Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Commonplace Entry

This entry is from "Two or Three Ideas" an essay by Wallace Stevens

"To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences.  It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time;  nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge.  It is simply that they came to nothing.  Since we have always shared all things with them and have always had a part of their strength and, certainly, all of their knowledge, we shared likewise this experience of annihilation.  It was their annihilation , not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.  It left us felling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amicable rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness."  

"Two or Three Ideas" in Collected Prose and Poetry by Wallace Stevens.  The Library of America, 1997, p 842.

Modern Reality

The Poetry of Wallace Stevens

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
― Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter 
To regard the frost and the boughs 
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow; 

And have been cold a long time 
To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 
The spruces rough in the distant glitter 

Of the January sun; and not to think 
Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 
In the sound of a few leaves, 

Which is the sound of the land 
Full of the same wind 
That is blowing in the same bare place 

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

What sort of mind is a "mind of winter"?  This is just one of many questions raised upon reading this short poem, one that is nothing if not very deep and opaque, at least upon first reading.  For someone from the northern part of the Midwest the idea of winter and snow is a familiar one, so this poem seems like it should be more simple than it appears. Perhaps that is because the poet, Wallace Stevens, whose image of  the poet he describes thus: 
"He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does be placing it in his imagination. . . The poet has his own meaning for reality,"  and he says this about poetry:
"It is an interdependence of imagination and reality as equals." (pp 25-27, The Necessary Angel)
Stevens's poem is modern in the sense that it is imbued with ambiguity.  The reality of winter or snow or "the listener" of the final stanza is masqued by the metaphors and placement in the poem.  In the short space of fifteen lines the poet takes the reader on a journey from (in) the mind that is seeing the trees and sun to a listener who is hearing "the sound of the wind", yet is reduced to, or left with, nothing by the final stanza.
"Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

One possibility is to look to Stevens the poet for some help in understanding what is happening.  In his poem, "On the Way to the Bus", he describes a journalist confronting a snow scene  as a "Transparent man in a translated world," and finding there "An understanding beyond journalism.  A way of pronouncing the world inside of one's tongue".  (pp 394-5, The Palm at the End of the Mind)  This understanding beyond journalism can be read as imagination; an imagination that is able to behold nothing yet see something.

The ambiguity of "The Snow Man" is something that we can ponder with our own minds and imagine the many senses in which the world of winter, its sounds and sights, might merge with our own understanding of the world.  What we may gain is a bit of poetic knowledge while sharing in the transcendence of the poetic experience.

The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1951.
The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1972 (1971).

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Small Town Lives

Plainsong (Plainsong, #1)Plainsong 
by Kent Haruf

“Often in the morning they rode out along the tracks on Easter and took their lunch and once rode as far as the little cemetery halfway to Norka where there was a stand of cottonwood trees with their leaves washing and turning in the wind, and they ate lunch there in the freckled shade of the trees and came back in the late afternoon with the sun sliding down behind them, making a single shadow of them and the horse together, the shadow out in front like a thin dark antic precursor of what they were about to become.”   ― Kent Haruf, Plainsong

Plainsong is a form of medieval church music that involves chanting; it emerged around 100 A.D. It does not use any instrumental accompaniment, instead, it uses words that are sung. It is this that suggests a structure that orders the story told by Kent Haruf in his beautiful novel. The narration inhabits short vignette-like chapters about a small group of people who inhabit a town set on the stark but beautiful High Plains of Colorado.

It is in the small town of Holt, Colorado, that Tom Guthrie, a high school teacher, struggles to keep his life together and to raise his two boys after their depressed mother first retreats into her bedroom, and then moves away to her sister's house. The boys, not yet adolescents, have a paper route while attempting a normal life of boyhood; yet they have difficulty making sense of adult behavior and their mother's apparent abandonment. In one touching scene the boys bond with an elderly customer and help her as she makes cookies.  A pregnant teenage girl, kicked out by her mother and rejected by the father of her child, searches for a secure place in the world. And far out in the country, two elderly bachelor brothers work the family farm as they have their entire lives, all but isolated from life beyond their own community. While they are isolated, the brothers are not immune to the need to love and be loved.  Their role in the story is central and demonstrates how they are able to grow and redeem lives.  Each of the main characters demonstrate both the potential for human kindness and the consequences of difficulties, both due to their own flaws or those of others.  

From these separate strands emerges a stoic vision of life--and of the community and landscape that bring them together. Through Haruf's spare prose on every page these lives emerge with a beauty and endurance that is impressive. Plainsong is a story of the abandonment, grief, and sorrow that bind these people together. It is also a story of the kindness, hope, and dignity that redeem their lives. Utterly true to the rhythms and patterns of life, Plainsong is a tremendous novel that deserved its nomination for a National Book Award.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A Day in the Life of a Town

Under Milk Wood: A Play for VoicesUnder Milk Wood: 
A Play for Voices 
by Dylan Thomas

"You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep.
And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before- dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.
Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood." (p 13)

Under Milk Wood, the “impression for voices” which Dylan Thomas had been trying to finish for over a decade, received its first public reading on this day in 1953. It was still not finished, but Thomas was on tour in America at the time, and the promised Harvard reading went ahead, the author scribbling additions and changes until the last minute. 

