Thursday, August 28, 2014

Writers on Reading


from The History of That Ingenious Gentleman 

Don Quijote de la Mancha

In a word, Don Quijote so buried himself in his books that he read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brain and lost his sanity.  He filled his imagination full to bursting with everything he read in his books, from witchcraft to duels, battles, challenges, wounds, flirtations, love affairs, anguish, and impossible foolishness, packing it all so firmly into his head that these sensational schemes and dreams become the literal truth and, as far as he was concerned, there were no more certain histories anywhere on  earth.  He'd explained that Cid Ruy Diaz had been a very good knight, but simply couldn't be compared to the Knight of the Flaming Sword, who with one backhand stroke had cut in half two huge, fierce giants.  He liked Bernardo del Carpio even better . . . But the knight he treasured above all others was Renaldo de Montalban, especially when he could be found riding out of his castle and robbing everyone he met, or when he travelled across the ocean to steal the idol of Mohammad,

Indeed, his mind was so tattered and torn that, finally, it produced the strangest notion a madman had ever conceived, and then considered it not just appropriate but inevitable.  As much for the sake of his own greater honor as for his duty to the nation, he decided to turn himself into a knight errant, travelling all over the world with his horse and his weapons, seeking adventures and doing everything that , according to his books, earlier knights had done, righting every manner of wrong, giving himself the opportunity to experience every sort of danger, so that, surmounting them all, he would cover himself with eternal fame and glory.  (p 10)

Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.  Burton Raffel, trans. W. W. Norton & Company, 1995 (1605)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Eros and Memories of Love

Strait is the GateStrait is the Gate 
by André Gide

"I advanced slowly;  the sky was like my joy---warm, bright, delicately pure.  No doubt she was expecting me by the other path.  I was close to her, behind her, before she heard me;  I stopped . . . and as if time could have stopped with me, "This is the moment," I thought, "the most delicious moment, perhaps, of all, even though it should precede happiness itself---which happiness itself will not equal." (p 96)

"Enter ye in at the strait gate:  for wide is the gate and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go thereat:  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:13-14).

This is the text from which Gide drew the title of his short novel, Strait is the Gate. It is a first person narrative that begins forthrightly with the words:
"Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one that it took all my strength to live and over which I have spent all my virtue. So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away from the last pleasure I hope to get in telling them." (p 3)

The author signals in this short paragraph the importance of virtue (of what sort we shall find out) and that these are personal "recollections", subject to the vicissitudes of memory and desire, but not invented. Finally, the narrator claims to have pleasure, or at least hopes to, in telling them. One may see already the potential for the contradiction of truth presented as fiction and fiction telling the truth.

The setting is the Protestant upper-middle-class world of Normandy in the 1880s. The narrator, Jerome Palissier, originally from Le Havre, is eleven when the story begins. His father having died he is living with his mother and a governess. He is surrounded by family including a creole aunt Lucille who alternately fascinates and terrifies him. She has two young daughters, Alissa and Juliette Bucolin, who are devoted to their father. Alissa and Jerome become childhood sweethearts and this gradually develops into a situation such that it becomes assumed, at least unofficially, that they are engaged. Unfortunately Alissa never truly agrees to any such arrangement. Complicating matters further are the feelings of Juliette for Jerome and the entry of Jerome's good friend Abel Vautier who quickly becomes infatuated with Juliette. The relations among these young people are complicated by the strength of youthful Eros, their own growth, and their search for identity.  It is this search that leads Alissa in the direction of religion, in spite of which she professes to love Jerome. But she is no longer her former self and as Jerome is about to leave the country home of Fonguesemare where they have been together she claims that he has been in love with a ghost. Jerome replies that the ghost is not an illusion on his part: "Alissa, you are the woman I loved . . . What have you made yourself become?" Jerome leaves, "full of a vague hatred for what I still called virtue". Strong stuff for teenagers.

Three years later he returns but their relations are never the same;  the strength of her religious convictions has altered Alissa both spiritually and physically. The affairs narrated here are apparently drawn from Gide's own life, however loosely. Their are also parallels with Gide's own work as Alissa may be seen as corresponding to Michel, the protagonist in Gide's novel, The Immoralist, written about a decade earlier. Strait is the Gate presents itself as a small gem of a literary work. With its focus on the passions and desires of young love I am reminded of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. Gide's biographer, Alan Sheridan, suggests that it is also a meditation on Gide's relationship with his own wife, Madeleine. Whether that is the case or not this short novel is has a beautiful clarity of prose and a haunting style that suggests the memories of young love that, while strong enough to leave permanent impressions, in some way become ghosts of one's youth.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Autumnal Expectations

by Jane Austen

Thanks to Jenna of The Lost Generation Reader for hosting Austen in August reading event. 

"How eloquent could Anne Elliot have been--how eloquent, at least, were her wishes on the side of early warm attachment, and a cheerful confidence in futurity, against that over-anxious caution which seems to insult exertion and distrust Providence!  She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older--the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning." (p 33)

In Jane Austen's last novel, Persuasion, which was not published until after her death, Austen created a strong, mature, and independent heroine, Anne Elliot. One might consider this an autumnal work which emphasizes the flow of human sympathy and charity. Austen's attention to the sensibilities of her characters has been honed over the course of her preceding work, notably in Emma which she completed not long before beginning Persuasion.

