Thursday, September 17, 2020

No Longer Needed

Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven 

“But kids don't stay with you if you do it right. It's the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run.” 
― Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

This novel continues the lives of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle Greer, protagonists of Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier novel The Bean Trees. Some of the themes include the meaning of family, community, motherhood, and belonging. On an Easter vacation trip with Taylor, her adoptive mother, six-year-old Turtle sees a young man, Lucky Buster, fall into a spillway at the Hoover Dam; her seeing him leads to his rescue and her own celebrity. Turtle and Taylor appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with other children who have saved lives. Rescuing Lucky Buster, however, leads to discovery and change for Turtle and Taylor because a young Cherokee attorney, Annawake Fourkiller, sees Turtle and hears her adoption story on television.

Annawake, in spite of being counseled by her superiors to not pursue this case, becomes obsessed with returning Turtle to her Cherokee grandfather. She does this in the belief that Turtle will have an unsatisfactory adult life if she is not brought up in her Cherokee family. I was not impressed with this argument as it basically assumed that the bond between Taylor and Turtle was unimportant in light of Turtle's heritage. Taylor responds by fleeing with her daughter. Taylor’s mother, Alice, leaves her husband, Harland, because she wants more than a dead marriage, and goes to Las Vegas to help Taylor and Turtle. After giving Taylor her savings, Alice travels to the town of Heaven on Cherokee Nation land to stay with her cousin and investigate her rights with the tribe of her grandmother. Her time on the Cherokee land does not lessen her commitment to her daughter and granddaughter, but does help her understand Annawake’s quest.

Taylor loses much of her self-confidence as she works to support herself and Turtle, never having enough money to pay all the bills or to eat very well. Taylor’s eventual decision to take Turtle to the Cherokee Nation to talk to Annawake reminds her of Dorothy’s being taken to the castle of the witch in Oz (I didn't make this up). The choice seems forced as does much of the action in the novel. For example, there is a side character named Barbie who is obsessed with Barbie dolls; apparently this is intended to provide comic relief, but I couldn't determine what she added to the story. Each scene is presented in the author’s folksy third-person voice, and the view of the action is usually limited to the perspective of one of the main characters; however, I did not appreciate the authorial voice and that made the book just that much more difficult.

Disappointing is an understatement. Much of the plot seemed contrived to me and the authorial voice was off-putting. While the central characters Taylor and her adopted daughter, Turtle were sympathetic, that was about the only thing that kept me reading the book.


Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Possessed



“Life is now given to man at the cost of pain and fear. Here, they are blinded by this sometimes. Now man is not yet that man. There will be another, new person, happy and proud, and for him it wouldn’t matter the death-life. He who overcomes pain and fear will become God himself. There will not be that God any longer.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

What is a “true” Russian? Why is “the real truth” always implausible. Is belief only ironic or is it real or both? These are just a few of the questions dealt with by Dostoevsky in Demons, his great novel that is predecessor to The Brothers Karamazov.

He questions whether atheism is a reason or a result of rebellion, and the saying that “An atheist cannot be Russian”. The result is a novel that compares favorably and provides an eloquent introduction to themes that will be dealt with at the family level in The Brothers Karamazov.

Liberalism and Socialism are contrasted by representative characters from two different generations. One is that of Herzen and the liberals, represented by Stepan Verkhovensky and others. While Stepan's son, Pyotr, is the reputed leader of the new generation of nihilist anarchists who are the precursors and somewhat participants in the rise of the Russian intelligentsia.

Demons does not only look forward, but also backward as can be seen in comparison with The Idiot which ends with Prince Myshkin in a Swiss Asylum; the silence of madness. 
The Demons ends with the silence of suicide. (You have to read it to find out who, when, and why) The cabalists (the fivesome) are representatives of the central importance of ideology (nihilistic anarchism). The lives of the cabalists literally depend on the whims of their leader, Pyotr, and their own willingness to follow the ideology.

Through all of the novel there is in the background, Nikolai Stavrogin, son of Varvara Petrovna, spinning his web, better yet acting as a puppeteer while others speak and act for him and as his whim commands. Compared to The Underground Man, Stavrogin is relatively silent; he lets others speak for him: Pyotr, “you wrote the rules . . .); Shatov, “I was the pupil, you were the teacher”; Kirilov, “Go look at [Kirilov] now---he's your creation”.

The plot seems somewhat complex, but the organization can be seen more simply when one views the contrast between the two generations, Stepan and Varvara vs. Pyotr and Nikolai, and within that the detail maneuvering with the additional characters, especially the changing views within each generation and between the two.

