Sunday, July 27, 2014

Books Fade into the Ethernet

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore 
by Robin Sloan

“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this:

A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”   ― Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

The story begins with an unemployed young techie with an art school degree who spends his days browsing the web for want-ads, among other things, and reading--mostly the latter. He is Clay Jannon and his life is changed when he starts walking around his home base of San Francisco and happens upon a strange-looking bookstore with a sign in the window:
"HELP WANTED: Late Shift, Specific Requirements, Good Benefits"
The name of the bookstore is "Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore".
The adventure Clay begins when he decides to take that job is initially beyond his imagination.  It combines elements of fantasy, mystery, friendship and adventure as a way of looking at the modern conflict and transition between new technology (electronic) and old (print books).   It requires him to cooperate and sometimes scheme with new friends in pursuing elusive clues.  At the heart of the novel is the collision of that old-world handwork and the automated digital age.

The new technology is very Google-oriented as Clay, soon after becoming comfortable in his new job, meets a Google employee named Kat who impresses him with her programming ability. Clay is forbidden to open the books yet required to describe the borrowers in great detail to the owner, Alex Penumbra. Late-night boredom catalyzes his curiosity, and soon Clay discovers that the books are part of a vast code.  And it is not long before they are investigating the secrets of the strange bookstore. For it is strange in that it sells very few books and seems to exist for a mysterious society of book lovers who form a club that has access to private stacks in the back of the store. The secrets hidden in the books stretch back to the initial revolution in printing started by Gutenberg. It is this and other mysteries that create the suspense that sustains this lightweight but definitely interesting first novel.

Intertwined among the mysteries is Clay's love for an obscure fantasy novel by Clark Moffat called The Dragon-Song Chronicles. There is no way to say much more about the complicated plot without giving away too much of the enjoyment of discovering along with Clay the secrets behind the 24-Hour Bookstore.
This is an entertaining book that will appeal to both fantasy lovers and those who like mysteries. With its focus on the latest internet technology the story presents an interesting analogy between the printing revolution begun by Gutenberg and the digital revolution in books as it is being promoted by Google and other internet behemoths. 

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Twelve Century War

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War 
by Joe Haldeman

“The 1143-year-long war hand begun on false pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate.
Once they could talk, the first question was 'Why did you start this thing?' and the answer was 'Me?”   ― Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

The Forever War is an award-winning science fiction novel that many readers have enjoyed ever since its first publication forty years ago. Having finally read it I count myself among those who like the book, but I reserve placing it in my top ten SF novels. I found the story a bit slow on the uptake, however it did improve as the story moved on.

The protagonist, Private William Mandella, is about to embark on a journey that will traverse space and time, war and uneasy peace. By the denouement of his story, the reluctant soldier will have traveled over twelve centuries. That can be traumatic enough, but it is not the battles but it is the changes in society, mores, and norms that will be the most difficult barriers facing him. The Forever War portrays the emotional toll of time-travel effectively.
While light-years are handled by Haldeman he also explores a myriad of prospects of sexuality without any puritanism or lascivious behavior. Sex is presented as a part of the human existence, although you can question the logic of his predictions about  the direction that sexuality will take for mankind, and and we did just that during the discussion of our local Science Fiction book group, Chicago SF Irregulars and Friends. In my reading a more convincing portrayal of future sexuality was made by Anthony Burgess in his dystopian novel The Wanting Seed;  however, whether you find Haldeman's approach believable or not, it is treated as straightforwardly as he does every other aspect of the narrative. It can be a real eye-opening experience, depending upon the reader's background and views. It does not seem likely an “easy” surgery will be developed to change sexual orientation.

Haldeman's ability to develop characters is excellent starting with Private Mandella, who is a well-described, complex character. The reader comes to care deeply about the "hero," his beloved, and the loyal circle of friends who travel through the centuries together.
The Forever War's plot moves at a rapid pace that kept me reading as the centuries literally flew by. The story never forsakes humanity and the emotional facets of the situation in favor of action, explosions, and technology. And there is plenty of technology including fighting suits, light-speed space craft, time dilation, stargate portal planets, acceleration shells, human organ/limb regeneration, and psych-methods for officer training/indoctrination.
The book is very good science fiction, and in the top tier for many readers. Passing years have not weakened the impact or dated the material. The message presented regarding the futility of war resonates a society that has seen many wars in the years since it was written. I would recommend it to those readers who enjoy or wish to explore some classic science fiction.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Power of Education

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterêts, France. He adopted the last name "Dumas" from his grandmother, a former Haitian slave. Dumas was a prolific writer of essays, short stories and novels, as well as plays and travelogues. He achieved widespread success with the novels The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, initially published as serials. These novels made Dumas a household name in France and a popular author throughout much of Europe.

