Tuesday, May 31, 2011

 The End of May
William Morris

How the wind howls this morn
About the end of May,
And drives June on apace
To mock the world forlorn
And the world's joy passed away
And my unlonged-for face!
The world's joy passed away;
For no more may I deem
That any folk are glad
To see the dawn of day
Sunder the tangled dream
Wherein no grief they had.
Ah, through the tangled dream
Where others have no grief
Ever it fares with me
That fears and treasons stream
And dumb sleep slays belief
Whatso therein may be.
Sleep slayeth all belief
Until the hopeless light
Wakes at the birth of June
More lying tales to weave,
More love in woe's despite,
More hope to perish soon.

from Poems by the Way (1891) by William Morris

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mozart (A Penguin Life)Mozart 

"The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness. . . In the course of a sadly truncated life--he died on December 5, 1791, at the age of thirty-five--Mozart claimed a place at the thinly occupied pantheon of the greatest composers."(p 1)

Peter Gay has written the perfect short biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In doing so he provides a glimpse into the personal life of the famous composer while commenting on the world around him and his music. For Peter Gay, Mozart is a "Genius" just as he was for Goethe and many since then. Some of the aspects of Mozart's life that are highlighted include his relationship with his overbearing and controlling father whom he would separate from yet continue to reference in his music; but also the lack of appreciation from the nobility and his profligate spending which, more than anything else, led to his increasing requests for pecuniary support from his friends.  The author devotes a chapter to Mozart's mature operas with superlative and succinct discussions of each.  Clearly Gay loves opera as much as Mozart.  And I would be negligent if I did not mention the bibliography, my favorite section in works of serious non-fiction, which is excellent.  Gay relies primarily on secondary sources and his discussion of some of the biographies of Mozart provides direction for the reader who is interested in going further and deeper into the Wolfgang's life.
The saving grace for Mozart was the genius of his music. Gay argues that Mozart continued to improve throughout his career which led Haydn to refer to him as "priceless". Priceless, genius, heavenly, whichever words used to describe Mozart's musical art his legacy is with us today in homes and concert halls and Peter Gay provides the essential reasons why.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Picaresque Tale

The Reivers
The Reivers

"I was just eleven, remember.  There are things, circumstances, conditions in the world which should not be there but are, and you can't escape them and indeed, you would not escape them even if you had the choice, since they too are a part of Motion, of participating in life, of being alive.  But they should arrive with grace, decency.  I was having to learn too much too fast, unassisted;  I had nowhere to put it, no receptacle, pigeonhole prepared yet to accept it without pain and lacerations."(p 155)

The Reivers, written at the end of William Faulkner's life, is a picaresque tale of a young boy's coming of age. There is a certain resemblance to aspects of Huckleberry Finn in the adventures and friendships of young Lucius Priest. Lucius, an eleven year old boy is sensitive and intelligent, but innocent of the rougher side of life and ready for adventure when Boon Hogganbeck, a simple man, and Ned William McCaslin Jefferson Missippi (a Negro referred to as Ned) steal Lucius' grandfather's car and head off for Memphis with Lucius in tow.  The presence of cars in this early twentieth-century tale suggests the many changes in society that would occur later in the century.  This story seems to be suspended in time, sometimes a time that feels like it never was, except in someone's imagination.
The encounters Lucius has over the next few days are as exciting as those of Huck and they lead him to meditate on his own innocence and its loss. Early on he recognizes this thinking, "You see? I was doing the best I could. My trouble was, the tools I had to use. the innocence and the ignorance: I not only didn't have strength and knowledge, I didn't even have time enough."(p 55) Later in their adventures, after Ned has traded the stolen car for a race horse, Lucius reflects further, "It was too late. Maybe yesterday, while I was still a child, but not now. I knew too much, had seen too much. I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me."(p 175)

The novel is not all serious moments of reflection like these;  for there is the excitement of the horse races, Lucius' friendship with the Corrie, the prostitute, and his experience with the negro old Possum and his family.  The adventures, while real for Lucius, seem to exist in a fairy tale world as the fun overshadows any sense of danger. Through it all there are just enough ties to Faulkner's earlier work through genealogy and character (Ned was present in several tales of Go Down, Moses) to make this a fitting bookend to his career. In it you see a mature author brilliantly developing yet another view of a young boy's coming of age.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Financial Expert (Phoenix Fiction Series)
The Financial Expert 

"From time immemorial people seemed to have been calling him "Margayya.""

