Friday, August 30, 2013

Poet, Reader & Imagination

There is a bond between the poet and reader expressed by William Carlos Williams:

I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can't understand it?
   But you got to try hard --

from "January Morning" (XV)
There is also the power of imagination: 

"The flower dies down
and rots away
But there is a hole
in the bottom of the bag.
It is the imagination
which cannot be fathomed.
It is through this hole
we escape"

from Paterson, Book Five 

Paterson by William Carlos Williams. New Directions, 1995 (1992)
Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams. New Directions, 1985 (1949)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Philosopher's Tale of Ideas

The Last Puritan (Hudson River Editions)The Last Puritan 
by George Santayana

“A habitual indulgence in the inarticulate is a sure sign of the philosopher who has not learned to think, the poet who has not learned to write, the painter who has not learned to paint, and the impression that has not learned to express itself--all of which are compatible with an immensity of genius in the inexpressible soul.”  ― George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty

The Last Puritan is both a novel of ideas and one of personalities--real people living real lives. The places, the backgrounds are accurately depicted while the events of the novel are sketched as dramatic incidents. The scenes evoke an America of a certain age and the characters speak with a language that not only conveys ideas but emotions as well.  Some of the sections of the novel that I enjoyed the most were the conversations which were, fortunately, not too terribly impeded by the trappings of the story's structure with its quotidian details of everyday life.
The protagonist, Oliver, is the masterful character whose individual personality is drawn with all of its perplexity, sensitiveness, and youthful seriousness. The other characters are no less real with both women and men exhibiting believable emotions including love that is both platonic and physical. The novel presents a good story in addition to the ideas that are presented. One may enjoy it for its story but the primary appeal for this reader is the novel of ideas in the robust realization that Santayana brought to his creation of a lifetime.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Russian Nihilist

Fathers and Sons (Norton Critical Edition)Fathers and Sons 
by Ivan Turgenev

“Whereas I think: I’m lying here in a haystack... The tiny space I occupy is so infinitesimal in comparison with the rest of space, which I don’t occupy and which has no relation to me. And the period of time in which I’m fated to live is so insignificant beside the eternity in which I haven’t existed and won’t exist... And yet in this atom, this mathematical point, blood is circulating, a brain is working, desiring something... What chaos! What a farce!”  ― Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

The novel Fathers and Sons, like other great works of literature, has a timeless quality. The characters are memorable and the plot, while not terribly complicated, is universal in its aspect. Turgenev had, earlier in his writing career, contributed to the ideas of the developing intelligentsia with his collection of short stories, Sketches from a Hunter's Album. His portrayal of the peasants and serfs as real human beings showed a character not demonstrably different than that of the narrator who was a member of the aristocracy.
Published a decade later, Fathers and Sons became an inadvertent political agenda favorite, juxtaposing two generations, "the fathers," or the fading aristocracy, and "the sons," or the new fresh blood of the middle class and the nihilists, the novel seemed a perfect vehicle for portraying the brewing unrest of the pre-revolutionary era, and introduced the character of Bazarov -- the spirited nihilist who was seen as a brilliant idealistic rebel, the new kind of perfect man who rejected the old notions of class and came to disrupt nobility's status quo. His nihilism is particularly interesting since it was not the sort of nihilism I had previously encountered in Western European intellectual history, but it is more like a sort of empiricism. As such it was a Russian intellectual movement in the 19th century that insisted that one should not believe in anything that could no be demonstrated to be true. As a critical approach to virtually everything it is a powerful force used by Turgenev through the character of Bazarov to provide an alternative to the traditions and romanticism of the 'fathers' of the novel. The force does not prevail however. The strength of Bazarov's intellectual approach to everything crumbles in the face of both nature and love. His adoring friend Arkady loses interest in it and Bazarov himself succumbs; first to the personality of Madame Odintsov and finally to the infection that leads to his untimely death. Growing up, Turgenev witnessed much class injustice in Russia, and his themes reflect his overwhelming concern with the suffering of the poor and the voiceless serfs. But Fathers and Sons is not merely a convenient socio-political piece; Turgenev is a lyrical romantic. At the novel's heart lies the ultimately tragic human story of Bazarov's flippant kiss of a servant girl and the bizarre tension it causes in a cozy country gentry household where he is a guest. The world goes on, but the ideas presented are not vanquished but merely lie dormant, to be resurrected in continuing political unrest in Russia.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 19, 2013

