Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dual Lives

Arthur and George
by Julian Barnes
“If a man cannot tell what he wants to do, then he must find out what he ought to do. If desire has become complicated, then hold fast to duty.”  ― Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
Julian Barnes uses an elegant and readable writing style to create the dual fictional lives of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji in this his tenth novel. The result is a compelling narrative that at once is both interesting as fictional biography and as a detective story. Personally, I found the mystery and Doyle's investigation into its' source was more interesting, but the rest of the novel was well enough told to almost keep up with the suspense created by the mystery. The combination was one of the best novels I have read all year and would certainly make any ten-best list I might create, if I were so inclined. The author uses an interesting narrative technique switching back and forth between the two protagonists as they grow up completely unaware of each other until the moment when their lives become inextricably intertwined, in no small part due to the fame of Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. What happens subsequently as their lives continue to their unique personal conclusions is summed up in the final sections of the novel. Certainly this is a more than satisfying read for several winter nights.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2006.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Mesmerizing Cinema

Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon

"Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you'll survive."

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 
is a mesmerizing film by Julian Schnabel. The images are rapturous from the beginning when you see with the eyes (eye) of Jean-Dominique Bauby only what he can see in his hospital room till later in the film when you see with the mind of Jean-Dominique. Brilliant direction and cinematography combined with excellent use of sound and a great musical score make this one of the best films I have seen this year. The movement from hospital to scenes of tender moments with his family was extraordinary. Add to that a stunning cameo appearance by Max von Sydow as his father and you have further embellishment that enhances an already fine film. The story of a man who, while almost completely paralyzed, can imagine and dictate his story is one of beauty and inspiration. The cinema becomes an unusually moving art form in the hands of Julian Schnabel.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Mahogany Tree

This Christmas, as has been my practice for the past few years, I use my mahogany dining room table as my "Christmas Tree" with decoration and gifts adorning its mien. Thinking on this reminded me of similar traditions expressed by William Makepeace Thackery (1811-1863) in the following poem:

The Mahogany Tree

Christmas is here:
Winds whistle shrill,
Icy and chill,
Little care we:
Little we fear
Weather without,
Shelter about
The Mahogany Tree.

Once on the boughs
Birds of rare plume
Sang, in its bloom;
Night-birds are we:
Here we carouse,
Singing like them,
Perched round the stem
Of the jolly old tree.

Here let us sport,
Boys, as we sit;
Laughter and wit
Flashing so free.
Life is but short --
When we are gone,
Let them sing on
Round the old tree.

Evenings we knew,
Happy as this;
Faces we miss,
Pleasant to see.
Kind hearts and true,
Gentle and just,
31Peace to your dust!
We sing round the tree.

Care, like a dun,
Lurks at the gate:
Let the dog wait;
Happy we'll be!
Drink, every one;
Pile up the coals,
Fill the red bowls,
Round the old tree!

Drain we the cup. --
Friend, art afraid?
Spirits are laid
In the Red Sea.
Mantle it up;
Empty it yet;
Let us forget,
Round the old tree.

Sorrows, begone!
Life and its ills,
Duns and their bills,
Bid we to flee.
Come with the dawn,
Blue-devil sprite,
Leave us to-night,
Round the old tree.

In their notes on this poem, the commentators at RPO, the University of Toronto's on-line poetry site, tell us that "Mahogany, a wood imported to England from the Americas, was used for fine furniture, especially the dining table, which became known popularly as 'the Mahogany tree.' Mahogany was also the name of an alcoholic drink, such as gin and treacle, or brandy and water." William Makepeace Thackery died on December 24, 1863.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

George Eliot

I was reminded yesterday by a correspondent of our mutual admiration for the novels of George Eliot. He mentioned he was rereading some of them, he did not mention which, and I reflected on the last one I had read - Silas Marner - about a year ago. While I remember this reading reminded me of those aspects of Eliot that I enjoy and admire, I also thought that, for me, this was not one of her best works at the head of which I would put Middlemarch. It is set apart for me in the stratosphere of truly "great" works of literature and I love to read again of the travails of Dorothea Brooke, Will Ladislaw and the society they inhabit in 19th century England. One of the primary characteristics of George Eliot that pervades her novels is her intelligence, much the same way that Tolstoy does in his novels. It is this and her love for her heros and heroines in novels like Adam Bede and Felix Holt as well as Middlemarch that demand my admiration and reward it with good reading.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


I have begun a traversal of Naguib Mahfouz's great set of novels, The Cairo Trilogy. This is a story to savor and Mahfouz, who was born in Cairo in 1911, begins it slowly introducing each character through their individual actions and thoughts so the reader gradually becomes acquainted with the family of Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. It is almost two hundred pages into the novel when, suddenly, there is an explosion of sorts as the plot "thickens" as has often been said. Luxuriating in the life of this family, learning the culture and the particular eccentricities of its patriarch, this reader is finding Mahfouz a subtle creator and novelist in the tradition of Dickens, Mann and Tolstoy. The life of the al-Jawad family with mother Amina, her daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal and stepson Yasin, becomes a living force as their personalities emerge from the pages of the novel. Behind it all is the great city of Cairo. I am looking forward to the events to come as I continue reading this fascinating trilogy.
The Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street) by Naguib Mahfouz. Everyman's Library, New York. 2001.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Nikola Tesla

