Monday, September 30, 2013

Commonplace Entry

On Writing

The poet's trade, the writer's trade, is a strange one.  Chesterton said:  "Only one thing is needful--everything."  To a writer this everything is more than an encompassing word; it is literal.  It stands for the chief, for the essential, human experiences.  For example, a writer needs loneliness, and he gets his share of it.  He needs love, and he gets shared and also unshared love.  He needs friendship.  In fact, he needs the universe.  To be a writer is, in a sense, to be a day-dreamer--to be living a kind of double life.

Jorge Luis Borges, "The Writer's Apprenticeship", Borges on Writing, p 163.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Alternate History: The Last Days of Rome

Lest Darkness FallLest Darkness Fall 
by L. Sprague de Camp

“You don't like the Goths?" 
"No! Not with the persecution we have to put up with!" 
"Religious persecution. We won't stand for it forever." 
"I thought the Goths let everybody worship as they pleased." 

"That's just it! We Orthodox are forced to stand around and watch Arians and Monophysites and Nestorians and Jews going about their business unmolested, as if they owned the country. If that isn't persecution, I'd like to know what is!”   ― L. Sprague de Camp

Lest Darkness Fall is an alternate history science fiction novel written in 1939 by author L. Sprague de Camp. The book is often considered one of the best examples of the alternate history genre; it is certainly one of the most influential.  The novel reminded me of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  In it American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting the Pantheon in Rome in 1938. When a thunderstorm arrives lightning cracks and he finds himself transported to 6th century Rome.
Padway arrives in an Italy ruled by the Ostrogoths, a tribe who recently overthrew the Western Roman Empire, but ruled with benevolence, allowing freedom of religion, and maintaining the urban Roman society they had conquered.
The Gothic War of the mid-sixth century saw the Eastern Roman Empire overthrow the Ostrogoths and the Vandals in north Africa, but they never consolidated their rule over Italy, and it collapsed into smaller states with further invasions by the Lombards. The great cities of Rome were abandoned as Italy fell into a long period of decline. Some historians consider this as the true beginning of the Dark Ages.
Padway initially wonders if he is dreaming or delusional. he quickly accepts his fate and sets out to survive. His first idea is to make a copper still and sell brandy for a living. He convinces a banker, Thomasus the Syrian, to lend him Seed money to start his endeavor. He also begins teaching his clerks Arabic numerals and double entry bookkeeping. He eventually develops a printing press, issues newspapers, and builds a sketchy semaphore telegraph system. His attempts to develop a mechanical clock, gunpowder, and a cannon are failures. He gradually becomes more and more involved in the politics of the state, as Italy is invaded by the Imperials and also threatened from the south and east.  This leads Padway to engage with the army in its campaigns and the results have the potential for unexpected changes in the direction of history. The novel is an entertaining read, but it did not impress this reader as worthy of all of the accolades it has received.

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Victorian Mystery

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White 
by Wilkie Collins

"This is a story of what a woman's patience can endure, and what a man's resolution can achieve." - Wilkie Collins

