Friday, September 30, 2011

French Art

Nature Unveiling Herself to Science

This statue was commissioned in 1889 to decorate the new Faculty of Medicine of Bordeaux. A young woman, the allegory of nature, raises a slow movement of the sails of which it is wrapped. After completing the first version of white marble for the decoration of the building, Barrias conceives a second, full color, for the staircase at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris.Carved with care so as to exacerbate the decorative building materials, the different pieces are on the veins of banded onyx for sailing, mottled red marble for the dress, the precious lapis lazuli eye and malachite for the beetle, coral for the mouth and lips.The overall effect is a surprising richness. The work belongs to a vast movement of rediscovery of polychrome sculpture, launched by the archaeological finds and illustrated fifty years earlier by Cordier. Before the success of the work, many editions were made.

Source: Musee d'Orsay

A Small Canadian Village

The Salterton Trilogy

The Salterton Trilogy 

"Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness." - Robertson Davies

Salterton is a small Canadian village that receives attention in this fine trilogy from Robertson Davies; at least some of the people in the village receive his attention and for readers that is a good thing. While I did not enjoy this quite as much as some of his later novels, there was sufficient humor and wit to keep me entertained. In the final novel of the trilogy, Leaven of Malice, the central character Monica Gall is also the most likable character and as such kept me interested in the book when I tired of some of the other characters for whom the titular "malice" was more their style. The plot borders on the melodramatic, but perhaps the thespian in Davies is to blame for that. The central role that music plays in this novel is another signature of the Robertson Davies' style (see The Lyre of Orpheus for another example). The combination of interesting, if not likable, characters and the wit of the master storyteller made this a good read. For greatness visit The Cornish Trilogy.

View all my reviews

Behavioral Studies

When do we start “acting gay”?
 Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing 
two men holding guns than holding hands?  ~Ernest Gaines

A Minnesota school district is facing a Department of Justice investigation and a private lawsuit over its alleged failure to combat anti-gay bullying. One of the student-plaintiffs is a 14-year-old boy who hasn’t declared his sexual orientation but has been harassed for his clothing choices and his love for singing Lady Gaga songs. When do gay children start exhibiting tell-tale signs?
   In early childhood, in some cases. A hefty pile of research shows that boys as young as 3 years old who break from traditional gender roles have a high likelihood of becoming gay adults. Predictive behaviours include playing with Barbie dolls, shying away from roughhousing, and taking an interest in makeup and women’s clothing. The relationship isn’t one-to-one, however, and it’s certainly not the case that all boys who love Barbie dolls will later identify as gay. The correlation is much weaker in the other direction: A disproportionate number of boys who don’t conform to gender stereotypes turn out to be gay men, but lots of gay men played with G.I. Joe as boys and quarterbacked the high-school football team. Neither does the relationship appear to be as strong among girls. Tomboys aren’t as likely to become lesbian adults.
   Psychiatrist Richard Green conducted the leading study in this field in the 1970s and ’80s. He followed 44 boys who defied traditional gender roles from early childhood to adulthood. Thirty of them became gay or bisexual adults while just one child from a 34-member gender-conforming control group turned out to be gay. The subjects who strayed the most from conventionally boyish behaviour were the most likely to be gay. Green’s study has since been repeated by other researchers with similar outcomes. (Studies on females show that only around one-quarter of gender nonconforming girls grow up to be lesbians.)

There is no magical age at which children adopt stereotypically gay behaviour and keep it into adulthood. The beginnings of gender nonconformity are hard to pinpoint, and a person’s tendency toward masculine behaviour may rise and fall through childhood. Some mothers tell psychologists that they sensed their little boy was gay during infancy. They claim the child behaved differently than male siblings when picked up, showing a stronger interest in nuzzling. (These stories, however, may just be hindsight bias.) Gender nonconforming boys also tend to adopt more traditional gender roles in middle and high school, often as an attempt to cover up their sexual identity.
    Some researchers think gender nonconforming children use their toys to rehearse for a gay adulthood. Little girls play with Barbies, high heels, and makeup because they’re practicing the role of wife. Gay 3-year-old boys can’t verbalize their desire to be with a man when they grow up—although many such children exhibit crush-like behaviour toward adult men—but they may be trying to learn the behaviour that will later attract a male partner. Psychiatrists also point out that these boys don’t typically play with baby dolls or mimic maternal behaviours the way many little girls do. These attempts to explain the basis of gender nonconforming behaviour, however, are somewhat speculative.

