Thursday, March 30, 2023

Remembering His Invisibility

Invisible Man
Invisible Man 

“I remember that I'm invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.”   ― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Beginning with a prologue that reminds the reader of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Ralph Ellison creates one of the best first novels I have ever read. His writing in Invisible Man, while filled with literary references, is truly in the tradition of the great American novel as he pens the evolution of a modern underground man. His protagonist grows invisible to those who look beyond him as he experiences disappointment in the hypocrisy of white and black men alike. The result is a novel that rejects conventional social protest to proclaim the humanity of the individual by making him invisible.

In a similar manner to Dostoevsky's Underground Man, Ellison begins the story by telling us that the only thing he has accomplished in the world is to experience rejection from it, but at least he has opened his mind to its essence. The protagonist of Dostoyevsky's novel was addressing the naive idealism of Russian social reformers of the time, who believed that equality and justice would come about through labor and effort. The main character of Ellison is aware of this presumption as being Booker T. Washington's thinking. He quotes a Washington speech to the town's white elite in the opening chapter, however it is not credited to Washington. Instead of saying "social responsibility," which causes the storyteller to choke, he or she says "social equality," earning the ire of the audience.

The protagonist of the book describes his existence as a black man in modern-day (1930s or 1940s) America. His experiences have exposed every aspect of civilization and every social lie. The understanding is dark, yet at its core, it belongs to a lone, invisible human being. Therefore, the narrator waits in what he refers to as "hibernation" at a subterranean location. According to him, "a hibernation is a concealed preparation for a more overt action," and "not every sickness is unto death, neither is invisibility," thus he believes he may return to the world. But by the end of the story, we know that he will continue to live underground, at least psychologically.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

A Bond for Life

Serious Things
Serious Things 

"Though he did not consent to friendship, the tall and beautiful English boy had acknowledged my existence."   - Gregory Norminton, Serious Things

I was impressed with how this narrative of two young boys is presented in a unique way narrated by one of the two preemintent characters in the story. The book emphasizes the psychological effects of our actions and the importance of how our lives are influenced by how we respond to those actions.

The story tells of two lads at a traditional boarding school who develop a close bond that will influence the rest of their lives. Anthony Blunden has Bruno Jackson, the quiet and lonely son of British expatriates, completely smitten. The boys are inspired to investigate the "more serious matters" of life outside of college after being taken under the wing of an idealistic English teacher. But, in the intense environment of the school, a slight from their mentor looks to be of utter significance and will have irrevocable effects. 

Years later, with those memories all but forgotten, Bruno lives a blameless life. Anthony's unexpected reappearance pushes him to look back on his dark past and determine how far he is willing to go to appease his conscience.

Overall it is both riveting and a subtle novel about an undetected crime and its corrosive legacy for the schoolboy culprits, by a young writer that I would recommend to all.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Memory and Dreams

Landscape: Memory
Landscape: Memory 

“If all memories decay, what of them will really ever be left? What is it that's growing from out of the rotting material of old memories? Is every moment of the past simply gone forever? Why can't they be held intact somehow?”   ― Matthew Stadler, Landscape: Memory

An excellent debut work that, through the lens of a homoerotic teen's diary or sketchbook, brilliantly portrays the atmosphere of San Francisco in the year 1915. With Maxwell, the narrator, his totally modern parents, and the allure of San Francisco during its second flowering—the glimmering years between the disaster of 1906 and the sobering effects of World War I—Stadler succeeds in a magnificent way. When Max visits the Pacific Exposition with his best friend Duncan, the son of a Persian sculptor, the prose is flavored with historical detail and childlike joy. Yet tragedy strikes early when Max's father crosses the Bay to Bolinas to continue his bird-watching hobby.

Memory and dreams seem to fill this novel with a unique atmosphere. It  seems like there is always something that is just beyond the horizon, a fleeting suggestion of the unknown. The combination of dramatic adult changes in circumstances contrasts with the growing young love between the two boys. The beautiful prose style and the effective narrative reminded me of William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf or John Knowles' A Separate Peace. This was an engrossing novel that deserves to be saluted for both the complexity of its themes and the author's lyricism. 

