Thursday, June 20, 2024

Choices that End Poorly

Birnam Wood
Birnam Wood 

“...the real choices that you make in your life, the really difficult, defining choices are never between what's right and what's easy. They're between what's wrong and what's hard.”   ― Eleanor Catton, Birnam Wood

Birnam Wood is a group of guerilla gardeners that Mira Bunting founded five years ago. Set in New Zealand, this activist collective, an unregistered, uncontrolled, occasionally criminal, occasionally charitable group of friends, plants crops wherever no one will see them: on the sides of roads, in abandoned parks, and in backyards. For years, the group has struggled to break even. Then Mira stumbles on an answer—a way to finally set the group up for the long term: a landslide has closed the Korowai Pass, cutting off the town of Thorndike. A natural disaster has created an opportunity; a sizable farm is seemingly abandoned.

But Mira is not the only one interested in Thorndike. When he sees Mira on the property, mysterious American billionaire Robert Lemoine tells her that he has taken it to build his end-of-the-world bunker. Intrigued by Mira, Birnam Wood, and their entrepreneurial spirit, he suggests they work this land. But are they able to put their trust in him? Can they trust one another as their beliefs and ideals are put to the test?

A psychological thriller from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton's Birnam Wood, left me wondering if it was worth the time I took to read it. I was not surprised by the ending in general and found some of its main characters preditable. Neither the protagonist nor her antagonist were particularly believable. I barely found the story engaging enough to finish the novel. I cannot recommend this novel to any intelligent reader.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Enter, Falstaff

Shakespeare’s Henriad Collection: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V
Shakespeare’s  Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2

“I can call the spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come, when you do call for them?”
― William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1

Shakespeare's greatest plays, according to none other than Orson Welles, were these ones. Furthermore, Welles believed that Chimes at Midnight, the film adaptation of these plays, was his best work—even better than Citizen Kane.

Shakespeare's best works are those two plays, which can be seen as telling a single story. The plays that Falstaff appeared in are the plays that most people are more familiar with, which is why most people do not recognize them as such. (Apart from "Merry Wives," which is not quite as wonderful.)

Most people will ask, "Is not that the big fat guy who Shakespeare wrote about?" when you mention the name "Falstaff."

These plays only touch on a portion of Henry IV's turbulent reign, during which he usurped Richard II's throne. The real focus is on the coming-of-age of his eldest son, Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales, who was destined to someday become Henry V. The twist of the play is that — much to his Dad’s disappointment — young Hal prefers to hang out with Sir John Falstaff, a fat, drunk wastrel and a liar, but Falstaff is just so damn entertaining. So, Prince Hal hangs out with Falstaff rather than come to Court and study how to rule. Hal, later Henry V, becomes a great king, against all odds.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Legendary Neighborhood

Harlem Shuffle (Ray Carney, #1)
Harlem Shuffle 
by Colson Whitehead

". . . maybe don't play the same number all the time. Play something else, see what happens. Maybe you been playing the wrong thing this whole time."   - Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle

I have eagerly anticipated and delighted in reading Colson Whitehead's novels ever since I first read  The Intuitionist.      In his recent novel, Harlem Shuffle, the tension increases with each act as Ray Carney, the main character, delves further and deeper into the world of crime. Social unrest, racism, and classicism are the backdrop against which it is set. As a black man, Carney faces ongoing obstacles in his pursuit of success. He encounters class and racial divides in addition to them.

While racism is pervasive in Harlem Shuffle, to the point where the characters find it difficult to imagine a society in which everyone is treated equally, it plays an equally large role in the evolution of the 1960s New York City and Harlem communities. Even though there are several civil rights demonstrations throughout the book and people are aware of social injustice, characters like Ray have a negative outlook on racism. In addition, a number of unsavory characters are highlighted, including Ray Carney, who the reader found endearing, as part of a skillful depiction of the apparent side of Harlem business.