The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite novels since my early teens.  While it is a  romance novel, the qualities that appealed to me upon first reading, and to this day, are its historical detail set as it is in the midst of the Napoleonic era and the portrayal of justice and injustice.  Above all it is a tale of revenge and retribution that leads from historical detail to a world of magic,  fabulous treasure buried on a deserted island, of bandits and dark intrigue,  and of wizardry and splendors borrowed from the Arabian nights.  I have been enamored of superheroes and the fearless Monte Cristo was one of the first I encountered as he overcomes all the odds.  A master of disguise, he has the secret of all knowledge, immense physical strength, endless resourcefulness, and complete power to punish the wicked.  There are few heroes outside of comic books that rival The Count of Monte Cristo.  Writers as disparate as Swinburne and Thackeray were both enthralled reading the exploits of Dumas' famous count.  Above all Dumas was a great story teller and this is perhaps the main reason that he was popular throughout Europe in his day and his stories continue to appeal to readers and moviegoers (the recent, 2002, film version with Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes is splendid and captures the essence of the revenge story).

In addition to the above-listed qualities The Count of Monte Cristo is not just an exciting tale of adventure and revenge, not only an historical fiction. Edmond Dantes has been wrongfully accused, convicted, and imprisoned in the Chateau D'if, an infamous island prison.  His story is a psychological portrayal of obsession of the highest order and at the same time a paean to the value of education. The last item is the one I remember the most from my many readings of this magnificent tale of precipitous decline, betrayal and ultimate rise with vengeance at hand. It is the "plan of education" that Edmond Dantes completes under the tutelage of the elderly Abbe while imprisoned in the Chateau d'If that impresses me more than any other aspect of this tale. The Abbe tells him that "to learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other." Dantes enters upon a regimen of learning and swiftly begins to learn principles of mathematics and to understand several different languages. That he does use this knowledge in a way that belies the notion that he was gaining true wisdom seems to be the case, but the reader must traverse many hundreds of pages of exciting adventure before he can judge one way or the other. Whatever Dantes' eventual fate, the story that provides the exhilarating ride for the reader makes this a great book to read, and if your mind is like mine, to reread. 
The following brief section from the novel describes how the Abbe imparts his inestimable knowledge to Edmond.

"You must teach me a small part of what you know," said Dantes, "if only to prevent your growing weary of me. I can well believe that so learned a person as yourself would prefer absolute solitude to being tormented with the company of one as ignorant and uninformed as myself. If you will only agree to my request, I promise you never to mention another word about escaping." The abbe smiled. "Alas, my boy," said he, "human knowledge is confined within very narrow limits; and when I have taught you mathematics, physics, history, and the three or four modern languages with which I am acquainted, you will know as much as I do myself. Now, it will scarcely require two years for me to communicate to you the stock of learning I possess."

"Two years!" exclaimed Dantes; "do you really believe I can acquire all these things in so short a time?"
"Not their application, certainly, but their principles you may; to learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other."
"But cannot one learn philosophy?"
"Philosophy cannot be taught; it is the application of the sciences to truth; it is like the golden cloud in which the Messiah went up into heaven."
"Well, then," said Dantes, "What shall you teach me first? I am in a hurry to begin. I want to learn."
"Everything," said the abbe. And that very evening the prisoners sketched a plan of education, to be entered upon the following day. Dantes possessed a prodigious memory, combined with an astonishing quickness and readiness of conception; the mathematical turn of his mind rendered him apt at all kinds of calculation, while his naturally poetical feelings threw a light and pleasing veil over the dry reality of arithmetical computation, or the rigid severity of geometry. He already knew Italian, and had also picked up a little of the Romaic dialect during voyages to the East; and by the aid of these two languages he easily comprehended the construction of all the others, so that at the end of six months he began to speak Spanish, English, and German. In strict accordance with the promise made to the abbe, Dantes spoke no more of escape. Perhaps the delight his studies afforded him left no room for such thoughts; perhaps the recollection that he had pledged his word (on which his sense of honor was keen) kept him from referring in any way to the possibilities of flight. Days, even months, passed by unheeded in one rapid and instructive course. At the end of a year Dantes was a new man. Dantes observed, however, that Faria, in spite of the relief his society afforded, daily grew sadder; one thought seemed incessantly to harass and distract his mind. Sometimes he would fall into long reveries, sigh heavily and involuntarily, then suddenly rise, and, with folded arms, begin pacing the confined space of his dungeon. One day he stopped all at once, and exclaimed, "Ah, if there were no sentinel!" (from Chapter 17, "In the Abbes Cell",  of The Count of Monte Cristo)

