Monday, June 20, 2022

Hilarity from Page One

The Crying of Lot 49
The Crying of Lot 49 


“I came," she said, "hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy." Cherish it!" cried Hilarious, fiercely. "What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by it's little tentacle, don't let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”   ― Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49


This is one of the funniest books I have ever read. From the opening page the names, the events, the plot, all serve to provide humor in many ways. The story is disjointed by an abundance of ideas that only loosely hang together.
 
What impressed me the most, the moments that had me laughing out loud instead of just smiling (which I did on almost every page), were some of the most outrageous names like that of the protagonist Oedipa Maas and her husband Mucho Mass (!); but also Dr. Hilarious, Mike Fallopian, Arnold Snarb, Genghis Cohen, and many others on almost every page - there were no John Smiths in this book.

There were also the connections, at least those that I noted, that seemed to occur without warning. One connection that I found most exciting was when I remembered a passing reference to Cornell University on the opening page of the novel when I noted, on the first page of the final chapter, a song written by one of the characters Oedipa had only recently met which included the name "Humbert Humbert" in the lyrics. (I hope the connection requires no explanation.)

But that leads to the best aspect of the narrative, for it is surreal, having an absurd quality like it was a perpetual dream sequence. The events do not seem to follow any pattern, although there is the arc of the story based on Oedipa's nomination to be executor of the will of one Pierce Inverarity, which event did not seem to be explained by anything she could think of -- a letter from his law firm "said Pierce had died back in the spring, and they'd only just now found the will. . . She tried to think back to whether anything unusual had happened around then" (when she had been designated in a codicil the previous year). That is the event that sets her on her wild journey. It's one that involves unexpected events that tumble after each other culminating in a denouement that connects with the opening in an unexpected, perhaps bizarre, way. I will not attempt to explain the plot which involves bone charcoal, an Elizabethan drama, named "The Courier's Tragedy" which at least seems appropriate given other aspects of the plot, a modern megacorporation (wonderfully named Yoyodyne), and a mystery about an ancient symbol that is somehow connected to a valuable postage stamp. That list should be enough to whet any reader's appetite while suggesting how outrageously surreal the narrative becomes.

Needless to say I could not put the book down, for it was an exciting read in addition to being hilarious on almost every page. I would highly recommend this to readers who enjoy the works of authors like Sterne, Joyce or, in a more contemporary vein, Haruki Murikami.



Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Socratic Wisdom

Philosophy and the Return to Self-Knowledge
Philosophy and the Return to 
Self-Knowledge 


"Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens."
--- Cicero





This is a book dedicated to the importance of and need to return philosophy to an approach found in the origins of philosophy found in Socratic humanism. This means reviving the ideal espoused in the slogan "know thyself". The examined life and the wisdom derived from the search and process of achieving such a life is one that the author believes is necessary to reform philosophy. He is careful to comment on process and in the concluding sections of the book provide a discussion of virtues. As a student of the classics and someone who admires the Socratic process of seeking knowledge through dialogic means I found this book encouraging and thought-provoking.


Saturday, June 11, 2022

Reading William Faulkner

                        Signposts for Understanding 

                                                 Absalom, Absalom!
                        by Willam Faulkner
Absalom, Absalom!



“What is it? something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens' children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge at Manassas?" 'Gettysburg,' Quentin said. 'You cant understand it. You would have to be born there.”   ― William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!







How can we understand the message of Absalom, Absalom!, if there is one? I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's dictum that "the process of understanding is clearly, and perhaps primarily, also a process of self-understanding."(Arendt, p 310) Reading this novel requires such a process on the part of the reader that adds to the inward aspect an emphasis on close attention to detail and to the incarnate nature of the prose. I would like to suggest a some signposts that were apparent to me as I read this text; thus follows comments on a few passages and themes that contribute to the meaning and power of Absalom, Absalom!. 

While the narrative seems out of joint from the beginning, one encounters a story revealed through discussions by characters who are, for the most part, looking back through time and memory to events that continue to resonate in their lives. This process is one that provides only partial and prejudiced information. Yet the memories will remain with them till their death or, in the case of Shreve and Quentin, into their being in a cold dark room at Harvard.

The novel begins in the dark on a "hot weary dead September afternoon", with Quentin Compson visiting Miss Rosa Coldfield. The darkness from the opening pages, perhaps suggestive of a lack of clarity or mist that blurs the story, pervades the chapters of the novel; thus we find Miss Rosa, as imagined by Quentin on the opening page of the fourth chapter, "waiting in one of the dark airless rooms in the little grim house's impregnable solitude."(p 70)  Even in the opening of chapter six we find darkness combined with death as Quentin and his roommate Shreve at Harvard receive a letter from Quentin's father that infects the room with "dead summer twilight---the wistaria . . .attenuated up from Mississippi and into this strange room, across this strange iron New England snow."(p 141)
Faulkner crafts the novel with magnificent prose that recalls mythology and history as material for the tales that encompass the modern narrators' lives. One example of  this mythology can be seen in the naming of Thomas Sutpen's daughter, Clytemnestra, followed by this telling passage:  "I have always liked to believe he intended to name her Cassandra, prompted by some pure dramatic economy not only to beget but to designate the presiding augur of his own disaster."(p 48)  But Faulkner also bent language lower, toward the soil, until it'd lost any pretense of plot and was on the verge of incoherence. He would twist language until it encompassed the agony and sadness of is―-the unique moment exploding in its defenseless exposure, flashing incandescently before vanishing into the nothingness of was.