Ultimately there is a coming together of characters and the ideas they represent in a sort of maelstrom of events at the end of Part Three of the novel. It concludes with an explosion of activity that is only hinted at in the long introduction in Part One. That is just one of the aspect of this novel that raises it to one of the best from the pen of Dostoevsky.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Notes from Thoreau's Journal

The Journal, 1837-1861 

The Journal, 1837-1861

"Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils." - Henry David Thoreau, March 16, 1852

From "The Short Days of Winter"

March 4, 1852. It is discouraging to talk with men who will recognize no principles. How little use is made of reason in this world! You argue with a man for an hour, he agrees with you step by step, you are approaching a triumphant conclusion, you think that you have converted him; but ah, no, he has a habit, he takes a pinch of snuff, he remembers that he entertained a different opinion at the commencement of the controversy, and his reverence for the past compels him to reiterate it now. You begin at the butt of the pole to curve it, you gradually bent it around according to rule, and planted the other end in the ground, and already in imagination saw the vine curling round this segment of an arbor, under which a new generation was to re-create itself; but when you had done, just when the twig was bent, it sprang back to its former stubborn and unhandsome position like a bit of whalebone.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Life of Pericles

Plutarch's Lives: Volume I

Plutarch's Lives: Volume I 

by Plutarch

“To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days”   ― Plutarch

Plutarch wrote his lives to educate the reader. In doing so he used a combination of history and myth while assessing the politics and religion of the "Noble" Greeks and Romans whose lives he included in his writings. What was originally a series of books have been compiled into two volumes that span the lives from ancient Greece through the centuries until the Roman Empire flourished. I found that in creating his histories Plutarch admitted time and again to uncertainty about some of the specific events that he portrayed. In addition, he would sometimes note that there were those who held differing opinions about some of his characterizations of events.

One theme of his lives is the identification of key characteristics of success of the particular life depicted; in fact, he points out that success does not depend on one particular style of leadership or rule. However, that did not stop Plutarch for identifying some lives that were better than others. One of the most successful lives depicted was that of Pericles. Near the beginning of his life of Pericles, Plutarch observes "that it becomes a man's duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it." (p 201)

Not only does he highlight the importance of contemplation (an activity that Aristotle considered the highest virtue in which a man might engage himself [Nichomachean Ethics]) for improvement of one's life, but also the application of his intellect to objects such as acts of virtue. All of this is merely introductory to a life that includes just such actions and provides some of the reasons why Athens under the leadership of Pericles was so successful. All of this is done, in part, to educate the reader and encourage an "admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them."(p 202)

Pericles led a life that did not leave any writings, not unlike that of Socrates, although we have some of his orations thanks to Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. What he did leave were public and sacred buildings, and evidence of a policy that encouraged great public shows, banquets, and processions to further the pleasure of the people of Athens. At one point, Plutarch compares him to a skillful physician who balances the pleasures with "keen pains and drug" when necessary to cure what ailments might exist among the citizenry. He maintained his rule through attention to the soul of the people. Plutarch adds, "The source of this predominance was not barely the power of language, but, as Thucydides assures us, the reputation of his life, and the confidence of his character; his manifest freedom from every kind of corruption, and superiority to all considerations of money." Would that we had leaders like that in America today.

Pericles may sound like the proverbial person that is too good to be true, however in his conclusion Plutarch reinforces his judgement with these words, "He was indeed a character deserving our high admiration not only for his equitable and mild temper . . .", but that he had not "gratified his envy or his passion". (p 234) It is such a character that made Pericles one of Plutarch's favorites among the many noble lives that he chronicled. Each of the lives in this volume receives what appears to be an objective study of the details of their character, actions, and relations with others. The result is a compendium that provides the reader with instruction in how to live as well as a magnificent narrative of how many of the noblest of Greeks and Romans actually lived their lives.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Authors and Their Words

Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers 

Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers

PLENTIETH. Franklin P. Adams’s adjective of indefinite older age, as in: “He is about to celebrate his plentieth birthday.” ― Paul Dickson, Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers

  There are dictionaries and books of quotations, but this is a collection of a slightly different sort. Paul Dickson has done the research to uncover the authorial source of words and short phrases that have become part of the English language over the past few centuries. The result is a fascinating tour through an alphabetical array of terms that have surprising sources. You will find familiar words alongside some not so familiar, but for all of those collected he provides miniature stories that explain the provenance of the words in question. 
This compendium is a delight for anyone who loves the English language.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Commonplace Entry


"Art for All"

Whatever is sacred, whatever is to remain sacred must be clothed in mystery. All religions take shelter behind arcana which they unveil only to the predestined. Art has it own mysteries.

We can find an example of this in music. If we open any work of Mozart, Beethoven, or Wagner and glance quickly at the first page, we will be overcome with religious astonishment at the sight of those macabre processions of rigid, chaste, and undeciphered signs. Then we will shut the missal, and it will still remain untouched by any profane thought.

Mallarme: Selected Prose Poems, Essays, & Letters. Translated by Bradford Cook. The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore. 1956. "Art for All" p 9.

