Friday, December 30, 2011

Life with Harold

Must You Go?: My Life With Harold Pinter
Must You Go?: My Life With 
Harold Pinter 

"What happened was this: we both felt awful at breakfast, Harold from coughing without intermission all night, me from listening to him.  I went up to the Eyrie and assembled notes re the Gunpowder Plot.  Then I chatted to a friend about Dublin.  About eleven thirty, Linda came in and said the odd words: 'Could you clear the line?  Harold has something urgent he wants to tell you.'  Somewhat crustily I did so.  Now it was Harold who was engaged: I thought he might clear his line.  Finally he buzzed me: 'I seem to have won the Nobel Prize.'"
Seldom have I read a book so filled with literary references. They are on every page and, while Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter is lightweight, it is intellectually charged with interesting bits of flotsam and jetsam from the literary world of a couple who were immersed in literary lives and lights.
It was while at a social gathering in 1975 that Ms. Fraser walked up to Pinter, before leaving, to say that she liked his play, “The Birthday Party.” The two barely knew each other. He looked back at her with what she calls “amazing, extremely bright black eyes” and said, “Must you go?” He called her his destiny and wrote her love poems, some of them later collected in a volume called “Six Poems for A” (2007). She loved his bristling mind, his “awesome baritone” and the way his “black curly hair and pointed ears” made him look “like a satyr.” They remained happily together (marrying in 1980) for 33 years, through his Nobel Prize in 2005 and until his death from cancer, at 78, in December 2008.
There are many anecdotes that intrigue the reader in this delightful memoir. One of my favorite moments follows:
"Dinner with tom and Miriam Stoppard. The latter tackles Harold about the swearing in No Man's Land: 'This must be something in you, Harold, waiting to get out.' Harold: 'But I don't plan my characters' lives.' Then to Tom: 'Don't you find they take over sometimes?' Tom: 'No.'"
It seems that their life is filled with such moments and, when the literary references wane, there are the political highlights that bring alive the times (a span of three decades) with intrusions of bits about the IRA or left and right-wing political goings-on.
Pinter’s life force — he was mostly anything, it seems, but Pinteresque — comes through clearly here. Ms. Fraser details his love for cricket, tennis and bridge. He threw himself around recklessly on dance floors and swam “with a great splashing like a dog retrieving a ball.” The result is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the life of the epitome of a literary couple.

Must You Go? by Antonia Fraser. Doubleday, New York. 2010.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shakespeare and the Queen

Elizabeth Rex

It has been a great year for Chicago Shakespeare Theater with a string of excellent productions starting with As You Like It a year ago.  Since then I have enjoyed three tremendous plays which, while not written by the Bard, have been worthy of appearing on the stage that bears his name.  Yesterday I attended the current Chicago Shakespeare production, Elizabeth Rex written by Timothy Findley and directed by Barbara Gaines.  

This is a play that imagines an encounter between the Queen and Will near the end of her reign.  The night before her beloved Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is to be beheaded for treason, Queen Elizabeth commands the Lord Chamberlain's Men to perform a play at her palace. The Queen has sentenced Essex to death—and only she can pardon him. With the threat of rioting in the streets, a curfew is imposed and the actors must be lodged that night in the royal stables. Desperately needing distraction from the fateful night's events, Elizabeth seeks out the company of Shakespeare and the actors. But it is not Shakespeare who commands her attention as much as does Ned Lowenscroft, the actor she has seen portray Shakespeare's leading female roles. Covered in bruises and sores, Ned is dying of syphilis—giving him a fool's license as he engages the Queen in verbal combat through the night while she awaits the morning.

The play is filled with wit and wordplay, and Findley's characters, in addition to Will and the Queen, include a sort of a fool in the person of Luddy Beddoes and the troupe of which Ned, played with a passionate intensity by Steven Sutcliffe, is the most important member.  It was a pleasure to see Steven and Diane D'Aquila on the Chicago stage reprising their roles first performed in Canada at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  It was also a pleasure to see one of my favorite Chicago actors, Kevin Gudahl, performing admirably as Will Shakespeare.  The play held our rapt attention and the afternoon flew by as we watched in wonder at the emotional twists and turns on stage.  Findley's play was an excellent choice well played by this company.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Romantic Fable

