Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Heroic Comedy

Cyrano de Bergerac

by Edmond Rostand

De Guiche: Have you read Don Quixote?
Cyrano: I have--and found myself the hero.

Cyrano: To sing, to laugh, to dream,
To walk in my own way and be alone,
Free, with an eye to see things as they are,

- Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac, pp. 86-7, 89)

Cyrano de Bergerac: An Heroic Comedy in Five Acts is a play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand. Perhaps most know the story. Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, a cadet in the French Army, is a brash, strong-willed man of many talents. In addition to being a remarkable duelist, he is a gifted poet and is also shown to be a musician. However, he has an extremely large nose, which is a target for his own self-doubt. This doubt prevents him from expressing his love for his distant cousin, the beautiful Roxane, as he believes that his ugliness forbids him to "dream of being loved by even an ugly woman."

I consider this among my favorite plays for both its romantic air of the grand opera and the poetic monologues of its eponymous hero. An unconventional love story, it is more a fable for the importance of virtue, loyalty and friendship. What more magnanimous man in literature is there than Cyrano de Bergerac? I am sure that I will return to this play again and again as it reminds me of the best that is possible for man and mankind. I recently reread the famous Brian Hooker translation which I would heartily recommend.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. Brian Hooker, trans. Bantam Classics, New York. 1950 (1898)

Hanna Free

Woman is a miracle of divine contradictions
- Jules Michelet

In ancient Greece Aristophanes described the myth that we are each one half of a whole and it is the need to complete that whole that is love. This myth was never better demonstrated than in the film Hannah Free written by Claudia Allen and directed by Wendy Jo Carlton. The film tells the story of Hannah and Rachel who grew up as little girls in the same small Midwest town, where traditional gender expectations eventually challenge their deep love for one another. Hannah becomes an adventurous, unapologetic lesbian and Rachel a strong but quiet homemaker. Weaving back and forth between past and present, the film reveals how the women maintained their love affair despite a marriage, a world war, infidelities, and family denial.
Featuring a luminescent performance by Sharon Gless as Hannah and a strong cast with Ann Hagemann as the adult Rachel and Jacqui Jackson as her granddaughter both outstanding in their important supporting roles. Many of the scenes in this intimate film were both touching and memorable as it lovingly depicted a small town romance between one woman who is always leaving and the other who is home-bound, until the final chapter of their lives together when the roles are reversed. This is a beautiful small film that deserves a very large audience.

Hannah Free by Claudia Allen. Wendy Jo Carlton, dir. Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sharing Moments from a Life

Sharing Moments from a Life

We were going out stealing horses. That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July.
- Out Stealing Horses, p. 17

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
- David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson is a novel as book of memories. It is the story of a life pieced together from moments of action and surprise, meditation and love and one of tragedy. Per Petterson's simple and often poetic prose makes the quotidian events of a life lived in rural Norway as interesting as the most extreme moments of an adventure novel. The adventure here is on a small scale with the outside world intervening at moments, but mostly with a focus on the solitary. Trond, who tells us his story says,

To me it is better to stand alone, but for the moment the blue world gives a consolation I am not sure I want, and do not need, and still I take it. (p. 99)

We meet his family and friends and father and slowly share in the secrets of his life. Told from the perspective of a sixty-seven year old man at the end of the century, the narrative takes in moments from a life that has accumulated meaning and purpose from those very moments. This is a serious and thoughtful story. It is a book that stays with you long after you put it down not in little part due to its resonance with the moments in your own life.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, MN. 2007.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Key West and Poetry

As the days shrink and Autumn begins in the Midwest it seems a welcome respite to meditate on the poetry inspired by Key West. Warm sunny days interspersed with "tropical rain" provide nice contrast to our fading flora. Here are some excerpts from Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens and Mark Strand.

The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job's Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies' Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess's skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.

~ Elizabeth Bishop, "Florida"

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? We said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

~Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Now you invent the boat or your flesh and set it upon the waters and drift in
the gradual swell, in the laboring salt.
Now you look down. The waters of childhood are there.

~Mark Strand, "Where are the Waters of Childhood?"