This is a witty and luminous novel set in the backward town of Malgudi in southern India. It is a world created by R. K. Narayan and like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County it is memorable and filled with characters that come alive on the page. The Financial Expert of the title is a man named Margayya who sits in a public park dispensing advice on economic matters to people who revere him. Throughout the novel the reader is introduced to several characters that may seem to play only a minor role, but in fact, are highly developed—almost without the reader being aware of it. Certainly, the main character, Margayya, is highly developed and the reader is given many insights into his motivations and thoughts. The reader is treated to his travails with the residents of Malgudi and his difficulties within his own family. Other characters in the novel are not so explicitly developed, yet their force cannot be underestimated, nor can their implicit development be ignored.  Narayan's narrative style is straightforward, and his time scheme is chronological.  In the telling of the story the reader learns a great deal about the realities of modern life in India.  Like the novels of Jane Austen the great events of history echo in the background, but never intrude on the story.  I found this story-telling ability of R. K. Narayan to be grand and it is what enthralled this reader.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Chicago News History

The Front Page
by Ben Hecht and 
Charles MacArthur

Yesterday I attended the latest production of TimeLine Theatre Company, The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  This is not the sanitized film version of Hecht and MacArthur's famous comedy but the original stage version originally produced in 1928.  Even so,  with the current changes underway in the newspaper business and Chicago politics this play seemed just as timely as it was in the twenties.  It was directed by Nick Bowling with the same energy and imagination that he brought to The Farnsworth Invention last year and Frost/Nixon earlier this season.  The story was based in real events and the connection with the Chicago of the late 1920s is palpable.  The comedy was  non-stop  and action-packed with an ensemble that filled the stage with the excitement of a newspaper reporters' room.  The ensemble of actors was excellent with P. J. Powers and Terry Hamilton outstanding in the central roles of Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns.  I enjoyed the performance from the moment I sat down in the theater in the round setting till the last phone stopped ringing on stage.  This has been a great season at TimeLine, but I think they left the best for last.  The season is ending with a classic newspaper comedy that is simply a blast!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reading by Numbers

I recently received an e-mail from the ABE book website highlighting books with numbers in their titles. They had one book each from one to eight. I thought I would start with the number one. Here are some of my favorite books with one in the title. They range from essays to memoir and fiction (both long and short).

One Man's Meat by E. B. White

The essays of E. B. White in his delightful collection, One Man's Meat, represent a style of writing that is very welcoming to the reader. I found myself laughing out loud at his subtle humor and found a connection that suggested deeper thoughts. Written in the late 30's and early 40s during the approach of and beginning of World War II, White's essays comment on the world around him and chronicle his life on a farm in Maine as he gradually comes to grips with country living. In many instances they seem very contemporary in spite of having been written more than fifty years ago. A long time contributor to The New Yorker, one recognizes the "New Yorker style" in White's writing. One of our group found a resemblance to Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel which we had read several years ago. Certainly this was a great read with my enjoyment augmented by both the down to earth meditations and wonderful style.

Adam Biro's memoir, One Must Also Be Hungarian, displaying his family and ancestors, and more poetically titled Les Ancetres d'Ulysse in the original French, is a memorable collection of portraits of his family. Each portrait within it is like a snapshot capturing features of personality and character, illuminated by memories and episodes from family history and the author's own experience. His use of family photographs enhances the personal nature of the story by providing images to set beside his elegant but simple prose. While the elan and humor of his family is clearly delineated there remains an overarching melancholy tinged with sadness for those relatives whose lives were ended suddenly, sometimes due to the violence and hatred that swept Europe in the twentieth century. He shares the glories of Hungarians both within and outside of his family that permeate the zeitgeist of their existence. The stories of success as with Uncle Eugene Perlmuth and the tragic life of the artist, Uncle Jozsi, are just two of the portraits that moved me the most. Both the glories and the sadness are conflated to create an overall image that I found -- the humanity of the whole. 

