Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Life of Integrity



"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."
William Shakespeare

John Williams's Stoner is that rare novel which is almost perfect in every way, from its plain prose style to its subtle portrayal of themes and evocative descriptions of events that are common enough for all adults to have experienced them - in ways that make the narration a pleasure - and which makes you stop and reflect in wonder at the marvels around you, past and present. 

I found the story often took my breath away as I intently pondered the beautiful telling of a story of love and loss. The pain and pleasure were so pronounced that the reality of the images created by the author had an effect that few books ever do. I found the prose style reminiscent of Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, but with more hope present even as Stoner deals unsuccessfully with the vicissitudes of life.

This is a Midwestern book, set on the plains, about a young man who is schooled in the hardships of farm life but who flowers in an academic setting - up to a point. His taciturn being and stoicism both help him survive and contribute to his downfall in love and learning. In each he fails, even though he does experience small moments of triumph; yet even in failure his determination shines through the pages of the novel and makes this drama somehow less tragic than it might have been otherwise. The difficulty which Stoner has in communicating his feelings is palpable throughout compounding the inevitability of defeat for our hero. 

This novel in all its detailing of the life of William Stoner captures some of the passion and loss that is suggested by Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (quoted above) that plays a pivotal role in Stoner's education. This is a story of integrity and persistence in living through adversity and loss.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Return to Goethe's Faust

Faust, Part I
A drama by 
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Whatever is the lot of humankind
I want to taste within my deepest self.
I want to seize the highest and the lowest,
to load its woe and bliss upon my breast,
and thus expand my single self titanically
and in the end go down with all the rest.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust begins with a prologue set in Heaven. The scene is modeled on the opening of the Book of Job in the Old Testament.  While the angels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael praise the Lord, Mephistopheles mocks human beings as failed creations because reason makes them worse than brutes.  God tells Mephistopheles that he will illuminate his servant Faust. Mephistopheles wagers with god that he can corrupt Faust instead. With the assent of god Mephistopheles goes into action.

In the next scene, Faust appears in acute despair because his intellectual studies have left him ignorant and without worldly gain and fame. In order to discover the inner secrets and creative powers of nature, he turns to black magic. Thus, he conjures up the Earth Spirit, the embodiment of the forces of nature. However, the Earth Spirit mocks Faust’s futile attempts to understand him.  As he despairs of understanding nature, he prepares to poison himself. 
At that moment, church bells and choral songs announcing that “Christ is arisen” distract Faust from killing himself. Celestial music charms Faust out of his dark and gloomy study for a walk in the countryside on a beautiful spring day in companionship with his fellow human beings. Observing the springtime renewal of life in nature, Faust experiences ecstasy. At this moment, Faust yearns for his soul to soar into celestial spheres.

This Easter walk foreshadows Faust’s ultimate spiritual resurrection. However, he must first undergo a pilgrimage through the vicissitudes and depths of human life.  In a famous moment he proclaims that "two souls are dwelling in my breast".  It is in this battle within himself that he becomes emblematic of modern man.  As he battles Mephistopheles offers him a wager for his everlasting soul that will provide him a fleeting moment of satisfaction in this world. Mephistopheles commands a witch to restore Faust’s youth so that he is vulnerable to sensuous temptations. When Faust sees the beautiful young girl Margaret, he falls into lust and commands Mephistopheles to procure her. Mephistopheles devises a deadly scheme for seduction. Faust convinces Margaret, who is only fourteen years old, to give her mother a sleeping potion, prepared by Mephistopheles, so that they can make love. Mephistopheles makes poison instead; the mother never awakens.

Unwittingly, Margaret has murdered her mother. Furthermore, she is pregnant by Faust and alone. When Faust comes to visit Margaret, he finds her brother, Valentine, ready to kill him for violating his sister. Mephistopheles performs trickery so that Faust is able to stab Valentine in a duel. Dying, Valentine curses Margaret before the entire village as a harlot. Even at church, Margaret suffers extreme anguish as an evil spirit pursues her.

In contrast, Faust escapes to a witches’ sabbath on Walpurgis Night. He indulges in orgiastic revelry and debauchery with satanic creatures and a beautiful witch until an apparition of Margaret haunts him. Faust goes looking for Margaret and finds her, in a dungeon, insane and babbling. At this moment, Faust realizes that he has sinned against innocence and love for a mere moment of sensual pleasure. Even though it is the very morning of her execution, Margaret refuses to escape with Faust and Mephistopheles. Instead, she throws herself into the hands of God. As Faust flees with Mephistopheles, a voice from above proclaims, “She is saved!”