Tesla's Letters
by Jeffrey Stanley

The TimeLine Theatre Company's current production is Tesla's Letters by Jeffrey Stanley. The play focuses not so much on Nikola Tesla, although the idea of Tesla is important to the drama, as on the dreams and desires and misperceptions of the primary characters. One character, Daisy, is an American student studying the life of Nikola Tesla and the other is the Director of the Nikola Tesla museum who has his own dreams for the future of Serbia. The interaction of these characters, along with the Director's mother and cousin, forms the content of the play. I found the sincerity and spirit of the production laudable, but was disappointed both in the simplistic approach to the ideas being considered and in some inexplicable lapses in the presentation. The characterization of the American student, Daisy, at times came across more as "Daisy Mae"; sometimes she demonstrated an ignorance of details of Tesla's life that was inconsistent with having spent three years devoted to studying that life; and, at other times she was merely annoying. The Director of the Museum seemed to vacillate between an almost cloying sweetness and bouts of anger. Through all this the acting was adequate, with the exception of Janet Ulrich Brooks, as the Director's mother, who stood out in this small cast and left this theater-goer wishing she had a larger role in the drama. Finally, Tesla was used as a metaphor for the main action of the play; however, as a true scientific genius he deserves more.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Crane and Johns

In 1932 on his return from Mexico, off the coast of Cuba, Hart Crane was "lost at sea". At least that is what is inscribed on the tombstone of his father, Clarence A. Crane. Last night I attended a lecture by Langdon Hammer, Yale University Professor, on the nexus between Hart Crane and Jasper Johns. He opened the lecture with the portrait of Crane by Walker Evans (seen at the left) in the background as he surveyed Crane's brief life. He then moved to a detailed analysis of the influence of Crane on Johns' work as shown in the explicit and implicit references to Crane in some of his "Gray" period works now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. He noted the apparent differences between the two artists in that Crane is considered an emotional artist while Jasper Johns is usually thought of as more cerebral. In spite of that, or perhaps because, there is a connection that can be seen, by studying Johns' paintings and words as Professor Hammer has, as editor of the Library of America collection of Crane's Poetry and Letters as well as other publications.

The best part of the lecture for me was meditating on some of Crane's moving poetry, such as this excerpt, selected by Prof. Hammer:

yes, Walt,

Afoot again, and onward without halt,--

Not soon, nor suddenly,--no, never to let go

My hand

in yours,

Walt Whitman--


--Hart Crane, "Cape Hatteras" (from The Bridge, 1930)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Memorial Service

H. L. Mencken

Where is the grave-yard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the king of the gods, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter to-day? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year--and it is no more than five hundred years ago--50,000 youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest. Huitzilopochtli, like many other gods, had no human father; his mother was a virtuous widow; he was born of an apparently innocent flirtation that she carried on with the sun. When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with 10,000 gallons of human blood. But today [in 1921] Huitzilopochtli is as magnificently forgotten as Allen G. Thurman. Once the peer of Allah, Buddha, and Wotan, he is now the peer of General Coxey, Richmond P. Hobson, Nan Petterson, Alton B. Parker, Adelina Patti, General Weyler, and Tom Sharkey.

Speaking of Huitzilopochtli recalls his brother, Tezcatilpoca. Tezcatilpoca was almost as powerful: He consumed 25,000 virgins a year. Lead me to his tomb: I would weep, and hang a couronne des perles. But who knows where it is? Or where the grave of Quitzalcontl is? Or Tialoc? Or Chalchihuitlicue? Or Xiehtecutli? Or Centeotl, that sweet one? Or Tlazolteotl, the goddess of love? Or Mictlan? Or Ixtlilton? Or Omacatl? Or Yacatecutli? Or Mixcoatl? Or Xipe? Or all the host of Tzitzimitles? Where are their bones? Where is the willow on which they hung their harps? In what forlorn and unheard of hell do they await the resurrection morn? Who enjoys their residuary estates? Or that of Dis, whom Caesar found to be the chief god of the Celts? Or that of Tarves, the bull? Or that of Moccos, the pig? Or that of Epona, the mare? Or that of Mullo, the celestial jack-ass? There was a time when the Irish revered all these gods as violently as they now hate the English. But today even the drunkest Irishman laughs at them.

But they have company in oblivion: The hell of dead gods is as crowded as the Presbyterian hell for babies. Damona is there, and Esus, and Drunemeton, and Silvana, and Dervones, and Adsalluta, and Deva, and Belisama, and Axona, and Vintios, and Taranuous, and Sulis, and Cocidius, and Adsmerius, and Dumiatis, and Caletos, and Moccus, and Ollovidius, and Albiorix, and Leucitius, and Vitucadrus, and Ogmios, and Uxellimus, and Borvo, and Grannos, and Mogons. All mighty gods in their day, worshiped by millions, full of demands and impositions, able to bind and loose--all gods of the first class, not dilettanti. Men labored for generations to build vast temples to them--temples with stones as large as hay-wagons. The business of interpreting their whims occupied thousands of priests, wizards, archdeacons, evangelists, haruspices, bishops, archbishops. To doubt them was to die, usually at the stake. Armies took to the field to defend them against infidels: Villages were burned, women and children were butchered, cattle were driven off. Yet in the end they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence. Worse, the very tombs in which they lie are lost, and so even a respectful stranger is debarred from paying them the slightest and politest homage.

