Friday, June 23, 2017

An Irish Family

The Green Road 

The Green Road

“Far below were the limestone flats they called the Flaggy Shore; grey rocks under a grey sky, and there were days when the sea was a glittering grey and your eyes could not tell if it was dusk or dawn, your eyes were always adjusting. It was like the rocks took the light and hid it away. And that was the thing about Boolavaun, it was a place that made itself hard to see.”   ― Anne Enright, The Green Road

The Green Road is a family narrative told through place and time. The writing demonstrates real lives filled with compassion and selfishness and effortlessly carries the reader forward. It is a thoroughly Irish book that considers issues both modern and traditional through that lens. Our Thursday night book group enjoyed it for a variety of reasons that led to a lively discussion. I found the writing style and the structure of the book the best aspects, even while some of the characters, not all, were somewhat opaque. The story explored both the gaps in the human heart and family tensions in our modern age.

The story unfolds over decades with the first half of the book constructed from vignettes that might stand on their own as short stories. These stories explore the lives of the children of Rosaleen, matriarch of the Madigans, a family on the cusp of either coming together or falling irreparably apart. Each of the four Madigan children and their mother Rosaleen receive a chapter of their own beginning with Hannah Madigan. Hannah's chapter focuses on a family member as a child and deals with her relationship with her father. She is traumatized by viewing the culling of a chicken for dinner on her grandmother's farm. Dan Madigan's story jumps forward to 1991 during his time in New York with his fiance as his repressed homosexuality comes to the fore during the AIDS epidemic. He gradually accepts his life and begins living in Canada with a life partner. Constance Madigan's chapter is based in 1997 Limerick and considers her domestic roles of mother and wife. She is seen balancing the concerns of her health that make her face her own mortality. Emmet has traveled to Mali in 2002 and works with impoverished children even as he is haunted by previous relief work he has been involved with. All the while his relationships are slowly deteriorating.

Rosaleen, in her early old age, announces that she's decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold. The second part of the book focuses on this homecoming as the story comes together through a combination of memories and family interactions. This was the best section of the book for this reader. It is where the home becomes a character as much as the Matriarch and her children.

The book is a pleasure to read through the story of the family and the author's beautiful prose. The story about a family's desperate attempt to recover the relationships they've lost and forge the ones they never had becomes a profoundly moving work.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Favorite Poet

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats 

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

“Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” 

― W.B. Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds

I have enjoyed the poetry of William Butler Yeats for many years as evidenced by my well-worn copy of his Complete Poems. But there is more to enjoy when considering this protean author for throughout his long life, William Butler Yeats produced important works in every literary genre, works of astonishing range, energy, erudition, beauty, and skill. His early poetry is memorable and moving. His poems and plays of middle age address the human condition with language that has entered our vocabulary for cataclysmic personal and world events.

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
("Among School Children", p 105)

The writings of his final years offer wisdom, courage, humor, and sheer technical virtuosity. T. S. Eliot pronounced Yeats "the greatest poet of our time -- certainly the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language" and "one of the few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them."

There are always new things to be learned when reading and meditating on the poetry of this masterful author.  But I often return to his greatest poems like "The Second Coming".  It was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the first World War. The version of the poem below is as it was published in the edition of Michael Robartes and the Dancer dated 1920.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

― W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Satirical Voyages

Gulliver's Travels 

Gulliver's Travels

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”  -  Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

The first volume of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was published on October 28th in 1726. This was part of the onset of a literary tidal wave that included the novels of Daniel Defoe and would pick up speed by mid-century with the appearance of Fielding's masterpiece, Tom Jones.

Swift clearly relished the hoax aspect of his book, taking pains (under a pseudonym) to give his hero a genealogy and history, and a reputation for veracity so legendary “that it became a sort of proverb among his neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a thing, to say, it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoken it.” This kept up through the publication of subsequent volumes and editions, Gulliver himself now going on record to quibble over misprinted facts, or chortle over those “so bold as to think my book of travels a mere fiction out of mine own brain, and have gone so far as to drop hints, that the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos have no more existence than the inhabitants of Utopia.” The ideas are embodied in grotesques and fantastic creatures, in the six-inch high Lilliputians, the gigantic Brobdingnagians, the horse-like Houyhnhnms and the disgusting Yahoos.