Thursday, March 09, 2023

A Literary Narrator

The Friend

The Friend 

“Consider rereading, how risky it is, especially when the book is one that you loved. Always the chance that it won't hold up, that you might, for whatever reason, not love it as much. When this happens, and to me it happens all the time (and more and more as I get older), the effect is so disheartening that I now open old favorites warily.”   ― Sigrid Nunez, The Friend

A woman agrees to take care of the unwanted puppy that her longtime closest friend and mentor has left behind after passing away unexpectedly. Her own struggle with loss is made more difficult by the dog's quiet suffering—a large Great Dane frightened by the mysterious disappearance of its owner—and the prospect of eviction she is facing because pets are not allowed in her apartment complex.

The woman will not be separated from the dog, except for limited periods of time, which worries others who fear that grief has made her a victim of magical thinking or worse. She is increasingly preoccupied with the dog's care and seems to be on the verge of disintegrating due to her isolation from the outside world and her determination to understand the dog's heart and intellect. While difficulties abound for both her and the dog, each of them will experience rich and unexpected benefits.

While the description of the novel highlights the events, it does not tell the whole story. The most important aspect for me was the literary sensibility of the narrator - a narrator who is a writer. This was evidenced both by multiple literary references that provided a deeper meaning for the story and observations on the importance of reading.  More significantly, this had special meaning for me based on my own shared experience of reading the texts that she referenced. Her observations about writing based on reading Flannery O'Connor, Nabokov, and other authors were astute and beautifully blended into the narrative. The result of these references added power to the narrative and left this reader ready to reread the novel.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Reader and Orator



“Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goest out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.”   ― Cicero

Cicero was an advocate, orator, patriot, and author who lived through a turbulent and turbulent time in Roman history. His writings capture a wide range of modern attitudes, concepts, and circumstances. He is depicted in this book in both his public and private capacities. Perhaps best known in his day as an orator, we can only encounter his thoughts through his voluminous writings, many of which have survived to this day and are available in modern translations. His Republic, Rhetoric, and essay on Friendship are among my favorites.

He was aspirational, a little pretentious, talkative, and wholly human. Through the eyes of one of its most renowned inhabitants, this vibrant account provides an entertaining and informative introduction to daily life in ancient Rome. In addition, the author offers psychological explanations of his character and his place in Roman history.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

A Favorite Literary Moment

War and Peace

War and Peace 

The Death of Prince Andrew Bolkonski

On the Pratzen Heights, where he had fallen with the flagstaff in his hand, lay Prince Andrew Bolkonski bleeding profusely and unconsciously uttering a gentle, piteous, and childlike moan.

Toward evening he ceased moaning and became quite still. He did not know how long his unconsciousness lasted. Suddenly he again felt that he was alive and suffering from a burning, lacerating pain in his head.

"Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know till now, but saw today?" was his first thought. "And I did not know this suffering either," he thought. "Yes, I did not know anything, anything at all till now. But where am I?"

He listened and heard the sound of approaching horses, and voices speaking French. He opened his eyes. Above him again was the same lofty sky with clouds that had risen and were floating still higher, and between them gleamed blue infinity. He did not turn his head and did not see those who, judging by the sound of hoofs and voices, had ridden up and stopped near him.

It was Napoleon accompanied by two aides-de-camp. Bonaparte riding over the battlefield had given final orders to strengthen the batteries firing at the Augesd Dam and was looking at the killed and wounded left on the field.
"Fine men!" remarked Napoleon, looking at a dead Russian grenadier, who, with his face buried in the ground and a blackened nape, lay on his stomach with an already stiffened arm flung wide.