What has become of Sutekh, once the high god of the whole Nile Valley? What has become of:


All these were once gods of the highest eminence. Many of them are mentioned with fear and trembling in the Old Testament. They ranked, five or six thousand years ago, with Jahveh himself; the worst of them stood far higher than Thor. Yet they have all gone down the chute, and with them the following:

Dea Dia
Iuno Lucina
Gasan lil
Abil Addu
Nuada Argetlam
Llaw Gyffes
Diana of Ephesus

You may think I spoof. That I invent the names. I do not. Ask the rector to lend you any good treatise on comparative religion: You will find them all listed. They were gods of the highest standing and dignity--gods of civilized peoples--worshiped and believed in by millions. All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal. And all are dead.

(1922) Reprinted from A Mencken Crestomathy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Cape of Good Hope

When blue meets blue and green appears to intercede,
And a waft of breeze dusts one's cheeks with mild
Chastisement -- a wind that offers a hint of more to come.
What do we realize in the appearance of the endless sea?

We realize we have reached the limit of land.
The idea of infinity is objectified in one color --
Or is it two? This we only discover by trying
To understand what our human nature must be.

A truce with ourselves betrays the need
To learn and discover our self in our actions.
Trying to become the end we only imagined
In the breeze -- we create hope for our future.

from Geography Lessons

February 1994 (2004)

I went on a journey to the tip of South Africa in 1978. This poem is in part inspired by that experience.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Brothers Karamazov

Yesterday I experienced an enlightening and enriching lecture entitled "Hell and Devils: Responding to Human Perversity in The Brothers Karamazov" given by Clare Pearson, both Chairperson and Instructor in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. Her lecture featured the "mythological and mystical core" of the novel with a focus on the nature of hell and the many examples of devils found in it. What I found enlightening in the lecture was the expansion of my conception of The Brothers Karamazov through this approach to the novel. I am currently in the midst of a year-long (at least) reading of the novel with a bi-weekly study group, and have read it previously several times. Over the course of those readings I have explored the novel as mystery, as philosophy, as christian spirituality, and even as a psychoanalytic text in my study of the novel, but here was yet another approach to reading it.
That is just one of the reasons it is considered a "classic"; because you can read it again and again, continuing to discover new ideas and meanings in this rich and transcendent text. Ms. Pearson described her lecture as a "rough" unfinished approach to the novel, but it was polished enough to inspire this listener to continue with his current reading with new vigor and search for ever more meaning and enrichment in the text bequeathed to us by Dostoevsky.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Christmas Memory

Nostalgia and sentimentality are woven together beautifully in this brief memoir by Truman Capote. Written in the mid-fifties before the peak of his acclaim and subsequent dissolution, this is a touching story of friendship and the memories of youth. In a simpler time and place the young Capote shares the essence of Christmas with his elder cousin. A moving memoir for those willing to believe.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Modern Library, New York. 1996 (1956).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An Adult Fairy Tale

Last night I attended the Lyric Opera production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. The production was astonishing in the use of light and movement while the singing was excellent. The center of the opera for me is Strauss's music, as it is with all his many works. His use of motifs move the drama along ever onward and, at times, were almost magical in evoking the mysterious moods of the opera. Rather than summarize the whole story, let me just say that it is one that juxtaposes this world (the Dyer's wife and her husband Barak) with the supernatural (the Empress and her Nurse) and leads to an ultimate decision for the Empress. The journey to that decision takes the singers and music into ethereal realms and charmed this opera lover.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Nelson Algren

Nelson Algren wrote: ". . . I was going to write a war novel. But it turned out to be this Golden Arm thing. I mean, the war kind of slipped away, and those people with the hypos came along and that was it."
This suggests that Algren was overcome by his own creation, and I suppose that can happen sometimes, when you create such real gritty characters. This novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, is certainly gritty, and real, and a fascinating read. The characters literally jump out at you from the page and you realize that the author knows these people and has the skill to impart that knowledge. While sometimes both harrowing and grim, the novel grips the reader and does not let him go. My reaction, as it was with Camus' The Stranger, is that this is not a world I would want to live in but it makes me think. If you enjoy this book you might want to explore Never Come Morning and other works by Nelson Algren.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Disaster Books

The Circus Fire
by Stewart O'Nan

Last year I read an excellent account of the 1918 Influenza pandemic by John Barry entitled The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history. This was a well-written account not only of the pandemic but also the rise of the medical establishment and the aftermath of the event. My sister had recommended this and recently she recommended another very good disaster book which I read over the recent holiday weekend. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy by Stewart O'Nan is an account of the great Hartford circus fire of 1944. This event was unknown to me prior to reading this book.  However, it was nevertheless a great tragedy as 167 people died in the fire, including many children. O'Nan's account is very well-written as he brings the disaster alive with a detailed minute-by-minute narrative that never lags despite the attention to detail. The psychological insight and focus on particular families makes this an exceptionally good read.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mr. Ripley

The engaging novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, is a quirky crime thriller. Highsmith dismisses with many of the traditional aspects of the crime thriller and presents the amoral criminal, one Tom Ripley, from the inside out. From the very first page of the novel you are sharing the thoughts of Tom as he looks over his shoulder expecting the police to emerge from the shadows to take him away. As the novel ends, he is still looking over his shoulder, so to speak, as he imagines the gendarmes awaiting at whatever European port he is approaching. In between the reader shares the roller coaster ride as this intriguing criminal assumes the identity of young American Dickie Greenleaf, an expatriate whom he has been sent to coax home by Greenleaf's father. Assuming Greenleaf's identity involves Tom in murder and more as he travels from Rome to Palermo to Venice to escape those searching for the missing American. Highsmith demonstrates both psychological acuity and brilliant logic in her portrayal of one of the most likable of amoral and irrational criminals ever imagined. Her writing style is superb and you are disappointed that the tale must end. Fortunately she went on to write four subsequent novels starring the talented Mr. Ripley.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Vintage Books, New York. 1983 (1955).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Breaking the Tongue