Anne Elliot is characterized as having "lost her bloom". She is depicted as having a resigned melancholy due to her relations with her family who regard her as a "nobody" and her lack of having someone close to turn to. Her mother was no longer present, having died when Anne was fourteen. Having foolishly broken off an engagement eight years earlier to Frederick Wentworth, a penniless naval officer, Anne at the age of 27 has remained unmarried--and secretly devoted to Wentworth. The novel captures the poignant and seemingly hopeless situation of Anne by sharing the depth and subtleties of her emotional life. This is the essence of the book and its strength. Austen adopts a more metaphorical approach in her story than in preceding novels and, through Anne's feelings and the counterpart of nature, we see Anne coping and perhaps for the optimistic among us there is a possibility of hope in her future.

Major changes in Anne's life result from the move of her father to Bath while she remains behind in Uppercross with her younger sister's family. Thus begins a series of events that bring Wentworth, now a Captain, back into Anne's life. An unfortunate accident leads to Wentworth to begin re-examining his feelings about Anne. The changes that occur over the remainder of the story yield the expected classical ending; however the changes also suggest that the world of Kellynch Hall that Anne was raised in has been left behind for a new life that is not quite as expected.

This novel rivals Emma as my favorite of Jane Austen's novels; along with Pride and Prejudice it forms a trio of novels that I read again and again with growing joy and understanding.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Possibly Immortality?

Strange Bodies: A NovelStrange Bodies: A Novel 
by Marcel Theroux

"He didn't seem conventionally insane in any way that I could understand.  But there was no way of comprehending him.  In some eerie and fundamental way, he didn't appear to belong to our world.  But that didn't seem the same as being mad." (p 157)

The Theroux family has an impressive literary heritage. I first encountered Paul Theroux, an American travel writer and novelist, through reading his popular and mesmerizing travel narrative The Great Railway Bazaar. I also enjoyed his novel, The Mosquito Coast, that won the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Then there is his brother, Alexander, who is a writer and artist whose Darconville's Cat: A Novel is a Rabelaisian epic both in its words and multiple styles. But there is a new generation of literary members of this family that includes Marcel Theroux, Paul's son.

It is Marcel's most recent novel that I found on the library shelves recently. It is a labyrinthine exploration of identity and mortality, filled with big ideas. That would have carried many for more than the less than three hundred pages of this unique story. It qualifies as what I, adopting the approach of Margaret Atwood, would call speculative fiction; others might go further and call it science fiction. Either way it is a neat combination of literary criticism (the protagonist is a Samuel Johnson scholar, or perhaps he was); a conspiracy about the science of consciousness involving new bodies (sort of neo-Frankenstein); and a love angle or two that may involve some necrotic foreplay.

Dr. Nicholas Slopen—the literary scholar and Johnson expert—has already been declared dead at least once, before the novel presents itself as the testimony found by a former lover on a flash memory stick. The document begins in a mental ward, where the patient is trying to convince his therapists that he is in fact Slopen, whose death has been well-documented. He then relates the tale of how he (Slopen) had been hired to document some newly discovered Johnson letters that he immediately dismissed as fake, before realizing that he was in the midst of something far more extraordinary and sinister. Vera, a woman Nicholas makes friends with after a mysterious Silicon Valley type has hired him to authenticate some unearthed writings by Johnson, wears corrective shoes and acts as a kind of menial for more elite bosses. When Nicholas's examination of the unearthed documents turns up some oddities, he finds himself in communication with the novel's most interesting character, Jack—an initially nonverbal savant who was convinced that he was in fact Johnson and who eventually convinces the scholar that something stranger is afoot than fraud or even madness. “I felt I understood less and less, even as, intuitively, I was drawing closer to the hidden chamber of the infinitely dark truth.”

And within that infinitely dark truth, distinctions between sanity and madness, life and death are not nearly as absolute as they might have initially appeared: “All madness has a touch of death to it....But the finer details of reality—the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person’s true nature—have something delicate and consensual about them....Each time someone drops out of our collective reality, it weakens a little.” The author interpolates comments from the observers of the supposed Nicholas Slopen and the plot gradually becomes one of strange bodies and stranger activities. The exact way in which the titular strange bodies begin to manifest themselves in the tale at this point makes reading this novel worth your while.

This fictional narrative could be compared to Philip K. Dick or perhaps Borges, but whether it reminds you of them or others you may have read it is unique in the style and marvelous tightness of Theroux's structure, which launches the final part of the story with more than one delicious twist. Twists aside, though, this is a thoughtful book that interrogates the intersection of literature and the self. Why are we drawn to certain works? To what extent are we defined by our literatures? Can books and ideas grant us a kind of immortality? Can great authors really shape our lives or our world? There is also a theme that seems to ask to what extent we can control books and authors—how much of them are "ours" (the rightful property of the public domain) and how much of them should be? These questions keep you wondering—and ensure that Theroux's strange little world will work its way under your skin. Theroux, like his father and uncle, is a master prose-smith; he builds a great, brooding atmosphere of slow-burning dread, splicing bits of Milton into conversations in which characters have "the haunted and knowing eyes of a caged ape" (p. 71). As Nicholas's ordinary life begins to disintegrate, the self-pitying tone in which he narrates the beginning of the novel takes on new meaning and leaves us ultimately moved by his plight.  Often enthralling and occasionally maddening, the novel expands the reader’s sense of possibility even as it strains credulity.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Love and Silver