Friday, August 07, 2020

The Denial

Wise Blood
"The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take time to complete."(p 33)

The title that I would suggest for this book is "The Denial". Not that Wise Blood is not appropriate, as it refers to the "wise blood" of Enoch Emery, one of the group of prominent characters in the book. It is rather because I believe that "The Denial" better represents the character of Hazel Motes who is the protagonist of the novel. The moment that Enoch Emery is overcome by his "wise blood" is surely powerful: "He had come to the city and--with a knowing in his blood--he had established himself at the heart of it."(p 76) On the other hand Hazel, by the end of the novel, is engulfed by his denial of his own body in his attempt to achieve a spiritual epiphany.

To reach that point of denial you have to go back to the beginning of the story where we meet Hazel Motes:
"Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car."(p 3)
Thus we meet a young man on the beginning of a journey. It is a journey fleeing from his past as much as it is one going forward toward a future filled with new people and changes in his own character.
Hazel, it turns out, is a man on a mission to preach of new and perverse sort of gospel to anyone who will listen whether they respond or not. This hearkens back to his grandfather who was a preacher "with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger."(p 14) Hazel had lost his brothers and father to death, and had seen more death and indifference toward life while in the Army, but he was determined to follow in his grandfather's footsteps.

The story is a picaresque tale filled with unusual characters including a whore; a blind preacher named Asa with his daughter, Sabbath Lily; and Enoch Emery, a slow boy who is also on a mission moved by his inner blood that is wiser than any one else's as he proclaims to Hazel:
"'You act like you got wiser blood than anybody else,' he said, 'but you ain't! I'm the one has it. Not you, Me!'"(p 55) What they both share is a mission although they are on different paths with different missions and seemingly do not even speak the same language, or at least cannot understand each other.

As with all of Flannery O'Connor's fiction, there is an underlying message of the importance of faith and belief. The need for redemption from the sin of this world is demonstrated with a prose style that is fixated on the realities of life. However, in demonstrating this reality the author distorts it with the result often being grotesque characters and situations. She does not shy away from portraying the violence that people do to each other both physical and psychological. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide what the outcome of the story is -- whether any particular character is doomed to hell or redeemed by grace. All told, she presents a riveting story with unpredictable events and decisions that retain an aura of the believable while engendering puzzlement and a sort of quandary as to the meaning of it all. This reader found it both engaging and challenging in a good way, that is the questions that remain are valuable because they pertain to the most fundamental aspects of your life.

Wise Blood: A Novel by Flannery O'Connor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007 (1952) 


Monday, July 20, 2020

Essays and Archetypes

Two Essays on Analytical Psychology 

Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works 7)

“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.”   ― C.G. Jung

I was surprised to find much of the first part of this book, "On the Psychology of the Unconscious", to be a critique of Freud as much as an outline of Jung's position on the topic. Written and revised during World War I and subsequently revised, it is somewhat fragmented, yet still a good introduction to the topic. Part two is a further discussion of the relation of the ego to the unconscious including an introduction to individuation. The wealth of concepts is such that it is easy to lose track of the overall subject matter. My appreciation for the text was primarily concerned with the literary allusions and references to thinkers from Heraclitus to Nietzsche and beyond.

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious 

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9i)

“there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behaviour.”   ― C.G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

What kind of a book is this? I considered several categories from spiritual to supernatural, but decided that it was a sort of mythology of human archetypes and the psyche. My difficulties with the text came close to my experience reading the Tao of Lao-tse, while in its categorical nature it resembled The Varieties of Religious Experience. My own approach to reading it centered on the literary connections with which I found resonance in the text. These ranged widely from Shakespeare to Stevenson and Hesse with a special emphasis on the importance of Jung for Moby-Dick.

In this work Jung propounds many of his theories regarding the nature of human consciousness, both personal and collective. While portrayed as scientific they seemed to lack the evidence normally associated with the scientific method. Jung was great at making his assumptions sound like settled truth, when outside of his coterie there was little that was settled. For example, he compares his discoveries to the discovery of the atom, commenting that "we speak of "atoms" today because we have heard, directly or indirectly, of the atomic theory of Democritus. But where did Democritus, or whoever first spoke of minimal constitutive elements, hear of atoms? This notion had its origin in archetypal ideas, that is , in primordial images which were never reflections of physical events but are spontaneous products of the psychic factor." (p 57)  This gives you a flavor of the sort of arguments presented. There are also examples of many of the concepts based on observation of patients. For me, it was these stories that hearkened back to the approach of William James. 

The book is poetic at times and has a wealth of interpretations of psychic events. His examinations of the personal or collective unconscious is fascinating and provides a great introduction to the psychological world of Carl Jung.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday

The Top Ten Authors I’ve Read Most

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, bloggers are sharing the top ten authors they’ve read the most books by.  My list includes authors I have read over most of my many decades of reading with some on the list due to my youthful reading preferences while others are there because my interests have changed with age. All of these authors I would heartily recommend to anyone who enjoys reading. The reading numbers are from GoodReads.