It is a unique work that, as a play for radio, incorporates poetry and is imbued throughout with the imagination of a poet. It can be experienced in many ways: as an evocation of a town in a time and place, specific yet universal; but one may also relish the language, the magnificent wordplay from one of the finest of twentieth-century poets. It is this evocative language that makes it a great play for radio and one that begs to be read aloud when you are closeted in your cozy reading room.

There are memorable characters who the reader discovers through brief monologues, poems, or often merely snatches of conversation with townspeople trading one-liners. It portrays a day in the life of Llareggub, an imaginary small Welsh seaside town — Laugharne, say all but the residents of New Quay, the other Welsh seaside town where Thomas lived and wrote in a small writing shed.  Dylan Thomas had much experience with works for radio and this play that gestated for more than a decade was the result of his great poetic gifts.

"The thin night darkens.  A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood." (p 88)

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Friday, April 29, 2016

A Commonplace Entry

This month's entry comes from On Thinking for Oneself
an essay by Arthur Schopenhauer in The Art of Literature

"A library may be very large; but if it is in disorder, it is not so useful as one that is small but well arranged.  In the same way a man may have a great mass of knowledge, but if he has not worked it up by thinking it over for himself, it has much less value than a far smaller amount which he has thoroughly pondered.  For it is only when a man looks at his knowledge from all sides, and combines the things he knows by comparing truth with truth, that he obtains a complete hold over it and gets it into his power.  A man cannot turn over anything in his mind unless he knows it; he should, therefore, learn something; but it is only when he has turned it over that he can be said to know it."

Poem for the End of April

Collected Poems

Collected Poems 

by Ernest Dowson

April Love

We have walked in Love's land a little way,
We have learnt his lesson a little while,
And shall we not part at the end of day,
With a sigh, a smile?
A little while in the shine of the sun,
We were twined together, joined lips, forgot
How the shadows fall when the day is done,
And when Love is not.
We have made no vows--there will none be broke,
Our love was free as the wind on the hill,
There was no word said we need wish unspoke,
We have wrought no ill.
So shall we not part at the end of day,
Who have loved and lingered a little while,
Join lips for the last time, go our way,
With a sigh, a smile?

Ernest Dowson lived in London, worked at his parents’ dry-docking business, and was a member of the Rhymers’ Club with W.B. Yeats and Arthur Symons. Dowson’s poems trace the sorrow of unrequited love and are the source of the phrases “gone with the wind” and “days of wine and roses.” He also supplied the earliest written mention in English of soccer. Both of Dowson’s parents committed suicide, and Dowson, who rarely had a fixed home, died at the age of 32.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Thoreau and Emerson

I plan to spend the coming weekend discussing aspects of Walden by Henry David Thoreau with friends and fellow students at the Spring Weekend sponsored by the Basic Program of Liberal Education of The University of Chicago.  Here is a brief note about a moment between Emerson and Thoreau that demonstrates a bit of Thoreau's interests and character.

Twenty-three-year-old Henry David Thoreau moved into Ralph Waldo Emerson's home in Concord, Massachusetts on this day in 1841. During his two-year stay, Thoreau was gardener, general handyman and companion-protogé for Emerson, this last a role that he had taken up some years earlier. The following is from a journal entry Emerson made on this day in 1838:
"Yesterday afternoon I went to the Cliff with Henry Thoreau. Warm, pleasant, misty weather, which the great mountain amphitheatre seemed to drink in with gladness. A crow's voice filled all the miles of air with sound. A bird's voice, even a piping frog, enlivens a solitude and makes world enough for us. At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Nigra [Niagara]."

By all accounts, Emerson had an easier time learning about the woods from Thoreau than Thoreau had learning about society from Emerson. In his eulogy for Thoreau twenty years later, Emerson recalled how "it was a pleasure and privilege to walk with him," though he would "as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree." But Thoreau may not have seen any criticism in the comparison to an elm; when Emerson described Harvard as a place where one could enjoy all the branches of learning, Thoreau responded, "Yes, indeed, all the branches and none of the roots."

Source:  "Today in Literature"

Matters of Culture and Identity

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice 
by Ann Leckie

“The problem is knowing when what you are about to do will make a difference. I’m not only speaking of the small actions that, cumulatively, over time, or in great numbers, alter the course of events in ways too chaotic or subtle to trace ... if everyone were to consider all the possible consequences of all one’s possible choices, no one would move a millimetre, or even dare to breathe for fear of the ultimate results.”   ― Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

The protagonist of Ann Leckie's novel, Ancillary Justice, is unique in my experience. Honored Breq, or One Esk, or Justice of Torren, has a human body, but artificial intelligence. The story presented in Ancillary Justice is a space opera set thousands of years in the future, where the primary galactic power of human-occupied planets is the expansionist Radch empire. The empire uses AIs to control human bodies ("ancillaries") that are used as soldiers, though regular humans also are soldiers. The Radchaai do not distinguish people by gender, and Leckie conveys this by using female personal pronouns for everybody, and by having the Radchaai main character guess wrongly when she has to use languages with gender-specific pronouns. This usage was somewhat confusing at first because some of the other characters would refer to a person with a male pronoun while Breq had been and continued using a female pronoun. It becomes clear that the Radch culture did not care about gender.

