Thursday, December 31, 2020

Poem for Today


Poetry for a Winter Day 

from The Collected Poems of  Conrad Aiken

Winter for a moment takes the mind; the snow

Falls past the arclight; icicles guard a wall;

The wind moans through a crack in the window;

A keen sparkle of frost is on the sill.

Only for a moment; as spring too might engage it,

With a single crocus in the loam, or a pair of birds;

Or summer with hot grass; or autumn with a yellow leaf.

Winter is there, outside, is here in me:

Drapes the planets with snow, deepens the ice on the moon,

Darkens the darkness that was already darkness.

The mind too has its snows, its slippery paths,

Walls bayonetted with ice, leaves ice-encased.

Here is the in-drawn room, to which you return

When the wind blows from Arcturus: here is the fire

At which you warm your hands and glaze your eyes;

The piano, on which you touch the cold treble;

Five notes like breaking icicles; and then silence.

The alarm-clock ticks, the pulse keeps time with it,

Night and the mind are full of sounds. I walk

From the fire-place, with its imaginary fire,

To the window, with its imaginary view.

Darkness, and snow ticking the window: silence,

And the knocking of chains on a motor-car, the tolling

Of a bronze bell, dedicated to Christ.

And then the uprush of angelic wings, the beating

Of wings demonic, from the abyss of the mind:

The darkness filled with a feathery whistling, wings

Numberless as the flakes of angelic snow,

The deep void swarming with wings and sound of wings,

The winnowing of chaos, the aliveness

Of depth and depth and depth dedicated to death.

Here are bickerings of the inconsequential,

The chatterings of the ridiculous, the iterations

Of the meaningless. Memory, like a juggler,

Tosses its colored balls into the light, and again

Receives them into darkness. Here is the absurd,

Grinning like an idiot, and the omnivorous quotidian,

Which will have its day. A handful of coins,

Tickets, items from the news, a soiled handerchief,

A letter to be answered, notice of a telephone call,

The petal of a flower in a volume of Shakespeare,

The program of a concert. The photograph, too,

Propped on the mantel, and beneath it a dry rosebud;

The laundry bill, matches, and ash-tray, Utamaro's

Pearl-fishers. And the rug, on which are still the crumbs

Of yesterday's feast. These are the void, the night,

And the angelic wings that make it sound.

What is the flower? It is not a sigh of color,

Suspiration of purple, sibilation of saffron,

Nor aureate exhalation from the tomb.

Yet it is these because you think of these,

An emanation of emanations, fragile

As light, or glisten, or gleam, or coruscation,

Creature of brightness, and as brightness brief.

What is the frost? It is not the sparkle of death,

The flash of time's wing, seeds of eternity;

Yet it is these because you think of these.

And you, because you think of these, are both

Frost and flower, the bright ambiguous syllable

Of which the meaning is both no and yes.

Here is the tragic, the distorting mirror

In which your gesture becomes grandiose;

Tears form and fall from your magnificent eyes,

The brow is noble, and the mouth is God's.

Here is the God who seeks his mother, Chaos, –

Confusion seeking solution, and life seeking death.

Here is the rose that woos the icicle; the icicle

That woos the rose. Here is the silence of silences

Which dreams of becoming a sound, and the sound

Which will perfect itself in silence. And all

These things are only the uprush from the void,

The wings angelic and demonic, the sound of the abyss

Dedicated to death. And this is you.

Stanza I from "Preludes for Memnon" by Conrad Aiken

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Annual Top Ten List

 Top Ten Books I Read In 2020

These are my favorite ten of the books I have read since January 1, 2020.  The listing  includes classics, fiction, non-fiction, and critical essays.  It was a very rich year for reading and there were others that could have made my list if I were to expand it.  Of those good books that I read these are the ten that I felt will stay with me over the years; in fact a couple of them were rereads.  There is no particular order to the list and  I highly recommend all of the following:

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: 

An Experiment in Literary Investigation

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

What kind of a book is The Gulag Archipelago? While it is encyclopedic in its breadth it also demonstrates the characteristics of autobiography, history, and the epic while using a novelistic literary style – and what else? A personal report on Twentieth Century Russia.

History of the Peloponnesian War

by Thucydides

The first history in the modern sense (apologies to Herodotus who invented the genre). Thucydides, and Athenian general, wrote this history of the Peloponnesian Wars; admirable in its objectivity in discussing contemporary events, in its direct and descriptive style, and the author's grasp of cause and effect.

Wise Blood

by Flannery O'Connor

Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s astonishing and haunting first novel, is a classic of twentieth-century literature. It is a story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate faith. He falls under the spell of a "blind" street preacher named Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Lily Sabbath.


by Fyodor Dostoevsky

What is a “true” Russian? Why is “the real truth” always implausible. Is belief only ironic or is it real or both? These are just a few of the questions dealt with by Dostoevsky in Demons, his great novel that is predecessor to The Brothers Karamazov.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

by Olga Tokarczuk

In a remote Polish village, Janina devotes the dark winter days to studying astrology, translating the poetry of William Blake, and taking care of the summer homes of wealthy Warsaw residents. Her reputation as a crank and a recluse is amplified by her not-so-secret preference for the company of animals over humans.

The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans

by Plutarch

Plutarch's Parallel Lives is a series of biographies, arranged in pairs illuminating virtues & vices. Surviving Lives contain 23 pairs, each with a Greek & a Roman Life, & 4 unpaired Lives. As explained in the opening of his Life of Alexander, he wasn't concerned with history so much as the influence of character on life & destiny. 

Blood Meridian 

or The Evening Redness in the West

by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy's prose has the character of the landscape it describes: Harsh and pure, as if it had been sculpted by wind and sand, like a naturally occurring phenomenon. In Blood Meridian McCarthy uses it to spin a yarn of gothic violence.