This is an amazing work of historical fiction from the pen of Vyvyane Loh. She has created believable characters, particularly the young hero Claude Lim, and put them in an historical setting that is brought alive in this intelligent novel. We see the Chinese family trying to emulate their British colonial masters and watch as their society crumbles in the face of the Japanese invasion of December, 1942. But mostly this is Claude's story as he learns from his Grandmother Siok, befriends the Englishman Jack Winchester and in turn is befriended by the Chinese nurse Han Ling-Li. Slowly Claude matures and becomes reconciled with his Chinese ethnicity. This novel seamlessly blends the personal stories with the turmoil of invasion. One more for my list of great historical novels.

Breaking the Tongue by Vyvyane Loh. W.W. Norton Co., New York. 2004.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


This memoir is truly a boy's story. The narrator tells the story from a boy's point of view with vivid details and wonderful vignettes. From the first page, where he comments "We were to be seen and not heard.", the narrative is filled with moments that resonated for me even though my own boyhood was much different than the author's. I found the episodic style another aspect that made this like a boy's story for it seemed more natural that he would tell it in this, somewhat unorganized, manner. Nevertheless I looked forward to each chapter and the new events and information that it would bring. The characters and events seemed real even when we learn few details about them.

The memoir provided sufficient detail to bring a different place and time alive. The accumulation of episodes and events led to a rich picture of another era when things were truly simpler. Again this rang true to me based on my own boyhood. The narrator includes changes in his life like the separation of his parents and his school experiences that provide an additional layer of meaning for the memoir. While there was a certain detachment of the narrator from all of this, the result for this reader was that the memoir took on a dreamlike quality that enhanced the feeling of difference in this particular place.

Through its presentation as an episodic boy's story the overall effect was one that made me feel that I was a participant in this story. I was satisfied as the narrative ended that I had shared some part of this interesting boyhood.

Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood by Douglas Thayer. Zarahemla Books, Provo, Utah. 2007.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Innocent Heroine

Little Dorrit

Yesterday evening was the final discussion of Little Dorrit at our Dickens class at The Newberry Library. In this class we are surveying the complete novels of Charles Dickens. This novel exhibits some of the characteristic traits for which Dickens is famous, including a plethora of characters, atmospheric descriptions and a somewhat convoluted plot line. While exhibiting these traits it also has two of the most decent and truly good protagonists (if not hero and heroine) in all of the Dickens which I have read. That Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit (Amy) finally join together in wedded bliss is a consummation not unexpected and certainly deserved. Arthur has survived his 'quest' for identity and understanding and while not entirely successful he has reached a point from which he can satisfactorily go forward with his life and with his Amy.

For this reader the novel was both satisfying and perturbing. The continual railing against the Circumlocution Office and skewering of debtors' prisons with the 'Marshalsea' was not convincing and the weakness of the plot undermined the quality of the novel. However, the fecundity of curious and wonderful characters who consistently charmed and challenged the reader with their psychological complexity helped to overcome all other weaknesses. And this is the great strength of Dickens as a novelist which he demonstrates again and again as he continues to increase his mastery of this literary form.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (rev. ed.).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Epicurean Poem

On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura

On the Nature of Things:
de Rerum Natura  by Lucretius
translated by Anthony M. Esolen

“All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher.”   ― Titus Lucretius Carus, On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura

The philosophy of Epicurus is seldom presented any better than in the classic poem, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius. We know little about Lucretius life other than he lived during the turbulent era of the Roman Empire that saw the rise of Sulla and Pompey and, ultimately, Julius Caesar. On the Nature of Things was his poetic plea to the Roman elite that they change course. The poem by Lucretius has the goal of explaining Epicurean philosophy to a Roman audience. It was written in some 7,400 dactylic hexameters, divided into six untitled books, and explores Epicurean physics through richly poetic language and metaphors. Lucretius presents the principles of atomism; the nature of the mind and soul; explanations of sensation and thought; the development of the world and its phenomena; and explains a variety of celestial and terrestrial phenomena. The universe described in the poem operates according to these physical principles, guided by fortuna, "chance", and not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.
Thankfully we can still enjoy the vision of the good life as presented in this beautiful poem. The basics of Lucretius' philosophy include acknowledging pleasure (or the absence of pain) as the highest good, basing ethics on the evidence of the senses, and extolling plain living and high thinking. He also is a committed atheist, denouncing the gods in Book I of the poem, and advocating free will in Book II. This lucid translation by Anthony M. Esolen reminds me why Lucretius is still worth reading.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Blue Angel

Francine Prose's novel is a well-written spoof of academia. She successfully parodies both the ersatz avant garde students and the politically-correct administration while leaving the hero (?) caught in the middle. Ted Swenson is a writer and professor but an unlikable hero; however, he seems almost sympathetic by the end of the story. At least he appears to have learned his lesson, or is that a mirage like many of the emotions displayed by his antagonist. Much of the book seems designed to tease the reader but the intelligence of the author shines through and carries the reader forward. A book worthy of your consideration.