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 an Anglo-African boy who, through the course of the story, acquires the nickname of Peekay. Courtenay's style reminded me of Dickens and as such he is a grand storyteller. His characterization and use of details are outstanding and bring both the country of South Africa and its people alive. The effect is to draw the reader into the story, again much like Dickens, and the result of that is to find yourself unable to set the book aside. This was an inspirational book to read.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A simple yet profound story of a day in the life of a man in a Soviet labor camp. Ivan Denisovich Shukov is trying to survive a day and the reader is presented with the visceral experience that he undergoes. Thinking back on this book reminds me of similarities with other stories I have subsequently read about men living in similar conditions. Solzhenitsyn's story rings true in retrospect and for me was an auspicious introduction to a great writer. With his rough prose the reader feels the difficult life that he seems just able to bear, a day at a time. A memorable read and one worth rereading.

Our Star

Somewhere between Mars and Jupiter there lies
the dreams of young and old.

Why is humanity so captivated by the skies
where dreams have oft been told?

The mind of man is not earthbound and to express
his potential he reaches for the beyond.

There among the asteroids light beams
from worlds resonating from afar.

These are a source of our dreams,
and thus for humanity our star.

from Geography Lessons, May 2011 - James Henderson

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 

“The treasure which you think not worth taking trouble and pains to
find, this alone is the real treasure you are longing for all your
life. The glittering treasure you are hunting for day and night lies
buried on the other side of that hill yonder.” (p 1)

The author of this book, B. Traven, is a mystery man but his novels are some of the best moral adventure tales that I have ever read. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is his best known novel, probably due to the film version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart. 
 In the novel three Americans down on their luck prospect for gold in the Mexican Sierra Madre. It is a psychological adventure tale as it takes us through the disintegration of one of the three, Dobbs, as the gold they find corrupts his soul. The results provide for suspense and Traven's fine delineation of character makes the story both believable and interesting. The men in the novel are particular individuals but they are recognizable as universal types. The tone of the novel is serious but not without humor. with an ironic style Traven develops a well-rounded plot. But most of all it is a story of outsiders, anarchic in its spirit. I've enjoyed both reading the novel and viewing the film and highly recommend them.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Conquest of the South Pole

by Manfred Karge

On Sunday afternoon I attended a performance of the final play of Strawdog Theatre Company's  2010-2011 season.  It was an adaption of a 1986 comedy by German playwright Manfred Karge, but it could have been about out of work men in 2011 America.  The comedy fantasy, directed by Kimberly Senior,  is based in real-life concerns about the problems of endemic unemployment. The play focuses on four young men in a small German town, who stave off the despair of joblessness by re-enacting Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole in an attic.  The attic belongs to Braukman played with intensity by Tom Hickey (who I enjoyed in his recent performance in The Master and Margarita) and he and his friends never leave that attic.  The references to both Amundsen and Shackleton's famous expeditions yielded a dream-like hope where there was little to hope for.  The ensemble acted out a fantasy of deprivation in Antarctica that mirrored their own lives where for most of the play the only person with a job was Braukman's wife.  While the background of the playwright lies in a Brechtian approach to drama I thought of some of Shakespeare's famous fools when viewing the antics of Frankieboy played by Joel Ewing whose role as a dog in the expedition demonstrates most directly some of the child-like playfulness that engages the audience as the fantasy unfolds.  While it takes some imagination and the scenes are a bit uneven at times I found the myself laughing and enjoying the attic journey more often than not.  The production was filled with poetic wit and energy that belied the seriousness of the characters' plight.  I left convinced that their fantasy could promise a better day.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Commonplace Entry

"Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great
deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows. Of these obscure heroes, philosophers, and martyrs, the greater part will never be known till that hour, when many that are great shall be small, and the small great; but of others the world's knowledge may be said to sleep: their lives and characters lie hidden from nations in the annals that record them. The general reader cannot feel them, they are presented so curtly and coldly: they are not like breathing stories appealing to his heart, but little historic hail-stones striking him but to glance off his bosom: nor can he understand them; for epitomes are not narratives, as skeletons are not human figures.

Thus records of prime truths remain a dead letter to plain folk: the writers have left so much to the imagination, and imagination is so rare a gift. Here, then, the writer of fiction may be of use to the public--as an interpreter."