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  Oxford University Press, 1990 (1845).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thoughts on Mass Movements

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass MovementsThe True Believer: 
Thoughts on the Nature of 
Mass Movements 
by Eric Hoffer

"This book deals with some of the peculiarities common to all mass movements, be they religious movements, social revolutions, or national movements. It does not maintain that all movements are identical, but that they share certain essential characteristics which give them a family likeness." (from the Introduction)

I have read this book several times over the years, starting the summer before I entered college. It is a classic in the sense that it both retains a freshness upon rereading and succeeds in challenging the reader with the thoughts that it presents. I use the word thoughts in the sense that Pascal wrote his own Pensees in the Seventeenth Century. Hoffer's observations on the nature of mass movements are still essential reading for anyone who desires to understand the nature of the twentieth century culture--and even the twenty-first. His short collection of thoughtful essays are divided into four parts: 1)the appeal of mass movements, 2) the potential converts, 3) Self-sacrifice and other unifying agents, and 4) a concluding summing up of some particular aspects of true believers and the movements to which they adhere.

Early in the book Hoffer identifies many true believers as those who seek "substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources." (p 13) They are people "who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worth-while purpose in self-advancement. The prospect of an individual career cannot stir them to a mighty effort, nor can it evoke in them faith and a single-minded dedication. They look on self-interest as on something tainted and evil; something unclean and unlucky. Anything undertaken under the auspices of the self seems to them foredoomed. Nothing that has its roots and reasons in the self can be noble and good. Their innermost craving is for a new life -- a rebirth -- or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause." (p 12)

The book continues with a focus on Hoffer's analysis of the means used to motivate true believers and bind them together. He concludes his analysis with a discussion of the energumen of those who join both good and bad mass movements. His prose style is at once aphoristic and thoughtful. It is distinguished by a depth that is demonstrated by the breadth of his personal reading and studies. There are references to the thoughts of thinkers as disparate as Epictetus, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Thoreau, Dostoevsky, and many more. His thoughts spurred my thinking more than forty years ago and rereading this short but challenging book continues to raise questions that help me better understand myself and the society around me. Eric Hoffer was a thinker whose writings in this and his several other books helped to shape my personal philosophy of life.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Astral Fate of Teenage Lovers

Romeo and JulietRomeo and Juliet 
by William Shakespeare

"Juliet: It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division.
This doth not so, for she divideth us.
Some say the lark and loathèd toad change eyes.
Oh, now I would they had changed voices too,
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day.
O, now be gone. More light and light it grows."
(Act 3, Scene 5, 27-35)

This was the first Shakespeare play that I read as a Freshman in a small town Wisconsin high school about fifty years ago (doesn't seem that long). Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written relatively early in his career by playwright William Shakespeare about two young lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. But upon rereading the play it seems that there is much more to it than this. Here are some lines from the chorus that opens the play:
"Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."
(The Prologue, 1-4)

So it seems that we also have a play about civil disorder and strife in the community of Verona. This disorder arose from "ancient grudge" but, as we find in the first scene of Act I, when a street fight breaks out between youths supporting the Capulets versus the Montagues (Verona's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys) we quickly face the strife that is contemporary to the story of the young lovers, though it is doubtful any of the youthful combatants are aware of the source of the "ancient grudge". It will take much more bloodshed before order is restored. The overall arc of this story is reminiscent of The Oresteia of Aeschylus where disorder from the blood feud within the House of Atreus was not ended until the founding of the rule of law by Athena.  But the chorus also tells of the lovers' plight:
"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife."
(The Prologue, 5-8)

These lines remind us that it is best known as a tragedy of a young "pair of star-crossed lovers" and was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers. While they must hide their love and later their marriage (although the later part happens relatively quickly) due to the civil strife their fates seem to be more astral in nature (remember the stars) and would have succumbed to an early death at any rate.

