Monday, February 08, 2016

Time Travel and History

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog 
by Connie Willis

“You'd help if you could, wouldn't you, boy?" I said. "It's no wonder they call you man's best friend. Faithful and loyal and true, you share in our sorrows and rejoice with us in our triumphs, the truest friend we ever have known, a better friend than we deserve. You have thrown in your lot with us, through thick and thin, on battlefield and hearthrug, refusing to leave your master even when death and destruction lie all around. Ah, noble dog, you are the furry mirror in which we see our better selves reflected, man as he could be, unstained by war or ambition, unspoilt by-”   ― Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

The novel, as suggested by the subtitle (How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last), has a plot that is hard to detect at times. It primarily involves time travel itself which is used primarily as a tool for historical research. Although millions were spent to develop time travel as a commercial venture, it turned out to have no profit potential. In this novel the natural laws of the "time continuum" prevent anything of significance from being brought from the past to the future, and also act to keep time travellers away from historically critical events, such as the Battle of Waterloo. One plot thread indicated by the subtitle involves the time travelers search for an artifact known as the "Bishop's bird stump."* However, little progress is made in the search, and the nature of the bird stump is never clearly understood. The scavenger hunt never really developed significant interest for this reader.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is heavily based on Jerome K. Jerome's classic novel Three Men in a Boat (1889). In doing so Connie Willis uses the Victorian novel's sub-title as her title, mentions the novel in the dedication, and has one of the main characters, Ned Henry, who seems to know about as much about Victorian literature as he does about any history, often quote Jerome's novel. It led this reader to wonder why he has so much of the work memorized.

The novel is enjoyable at times, but did not gain traction for me. Each chapter begins with a wonderful epigram from a wide variety of people from Lewis Carroll to Darryl Zanuck. I looked forward to these signposts as much or more than the story. In the end this was a good read, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who was not already a fan of Connie Willis or is more of a dog-lover than I.

* Ceramic vase in the form of a tree stump.

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Writer's Lavish Legacy

A Minor ApocalypseA Minor Apocalypse 
by Tadeusz Konwicki

"I could still run away to my little mouse hole.  I still had one last little morsel of time.  To hide in some hole, like Stargard, change my name, join the Party, start a new family.  Save myself a few years for Nadezhda;  that is Hope.  But that way I would only lose her.  She would die in my arms or in my mind." (p 226)

This is a novel about the "end of the world" for an aging Polish writer named Konwicki who has built a reputation as a representative of the people in their battle against the oppressive Communist government and its Soviet allies. As we meet him he thinks about his night . It was one that when he went to sleep he began to "understand the meaning of existence, time, and the life beyond this one. I understand that mystery for a fraction of a second, through an instant of distant memories, a brief moment of consolation or fearful foreboding , and then plunge instantly into the depths of my bad dreams. . . I would give everything I possess -- to see that mystery in all its simplicity, to see it once and then to forget it forever." (p 6)

Konwicki is in reality doomed to forfeit his life for the cause, the uprising of activists, writers like himself, and other compatriots who oppose the State in Poland at the end of the 1970s. He is approached early on this day by his friends Rhysio and Hubert with the decision , made by others in his absence, that he must that evening immolate himself in front of the Congress building of the government.
This is not an act that he can agree to but neither is it one that he rejects. He spends the rest of his day, one that may be his last, thinking about the meaning of this act. At some point he acquires a can filled with specially prepared gasoline that he carries with him like a cross. As he walks through Warsaw he is challenged several times during the day by various levels of State police to prove his identity by providing his papers and answering annoying questions. The quotidian details of his day provide a picture of the rigid society in which he lives. He also meets another friend, Tadzio Skorko, and the love of his life Nadezhda.
At one point his last two friends walk past him without saying hello and he thinks, "I really do have one foot in the grave." (p 107)

The satire is present and heavy at times. The police are portrayed as buffoons yet the one time he is interrogated the scene is filled with brutal reality, both physical and mental. The State apparatus is clearly aware that something unusual is planned for this day.
The mixture of the quotidian details of the day and Konwicki's fleeting memories of his past relationships and writing provide a fascinating background for the impending horror of his death. There are allusions to Dante and Savonarola but the most pertinent and poignant is the following literary reference:
""You were created by this regime. You were excreted by the system, you're part of this tyranny's flesh and blood. You're like a character from Dostoevsky's The Possessed*, not from a Zeromski story or one by Strug.""(p 138)

As the day proceeds Konwicki's meditations on his existence and imminent death become more serious and, for the reader, more thought-provoking.
"A reckoning with my conscience. My act of contrition. Regret for my sins. My life story in the colors of mediocrity. At first I hated that mediocrity, disdained it, but in the end I made my home in it. Greatness in mediocrity. Mediocrity as the highest form of aristocracy. Mediocrity as asceticism, as proud isolation amid vulgarity, the gray habit of a proud monk. Mediocrity as the final stage of exaltation."(p 143)