"The ammunition for the guns in position is exhausted, Your Majesty," said an adjutant who had come from the batteries that were firing at Augesd.
"Have some brought from the reserve," said Napoleon, and having gone on a few steps he stopped before Prince Andrew, who lay on his back with the flagstaff that had been dropped beside him. (The flag had already been taken by the French as a trophy.)

"That's a fine death!" said Napoleon as he gazed at Bolkonski.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Tomorrow is Another Day

Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind 

“I'll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”   ― Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind is a novel by Margaret Mitchell in which Scarlett O'Hara struggles to maintain her family's plantation, which has fallen into disrepair since Atlanta was burned in the Civil War. Scarlett is crushed when her childhood love marries another woman. Scarlett marries Charles Hamilton, who dies in the Civil War. After the Civil War, Scarlett struggles to support herself. She marries three more times in search of financial stability.

Mitchell's narrative, set against the historical background of the American Civil War is a somewhat engrossing read. I say somewhat because I was not impressed with the central character of Scarlett O'Hara and, although the author was able to introduce many characters and much historical detail, I was not engaged as the novel droned on. The selfishness of the priveleged character of Scarlett was disappointing and deterred me from enjoying some of the colorful detail in this long novel. Her struggles, particularly with Rhett Butler, dimmed as the novel wound onward to its inevitable ending.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Strange Fixations

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War
Confederates in the Attic: 
Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War 
“There are people one knows and people one doesn't. One shouldn't cheapen the former by feigning intimacy with the latter.”   ― Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

While I first read this book more than a decade ago I still remember it vividly, if for no other reason than the cover art, which I consider to be one of the most hideous of any book that I have read. Fortunately I did not let that stop me and inside I found a delicious mix of cultural history, personal reminiscence and odd, but true (I believe) miscellany about people who are fixated on the Civil War era.

The discussion of the Japanese people's fascination with Gone With the Wind was one of the oddest episodes. They visit Atlanta, Georgia as a result of their fixation, where they are known to look up Tara's location because they appear to believe that there must be a genuine Tara behind the novel. In that much of the book has a similar eccentricity, it reminds me of Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird: Adventures in American Subcultures. Horwitz definitely looks for strange and perhaps undesirable elements to interview, such as the insane biker bar. There was an insightful conversation with Shelby Foote, and I ended up appreciating a particular pro-Southern viewpoint (even if I disagree with it).

Since the memories of the persons interviewed are fading and times are continuing to change, the book may have lost part of its value with time. It's much more entertaining because the book almost reads like a picaresque novel or anthology of short stories. It might be seen as a snapshot of the 1990s' zeitgeist in regard to the Civil War. The Civil War re-enactors are a genuinely odd breed, yet their fervor for the time period makes them endlessly fascinating. It was enjoyable to read.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

An Independent Epic

Independent People
Independent People 

“This was the first time that he has ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come, he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song this world has known. For the understanding of the soul's defencelessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy.”   ― Halldor Laxness, Independent People

In this novel Halldor Laxness narrates the struggle with modernity of an Icelandic sheep farmer while creating in his protagnist, Bjartur of Summerhouses, a heroic character whose life mirrors the growth of Iceland itself as it enters the twentieth century.

In his attempt to live freely, poor sheep farmer Bjartur of Summerhouses living in rural Iceland faces a life of misery and a never-ending battle for existence. Bjartur always puts forth a lot of effort, yet he is beholden to others, endures severe treatment, and is forced to work in appalling conditions. He finally accumulates sufficient funds to purchase some land in a distant region of Iceland, where he starts a new life as a sheep farmer. He weds a local woman named Rosa, who has a daughter named Asta Sollija who, as Bjartur soon learns, is the offspring of a different man. Rosa passes away after delivery, but Bjartur raises the infant as his daughter and adores her.

“It's a useful habit never to believe more than half of what people tell you, and not to concern yourself with the rest. Rather keep your mind free and your path your own.”

