Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Herschel's Telescope

The Georgian Star
by Michael d. Lemonick

Herschels telescope "was understandably touted as one of the wonders of the modern world."
- Michael Lemonick, The Georgian Star

I sometimes think that Shakespeare's sonnets contain as much wisdom about humanity as his plays or the novels of Proust. I keep finding connections with other reading or thinking in which I am engaged and that gives me pause to reflect and enjoy yet another of Shakespeare's fine sonnets. I recently read a bit of the biography of William and Caroline Herschel, The Georgian Star, by Michael D. Lemonick. And then I encountered, again, Shakespeare's fourteenth sonnet, below, and was taken with the resonance. The discoveries of Herschel about real planets, stars, and galaxies are matched and mirrored by Shakespeare's imagination.


Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.
- William Shakespeare

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Philosophical Novel

Reading Atlas Shrugged

To achieve, you need thought. You have to know what you are doing and that's real power.  - Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged is included in at least one list of the top ten philosophical novels (Alternative Reel). I know I would include it on my own list, and while rereading it recently for a class on the "Moral Defense of Capitalism" (University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education) I was reminded that, while Rand's prose style has worn a bit thin for me, the philosophical questions that are addressed both implicitly in the archetypal characters, representing both good and evil, and explicitly in the philosophical essays incorporated as pronouncements by some of the leading characters (these essays are available separately in a book entitled For The New Intellectual) are those that remain fundamental for anyone who is interested in identifying a moral basis for living a flourishing human life. The most impressive, longest and some might say massive pronouncement in the novel is "Galt's Speech". It is here that John Galt provides a summary of his philosophy and that of his compatriots in "Galt's Gulch"; it is a philosophy for man based on reason and would become known as Objectivism in Rand's non-fiction writings. Rereading this philosophical tome has also reminded me of the important questions that need to be asked and the answers that need to be searched for. Ayn Rand would later sum up the need for this sort of thoughtfulness in her essay "Philosophy: Who Needs It?". The answer to that question is that we all do, and I find reading philosophical novels like Atlas Shrugged to be helpful in the process of defining my personal philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Random House, New York. 1957.
For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Random House, New York. 1961.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

'The Good Reader'

Rules for Reading

'Tis the good reader that makes the good book; a good head cannot read amiss: in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakeably meant for his ear.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The latest edition of Lit Life by Julia Keller is an essay that asks the question: What are your rules for reading? This was one of her best columns in some time, especially since she started it with a quotation from one of my favorite authors, Andre Gide, so I thought I might consider if there were any rules of my own that I might apply to the reading which I do every day (and twice on weekends). Her suggested rules include "trust first impressions", "read a classic", mark in your books", "re-read", and a couple of others. They sound fine to me although I would modify some; for example, I limit my rereading to the best books I read and my favorites (some of which are among the best that I have read). I would both concur with Julia and add some of my own rules, and with the disclaimer that this list may not be exhaustive I would suggest the following:
  • Have patience with a book, i.e. give it a chance to develop rather than dropping it after a few pages. I have found that almost as often that a book grips my attention immediately there is one that develops slowly, but with patience keeps improving and becomes a better, more interesting, read as I progress well into the book. Some of the books I have recently enjoyed the most have developed slowly but rewarded my patience.
  • Read classics (the ancient Greeks are a good place to start) in the new translations from authors like Robert Fagles and David Ferry that enliven the great ideas with a more modern idiom. The result is accessible prose (or poetry) and both an enjoyable and exciting read.
  • Read a variety of genres and types of books. I enjoy novels, but have found good reads in many genres including, contemporary, historical, mystery, science-fiction, and victorians, among others. I also enjoy memoir, history, science, philosophy and travel among non-fiction books.
  • Do not be afraid to set aside a book and return to it later. I have found that some books with I consider my favorites did not impress me the first time that I started to read them.
Just a few rules, if you must have them, but the most important rule is to read often and enjoy what you do read!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Two Geniuses

The Farnsworth Invention 
by Aaron Sorkin

"Wachtel: The thing's a monstrosity, David. It's huge and unsightly. Think of a person's home, where the hell are they gonna put it?
Sarnoff: Where they used to put their radio."