The play belongs to a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. Believed written between 1591 and 1595, the play was first published in a quarto version in 1597. While you might quibble, as I do, with the easy-going Friar's willingness to marry the young lovers, the play moves quickly and deftly due to Shakespeare's use of dramatic structure, especially effects such as switching between comedy and tragedy to heighten tension.  His expansion of minor characters (Mercutio has some particularly beautiful lines) and his use of sub-plots to embellish the story, has been praised as an early sign of his dramatic skill. The play ascribes different poetic forms to different characters, sometimes changing the form as the character develops. Romeo, for example, grows more adept at the sonnet over the course of the play. I believe because of both these aspects and the great use of language that is already present in early Shakespeare that it is a great place to start reading Shakespeare, especially for those who may have not had the opportunity to the early start that some of us, like myself, had in their own teenage years.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sympathy for Human Existence

The Theory of Moral SentimentsThe Theory of Moral Sentiments 
by Adam Smith

"what are the advantages which we propose by that great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition? To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency, and approbation, are all the advantages we can propose to derive from it." (p. 50)

Reading Adam Smith, like Hume or Gibbon, takes you into a century where the prose styles were more classical than today. I was fortunate to study Latin in high school, but Smith had Greek and Latin studies from an early age. His references to Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics and Cicero are central to his work. But his immediate predecessor was Francis Hutcheson of the University of Glasgow, who divided moral philosophy into four parts: Ethics and Virtue; Private rights and Natural liberty; Familial rights (called Economics); and State and Individual rights (called Politics). In contrast to Hutcheson, Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, divided moral systems into: 1) Categories of the nature of morality: These included Propriety, Prudence, and Benevolence; and 2) Categories of the motive of morality: These included Self-love, Reason, and Sentiment. Hutcheson had abandoned the psychological view of moral philosophy, claiming that motives were too fickle to be used as a basis for a philosophical system. Instead, he hypothesised a dedicated "sixth sense" to explain morality. This idea, to be taken up by David Hume (see Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature), claimed that man is pleased by utility.

Smith rejected his teacher's reliance on this special sense. Starting in about 1741, Smith set on the task of using Hume's experimental method (appealing to human experience) to replace the specific moral sense with a pluralistic approach to morality based on a multitude of psychological motives. Throughout the work the Smith demonstrates a superior ability to observe in detail the human experience. The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with the following assertion:
"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it."

Smith departed from the "moral sense" tradition of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Hume, as the principle of sympathy takes the place of that organ. "Sympathy" was the term Smith used for the feeling of these moral sentiments. It was the feeling with the passions of others. It operated through a logic of self projection, in which a spectator imaginatively reconstructed the experience of the person he watches. This process allows a person to build and maintain a sense of propriety which sense is of utmost importance for Smith's theory. Also important is the relevance of this book for Smith's more famous tome, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. P. J. O'Rourke has this to say about this connection:
"The Wealth of Nations was part of a larger enterprise in moral philosophy. The first installment of Adam Smith's great undertaking was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published 17 years before Wealth. Smith finished an extensive revision of Moral Sentiments the year before he died. He considered it his most important work. The book is not much read or referred to nowadays, but his theories in The Wealth of Nations cannot be understood without The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
"Smith devoted most of his career to the project of bettering human existence. A modern person_or a modern person who doesn't wear Birkenstocks_is tempted to laugh. It is a hilariously big job. But most of us have undertaken hilariously big jobs such as raising children. We were lured into the enterprise by the, so to speak, pleasures of conception. New beginnings are always fun. And the prospect of making wholesale improvements in ordinary life was as novel and fascinating in the 18th century as the prospect of making life simpler and less stressful and blocking e-mail spam are today." (P.J. O'Rourke, "Smith's Law,'" The Weekly Standard July 17, 2006).

Adam Smith's book was well-received and sold well. More importantly it influenced thinkers from political philosophers to literary stylists. Just read Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility) to get a flavor of Smith's influence. This is an important and original book to read for all who are interested in the development of the philosophy of the enlightenment.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Music Lessons

Poetics of Music in the Form of Six LessonsPoetics of Music 
in the Form of Six Lessons 
by Igor Stravinsky

"Art in the true sense is a way of fashioning works according to certain methods acquired either by apprenticeship or by inventiveness.  A methods are the straight and predetermined channels that insure the rightness of our operation." (p 25)

In his preface to this collection of lectures Darius Milhaud says, "Poetics of music is like a searchlight turned by Stravinsky on his own work on one hand, and on music in general on the other." This comment provides an excellent introduction to this short book. Given as part of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures, these compact essays provide an insight into the mind of one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
Half the book is concerned with music in general,focusing on the phenomenon of music, its composition, the various types of music and aspects of musical style. His argument regarding critics who ignore his own music is interesting as he looks back at earlier composers like Bach and Beethoven who suffered from similar disregard before being crowned as great masters.
Further commentary includes a more specific look at Russian music in particular and a discussion of the interpretation of music. These lectures by a great Russian master whose own style evolved significantly over his lifetime make great reading for all who love music.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Eros and the Bee