Bjartur finally gets remarried, has three boys, and carries on with his menial existence. He endures suffering as he battles the land; he loses one son when he immigrates to America, another dies, and he rejects his daughter and exiles her from Summerhouses when she gets pregnant at the age of 15. Despite his struggles, Bjartur perseveres and manages to live freely until Summerhouses are no longer able to support him. Then, he decides to stop raising sheep and obtain a loan for summerhouses. He makes amends with his daughter, moves farther north, and resumes his hard life.

“Presently the smell of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning’s hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten, and the soul is inspired with faith in the future…”

This summary doesn't do Bjartur's story justice because his novel also combines the supernatural with the natural struggle for survival, shows how man is constantly at odds with nature, and most importantly, considers the effects of one man's desire for independence on his life, his family, and the world around him. I've found that Laxness' lyrical prose and epic scope of narration compare well to those of Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth and Hamsun's Growth of the Soil. 

I must conclude with the author's comments on the importance of books: "books are the nation's most precious possession, books have preserved the nation's life through monopoly, pestilence. and volcanic eruption, not to mention the tons of snow that have lain over the country's widely scatteed homesteads for the major part of every one of its thousand years." (p 314)

Friday, February 10, 2023

The World of the Kabbalah

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (The Sephardic Cycle, #1)
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon 

“God comes to each of us in the form we can best perceive Him. To you, just now, He was a heron. To someone else, He might come as a flower or even a breeze.”   ― Richard Zimler, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

In the novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which is set during the Lisbon Massacre of April 1506, the reader is transported into the mysterious world of kabbalah. A few years prior, Portuguese Jews were coerced into becoming Christians and brought to the baptismal font. Many of these "New Christians" conducted their rituals in secret and at considerable peril, while the kabbalists' secret, mysterious rites also persisted.

Berekiah Zarco, a youthful manuscript illuminator, was one of these hidden Jews. He seeks the assassin of his adored uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist found dead in a secret synagogue along with a young girl in deshabille, driven by love and retribution. Berekiah searches for answers among Christians, New Christians, Jews, and his uncle's fellow kabbalists, risking his life in dangerous alleys as they alternately illuminate and obscure the path to the truth he seeks.

The world of sixteenth century Lisbon and the Jewish Kabbalah comes to life in this historical mystery. The young manuscript illustrator, Zarco, is effectively portrayed as he attempts to find out who killed his uncle. His search takes him into the world of Kabbalists and with it brings the reader into a world of secret languages and codes. It was an award winner for best First U.S. historical mystery of the year and I agree that it gives the reader a flavor for a very different time and place. Anyone who has enjoyed Arturo Perez-Reverte or Umberto Eco will like Zimler's suspenseful tale.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Losing a Family in History


Here’s a couple waving goodbye from the train, but who are they? No idea! That’s why they’re waving goodbye. It’s like a second death, to lose your name in a family album.”   ― Tom Stoppard, Leopoldstadt

This play is both a historical and philosophical drama as well as a highly personal challenge from Stoppard, who didn't discover that he was Jewish until his 50s when a distant cousin got in touch with him. The author appears to make up for lost time with Leopoldstadt, a first-rate, epic, and impassioned declaration of his own origins. He asserts that forgetting one's forefathers is tragic in and of itself. To lose your name in a family album, as one character puts it, "is like a second death."

It is yet another play by Tom Stoppard that impressed me with its erudition and singular structure. But there was an undercurrent of emotion that built over the length of reading the play that overwhelmed me by the final scene. So many of the family members had succumbed to tragic ends over the course of the family history that there was a  nostalgia of lives lived that was was dressed in the end with widows' weeds of death.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Picaresque History of Science

Rats, Lice and History
Rats, Lice and History 

But however secure and well-regulated civilized life may become, bacteria, Protozoa, viruses, infected fleas, lice, ticks, mosquitoes, and bedbugs will always lurk in the shadows ready to pounce when neglect, poverty, famine, or war lets down the defenses.   - Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice & History

Zinsser's book, published in 1935, can be read as a modern adaptation of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy. It provides the reader with a picaresque description of how typhus outbreaks have influenced human history. In the days before antibiotics, he issued a challenge against germs that is still relevant today: "Infectious disease is one of the few genuine adventures left in the world." The lance is rusting in the chimney corner and the dragons are all dead. The war against those ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice, and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and which fly and crawl with the birds, is about the only sporting event that has not been negatively impacted by the relentless domestication of a once free-living human species.