The narrative begins several years after the disappearance of a Radch starship, the Justice of Toren, when the sole surviving ancillary (and fragment of the Justice of Toren's consciousness), Breq, encounters an officer, Seivarden, whom she had known 1,000 years earlier. The two are on an ice planet, and Seivarden is in precarious condition. The plot unfolds between two strands: Breq's "present day" quest for justice for the Justice of Torren's destruction, and flashbacks from 19 years earlier when the Justice of Torren was in orbit around the planet of Shis'urna, which was being formally brought into the Radchaai empire. Each of these is told in alternating chapters. We eventually find out that the Justice of Torren's destruction was the result of a covert war between two opposed strands of consciousness of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, who uses multiple synchronized bodies to rule her far-flung empire. At the end of the novel, Breq associates herself with the more pacific aspect of Anaander Mianaai while waiting for an opportunity to exact her revenge.

Details of the Radch culture gradually unfold as the story progresses. This aspect is impressive as it becomes clear that there is a vast culture that exists beyond the aspects depicted in the story. I particularly enjoyed the personality of the main character, Breq, including her delight in singing. She displays an encyclopedic knowledge of songs of the Radch culture through her interactions with others while on her quest. But Breq often seems torn between her identities as the ship, Justice of Torren and Breq.  We also find out, interestingly, that “Ships have feelings.” 

In fact it is not clear that the Breq we meet at the beginning of the novel is the same person as Justice of Torren of nineteen years earlier in spite of the connections between the two that are established through Breq's existence as an ancillary. We read “is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction? Or is it really a fiction?”  It is questions like this that make this an exceptional science fiction novel. The author develops relationships like that between Breq and Seivarden, while demonstrating significant ideas through situations that are unusual even for speculative fiction.  Not surprisingly, this book won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Science Fiction novel.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Freedom of Becoming a Witch

Lolly WillowesLolly Willowes 
by Sylvia Townsend Warner

“That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure. It’s not malice, or wickedness - well, perhaps it is wickedness, for most women love that - but certainly not malice, not wanting to plague cattle and make horrid children spout up pins and - what is it? - “blight the genial bed.”   ― Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a feminist author in England who began publishing with her first novel at about the time that Virginia Woolf published her seminal essay, "A Room of One's Own"*.  Warner ran in different circles and was friendly with a number of the "Bright young things" of the 1920s that were famously satirized by Evelyn Waugh in his short novel Vile Bodies. Warner's first major success was this novel, Lolly Willowes, published in 1926.

Lolly Willowes is the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to a country village to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft. The novel opens at the turn of the twentieth century, with Laura (Lolly) Willowes moving from Somerset to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family. Her move comes in the wake of the death of Laura's father, Everard, with whom she lived with at the family home, Lady Place. Laura's other brother, James, moves into Lady Place with his wife and his young son, Titus, with the intention to continue the family's brewing business. However, James dies suddenly of a heart attack and Lady Place is rented out, with the view that Titus, once grown up, will return to the home and run the business.

Laura finds herself feeling increasingly stifled both by the obligations of being a live-in aunt and living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, Laura has an epiphany and realizes she must move to the country. Buying a guide book and map to the area, she decides upon the (fictional) village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, Laura moves to Great Mop and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by the chalk hills and beech woods. When out walking, she makes a pact with a supernatural force that she takes to be Satan, allowing her to remain in the Chilterns rather than return to her duties as an aunt.

In the meantime, Titus, having visited Laura, has decided he wants to move from his lodgings in Bloomsbury to Great Mop and be a writer, rather than inheriting the family business. Laura is frustrated by this but is able to call upon black magic to discourage Titus to the extent that he decides to get married and retreat to London. The denouement of the story leaves Laura acknowledging that the new freedom she has achieved comes at the expense of knowing that she belongs to the 'satisfied but profound indifferent ownership' of Satan.

Warner's writing style is sublime. She demonstrates a subtle humor leavened with unexpected turns of phrase that delighted this reader. Her take on this satirical comedy of manners incorporates elements of fantasy that represent, metaphorically, the plight of women in the era before they "have a room" of their own.  Having enjoyed this short novel I will definitely consider her other work including The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show.

A Room of One's Own is an extended essay by Virginia Woolf. First published on 24 October 1929,  the essay was based on a series of lectures she delivered at Newnham College and Girton College, two women's colleges at Cambridge University in October 1928.  While the  essay in fact employs a fictional narrator and narrative to explore women both as writers of and characters in fiction, the manuscript for the delivery of the series of lectures, titled "Women and Fiction",  which was published in Forum March 1929, and hence the essay, are considered non-fiction.  The essay has become a seminal feminist text, and is noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.