The novel's "current time" begins with Quentin's visit to Miss Rosa in September 1909 and concludes with Quentin and Shreve repeating the Sutpen story in their Harvard dorm room (January 1910). The novel's "past time" covers the rise and fall of Sutpen, his family, and his plantation in Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi (June, 1833 – February, 1884), as well as key events in Sutpen's upbringing. 

Yet these times are mixed together in the telling, and as seems to be suggested in the actuality of the lives of the participants. The best description of the process of the characters' lives (and perhaps our own) is provided in Chapter Four:  "You get born and you try this and you dont know why only you keep on trying it and you are born with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others are all trying and they dont know why either except that the strings are all in one another's way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it cant matter . . ." (pp 100-101)

The “loom” can be seen in one of the key relationships in the novel, that of  Quentin Compson and Shrevlin “Shreve” McCannon. We can enter their story, Chapters 6-9, via the connection with the dark to which we are introduced on the first page of the novel. For the opening paragraph of Chapter Six (referred to above) highlights the light as seen in the “snow on Shreve's overcoat” and “his ungloved blond square hand red and raw with cold,”.(p 141)  This light and the contrast with the dark leads us toward the closeness of Shreve and Quentin. This closeness is brought home with references to them as “twins” and “brothers” (pp 236-7) that share a “closeness” (p 288). I suggest that this mirrors the closeness of the other pair of “brothers”, Henry and Bon.(p 237) As with all such aspects of this complex narrative there are references to the relationship of Shreve and Quentin that separate them that are as great as the distance between Alberta and Mississippi.(p 236) It is not surprising, but just as complicated to fathom the meaning of  “love” as they talked - for their twin identities yielded  to their sharing with each other, “since neither of them had been thinking about anything else;”.(p 253) The lives of these two “brothers” are both as close and as far apart as can be imagined, yet it takes their intertwined existences to bring the novel to a climax.

One of the most important realizations I experienced in this reading of the novel was best described by another great American novelist, Wallace Stegner, who wrote:
"This novel . . . is in one respect the most realistic thng Faulkner has done. It  reconstructs historical materials as any individual in reality has to reconstruct them---piece-meal, eked out with surmise and guess, the characters ghostly shades  except in brief isolated passages. As in life, we are confronted by a story whose answers even the narrator does not know, whose characters he (and we with him) guesses at and speculates upon, but does not attempt to explain fully."・(Stegner, 1936)

I think that this approach along with the magnificent if sometimes ornate prose and deep psychological acuity demonstrated by both characters and settings combines to produce a powerful novel that successfully captures a time and culture for its readers. Ultimately, it is up to each individual reader to look for signposts and decide for themself what level of understanding they have attained.
_________________________________________________________
Arendt, Hannah, “Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding)”, in Essays in Understanding: 1930-1954. Schocken Books, New York, 1994.

Faulkner, William, Absalom, Absalom! Vintage Books, New York, 1990.

Stegner, Wallace E., New Technique in Novel Introduced・ Salt Lake City Tribune, November 29, 1936, p. 13-D

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Demise of a Family

The Promise
The Promise 
“Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity. It's just the living part we still have to work out.”   ― Damon Galgut, The Promise




The Promise, Damon Galgut's eighth novel, is set in South Africa. I was impressed with the rich flowing narrative style, reminiscent of Faulkner in my experience. Early in the story I was struck by an allusion to Camus' novel L'Etranger, while at moments I sensed an existential aura, although not nearly as powerful as his previous Booker short-listed novel, In a Strange Room, whose protagonist, a solitary wanderer, exudes the uncertainty often found in existentialist fiction. In The Promise as in Galgut's other literature there are typical references to the complex realm of South African society and politics, particularly apartheid's impact.
 
The narrative follows the Swarts (ironically swart means black in Afrikaans), a white family descended from Dutch pioneers who arrived in South Africa in the seventeenth century. The three Swart children grow up in a world where apartheid, a system that formally separated South Africans based on race, is being phased out. Each of the novel's four parts is centered on the death of one of the Swart family members, tracing the Swarts' deterioration. Among the key aspects that augment this deterioration are divisions among both the family and their black household employees along religious, race, and age differences. Also imperative is the development of the two youngest members of the Swart family, Anton and Amor. While Amor, the youngest is too young to remember some of the darker history of apartheid, Anton is literally driven apart by it both from the family and within his own self-identity.