The book itself is a fantastical satire that uses the ancient method of a journey (in this case multiple journeys) to foreign lands in the service of social satire and cultural commentary. The motivating force behind Gulliver's Travels is the author's apparent disgust with human folly and pretension. The Fourth Voyage is perhaps the most disturbing . Gulliver encounters disgusting ape-like creatures who "discharge their excrements" onto him from a tree, and then a pair of unusually thoughtful horses. These horses call themselves Houyhnhnms. They are super-rational beings who do not even understand the concept of lying, referring to it as "saying the thing which is not." For all their reasonableness they lack any passion and lead what would appear to most humans as dull lives. By contrast the "Yahoos" as they call the ape-like creatures are pure passion and emotion with no visible restraint. Gulliver gradually becomes enamored of the Houyhnhnms, so much so that when he eventually returns home he cannot abide the smell of of his wife and family and is happiest when spending time with his horses. While the land of the Houyhnhnms is superficially a utopia, this reader, after consideration of the life presented, found it to be a very drab and boring place. Nonetheless Gulliver, when relating life in England to his Houyhnhnm masters, is scathing in his attacks on lawyers, doctors, and the ruling classes. He confesses that he could be reconciled to the English Yahoos "if they would be content with those Vices and Follies only which Nature hath entitled them to. I am not in the least provoked at the sight of a Lawyer, a Pick-pocket, a Colonel, a Fool, a Lord, a Gamster, a Politician, a Whoremunger, a Physician, . . . or the like: This is all according to the due Course of Things: but, when I behold a Lump of Deformity, and Diseases both in Body and Mind, smitten with Pride, it immediately breaks all the Measures of my patience."

The characters imagined in this tale are so memorable that their names have become part of our culture. The journeys provide lessons for Lemuel Gulliver who is an honest if gullible narrator. Whether he learned the right lessons or ones that have value for others is for each reader to decide. Ultimately it is a satire that has stood the test of time and its relevance suggests the follies of twenty-first century humans are not so different from those caricatured by this brilliant eighteenth century satirist.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Who Can Remember Pain?

The Handmaid's Tale 

The Handmaid's Tale

“But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”   ― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

I have enjoyed several of Margaret Atwood's novels over the years; especially Oryx and Crake, the first novel in her Maddam Trilogy. I had not read The Handmaid's Tale until our Thursday evening book group chose it for our most recent book discussion. This also gave me the opportunity to use my Kindle app which I rarely use since I prefer the feeling of holding a "real" book. I was not disappointed by this unusual dystopian postmodern tale of a future that one hopes we may avoid.

The title of this now classic novel echoes the component parts of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, this is suggestive of an almost allegoric aspect of the story but also a pervasive theme that is woven throughout the book; that is theocracy, a government in which there is no separation between state and religion. We see this in the names of the servants who are called “Marthas” and the local police as “Guardians of the Faith”; soldiers as “Angels”; and the “Commanders of the Faithful”. In addition Atwood's vocabulary incorporates religious terminology and biblical references. All the stores have biblical names: Loaves and Fishes, All Flesh, Milk and Honey. Even the automobiles have biblical names like Behemoth, Whirlwind, and Chariot. Using religious terminology to describe people, ranks, and businesses, masks political skulduggery in pious language. The reader is faced with an ever-present reminder that the founders of Gilead insist they act on the authority of the Bible itself. Politics and religion sleep in the same bed in Gilead, where the slogan “God is a National Resource” predominates.

In the society of The Handmaid's Tale, while even the powerful live very restricted lives, however the Handmaids are confined to their bedrooms except for sanctioned outings to grocery stores, childbearing Ceremonies, and executions; as a result they are worse off than most. Doubly trapped by their low social statuses and their fertile bodies, Handmaids barely get to do anything. Their bodies' fertility both enforces their confinement and paradoxically promises them a kind of freedom.
If Handmaids become pregnant by their Commanders (this is their sole purpose in this society) their reward is not being sent off to die. If they do get pregnant, they're confined to their bodies in a different way, forced to give birth to children they don't get to keep, fathered by men they don't love.

I found this a book that I appreciated for its literary values more than the content which was brutal at times. This is undoubtedly to be expected in a dystopian tale, but understanding the fact did not provide solace for the reader. The story is a tale of "witness" by a rebellious handmaid named Offred. Her rebellion begins with recording her story, but extends to other activities that eventual provide what little suspense there is in the tale. As with all first person narratives the reader must maintain some skepticism in recognition of the unreliability of the narrator. We never quite know what's true in The Handmaid's Tale; even when people state their names, they're lying. Throughout the book we're reminded that this is a story and that the narrator is altering some of the details. The narrator wishes she could change the events that happened to her through retelling them, or what she calls "reconstruction." Even the epilogue, with its "Historical Notes," reinforces the idea that this is a tale, a story, and that the manner of the telling is as important as what the narrator reveals through it.