Source: Slate 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lucretian Poems

The Fragile Inheritance of Ideas

For as children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, 
so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared 
than the things children in the dark hold in terror and imagine will come true.
 - Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

When paper crumbles into dust 
We discover what humans must
Believe and hold closely, tightly,
Knowing that these ideas will ever brightly
shine as a beacon for the ages.

When the thoughts of genius slowly fade
Into the long night of disorder, what made
Our world dark?  Who is to blame for the long
Ride into chaotic ignorance?  No song
Of innocence will end our human rages.

When the genius of a few raises the hope
Of the many, their light exceeds the scope
Of humanity's dreams.  This is exciting news
For those who dream of knowledge they can use.
The ideas of dreamers last for the ages.

- James Henderson, September, 2011 

*  *  *  *  *  *  


"See you not that even stones are conquered by time." 
- Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

This fright, this night of mindless time
Will lead us on to endless flux,
When we see in nature solid rocks
Succumb to inevitable decay.

This lack of care, this unconcern, may
Seem to be unreal, but demonstration
Of nature's power, it is ruthless
Relentless motion at play.

This place, this fixed universe weights
Time and brings its flow
To a halt. We humans move onward
Making our own different way.

- James Henderson, February 1992 (rev. 2009)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Aeschylus' Masterpiece

The Oresteia of Aeschylus: A New Translation by Ted Hughes
The Oresteia of Aeschylus: 
A New Translation by Ted Hughes 

"And God gave Apollo
The mind and the tongue 
To speak the truth of God to mankind."
- Aeschylus (The Eumenides)

This is a modern (circa 1999) translation of one of the greatest of the Greek Tragedies that has survived. It is even rarer in that it is a complete trilogy which was common in the age of the great Greek tragedians but few have survived in tact.
   In the last year of his life, Ted Hughes completed translations of three major dramatic works: Racine's Phedre, Euripedes' Alcestis, and the trilogy of plays known as at The Oresteia, a family story of astonishing power and the background or inspiration for much subsequent drama, fiction, and poetry.
    The Oresteia--Agamemnon, Choephori, and the Eumenides--tell the story of the house of Atreus: After King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, their son, Orestes, is commanded by Apollo to avenge the crime by killing his mother, and he returns from exile to do so, bringing on himself the wrath of the Furies and the judgment of the court of Athens. The culmination of the tragedy addressed the question of the nature and origin of justice and the civil state.
    Hughes's "acting version" of the trilogy is faithful to its nature as a dramatic work, and his translation is itself a great performance; while artfully inflected with the contemporary, it has a classical beauty and authority. It is a good choice among modern translations.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cold War Redux

A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday I attended another smashing production by TimeLine Theatre Company.  Directed by Nick Bowling and featuring TimeLine Company members Janet Ulrich Brooks and David Parkes. This was a tale of two arms negotiators who literally went for "a walk in the woods".
   The events of the play were inspired by the real-life talks between Paul Nitze and Yuli A. Kvitsinsky, who were involved in talks to limit intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces between 1981 and 1984.  Lee Blessing wrote the play which was first produced during the 1986 National Playwrights Conference and subsequently produced on Broadway in 1988 and was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award.  The TimeLine production is unique in the casting, for the first time, of a woman in the role of the Russian negotiator.  Janet Ulrich Brooks was very convincing with her estimable Russian accent in this demanding role.  No less demanding is the role of the American negotiator and David Parkes (who I admired in his roles as Thomas More and Martin Heidegger previously with TimeLine) was also up to the challenge.  There were moments of both great humor and seriousness in the play and it was not until the final minutes that I felt a release from the tension that had built on stage.  The staging with beautiful transitions of the seasons between the scenes and the perfect lighting were also outstanding aspects of this production .  But the original music by Andrew Hansen must be singled out as it was exceptional.  
   Within the space of two hours on a stage in Chicago I and the rest of the audience were transported to the Cold War era and the mountains of Switzerland.  It was history theater at its best.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

What if?