- The Cloister and the Hearth, Charles Reade

Rose Aylmer

by Walter Savage Landor

Ah, what avails the sceptred race,
Ah, what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.

Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and of sighs
I consecrate to thee.

Walter Savage Landor, who lived a long and active life of eighty-nine years, produced a considerable amount of work in various genres.  While famous for his Imaginary Conversations, his first fame was as a poet.  He had settled in South Wales, returning home to Warwick for short visits. It was at Swansea that he became friendly with the family of Lord Aylmer, including his sister, Rose, whom Landor later immortalized in the poem, "Rose Aylmer". It was she who lent him "The Progress of Romance" by the Gothic authoress Clara Reeve. In this he found the story "The History of Charoba, Queen of Egypt", which inspired his poem "Gebir". Rose Aylmer sailed to India with an aunt in 1798, and two years later died of Cholera.

Imaginary Conversations and Poems by Walter Savage Landor. Everyman's Library, London. 1933

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Madness of George III

by Alan Bennett

On Wednesday last I attended the Chicago Shakespeare production of Alan Bennett's play The Madness of George III.  It was the best play of the season at Chicago Shakespeare from my vantage point.  Starting with the tremendous performance by Harry Groener in the lead role everything was outstanding for the afternoon dramatic performance.  The direction of Penny Metropulos, the ensemble, the set and the music came together for a delightful afternoon of comedy.  It certainly helps to start with the words of Alan Bennett, which were presented perfectly.  
Focusing on some historical facts regarding King George III (infamous in America for presiding over our independence and in Britain for the loss of the colonies), Bennett created a play focusing on the question that had arisen of need for a regent as the symptoms of his disease made him appear to be going mad.  With the political machinations of the the Whigs and Tories in Parliament and the desire of his eldest son to control the throne, the suspense built throughout.  The addition of courtiers, court doctors and his loyal Queen provide a mix of relationships that were a bounteous source for comic developments.  

I enjoyed seeing fine performances from familiar actors including Kevin Gudahl, Erik Hellman and Alex Weisman.  But I relished those by actors new to me including Richard Baird as the Prince of Wales and Nathan Hosner as William Pitt.  The music of Handel was present throughout and added to my enjoyment.  There are few playwrights that can present comedy through the delight of witty wordplay any better than Alan Bennett.  Thanks to Chicago Shakespeare for this production.

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop:
May 12 - 15

The Literary Blog Hop is hosted by The Blue Bookcase! This week's question is:

What books have you read that have been hyped as literary and, in your opinion, were not?

I generally try to avoid books that are being "hyped as literary" (or hyped in general).  One exception that I made was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  (Before going further I feel I need to alert the many who loved this book that I did not.)  I still remember seeing the book in a bookstore near Union College in Schenectady New York.  The promotional material and the blurbs on the dust jacket convinced me that this was not only literary, but it was a mystery with books at its core.  The opening chapter seemed to confirm this conviction;  but, alas, this novel soon soared to the top of my list for books that failed to meet my expectations. 
 After a wonderful and mysterious opening with what seemed to be a tremendous premise the book meandered off into mediocrity.  To say that I found this book disappointing would be an understatement. The author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, has written a book with many plots and subplots that do not seem to cohere in a reasonable fashion. The result is ultimately dissatisfying. The language of the novel was strange at best, but too often trite or hackneyed. Neither the scenes of violence (both graphic and jarring) nor the love scenes were portrayed successfully. While the notion of a "Cemetery of forgotten books" is a lovely one, appealing to this reader, it was ignored for much of the novel which seemed to be appended to the concept rather than connected with it. The novel seemed to slow down in the middle without sufficient suspense to support it. A much better book with a similar theme is Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. It is both more suspenseful and better written - a delightful, if not truly great, read.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lyrical Prose Pieces


There is no sterile love. No precaution can avert it. When I leave you, I have deep within me my suffering like a sort of terrible offspring." - Fires, Marguerite Yourcenar

Fires consists of nine "lyrical prose pieces," inspired by Greek myths including Phaedra, Achilles, Sappho and others. The narrator inserts brief comments, aphoristic fragments on love, linking these pieces. In her preface the author comments that the book is "product of a love crisis, Fires is in the form of a collection of love poems, or, rather, is like a sequence of lyrical prose pieces connected by a notion of love. As such, the book does not require any commentary."(p ix). 