This leads me to the only substantive criticism I have of the book in that I would have appreciated more information about some of the other characters, especially Offred's friend Moira who disappears from the story before it is concluded. We find Offred narrating "I can't remember the last time I saw her. It blends in with all the others; it was some trivial occasion. She must have dropped by; she did that, she breezed in and out of my house", but that was some time ago and it is only her memory of Moira that Offred captures.

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but as some in our book group related Atwood's beautiful prose has an almost mesmerizing effect that helps you move past some of the more gruesome details of this dystopic tale. My conclusion is that this deserves to be considered a postmodern classic that adds luster to the standing of Margaret Atwood in my personal reading pantheon of authors.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Furry Fun in Space

by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson

Hoka!  (Hoka, #3)

“So much American science fiction is parochial -- not as true now as it was years ago, but the assumption is one culture in the future, more or less like ours, and with the same ideals, the same notions of how to do things, just bigger and flashier technology. Well, you know darn well it doesn't work that way...”   ― Poul Anderson

What is a Hoka? It is a furry creature living on an earthlike planet called Toka on the edge of the known universe. They are a race unlike any other yet discovered, for although they resemble bears they can change their appearance. This book is a compilation of some of the stories about these creatures written by Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson.

In the prologue to the collected tales we learn that Toka, which means "Earth", has two intelligent species who have evolved into the Hokas and the Slissii. The former are mammalian while the latter are reptiloid. Conflict was endemic until the arrival of the "Interplanetary League" at which time the Slissii were persuaded to abandon the planet for other territories (this apparently led to problems elsewhere). The Hokas on the other hand welcomed the tutelage of the League and in their own unique way adopted the culture and mores of their visitors in an all too literal way.

The stories included in this volume provide evidence of the comedy (mostly) resulting from the literal adoption of the milieus of Baseball (think "Casey at the Bat"), Kipling's Jungle Books, the Napoleonic era, and more. I found the stories quirky enough for smiles and a chuckle or two, but some might find them "laugh out loud" funny. This volume provides an view of what might happen if in the distant future we explore and fail to obey "the Prime Directive".

The Search

The Moviegoer 

The Moviegoer
“What do you seek--God? you ask with a smile.
I hesitate to answer, since all other Americans have settled the matter for themselves and to give such an answer would amount to setting myself a goal which everyone else has reached  --  Truthfully, it is the fear of exposing my own ignorance which constrains me from mentioning the object of my search. For, to begin with, I cannot even answer this, the simplest and most basic of all questions: Am I, in my search, a hundred miles ahead of my fellow Americans or a hundred miles behind them? That is to say: Have 98% of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?

On my honor, I do not know the answer.”  - Walker Percy

American novelist Walker Percy is known best for his first novel, The Moviegoer (1961), which tells the tale of a young Southern man named Binx Bolling who is so alienated from the world that he prefers movies and books to people.

In his portrait of the boyish New Orleans stockbroker wavering between ennui and the longing for redemption, Percy managed to create an American existentialist saga. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Binx Bolling is adrift. He occupies himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the "treasurable moments" absent from this real life. Every night at dusk, when the Gulf breeze stirs the warm, heavy air over New Orleans, a 29-year-old wanderer named Binx Bolling emerges from his apartment, carrying in his hand the movie page of his newspaper, his telephone book and a map of the city. With these documents, Binx proceeds to chart his course to that particular neighborhood cinema in which he will spend his evening. But one fateful Mardi gras, Binx embarks on a quest — a search for authenticity that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin, Kate, and sends him reeling through the gaudy chaos of the French Quarter. Eventually through this "search" Binx rediscovers himself by having to face the far more desperate problems of Kate who as she sinks deeper within herself, finds only Binx can talk to her. And in the end, Binx decides to change by making decisions, taking risks, and opening himself to suffering--in other words, by accepting reality.

The spiritual and philosophical quest of Binx Bolling had its roots in Percy's time spent recovering from tuberculosis. Walker Percy had been working as a medical intern in Manhattan, performing autopsies on corpses, when he contracted the disease and had to spend two years in convalescence. That gave him plenty of time to read Russian novels and French philosophy, all of which he wrote into The Moviegoer. In the novel, when asked what the purpose of his journey is, Binx Bolling responds: "There is only one thing I can do. Listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along."