Nostromo: A Tale of the SeaboardNostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard 
by Joseph Conrad

"Most dangerous to the wielder, too, this weapon of wealth, double-edged with the cupidity and misery of mankind, steeped in all the vices of self-indulgence as in a concoction of poisonous roots, tainting the very cause for with it is drawn, always ready to turn awkwardly in the hand.  There was nothing for it now but to go on using it."  (p 390)

With Nostromo Conrad plumbs the depths of human frailty, offering an intimate study in psychology and human relations. Unlike his other novels he uses a greater canvas to consider the wider political and economic world. That canvas is constructed from fragmented plots containing fractures and divides that interrupt the narrative to the point that the landscape seems to "vanish into thin air" (p 31).

The story is one of a silver mine in the Occidental Province of “the imaginary (but true)” Latin American country of Costaguana, and the crisis by which the province passes from the chaos of post-colonial misrule to the unquiet prosperity of Anglo-American imperial capitalism. With the country beset by instability and warfare, Senor Gould, the mine's owner, decides to remove the silver and keep it out of the hands of the warlords.
To do so, Gould turns to Nostromo, the top stevedore and the most trusted man in Sulaco. Nostromo is resourceful, daring, loyal and—above all—incorruptible. His illustrious reputation is his most prized possession. Says one character, "the only thing he seems to care to be well spoken of." Well, you can see the potential for a tragic flaw right there.  Even the most incorruptible are, ultimately, corruptible.  In spite of that he continues to enjoy a favorable opinion from most because they see him not as he is but how they believe that he is.  The differing views of Nostromo connect through his own inner strength that makes him ultimately the title character even though there are many more pages expended upon the plethora of other interesting characters in the novel; including, Charles Gould - owner of the mine, his wife Emilia, Martin Decoud, Dr. Monygham, Guzman Bento - a former dictator, and Ribiera - the current head of state.

The book's psychological depth and narrative structure, with its distorted timeline that travels backward and forward in time, were innovative for the era, marking this novel as one of the prime examples of a literary modernism that would within a couple of decades culminate in the works of Proust and Joyce. The huge array of characters and interactions have been compared by some to War and Peace. Irony abounds: the non-chronological plot line tips us off to consequences before we know what led up to them—and results in a sense of inexorable fate pulling characters to their ultimate destiny.
Ultimately the story hinges on the struggle between actions concerning the silver and love interests.  While Gould's marriage succumbs to his passionate interest in the silver mine an even more fascinating turn of events yields a love triangle between Nostromo and two sisters Linda and Giselle.  These events, along with many others, create an entertaining and intriguing novel. Told in Conrad's inimitable prose style this is one of his greatest achievements.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Front Porch Swing

The ChosenThe Chosen 
by Chaim Potok

"I cannot explain it. It do not understand it completely myself. But what I know of it, I dislike. It was practiced in Europe by some few Hasidic families." Then his voice went hard. "There are better ways to teach a child compassion." (p 266)

This was my introduction to the world of Jewish culture. I remember sitting on my Grandmother's front porch swing during August, 1968, mesmerized by this tale of friendship in a culture very different than my own. This novel, the first from the pen of Chaim Potok, is ostensibly about the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, from the time when they are fourteen on opposing yeshiva ball clubs. But it is also a coming of age story and most of all a novel of ideas.
At one point David Malter tells his son:

"Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?" He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something.
He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here."

This search for meaning animates the entire story. Reb Saunders has found meaning in serving God and his followers, but the others seek meaning in reason rather than faith. David Malter has found meaning, and hopes to give the Holocaust itself some meaning, in his political work as a Zionist. Reuven, with the study of logic, and Danny, with the study of psychology, both think that they have found the things that will fill their lives with meaning. The story becomes a sort of gently didactic differentiation between two aspects of the Jewish faith, the Hasidic and the Orthodox. Primarily the Hasidic, the little known mystics with their beards, earlocks and stringently reclusive way of life. According to Reuven's father who is a Zionist, an activist, they are fanatics; according to Danny's, other Jews are apostates and Zionists "goyim." The schisms here are reflected through discussions, between fathers and sons, and through the separation imposed on the two boys for two years which still does not affect their lasting friendship or enduring hopes: Danny goes on to become a psychiatrist refusing his inherited position of "tzaddik"; Reuven a rabbi. 

For me the important aspect was their search, a search that I subsequently found in novels as disparate as The Moviegoer, The Plague, and The Magic Mountain; a search that made this novel memorable for me. That and my Grandmother's front porch swing.

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Soft Rains

The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, Rivers to the Sea, Love Songs, and Flame and Sha

The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale 
by Sara Teasdale

“look for a lovely thing and you will find it, it is not far, it never will be far” 

“You will recognize your own path when you come upon it because you will suddenly have all the energy and imagination you will ever need.”   ― Sara Teasdale

There Will Come Soft Rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Sara Teasdale

Sara Teasdale was born on August 8th in 1884 in St. Louis Missouri. In her short life of only thirty-eight years she published several books of poetry. In 1918 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book of Love Songs. The war referred to in the fourth stanza is, of course, The Great War that was destroying much of Europe when Sara was writing this poem.  For such a short poem there are many literary devices used including imagery, alliteration, personification, and rhyme/rhythm.  Ultimately the message is one that nature is eternal while humanity is ephemeral.