1. William Shakespeare, 28 readings :  I have read and reread most of Shakespeare's plays over the more than five decades. His works are essential for understanding humanity and provide a reference point for understanding many more contemporary authors. 

2.  Plato, 26 readings:  Plato's Dialogues have provided me with intellectual stimulation for almost as long as Shakespeare. I read my first dialogue as a Freshman in college and have continued to read a reread Plato ever since.

3.  Leo Tolstoy, 18 readings:  While I did not read War and Peace until I was almost forty years old, I have managed to reread it several times while reading almost all of Tolstoy's other novels, novellas, and short stories. 

4.  William Faulkner, 16 readings:  I struggled with The Sound and the Fury in high school as part of my outside reading, but persevered over several readings and in the meantime found Faulkner's prose style in all of his novels and short stories to be most felicitous.

5 . Iris Murdoch, 16 readings:  I encountered Iris Murdoch while I was in college and over the years have read most of her novels and also her philosophical writings. The way she weaves philosophy and psychology into her novels appeals to me.

6. Charles Dickens, 15 readings:  My first Dickens novel was Oliver Twist which I read while at Summer Camp when I was twelve years old. Since then I have read  and reread all of his novels with delight, counting David Copperfield as my favorite.

7.  Henry James, 15 readings:  While I have not read all of his novels, I've read and sometimes reread most of the more important ones.

8.  Aristotle, 14 readings:  Again starting in college and continuing to this day I have read many of Aristotle's philosophic works. My favorite is the Nicomachean Ethics.

9.  A. E. Van Vogt, 14 readings:  This is evidence of my fascination with Science Fiction which peaked in my teen years, but has continued, albeit at a slower pace, till today. Van Vogt's superheroes were some of my favorite SF characters.

10. Thomas Mann, 12 readings: I planned to read all the novels of Thomas Mann when I retired, having enjoyed those I had read before then. I reached my goal a couple of years ago when I finally read Doktor Faustus, while Death in Venice remains my favorite.

Special Mentions (Authors who came close to making this list): Joseph Conrad, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, H. G. Wells, and Virginia Woolf.

God in the Clouds

Son of the Morning Star: 
General Custer and the 
Battle of the Little Bighorn 

Son of the Morning Star: General Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

“Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor’d mind Sees God in clouds … Custer,”   

Evan S. Connell, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn

Once in a while you find a book that is so well written that beyond the days of reading, long after you have finished it, the book continues to haunt you. Son of the Morning Star is one of those books. The beauty of Evan S. Connell's prose and the excellence of his history make this book a minor masterpiece. Perhaps the larger-than-life presence of the central character, who the Indians named "son of the morning star", General George Armstrong Custer, is partly the reason for the magnificence of the book.

“Even now,” Evan Connell writes in his book, “after a hundred years, his name alone will start an argument. More significant men of his time can be discussed without passion because they are inextricably woven into a tapestry of the past, but this hotspur refuses to die. He stands forever on that dusty Montana slope.”

His vigor and gallantry were never denied, even by his detractors, and during the Civil War he advanced rapidly; perhaps due to fortuitous notice, but nonetheless he was a brigadier at twenty-three, the youngest American ever to win a star. All of this was not due to merit, all though he did have that, but in spite of his mediocrity evidenced earlier by his poor record at West Point, having graduated last in his class. Overall, as Custer made his career in the Indian territories, it always seemed that he was overrated by others and, most of all, by himself.

Who knows the mind of Custer and the reasons that led to his demise at Little Big Horn. Maybe Evan S. Connell hits on the right one by thinking the most simply: Custer had never known defeat, perhaps couldn’t see it even when it was only one hilltop away. Few non-academic histories have been so well-written as this and have such compelling central themes that you can't put them down. Near-masterpiece is the best thing I can say when recommending this to anyone who enjoys reading a great book. It was simply a delight to read.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Battling the Devil

The Devil All the Time 

The Devil All the Time

“Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.”   ― Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time

This is not a novel that I would recommend to everyone. That is not because this is a bad novel, for it is indeed a very good one; rather I hesitate in my recommendation because there are no truly good characters in this book, in fact the are several very bad ones. The best you can say about the central protagonist, Arvin Russell, is that his violent tendencies are reserved for some of the worst of the lot.

So what is there to recommend about this novel? The author has captured realistically a slice of America's underside and portrayed it very well with strong characterizations and a believable, if not somewhat improbable and very violent, plot.

Set in Ohio and West Virginia in the years following World War II, it tells the stories of various desperate characters, including a veteran suffering from PTSD, a pair of husband-and-wife serial killers, and both a preacher and sheriff who are corrupt.