The novel didn't sell very well when it first came out in 1961, but it won the National Book Award and established Walker Percy as one of the leading novelists of the South. After his bout with tuberculosis, Percy became a Roman Catholic. When someone asked if his beliefs influenced his fiction, he said, "If a writer writes from a sense of outrage - and most serious writers do - isn't he by definition a moral writer?"
It is wry and wrenching, rich in irony and romance, more than suggestive of a life well-examined. In writing about Binx's search Percy created a genuine American classic.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Looking Back from Exile

Collected Poems in English 

Collected Poems in EnglishJoseph Brodsky was born on May 24th in Leningrad in 1940. He was arrested at age twenty-three and sentenced to five years on a prison farm for “having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism … except for the writing of awful poems.” He then was expelled ("strongly advised" to emigrate) from the Soviet Union in 1972, settling in the United States with the help of W. H. Auden and other supporters. Brodsky was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature "for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity". He was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1991.

The lines below are from “May 24, 1980,” Brodsky’s poem looking back from exile in America on his fortieth birthday:

…I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I've admitted the sentries' third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it's stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it's long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

My previous commentaries on his essays and poetry can be found at Poetic Essays and What is Poetry?

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Spell of Love



"How to depict the spell of love -- the conviction that we have found the one whom Nature destined for us; the sudden light shed on the mystery of life; the way that trifles gain a hidden meaning; the rapid hours . . . the certainty that the world can no longer harm us where we live, and a mutual understanding that guesses every thought and responds to every emotion -- ah, that spell; anyone who has felt it could never describe it." (p 91)

This is an unusual short novel. A story of a romance with virtually no context, however it suggests what Europe was like for a son of a wealthy family in the early 19th century. And, in one of the later chapters, Constant describes the physical geography of an area of Poland. But, beyond that, there's only Adolphe's emotions and his perceptions of Eleanor's. In its psychological approach it reminded me a bit of The Sorrows of Young Werther, but perhaps more closely resembles Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.

The narrator, Adolphe, is an intelligent young man, given to analysis and raised in a household without much affection, who begins a relationship almost as an experiment – and also because he understands that this is what people are supposed to do. The woman is already the mistress of a Duke, and has two children with him but no real rights as acknowledged by society. He is young, 22 years old, and has just completed his studies at the University of Göttingen. He travels to a small town in Germany, where he becomes attached to the court of an enlightened Prince. During his stay he gains a reputation for an unpleasant wit. A friend inspires him to attempt the seduction of an older woman named Ellenore.

Eventually, the woman succumbs, and as far as the reader can tell she is entirely in earnest. She gives up everything for him. Rather quickly, Adolphe’s ardor entirely cools, but he feels unable to detach himself from her. He alternates between trying to be honest about his feelings and then, when he sees her getting more and more distraught, rapidly feigns emotions that he desperately wants to feel but no longer does. Adolphe becomes anxious as he realizes that he is sacrificing any potential future for the sake of Ellénore. She persuades him to extend his stay by six months, but they quarrel, and when she tends him after he is injured in a duel, he finds himself hopelessly indebted to her. He attempts to leave her only to have her follow him. The denouement leads Adolphe to return to a life of alienation more severe than that which he experienced before his affair.

I am not sure that I enjoyed this novel, but I certainly appreciated the approach - when, upon reflection, I realized the novelty of the psychological approach. It likely had a major impact on later "psychological" novels. According to a critic of Russian literature, Victor Terras, French literature of the nineteenth century influenced the major Russian writers, thus Dostoevsky likely was familiar with Constant. The fictional Adolphe is familiar with the things that he is supposed to say and how he is supposed to act, and in doing these things almost convinces himself that he is actually in love – for a short time, in fact, he might feel something similar to the real thing.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

More than Infinity


“When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope.”   ― Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

One of the earliest memories of reading
that I have is one of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The idea that there is another world beyond or through the mirror in one's parlor is a fabulous way to introduce the flights of fancy that little Alice was prone to engage in as I had learned in Carroll's earlier book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I am reminded of this experience because of the importance of mirrors in the writing of Jorge Luis Borges as he privileges the mirror and his stories as books appear as mirrors for reality. Just as in Carroll the mirror image presents a reflection that is backwards and always seems a bit wrong; however, it is wrong in a way that one only senses and cannot actually identify with any hope of specificity. My own dreams, and perhaps yours, often seem to be similarly twisted, even absurd, reflections of reality.