Even though this book was written almost a century ago, it hasn't become any less interesting or funny. Hans Zinsser has created an eccentric view of history, rambling about rats, typhus, the Roman Empire, lice, and everything. You can't read it in one sitting, because you'll have to keep taking breaks to calm down from the experience. I liked the book because because I learned so much - this book is a classic microbiology textbook among other things. My favorite foonote was associated with a word I'd never heard -- it said, "If the reader does not know the meaning of this word, that is unfortunate." That gives you an inkling of what is in store for you if you choose to read this book.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Poem for Today

The Complete Poems
The Complete Poems 

The last thirty years of Thomas Hardy's life was devoted to poetry. During this time after he had eschewed novel-writing he wrote hundreds of poems. These poems spanned a variety of styles including: satires, love poems, lyrics, reveries, and songs. The topics also spanned a great number including some focused on the Wessex countryside where he set his well-known novels. The result of all this poetic creation is a collection that rivals that of the greatest poets in the English-speaking world. I would recommend this volume to all who revere fine poetry. 

Here is a poem for this Monday selected from this collection:

To A Lady

Offended by a Book of the Writer's

NOW that my page is exiled, doomed, maybe,
Never to press thy cosy cushions more,
Or wake thy ready Yeas as heretofore,
Or stir thy gentle vows of faith in me:

Knowing thy natural receptivity,
I figure that, as flambeaux banish eve,
My sombre image, warped by insidious heave
Of those less forthright, must lose place in thee.

So be it. I have borne such. Let thy dreams
Of me and mine diminish day by day,
And yield their space to shine of smugger things;
Till I shape to thee but in fitful gleams,
And then in far and feeble visitings,
And then surcease. Truth will be truth alway.

Thomas Hardy

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Finding One's Self

Things We Lost to the Water
Things We Lost to the Water 

“In America, Ben felt like a foreigner, too, but in a different way, He couldn't have explained it. In New Orleans, he couldn't have explained how he and his family got there. There was a boat, a wind led them this way, and, like pilgrims, they settled. Here, in Paris, there was some choice in the matter.”  
 ― Eric Nguyen, Things We Lost to the Water

When Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons, she is jobless, homeless, and worried about her husband, Cong, who remains in Vietnam. As she and her boys begin to settle in to life in America, she continues to send letters and tapes back to Cong, hopeful that they will be reunited and her children will grow up with a father.

Huong gradually comes to the realization that she would never see her spouse again. Her kids, Tuan and Binh, grow up in the absence of their absent father, plagued by a man and a nation locked in their memories and imaginations, as she struggles to come to terms with this loss. As they proceed, the three adjust to life in America in various ways: Tuan joins a neighborhood Vietnamese gang in an effort to feel more connected to his heritage; Huong falls in love with a Vietnamese car salesman who is also new to the area; and Binh, now going by Ben, embraces his adopted country and his developing gay sexuality. Before a disaster strikes the city they now call home and threatens to split them apart, their search for identification as individuals and as a family until a calamity strikes the city they now call home and forces them to immediately find a new way to join together and cherish the connections that bind, which threatens to rip them apart.

With this magnificent novel I have once again found one of my certain to be top ten reads of the new year. This book swept me away with the fascinating story of an immigrant mother and her two boys. Ben, in particular, impressed me as the center of the story - he changes, learning to swim (at about the center of the narrative), learning to accept his gay persona, and deciding to go to Paris and become a writer. 