The title of this poem was used by Ray Bradbury as the title for the penultimate short story that he gathered in his book, The Martian Chronicles.  I suggest that you read the book and the story and you will find out why he chose that title.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Literature and Contemporary Life

How Literature Saved My LifeHow Literature Saved My Life 
by David Shields

"My own failure of imagination? Sure, but as Virginia Woolf said in a passage that I reread dozens of times in the fall of 1991, “The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say. This proves that a book is alive: because it has not crushed anything I wanted to say, but allowed me to slip it in, without any compression or alteration.”"   - David Shields

David Shields is a contemporary essayist and fiction writer. His first novel, Dead Languages, is notable, as are his collections of essays. I chose to read this book with the expectation that the main focus would be on literature. I was frustrated with some aspects of the book in the early going, but ultimately found Shields personal views on literature and its ability to save (or perhaps not save) his life to be challenging and valuable. Throughout the book he turns quotation, memory, anecdotes and considerations of film, literature, love and death into a collage that enables introspection.

Shields is as concerned with methods of construction and questions of genre as with subject, and in doing so he meters out nuggets of revelation amid explications of both classical and popular subjects, from Prometheus to Spider-Man. He uses a circuitous approach that sometimes frustrated this reader and may do so for others. However, his apparent failure to articulate the ways in which "life and art have always been everything" to him often proved fascinating to contemplate.

David Shields stuttered throughout childhood, and initially regarded writing as an ideal outlet; now, in his mid-50s with more than fifteen books to his credit, he writes “to feel as if, to the degree anyone can know anyone else,” he has connected with his readers. He uses a frequently self-deprecating yet engaging tone, while employing the act of accrual in hopes of guarding against “human loneliness,” and in doing so, creates a type of personal, modern version of a commonplace book. For readers like myself, references to authors such as Ben Lerner, E.M. Cioran, Jonathan Safran Foer, Annie Dillard, Sarah Manguso and David Foster Wallace, among others, may be interesting or even appealing. He mixes references to books while interpolating quotes as voices intersecting on the page. For readers unlike myself who are creative-writing practitioners, how Shield fashions his own anxieties and persona into brief essays provides an alternative model for writing on self-hood, revealing the his struggle in oblique ways.

The book defies easy categorization (as have others of Shields’ works): It is both a paean to the power of language and a confrontation with the knowledge that literature can't, after all, fulfill deeper existential needs. It is a work of contradictions, subversion, depression, humor and singular awareness; Shields is at his best when culling the work of others to arrive at his own well-timed, often heartbreaking lines. His list of "Fifty-five works I swear by:" is one of the most fascinating and useful sections of the book (Part 6, pp140-156). I would recommend this book for those who hope that reading literature may save your life and have the persistence or potvaliance to persevere when the book veers into unknown territory. The author always brings it back to literature.

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Complexities of Love and Desire

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night 
by William Shakespeare

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Act 1, 1.1-15

Every major character in Twelfth Night experiences some form of desire or love. Duke Orsino is in love with Olivia. Viola falls in love with Orsino, while disguised as his pageboy, Cesario. Olivia falls in love with Cesario. This love triangle is only resolved when Olivia falls in love with Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, and, at the last minute, Orsino decides that he actually loves Viola. Twelfth Night derives much of its comic force by satirizing these lovers. In the lines that open the play (above), Shakespeare pokes fun at Orsino's flowery love poetry, making it clear that Orsino is more in love with being in love than with his supposed beloveds. At the same time, by showing the details of the intricate rules that govern how nobles engage in courtship, Shakespeare examines how characters play the "game" of love. Viola (as Cesario) has the following lines in Act 1, scene 5:
Make me a willow cabin at your gate
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out 'Olivia!' O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth
But you should pity me. (251-259)

Twelfth Night further mocks the main characters' romantic ideas about love through the escapades of the servants. Malvolio's idiotic behavior, which he believes will win Olivia's heart, serves to underline Orsino's own only-slightly-less silly romantic ideas. Meanwhile, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, and Maria, are always cracking crass double entendres that make it clear that while the nobles may spout flowery poetry about romantic love, that love is at least partly motivated by desire and sex. Shakespeare further makes fun of romantic love by showing how the devotion that connects siblings (Viola and Sebastian) and servants to masters (Antonio to Sebastian and Maria to Olivia) actually prove more constant than any of the romantic bonds in the play.

But there is more than love and desire in this amazing comedy. At the opening when Viola is shipwrecked in Illyria she bemoans that she cannot join her lost twin brother Sebastian in Elysium. Illyria is not Elysium however it reminds those familiar with As You Like It of the Arcadian forest of Arden. In both plays the setting is otherworldly--a place apart from the rest of civilization.

There is also melancholy,  for several characters in Twelfth Night suffer from some version of love-melancholy. Orsino exhibits many symptoms of the disease (including lethargy, inactivity, and interest in music and poetry). Dressed up as Cesario, Viola describes herself as dying of melancholy, because she is unable to act on her love for Orsino. Olivia also describes Malvolio as melancholy and blames it on his narcissism. It is this melancholy that represents the painful side of love.

