Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Unlikely Impersonator

Shriver 



Shriver

"Somewhere in this world was a writer named Shriver who was expected at this conference, but it was not him.  What should he do?  He'd committed to attending, and had even been sent what looked like genuine airline tickets.  He checked the date on the itinerary---just three days away!" ((p 7)





What would it be like to be mistaken for someone famous? This novel explores that situation with the added attraction that the famous person is a reclusive writer (think of Salinger) and the person who is the subject of the mistake is also an author who, fortunately or not, has nothing in common with the reclusive celebrity other than his name. The unfortunate protagonist is invited to writers' conference and, against his better judgment, decides to attend. He appears to be succeeding in his unlikely impersonation, but just as things start to calm down he becomes involved in unexpected and certainly unintended episodes.  First, one of the other guest authors disappears, and he becomes the central subject of the investigation; second, a journalist begins to take an interest in him that makes him very uncomfortable; and third, to complicate his life further he begins to fall in love with the conference organizer.

With the addition of some other quirky characters including a stalker, the story is complex enough to provide the reader with entertainment and mirth.  While it is fairly lightweight, the spirited narrative has all the best characteristics of an off-beat romantic comedy and contains just enough whimsy to keep the reader focused through to the end.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Undaunted

The Underground Railroad 



The Underground Railroad




“Cora didn't know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”   ― Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad









This was the second novel by Colson Whitehead that I have read and it impressed me even more than the first (The Intuitionist). It is a blend of historical fiction and fantasy that I had not previously experienced. Needless to say, the combination was successful especially with the addition of a suspenseful story and an appealing protagonist.

The protagonist, Cora , is a young slave girl who is considering fleeing slavery from the opening sentence on the first page. "The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no." That she changes her mind goes without saying, but as the narrative continues her trek through the South on and off the "underground railroad" maintains the reader's interest. Along the way there are colorful characters, like Caesar and her grandmother and her nemesis, Ridgeway.

The first of these characters that we meet is Ajarry, Cora's grandmother. We learn how Ajarry took ownership of, and maintained control over, a small plot of land in the slave area of the Randall plantation in the Southern state of Georgia where she lived most of her life. Both Cora’s mother Mabel and Cora herself inherited that land, and took pride in maintaining it. Ajarry insists that attempts to escape were hopeless and, even after Mabel made a successful escape anyway, Cora refused the invitation from fellow slave Caesar to make her own attempt.

It is only after a series of painful incidents on the plantation that Cora changes her mind.  She joins Caesar in an escape attempt that leads to unexpected developments; however, Cora and Caesar make it to the first stop on the underground railroad. In the first of several fantastic episodes the railroad is portrayed as a sub-surface train network that takes them into the first stop on their escape route: a town in South Carolina. There, Cora and Caesar are given new names and identities, and start new lives in which they become increasingly comfortable, refusing a series of opportunities to take the underground railroad even further towards the North, and freedom. However this life does not continue when it is shattered by the appearance of Ridgeway, leader of an angry group of patrollers and slave catchers. He tracks them down but Cora manages to escape, taking the underground railroad to North Carolina, where she is given refuge with Martin and Ethel Wells.

This episode finds Cora held as a prisoner in their home. Eventually, she is discovered and turned over to Ridgeway, while the Wells are left to face the anger and violence of the community’s racist citizens. Her next stop is Tennessee, as Ridgeway journeys to capture yet another slave before taking Cora back to the Randall plantation where it appears that an even worse fate awaits her. As the novel continues this reader was held in suspense wondering whether Cora would escape yet again and, if so, would she ultimately reach freedom, if not complete safety, in a Northern state.

I especially enjoyed the fantastic moments and the irony exemplified in the following: "Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor--if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative."(p 80)
The slave owners followed this philosophy but they did not expect that Cora, the individual human being, would also follow the philosophy in her search for ownership of her person and her freedom.

