupt your reading a thousand times a day. Like a haven of warm tranquility in the middle of a dreary day.

The author has a highly illogical approach to using magic. The lack of regulations or restrictions on magic in this universe, as well as the fact that everything was extremely individualized, further irritated me. It seemed a little too haphazard, and I dislike it when magic that seems overly convenient is used to advance the plot.

Regarding the romance, I wouldn't describe this book as very romantic. I still got a strong sensation that they could be a terrific couple, despite the fact that I wished there were a few more embers between them. I had the impression that they were connected in some way the entire time. And I much prefer that profound (albeit not fully explored) connection than platitudes and extravagant declarations of love. The bottom line is that I was disappointed and would not recommend this book.

Monday, August 28, 2023

The Story of a Writer's Life

The Magician
The Magician 

“He wanted that which had been so fleeting to become solid. The only way he knew to make this happen was to write it down. Should he have let it pass so that it would have faded completely, this, the story of his life?”   ― Colm Tóibín, The Magician

An impressive novel based on the life and work of Thomas Mann, this book extends Colm Toibin's foray into biographical fiction following his novel,The Master, based on an episode in the life of Henry James. Having read most of Mann's oeuvre and biographies of the author, I came to this book with a background that made reading it easier, while providing a basis for criticism of a kind that someone unfamiliar with the work of Mann may not have.

The book's title comes from a scene in which Mann's son Klaus became alarmed by what he thought to be a monster in his room. Mann claimed to be a magician and promised to expel the beast using magic. Since the plan worked, his six children referred to him as the magician. However, the word has a deeper meaning in Tóibin's book since Mann is a character who has the ability to work magic with words, whether in his books, letters, or speeches.

This book is a work of magic by Tóibin, himself. He has given the reader an intimate look at a great writer who lived with contradictions by bringing Thomas Mann to life in stunning prose. His recognition as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century was at odds with his hesitant and secretive inner life. His happy marriage to Katia and their six children also was at odds with his repressed homosexuality, while his love of Germany and its culture was at odds with the Nazi ideology he loathed.

Tóibin explores the themes of living abroad, the creative process, and the preservation of personal identity (and in particular, homosexual identity) throughout the majority of his works. These issues are explored in The Magician through Thomas Mann's difficulties with them. It was enjoyable to read as it painted an exceptional writer's life in moving prose. I hope it would encourage those who have not experienced Mann's magnificent oeuvre to explore some of his many now classic novels, stories, and essays.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Mythic Literature

Literature and the Gods
Literature and the Gods 

“Whatever else it might be, the divine is certainly the thing that imposes with maximum intensity the sensation of being alive.”   ― Roberto Calasso, Literature and the Gods

This brief book is one to read, reread, and consult when reading the great literature with ancient beginnings since it provides an extraordinary and perceptive analysis of the nature of the literature of classical mythology. The Weidenfeld Lectures Calasso delivered at Oxford in 2000 represent Calasso's lifetime investigation into the gods providing the basis for Literature and the Gods. The book follows the reemergence of paganism in Western literature from the early modern period to the present.

This is a brilliant, imaginative, and beautifully scholarly work. Calasso gives us a renewed understanding of the mystique and magic of great literature by revealing the divine whisper that lurks underneath the greatest poetry and prose from throughout history. Even though it is a brief yet deep essay, it takes the reader on a personal tour of contemporary European literature and philosophy. I found it was not only smart, but inspired and intellectual as well.

The history of the gods can also be interpreted as a ciphered and magnificent history of creative inspiration, from the exile of the classical divinities during the Age of Reason to their release by the Romantics and their role in the literature of our own day. By rewriting that tale, Calasso creates a hallowed literary realm where the gods' influence can be felt. His investigation into "absolute literature" takes us to the worlds of Dionysus and Orpheus, Baudelaire and Mallarme, and inspires a clear-eyed and passionate defense of poetic form, even when it appears to be detached from any social role. Literature and the Gods, a lyrical and confident work of literary affirmation, is deserving of reading among the greats.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Top Ten Tuesday


The selection criterion this week is to pick a genre and list your top ten selections based on that genre.

I have chosen the Historical Fiction genre. Since I've read more than a hundred novels in this genre from a variety of authors, I have listed ten of my favorites in no particular order. They all represent historical fiction by writers that I love to read.

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored  by Jana over at That Artsy Reader Girl

Cloudsplitter: A Novel by Russell Banks

Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker

Wolf Hall: A Novel  by Hilary Mantel

The Siege of Krishnapur

by J.G. Farrell

 Night Soldiers: A Novel by Alan Furst

 I, Claudius from the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius 

by Robert Graves

Memoirs of Hadrian

by Marguerite Yourcenar

 The Covenant by James A. Michener

 An Instance of the Fingerpost

by Iain Pears

 The Leopard  by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Monday, August 21, 2023

Musical Thoughts

Arnold Schoenberg

 "I never was very capable of expressing my feelings or emotions in words. I don't know whether this is the cause why I did it in music and also why I did it in painting. Or vice versa: That I had this way as an outlet. I could renounce expressing something in words." - Arnold Schoenberg 

"All good music resembles something. Good music stirs by its mysterious resemblance to the objects and feelings which motivated it." - Jean Cocteau 


Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), a native of Vienna, was forced to work at a bank from 1891 to 1895 after his father passed away, but he still found time to further his musical training through amateur chamber music performances and composition sessions with Alexander von Zemlinsky. The early String quartet in D from 1897, which was successfully performed, displays the influence of Dvorak and Brahms.