What is a mystery? The very term baffles the imagination... A mystery purveys the element of shock and awe. We explore hidden paths, or explore the unknown, until we discover the truth. A mystery is usually presented in the form of a novel like this one, or a short story like those of Poe or Doyle.
With "The Woman in White" Wilkie Collins added the element of sensationalism to the mystery*.  The discovery by Collins of "a young and very beautiful young woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight" inspired this story. In the novel, Walter Hartright encounters a woman in white. The novel involves crime, poison, and kidnapping. The author develops the story through multiple layers from a variety of narrators. They tell a story filled with both appealing characters and equalling unappealing villains.
The plot involves Walter Hartright, a young drawing master, who one evening sees a mysterious woman dressed in white, apparently in deep distress. The household in which he works includes Mr Frederick Fairlie, a reclusive valetudinarian; Laura Fairlie, his niece; and Marian Halcombe, her devoted half-sister. Hartright finds that Laura bears an astonishing resemblance to the woman in white, called Anne Catherick. Hartright and Laura fall in love. Laura, however, has promised her late father that she will marry Sir Percival Glyde, and Marian advises Walter to leave Limmeridge. Laura and Glyde marry in December 1849 and travel to Italy. Hartright also leaves England, joining an expedition to Honduras.
The narration continues to unfold with further mysterious developments involving Laura's inheritance, the relationships of Count Fosco and Glyde, the status of Anne Catherick, and whether young Walter Hartright will ever return to England to pursue his love for Laura.
This brief description does not really do justice to the complications of the story, but as is true of most mysteries disclosing more details would detract from the reader's joy of discovery while engaging the novel for himself.
Wilkie Collins succeeds by the creation of convincing characterization, especially Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe. He moves the story along seemingly without effort; slowly but judiciously increasing the suspense and mystery of a variety of characters whose importance only gradually becomes evident. Finally, he successfully creates a milieu that is believable - presenting a sort of aura that surrounds the happenings - mostly in a country manor - with a subtle intensity. There is also an element of historicity that is important to understanding the plot; specifically the legal restraints on women in mid-nineteenth century England.  The plight of Laura Fairlie results as much from these restraints as from her personal character while Anne Catherick suffers from certain restraints that may still be present today. 
Wilkie Collins is impressive in bringing together elements that I have encountered in other authors like Bronte or Dickens while creating his own thrilling mystery. It is a novel worthy of the popularity is has enjoyed for more than a century.

*This review is part of the Readers Imbibing Peril seasonal reading event. View all my reviews

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Books, Maps and the Reading Life


 I was reminded of the importance of islands in literature while reading an article by Robert Macfarlane in the latest issue of Intelligent Life Magazine.  Like Macfarlane I had a love of cartography from an early age; "maps fire my mind" as he puts it. One of the possible sources of this love, for me and certainly for him, was a reading of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Stevenson became one of my favorite authors and Treasure Island is among his books that I have read a reread since. But there are other authors who have enthralled me with their islands. The following compilation of reviews includes four of these "island" books, but there are others that I have enjoyed including Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Island by Huxley and Golding's dark morality tale, Lord of the Flies.  

"In the beginning was the map. Robert Louis Stevenson drew it in the summer of 1881 to entertain his 12-year-old stepson while on a rainy family holiday in Scotland. It depicts a rough-coasted island of woods, peaks, swamps and coves. A few place-names speak of adventure and disaster: Spyglass Hill, White Rock, The Graves. The penmanship is deft—at the island’s southern end is an intricate compass rose, and the sketch of a galleon at full sail. There are warnings to mariners: "Strong Tides", "Foul Ground". And in the heart of the island is a blood-red cross, by which is scrawled "Bulk of treasure here".

Stevenson’s map was drawn to set a child dreaming, but it worked most powerfully upon its grown-up author, inspiring Stevenson to write his great pirate novel "Treasure Island" (1883). Poring over the map, he began to populate his landscape with characters (Long John Silver, Captain Flint), and to thicken it with plot. Up from that flat page sprang one of the most compellingly realised of all imaginary places. Countless children have made landfall upon its blonde beaches, moved cautiously through its grey woods and seen sunlight flash hard upon the wild stone spires of its crags. Once visited, the island inhabits you."  -  Robert Macfarlane, "A place that inhabits you", Intelligent Life Magazine September/October 2013.

