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.