The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

by Carl Jung

What kind of a book is this? I considered several categories from spiritual to supernatural, but decided that it was a sort of mythology of human archetypes and the psyche. It includes essays which state the fundamentals of Jung's psychological system: On the Psychology of the Unconscious and The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious.


by Paul Harding

George Washington Crosby died. That, in summary, is the plot of this short novel, but within that death there is told a story of a life, a family, and a world made interesting through the beautiful prose of Paul Harding. The book could have been called As I Lay Dying, but that title has already been used; it could have been called Clocks, or Timepieces, for that is one motif that recurs again and again in the story of George and his family, especially his father.

Washington Black

by Esi Edugyan

The story of George Washington Black is one of the odyssey of a young boy through his growth to manhood. In this case the young boy is a slave on a plantation in Barbados. Born on that plantation and raised by his mother Big Kitt, young Wash, as he is called, is presented with a unique opportunity when Christopher Wilde, the brother of the Master of the Plantation, chooses Wash to be his assistant in his ventures exploring the natural world.

Other books from the past year that almost made the list included: Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor, Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, The History by Herodotus, and Degrees of Difficulty by Julie E. Justicz.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Quote for Today

 I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.

- H.L. Mencken

Saturday, December 19, 2020

An Intelligent Woman

The Puttermesser Papers
The Puttermesser Papers 

“She was an attachment trailing along - an impediment - but it seemed to Puttermesser there was another purpose to this clumsy caravan. A kind of mental heat ran through the rod that linked them. He had decided to clip the two of them together for a little time. She understood that she had happened on an original. A mimic with a philosophy! A philosophy that denied mimicry! And he wasn't mistaken, he wasn't a lunatic. He was, just as he said, someone with a new idea.”  ―  Cynthia Ozick

While The Puttermesser Papers is considered a novel, it could also be considered a collection of short stories, as each of the five "chapters" were published previously in various magazines before being brought together in the form of a single novel. What could have been a straightforward biographical novel becomes, as Ozick creates a complex, many-layered tale, a fantastic exploration both of literary genres and of a single woman’s life in late 20th-century New York. Because this one fundamental “fact” is challenged, the reader realizes they cannot take any single item at face value.

The story chronicles the life of the imaginary Ruth Puttermesser, through her adult life and into her death and afterlife. She is an intelligent Jewish woman who lives in New York City. Ruth grew up in the Bronx, New York, in a Jewish family. Ruth was a very smart, bookish girl who apparently became interested in the law through studying Hebrew with her uncle—or so the reader thinks, until another voice intrudes into the narrative to tell the reader that Ruth never knew this uncle.

Each chapter chronicles the fulfillment of a desire, whether on earth or in Paradise, but each seems in the end to bring new pain. In one chapter the book takes on the quality of a traditional Jewish fable when Ruth, in her sleep, creates a golem. 
In another her interest in 19th-century novelist George Eliot turns into an obsession; moreover, the salient part of that obsession is imagining that she will find her perfect soulmate, as Eliot had in George Lewes. But the golem and soul mates betray our Puttermesser. Edenic love fades away. 

Ruth Puttermesser embodies several themes.  She is an apparently successful, single career woman who decides she needs more in her life than her work as an attorney can provide.  In an attempt to balance the romantic and the pragmatic aspects of life Ruth veers over to the romantic, and even fantastic, side.  Ruth believes that one obstacle to finding true love is the shallowness of the New York social milieu in which she travels. The beauty of the prose and the challenges facing the heroine merge to maintain the reader's interest.  Cynthia Ozick's prose style displays an intelligent writer who is fun to read.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Love is Like a Test

Stay with Me
Stay with Me 

“So love is like a test, but in what sense? To what end? Who was carrying out the test? But I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us and reveal to us the better versions of ourselves.”  ― Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, Stay with Me

When I was very young and just beginning
to read some of my favorite stories were fairy tales, mostly from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I mention this because at two points in this novel by the Nigerian author, Ayobami Adebayo, there are tales told by two of the characters that are important to the story as a whole; in a sense connecting two halves of the novel.

Told in the first person by Yejide and Akin (they narrate separate chapters, a choice that provides insight into their differing views of many situations), a married couple living in Nigeria, the novel explores their marriage and family relationships in a culture that seems very different from that in which I was raised (although the presence of the Anglican Church does provide one familiar institution while leading to a bit of cognitive dissonance when set beside the acceptability of polygamy in their culture). The two marriage partners are very much in love with one another. Yejide's mother is dead and her father’s other wives do not regard her with affection. Meeting Akin changes her life and she becomes happier as she is courted and marries him. In spite of trying for some time the couple fail to conceive a child, and Akin is forced into marrying another girl named Funmi to continue his bloodline. A major theme is the pressure to have children, primarily emanating from Moomi, Akin's mother. Above all, however, there are the different views of marriage and love that are held by Yejide and Akin, but also by the other family members.

Stay With Me presents the emotional trauma of the characters while, subtly in the background, there is political unrest in the country (most of the story takes place in the last two decades of the twentieth century when Nigeria was roiled with civil unrest under the leadership of a military junta). However, ever present is the expectation of having offspring. For Akin this seems to be the only way in which he will be accepted as a man by the society. Major themes include the experience of being childless, the guilt of not fulfilling societal obligations and the psychological impact of not getting pregnant; these are complicated by the deaths of two of Yejide's children. Through it all, the author also presents the question of the society’s expectation of a man. The husband, Akin, is under pressure to provide babies and he makes choices that raise questions about the nature and importance of the members of his extended family. Funmi, while acceptable in a culture that approves of polygamy, can still be seen as a shadowy figure whose very presence is disruptive from Yejide's point of view. One of the best parts of the novel was the relationship between Akin and his brother Dotun. Their difficulties and the impact on Yejide provided some of the best moments in the story.