Treasure IslandTreasure Island 
by Robert Louis Stevenson

“Sometimes the isle was thick with savages, with whom we fought, sometimes full of dangerous animals that hunted us, but in all my fancies nothing occurred to me so strange as our actual adventures.”  ― Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island  

  This is a foundational book for me. I read it originally around 1960 and along with Kidnapped is has cemented Stevenson's place in my reading life. Traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, it is an adventure tale known for its atmosphere, character and action, and also a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in Long John Silver—unusual for children's literature then and now. The influence of Treasure Island on popular perception of pirates can be seen in media portrayals, including treasure maps with an "X", schooners, the Black Spot, tropical islands, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders. This adventure tale is one of conflicts, with the principal one being that between the virtue of advanced civilization versus the indiscipline of man in his savage state. Jim Hawkins, Dr. Livesey, and Captain Smollett, among the principal heroes, stand for virtues such as loyalty, truthfulness, thrift, discipline, religious faith, and temperance (especially with alcohol). The pirates suffer from drunkenness, impiety, and mutual betrayal, and tend to seize immediate gratification on the premise that life is short and uncertain. Long John Silver occupies a middle ground in this conflict: he shares the heroes' virtues of temperance, thrift, and deferred gratification, but only to aid him in achieving his ends, for which he is also willing to lie, betray, and murder. Most of the pirates can not even achieve Long John's level, which gives him a natural advantage in their company.

The novel can also be read as a bildungsroman which has become one of my favorite genres including such classics as David Copperfield and Of Human Bondage. In Treasure Island Stevenson writes of the development and coming-of-age of its narrator, Jim Hawkins. Jim's moral development culminates when he promises Silver not to attempt an escape. The novel includes exciting adventures but it also demonstrates ethical lessons in loyalty, truthfulness and temperance. The combination is presented in an exciting and suspenseful prose that never falters. It is one of the great adventure novels of my experience. 

The MagusThe Magus 
by John Fowles

"It came to me…that I didn't want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment, that what I was feeling at that moment justified all I had been through, because all I had been through was my being there. I was experiencing…a new self-acceptance, a sense that I had to be this mind and this body, its vices and its virtues, and that I had no other chance or choice.”  ― John Fowles, The Magus

While his novel The Collector was my introduction to the work of John Fowles I was not nearly as impressed with that novel as I was with The Magus. In it I found an intense, engrossing novel that maintained my interest in several ways including its setting on a Greek island.

The plot of the novel is a story of a young unhappy man who considers himself a poet and a philosopher. He takes a job at an English boarding school on a Greek island to escape what could become a complicated situation after a young woman with whom he is involved falls in love with him. Having used up his "charm with women," as one of the characters puts it, he sees this a better alternative. On this Greek island, he meets a millionaire named "Conchis" who tells the young man, Nicholas, stories of his life. To Nicholas' surprise, the characters in the stories begin to appear on the estate in what Fowles (in the prologue to the revised edition) describes as a kind of magical realism. While the novel seems to explore the ideas of conflict in mythology and philosophy, it rapidly turns into a kind of psychological mystery as Nicholas becomes more and more enmeshed in Conchis' mind games and it becomes more difficult for him--and the reader--to tell the difference between reality and fiction.

While, I found a certain resonance with Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier, in the showing of a secret hidden world to be explored along with reference to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, the novel seems as much about the idea of "freedom" in the twentieth century. It also explores the definition of meaningful experiences, both inter-personal and intra-personal. While always artistic even while it sometimes seemed a bit bewildering it was ultimately a great read due to the uniqueness of its structure and its exploration of ideas. Combined with Fowle's beautiful prose that proved to be the right potion for a great novel. 

The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Island of Dr. Moreau 
by H.G. Wells

"The ocean rose up around me, hiding that low, dark patch from my eyes. The daylight, the trailing glory of the sun, went streaming out of the sky, was drawn aside like some luminous curtain, and at last I looked into the blue gulf of immensity which the sunshine hides, and saw the floating hosts of stars. The sea was silent, the sky was silent. I was alone with the night and silence.”  ― H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau 

  Over the period of a decade beginning with The Time Machine in 1895, H. G. Wells created some of his most popular fictions in the form of scientific romance novels. These books have captured the imagination of readers ever since and are arguably as popular today as they were more than one hundred years ago. Among these perhaps the strangest and best is The Island of Dr. Moreau. Undoubtedly influenced by Robinson Crusoe, but also by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island which was published only thirteen years earlier, this book goes far beyond those deserted island tales and looks forward to the twenty-first century and beyond. In its day it was considered blasphemous, but in the age of cloning its depiction of vivisection takes on new meaning while the blasphemy recedes into the background. Above all this is a good story with suspense that holds even after the first breathless reading that it usually inspires. The story is of such a suspenseful nature that I am reluctant to share any plot details for fear of spoiling the experience for the reader.

