Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writer's Story

In the WakeIn the Wake 
by Per Petterson

I have never complained about anything except badly written books and the world situation, and you don't get your money back when little Nepalese girls are sold by their families to brothels in Bangkok, or because the World Bank refuses to waive cruel loans to Uganda. On the contrary. And lousy books; they just look at you and say: "Why don't you write one yourself, then?  ― Per Petterson, In the Wake

In the Wake is the third of Per Petterson's novels that I have read, yet it is the first of his novels translated into English. I previously read Out Stealing Horses and I Curse the River of Time. Each of these books has increased my esteem for this award-winning Norwegian author.

In the Wake tells the story of Arvid, a writer in his early forties. It is a Proustian tale in the sense that the bulk of the story is built on Arvid's memories of events that have shaped his life. The actual timespan of the novel is relatively short. In it Arvid's loneliness is intense, his grief has settled in to the point where his sanity is not guaranteed. He has lost his father, mother and two younger brothers in a ferry accident. (Petterson lost his parents and a brother in a ferry accident, too, but prefers to leave this out of his publicity material.)

Arvid's life as a writer has slowed to a standstill and yet he keeps moving, driving his beaten-up Mazda through wintry Norwegian landscapes and we keep him company, waiting for a thaw. The novel is startling, especially its opening. It takes a while to adjust to it, like a plunge into icy water, after which the body temperature must revert to normal. It is in prose passages like this describing a moment with his brother that the book comes alive: "We got out of the van, not slamming the doors but pushing them shut, because of the silence around us, not a sound but the sea sighing as it always does behind the trees but the shore when I realize that is what I can hear and stop thinking it is silence itself." His brother is sometimes a mirror for Arvid as is the memories of his father.  The action of the book is muted but Arvid's willingness to keep moving and his interaction with real living people provides hope for the reader that he will survive his grief and loneliness.

It seems appropriate that many of the scenes in the book occur in doorways or on actual thresholds, for it seems that this is where Arvid is in a psychological sense. One night, locked out, he stands outside his neighbor's house - and wakes her up. Thus begins a chapter about admission in many senses - Arvid tells his neighbor things about his dead father he has never told anyone. And it is clear that it is the confession that leads him to her bed.

Arvid is a reader as he explains, "On Sundays I sit at home reading whether it's sunny or raining or snowing."  And like Per Petterson himself, Arvid used to work in a bookshop and refers to favorite books, as if reading might accomplish what life could not. He describes one author's work like this: "Full of landscape and air and you can smell the pine needles and the heather a long way off."  Petterson's own novel is like this, too. It is prose you can almost inhale - the atmosphere is clear and overwhelming.

Hemingway is one persistent influence on Petterson, and so is Knut Hamsun—the protagonists of two early Hamsun novels, “Mysteries” and “Pan,” could be models for Petterson’s unmoored people, especially in the way that Hamsun, like Petterson, at once reveals and obscures rational motivation. Trying to separate fact from fiction with his memories flowing through his mind Arvid shares this thought: "It must have been a dream, of course, because I do not remember what that house looked like from outside or what he saw from the windows or why we were actually there. I remember a lot of dreams. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish from what has really happened. That is not so terrible. It is the same with books."

In the end Arvid's story and he himself are memorable because of his ability to become someone like the reader of his book. He rereads books, and he makes lists of favorite books. They help him deal with the the pain of the world and find a way to go on living and writing. In the end he shares a real life Hemingway moment with his brother. The reality of living in the present overcomes all the memories of the painful past.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Small Town Life

A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William MembershipA Place in Time: 
Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership 
by Wendell Berry

“But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time...of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here...It is in the world, but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.”   ― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Wendell Berry has been writing poetry and essays on farming life for more than half a century. But he has also written fiction set in Port William, Ky., which rivals William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in terms of its breadth of imagined historical detail. A Place in Time includes 20 stories that feature familiar characters from earlier novels and stories, but it is not necessary to have read those to get pleasure out of these.

This is a good introduction to many of the families that inhabit Port William. The Catletts and Feltners are prominent in several stories. While individual characters like Burley Coulter, Elton Penn, and Andy Catlett stand out. The stories span more than a century and a half of history from the opening story, set in the Civil War era to the titular tale that ends the book during the first decade of the new millennium.

The stories are not plot driven but focus on character, including the character of Port William itself. The relationships of characters are as important as their actions in these beautiful vignettes of small town life. As someone who was raised in a small town I found moments that resonated with my own experience. "Andy Catlett: Early Education" reminded me of my own schooldays while also bringing my reading of books like Tom Sawyer to mind. One of the most potent stories, for instance, is markedly subtle: “A Desirable Woman” tracks the intersection of a pastor’s wife and a young farmhand shortly before the start of World War II, and the story turns on the young man’s unrequited crush on the woman shortly before he’s sent off to war. “Sold” has a similarly soft-focus, nostalgic cast, narrated by an elderly woman recalling the accumulations that are about to be sold at auction before she enters a nursing home. Some of the stories are suggestive of homespun tales or Twain (again), as in “A New Day,” which climaxes in a competition between two horse teams dragging bricks, or “A Burden,” about the antics of a drunk relation.

