Friday, February 28, 2014

Some Favorite Music

The Grand Canyon Suite
by Ferde Grofe

"I think music in itself is healing. It's an explosive expression of humanity. It's something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we're from, everyone loves music."  - Billy Joel

From an early age I had a serious interest and love of music.  I have fond memories of listening to The Grand Canyon Suite, as it was one of the first recordings with which I began my collection of classical music. And it is classical in the grand romantic idiom with sweeping melodies that painted the vistas of the Canyon, sunrise, the pack animals and storms. It was a wonderful piece to listen to and I still sit back and enjoy it.  

Today, Ferde Grofé remains most famous for this suite that was premiered in Chicago at the Studebaker Theatre, played by Paul Whiteman's band in November, 1931. To this day the Grand Canyon Suite is popular with performers and listeners.  He was born on March 27, 1892, in New York City and grew up in a musical family. When Ferde was very young, the family moved to Los Angeles.  Grofé moved away from home when he was about fourteen; he worked at a number of odd jobs, including bookbinder, truck driver, usher, newsboy, and elevator operator. He studied piano and violin and by the time he was fifteen, he was performing with dance bands. He also played the alto horn (like a small tuba) in brass bands and viola in the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Later, Grofé worked as an arranger of music by other composers, and is best known for his 1924 arrangement for Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The success of this orchestration established Grofé's reputation as a composer and arranger, particularly in the jazz world.  Grofé started working as an arranger and pianist with Paul Whiteman, a jazz bandleader, around 1920. Grofé arranged music and composed original pieces in a symphonic jazz style. Grofé's own works included Mississippi: A Journey in Tones in 1925, Metropolis: A Fantasie in Blue in 1928, and the Grand Canyon Suite in 1931. Each piece painted a musical portrait of an American scene. 

In 1916, Grofé drove across the Arizona desert with some friends to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. During a radio interview more than forty years later, he described what he saw and felt. He told how he and his pals had arrived and set up camp. The next morning, just before dawn, they got up to watch the sunrise. He described how at first, it was very silent; then, as the day got lighter, the sounds of the natural world began. Suddenly the sun came up and the vision was so dramatic that he couldn't express it in words. Inspired by this experience, Grofé composed a movement of the Grand Canyon Suite called "Sunrise" in 1929. In 1930, he sketched out the "Sunset" and "Cloudburst" sections of the piece, but didn't have time to orchestrate them. He didn't get a chance to finish the Grand Canyon Suite until the summer of 1931. 

The Grand Canyon Suite has five movements, including "Sunrise," "Painted Desert,"  and "Sunset."   While the most famous movement is called "On the Trail",  with music that imitates the "clip-clop, clip-clop" of a donkey's hooves,  my favorite is the concluding "Cloudburst" movement that briefly reprises the "On the Trail" theme followed by a terrifyingly vivid depiction of a thunderstorm and concluding with the emergence of the moon and transcendent music that resounds with joy.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thoughts in a Journal

Paper Covers RockPaper Covers Rock 
by Jenny Hubbard

"Lose an arm in the tow, 
shed the shell, breathe
farewell in the waves."  (p 130)

"Poetry is a way of seeing the world with your feelings." (p 148)

The book opens with the narrator explaining why, after two years of letting the journal his father gave him when he went away to boarding school lay fallow on his shelf, he is now writing in his journal. The narrator, Alex Stromm, is writing the journal for himself spurred to do so by the death of his friend and classmate, Thomas Broughton, from drowning. Alex's thoughts, feelings, and overall reaction to this event comprise the rest of the novel. The story he tells involves another friend, Glenn, and a special teacher, Miss Dovecott, who is just a few years older than Alex, the junior student, and who encourages his writing especially his budding efforts at poetry. As he records his thoughts in the journal his relationships, both school and family, become clearer. There are a few touching moments such as Alex's letter of condolence to Thomas' parents that opens, "I have been wanting to write for a couple of weeks now, but I did not know exactly what to say or how to say it, so I have put it off. Now I realize that I will never know exactly what to say or how to say it. . . " (pp 64-65) Both the poetry and the prose in the book limn a young student of above-average ability. The writing ability helps Alex express his feelings about both love and death as he tries to move forward in his school life. Near the end of the book he writes, "...and he'll leave it as others have left it, as others will leave it, boys stepping into who they are without ever having known who they were." (p 163) , suggesting he still has work to do, and he is developing the maturity to do so.

The book is laced with literary references, primarily to Moby-Dick which inspired Alex's literary nom de plume of "Is Male". This is both a literary reference and a symbol of his young male hormones that are as much a reason as any for his crush on Miss Dovecott. The tone throughout is one of mystery and melancholy; mystery as to the nature of Alex's involvement with the death of his friend Thomas and melancholy as his feelings are poured out over the pages of his journal. The result is a subtle portrayal of how one teenager matures through dealing with loyalty, honor, and love in a boarding school environment.  While the novel is reminiscent of John Knowles' A Separate Peace, it does not quite match that novel's literary heft.  However, I was impressed with the author's lucid prose and moved by the slight story. I appreciated young Alex's appreciation of reading in the opening pages when he wrote in his journal, "Read to your heart's content. Though if you are a reader, the heart is never content." (p 2)

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An American Dreamer

Heaven's My DestinationHeaven's My Destination 
by Thornton Wilder

"George Brush is my name;
America's my nation;
Ludington's my dwelling place
And Heaven's my destination."
(Epigraph for the novel)

"Brush returned slowly to his room.  Before beginning to pack, he stood at the window and looked out into the rain.  "I talk too much," he said to himself in a whisper.  "I must watch that.  I talk to damn much."" (p 28)

An informed and realistic look at the struggles of the depression era, Heaven's My Destination is a comic picaresque tale that defies categorization. It was Wilder's fourth novel and second after the wildly popular The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The hero of the story, George Brush, is an other-worldly figure whose single-minded pursuit of a philosophy that seems like pure hokum, but through his earnest devotion to its strange principles somehow seems to make sense--in an odd way. He needs a certain strength of character to persevere in this earnest pursuit because almost all the people he meets are married to a common sense that either rejects his entreaties or runs away from him in fear and misunderstanding.