 Demonstrating a marvelous prose style and an ability to link together the characters' lives with details that held my interest, this first novel was wonderful and moving all the way to the last page. I immediately wanted to read it again and that is always the sign of a great read.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Divine Inspiration

Saint Joan
Saint Joan 
by George Bernard Shaw

"The most inevitable dramatic conception, then, of the nineteenth century is that of a perfectly naive hero upsetting religion, law and order in all directions, and establishing in their palce the unfettered action of Humanity . . ." (GBS writing in The Perfect Wagnerite)

In Saint Joan Shaw attempted, and perhaps achieved, a masterpiece based on this conception. The play is a perfect example of the hero as victim transformed into savior. Shaw has developed his most enduring representation of the Life Force in Saint Joan, a protagonist who aspires to lead the common people by being a person of outstanding character and vision. Shaw's Saint Joan is witty and self-assured; she follows reason and common sense but does not conform to the stereotype of a religious martyr. Saint Joan is regarded as Shaw's only tragedy, although having many funny passages. However, it has also been described as a comedy with one tragic scene.

In the first scene the Robert de Baudricourt ridicules Joan, but his servant feels inspired by her words. Eventually de Baudricourt begins to feel the same sense of inspiration, and gives his consent to Joan. The servant enters at the end of the scene to exclaim that the hens, who had been unable to lay eggs, have begun to lay eggs again. De Baudricourt interprets this as a sign from God of Joan's divine inspiration. It is with this simple beginning that the spirited spirituality of the seemingly innocent young Joan begins to take over the play to the point where she is leading the French troops against the British. Her voice exhibits a lively purity that is augmented by an unlimited imagination.

Several values clash in Saint Joan's universe. The church is envious of its ability to rule the world. Although Joan's deed is mostly individualistic or Protestant in nature, England (Warwick) and France (Charles) are envious of their patriotic might. She supports the individual's right to define God whatever they see fit. In this historical incident, France is the fortunate beneficiary of Joan's whim and her military prowess. The play's underlying message is that there is no room for love or charity in Joan's world. The Catholic Church and English and French politicians, at best, are about shaky ideals like morality and patriotism and posture. I would visit the Inquisitor replies, "I would go to the stake myself. . . .”

Shaw's play features Joan as an outsider who seems lonely only when she is among those who voiced the common opinions of the day. Her multi-faceted personality is hidden behind her single-minded pursuit of a vision of god's design for her life. Saint Joan is a tragedy without villains. The tragedy exists in a view of human nature where the incredulity of intolerance of both religious and secular forces battle each other. It is made even more interesting by Shaw's epilogue that brings the play into the current time and provides an opportunity for Shaw to discuss the play with the audience. Whether this play is truly great or almost great it is definitely Shaw at his dramatic best.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

An Intricate Road Trip

The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway 
“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful, thought Woolly, if everybody’s life was like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Then no one person’s life would ever be an inconvenience to anyone else’s. It would just fit snugly in its very own, specially designed spot, and in so doing, would enable the whole intricate picture to become complete.”   ― Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway

I previously enjoyed both The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, but Amor Towles has succeeded in surpassing both of those novels with The Lincoln Highway. It is a road story with four young men exploring America and finding themselves. While these four are at the center of the novel it literally explodes with characters, most of whom are fascinating. By the time an older black man named Ulysses arrives on the scene and bonds with young Billy I was hooked and found it hard to put the book down.

In June 1954, the warden of the juvenile work farm where Emmett Watson, then 18 years old, had recently completed a fifteen-month sentence for involuntary homicide, drove him back to Nebraska. Emmett plans to travel to California with his brother Billy, age 8, so they can begin a new life there after losing their mother and father, respectively, and the family farm to bank foreclosure. However, as the warden pulls away, Emmett notices that two of his work farm friends had snuck inside the car's trunk. They have come up with a completely new strategy for Emmett's future, one that will send them all on a perilous voyage in the opposite direction—to the City of New York. The suspense builds as the journeys of the main characters head toward a denouement that is worth the more than five hundred pages it takes to get there.