The Infinite Moment: Poems from Ancient GreekThe Infinite Moment: 
Poems from Ancient Greek 
translated by Sam Hamill

 Eros, playing among the roses,
didn't see the bee.
Stung, he howled,
he screamed to Aphrodite,

"I'm dying!  Mother!  I'm dying!
I was bitten by 
a snake with wings!"
And she kissed him and replied,

"It will pass.  It was only a bee,
my darling, but think
how long the suffering 
of all those who feel your sting."

The above poem by Anakreon, one of my favorites, is one included in this exceptionally beautiful collection of poems from Ancient Greece. The translator, Sam Hamill, has included poems from Sapphon, Alcaeus, Anakreon, and Paulus Silentiarius. In addition there is a selection of lyrical and love poems from several different sources ranging from Bacchykides and Likymnios to Meleager, Rufinus, and Marcus Argentarius. While the collection is small the poems invite the reader to delight in them again and again.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Missing the Moment

Further Notes on 
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
by Tom Stoppard

“Rosencrantz: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no... Death is...not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, no--what you've been is not on boats.” 

― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

As the Third and Final Act of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead opens the two courtiers are in "pitch darkness" with the sound of the sea in the background.  Once again they have a moment of Beckett-like dialogue.  Questioning their senses they parry back and forth about their own existence and knowledge of such, Guil says, "You can feel, can't you?", and Ros replies "Ah! There's life in me yet!" (p 97)  
With the further confirmation by Ros giving Guil a pinch they have settled in and soon realize they are on a ship.  On the ship (headed for England) they have a letter.  But once again there is some doubt and suddenly they are not sure that they have the letter.  Just when the confusion is at its height Guil says,  “This is all getting rather undisciplined. . . .  The boat, the night, the sense of isolation and uncertainty . . . all these induce a loosening of the concentration.  We must not lose control.  Tighten up.  Now.  Either you have lost the letter or you didn't have it to lose in the first place, in which case the King never gave it to you, in which case he gave it to me, in which case I would have put it into my inside top pocket, in which case (calmly producing the letter) . . .  it will be . . .  here.  (They smile at each other.)  We mustn't drop off like that again.” (p 107)

Unfortunately by that point they had “lost the tension”.  They had lost the tension that All humans have to keep on living, you see they,  Ros and Guil, have “travelled too far,” and their “momentum has taken over", and will carry them on to England and their death.  I mention this episode because it concludes the action that began early in the first act.  Action which has for the whole play been on the edge of reality beyond time.  For “Time has stopped dead,” as Guil pointed out in the first act. (p16)
The pair of courtiers are  also on the edge of reality in the same sense that the Tragedians are acting out roles.  They comment that you should  “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.”   The continuing interjection of the traveling actors led by their “Player” reminds the reader  of the similarity between the “actions” of Ros and Guil  and the pretense of the actors.  This also culminates in the final act of the play when the Tragedians emerge just after Ros and Guil receive their official notice of death.  The Player who leads the actors responds to Guil's plea of “Who are we?”
“Player:  You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  That's enough.
Guil:  No---it is not enough.  To be told so little—to such and end—and still, finally, to be denied an explanation----
Player:  In our experience, most things end in death.” (pp 122-23)
Guil proceeds to stab the Player with a knife, but the Player, after falling down feinting death, proceeds to get up and lecture them on the many different kinds of death offered by his troupe.

You see, this is merely a stage play, but is it any different than reality?  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize too late that “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said -- no.  But somehow we missed it."   Thus the play ends not only with their deaths but also with the deaths of Hamlet and the others from Shakespeare's original play, leaving the reader with the question whether it is merely fiction . . . drama for our entertainment . . . or is it real life?  

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Reading Life

How Reading Changed My LifeHow Reading Changed My Life 
by Anna Quindlen

“Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion. "Book love," Trollope called it. "It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live." Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort...reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung...”   ― Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

If I wrote this book it would be titled How Books Made My Life. I do not remember a time when I was not surrounded by books, visiting the library and reading books. Anna Quindlen, in a sense, lived a life made as well as "changed" by books. She shares the impact of books on her dreams and beliefs in delightful narrative vignettes of her experiences reading books. Early on she had her Tale of Two Cities and I had my Oliver Twist (I took it with me to read while I attended Summer Boy Scout Camp when I was thirteen).