The events in this very episodic novel are the epitome of what has come to be called quixotic, named after the pursuits of Cervantes' Don Quixote and his humble partner Sancho Panza. They said that Quixote suffered from a sort of madness and that might be an apt explanation for the strange behavior of George Brush. It is likely that Wilder drew on his short stint teaching at the University of Chicago where he taught Cervantes among others. His lectures were popular and they apparently provided him with ideas for future writing. The picaresque hero he created was a wandering man in search of home and family. More than once he says that he believes he should put down roots and have "founded an American home". He says to an acquaintance, "You know what I think is the greatest thing in the world? It's when a man, I mean an American, sits down to Sunday dinner with his wife and six children around him" (pp 22-23) He aspires to "settle down and found an American home." When he tries to persuade a young woman to marry him and share "a fine American home", he enlists the help of his prospective sister-in-law to convince Roberta, the reluctant bride.  "Will you go and ask her to come here?" George pleads.  "And, Lottie, listen: we'll have a nice home somewhere and you can come in all the time for Sunday dinner, and the whole family can come in from the farm, too.  We'll have some fine times, you'll see."(p 170)

He values his home above his job, just one of his notions and one of those that is more understandable than most of them are. More often he is pursuing windmills with ideas like the notion in the opening episode of the novel that banks are built on fear and everyone should take their money out of banks. While in a small town selling books door-to-door he suddenly has an epiphany: he must remove his money from the local bank and he immediately goes to the bank to do this.  But he also lectures the Bank manager on the evils of banking and the fears upon which it is based.  By the end of the chapter he is being escorted out of town while people are lining up for a good old-fashioned run on the local bank. It is the first of several incidents that mix his strange philosophy with the realities of depression-era America. Often the humor is tinged with a sadness that makes you wonder how poor George can maintain his earnest and naive sincerity in the face of a real world that just does not get it.

The book is an anomaly in my reading experience and certainly an anomaly among American novels written during the Depression. Wilder's realism portrays the struggles of the era, but it is a portrayal that is colored by shadings of farce and high comedy that provide a depth of humor missing too often when considering this era. While George Brush is rigid and puritanical in his thinking he is also sincere and earnest. His straightforward approach upsets the powers that be including evangelists, priests, and local leaders; he finds himself seduced, persecuted, misunderstood, arrested, married, and converted. It is clear, however, that whatever else he may be, George Brush is a sincere man who believes that what he is doing is right, no matter what the cost. For him, he believes, things will work out in the end. The result is a delightful journey, both picaresque and picturesque, of an American dreamer searching for a home in his and our great country.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Two Great Dramas

 The past two weekends I've had the great pleasure to attend productions of dramas by two of the greatest playwrights in the history of literature.  In Chicago the company of Shaw Chicago is currently performing a reading of Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, thought by some to be his greatest play.  A week ago I attended a showing of Coriolanus by Shakespeare in the series of videotaped live performances from the National Theatre Live from London.  Here are my comments on both of these great plays:

                   Saint Joan 

Saint Joanby George Bernard Shaw

"There are no villains in the piece. Crime, like disease, is not interesting: it is something to be done away with by general consent, and that is all [there is] about it. It is what men do at their best, with good intentions, and what normal men and women find that they must and will do in spite of their intentions, that really concern us."  -  George Bernard Shaw

"The most inevitable dramatic conception, then, of the nineteenth century is that of a perfectly naive hero upsetting religion, law and order in all directions, and establishing in their palce the unfettered action of Humanity . . ." (GBS writing in The Perfect Wagnerite.)
In Saint Joan Shaw attempted, and perhaps achieved, a masterpiece based on this conception. The play is a perfect example of the hero as victim transformed into savior. In the first scene the Robert de Baudricourt ridicules Joan, but his servant feels inspired by her words. Eventually de Baudricourt begins to feel the same sense of inspiration, and gives his consent to Joan. The servant enters at the end of the scene to exclaim that the hens, who had been unable to lay eggs, have begun to lay eggs again. De Baudricourt interprets this as a sign from God of Joan's divine inspiration. It is with this simple beginning that the spirited spirituality of the seemingly innocent young Joan begins to take over the play to the point where she is leading the French troops against the British. Her voice exhibits a lively purity that is augmented by an unlimited imagination. Both her voice and her visions are inspirational, but cannot protect her from ultimate betrayal. The result of that betrayal leads to the end that we are all familiar with.
Shaw's play features Joan as an outsider who seems lonely only when she is among those who voiced the common opinions of the day. Her multi-faceted personality is hidden behind her single-minded pursuit of a vision of god's design for her life. Saint Joan is a tragedy without villains. The tragedy exists in a view of human nature where the incredulity of intolerance of both religious and secular forces battle each other. It is made even more interesting by Shaw's epilogue that brings the play into the current time and provides an opportunity for Shaw to discuss the play with the audience. Whether this play is truly great or almost great it is definitely Shaw at his dramatic best.