Overall, Stay With Me was a moving and thought-provoking look at the challenges of married life and family relationships. The presence of cultural differences between generations added to the realism and beauty of the novel. I enjoyed the way that the author was able to balance disappointment with joy leading to a satisfying ending.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Message of the Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: 
An Experiment in Literary Investigation 

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

What kind of a book is The Gulag Archipelago? While it is encyclopedic in its breadth it also demonstrates the characteristics of autobiography, history, and the epic while using a novelistic literary style – and what else? In a certain sense Solzhenitsyn’s writings may be classified in many ways. The Gulag Archipelago is important for its relationship with each type of work the author has undertaken, and thus it should be considered as central to his literary endeavors. 

The abridged version is divided into Seven “Parts” (The original was three separate volumes of more than a thousand pages in total). There are many events, issues, and ideas covered in the book. Here I only mention selected topics, while there are many more that could be noted. He opens with “And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.” (p 3) Somehow I was reminded of Kafka's The Trial.

The selection process was political but there was a sort of classification process – noting such issues as quotas, the bureaucratic inconsistencies, propagandists, and the war against the bourgeoisie. He discussed the nature of Interrogations: including the inquisition, investigation, and psychological torture/games. And in most cases one could not be prepared for the departure:
“So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?” (p 63)

The were the guards - the “Blue Caps” - which reminded me of “The Guardians” from Plato's The Republic. And there was a reference to Socrates: “Socrates taught us: Know thyself! Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.” (p 75)

Somehow it was possible for Solzhenitsyn to develop thoughts that prison “was not an abyss for me” and how it was a turning point in his life. In every person and place one would encounter Orwellian moments like trying to discern the difference between a "sentence" and "an imposed administrative penalty." From time to time the author would talk directly to the “compassionate reader”. These comments, usually personal notes, were not really significantly different than the rest of the text. The voice of the author was often personal and while the text as a whole read like history, it could have been some other type of literature?

Forgetting and remembering: “We forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering.” (p 120) There was Stalin and the Show Trials: “Even if Stalin had killed no others, I believe he deserved to be drawn and quartered just for the lives of those six Tsarskoye Selo peasants! . . . 'The peoples of all the world remember him as a friend.' But not those on whose backs he rode, whom he slashed with his knout.” (p 132)

He wondered - does the person behind bars have a soul, or is it hidden or purged by the rigors of confinement? And yet the catalog continued: The Ports: “this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket,” (p 161)
The Caravans: “the red trains can go into emptiness: and wherever one does go, there immediately rises right next to it, out of the sea of the steppe or the sea of the taiga, a new island of the Archipelago.” (p 167)

The camps were like a malignant cancer, spreading across the steppes, forming an “Archipelago”. Yet, the story of the camps was hidden. How was that possible – and who was complicit in hiding? This was a conundrum. The Archipelago “metastasizes”, it “hardens”. And there was a comparison to Serfdom: “And we agree with that: there are more differences. But what is surprising that all the differences are to the credit of serfdom!” (p 216)

What was worse? The monotony or the deadly daily struggle and the life of work without end. Then there were the “dogs”, the “camp keepers” where he provided insight into the camp bureaucracy. Even satire appears in the book. The discussion of the profitability of the camps was one such topic; also I was moved by a comment about the beauty of the lack of meetings.
One Dostoevsky reference was fascinating: “Our teachers, who had never served time themselves, felt for prisoners only the natural sympathy of the outsider. Dostoyevsky, however, who served time himself, was a proponent of punishment! And this is something worth thinking about.” (p 304)

Yet Solzhenitsyn would go on to discuss the nature of katorga, penal servitude – as if they needed special camps for the “traitors”. Ultimately there was release, but did it have any meaning? “But there is a curse on those “released” under the joyless sky of the Archipelago, and as they move into freedom the clouds will grow darker.” (p 444)

There was even some political history when he described the connections between the camps and the changes in the political regimes from Lenin and Stalin to Beria and Khrushchev. “Nikita had only just allowed the screws of his very own system to be turned no less tight. . . Rulers change, the Archipelago remains.” (p 457)

Monday, November 16, 2020

A New Land

The Secret River
The Secret River 

“This place had been here long before him. It would go on sighing and breathing and being itself after he had gone, the land lapping on and on, watching, waiting, getting on with its own life.”   ― Kate Grenville, The Secret River

On the last day of the previous century I was concerned as to what might happen when the new century began. There were warnings that computer systems might fail and "Y2K" plans had been underway for months to deal with this issue. As I started to work on that day, I turned on my computer and pulled up the website for Sydney, Australia, which booming city was already celebrating the new century with fireworks. All was well as I returned to my work in Chicago. 

I note this episode because the Sydney in Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it is a city of ramshackle buildings and tents, more like our old west than the metropolis it has since become. “It was a sad scrabbling place, this town of Sydney.” (p 75) This contrast highlights the changes that were started in large part by the prisoners, like William Thornhill and his family, who were exiled to Australia and formed the beginnings of that country.

Sent to Australia because he tried to steal from his boss in London, William Thornhill became one of the first settlers in the Australian wilderness. The novel describes the conflict between the earliest settlers of the country and the natives of Australia as they clashed for ownership of the land. Themes include ownership, racism, social class and hope.

Thornhill grew up poor in London but dreamed of a better future. He thought he was on his way to this better future when Mr. Middleton took him on as an apprentice as a waterman. He completed his apprenticeship successfully and married Sarah “Sal” Middleton, his childhood sweetheart. His father-in-law gave Thornhill his own boat as a wedding gift. Things were going well for the new couple until both Mr. and Mrs. Middleton got sick and died. Their care used up all of the money the two had in savings. Their property, including the boat Mr. Middleton had given Thornhill, had to be sold to pay their remaining debts. As a result Thornhill had to go back to working for others and was unable to make a living for his family. He was caught stealing in an attempt to feed his family and was sentenced to death by hanging.