Blue Angel by Francine Prose, HarperCollins Perennial, New York, 2000.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

John Philip Sousa

I could not let the day pass without an encomium for one of the composers nearest to my heart. For in my formative musical years in high school and college I enjoyed performing the marches of this great composer who was born on this day in 1854. Sousa was much more than a composer of Marches with Operettas, Suites, Songs and even novels to his credit. My own favorites among his marches include National Fencibles, Manhattan Beach and, of course, The Washington Post. It is the last that epitomizes the genius of Sousa with its beautiful dance-like melody that has made it among the most popular of all marches. Sousa's genius included the ability to create memorable melodies while presenting them in a very simple form that lets the music flourish. We still find his music fresh as it was more than a century ago warming us with the joy of musical memories.

A View of Heaven

The Chimney Sweeper by William Blake.

A little black thing in the snow,
Crying "weep! weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? Say!"
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.

"Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

"And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."

This poem suggests to me a vision of the world not unlike that found in some moments in the novels of Dickens. With the uncaring parents' heads focused on another world, the real world of the child is magnified. The contrast between the white of snow and the black "clothes of death" or the happy child who is taught to sing "notes of woe" highlight the stark reality of the world of the child. The poem may even presage such twentieth century visions as that of Ingmar Bergman in such films as The Seventh Seal. Are we to find heaven above or in the world around us with its' woe leavened by happiness?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Little Dorrit

The current Dickens novel in my reading cue is Little Dorrit. It is a rather mixed bag of mystery and intrigue between characters both well-off and not. The theme of prisons and imprisonment permeates this book with the title character residing with her family in the infamous "Marshalsea" prison for the first part of the book. The main plot is focused on the efforts of Arthur Clennam to assist Little (Amy) Dorrit's family in paying their debts so as to escape the prison and Arthur's own quest to solve the mystery of his family & identity. The Dorrits succeed in leaving the prison due to discovered inheritance. The novel moves on to the second part and advancement of the love interests of several characters along with new developments in the life of Arthur. One of Dickens most complicated tales, the novel has several "shady" characters that create difficult situations. Moreover Dickens demonstrates some of his most effective satire in the description of the Circumlocution Office and its administrators, the predatory Barnacles. I will comment further when I complete the second part and learn the fate of Little Dorrit.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Apology of Socrates

Last night I attended a dramatic portrayal of Plato's dialogue, The Apology of Socrates. It was a stunning performance by Yannis Simonides as part of the current Chicago Humanities Festival. Simonides captured the passion and irony of the dialogue, but most of all he displayed the humor in a way that I had never been able to approach in my several readings of the dialogue. The performance brought home to me the true dramatic and poetic nature of Plato's dialogues in a way that can only be accomplished by an impassioned actor. The beauty of the language and style of the dialogue was always present, but it was overshadowed by the moving moral character of Socrates.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Coldest Winter

If you enjoy history well told you must read the last book by David Halberstam. Reading The Coldest Winter reminds me why I still remember reading The Best and the Brightest and The Powers That Be many years ago. As a writer Halberstam is superb and his latest, an excursion into the early years of the cold war, is more evidence of his skill. The story unfolds with careful attention to the details of the battles as well as incisive character sketches of the main players on each side. The international political tensions of the early fifties are highlighted and become as real as those in the Mideast today. That North Korea is still a significant international political and diplomatic problem even today makes this book relevant. Halberstam himself regarded this as his best book. But more importantly, from the perspective of a literature lover, it is a very good read.

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam. Hyperion Books, New York, 2007.

Monday, October 29, 2007

October Run

Over the last several years I have participated in charity "fun" runs. One of these, the 'Trick or Treat Trot' was held yesterday. This was the twentieth time this annual event has occurred and the third or fourth time I have taken part in it. The weather yesterday was almost perfect for an outdoor run and the venue for this event, Montrose Harbor in Lincoln Park along the lake, made it even better. There is nothing more invigorating than an early morning run and the addition of about 2,500 fellow running enthusiasts augmented the feeling for me. While I did not set any personal records, I had a good run over the 5K course and cheered on my friend Kyle as he completed the 10K course a few minutes later. We retired to a local coffeehouse for some convivial conversation to commemorate the race. It seemed a good way to enjoy early autumn and start a sunny Sunday.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Another World

Another World by Pat Barker is a novel whose parts do not add up to the sum of the whole. There is no getting there in this novel, for there is nowhere to go. With the past dripping into the present through a ghost and a hidden mural in the family's home the novel has enough of the past to create interest; yet, it does not. The characters are well drawn, but there is no follow through and the reader is left wondering what to make of it all. This was a disappointment for this reader who immensely enjoyed the author's Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road). By all means, read Pat Barker, but start with her earlier trilogy.

Another World by Pat Barker. Viking Press, New York, 1998.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Introduction to Trollope

The Warden
by Anthony Trollope

The Warden is a good introduction to the work of Anthony Trollope who wrote dozens of books over his literary career. The themes of church and society in the town of Barchester are on display here along with a portrayal of the media that seems eerily familiar to our own. Trollope's satire is subtle and the story is one that pits the sense of justice of Septimus Harding , the local Warden, against the power of the church and society. 

Trollope creates a fascinating character in Harding, but he also demonstrates the way the unintended consequences of our actions have a way of overtaking us and those around us. This is shown in the actions of the young firebrand John Bold who finds his feelings for Harding's daughter ultimately win out over his call for social justice. 