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Monday, April 04, 2016

The Challenge of Love

The Mill on the Floss: A Norton Critical EditionThe Mill on the Floss 
by George Eliot

“In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt: it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love and that did not belong to them. And if life had no love in it, what else was there for Maggie? Nothing but poverty and the companionship of her mother’s narrow griefs—perhaps of her father’s heart-cutting childish dependence. There is no hopelessness so sad as that of early youth, when the soul is made up of wants, and has no long memories, no super-added life in the life of others; though we who look on think lightly of such premature despair, as if our vision of the future lightened the blind sufferer’s present.” ― George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss was published on this day in 1860. What a pleasure it is to read the novels of George Eliot. The sheer intelligence of the author shines on every page. 

In this, her second novel following closely after Adam Bede, she draws on her own experience to create a world of characters surrounding her hero & heroine, Tom and Maggie Tulliver.  The story develops at a leisurely pace with the first two books devoted to the childhood of Maggie and Tom.  Early in Book I, after having argued bitterly over the death of some pet rabbits, Tom and Maggie make up by going fishing on the Floss. They feel that the morning, the river and their childhood will last forever, the Eagle swooping in the sky and the Great Ash anchoring the bank. Yes and no, says Eliot's narrator as she relates here:

"Life did change for Tom and Maggie; and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it,—if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass; the same hips and haws on the autumn's hedgerows; the same redbreasts that we used to call “God's birds,” because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?"

Tom goes off to be tutored and Maggie must stay at home, so their lives slowly diverge until in subsequent books, as their father's world disintegrates in debt, they are found on opposite sides with both their filial love and love of "the earth" tested again and again. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the complexity of these characters as created by Eliot. Tom distinguishes himself at the trading firm of his Uncle Deane and matures into a confident and courageous young man, repaying the debts of his father. Yet, his character is flawed in both his inflexibility and his inability to appreciate the needs of his sister Maggie. Maggie, who is significantly more intelligent than Tom, and self-taught, has developed from a somewhat over-emotional young girl into a sort of Christian ascetic based on her reading of Thomas a Kempis. She is forbidden friendship with Philip Waken, the son of the lawyer who bought her father's mill, and is prevented from developing the potential that is central to her character. The choices she makes define who she is, how she will live, how her community will see her, and in some cases, how those around her will live. The tension between progress and tradition is central in The Mill on the Floss. In many ways, it is embodied in Maggie. The pull she feels between her individual desires and her communal duties is very much a pull between progress and tradition, as those communal duties are highly traditional, and her individual desires are far more suited to a more progressive world.

Though Maggie is deeply intelligent and passionate and has clearly defined desires, she finds fulfilling these desires nearly impossible. The denouement of the novel leads it down the path of the tragic side of life if not true tragedy, but the complexity of the characters and realism of the world in which they live continues to impress.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

A German in America

The Master Butchers Singing ClubThe Master Butchers Singing Club 
by Louise Erdrich

"Delphine didn't know that there were times when Fidelis showed a certain tenderness to his sons, times he sang to them.  When they had trouble sleeping, when they were very small, when Eva asked him to, and when they were ill, he sang the old German lieder to them in a restrained voice that filled the room with a comforting resonance in which they felt protected." (p 290)

Four people are introduced in the first two chapters of this historical romance. Four people whose story will comprise the rest of the novel: Fidelis and Eva, and Cyprian and Delphine. Yet, the true center of the novel will be Delphine Watzka for it is her story that will intertwine with all the rest and it is her character that you as the reader will come to love and admire.

We meet Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper, at the end of World War I as he returns to his hometown in Germany. Fidelis seeks out Eva Kalb, the pregnant fiancée of his dear friend, Johannes, and after informing her that her fiancé has died in the war he shares his promise to Johannes that he would marry and take care of her. Fidelis, a butcher by trade, leaves Germany by himself to emigrate to the United States in order to escape the immense poverty brought on by the war. His limited funds and sausages take him as far as Argus, North Dakota. Working for the local butcher and then setting up his own butcher shop in Argus he is able to send for his wife, Eva, and her child, Franz.

Delphine Watzka is the daughter of Roy Watzka, the town drunk, who grew up in Argus, North Dakota. Delphine never met her mother and leaves the town to become a vaudeville performer soon meeting Cyprian, a World War I veteran, with whom she enters a unique relationship. The two make money from an act where Delphine performs as a table upon which Cyprian balances. After accidentally observing Cyprian engaging in sex with another man their relationship changes, but the two remain together, posing as a married couple. They eventually return to Argus and settle there. From this point on Delphine's life becomes intertwined with that of Eva and the family she is raising with Fidelis.

Louise Erdrich enriches the story with family mysteries and the inevitable observations of small town Midwestern life. As someone who grew up in a small Midwestern community in the 1950s I felt at home with the people of Argus. Delphine ultimately takes a job in Fidelis' Butcher Shop which demands hard work from Fidelis and Delphine as well. Delphine learns domestic skills from Eva and this proves useful as Eva contracts a cancer and in spite of treatments and help from her sister-in-law, Tante, she dies. Tante and Cyprian both leave Argus. Tante returns to Germany with Fidelis' youngest sons, the twins Erich and Emil. Cyprian returns to the life of the traveling performer. Both departures pave the way for a romance between Delphine and Fidelis, which eventually results in marriage.