Thornhill received a pardon for his crime and was allowed to go to Australia to serve his sentence. The place was described as something “out of a dream, a fierce landscape of chasms and glowering cliffs and a vast unpredictable sky.” After one year of service with his wife as an overseer, Thornhill earned his ticket of leave allowing him to work for whoever he wanted. He eventually partnered up with Thomas Blackwood an old friend from London who transported crops and supplies to and from the settlers along the Hawkesbury River. Thornhill fell in love with a piece of property he saw along the river during his first trip. He convinced Sal they could earn enough money to return to England if they claimed a plot of land and farmed it. Eventually, though, Thornhill “saw what he had never seen before: that there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London.” (p 175) With this came the sad realization that he could not share this feeling with his wife who continued to dream of their eventual return.

Once they were on the land in the wilderness, the Thornhills were regularly threatened by the natives who once had freely roamed the land. Although other settlers abused and even killed the natives, Thornhill just wanted to be left alone. Even though he wasn’t purposefully cruel to the natives, they came and stole most of his corn one day. After he and his workers ran them off, they returned that night and set fire to what was left. The author portrays the differences between the aborigines and the settlers in a way that reminded me of the contrast between the image of Rousseau's natural man and the Weberian concept of the Protestant work ethic. The two views of life did not mix well at all.

When he was asked to assist a group of men going to ambush a camp of natives Thornhill agreed to go along and help. He knew his life would never be the same after he stooped to the level where he would help kill other human beings. After the natives were cleared from the area Thornhill and his family became successful on their land in Australia. They became the gentry they’d always dreamed of being in London. Even with his prosperity, Thornhill still used his telescope to scan the woods looking for the natives that once called that land their home.

The book conveys the emotions of those transported to New South Wales with a sensitivity that is transcendent. As they determine to make their place livable Thornhill thinks: “How had his life funnelled down to this corner, in which he had so little choice?” But, in this new land, he did have a choice and in choosing to defend his land and live he and his family became one of the founders of a new country.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020




Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late;
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
(Epilogue to Beaumont and Fletcher's Honest Man's Fortune.)

Emerson urges his readers to follow their individual will instead of conforming to social expectations.
This requires belief in your own thought in decision-making and identification of the truth, for your truth is the truth for all. This means thinking for yourself and trusting your own thoughts. You should realize that imitation is false. You have no obligation to others except for those with whom you have a "spiritual affinity". Conformity in a few particulars is the same as in all - to be self-reliant requires non-conformity.

Emerson draws on examples of historical geniuses—such as Plato and Milton—in arguing for the importance of individualism.
The great thinkers of the ages thought for themselves. For each individual there is no need to fear consistency unless it is a foolish consistency - trust your own emotion. This includes obedience to "the eternal law" namely, be yourself.

Emerson posits the effects of self-reliance: altering religious practices, encouraging Americans to stay at home rather than looking toward Europe and the old world and developing their own culture -  focusing on individual rather than societal progress.

This means living life for yourself, focusing on what concerns you and not others. One should remember the value of maintaining solitude for oneself even when in the midst of a crowd. It is being genuine in your actions for then they will not require any explanation. The essence of virtue and the life of spontaneity is found in your intuition. The emphasis is on the importance of going alone - in a spiritual sense – and in relying on one's own soul. Trusting one's own self is difficult, but necessary to avoid the failings of ordinary society.

Concluding he observes the necessity of an American culture of self-reliance. Noting that “Contemplation of life from the highest view” and rejection of regret is the essence of prayer.

Monday, October 26, 2020

A Tale of Miracles

Peace Like a River
Peace Like a River 

“Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave - now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.”  ― Leif Enger, Peace Like a River

Once upon a time
there was a young boy who was born with asthma. That is, he  almost died, as his birth was something like a miracle; maybe it was one. Thus the story of Reuben Land, as narrated by himself, begins. His story and that of his family is one filled with miracles and stories within the story. It is both the story of the rite of passage of the young boy and his journey from young life through adventures that are in many ways as magical as a fairy tale.

Peace Like a River is a strange but pleasing book, containing echoes of the picaresque novel and the archetypal quest, with passing references to Homer, the Bible, and historical figures of the American West. The author immediately establishes a winning voice for his eleven-year-old narrator, Reuben Land, which alternates with the adult Reuben’s omniscient but equally relaxed voice. He is a perceptive character, although admittedly self-critical, “beyond my depth and knowing it, yet unable to shut up.” He reminded me of one of my favorite literary narrators, David Copperfield.

To begin with, Reuben was born “a little clay boy” with ominously swampy lungs, unable to draw breath until his father, Jeremiah, rushed into the hospital room and commanded him to breathe. Even though the infant was without oxygen for twelve minutes, he miraculously suffered no brain damage; but his lungs remain weak into adolescence. Ironically, while Reuben has watched his father walk on air and heal a man’s raw face with a single touch, his own asthma remains uncured. Jeremiah can only steam him with salt and baking soda or thump his back to loosen the congestion. Reuben fully believes he has survived such an inauspicious beginning in order to bear witness to his father’s unexplainable miracles, since “no miracle happens without a witness.” He does not use the word “miracle” lightly, for real miracles bother people. He is never certain whether his father prays for miracles or whether they just happen. 

His father works as a school janitor in the small town of Roofing, Minnesota, and is plagued by frequent headaches. A mild man of conscience, he reads his Bible daily, silently, and without ostentation. A man of prayer and intense conversation with God, he at one point literally wrestles with the Almighty. Davy, Jeremiah’s older son, is in some respects already an adult at sixteen, but unfortunately he is hot-tempered and unlike his father, he prefers to act rather than wait. He is very protective of their little sister, known only as Swede, a precocious and endearing young girl. She is a widely read and literate child but blunt with the artlessness of childhood. A passionate fan of Western novels, Swede is in love with the legendary Old West. Her real-life hero is the young Teddy Roosevelt, who ranched in North Dakota before becoming president. Reuben, too, admires and envies Roosevelt for his triumph over asthma.