The book ends with what I consider its best narrative section making it impossible not to recommend it to anyone who enjoys a great read.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The (almost) Complete Truth


“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”   ― Jane Austen, Emma

I most recently read Emma as the April book for my local Great Books reading group. I had previously read it as the introductory novel in a class at the Newberry Library. The class was entitled "Jane Austen's Heirs" and included novels by such "heirs" of hers as Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, and Anita Brookner. Rereading this delightful novel is something I will undoubtedly do again.

Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." In the very first sentence she introduces the title character as "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich." Emma, however, is also rather spoiled; she greatly overestimates her own matchmaking abilities; and she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people's lives and is often mistaken about the meanings of others' actions.

While Emma differs strikingly from Austen's other heroines in some respects, she resembles Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, among others, in another way: she is an intelligent young woman with too little to do and no ability to change her location or everyday routine. Though her family is loving and her economic status secure, the quotidian details of Emma's everyday life seem a bit dul; she has few companions her own age when the novel begins. Her determined though inept matchmaking may represent a muted protest against the narrow scope of a wealthy woman's life, especially that of a woman who is single and childless.
And of course there is the classical balance of the novel's structure that, combined with the beauty of Austen's writing style, makes this novel a favorite of readers and writers, particularly those mentioned above, ever since it was published.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

What is Life Like?

The Long Form
The Long Form 

"But what is life like, really? The necessary, pressing, open question. And for whom? Questions that the novel, through its descriptions, the sharing out of its attention, both answers and asks." - Kate Briggs, The Long Form

The Long Form, which Briggs refers to as the "essay parts," is partially a reaction to Tom Jones and adopts a similar format that breaks up fictional narrative with expansive nonfiction passages. She also uses all caps with the lavishness of a novel from the eighteenth century; in one passage alone, the word "love" appears numerous times. Thus, it presents the novel form as it has rarely been presented before, with a lengthy series of short chapters, some as brief as a sentence. It is ostensibly about a single day in the lives of a new mother and her infant. It does this through its recursive structure, subtle connections and reverberations, attention to physical and social life, and lively conversation with other works of fiction and theory.

The Long Form is technically fiction but often veers toward essay. In this, it resembles a book delivered that morning to Helen’s door, interrupting a coveted moment of calm. In the gaps of time Helen can find to read it, we learn that Fielding’s novel also moves between forms and that it, too, addresses the subject of child-rearing, at least for a few chapters. But, as Helen muses, whereas Fielding’s protagonist arrives as an orphan without history, speeds through infanthood, and becomes a young hero, in reality, babies do come from somewhere, and they exert their own wills before they can walk or speak, even as they depend on a cast of care-giving others. I found the style worked for a time, but it made it difficult to maintain interest in the whole book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Prudent and Virtuous Governance

Discourses on Livy
Niccolo Machiavelli

“The salvation of a republic or a kingdom is not, therefore, merely to have a prince who governs prudently while he lives, but rather one who organizes the government in such a way that after his death it can be maintained.”   ― Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy

A thought-provoking and perceptive read, Discourses on Livy by Niccolò Machiavelli that is ideal for those who are passionate about politics, democracy, and the quest for a more just and equitable society. Machiavelli provides a radical vision of a new science of politics that continues to shape the modern ethos, as well as a foundational exploration of modern republicanism.

Discourses on Livy, is a seminal work that laid the foundation for modern republicanism, and it has been definitively translated into English by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov. The translation is extremely readable, staying true to the original Italian text while paying appropriate attention to Machiavelli's idiom and subtlety of thought. Machiavelli's radical vision of a new science of politics—a vision of new modes and orders that continue to shape the modern ethos—is revealed in The Discourses, which includes a comprehensive introduction, extensive explanatory notes, a glossary of key terms, and an annotated index.