The world, the spirit, and the flesh are all present in our lives and in the poetry that inspires us.
- JH

Friday, September 18, 2009


Here is one of my favorite sonnets with some of Shakespeare's most famous lines:

Sonnet LXXIII.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

- William Shakespeare

Sodom and Gomorrah

"This Charming Man. . ."
- The Smiths

"Certainly they form in every land an oriental colony, cultured, musical, malicious, which has charming qualities and intolerable defects."
- Marcel Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah, p. 43

And at the Newberry Library I began a discussion class focused on Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The opening pages of this volume strike both a balance and contrast between man and nature with regard to the experience of love and sex. We see the images of the insects, reminiscent of "the birds and the bees", who pollinate flowers and are immediately thrust into the world of M. de Charlus who is on the prowl for the tailor, Jupien. All this is spied by Marcel from his vantage point hidden behind the shutters of the window. Proust draws the reader in making us somehow complicit in the voyeurism of Marcel. It is but a preface for an extended discussion of the nature of homosexual love from the pen of Marcel Proust. We also have in this opening more resonance of time, of memory, and of the complicated lives laid bare by Proust.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV: Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust. Modern Library, New York. 1993 (1921).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Small Town Tragedy

Snow Angels
Snow Angels 

"I WAS IN THE BAND the fall my father left, in the second row of trombones, in the middle because I was a freshman. Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school we practiced in the music room, but on Fridays Mr. Chervenick led us outside in our down jackets and tasseled Steeler hats and shitkicker boots and across the footbridge that spanned the interstate to the middle school soccer field, where, like the football team itself, we ran square-outs and curls and a maneuver Mr. Chervenick called an oblique, with which, for the finale of every halftime show, we described—all 122 of us—a whirling funnel approximating our school’s nickname, the Golden Tornadoes."

   I first discovered Stewart O'Nan through his non-fiction when I read The Circus Fire: A True Story. It was a very good book and ever since then I thought I should read his fiction. I am glad I did because it is also very good, especially Snow Angels which is very good for a first novel. Growing up in a small town myself and playing in the high school band I could relate in part to the story of Arthur Parkinson. While I have not experienced the tragedy and difficult home life he relates in his story and that of his neighbor Annie Marchand, the author brings them alive in his vivid portrayal of their lives and the lives of their family and friends.
   The story links two families, almost indirectly, by a tragedy that affects them in enormously painful ways. Set in a rural community in Pennsylvania in mid-1970, the story builds around the lives of the two main characters, Arthur Parkinson and Annie Marchand. Arthur, who narrates the chapters about his part in this heartbreaking story, is a 14-year-old high school student who is dealing with his family’s slowly decaying break-up. At the same time, a narrator who gives us the picture of her dismal, failing marriage and careless lifestyle tells Annie’s chaotic story.
   The unnatural seems natural and the uncommon as common as it can be through O'Nan's elegant yet simple prose which leads the reader through the events that shaped these lives. I recommend this novel and author (and the film version as well).

Nothing is deader than this small town main street,
where the venerable elm sickens, and hardens
with tarred cement, where no leaf
is born, or falls, or resists till winter.

But I remember its former fertility,
how everything came out clearly
in the hour of credulity
and young summer, when this street
was already somewhat overshaded,
and here at the altar of surrender,
I met you,
the death of thirst in my brief flesh.
- Robert Lowell ___

View all my reviews

Monday, September 14, 2009

Infinite Read - No Joking

Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace

“There are no choices without personal freedom, Buckeroo. It's not us who are dead inside. These things you find so weak and contemptible in us---these are just the hazards of being free.” 
― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

There are books that one loves and books that one does not. Infinite Jest rests in the latter category for me. I tried to focus on those aspects of the book that I found appealing, particularly the Incandenza family and ETA, but by the final third of the book it was a struggle to go on.
Perhaps there was some humor that I was missing, no doubt a lot of humor, but if it was there in the book it was not my kind of humor. I've enjoyed humor in Rabelais, Chaucer, Dickens, Wilde - all the way up to and including Pynchon, but Wallace, not so much - too little in fact. There were plays on words, but too few of them. I was participating in the Infinite Summer project and that kept me going when I probably would have otherwise laid the novel aside.

David Foster Wallace has a lot of great ideas and a facility with language, but in this novel the language and ideas do not seem to cohere and I found that frustrating (I did expand my vocabulary more than I do in the average book - advantage, Wallace). In the novel we meet a young tennis star, dozens of other brilliantly-conceived characters and learn the fates of exactly none of them. The settings are elegantly detailed, from a tennis high school full of secret passages to the train-station restroom home of a dying junkie, and none of them seem to matter to the characters. The time period described, a few years into the world's future, includes several intriguing speculations, all of them going nowhere. There's a cult for ugly people, a cross-dressing federal agent, a group of terrorists in wheelchairs, a lost movie that captures the minds of all who view it, and couple hundred more ingenious devices, not one of which changes anything. The footnotes are at times interesting, but they also are just so much excess.