Throughout the collection Berry's writing style is poetic as he shares episodes of loss and love, achievement and angst; all set against the backdrop of the evolution of Port William through time. The historic context was omnipresent but not overwhelming. It intruded with tales of soldiers returning or not returning from war and notes of other events, although the focus was continually on the families -- their follies, their foibles, and their faith. Berry is a writer whose beautiful sentences are imbued with an agrarian spirit. That and a concern for both time past and time future make this a fine collection.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Libraries and Ray Bradbury

While I am not self-educated in the same way as Ray Bradbury I do have a love for libraries based on my experiences that resonate with his.  From an early age I had a special relationship with libraries.  First it was spending summers visiting my hometown library for reading program books and others (I loved the history of British kings and retain an interest in history).  Later it was the High School library and memories of driving to other towns and the Whitewater College library for research papers.  When I entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from my Freshman year thru Graduate School, I often was ensconced in the Memorial Library stacks reading, even if not always for a class.  Since then my personal library which I began with my parents help at an early age has expanded every year.  With this in mind you may better understand why I was moved by the following excerpt from The Paris Review's interview with Ray Bradbury.

"I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. 

I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school." 

The Paris Review, Spring 2010

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Postmodern Shadows

The Lazarus ProjectThe Lazarus Project 
by Aleksandar Hemon

The morning sun was coddling the window, the mists were crawling up the slopes of Trebevic.  I could see Marin-dvor spreading toward the invisible river, and in an absurd flash I fully perceived it as the neighborhood I had been born and had grown up in." (p 280) 

The Lazarus Project is the second book by Aleksandar Hemon that I have read.  The previous one, his first novel Nowhere Man, I considered a flawed attempt at novel-writing.  This was due both to Hemon's inexperience and his attempt to relate an immigrant's experience in a postmodern way that did not appeal to me; neither his characterizations nor his style helped.

The Lazarus Project is narrated by a young Chicagoan named Vladimir Brik.  Like Hemon himself, he grew up in Sarajevo, came to Chicago on a visit and was forced to stay in the United States when war broke out in what was then Yugoslavia. While the new novel is in some ways a continuation of Hemon’s vision of an immigrant’s slanted, postmodern world, its narrator, Vladimir Brik, is also a departure from the ironic yet naïve young man of his earlier book. This is a mature novel about a grown man who is animated by and indeed savors the nuances of disappointment. In one scene, Brik tiptoes into his Chicago kitchen to make coffee before his wife wakes up. “I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES.”(p 73)

Brik is married to a successful American neurosurgeon who saves lives from “her high position of surgically American decency.” He, on the other hand, struggles “through permanent confusion.” Living with an acute sense of the loss of his homeland and, so, the loss of his identity, Brik has become intrigued with another immigrant: Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jew who escaped the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova and came to Chicago. This Averbuch is a historical figure whose story is still something of a mystery; but it is known that he arrived at the house of the Chicago chief of police on March 2, 1908; there was some kind of scuffle, and the young man was shot and killed. Still haunted by the anarchist Haymarket riots, in which seven police officers died, and fearing a violent reaction to the mayor’s cancellation of a speech by Emma Goldman, Chicago moved into a state of turmoil.

When Brik gets a research grant and takes off for Eastern Europe, following in Lazarus’s footsteps, he brings an old friend along, a photographer and fellow Sarajevan named Rora. Rora and Brik’s road trip is an Eastern European nightmare. They are driven to Bucharest by a somnolent pimp with a terrified young girl held captive in the back seat. In one chapter, set at a bordello hotel called Business Center Bukovina, Hemon constructs a delicate, beautifully rendered fable of ugliness, desolation and heartlessness. They pass a mangy dog as they enter. The window looks out on a huge garbage bin “brimming with glass bottles,” their sparkle providing a brief moment of pleasure: “I always like to see a full garbage container, because I relish the thought of emptying it, the complete unburdening implicit in it.” At the end of the chapter, Brik hears a drunken couple shouting, then laughter, a dog howling and the shattering of glass. “The man and woman had thrown the dog in the garbage container full of bottles and then must have watched it writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape.”