As with all great books the levels of meaning and reference in this book are many and the structure, a lost narrative found only after the author's death (reminiscent of Poe among others) is a nod to the era of the unreliable narrator for before his death Edward Pendrick, the narrator, claims to have no memory of the events which it described. Peter Straub, in his "Foreword" to the Modern Library edition, commented:

Given its infusion of the adventure tale with deep, pervasive doubt, Dr. Moreau can be seen as a unique and compelling alliance of Treasure Island and Joseph Conrad. (p. xvi)

I certainly agree with this assessment and believe that Wells, who was a good friend of Conrad as well as Henry James, Stephen Crane and Ford Madox Ford, might also agree with it. Like the best of Conrad reading this book was an exhilarating experience due both to its narrative and its deep meaning. 

The Man Who Loved Islands 
by D.H. Lawrence

"even islands like to keep each other company. " - D. H. Lawrence

Yes, more than men, that is the man of the story who loved islands, islands liked to keep each other company. This is a story from the pen of D. H. Lawrence who wrote many wonderful stories. In this story he has incorporated several themes and many layers of meaning all in less that twenty-five pages. The man who "loved islands" appears Quixotic as he attempts to create an imaginary island world around himself as he sequesters his being in his book-laden library to write about the birds of the classical world. But his dreams were quickly corroded as the corruption of humanity tainted his imaginary Eden. Suggestions of Milton's Paradise Lost - yet can Satan have corrupted humanity so thoroughly that few are honest or loyal enough to continue the journey with the man?
Imaginary though it was it reminded me of Rousseau's attacks on civilization while he wrote of an imaginary state of nature. This state of nature seemed to be close to the reincarnation of our man's island as he tried yet a second time to accomplish his dream. Ultimately the man who loved islands inherits a nightmare as the story veers into a snowy dystopia. What meaning does this hold for the reader? I am not sure, but the thoughts for which the story is a catalyst will continually remind me of this strange world.

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Love and Ideas Down Under

by D.H. Lawrence

I am a fool," said Richard Lovat, which was the most frequent discovery
he made. It came, moreover, every time with a new shock of surprise and
chagrin. Every time he climbed a new mountain range and looked over, he
saw, not only a new world, but a big anticipatory fool on this side of
it, namely, himself.”  ― D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo 

Kangaroo is an account of a visit to New South Wales by an English writer named Richard Lovat Somers, and his German wife Harriet, in the early 1920s. This appears to be semi-autobiographical, based on a three-month visit to Australia by Lawrence and his wife Frieda, in 1922. 
 The titular kangaroo is the central image of this novel. Somers travels to Australia in search of traditional cultural values. He finds, based on his experience there, a dichotomy between the spirit of the place and the character of its people. In spite of strange place names and the strangeness of the sky and seasons he does not sense the cultural differences from modern Europe for which he is searching. "Kangaroo" is the fictional nickname of one of Lawrence's characters, Benjamin Cooley, a prominent ex-soldier and lawyer, who is also the leader of a secretive, fascist paramilitary organization, the "Diggers Club". Cooley fascinates Somers, but he maintains his distance from the movement itself.
 While rejecting Cooley Somers finds what he is looking for in the Australian kangaroo - an image that embodies his ideals. The novel is rich in ideas epitomized by the awareness of the sovereignty of the individual's power over self, his "extraordinary privilege of responsibility". Nietzsche's influence is seen in the idea of "master and slave" found in the Genealogy of Morals and its relation to the discussions in the novel. This is a somewhat disorganized novel, but one rich in ideas which carry the reader forward throughout.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Magic in the Act of Reading