Perhaps more central to this play in particular are the themes of deception, disguise, and performance. With these themes Twelfth Night raises questions about the nature of gender and sexual identity. That Viola has disguised herself as a man, and that her disguise fools Olivia into falling in love with her, is genuinely funny. On a more serious note, however, Viola's transformation into Cesario, and Olivia's impossible love for him/her, also imply that, maybe, distinctions between male/female and heterosexual/homosexual are not as absolutely firm as you might think. When you recall that the players in Shakespeare's Globe were all men and boys these issues become both more humorous and serious at the same time. You may get a more vivid idea of this theme by viewing clips of the recent all-male production of Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance.*

This play rivals As You Like It for the title of the best of Shakespeare's comedies. While I prefer the former,  there are complexities of love and desire mixed with questions of sexual identity that make this comedy a fine way to experience and enjoy Shakespeare.

*Available on YouTube.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Traveling Shakespeare

Globe to Globe Hamlet
by William Shakespeare

"Now I am alone. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here, 
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit 
That from her working all his visage wann'd, 
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect, 
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting 
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!" (2.2, 520-527)

Wednesday evening I attended a production of Hamlet presented at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  What made this production unique was its presentation by Shakespeare's Globe from London on their world tour celebrating the 450th birthday of Shakespeare.  It is a two-year long project that began last spring at Shakespeare's Globe in London and will conclude in April of 2016 in London to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.  

The evening was a delightful experience with the Globe company of fewer than twelve actors presenting a bare-bones "traveling" version of Hamlet.  It was fast-paced, which helps with Shakespeare's longest play, and it had a few more touches of humor than most productions of this play.  The company excelled at sharing many of the roles and seemed more comfortable with the setting at Chicago's Shakespeare Theater than might be expected for the third and final of only three performances they gave before moving on to their next destination.

Learning of his father’s death, Prince Hamlet comes home to find his uncle married to his mother and installed on the Danish throne. At night, the ghost of the old king demands that Hamlet avenge his ‘foul and most unnatural murder’.  The play, encompasses political intrigue and sexual obsession, philosophical reflection and violent action, tragic depth and in this production, wild humor.  The introduction and finale added some song and dance that fit the occasion.

Hamlet as Shakespeare’s ‘poem unlimited’ is a colossus in the story of the English language and the fullest expression of his genius.  This production realized this genius and demonstrated why people still are enthralled by the play after more than four centuries.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Books Fade into the Ethernet

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore 
by Robin Sloan

“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this:

A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”   ― Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

The story begins with an unemployed young techie with an art school degree who spends his days browsing the web for want-ads, among other things, and reading--mostly the latter. He is Clay Jannon and his life is changed when he starts walking around his home base of San Francisco and happens upon a strange-looking bookstore with a sign in the window:
"HELP WANTED: Late Shift, Specific Requirements, Good Benefits"
The name of the bookstore is "Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore".
The adventure Clay begins when he decides to take that job is initially beyond his imagination.  It combines elements of fantasy, mystery, friendship and adventure as a way of looking at the modern conflict and transition between new technology (electronic) and old (print books).   It requires him to cooperate and sometimes scheme with new friends in pursuing elusive clues.  At the heart of the novel is the collision of that old-world handwork and the automated digital age.

The new technology is very Google-oriented as Clay, soon after becoming comfortable in his new job, meets a Google employee named Kat who impresses him with her programming ability. Clay is forbidden to open the books yet required to describe the borrowers in great detail to the owner, Alex Penumbra. Late-night boredom catalyzes his curiosity, and soon Clay discovers that the books are part of a vast code.  And it is not long before they are investigating the secrets of the strange bookstore. For it is strange in that it sells very few books and seems to exist for a mysterious society of book lovers who form a club that has access to private stacks in the back of the store. The secrets hidden in the books stretch back to the initial revolution in printing started by Gutenberg. It is this and other mysteries that create the suspense that sustains this lightweight but definitely interesting first novel.

Intertwined among the mysteries is Clay's love for an obscure fantasy novel by Clark Moffat called The Dragon-Song Chronicles. There is no way to say much more about the complicated plot without giving away too much of the enjoyment of discovering along with Clay the secrets behind the 24-Hour Bookstore.
This is an entertaining book that will appeal to both fantasy lovers and those who like mysteries. With its focus on the latest internet technology the story presents an interesting analogy between the printing revolution begun by Gutenberg and the digital revolution in books as it is being promoted by Google and other internet behemoths. 

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Twelve Century War

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War 
by Joe Haldeman

“The 1143-year-long war hand begun on false pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate.
Once they could talk, the first question was 'Why did you start this thing?' and the answer was 'Me?”   ― Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

The Forever War is an award-winning science fiction novel that many readers have enjoyed ever since its first publication forty years ago. Having finally read it I count myself among those who like the book, but I reserve placing it in my top ten SF novels. I found the story a bit slow on the uptake, however it did improve as the story moved on.