Livy, whose histories are also a profitable read,  provided Machiavelli with the inspiration scholars needed for five centuries. The discourses contain the germs of contemporary political philosophy, which are frequently concealed and occasionally unintentional by the writers. Reading this book gives you a very different perspective on the author than you may have received from reading his more famous masterpiece, The Prince. Mansfield and Tarcov's translation is careful and idiomatic.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Rural Life

Pig Earth
Pig Earth 
“Later, when I was in the Argentine, I used to tell myself that I could not die until I had seen another month of May, here in the mountains. The grass grows knee-high in the meadows and down the centre of the roads between the wheel ruts. If you are with a friend, you walk down the road with the grass between you. In the forest the late beech leaves come out, the greenest leaves in the world. ”   ― John Berger, Pig Earth

Pig Earth, the first of three volumes about the movement from rural to urban life, includes poems and short stories about rural life. Berger adds a historical afterword and interprets these stories as parables. Although the book falls into the novel category, I would consider it more appropriately described as existing in the space between memory and arrangement, or between memoir and imagination. In addition to writing about his personal experiences, Berger also acts as a watcher, an eavesdropper, and a covert sharer in the stories. Berger lives in the isolated Jura.

Berger tackles subjects like the lives of hard labor, the proximity of death, and the bond between farm animals and their owners in her kind and exquisite writing. The book is worth studying as people try to understand a world in transition

Monday, May 20, 2024

Florentine Thinker

Machiavelli in Hell

Machiavelli in Hell 

One can take it as a rule, that if there are new things in heaven, there will be new things on earth. A new hierarchy in the first will bring about a new one in the second.   - Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell

This book's wisdom makes me think of Niccolo Machiavelli's advice to the hunter to become a knower of sites by getting to know one well. It demonstrates how much political science can be learned from a single source if it is chosen and studied carefully. Political theorists and political scientists may view their scholarship as derivative and docile, but this would silence their detractors and readily defend their subject and methodology in a competition before unbiased judges to see who can teach the most about politics. Nevertheless, the themes and plots of their novels diverge.

Sebastian de Grazia has done something amazing, whether we admit it or not: he has produced a book for the general reader. His book is a well-reasoned Pulitzer Prize-winning intellectual biography of Niccolo Machiavelli

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Imaginary Worlds



“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, April 18, 2024

Comedy of Life in Brooklyn

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store 

“Chona had never been one to play by the rules of American society. She did not experience the world as most people did. To her, the world was not a china closet where you admire this and don’t touch that. Rather, she saw it as a place where every act of living was a chance for tikkun olam, to improve the world.”   ― James McBride, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

James McBride's 381-page novel The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store combines elements of group comedy, cultural history, thriller, and love story. The story takes place in Pottstown, Pennsylvania's dilapidated Chicken Hill neighborhood, where African Americans and Jewish immigrants coexist and work side by side. The book tells the story of the people who live in Chicken Hill, how they make ends meet despite being marginalized by the larger white population, and how the country is changing quickly, as witnessed by those who were formerly enslaved and others who have recently arrived.

The author's prose style is elegant, and his development of individual characters is exceptional, providing a realism for his story that few novelists attain. I enjoyed this novel as much as his wonderful Good Lord Bird, and I look forward to more novels from James McBride.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Intelligent Mischief

The Misanthrope / Tartuffe


“Beauty without intelligence is like a hook without bait.”   ― Molière, Tartuffe

One of the most divisive comedies ever written, Tartuffe was the focus of the biggest censorship dispute of the 17th century. Molière's remarkably beautiful drama concerning religious belief fundamentally altered the purposes and goals of comedy. It was extremely brave, if not foolish, of Molière to humorously tackle such a subject in a religiously sensitive era that still dealt with heresy at the stake. Tartuffe may have struck a nerve when his detractors interpreted the play's portrayal of religious hypocrisy and fake piety as an assault on religion in general. Still raw from Tartuffe's sting, it is easy to criticize the prejudice and blindness of his contemporaries. At the time of his passing, Molière's fellow clergymen were still resentful of Tartuffe. But the drama still manages to jolt and move spectators in tender places, and the urgency of being able to discern genuine devotion from fakery is as great now as it was in 17th-century France.