 The fragments enhance the stories they surround providing thematic hints--fleeting glimpses at the memories of dreams of love. The feelings expressed throughout are consonant with the classical pieces used as demonstration of the human frailties exposed throughout. "Patroclus", for example, opens with the howling of Cassandra whose fate is to bring forth the destiny of others in her presentation of the future. We all know Patroclus' end, but his destiny is in the hands of the gods who control his fate just as they compel Cassandra's prophecies. Yet, the prose is more a meditation on Achilles' love for Patroclus which transcends his death and continues to cause Achilles to ponder the meaning of life after death. This leads me to conclude that Yourcenar here presents a work for the reader's meditative moments. Even in translation the poetry escapes through the prose, as with all of Yourcenar's works, and leaves us with messages over which we may linger with contemplation and consideration of the nature of our reading life.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Connected Stories

Go Down, Moses
Go Down, Moses 

"…he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too…."    -   William Faulkner

Go Down, Moses marks the end of William Faulkner's period of greatest creativity. In this novel built out of interconnected stories he addresses themes that connect with and overlap those in other of his works of this period, particularly The Hamlet. The idea of time - past, present and future - is connected throughout the novel by blood; the bloodlines of the family.

"to the boy those old times would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy's present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening," (p. 165)

The blood of the fathers, their 'curse', becomes one of the themes in the first three stories: "Was", "The Fire and the Hearth", and "Pantaloon in Black".

"Then one day the old curse of his fathers, the old haughty ancestral pride based not on any value but on an accident of geography, stemmed not from courage and honor but from wrong and shame, descended to him." (p. 107)

The relations between the races and the nature of the family in these stories are also important for Faulkner. The hearth suggests connections with the Anglo-Irish culture from which the McCaslins originated. After all the McCaslin's heritage is one of tension and guilt bred into them like DNA in their genes. The initiation of the young into this culture is presented in "The Old People" when Ike becomes a man, and is repeated in "The Bear" (this last story has resonance all the way back to The Odyssey of Homer in which Odysseus undergoes a not dissimilar experience). There is also the theme of man versus nature through the contrast of the natural man with the social man of civilization. I also sensed a resonance with the Rousseau-like view of the world in the emphasis on getting away from civilization in The Bear. This can also be read in the tradition of Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Ultimately, we see in Go Down, Moses Faulkner's mythic world of Yoknapatawpha County once more with its people, their land, and their ghosts. How they relate to our world today is up to the reader to decide.

A Goodreads update review

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Quote for the day

"The acquisition of knowledge is always of use to the intellect, because it may thus drive out useless things and retain the good. For nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first known." 
 Leonardo da Vinci

Monday, May 09, 2011

Frauenliebe und Leben

Poetry from Frauenliebe und Leben, the song cycle by Robert Schumann *

Since I saw him

Since I saw him 
I believe myself to be blind, 
where I but cast my gaze, 
I see him alone. 
as in waking dreams 
his image floats before me, 
dipped from deepest darkness, 
brighter in ascent. 

All else dark and colorless 
everywhere around me, 
for the games of my sisters 
I no longer yearn, 
I would rather weep, 
silently in my little chamber, 
since I saw him, 
I believe myself to be blind.

*Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman's Love and Life) is a cycle of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso, written in 1840. They describe the course of a woman's love for her man, from her point of view, from first meeting through marriage to his death, and after. Selections were set to music as a song-cycle by masters of German Lied, namely Carl Loewe, Franz Paul Lachner and Robert Schumann. I attended a performance of the setting by Schumann (his opus 42) sung by Jennifer Johnson Cano yesterday at the Chicago Opera Theater.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Books Recommended to Me

Top Ten Tuesday 

This is a bit late but I here submit the list for Top Ten Tuesday, May 3, 2011  on Saturday the 7th.  I apologize to the good readers at The Broke and the Bookish and hope they and others enjoy the list.

This week is  about all those books I probably wouldn't have read had it not been for the recommendation of some other bookish people. 

