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.