Selected Nonfictions: Volume 1Selected Nonfictions
by Jorge Luis Borges

"The world, according to Mallarme, exists for a book; according to Bloy, we are the versicles* or words or letters of a magic book, and that incessant book is the only thing in the world: more exactly, it is the world." - Jorge Luis Borges, "On the Cult of Books", 1951

Borges is a reader's writer and he is a writer who reads; but unlike the many other writers who read he writes about reading as both an intellectual challenge and an inspiration (some might find that redundant). The connections he makes with writers from Plato to Cervantes, from Bacon to Mallarme, are made fascinating by his ability to be comprehensible while demonstrating an erudition that is almost beyond description. That his erudition does not obscure his attempt to share his ideas is one of his many charms. 
This collection displays his writing skill in the essay, the prologue, the review, the lecture and the dictation of literary miscellany, all of which have their unique appeal. He reveals the mind of an omnivorous reader who is incapable of writing uninteresting pieces about what he has read and the surprising ideas and connections to which he is led by his reading.  He shares his personal library; while elsewhere you learn about the synergy between Swedenborg and the Kaballah! The "Library of Babel" is represented and his comments make you suddenly want to go back and reread that wonderful story.  One aspect of all of this is to provide some little insight into the mind of the writer who created the stories of Babel and Menard and the wonderful Ficciones that entrance your reader's mind.  
I return to Borges to remind myself why I read and to find out more about the process, the act of reading, the humanity of it all -- the magic he performs is spiritual food for my soul.

*When I was growing up I spent each Sunday morning attending  services at the local Methodist Church.  One of the rituals was always a "responsive reading".  It took many years and my reading of Borges before I learned that I had been participating in a versicle.  One of the many ways reading Borges has expanded my vocabulary and my experience.

Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, ed. by Eliot Weinberger. Viking Press, 1999.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Immortal Demon

The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest MysteryThe Cancer Chronicles: 
Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery
by George Johnson

"We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and conplex, but it is not impermeable to intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, looking for the opening or making it." - Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

George Johnson opens his book, on the page preceding chapter one, with an epigraph from Reynolds Price's memoir about his own struggle with cancer that left him in a paraplegic state. I mention this because I was moved by my reading of Price's book almost two decades ago and, while it was an eloquent expression of the experience of cancer it did not, as I remember, inform me significantly about the nature of the disease itself. With The Cancer Chronicles George Johnson, a writer whose book Fire in the Mind impressed me several years ago, shares both the history and nature of the disease called Cancer and a memoir of his wife's own battle with that disease.
The history of cancer begins very far back in prehistoric times for it seems that scientists have found that the disease was already present in the age of Dinosaurs. This revelation along with others made the book both informative and interesting to read. His chronicle of the history of the science of cancer explores the realms of epidemiology. clinical trials, laboratory experiments while sharing information from evolutionary biology and other sciences. Even the economics of the Cancer research juggernaut is described -- an industry that has grown to an immense size in the search for an elusive "cure" for cancer.
Cancer the disease is at the core of the book and permeates the narrative, but the chronicles reveal what is in reality multiple different diseases. Each cancer affects different parts of the body and different groups of humans in unique ways. This is an important part of the story and represents some of the basis for many of the obstacles scientists continue to face in analyzing how to stop or prevent the disease.
Johnson capably personalizes the story with interludes where he shares his wife's struggle with Cancer. In doing this he reveals a view of the disease from the point of view of the everyday person who must deal with the practicalities of diagnoses and treatments and hospital stays. For those of us who have family or close friends who have had the experience of this disease the narrative is a moving personal story. I also appreciated the literary allusions whether explicit, like the reference to Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece Cancer Ward, or implicit.  The author is eloquent both in his telling analysis of the disease and in his personal memoir; he demonstrates an ability to convey scientific concepts lucidly enough for the layman to understand. These characteristics and the fascination that the author shares for scientific discovery make this a great book full of insights into the deep mysteries of some of the most complex areas of modern medicine.

The Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Afterlife of a Monster

Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography (Books That Changed the World)Marx's Das Kapital: A Biography 
by Francis Wheen

"It is deeply fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece.  The first volume was the only one to appear in his lifetime, and the subsequent volumes were assembled by others after his death, based on notes and drafts found in his study.  Marx's work is as open-ended -- and thus as resilient -- as the capitalist system itself.  He was indeed one of the great tormented giants." (p 6)

Having read Das Kapital in college as part of my studies in Economic History I was intrigued when I came upon this title. What in this very short book could Mr. Wheen say about Karl Marx's massive tome? Surprisingly, he can and does say a lot about the genesis of Marx's work as well as its meaning and, most importantly, its impact. I remember my economic studies as having focused on the economic theories propounded by Marx and having been impressed that he shared with Adam Smith the subsequently debunked "labor theory of value". While this is mentioned in the section discussing Marx's views of "Industrial Capitalism" there is much more in Wheen's short book. There are three sections including "Gestation" and "Birth" where the background and publication of the work are discussed.  But the final chapter, "Afterlife", is of the most interest because it narrates the way Marx's thought has permeated into our culture; a way not unlike the thought of Darwin, Freud, or even Einstein has. In Marx's case many people are unaware of their debt to him and while his economic ideas regarding Socialism have been dismissed by economists his thought still shapes much of the narrative about globalism and the world.
I always thought that Marx was heavily influenced by the thought of the philosopher Hegel. While that is certainly true, the author of this book provides evidence that as an writer and an artist he was also influenced by other writers like Balzac and Mary Shelley. Perhaps that is a better way to think about Marx; as an artist who creates a monster that turns against his master and refuses to be controlled. Unfortunately, the afterlife of the monster he unleashed lives with us still today.

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Saturday, September 07, 2013

Discoveries that Transformed the World

Darwin's CenturyDarwin's Century 
by Loren C. Eiseley

"As a young man somewhere in the high-starred Andean night, or perhaps drinking alone at an island spring where wild birds who had never learned to fear man came down upon his shoulder, Charles Darwin saw a vision.  It was one of the most tremendous insights a living being ever had.  It combined the awful roar of Hutton's Scottish brook with a glimpse of Smith's frail ladder dangling into the abyss of vanished eras.  None of his forerunners has left us such a message;  none saw, in a similar manner, the whole vista of life with quite such sweeping vision." Loren Eiseley, Darwin's Century. p 352.

This is one of the books that spurred my interest in the history of science. In this instance the history of the concept of evolution. It is the nineteenth century that is rightly called "Darwin's Century". Darwin's discovery was more than this it was a synthesis of ideas that had been developing ever since Francis Bacon. Loren Eiseley describes these ideas and with them narrates the story of the change in the view of time that had been in place since the Biblical era. The story shows how the view of Catastrophism gave way to progressionism and the emergence of the uniformitarianism of James Hutton and eventually the expansion of this view with the discoveries of Sir Charles Lyell. Eiseley comments "that evolution, to a very considerable extent, arose out of an amalgamation or compromise which partook largely of progressionism, but drew the important principle of continuity and adaptive response largely from uniformitarianism."(p 115)
With this background and the teachings of his grandfather Erasmus along with other minor contributors Charles Darwin arrived at the right time for his discoveries when he set sail on the HMS Beagle. The rest of the story is here as well with a discussion of the initial reception of Darwin's ideas and the challenge from Henry Wallace who could rightfully claim some of the credit for his own independent development of evolutionary thought. Perhaps the best aspect of this book is the beautiful prose of the author. For Eiseley is a poet and a brilliant essayist (for an example see his book, The Star Thrower, with an introduction by W. H. Auden) and these talents make this an outstanding book in the history of science.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Commonplace Entry: Rereading

Vladimir Nabokov, 
"Lectures on Literature"

... one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do no have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous achievement of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is - a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed) - a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov. Mariner Books, 2002 (1980)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

RIP Group Read

 Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings is hosting the eighth annual RIP or Readers Imbibing Peril read along event. This will be the first year that I am participating.