This book reminded me of Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March in which he used the decline of a family to mirror the the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a similar way, Galgut's novel with its chronicle of the deaths of members of the Swart family provides a mirror or perhaps a metaphor for the dissolution of the Afrikaners' regime in South Africa. It is  profound in its details and ultimate message. Because of its roving, fluid point of view, The Promise is stylistically similar to some of the best works of literary modernism and holds its own in comparison with the great novels of J. M. Coetzee.  The narrative's deft blending of the Swart family history beside the devolution of the apartheid state in South Africa is presented in a unique and powerful way. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to better understand twentieth century South Africa.



Friday, May 27, 2022

The Odes of Horace

Odes, and Carmen Saeculare
Odes, and Carmen Saeculare 



“Not him with great possessions should you in truth call blest; with better right does he claim the name of happy man who realizes how to make use of the gods' gifts wisely, is skilled to meet harsh poverty and endure, as one who dreads dishonor far more than death; a man like that for friends beloved, or for his country fears not to perish.”   ― Quintus Horatius Flaccus, The Odes of Horace



Horace lived in the last half of the 1st century B.C.E. and wrote some of the greatest lyric poetry in ancient Rome. While the Odes often describe commonplace activities they still allow various interpretations by the reader based on construction, vocabulary and imagery. The activities are often as simple as inviting a friend for a drink or wishing a friend a safe journey. While describing what are often mundane activities they often yield deeper meanings like "remember you are going to die" or "stay in the middle, don't go too far out." The beauty of the poems, even in translation , is undeniable. He often praises famous men, refers to the gods and his muse, while praising his friend and benefactor, Maecenas.

I found reading these poems an antidote to the revulsion that I had while reading the brutality of battles and even daily life in the histories of Livy and Tacitus. Rome during this era was resplendent in artistic beauty. The poetry of Horace is evidence of some of that beauty.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Poem for Today



 Ars Poetica


A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit


Dumb

As old medallions to the thumb


Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown –


A poem should be wordless

As the flight of birds


A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs


Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,


Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,

Memory by memory the mind –


A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs


A poem should be equal to:

Not true


For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf


For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –


A poem should not mean

But be.

Friday, May 20, 2022

A Reading Memory

 

The Reading Room

"To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” - Henry David Thoreau


Classical music was playing every evening. It was warm and inviting – a place to relax and read. I do not remember how often I went there, but from the first time I discovered the room I always felt comfortable there. It was an oasis in the midst of a bustling and boundless campus.

Virginia Woolf wrote about “A Room of One's Own” that was necessary for thinking and writing. For my reading I found that all I required was a book, preferably a good one, and a comfortable chair, merely a corner one might call one's own. There were many such corners available within the confines of the expansive campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1960's. First, there was my room, not always my own room for I shared one during my undergraduate years and even during my first year of graduate school. The room usually provided at least one corner, but there was the library, or rather the libraries since there were several libraries available for my use. Each of the libraries offered many corners for reading. However, ultimately the most elegant, inviting, relaxing, and refreshing corner was in The Reading Room at the Memorial Union.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Aeneas Founds Rome

The Aeneid
The Aeneid 


“Do the gods light this fire in our hearts or does each man's mad desire become his god?”         ― Virgil, The Aeneid




The Aeneid is an epic poem, detailing Aeneas' journey. The first six books of the Aeneid recount the adventures of Aeneas, the future founder of Rome. The last six books tell of the settlement of the Trojans in Italy and the war with the Italians.

After the fall of Troy, a small group of refugees escaped, and Aeneas became their leader. Several prophecies predicted that this group would settle in Italy and become ancestors of the Romans. They suffer many hardships; similar to those suffered by Odysseus (attacks by the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis.) After wandering for years, they arrive in Italy, settling in Latium. Before they are accepted, they have to fight a terrible war against the Latins led by Turnus. After Aeneas slays Turnus, he is free to marry Lavinia, the princess of Latium.

Virgil begins the poem as Aeneas is sailing on the last leg of his journey, destined to take him to Italy. When tremendous storms batter his ships they take refuge on the nearest land.  Aeneas learns that it is here that Queen Dido is constructing Carthage. The Queen falls in love with Aeneas and begs him to tell her the story of the fall of Troy.

Aeneas relates the tale at the request of the Queen. After the fall, the band of exiled men sailed to Delos where the oracle of Apollo predicted that they would found a great nation. He details his adventures up to the present time for the Queen. Dido and Aeneas' love is ill-fated. He must follow the destiny the Gods have made for him. When he leaves grief-stricken Dido commits suicide.