Reading Science Fiction

I recently read the first five stories collected in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One.  While I enjoyed "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley Weinbaum the most, all of the stories were excellent and many of them demonstrated interesting features.  In our class discussion the connections with classical literature was noted for several of the stories starting with the Weinbaum story, for as the title suggests it has aspects that appear to be variations on Homer's Odyssey.  The main character, Jarvis, goes on a journey outward bound and when he attempts to return his journey is derailed or lengthened by encounters with an amazing variety of aliens, each of whom are unique.  
The third story, "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey, presents a robot that appears to be comparable to Helen of Troy as the story opens with this description of the titular robot:
"I am an old man now, but I can still see Helen as Dave unpacked her, and still hear him gasp as he looked her over.
"Man, isn't she a beauty?"
She was beautiful, a dream spun in plastics and metals, something Keats might have seen dimly when he wrote his sonnet.  If Helen of Troy had looked like that the Greeks must have been pikers when they launched only a thousand ships;  at least that's what I told Dave." (p 42)
In spite of this opening the reasoning behind the name they give the robot is an allusive resemblance to "alloy".  This only adds to the levels of meaning and interest presented by this fascinating story.  As with the other stories the human relationships (in this case the apparent human-like characteristics of a machine) become as important as the scientific aspects of the narrative.
And in Robert Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" the militaristic depiction of the Road support organization reminded me of the concept of the "Guardians" in Plato's Republic.  The dedicated class of cadets who man the roads seemed similar to Plato's idea for his ideal society.  Who would have expected allusions like these in tales of the future?  The most important thing about these stories was the questions they raised and the ideas they presented.  What will happen to man in the distant future when machines have taken over control of the earth?  What happens when one man can create and manipulate human-like life for his own ends in a way that mimics the god of the Old Testament?  These and other questions made each of these stories exciting reading for anyone who wonders:  "What if?"

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One, 1929-1964, ed. by Robert Silverberg. Orb Books, New York. 1998 (1971).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Commonplace Entry

Life of Dr. Johnson

"What I consider as the peculiar value of the following work, is, the quantity it contains of Johnson's conversation;  which is universally acknowledged to have been eminently instructive  and entertaining;  and of which the specimens that I have given upon a former occasion, have been received with so much approbation, that I have good grounds for supposing that the world will not be indifferent to more ample communications of a similar nature."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Poem for Today


to Claudia

Words --
Wild words --
Wonderful words!

Words that delight --
Words that inspire.
Words with the might --
Words with the fire.

We who are moved,
We who aspire
To learn and to grow --
We wonder at words.

We are moved by the insight
And touched by the feeling
Of nurturing wonder at
Sounds in the twilight.

Sounds so wild in the roaring
Rambunctious rustling of nature --
Pouring of spirit,
Of man and his time.

Time that is telling
Stories of wonder --
What a vibrant creation
We make with words.

Words tender and caring,
Nurturing and caressing us --
Yet effervescent and exuberant
More buoyant than the clouds above.

Words bouncing boisterous and brawny,
Both brilliant and brainy --
Taunting and teasing thoughts
Out of the corners of our mind.

Words churning our curiosity,
Tugging at the strings of sensation
And memories hidden by layers
Of deeds unrecorded by time.

Time that will move us to act --
We who aspire to learn and to grow
As we find wonder hidden in words --
Leading us on to our own unique goal.

We take the words --
We catch them and use them.
Living and sensing, thinking and feeling,
We make the words our very own.

Understanding the words --
Words brighten our life.
Words then inspire us --
Each in our own time.

Words --
Wild words --
Wonderful words!

- James Henderson - January, 1992

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Same Name, Different Guys

Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Will Grayson, Will Grayson 
by John Green & David Levithan

“I think about how much depends upon a best friend. When you wake up in the morning you swing your legs out of bed and you put your feet on the ground and you stand up. You don’t scoot to the edge of the bed and look down to make sure the floor is there. The floor is always there…"