by William Shakespeare

"He is their god. He leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than nature,
That shapes man better; and they follow him
Against us brats, with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies,
Or butchers killing flies."(Act IV, scene vi)

Several years ago I read this play as part of a class at the University of Chicago.  It was a revelation that entranced me with its drama. Even so, the warrior Coriolanus is perhaps the most opaque of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, rarely pausing to soliloquise or reveal the motives behind his prideful isolation from Roman society. Instead, the play demonstrates his character through his actions and his relationships. The relationship with his mother, Volumnia, is the most important of these. The tension of her love for him reaches heights that are only exceeded by those of Coriolanus fame as a warrior for Rome.
This is not the Rome of the Caesars but that of the early days when the republic was in its formative stages. It was a city concerned with warring neighbors like the Volscians who are an ever-present enemy. While Caius Martius' success in battles with this enemy lead him to military honors and earn him the name Coriolanus, he does not have the temperamental qualities that would allow him use these accolades for political purposes. He is held back by his own nature and his situation leads to banishment by the crowds who once cheered him. His speech to them as he leaves Rome is memorable:
"You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere."(Act III, Scene iii)

It is, for me, the best of the lesser-known of his plays and stands tall by the side of the other two great Roman history plays, Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra. In particular, the psychological depth of the character of Coriolanus, his relationships with his mother and subject Romans, and the dramatic action make this play a delight to read.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Comic Tragedy

Tender Is the NightTender Is the Night 
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“They were still in the happier stage of love. They were full of brave illusions about each other, tremendous illusions, so that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered. They both seemed to have arrived there with an extraordinary innocence as though a series of pure accidents had driven them together, so many accidents that at last they were forced to conclude that they were for each other. They had arrived with clean hands, or so it seemed, after no traffic with the merely curious and clandestine.”  ― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night 

The novel opens with a beautiful young women, Rosemary Hoyt, surrounded by a group of acquaintances on the French Riviera. Though very beautiful, filled with superficially attractive people, this opening seemed to me to be drawn out and slow as Rosemary soon meets the Divers, Nicole and Dick, who will become the central interest of the story for much of the rest of the novel. After this somewhat meandering start I was not really impressed with the story until the beginning of Book Two when the novel flashes back to 1917 and the arrival of twenty-six year old Doctor Richard Diver in Zurich. Thus begins the story of the psychiatrist and his wife, Nicole, and eventually Rosemary, a special friend among others. To the extent that the novel has any core story to hold it together it is here in Book Two and in the Third and final section of the novel. Nicole and Dick come to life as real characters, but the other characters in the novel do not share their strength of character. The identities of too many of the people who wander in and out of the story seem in flux, hard to pin down and harder to remember. Baby Warren, Nicole's sister, is a good example of one character for whom this was true.

Undoubtedly the novel's greatest asset is Fitzgerald's prose style which can be dazzling with colors and detail descriptions like that of the Riviera that opens the book. The plot begins with Rosemary's infatuation over Dick. 
"For a moment now she was beside Dick Diver on the path. Alongside his hard, neat brightness everything faded into the surety that he knew everything."(p 31) 
That Diver was married, sometimes happily, was not an obstacle to her erotic bliss. It is only later in the story that the complexities of Nicole and Dick come to the foreground and ultimately his personal destructiveness combines with her insecurities to determine the direction of their relationship. The deterioration of their relationship can be seen in the influence that her money (Nicole was immensely wealthy) had on Dick's life and feelings. 
"Living rather ascetically . . . he maintained a qualified financial independence. After a certain point, though, it was difficult--again and again it was necessary to decide together as to the uses to which Nicole's money should be put. Naturally Nicole, wanting to own him, wanting him to stand still forever, encouraged any slackness on his part, and in multiplying ways he was constantly inundated by a trickling of goods and money. . . It was not so much fun. His work became confused with Nicole's problems; in addition, her income had increased so fast of late that it seemed to belittle his work."(p 170) 
And on and on, Dick's guilt and rationalizations gradually contributed to a wall that divided them and grew larger as Dick drank more and spent more time with Rosemary.

Fitzgerald spent several years working on the novel. That plus its ultimate serialization in Scribner's Magazine may be part of what seems a sort of disconnectedness. There are also his own personal difficulties with drunkenness, his wife Zelda's insanity, the breakdown of his marriage, and his own personal anger at the burden of these situations. All of this is mirrored in the fictional account of Dick and Nicole, with Dick somewhat unsuccessfully becoming his wife's psychiatrist. Ultimately the novel becomes a comic tragedy in the modern sense. Its brilliant moments make it interesting reading that is only slightly marred by flaws of character and identity.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

A Great Freethinker

In memoriam of a great free thinker, Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in Rome 414 years ago today, on 17 February 1600. Bruno was a proponent of the Copernican 'heliocentric' model of the solar system in which the earth and other planets orbit the sun (whereas it was wrongly believed by the Church and other authorities of the time that the sun and the planets orbit the earth). In his courageous advocacy of the heliocentric model, as in many other things, Bruno was correct and he was killed, quite simply, for speaking this truth aloud and refusing to be silenced by the voices of orthodoxy. His life, and his death, should serve as reminders to us that those who think outside the box, though no longer burnt at the stake, face great risks, persecution and vilification even today and often pay a heavy price for speaking their truth. Yet ultimately, in the longer picture of centuries and millennia we can see that it is precisely those outside-the-box thinkers who allow human society and human knowledge to advance for the benefit of us all.