The ships finally arrive in Italy, near Cumae. Aeneas visits the temple of Apollo to consult a prophetess. She appears to him and tells Aeneas of the war he will fight and of his enemies. He asks to descend into Hades, where he meets his father, Anchises. Anchises shows Aeneas his future heirs and the heroes of Rome. The visit to the underworld in the Aeneid parallels a similar visit made by Ulysses (Odysseus) in Homer's Odyssey

The Trojans continue on and settle in Latium. Aeneas realizes his prophecy has been fulfilled. A war breaks out and Aeneas is given magical armor by the Gods for protection. Turnus, the leader of Latium's defense, attacks the Trojan camp, and many lives are lost. Turnus announces that the husband of Lavinia will be determined by a duel between Aeneas and himself. Aeneas kills Turnus in battle. The prophecies of the gods have been fulfilled.

The epic by Virgil has inspired great writers ever since his day. Dante knew the story of Ulysses from Ovid who recounts it in his Metamorphoses (like Dante, Ovid suffered the fate of exile and expulsion from the city he loved and died without returning to it). It is this recounting that inspired the tale narrated by Ulysses in Canto 26 of The Inferno. In the twentieth century Hermann Broch began his novel of Virgil's last days, The Death of Virgil, with a similar motif of the ending of a sea-voyage with Virgil lying on his death bed in the entourage of Augustus. Beside Virgil in a small trunk was the manuscript for the Aeneid. And Primo Levi, in his autobiographical Survival in Auschwitz, recounts how he kept himself sane by attempting to reconstruct Ulysses' great speech in the Comedy from memory. These words provided a touchstone of humanity and civilization even that modern version of Dante's hell.


Headmaster for Life

The Rector of Justin
The Rector of Justin 


“I was sophisticated enough to know that the written word is no mirror of the writer’s character, that the amateur, though a selfless angel, may show himself a pompous ass, while the professional, a monster of ego, can convince you in a phrase that he has the innocence of a child. I”   ― Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin


This novel is considered by many to be a modern classic. Whether you share that opinion or not, I believe it certainly represents the author's best work in the genre. Through his skillful use of multiple narrators and viewpoints, he underscores the elusive nature of human truth, necessarily subjective in our individual perspectives, yet ultimately existing in reality no matter how difficult to discern. In his narrative he highlights the inevitable moral blindness implicit in much human endeavor.

The narrative presents the life story of Francis Prescott, from his youth as a schoolboy to his death at age 85. As Dr. Francis Prescott, he is the Rector (headmaster) and founder of the exclusive New England Episcopalian boys' school Justin Martyr (a famous prep school). The multiple narrators' attitudes toward their subject range from veneration to hatred, thus providing a depth of character that infuses the book and elucidates effectively the somewhat larger-than-life central character of the Rector. Through the character, actions, and career of Frank Prescott, Auchincloss shows both the benefits and the dangers of such a character; the dangers are perhaps most evident to Prescott himself who, perceiving the true nature of his accomplishment at the end of his life, honestly believes that he has failed in his appointed task.

Louis Auchincloss, himself a Wall Street attorney and a product of Groton, among the most eminent of American preparatory schools, has often used such schools in his fiction to help delineate the background formation of his characters. Never before or since, however, has he so successfully presented the implicit irony, or even absurdity, of the existence in the United States of an educational alternative frankly based on the elitist British public school yet ostensibly dedicated to the ideals of democracy. The book is both well written and compulsively readable, and a fine introduction to this modern author. If you enjoy this novel I would recommend Auchincloss's short stories.


Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Memoir of a Literary Life

My Salinger Year
My Salinger Year 

“To read Salinger is to engage in an act of such intimacy that it, at times, makes you uncomfortable. In Salinger, characters don't sit around contemplating suicide. They pick up guns and shoot themselves in the head. All through that weekend, even as I ripped through his entire oeuvre, I kept having to put the books down and breathe. He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It's almost too much. Almost.”   ― Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year

If you love books, if you ever wanted to write books, if you were ever young and wondered what you should do with your life, this is a memoir for you. Joanna Rakoff, in this her second book, has written an appealing memoir about her first job in Manhattan with a literary agency. Not just any job, but one at the literary agent for J. D. Salinger is her destination. It was there that she entered an old style agency that in the nineties had yet to move into the digital world of computers and email.

Her story is one that balances the relative impoverishment of someone just out of college with the demands of living with her current boyfriend, and a job that is daunting at most of its best times. Her main task is to answer Salinger's fan mail, yet that involves preparing form letters responding to readers' letters and notifying them that Mr. Salinger does not read or respond to fan mail. Somehow she gets the idea that she should abandon the standard template and start responding to some of the more emotional epistles on her own. Needless to say this decision creates a few difficulties for her young career.

The memoir highlights how she handles this new world she has entered and the emotional impact that has on her personal life. The best moments for this reader were when she related her connection with Salinger's prose. Her reactions were not only realistic, but not unlike some of my own reactions to his novels and stories. His is truly a unique voice and his characters, from Holden to Franny & Zooey are iconic. His books demonstrate a love of literature in that is both like other great authors yet very definitely just right for his characters and narratives.