Spanning just ten days and told from multiple points of view, Towles's third novel was more than entertaining with his multi-layered literary styling while providing an array of new and richly imagined settings, characters, and themes.

Friday, January 06, 2023

An Idealistic Doctor

The Good Doctor
The Good Doctor 

“The funny thing is, I don't care too much. You think you love something so badly, but when it's gone you find out you don't care so much.”   ― Damon Galgut, The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor was an entertaining book with fascinating lessons from the experiences of the titular character. It was a story of hope and misery, love and rejection, political success and defeat in the shifting reality of the post-apartheid South African steppes. The well wrought narrative is fleshed out in sparse prose. 

The newly hired, spotless, idealistic doctor, Laurence Waters, is greeted by Frank Eloff, a burned-out spouse, doctor, and person, on his first day on staff. They reside in two different psychic realms despite sharing a subpar bedroom and doing medical duties in an understaffed clinic that the new political administration ignored. Frank's pessimistic evaluation of Laurence is that "he won't endure." Their story and the denouement held my interest throughout the novel.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Good-looking Young Man

Young Man From The Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall
Young Man From The Provinces: 
A Gay Life Before Stonewall 

"I studied my face in the mirror. I was good-looking, yes, but there were guys at Columbia better looking than I was." - Alan Helms

Alan Helms autobiography narrates the tale of a young, brilliant, and attractive man who moved to New York City in 1955 after escaping a difficult upbringing in the Midwest. Helms was denied a Rhodes scholarship due to his sexual orientation, and following that he quickly rose to fame in the gay underground scene that was frequented by Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein, and Marlene Dietrich, among many others. Helms outlines the business of being a sex object and its psychological and bodily toll in this extraordinarily detailed and empathetic depiction.

I found the book riveting and beautifully written. a documentation of the LGBT community that, throughout the past 25 years of liberation and the previous 15 years of AIDS, had all but vanished. Even as I realized the differences between Helms and myself I also noted resonances with parts of my life in this personal memoir. Helms sped through the fast lanes lined with famous people, but he knew how to take a step back and gain some perspective. Stunningly humorous, captivating, pitiful, extremely literary, and excruciating to read. In this disrespectful environment, Helms seems to be a gay Everyman whose search for self-awareness, respect, and satisfaction is similar to that of many other disenfranchised persons.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Top Ten Reads of 2022

 Annual Top Ten Favorites

 Top Ten Favorite Books of 2022

These are my favorite reads since January 1, 2022.  They include an extensive variety of reading: from the Classics to contemporary literary fiction; from the very long to quite compact works; and from fiction, non-fiction, history, and music.  It was a very rich year for reading and there were other books that could have made my list if I were to expand it.  While those others were very good books these are the ten that I felt will stay with me over the years; in fact a couple of them were rereads.  

The list is in no particular order, but if I had to pick my favorite of the year it would be Anna Karenina for Tolstoy's narrative genius that portrays great characters and important ideas in a way that instills the reader with deeply held emotions and ideas that all humans share. This is one of the greatest novels ever written. There were nine more books that I enjoyed that did not make the top ten - each of which could easily be considered the number eleven on the list. These included The Chosen by Chaim Potok (a book I had first read more than fifty years ago), classics including The Annals of Tacitus and The Odes of Horace;  Civil War narratives  including: On the Altar of Freedom by James Henry Goode, The Unvanquished by William Faulkner, and Ambrose Bierce Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris, Jr.;  The Revolt of the Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset, Beauty and Sadness: Mahler's 11 Symphonies by Dr. David Vernon, and also a book I reread for the second year in a row, Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Anna Karenina

Madame Bovary

The War With Hannibal

Absalom, Absalom

The Committed

There There

Interior Chinatown

Klara and the Sun

The Education of Corporal John Musgrave

Voices from Chernobyl

A Generous Heart

A Gentleman in Moscow
A Gentleman in Moscow 

“He had said that our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of lucidity—a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of the life we had been meant to lead all along.” 
 ― Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Imagine an aristocratic man in the Soviet Union of the 1920s who has lost favor with the Communist bureaucracy. This novel takes that situation and puts the man, Count Rostov, in house arrest of a sort in an endlessly inventive narrative. The tale evolving  from this situation is suspenseful, interesting, and entertaining. 