For his out-of-the-box thinking and his courage in speaking his truth, Bruno suffered an eight-year ordeal at the hands of the Roman Inquisition. Tortured and tormented in the Vatican dungeons, he stood accused of heresy on several counts, including his claims that stars are other suns, such as our own (they are), that they are orbited by planets (they are), that these planets are likely to be populated by intelligent beings (21st century science is just beginning to catch up with this idea), that the earth itself is a planet (it is), and that the symbol of the cross was known to the ancient Egyptians (it was, in the form of the ankh, or crux ansata, symbolising the life-force).

Ordered to retract these and his other “heresies” or face death by burning, Bruno courageously stood firm. Fired by his convictions, he defiantly told his accusers that he had neither said nor written anything that was heretical, but only what was true. When his sentence was passed, Bruno bravely stared at the cardinals lined up in front of him and calmly told them: “Perchance your fear in passing judgement on me is greater than mine in receiving it.”

On the morning of 17 February 1600, Bruno, garbed with a white shirt, was taken to the Campo de Fiori, the Camp of the Flowers, a small piazza not far from the Roman Pantheon. There, he was securely tied to a wooden pole around which were stacked planks of wood and bundles of sticks. “I die a willing martyr”, he is said to have declared as the fire was being lit all around him, “and my soul will rise with the smoke to paradise.” A young protestant, Gaspar Schopp of Breslau, who had recently converted to Catholicism and thus enjoyed the favours of the Pope, was an eyewitness to the burning, and reported that “when the image of our Saviour was shown to him before his death he [Bruno] angrily rejected it with averted face”. The truth is that a Dominican monk had tried to brandish a crucifix in Bruno’s face while he suffered in the flames. Poor Bruno, his legs now charred to the bone, mustered enough strength to turn his head away in disgust.

A few days earlier Bruno had written his own epitaph:

“I have fought…It is much… Victory lies in the hands of Fate. Be that with me as it may, whoever shall prove conqueror, future ages will not deny that I did not fear to die, was second to none in constancy, and preferred a spirited death to a craven life.” 

Source: Graham Hancock mailing list.
Photo:  Santha Faiia. This statue of Bruno, created in his honour in the 19th century, stands on the exact spot of his death in the Campo de Fiori, south of Piazza Navona in Rome.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Master of Articulate Silence

The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946 
by Lois Gordon

"In a sense, Joyce was Beckett's Don Quixote, and Beckett was his Sancho Panza. Joyce aspired to the One; Beckett encapsulated the fragmented many. But as each author accomplished his task, it was in the service of the other. Ultimately, Beckett's landscapes would resound with articulate silence, and his empty spaces would collect within themselves the richness of multiple shadows--a physicist would say the negative particles--of all that exists in absence, as in the white patches of an Abstract Expressionist painting. Beckett would evoke, on his canvasses of vast innuendo and through the interstices of conscious and unconscious thought, the richness that Joyce had made explicit in words and intricate structure.” (p 82)

As I will be reading several of Samuel Beckett's plays over the next three months I decided to explore some biographical material as background.  While I have both read and viewed a production of Endgame I am not that familiar with Beckett, the man and artist.   
The Samuel Beckett of this fine biographical portrait is an inspiring dramatist with tremendous skill. Gordon presents an alternative view of Beckett that follows the playwright and novelist from his birth until age 40, when he began to find himself as a writer. She parts ways with the popular understanding of Beckett as a grim, rattled existentialist introvert who barely clung to sanity. His life is presented within a larger historical context, following him from his conservative, morally minded, upper-class rearing in a well-heeled suburb of Dublin, to his academic and athletic successes before and during study at Trinity College, his rebellious immersion in bohemian Paris and in economically devastated 1930s London, and finally his involvement as a WW II Resistance fighter in France. 

Gordon's craft and her scruples are impressive. The focus is on the world from 1906 to 1946 in which Beckett matured and became the great writer that we know. With fascinating depiction of his involvement with the Red Cross and French Resistance we learn about the life that helped make the man.

Gordon seeks to put us in his shoes by describing in detail, for example, the probable impact on Beckett of his close friendship with James Joyce in terms that help us to feel it, and the political-cultural circumstances leading up to the rise of the Vichy government so that a reader can judge Beckett's likely motives and emotions in opposing it. Avoiding extensive discussion of his work and choosing not to emphasize the testimonials of people who knew him, Gordon relies mainly on external events to support her thesis. Of course, her conclusion- -``Beckett was not a fragile and reclusive man set apart from the real world. He was a sensitive and courageous man marked by and responsive to the world''--is arguable, but she significantly extends the scholarship about her subject. The clarity of Gordon's writing, never marred by willfulness or anxiety, is ideally suited to posing her challenge. Her study also draws us in by sheer narrative force. This is an exemplary glimpse of a literary enigma.  I hope to fill in some of the details that made Beckett such an enigma through the exploration of some of his short and shorter dramas over the next three months.