There is to be no escape, no “complete unburdening” for Brik, no emptying of the life he has known and tried both to remember and forget. “Your nightmares follow you like a shadow, forever,” he notes. He also made this remark:
"There are moments in life when it is all turned inside out--what is real becomes unreal, what is unreal becomes tangible;  and all your level-headed efforts to keep a tight ontological control are rendered silly and indulgent."(pp 47-8)  These sound like a Kafkaesque sort of life as does much of the novel.

 I note that this is yet another novel that attempts two different stories, connected at several different levels, but not always successfully. I am reminded of Louis de Berniere's Birds Without Wings which was a similar attempt to interlink two related stories, also unsuccessfully in my estimation. Hemon's attempt is more concise and retains its ability to capture the reader's attention with mystery and intrigue, along with some humor, that propel both stories. The novel's short chapters interspersed with introductory historical photographs (does he think that the readers' imaginations need help?) also keep the narrative from flagging. The result is a satisfying read but one that for me was not quite as "stunning" as opined by some critics.

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Monday, October 31, 2016

Story of Two Presidents

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of JournalismThe Bully Pulpit: 
Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, 
and the Golden Age of Journalism 

by Doris Kearns Goodwin

“Why bother with fictional characters and plots when the world was full of more marvelous stories that were true, with characters so fresh, so powerful, so new, that they stepped from into the narratives under their own power?”   ― Doris Kearns Goodwin

For any historian, bringing the past to life is a most difficult task, and it is to the credit of Doris Kearns Goodwin that she has succeeded to such a marked degree with her successive assessments of powerful leaders. I first encountered her work when I read No Ordinary Time, a history of the relationship of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Subsequently I enjoyed her book, Team of Rivals, about Lincoln and his cabinet.

This work explores the lives and times of former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, creating an image of the past that captures emotions as well as events, with an entertaining account of that bitter 1912 political convention that marked the crumbling of a great friendship as well as of a political party. In this work she draws a comparison between the currently widening gap between the rich and poor and the chasm that was one aspect of the path to reform in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, in spite of her immensely readable prose, she provides a slanted view of history that treats the progressivism of Roosevelt and the muckraking journalists of the era in an all too hagiographic fashion.

She makes a comparison with the challenges faced by today’s leaders when she discusses the use of the “bully pulpit,” that famous phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt to summarize the power that a president can wield to mobilize and galvanize the public mind. The times were such that “muckraking” was applied to the more extreme journalists; noting the influence of the press on the presidency and its connections to Roosevelt. These connections included an alliance with Sam McClure, editor of McClure’s Magazine, where there were gathered what became a legendary group of journalists: William Allen White, crime reporter Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and a woman, Ida Tarbell.

Goodwin's research is demonstrated by her use of such vital material as more than 400 letters written between Roosevelt and Taft in their 30s, which made it all the more poignant that their friendship was destroyed by the political rivalry launched by Roosevelt in 1912. Taft is seen as a failure as a public leader, seeing his political success impeded by the genuine skills of his judicial career, which left him too convinced of his own rectitude. His lack of passion for politics ultimately left him unable to emulate Roosevelt in using the press to carry the legislative message of the president. Taft even conceded after leaving office that he had failed to use the “bully pulpit” to achieve his goals. According to Ms. Kearns Goodwin, Taft was “temperamentally unsuited” to make use of that bully pulpit that contributed so substantially to Roosevelt’s success.

The author underlines her insight into the characters of the two men by framing their family background and their emotional attachments. She writes sensitively of Roosevelt’s devastation at the death of his first wife, Alice, to the point that he could not bring himself to address their daughter by the given name of Alice, calling her instead “Baby Lee.” When he does remarry, his second wife, Edith, who was his true first love, was devoted to her husband despite being more restrained in her links to the world beyond her home. Roosevelt’s character could be summed up by a visiting British viscount who commented that he encountered “two tremendous works of nature in America — Mr. Roosevelt and Niagara Falls.”
Ironically, the differences between Roosevelt and his friend Taft were pointed up by their similarities. Taft was an amiable, kindly man who excelled in all high office except one. He was, the author observes, “an excellent number two man,” yet he lacked the necessary political acumen required in a president. He was not a true progressive in the way that Roosevelt was. His wife, Nellie, gave essential encouragement to her husband as a judge and as president, relishing the role of first lady. It was she who brought cherry trees to the capital, created parks and lobbied for higher wages for workers.

Goodwin concludes the history of the Roosevelt-Taft era with her account of the 1912 election when Roosevelt broke his promise not to seek a third term and embarked on a brutal campaign against the man who was once his closest friend and who also lacked the ferocity for a bloody election battle. It was ironic that even in the White House, Taft apparently realized that he was best suited for the bench — and indeed he became chief justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency.