Cyrano De Bergerac (1988)
Cyrano De Bergerac 

"Oh! We have our pockets full, 
We poets, of love-letters, writ to Chloes, 
Daphnes — creations of our noddle-heads. 
Our lady-loves — phantasms of our brains 
— Dream-fancies blown into soap-bubbles! 
Take it, and change feigned love-words into true; I breathed my sighs and moans haphazard-wise; 
Call all these wandering love-birds home to nest. 
You'll see that I was in these lettered lines 
— Eloquent all the more, the less sincere! 
— Take it, and make an end! "
—Cyrano de Bergerac, giving his first Roxanne letter to Christian; 

Edmund Rostand's play opened in Paris on this day in 1897.  While most know the story of this famous play, I will refresh your memory. 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 read and reread the famous Brian Hooker translation which I would heartily recommend.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Poem for Today

Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
by William Wordsworth  

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,  
    The earth, and every common sight,  
            To me did seem  
    Apparell'd in celestial light,  
The glory and the freshness of a dream.          
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—  
        Turn wheresoe'er I may,  
            By night or day,  
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

If you like the opening stanza you can read the complete poem here:  Wordsworth's Ode

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Journey Under London


"The old woman took the umbrella, gratefully, and smiled her thanks.  "You've got a good heart," she  told him.  "Sometimes that's enough to see you safe wherever you go."  Then she shook her head.  "But mostly, it's not."" (p 3)

There are few books in my reading experience that I would describe simply as "magic". This is one of those few. Perhaps it is the sense of wonder that permeates the story from the perspective of the hero, Richard Mayhew, that is the reason for my reaction. I found echoes of my many readings of Carrol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that helped cement this feeling as well. But at the heart Neverwhere is a variation on the traditional heroic journey. This is a tradition that began with one of the the earliest stories ever written, the tale of Gilgamesh recorded in Sumeria of the seventh century BC; and it is one that has continued through stories such as Homer's epic The Odyssey, the medieval epic Beowulf, and others to this day. In these tales, a person must make a metaphorical journey into the underworld or the dark to come to an understanding of themselves.
Richard Mayhew's travels through the underworld of the city of London are his equivalent of that quest. His journey in the catacombs, sewers and abandoned subway lines that exist beneath London, England, showed me a separate world that not only exists but thrives. Whether he knows it or not his travels to assist the Lady Door in her search to find those who killed her family gives him a sense of self that he was lacking previously. The story involves a wealth of interesting characters and places and just enough whimsical humor to assuage some of the very violent action that Richard encounters on his journey. The tale is also one of good versus evil and the evil characters are as bad as I have ever met (on the page of a book). Gaiman also offers prose pictures of each locale encountered on the journey that brought forth an image in my mind of what it should look like. In fact the whole time I was reading Neverwhere, I was able to gradually piece together images in my mind of the entire world of the story.
In short, the book was magic and a reading experience that I would recommend to all whether they are inveterate fantasy aficionados or just people who enjoy a great read.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Avon Books, New York. 1997.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Caribbean Epic

    "Except for one hand he sat as still as marble,
    with his egg-white eyes, fingers recounting the past
    of another sea, measured by the stroking oars.

    O open this day with the conch’s moan, Omeros,
    as you did in my boyhood, when I was a noun
    gently exhaled from the palate of the sunrise.."

Derek Walcott was born in 1930 in Castries, Santa Lucia. With the publication of Omeros in 1990, Derek Walcott produced a poem in the tradition of the Iliad
and the Aeneid.
Omeros is an epic poem spanning many years of history, both personal and international, and encompassing the sea and land of his many home lands, it is a tour de force that inspires the reader. Influenced by both Homer and Dante the poet blends references to time past and present, to places in which he lived when young and old, with a subtle touch that limns the beauty of a dream. I was gripped and intrigued by the complex thematics of anger, division, competition, lust, battle, domination, oppression, suffering, and eventually love, homecoming and redemption. Helen, woman and island, is presented as symbolic and actual center of the human struggle, and a goal of the competition of nations and individuals. I felt the evocative tapestry of this lengthy poem intriguing in the natural way he blended the old world of the Aegean with the new world of the Caribbean.
Most moving was the poet's journey in search for hope, love, meaning, and self-understanding in the midst of the injustice, the despair and hopelessness of the post colonial world. Omeros is a difficult but immensely rewarding, indeed enjoyable read for all poetry lovers of the new world.