Goethe will continue his drama with a second part, but the narrative from this first section has become one of the markers for the beginning of the modern era of human culture. I have previously written about some of the ideas in this drama in my discussion of "Active vs. Reactive Man".  Translated by many over the two centuries since its original publication it has become a touchstone for the study of the development of the human spirit.  It has also inspired other artists to create operas and novels based on the characters from Goethe's drama.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday (on Wednesday)

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Could Re-read Forever

What would you do if you could only own a few books, in this case, ten? What if you had to downsize? Which books could you live with and read over and over? It is NOT easy to choose just a few, but if I had to choose right now, this is what I could read over and over again. These are what I call my lifetime books because I have read them (some from an early age) again and again, and I look forward to the next reread.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Middlemarch by George Eliot

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Rhymes for Today

Light Verse

Def: "light verse, is poetry that attempts to be humorous. Poems considered "light" are usually brief, and can be on a frivolous or serious subject, and often feature word play, including puns, adventurous rhyme and heavy alliteration."*

Some of my Facebook friends have inspired me to respond with a bit of light verse.  Here is a collection that may tickle your fancy.

Weather in New Mexico

What little I know
About such a thing
Is if you don't want snow
You should wait for Spring!

If a Bee Stings

If stung by a bee,
I'd sit under a tree,
And say fiddledeedee,
But that's just me.

Technical Snafu

To login or not to login,
That's what's bustin my noggin.

Pie for Lunch

If you want to get a luncheon high
There's nothing better than Frito Pie.

* Source: Wikipedia

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Memories and Music

A Visit from the Goon Squad 

A Visit from the Goon Squad

"[Charlie] takes hold of his hands. As they move together, Rolph feels his self-consciousness miraculously fade, as if he is growing up right there on the dance floor, becoming a boy who dances with girls like his sister. Charlie feels it, too. In fact, this particular memory is one she'll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father's house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance."

I was impressed with the confidence of the prose in Jennifer Egan's novel. It is told in a post-modern style with a narrative that unfolds over the course of self-contained stories within each chapter. The episodes meld together through connections that form a cohesive narrative. The stories do not occur chronologically, but rather they jump through time showing different periods from the past of the 1970s to the future of the 2020s. The novel is also split into two parts—A and B—which echoes the two sides of an album.

Several characters appear in more than one story, and through the ways in which they appear at different points in time, their narratives become clear. One of the stories is told as a power-point presentation. The theme of popular music and popular culture in general pervades the novel. This was an aspect that made me uncomfortable as I did not recognize a lot of the references (apparently I do not share the narrator's taste in music). There is a strong critique of popular culture. This criticism is made primarily through exploration of the music industry, but film, photography, and journalism are also investigated in the novel. Egan draws attention to the way in which trends come and go, and the effects of these cultural shifts.

Other themes include the issue of identity, as Egan explores the extent to which identity is inherent and the ways in which it is assumed. The novel’s characters struggle to find meaning and authenticity in their lives, and they use different methods to discover, create, and escape their identities. Above all is an in depth exploration of the passage of time, the effects of aging on individual lives, and the longing for the past through memory. The novel’s title even speaks directly to the theme of time. Bosco, the former guitarist of The Conduits, who has become fat, alcoholic, and suicidal, states, “Time’s a goon, right?” Traditionally, a goon was an individual who inflicts fear and violence on others to achieve a desired end. Utilizing the word “goon” illuminates Egan’s understanding of time as an unforgiving force that shapes the novel’s characters in various, and often unpleasant, ways.
This novel won awards and praise from many. I found it a challenging read that proved uniquely interesting.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 02, 2018

Life-Long Learning

Film Societies and More

"As much as I love books and the theater, I think the cinema is a uniquely modern medium that we look to for the stories of our times." - Christopher Nolan

In these days we have Netflix and on-line downloading of movies.  Because I subscribe I was recently delighted and very deeply moved by Everlasting Moments, a film directed by Jan Troell.  

However, more than forty years ago when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison we had film societies. It was the age before home video, in that era student film societies were all the rage. Classic and foreign films were shown in classrooms after hours, hosted by groups such as the Wisconsin Film Society, Fertile Valley, Praeteorius, Phoenix and El Dorado. Graduate student Russell Campbell even started his own film journal to cover the phenomenon, "The Velvet Light Trap", which has become a leading peer-reviewed journal for film and television studies.  The Wisconsin Union presented films as well, and they continue to do so today under the aegis of the WUD Film Committee. 