An eloquent epilogue describes the brief reconciliation of Roosevelt and Taft. As a result of this when Taft attended Roosevelt’s funeral, he commented, “Had he died in a hostile state of mind toward me, I would have mourned the fact all my life. I loved him always and cherish his memory.” The statement said a great deal about both men.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Confusion in Love

All Mixed Up
A comedy about love, betrayal, trust, 
and the things that keep us apart
by John J. Enright

What appeal can a play about a lesbian couple who are expecting a baby have for a single white male in his sixties?  A lot more than I expected as it turns out.  Last Sunday I experienced this mixture of Humour and Drama from the pen of John J. Enright.  And I found it is appropriately titled "All Mixed Up".  Considering the playwright's not inconsequential experience writing Romantic Comedies (see "O'Brien and O'Brian") any question I might have had seems upon reflection to be, shall we say, questionable.

The play opens with a couple who's expecting and facing turbulent doubts about both the nature and the direction of their joint endeavor.  We meet Beth in the lobby of a hotel where Carrie, a white lawyer, who has a bit of attitude joins her.  Beth is a Black woman in the latter days of pregnancy, who is nervous about aspects of the endeavor that she has not shared with her partner.  We find out that they are engaged, but Beth is no longer wearing her ring and the trust that led to the engagement seems to have evaporated.  The play adds to this couple a somewhat officious Security Guard and the baby's daddy. The mix-ups that ensue for this quartet provide more than a little humour as further tensions abound.

I was impressed with the acting of both Taylor Mason X as Beth as she brought a believable combination of nervous energy alternating with a stressed out tiredness. Her difficulty in sharing the secrets she kept from her partner seemed to emanate from an uncertainty about the relationship that was visceral.  Her partner Carrie was a demanding and difficult character that Paige Taylor handled well.  Both Eric D. Fisher and Jillian Leff in the other roles proved more than able to contribute to the mixed up action.

I was most impressed by the way the plot made the title of the play clear in multiple ways. The direction of Denise Smolarek complemented this to yield a successful production. With the playwright's signature wit ever present and a realistic portrayal of difficult relationships evident the play was thought-provoking while providing ample measure of laughter.  Any question about the potential entertainment value of this play for myself had evaporated early in the first act as I enjoyed a moving and often mirth-filled evening of theater.  

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Solitude Above the Human Race

Reveries of the Solitary WalkerReveries of the Solitary Walker 
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me. I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.”   ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker

Hyperbole*, thy name is Rousseau. In the last work by Jean-Jacques Rousseau he created a memoir like none of his other works. Autobiographical in style, it differs from the Confessions, the Dialogues, and several letters. It has no goal nor any chronological order; indeed, the ten "walks" into which it is divided provide a record of his inner feelings, a sort of barometer of his "soul".

The theme of the walks, if one exists, seems to center on Rousseau's alleged solitude - an isolation from society that is not deserved by such a great man. He spends his days contemplating himself as evidenced by this comment near the end of the First Walk: "But I, detached from them and from everything, what am I?". 
His investigation of himself, as the walks continue, appears to be sentimental - one that focuses on feeling rather than ideas (perhaps his taste for ideas had declined since the days of his early essays and great Social Contract). He ponders the nature of happiness in the Fifth Walk, however does not identify his own personal happiness with contemplation (as Aristotle or other classical thinkers might). In fact, he considers thinking a chore for him in the Seventh Walk; it is a task he used to perform fro the sake of others so that he could explain the world to them and show them how to live in it correctly (perhaps they could not hear him or were just not listening).

Rousseau's high appreciation of himself is evident from the opening sentence of the First Walk when he sets himself apart from humankind with these words: "I am now alone on earth, no longer having any brother, neighbor, friend, or society other than myself." He goes on to portray himself as the "most sociable and the most loving of humans". Overall the investigation of self in which he is engaged is so clearly and consistently directed at Rousseau's own enlightenment that the problem of why he is in this unusual condition does not arise. The final and tenth walk occurs on on Palm Sunday in 1778. He ends his reveries with a short chapter bemoaning the short period of happiness he had with a woman decades before; unsure of himself or his feelings he commits to reforming so as to be able to love. It seems that will be a losing battle.

language that describes something as better or worse than it really is.

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Saturday, October 01, 2016

For the Constitution

The Federalist PapersThe Federalist Papers 
by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, & John Jay

“Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.”   
― James Madison

The arguments of Hamilton, Madison and Jay are just as relevant today as they were more than two hundred years ago. The authors of The Federalist Papers wanted to influence the vote in favor of ratifying the Constitution. However, the authors of the Federalist papers also had a greater plan in mind. According to Federalist 1:
"It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force."

They argue for improvements in the science of politics and the restraint of faction while invoking Montesquieu's idea of a confederate republic. Madison argues in Number 10 that a republic is superior to democracy and deals with the problem of factions. Hamilton is persuasive in his arguments that the confederation was inadequate to preserve the Union. He catalogs "public misfortunes" the result of "the great and radical vice of Confederation," namely, "the political monster of an imperium in imperio". He continues to argue that the Union needs the power of national defense, the power to tax, and others to avoid anarchy.