A Poem for Christmas Eve



Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
'Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,

"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy ( 1840 - 1928 )*

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Commonplace Entry

Quotation for Today

"Words having naturally no signification, the idea, which each stands for, must be learned by those who would exchange thoughts. This should teach us moderation, in imposing our own sense of old authors." John Locke, Essay on the Human Understanding, 1688 

Source: quoted in Sterling Andrus Leonard, The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage 17 (1962).

Monday, December 19, 2011

British Humor (Waugh style)

The Foxglove Saga
The Foxglove Saga 

Looking back at all the people I have insulted, I am mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist.  -  Auberon Waugh

Auberon Waugh's first novel, The Foxglove Saga, is a comic novel very much in the style of his father's earlier books and the result is very successful. Its hero, Martin Foxglove, is an abominably flawless paragon. While at school Martin chooses a set of friends considered inappropriate by his family and he abandons his Christian faith. His story and that of his friends, particularly the ugly, middle-class Kenneth Stoat and the unfortunate Martin O'Connor, makes for a slyly humorous and sometimes sadly funny novel.  I do not claim to have understood all of the sardonic details that Waugh includes but the story has plenty of references that are clear to anyone familiar with twentieth century British literature, especially if the name Waugh is below the title. The comic attitude of the book seems to be that any official machinery—the school, the hospital, the Army—can be made to go wrong by individual determination and lying. I would suggest that it is not Mr. Waugh who is amoral and cruel, but the machinery in which his characters are caught. Anarchism of this sort is viable, if not as a basis for life, at least for a comic novel and in his creation Auberon compares well with his more famous father as his first novel continues the family tradition of irrevent humor.

The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh. Simon & Schuster, New York. 1961 (1960)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Philosophical Science Fiction

The Philosopher's Apprentice: A Novel (P.S.)

The Philosopher's Apprentice: 
A Novel 

"This begins with a butterfly. The insect in question, a Monarch, was flitting along a strand of morning glories threaded through the chain-link fence outside my apartment window, systematically dipping its proboscis into the powder-blue cones. It was a warm fecund morning in August, and I was twenty-seven years old. The butterfly mesmerized me, this Danaus plexippus with its ethereal antennae and magnificent orange wings limned by black stripes as bold and stark as the leading in a stained-glass window. How numinous it must have appeared to a lesser insect: a cricket’s epiphany.
Inevitably Lao-Tsu’s famous riddle crossed my mind — “Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?” — and I performed a thought experiment, mentally trading places with the Monarch. I don’t know whether the butterfly enjoyed being an impoverished philosophy student with a particular interest in ethics, but my lepidopterous condition delighted me. The sun warmed my wings, the nectar sated my hunger, and the perfume gratified my olfactory organs, located in, of all places, my feet." (p 3)

This is an entertaining science fiction novel that is replete with philosophical thoughts and allusions. The Philosopher’s Apprentice, begins as Mason Ambrose, the author of an idiosyncratic, Darwinist dissertation called “Ethics From the Earth”; is offered a position tutoring Londa, a teenager whose mother is a fabulously wealthy and brilliant molecular geneticist.
Londa awaits her new teacher at Isla de Sangre, at the farthest edge of the Florida Keys. On this updated version of Dr. Moreau’s island, where a giant tree produces intoxicating fruit and a laboratory is filled with strange machines, Mason begins the process of implanting a “moral center” in Londa by preparing her with thought experiments. Should one return a borrowed ax when the lender is obviously very agitated, likely to do someone grievous bodily harm? Should a policeman arrest a woman who has stolen an expensive drug in order to save her husband’s life? From these puzzles, it’s only a matter of time before Londa encounters what is for Morrow the most vexing of thought experiments: how can one bring about justice in the modern world? This is obviously a large question — but it’s one that Londa’s fertile brain and large inheritance transform into an actual social justice project.
The narrative that follows gives us some fantastic images and ideas: Themisopolis, a shining city on a hill, built by Londa, its doors open to the abused, the abandoned and the persecuted; clones called immaculoids, created from aborted fetuses by a right-wing group and sent out to stalk their parents; a reconstructed Titanic in which the newly rich sail across the Atlantic to make obvious capitalism’s victory over nature.
Morrow’s inventiveness is intriguing and his delight in Western philosophy makes this interesting to anyone who enjoys philosophical fiction. Yet the consideration of profound ideas flounders at times when it bumps up against a rapid succession of climactic moments and abundant references to pop culture.
“Shortly after breakfast, a Jeep pulled up outside Charnock’s A-frame, driven by a raffish, safari-jacketed Latino with a drooping black mustache and olive skin, a by-God Ramar of the Jungle pith helmet shadowing his face. He introduced himself as Javier Cotrino, Dr. Sabacthani’s personal assistant, dispatched to chauffeur me to her mansion. For the next 20 minutes, Javier and I lurched and bounced along an unpaved road, descending into a verdant valley flush with hibiscus and bougainvillea, until at last we came to a high chain-link fence surmounted by spirals of barbed wire. We drove beneath a raised crossing gate, angled like a satyr’s intractable erection, then continued past acacia groves and cypress stands toward the rising sun.”
This overblown style works well in showcasing Morrow’s imaginative flair, but it diminishes the seriousness of the ideas. The novel often seems like a mere game, yet the game provides a mostly fun ride. The serious questions about poverty, injustice, biotechnology and climate change never seem to oppressive and the characters, for all their color and liveliness, never seem to gain much depth. I found myself a little let down for the last quarter of the novel feeling that its provocative and entertaining scenes had been little more than thought experiments. But most of the story was great fun and anyone who is well-versed in philosophy and literature should enjoy this thoughtful imagining of the chaos that may ensue if technology evolves in just the wrong strange way.