These and other developments in the community leave Delphine and Fidelis together and eventually they marry, cementing a relationship that develops slowly with Delphine first becoming a replacement mother for Fidelis' four boys. Their story and the impact on their lives of the Second World War lead to a heartwarming denouement as the family enters the decade of the fifties.

The author demonstrates superlative story-telling skills in this sage of four decades in the lives of the four people we met at the beginning of the novel. Her character development and understanding of the psychology of relationships makes this a wonderful book. It was my introduction to the writing of Louise Erdrich and I only regret that I had not discovered the charms of Fidelis, the Master Butcher, and his Singing Club sooner.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016


Spring Pools
by  Robert Frost

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods –
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday. 

I will be studying some of Frost's poetry over the next month.  As prologue to that effort and in recognition of the beginning of Spring I have posted a poem that portrays the transformations from winter that had only just passed to spring, "flowers beside them chill and shiver".  The trees became bare over the winter and the water is filled with flower petals but now as it is spring the tree's are blossoming. Nonetheless there is a not too subtle hint of darkness in the nature that brings us the spring buds.  The poem exhibits some pleasant rhymes and ends with a particularly felicitous couplet. 
Harbinger of Spring!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Reading Life

Delphine's Books

"Delphine was reading and dozing over a thick Book-of-the-Month Club novel she'd got from the little lending library run by some schoolteachers out of the courthouse basement.  The plot was intimate, British, and safely romantic, one of those in which she had confidence she'd not be left for days with heartache.  She had always been a reader, especially since she lost Clarisse.  But now she was obsessed.  Since her discovery of the book hoard downstairs from her job, she'd been caught up in one such collection of people and their doing after the next.  She read Edith Warton, Hemingway, Dos Passos, George Eliot, and for comfort Jane Austen.  

The pleasure of this sort of life---bookish, she supposed it might be called, a reading life---had made her isolation into a rich and subversive thing.  She inhabited one consoling or horrifying persona after another.  She read E. M. Forster, the Bronte sisters, John Steinbeck.  That she kept her father drugged on his bed next to the kitchen stove, that she was childless and husbandless and poor meant less once she picked up a book.  Her mistakes disappeared into it.  She lived with an invented force." (p 301)

from The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Dystopian Destiny

The Last Starship from EarthThe Last Starship from Earth 
by John Boyd

"Rarely is it given man to know the day or the hour when fate intervenes in his destiny, but, because he had checked his watch just before he saw the girl with the hips, Haldane IV knew the day, the hour, and the minute.  At Point Sur, California, on September 5, at two minutes past two, he took the wrong turn and drove down a lane to hell." (p 1)

Reading Science Fiction written in the past (in this case the late 1960s) creates a situation where what was posited as a story of the near future becomes a story of an alternate history. In this case  the novel is set in a dystopian society in the very near future. In the world of this story, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was killed leading an assault on Rome. He was the Messiah that people expected. The government of John Boyd’s world is a global government run by Christians along “scientific” lines, where psychologists and sociologists in conjunction with the Church and an AI Pope rule the world. People marry and mate because of their genes, reminiscent of the film Gattaca. The central character is Haldane IV, a mathematician, in a caste-based society. Unfortunately Haldane meets and develops an attraction for Helix, a mere poet. By law and social custom Haldane is expected to have nothing to do with her, but as you’d expect he falls in love with her.

Haldane IV also becomes interested in investigating Fairweather, a famous mathematician who lived shortly before his time. He has lengthy discussions about Fairweather with his father learning about his son Fairweather II, whom he discovers led a rebellion, which was defeated. Eventually Haldane IV is given a show trial and deported to another planet, where he meets Fairweather II.

This story presents a society that is displays totalitarian characteristics. For example Haldane is betrayed by his roommate who tells the authorities about his illicit love affair with Helix. The caste system is extremely rigid and the government is unforgiving. Haldane compounded his criminal behavior by impregnating Helix. The society is gradually developed through conversations and allusions while the deportation or banishment, if you prefer, is the beginning of a denouement that is somewhat amazing in its revelations. I cannot predict whether you will enjoy the way the story ends or feel that the prologue was not worth it. Fortunately this is a slight read of less than two hundred pages, or not so fortunately for those who would like more detail about yet another dystopian future for mankind.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Ineffective Satire

Riotous Assembly (Piemburg, #1)Riotous Assembly 
by Tom Sharpe

"Piemburg's mediocrity was venomous  and waited gently on events." (p 4)

I usually try to find something good to say about a book that I have read. It was difficult with this novel by Tom Sharpe. The book is humorous for about one chapter and the rest is downhill as the satire becomes so heavy-handed that is loses its effectiveness. The rest of my review must of necessity be a litany of problems. From the lack of character development to a plot that is notable only in its weakness this novel is a bit of a disaster.

