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.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Devil in Massachusetts

This is a riveting account of the Salem Witch Trials. Marion Starkey includes just the right amount of detail to portray all the elements of this horrifying story. From the hysteria spun out of fanaticism to the economic and social background that provided a fertile ground, the events unfold in a way that kept this reader spellbound. There may be more recent accounts that cover more details, but this is the classic telling of this tale of witchcraft and evil.

The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion Starkey, Time Reading Program, New York. 1963.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Nature and Eternity

Poem for Today

This lovely haunting poem by Emily Dickinson demonstrates some of her best qualities as a poet. The sense of wonder and unique perspective at the opening of the poem is startling. But the poem evolves and I found myself overwhelmed with the beauty and grace of the the final two stanzas as it quickly shifts from the bird's sense of danger to the infinite beauty of nature.

A Bird Came Down

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,--
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, splashless, as they swim.

Emily Dickinson

A Bird Came Down The Walk - Poem Lyrics - Emily Dickinson

Monday, September 03, 2007

Creativity and Art

I find the following poem challenging and enjoyable - Not sure if I agree with the sentiment.

a spider and a fly
Don Marquis

i heard a spider
and a fly arguing
wait said the fly
do not eat me
i serve a great purpose
in the world

you will have to
show me said the spider

i scurry around
gutters and sewers
and garbage cans
said the fly and gather
up the germs of
typhoid influenza
and pneumonia on my feet
and wings
then i carry these germs
into the households of men
and give them diseases
all the people who
have lived the right
sort of life recover
from the diseases
and the old soaks who
have weakened their systems
with liquor and iniquity
succumb it is my mission
to help rid the world
of these wicked persons
i am a vessel of righteousness
scattering seeds of justice
and serving the noblest uses

it is true said the spider
that you are more
useful in a plodding
material sort of way
than i am but i do not
serve the utilitarian deities
i serve the gods of beauty
look at the gossamer webs
i weave they float in the sun
like filaments of song
if you get what i mean
i do not work at anything
i play all the time
i am busy with the stuff
of enchantment and the materials
of fairyland my works
transcend utility
i am the artist
a creator and a demi god
it is ridiculous to suppose
that i should be denied
the food i need in order
to continue to create
beauty i tell you
plainly mister fly it is all
damned nonsense for that food
to rear up on its hind legs
and say it should not be eaten

you have convinced me
said the fly say no more
and shutting all his eyes
he prepared himself for dinner
and yet he said i could
have made out a case
for myself too if i had
had a better line of talk

of course you could said the spider
clutching a sirloin from him
but the end would have been
just the same if neither of
us had spoken at all

boss i am afraid that what
the spider said is true
and it gives me to think
furiously upon the futility
of literature

Odor of Odets

Paradise Lost
by Clifford Odets

Paradise Lost (the play not the poem) by Clifford Odets is a morass of malodorous muckraking. Bereft of ideas, relying on screaming and character innuendo rather than serious drama this play is the poster child for what was wrong with drama in the 1930s. The characters were caricatures from the soul of a playwright who detests human virtue; thus none was found on the stage. After an act of yelling and bickering with mere glimpses of positive human character I was fed up. I hope you do not get the wrong idea, I just did not like this play. Even the production seemed to be out of place, veering into a postmodern space, and it did not improve on the playwright's vision, such as it was. The acting was excellent in spots, but primarily mediocre; however, given the material this was not surprising. TimeLine Theatre Company has offered better, much better, in the past and hopefully will do so in the future.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Samuel Beckett

What is the nature of the theater? The genius of Samuel Beckett explored this question in several plays over his career. His wondering was inspired by those who preceded him from Dante to Descartes and beyond. The indescribable feeling that is engendered by the work of this artist is a part of the mystery of life and art.