Two young thugs attack Swede and later provoke Davy, and when they break into his home with a baseball bat, Davy shoots them both. Although he is arrested and jailed for murder, he refuses to plead self-defense, insisting that he intended to shoot. Reacting to the scandal, the school superintendent decides to “scour that janitor’s teeth” by first humiliating Jeremiah and then publicly firing him in in front of a lunchroom full of children. At Davy’s trial, a reluctant Reuben testifies as an eyewitness to the shootings until, carried away by self-importance, he unintentionally strengthens the case against his brother. There is little hope that the jury will release Davy, who promptly breaks out of jail, escaping with a horse and a revolver. No one knows where he has gone.

On Christmas Eve they receive a mixed blessing—word that an acquaintance has died, bequeathing his brand new Airstream trailer to Jeremiah. After a friend in North Dakota reports that Davy has been seen, the Lands determine to find him. The rest of the story becomes a modern odyssey. They tow the shiny Airstream trailer with their old station wagon and the novel expands its mythic dimensions. A detective follows them across the Great Plains in bitter winter weather to a small city park, where a severe headache forces Jeremiah to camp overnight. . Well into the Badlands, a notorious area of bleak buttes and mesas in the western part of the state, they come to a farmhouse with two gasoline pumps in front and a propane tank. The self-reliant owner, Roxanna Cawley, greets them with a newborn goat in her arms. Earth mother and impressive cook, she soon offers them a place to stay the night. As it turns out Davy is holed up with another fugitive, Jape Waltzer, not too far away. The denouement of the story, however, yields some twists that were surprising for this reader.

Enger’s vivid imagery is an attractive feature of Peace Like a River. There are also Reuben's dreams and mythic legends. The book describes some of literature’ s most accurate and claustrophobic descriptions of severe asthma. As Reuben explains, “Sometimes when the breathing goes it goes like that—like smoke filling a closet. . . Your breaths are sips, couldn’t blow out the candle on a baby’s cake.” In lyrical passages, Enger evokes autumn and winter on the Great Plains (“skies so cold frost paisleyed the gunbarrels”). Here the land itself is always a presence, a sharp reminder of a power far beyond human limitations—immense sky, sweeping prairie, the cold, clean Dakota wind—even the boundless desolation of the fabled Badlands, where the ground is eternally on fire.

One might be tempted to allegorize this novel, for it could easily slide into abstraction: Jeremiah as the good Christian, a saint; Davy as the archetypal rebel, beloved even as he sins; the fugitive Jape Waltzer, who is always accompanied by the odor of sulfur, as the Devil. To limit the book in this way would be doing it a disservice, for its very human characters are beautifully drawn. While there are many motifs in Leif Enger's Peace like a River, three of them are consistent, unmistakable, and connected. The first motif is breathing, and the other two—miracles and dreams—At its center it revolves around the nature and power of love—divine, human, and brotherly love, perfect and imperfect—the love that binds this small family together.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Enchanting Poetry

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments
Stung with Love: 
Poems and Fragments 

“Some call ships, infantry or horsemen
The greatest beauty earth can offer;
I say it is whatever a person
Most lusts after."

While the title of this collection highlights the erotic attitude of the poems of Sappho, there is a wonderful fragment of a poem entitled "Troy" that presents a mythic narrative. In doing so she veers away from the emphasis of the Homeric epic and focuses on a conventionally 'feminine' theme, a wedding scene. She elevates the wedding to epic magnitude, all the while featuring excellence rather than the morality of good and evil.

Other poems and fragments present themes of goddesses, desire, girls and their family, and marriage. The result in an excellent translation is a delightful selection. Here is a typical quatrain:

Untainted Graces
With wrists like roses,
Please come close,
You daughters of Zeus.

Sappho lived in a time of transition for Greece, after the Homeric era but before the more famous Golden Age of Athens. I, like others, find her language enchanting, and the gathering of poems and fragments by subject lends an order to this collection. Her passion shines through both the millennia and the translation to charm the reader while leaving a bit of sadness that we do not have more of her oeuvre.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Framework of Literature

The Educated ImaginationThe Educated Imagination 
by Northrop Frye

“I feel separated and cut off from the world around me, but occasionally I've felt that it was really a part of me, and I hope I'll have that feeling again, and that next time it won't go away. That's a dim, misty outline of the story that's told so often, of how man once lived in a golden age or a garden of Eden or the Hesperides ... how that world was lost, and how we some day may be able to get it back again. ... This story of the loss and regaining of identity is, I think, the framework of all literature.”   ― Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

A Philosophical Mystery

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the DeadDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead 
by Olga Tokarczuk

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we're living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what's good and what isn't, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves... And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”  ― Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The title comes from William Blake’s Proverb’s of Hell. It’s a philosophical novel masquerading as a kind of mystery – although it is much more than that.

Because there are so many ideas and themes in the novel, at least for those with a philosophical bent, it became endlessly readable. From the first page we are presented with an examination of the process of aging, astrology references and readings, the impact of drugs - natural and otherwise, and omens - both ill and good. The psychology of madness and losing one's consciousness is explored along with the poetry of William Blake (further shades of madness). But above all there is nature and a lonely cold climate filled with many animals and few humans. It is the isolation of the cold climate that comes to the fore as the story begins, and the wonderful narrative voice of Janina Dusejko, whose story is one of a nonconformist whose metaphors are a delight and whose imagination makes this story one that seems almost dream-like at times.

The story is portrayed as a mystery and there is a dead body almost before you are out of the starting gate, yet it is nothing like any mystery I have ever read. It appears to be a character study of its quite quirky narrator who valiantly tries to convince the police that all four deaths are the result of animals taking revenge against hunters. However I believe it is about the mystery of life.