I remember from my reading as a young boy feeling the same excitement she describes (p 21) becoming friends with strangers. Crusoe and Friday. Tom and Huck.  Jim Hawkins and David Balfour.  Pip and Jane Eyre. These and other literary characters remain friends to this day and to them I have added Daisy and Gatsby. Ishmael and Ahab. Marcel and Robert Saint-Loup. Achilles and Odysseus. There are also tragic characters whose experiences have enriched my life;  they include Jude and Tess, Oedipus and Antigone, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary.  And many others including searchers like Binx Bolling and Harry Haller. The characters have become friends and their adventures have become part of my reading life. In addition to her soothing prose Anna adds a few "arbitrary and capricious" suggestions for her fellow readers. These are also worth the price of the book. I believe every reader would find this book both infectious and inspiring.

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

Life and Nature of the Eskimo

by Gontran de Poncins

"Below us spread a wide land of forest sown with thousands and thousands of shining pools, an unfinished world from which the waters had still to recede, and where you would have said that no man lived. . . We did not drop down from time to time because life suddenly appeared below us, for wherever we looked no life was to be seen.  Yet wherever we stopped, life sprang up as if spontaneously generated by our coming;  and it died again when we rose as if we were carrying off the seed of life." (p 7)

Seldom have I encountered as extraordinary a book as Kabloona. It is a true example of sui generis writing and it is unlikely that anything quite like it will be written again. The author, Gontran de Poncins, spent a year traveling among the Eskimos in the Arctic. This book is the result, distilled from his diaries by Lewis Galantiere. Poncins took the perspective of the Eskimos, and as a result he, Kabloona (the White Man), took seriously what they did. The book is thus a unique combination of travelogue, memoir, and cultural study. It provides the reader with a unique picture into a society that in many ways had changed little since the stone age. It is a society that neither cultivates crops nor domesticates animals; living by the fruit of the sea for food and clothing.  The natural beauty and its essential nature are also explored by Poncins who observed:
"Strangest of all was the absence of color in this landscape.  The world of the North, when it was not brown was grey.  Snow, I discovered, is not white!" (p 56)

While the Eskimos called Poncins Kabloona, sometimes in derision, they proudly called themselves Inuit ("men, preeminently"). 
"I was to green to have any notion of Eskimo values.  Every instinct in me prompted resistance, impelled me to throw these men out [of my igloo], --to do things which would have been stupid  since they would have astonished my Eskimos fully as much as they might have angered them." (p 64)
Poncins eventually embraced their culture and thereby through sharing their lives and learning their culture he began to understand them. This is demonstrated over and over in the book as Poncins tells of his experiences with the Inuit against the background of the harsh nature of the Arctic.
"Everything about the Eskimo astonishes the white man, and everything about the white man is a subject of bewilderment for the Eskimo. Our least gesture seems to him pure madness, and our most casual and insignificant act may have incalculable results for him."

I was most impressed by the description of nature and the land as in this moment from Chapter Four:

"It goes without saying that this tundra is barren of vegetation.  No tree flourishes her, no bush is to be seen, the land is without pasture, without oases;  neither the camel nor the wild ass could survive here where man is able to live.  The Eskimo, preeminently a nomad and sea-hunter, is driven by the need to feed his family from point to point round an irregular circle, and it is the revolution of the seasons that directs his march." (p 77)

Much of what Poncins saw has disappeared over the decades since he visited the Eskimos. Their life, while still relatively unspoiled compared to most other societies is no longer one of a true Stone Age people. They live in shacks and seal oil is giving way to kerosene; even outboard motors may be seen. This remarkable book chronicles an earlier age of a people whose culture was an amazing anomaly in the twentieth century. The result is an exciting cultural and travel adventure told through a very personal narrative voice.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

Inexorable Theatricality

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are DeadRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead 
by Tom Stoppard

"Ros: What is your line?
Player:  Tragedy, sir.  Deaths and disclosures, universal and particular, denouements both unexpected and inexorable, transvestite melodrama on all levels including the suggestive.  We transport you into a world of intrigue and illusion . . .clowns, if you like, murderers--we can do you ghosts and battles, on the skirmish level, heroes, villains, tormented lovers--set pieces in the poetic vein;  we can do you rapiers or rape or both, by all means, faithless wives and ravished virgins--flagrante delicto at a price, but that comes under realism for which there are special terms.  Getting warm, am I?" (p 23)

Tom Stoppard has been writing plays for more than a half century. Some that I have had the opportunity to read or see in performance include Arcadia, Travesties, The Invention of Love, Night and Day,  and his great trilogy The Coast of Utopia.  But before all of these he burst onto the world theater scene with a dramatic masterpiece titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Both a tragicomedy and a parody of sorts, it focuses on the two courtiers, Ros & Guil (for short), whose existence we owe to William Shakespeare and his tragedy Hamlet. Stoppard's play exists behind the scenes of Shakespeare's play as we follow the two courtiers on their predicted way to death.