I spent several weeks in South Africa in the late seventies and I thought I learned a little about the country. However the setting of Riotous Assembly, the fictional town of Piemburg, did not resemble the country I visited. I am unable to come up with an excuse for the caricatures that inhabit Riotous Assembly. It is with almost no reluctance that I suggest you avoid this book.

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A Mote with Imagination

An Unnecessary WomanAn Unnecessary Woman 
by Rabih Alameddine

"Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life?  I remain a speck in the tumultuous universe that has little concern for me." (p 159)

Sometimes the voice of the narrator enchants the reader with her life and that of those around her. That is what happens in Rabih Alameddine's captivating novel. The narrator is a woman named Aaliya. She is a book-lover in her seventies who runs a book store and translates books. She is an obsessive translator of books, a vocation that was spurred by reading about a criminal, Raskolnikov, in a book, Crime and Punishment, that she remembered as "the first adult novel I read, or the first with a fully developed theme." (p 102) That memory is one that she shares in one of her many asides that in this case last for several pages and included a discussion of the translating abilities of Constance Garnett, the Edwardian woman who introduce the English-speaking public to the wonders of Russian literature.

This is a book made up of her asides which intersperse her story about a life lived in Beirut. Beirut becomes a character in the novel as she shares her love for the city. This love does not prevent her from warning the reader that, "Every Beiruti of a certain age has learned that on leaving for a walk you should never be too sure of returning home, not only because something might happen to you personally, but also because your home might cease to exist." (p 175) There are other characters who drift into and out of the story including her friends Fadia, Joumana, and Marie-Therese. Most important in several senses is Ahmad who enters her bookshop as a young boy and matures on the streets and in the battles of Beirut city.

The most interesting of her friends for this reader are her books. Anything and everything brings her back to her books. Nostalgia for the city of Beirut reminds her of the smell of jasmine floating in, the colors and patterns of sheets in the dark" which leads her to Proust:
"But then I feel nostalgia for the walks by Swann's Way, as well as by Guermantes Way, for how Charles Kinbote surprises John Shade while he's taking a bath, for how Anna Karenina sits in a train." (p 129) 
She tosses off one-liners with the gift of a literary charmer. You may have noticed how she added references to Nabokov and Tolstoy while waxing about Proust. These and other riffs on the life of reading through quotations and asides warm the heart of any reader and challenge him as well. Her favorite book is Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and I could not think of a better choice.

She also loves music and Chopin becomes another character as his music wafts through her mind and life, especially when performed by the great Sviatoslav Richter. Yet she is mainly a homebody, "No matter where I've been or how long I've been away, my soul begins to tingle whenever I approach my apartment." This is a place that is no longer new and cold in the winter but it is warmed by the heart of Aaliya the book-loving translator. She says near the end of her story that "In order to live, I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe." (p 277) Nonetheless she is not "unnecessary" as the reader finds that laughter and tears and wonder are all part and parcel of the wonder of reading about her magical life.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

From "A Factless Autobiography"

I know no pleasure like that of books, and I read very little. Books are introductions to dreams, and no introductions are necessary for one who freely and naturally enters into conversation with them.  I've never been able to lose myself in a book;  as I'm reading, the commentary of my intellect or imagination has always hindered the narrative flow.  After a few minutes it's I who am writing, and what I write is nowhere to be found.

From "Text 417" in The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Monday, March 07, 2016

Technology of the Middle Ages

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle AgesCathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages 
by Frances and Joseph Gies

"Philosophy in the early Middle Ages was in fact virtually indistinguishable from religion, and science was indeed its handmaid.  Medieval theologians would have been surprised to learn that there was any difference among the three spheres of thought." (p 76)

For more than a century following the publication in 1776 of  Edward Gibbon's massive tome, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages were indicted as "the triumph of barbarism and religion".  In doing this he coupled the two bête noires of the intellectuals of his day, with the Catholic Church especially complicit in its rejection of change in science and agriculture. Yet in the present book the authors proffer evidence that the dark ages were not nearly so dark as assumed by many. They demonstrate this by chronicling the developments in technology over the centuries preceding the Renaissance. Some of these included the magnetic compass which would enable the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century, water power for industry, and new designs for ships with full rigging. Europe did not develop ideas in isolation but was able to adopt ideas originating in the civilizations of Islam, India and China.

The book's scope is the thousand years from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the discovery of the New World. The authors divide the book into seven chapters into which they arrange most of their material chronologically.  In the chapter on "The Not so Dark Ages: A.D. 500-900" the authors debunk the notion that little happened in those four hundred years. The authors discuss warfare, textiles, agriculture, and the ways in which long-distance navigation and trade spurred urban growth in northwest Europe. Using archaeological research published as recently as 1990, the authors describe how "specialized trading settlements called 'emporia' and 'gateway communities' sprang up near the North Sea and Channel coasts" in the seventh and eighth centuries (p. 43).