They present positive arguments for the ratification of the Constitution and, as Madison says in Paper No. 37, "They solicit the attention of those only who add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country,". What a thought and temperament, that zeal for happiness. One thing that impressed me on reading the papers was the classical education demonstrated by the authors with their articles filled with references to Cicero, Rome and Greece. Enlightenment thinkers were also evident with Montesquieu being a notable example. Certainly this is a book worth rereading with the current importance of the constitution in our political life.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Redemption in a Small Western Town

Eventide (Plainsong, #2)Eventide 
by Kent Haruf

"They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning.  The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond.  Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer.  They came on across the gravel drive past the pickup and the car parked at the hogwire fencing and came one after the other through the wire gate At the porch they scraped their boots on the saw blade sunken in the dirt, the ground packed and shiny around it from long use and mixed with barnlot manure, and walked up the plank steps onto the screened porch and entered the kitchen where the nineteen-year-old girl Victoria Robideaux sat at the pinewood table feeding oatmeal to he little daughter."

Earlier this year I read Kent Haruf's novel, Plainsong, about the people living in and near the small town of Holt, Colorado. This novel continues that story. Some of the characters from the previous novel are joined by others to form another heart-warming story about life in this small western town.

Two characters in particular, the McPheron brothers, are at the center of the story. In the previous novel they had befriended a young unmarried woman and her child who needed a home. As the story continues she is starting college and the brothers are once again alone with themselves. While they try to learn to live without Victoria their saga contains heartbreak and, for one of them, a chance to connect with a woman late, but not too late in a life that had come near to a new depth of loneliness. There is a young boy stoically caring for his grandfather while another couple try,but do not succeed to protect their children from a violent relative. The story with its many small town characters is not only about loneliness and distress, but also about people helping each other. There are moments when danger and evil touches some lives but it is depicted in a way that seems a natural part of the human condition.

Haruf writes about people who share a stoic vision of life--and of the community and landscape that brings them together. Through his spare prose on every page these lives emerge with a beauty and endurance that is impressive. The title of the novel is from a familiar church hymn; one that I remember singing in my youth. The short chapters might be compared to the stanzas of a hymn as the story unfolds with a a sort of musical rhythm. Ultimately, Eventide 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.

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Satiric Essay

Selected Prose and Poetry 
by Jonathan Swift

"The army of the Ancients was much fewer in number;  Homer led the Horse, and Pindar the Light-Horse;  Euclid was chief Engineer: Plato and Aristotle commanded the Bowmen, Herodotus and Livy the Foot, Hippocrates the Dragoons."

Jonathan Swift was one of the greatest satirists of his age and we still read his prose with delight for its wit and humor. This collection includes several examples of his satire with the essay "A Modest Proposal" being perhaps the best known. Early in his career as a prose stylist he wrote an essay that was equally witty while blending satire with polemics. That essay was "The Battle of the Books".

Mirroring an earlier literary argument in France was one in England where Sir William Temple published an answer to the "Moderns" entitled Of Ancient and Modern Learning in 1690. His essay introduced two metaphors to the debate that would be reused by later authors. First, he proposed that modern man was just a dwarf standing upon the "shoulders of giants" (that modern man saw farther because he begins with the observations and learning of the ancients). They possessed a clear view of nature, and modern man only reflected or refined their vision. These metaphors, would be continued in Swift's satire and others. Temple's essay was answered by Richard Bentley, the classicist and William Wotton, the critic. Temple was supported by friends and clients, sometimes known as the "Christ Church Wits," referring to their association with Christ Church, Oxford and the guidance of Francis Atterbury, then attacked the "moderns" (and Wotton in particular). The debate in England lasted only for a few years.

Notably, Jonathan Swift was not among the participants, though he was working as Temple's secretary. Therefore, it is likely that the quarrel was more of a spur to Swift's imagination than a debate that he felt inclined to enter. He worked for William Temple during the time of the controversy, and Swift developed his short satire entitled "The Battle of the Books" in which, there is an epic battle fought in a library when various books come alive and attempt to settle the arguments between moderns and ancients. In Swift's satire, he skilfully manages to avoid saying which way victory fell. He portrays the manuscript as having been damaged in places, thus leaving the end of the battle up to the reader.