Roman Virtue

Cato: A Tragedy and Selected EssaysCato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays 
by Joseph Addison

“Oh! think what anxious moments pass between 
The birth of plots, and their last fatal periods.”  
― Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays

Cato: A Tragedy by Joseph Addison is a play from the early eighteenth century that bridges the gap between the era of classical drama and the coming era of Romanticism. Featuring an archetypal ideal hero in Cato (the younger) who is faced with the responsibility of leading the opposition to Julius Caesar. Caesar had been methodically defeating his foes; those who blocked his path to sole leadership of the Roman Republic. Trapped at Utica in Northern Africa near Carthage, Cato with the help of his sons and a very few friends must decide what to do. The drama is not suspenseful for anyone who knows his Roman History is aware of how it ends, but it does provide a platform for delineating the character of Cato and in doing so shed light on the culture of Rome.
 The defining characteristic of Cato's character is virtue. That is virtue in the classical sense, true goodness and beauty and courage, that can be found in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. It is the sort of virtue that leads his friend, Juba, to comment in the second act:
"I'll hence, and try to find
Some blest occasion that may set me right
In Cato's thoughts. I'd rather have that man
Approve my deeds, than worlds for my admirers."

While in the final act Cato's son, Marcus, says:
"He is all goodness, Lucia, always mild,
Compassionate, and gentle to his friends."

As he nears his death Cato turns to the Phaedo of Plato, meditating on the death of Socrates and the possibility of the immortality of the soul. Addison's play is as inspirational today as it was in eighteenth century America when the leaders of the Revolutionary War read it and shared the ideal of virtue embodied in this drama.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 18, 2013

An Evening of Humor and Wordplay

O'Brien and O'Brian
A Play by John J. Enright

Can two recent law graduates share office space when they are so different in temperament and personality that they cannot even agree on the appropriate spelling for their last names: O'Brien or O'Brian?  That is the main premise or at least the catalyst for the new romantic comedy from the pen of John J. Enright.  Following on his previous successes with "Ready or Not" and "Wild Flowers" his new play, "O'Brien & O'Brian" from Barely Concealed Productions provides more wit, complications, and laughter per minute than any play I have attended this year.
Dream Theatre on west 18th Street provides an intimate setting for this combination of wordplay and machinations both legal and erotic.  A potential client appears in the half-furnished office of our two young lawyers named O'Brien & O'Brian.  The client, Sam, appears with an urgent need of a lawyer, but which one will he choose?  His plight, an administrative hearing with a state EPA bureaucrat, is further complicated by his wife, an opinionated woman of Irish descent (with a quite convincing accent).  The edginess of their relationship is not the last complication and, as these multiply faster than you can say where is the Judge, there ensues a wonderfully wacky confusion of events that make this entertainment one that leads to laughter and delight of high order for the whole evening.
What sets this play apart is the wit and realism of the writing combined with great direction and acting.  Their are moments when the wordplay sparkles with enough wit to set your humor neurons on fire.  Each of the actors performed well, however Madelaine Schmitt as Darlene O'Brien and Bryan Hart as Alan O'Brian stood out as the leads with moments reminiscent of Tracy and Hepburn.  Nicole Roberts and Kate Donoghue were delightful with their Irish accents battling against the supposed "Irishphobia" of the EPA administrator played by Julie Soroko.  All the while the direction of Anna W. Menekseoglu kept the chaos of emotion and reaction of the ensemble on the stage under control.  The result is an evening of delightful humor with a message or two about the vagaries of love and life.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Splendor of Life


by: Conrad Aiken (1889-1973)