The protagonist, Private William Mandella, is about to embark on a journey that will traverse space and time, war and uneasy peace. By the denouement of his story, the reluctant soldier will have traveled over twelve centuries. That can be traumatic enough, but it is not the battles but it is the changes in society, mores, and norms that will be the most difficult barriers facing him. The Forever War portrays the emotional toll of time-travel effectively.
While light-years are handled by Haldeman he also explores a myriad of prospects of sexuality without any puritanism or lascivious behavior. Sex is presented as a part of the human existence, although you can question the logic of his predictions about  the direction that sexuality will take for mankind, and and we did just that during the discussion of our local Science Fiction book group, Chicago SF Irregulars and Friends. In my reading a more convincing portrayal of future sexuality was made by Anthony Burgess in his dystopian novel The Wanting Seed;  however, whether you find Haldeman's approach believable or not, it is treated as straightforwardly as he does every other aspect of the narrative. It can be a real eye-opening experience, depending upon the reader's background and views. It does not seem likely an “easy” surgery will be developed to change sexual orientation.

Haldeman's ability to develop characters is excellent starting with Private Mandella, who is a well-described, complex character. The reader comes to care deeply about the "hero," his beloved, and the loyal circle of friends who travel through the centuries together.
The Forever War's plot moves at a rapid pace that kept me reading as the centuries literally flew by. The story never forsakes humanity and the emotional facets of the situation in favor of action, explosions, and technology. And there is plenty of technology including fighting suits, light-speed space craft, time dilation, stargate portal planets, acceleration shells, human organ/limb regeneration, and psych-methods for officer training/indoctrination.
The book is very good science fiction, and in the top tier for many readers. Passing years have not weakened the impact or dated the material. The message presented regarding the futility of war resonates a society that has seen many wars in the years since it was written. I would recommend it to those readers who enjoy or wish to explore some classic science fiction.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Power of Education

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterêts, France. He adopted the last name "Dumas" from his grandmother, a former Haitian slave. Dumas was a prolific writer of essays, short stories and novels, as well as plays and travelogues. He achieved widespread success with the novels The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, initially published as serials. These novels made Dumas a household name in France and a popular author throughout much of Europe.

The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite novels since my early teens.  While it is a  romance novel, the qualities that appealed to me upon first reading, and to this day, are its historical detail set as it is in the midst of the Napoleonic era and the portrayal of justice and injustice.  Above all it is a tale of revenge and retribution that leads from historical detail to a world of magic,  fabulous treasure buried on a deserted island, of bandits and dark intrigue,  and of wizardry and splendors borrowed from the Arabian nights.  I have been enamored of superheroes and the fearless Monte Cristo was one of the first I encountered as he overcomes all the odds.  A master of disguise, he has the secret of all knowledge, immense physical strength, endless resourcefulness, and complete power to punish the wicked.  There are few heroes outside of comic books that rival The Count of Monte Cristo.  Writers as disparate as Swinburne and Thackeray were both enthralled reading the exploits of Dumas' famous count.  Above all Dumas was a great story teller and this is perhaps the main reason that he was popular throughout Europe in his day and his stories continue to appeal to readers and moviegoers (the recent, 2002, film version with Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes is splendid and captures the essence of the revenge story).

In addition to the above-listed qualities The Count of Monte Cristo is not just an exciting tale of adventure and revenge, not only an historical fiction. Edmond Dantes has been wrongfully accused, convicted, and imprisoned in the Chateau D'if, an infamous island prison.  His story is a psychological portrayal of obsession of the highest order and at the same time a paean to the value of education. The last item is the one I remember the most from my many readings of this magnificent tale of precipitous decline, betrayal and ultimate rise with vengeance at hand. It is the "plan of education" that Edmond Dantes completes under the tutelage of the elderly Abbe while imprisoned in the Chateau d'If that impresses me more than any other aspect of this tale. The Abbe tells him that "to learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other." Dantes enters upon a regimen of learning and swiftly begins to learn principles of mathematics and to understand several different languages. That he does use this knowledge in a way that belies the notion that he was gaining true wisdom seems to be the case, but the reader must traverse many hundreds of pages of exciting adventure before he can judge one way or the other. Whatever Dantes' eventual fate, the story that provides the exhilarating ride for the reader makes this a great book to read, and if your mind is like mine, to reread. 
The following brief section from the novel describes how the Abbe imparts his inestimable knowledge to Edmond.

"You must teach me a small part of what you know," said Dantes, "if only to prevent your growing weary of me. I can well believe that so learned a person as yourself would prefer absolute solitude to being tormented with the company of one as ignorant and uninformed as myself. If you will only agree to my request, I promise you never to mention another word about escaping." The abbe smiled. "Alas, my boy," said he, "human knowledge is confined within very narrow limits; and when I have taught you mathematics, physics, history, and the three or four modern languages with which I am acquainted, you will know as much as I do myself. Now, it will scarcely require two years for me to communicate to you the stock of learning I possess."