Now there is nothing wrong with excess, the novel as a form of literature began with the excesses of Cervantes and Rabelais and Sterne. But each of those writers had stories and above-all were able to communicate ideas in ways that led to their works becoming classics that we still read today. Infinite Jest seems, by the end, to be close to sinking into a black hole of nothingness - at the edge of postmodern nothingness, the prose descending into loggorrhea. I do not believe this is the direction the novel should or will take. I applaud those who can relate to this form of writing, I do not relate to it, but will continue to read with the goal of finding those authors to whom I can relate. In the meantime there are always Dostoevsky, Mann, Faulkner and others on which to fall back upon.

Infinite Jest: a Novel by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown & Co., New York. 1996.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Not Yet Autumn


As Summer into Autumn slips
And yet we sooner say
"The Summer" than "the Autumn," lest
We turn the sun away,

And almost count it an Affront
The presence to concede
Of one however lovely, not
The one that we have loved --

So we evade the charge of Years
On one attempting shy
The Circumvention of the Shaft

Of Life's Declivity.
- - Emily Dickinson

It is not yet Autumn but as I entered Lincoln Park this morning for my early Sunday run I noticed some fallen leaves on the running path. This can be taken as a sign of things to come, many more leaves and colors as October nears and the seasons begin to change. It suggests to me the Dickinson poem above as "Summer into Autumn slips" even as I reject the darker aspect of her vision. It also reminds me of my youth when I raked leaves in our front yard and my running days had not yet begun. Running is a habit I have acquired in my older "middle" age and now I do not rake but leave the residual pieces of the changing season at my feet as I run through the park. I hope I have many more days and seasons of running and loving and evading the "Shaft of Life's Declivity". The joy of the leaves on my path will add to the joy of running and living each new year.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dvorak, Poulenc, and Prokofiev

One of my first musical memories is listening to a recording of Antonin Dvorak's famous "Symphony from the New World", No. 9 in e minor op. 95, as recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Fritz Reiner.
The anniversary of Dvorak's birth a few days ago reminded me of how much I love his music, a fondness that began with this symphony. My interest in Dvorak grew as I had the opportunity to perform transcriptions of three of the four movements of the Ninth Symphony with my high school band. We also played selections from his Slavonic Dances, melodic pieces whose popularity made Dvorak well-known throughout Europe and America when they were first published. Over the years my interest in Dvorak's music has grown and I have enjoyed listening to a wide range of his music from the other Symphonies to the Quartets, Trios, Concertos and Operas. Russalka has become a favorite of mine with its famous "Song to the Moon" aria. Dvorak is one the best composers of sheer Romantic melodies and it is that aspect that ultimately endears his music to me.

My tastes in music extend beyond the romantic melodies of Dvorak so it was also with joy that I listened to one of the last pieces composed by Francis Poulenc on WFMT yesterday morning. His Sonata for Oboe and Piano is dedicated to the memory of Sergei Prokofiev. It is in three movements: Elégie (Paisiblement, Sans Presser); Scherzo (Très animé); Déploration (Très calme). The movements are in the order slow-fast-slow as opposed to the fast-slow-fast of the traditional sonata yet they demonstrate the modernity and wit for which Poulenc is deservedly famous. My only regret is that as an Oboist in my youth I did not have the opportunity to perform this sonata. Listening to it this week reminded me of the charms of the Oboe literature and the beauty of Poulenc's musical art.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Highly Civilized Man

What set him apart was his restless determination to extend the reach of his experience to ever more diverse pockets of humanity and to draw insights from those increasingly varied encounters in order to advance the larger epistemological quest to understand, explain, and classify the difference. The vast corpus of written work he produced during his lifetime constitutes a remarkable monument to that quest.
- The Highly Civilized Man, Dane Kennedy, p 270