TimeLine Theatre's latest production is a riff on the beginnings of the television revolution. But their Chicago premiere production of The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin as directed by Nick Bowling is more than that. It is a mighty success. I found the production exciting from the moment that P. J. Powers as David Sarnoff begins his opening monologue. It is a moment under a single bright spotlight that suggests one of the themes of the play: light - with its brilliance and its speed. The play is also about entertainment and electricity, learning and luminosity, and its' moments speed by as the actors portray scenes from the lives of Philo T. Farnsworth, played well by Rob Fagin, and David Sarnoff - certainly a larger-than-life character. Surrounded by family, friends, and others (the play has sixteen characters) they share familiar and unfamiliar episodes in the history of this paradigm-changing invention called television. I enjoyed the play from beginning to end and found I did not want it to end. Just as the players evoked images from our collective cultural past there were more memories of my own that were rekindled by the excitement of the play I continued to reflect upon as the lights of the stage faded to black.
Letters to a Young Novelist Letters to a Young Novelist
by Mario Vargas Llosa

This is the curious ambiguity of fiction: it must aspire to independence knowing that its slavery to reality is inevitable, and it must suggest through sophisticated techniques an autonomy and self-sufficiency as deceptive as the melodies of an opera divorced from the instruments or the throats that voice them. (p 29)

Wise thoughts about reading and writing books by one of the twentieth-century's great novelists. This belongs on your shelf of books about books and keys to great writing from writers throughout both the ages and the world. The influences that made him a great novelist shine through as he passes his experience on to subsequent generations.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nabokov and Lenin

Two Vladimirs

My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes…:
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory

Vladimir Nabokov was born on this day in 1899, and Vladimir Lenin was born on this day in 1870. Historically speaking, the two cross paths in St. Petersburg in 1917: as Lenin returned from exile after the first Bolshevik uprising forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the Nabokovs, as one of those very wealthy and privileged families which the revolutionaries had in their sights, were packing to leave the city and the country. Lenin’s “April Theses” advocated the confiscation of all landed estates, the land to be transformed into model farms run by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. Among the estates that the Nabokovs gave up is one where the author had spent much time growing up, and that he had inherited (along with two million dollars) from his Uncle Ruka just the previous year — two thousand acres on the Oredezh River, with a mansion (photo below) designed by Rastelli, architect of the Tsar’s Winter Palace.

Critics call Vladimir Nabokov a cosmopolitan writer, while he himself used to say “My head speaks English, my heart speaks Russian and my ear speaks French”. One way or another, his creation is a world-wide heritage. The best part of Nabokov’s writing career geographically indeed belonged to the United States and Western Europe, but it started and was formed in Saint-Petersburg and its essential inspiration had always been his nostalgia for the city of his youth. In Speak, Memory, ranked #8 on Modern Library’s list of Top 100 Non-Fiction books, Nabokov fondly describes the estate where he grew up and vividly recalls his time there: “With a sharp and merry blast from the whistle that was part of my first sailor suit, my childhood calls me back….” But he also addresses a warning to “the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me”:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cold Comfort Farm
Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

She wondered if she had been wise to come. She reflected on the length, the air of neglect and the intricate convolutions of the corridors through which Judith had led her to the bedroom, and decided that if these were typical of the rest of the house, and if Judith and Adam were typical of the people who lived in it, her task would indeed be long and difficult. (p 50)

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is supposed to be a parody of a certain type of novel that was popular at the time (the nineteen-thirties). Perhaps I am fortunate not to have read these novels for I found Gibbons' novel to be more strange than comic for the first six chapters. It was not until Flora Poste, the bright young heroine, met the brothers Seth and Reuben and her cousin Amos that I began to enjoy the humor in this unusual little book. It seems that Seth's view of women is summed up in his comment to Flora, "Now I - I don't let no women eat me. I eats them instead."(p 82) And if Seth eats women, cousin Amos literally eats everything else (usually more than one helping). So there was some humor in this odd novel and in its attempt to parody the romanticised, sometimes doom-laden, accounts of rural life popular at the time by writers such as Mary Webb (author of Precious Bane which I have yet to read beyond page ten). Gibbons was working for the Evening Standard in 1928 when they decided to serialise Webb's first novel, The Golden Arrow, and had the job of summarising the plot of earlier installments. Other novelists in the tradition were apparently parodied by Cold Comfort Farm but the only suggestions that come to my mind would be early Hardy or perhaps Wuthering Heights.

The novel tells the story of Flora Poste who having been orphaned is looking for relatives with whom to live. After rejecting a number of others, she chooses the Starkadders (not a good sign when you're headed for a stay with a family of that name), relatives on her mother's side, who live in the isolated(very!) Cold Comfort Farm, near the fictional Sussex village of Howling. Greeting her as "Robert Poste's child", they take her in to repay some unexplained wrong done to her father.
Each of the extended family has some long-festering emotional problem caused by ignorance, hatred or fear; and the farm is badly run, supposedly cursed, and presided over by the unseen presence of Aunt Ada Doom, who is said to be mad through having seen "something nasty in the woodshed" as a child. As an educated, level-headed urban woman, Flora applies modern common sense to their problems and helps them all adapt to the twentieth century.
Thus we have a contrast between the rustics living in nature, perhaps too close to a "state of nature", and civilization represented by the educated young woman. The rustics don't have a chance, but in bringing order into their chaos I'm not sure that Flora was doing a good thing. This may appear to be a parody of certain overwrought novels, but it may also be an omen of what the twentieth century activists for social change had in mind for England. Some readers may appreciate the humor in this novel more than I did, but I relished the ideas implicit in the story whether intentional or otherwise.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

"A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again."

- Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744) in An Essay on Criticism, 1709

Monday, April 19, 2010


…Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart,
And you'll never walk alone.
You'll never walk alone.

Ferenc Molnár (12 January 1878, in Budapest — 1 April 1952, in New York City) was a Hungarian dramatist and novelist. His Americanized name was Franz Molnar. He emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi persecution of Hungarian Jews during World War II. As a novelist, Molnár is remembered principally for The Paul Street Boys, the story of two rival gangs of youths in Budapest. The novel is a classic of youth literature, beloved in Hungary and abroad for its treatment of the themes of solidarity and self-sacrifice. It was ranked second in a poll of favorite books as part of the Hungarian version of Big Read in 2005 and has also been made into a film on several occasions. The most notable production was a Hungarian-U.S. collaboration released in 1969.

Molnár's most popular plays are Liliom (1909, tr. 1921), later adapted into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical play Carousel (1945); The Guardsman (1910, tr. 1924), which served as the basis of the film of the same name (1931); and The Swan (1920, tr. 1922). The 1956 film version of The Swan (which had been filmed twice before) is famous for being Grace Kelly's last movie, and for being released the same year that she herself became a princess, as the wife of Prince Rainier.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel opened on this day in 1945, for a two-year run. The Americanization of Liliom gave it a Maine setting, and a happy ending: instead of going to Hell for his errors and abuses, the carousel barker goes to Heaven, reformed and rewarded. In 1956 a film adaptation was made starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, and was directed by Henry King. Like the original stage production, the film contains what many critics consider some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most beautiful songs, as well as what may be, along with the plots of Allegro and South Pacific, the most serious storyline found in their musicals. Carousel is among my favorites along with Oklahoma and The Sound of Music. The original source, Liliom, has been made into a film a number of times, most notably in 1934 by Fritz Lang.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Exciting Drama

The Farnsworth Invention
by Aaron Sorkin

Sarnoff: He got this far somehow, he didn't build the thing out of bibles and moonshine. Howard, is there any part of a television operating system he's not going to own the exclusive rights to?
- Aaron Sorkin, The Farnsworth Invention, p 57

The exciting story of the invention of television is told in this witty play by Aaron Sorkin. I enjoyed both the development of the characters of Philo T. Farnsworth and David Sarnoff and their quest for the answers to the mystery of how to make television work. Even though the actual story is not a mystery, Sorkin's play develops the action of the drama through short scenes that keep the suspense building. Crucial background details like the impact of the stock market and interaction with supporting characters are used to heighten the reader's interest. The combination of wit and good structure made this an delightful play to read. I am eagerly awaiting the new TimeLine Theatre Company production of Aaron Sorkin's entertaining play.

The Farnsworth Invention by Aaron Sorkin. Samuel French, New York. 2009

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sonnet for Today

With my mind on music, celebrating the birthday of Michael Pletnov, the music of Tchaikovsky and others I thought this sonnet from Shakespeare was appropriate:


Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly,
Or else receivest with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
Sings this to thee: 'thou single wilt prove none.'
- William Shakespeare

Sunday, April 11, 2010


“It seemed to be a necessary ritual that he should prepare himself for sleep by meditating under the solemnity of the night sky... a mysterious transaction between the infinity of the soul and the infinity of the universe.”
Victor Hugo (French Romantic Poet, Novelist and Dramatist, 1802-1885)

While running in the park early this morning I noticed the clouds. Clouds have infinite combination of appearance; at least in my memory I continually am noticing new patterns even among recognizable types. The infinity of clouds would seem to stem from the nature of the universe itself which also appears to be infinite. While some would lay the source of that infinity outside nature, positing a supernatural cause, I merely relax in wonder at the infinite, consider the "mysterious transaction" of life, and look forward to the answers why.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Sonnet for Today

With the recent turn in the weather and snow nipping at our doorstep (not literally but they did have some in Milwaukee and environs), I thought the following sonnet from Shakespeare seemed appropriate.


Then let not winter's ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill'd:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty's treasure, ere it be self-kill'd.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That's for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee:
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-will'd, for thou art much too fair
To be death's conquest and make worms thine heir.

- Shakespeare

Thursday, April 08, 2010

From Poems on Reason

The Light

The Light is radiantly beautiful.
It shines from the farthest star to the nearest thought.
Reality is.
Yet disorder reigns and the evil it brings
Covers the Light.

