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.