One can join in on any one of several levels.This is a fall event that officially runs from September 1st through October 31st and readers can join in, read and comment upon literature or watch and comment upon films relating to:

Dark Fantasy
Gothic Horror
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

My plan is to read and comment upon at least one work, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Perhaps I will have time for more although I already am committed to reading other books during this period.

It is a different type of endeavor than I am used to but I look forward to reading and posting about my reading.  I look forward to reading commentary from the many other participants.
Thanks to Carl for hosting this fascinating read along and thanks to Brian at Babbling Books for bringing this to my attention.

The Story of the World

East of EdenEast of Eden
by John Steinbeck

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Macy Halford, writing in the New Yorker, discussed the nature of "Big, Engrossing Novels" saying in part that, "Perhaps every big book is a leap of faith: it can take a hundred pages or so for the story to pick up, or for the reader to acclimate to the writer’s language; and there are sometimes passages that lag, requiring confidence on the part of the reader that the writer knows what he's doing—that despite the detours, he'll bring the journey to a satisfying end. Ultimately, of course, this is part of what makes big, engrossing novels so engrossing. They’re not too tight, too perfect. They’re loose and shaggy, like the world, and like the world, you can get lost in them. "(New Yorker 9/23/2010).
Steinbeck's largest novel and the one that he considered his best, East of Eden, is one of these. The fourth and final part of East of Eden begins with a meditation on a fundamental question for humans, "What is the world's story about?"(p 411). The narrator claims that this story is one of a "net of good and evil" in which humans are caught. Thus the ultimate question for each one of us about our life is just: "Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well--or ill?"(p 411).
There are almost two hundred pages left before the end of the novel, but the case for this view has been already effectively made through the lives of the major characters. From Adam Trask and Sam Hamilton to their wives and children the events of the story demonstrate each of their abilities to deal with their own actions, both good and evil. The sometimes heavy hand of the author presents violence and pure evil to make his point in a few characters, notably Cathy Ames. Cathy is the epitome of what the narrator calls a "monster" in that she has no conscience, no redeeming features, and even as she changes her name she does not change the evil within her soul. But she is an outlier and most of the characters, like most human beings are a mixture of good and bad, with their good side ruing their bad actions most of the time.
The dichotomy of good versus evil is striking and it is a part of Nature and the very landscape of the novel from the opening pages. It is there that the Salinas Valley is described with beautiful prose and the reader encounters the contrast between the "Galiban Mountains to the east which are "light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation", and the Santa Lucias to the west that "were dark and brooding---unfriendly and dangerous"(p 3). As the individual characters are introduced throughout the story it is worth remembering this contrast because each of them (with the exception of the pure evil Cathy) have personalities that are part light and part dark. It seems to be a somewhat gnostic view of human nature and the world except that there is seldom much discussion of the place of god or gods in all of it, at least until the fourth part when Adam's son Aron begins to pursue the ministry. The case for good and evil is thus fundamentally part of the the story East of Eden and perhaps the story of the world, if you believe the narrator.

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Three Princes

The PrinceThe Prince 
by Niccolò Machiavelli

“it is much safer to be feared than loved because is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”   ― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

I have read this several times over the last twenty years, in the Basic Program and with an independent study group. That it is still relevant and worth rereading is because it is considered by most to be the authoritative text on statesmanship and power (how to obtain it as well as an illustration of its trappings), although certainly a shrewd one.
From this arises an argument: whether it is better to be loved than feared. I reply that one should like to be both one and the other; but since it is difficult to join them together, it is much safer to be feared than to be loved when one of the two must be lacking.