In Ficciones Borges has included nine short fictions in part one and ten even shorter works called "artifices" in part two. I like every story in the first part but my favorite has to be "The Library of Babel" which, for readers, has to encompass the notions of heaven and hell all in one twisted story.

The first story in this collection, "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is an example of the importance of mirrors as it begins with the following sentence: "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia."(p 5). Additional stories share favorite places of Borges whether they be a garden in the case of "The Garden of Forking Paths", or the library as in "The Library of Babel". The latter of those two stories would have to be my favorite, and perhaps the favorite of many readers as readers who love libraries. Borges' library is a cheerless and even fearful place. With its incalculably vast size suggesting infinity it can seemingly be a nightmare more than a dream. Yet there is always the possibility of finding hope hidden in the vastness of infinite space. While Borges himself spent several years in a dull library job cataloging books the imaginary library of Babel seems to defy any cataloging. Just like a world reflected in a mirror, "absurdities are the norm" in this library while disorder reigns. Conundrums also abound as with the notion that everything that has already been written, yet there are always new and definitively different books that one may encounter.

The worlds depicted in Borges' stories are filled with blank spaces, the ideas and ideals are abstract rather than personal, yet they yield a personal response. Those unwilling or unable to fill in some of the blank spaces with their own imaginations may find something lacking. No amount of further writing would help though all of the stories are short, even as short stories go with the second part filled with "Artifices" that are typically no more than two or three pages long. Just as the stories beckon with suggestions of ruins, lotteries, libraries, and gardens; so do the artifices with titles that invite you to partake of death, miracles, swords, differing visions of Judas, and the rise of the Phoenix. Infinite libraries suggest stories from an imagination that also may have been infinite.

The world of Borges' fiction expands to encompass more than reality. These short narratives reveal conflicting emotions, motives, and desires shared by all humans and explore what he imagines as a tortured struggle for salvation or perhaps merely redemption.  His genius gives rise to flights of the imagination unique in my experience. My love for these narratives stems from their presences as magical works of a literary master.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Could You Be My Enemy?

All Quiet on the Western Front 

All Quiet on the Western Front

“But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”   ― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque was published in 1929, and it was the author's way of coming to terms with the war. Parts of the book are autobiographical. The work also has a history with censorship--the book was banned in Germany.

Rereading Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front , I was moved by his contrast of the bewilderment and innocence of the 20 year-old (and some younger, teenage!) boys and the horrific scenes of trench warfare.  You can get a sense of the bewilderment of the boys from the following:
“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another.” 

The opening chapter, especially, where the one young boy who had the temerity to disagree with the military mindset of his schoolteacher was the first to be slain. But not just slain, rather left to die and only shot as he dragged himself back toward his comrades. This was bitter scene, but it would soon to get worse, much worse. The novel is "neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure. . ."

The overriding theme of the novel is the terrible brutality of war, which informs every scene. The narrative seeks to portray war as it was actually experienced, replacing the romantic picture of glory and heroism with a decidedly unromantic vision of fear, meaninglessness, and butchery. In many ways, World War I demanded this depiction more than any war before it—it completely altered mankind’s conception of military conflict with its catastrophic levels of carnage and violence, its battles that lasted for months, and its gruesome new technological advancements (e.g., machine guns, poison gas, trenches) that made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before. Remarque’s novel dramatizes these aspects of World War I and portrays the mind-numbing terror and savagery of war with a relentless focus on the physical and psychological damage that it occasions. At the end of the novel, almost every major character is dead, epitomizing the war’s devastating effect on the generation of young men who were forced to fight it.

This is by far the best fictional account of the Great War, or of any war (although I would recommend that you consider viewing Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick's exceptional film about the Great War mutinies). I wonder if it is any easier being taken out by a sudden explosion from a roadside bomb? I wonder.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Intelligence Observed

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

“Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be characteristics of this creature. —Claudius Aelianus, third century A.D., writing about the octopus” 

What is the nature of intelligence and what are its signs? We often use humankind as the standard for questions like these but this book explores a distant branch of the tree of life for signs of intelligence; specifically the cephalopods, consisting of the squid, the cuttlefish, and above all the octopus. The author, Peter Godfrey-Smith, a distinguished philosopher of science and a skilled scuba diver, uses his encounters with these creatures as a jumping off point for exploring questions of evolution, consciousness, and intelligence among animals that are almost as alien as extra-terrestrial beings.