One of the most valuable chapters is "The Asian Connection." The authors remind us that although the revival of the European economy and the re-urbanization of Europe are often described as a "Renaissance" of classical antiquity, some of the most crucial technological innovations came from beyond Europe.  These imports include the trio of gunpowder, the printing press, and the magnetic compass. The physical configuration of early-modern cities, the nature of their intellectual life, and the potential of Europeans to begin a program of overseas expansion depended more upon inventions borrowed from Asia than any revival of Roman technology. 

The book also chronicles the onset and expansion of the commercial revolution and the consequent growth of cities. The authors explore the environmental impact of land reclamation and deforestation. They note that "the growing pressures of construction and industry brought Europeans for the first time to a consciousness of the forest's limits" (p. 171).  The book concludes with the voyages of Columbus and the products of the genius of Da Vinci as the dawn of the Renaissance was on the horizon.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Surprising Discovery

The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction
The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. 
in The Deeps of the Sea and Other Fiction 
by George Steiner

"Yes,  I know they've been hunting for him.  They've never stopped.  Started almost immediately after the war.  Small parties sworn to get him.  To give their lives.  Never to rest until he was found." (p 19)

In 1981 George Steiner wrote a literary and philosophical novella, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.. In it Jewish Nazi hunters find Adolf Hitler (A.H.) alive in the Amazon jungle thirty years after the end of World War II. It is a daring fictional endeavor that is as much a philosophical rumination as it is a political thriller. It is the longest work in this compilation of short fiction by George Steiner.

From his base in Tel Aviv, Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Lieber directs a group of Jewish Nazi hunters in search of Adolf Hitler. The hunters believe that the former Führer is still alive, and following rumors and hearsay, they track Hitler's movements through the jungles of South America, until after months of wading through swamps, a search party finds the 90-year-old alive in a clearing. Lieber flies to San Cristóbal where he awaits the group's return with their captive. But getting the old man out of the jungle alive is more difficult than getting in, and their progress is further hampered by heavy thunderstorms.
Meanwhile, broken and incoherent radio messages between Lieber and the search party are intercepted by intelligence agents tracking their progress, and rumors begin to spread across the world of Hitler's capture. Debates flare up over his impending trial, where it will be held and under whose jurisdiction. Orosso is identified as the nearest airfield to the last known location of the search party, and aircraft begin arriving at the hitherto unknown town. But when the search party loses radio contact with Lieber, they must make a decision: do they sit out the storms and deliver their captive to Lieber later, or do they try Hitler in the jungle before their prize is snatched from them by the world at large, who they know will be waiting? Lieber warns "You must not let him speak ... his tongue is like no other". A trial is prepared and surprisingly the attention Hitler is receiving, however, renews his strength, and when the trial begins, he brushes aside his "defense attorney" and begins a long speech in four parts in his own defense.

Hitler claims he took his doctrines from the Jews and copied the notion of the master race from the Chosen people and their need to separate themselves from the "unclean". "My racism is a parody of yours, a hungry imitation." Hitler justifies the Final Solution by maintaining that the Jews' God, purer than any other, enslaves its subjects, continually demanding more than they can give. He claims that he was not the originator of evil and his atrocities were dwarfed by those of others. He even maintains that Zion owes its existence to the Reich. Throughout the rant there runs an underlying theme of the persecution of the Jews in history.

Steiner demonstrates both insights and an imagination of major proportions in a small space.  In an interview he told New York Times editor D. J. R. Bruckner that this book arose out of his lifelong work on language. "Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment ... that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate." *   The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. was a 1983 finalist in the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. 

*Bruckner, D. J. R. (2 May 1982). "Talk With George Steiner". The New York Times.

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Corrupt Evangelist

Elmer GantryElmer Gantry 
by Sinclair Lewis

"Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin' "Repent! Repent!" and I got to moanin' "Save me! Save me!" and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!" 

Elmer Gantry, the traveling evangelist who loved whiskey, women and wealth, was written by Sinclair Lewis in 1927. Lewis would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Gantry went on to become a synonym for hypocrisy and showmanship. Displays of these traits will often evoke his name, especially in reference to preachers. Lewis delighted in exposing hypocrisy and pomposity. His landscape was America in the 1920s, often the Midwest. It was a time when the Jazz Age and Prohibition were both in full swing, the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee highlighted a rise in fundamentalism, and traveling evangelists were popular.

During my Sinclair Lewis reading phase many years ago I found Arrowsmith, while providing an interesting picture of some of the quandaries in the medical profession, was not as appealing to me as Elmer Gantry. The latter novel drew me into the arena of fanatically religiosity and hypocrisy just as Main Street had done with the cultural life of small town America. The novel is an unabashed, unashamed, and unforgiving look at a man whose actions contradict everything he says--the epitome of a hypocrite. Elmer Gantry is perhaps one of the finest examples of a "larger than life" character, certainly exceeding Arrowsmith, Babbit and the genteel Carol Kennicott in that aspect. Gantry is a charming womanizer with a great voice who has been been kicked out of seminary and works as a traveling salesman. Gantry gets religion at a tent meeting in a small town, where he falls for Sister Sharon Falconer. She's suspicious, but agrees to take him on when he vows to testify as a "salesman who found God." The trouble down the novel's road awaits simply because Gantry never had a genuine call to the pulpit.