The World of Samuel Beckett by Lois Gordon.  Yale University Press, 1996.
Photo at above right of Trinity University, Dublin (

Thursday, February 13, 2014

First Encounter

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow 
by Mary Doria Russell

"they were suffused with their surroundings.  The windborne fragrance of a thousand plants as varied as stephanotis, pine, skunk cabbage, lemon, jasmine, grass, but unlike any of them;  the heavy dank odor of vegetation decayed by another world's bacteria;  the oak-like musky bass notes of the crushed herbs they lay on overwhelmed their ability to perceive and categorize such things.  As three dawns and three dusks came and went, the sounds of the long day changed," (p 191)

This is a novel that starts out as a story of a first encounter with aliens on another planet, but before it is over it appears to be one that explores the nature of good and evil. It opens with Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, who has survived an expedition to another planet and returned to Earth. He has been damaged physically and psychologically. The story is told in framed flashback, with chapters alternating between the story of the expedition and the story of Sandoz' interrogation by the Jesuit order's inquest, set up in 2059 to find the truth. Sandoz' return has sparked great controversy – not just because the Jesuits sent the mission independent of United Nations oversight, but also because the mission ended disastrously. Contact with the UN mission, which sent Sandoz back to Earth alone in the Jesuit ship, has since been lost.
The novel begins in the year 2019, when the SETI program, at the Arecibo Observatory, picks up radio broadcasts of music from the vicinity of Alpha Centauri. The first expedition to Rakhat, the world that is sending the music, is organized by the Jesuit order. The main character is Sandoz, a charismatic Jesuit priest and linguist, who leads the mission. Sandoz and his companions are prepared to endure isolation, hardship and death. From the beginning, Sandoz, a talented Puerto Rican linguist, born in a San Juan slum, had believed the mission to Rakhat was divinely inspired. Several of his close friends and co-workers, people with a variety of unique skills and talents, had seemingly coincidental connections to Arecibo and one of them, a gifted young technician, was the first to hear the transmissions. In Sandoz's mind, only God's will could bring this group of people with the perfect combination of knowledge and experience together at the moment when the alien signal was detected. These were the people who, with three other Jesuit priests, were chosen by the Society of Jesus to travel to the planet, using an interstellar vessel made out of a small asteroid.

Sandoz tells about how the asteroid flew to the planet Rakhat, and how the crew tried to acclimatize themselves to the new world, experimenting with eating local flora and fauna, then making contact with a rural village – a small-scale tribe of vegetarian gatherers, the Runa, clearly not the singers of the radio broadcasts. Still, welcomed as 'foreigners', they settle among the natives and begin to learn their language and culture, transmitting all their findings via computer up link to the asteroid-ship now orbiting above the planet; however, an emergency use of fuel for their landing craft leaves them stranded on the planet.
They eventually meet a member of the culture which produced the radio transmissions who proves to be of a different species from the rural natives. Their interactions with him and his culture lead to the disastrous consequences for all with Sandoz singled out for special suffering. The outcome of the novel his held in suspense until very near the end of the story which was somewhat frustrating since it is clear from the opening chapter that there was a major disaster of some kind. Some feel this book is really "a philosophical novel about the nature of good and evil and what happens when a man tries to do the right thing, for the right reasons and ends up causing incalculable harm".  Questions include the larger issue about the nature and role of god for, as one character says, "to make creation, God had to remove himself from some part of the universe, so something besides himself could exist. . . He watches. He rejoices.  He weeps.  He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering." (p 401)  Not everyone is satisfied with this viewpoint given the evil in the world.  It certainly raises moral questions and provides suspense within a futuristic science fiction setting.

This was the second time I have read the novel with what I consider mixed results. The dangers when encountering civilizations different than our own seem to be unpredictable while it turns out that the unintended consequences of actions that seem benign can be devastating. The moral dilemma presented in this novel seemed to be an accident that may or may not have been avoided. It may also have been simply a story of the inevitable costs of exploring our universe.

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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Suspense and Individualism

Executive Suite 
by Cameron Hawley

"There was no barrier of caution now.  He was beyond the last compromise, the last evasion, the last half-lie.  Words came out of nowhere, unpremeditated, fresh-spoken. "You asked for my point of view, Mrs. Prince, and I'll give it to you.  Avery Bullard was a great man and he built a great company.  Yes, he built it!  And he did it because he was strong and because he wasn't afraid!  He wasn't afraid of weaker men who called him a dictator, or a god-on-a-hill, or anything else."" (p 300)

The Tredway Tower: "Monument to a man". This is at the center of a suspenseful book about business. Yes, suspenseful as the novel opens with the sudden death of the President of the Tredway Corporation, Avery Bullard, due to a cerebral hemorrhage. It occurs in New York City where Bullard had been at a business meeting. The event leaves five corporate Vice-presidents, who make up most of the Board of Directors of the company, jockeying for the top position at the corporation. The story depicts the conflicts, the collaborations, and the jostling for power among these men while exploring the question: What type of person should be president of the company? The resolution of this question, in doubt until the final pages of the narrative, provides much of the suspense in this excellent novel.
Adding to the suspense is the unusual structure in which the author narrates the story literally minute by minute and hour by hour over the two days in which the events occur. Through brief glimpses into the lives of a few important characters, and in some cases their wives, the reader is provided context for the decision-making and corporate politics that are rapidly leading to the resolution of the fateful situation the death of the Corporate President has placed them.