I could conclude with that statement, for it is one that includes his life - greatness - the culture in which he lives - vulgarity - and his own isolation and coming exaltation. But the novel is not without lyrical passages, in spite of the gray vulgarity of living in that society. Not surprisingly it is Nadezhda who inspires the best of his lyricism:
"Saying nothing, without a single word, we rose from the cement step which was already absorbing the late-afternoon chill and we entered the silent nave of the editorial offices' ruins. . . The remains of the walls, partitions, and ceilings were lying in the middle of the building, piles of picturesque rubble which seemed arranged by some romantic architect. Astonishingly luxuriant vegetation had entwined itself around those hunks of cement and brick, those dunes of withered lime. The sun's oblique light made the large, blackish burdocks glow; it gilded the handsome ferns and lit the deadly nightshade bushes on fire. Even fall asters had stolen into that enchanted garden, which had overgrown the junk pile of what once had been editorial offices.
The stairs invited our eyes to the sky, which had grown distinctly opalescent now." (p 170)

This is a beautiful novel about the ultimate moment in one man's life. The narrator says it best:
"My testament. My lavish legacy to those I loved."

*Also translated as The Demons.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Quote for Today

Thomas Carlyle

    Alas, what a wretched thing were Life, if there were no Death in it. I fancy the foolishest man would grow desperate of his existence and its paltrinesses, if that celestial temple, fearful and wonderful to the foolishest, stood not always in the background. Standing there, it makes the meanest life divine. Dying we do become a kind of Gods….

    Do you read many Books? You will find resources in Literature, the more as you get deeper into it. A picture of the struggle of a man; every book is that. All men in all ages, one finds, have had intrinsically the same struggle as we; identical, tho under such diversity of vesture. The face[s] of them, on this hand and on that, give one comfort: We are not alone then; we are in an endless army of comrades!

from a letter of Oct. 21, 1840 to the author, Geraldine Jewsbury

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Trip on the Thames

Three Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the DogThree Men in a Boat: To Say Nothing of the Dog 
by Jerome K. Jerome

“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need - a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. ”   ― Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K. Jerome wrote a leisurely chronicle of a summer's boating holiday on the Thames. It was published in 1889 when he was only thirty years old. It was a success as a popular humorous book and has remained in print to this day. While some of the book is pure farce his main approach to humor was understatement and outrageous exaggeration in a style that reminds one of some of Twain's comic writings. He described his technique thus:

"Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing: but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous---almost pedantic---veracity, that the experienced angler is seen."

His humor relies on the diabolic malice of inanimate objects when they escape from civilization: of the infrangibility of cans when the can opener has been left behind, the ingenuity of an untended rope, the cunning of kettles and leaking kerosene. His narrator is known simply as J. while his companions are Harris and George (though they are somewhat shadowy characters) and of course there is Montmorency, the dog.

"To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was an angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox-terrier. There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and -nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen."

With a convivial narrator and two friends, to say nothing of the dog, this tale of a boat trip is simply one of the funniest and most delightful short books that I have ever read.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hunting Vampires

Cycle of the HunterCycle of the Hunter 
by Patrick Rahall

"Guardians have been on the side of your ancestors for hundreds of years.  We saw the atrocities committed by the first evil ones and we were disgusted.  We decided to instead use our powers to aid the humans."  - Cycle of the Hunter, Patrick Rahall

I read this novel for a book group to which I belong. We chose it knowing that for most of us, and certainly me, it was a bit different than our typical reads. I would classify it as a vampire novel, although I have little experience in the genre beyond the classic Dracula by Bram Stoker. At any rate this certainly includes vampires and a great deal of violence.

The main plot is about several varieties of vampires, Hunters, Destroyers, Defenders, and the Guardians. The Guardians decided many years ago to "help humans" and they oppose the Destroyers (aka "evil ones"). The plot begins with chapters introducing several orphans and leads by the middle of the book to a gathering of seven of the remaining vampires. They were brought together and are directed by a plan led by a Guardian known as Romulus. Once this is accomplished in the first half of the book the remainder is devoted to battles between the group of good vampires and the evil ones.  

The novel is both well-plotted and suspenseful.  Filled with action it often portrays the raw intensity of battling for one's life against  characters that are more capable than average humans. I would have liked a little more character development, but the novel hinges more on action than character. Ultimately it provides a window into a different cultural milieu than I have encountered before. It is a milieu filled with violence and raw language that, while providing verisimilitude, did not appeal to me. I am not likely to read many more vampire novels but the Cycle of The Hunter provided excitement and entertainment which were enough to make it an enjoyable book to read.

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 24, 2016

First Sentences . . .