The Philosopher's Apprentice by James K. Morrow.  Harper Perennial Edition. 2009 (2008)

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Sonatas for Piano and Violin
by Ludwig Beethoven

"What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven."  -  Ludwig Beethoven

Yesterday was the anniversary of Beethoven's birth and to celebrate, rather than listen to the Symphonies, Quartets or Piano Sonatas, I chose to focus my listening on the Sonatas for Piano and Violin.  These span the the middle years of his career from the Op. 12 in 1798 until the final sonata in 1812.

The classical violin sonata had started to change with Mozart’s sonatas composed in Paris during the late 1770’s.  The violin line became more independent and indispensable.  Piano and violin would switch between melody and accompaniment, discourse contrapuntally, and sometimes even assume a concerto-like manner.  But the violin’s new found liberty also presented new problems of balance, and imposed a somewhat intimidating difficulty.  Beethoven’s sonatas are even more difficult and complex than Mozart’s.  They span an ample range of characters, techniques, and styles.  After Beethoven, composition of violin sonatas continued but never in the old style, albeit in smaller quantities, and always striving towards deeper qualities. 

The first sonatas for piano and violin, op. 12, no. 1-3 (Sonata in D major, Sonata in A major and Sonata in E flat major) composed in 1799 were dedicated to Antonio Salieri, the capelmaistro of the Viennese court and Beethoven’s professor after Albrechtsberger.  Of these sonatas my favorite is the 3rd in E flat.  The Sonatas op. 23 and 24 (Sonata in A minor and Sonata in F major) were composed in 1801 and they bring clarity to the concerto style.
Another favorite is the Sonata in F major op. 24 also known as "The Spring Sonata " through which Beethoven frees himself from the restraints of the norms imposed by previous work.
The Sonatas op. 30 (Sonata in A major, Sonata in C minor and Sonata in G major) composed in 1802 represented an important step in the evolution of the sonata form, each sonata constituting an antithesis for the former and a synthesis of the acquired experience.
The Sonata in A major op. 47, also known as the "Kreutzer Sonata ", because it was dedicated to the well-known violinist Rudolph Kreutzer, represents a genuine center of attraction especially due to the concerto character of both instruments, thing that made certain commentators to assert that it is a double concerto. Here we see evidence of  Beethoven’s tendency towards monumental architectonic constructions, mostly due to the sonata structure in the extreme parts of the work. It’s worth mentioning that Sonata op. 47 was composed the same year as the 3rd Symphony, "Eroica" (1803).
The Sonata in G major op. 96 concludes the sonata cycle for piano and violin. Written in 1812 and dedicated to French violinist Pierre Rode, the sonata has a special form and expression through the miniature character of the first part but also through avoidance of the concerto character with the treatment of instruments.

These all are delightful chamber pieces and worthy of celebration or simple listening any time of the year.