Gradually the character of the main players in this business drama emerge through their actions both in the past (related through flashbacks) and in the moments of the two days that culminate in the choice of a successor to Avery Bullard. Loren Shaw, the comptroller, comes to the fore through his knowledge of the numbers behind the corporation and his ability to manipulate them; however, his ability to manipulate his peers seems to falter. The most senior of the Vice-presidents, Frederick Alderson lacks the will to take on the top job himself, but strives to manipulate others into the position. Most interesting of all the Vice-presidents is MacDonald (Don) Walling. His mind is described by his wife:
"Don's mind worked in such a different way from her own that she could never reconstruct the pattern of his thinking. Actually, as she often told herself, Don did not think--at least not in the sense that she thought of thinking. He disliked the orderly setting down of fact against fact, and seemed to instinctively side-step any answer that was dictated by logic and reason. . . the end result was often a brilliant flash of pure creative imagination" (p 201)
Don's "truly creative mind" had served him well in his move up the ladder to Corporate Vice-president and he exhibited an individualist view that set him apart from his peers. Even though he was not the closest to the former President, his understanding of Avery Bullard's mind was another of his many assets. Whether he would choose to seek the Presidency or others would coalesce around his leadership is one of the important questions that contributed to the uniqueness of this novel.  There are other important characters including an astute corporate secretary, an unlikely Italian-American elevator operator, and the granddaughter of the founder of the Company, Julia Tredway Prince. Ultimately she would play perhaps the most key role of all.

Cameron Hawley is impressive in his ability to develop characters through their actions which demonstrate, not just corporate "types", but individuals who have reasons, some good and others faulty or even bad, for their actions. They are people who are complex, like Don Walling and his wife who think very differently but appreciate each other. The result of this mix of character with the added speed and suspense of the novel's structure makes for both a great book about the nature of business and a great novel.

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Saturday, February 08, 2014

A Nightmare Fantasy

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)The Man Who Was Thursday: 
A Nightmare 
by G.K. Chesterton

“Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe? Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe? For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, 'You lie!' No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, 'We also have suffered.”   ― G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

More than one hundred years ago in 1908 Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a mysterious fantasy called The Man Who Was Thursday. Sixty years later while I was a student at The University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin I discovered this wonderful book. 
More recently I attended a stage adaptation by Chicago's New Leaf Theatre Company of the satire about a man who finds himself tapped by Scotland Yard to infiltrate a council of anarchists.  The unique qualities that fascinated me as a college student remain.

Chesterton's satire is part metaphysical and part philosophical. It is a comic fantasy, which he calls on the title page "A Nightmare," and in which free will is symbolized by anarchism. Man's freedom to do wicked things, as Augustine said, is the price we pay for freedom. If our behavior were entirely determined then we would be mere automatons with no more genuine free will than a vacuum cleaner. But we are not automatons. We have a knowledge of good and evil and a freedom to choose, within limits, of course, between the two. Somehow our choices are not totally determined, yet somehow they also are not random, as if decisions were made by shaking tiny dice inside our skull. This is the dark, impenetrable paradox of will and consciousness. "I see everything," Gabriel Syme shouts in the book's last chapter. "Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? … So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist."

The philosophical references abound, like this moment that recalls Socrates' myth of the cave in Plato's Republic:  “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front--” 

The story's mysterious developments and relationships make a creation that fascinates as the policeman from Scotland Yard, Gabriel Syme, poet extraordinaire, battles with "anarchists" in London. The conspiracy he discovers, the highlighted London background, and the way that Chesterton tells the story is both compelling and profound. While the story is at times dreamlike, even nightmarish, it also is filled with humor. A great chase scene closes the book, as if Chesterton were using the Keystone Cops to make philosophical points. The novel must have seemed daring in 1908 and it remains fresh and compelling.

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Interpreter of Dreams


  Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible."(p 23) - T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom


All men dream as T. E. Lawrence observed in his magnificent memoir, but not all men are interpreters of dreams.  At least not all men are capable of interpreting as astutely as the mature Joseph, who, imprisoned in the island prison Zawi-Re,  put his interpretive abilities to good use as he, once again, began to rise up from the pit into which he descended based upon the accusations of Potiphar's Wife.

The very young Joseph was described by the narrator as being in a state that  "includes a certain feminine consciousness;  -- more at home really in heavenly realms". (p 60)  Perhaps it was this aspect of his consciousness that was the source of his preternatural ability to read,  analyze, and interpret dreams.  Perhaps the source was his nightly vigils meditating upon the moon or, and this is more certain, it was a gift from his father Jacob who was also known to dream and, especially, ponder.  If the source is uncertain,  the ability, first to dream and later to interpret dreams, was something he demonstrated in his youth.   His own dreaming ability,  when young and brash, was shared with his brothers whose hackles were understandably raised; just one of the many missteps and misspeakings of Joseph that would lead to his entering the first pit.  Joseph's dreaming was corollary to his meditative mode and it is this that consumes him on the journey to
a second pit, the island prison Zawi-Re.  This "added to his uneasiness, to the general depression and gloom that overshadowed him, but that was also accompanied by a lofty awareness of destiny and a meditative play of thought.
For the son of Jacob and his true wife had been unable to resist such play his whole life long, no more as a grown man, whose years were now counted at twenty-seven, than as a callow lad.  But for him the dearest and sweetest form of play was allusion, and whenever events in his carefully monitored life grew rich with allusion and circumstances proved transparent for a higher correspondence, then he was happy, for transparent circumstances can never be entirely gloomy."(p 1053)