…from a few of my favorite books:

"I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.  He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me."   -  Robinson Crusoe,  Daniel Defoe

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."  - The Catcher in the Rye,  J. D. Salinger

“I have been here before," I said;  I had been there before;  first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool's parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer;  it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when the leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God;  and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest."  - Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile;  cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse;  backward in sentiment;  lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow loveable." The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

“I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life."  - Giovanni's Room,  James Baldwin

"So, then people do come here in order to live;  I would sooner have thought one died here."  - The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,  Rainer Maria Rilke

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment."  - The Return of the Native,  Thomas Hardy

"A screaming comes across the sky."   - Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

"There was a depression over the Atlantic."   - The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil

“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego."  - The Call of the Wild,  Jack London

"High up on the long hill they called the Saddle Back, behind the ranch and the county road, the boy sat his horse, facing east, his eyes dazzled by the rising sun."  - My Friend Flicka,  Mary O'Hara

"I am twenty-six inches tall, shapely and well proportioned, my head is perhaps a trifle too large."   - The Dwarf, Par Lagerkvist

…and perhaps the best opening sentence in all of literature:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."   - A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Two Favorite Novels

The House of MirthThe House of Mirth 
by Edith Wharton

“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”   ― Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Today is the anniversary of the birth of  Edith Wharton,  a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, short story writer, and designer.   Wharton combined her insider's view of America's privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight. 

She wrote in a style called social realism. Writers associated with social realism range from Mark Twain to Henry James, from William Dean Howells to Sinclair Lewis. Literary realism, like all styles of literature arose out of a social moment, a historical context, and its proponents rarely agreed on what constituted realism. William Dean Howells was influential because as an editor he wanted his colleagues to write of the "smiling aspects of life". This was not the approach of Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth which, although it is realistic in its depiction of society, it is closer to tragedy than comedy. While not as naturalistic as the novels of Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, or Frank Norris she is not willing to gloss over the dark side of the life of the elite. Wharton's closest ally among the realists was Henry James. There is a famous story of literary collaboration and advice here as with many writers. When Henry James read Wharton’s novel The Valley of Indecision, he wrote to her his praise of it, but then wandered around with his characteristically wandering prose to get to the point that she should confine herself in her subject matter to New York. He wrote, "Do New York! The first-hand account is precious." She did so for the most part with great success for the rest of her career.

The House of Mirth is usually viewed as a novel of New York society manners, which it is. The heroine is Lily Bart, an impoverished socialite, who lives off a small inheritance and her Aunt Julia’s generosity. She travels with the elite of New York society by being charming and beautiful; something she finds increasingly more difficult the older she gets. But the novel is also an example of a modern, secular vision of alienation in which Lily Bart faces an inability to reconcile her nature with the world around her.
"A world in which such things could be seemed a miserable place to Lily Bart but then she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculation."(p 271)

For Lily the tension increases until it becomes too great to manage. She does not realize that the elite crowd are not her friends. Her downfall lies in some poor choices and a misunderstanding of her situation. In spite of her difficulty in understanding the world around her I find Lily a sympathetic heroine. Her missed opportunities remind me of Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage who seemed to always disappoint in his choices. The classical beauty of Wharton's prose which resembles that of her friend, Henry James, with fewer recondite patches, makes this book appealing to read. One of her better novels, I would recommend this to readers who enjoy Howells and James.

The Age of InnocenceThe Age of Innocence 
by Edith Wharton

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”   ― Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is the twelfth novel published by Edith Wharton, winning for her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The story is set in upper-class New York City in the 1870s. It centers on the impending marriage of an upper-class couple, Newland Archer and May Welland. And the introduction of a woman, Ellen Olenska, plagued by scandal whose presence threatens their happiness. Though the novel questions the assumptions and morals of 1870s' New York society, it never devolves into an outright condemnation of the institution. In fact, Wharton considered this novel an "apology" for her earlier, more brutal and critical novel, The House of Mirth. Wharton's attention to the mores of the upper class includes details based on her own experience. But her insights into the psychology of the characters, especially Newland and Ellen were what I found most interesting. The regrets of an aging man for what might have been have seldom been limned as well as in Miss Wharton's story.

Critics praised her novel The Age of Innocence most highly among all her works. Set in New York of the 1870s, it displays the sometimes rigid customs of New York’s wealthy elite and the difficulties that its members sometimes have in departing from these customs in order to pursue desire that is outside their bounds. It was lauded for its accurate portrayal of how the 19th-century East Coast American upper class lived, and this, combined with the social tragedy, earned Wharton a Pulitzer Prize — the first Pulitzer awarded to a woman. Edith Wharton was 58 years old at publication; she lived in that world, and saw it change dramatically by the end of World War I. The title may be read as an ironic comment on the polished outward manners of New York society, when compared to its inward machinations. This is the best of her novels in my estimation, although the bittersweet The House of Mirth is my personal favorite.