Overall this is a good example of one of the greatest of Victorian novelists. If you enjoy reading this novel you might want to continue reading the series it begins with the second and even better, Barchester Towers (1857).

The Warden by Anthony Trollope, Penguin Books, New York. 1984 (1855)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Horse's Mouth

The picaresque novel has a noble tradition reaching back to Don Quixote. In his novel, The Horse's Mouth, Joyce Cary created a picaresque hero for the twentieth century. Gulley Jimson is the epitome of a life force and his creativity in life as well as art carries him forward and wins the reader's heart. Cary's theme is one of the creative artist pitted against authority of all kinds. The novel opens with opens with Jimson, newly released from prison, reveling in his freedom admiring the clouds in the sky and the murky waters of the Thames. The adventures begin as Jimson caroms from one episode to another leading to his ultimate creation, a great mural that will be the culmination of his art. The combination of exalting prose (Cary is after all, Irish by birth) and a wonderful story make this book a true pleasure to read. You might want to check out the wonderful 1958 film version starring Sir Alec Guinness (above).

The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. Time Reading Program edition, Time, Inc. New York, 1965.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mahler and Wagner

Last night the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed two of my favorites from the era of nineteenth century Romantic music. The concert opened with Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll performed by a small ensemble under the direction of Bernard Haitink. This pastoral work is famous for its evocation of Wagner's love for his bride Cosima and was named for their young son. The theme was later incorporated into the opera Siegfried, the third section of the 'Ring Cycle' of operas. The concluding and main work of the evening was Gustav Mahler's great 6th Symphony in a minor. This is truly a tragic symphony filled with marches and dark sections of melancholy meditations. While there is some relief with a soaring romantic theme in the first movement and lyrical moments in the slow third movement, this is overtaken by serious explosions of sound from the horns. The final movement is filled with climaxes that each end with a tremendous hammer blow. In spite of the great boisterousness of the music I was still shocked out of my seat by the final chords. The orchestra performed beautifully under the baton of the esteemed Principal Conductor, Bernard Haitink. This was a concert that I will remember for a long time.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Nature and Art

The changeability of nature was never so evident as late yesterday afternoon in downtown Chicago. I had travelled by bus from my Lakeview residence on a sunny afternoon looking forward to a lecture at the Art Institute. Just after I settled in line inside the Art Institute building waiting for Fullerton Hall to open there was a terrible noise coming from the upper floors. I looked up but could see nothing, then I looked outside and saw a torrential downpour just beyond the doors facing Michigan Avenue. The noise was due to the sizable hail that was present with the rainfall. While the downpour did not last long, it was evidence of the power and the suddenness that nature can demonstrate. Fortunately I was inside and soon to experience a power of a different sort, the power of Art.

The evening lecture was a brilliant exposition by Helen Vendler (the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University) who spoke on the art of still life in the painting of Jasper Johns and the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Ms. Vendler, who has written two books on Stevens, was charming in sharing the profundity of her thought in a relaxed and, at times, almost conversational manner. The insights into the nature of the art of still life as it sometimes suggests death in its very stillness were superb and the audience was just as still in the intensity of their listening. Analyzing eight of Stevens' poems along with slides of several of the paintings that will soon be on exhibit from Johns' 'Gray' period Ms. Vendler deftly demonstrated the many layers of meaning that are encountered in these works. The evening was exhilarating in its offering of food for the intellect. Art was never more powerful and surely challenged the natural events occurring outside the walls of the museum.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Moor of Venice

Othello is one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. It stands beside Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear in this regard. Each of these works has its own 'personality' and in Othello this includes the prominence of the title character's antagonist. For it almost seems that this play could have been entitled Iago. Iago demonstrates a superior mind, coldly calculating and planning his actions to achieve his end, the usurpation of Othello. In this he appears to be completely evil. Othello, on the other hand, seems clueless and is easily manipulated. His innocence plays into the hands of Iago. THe play raises questions about the nature and source of evil and whether goodness is inherently innocent. There is much more in this complex drama, including two interesting and intelligent women in Desdemona and Emilia. Emilia stands out as a courageous woman who has been described by some as a "proto-feminist". The conflict between Iago and Othello is stark as Iago's schemes play out. It makes this one of Shakespeare's best plays.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


I just spent the weekend listening to lectures, and discussing the The Histories of Herodotus with a sizable group of cohorts, all of whom were gathered to revel in this amazing classical text. During the fifth century B.C. Herodotus traveled the known world making inquiries and doing research on the origins and events of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. This sizable text was the result and it includes what he referred to as enquiries but what encompasses much of what we would call history, sociology, anthropology, mythology and more. It is a wonderful narrative providing the essential background and events, including famous battles like Thermopylae and profiles of great leaders on both sides including Themistocles, Darius and Xerxes. Perhaps the best way to convey the import of this book is to let Herodotus speak for himself. He opens the book thus:

"Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks."

Herodotus does not shy away from opinions about the events that he narrates; one of these opinions is related early in Book One:

"I know that human happiness never remains long in the same place."

This becomes more and more evident as one reads on through this excellent work. Whether it was Croesus , who was at one time the richest man in the world, or the Persian emperors, whose realm extended to the ends of the known world, their respective happiness did not last. Reading this book was an adventure into the history of the known world in that time.