This is a novel that makes me realize how times have changed. Years ago when homosexuality was not discussed in high school much less celebrated this novel would not have been possible. It still seems a bit of a fantasy if news items about bullying and worse are to be believed. But this is fiction and well-written fiction at that. It is also gay fiction with a gimmick: the protagonist is a duo, both named Will Grayson. And not surprisingly one of the Will's story is told primarily in the form of text messages. The novel effectively surrounds the two Wills with interesting friends. Most important both to the plot and both of the Graysons in the gay-friendly school and town and gay characters, is a very out-and-proud character nicknamed Tiny Cooper. Tiny breaks stereotypes by being both overweight and capable of having a love life. Another character, one of the Wills, is taking medication for his depression, a depiction that's handled compassionately. Parental relationships are idealized but heartwarming. And it has a plot with almost, but not quite, too many coincidences. As long as you are willing to suspend belief just a bit the story's roller-coaster ride is great fun and very entertaining, with some lessons learned along the way. It is a positive sign for our changing times that young people have stories about both gay and straight teens who live together and celebrate their differences.

"here’s the sick, twisted thing: part of me thinks i deserve this. that maybe if i wasn’t such an asshole, isaac would have been real. if i wasn’t such a lame excuse for a person, something right might happen to me. it’s not fair, because i didn’t ask for dad to leave, and i didn’t ask to be depressed, and i didn’t ask for us to have no money, and i didn’t ask to want to fuck boys, and i didn’t ask to be so stupid, and i didn’t ask to have no real friends, and i didn’t ask to have half the shit that comes out of my mouth come out of my mouth. all i wanted was one fucking break, one idiotic good thing, and that was clearly too much to ask for, too much to want."  -  John Green & David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson 

View all my reviews

Urban Literary Lives

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life
Literary Brooklyn: 
The Writers of Brooklyn 
and the Story of American City Life 
by Evan Hughes

“Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an inhibition to crime.”  -   Isaac Asimov 

Urban connections is a theme that runs through the mini-biographies that make up this interesting but flawed literary history. Using Brooklyn as the focal point Evan Hughes chronicles the lives, briefly told, of authors from Whitman to Auster. Along the way we meet authors who were Brooklyn natives like Whitman, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, and those that migrated to Brooklyn and stayed for a while like Hart Crane, W. H. Auden and William Styron. I was reminded of a favorite book, February House by Sherill Tippins that with a bit more focus does a better job of communicating the spirit of Brooklyn from a special era. That episode is included here as "The Birth of Brooklyn Cool", but pales as do most of the brief lives with the attempt to catalog every conceivable author and keep the book under three hundred pages. One example of the trivia that may appeal to some readers is the aside that notes that Norman Mailer went to the same high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant that also graduated Aaron Copland, Norman Podhoretz and Isaac Asimov.  There is an excellent bibliography, plus notes and an index which makes the book great for browsing. Hughes claims as his "guiding principle" that "literature has a special ability to offer an intimate view of a very particular place and time." He succeeds partially in relating this special ability, but too often merely shares anecdotes about authors that, while interesting, did not rise to that level. Perhaps the grand sweep of years combined with the impressive quantity of admittedly high quality writers was too much to allow this approach in one volume. Nevertheless this is a fascinating book about a city and its writers.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tales of the Future

Bodyguard and Four Other short Science Fiction Novels From Galaxy 

"When I talk of the purpose of life, I am thinking not only of human life, but of all life on Earth and of the life which must exist upon other planets throughout the universe. It is only of life on Earth, however, that one can speak with any certainty. It seems to me that all life on Earth, the sum total of life upon the Earth, has purpose. If the means were available, we could trace our ancestry -- yours and mine -- back to the first blob of life-like material that came into being on the planet. The same thing could be done for the spider that spun his web in the grass, and of the grass in which the web was spun, the bird sitting in the tree and the tree in which he sits, the toad waiting for the fly beneath the bush, and for the fly and bush. We are all genetic brothers. The chain of life, tracing back to that primordial day of life's beginning, is unbroken..."  
-  Clifford Simak *

Reading science fiction was one of my favorite past-times when I was a teenager in high school. It remains one of my favorite genres for reading to this day. Back in the mid sixties I devoured a variety of science fiction, but this collection of short novels remains etched in my memory better than most of those I read -- especially the robot story "How-2". This was a startlingly funny tale of how one regular Joe, named Gordon Knight, ordered a do-it-yourself mechanical dog kit from How-2 Kits, Inc. and received instead a Robot kit. 
The sixties was the era of do-it-yourself kits and build-your-own train sets so this story was one that really hit close to home for a thirteen-year-old boy. The complications from the mistake of sending a robot instead of a mechanical dog are compounded in the story to the point of near chaos that is more humorous and fascinating than most other stories I have ever read. It is not surprising that the story was written by Clifford Simak, one of the elder statesmen of modern science fiction who was named a "Grand Master" by the Science Fiction Writers of America. The remaining stories in this collection do not disappoint as the volume also contains a classic tale of psychological intrigue by Frederick Pohl. While it may be difficult to find this volume it is worth the search to read these tales of the future.