Beethoven Piano and Violin Sonatas performed by Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy.
London CD 421 453-2. 1988

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Short Comment on Ethics

Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone 

"One does not have to agree with Kant's conclusions--and I do not--in order to acknowledge this as a great work in the history of philosophical theology.  It is the product of Kant's mature years, an effort to connect his religious thought with the rest of his epoch-making philosophy as presented in his three Critiques." - Morton White

I still remember the refreshing feeling I had when I first read Kant in my Philosophy class on Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. We had just finished reading the utilitarian ethics of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, so the approach of Kant's categorical imperative seemed much more reasonable in comparison. That said, I am not now nor have I ever been a follower of Kant's ethics, but they are preferable to some ethical principles.
It was with this in mind, and a little reading in Kant since then, that I took up Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone as part of a class on enlightenment literature at The Basic Program of the University of Chicago. This book, published beginning in 1791 - late in Kant's career, is also refreshing in its rational approach to morality. And while I am not convinced by his argument that it is morally reasonable to "act as if there be a God" I could follow his arguments for that approach to morality. The book provides an argument consistent with The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and is worth reading for all interested in ethics and Kant.

Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone by Immanuel Kant. HarperCollins, New York.  2008 (1791)

An Intelligent Young Woman


"Doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor's judgments, but directed chiefly by her own. The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself...." (Chap 1)

Jane Austen's Emma was first published on this day in 1815.  I most recently read Emma as the introductory novel in a class at the Newberry Library.  The class was entitled "Jane Austen's Heirs" and following the introductory refreshing reading of Emma the course included novels by such "heirs" of hers as Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, and Anita Brookner. The theme of course was Austen and Emma is one of the best of her novels to read and use as a model for the typical Austen novel.
Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."  In the very first sentence she introduces the title character as "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich."  Emma, however, is also rather spoiled; she greatly overestimates her own matchmaking abilities; and she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people's lives and is often mistaken about the meanings of others' actions.
While Emma differs strikingly from Austen's other heroines in some respects, she resembles Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, among others, in another way: she is an intelligent young woman with too little to do and no ability to change her location or everyday routine. Though her family is loving and her economic status secure, the quotidian details of Emma's everyday life seem a bit dul; she has few companions her own age when the novel begins. Her determined though inept matchmaking may represent a muted protest against the narrow scope of a wealthy woman's life, especially that of a woman who is single and childless.
And of course there is the classical balance of the novel's structure that, combined with the beauty of Austen's writing style, makes this novel a favorite of readers and writers, particularly those mentioned above, ever since it was published.

Emma by Jane Austen. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (1815)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

From Beethoven to Schoenberg

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Concert

"I never was very capable of expressing my feelings or emotions in words. I don't know whether this is the cause why I did it in music and also why I did it in painting. Or vice versa: That I had this way as an outlet. I could renounce expressing something in words." - Arnold Schoenberg

Saturday evening I attended a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  The concert was led by Michael Tilson Thomas as guest conductor and featured Jeremy Denk performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto in c, Op. 37.  The concert also included "Blumine" an andante for orchestra that was briefly included as the second movement of Mahler's First Symphony.  The piece was a perfect light romantic opening for the evening, providing ten minutes of "innocent, uncomplicated lyricism" according to the concert notes by Phillip Huscher.
The evening continued with a concerto from the first decade of the nineteenth century, Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, performed by Jeremy Denk in his Orchestra Hall debut.  This is considered Mozartean in spirit and sounds somewhat classical with occasional rebellious touches by Beethoven, who would go on to break most of the rules of formal classical music in his late works.  The concerto was ably performed by both soloist and orchestra.  It was a delight to hear one of my favorites in Orchestra Hall.
After the interval the final work of the evening, unusual if only that Arnold Schoenberg orchestrated the Piano Quartet No. 1 in g, Op. 25 of Johannes Brahms, a chamber composition that was more than seventy years old.  The orchestration goes to extremes that hint at a Mahlerian tinge to Brahms that could only be added by his musical descendant, Arnold Schoenberg.  At least Schoenberg considered himself the heir to Brahms legacy and this work from the 1930s is anachronistic enough to demonstrate the point.  Schoenberg composed this work as a "gesture of honor, homage and love" according to the program notes.  It is a perfect piece to highlight the talents of the CSO with a lush orchestration utilizing all of the strengths they bring to the concert hall, and they ripped and roared through the melodies and the harmonies that Schoenberg drew out of the original quartet.  

Monday, December 12, 2011

Life Evolves

Why Evolution Is True
Why Evolution Is True 

"Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species – perhaps a self-replicating molecule – that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection. (3.)