"But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful . . . Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? Whose intellect can have the audacity to judge who is better, and who is worse?"(p 248)

The lack of detailed investigations and the absence of a plucky detective putting the pieces together is another of the book’s oddities. In doing this it redirects the focus from the typical concern for justice and human lives, and instead allows Janina to unfurl her life story—as an engineer of bridges turned schoolteacher turned caretaker of summer houses, vegetarian, astrologist, co-translator of Blake’s poetry, and devoted animal lover—and her dislike for hunters of all stripes, especially one particular group of poachers, whose connections to the local law enforcement and politicians takes on a conspiratorial air.

A great believer in the power of the planetary configurations on human life, Janina spends her free time with an Ephemeride drawing up cosmograms of people she knows and trying to lend credence to her theories about the influence of stars on human life. She believes order in events are determined by stars. “The stars and planets establish it, while the sky is the template that sets the pattern of our lives."

Janina is also a great lover of Blake’s poems and helps her former student Dizzy, who now works part time as an IT specialist for the police department, in the translation of Blake’s poems. An ardent believer in the rights of animals, she periodically writes letters of protest to all concerned departments to draw their attention to the illegal poaching and hunting of animals that take place in the region. She firmly believes that “Animals show the truth about a country. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going help them, in fact nothing will at all.”  But unfortunately her letters go unanswered and her personal visits to the City Guard’s office turn out to be equally futile. After all, who would take the apparent ramblings of a quirky old lady seriously? But Janina believes that one day the animals will take revenge, because contra humans, animals have a keen sense of justice and an excellent sense of the world.

When there is a spate of mysterious deaths in the valley, all the dead people have a history of hunting or poaching animals and in all the deaths there are signs of animals present in the vicinity. Janina conjectures that the animals are taking their revenge from the humans who harmed them. The police department scorns at her theory but, undeterred,  she works on the cosmograms of the victims and concludes that for each death there is significant astrological proof that points to the involvement of animals. She calls it her “project without funding from the European Union. A kitchen-table project."

All her efforts to present her hypothesis to the police go in vain and she is slotted as just an old eccentric. The police chalk up the murders to internal conflicts between corrupt people. Dejected, Janina concludes that "people are only capable of understanding what they invent for themselves. The idea of a conspiracy among people from the provincial authorities, corrupt and demoralized, fitted the sort of story the television and the newspapers reveled in reporting." Neither of them are interested in animals, unless a Tiger escapes from the zoo. But after three more deaths when the president of the Mushroom pickers society is found dead under mysterious circumstances, his body covered with a unique species of flat bark beetle, the police finally start paying attention to Janina. 

Under the garb of a mystery novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a combination of philosophical and astrological commentary on the current state of human society. This commentary underlines the battle between free will and determinism as humans are caught in the nets of the great cosmic scheme. There is even a moment when a writer comes to visit and I could not help but speculate that the author had, anonymously, inserted herself into the story. Janina comments, "If I hadn't known her so well, I'm sure I would have read her books. But as I did know her, I was afraid to open them." (p 51)

Ultimately a unique and brilliant novel, one that questions the importance of man in nature and the nature of man. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk is a book I heartily recommend to all.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Personal Notes

 Three Blocks from the Harbor

Today's post will be a little different. While I have sometimes posted comments on ancillary reading activities, this entry will be personal notes from my post as unofficial Bibliophile of the Belmont Harbor neighborhood in Chicago. The pandemic has taken a bit of a toll on my lifestyle, but fortunately I have not succumbed to the Covid virus (or any other virus or disease).  

Reading is certainly a comfort, more than ever, and while it may not be apparent from the quantity of entries on my blog I am reading more than ever. Zooming is another pastime that has become de rigueur for my schedule. Over the course of a month I average at least two zoom sessions per week between book discussions, the Great Connections discussions, my Online Great Books session and a monthly Henderson family get together among my first cousins. 

In the past two months, as the quarantine has eased a bit I have gone out to lunch (outdoors mostly) with friends about once per week. This is done behind the safety of a mask, which I wear everywhere. I have been going to the gym several times per week, again behind the mask and with suitable confirmation that I do not have a fever.

I have been able to get my annual medical checkups completed and received a flu vaccination two weeks ago. As part of the medical checkup I also obtained my first of a two-part shingles regimen. The previous year I had received a pneumonia vaccination. I have not received so many different vaccinations since I was in grade school sixty years ago. 

With the new month I have resumed classes in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago. This term we are discussing the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Over the past two years I have done the same with Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov. Currently the discussions are held via Zoom, thus adding to my zoomable activities. 

I guess zoom has become one of my most frequently used words in all of its many formats; the proper name Zoom, to zoom, zooming, zoomable, et. al. What a delight to always discover new words whether from the world of technology or from a welcome discovery in my daily reading.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

America's Favorite Humorist

Will Rogers: His Life And Times 

I grew up in Wisconsin, but my mother was originally from Oklahoma and we would go there most summers to visit my grandmother. One of the highlights of our trips was more than once visiting the Will Rogers memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma. He was one of my mother's favorite celebrities from when she was a young girl. We shared a bit of Cherokee blood through my mother's great grandmother; thus spurring my interest in Will and the heritage of the Cherokee Nation. So, in addition to Claremore we also visited Talequah, the home of the Cherokee Nation, more than once. 
This book has a wealth of photos from Will's life which was quite eventful, both as a humorist and a movie star in the early days of the "talkies". Unfortunately, his life was cut short when his plane crashed in Alaska. This is a great book for anyone interested in the sayings and events of one of America's greatest humorists. 