As the play opens we meet Ros and Guil in "a place without any visible character". Guil is tossing coins and Ros is calling heads, which is unusual only in that the coin keeps coming up heads and apparently has been for some time. This leads them to a brief discussion of the law averages and the law of diminishing returns. One wonders, they wonder, about the nature of reality and time. Has it "stopped dead"? Can they remember what just happened not too long ago. Guil asks:

"'What is the fist thing after all the things you've forgotten?'
Ros: Oh I see. (Pause.) I've forgotten the question.
Guil: Are you happy?
Ros: What?
Guil: Content? At ease?
Ros: I suppose so." (p 16-17)

Guil speculates that they must be operating under supernatural forces and proceeds to provide a lengthy scientific commentary that is as much designed to ward off fear as it is to convince Ros of Guil's point. But instead of reassuring Ros it leads into a discussion of death and what it is like to be dead. Guil's reassurance to Ros: "But you are not dead." is lost among their speculations. Their tenuous connection with reality is quickly established and with the imminent entrance of a group of theatrical players, "The Tragedians", this theme will be expanded through metaphor and wordplay to the point that the whole play appears as a dream, or more likely a nightmare ending in death.

The nature of their existence as characters reminds one of Godot's Vladimir and Estragon. Indeed, the absurdity of their condition and even some of their dialogue demands such comparison. Stoppard’s play goes beyond the hopelessness of Vladimir and Estragon’s absurd condition and provides much more comic entertainment. The two are shown whiling away their time on the fringes of the “major play”, whose echoes they are eager to absorb but whose significance remains enigmatic. Hence, despite all their efforts to “act”, when the crucial moment comes and it rests upon them to warn Hamlet, they fail. They thus fall short of having the text “rewritten” in their favor, and prepare their own untimely, yet (inter)textually predestined, deaths.
The theme of appearance versus reality is sustained by a profound metadramatic discussion on art versus real life. This begins with the entrance of the Tragedians and their playful invitation for Ros and Guil to be not only spectators but, if they are willing to pay a slightly higher price, participants in the performance of a tragedy--performed for their sole benefit. While they do not join the players the question of appearance versus reality which was suggested even earlier continues to vex the two courtiers. Throughout the play their are comic moments, usually redounding from word play. One moment was reminiscent of an Abbot and Costello routine with Ros and Guil going back and forth with confusion over "what" and "why" (p 68).

The play’s enormous theatricality is afforded by the playful handling of Hamlet as well as the abundant use of (comic) reasoning. We even find Guil mimicking Hamlet with the comment, "Words, words. They're all we have to go on."(p 41) But one wonders what value the words are when the existence of the characters is as fragile as it seems in this play. By foregrounding epistemological uncertainty as ethically relevant, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead announces one of the abiding preoccupations of Stoppard's own future writing. It also entertains the happy reader with a delightfully intellectually stimulating play.

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Thursday, July 03, 2014

French Noir

The Mad and the BadThe Mad and the Bad 
by Jean-Patrick Manchette

"It was ten in the morning when Julie and Peter arrived by taxi at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  The girl's anger was gently congealing in her mind.
'I've never been here before,' said Peter.
'You must have been.'
'No, never.  Marcelle used to take me to the Bois de Boulogne.'" (p 41)

Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942–1995) was a genre-redefining French crime novelist, screenwriter, critic, and translator. Born in Marseille to a family of relatively modest means, he grew up in a southwestern suburb of Paris, writing from an early age. While a student of English literature at the Sorbonne, he contributed articles to the newspaper "La Voie communiste" and became active in the national students’ union. In 1961 he married, and with his wife began translating American crime fiction—he would go on to translate the works of such writers as Donald Westlake and Ross Thomas,often for Gallimard’s Série noire. Throughout the 1960s Manchette supported himself with various jobs writing television scripts, screenplays, young-adult books, and film novelizations. In 1971 he published his first novel, a collaboration with Jean-Pierre Bastid, and embarked on his literary career in earnest, producing ten subsequent works over the course of the next two decades and establishing a new genre of French novel, the néo-polar (distinguished from traditional detective novel, or polar, by its political engagement and social radicalism).