I think that Ms. Rakoff demonstrates a similar love of literature in the best moments of this memoir. While I found some of the personal anecdotes slightly less interesting than her literary adventures, that did not detract significantly from what was a very enjoyable literary memoir.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Imaginary Agonies yet True Sorrows

The Warden
The Warden 


“In former times great objects were attained by great work. When evils were to be reformed, reformers set about their heavy task with grave decorum and laborious argument. An age was occupied in proving a grievance, and philosophical researches were printed in folio pages, which it took a life to write, and an eternity to read. We get on now with a lighter step, and quicker: ridicule is found to be more convincing than argument, imaginary agonies touch more than true sorrows,”  ― Anthony Trollope, The Warden




This is a good novel with which to start your exploration of the world of Anthony Trollope who would go on to write dozens of books over his literary career. The story of The Warden is based very loosely on several ecclesiastical inquiries of Trollope’s era in which the Anglican Church was accused of diverting monies from ancient endowments to the pockets of idle clergymen, thereby stinting the charitable purposes for which the endowments had been intended. Trollope’s novel raises just such an ethical question, then complicates the issue by making the benefiting clergyman, Mr. Harding, the most honest and decent of men. Trollope states his own view of the matter through his narrator when he says, “In this world no good is unalloyed, and . . . there is but little evil that has not in it some seed of what is goodly.”

The themes of church and society in the town of Barchester on display here are complemented by a portrayal of the media and the legal profession that is unflattering, but realistic. Trollope's satire is biting and the story is one that pits the local Warden's (Septimus Harding) sense of justice against that of the church and society. In doing so Trollope demonstrates the way the unintended consequences of our actions have a way of overtaking us and those around us.

This is particularly evident in the actions of the young firebrand John Bold who finds his feelings for Harding's daughter, Eleanor, ultimately win out over his call for social justice. The depiction of the role of the press via the newspaper The Jupiter had resonance with the role that major newspapers and other outlets play in controversies in contemporary America. But it is the institution of the Anglican Church that comes in for the most criticism as its lack of concern for those most in need is on display in spite of the general goodness of Septimus and the Bishop. Overall this is a good introduction to one of the greatest of the Victorian novelists.


Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Hiding Your Differences

Openly Straight (Openly Straight, #1)
Openly Straight 



“It’s hard to be different,” Scarborough said. “And perhaps the best answer is not to tolerate differences, not even to accept them. But to celebrate them. Maybe then those who are different would feel more loved, and less, well, tolerated.”   ― Bill Konigsberg, Openly Straight


This is a different take on the narrative of a gay teenager who goes away from home to a Private Boys Boarding School. Rafe, a high school junior from Boulder, Colorado, has been out and proud since he was in the eighth grade as the novel relates his journey. He's fortunate in that he comes from a loving family and lives in an accepting town, so he's never had to deal with slurs or bullying because of his sexuality. However, he's recently begun to believe that many around him just view him as just a gay person, rather than as a unique individual with many other facets to his character. As a result, when he transfers from a public high school in Boulder to a private boarding school in Massachusetts — an all-boys school, no less – he decides to keep his sexuality hidden from his new peers.

Rafe's plan, predictably, does not turn out as he had hoped. While he realizes that separating himself from his gay identity opens up a new social world for him, he also discovers that repressing such a vital part of himself comes at a cost. In the end, he'll have to navigate the turbulent waters of honesty, truth, desire, and self-awareness – a journey made more difficult by his growing attraction to Ben, one of his classmates.

The characters are lively and current, offering realistic depictions of adolescent relationships, a few truly romantic moments, serious consideration of adolescent issues, and a healthy dose of humor. A unique aspect of the story that I found fascinating was the interaction between Rafe and his writing teacher presented through writing exercises interpolated throughout the narrative. These provided additional details about Rafe's background and his personality; however the highlight of the novel was the reversal by the main character of his role as an out gay and the repercussions for both himself and others that result from his actions. That this was handled in a believable way was what I found to be the best aspect of what might have been just an average story.

Openly Straight, with its convoluted narrative and a complicated finish, is a gripping and profoundly truthful work that you won't want to put down. This is the kind of well-written book that spoils me as a reader. I have less patience with books that do not meet the standard set by this one with its engaging story about coming of age as a gay boy.


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Roman History: The Early Centuries

The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundation
The Early History of Rome: Books I-V of the History of Rome from its Foundation 
by Livy



“The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”   ― Livy , The History of Rome, Books 1-5 





From the founding myth of Rome, narrated so eloquently by Virgil in The Aeneid, augmented with the tale of Romulus and Remus, Livy tells of the history of the republic to the beginning of the fourth century BC. This is an account that presents prosaic events enlivened with exciting moments of wars, political changes, the evolution from a monarchy to a republic, and great speeches by characters both unfamiliar and, sometimes, larger-than-life. Livy himself was born in Padua in 59 BC and died in 17 AD (about 40 years after the death of Virgil).