"Two years!" exclaimed Dantes; "do you really believe I can acquire all these things in so short a time?"
"Not their application, certainly, but their principles you may; to learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other."
"But cannot one learn philosophy?"
"Philosophy cannot be taught; it is the application of the sciences to truth; it is like the golden cloud in which the Messiah went up into heaven."
"Well, then," said Dantes, "What shall you teach me first? I am in a hurry to begin. I want to learn."
"Everything," said the abbe. And that very evening the prisoners sketched a plan of education, to be entered upon the following day. Dantes possessed a prodigious memory, combined with an astonishing quickness and readiness of conception; the mathematical turn of his mind rendered him apt at all kinds of calculation, while his naturally poetical feelings threw a light and pleasing veil over the dry reality of arithmetical computation, or the rigid severity of geometry. He already knew Italian, and had also picked up a little of the Romaic dialect during voyages to the East; and by the aid of these two languages he easily comprehended the construction of all the others, so that at the end of six months he began to speak Spanish, English, and German. In strict accordance with the promise made to the abbe, Dantes spoke no more of escape. Perhaps the delight his studies afforded him left no room for such thoughts; perhaps the recollection that he had pledged his word (on which his sense of honor was keen) kept him from referring in any way to the possibilities of flight. Days, even months, passed by unheeded in one rapid and instructive course. At the end of a year Dantes was a new man. Dantes observed, however, that Faria, in spite of the relief his society afforded, daily grew sadder; one thought seemed incessantly to harass and distract his mind. Sometimes he would fall into long reveries, sigh heavily and involuntarily, then suddenly rise, and, with folded arms, begin pacing the confined space of his dungeon. One day he stopped all at once, and exclaimed, "Ah, if there were no sentinel!" (from Chapter 17, "In the Abbes Cell",  of The Count of Monte Cristo)

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  Oxford University Press, 1990 (1845).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thoughts on Mass Movements

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass MovementsThe True Believer: 
Thoughts on the Nature of 
Mass Movements 
by Eric Hoffer

"This book deals with some of the peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions, or national movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness." (from the Introduction)

I have read this book several times over the years, starting the summer before I entered college. It is a classic in the sense that it both retains a freshness upon rereading and succeeds in challenging the reader with the thoughts that it presents. I use the word thoughts in the sense that Pascal wrote his own Pensees in the Seventeenth Century. Hoffer's observations on the nature of mass movements are still essential reading for anyone who desires to understand the nature of the twentieth century culture--and even the twenty-first. His short collection of thoughtful essays are divided into four parts: 1)the appeal of mass movements, 2) the potential converts, 3) Self-sacrifice and other unifying agents, and 4) a concluding summing up of some particular aspects of true believers and the movements to which they adhere.

Early in the book Hoffer identifies many true believers as those who seek "substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources." (p 13) They are people "who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worth-while purpose in self-advancement. The prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort, nor can it evoke in them faith and a single-minded dedication. They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky. Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed. Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be noble and good. Their innermost craving is for a new life -- a rebirth -- or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause." (p 12)

The book continues with a focus on Hoffer's analysis of the means used to motivate true believers and bind them together. He concludes his analysis with a discussion of the energumen of those who join both good and bad mass movements. His prose style is at once aphoristic and thoughtful. It is distinguished by a depth that is demonstrated by the breadth of his personal reading and studies. There are references to the thoughts of thinkers as disparate as Epictetus, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, and many more. His thoughts spurred my thinking more than forty years ago and rereading this short but challenging book continues to raise questions that help me better understand myself and the society around me. Eric Hoffer was a thinker whose writings in this and his several other books helped to shape my personal philosophy of life.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Astral Fate of Teenage Lovers

Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet 
by William Shakespeare

"Juliet: It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division.
This doth not so, for she divideth us.
Some say the lark and loathèd toad change eyes.
Oh, now I would they had changed voices too,
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.
O, now be gone. More light and light it grows."
(Act 3, Scene 5, 27-35)

This was the first Shakespeare play that I read as a Freshman in a small town Wisconsin high school about fifty years ago (doesn't seem that long). Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written relatively early in his career by playwright William Shakespeare about two young lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. But upon rereading the play it seems that there is much more to it than this. Here are some lines from the chorus that opens the play:
"Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."
(The Prologue, 1-4)

So it seems that we also have a play about civil disorder and strife in the community of Verona. This disorder arose from "ancient grudge" but, as we find in the first scene of Act I, when a street fight breaks out between youths supporting the Capulets versus the Montagues (Verona's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys) we quickly face the strife that is contemporary to the story of the young lovers, though it is doubtful any of the youthful combatants are aware of the source of the "ancient grudge". It will take much more bloodshed before order is restored. The overall arc of this story is reminiscent of The Oresteia of Aeschylus where disorder from the blood feud within the House of Atreus was not ended until the founding of the rule of law by Athena.  But the chorus also tells of the lovers' plight:
"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife."
(The Prologue, 5-8)

These lines remind us that it is best known as a tragedy of a young "pair of star-crossed lovers" and was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers. While they must hide their love and later their marriage (although the later part happens relatively quickly) due to the civil strife their fates seem to be more astral in nature (remember the stars) and would have succumbed to an early death at any rate.