The book was banned in Boston, and other cities, for its depiction of the morally corrupt evangelist, Elmer Gantry. Several years later, it was even banned in Ireland. The opening and closing lines of the novel say it all: "Elmer Gantry was drunk... And we shall yet make these United States a moral nation." The success of the novel can be seen in that the name has become part of our language.

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Imaginary Libraries

Libraries of imaginary books delight us because they allow thus the pleasure of creation without the effort of research and writing.  But they are also doubly disturbing--first because they cannot be collected, and secondly because they cannot be read.  Theses promising treasures must remain closed to all readers.  Every one of them can claim the title Kipling gives to the never-to-be-written tale of the young bank clerk Charlie Mears, "The Finest Story in the World."  And yet  the hunt for such imaginary books, though necessarily fruitless, remains compelling.  What devotee of horror stories has not dreamt of coming upon a copy of the Necronomicon, the demonic manual invented by H. P. Lovecraft in his dark Cthulhu saga?  According to Lovecraft, the Al Azif (to give it its original title) was written by Abdul Alhazred  c. 730 in Damascus.  In 950 it was translated into Greek under the title Necronomicon by Theodorus Philetas, bu the sole copy was burnt by the Patriarch Michael in 1050.  In 1228 Olaus translated the original (now lost) into Latin.  A copy of the work is supposed kept in the library of Miskatonic University in Arkham, "one well known for certain forbidden manuscripts and books gradually accumulated over a period of centuries and begun in colonial times."

Not all imaginary libraries contain imaginary books.  The library that the barber and the priest condemn to the flames in the first part of Don Quixote;  Mr. Casaubon's scholarly library in George Eliot's Middlemarch;  Des Esseintes's languorous library in Huysman's A Rebours;  the murderous monastic library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose . . .  all these are merely wishful.  Given money enough and time, such dream libraries could find a solid reality.  

from The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, pp 283-84.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Amalgam of Characters

Earthly PowersEarthly Powers 
by Anthony Burgess

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of John Anthony Burgess Wilson, who published under the pen name Anthony Burgess.  He was an English writer and composer who, from relatively modest beginnings,  became one of the best known English literary figures of the latter half of the twentieth century.  Although Burgess was predominantly a comic writer, his dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange remains his best known novel.  In 1971 it was adapted into a highly controversial film by Stanley Kubrick, which Burgess said was chiefly responsible for the popularity of the book. Burgess produced numerous other novels, including the Enderby quartet, and Earthly Powers, regarded by most critics as his greatest novel. He wrote librettos and screenplays, worked as a literary critic, and wrote studies of classic writers, notably James Joyce. A versatile linguist, Burgess lectured in phonetics, and translated Cyrano de Bergerac, Oedipus the King, and the opera Carmen, among others.

Burgess also composed over 250 musical works; he sometimes claimed to consider himself as much a composer as an author, although he enjoyed considerably more success in writing.  The following are some of my thoughts about Earthly Powers.

Earthly Powers is the linchpin of Anthony Burgess' novel-writing career. It is a massive work that compares favorably with similar tomes of twentieth century literature. What sets Burgess apart from other authors is his linguistic playfulness combined with an exceptional narrative style. Although this style is here somewhat less obviously experimental than that of Burgess’s other novels of this period, his use of a professional story teller as a first-person narrator allows him to call into the question the nature of authority in fictional texts. The narrative becomes a retrospective account of a life spent as an outsider. Within that account, Burgess locates his protagonist,Toomey, at some key moments of twentieth century history in order, it seems, to comment on those issues which consistently surface in all of Burgess’s fiction, particularly the nature of evil and its presence in the physical world. 

The novel attempts to address issues of belief, and the role of religion in late twentieth century culture, using a broad cast of characters, fictional and real; it is not, however, a roman à clef. Though often mentioned in reviews of this novel, the identification of Toomey with Somerset Maugham fails to recognise that Toomey is a portmanteau of many characters. He contains hints of Maugham, certainly, but there are suggestions of, to name a few, Alec Waugh in the precocious young novelist; of P. G. Wodehouse in the broadcaster from Berlin; of W. H. Auden in the rescuer of a Nobel laureate’s offspring; and of Burgess himself, the author of a real Blooms of Dublin. Burgess ability to meld this amalgam of characters into his protagonist reminds me of another favorite novel, The New Confessions by William Boyd, in which the author uses a similar technique to create a tremendously exciting and interesting protagonist. Throughout the novel, the emphasis is on the debate about the nature of evil rather than on the accuracy or otherwise of the references to twentieth century figures. The novel examines at length the nature of belief, the way in which people cope with an imperfect world, and the operation of evil and suffering. In doing so it succeeds in presenting a distinctive and compelling view of the twentieth century through the life of Toomey. It is both a challenging and rewarding read that I would recommend to all.

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