*quote from Simak's interview in Speaking of Science Fiction: The Paul Walker Interviews 1978. Oradell, New Jersey: Luna Publications

View all my reviews

Monday, September 12, 2011

Real Men and Real Art

The Pitmen Painters
by Lee Hall

"Real art belongs to everyone."

A theater production depends on many different aspects of the performance. The quality of the play, the actors, the staging, the direction, and the intangible essence that brings everything together -- all of these contributed to the brilliance of the production that I was fortunate to see as TimeLine Theatre Company opened its latest production this past weekend. The playwright, Lee Hall, has brought the skills that he demonstrated so well with Billy Elliot to his play, The Pitmen Painters. Using those skills he has created literate and entertaining drama that explores the meaning of art and its ability to change lives.  
I found the direction and acting of the production were up to the high standards I have come to expect from TimeLine. Standouts in the excellent ensemble were Dan Waller who, as Oliver Kilbourn, demonstrated the breadth of emotion and power that embodies becoming an artist while Andrew Carter was perfect as the Art Professor, Robert Lyon. This play is about hard working men, coal miners, who in a straightforward way want to learn about more than the depths of the pits, extending their education and in the process find they have talent of which they were not aware. The loyalty of these men for each other and for their work also impressed me as they stood together in the new (to them) world of art. The production was helped by the intimacy of TimeLine's  Wellington Avenue venue as you felt like you had become part of the miners' world. The humor and camaraderie of the pitmen demonstrated another reason to believe in the aspirations of this hardy band of fellows. The resulting evening of theater is another example of the exceptional entertainment that has become the hallmark of TimeLine Theatre Company.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A Literate Thriller

The Poet (Jack McEvoy, #1)
The Poet by Michael Connelly

While like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh--but smile no more.
-  Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher

I had previously read and enjoyed novels in the "Harry Bosch" detective series by Michael Connelly but I was not prepared for the intensity of suspense that he delivers in this thriller. The protagonist is Jack McEvoy, a newspaper reporter, who is introduced with these opening lines: "Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. . ."
With these words the story moves into what seems like hyper drive as the reader is presented with the reporter's single-minded pursuit of the serial killer who murdered his twin. Even his buddies in the Denver PD thought Sean McEvoy's shooting in the backseat of his car looked like a classic cop suicide, right down to the motive: his despondency over his failure to clear the murder of a University of Denver student. But as Sean's twin brother, Jack, of the Rocky Mountain News, notices tiny clues that marked Sean's death as murder, his suspicions about the dying message Sean scrawled inside his fogged windshield--``Out of space. Out of time''--alert him to a series of eerily similar killings stretching from Sarasota to Albuquerque.
The twist and turns are handled so smoothly that even when you guess one of the plot twists there are two more lying in wait that you did not see coming. Connelly writes with a lucid style that provides just enough detail to demonstrate his knowledge of the territory without slowing the plot action. For example, there are scenes set in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago that is my back yard and the details are all accurate. Scenes like that made me believe he did the same for Baltimore and Phoenix when those cities become the scene of the action. In Jack McEvoy, the reporter, he has created not only a smart detective but also a very human being -- one that is easy to identify with. The result of this with the controlled suspense makes this one thriller that I did had no difficulty finishing. An added treat are the literary connections that at least partially define the killer and help McEvoy in his pursuit. This is an exceptionally well written novel about a unique set of murders that are solved by an reporter born with a detective gene.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Reading Anita Brookner

"Great writers are the saints for the godless."   - Anita Brookner


"Kitty Maule was difficult to place.  She had a family, that was known, and she disappeared every weekend, so it was assumed that she lived in the country, although her careful appearance belonged to the town." - Anita Brookner (Providence)