The protagonist, Arvin, is presented in a prologue as a young boy. He sits in a clearing with his father, Willard, on an oak log, joining him in his evening prayer routine. Willard is borderline obsessive when it comes to prayer and expects the same from his son. While Arvin prays, however, his mind wanders and feelings of isolation bubble to the surface. He feels like an outsider at school, he is the victim of relentless bullying. Arvin recalls his father telling him to stand up for himself, but this is easier said than done.

Willard recalls the horrifying things he saw and did during the war. One memory haunts him in particular: that of a soldier he comes across who has been skinned and crucified. Willard shoots the man as an act of mercy, putting an end to his suffering. Upon his return home he had married a young woman named Charlotte Willoughby and together they have a son whom they name Arvin. As the years pass, Willard becomes obsessed with prayer. The obsession only deepens when Charlotte contracts cancer. Willard’s rituals become progressively more bizarre and upsetting, culminating in animal and even human sacrifice. Willard believes these acts of devotion are necessary to save his wife. Nevertheless, in the end, Charlotte still dies, prompting Willard to commit suicide. Traumatized by his parents’ deaths and his father’s behavior, Arvin moves in with his grandmother, Emma. There, he meets Lenora, an orphan girl whom Emma takes in after her mother, Helen, is killed, most likely by a traveling preacher named Roy who is also Lenora’s father.

The narrator moves on to tell of Carl and Sandy Henderson, a pair of murderous lowlifes who entertain themselves by picking up male hitchhikers and killing them. Their reign of terror is allowed to persist in part because Sandy’s brother, Sheriff Bodecker, is corrupt and incompetent. An unemployed photographer, Carl takes pictures of his victims, calling them models.
In the meantime Arvin and Lenora grow up and become very close. When Lenora is bullied at school, Arvin comes to her defense, fighting the bullies, but also demonstrating a violent side that will follow him throughout his life. In addition to further exploits of Carl and Sandy's we are told more about Roy, the traveling preacher who killed Lenora’s mother. Roy lives with his physically disabled cousin, Theodore. After moving on from the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, Roy is replaced by a new preacher, Pastor Teagardin, who lives with his much younger wife, Cynthia. Lenora believes Teagardin to be an exceptionally holy man, but Arvin has his doubts. These suspicions are validated when the reader learns of Teagardin’s seduction and sexual corruption of Cynthia. Teagardin then successfully seduces Lenora, getting the young girl pregnant. Furious, Arvin shoots Teagardin dead and flees Coal Creek.

These dreary yet interesting plot lines come together in the last part of the book. While there is no hero magically appearing on a white horse each of the characters reach an end that is fitting, considering the lives they have lived. Throughout the novel the author builds the suspense so that you are propelled forward in spite of the violence. That aspect, the realism of the story, and the insight into the demented psychology of each of the characters made this a very good novel which I would recommend, especially to fans of Cormac McCarthy or Flannery O'Connor.

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Violin and Murder

The Rainaldi Quartet 

The Rainaldi Quartet (Castiglione and Guastafeste, #1)

You expect the momentous events in life to provide some kind of warning. You expect to have some presage of what's about to happen, to be prepared for it when it hits you. But I wasn't prepared. None of us was.  - Paul Adam, The Rainaldi Quartet

This mystery involves a valuable violin and multiple murders in contemporary Italy.

Shortly after playing a short composition by Beethoven with his friends Tomaso Rainaldi, a retired professional musician and sometime violin teacher, and Antonio Guastafeste, a local detective; Gianni Castiglione, an elderly luthier (that is, a craftsman of stringed instruments), receives a suspicious call at his Lombardy countryside home from Rainaldi’s wife Clara. His friend hasn’t come home and he is soon found stabbed near his abandoned car. Guastafeste, a generation younger than narrator Castiglione or Rainaldi, returns when he’s assigned to the case. Because Castiglione’s technical knowledge makes him useful as a valuable resource, he accompanies Guastafeste on his investigation, which begins with Venetian violin collector Dottor Forlani. The curious collector lives in squalor but spends a small fortune on instruments. They learn that Rainaldi had contacted Forlani about acquiring a valuable violin known as the “Messiah’s Sister.” Not long after their visit, Forlani is also murdered by a nefarious and mysterious persona as ruthless as he is determined. The mystery’s trail, which includes old letters and older tombs, leads Gianni through a network of auction houses and black-market dealings across Italy and western Europe, reaching its denouement at Casale Monferrato, the cement capital of Italy.