1. Auto da Fe -- Elisa Canetti's novel is amazing for its magic, its dialogue, and its incredible characters with Peter Kien, a scholarly recluse who lives among and for his great library at its center.  Once again I have the former Lincoln Park Bookshop to thank for recommending this incredible novel.  It was just one of several great dead authors that I discovered through their recommendations. 

2. Memoirs of Hadrian -- One more book recommended by the people at my local independent bookstore.  This time introducing me to yet another author who became one of my favorites, starting with this magnificent tome -- perhaps her best work. 

3. The Man Who Folded Himself -- David Gerrold's novel is not recent - it was published more than thirty years ago - but a friend recommended it to me (it is one of his favorites) and I finally read it. Like Wells' more famous novel it is slight, less than 150 pages, but in that thin novel Gerrold packs a striking picture of the nature of time travel. 

4. The Immoralist -- I would like to think that I would have discovered Andre Gide on my own, eventually; but while I was a senior in high school the school's girls' gym teacher recommended this book to me.  My reading life has never been the same and Andre Gide is one reason.  

5. Hunger -- The same book store that brought me to Lagerkvist had a well-read clerk  (the kind you only find in small independent bookstores) who introduced me to Knut Hamsun and this wonderful short novel that is an early version of existential man.  Similar to Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and just as dark.

6. The Dwarf -- This was my introduction to Par Lagerkvist and it was a great book that brought together my interest in the Renaissance and Machiavelli among other things.  Recommended by the owner of a local independent book store (since closed) by the owner, a self-styled aficionado of Lagerkvistiana.

7. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy  -- My sister went through a period of reading "disaster" books and she recommended I read this one by Stewart O'Nan.  I did and found it a riveting story well told about an event, the Hartford Circus fire of 1944, that I knew nothing about prior to reading O'Nan's book.  I returned to O'Nan to read his short novel, Snow Angels, which was also a good read. 

8. The Secret History -- I found this a well told story, but a bit melodramatic for my taste.  It is a book that was recommended by a friend - a voracious, but indiscriminate reader. I was surprised when I found it was a page-turner that I could not put down.

9. The Closers -- I had never read Michael Connelly's crime stories until I read a review in the Sunday Chicago Tribune by Julia Keller.  Her positive review of this author persuaded me to pick up this novel from his Harry Bosch series and I found a new author that I plan to read again.

10. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood -- I do not normally read or even consider books that appear to be so obviously aimed at a female audience. This book appeared to the epitome of the genre, but the Sunday afternoon book group which I joined several years ago voted this onto our list so I picked it up and, surprise, I found it was a good read with fascinating characters and a complex believable plot line.
The Quiet American
The Quiet American 

"I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings."  -  Graham Greene

It is amazing that this book was written almost a decade before America's "Viet Nam War". The story that Greene tells should have been known well enough to influence some leaders in America, but nonetheless we can read it with a freshness today that should give us pause as we move on to more foreign entanglements. In it he deftly mixes a story of deception with one of star-crossed lovers. In some sense it was almost brutal in its depiction of the dark side of humanity, but Greene is always at home presenting a complex view of human character and this is another fine example of his skill at that. Reading the book and discussing it with two different groups led me to see it as one of Greene's best novels where he captures the atmosphere of the place and time and gives us characters that seem real with a touch of mystery and sadness.

"So it always is: when you escape to a desert the silence shouts in your ear."   — Graham Greene

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal 

"A rational mind does not work under compulsion; it does not subordinate its grasp of reality to any one's orders, directives, or controls; it does not sacrifice its knowledge, its view of the truth, to any one's opinions, threats, wishes, plans, or "welfare."  Such a mind may be hampered by others, it may be silenced, proscribed, imprisoned, or destroyed; it cannot be forced; a gun is not an argument. (An example and symbol of this attitude is Galileo.)
 It is from the work and the inviolate integrity of such minds -- from the intransigent innovators -- that all of mankind's knowledge and achievements have come." (Ayn Rand, "What is Capitalism?", p 9)