View all my reviews

Friday, January 15, 2016

Introduction to Freud's Thought

Introductory Lectures on PsychoanalysisIntroductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis 
by Sigmund Freud

“With words one man can make another blessed, or drive him to despair; by words the teacher transfers his knowledge to the pupil; by words the speaker sweeps his audience with him and determines its judgments and decisions. Words call forth effects and are the universal means of influencing human beings.”   ― Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

In 1916, some twenty years after coining the word psychoanalysis, Freud began a series of lectures entitled Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. This book presents those lectures where Freud describes his theories and techniques directed towards discovering and finding solutions to the mental problems observed in patients.

During the course of the twenty-eight extremely accessible essays, we discover that he came by the idea that there could be unconscious desires from the practice of hypnosis, in which wish suggestions are rooted in the brain and some time after the patient has awakened actuates upon those suggestions without knowing why.  Freud has a way with words and his style makes this and his other books enjoyable to read.

An important aspect of this book is its logical organization.  It is divided into three sections pertaining to parapraxes, dreams, and a general theory of the neuroses. Although mutually related, we find that Freud's discourse throughout follows a similar pattern: hypotheses, research and discovery, and one may wonder whether the research inspired the hypotheses, or if the presuppositions needed to begin questioning and researching led to his very particular and what were at the time revolutionary brand of ideas. 
Parapraxes are introduced as faulty acts, such as memory or speech errors, mishearing, chance actions, forgetting, losing or mislaying something, misreadings and misprints, blunders and slips of the tongue. Upon reading more they turn out to be everyday displays of pathologies: actions assumed to have not been planned but upon inspection the opposite is often the case. 
Before Freud, dreams were generally considered random and meaningless images, but for Freud, the psychoanalyst, nothing is left to chance or indifference; there is not a single psychical phenomenon which does not have some meaning or intention, most notably disguised expressions of unconscious wishes. If you are interested in more details about Freud's views on dreams his earlier Interpretation of Dreams is a great book to read.
The final section of lectures draws the reader into the realm of the neurosis. These type of mental disorders need to be understood as the result of conflict and repression, and hence the neurosis, dream, parapraxes, and unconscious mind are solutions arising from the inherent and universal animosity either between unconscious and conscious mental states, or society and the individual.

This is the best place to start if you have never read Freud. His prose style is felicitous.  He explains the "Oedipus complex", "freudian slip" and other concepts which have become part of our cultural heritage.  In doing so he provides a thorough introduction to his views on psychoanalysis.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Commonplace Entry


Among the dreams mentioned in earlier sections there were already several which could serve as examples of processing nervous stimuli, as they are called.  The dream of drinking water in great draughts is one of these;  in this case the somatic stimulus is apparently the sole source of the dream, and the wish deriving from the sensation--thirst--its only motive.  It is similar in other simple dreams, if the somatic stimulus by itself is capable of creating a wish.  The dream of the invalid who cast the cooling appliance off her cheek at night shows an unusual way of reacting to painful stimuli with a wish-fulfillment.  It seems that the invalid had temporarily contrived to numb her own sensations, and in doing so she foisted her pain on someone else.

from pp 179-180 of The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.  Joyce Crick, trans.  Oxford University Press, 1999 (1899)

Melting Pot Metropolis

Manhattan TransferManhattan Transfer 
by John Dos Passos

"With a long slow stride, limping a little from his blistered feet, Bud walked down Broadway, past empty lots where tin cans glittered among grass and sumach bushes and ragweed, between ranks of billboards and Bull Durham signs, past shanties and abandoned  squatters’ shacks, past gulches heaped with wheelscarred rubbishpiles where dumpcarts were dumping ashes and clinkers, past knobs of gray outcrop where streamdrills continually tapped and nibbled…. “Say mister you couldnt tell a feller where a good place was to look for a job?”      —from Manhattan Transfer

Today is the anniversary of the birth of John Dos Passos.  In his long career he created the massive USA trilogy, but Manhattan Transfer focuses on New York City.  
The ferry-slip. A ferry, and a newborn baby. A young man comes to the metropolis and the story begins. It is a story of that metropolis: "The world's second metropolis." But it is really the latest in a line that extends backward in time to "Nineveh . . Athens . . . Rome . . . Constantinople . ." and others since.

John Dos Passos presents stories of some of the people who call this metropolis, Manhattan, home near the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel is about New Yorkers and their stories -- numerous characters whose commonality is only their status as New Yorkers brought them together, impersonally and randomly. He does so with an engaging style that encompasses the sights, sounds, feelings, and excitement encountered by those who peopled this island metropolis. Each chapter begins with passages comprising observations of city life, newspaper headlines, bits and pieces of dialogue, and phrases from advertisements. All these passages emphasize that "Manhattan Transfer" is a collective novel about the city of New York, about its shallowness, immorality, and grinds of the urban life. The characters' lives only depict some of them.

