Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Morning Study Group

More than eight years ago I joined a reading group that was started with the aim of reading Ulysses by James Joyce. We were prepared for a slow and thorough examination of the text and we spent more than nine months of weekly discussions (minus an occasional holiday) diligently analyzing our weekly reading and having not a little bit of fun while doing so. Our group at the time was wittily called "Sunday morning in the Park with Joyce" by our host and leader Joel Jacobsen, the owner/proprietor of The Lincoln Park Book Shop. The experience was exhilarating and necessary in the case of Ulysses considering the difficulty of the text. In fact we enjoyed the experience so much that we decided to continue to read classic and perhaps "great" works of literature using the same slow approach. Now, more than eight years later, we have just finished a slow reading and discussion of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There have been a few changes: the witty moniker is gone, the Bookshop is gone (we have migrated to a "Salon" in the basement the building where Joel lives), we spend two hours instead of one and a half and do so every other week. The size of the group has varied from year to year and book to book with a core group that has continued through them all.
As we are about to embark on a reading of The Plague by Albert Camus I find myself reflecting on the breadth of our reading and discussions over the eight years. At the risk of forgetting some important works we have read I will mention a few. They have ranged from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Aeschylus' tragic trilogy, The Oresteia, to Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn. We spent the better part of two years discussing Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers and read Cervantes' Don Quixote, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and Goethe's Faust. The most modern work we have tackled is Omeros by Derek Walcott. This modern epic masterpiece resonated with references to Homer's Odyssey which we read on the side as part of our original foray into the world of Ulysses. It has been a good eight years and I hope we make it to ten and beyond.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Confessions of Saint Augustine

On this day in 430 St. Augustine died, at the age of seventy-five. He was Bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) for thirty-four years, during which time he became the patriarch of Christian Africa and one of the most influential leaders of the Latin Church; from a literary viewpoint, his Confessions is one of the first major contributions to the genre of self-disclosure.

I have read this book several times, both as part of the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago and most recently as one of the monthly selections of a reading group in which I participate. Like all classics it bears rereading and yields new insights each time I read it. But it also is unchanging in ways that struck me when I first read it; for Augustine's Confessions seem almost modern in the telling with a psychological perspective that brings his emotional growth alive across the centuries. From the carnality of his youth to the moment in the Milanese Garden when his perspective changed forever you the story is an earnest and sincere exposition of his personal growth. You do not have to be a Catholic or even a believer to appreciate the impact of events in the life of the young Augustine. His relations with his mother, Monica, are among those that still have impact on the modern reader. This is one of those "Great" books that remind you that true insight into the human condition transcends time and place.

I must add an additional recommendation of the book A Third Testament by Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and author. Muggeridge provides brief chronicles of six great searchers for spiritual fulfillment. These include, in addition to St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a short but elegant treatment of their personal searches for meaning.

Confessions by Saint Augustine. Henry Chadwick, trans. Oxford University Press, New York. 1991.
A Third Testament by Malcolm Muggeridge. A Time-Life Book by Little, Brown and Co. Boston. 1976.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Sacred and Profane Love

Titian, the greatest Italian Renaissance painter of the Venetian school, who was once described as “the sun amidst small stars not only among the Italians but all the painters of the world,” died this day in 1576.
Titian's influence on later artists has been profound: he was supreme in every branch of painting and revolutionized the oil technique with his free and expressive brushwork. Vasari wrote of this aspect of his late works that they `are executed with bold, sweeping strokes, and in patches of color, with the result that they cannot be viewed from near by, but appear perfect at a distance... The method he used is judicious, beautiful, and astonishing, for it makes pictures appear alive and painted with great art, but it conceals the labor that has gone into them.'
Sacred and Profane Love (also called Venus and the Bride) is an oil painting by Titian, painted around 1513-1514. This painting, one of the best examples of his work, was commissioned by Niccolò Aurelio, a secretary to the Venetian Council of Ten (so identified because his coat of arms appears on the sarcophagus or fountain in the centre of the image) to celebrate his marriage to a young widow, Laura Bagarotto. The work was bought in 1608 by the art patron Scipione Borghese and is currently housed with other works from the Borghese collection in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

The novelists Arnold Bennett and Iris Murdoch both wrote novels with Sacred and Profane Love in the title (Sacred and Profane Love and The Sacred and Profane Love Machine).