His The Mad and the Bad, first published in 1972, has recently been translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and published by New York Review Books.  It is a taut crime thriller which opens as wealthy Parisian architect Michel Hartog springs Julie Ballanger from a New Age mental hospital and hires her to look after his nephew, Peter, a boy of six or seven whose parents died in a plane crash. Meanwhile, Thompson, a vicious hit man with a queasy stomach, eats choucroute after a particularly grisly job. Very soon Thompson is recruited by a mysterious client to kidnap Julie and Peter and kill them, making their deaths look like the work of the mentally unstable nanny. While the kidnapping takes place the wheels begin to go off their operation fairly soon as Julie and Peter escape, and are pursued across France by Thompson and his thugs. This noir thriller is particularly violent and graphic with a plot that takes place at a very high speed. Readers more familiar with France than I may better appreciate the landscape covered by the pair chased by the hired killers. Will Julie discover who hired Thompson in time to turn the tables, or will the nanny and her charge succumb to the seeming inevitable? With the addition of social criticism typical of the dissipated left-wing malaise of post-’68 France woven unobtrusively into the well-paced plot this book is entertaining for all but the squeamish.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Man and Art

Hermann Hesse

Today is the birthday of Herman Hesse who was born on this day in 1877 in the German Black Forest town of Calw. Beyond the evidence found in his novels, Hesse’s correspondence and biographical details reflect a chronic disquietude, punctuated by more acute troubles — for example, a suicide attempt while still a teenager.  As relief from writing and society, he took up painting; the following notes comment on two of his novels from the twenties when he was still developing his world view of man and art.

My two favorite of Hesse's novels remain Steppenwolf and Demian.  In some respects they are related, for example by the influence of Nietzsche and Jung.  It was in Demian that a "comparatively mild-mannered traditionalist at odds with the world became a thoroughly Nietzschean individualist, iconoclast, and moralist. . . This Nietzschean sentiment found its immediate expression in Demian: a novelesque depiction of Hesse's own emancipation from traditional belief and thought, and of the crystallization of his own ethos.  In his Sinclair, Hesse himself emerged the man of tomorrow. " (Mileck, Herman Hesse, p 92-3)  In his novel that followed, Steppenwolf, the story of Harry Haller is that of a man and art, and is told in the transcendent manner of symbol and concept.  What follows are some notes that I wrote about Steppenwolf four years ago.

What does it mean to be Human?
notes on Der Steppenwolf

Our task as human beings is this:
Within our own unique personal lives
To move one step further along the path
From animal to human being.
- Hermann Hesse, in “Thou Shalt Not Kill”

A work like Steppenwolf is iconic in its artistic significance. Being so makes it more difficult to discuss the book as I would other "good" reads. A novel of ideas, one that challenges my own conception of the world, it raises more questions than it answers. It draws upon the ideas of other thinkers, notable Goethe and Nietzsche and Jung, and presents those ideas in new ways - challenging even those with which the author may agree. This is what Hermann Hesse set out to do in writing Der Steppenwolf in 1927.

The novel presents a complex narrative that combines three different styles within its structure; a straightforward preface introducing the protagonist, Harry Haller, a "Treatise on the Steppenwolf" in the form of a pamphlet that Harry accepts and interprets as a study of his own life, and Harry's own narrative which moves into a dream sequence when Harry enters the "Magic Theater". We meet characters, both women and men, at least one of whom may be Harry's alter ego or "anima" in Jungian terms. We see a man who would separate himself from the Nietzschean herd and values individuality. Most of all we encounter a man facing not the "two souls" that dwell within his breast, as Goethe described Faust, but one who faces innumerable souls in a personality that seems to be breaking up into different persons. Through it all Harry looks up to artistic "Immortals" as representative of an ideal in the form of idealized visions of Goethe and Mozart. Especially Mozart who plays a critical role in Harry's dreams.

What can I take away from this work? As I said it raises questions and the thoughts and process of reviewing the way I approach the world is one thing that this novel provides. With all great - read transcendent - works of art I continue to find new layers of meaning as I read and reread their pages. One fundamental question, and I think this is central to all of Hesse's writings, is what does it mean to be human? The philosophers from Plato and Aristotle have tried to define this, but Hesse's Steppenwolf continues to present the question and explore original ways to find the answer.

Hermann Hesse: Life and Art by Joseph Mileck.  U of California Press, 1980 (1978).
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. Henry Holt & Company, New York. 1990 (1927).