Dane Kennedy's biography of Richard Burton, subtitled Richard Burton and the Victorian World, is a sympathetic yet dispassionate portrayal of a larger than life character who has been both over-romanticised and vilified in various biographies and elsewhere for more than a century since his death. The explorer and author, Sir Richard Francis Burton, is best remembered today for his clandestine visit to the holy city of Mecca and his later translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra. Kennedy, a historian at George Washington University, examines eight phases of Burton's public image, from "the Gypsy" to "the sexologist," with a keen eye for psychological detail. He shows how extensively Burton (1821–1890) worked to shape his own reputation by presenting himself as more of an outsider than he really was, and speculates with insight into the tension between Burton's embrace of exotic civilizations and his desire to be honored as a British hero. The book's chronological sequence has some pitfalls; for instance, a discussion of Burton's later anti-Semitic writings is separated from a long, thoughtful chapter on his pervasive racism, centered primarily on his experiences as a British consul in Africa. Many of his biographers have tended to portray Burton in Nietzschean terms as a heroic, independent spirit operating outside the bounds of social convention. Kennedy, however, sets out to counter this picture of isolation and, further, to provide insight into Burton's Victorian world. This reader sees the author achieving both aims. In seven short chapters (and an eighth called 'Afterlife'), Kennedy chronologically views Burton's peripatetic career as gypsy, Orientalist, impersonator, explorer, racist, relativist and sexologist. Burton emerges from Kennedy's biography as a man whose contribution the body of knowledge of other peoples during the Victorian era was considerable. Kennedy explains the reasons for Burton's almost manic immersion in other cultures and allows us to comprehend the concerns that characterised the Victorian engagement with difference. The result is a compact (less than three hundred pages) guide to Burton's life and his enduring image. I found the commentary on the changes in this image for better and worse over the years one of the best aspect of this biography. It has encouraged me to explore Burton's work further on my own.

The Highly Civilized Man by Dane Kennedy. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 2005.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Lincoln's Competition

Team of Rivals
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Abraham Lincoln seems to me the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.
- Walt Whitman

. . . his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and the greatness of his character.

- Leo Tolstoy

Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a history of Abraham Lincoln that is unique in its approach to the subject. With a focus on Lincoln's "political genius" in her book Team of Rivals she tells the story not only of his ascendancy to the Presidency and various trials of office, but also the story of his rivals for the Presidency and the strategy he used for dealing with them once he was elected President. After his surprising nomination as a "dark horse" candidate and somewhat less surprising election he shocked the political establishment by naming his former rivals to his cabinet. It is this story and the background stories of each of these politicians that make Team of Rivals an essential addition to the massive library of books about Abraham Lincoln.

I found the narratives about the lives of William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates fascinating and a rewarding read. While the story of Lincoln held my interest more due to the beautiful prose style of the author Goodwin than to any revelations about his well-documented life (for anyone who has not read a biography of Lincoln I would recommend that written by David Herbert Donald). With additional information about Edwin M. Stanton the quartet of major politicos was complete. Both the quotidian details of political life and the intrigue, including the nuance of the various shades of abolitionist behavior, were fascinating. If I have any criticism it would be that, after more than 700 pages most of which is about Lincoln, the narrative borders on hagiography. This is disappointing for after almost a century and a half of scholarship the Lincoln story itself must be more nuanced than it comes across in Goodwin's telling. However, the story of how these politicians complemented each other, often helped along by Lincoln's astute decisions, combined with the background of secession and civil war turmoil makes this a great work of history.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster, New York. 2005.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Running and Postcards

Yesterday I went downtown and met with three of my former co-workers for lunch at Ceres Cafe. It was good to see Marty, Randy and Kyle (the only fellow retiree) and we had a splendid get together over lunch. Kyle is a marathoner and has encouraged my running from the beginning with mixed results. I've developed consistency in running regularly but have yet to expand into the nether regions of marathon distances (or even half-marathons). He mentioned that he enjoyed my irregular commentaries on running and then noted that his wife Kathy had received a postcard with the results of her performance in the Proud to Run 10k/5k held earlier in the summer. I had participated with them in that run so it was with some anticipation that I looked for my postcard in the mail. It was therefore no surprise when I found it in the afternoon mail along with the current issue of Runners' Magazine and the other typical junk mail.