The early years of Roman history include the myth of Aeneas and the historic rule by Numa Pompilius whose life was also chronicled by Plutarch. There are battles like that of Lake Regillus and rulers both good and bad, the latter best represented by Canuleius the demagogue. My favorite was Cincinnatus who was the epitome of the farmer-soldier- ruler and who assumed the consulship only to return to the farm when his moment in the limelight had ended. 

The many battles and usual successes highlight a barbarity that provides a foundation for that which is evident in the later empire (see Tacitus for that history). There are also the political battles between the Patricians and Plebes for control of the republic. In some ways they reminded me of more recent political contretemps in our own republic. It may come as a surprise that after many difficulties and resultant growth in the power of Rome, near the end of this part of Roman history the city itself is sacked by the Gauls. It must be the memory of that which explains some of the ruthlessness of the Romans under Caesar in the last days of the Republic (see Caesar's Gallic Wars for that story).

Ultimately Livy's history is readable both because of his engaging prose style and his ability to enliven most of the more critical events of early Roman history. With interpolated speeches from primary leaders the book reminded me of Thucydides masterpiece on the Peloponnesian Wars.


Monday, April 18, 2022

To Viet Nam and Beyond

The Education of Corporal John Musgrave: Vietnam and Its Aftermath
The Education of Corporal John Musgrave:
 Vietnam and Its Aftermath 

"When you were out in the bush and someone screamed, it was easy to tell the difference between someone who was scared and someone who'd been hit bad. There's both pain and terror in the scream when someone gets hit. Suddenly I heard someone screaming that way, and, God, it sounded so fucking horrible, and I couldn't figure out who it was. Then, and instant later, my mind caught up with my body, and I realized the scream was coming from me." (p 157)

Growing up in a small midwestern town in the fifties and sixties is something I share with the author of this memoir. It is a story about joining the Marines, going to war in Vietnam, and surviving both the war and its aftermath. Fortunately, I did not share the going to war part nor the aftermath, at least not in the same way as the author, but as one of his fellow Americans who lived through that era and experienced its effects on both those who went to war and those who did not.

I suppose it was that connection which was part of what made choose to read this book. Once I started I could not put it down for it was a riveting story of an innocent boy of 17 who dreamed of joining the Marines and managed to live that dream and the nightmarish consequences that he had to endure as a result. The book enthralled me because his story was real and believable. The personal details from boot camp to Nam and his return on a stretcher thinking that he would not survive were narrated with prose that would make professional writers proud. That his story did not end there made it even more readable and took this reader into parts of post-Vietnam history that were unfamiliar territory. Through it all I got to know this, now not so young, man and his story of going into the depths of hell (for that is what war is) and reclaiming his life with purpose through raising a family and standing up with and for other Vietnam veterans who all too often did not receive the support they deserved from their fellow Americans.

I would recommend this sincere and informative memoir to all who are interested in how even one individual with a few close friends can make America better and surmount the terrors, both physical and mental, that come from going to war.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Dystopian Vision

Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 

“I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can't really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, 'If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we'll talk.' All the computer can give you is a manuscript. People don't want to read manuscripts. They want to read books. Books smell good. They look good. You can press it to your bosom. You can carry it in your pocket.”  ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


This is one of the great dystopian novels of all time, especially for true bibliophiles. In this age of Kindles and Nooks and Ipads this story seems almost nostalgic, a fifties rendition of the future that reminded me of an Orwellian world ruled by a Huxleyan culture.

It is written in an allegorical style with a fantastic background that mixes futuristic ideas within a rule-bound society where the many are ruled by videos and drugs. Bradbury is effective in creating a nightmare and an evocative story, for he is a brilliant storyteller and this, like most of his stories, has a fantastic edge.

A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed, but one of the book burners, Guy Montag, is the only human struggling for some truth. Montag is -- for those not familiar with the story -- a fireman. His job is to set fire to books so that no one will read and consequently understand the hopelessness of reality. He is lured into reading a book by a young woman named Clarisse who tells of a world of books, thoughts, and ideas. Of course the story of Adam and Eve immediately comes to mind. But this allegory has deeper meanings. What is the role of the book and what are the limits of language? What would you do if you realized your life is devoted to the destruction of that which you love? Are you willing to engage in the search for Truth? The denouement is brilliant and the result is a book that you will never forget. Once you have seen the amazing cinematic recreation by Francois Truffaut you will have additional images to put along side those of this book, emblazoned on your mind forever. This along with The Martian Chronicles is among my favorite Bradbury and the best fantastic fiction I have read.   (Reread (4th time)

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Pursuing a Life of Science

Transcendent Kingdom
Transcendent Kingdom 




“...We humans are reckless with our bodies, reckless with our lives, for no other reason than that we want to know what would happen, what it might feel like to brush up against death, to run right up to the edge of our lives, which is, in some ways, to live fully.”   ― Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom



This novel, the author's second, is a thoughtful, yet often emotional narrative of the life of a young black woman, named Gifty, who is of Ghanaian descent. She is a sixth-year PhD student in neuroscience at Stanford University School of Medicine, where she studies reward-seeking behavior in mice as well as the neural circuits of depression and addiction.

