Monday, July 27, 2009

Finding the Right Book

The Magic Path

Julia Keller, in The Chicago Tribune yesterday, called it "The Magical mystical path linking book and reader". It being that moment when you, the reader, find a book that is just right for you - when you acquire or become aware of the book.
Sometimes it is not the right time as when I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time as a senior in high school.
Even though I was a veteran reader with Shakespeare, Hardy, Eliot, Dreiser and others under my belt, I was not ready for Jane Austen. Only later after college as an "adult" would I return to Pride and Prejudice and discover the humor and wisdom that was there all along, even when I was not ready for it.

Most of my connections come from browsing used book stores and finding strange books by authors unknown to me (usually dead authors). That is how I found B. Traven's Death Ship. I sometimes follow up on recommendations from friends or bookstore (the smaller the better) clerks; thus finding authors like Par Lagerkvist and his amazing novel The Dwarf, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, possibly the greatest historical novel of all time. The magic can even happen on-line as when earlier this year due to my obsession with Robert Musil I encountered a blog by Damon Young, a philosopher from Australia and found his inspirational book of philosophy and the reading life, Distraction.

Whether the path is through dusty corridors and shelves in used book shops or the electronic byways of the Internet (with the help of "Google") it is magic, but I don't buy the "mystical" part (just call it serendipitous). And it certainly is wonderful magic when it leads you to a new (to you) author and book that resonates with your life and reading. The wonder of the book is renewed again and again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Old Curiosity Shop

Following the publication of Nicholas Nickleby Charles Dickens started a new publication called Master Humphrey's Clock that was to be a miscellany of selections by various writers including Dickens himself. One of the first short pieces was The Old Curiosity Shop, a Tale of Master Humphrey, but when the public demanded another novel Dickens expanded his concept for this story into his next novel.
The Old Curiosity Shop
is the story of a young girl, Nell and her Grandfather. Nell is one of Dickens young girls who are beautiful and, in this case, possesses a certain strength. Her Grandfather is addicted to gambling and seems to need the care of Nell more than she needs his care. Her innocence holds some appeal but I have found her appeal is limited and insufficient to hold my interest. Early in the story Nell and her Grandfather leave London due to his indebtedness to an evil dwarf named Daniel Quilp. If this brief outline suggests the melodramatic it is not far from it. The interest of the reader is maintained primarily through Dickens ability to create fascinating evil characters in Quilp and Nell's brother Fred. Quilp seems to be almost satanic in the way his character and physical appearance are described when he is introduced in chapters three and four. Later he is described as engaging in a "demon dance" (p. 170) and when he tells Mrs. Nubbles that he "doesn't eat babies" neither she nor you as the reader are sure that he is telling the truth, although he may prefer to just torment characters rather than actually eat them.

Dickens is effective in creating a mood and establishing contrasting themes of dark and light, night and day, old and young, city and country, big and small and cleanliness and filth; fundamentally depicting a battle between good and evil. Rather than creating another novel that indites social evils like Oliver Twist or Nicholas, Dickens uses biblical allusions and references to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to establish the story of Nell and her Grandfather as, at least partly, an allegorical tale. Over the next two weeks I will find out what fate holds for this duo and where their peregrinations through the countryside lead them. This was Dickens most popular novel since his original success with Pickwick Papers; I do not share the opinion of those who made it so, but find enough redeeming features to keep me reading.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (1841)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Running and Shostakovich

As I run early in the morning the sun is just beginning to light up the horizon over the lake with dawn imminent.
Saturday morning the neck of land reaching around the northern part of Belmont Harbor showed trees that were clearly outlined while further in the distance the trees and the horizon beyond was in a mist as if painted by some long forgotten impressionist painter. The urge to stop and enjoy the view was great but I moved on at a pace dictated by the music surging through my head from the digital music player I carried in my pocket. The player, not much bigger than a business card, was playing the first movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. For almost forty years one of my favorites, it expresses the tension and arc of a lifetime with moments of sublime beauty that rival nature's dawn. A large section of the movement has a strong pulsating beat over which the violins play a soaring beautiful melody. This music enhanced my run providing a beat for my own movement; one that I attempted to synchronize with my body's motion.
I enjoy running at the dawn with music I love. It is one of life's better moments.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fatal Lies