The story begins and largely continues in the oceans from which all life originally came. The evolution of seaborne groups of cells is explored as they gradually became more complicated creatures that were capable of sensing, acting, and signalling, The author identifies gradual evolutionary developments that led to nervous systems in creatures like mollusks. Some of these mollusks abandoned their shells and rose from the ocean floor gradually developing the greater intelligence needed to search for prey and survive. This evolution continued for millennia just as our forebears and other mammals developed on land.

The most fascinating aspect of this story is the search for and discovery of the nature of intelligence in cephalopods. Through observation the author identifies how the brain that is so compactly and centrally located in the human head appears to be spread out throughout the body of the octopus. 
“In an octopus, the nervous system as a whole is a more relevant object than the brain: it’s not clear where the brain itself begins and ends, and the nervous system runs all through the body. The octopus is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system.” (p 75)
 It seems that in an octopus the nervous system as a whole is equivalent to their brain. A relevant philosophical discussion about how to imagine this is conisidered in Thomas Nagel's famous essay, "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" (Philosophical Review, 1974).

Most interesting for this reader was the way that the evolution of cephalopods has mirrored our own evolution in some ways even as the organisms have developed differently in response to their environments. The author's interaction with a nest of octopuses, in itself a discovery, provided information about the difference of these animals, yet also led to identification of a level of intelligence that was both beyond any previously assumed and far different that that typical for mammals and most other creatures. These discoveries, including tentacles that are so full of neurons that they appear to think for themselves, solved some of the mysteries of these creatures and provided encouragement that further answers will be found.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Inspiration for a Blogger

The History Boys 

The History Boys

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours." (p.56)

Today is the birthday of British playwright and humorist Alan Bennet.  I note this because, when in January, 2007, I began this blog in earnest, it was Bennett, more than anything else, that was the inspiration for my doing so; specifically, his play The History Boys and the film version of it that had premiered a few months earlier.

The play is a great read for many reasons and all of them deeply resonated with me.  Most important was the devotion to the importance of language (centered on the "dictionary" boy role of Posner) and music and ideas, more clearly emphasized in the play than in the screenplay for the film (also written by Bennett).  

The play contrasts the differing perspectives on education of the two lead teachers (Hector and Irwin). Without the need to "open up" demanded by film Bennett focuses on the schoolroom and uses subtle effects to effect his dramatic purpose. One aspect of the play that stands out is the multiple narrators throughout the drama. Bennett is at his epigrammatic best and the audiences in New York showed their appreciation of this as noted by the reviews. He is successful in creating a delightful dramatic and comedic portrayal of ideas, all while evoking the spirit of bright young scholars at a key turning point in their lives. With reference to and in the spirit of Shakespeare he dramatizes events in and outside of the classroom touching on both the desires of the heart and the wonders of imaginative young minds.

The battle between educational styles centers on the approaches to teaching of the teachers Hector (the idealistic humanist) and Irwin (practical and pragmatic). The foundation for the boys is Mrs. Lintott's straightforward, perhaps old-fashioned, approach to teaching history which has produced "well taught" boys; however that is not enough to assure them success in achieving entrance to Oxford or Cambridge. The headmaster, in his "wisdom" adds into the mix a young teacher just up from Oxford to give the students an "edge". It is his, Mr. Irwin's, pragmatic method which uses paradox and the subjunctive.  He aims to turn the historical facts upside-down, with little regard for the "truth" of the situation providing the "history boys" the ammunition to go to battle with the methods of Hector, the humanistic "general studies" teacher who attempts to enlist the boys into a conspiracy against the world and the "education" they are supposedly receiving.

"Mrs. Lintott: They're all clever. I saw to that.
Hector: You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it."
"Scripps: But it's all true.
Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?"

With all of this battle of educational styles there added an undercurrent of eroticism, both due to the nature of education itself, as Hector points out, and due to the psychological tensions among Dakin and his two admirers, Posner and Irwin. This combination, which explodes at times to produce riveting moments of theater, is what makes this play great. That and the magnificent literary style of Bennett that has continued to inspire me to this day.