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Boy and Man

Intruder in the Dust

I look forward to rereading Faulkner, even when the book is not one of his very best. Intruder in the Dust, his fourteenth novel, is a good introduction to Faulkner's inimitable "stream of consciousness" style. The story is fairly straightforward although with Faulkner the narrative is never simple and you have to pay close attention to get all the details.
Intruder is particularly good when focusing on the character and psychology of young Chick Mallison, the protagonist and sometimes narrator of the story. We see his growth through his confrontation with the black farmer Lucas Beauchamp and his subsequent actions in Lucas's behalf. And we experience the tension in the small town as Lucas is wrongfully accused of murder. As always there were moments of shear poetry that took my breath away with their power and beauty. Intruder was written as Faulkner's response as a Southern writer to the racial problems facing the South. In his Selected Letters, Faulkner wrote: "the premise being that the white people in the south, before the North or the Govt. or anybody else owe and must pay a responsibility to the negro".
The characters include a spinster, Miss Habersham (shades of Dickens) and a young black boy, Aleck Sander, along with Chick's uncle Gavin Stevens. Some of the characters had previously appeared in
Go Down, Moses and The Hamlet. I enjoyed rereading this Faulkner novel and found that, as with all of his oeuvre, I continued to learn more about Faulkner's special fictional world.

Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Random House, New York. 1948.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Man on Wire

When done properly the documentary is a beautiful and moving cinematic work of art. Yesterday I saw an example of just that in Man on Wire, currently being shown at the Landmark Century Theaters.
Man on Wire was mesmerizing in its retelling of the story of Phillippe Petit, the wire walker. It is a
look at his daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century." Artistic it certainly was and while a crime, albeit a relatively minor one, it was presented in a masterful way in this documentary directed by James Marsh. Marsh previously directed the award-winning documentary Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) and he wrote and directed the excellent independent film, The King (2005).
The story of Phillippe's walk was told in the format of a traditional heist movie and the suspense built until the moment early on the day in 1974 when Phillippe completed his dream by stepping out on the wire between the towers. The film provided biographical background for Phillippe and showed earlier walks that were almost as dramatic at Notre Dame Cathedral and a bridge in Sydney Australia. The majesty of each of those successful walks only served to heighten the accomplishment at the World Trade Center. Not since the beautiful documentary Louis Kahn: Silence and Light in 1995 have I been so moved. I found the film truly exhilarating ultimately moving me to tears with the beauty of Phillippe's achievement. This film is worthy of recognition with major awards.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fantastic Stories and More

Ray Bradbury

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Ray Bradbury (1920), the literary, fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery writer. I am noting this because my favorite novels include his 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. The latter is a book which has been described both as a short story collection and a novel. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most popular American writers of speculative fiction during the twentieth century.
I read these novels more than forty years ago and have reread them since. In my reading I found Bradbury's writing memorable in many ways. In The Martian Chronicles he demonstrates an ability to capture both the wonder of space and its impact on the lives of the people who colonized Mars. The stories adhere to create a novel with a dreamlike quality that made it different than the average genre fiction. This was noted by another of my favorite authors, Christopher Isherwood. A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the British expatriate writer Christopher Isherwood gave Bradbury the opportunity to put The Martian Chronicles into the hands of a respected critic. Isherwood's glowing review followed and substantially boosted Bradbury's career.

Fahrenheit 451 has rightly become a classic with its allegoric telling of the dystopian future where books are burned by firefighters. It describes a world where book lovers hide in the forest literally becoming the books that they love in acts of self-preservation. Like the Phoenix, a small band of people survive a holocaust to rise again in the rebirth of a new world. You never forget the opening line: "It was a pleasure to burn."
Bradbury has written many other fictions worth reading, particularly short stories evocative of his own Midwest roots in Waukegan, Illinois. Perhaps my own roots in southern Wisconsin explain in part why I enjoy his writing. Some of his other writings that I have enjoyed over the years include Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and The Stories of Ray Bradbury ( I particularly cherished the collection The Vintage Bradbury).

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The Heritage Press, Norwalk Connecticut . 1974 (1950)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2003 (1953)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Reading the latest entry on my friend John Enright's blog, Rhyme of the Day, I was reminded of past summers in August and visits with my family to Oklahoma to see my Grandmother.
Each August we would pack up the car and travel from our home in Elkhorn, Wisconsin down Route 66 to Miami, Oklahoma where my mother grew up. I still remember her corner house at 33 G Street NE with a porch that wrapped around two sides facing the street corner. Many evenings I would sit on the porch reading as the daylight slowly waned. My sister and I filled our days with visits to the local swimming pool, the library and, sometimes when a good film was playing, the movie theater downtown. Each of these were places one could cool off as well as have fun. One of the things we often did during these visits was take various side trips to see sites in Oklahoma and Missouri. Over the years we visited Joplin, Tulsa, Will Rogers's home in Claremore, Silver Dollar City and others. One of my fondest memories was visiting The Buffalo Ranch in Afton, Oklahoma. This was not very far as Afton was just a few miles further west on Route 66, but it was unique with the Buffalo (American Bison) and other animals including llamas and yaks. I still have postcards saved from these visits. It is a reminder of another era, growing up in the 1950s, travelling with family and living in what seems now like another world.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Looking for Trouble