There are the dreams of new parents whose daughter, Ellen, is born at the opening of the novel. Her life and career will be one of two that span the course of the novel. But there are also young lovers, young men, down-and-outers, immigrants, swells, and others on the make with little but their dreams to keep them going. Some stories are about dreams shattered or those whose lives are stillborn,limited by poverty or lack of vision. The angry rebels are present as well -- those found on the street corner protesting for better treatment, better pay, or mimicking the ideas of radicals and anarchists of the day.

Among the many stories some stand out. One of the most  successful inhabitants of Dos Passos's Manhattan is Congo Jake  starts out as a peglegged sailor and ends up as a wealthy New Yorker with a new name, Armand Duval, an attractive wife and more money than he knows what to do with.  On the other extreme, we encounter Joe Harland, the Wizard of Wall Street, who makes a killing in the stock market and loses it all, but attributes his change of luck to the loss of a crocheted blue silk necktie that his mother had given him when he was a youngster.  Then there is James Merivale who is born to wealth and a prosperous future and the family man Ed Thatcher with his wife and newborn daughter Ellen (mentioned above). There is also the other character whose story will span the novel, Jimmy Herf, whose path will cross that of Ellen. Jimmy Herf works with the "Times" in a job that he finds unfulfilling eventually leaving this job. Jimmy's search for his dream will form another arc that provides a link for all the stories bringing the reader ultimately back to the ferry with which the book began. This arc is not unfamiliar in the sense it is similar to the arc of young Nicholas Rostov in War and Peace and many other young men since.

Dos Passos' style is mesmerizing and fits perfectly with the story he tells. The characters form a mosaic that blends with the sights and sounds of Manhattan to create a world that is alive with all the possibilities, both successes and defeats, that humanity may experience. Upon its publication, Sinclair Lewis seemed to anticipate this development, praising Manhattan Transfer as "a novel of the very first importance" and predicting that it could represent "the foundation of a whole new school of novel-writing."  While British novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote Manhattan Transfer is "the best modern book about New York" because it "becomes what life is, a stream of different things and different faces rushing along in the consciousness, with no apparent direction save that of time".  
The historical references include discussion of the "bonus marchers" of veterans requesting their military bonuses, references to Sarajevo, and other events; all of which provide a background that provides context for these peoples' lives. I found this book an exciting read that gripped my attention and did not let it go. I would highly recommend this modern classic.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Novel of Light, Being, Remembering, and More

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road 
to the Deep North 
by Richard Flanagan

"On the night he lay there with Lynette Maison, he had beside their bed, as he always did, no matter where he was, a book, having returned to the habit of reading in his middle age.  A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book.  A great book compels you to reread your own soul.  Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer.  Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound.  He read late of an afternoon.  He almost never looked at whatever the book was of a night, for it existed as a talisman or a lucky object--as some familiar god that watched over him and saw him safely through the world of dreams."  - Richard Flanagan

There are good books and there are great books. This book is one of the rare great books that "compels you to reread your soul".   There are many reasons for this and I will attempt to elucidate them as well as I can. In the wake of reading such a well-wrought novel as this one the thought of attempting to write about it myself is somewhat daunting. One can begin with Richard Flanagan's mesmerizing prose; prose that approaches poetry on almost every page. But the accomplishments achieved by this author go well beyond his beautiful prose style.

The story itself can be described simply as the life of a doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who is born in Tasmania in the early years of the twentieth century and grows to maturity over eight decades. The passages of his life include marriage, love affairs, life in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, and more. What sets this novel apart from others is the ability of Flanagan to tell this story while exploring the depths of questions about what it means to live a good life, the nature of love and death, good and evil, and the very nature of humanity. Throughout the narrative the issues of memory and time are demonstrated through metaphor and shifting passages from both character to character and past to future and back again.

How can I demonstrate how Flanagan accomplishes this? Perhaps the first paragraph will do to set the stage:

"Why at the beginning of things is there always light? Dorrigo Evans' earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother. A wooden church hall. Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over." (p 3)

Some of the motifs that reappear throughout the novel are present in this opening paragraph: light, family, women, and time. There are five sections to the novel, each prefaced by an epigraph from Japanese haiku. The opening section is encapsulated in its' epigraph amazing fashion.

A bee
staggers out
of the peony

-  Basho

The epigraph provides an introduction to the poetic prose of the author and each section that follows has its own poetic epigraph.  Yet there is more than poetry in Flanagan's narrative. There are moments of communion with life like the one in 1940 when Dorrigo, on a pass from Army training, explored the city streets of Melbourne and ended up in "an old bookshop" (of course). He experiences a "moment":

"And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work--an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end." (p 48)

But his communion with books was interrupted by the crowd below, a book launch for Max Harris's Angry Penguins, and there below among the parting crowd was a woman "with a red flower" and eyes that "burnt like the blue in a gas flame"; that woman would become the great love of his life.