The battle is not just between Classical authors and modern authors, but also between authors and critics. The prose is a parody of heroic poetry and not any too easy a read for such a short essay. One section of the essay that helped this reader immensely was the interruption in the combat in the "Battle" with an interpolated allegory of the spider and the bee. A spider, "swollen up to the first Magnitude, by the Destruction of infinite Numbers of Flies" resides like a castle holder above a top shelf, and a bee, flying from the natural world and drawn by curiosity, wrecks the spider's web. The spider curses the bee for clumsiness and for wrecking the work of one who is his better. The spider says that his web is his home, a stately manor, while the bee is a vagrant who goes anywhere in nature without any concern for reputation. The bee answers that he is doing the bidding of nature, aiding in the fields, while the spider's castle is merely what was drawn from its own body, which has "a good plentiful Store of Dirt and Poison." 

This allegory was already somewhat old before Swift employed it, and it is a digression within the Battle proper. However, it also illustrates the theme of the whole work. The bee is like the ancients and like authors: it gathers its materials from nature and sings its drone song in the fields. The spider is like the moderns and like critics: it kills the weak and then spins its web (books of criticism) from the taint of its own body digesting the viscera. The moderns were depicted as narrow-minded, filled with poisonous prose, and in general intellectual upstarts. In spite of this depiction the ancients were not without faults and the essay does not conclude with either side winning.

As satire it is fascinating if not exactly fun, and it is especially interesting to see the early use of metaphors like that of modern thinkers "standing on the shoulders of giants". As a reader who values the ancient classics I appreciate this discussion recognizing that there is room for new ideas as long as we do not neglect the foundation provided by the giants of the past.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Speculative Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is all about my  Ten ALL TIME Favorite Books Of Speculative Fiction.  Using the definition proposed by Margaret Atwood this includes Science Fiction and Fantasy.  They are listed in no particular order. I highly recommend all of the following:

The Voyage of the Space Beagle

by A.E. van Vogt

Among the many science fiction authors I discovered in my youth Van Vogt was my favorite, primarily for the super-human heroes of many of his novels.  This was based on several stories, the first third of  which appeared in the 7/39 ASTOUNDING as Van Vogt's first science fiction story, "Black Destroyer".    Van Vogt (1912-2000), named an SFFWA Grandmaster in 1995, was the most influential science fiction writer of his time.

The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

I loved Ray Bradbury's stories but Bradbury's Mars mesmerized me with its stories of  hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earth man conquers Mars...and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

Out of the Silent Planet 
by C.S. Lewis

In the first novel of C.S. Lewis's classic science fiction trilogy, Dr Ransom, a Cambridge academic, is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet's treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the 'silent planet' – Earth – whose tragic story is known throughout the universe...

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

by Jules Verne

I read several of Verne's adventure novels but this one where French naturalist Dr. Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster is my favorite.  He is surprised to discover instead the Nautilus, a remarkable submarine built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Together Nemo and Aronnax explore the underwater marvels, undergo a transcendent experience amongst the ruins of Atlantis, and plant a black flag at the South Pole. But Nemo's mission is one of revenge-and his methods coldly efficient.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 

by Lewis Carroll

This is one of the first novels I remember reading (I still have the original book in my library).  Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (commonly shortened to Alice in Wonderland) is an 1865 novel written by English mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It tells of a girl named Alice falling through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures. The tale plays with logic, giving the story lasting popularity with adults as well as with children. It is considered to be one of the best examples of the literary nonsense genre. Its narrative course and structure, characters and imagery have been enormously influential in both popular culture and literature, especially in the fantasy genre.  I have reread it several times over my life and look forward to reading it again.

The Left Hand of Darkness

by Ursula K. Le Guin

A groundbreaking work of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of a lone human emissary to Winter, an alien world whose inhabitants can choose -and change - their gender. His goal is to facilitate Winter's inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the completely dissimilar culture that he encounters.  In the process he becomes friend with one of the aliens and it is this friendship that is one of the outstanding aspects of  Le Guin's wonderful story.  Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

 A father and his son walk alone through burned America, heading through the ravaged landscape to the coast. This is the profoundly moving story of their journey. The Road boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which two people, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick

 It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some 20 years earlier the United States lost a war, and is now occupied jointly by Nazi Germany and Japan.  This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to awake.

 Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever #1)
by Stephen R. Donaldson

He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself.
Yet the Land tempted him. He had been sick; now he seemed better than ever before. Through no fault of his own, he had been outcast, unclean, a pariah. Now he was regarded as a reincarnation of the Land's greatest hero--Berek Halfhand--armed with the mystic power of White Gold. That power alone could protect the Lords of the Land from the ancient evil of Despiser, Lord Foul.  Only...Covenant had no idea of how the power could be used!
Thus begins one of the most remarkable epic fantasies ever written and one of my favorites.