-  In 1967 I began undergraduate studies in the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin. Within a year I had chosen Economics as my major and embarked on a path to fulfill the requirements of that degree. Shortly before, I had discovered the works of Ayn Rand and this volume, which was first published in 1966, joined with volumes of Hayek, Friedman and Mises as part of my auxiliary reading in the economics of capitalism. I say auxiliary because, except in the history of economics course, none of these authors were on the syllabuses of the Economics Department at UW-Madison.
-  For students of economics, both young and old, the most valuable feature of the book is the Recommended Bibliography. While less than two pages long, it contains the best of the classic works needed for a foundation in understanding economics. The essays included in the book range from philosophy to history and commentary on current (circa 1960s) policies. The good thing about economic principles is that they do not change with the political currents and are not based on the whims of individuals, but are grounded in objective reality. That is what gives Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal its continuing value for all who desire to understand the nature of capitalism.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day

How to Think Like 
Leonardo da Vinci: 
Seven Steps to Genius 
Every Day

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
-  Stephen Spender

-  With the wealth of information and principles for action presented by Michael Gelb in this book one wonders where to start? It provides an "inspirational" approach to improving your mind and your life. I have always been fascinated by fictional superheroes and I also enjoy reading about the lives of geniuses of the past in all fields of endeavor. This book uses a close study of the life and achievements of Leonardo da Vinci to identify principles that each of us can apply in our life to improve and reach a level of genius beyond that we might have thought possible.
-  The book is divided into three parts: Part One includes a concise biography and list of Leonardo's accomplishments; while Part Two focuses on the "Seven Da Vincian Principles" that include curiosity, a focus on the senses, use of ambiguity and development of whole-brain thinking. While the principles are not unique to Leonardo, this presentation is particularly effective and helpful. Part Three discusses the art of drawing and perspective which is at the heart of Leonardo's art. The inclusion of a chronology of Leonardo's life, which spanned the last half of the fifteenth century into the first decades of the sixteenth, and a topical bibliography of recommended reading increases the value of this truly inspirational book.
-  The author, Michael Gelb, is a modern Renaissance man with a lifelong fascination for the essence of creativity.  This fascination combined with years of study and teaching has led to the publication of many books about arts as disparate as juggling, chess, and aikido.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Proust and Marlowe

"I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust"
"Who's he?" I put a cigarette in my mouth and stared at her. She looked a little pale and strained, but she looked like a girl who could function under a strain.
"A French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates. You wouldn't know him."
"Tut, tut," I said. "Come into my boudoir."

- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep

In his book on the history of the detective story, Mortal Consequences, author Julian Symons has this to say about Raymond Chandler:

"Chandler had a fine feeling for the sound and value of words, and he added to it a very sharp eye for places, things, people, and the wisecracks (this out-of-date word still seems the right one) that in their tone and timing are almost always perfect."

The first novel by Raymond Chandler, who at the time was a 51-year-old former oil company executive, is a mosaic of shadows, a dark tracery of forking paths.  This was certainly true in  The Big Sleep and it is a narrative that is nothing if not what one would cinematic in its beautiful prose. Yet, it is the dialogue that seems to me to be the best part. This is the oomph that gave his novel a kick that I seldom experience in my reading. Chandler was both a master of prose and the detective story and, despite rough edges, never seemed to lose his authorial grip over the plot while dazzling the reader with beautiful women and sleazy characters. "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be." This sentence, from the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, marks the last time you can be fully confident that you know what's going on. Along then wanders his private eye, Philip Marlowe, a smooth and suave and always seems to be on top of the situation, even when he appears to be on the bottom. Following the twists and turns as he handily dealt with one surprise after another made for great fiction. It was a joy to finally read this author as part of my current class on crime and the criminal in American fiction.

A Goodreads update



“If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation”  --  Abigail Adams

In the moment we have before us 
rebellious news is on the way

noticing what is momentous
it is not what people say.

Hers will  be a curious comment
that catches your ear -- the sincere

way she looks and suggests intent
to take action once more to foment

the crowd, the people, the masses.
Until the moment, the now, it passes.

*To "foment" is to incite or rouse {the rebels fomented a revolution}. Although the word was once used as a noun -- the OED records sparse uses from 1540 to 1892 -- the corresponding noun has long been "fomentation" (= incitement, instigation).(Garner's Modern American Usage

from  Geography Lessons, 2011   -   James Henderson