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Tale-Teller

Robert Louis Stevenson

"I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father's house."  - Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped

On this day in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped began serialization in Young Folks magazine. It was this book, along with the earlier Treasure Island (1883) and A Child's Garden of Verses (1885) where I first enjoyed reading Stevenson more than half a century ago. Along with a handful of other authors these books became the foundation of my early reading and love of books. I still have that feeling for Stevenson as I have gradually explored some of his other novels, short stories, and essays. While he is considered one of England's most popular writers of "Children's Literature", these novels and his others, especially The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, are worth exploring and enjoying as an adult. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, provoked by a dream and written in a ten-week burst during the writing of Kidnapped, is one of the outstanding examples of the use of the theme of 'the double' in literature, and a classic late Victorian text.  Other examples of this theme range from Poe (William Wilson) and Dostoevsky (The Double) to moderns like Daphne du Maurier (The Scapegoat).  Though Stevenson wrote prolifically and in almost every genre, his four books from the mid-1880s have become classics.  They are all he would need to be remembered more than a century later. This reader continues to look back a the beginning of his reading as a boy and remember when he first encountered the adventures depicted in Kidnapped and Treasure Island.

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Random House, New York. 1949 (1886)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Random House, New York. 1949 (1883)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Powerful Insights

Still Life: 
A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel 

Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel

“Life is choice. All day, everyday. Who we talk to, where we sit, what we say, how we say it. And our lives become defined by our choices. It's as simple and as complex as that. And as powerful. so when I'm observing that's what I'm watching for. The choices people make”  ― Louise Penny, Still Life

Both my sister and a good friend recommended that I read the mysteries of Louise Penny; so I decided to start with her first Chief Inspector Gamache novel. I was not disappointed.

The mystery is set in a small town in rural Canada.  The narrative introduces Armand Gamache of the Sorete du Quebec. The mystery proper begins with the discovery of the body of Jane Neal, a middle-aged artist, near a woodland trail used by deer hunters outside the village of Three Pines. Upon first investigation it appears she was the victim of a hunting accident. Soon Gamache, an appealingly competent senior homicide investigator, is summoned. He is able to determine that this was not an accident but the woman was most likely murdered. The narrative continues as clues are slowly uncovered while the residents of Three Pines are introduced. Some of them come under suspicion while the suspense builds with each piece of new evidence.

I enjoyed the author's development of a variation on the theme of the clue hidden in plain sight. She also introduces the bilingual, bi-cultural aspect of Quebecois life as well as arcane aspects of archery and art to deepen her narrative. Most of all there are memorable characters whose relationships make the mystery more compelling as they and their interrelationships are gradually revealed.

This is a mystery filled with intriguing insights that develops a good foundation for further exploits of Armand Gamache. I would recommend this author's first novel, which was the runner-up for the CWA's Debut Dagger Award in 2004, to all readers who enjoy a good mystery.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Doubled Solitude

The Confusions of Young Törless 

The Confusions of Young Törless

“The feeling of not being understood and of not understanding the world is no mere accompaniment of first passion, but its sole non-accidental cause. And the passion itself is a panic-stricken flight in which being together with the other means only a doubled solitude.”   ― Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless

Robert Musil is one of my favorite authors and his story of Young Torless, published in 1906, is one reason. The novel reflects an obsession in this period with educational institutions and the oppressive impact they exert on personal development. While it is in the tradition of the German Bildungsroman, the novel of education, it is critical of educational system and the institutionalized coercion portrayed in the novel. In my reading experience I compared it with the experience of Philip Carey in Maugham's Of Human Bondage or other traditional British school novels (see Tom Brown). In the American tradition, one thinks of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as representing a protest against a social disciplining that is also a disciplining of sexuality. Sexual disciplining can often become the standard for other forms of discipline.

The novel tells the story of three students at an Austrian boarding school, Reiting, Beineberg and the titular young Törless. The three catch their classmate Basini stealing money from one of them and decide to punish him themselves instead of turning him in to the school authorities. They start an abusive process, first physically and then psychologically and sexually, while also blackmailing him by threatening to denounce him. While the treatment of Basini becomes openly sexual and increasingly sadistic, he nevertheless masochistically endures it all.

It is the moral and sexual confusion of young Torless that leads him to join Beineberg's and Reiting's degradation of Basini; he is both sexually attracted to Basini and Beineberg and repelled by them. Even though he is a willing participant he tells himself that he is merely trying to understand the gap between his rational self and his obscure irrational self. In a modern way he is both a disturbed and despairing observer of his own states of consciousness. Basini professes love for Törless and Törless begins to reciprocate, but he is ultimately repelled by Basini's unwillingness to stand up for himself. His disgust with Basini's passivity ultimately leads him in a curious way to stand up to Beineberg and Reiting. When the torment becomes unbearable, Törless secretly advises Basini alleviate his situation by confessing to the headmaster.