The play belongs to a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. Believed written between 1591 and 1595, the play was first published in a quarto version in 1597. While you might quibble, as I do, with the easy-going Friar's willingness to marry the young lovers, the play moves quickly and deftly due to Shakespeare's use of dramatic structure, especially effects such as switching between comedy and tragedy to heighten tension.  His expansion of minor characters (Mercutio has some particularly beautiful lines) and his use of sub-plots to embellish the story, has been praised as an early sign of his dramatic skill. The play ascribes different poetic forms to different characters, sometimes changing the form as the character develops. Romeo, for example, grows more adept at the sonnet over the course of the play. I believe because of both these aspects and the great use of language that is already present in early Shakespeare that it is a great place to start reading Shakespeare, especially for those who may have not had the opportunity to the early start that some of us, like myself, had in their own teenage years.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sympathy for Human Existence

The Theory of Moral SentimentsThe Theory of Moral Sentiments 
by Adam Smith

"what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages we can propose to derive from it." (p. 50)

Reading Adam Smith, like Hume or Gibbon, takes you into a century where the prose styles were more classical than today. I was fortunate to study Latin in high school, but Smith had Greek and Latin studies from an early age. His references to Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics and Cicero are central to his work. But his immediate predecessor was Francis Hutcheson of the University of Glasgow, who divided moral philosophy into four parts: Ethics and Virtue; Private rights and Natural liberty; Familial rights (called Economics); and State and Individual rights (called Politics). In contrast to Hutcheson, Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, divided moral systems into: 1) Categories of the nature of morality: These included Propriety, Prudence, and Benevolence; and 2) Categories of the motive of morality: These included Self-love, Reason, and Sentiment. Hutcheson had abandoned the psychological view of moral philosophy, claiming that motives were too fickle to be used as a basis for a philosophical system. Instead, he hypothesised a dedicated "sixth sense" to explain morality. This idea, to be taken up by David Hume (see Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature), claimed that man is pleased by utility.

Smith rejected his teacher's reliance on this special sense. Starting in about 1741, Smith set on the task of using Hume's experimental method (appealing to human experience) to replace the specific moral sense with a pluralistic approach to morality based on a multitude of psychological motives. Throughout the work the Smith demonstrates a superior ability to observe in detail the human experience. The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with the following assertion:
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."

Smith departed from the "moral sense" tradition of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume, as the principle of sympathy takes the place of that organ. "Sympathy" was the term Smith used for the feeling of these moral sentiments. It was the feeling with the passions of others. It operated through a logic of self projection, in which a spectator imaginatively reconstructed the experience of the person he watches. This process allows a person to build and maintain a sense of propriety which sense is of utmost importance for Smith's theory. Also important is the relevance of this book for Smith's more famous tome, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. P. J. O'Rourke has this to say about this connection:
"The Wealth of Nations was part of a larger enterprise in moral philosophy. The first installment of Adam Smith's great undertaking was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published 17 years before Wealth. Smith finished an extensive revision of Moral Sentiments the year before he died. He considered it his most important work. The book is not much read or referred to nowadays, but his theories in The Wealth of Nations cannot be understood without The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
"Smith devoted most of his career to the project of bettering human existence. A modern person_or a modern person who doesn't wear Birkenstocks_is tempted to laugh. It is a hilariously big job. But most of us have undertaken hilariously big jobs such as raising children. We were lured into the enterprise by the, so to speak, pleasures of conception. New beginnings are always fun. And the prospect of making wholesale improvements in ordinary life was as novel and fascinating in the 18th century as the prospect of making life simpler and less stressful and blocking e-mail spam are today." (P.J. O'Rourke, "Smith's Law,'" The Weekly Standard July 17, 2006).

Adam Smith's book was well-received and sold well. More importantly it influenced thinkers from political philosophers to literary stylists. Just read Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility) to get a flavor of Smith's influence. This is an important and original book to read for all who are interested in the development of the philosophy of the enlightenment.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Music Lessons

Poetics of Music in the Form of Six LessonsPoetics of Music 
in the Form of Six Lessons 
by Igor Stravinsky

"Art in the true sense is a way of fashioning works according to certain methods acquired either by apprenticeship or by inventiveness.  A methods are the straight and predetermined channels that insure the rightness of our operation." (p 25)

In his preface to this collection of lectures Darius Milhaud says, "Poetics of music is like a searchlight turned by Stravinsky on his own work on one hand, and on music in general on the other." This comment provides an excellent introduction to this short book. Given as part of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures, these compact essays provide an insight into the mind of one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
Half the book is concerned with music in general,focusing on the phenomenon of music, its composition, the various types of music and aspects of musical style. His argument regarding critics who ignore his own music is interesting as he looks back at earlier composers like Bach and Beethoven who suffered from similar disregard before being crowned as great masters.
Further commentary includes a more specific look at Russian music in particular and a discussion of the interpretation of music. These lectures by a great Russian master whose own style evolved significantly over his lifetime make great reading for all who love music.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Eros and the Bee

The Infinite Moment: Poems from Ancient GreekThe Infinite Moment: 
Poems from Ancient Greek 
translated by Sam Hamill

 Eros, playing among the roses,
didn't see the bee.
Stung, he howled,
he screamed to Aphrodite,

"I'm dying!  Mother!  I'm dying!
I was bitten by 
a snake with wings!"
And she kissed him and replied,

"It will pass.  It was only a bee,
my darling, but think
how long the suffering 
of all those who feel your sting."

The above poem by Anakreon, one of my favorites, is one included in this exceptionally beautiful collection of poems from Ancient Greece. The translator, Sam Hamill, has included poems from Sapphon, Alcaeus, Anakreon, and Paulus Silentiarius. In addition there is a selection of lyrical and love poems from several different sources ranging from Bacchykides and Likymnios to Meleager, Rufinus, and Marcus Argentarius. While the collection is small the poems invite the reader to delight in them again and again.

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