I had never read or even heard of Ralph Peters when I sat down to watch CSPAN's BookTV a couple of weeks ago. What I was introduced to was a fascinating writer and thinker, journalist and novelist, who retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel and has written nineteen books.
I was impressed by the interview and decided to read his latest collection of essays, Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World. This was a timely decision with Georgia and the Caucasus on the front pages this week, for the first essay in the book, June 1991: The Caucasus, describes the adventure of Ralph and his friend Captain Peter Zwack as they toured, illegally, through the then "Soviet" Armenia and into Georgia. The episode ends with an amusing but humane dinner with a Georgian named David who regales the two Americans with drinks, dinner, his mother and more in the capital city of Tbilisi. The rest of Peter's essay collection is just as exciting and fun with stops in Pakistan, the Kremlin, Mexico and elsewhere as he recounts dramatic escapades in this "Broken World". Any author who travels with a copy of Xenophon at his side is likely to be worth reading: I'm glad I've added the writings of Ralph Peters to my library and I expect to read more in the future.

Looking for Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World by Ralph Peters. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA. 2008

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Neil Simon

Neil Simon's comedies are among my favorites, especially The Odd Couple in its film version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. I was pleasantly entertained today by a superb production of another of his comedies, Plaza Suite, by the Eclipse Theatre Company at the Victory Garden Greenhouse Theater.

Plaza Suite consists of three one-act comedies with the same setting, a suite at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The original Broadway production featured George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton as the leads in all three of the acts. In the current revival the Eclipse director, Steve Scott, cast different actors in each of the roles and found an excellent ensemble. Cece Klinger excelled as ever (I enjoyed her recent performance in Tennessee Williams' Candles to the Sun) and Nathaniel Swift stood out as Jesse in the second act; while the duo of Cheri Chenoweth and Jon Steinhagen as Norma and Roy in the last act were electric in a bravura farcical episode.

One of the beauties of Simon's comedy is how the humor arises naturally from the situations and characters. In the afternoon talk-back discussion following the play some of the cast shared how they interpreted the text to produce the effective character details that made the afternoon enjoyable for the audience. This was a satisfying production of one of Neil Simon's classic comedies.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Portraits of Love

Chris & Don: 
A Love Story

Having read and enjoyed many of Christopher Isherwood's books over the years I was eagerly anticipating this cinematic memoir of his 34-year relationship with the much younger Don Bachardy. I was not disappointed as this documentary is a moving account of their relationship. After a brief introductory section on Christopher's life before his move to California and meeting Don, the film focuses on their story and, interestingly, more and more on Don Bachardy's own development as an artist. From the shy boy who is overwhelmed by the Hollywood stars in Chris's world Don develops a life of his own. A life of his own of a sort, since he owed so much of his development to Chris. How Don and Chris worked this out over the years and stayed together was fascinating. In its portrayal of this story the film was sensitive to both lives and provided a beautiful portrait of the love that kept them together until Chris's death in 1986. Perhaps most touching were the almost daily portraits of Chris that Don created during the final six months of Chris's life. Definitely a documentary worth seeing again.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio was published in 1353 and demonstrates that the popularity of gross humor did not begin with the puerile teen comedies of our own era, but can be traced back to the middle ages and before (cf. Plautus and Aristophanes). I am in the midst of a reading of The Decameron using the translation by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella. Selected stories from the first three days have introduced me to a polyglot of defrocked Friars, larcenous ladies, and virgins whose virginity remains in the imagination alone, although they can fool the King when necessary (the Kings and Priests and Aristocrats seem most likely candidates for the title "fool"). Even in translation the humorous style shines through and it seems all great fun, as long as you don't think of the Black Death that hovers in the background and provides the raison d'etre (pardon the French, I don't know the Italian equivalent) for the tale-telling.

As I completed the days through to the tenth I was impressed with the fecundity of the tales, the breadth of the characters covering multiple vocations and classes, and the author's stylish ability to reach the reader - even in translation. These are tales that have inspired many writers as well as readers since the fourteenth century with good reason. With each tale I found myself looking forward with more desire for the next and now that I am done I am sure I will return to this humane writer.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Norton Critical Editions, New York. 1977 (1353)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Zorba the Greek

Becoming one of my favorite novels, Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis is a paean to life, to this earth and to the ultimate questions that lead to happiness. What is happiness, the narrator asks. He is called the boss by Zorba and that is all we know of his name while Zorba has several names before the story is over, but mostly he is known as Zorba. I am not sure where to begin to catalog all the ways this novel resonates with my inner being, but first I find my own search similar to that of the boss as my life is focused on reading and experiencing life through art.

Nikos Kazantzakis gives us these two men in a story demonstrating their contrasting views of life and developing a dialogue between the characters to which we as readers can respond. The narrative asks big questions such as: what is liberty to a man; how can you be true to your nature as a human being; and, what is the relationship of the real to the ideal? In its pages you find references to Buddha, Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius and others -- but most of all you encounter a good story full of life and love and the adventure that results from two men who challenge each other in their pursuit of the spirit of living.

There is more. . .

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazanzakis. Simon & Schuster, New York. 1996 (1952)