Well-paced storytelling perfectly suits the subtle pleasures of this tale. The author offers plenty of European history and an immersion in a subculture of the classical music world as well as a pleasant mystery.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Heroic Retelling



“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done . . . ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . . Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak in time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, and not to yield.”  ― Dan Simmons, Ilium

Having fairly recently reread the Iliad of Homer this book is a good follow-up both as a change, in genre, and as renewing my knowledge of the Iliad helps in understanding Simmons' novel. For in his novel Homer's relevance is more than an opening prop or gimmick. It is the Iliad that initially provides a bearing, a compass for the reader upon which the rest of the narrative depends, and without which, it could be argued, the rest, at least during the first third or so of the book, would unravel. This is a complicated novel with regard to plot and it is the familiarity of the Iliad story line that initially binds the work together, serving as a sturdy foundation while the other two strands, at first seeming unrelated, gradually come together.

Part humor, part literary space opera (and perhaps part mind game for intellectuals), Ilium is fascinating in its grand scope as well as the way it reinterprets earlier works to conform to an entirely new epic type. Within it references abound, not only to literature but popular culture, current events, philosophy and recent concepts of physics. It can be difficult to keep one's bearings as the author's vision is so expansive that the scale of events, characters and themes so often touched upon or merely suggested, only to be later viewed from different circumstance or perspective. Much of what occurs throughout the novel is driven by anticipation of how the author will ultimately resolve and integrate all of his various plotlines, cast and speculation. Intriguing hints are laid, sometimes in opposition: Proust's exploration of time, memory and perception or the secret paths to the puzzle of life; the moravec Mahnmut's interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnets as a dramatic construct; the interaction and influence of will, represented by Zeus, the Fates, and chaos, upon events taking place upon the plains of Ilium; the fulcrum Hockenberry is urged to find in order to change the outcome of Homer; or the identity of "'A bitter heart that bides its time and bites.'" Cosmologies and ontologies, as well as metaphors, are borrowed, their identities and purposes remaining unclear or unexplained, as is so much else by novel's end, though suspicions are delectably stirred. 

This is a novel that provides a wealth of ideas and action which successfully entice the reader to continue the saga in the sequel, Olympos.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Eternal Man



“History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.”  ― Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo is a glorious romantic imagining of an episode from the year 1793, during the French Revolution and the year of the Great Terror. The setting is Brittany where counter-revolutionary forces have risen up to oppose the Revolutionary leaders. The leader of this group, the aged Marquise de Lantenac, is a romantic hero in the grandest sense. A Breton noble, he disguises himself as a peasant after landing on the western coast. His mission, which he pursues with ruthless single-mindedness, is to act as a leader to the rebels, harness them to the royalist cause, and contrive an opportunity for an English military invasion.

His fate seems to be determined by the Revolutionary forces which are led by his grand-nephew, Gauvain. Pitted against Lantenac, Gauvain, formerly the Vicomte de Gauvain, has renounced his noble heritage and embraced the republican cause. Gauvain commands the republican troops allied with Marat and tasked with hunting down and killing Lantenac.

The third protagonist is Cimourdain, once a priest and Gauvain’s tutor, now a fervent revolutionary. It was from Cimourdain that Gauvain first learned the political ideals he has adopted. Cimourdain has a secret, the one weak spot in his ideological armour, for he loves Gauvain, has loved him since childhood, like the son he himself never had. Cimourdain is sent by the revolutionary leader, Marat, as a special agent to the Vendée to ensure that Gauvain does not waver in his loyalty, for Marat has heard disturbing rumors that Gauvain may be capable of mercy, and revolutionary leaders view this as a cardinal sin.

The tension of the story is provided not only by the action, which is fiercely exciting, but by ideas. At one point Gauvain says to Cimourdain:
"Louis XVI was a sheep thrown among lions. He tried to flee, to save himself . . . But not everyone can be a lion who wants to. His feeble attempt was regarded as a crime."
He asks Cimourdain, "lions? What are they?"
"This made Cimourdain think. He raised his head and said, 'Those lions are consciences. Those lions are ideas. Those lions are principles.'" (pp 197-98)

While Gauvain is a man of action, a revolutionary for the republic, he is also a thinker and it is his thoughts about the humanity of men that lead him to his ultimate actions. 
The grandeur of this novel is superb, while Hugo builds suspense in every section. Some scenes are so vivid that you are unlikely to forget them. One scene that is sometimes excerpted from the novel is the great cannon episode; depicting a loose cannon on a ship of anti-revolutionary French Royalists sailing towards Brittany, to aid the anti-revolutionary Chouannerie rebellion. 
The whole of the novel is like this, filled with one astonishing experience after another, keeping this reader spellbound.

Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo. Bantam Books, 1962 (1874)

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Images of a Life



"Time Present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation."  - T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

George Washington Crosby died. That, in sum , is the plot of this short novel, but within that death there is told a story of a life, a family, and a world made interesting through the beautiful prose of Paul Harding.

The book could have been called As I Lay Dying, but that title has already been used; it could have been called Clocks, or Timepieces, for that is one motif that recurs again and again in the story of George and his family, especially his father.