With the tale of Count Alexander Rostov, A Gentleman in Moscow transports us to a different gorgeously rendered era. The count is placed under house imprisonment in the Metropol, a luxurious hotel located across the street from the Kremlin, in 1922 after being found to be an unrepentant aristocracy by a Bolshevik tribunal. Since Rostov has never worked a day in his life, he is forced to reside in an attic room as some of the most turbulent decades in Russian history take place outside the hotel. Rostov is an unflappable man of intelligence and wit. Unexpectedly, his more limited circumstances open a gateway to a vaster universe of emotional exploration for him.

This intelligent and witty Count is a man of many interests but his love of books and reading was what intrigued me the most. It is highlighted by the importance of the Essays of Montaigne in Rostov's life. Montaigne's wit and skeptical approach to life seems to have grounded the Count, providing support for his unique living situation. 
Amor Towles has created another fictional world with sufficient historical under-pinning's to provide readers with delightful hours of reading.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Driven to Rebel

How Beautiful We Were
How Beautiful We Were 
“But my father used to say we can’t do only what we’re at ease with, we must do what we ought to do.”   ― Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were

How Beautiful We Were, the second novel by Imbolo Mbue, has a strong opening. It depicts the story of a people who live in fear amid environmental destruction  brought on by an American oil firm in the imaginary African community of Kosawa. Farmlands have become barren as a result of pipeline spills. Toxic water has killed children while the locals have been given cleanup instructions and financial compensation, but these promises were broken. The dictatorial government of the nation provides no help. With few options left, the Kosawa population decides to rebel. Their battle will cost them dearly and last for years.

How Beautiful We Were is a simplistic examination of what occurs when a community's determination to hold on to its ancestral land and a young woman's willingness to give up everything for her people's freedom clash with the apparent reckless drive for profit and the ghost of colonialism (although there is no explanation how the oil firm makes a profit when their oil pipeline is broken - just one example of how the narrative does not quite hold together). The narrative is spread over a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary.

I was disappointed with this book as I found the narrative disjointed and repetitive. By the middle of the book I grew tired of the story. I was not impressed with the presentation as it seemed fantastic mixing the evil corporation and colonialism in a way that  ultimately defied belief. Certainly bad things can and do happen but this book seemed to portray the situation in a simplistic narrative that did not pass muster with this reader.

Friday, December 16, 2022

The Capacity to Care

Casals and the Art of Interpretation
Casals and the Art 
of Interpretation 

“I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”   ― Pablo Casals

Pablo Casals was a Spanish Catalan cellist and conductor. He made many recordings throughout his career, of solo, chamber, and orchestral music, also as conductor, but Casals is perhaps best remembered for the recording of the Bach Cello Suites he made from 1936 to 1939. Casals and the Art of Interpretation is perhaps the best book about his art and music. 

In this engaging book Blum analyzes and explicates the principles of music interpretation as demonstrated by Casals in his playing, conducting and living. Whether it is the need to produce a singing tone in a classic composition by Richard Wagner or the importance of design in shaping the themes of a composition - every aspect of the music he was playing or conducting was of importance to him. Blum uses precise musical terminology combined with detailed musical examples in his lucid and revealing interpretation of Casals' art. The result is a text that I found readable and easily grasped and, while I admittedly have more than average training in music, the book should be understandable for most general readers. The highlight of the book for me was both the chapter on "Casals and Bach" and the final discussion of a rehearsal of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony". It is here that the heart of Pablo Casals is on display and the result is that I will never listen to these works the same way again.