GRACIOUS and lovable and sweet,
She made his jaded pulses beat,
And made the glare of streets grow dim
And life more soft and hushed for him....
Over her shoulder now she smiled
Trustfully to him, like a child,
The while her fingers gayly moved
Alonge these white keys dearly loved,
Making them laugh a jocund measure,
Making them show and sing her pleasure....
A smile that dwelt upon his eyes,
To see what mood might therein rise,--
What point of soft light seen afar
Which might dilate to moon or star....
A smile that for a second space
Brooded wistfully on her face,
Opening soft her spirit's door,
Disclosing depths undreamed before:
Passionate depths of half-seen flame,
Young loveliness despising shame,
Desire that trembled to meet desire,
And fire that yearned to fuse with fire....
And lightly then she turned away,
Ironic music rippled gay,--
Subtle sarcastic flippancies
Disguising speechless ecstasies...
"Play something else..." He rose to turn
The pages, while the deep nocturne
Struck slow rich chords of plangent pain,
Beautiful, into heart and brain;
A tortured, anguished, suffering thing
That seemed at once to cry and sing;
Despairing love that strove to find
The face beloved with fingers blind.
He saw her body's slender grace,
This drooping shoulder, shadowed face;
All of her body, hidden so
In saffron satin's flush and flow,--
Its white and simple loveliness,--
Came on his heart like giddiness,
Seductive as this music came;
Until her body seemed like flame,--
Intense white flame, so swiftly moving
That it gave scarcely time for loving;
But rapid as the sun she seemed,
A blinding light that flowed and streamed
And sang and shone through roaring space....
The sun itself! for now her face,
Wherein this music's whole soul dwelt,
Drew him like helpless star, he felt
A fierce compulsion, reckless, mad,
A sweet compulsion, troubled, glad,
His trembling hands went out to her,
Her cool flesh made his senses blur;
While, head thrown backward, sinking dim,
She opened wide her soul to him....
Past his life went whirls of lights,
Chaos of music, days and nights,
Her wild eyes yearned to lure him in
And close him up in dark of sin,
To lure him in and drink him down
And all his soul in love to drown....
Her nakedness he seemed to see.
And breast to breast, and knee to knee,
Tremulous, breathless, swaying, burning,
Body to beautiful body yearning,
In joy and terror, flesh to flesh,
They flamed in passion's fine red mesh,--
Living in one short breath again
The cosmic tide's whole bliss and pain,
Darkness and ether, nebulous fire,
Vast suns whirled forth by vast desire,
Huge moons flung out with monstrous mirth
And stars in glorious hells of birth,
All jubilating, blazing, reeling,
An orgiastic splendor wheeling,
Moon torn from earth and star from sun
In screaming pain, titanic fun,
And stars whirled back to sun again
To be consumed in flaming pain!...
In them at last all life was met:
They were God's self! This earth had set.
Mad fires of life sang through their veins,
Ruinous blisses, joyous pains,
Life the destroyer, life the breaker,
And death, the everlasting maker....

Turns and Movies and Other Tales in Verse by Conrad Aiken. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Poetic Reverie

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Biological Dystopia

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl 
by Paolo Bacigalupi

“We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.”  ― Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