The Histories by Herodotus, trans. by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Beauty or Truth

Poem for Today

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied. "
And I for truth, the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

- Emily Dickinson

The thought, also expressed well by Keats, is timeless, and true.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Defying Expectations

All Passion Spent
All Passion Spent 

“J'ai toujours pensé qu'il valait mieux plaire beaucoup à une seule personne, qu'un peu à tout le monde.” 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West is an inspiring novel of the life of a woman who chooses to create herself anew. Both character and values are important to Lady Slane, the heroine of this thoughtful and uplifting book. Recently widowed, she, as a wife to a great statesman and mother of six, had always put everyone else’s needs before her own. As a young woman she harboured a secret desire to become a painter, but gave up her own personal desires in favour of duty and tradition. When her husband dies she final asserts her independence and moves to a tiny house in Hampstead to live out her remaining days. However, she rejects the advice of her family and carves out a new life for herself based on her artistic desires. Defying expectations, of her small-minded family, she seeks fulfillment in a different if not better way than she had heretofore in her life. In so doing she provides a model for all individuals who wish to follow their own creative souls.

View all my reviews
Suddenly, Last Summer

I attended a tremendously well-acted and powerful performance of this short play by Tennessee Williams last evening. This production by the Shattered Globe Theatre at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater was amazing in its intensity. While Linda Reiter stood out in the role of Mrs. Venable (I had previously enjoyed her work in Arcadia at Remy Bumpo), Allison Batty projected a strong portrayal of her nemesis Catharine. The rest of the ensemble was equally convincing in this searing and emotionally-draining play. The set was perfect as a New Orleans hothouse that bolstered the raw emotions that would build to the terrible climactic scene of the play. This play relies on the two main characters to narrate the story of the Ghost of Sebastian Venable whose death was the pivotal event for both their lives. The actors were able to handle that difficult task with an intensity that made this performance a success. In performances like this Williams' plays take on an epic grandeur befitting one of America's greatest playwrights.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Monsters of Templeton

This is a dreamlike novel about a woman with a passion for exploring her family origins and the town where she began her life. I found the main character, Willie Upton, an appealing person and the story, while sometimes complex and perhaps a bit muddled, quite compelling. The author's narrative takes you to a world within our own country that is as unfamiliar as any foreign land. In my own reading it is somewhat reminiscent of The Sweeter the Juice only more satisfying.

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. Hyperion Books, New York (2008)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Prize Winner

What are the qualities that make a prize-winning novel? Having read more than two dozen such novels in my Lincoln Park Book Group which I have attended regularly for more than nine years I pondered this question after our meeting last night. We were discussing the novel, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. The general reaction of our reading group was summed up in the quizzical expression on the face of one of us as if to say: this book won the Booker prize? While our discussion uncovered some redeeming features in Desai's novel, I found these features far outweighed by the problems in the novel. The lack of characters, while interesting enough, that I cared about topped my list. But as far as prize winners go this book must have had little competition in 2006 because it was not in the same stratosphere as former winners like Midnight's Children or The Sea, The Sea. This is not the first time that I've encountered an unevenness in the choice of an award winning novel. Each time the experience only makes me more curious about the selection process and question whether the quality of the writing is ever the main criteria...

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Grove Press, New York (2006)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

At Swim Two Boys
At Swim Two Boys 

This very Irish novel by Jamie O'Neill was a sometimes frustrating, but ultimately wonderful book to read. The combination of a luscious prose style and interesting love story combined to provide for an enjoyable experience for this reader. The main characters came alive over the course of this long novel. However, both the difficulties I had with the dialect and confusion over the events (not being that expert in Irish history of the World War I era) detracted from my overall enjoyment. At the heart of the novel is the love of two boys, Jim and Doyler, for each other and, for me, the particularly moving relationship of Jim with his father, Mr. Mack. I was at another disadvantage in my ignorance of Catholicism which also impeded my appreciation of the story.
Nonetheless the book captured me as I'm sure it has other readers, with the passion of the characters and use of language that was truly inspiring.

View all my reviews

Monday, October 01, 2007

Hard Times

Continuing consideration of Dickens' Hard Times I find the novel to be surprisingly readable. There is something to be said for Dickens' economy of words, paragraphs and chapters as compared with most of his earlier (and later) novels. Unfortunately the economy is achieved at the expense of fun, the wonderfully wild and jovial, bumbling blunderbusses and curious characters that made much of Dickens so much fun are not present (sad!). That having been said it is a fine sentimental story -- ironic in its' aggressive stance against sentiment. The character of Louisa, in particular, seems to be one of Dickens' favorite types: the young woman beset by fate sharing her plight with the likes of Esther Summerson. She comes up short as does this novel in most aspects, when compared with the rest of Dickens' oeuvre.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Unusual Man

Nowhere ManNowhere Man 
by Aleksandar Hemon

“If you can't go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world-indeed, nowhere is the world.”   ― Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

In Nowhere Man, Aleksandar Hemon takes his protagonist from Sarajevo to the Soviet Union, from Chicago to Shanghai. In a way this strange but interesting novel is in part a "Chicago" novel. From the grand causes of Jozef's adolescence -- for instance trying to change the face of rock and roll and, hilariously, struggling to lose his virginity -- to a fleeting encounter with George Bush (the first) in Kiev, to enrollment in a Chicago ESL class and the sometimes glorious adventures of minimum-wage living, which includes stints as a P.I. and as a fund-raiser for Greenpeace, Hemon crafts an unusual but endearing character. Written with all the literary verve of his earlier stories, but funnier, warmer, and more accessible, "Nowhere Man" traces a life at once touchingly familiar, eccentric, strange and bracingly out-of-the-ordinary.