I think:
What of the cold clear dawn of Reason?
Why is it hidden from those who need it to live?

Those who think,
Those who have seen the Light, however briefly,
Those who realize reality know
Order cannot be defeated or destroyed.

The thoughts of those who think for themselves
Breathe the promise of Light.
This is the Truth.
The Light exists no matter what the blindness
Of some men may tell us.

- James Henderson, Poems on Reason, May, 1976

Monday, April 05, 2010

Cracks of Thunder

A Thunderstorm

last night shook my bones as cracks of thunder followed lightning tones.
Emily Dickinson had this to say in her own poetic way:

The wind begun to rock the grass
With threatening tunes and low, -
He flung a menace at the earth,
A menace at the sky.

The leaves unhooked themselves from trees
And started all abroad;
The dust did scoop itself like hands
And throw away the road.

The wagons quickened on the streets,
The thunder hurried slow;
The lightning showed a yellow beak,
And then a livid claw.

The birds put up the bars to nests,
The cattle fled to barns;
There came one drop of giant rain,
And then, as if the hands

That held the dams had parted hold,
The waters wrecked the sky,
But overlooked my father's house,
Just quartering a tree

- Emily Dickinson

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Slaying Time


Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead
as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels;
only when the clock stops does time come to life.
- William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Time is dead -- frozen in a place we
cannot reach, forever placed beyond
our being.

Time is place -- being our
desires and fears, passions and tears.
What is the source of our being?

Can we know what we are as the birds depart,
gone with the leaves?
We are left with the frozen crystals of ice --
a replacement for life.

The perfection of a a triangle is like our being.
But where can we find that perfection?
Is it only an imaginary construct?

We see in movement
the source of being, place and time.
Do not we change,
and in our changing become?

We become the thing we were not before.
We create our being. We are alive
with motion and change and being.

from Geography Lessons, January 1994 (2004)

Friday, April 02, 2010

Upton Sinclair updated for the end of the millenium.
Jane Takagi-Little gets a job -- a dream job as she has no other and needs money -- to film a weekly series for Japanese television called "My American Wife." The show is designed to showcase different beef-based recipes in order to promote beef consumption in Japan. Jane meets many interesting families, eats some rather inspired beef-based dishes (beef fudge, for instance), and learns that there is more to the cow than just the cow. Cut to Tokyo where Akiko Ueno struggles through the dull misery of life with her brutish husband, who happens to be in charge of the show's advertising. After seeing one of Jane's subversive episodes about a vegetarian lesbian couple, Akiko gets in touch and the two women plot to expose the meat industry's hazardous practices.

What Jane ends up discovering is that not much has changed since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle. Chemicals (such as DES, which really did cause a lot of health problems for mothers and infants in the 50s) and inhumane practices (you'll never believe what some of these cows are fed for dinner each night) are still in effect, and these result in meat that may not be as good for you as the FDA would like you to believe. The meat industry is still a market where more is better, no matter how you have to get it. Is it any wonder that people are getting sick?

This is the sort of book that shakes you and makes you wonder exactly how much of this is true and how much is from the imagination of Ruth Ozeki. Romance, humor, intrigue, and even a message--My Year of Meats has it all. You will also be unable to watch the evening newscast without wondering what they aren't telling you.

I think I'll stick to salad for a while.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Slow River

Rivers were the source of civilization, the scenes of all beginnings and endings in ancient times. Babies were carried to the banks to be washed, bodies were laid on biers and floated away. Births and deaths were usually communal affairs, but I was here alone.
- Nicola Griffith, Slow River, p 3

As I read this novel written by Nicola Griffith I was impressed with the structure--the way the author slowly unfolded the story of Lore and her two lives. It took some patience, but that patience was rewarded as the story came together with an exciting climax that was effective and true to the details that had gone before. The basic story is that of Lore van de Oest, the daughter of one of the most powerful families in the world, who awakens naked in an alley with a foot-long gash in her back. Her identity implant is gone and is without money after an unsuccessful kidnapping scam. A woman named Spanner happens by and takes Lore home. Spanner, who is an expert in identity theft, is in perfect position to help Lore out as long as Lore agrees to pay her back. Lore lucks out with a fake identity that matches her knowledge enough that she gets a job working on the same equipment that her family sells, the van de Oest sewer processing system. Lore, now under the ID of Bird, finds herself in the middle of a sabotage and corporate intrigue with her real ID at risk and an unhealthy debt to Spanner. The author effectively creates a future world that is on the verge of being overwhelmed with ecological disaster, setting the heroine in the center of the battle. The result is an excellent novel (winner of both the Nebula and Lambda Literary Awards) of speculative fiction that reminded me of the writing of Doris Lessing in this genre.

Slow River by Nicola Griffith. Ballantine Books, New York. 1996 (1995)