Number Ten must be left to a list of some of the other books that could have been included.   I could not decide between these wonderful works of speculative fiction, all of which I have enjoyed immensely:  The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., and Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke.  Thus there are fifteen in total for my top ten and many more that have brought me enjoyment over more than fifty years of reading.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Alone in the Castle

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft"The Outsider" from
Tales of H.P. Lovecraft 
by H.P. Lovecraft

"Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness." 
 -  H. P. Lovecraft

In this volume Joyce Carol Oates has selected some of the best tales of the master of the macabre, H. P. Lovecraft. 
The introductory tale, "The Outsider", is written in a first-person narrative style, and details the miserable and apparently lonely life of an individual, who appears to have never contacted with another individual. The story begins, with the narrator explaining his origins. His memory of others is vague, and he cannot seem to recall any details of his personal history, including who he is or where he is originally from. The narrator tells of his environment: a dark, decaying castle amid an "endless forest" of high, unlit trees. He has never seen natural light, nor another human being, and he has never ventured from the prison-like home he now inhabits. The only knowledge the narrator has of the outside world, is from his reading of the "antique books" that line the walls of his castle.

The narrator tells of his eventual determination to free himself, from what he views as a prison-like existence. He eventually decides to climb the ruined staircase of the high castle tower which appears to be his only hope for an escape. At the place where the stairs diminish into crumbled ruins, the narrator begins a long, slow climb up the tower wall, until he comes upon a trapdoor in the ceiling, which he pushes up and climbs through. Amazingly, he finds himself not at the great height he anticipated, but at ground level in another world. With the sight of the full moon before him, he proclaims, "There came to me the purest ecstasy I have ever known."(p 3) Overcome with the emotion he feels in beholding what—until now—he had only read about, the narrator takes in his new surroundings. He realizes that he is in an old churchyard, and he wanders out into the countryside before eventually coming upon another castle.

Upon visiting the castle, which he finds "maddeningly familiar," the narrator sees a gathering of people at a party within. Longing for some type of human contact, he climbs through a window into the room. Upon his entering, the people inside become terrified. They scream and collectively flee from the room, many stumbling blindly with their hands held over their eyes toward the walls in search of an exit. The narrator attempts to discover the source of their terror and in doing so the short story culminates with a shocking revelation.
This short beginning to the collection of works by Lovecraft is reminiscent of Poe at his best with its atmosphere of death and decrepitude; the feeling of isolation and desire for discovery; and the not-unexpected yet still horrifying revelation that ends the tale.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Life in the Hive

The Bees: A NovelThe Bees: A Novel 
by Laline Paull

"Flora did not hear the rest.  With the slightest press of intention the air rushed beneath her wings and the apple trees fell away below.  She took a strong, high course, and as her antennae automatically adjusted to flight position, she felt a channel open deep within them through which streamed Lily's knowledge and aerial skills." (p 111)

From the first page of chapter one I found this novel thoroughly riveting. The protagonist, a bee like all the other characters in this fantasy, is Flora 717 who is born into a caste of the humblest of workers in a honeybee hive: the Sanitation workers. All other workers are associated with specific flowers: where the Teasels work the Nurseries, the Thistles guard the hive, and Sage priestesses govern in the Queen's name, Floras are dismissed as unworthy of differentiation and forbidden to speak. But from her emergence in the opening chapter, 717 is marked by a Sage priestess as unusual: much larger and uglier than her kind, she speaks and also has the capacity to produce royal jelly, called Flow, at a time when the Hive is in dire need of more nurses. This first distinction leads to more, and Flora 717 gradually becomes involved in complicated and dangerous activities. She is reminiscent of a Cinderella who appears to belong to the scullery but instead finds herself more and more at home in the highest reaches of the Hive Hierarchy.

The author, Laline Paull, demonstrates all this with a lovely prose style that sounds a bit like that of an ancient royal clan, but without detracting from the suspense and action of the plot. Furthermore, the way Paull portrays the bees' world through scent, heat, and movement is effective. There were moments of an all too noticeable tendency to anthropomorphize — a bee prodding another bee with a stick, for instance — but none of the stylistic choices seemed to intrude; rather they fade into the background as the bees story, that is Flora 717's story, takes the forefront. 
The bees develop a relationship with flowers by seducing them through pollination; they name all the Hive's enemies The Myriad; the first encounter experienced by Flora 717 of a battle with Wasps is tremendously exciting; and they have scent-painted histories of the Hive in a sort of library. The result of all of this is both evocative and beautiful.