She is dealing with issues involving family, religion, and science as she grows up to become a intelligent scientist. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after becoming addicted to OxyContin due to an ankle injury. From the opening pages of the novel we learn about her mother who has many issues with living and has taken up residence in her bed. While her father has abandoned the family and returned to Ghana. He said to them "I'm going home to visit my brother . . . and then he never came back."

Gifty is determined to find a scientific explanation for the suffering she witnesses all around her. Even as she turns to the hard sciences to solve the mystery of her family's death, she finds herself yearning for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as enticing as it is elusive. At one point in her pursuit of science she thinks, "What's the point?" and it became a refrain for her.

I was impressed with the non-linear timeline of the first person narrative as the transition from the present to the past was never confusing. In spite of the difficulties she faces, Gifty's journey through life becomes one of hope for the future.



Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Birth of Modern Culture

Wittgenstein's Vienna
Wittgenstein's Vienna 
by Allan Janik & Stephen Toulmin




"those who are ignorant of the context of ideas are . . . destined to misunderstand them. " - p 27.







Set in the hot bed of ideas at the end of the nineteenth century this book covers the man at the center of philosophic discussions, Ludwig Wittgenstein. But more than that this is a work of cultural history defining the meaning of the changes abounding from the preoccupations of a society undergoing profound changes. 

The arc of the books narrative takes the reader from Habsburg Vienna during the last days of empire through changes to language, culture, and philosophy. Leavened by references to art, music, and literature the book attempts to make a case for the intelligibility of these changes. 

One reads about the impact of the thought of Sigmund Freud; the music of Arnold Schonberg; and the art of Klimt, Kokoschka, and others. If you are interested in the roots of Robert Musil's early work or the impact of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer you should read this book. It is a seminal work in the history of ideas.


Thursday, March 10, 2022

Killing Words for Fun and Edification

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: 
The Parts of Speech, for Better And/Or Worse 



"The adverb is like the adjective only more so. . . . H. L. Mencken referred to it as "at best the stepchild of grammar.""  -  Ben Yagoda






For anyone who loves the English language or good writing or both this is a brief but essential book. With wry humor the author skewers the abusers of English while providing an important message for those who are able to calm down after each fit of laughter. 

In some ways this seems like a high-brow version of Richard Armour, but just not too high. The book covers parts of speech from Adj. to V. and seven others in between. With quips like this - "Every word, when a grammarian knows not what to make of it, he calls an adverb." - from the Roman Servius. Or there are examples of words that go rogue like prepositions that end up being adverbs or phrasal verbs. For what it's worth I enjoyed the ride and survived to, hopefully, use adjectives and other words with a bit more circumspection than I may have in the past.


Sunday, March 06, 2022

Dreams of Assimilation

Interior Chinatown
Interior Chinatown 



“Unofficially, we understood. There was a ceiling. Always had been, always would be. Even for him. Even for our hero, there were limits to the dream of assimilation, to how far any of you could make your way into the world of Black and White.”    ― Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown




I was drawn to Interior Chinatown because it was awarded the National Book Award and I wondered why it beat out Shuggie Bain, among others, for that award. . Only later did I realize I had previously read the author's earlier novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a tongue in cheek romp about the dangers of time travel. In my reading of his new book I found that Interior Chinatown evokes George Saunders' amusing and emotional short stories and films like 'The Truman Show.

The protagonist of this unusual novel, Willis Wu, doesn't see himself as the hero of his own story: he's just another Generic Asian Man. He is occasionally cast as a Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even as a Disgraced Son, but he is usually reduced to a prop. Every day, he leaves his cramped room in a Chinatown SRO and walks inside the Golden Palace restaurant, where the procedural cop show Black and White is under continual production. He has a small part here, too, but he aspires to be Kung Fu Guy, the most prestigious role available to anyone who looks like him. Why is that the case?

Willis finds himself thrust into a larger world than he's ever known after falling into the spotlight, learning not only the secret history of Chinatown, but also the history of the United States. In relaying this history the author uses a distinctive television screenplay structure. It isn't simply an amusing eccentricity; it also serves to emphasize how strongly Hollywood's rules affect everything in Willis's life, both on and off set. Every person is typecast into a specific position based on their appearance, and in order to be a star, Willis must never stop performing. He tames every aspect of himself to ensure that he's only ever presenting what's expected of Generic Asian Man on the outside. Only when he gets there does he find it's still the same—except now he has the added responsibility of preserving Chinatown's orientalist myth and the people who live there, further confirming their status as outsiders.