Jerry Coyne summarizes the facts supporting Darwinian evolution. He divides them into six components: the fact of evolution, in the sense of genetic change over time; the idea of gradualism, of changes taking place over many generations (although sometimes they come about relatively quickly, depending on the evolutionary pressures operating); the phenomenon of speciation, whereby new species split off from existing lineages; the common ancestry of different species, since new species, which can be thought of as twigs on the developing branches of life, can be traced back to a common branch, and ultimately to an original ancestor; the mechanism of natural selection, whereby different combinations of genes are reproduced more successfully than others as a result of the different abilities of individual organisms to survive and reproduce in a shared environment; and, finally, the presence of some processes, in addition to natural selection, that contribute to evolutionary change (the most important being what is known as “genetic drift”). The updating of the fossil record, filling in gaps in the story and providing explanations for difficult aspects of the theory all combine to make this book a gem.  For readers interested in exploring some of these ideas on-line there is a beautiful blog at Why Evolution is True .

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne. Viking Press, New York. 2009.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Read in order to Live

Top Twelve Reads of 2011

"Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live."  - — Gustave Flaubert

My list of favorite books read in 2011 includes many more than these books. But I thought I would try to limit the list to the top twelve (I could not stop at ten)  that I read last year. So here they are in no particular order:

1. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
A modern Victorian romance set in early 1950s India that provides a window into the culture and history of India at that juncture in its history through a romance about a young girl, Lata, whose mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is searching for a "suitable boy" for her to marry.  The novel covers two years of the lives of four Indian families in an all too short 1488 pages.

2. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
This is a Proust-like meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation in words that one must call simply "beautiful". The book resonated in my memory long after I finished it.

3. The Double Helix by James Watson
This is a memoir of a Nobel prize-winning Scientist that reads like a cross between a personal autobiography and a detective story. Add the insights into the imagination of one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century and you have a unique book. 

4. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
I found this novel a spellbinding bildungsroman. Set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s, it tells the story of young boy who, through the course of the story, acquires the nickname of Peekay, becomes a champion boxer, and learns how to compete in the world of life.

5. Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan
The stories in this collection, which share the lives of everyone from entrepreneurs to beggars, all take place in and near the Indian village of Malgudi. The heart and the soul of the village is on display and we find it is a place where most people are haunted by illiteracy and unemployment. In spite of the ubiquity of the poor,  most of the stories demonstrate humorous good-natured episodes of their lives.

6. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Doors opened and closed, sunlight and shade, yesterdays and tomorrows; these are all motifs that come to mind as I remember the beauty of Colm Toibin's poignant novel. Brooklyn is the tomorrow when the novel begins and almost becomes the yesterday that is forgotten as Toibin shares the story of Eilis Lacey in his own unsensational way. 

7. The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy's trilogy (three novels that I'm counting as one) about the west includes:  All the Pretty Horses which combines intensely lyrical prose with the laconic wit of its cowboy protagonists; its sequel, The Crossing, sent two young brothers on a quest that plunged them into the bloody maelstrom of Mexican politics; and concludes with a book that is spare and almost allegorical in its storytelling, Cities of the Plain, a book that is bleaker in the telling even as the romanticism of John Grady Cole sparks continuing interest.

8. Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz
Nominally this is a story about a young boy who is sent to the Nazi concentration camps from his home in Budapest in the last year of World War II. Narrated in the first person by young Gyorgy Koves, the novel is the story of an outsider -- one who does not belong to any group or anyone even as he is brutally incarcerated and his life is severely restricted almost to the point of death. 

9. Hotel de Dream by Edmund White
The story of Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel is one of two pairs of lovers, Stephen Crane and his wife Cora and the young prostitute Elliott and his lover Theodore the Banker, who are products of Stephen Crane's literary imagination. Rereading the novel this year I found it better than I remembered.

10. Red Lights by Georges Simenon
What do you do when you are rushing toward the unknown, possibly a dangerous situation, and you are unable to stop? Georges Simenon takes us through just such an experience in this novel and it is a delightfully exciting read.  Simenon, the epitome of a European novelist, has written one of the best American existentialist novels.

11. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
The abundance of characters, stories, places, and all that goes with each of these can best be considered a literary cornucopia. This cornucopia melded with Fielding's continual insertions through essays and commentaries begins to suggest to me why this novel is considered great - one of the first of its kind in modern literature. 

12. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent is considered to be one of Conrad's finest novels. I enjoyed it in part as a novel about the city of London. Yet Conrad wrote this novel more than a century ago and the story, set in London of 1886, it is still timely given the predominance of terrorism in the news today.