I was most impressed by the author's rich imagination displayed in this dystopic science fiction novel. There is also fast-paced action and colorful characters. It is all set in twenty-third century Thailand. Global warming has raised the levels of world's oceans, carbon fuel sources have become depleted, and manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices. Biotechnology is dominant and mega corporations (called calorie companies) control food production through 'genehacked' seeds, and use bioterrorism, private armies and economic hit men to create markets for their products. Frequent catastrophes, such as deadly and widespread plagues and illness, caused by genetically modified crops and mutant pests, ravage entire populations. The natural genetic seed stock of the world's plants has been almost completely supplanted by those that are genetically engineered to be sterile.
The current monarch of Thailand is a child queen. The capital city is below sea level and is protected from flooding by levees and pumps. The three most powerful men in Thailand are the Somdet Chaopraya (regent for the child queen), the chief of the Environment Ministry General Pracha, and the chief of the Trade Ministry Akkarat. The story focuses on Emiko, a "windup girl," (they refer to themselves as "New People") a humanoid GM organism used as a slave, genetically programmed to seek and obey a master. Also of interest is Anderson Lake, an economic hit man and the AgriGen Representative in Thailand. He owns a kink-spring factory trying to mass-produce a revolutionary new model that will store gigajoules of energy. The factory is a cover for his real mission: discovering the location of the Thai seed bank. He leaves the running of the factory to his Chinese manager, Hock Seng, a refugee from the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese. A businessman in his former life, Seng plots to regain his former glory even as he struggles to survive day to day as a refugee. He waits patiently for an opportunity to steal the kink-spring designs kept in Anderson's safe, and embezzles copiously. The plot includes political machinations that upset the plans of these three while providing not a few cliff-hanging moments among the twists and turns of the story.
While I was impressed with the imaginative verve of the author I was disappointed in the cliche-ridden view of business as the big bad guys. The ideas that the world will be devastated by global-warming and biotechnology will be almost out of control are not new no matter how well the author presents them. Nevertheless this is an entertaining novel and worthy of consideration at our monthly Science Fiction group discussion. This novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Quest to Understand

A Dancing Star: Inspirations to Guide & HealA Dancing Star: 
Inspirations to Guide and Heal
by Eileen Campbell

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." - Marcel Proust

In Also Sprach Zarathustra Nietzsche said: "I say to you: 'One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.'" In this collection Eileen Campbell has gathered quotations from both East and West to speak to people whose lives are constantly subject to change, and frequently chaotic as a result. She relies on the premise that our problems are not unique; likely to be part of the human condition. The result is that there are times we need inspiration. For most readers there are old favorites, but also different quotes not found in traditional sources. The result is an anthology that bears fruit from repeated visits and meditation on the direction that is suggested by study of each quote. This small book has room for an informative list of recommended reading which makes it even more valuable.

Here are some of my favorites:
"Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand." -Baruch Spinoza
"The greatest human quest is to know what one must do in order to become a human being." -Immanuel Kant
"Knowing other is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power." - Lao-Tzu

View all my reviews

Friday, August 09, 2013

Thoreau on Solitude

Notes on Walden, V

"THIS IS A delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whip-poor-will is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled. These small waves raised by the evening wind are as remote from storm as the smooth reflecting surface. Though it is now dark, the wind still blows and roars in the wood, the waves still dash, and some creatures lull the rest with their notes. The repose is never complete. The wildest animals do not repose, but seek their prey now; the fox, and skunk, and rabbit, now roam the fields and woods without fear. They are Nature's watchmen — links which connect the days of animated life." - Henry David Thoreau, Walden, p 129.

The opening lines of the "Solitude" chapter of Walden provide an excellent introduction to this idea: solitude.  Thoreau is alone by the pond with no humans near him; he is physically isolated.  Beyond this he is isolated through the lack of engagement with other humans.  His focus is on his surroundings to the exclusion of all else. Almost all of the passage depicts his absorption with the sights and sounds of the flora and fauna that permeate his evening idyll.  Yet, the last line signals his reflection on the symbolic meaning of the animals, "Nature's watchmen" who are "links in a chain" providing a connection through time.
While solitude has other attributes and does not depend on isolation from other humans, even for Thoreau as he notes later in the chapter; "The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert." (p135) That onomatopoeic comment suggests that there is more to look for when considering the nature of solitude, but this will do for a start.
And today is a good day to meditate on Thoreau since, August 9, 1854: After spending two years, two months, and two days living on forested property owned by his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had the material for his classic, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. It was published 159 years ago today.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Princeton University Press, 1971 (1854)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

A Philosopher's Tale

The Mind-Body ProblemThe Mind-Body Problem 
by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