This was the environment in which I "discovered" foreign films.  I remember attending many of Ingmar Bergman's greatest hits and one, The Seventh Seal, remains a top favorite of mine decades later.  But there were the French films of Chabrol (who outdid Hitchcock), Renoir, Truffaut, and the director that was to become my favorite, Eric Rohmer.  
The film societies did not neglect the American cinema and my memories include shockers like "Wait Until Dark" with Audrey Hepburn and "Night of the Living Dead" directed by George Romero.  There were also literary adaptations like "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" with Alan Arkin.  This was part of my education as much as the formal classes, the Badger Marching Band, and Saturday mornings listening to LPs of Shostakovich and others at the Madison Public Library.  It was a wonderful place to be young and learn.  It was the beginning for a life-long learner.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Duplicate Lives

The Punch Escrow 

The Punch Escrow“Imagine looking in the mirror and not knowing who you are. An empty face staring back. No one. We rarely think about how much air is around us until we can’t breathe. We always imagine what it would be like to be someone else, but when we do so, it’s with the guise that beneath it all, we know who we really are. Take that away, and who are we?”   ― Tal M. Klein, The Punch Escrow

Would you trust a machine to teleport you from New York to Costa Rica? Set in the not too distant future, The Punch Escrow is a novel that depends on you and a lot of other people saying yes to that question. It is the story of Joel Byram, a self-described smart-ass who works as a man-made intelligence "salter" who helps practice AIs to grasp the artwork of human interplay by way of using jokes and language puzzles. He is a super AI interface hacker; consequently, he has the talents required to linguistically trick AIs into elevating his privileges and performing duties they would be unlikely to do otherwise. Along with his winning personality this is one of the best aspects of the novel.

The actual bread-winner within the Byram family is his spouse, Sylvia. She's a workaholic senior analyst at IT: Worldwide Transport, the corporation that controls the worldwide teleportation market. In order to reboot their shaky marriage they book a second honeymoon in Costa Rica. Joel is about to teleport to satisfy his spouse, ready for the flash that often accompanies the journey, when a suicide bomber makes the leap ahead of him and blows up the Costa Rica teleportation level. The explosion interrupts the community and his transport, and, because of the security system utilized by IT, Joel is left standing confused in Greenwich Village. However the error reports him having transported. Believing him lifeless, his spouse restores Joel from an experimental backup system. Now there are two Joels—and the original Joel loses his digital id when the second is created (in this future world losing your digital id is a personal disaster).

This precipitates a massive company problem for IT, one of the most powerful corporations in a future where the management of the world has been given over to corporations after the demise of nation-states. Joel's twin existence is proof of the elemental lie behind their patented "Punch Escrow," the key ingredient of the security system constructed to make certain protection for human transport.

Named for the 17th century Irish thinker and theologian John Punch (the person credited with formulating the classical definition of Occam's Razor), the "escrow" is not actually a know-how, but rather a sort of algorithm used to make sure there is a protected supply of individuals. The system "prints" copies of them on the vacation spot, then murders the unique with nanobots. From there on out, Joel is on the run for his life—or lives, as each of him and his spouse are awfully inconvenient to some and a possible prize to others.

Klein applies serious science to his future-world hypothesis (he consulted a medical physicist and other sources). And he provides footnotes—asides from Joel explaining the science and historical past of his future world, in his personal smart-ass method—to keep away from overburdening the core narrative with exposition, in a method that comes off as an irreverent model of the gadget utilized by Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

This reader took pleasure in the novel based on the original Joel as the narrator. The story is informed solely from Joel's (and his copy's) perspective, there is not an entire lot of character improvement past the confines of his wisecracking thoughts. It also helps to avoid trying to analyze the plot too closely for there are a few too many fortuitous moments for Joel. The saving grace is that the author is able to create situations that can sometimes be very humorous from Joel's engagement with the ubiquitous computerization of everyday objects. This was an enjoyable read and should become an entertaining movie (the film version is already in production).

Friday, January 26, 2018

Going Where He has to Go


“- Why me?

- That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
- Yes.

- Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”  ― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five is a time-travelling paradox of a novel. It is written in a simple prose style narrative in which the jerking forward and backward in time somehow becomes mesmerizing. While originally an  experimental work it still seems new fifty years later. Vonnegut is a character in scenes with Pilgrim; he is watching Pilgrim, like the reader is watching them both. Buried in the narrative of Billy Pilgrim is the story of the Dresden holocaust, that the allied forces managed to keep mostly unknown to Americans. The events of Pilgrim's life are often remarkably funny and moving. Yet, through it all Pilgrim is helpless before the larger powers of the universe.