"That was it, he realized; the clock had run down." (p 33)

As we count down the hours until his death we experience images of his dreams, of his life, and of nature. Harding's prose brings each small detail alive as he shares the wonder of a life lived full of things, of tinkering, odd jobs, family interests, and disinterests. It is written with details sure to bring personal memories to the mind of the reader. It did for me, not that the small town may have been similar to my own, or not that the incidents might suggest ones I experienced; but one reference, to a Cribbage Board, brought back fond memories of learning how to play Cribbage and playing it with my Parents, Grandparents, and family. I still have a Cribbage Board hidden away in a closet, behind my Chess set. George's memories were like that, hidden away in the closets of his past, behind events long forgotten until the last days of his delirium.

We find out that George could not, or at least felt he could not, fill his father's shoes. Yet we are not told, but shown how, in a dream, George goes looking for his father and puts on his father's old boots which are too big for his feet, requiring additional layers of socks to make them fit. That is the way of this story: "Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock's purpose is to return the hands back to that time . . ." (p 179) Thus the hands on the clocks go around and signal both the past and the present and, ultimately, the end.

Paul Harding has written a simple, subtle, and surely beautiful story about a man and his memories.  As a story of one man's death it reminded me of Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil. Each story provides meaning, if that is possible, using exceptionally poetic prose to share the final dreams and thoughts of one man who has reached his end.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Compassion and Knowledge

Regarding the Pain of Others 

Regarding the Pain of Others

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do -- but who is that 'we'? -- and nothing 'they' can do either -- and who are 'they' -- then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”   ― Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

I read this as I was a participant in a discussion group at The Art Institute of Chicago. Many people view Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a re-examination of or a follow-up to her previous book, On Photography; although the two works do not view photography from the same perspective. Regarding the Pain of Others, which is generally an essay about war photography, primarily covers the theme of heartlessness, with a keen interest on the inhumanity and brutality caused by war.

First off, Sontag posits that there is a problem in the way people read pictures. As much as a picture unravels real events captured on camera, it also conceals some additional details that would help in getting a more unobstructed view of the identity and history of the real moment. Therefore, the manner in which individuals interpret images becomes an extremely subjective process, since personal understandings and beliefs will largely dictate the reading of these pictures. Sontag writes,
"Images of dead civilians and smashed houses may serve to quicken hatred of the foe."

Sontag also reconsiders her earlier position about the emotional implications of horrendous images on the viewer. In On Photography, Sontag maintained that images could make the viewer sympathize with the victim. In Regarding the Pain of Others, however, she revises her position, questioning whether a photograph can truly have such an effect in the modern media’s context.

Some would call this "atrocity photography," that sort of photography whose subject is the death or misery of other people. The book was, of course, penned in the shadow of September 11, and it seems, unfortunately, to bear a slightly burdensome responsibility to comment on the importance of things. This, however, has never been a problem for Ms. Sontag. While I appreciated her earlier essay collection, On Photography, more than this photographic excursion (perhaps because it is a better essay collection) I found the insights here worth considering. Perhaps I was put off by her beginning with a reference to Virginia Woolf's book Three Guineas which I did not find persuasive. However, I still found the essays in this miniature tome challenging and thought-provoking.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Two Lives in a Shadow War

The Nightingale 

The Nightingale

“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”  ― Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

The Nightingale, both well-written and plot-driven, is a story about the lives of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol in World War II France. Isabelle is a rebellious girl and is kicked out of many schools. When she is kicked out of one last school, she is sent to live with her father, Julien. Isabelle and her father do not have a good relationship and when the Germans invade France, Isabelle flees Paris to go to her sister's home. On the way, she meets Gaetan, her future love interest.

Vianne accepts Isabelle into her home reluctantly because she does not want her sister's rebellious attitude to influence her own daughter. Vianne is directly affected by the war when her good friend and neighbor is forced to wear a yellow star. She must also endure the presence of a Nazi officer in her home. Eventually her neighbor, Rachel, suffers a great loss when her daughter is shot and she is forced to go to a concentration camp. Vianne adopts Rachel's son, Ari, and she also begins to forge identity papers to help other Jewish children as her way of rebelling against the German occupation.

Isabelle joins the French Resistance and helps French pilots escape to Spain. Nazi soldiers are continually searching for this young woman whose efforts have earned her the sobriquet of "The Nightingale". As the war progresses both of the sisters suffer greater deprivation and more danger from the soldiers who occupy France. The denouement of the story is moving in many ways that lead me to discuss some of the themes of the book that include: love, power of women, and family.

Different aspects of love, based on romance, friendship, and familial love are explored. One example of romantic love is shown between Vianne and her husband Antoine, on whom she depends and subsequently struggles when he goes to war. Another example of Romantic love is the love between Isabelle and Gaetan. When the two meet, they are immediately attracted to one another. While this love does not flourish Gaetan proves his love for Isabelle by naming his daughter after her.