Machiavelli wrote this book while banished to a country villa when out of favor. Part of The Prince’s appeal to readers over the years has been that it focused on facts; it did not touch on moral issues. Machiavelli works with what kinds of principalities there are; how they can be won, preserved, and lost; and what qualities the prince must have to be successful. He does not discuss moral issues pertaining to the existence of one-man rule, or the forceful acquisition of power. He separates the moral issues from the other issues, creating a science out of politics. The result of his work is a practical textbook on how to rule.
Essentially, Machiavelli advocates letting your people have their property and women, but making sure that they know what you are capable of doing if they step out of line. His seemingly amoral approach lends a modern realistic touch to this masterpiece that shows how little humanity has changed over the centuries.

The Black PrinceThe Black Prince 
by Iris Murdoch

“Every artist is an unhappy lover. And unhappy lovers want to tell their story.”   
― Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince

"The ambiguously romantic Black Prince of the title, Bradley Pearson, is an aged bachelor, whose range of somewhat histrionic emotions involves the serene Rachel Baffin, her confused daughter Julian, Rachel's novelist husband Arnold, Bradley's rival in so many ways, Bradley's dysfunctional sister Priscilla, and Bradley's prying ex-wife Christian..."

Bradley Pearson, British writer, is suffering from a writer's block. He has waited all his life to write his masterpiece. Finally, he feels, the time has come when he can leave his small time job as a revenue officer, and go away from the city din to write. However, his fellow writer friend, Arnold Baffin, Arnold's wife Rachel, daughter Julian, Pearson's ex-wife Christian, ex-brother-in-law Francis and sister Priscilla all tug at his attentions in various ways to make Pearson's escape impossible. Each character has his own version of the series of incidents in the novel. Murdoch ingeniously builds the complications of these incidents or accidents into a delightfully painful and humorous story of erotic abandon. The mind remarkably colors the incidents of the novel to project a story that fits each character best. Julian comfortably forgets the intricate details of an embarrassing romance, Rachel feels that Bradley is madly in love with her while Arnold believes that Bradley is jealous of his success.
This is one of her very best, about mad love, and it justly won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The Prince of TidesThe Prince of Tides 
by Pat Conroy

“There is such a thing as too much beauty in a woman and it is often a burden as crippling as homeliness and far more dangerous. It takes much luck and integrity to survive the gift of perfect beauty, and its impermanence is its most cunning betrayal.”   ― Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

This is the story of a destructive family relationship in which a violent father abuses his wife and children. Henry Wingo is a shrimper who fishes the seas off the South Carolina coast and regularly squanders what little money he amasses in farcical business schemes; his beautiful wife, Lila, is both his victim and a manipulative and guilt-inflicting mother.
Twins, brother and sister, are at the center of this family saga. The story is narrated by one of the children, Tom Wingo, a middle-aged man with a wife and three young daughters who has recently lost his job as a high school English teacher and football coach. Tom alternately recalls his growing-up years on isolated Melrose Island, then switches to the present in Manhattan, where his twin sister and renowned poet, Savannah, is recovering from a suicide attempt. Tom agrees to go to New York City, where Savannah lives, to look after her until she is well again. Before Tom leaves his home in South Carolina, he learns that his wife is having an affair. One secret at the heart of this tale is the fate of their older brother Luke; we know he is dead, but the circumstances are slowly revealed. Also kept veiled is "what happened on the island that day,'' a grisly scene of horror, rape and carnage that eventually explains much of the sorrow, pain and emotional alienation endured by the Wingo siblings. Conroy deftly manages a large cast of characters and a convoluted plot, although he undermines his credibility through a device by which Tom tells the Wingo family saga to Savannah's psychiatrist. Some readers may find here a pale replica of Robert Penn Warren's powerful evocation of the Southern myth; others may see resemblances to John Irving's baroque imaginings. Most, however, will be swept along by Conroy's felicitous, often poetic prose, his ironic comments on the nature of man and society, his passion for the marshland country of the South and his skill with narrative.
I read Conroy's novel with enjoyment and not a little admiration at the imagination that created this family. The more I learn about the author I find that some of his inspiration for this fiction was based in real-life experience. That does not detract from the enjoyment of this well-told tale.

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