“Eliot gives us a picture of the inside of a marriage but without divulging any sexual details. Her Victorian readers were meant to infer the hidden reality from such facts as Dorothea’s pathetic pallor and the desolate loneliness of that wedding trip. But I am no George Eliot (my misfortune) and you are probably not content to infer (your misfortune). And so I must take you back with me, from the piazza to the apartment, into Signora Trotti’s oversize antique bed. 
I had had thoughts, early on, of educating Noam in the bedroom, of teaching him the detours and the backways off the main straight road. But he was an unwilling student, when not altogether truant. It was not even possible to speak with him on the subject. He showed such distaste – not for the act itself, but for all reference to it.” - Rebecca Goldstein

This was my introduction to the writing of Rebecca Goldstein. A very funny novel whose clever dialogue was appealing both to my intellect and my emotions. She asks what is the mind, and how does it relate to the physical body? This question has fascinated humans for ages, both before and after 17th-century philosopher René Descartes articulated mind-body dualism. In our time, our growing scientific understanding of the brain and its functions has only compounded the question. Philosopher, novelist, and MacArthur fellow Rebecca Goldstein considers these questions through the protagonist of her novel The Mind-Body Problem. Her protagonist, Renee Feuer, is an acute young philosophy grad-student, raised an Orthodox Jew but very much fallen away. She meets famous Noam Himmel, who has come to the Institute for Advanced Studies to bestow it with his genius. A mathematician of world renown, Noam developed a new category of numbers when only age twelve; as an adult person, he's abstracted, enthusiastic, cuddly. And after they marry, Renee is thrilled to discover, at various European conferences, what she's already intuited: "I had married intellectual royalty." But it doesn't bring all that much satisfaction; after all, compared to Noam, Renee considers herself dull--and she waits for him inevitably to discover it too. Furthermore, as if in escape from the comparative puniness of her mind, she turns to her body: constantly thinking about sex (which Noam can take or leave), about children at times, finally falling into a series of indiscreet affairs with other Princeton thinkers.
It is an intellectual and comic entertainment for those interested in academia or philosophy or both. A delight from beginning to end.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Thought-provoking Fiction

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual CollectionThe Year's Best Science Fiction: 
Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection 
by Gardner R. Dozois

There is a vast amount of science fiction published in any given year. For almost thirty years Gardner Dozois has culled through the published stories to compile The Year's Best Science Fiction. This edition contains a breadth of stories that spans from fantasy and horror to hard science fiction and space opera. The anthology was included in my reading for a summer course at the University of Chicago. In addition to preparation for our discussion each week the stories share another aspect that kept me reading; they were all well written, some exceptionally so.
 With thirty-five stories I can only share a list of some of my favorites among them. These included "The Beancounters Cat" by Damien Broderick, "Martian Heart" by John Barnes, "The Invasion of Venus" by Stephen Baxter, "After the Apocalypse" by Maureen F. McHugh, "The Smell of Orange Groves" by Lavie Tidhar (perhaps the most poetic of the stories), "Cody" by Pat Cadigan, and "The Boneless One" by Alec Nevala-Lee (This last a true Science Fiction horror story). For this reader the best story was the last in the collection, "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson.  I liked it because it won me over in the sense that when I began to read it I thought I would not like it both because it was too long (one of the two longest in the collection) and because it appeared to be too fantasy-oriented for my taste (a taste that runs more to science--believable or not).  It defied my expectations with beautiful writing while demonstrating universal themes of love, friendship, achievement, and death while providing a consistent alien background in both the social and scientific sense.  Johnson's story proved a worthy capstone to a great collection of twenty-first century Science Fiction.
 With more than two dozen other stories there are sure to be several that will please the reading palate of any who enjoy Science Fiction.