If you have not read Anita Brookner Providence is a wonderful novel with which to start.  I daresay you will not look back as you traverse some of her many (too numerous to count) novels of romance and the social difficulties of young women - and sometimes not so young - in love. In this one the protagonist, Kitty Maule, longs to be "totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful." She is instead clever, reticent, self-possessed, and striking. For years Kitty has been tactfully courting her colleague Maurice Bishop, a detached, elegant English professor. Now, running out of patience, Kitty's amorous pursuit takes her from rancorous academic committee rooms and lecture halls to French cathedrals and Parisian rooming houses, from sittings with her dress-making grandmother to seances with a grandmotherly psychic. Touching, funny, and stylistically breathtaking, Providence is a brightly polished gem of romantic comedy.  My favorite moments are the many literary references which are more important than they may seem to be at first reading.  For example, at one point Kitty is thinking about  Adolphe by Benjamin Constant and shares this comment about literature, "Such a refusal to give the story its usual complement of detail turns it into a sort of parable, makes one search for universal meanings which may not be there."  Of course those meanings are there and the reader suddenly finds himself wondering if this is an opinion that the author/narrator agrees with.  Certainly it is ironic to criticize an iconic Romantic novel for lack of detail which is more likely to be present in a post-Flaubertian novel like those written by Anita Brookner.  It is the subtlety of references like these that warms the heart of this inveterate bibliophile.  The best of Brookner's novels that I have read is Hotel du Lac for which she was awarded the Booker Prize.  However, if you do not want to start at the deep end you should try reading Providence first.

Hotel Du Lac
Hotel Du Lac 

"My idea of absolute happiness is to sit in a hot garden all, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening.' 
'You are a romantic, Edith,' repeated Mr Neville, with a smile. 
'It is you who are wrong,' she replied. 'I have been listening to that particular accusation for most of my life. I am not a romantic. I am a domestic animal. I do not sigh and yearn for extravagant displays of passion, for the grand affair, the world well lost for love. I know all that, and know that it leaves you lonely. No, what I crave is the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together."   — Anita Brookner (Hotel Du Lac)

Reading this novel was my introduction to the world of Anita Brookner. Having started with Hotel du Lac, her Booker prize-winning novel, I moved on to others including Providence and Incidents in the Rue Laugier and Look at Me. But it was experiencing her distinctive prose style and characters with complicated emotional lives that drew me in. Hotel is written mostly in the form of musings of the protagonist and has very little overt activity. But her life is changing, partly at the suggestion of her friends and partly through her own meditations on her situation. The developments of these small changes, of her reactions to loneliness and the stigma of being unattached, are the stuff that moves a reader to think about her condition as a woman and a human being. Her choices lead to a reinvigorated self-reliance that may be difficult, but it is being true to herself. Anita Brookner's novels are short but they pack a powerful punch.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 05, 2011

Independence of Thought

The Power of One
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

"First with the head, then with the heart." 

I found this novel to be 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. 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 individual people alive. Some of the most memorable individuals are Peekay's mentors. Starting with his brief train ride from the horrific grammar school that he survives through stoic determination to his acclimation to the small town of Barberton and the German doctor who becomes his mentor there.  It is Doc who tells Peekay:
"Intelligence is a harder gift. For this you must work, you must practice it, challenge it, and maybe toward the end of your life you will master it. Cleverness is the shadow, whereas intelligence is the substance." 
The author is able 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. There are many lessons that Peekay learns as part of his education.  Among them is the importance of ideas and being true to one's self.
"Always in life an idea starts small, it is only a sapling idea, but the vines will come and they will try to choke your idea so it cannot grow and it will die and you will never know you had a big idea, an idea so big it could have grown thirty meters through the dark canopy of leaves and touched the face of the sky.' He looked at me and continued. 'The vines are people who are afraid of originality, of new thinking. Most people you encounter will be vines; when you are a young plant they are very dangerous.' His piercing blue eyes looked into mine.' Always listen to yourself, Peekay. It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life." 
The Power of One is one of the most inspirational and enlightening books I have read.
What is the Power of One?
"The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated. The mind is the athlete, the body is simply the means it uses to run faster or longer, jump higher, shoot straighter, kick better, swim harder, hit further, or box better." 

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Imagine the Infinite

Science Fiction: The Art of 'What if...?'