However, Schoenberg's subsequent piece sparked the controversy that would follow him throughout his career. The Vienna Music Association rejected the string sextet "Verklarte Nacht" (Transfigured night) due to certain uncomfortably discordant chords, despite its Romantic nature and emotional richness of harmony and color recalling Wagner and Richard Strauss. In 1901, Schoenberg wed Zemlinsky's sister and settled in Berlin. There, he orchestrated operettas in a cabaret theater to help pay for the composition of the symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande." On Richard Strauss's advice, he was hired to teach at Berlin's Stern Academy, saving him from this drudgery. This marked the start of Schoenberg's lengthy career as a renowned educator. 

He came back to Vienna in 1903 to give private lessons. The following year, he began teaching Alban Berg and Anton Webern, who would go on to form the "Second Viennese School" alongside Schoenberg.  This atmosphere of creative stimulation produced bold and rapid developments in Schoenberg's style, with the First chamber symphony pushing and the Second string quartet breaking the limits of tonality ( the traditional method of composing a piece of music in one particular key). The soprano that Schoenberg added to the quartet sings words that appear symbolic and significant: "I breathe the air from another planet."

"Pierrot lunaire", a setting of 21 poems for speaker and chamber ensemble, was premiered in Berlin in 1912 under the direction of Schoenberg, who had returned to the city. The surrealist writings of Albert Giraud, which portray the realms of latent brutality, lunacy, and desperate nostalgia that were implied in the musical worlds Schoenberg was investigating, served as the inspiration for this important work of the 20th century. Sprechgesang, a vocal production style that straddles singing and speaking, is highlighted throughout the piece. The methodology of serialism, an atonal approach in which the 12 notes of the chromatic scale are treated with equal emphasis, is the product of Schoenberg's creative experimentation. The Piano Suite and the Suite for Eight Instruments are two early examples of his compositions in this genre that date back to 1923.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Serious Thinker

Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926
Walter Benjamin: 
Selected Writings, 
Volume 1, 1913-1926 

“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.”   ― Walter Benjamin

Although he wrote these essays when he was young, in his first thirteen years of writing, they belie his youth and ooze confidence while displaying a vast range of reading. His perspective on tragedy suggests studying both history and art in the quest to find significance in the terrible. The analysis of critique of German romanticism looks deeply into the inspiration behind the criticism as well as the ideas of intellectuals like Schelling and Fichte.

Benjamin consistently offers insights that continue to be relevant more than a century later, whether he is discussing the nature of translation or explaining how we use language. His reflections on the nature of being, along with the prerequisites for writing and the appropriate format for expressing ideas, most inspired me.

The writings by Walter Benjamin collected here offer opinions on a wide range of subjects, including language, translation, criticism, tragedy, and writing. Their superior writing and thoughtfulness are the only things they have in common. There is a message that emanates from a curious mind and permeates the pages of this anthology, regardless of how basic or flippant it may appear. His Arcades project is complemented by three volumes of essays, the first of which is this one. It is a good place to start exploring this writer who challenges you to think seriously about ideas.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Fools & Madmen

King Lear (Shakespeare, Pelican)
King Lear 
“This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.”       ― William Shakespeare, King Lear

The division of the Kingdom begins the play with first, the Earls of Kent and Gloucester speculating on the basis for the division and second, the actual division by Lear based on professions of love requested from his three daughters. When this event goes not as planned the action of the play ensues and the reader is in for a wild ride, much as Lear himself is. The mythic nature of the drama impressed me this reading. One might compare it to the Greek dramas like Oedipus at Colonus.

The play provides one of Shakespeare's most thoroughly evil characters in Edmund while much of the rest of the cast is aligned against each other. The story of Lear and his daughters is mirrored by the suffering of  the Earl of Gloucester who is tricked by his bastard son Edmund into believing that his other son Edgar is plotting against him. While there are a few lighter moments the play, often produced by the commentary of Lear's Fool, the tone is generally very dark filled with the bitter results of Lear's poor decisions at the outset. It is difficult to understand how little that Lear really knows his daughters. Interestingly we do not get much of a back story and find, other than his age of four score years, little else to suggest why Lear would surrender his power and his Kingdom at the outset. The play is certainly powerful and maintains your interest through dramatic scenes, while it also provides for many questions - some of which remain unanswered.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Things Happen in England and Italy

Where Angels Fear to Tread (Vintage Classics)
Where Angels Fear to Tread 

"Miss Abbott, don’t worry over me. Some people are born not to do things. I’m one of them … I never expect anything to happen now, and so I am never disappointed … I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it’ […]
She said solemnly, ‘I wish something would happen to you, my dear friend; I wish something would happen to you."   - E. M. Forster

E. M. Forster's first novel tackles issues of national identity and the potential for interpersonal connection despite societal inequalities that would preoccupy Forster throughout his career. The action is split between England and Italy. Where Angels Fear to Tread culminates in a "song of madness and death" similar to the sad opera Lucia di Lammermoor, which turns raucously amusing in one of the novel's most memorable sequences, yet at times veers into farce.

The novel is gruesome, accomplished, and darkly humorous. The best intentions fail and well-known ideas of virtue and vice fall to pieces in it. This kind of tragedy is distinctively Jamesian, and Philip's tale unmistakably invokes The Ambassadors' storyline. Similar to Strether in James' novel, Philip goes to the continent in order to save a fellow countryman from disgrace (first Lilia, then her son), only to fall in love with the place, find himself in the unlikely position of defending it, and have additional "ambassadors" (Harriet and Caroline Abbott) sent in order to save his mission. John Marcher, the main character of Henry James' "The Beast in the Jungle," and, in a way, the model for Strether, have similarities with Philip in his disengagement from life and inability to make snap decisions. However, Philip's tragedy is more difficult to accept because of his conviction that nothing can save him, which is actually the reverse of Strether's.

The action of this novel somewhat presages aspects of Forster's third novel, A Room With A View. As first novels go, this one is one of the best with a literary touch that Forster would continue to develop in his more famous later novels.