"He was aware that everything he did was merely a game, merely something to help him over this time at school, this larval period of his existence. It was without relation to his real personality, which would emerge only later, at some time still a long way off in the future."
- The Confusions of Young Torless, Robert Musil

It was, in part, the inspiration of Robert Musil's novella, The Confusions of Young Torless, about a young cadet struggling toward self-definition while experiencing the erotic tensions of puberty, that led Frank Tallis to write the mystery novel Fatal Lies.
The heart of the mystery is the machinations a small group of cadets led by Kiefer Wolf, a precocious underclassman. They are attending a private boys' school, Saint Florian, that is replete with ancient traditions and eccentric teachers. It is this story line that draws on Musil's novella most directly with the addition of explicit Nietzschean influences on young Wolf. But the key to the success of Tallis' novel is his intelligent use of the setting of fin-de-siecle Vienna and the blend of medicine, music, psychology and history that makes this a satisfying read. The lead detective, Reinhardt and his ally, Dr. Max Liebermann, an expert in the new psychiatric methods of Sigmund Freud, are both intelligent and believable characters in this well-constructed mystery. Each of the main characters must deal with their own issues and their stories are only slightly less interesting than the primary mystery. I was eagerly apprehensive most of the novel as the plot and sub-plots moved forward with alacrity. The climax was also satisfying; So much so that I look forward to reading Tallis' two previous mysteries (also set in Vienna).

Fatal Lies by Frank Tallis. Random House, New York. 2009.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nicholas Nickleby III

Nicholas Nickleby ends well for Nicholas and his sister Kate. Along with their mother they can look forward to a much brighter future than the one that they faced as the novel began. In creating this 'happy' ending Dickens left many of the most eccentric comic characters by the wayside, gone are the Crummles and Miss Knagg along with other minor characters buried amongst the many, many pages of the early sections of the novel.
Whether this is a flaw in the novel (perhaps) or not the last section of the story does move rapidly to tie up loose ends and provide answers to the more intricate mysteries of relations among the characters. For the details of these answers I suggest you read the novel.

In spite of its seeming lack of structure, a claim which is belied by the strong arcs of both Nicholas' education in life and Ralph Nickleby's search for rewards for his greed and miserliness, the novel is Dickens' first success in the genre (his previous three books being journalistic and picaresque treats, but not novels). One theme that is embodied in this novel is expressed by Newman Noggs as Nicholas despairs that the schemes of Ralph and Arthur Gride will defeat him, his family and Madeline Bray (his one true love). Newman responds with what may be considered the main theme of the novel:

'Hope to the last,' said Newman, clapping him on the back. 'Always hope, that's a dear boy. Never leave off hoping, it don't answer. Don't leave a stone unturned. It's always something to know know you've done the most you could. But don't leave off hoping, or it's of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last!'
- p. 641, Nicholas Nickleby

As I reader you have hope for the good in Nicholas and Newman and John Browdie with the support of the Cherryble brothers; and, you have hope that the evil of Ralph Nickleby, Gride and Squeers will receive justice. You hope to the last.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (1839).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jacques Brel

Last night I saw a performance of Jacques Brel's Lonesome Losers of the Night as conceived by Arnold Johnston and Fred Ansevino. The Theater on the Lake at Fullerton Parkway was the site for this Theo Ubique Theatre Co. and Michael James presentation of a revue of the songs of Jacques Brel. The setting was a waterfront bar with four in the cast, Jeremy Trager as the bartender, Jenny Lamb as the Whore, and Eric Martin and Chris Damiano as two sailors. After an overture (all the music was provided by the excellent pianist Joshua Stephen Kartes) the ensemble introduced the evening with the song Amsterdam. There followed twenty more selections over about an hour and a half directed by Fred Anzevino. I enjoyed the ballads 'My Childhood' and 'I Don't Know Why' the best, as sung by Martin and Lamb, respectively. Of course the evening was not complete without a rendition of 'Don't Leave Me' (Ne Me Quitte Pas) sung well by Lamb and Damiano.
It was an enjoyable evening of song highlighting love and loss and the joys of drinking. Jacques Brell would have approved of this presentation.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Buckley & National Review

Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative MovementRight Time, Right Place: 
Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement 

by Richard Brookhiser

I have read National Review on an intermittent basis since I was a teenager in high school. About the time I was moving from Graduate School into the 'real' world Richard Brookhiser, the author of Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, was in high school. He became a journalist overnight when his essay regarding Viet Nam War protesters was published by Willam F. Buckley's National Review. In short order Brookhiser went to Yale, became an intern at National Review and following graduation became one of its editors as well. This book chronicles both his life as a journalist at National Review and highlights of the political scene on which he has commented over the last thirty years. It is an interesting story told well by Brookhiser. He had an inside seat on the right and intimate knowledge of the state of conservative journalism at National Review which was the primary journal of conservative commentary from its founding into the new century. I enjoyed the writing and the personal side of Brookhiser's story for this book is very much a memoir of his life as a journalist and writer of political biographies of Washington, Hamilton, the Adams family and others. Right Time is a political/historical memoir I would recommend to all who enjoy good writing and good reading.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Reminders of Home


Living near Belmont Harbor and the lake I am accustomed to the drone of jet planes for the better part of a week each June when the Air and Water Show is in town. This experience made me feel at home this evening as I attended a performance of the world premiere production of Graceland by Ellen Fairey at Profiles Theatre.
In addition to the drone of jets Graceland provided a real sense of being in Chicago and the characters who inhabited the world of this play were each very real in their own way. Even though they had moments of messing around with mythology the play itself had a classical balance as the relationships of the two fathers (one dead) and sons mirrored each other. The result was an exciting, even electric evening of theater with great performances by the whole ensemble.

I thought Jackson Challinor was especially convincing as Miles the teenage cemetery worker who is on the cusp of manhood. His tentative moments with Sarah (Cheryl Graeff) were exquisite. Yet the edgy scenes between Sarah and her brother Sam (EricBurgher) were also convincing as they each tried to deal with the loss of their father. The best moments occurred as the relationships slowly developed and came together over the short ninety minutes of the drama. Comic moments relieved the tension, and the wonder of the sky at the end left me with a good feeling about their world. This is a play worth seeing again.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Nicholas Nickleby II

Now that we have completed reading two thirds of Nicholas Nickleby some of Dickens' main themes are emerging. Dickens was passionate about the theater and that passion is quite evident in this novel. Once Nicholas has left the "boys' school" run by the Squeers he soon takes up with a theater troupe. He is successful translating plays from French into English and doing some acting.
This leads me to the theme of illusion and reality which we discussed in our last class. Once you start looking for examples of this you can find it in almost every chapter. In the first scenes of the novel we see Nicholas' family lose their modest wealth when his father's investments are more illusory than real. Nicholas' mother turns to her brother-in-law for help upon the death of her husband only to find any notion of family bonds is also an illusion. Of course the "school" where Nicholas is posted by his uncle Ralph is an utter illusion, much to the detriment of the boys confined therein. As we read further in the novel we find that characters are more likely to not be what they first seem to be; finally, it is somewhat ironic that Nicholas would find himself in a theater troupe learning the profession of creating illusions for a paying audience.

The number of characters seems to be growing geometrically as is typical in most of Dicken's novels, but most of the characters introduced so far are interesting enough to keep the reader's attention. Nicholas' growth and education (this novel is a bildungsroman of sorts) is the most interesting aspect of the novel for this reader. But I wonder what it would be like to have the story told from the point of view of his sister Kate?
Two last comments on the novel so far: 1) The city of London is very much a character in the novel with Dickens sharing his love for this city more than once probably drawing on the experiences he had on the long walks that he often took (cf. pp. 390 & 446, and 2) the narrator includes brief comments on the state of novel-writing itself (p. 345). The chapters comprising the final third of this novel will share with us of the fate of Nicholas and Kate.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (1839).