I enjoyed the novel tremendously, much as I have previously enjoyed animal fables like Narayan's A Tiger for Malgudi, London's Call of the Wild, and Adams's Watership Down. Paull's belongs in this territory as she focuses on the rhythms and mores of animals even though she eschews using metaphor for political or social allegory. This novel begins and ends with the Hive, effectively dramatizing its life cycle. This is underlined by book-ending the story with reference to the human owners of the property, including the Hive and, in doing so, underlining the indifference of the bees to the humans. This is a tantalizing and tremendous fantasy that takes the reader on a wonderful journey into the world of Bees.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Counterfeit Tale within a Tale

The CounterfeitersThe Counterfeiters 
by André Gide

The most decisive actions of our life... are most often unconsidered actions.
  ~André Gide, The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters is a book about writing a book, also called "The Counterfeiters". That is the primary theme of the novel which comes from the title of the book by the writer Edouard. Thus The Counterfeiters is a novel-within-a-novel, with Edouard (the alter ego of Gide) writing a book of the same title. Other stylistic devices are also used, such as an omniscient narrator that sometimes addresses the reader directly, weighs in on the characters' motivations or discusses alternate realities. However, there is also the story of a group of boys who are passing counterfeit coins throughout Paris. Thus we have entered a world where we cannot trust our senses -- what is counterfeit and what is real?

The story of Edouard writing his novel demonstrates his search for knowledge, yet as he associates with a group of his own adolescent relatives it appears as an artificial arrangement; one that displays the effects upon society of youth's corruption of traditional standards and values. The collapse of morality is illustrated with Eduoard's nephew Vincent, who deserts his lover Laura, a married woman, and runs away with Lillian, the mistress of Count Robert de Passavant. His life goes downhill as he murders her and goes insane.
There is also the coming of age story of Bernard and Olivier as they prepare to leave school -- but does this extend beyond their education and emanate from all who are learning about the world? This learning which is required by the changing nature of the everyday, the quotidian reality that is, perhaps, counterfeit.

I found the details of Edouard's struggles with his career, his family, his friendships and love provided images that enhanced the main themes, yet also energized the narrative drive. Another subplot of the novel is homosexuality. Some of the characters are overtly homosexual, like the adolescent Olivier, and the adult writers Count de Passavant and Eduoard. The Count seems to be an evil and corrupting force while the latter is benevolent. Even when the treatment is not overt, there is a homoerotic subtext that runs throughout, which encompasses Olivier's friend, Bernard, and their schoolfellows Gontran and Philippe. The main theme of The Counterfeiters encompasses the issue of sexuality, morality, and social order and lineage in a unique way for his era.

Gide's novel was not received well on its appearance, perhaps because of its homosexual themes and its unusual composition. It is this unusual composition that I thought made it an interesting read; along with which the way Gide demonstrates ideas through his characters and their actions much like Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. The Counterfeiters has seen its reputation improve in the intervening years and is now generally counted among the great novels of the twentieth century.

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The Bird Girl

Green MansionsGreen Mansions 
by William Henry Hudson

"I began to hear . . . a low strain of exquisite bird-melody, wonderfully pure and expressive, unlike any musical sound I had ever heard before."
Green Mansions Chapter II, W. H. Hudson

Green Mansions: a Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904) is an exotic romance by W. H. Hudson (1841-1922) about a traveler to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela and his encounter with a forest dwelling girl named Rima. Hudson was born in Argentina, son of settlers of U.S. origin.
He spent his youth studying the local flora and fauna and observing both natural and human dramas on what was then a lawless frontier, publishing his ornithological work in Proceedings of the Royal Zoological Society, initially in an English mingled with Spanish idioms. He settled in England during 1869. He produced a series of ornithological studies which helped foster the back-to-nature movement of the 1920s and 1930s. He was a founding member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Hudson wrote more than three dozen books during his life but by far his best known novel is Green Mansions, and his best known non-fiction is a memoir, Far Away and Long Ago (1918).

When I began to reread Green Mansions recently I instantly remembered why it impressed me so much. More than most other authors Hudson is able to instill the sense of wonder through his protagonist Abel who, while living by the Orinoco river in Venezuela, is drawn to the forest lands by strange bird-like singing. There he discovers a young girl named Rima and it is her story that takes up much of the remainder of the novel. She is unspoiled and wild like the animals among whom she lives. She knows neither the evil nor guile common to most civilized humans. This gives her supernatural stature in the eyes of the worldly Abel, who falls passionately in love with her.

Hudson based Rima and her lost tribe on persistent rumors about a tribe of white people who lived in the mountains. Temple paintings often showed light-skinned people, and Spanish Conquistadors were at first thought to be gods. I first read this novel when I was in high school and the memory of its' evocative and lyrical prose has lingered over the intervening decades. With qualities of a striking and original sort it has an enchantment; its pages are haunted by an unearthly perception of beauty and a wonderment that stirs the imagination. The story is one of people who are almost in an original state of nature, a romantic, if flawed, view (perhaps inspired by Rousseau) that suggests their world may be better than civilization.

Green Mansions is one of the few novels ever to become an undisputed classic during the author's lifetime. It inspired a statue of Rima that you can find in Kensington Garden, London. It is a book I found to be truly enthralling and full of romantic magic making it a great read.

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