In addition to sharing congratulations with me "on a great race" the card informed me that I finished fourth in my age division (60-64) and I was not the last runner among the either the male runners or all of the finishers (somewhere in the middle of the back of the pack!). This was encouraging news and with the official time for my run gave me a bar to set as a goal for next year - something for which to look forward. Sending the postcard may seem like a small thing, but it is a nice touch to bring closure to the race and it is more than any other organized run in which I've participated has provided. While some have sent email reminders that information is available on-line that is not quite as personal. Thus this simple postcard helped me recall the good time I had running in the sun and sharing time with my friends on that pleasant summer day. A small moment in time, but memorable nonetheless.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Books on the Bus

I always have a book with me including when I ride the bus.
When I am out and about I prefer to leave the heavyweight tomes at home so among my current reading Infinite Jest: a Novel by David Foster Wallace (heavyweight in more than mere pounds), Paris 1919: Six months that changed the World by Margaret MacMillan and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin are left at home next to my comfortable reading chair.
Last night I was reading Out Stealing Horses: a Novel by Per Petterson while riding down to Old Town to meet a friend for dinner and today as I rode downtown and back to meet some former coworkers at Ceres I took along Gene Smith's slight but fascinating biography of Woodrow Wilson's last years, When The Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson (highly recommended). Now what these two disparate books have in common is that they are both lightweight and easy to carry. They also may be read with a little less concentration than that required for Wallace's tome.

While I enjoy reading I equally enjoy noticing what my fellow bus riders are reading and there are always a few readers on board any bus with more than a handful of passengers. Call me a biblio-voyeur if you will, but I cannot deny my interest. Usually the books are not worth the glance, for the buses are filled with people reading Twilight or its clones, the latest romance novel or some Ludlumesque thriller-chiller (all of which I personally find unreadable - but that's just one reader's perspective).
Today, on the other hand, while returning home from lunch I saw someone standing near me (it was early on Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend and the bus was a bit more crowded than usual) reading Knowles' A Separate Peace ; and another sitting in front of me reading Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. Now those are both books worthy of consideration, in fact I've read A Separate Peace and have the Gawande book on my "to read" list, although I'm not sure when I'll be able to get to it. These books provide evidence that there is a bit of gold among the dross of most books being read on the bus. It reminds me of the time several years ago that I struck up a conversation with someone who was reading No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had recently read it myself and could not help sharing the joy of the experience by discussing the book with a fellow reader - no stranger, for we were connected by our shared reading. While that was an exception, I usually have my nose buried in a book - my own. There is nothing like taking books with you and reading them on buses; enjoying them while traveling to and fro.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Colossus of Maroussi

In Greece one has the conviction that genius is the norm, not mediocrity. No country has produced, in proportion to its numbers, as many geniuses as Greece. In one century alone this tiny nation gave to the world almost five hundred men of genius. Her art, which goes back fifty centuries, is eternal and incomparable. . . The Greek cosmos is the most eloquent illustration of the unity of thought and deed. It persists even to-day, though its elements have long since been dispersed. The image of Greece, faded though it may be, endures as the archetype for the miracle wrought by the human spirit.
- The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller, pp 83-4.

The Colossus of Maroussi is a literary memoir about Greece. More than that it is a paean to the idea of Greece as Henry Miller shares some of his life and love of that land and its meaning for him. The incandescent spirit of Miller and Greece is on every page and the joy that creates cannot help but permeate the reader's soul. Miller's descriptive powers are immense and he evokes beautiful sunlit mornings and evenings on the Aegean with ease. For those who already know Greece from the classics it is a reaffirmation of the meaning of the people and their land; for those who do not already know Greece it is an awakening of the spirit. With literary references and reverential treatment of the gods and demigods present everywhere this book takes you on a journey that you do not want to see end. Ever since I read his The Tropic of Cancer I have loved Miller's work. This memoir provides another reason to embrace his literary world.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller. New Directions, New York. 1958 (1941)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Family Drama

All My Sons
by Arthur Miller

In January 1947 Arthur Miller had his first success on the stage with the production of All My Sons.  It was an immediate and considerable success running for three hundred and twenty-eight performances while winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award (beating Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh) and two Tony Awards, including Best Authored Play. TimeLine Theatre Company begins their 2009-10 season with a production of this now classic play and they have another winner with this production.

The TimeLine Theatre team has matched the art of Arthur Miller with great acting to create a riveting production of All My Sons. At the center of the play is the Keller family with the father Joe, his wife Kate and son Chris given outstanding portrayals by Roger Mueller, Janet Ulrich Brooks and Erik Hellman, respectively (Erik, Janet and Cora Vander Broek, who plays Ann Deever, are seen rehearsing in the picture above). Each of these actors gave fine performances while in the second act P. J. Powers nearly steals the show with his intense interpretation of George Deever, the son of Joe's former partner. Surrounded by solid supporting actors and well-directed by Kimberly Senior, this cast demonstrates the possibilities when great drama is complemented by an ensemble of this level. The TimeLine Theatre Company continues to produce good plays exploring history and the timeless themes of the lives of the men and women who create that history.