Moliere demonstrated that the caricatures of farce facilitated rather than hindered the investigation of human nature and social experience, and that both comedy and tragedy could delve into profound psychological depths and fundamental human concerns. His was a unique character comedy that drew laughs heartily at the mistakes and pretenses of human nature while portraying modern manners in a lifelike manner. Not everyone found it funny.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Rewarding Stories

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy
The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy 

“Just like children, he and the greatwoman Grainger longed, and especially demanded even, that something should happen, or again Parkhearst would cry, “A reward, I must have a reward. A reward for life just as I have lived it.”   ― James Purdy, The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy

These stories just happen to take place here. That they happen in America and feel very American on the surface still allows room for depths of meaning that suggest the archetypal. I am reminded of the southern Gothic world of Flannery O'Connor without the religion. His thoroughly idiosyncratic writing leaves trails of peculiar, odd, eccentric characters that make their way through a world that is a skewed version of every town. Usually every town is more like Thornton Wilder than David Lynch.

When I first came across Purdy, it was through his enigmatic and unsettling vision of Eustace Chisholm. However, his sharper focus became apparent in his smaller works, such as Malcolm and The Nephew. The stories in this collection range from fairy tales about an opera diva whose mega-stardom is cleverly managed by her talking cat to the story of the young girl who escapes with a fire-breathing dragon to eat turtle soup; from an unusual story of a desperate husband whose fixation on a rare white dove results from his obsession over his wayward ex-wife to a visit to Moe's Villa, a private mansion that doubles as a gambling casino where the Native American owner teaches lonely boys the game of poker.

Gore Vidal called him "an authentic American genius.". For Vidal, himself given to the fantastic, Purdy's stories contained "lost or losing golden ephebes.". This collection is a welcome feast for fans of Purdy, as well as a nice taste for newcomers.

When the bizarre is the norm, your nightmares become mere dreams, yet what wonderful dreams! This collection of short stories is just that—a myriad of prose poems engaging your soul and fulfilling needs beyond your imagined life. All you need is to sit back, read, and enjoy!

Monday, April 01, 2024

Family Nostalgia

Tom Lake
Tom Lake 

“I look at my girls, my brilliant young women. I want them to think I was better than I was, and I want to tell them the truth in case the truth will be useful. Those two desires to not neatly coexist, but this is where we are in the story.”   ― Ann Patchett, Tom Lake

Ann Patchett's 309-page novel Tom Lake explores the transient aspects of life, love, and death. The narrative centers on a mother who, while under COVID-19 quarantine, tells her grown children about her first love. The book investigates what it means to be content when everything around you is collapsing. One notable aspect of the novel was the influence of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder.

This is not my first Ann Patchett novel, but it's the first that I have enjoyed, at least in part. As always, her book is well written and readable, but I began to lose interest in the narrative about halfway through the book. By the end, I wished that I had spent my time rereading Our Town, or one of Thornton Wilder's delightful novels.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Two Artists

Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny
Peacock & Vine: 
On William Morris 
and Mariano Fortuny 

“If Morris and his contemporaries were possessed by the medieval Christian imagination and the ancient sagas, the moderns looked further back to the ancient world, and rewrote the Greek myths and legends to suit their own ideas about society and history.”   ― A.S. Byatt, Peacock & Vine: On William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

It would be wonderful to be an artist whose life and work flowed together seamlessly, like water in a river, because your existence would be so complete. Peacock and Vine is a brief but frequently engrossing meditation on the lives of William Morris (1834–1896) and Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949), two people who succeeded in achieving this goal.

I'm still waiting for my invitation to visit Venice, but in the meantime, I can luxuriate in the prose and illustrations of Ms. Byatt's fine art biography. With a mix of criticism and history, she takes the familiar, William Morris, and the less familiar, Mariano Fortuny, and highlights their lives and work with the interpolation of beautiful illustrations. This was a pleasingly informative short excursion into the world of art. The quotes from Ruskin and Proust were an added delight.

Friday, March 01, 2024

Lost in Africa


“News is what a chap who doesn't care much about anything wants to read.”   ― Evelyn Waugh, Scoop

Scoop (London, 1938) by Evelyn Waugh is a satire on journalism. It is based on Waugh's 1935 assignment to cover the conflict between Abyssinia and Italy while working as a war correspondent for the London Daily Mail in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Waugh acknowledged that he was not very good at covering wars, but he did keep a close eye on what his fellow reporters were doing. The outcome was a comedic and satirical novel that mocks the newspaper industry and the journalism profession with a playful yet decidedly deadly tone.