It is here in the island prison Zawi-Re that he he meets yet another father-figure in Mai-Sakhme, the would-be artist who is Warden of the Prison.  Mai-Sakhme recognizes the talents and competency of Joseph and puts him to work as a prison overseer.  This would be surprising if we had not seen Joseph rise again and again in his previous roles from the lowest of the low to a valued place that, if not high itself, was close to those that were high in social standing.  It is in his new role as a trusted convict that he is also given the opportunity to improve his status even further;  for he is given the duty to serve two new prisoners, the Baker and Butler to the Pharaoh himself, both of whom are awaiting the result of their trial for the alleged crime of attempting to poison the Pharaoh.  It is this moment when they bring their dreams to Joseph who offers these words:

"I am not entirely inexperienced in the field and might even boast a certain familiarity with dreams--and please don't take that amiss, but simply as an apt way of stating that my family and clan have always dreamt a good many highly suggestive dreams .  . . why not take it with me and tell me your dreams, so that I may try to interpret them?
You're an amiable lad and when you speak of dreams you stare off into space with a veiled look in those handsome, even beautiful eyes of yours, so that we are tempted to trust in your ability to assist us." (p 1102)

While it takes some further persuasion from Joseph, they willingly share their dreams with him and he interprets them with precision and, as it subsequently turns out, correctness.  Most importantly he elicits from the Butler, whose dream foretold a successful return to his previous state, a promise that he not be forgotten when the Butler reascends to the court of the Pharaoh.  Whether or not the Butler will actually remember his promise is another of Mann's many details that provides the reader with suspense (even if you have the original Joseph story from Genesis in the back of your mind).  Interpreter of dreams will be Joseph's talent, one that will carry him to greater heights than he has yet seen;  along with his continuing confidence in his god's plan.

 Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph by T. E. Lawrence.  Penguin Books, 1986 (1926)

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Two by Stewart O'Nan

who was born on this day in 1961. Fifteen years ago, Granta put O’Nan on its list of the “twenty best American novelists under forty.”  His award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, and Emily, Alone. He lives in Pittsburgh.  Here are two of my favorites:

The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy
The Circus Fire: A True Story 
of an American Tragedy
by Stewart O'Nan

Back in 2006 I read an excellent account of the 1918 Influenza pandemic by John Barry entitled The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history. This was a well-written account not only of the pandemic but also the rise of the medical establishment and the aftermath of the event. My sister had recommended this and recently she recommended another very good disaster book: The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy by Stewart O'Nan.  It is an account of the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. This event was unknown to me but was nevertheless a great tragedy as 167 people died in the fire, including many children. O'Nan's account is very well-written as he brings the disaster alive with hour-by-hour retelling of the worst American circus disaster and its aftermath, seen with a restless, unflinching eye for the details—touching, ironic, and depraved. His narrative never lags despite the attention to detail. The psychological insight and focus on particular families makes this an exceptionally good read.

“The fire was the size of a baseball, a football, a basketball, a dishpan, a briefcase, a small window, half a tablecloth. . . . One thing people agreed on was that it was small.” How the blaze started on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, remains unknown. At least 167 people died, and several thousand were injured. The resulting bad publicity (and nearly $5 million in civil judgments) not only pushed Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s into receivership, it eventually forced the Greatest Show on Earth to discard its sideshow and abandon the outdoor “big top” for the gloomy (but fireproof) confines of concrete sports arenas. Novelist O’Nan portrays the event is a small-town tragedy that grew quickly into a national scandal: the show business equivalent of the sinking of the Titanic, inspiring works of fact and fiction and setting off a nationwide hunt for a crazed arsonist, 25 years of courtroom battles, thousands of dollars in donated funds for survivors, and mountains of sensationalist journalism. He finds epic pathos in the heroics of common individuals and circus performers (clown Emmet Kelly and the Flying Wallendas among them), the bellowing of doomed animals, the panic of the mob, the shameless buck-passing of local officials, and the disgraceful efforts of circus staff to avoid responsibility.
O’Nan alleviates his gripping, tragic story with brief pieces on circus history and its better-known personalities and performers, as well as interviews with numerous survivors whose lives the fire changed.

Snow AngelsSnow Angels
by Stewart O'Nan

Getting inside your character’s head and letting the reader see the world through not just their eyes but their sensibility creates an intimacy that can’t be duplicated in any other medium. And point of view includes voice, discovering the appropriate language and tone for each character. Every choice contributes to bringing the character’s emotional world across to the reader, and as you’re making those choices in your early drafts, you as a writer understand more and more about your characters—their fears and desires, their history, the people closest to them—so that when they face situations, both you and the reader understand why they do the things they do, whether or not you (and the reader) agree with them.” - Stewart O'Nan

I first discovered Stewart O'Nan through his non-fiction when I read The Circus Fire: A True Story. It was a very good book and ever since then I thought I should read his fiction. I am glad I did because it is also very good, especially Snow Angels which is impressive for a first novel. Growing up in a small town myself and playing in the high school band I could relate in part to the story of Arthur Parkinson. While I have not experienced the tragedy and difficult home life he relates in his story and that of his neighbor Annie Marchand, the author brings them alive in his vivid portrayal of their lives and the lives of their family and friends.