While an investigation is made, the only party to be found guilty is Basini. Törless makes a strange existential speech to the school authorities about the gap between the rational and irrational: "I said it seemed to me that at these points we couldn't get across merely by the aid of thought, and we needed another and more inward sort of certainty to get us to the other side, as you might say. We can't manage solely by means of thinking, I felt that in the case of Basini too." (p 208)
After he had finished, "When he had left the room, the masters looked at each other with baffled expressions." (p 212)
They decide he is of too refined an intellect for the institute, and suggest to his parents that he be privately educated, a conclusion that he comes to on his own.

Other subplots include Törless's experience with the local prostitute Božena, his encounter with his mathematics teacher, and his analysis of his parents' attitudes toward the world. The severity of the conditions makes one wonder about Musil's own experience. One important theme Musil also takes up is the Nietzschean idea of the dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus. This can be seen in the "two worlds" (p 45) in which light is contrasted with dark, the controlled and disciplined intellect with more spontaneous sensuality. 

Young Torless is an impressive short novel with a depth of meaning and character that often is not achieved in much longer works. It is a worthy introduction to an author who is one of the first modernists of the twentieth century. If you are a reader who is daunted by the size of The Man Without Qualities, his unfinished masterpiece, this would be a good place to start reading Musil.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Incredible Journey

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

“In that instant they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition's original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.”   ― Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Yesterday was the anniversary of the date in 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out in a lifeboat from Elephant Island to get help for his shipwrecked Antarctic expedition. If ever there was a book whose title deserved to include the word "incredible" this is it. The voyage of Ernest Shackleton receives a well-deserved and beautiful portrayal in Alfred Lansing's famous book. One of my favorite adventure books, it is a detailed account of the events and the extremes that were encountered on the Antarctic voyage where disaster struck when his ship, Endurance, was trapped in pack ice and slowly crushed, before the shore parties could be landed.

The book recounts the failure of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton in its attempt to cross the Antarctic continent and the subsequent struggle for survival endured by the twenty-eight man crew for almost two years. The book's title refers to the ship Shackleton used for the expedition, the Endurance. In 1914 Shackleton led twenty-seven men on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The goal of the expedition was to transverse the Antarctic continent by dog sledge. The ship was beset and eventually crushed by ice floes in the Weddell Sea leaving the men stranded on the pack ice. All in all the crew drifted on the ice for just over a year. At the end of October, 1915, the Endurance finally succumbed to the intense pressure and was slowly crushed. The crew, led by Shackleton, abandoned ship and made camp on a huge floe of pack ice.  Shackleton then led a crew of five aboard the James Caird through the Drake Passage and miraculously reached South Georgia Island 650 nautical miles away. He then took two of those men on the first successful overland crossing of the island. Three months later he was finally able to rescue the remaining crew members they had left behind on Elephant Island.

Virtually every diary kept during the expedition was made available to the author and almost all the surviving members at the time of writing submitted to lengthy interviews. The most significant contribution came from Dr. Alexander Macklin, one of the ship's surgeons, who provided Lansing with many diaries, a detailed account of the perilous journey the crew made to Elephant Island, and months of advice. The narrative of the astonishing sequence of exploits, and an ultimate escape with no lives lost, would eventually assure Shackleton's heroic status. Lansing provides an account worthy of this epic adventure.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Unlikely Impersonator



"Somewhere in this world was a writer named Shriver who was expected at this conference, but it was not him.  What should he do?  He'd committed to attending, and had even been sent what looked like genuine airline tickets.  He checked the date on the itinerary---just three days away!" ((p 7)

What would it be like to be mistaken for someone famous? This novel explores that situation with the added attraction that the famous person is a reclusive writer (think of Salinger) and the person who is the subject of the mistake is also an author who, fortunately or not, has nothing in common with the reclusive celebrity other than his name. The unfortunate protagonist is invited to writers' conference and, against his better judgment, decides to attend. He appears to be succeeding in his unlikely impersonation, but just as things start to calm down he becomes involved in unexpected and certainly unintended episodes.  First, one of the other guest authors disappears, and he becomes the central subject of the investigation; second, a journalist begins to take an interest in him that makes him very uncomfortable; and third, to complicate his life further he begins to fall in love with the conference organizer.

With the addition of some other quirky characters including a stalker, the story is complex enough to provide the reader with entertainment and mirth.  While it is fairly lightweight, the spirited narrative has all the best characteristics of an off-beat romantic comedy and contains just enough whimsy to keep the reader focused through to the end.