The story centers upon a few humorous turns of events. Lord Copper, the conceited and uneducated proprietor of the Daily Beast, inadvertently dispatches William Boot, a naive nature columnist, to cover the conflict in the made-up nation of Ishmaelia in East Africa. At least geographically speaking, Ishmaelia and Abyssinia are identical. William learns a few fast lessons on the crafty methods used by journalists, who are constantly attempting to outsmart their peers and break a story. William returns to London as a well-known reporter after receiving many significant scoops on his own thanks to a string of fortunate events. However, all of it is meaningless to him, and he is glad to be going back to his remote and run-down country house, Boot Magna Hall, where his numerous eccentric relatives reside. Overall this is still an entertaining comedic read.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Colonial Tale

Tropic Moon
Tropic Moon 

“My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven’t read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may — need is the word I use — to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill’s history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, 47 novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed.”  ― Roger Ebert

Tropic Moon, one of Georges Simenon's "Romans durs," or hard novels, is his first book set outside of Europe. The story of Tropic Moon is not only harsh on the protagonist but also on the French colonial system as a whole—that is, it is extremely harsh on the French colonialists who lived in Africa. This was a slightly different experience for me compared to Simenon's detective novels.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Apolline vs. Dionysian

The Birth of Tragedy / The Case of Wagner
The Birth of Tragedy 
and The Case of Wagner 

“Without myth, however, every culture loses its healthy creative natural power: it is only a horizon encompassed with myth that rounds off to unity a social movement.”   ― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche not only narrates the origin of tragedy, but he also offers a postmortem that identifies its killers. According to Nietzsche, with Euripides' help and encouragement, Socrates destroyed this pinnacle of Greek culture. However, Nietzsche goes on to predict that Wagnerian opera will bring about its revival, at least in Germany. The ideas of Schopenhauer and Kant indicate that the rationalism that was introduced by Socrates and ultimately led to the abolition of tragedy has run its course and reached its limits, which means that the time is right for tragedy to reappear. Pace logic apart, the thing itself demonstrates that it is fundamentally unknown.

Nietzsche's analysis identifies the Apolline and the Dionysian artistic tendencies that are united in Greek tragedy. In contrast to the Dionysian, who offers chaos, intoxication, obscurity, excess, and fusion, the Apolline symbolizes clarity, beauty, order, shape, and individuation. Greek tragedy—at least the works by Aeschylus and Sophocles—exposes its audience to existential horrors like fate's hand, the impotence of even the most admirable people, and the certainty of suffering. It rises above the pit of sorrow and pessimism, however, to affirm life in the end, or at the very least, to affirm aesthetic force and its capacity to redeem pain and suffering, by crafting these brutal facts into a great work of art.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Regrets from Time Past

I Have Some Questions for You
I Have Some Questions for You 

“it was easier to believe she was lying than that lightning loves a scarred tree.”   ― Rebecca Makkai, I Have Some Questions For You

This was a real challenge for me from beginning to end. I can't say that I was thrilled to read this book, even though I managed to slowly proceed through it. I was not inspired to flip the pages, and I wished the story had been more interesting. I persisted because I don't give up easily and was curious to find out what really happened before the murder and if justice would be served in the end. Unfortunately, the second-person narration didn't exactly work for this particular story, and I frequently felt like the prose was wandering.

I can say that, without giving too much away, I was quite impressed by how true to reality the novel was. Even though we always want our books to have poetic justice and perfect endings, this one chose a conclusion that, although not perfect, may be more realistic than what actually happens. That having been said, I cannot recommend this novel, as I felt it had too many flaws.