The power of women is demonstrated through the two main characters strength. Each rebels against the German army in her own way. Vianne rebels in a more subtle way by rescuing Jewish children by forging identity papers. She also takes in the son of her friend when her friend is sent to a concentration camp. Isabelle rebels more openly by joining the French Resistance. Both of these women demonstrate courage that was necessary far from the battlefields.

Each sister also fights to keep their family together, not always an easy task, in addition to helping their friends. The author's ability to demonstrate the contrasting nature of each sister was one of the best aspects of this novel. This combined with serviceable prose and an accurate depiction of the historical details made this a good read. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical novels centered on family relationships.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Two White Boys and the Blues

White Tears 

White Tears

Electricity is not digital. It does not come in discrete packets, but floods the air and flows through conductors and shoots from the hands of mad scientists in silent movies. If it is futuristic at all, it is a past version of the future, temperamental, unstable, half-alive.”
― Hari Kunzru, White Tears

Hari Kunzru's novel tells of a mysterious recording found by Seth, a tech nerd, and his best friend, a handsome slacker named Carter Wallace, both young white men. While Carter's love of music is enabled by his standing as heir to a family fortune, Seth is from a somewhat lower social strata. Seth operates a studio with Carter and is obsessed with recording the errant sounds found around New York, which he does with a handset device by walking through the city. Carter is solely interested in music by black musicians of the twentieth century. and also bankrolls the music audio engineering business that Seth and Carter run together. One day, using recordings that Seth made of different people singing and playing music on the street, they create a song called the Graveyard Blues and upload it to the internet, attributing the song to Charlie Shaw, a name that Carter picks at random.

Seth—the brainy, awkward one—is annoyed by this arrogance, but the accompanying perks are too fun to pass up. Who wouldn’t want to make a bunch of money by playing music? “You seem to have a very high opinion of yourself,” Cornelius, Carter’s much more responsible brother, tells Seth. “Of your importance in the scheme of things.” Seth definitely lacks power, or confidence; rather than tell a crush how he feels when they’re at a party together, he ends up literally watching her have sex with another man. But when his life is upended by a shocking turn of events, he has no choice but to involve himself more directly in the story.

The shock is created when a record collector tells them something unnerving: Charlie Shaw is real, and he has a history that Seth and Carter want no part of. Soon after, Carter is found beaten unconscious in a dangerous Bronx neighborhood. Carter’s wealthy and powerful family bars Seth from coming to see Carter at the hospital. They also lock Seth out of his and Carter’s recording studio. Carter appears to be in a permanent coma. Seth tracks down Jim, who tells Seth of his own connection to Charlie Shaw. In the 1950s, Jim and his friend Chester Bly traveled to Tennessee and Mississippi in order to swindle African-Americans out of potentially valuable blues and jazz records. They eventually arrived at the house of Miss Alberta, Charlie Shaw’s sister. She possessed the only known copy of Shaw’s Graveyard Blues record. Bly stole the record after Alberta refused to sell it. Soon after, Bly died in a mysterious fire. Jim decided that Bly’s death must have been a type of cosmic comeuppance for his acts of cultural appropriation. In order to avoid similar danger, Jim sold all of his own records.

He and Leonie, Carter’s Boho artist sister, venture down South to solve the mystery of Shaw, who like many other obscure blues musicians known to us only through a song or two, exists on the margins of history. What they find takes on the texture of a ghost story, as Seth and Leonie bond in sweaty motels indistinguishable from each other, on the trail of a man who might not exist but might be implausibly real. “With each mile we are heading further into the past,” Kunzru writes. “This is what I made her understand, that night in her apartment. That we had to repeat something, to go back to meet the force that is reaching out towards us from history.”
“Shock of white hair, thick black eyeglasses that scanned as fashion until you checked the raincoat with the grubby collar, the unpleasant-looking scab on his forehead,” Kunzru writes. “Exactly who I did not want to meet. Very slowly, he raised an index finger and pointed to me, a gesture like firing a gun.” The man, who Seth only knows through his internet avatar, is sort of a decrepit weirdo. But what else could Seth have expected from someone who’s dedicated his life to compiling the arcane and unglamorous?

White Tears seems almost hallucinatory at times as the past and present blend together to create a nightmare for the duo. Seth’s rationality diminishes as the book paces toward its violent conclusion, with Kunzru’s prose rising to a hypnotic, entrancing level. The book cuts across time periods and perspectives, sometimes in the same chapter, as Seth falls further into the horror of the 20th century, for which Charlie is just a proxy. The mixture of disparate themes including the blues musical heritage, black cultural appropriation, and the threat of billion -dollar conglomerates provides for both an endlessly interesting and sometimes exciting novel.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.