Yesterday I attended a lecture, entitled "Science Fiction: The Art of 'What if...?'", by Keith Cleveland, Instructor in the the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. I was drawn to the lecture both by the topic and the lecturer whom I have known and studied with over the past two decades. And I was not disappointed in the presentation in which the themes of ideas and imagination seemed most prominent.

Science Fiction as outlined in Keith's lecture finds its origins in the western mythology where Prometheus steals fire from the gods. Referencing this myth and the related story of Epimethius and his difficulties with Pandora's jar the lecture moved to the literary origins of modern science fiction which can be traced to the work of a teenage British author named Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her novel, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Noting the connection with earlier mythology in the title the lecturer brought forth the importance of developments in science by thinkers such as Bacon, Galileo, and above all Newton, as precursors if not catalysts for the development of modern science fiction.
This reminded me of the growth of scientific knowledge in the late 18th century as epitomized by the Lunar Society of Birmingham England. In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical. With a small band of allies they formed the Lunar Society of Birmingham (so called because it met at each full moon) and kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Blending science, art, and commerce, the Lunar Men built canals; launched balloons; named plants, gases, and minerals; changed the face of England and the china in its drawing rooms; and plotted to revolutionize its soul. Reaching beyond the scientists and artists the changes in science inspired writers and poets which leads us back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein.

In his lecture Keith suggested Science Fiction demonstrated an awareness of scientific technology; provided entertainment; and, explored the imagination through the exercise of the mind. Growing throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Science Fiction expanded into a recognized genre of literature that led to Clarke's Three Laws -- three "laws" of prediction formulated by the British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke. They are:
1.When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.*

Thus Science Fiction is the literary arena in which limitless imagination reigns supreme. But it is imagination that depends on and is fueled by the existence of scientists and scientific ideas. Citing Francis Bacon's notion of "Parabolic" fiction and, importantly, Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, as influential developments, Keith also emphasized the appearance of "science" as a field of knowledge separate from philosophy in 1833 was a necessary condition for the development of "science fiction".
The lecture concluded with remarks on the growth of science fiction and its relationship to culture, with special emphasis on the affinity of science fiction for American culture; a culture whose unique qualities were described well by Alexis de Tocqueville when he commented that:
"As [Americans] see that they manage to resolve unaided all the little difficulties that practical life presents, they easily conclude that everything in the world is explicable and that nothing exceeds the bound of intelligence." (Democracy in America, II.1.1)
The growth of Science Fiction has continued apace, in every country in the world where science is valued, studied and applied (which is most of the world). The lecture was brilliant in its explications and entertainments and left the audience with a wonder that mirrors the "What if...?" of Science Fiction.

*Source: "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination", in Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Labyrinth of Wit and Learning

The Anatomy of Melancholy
The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

"Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition, is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoick, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality… This Melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, a serious ailment, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed: and as it was long increasing, so, now being (pleasant or painful) grown to a habit, it will hardly be removed." (Pt I, 143)

This is a book that I view as a reference work in the sense that it can re read a bit at a time and turned to as if to reference a topic. The table of contents is maddeningly unspecific in its title, for example there is an eighty page section titled simply "A Digression of Remedies Against Discontents". However, there is a sufficiently detailed index to allow the reader some hope of finding more specific comments about "goblins' or "grasshoppers" or "green-sickness." The last of these refers to a symptom of "love-melancholy":
"The green-sickness therefore often happeneth to young women, a cachexia [Weight loss, wasting of muscle, loss of appetite, and general debility that can occur during a chronic disease] or an evil habit to men, besides ordinary sighs, complaints, and lamentations, which are too frequent." (Pt. III, 133)
I refer to it as the need arises whether due to my own melancholy or to a reference in another work. This is a massive creation of genius and a lifetime of thought. Much of the book consists of quotations from various ancient and mediæval medical authorities, beginning with Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Hence the Anatomy is filled with more or less pertinent references to the works of others. A competent Latinist, Burton also included a great deal of Latin poetry in the Anatomy, and many of his inclusions from ancient sources are left untranslated in the text.
Burton seemingly has collected everything written about melancholy and, combined with his own musings on the subject, has provided the reader an immense edifice - one with selections too numerous to catalog here - and one that still entertains and educates centuries later. It deserves my continuing devotion and meditation on its content and meaning.

View all my reviews