This was an attempt to create a novel that would have been more successful if it was told in a more straight forward manner. The postmodern style and neologisms that may have stemmed from the author's own experience as one for whom English was not his first language combine to make this novel unsuccessful. In spite of this the author has won extraordinary recognition after just one book.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Royal Humor

The Uncommon Reader
The Uncommon Reader: A Novella 

"The Queen hestitated, because to tell the truth she wasn't sure.  She'd never taken much interest in reading.  She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something left to other people.  It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn't have hobbies."(p 6)

This new novella from the pen of Alan Bennett (author of the The History Boys) is without a doubt the funniest book I have read in recent memory. I started it while riding home on the bus and had a hard time keeping my seat as my laughter was almost nonstop. What a wonderful premise! Imagine the Queen of England patronizing a lending library van, and then imagine her actually reading books. The incongruity of the situation leads to hilarious consequences for the Queen, her family, her household and her subjects. From the title, a not-too-subtle reference to Virginia Woolf, to the end of this book I had a riot of uproariously fun reading. However, amidst all this fun there was a serious message about the nature, power and importance of reading: a subject that must be near and dear to the heart of the author and which all readers will continue to appreciate and wonder upon after the laughter has died away.

"You don't put your life into your books. You find it there."

"Above literature?...Who is above literature? You might as well say one was above humanity." 

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the AEgean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Giants in the Earth

The saga of Norwegian immigrants by O. E. Rolvaag entitled Giants in the Earth is truly a heroic epic of the settling of the upper plains. Rolvaag keeps his narrative focused on the family of Per Hansa with his long-suffering wife Beret and four children, And-Ongen, Store-Hans, Ole and Peder Victorious. The last of the children is born in their plains home while the others take part in the trek from Minnesota with which the novel begins. More than this family and their neighbors who form the new plains settlement, the earth itself is the main character of this story. From the opening moments the narrative is alive with the sounds and colors that surround the immigrant family and the impact of nature and the earth continue to influence their lives throughout the book.

Filled with the vicissitudes of a life on the frontier, the novel celebrates the life of the family and community as they overcome each of the challenges they face. Notable among the difficulties are the emotional problems of Beret as she comes to terms with her anxieties and fears in this rough community on the edge of civilization. Her story highlights the internal struggles of Per Hansa and his family and underlies the narrative of their interaction with the community at large. I have enjoyed this novel again and again ever since I read it as a teenager. Rereading it today I am somewhat reminded of The Good Earth by Pearl Buck which also depicts the influence of the earth on the life of a family. Giants in the Earth is a magnificent portrayal of pioneer human achievement.

Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag. Harper & Row, New York, 1927.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Return to Dickens

I am reading Dickens again after a summer hiatus. Dickens' novel Hard Times presents some of the themes common to Dickens. There is a young child, Sissy Jupe, whose father abandons her. And we have yet another example of mal-education with the system of Thomas Gradgrind, "facts, facts, facts". Dickens creates interest with deft touches like the scene of Gradgrind's children, Louisa and Thomas, finding their imaginations stirred (perhaps for the first time) at the sight of a Circus. This does not last for long -- not in the family of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, who runs it just as sternly and irrationally rational as his school. Stir in some colorful supporting characters and we have the start of a rather interesting story. I will comment further as my reading progresses.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Orchard of My Youth

After Apple Picking

Having spent a few Saturdays in my youth out in the orchard picking apples I feel a bit of nostalgia as I contemplate Robert Frost's take on this autumn activity. - JH

After Apple Picking

Poem lyrics of After Apple Picking by Robert Frost.

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still.
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.
I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and reappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
And I keep hearing from the cellar-bin
That rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking;
I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall,
For all That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.
A Fragrant Aroma

The very latest grotesquerie
In my own personal gallery,
Consists of highly fragrant potpourri
Whose aroma compels all to see!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Morning Star

Lincoln Park along side Lake Michigan presents many beautiful sites and I enjoy them most when I am on one of my early morning runs. During special times of the year and very early in the morning just as the sun is beginning to rise I turn my eyed upward and view the scenery above. This morning I had a view of Venus, the 'morning star'. It is impressive and cool in its majesty sending sufficient light over a massive distance to be seen from the earth. It is amazing that in the heart of a very large city it is still possible to enjoy sights like this, transporting the viewer away from his urban surroundings and into a world of reverie and dreams. The morning star in the night sky illuminates the runner in the park.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Atlas Shrugged

The importance of the ideas in this novel, published fifty years ago, cannot be overstated. When I first read the works of Ayn Rand (this was my second, having read The Fountainhead first) I found a thinker who had a vision of the individual and the world that inspired me. Through that inspiration I was encouraged to continue to think and read and form a philosophy for my own life. I owe much of that philosophy to this book and the ideas within it. It contains the core of Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism. While I do not consider myself an 'objectivist', I share many of the tenets that philosophy espouses in my personal approach to life. More importantly I still consider Ayn Rand one of the great thinkers and Atlas Shrugged one of the great works of literature and one of my personal favorites.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Nonsense Rhyme?

Some spellings are invidious
such as grievious and mischievious
but none are more insidious
than those which are illustrious.

There are those of us,
Mostly just the curious,
who wonder at the muss and fuss
when spelling rules are up to us.

More Rhymes and Poems, 2007

Perhaps there is a message but I'm the poet, and I won't tell.