There are many moments like this in the book, some are moments of great pain, some minor epiphanies of love or delight; all are rendered with care and poetic grace. There are moments that serve to define the characters in the novel, like early on when Dorrigo memorizes Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" by reading and rereading it almost endlessly.  Yet others beckon the reader, like those that depict the inner lives of those who manage to survive the war and must return to their families and communities--a world that too often does not comprehend the inner life of those who bear the scars of battle and war.  There are also moments of tenderness that, while emotional for the reader, often demonstrate the inability to connect as much as the desire to be loved.

There are limits in my ability to comment on books I have read, that have moved me to tears both of joy and heartbreak. This book surpasses those limits and thus becomes ineffable in some sense, but beautiful and grand nonetheless. I must conclude with a recommendation, one that I rarely make, that you must read this book and discover the fictional world of Richard Flanagan for yourself.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
-  T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

View all my reviews

Poem for Today

Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems

Neruda and Vallejo: 
Selected Poems 
by Pablo Neruda

I Wish the Woodcutter Would Wake Up

West of the Colorado River 
there's a place I love. 
I take refuge there with everything alive 
in me, with everything 
that I have been, that I am, that I believe in.
Some high red rocks are there, the wild 
air with its thousand hands 
has turned them into human buildings. 
The blind scarlet rose from the depths
and changed in these rocks to copper, fire, and energy. 
America spread out like a buffalo skin, 
light and transparent night of galloping, 
near your high places covered with stars 
I drink down your cup of green dew.
Yes, through acrid Arizona and Wisconsin full of knots, 
as far as Milwaukee, raised to keep back the wind and the 
or in the burning swamps of West Palm, 
near the pine trees of Tacoma, in the thick odor 
of your forests which is like steel, 
I walked weighing down the mother earth, 
blue leaves, waterfalls of stones, 
hurricanes vibrating as all music does, 
rivers that muttered prayers like monasteries, 
geese and apples, territories and waters, 
infinite silence in which the wheat could be born.
I was able there, in my deep stony core, to stretch my
     eyes, ears, hands,
far out into the air until I heard
books, locomotives, snow, battles, 
factories, cemeteries, footsteps, plants, 
and the moon on a ship from Manhattan, 
the song of the machine that is weaving, 
the iron spoon that eats the earth, 
the drill that strikes like a condor, 
and everything that cuts, presses, sews: 
creatures and wheels repeating themselves and being 
I love the farmer's small house. New mothers are asleep 
with a good smell like the sap of the tamarind, clothes 
just ironed. Fires are burning in a thousand homes, 
with drying onions hanging around the fireplace. 
(When they are singing near the river the men's voices 
are deep as the stones at the river bottom; 
and tobacco rose from its wide leaves
and entered these houses like a spirit of the fire.) 
Come deeper into Missouri, look at the cheese and the 
the boards aromatic and red as violins, 
the man moving like a ship among the barley, 
the blue-black colt just home from a ride smells 
the odor of bread and alfalfa: 
bells, poppies, blacksmith shops, 
and in the rundown movies in the small towns 
love opens its mouth full of teeth 
in a dream born of the earth. 
What we love is your peace, not your mask. 
Your warrior's face is not handsome. 
North America, you are handsome and spacious. 
You come, like a washerwoman, from 
a simple cradle, near your rivers, pale. 
Built up from the unknown, 
what is sweet in you is your hivelike peace.
We love the man with his hands red 
from the Oregon clay, your Negro boy 
who brought you the music born 
in his country of tusks: we love 
your city, your substance, 
your light, your machines, the energy 
of the West, the harmless 
honey from hives and little towns, 
the huge farmboy on his tractor, 
the oats which you inherited 
from Jefferson, the noisy wheel 
that measures your oceanic earth, 
the factory smoke and the kiss, 
the thousandth, of a new colony: 
what we love is your workingman's blood: 
your unpretentious hand covered with oil.
For years now under the prairie night 
in a heavy silence on the buffalo skin 
syllables have been asleep, poems 
about what I was before I was born, what we were. 
Melville is a sea fir, the curve of the keel 
springs from his branches, an arm 
of timber and ship. Whitman impossible to count 
as grain, Poe in his mathematical 
darkness, Dreiser, Wolfe, 
fresh wounds of our own absence, 
Lockridge more recently, all bound to the depths, 
how many others, bound to the darkness: 
over them the same dawn of the hemisphere burns, 
and out of them what we are has come. 
Powerful foot soldiers, blind captains, 
frightened at times among actions and leaves,
checked in their work by joy and by mourning, 
under the plains crossed by traffic, 
how many dead men in the fields never visited before: 
innocent ones tortured, prophets only now published, 
on the buffalo skin of the prairies.
From France, and Okinawa, and the atolls 
of Leyte (Norman Mailer has written it out) 
and the infuriated air and the waves, 
almost all the men have come back now, 
almost all . . . The history of mud and sweat 
was green and sour; they did not hear 
the singing of the reefs long enough 
and perhaps never touched the islands, those wreaths of 
     brilliance and perfume, 
except to die: 
                    dung and blood 
hounded them, the filth and the rats, 
and a fatigued and ruined heart that went on fighting. 
But they have come back,
                                         you have received them 
into the immensity of the open lands 
and they have closed (those who came back) like a flower 
with thousands of nameless petals 
to be reborn and forget.