This novel is a satire and a commentary on the way we view others and ourselves. What is your identity and what one would you prefer to show to others? Or, perhaps you are comfortable in your own skin, whatever that may be.



Sunday, February 27, 2022

Let Your Being Be

Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus
Duino Elegies 
and The Sonnets to Orpheus 
“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”
― Rainer Maria Rilke






My introduction to Rilke was through his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where he introduces many of the themes that permeate the Elegies and Sonnets. Here we find references to alienation, fear, poverty, loneliness, art, disease, and death. Yet even with death there is great beauty and soaring poetry even in translation (especially fine by Stephen Mitchell).



Rilke creates powerful yet elegant poetic odes to the majesty of the human experience and its relationship to the external world in this comprehensive translation of two major works. A realm in which the human being exists in a state of perplexity and struggle. I was fascinated by the ideas of death as an other, the "terrible rival" from the notebooks, and a meditation on the fear of death as well as death overcome. The great joy of learning to be yourself and enjoy your being; what I call a will to relax and "let your being be". The many aspects of love that appear both as desire and as a rival for the work of the artist.



Through it all we find the poet "learning to see" with a new will and a new being. There were moments I was reminded of Nietzsche's Zarathrustra, and of course Orpheus and and other myths from Ovid along with the Bible and other literary resonances. Above all I came to accept Rilke's admonishment for us to go ahead and become "beginners". To begin is to begin to create and will your being and ultimately your life, even in the face of death.



Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Top Ten Tuesday



Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored  by Jana over at That Artsy Reader Girl


This week's topic is all about literary dynamic duos. I have listed ten of my favorites from among the many literary duos I've encountered in my many years of reading.


 1. The Iliad by Homer: Achilles and Patroclus are perhaps the greatest of friends in this magnificent epic. Unfortunately neither of them survived the Trojan War, but their cohort Odysseus was able to carry on in The Odyssey.


2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are perhaps the closest duo in this list since they are two sides of the same human. They are also the eeriest of duos on my list.


3. The Epic of Gilgamesh:  This earliest of duos established the mold, for Enkidu and Gilgamesh were a legendary dynamic duo in ancient Mesopotamian mythology: Enkidu as the wartime comrade and friend of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.


4. Don Quixote by Cervantes: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza made one of the most delightful and interesting duos I've ever encountered in all my reading.


5. Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais: This duo was made famous in Rabelais' ribald and utterly undefinable satire that made fun of everyone and everything.


6. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer and Huck Finnhis buddy, are the epitome of the American dynamic duo and a favorite from my youthful reading.


7. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett: Nick and Nora Charles are my favorite dynamic detective duo who solved crimes on a lark (with drink in hand). 


8. Dracula by Bram Stoker:  Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing make a macabre but thoroughly dynamic duo that could not exist without each other.


9. Alices's Adventures Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tweedledum and Tweedledee are two rotund little men who are identical except that they are left-right reversals of each other. Just two of the amazing and often dynamic characters that Alice encounters in this book and her Adventures in Wonderland.


10. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock and Watson are the last on my list but certainly among the most dynamic of duos. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Whitman's Civil War Memoranda

Memoranda during the War
Memoranda during the War 




"I was in the habit of reading to the men. They were very fond of it, and liked declamatory poetical pieces."   ― Walt Whitman, p 55.





Walt Whitman's Memoranda During the War is the best book I have read about a seldom thought about aspect of the Civil War. Having gone to Washington D. C. at the end of 1862 to visit his wounded brother George, Walt stayed there to tend to the sick and wounded through the end of the War. He writes about the known and the unknown, the anonymous soldiers who all too frequently did not survive their wounds.
"Common People . . . to me the main interest of the War, I found, (and still, on recollection find,) in those specimens, and in the ambulance, the Hospital, and even the dead on the field.)" (p 6)

The narrative displays the sort of interior history that you cannot get in history books. There is present in his prose a sort of ethereal innocence at times and an immediacy that comes from the contemporaneous notes that Whitman maintained in small notebooks. Throughout the narrative is imbued with thoughts of Homer's Iliad that Whitman held close to his heart. But even closer to his heart were the beautiful young boys who were being sacrificed on the battlefields. The contradictions of those he saw who would often be dead before the week was over contrasted with the bodies that lay on the battlefields, sometimes for a week or more before they were retrieved.

He found time to insert his observations from his walks around Washington. One poetic moment he described The White House at night; "the brilliant gas-light shining---the palace-like portico---the tall, round columns, spotless as snow . . ." What a contrast with his days in the hospitals surrounded by blood-soaked wounded soldiers, too young to be called the veterans that they were.

He concludes the narrative with his speculations about the future for the country. This provides a fitting ending for what is a fascinating, moving, and above all a heartfelt account of our greatest poet's experiences during the Civil War.