I am reluctant to stop at twelve books since I enjoyed many other books during the year, including some great Science Fiction (Dune, Daemon, et. al.) and others including classics and mysteries.  But this is enough of a retrospective for one cold December day. After some wassail and caroling let's all move on to the great reads of the new year!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reading and Drinking

Here is an article from AbeBooks:

The Best Book and Booze Pairings
by Richard Davies

Books and alcohol have been bedfellows for centuries.  Many readers love to curl up with a good book and a drop of their favorite tipple. But what are the finest pairings of literature and beer, or wine or liquor?

It would be great to match Douglas Adams’ Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, a cocktail of galactic power, with a challenging read like Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, but that’s never going to happen.

There is a bevy of drinks that are ideal companions for books, and many brewers and winemakers have been inspired by literary culture.  There’s Hercule Stout, a Belgian beer, featuring the mustachioed face of Agatha Christie’s detective on the label.  The Thomas Hardy Ale, brewed by Eldridge Pope until 2009, has almost mythical status among real ale aficionados. And we’d love to sample the wonderfully named Grains of Wrath Double IPA produced by the Ontario microbrewery of Church-Key.

This list is designed to wet your whistle and boost your bookshelf. But please remember to drink responsibly (and we are kidding about absinthe).

Selected works from the list (you'll have to go to AbeBooks for the rest and Booze listings):

A Moveable Feast
Ernest Hemingway

Last Bus to Woodstock
by Colin Dexter

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram
Iain Banks

English Passengers
by Matthew Kneale

The Long Goodbye
by Raymond Chandler

The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde

The Red Room
by August Strindberg

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Two American Poets

Amy and Robert Lowell


I do not care to talk to you although
Your speech evokes a thousand sympathies,
And all my being's silent harmonies
Wake trembling into music. When you go
It is as if some sudden, dreadful blow
Had severed all the strings with savage ease.
No, do not talk; but let us rather seize
This intimate gift of silence which we know.
Others may guess your thoughts from what you say,
As storms are guessed from clouds where darkness broods.
To me the very essence of the day
Reveals its inner purpose and its moods;
As poplars feel the rain and then straightway
Reverse their leaves and shimmer through the woods.

- Amy Lowell

To Delmore Schwartz*
(Cambridge 1946)

We couldn't even keep the furnace lit!
Even when we had disconnected it,
the antiquated
refrigerator gurgled mustard gas
through your mustard-yellow house,
and spoiled our long maneuvered visit
from T.S. Eliot's brother, Henry Ware...

Your stuffed duck craned toward Harvard from my trunk:
its bill was a black whistle, and its brow
was high and thinner than a baby's thumb;
its webs were tough as toenails on its bough.
It was your first kill: you had rushed it home,
pickled in a tin wastebasket of rum–
it looked through us, as if it'd died dead drunk.
You must have propped its eyelids with a nail,
and yet it lived with us and met our stare,
Rabelaisian, lubricious, drugged. And there,
perched on my trunk and typing-table,
it cooled our universal
Angst a moment, Delmore. We drank and eyed
the chicken-hearted shadows of the world.
Underseas fellows, nobly mad,
we talked away our friends. "Let Joyce and Freud
the Masters of Joy,
be our guests here," you said. The room was filled
with cigarette smoke circling the paranoid,
inert gaze of Coleridge, back
from Malta – his eyes lost in flesh, lips baked and black.
Your tiger kitten, Oranges,
cartwheeled for joy in a ball of snarls.
You said:
"We poets in our youth begin in sadness; 
thereof in the end come despondency and madness;
Stalin has had two cerebral hemorrhages!"
The Charles
River was turning silver. In the ebb-
light of morning, we stuck
the duck
-'s web-
foot, like a candle, in a quart of gin we'd killed.

-- Robert Lowell

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Legend of a Tiger

The Tiger's Wife
The Tiger's Wife 

"By the time I was thirteen, the ritual of the tigers had become an annoyance. Our way home from the zoo was continually marked by encounters with people I knew: friends, kids my own age, who had long since stopped sharing the company of their elders. I would see them sitting in cafés, smoking on the curb at the Parliament threshold. And they would see me, and remember seeing me, remember enough to laugh mildly about it at school. Their mocking wasn’t unkind, just easy; but it reminded me that I was the prisoner of a rite I no longer felt necessary."