Monday, February 05, 2024

A Historic Moment

The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague

The Magic Lantern:          The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague 

“In this crowded world, we must learn to navigate by speech, as ancient mariners taught themselves to sail across the Aegean Sea.”   ― Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World

Written by a brilliant witness who also took part in epochal events, The Magic Lantern is one of those rare books that defines a historic moment. Covering events such as the first free parliamentary elections in Poland, where Solidarity was forced to try and limit the extent of its victory, or attending the meetings of an unlikely alliance of Catholic clerics and free-thinking intellectuals planning the liberation of Czechoslovakia, Garton Ash writes with a great deal of empathy and impact.

This book is a stunningly evocative portrait of the revolutions that swept Communism from Eastern Europe in 1989 and whose aftereffects are still being felt today. From the perspective of more than three decades, Garton Ash writes in a sharp afterword, "Freedom's battle is never fully won. It must be fought anew in every generation.” I would recommend this to all readers who are interested in modern European history.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Do Humans Want to be Good?

All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays
All Art is Propaganda:
 Critical Essays 

“On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.”   ― George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays

All Art is Propaganda is a collection of George Orwell's essays bound by the theme of philosophical and aesthetic commentary. It includes such masterpieces as "Propaganda and Demotic Speech," "Charles Dickens," and "Rudyard Kipling." Of particular interest in our political enthused year are the essays addressing the nature of propaganda; both directly in "Propaganda and Demotic Speech," and somewhat tangentially in "Politics and the English Language," the latter of which is more important and contains many insightful statements like "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. Bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better."

I hope that some of the many readers of Orwell's novels will take the time to savor their fine prose. Orwell's essays are always both enlightening and interesting on each of the disparate topics he addresses. The usage of political speech in the twenty-first century is proof enough of Orwell's claim. Thoughtful criticism, such as Orwell's, is woefully lacking in our current day, particularly among practicing politicians and their supporters.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Scientific Woman

Lessons in Chemistry
Lessons in Chemistry 

“Whenever you start doubting yourself, whenever you feel afraid, just remember. Courage is the root of change and change is what we're chemically designed to do.”   - ― Bonnie Garmus, Lessons in Chemistry

My experience reading this book was at times unpleasant since the characters were often caricatures and the events appeared forced, especially when they were opposed to Elizabeth Zott, the main character, a scientist. So, even though the book was very readable and difficult for me to put down, this reduced my enjoyment of it.

The main character of Elizabeth, however, really pulls this book together. Elizabeth is not only intelligent, but also incredibly rational, pragmatic, and level-headed; she just won't accept being underestimated. She continues to defy the restrictions that some (sometimes it seems like everyone) would place on her due to her sex, telling her audience that "the reduction of women to something less than not biological; it's cultural." Not so much because she defies these boundaries but because she recognizes their absurdity and acts appropriately, which made me fall in love with her. It is the absurdity of some situations that provides a level of comic relief in what is often a very dark story.

The novel's opening chapters, which seem almost like they were written for a young adult readership, highlight the author's straightforward writing style. Although the approach becomes less obvious as the story goes on, some readers might become disinterested before the action truly picks up. The characters that surround Elizabeth also lack complexity; for the most part, the "good" ones are all very wise and helpful, while the evil characters are naive and malicious; I thought this distracted from the message of the book. Lastly, a lot of the storyline, especially the fairytale conclusion, is highly dependent on coincidence. These aspects detracted from what I otherwise found to be a pleasant read.

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

Insights and Discoveries

The Heart in Exile
The Heart in Exile 

"It was all clear now, or at least as clear as it could be. I had discovered and could explain many things, but there was so much, of course, that I could never hope to explain."  - Rodney Garland, The Heart in Exile

Although this book is a mystery set in the gay community of post-World War II London, it is much more than that. It explores the nature of love and the very personal truths experienced by homosexuals, as well as the gay life, which was necessarily an underworld in London at the time. It is this second aspect of the book that allows it to rise above the average sentimental story. This book is intensely about the lives of a psychiatrist and his former lover, who was found dead from what appeared to be an overdose of sleeping pills. The doctor's investigation into what happened led to revelations about himself that profoundly affected his life.

This book, which examined the variety of homosexual life in London and offered a touching account of how one might transform his life in unexpected ways when faced with the ups and downs of daily existence, captivated me. It was both fascinating and profoundly touching.