Vonnegut has the ability to implant suggestions in the mind of the reader and then work those suggestions into tangible forms in the text. For example, in the first chapter, Vonnegut says that when he is drinking he listens to talk-radio shows, then, as the novel proceeds, Pilgrim stumbles onto a radio program in which the topic is whether or not the novel, as a literary form, is dead. Also, after the firebombing of Dresden, innkeepers on the outskirts of town offer the soldiers their stable, as a place to sleep. Twenty pages later, Vonnegut reminds the reader of the book’s epigraph, “The cattle are lowing,/ The Baby awakes./ But the little Lord Jesus/ No crying He makes.” Biblical situations are considered more and more often as the book draws to a close. These include discussion of the following: the friends who take Jesus down from the cross; the possibility that Jesus and his father, as carpenters, make crosses on which other people would be executed; and a time traveler who is the first to check on Jesus at the cross to make sure he is really dead before he is taken down. A new gospel is written in which Jesus is not made the Son of God until the very end, when he is on the cross. Until then he is a nobody. Vonnegut implies that if Jesus was the “wrong” person to kill, then there are necessarily “right” persons to kill, and this is inherently a bad idea.

What also impressed me was the way Vonnegut integrated symbolism, imagery and allegory throughout the novel. For example Slaughterhouse-Five uses many elements from the fictional part of the novel, and specifically from Billy's experiences on the planet Tralfamadore, to structure the book as a whole. Not only do the stars in the Tralfamadorian novel appear throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, but the fact that the book is not told in chronological order fits the Tralfamadorian concept of time. Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." The story's central concept: most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do, because they must. A great example of how we use humor to deal with hardship, and the conflict between the way heroism is conveyed through stories for actions in situations that perhaps could have been avoided altogether.

In the first chapter, Vonnegut calls this novel “short and jumbled and jangled . . . because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” His critics have found fault in him and this novel for not taking serious matters more seriously, and for that reason his work was not highly acclaimed or accepted into the academic canon for many years (it has even been banned in many places over the years). Vonnegut is categorized in the genre of science fiction, though he believes his work holds more depth than work in that genre usually has (IMHO he is wrong). With the eventual acceptance of Slaughterhouse-Five, he became classified as a satirist who seeks to make readers laugh, as did Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift before him. The opening sentence of the book reminded me of the opening lines of Huckleberry Finn.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Six Years in Mexico

Stones for Ibarra 

Stones for Ibarra
"how did any of us get here, she almost asked, and she looked at the people around her. What eruptions had shaken them loose from earlier patterns of living, lifted them to the fearful brink of choice , only to deposit them at crossroads so poorly marked?" (p 162)

Stones for Ibarra originated as a group of short stories about an American couple in a small Mexican village. The vignettes that constitute the eighteen chapters of the novel are set in the 1960's and chronicle episodes that focus on the interactions of the couple with the denizens of Ibarra, connected by the passage of time between the arrival of Richard and Sara Everton and Sara’s departure six years later. The author claimed that only a small part of Stones for Ibarra was autobiographical, but the framework of the novel recalls the Doerr family’s forays to Mexico.

In the first chapter, “The Evertons Out of Their Minds,” the couple go to Mexico from San Francisco, California, to reclaim their family estate and reopen a copper mine abandoned since the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Not long after their arrival at the unexpectedly dilapidated house, which fails to match the faded family photos or the Evertons’s dreams, Richard is diagnosed with leukemia and given six years to live. Despite the brevity of the second chapter, “A Clear Understanding,” several months pass in which the Evertons are observed by the townspeople, who find the Americans peculiar. Interestingly the Evertons never really shed their outsider status in spite of their interest in the culture of the small community.

Richard seems emboldened by his medical diagnosis and works hard to make the mine operable, hiring many locals and becoming something of hero in a strange way. The stories that comprise the short chapters drift backward and forward in time, though when a native is asked about specifics of an incident he replies: "Senora, it is as difficult to recapture the past as it is to prefigure the future." The author meanwhile is successful in portraying the landscape, and gradually providing evidence of the kind of culture that exists in this out of the way place.

The town priest is a frequent visitor to the Everton home, and he figures in many of the vignettes of the novel. He has a variety of assistant priests, who build basketball courts, are beloved of dogs, and impregnate a woman from a neighboring village. He sponsors a town picnic and solicits donations from the nonbelieving Evertons. Other vignettes relate the sad tale of brother killing brother, the use of native remedies to protect the Everton house, Sara’s Spanish lessons with Madre Petra, and the visit of a Canadian geologist and his Lebanese engineer.

The novel is written in a thoroughly crafted prose in which each sentence is pared down and polished until only the essential remains. As a consequence, the reader seems to somehow create the text while reading it, to discover in Doerr’s spare phrases the meaning and emotion the characters themselves hesitate to reveal. The novel reveals as much about the “lost” American expatriates as it does about the Mexican natives, by shifting perspectives and allowing the reader to see each group or individual through the eyes of the other.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Poem for Today

There is no Frigate like a Book (1286)


There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –

This, of course, is the poem that inspired the title for my literary blog; but it is much more, for it expresses my heartfelt feeling for books, poetry, and reading.  

Emily Dickinson, "There is no Frigate like a Book" from (02138: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, )