The story links two families, almost indirectly, by a tragedy that affects them in enormously painful ways, it is a specific example of a universal theme. Set in a rural community in Pennsylvania in mid-1970, the story builds around the lives of the two main characters, Arthur Parkinson and Annie Marchand. Arthur, who narrates the chapters about his part in this heartbreaking story, is a 14-year-old high school student. He is at that age when he is too old to be a boy but still too young to drive, who is dealing with his family’s slowly decaying break-up. At the same time, the narrator who gives us the picture of her dismal, failing marriage and careless lifestyle. She is a woman unknowingly spiraling into deeper danger as her estranged husband loses his grip. After attempting suicide he becomes zealously religious and tries to win back his wife and young daughter. The two characters live in the same town and have some tenuous connections: Marchand was Parkinson's beloved babysitter for a time; Parkinson's father worked briefly with Marchand's husband. 

One of the many ways in which O'Nan succeeds in his narrative lies in his depiction of the casual acquaintance of small-town inhabitants who rub up against each other almost daily without ever achieving a deeper connection. Marchand's story is more direct than Arthur's as it is told in the present tense, and the fairly lengthy alternating passages play off each other in a stop-and- start rhythm. While these characters are not terribly self-aware, O'Nan never condescends to them or makes their troubles seem inconsequential, even at comical moments like Parkinson's first stabs at romance with an eerie twin who shares his bus stop or his visits to a therapist. The unnatural seems natural and the uncommon as common as it can be through O'Nan's elegant yet simple prose which leads the reader through the events that shaped these lives. I recommend this novel and author (and the film version as well).

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Monday Poetry

Pearl of Desire

Would that there was such a thing as love--
A thing that wears a comely coat of blossoms
Sending soothing aromas with the breeze.

Would this thing evoke a feeling in one's self –
A discovery that life – his life
Fits him like a glove.

Such is the thought of one who does not dare
To speak of the life within his heart.
A life of passion, yet no one for whom to care.

Will it be able to break the stillness –
To give him cause to wonder?
What of the vision of life that is his burden?

This is the grain that irritates his soul –
A catalyst for his spirit, yet
Close to the divine that cannot be his role.

This carnal life seems to be but a dream –
A flurry of fleeting desires, evaporating
In the passing of momentary mortal eruptions.

So where does he turn when the realization
of his mortal desires grips his soul,
Rending his dreams and, with them his life?

Where does he turn to achieve the stillness
of inner peace? The answer is in
The pearl of desire that eludes his soul.

from Preludes of the Mind, James Henderson, August, 1995

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Memory and Desire

by Sándor Márai

“No, the secret is that there's no reward and we have to endure our characters and our natures as best we can, because no amount of experience or insight is going to rectify our deficiencies, our self-regard, or our cupidity. We have to learn that our desires do not find any real echo in the world. We have to accept that the people we love do not love us, or not in the way we hope. We have to accept betrayal and disloyalty, and, hardest of all, that someone is finer than we are in character or intelligence.”  ― Sándor Márai, Embers

Sandor Marai has an uncanny ability to demonstrate his ideas through things that are not said. Embers is permeated with nostalgia for the past, a past that, as in Proust, cannot be recaptured. This book is excellent not just for how well it is written and how well it is structured, but for the author's ability to demonstrate his ideas through what is not said.  "My homeland no longer exists . . . Everything's come apart. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded. When that happens the only thing to do is to go away."(p 92) This is the statement of Konrad, the childhood friend of Henrik who is the protagonist of this amazing novel.

We are introduced to Henrik in the first line of the book, "In the morning, the old general spent considerable time in the wine cellars," where he is aging in his seventies just like a fine wine. With his aging come memories of a long life, of youthful friends, of love and betrayal. All this is narrated in a short novel of little more than two hundred pages. It is a story that depends more on feelings and of contrasts between Henrik and his former friend Konrad who is returning for one final confrontation. The contrasts include that of passion and reason, of the world with and without music, of the differing personalities of the south, where Konrad has spent much of his life and the north of Austria and Hungary where Henrik has remained.

Interlaced with their lives is the figure of Nini, a mother figure to Henrik, who is described as, "a power that surged through the house, the people in it, the walls, the objects, the way some invisible galvanic current animates Punch and the Policeman on the stage at the traveling puppet show. Sometimes people have the feeling that the house and its contents could, like ancient fabrics, fall apart at a touch and crumble to nothing if Nini were not there to hold them together with her strength."(p 11) Nini is always in the background, appearing in the first chapter and present in the last. But there is also Krisztina who would marry Henrik, but spend years estranged from her husband even as she does not leave their estate. The ghost of Krisztina hovers over Henrik throughout the novel as does the aura of death. The story is part mystery and these themes are part of the mystery along with the reason for the estrangement of Henrik and Konrad.

It is Henrik who enigmatically isolates himself, yet opens the house for one last elaborate meeting with Konrad, once his friend and now his nemesis. The world of the past no longer exists except in their memory. Some people have moved on, but the past must be revisited on one last evening. It is this evening that with a mere gesture Henrik throws Krisztina's diary, unopened, "into the embers of the fire," (p 204). This action symbolizes his life, his loves, his era. It is the feeling of this era which Marai is superb in capturing. It is the heavy weight of centuries of empire that is encapsulated in his simple brushstrokes. One could compare him to Mann or perhaps Proust in his ability to explore philosophy and memory and desire, but ultimately his is a unique voice that bears reading and rereading to explore the complex relationships and meanings that are hidden within his beautiful novel.

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