View all my reviews

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Faustian Bargain

The Picture of 
Dorian Gray 

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”  ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered a work of classic Gothic fiction with a strong Faustian theme. It is also a classic example of the Victorian novel and one of those books that can effect the reader in a powerful and unique way. The idea of selling your soul to the devil, like Faust as related by Marlowe, Goethe and others is an image that intrigues the modern reader. But there is in Wilde's version of this story a focus on the purity of innocence (as seen in the passage quoted above) that is lost as one lives a life, whether filled with licentiousness or mere everyday experience.

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe plot narrates the story of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian's beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil's, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's world view. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the senses. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian (whimsically) expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than he. Wilde gives the story his own imprimatur with the artistic twist and thus adds to the evidence of his genius that includes the drama, stories, poetry and criticism that he created.

View all my reviews

A Memorable Life

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations
by Charles Dickens

“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”  ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

His name is Pip and this is his story. Starting with the convict in the marsh we are swept away into the world of Pip with all of his friends, acquaintances and antagonists. The story is one of "the universal struggle", we are told, and this will be a motif for Pip's story. The first people Pip introduces are all dead, except his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery. He is in a churchyard and his family, father, mother Georgiana, and "five little brothers" are all buried there. The mood is set early with the sudden appearance of a convict who interrogates and terrorizes Pip. As the first chapter ends Pip is running home, running under a sky that "was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed", with the shadow of a gibbet in the distance.

What a beginning! This is the penultimate (complete) novel from Dicken's pen and it demonstrates all the skills that he had developed over his career. We gradually meet Mrs. Joe and Joe Gargery, Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle; but it is a visit to an old mansion to provide companionship to a young girl that is the one of the first turning points in this story. Miss Havisham, the bride who is frozen in time as she slowly ages with yellowing and gray, and the young girl Estella with whom Pip almost immediately is smitten. Poor Pip, so innocent one day and the next, the sad inheritor of the knowledge that he is a poor boy with "rough" hands who does not know the proper way to play and socialize. This realization begins to stir in Pip the yearning to leave this small village and his friend Joe and take up a better life, or what he believes would be a better life. It is not long after that he is provided the opportunity as the lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, presents him with "great expectations" from a mysterious unnamed person.
Work on Great Expectations commenced in late September of 1860 at what proved to be a peak of emotional intensity for its author. Two years before, Dickens had separated from Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years, and several weeks prior to the beginning of this novel, Dickens had burned all his papers and correspondence of the past twenty years at his Gad's Hill estate. This action, in retrospect, can be viewed as a sort of spiritual purge—an attempt to break decisively from the past in order (paradoxically) to fully embrace it, as he does so resonantly in this work.

I participated in a book group discussion of this novel which demonstrated the popularity of this novel with all of the attendees participating with more passion than typically shown. Perhaps this is because everyone, myself included , seems to like this story, and in spite of his faults, the protagonist Pip. Perhaps this was because Dickens demonstrated a mastery of his novel-writing craft and, as he demonstrated in Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, he has restrained the prolixity of his prose and yet not failed to deliver vivid descriptions and dramatic scenes. There are moments as moving as any of Dickens, for example when Joe Gargery says goodbye to Pip in London as he returns to his home and the forge. Joe, who is portrayed as the "natural man", is naturally good as the village blacksmith and somehow his Edenic life is believable. Considered by many critics to be Charles Dickens's most psychologically acute self-portrait, Great Expectations is without a doubt one of Dickens's most fully-realized literary creations.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 02, 2013

Carnal Love of Books

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common ReaderEx Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
by Anne Fadiman

"I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so is there more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love. A book's physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book's words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel," (p 38)

Even if you have been a serious reader for most of your life you do not know the true meaning of bibliolatrous unless you have read about the Fadiman clan. Anne Fadiman, who has been the editor of The American Scholar and award-winning author, has written a loving and inspiring series of essays about a bibliophilic life. This is a wonder of a book, more for dipping into than complete immersion. My favorite aspect is the suggestions for reading that are both implicit and explicit in the book. For those like myself who are enamored of "books about books" there is a bibliographical essay about Ms. Fadiman's own favorite "books about books".

View all my reviews