This book impressed me not so much as a novel than as a short story collection thematically connected through the story of a young girl and her grandfather. In the way that the story moved back and forth between interesting vignettes about the Grandfather and tales of "The Tiger's Wife" it reminded me slightly of another novel that I did not like as much, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai in which the narrative shifts back and forth between stories of different family members in different times and places. I enjoyed the tales in Obreht's "novel" individually much more than those of Desai and her central narrative with vivid characters and a mythic quality.
As I said, the novel shifts back and forth, chapter by chapter, between the past and the present; between superstition and science; between folklore and realism; between the fantastic and current realities. Thus the novel does not have a linear structure with typical plot advancement, a practice that seems to be more and more common in contemporary literature. That need not be a problem if there are sufficient connections between the episodes - and there are some thematic connections -- in addition to the basic tiger theme there are others like hunting; a theme which is central to the story of the blacksmith during an episode in 1941:
"…The blacksmith had the ramrod out and he was shoving it into the muzzle, pumping and pumping and pumping furiously, his hand already on the trigger, and he was ready to fire, strangely calm with the tiger there, almost on him, its whiskers so close and surprisingly bright and rigid. At last, it was done, and he tossed the ramrod aside and peered into the barrel, just to be sure, and blew his own head off with a thunderclap."
That’s the last we hear of the blacksmith, but his brief presence announces the hunting theme that will come back later in the novel, and provides a deliberate contrast with the very different hunter who arrives in the second half of the book—a man who is as competent with his weapon as the blacksmith is clumsy with his.  But the thematic linkages between the stories needed to be stronger.   Nevertheless The Tiger's Wife was a rewarding reading experience for me as it brought together historical and contemporary themes with both haunting images and rich symbolism.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. Phoenix Paperbacks, London. 2011.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Antigone Legend

Antigones (Oxford Paperbacks)

The ordinary man casts a shadow in a way we do not quite understand. The man of genius casts light. - George Steiner

Between  c.1790 and c.1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars that Sophocles' Antigone was not only the finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit. (Antigones, p 1)

George Steiner, unquestionably one of the most perceptive and linguistically sensitive of contemporary critics, offers in Antigones a major contribution to twentieth century literary criticism. In his earlier work After Babel (1975), which has already become a landmark study of language and translation, Steiner uses the biblical metaphor of the Tower of Babel in Genesis to underscore the complex layerings of meaning surrounding a text, the fluctuating historical and cultural connotations of words which make exact translation virtually impossible. 
 In Antigones, subtitled "How the Antigone legend has endured in Western Literature, Art, and Thought",  he accomplishes the almost impossible task of tracing the Antigone theme in literature from the original tragedy through more than two milleniums of literature. A study in the act of reading while considering other arts as well suggests the transcendent quality of this work. For example, the musical presentations of this theme are discussed considering works by Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens, Orff, and Honegger. By the conclusion of the final chapter the cumulative effect of this seemingly slight work is simply overwhelming (as is much of Steiner's ouevre).

Antigones by George Steiner. Oxford, New York. 1984.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Desert Planet

Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)

Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never persistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man. (from "Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib" by the Princess Irulan) - Frank Herbert, Dune

I did not read this book when it first appeared in the 1960s even though I was a voracious reader of science fiction at that time. Fortunately it was more than a decade later that I picked up the novel, for I was better able to comprehend the enormous and wide-ranging themes of this work -- from Machiavellian politics to ecological change and its consequence, to mystical religious transformation. A teenager is seldom capable of understanding some of the ramifications of these ideas; however he could revel in the exciting story and wide-ranging nature of the action of this great novel. I have recently reread the book as part of a class at the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education and find that like all classics it improves with age. The subtleties of the different forces within the story (eg. Bene Gesserit mind control, Feudal-style politics bordering on the Machiavellian, and the "native" Fremen society on Arrakis).  Among the forces, The Guild that controls space travel is a fascinating example of both the importance of the planet Arrakis which controls the "spice" that the Guild needs, and a sort of stagnation stemming from the total control the Guild maintains over interstellar space flight.  Without describing more details suffice it to say that the imaginative use of details, particularly on the planet Arrakis that is the setting for most of the novel, is what sets Dune apart from the average Science Fiction novel.  
The bildungsroman qualities of the protagonist, Paul, also appealed to me as I find that type of novel (eg. David Copperfield or The Magic Mountain) among my favorites. I enjoyed all of the above as an adult and was glad to add this award-winning book to the surprisingly large number of classic science fiction novels that I have read over the years.

Dune by Frank Herbert.  Ace Books, 2005 (1965)