NERUDA AND VALLEJO: SELECTED POEMS edited and translated by Robert Bly, Beacon Press, 1971. Copyright 1971 by Robert Bly.

View all my reviews 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Inside the World of Reading

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted TimeThe Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time 
by David L. Ulin

“I go back to the reading room, where I sink down in the sofa and into the world of The Arabian Nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates. I'm alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Several years ago I read a wonderful book, Distraction, by the philosopher and author Damon Young. His book describes the success of several great thinkers and writers in living a thoughtful life filled with freedom from distraction. One of the hallmarks of the lives he described was reading. It is this act, which David Ulin describes as "an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage"(p 150).

This observation is near the end of Ulin's essay on why books matter, The Lost Art of Reading. Some of us have not lost the art, but may need a reminder of its importance. For reading is more than entertainment, although it often is entertaining; it may also be invigorating, meditative, or even a spiritual life enhancing experience. Above all, as Ulin argues, it is a way to get in touch with ourselves in this instant as we connect with the thoughts of authors that may have lived millenniums ago.

The essay focuses on reading a through a variety of metaphors. Reading is "a journey of discovery"(p 13). The journey is different for each individual but one example highlighted by the author resonated with me. It was the immersion of Frank Conroy in books when he was a boy.  His journey began with what seems a chaotic passage through book and authors both great and small, heavy and light, but it was a start and a wonderful way for Conroy to get the lay of the land. To enter into a world that would provide him with a place that was apart from the distraction of society became a foundation on which he could build his own life as a writer.  Ulin's example reminded me of fictional readers who experienced the same thing. Some of my favorites are David Copperfield, Philip Carey, and Edmond Dantes.  And of course the resonance was very personal because, like many readers, I shared in the experience of Frank Conroy and those fictional readers.

David Ulin remembers his own library of books as a " virtual city, a litropolis, in which the further you were from the axis, the less essential a story you had to tell.(p 17). It was this view of books as a city that he translated later into remembering cities by their books and populating his reading life with a vision of the world based on his own tastes and aspirations. This is something that each of us as readers may do in our own life. The essay takes you through encounters with readers like Ulin's own son, who has to read and reluctantly annotate Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, with the encouragement of his father. But he also discusses writers like Anne Fadiman who is among the greatest connoisseurs of reading and writing that I have encountered. And we are regaled with a story about reading David Foster Wallace, a contemporary writer of revolutionary tomes. There is even a discussion about reading on a Kindle which is not necessarily a bad thing except there are a lot of worthwhile books that are not available on a Kindle, so the book is safe for the moment.

As a reader I found this essay encouraging and invigorating. It is a reminder of what I love about reading, what I would love to reread, and where I may go to continue my own reading journey. Just as I enjoy the freedom from distraction that reading can bring, I wonder at the infinite worlds that are opened when we take time to get in touch with ourselves in the pages of a book. I hope for a future that includes many things, but above all includes reading. Listen to the words of Walt Whitman:

"SHUT not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill'd shelves, yet
needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link'd with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page."

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Legendary Beauty in Verse


So many stones have been thrown at me,
That I'm not frightened of them anymore,
And the pit has become a solid tower,
Tall among tall towers.
I thank the builders,
May care and sadness pass them by.
From here I'll see the sunrise earlier,
Here the sun's last ray rejoices.
And into the windows of my room
The northern breezes often fly.
And from my hand a dove eats grains of wheat...
As for my unfinished page,
The Muse's tawny hand, divinely calm
And delicate, will finish it.

-  by Anna Akhmatova


A legend in her own time both for her brilliant poetry and for her resistance to oppression, Anna Akhmatova—denounced by the Soviet regime for her “eroticism, mysticism, and political indifference”—is one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century. Before the revolution, Akhmatova was a wildly popular young poet who lived a bohemian life. She was one of the leaders of a movement of poets whose ideal was “beautiful clarity”—in her deeply personal work, themes of love and mourning are conveyed with passionate intensity and economy, her voice by turns tender and fierce. A vocal critic of Stalinism, she saw her work banned for many years and was expelled from the Writers’ Union—condemned as “half nun, half harlot.” Despite this censorship, her reputation continued to flourish underground, and she is still among Russia’s most beloved poets.  

Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to intricately structured cycles, such as Requiem (1935–40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her style, characterized by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly original and distinctive to her contemporaries. The strong and clear leading female voice struck a new chord in Russian poetry.  Here are poems from all her major works and some that have been newly translated for the Everyman edition.

Monday, December 28, 2015


Averroes and the EnlightenmentAverroes and the Enlightenment 
by Mourad Wahba

"After logic we must proceed to philosophy proper. Here too we have to learn from our predecessors, just as in mathematics and law. Thus it is wrong to forbid the study of ancient philosophy. Harm from it is accidental, like harm from taking medicine, drinking water, or studying law."   - Averroes

Abu'l-Walid Ibn Rushd, better known as Averroes (1126-1198), stands out as a towering figure in the history of Arab-Islamic thought, as well as that of West-European philosophy and theology. In the Islamic world, he played a decisive role in the defense of Greek philosophy against the onslaughts of the Ash'arite theologians (Mutakallimun), led by al-Ghazali (d. 1111), and the rehabilitation of Aristotle.

A common theme throughout his writings is that there is no incompatibility between religion and philosophy when both are properly understood. His contributions to philosophy took many forms, ranging from his detailed commentaries on Aristotle, his defense of philosophy against the attacks of those who condemned it as contrary to Islam and his construction of a form of Aristotelianism which cleansed it, as far as was possible at the time, of Neoplatonic influences.

In the Western world, he was recognized, as early as the thirteenth century, as the Commentator of Aristotle, contributing thereby to the rediscovery of the Master, after centuries of near-total oblivion in Western Europe. That discovery was instrumental in launching Latin Scholasticism and, in due course, the European Renaissance of the fifteenth century. Notwithstanding, there has been very little attention to Averroes' work in English, although greater interest has been shown in French, since the publication of Ernest Renan's Averroes et l'averroisme in 1852.
(More to follow.)

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Books I Read In 2015

These are the top books I have read since January 1, 2015.  The listing  includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry and is actually more than ten as I have chosen to group more than one book by three of the authors.  It was a very rich year for reading although the quantity of books I read declined in total from my recent experience.  There is no particular order to the list and  I highly recommend all of the following:

The Siege of Krishnapur   by J. G. Farrell.  
Set in India, 1857, during the Great Mutiny, this novel by J. G. Farrell is both a mighty work of historical fiction and a humane study of man. Farrell has the ability to create a world filled with flawed but often sympathetic characters and that sets this novel apart from typical historical fare.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science  by Richard Holmes.  
Described as "a relay race of scientific stories", it is that and more, combining the literary milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the increasingly wonderful scientific discoveries and enterprises from the voyages of Captain James Cook through the crossing of the English Channel by balloon through excursions into the study of gases and electricity, ending with the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

John Donne's Poetry by John Donne, Donald R. Dickson (Editor).  Donne is often considered a difficult poet. Other metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell, have enjoyed a steadier, if less glamorous, regard, since much of their poetry is more accessible. Donne, who almost never seems completely accessible even at his most seemingly transparent, requires great dedication on the part of the reader--and, perhaps, gives more lasting rewards.

Death in Venice and The Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann.  These two novels, one from early in Mann's career and the other his final completed novel are perfect bookends to the prize-winning career of one of my favorite authors.  Last year his seminal work The Magic Mountain was on my annual list.

The Buddha in the Attic  by Julie Otsuka.  
Using simple prose and the first person plural the author created a unique perspective on a very real historical episode in Japanese-American history. 

Paradise Lost  by John Milton.  
In Paradise Lost, Milton produced a poem of epic scale, conjuring up a vast, awe-inspiring cosmos and ranging across huge tracts of space and time. And yet, in putting a charismatic Satan and naked Adam and Eve at the center of this story, he also created an intensely human tragedy on the Fall of Man.

Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.   
These are two of the best novels by one of the greatest American novelists.  Blood Meridian rivals the works of Melville and Faulkner in depth of meaning and style;  while The Road is a searing, post apocalyptic novel.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.  
This was Wolfe's first novel, a unique cornucopia of beautiful prose about a young man's burning desire to leave his small town and tumultuous family in search of a better life.

The Cossacks  and The Death of Ivan Ilych  by Leo Tolstoy.
While Tolstoy is famous for his massive novels, these two short novels are pinnacles of the writer's art.   In The Cossacks one finds a story that mirrors War and Peace in miniature.  The Death of Ivan Ilych explores the life in death and the epitome of its existential meaning.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics  by Daniel James Brown.  
This riveting narrative tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

Some very good books I read this year that came close but did not make the top ten included:  Sirius by Olaf Stapledon,  On Heroes and Hero-worship by Thomas Carlyle, The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, and Hadji Murat by Tolstoy.