Will Rogers' quotes:  

"I never met a man I didn't like".
"My ancestors didn't come on the Mayflower but they met the boat"

Monday, September 28, 2020

Quote for Today


“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Sunday, September 27, 2020

A Parisian Woman

Cousin BetteCousin Bette 
by Honoré de Balzac

In Paris, when a woman has made up her mind to use her beauty as her livelihood and merchandise, it does not necessarily follow that she will make her fortune.
- Balzac, Cousin Bette, p 155

Cousin Bette
by French author Honoré de Balzac is set in mid-19th century Paris, telling the story of an unmarried middle-aged woman who plots the destruction of her extended family. Bette works with Valérie Marneffe, an unhappily married young lady, to seduce and torment a series of men. One of these is Baron Hector Hulot, husband to Bette's cousin Adeline. He sacrifices his family's fortune and good name to please Valérie, who leaves him for a tradesman named Crevel. Bette has harbored a resentment against her cousin Adeline Hulot since childhood. Bette's father and Adeline's father were two of the Fischer brothers. Their uncle, Johann Fischer, brought the girls up and still contributes to their financial well-being as adults. Adeline and her cousin Bette are exact opposites. Adeline is fair-haired and of light complexion while Bette is dark and rather ugly. Bette sees Adeline as the enemy because of her beauty and good fortune in life. Adeline is married to Baron Hulot, a successful government employee and one-time benefactor to the Fischer brothers. After Bette moves to Paris at Adeline's insistence, she hatches a plot to destroy the beautiful Adeline, her husband and their children.

Cousin Bette and many of the primary protagonists in the novel are afflicted with the vices of greed, envy, and lust. Bette's greed seeks to overthrow Adeline Hulot. Madame Marneffe's greed and lust are only satisfied by acquiring wealth and material possessions. Baron Hulot's lust carries him from one affair to the next and his greed deepens his financial trouble each time. Crevel's greed motivates him to "steal" a mistress from Hector Hulot only to have it cost him his life. The morals and standards of nineteenth century French society come under the author's scrutiny in Cousin Bette. The novel is also a critique of the concept of a French ruling class after the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Balzac's novel is also a morality play in that the characters are imaginative figures as well as character types. And while the story in and of itself is tidily resolved, the narrative nonetheless exposes an underside of human behavior that is puzzling at best and deadly at worst.

The book is part of the Scènes de la vie Parisienne section of Balzac's novel sequence La Comédie humaine ("The Human Comedy"). Writing quickly and with intense focus, Balzac produced La Cousine Bette, one of his longest novels, in two months. It was published at the end of 1846, then collected with a companion work, Le Cousin Pons, the following year. The novel's characters represent polarities of contrasting morality. The vengeful Bette and disingenuous Valérie stand on one side, with the merciful Adeline and her patient daughter Hortense on the other. The patriarch of the Hulot family, meanwhile, is consumed by his own sexual desire. Hortense's husband, the Polish exile Wenceslas Steinbock, represents artistic genius, though he succumbs to uncertainty and lack of motivation.

La Cousine Bette is considered Balzac's last great work. His trademark use of realist detail combines with a panorama of characters returning from earlier novels. While I do not admire it as much as some critics, it has been compared to works by Shakespeare and Tolstoy. It is considered both a turning point in the author's career and a prototypical naturalist text. The novel explores themes of vice and virtue, as well as the influence of money on French society. Bette's relationship with Valérie is also seen as an important exploration of homoerotic themes. I would compare it with Dickens although it lacks his humor and overall seems more bitter. The best of Dickens, by contrast, usually focuses more on a positive character.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Puzzle of the Lakota Empire

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power
Lakota America: 
A New History of Indigenous Power 

"The central challenge in writing about the Lakotas is to make them unfamiliar again. Their mythical place in popular consciousness as the vanquishers of Custer and as the masters of the western plains has made their rise seem pre-ordained."(p 4)

What is civilization?
According to Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in his book, Civilizations, it is "a relationship between man and nature". (p 14) In his estimation it is contingent upon the environment in which a people exist. Ludwig von Mises, in his book Theory and History, claims that "Civilization is like a biological being; it is born, grows, matures, decays, and dies." (p 223) Just one of the questions raised as one reads Lakota America is whether the Lakota nation was a civilization. The author claims in the introduction to his book that it is the "solution to a puzzle". (p 3) Whether he succeeds in finding that solution or not, he has produced a voluminous record of the Lakota and other indigenous Indian tribes in America from the 17th century to the end of the 19th.

The author presents the relations between the Lakota (a group of several tribes) and other groups, including other tribes of native Americans, the French, the British, and finally the Americans who, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the War of 1812, were their primary source of commerce, their benefactor, and as time went on often their opponent.

As the Seventeenth century ended the natives appeared to be in a fairly constant war with each other, with some groups gaining in prominence from time to time. "A new technological frontier centered on the horse had been launched." (p 51) The Lakotas were notable in using this technology to enhance their mobility in this era, as they would continue to throughout the next two centuries gradually migrating from the area known as the Northwest Territory toward the Northern plains and the Black Hills.  The indigenous groups first contact with Europeans were the French traders in this era. The author highlights the advance of technology introduced by the Europeans. This became important to the Lakotas as they were viewed as "pragmatic" and "adaptable". Along with technology the Europeans also brought diseases such as Smallpox, spread by the increase in commerce and this took a severe toll on the native Americans.

Along with the narrative of the Lakota's migratory activities the author highlighted the continued encroachment of not only the French and then the British, but the Americans. This was escalated following the Louisiana Purchase with the expedition of Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River and through the northwest to the Pacific. All the while the Lakotas continued to migrate and adapt. "The U.S. empire was built on institutional prowess and visibility, whereas the Lakota empire was an action-based regime, which gave it a fickle on-and-off-again character." (p 241) The history also includes the complexities of native culture including polygamy and the training of young warriors. The only constant was the continued encroachment of the Americans accelerated by the discovery of gold in California and the building of the railroads through routes in the south, center, and ultimately the north.

The story concludes with the era of armed engagements following the Civil War in the 1870's culminating with the famous battle of Little Big Horn. While Sitting Bull came out of that as the victor over General George Armstrong Custer, the reprisals over the subsequent decade would result in the effective demise of Lakota power with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

I found the book to be most effective and informative through the early history of the indigenous peoples; a history with which I had no familiarity. The century following the American Revolution was one in which technology and commerce overwhelmed the Lakotas and other tribes, who for the most part were unable to adapt to changes in their environment. The nature that the indigenous peoples knew as the environment that formed their culture changed so tremendously that their civilization gradually decayed and became a mere shadow of what it once was. The author notes that "The Indians remained a subordinate people, subject to the whims of a foreign empire." (p 382) The complexity of the new environment left them dependent on the government of the United States for support. This is a situation, with few exceptions, that continues to this day.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

No Longer Needed

Pigs in Heaven
Pigs in Heaven 

“But kids don't stay with you if you do it right. It's the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won't be needed in the long run.” 
― Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

This novel continues the lives of Taylor and her adopted daughter Turtle Greer, protagonists of Barbara Kingsolver’s earlier novel The Bean Trees. Some of the themes include the meaning of family, community, motherhood, and belonging. On an Easter vacation trip with Taylor, her adoptive mother, six-year-old Turtle sees a young man, Lucky Buster, fall into a spillway at the Hoover Dam; her seeing him leads to his rescue and her own celebrity. Turtle and Taylor appear on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with other children who have saved lives. Rescuing Lucky Buster, however, leads to discovery and change for Turtle and Taylor because a young Cherokee attorney, Annawake Fourkiller, sees Turtle and hears her adoption story on television.

Annawake, in spite of being counseled by her superiors to not pursue this case, becomes obsessed with returning Turtle to her Cherokee grandfather. She does this in the belief that Turtle will have an unsatisfactory adult life if she is not brought up in her Cherokee family. I was not impressed with this argument as it basically assumed that the bond between Taylor and Turtle was unimportant in light of Turtle's heritage. Taylor responds by fleeing with her daughter. Taylor’s mother, Alice, leaves her husband, Harland, because she wants more than a dead marriage, and goes to Las Vegas to help Taylor and Turtle. After giving Taylor her savings, Alice travels to the town of Heaven on Cherokee Nation land to stay with her cousin and investigate her rights with the tribe of her grandmother. Her time on the Cherokee land does not lessen her commitment to her daughter and granddaughter, but does help her understand Annawake’s quest.

Taylor loses much of her self-confidence as she works to support herself and Turtle, never having enough money to pay all the bills or to eat very well. Taylor’s eventual decision to take Turtle to the Cherokee Nation to talk to Annawake reminds her of Dorothy’s being taken to the castle of the witch in Oz (I didn't make this up). The choice seems forced as does much of the action in the novel. For example, there is a side character named Barbie who is obsessed with Barbie dolls; apparently this is intended to provide comic relief, but I couldn't determine what she added to the story. Each scene is presented in the author’s folksy third-person voice, and the view of the action is usually limited to the perspective of one of the main characters; however, I did not appreciate the authorial voice and that made the book just that much more difficult.

Disappointing is an understatement. Much of the plot seemed contrived to me and the authorial voice was off-putting. While the central characters Taylor and her adopted daughter, Turtle were sympathetic, that was about the only thing that kept me reading the book.


Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Possessed



“Life is now given to man at the cost of pain and fear. Here, they are blinded by this sometimes. Now man is not yet that man. There will be another, new person, happy and proud, and for him it wouldn’t matter the death-life. He who overcomes pain and fear will become God himself. There will not be that God any longer.”  ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Demons

What is a “true” Russian? Why is “the real truth” always implausible. Is belief only ironic or is it real or both? These are just a few of the questions dealt with by Dostoevsky in Demons, his great novel that is predecessor to The Brothers Karamazov.

He questions whether atheism is a reason or a result of rebellion, and the saying that “An atheist cannot be Russian”. The result is a novel that compares favorably and provides an eloquent introduction to themes that will be dealt with at the family level in The Brothers Karamazov.

Liberalism and Socialism are contrasted by representative characters from two different generations. One is that of Herzen and the liberals, represented by Stepan Verkhovensky and others. While Stepan's son, Pyotr, is the reputed leader of the new generation of nihilist anarchists who are the precursors and somewhat participants in the rise of the Russian intelligentsia.

Demons does not only look forward, but also backward as can be seen in comparison with The Idiot which ends with Prince Myshkin in a Swiss Asylum; the silence of madness. 
The Demons ends with the silence of suicide. (You have to read it to find out who, when, and why) The cabalists (the fivesome) are representatives of the central importance of ideology (nihilistic anarchism). The lives of the cabalists literally depend on the whims of their leader, Pyotr, and their own willingness to follow the ideology.

Through all of the novel there is in the background, Nikolai Stavrogin, son of Varvara Petrovna, spinning his web, better yet acting as a puppeteer while others speak and act for him and as his whim commands. Compared to The Underground Man, Stavrogin is relatively silent; he lets others speak for him: Pyotr, “you wrote the rules . . .); Shatov, “I was the pupil, you were the teacher”; Kirilov, “Go look at [Kirilov] now---he's your creation”.

The plot seems somewhat complex, but the organization can be seen more simply when one views the contrast between the two generations, Stepan and Varvara vs. Pyotr and Nikolai, and within that the detail maneuvering with the additional characters, especially the changing views within each generation and between the two.

Ultimately there is a coming together of characters and the ideas they represent in a sort of maelstrom of events at the end of Part Three of the novel. It concludes with an explosion of activity that is only hinted at in the long introduction in Part One. That is just one of the aspect of this novel that raises it to one of the best from the pen of Dostoevsky.