The story highlights the indefatigable nature of Cora who always finds a way to survive. Throughout the narrative chapters are inserted as brief vignettes that explore the lives, backgrounds, and fates of several characters in the same way as the book’s first explored Ajarry’s life. The combination of historical detail, fantastic speculation, and suspense makes for an engaging read worthy of the awards it has received.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Philosophical Exploits into the Absurd

The Thought Gang 


The Thought Gang



"The publishers eventually tracked me down and asked me about the book, how it was, where it could be found.  I countered by asking for more money, simply so I had something to say apart from, I can't find the typewriter and even if I could find it, it doesn't have a ribbon, and the a and the z don't work. . . 
The thing about signing a contract is that it can mislead people into thinking something has been agreed." (p 74)



If you love philosophy and have an appreciation for the absurd you will probably enjoy this book. Tibor Fischer has written a novel that I found dependable in producing humor evidenced by my smiles and more often than not outright laughter.

The story demonstrates the sublime absurdity of a middle-aged philosopher who is running from his academic publisher and others;  and while doing so finds himself in France about to join with a semi-successful thief (the thief has recently been released from prison) ultimately entering into a series of adventures. Coffin uses a first-person narration (numbered in sections, like a philosophical treatise) that is not terribly mellifluous, but becomes fun through the use of wisecracks about Epictetus and Zeno--as well as Coffin's unexplained fascination with words that begin with the letter Z. The style gets to you (at least it did for this reader). He juxtaposes intellectual metaphysics and juvenile gangster fantasy as evidenced by the line, ``The thing about a gun is, it's like being on the right side of a Socratic dialogue."

The result of the philosophical and adventurous mish-mash is a delightfully wacky book that has echoes of Tristram Shandy and other books of that sort. Read it at your own philosophical risk.


Wednesday, April 05, 2017

America's First Naval Hero

John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography 



John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography
"It was a misfortune for Paul Jones that, unlike Nelson, he never had a proper scope for his talents.  His zeal to improve himself as a naval officer, to prepare for a fleet command, makes him stand out from brother officers in the Revolutionary Navy, some of whom may never have been his peers in single-ship combat. . .
Thus, although Jones had it in him to be a great naval strategist, he found opportunity to prove himself only on the tactical level. There he was magnificent."(p 415)




John Paul Jones is a name that is part of American mythology. As an officer in the Continental Navy, he became the new country's greatest naval hero. Yet he often complained, was impatient with supervisors, and was haughty toward his peers and a tyrant among his crews. He prided himself on defending "the violated rights of mankind", yet after the American Revolution he went on a venture battling the Turks in the service of the Russian Tsar. He was in many ways a paradox and his idiosyncrasies made him one of the most fascinating figures in all American history.

Samuel Eliot Morison demonstrates his mastery of American history with this biography of the heroic sailor of the eighteenth century. Morison loved the sea, and this biography is a tribute to that love. The author goes beyond a narrow naval context to establish Jones as a key player in the American Revolution, something not done by previous biographers, and explains what drove him to his achievements. At the same time, Admiral Joseph Callo fully examines Jones's dramatic military achievements—including his improbable victory off Flamborough Head in the Continental ship Bonhomme Richard—but in the context of the times rather than as stand-alone events.

The book also looks at some interesting but lesser-known aspects of Jones's naval career, including his relationships with such civilian leaders as Benjamin Franklin. This is a great biography from one of America's finest historians.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Poem for April



When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.


Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Perfect Elevator

The Intuitionist 


The Intuitionist


“What does the perfect elevator look like, the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks? We don't know because we can't see inside it, it's something we cannot imagine, like the shape of angels' teeth. It's a black box.”   ― Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist




This was my introduction to Colson Whitehead and he made a favorable first impression. The story is set in the middle of the twentieth century in a large metropolis, reminiscent of New York City, full of skyscrapers and other buildings requiring vertical transportation in the form of elevators. The time, while never identified explicitly, is one when black people are called "colored" and integration is a current topic. The protagonist is an African American elevator inspector named Lila Mae Watson. Watson is already marginalized by her race and sex, and her adherence to the Intuitionist method of elevator inspecting causes her to be further ostracized by her fellow inspectors, who are Empiricists. Intuitionists like Lila Mae assess an elevator’s “health” by listening to it and feeling its vibrations. Once in contact with the elevator, an Intuitionist just knows whether or not it is “healthy.” The competing school, the "Empiricists," insists upon traditional instrument-based verification of the condition of the elevator by getting into their shafts and checking the mechanisms to see if they meet specifications. Watson is the second black inspector and the first black female inspector in the city.

Lila Mae is very dedicated to her work and has an outstanding inspection record that earns her the prestigious assignment of inspecting the elevators in the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building. Then, disaster strikes. Elevator number eleven of the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building crashes in a free fall shortly after her inspection. It is an election year in the Elevator Guild, and the Intuitionists and the Empiricists have both put forth candidates for the position of guild chair. Consequently, Lila Mae is convinced that the Empiricist candidate, Frank Chancre, who has known connections with powerful underworld figure Johnny Shush, has had the elevator sabotaged. Discrediting her, an Intuitionist, will cause the Intuitionist candidate, Orville Lever, to lose favor.

The failure of the elevator inspected by Lila Mae also leads to a search for the roots of intuitionism. The result is a metaphysical meditation on the possibility of a perfect elevator. For those, like this reader, who are interested in history, science, and ideas this is a great read and was an auspicious start for the author.



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Flawed Friendship

How Many Miles To Babylon? 


How Many Miles To Babylon?
How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten, sir.
Will I get there by candlelight?
Yes and back again, sir.. 
- Traditional Nursery Rhyme


With a title referencing a traditional nursery-rhyme this novel retraces some familiar ground. How Many Miles to Babylon presents issues of friendship, family, class and war. What makes the novel worthwhile is the fine writing style of the author. Both the description of the desolation of Ireland as seen from the eyes of the impressionable youths and the experience on the fields of Flanders as it ends their innocence is well told.

The story begins, however, with the complex tale of a friendship between two boys in Ireland prior to and during World War I. Alec, the son of Anglo-Irish parents grows up lonely and friendless on his parents' estate in Wicklow during the early years of the 20th century. His parents have a difficult relationship and it is stated that "their only meeting place was the child." He meets a local boy, Jerry, who shares his passion for horses. Alec's mother, who believes strongly in the class system of early twentieth century Ireland, discovers the friendship and forbids him to spend any more time with Jerry. Their friendship is one that transcends their differences in class and character.

I found the psychology of the family triangle of Alec, his over-bearing mother and his deferential father to be the most interesting aspect of this slight novel. Their friendship is continued in private until the outbreak of the First World War. Jerry signs up as his father is already in the British Army and the King's Shilling would be of great benefit to his mother. Alec feels no compulsion to sign up until his mother tells Alec that his father Fredrick is not his biological father and in that moment he is so frustrated with his mother he impulsively signs up. In France the two friends are stationed together, but now divided by rank as well as class. They are commanded by Major Glendinning, a ruthless officer who shares Alec's mother's belief in the class system and divisions between rank, demanding that there be 'no flaw in the machinery'. When Jerry learns that his father is missing, he leaves to find out what happened to his father leading to a tragic ending.

While the end of the story is apparent from the opening pages, the complex and lyrical style of the author held my interest and kept me reading to discover the story behind the sad beginning. Another view of the tragic nature of the Great War, this short novel resonates with better and more substantial fictions and I would recommend readers turn, or return, to Erich Maria Remarque's magnificent All Quiet on the Western Front for the seminal version of this tragic turning point in World history.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Speculative Satire

It Can't Happen Here 



It Can't Happen Here
“The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his "ideas" almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.  Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”  ― Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here


Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize For Literature, wrote a form of naturalistic satire that at its best (see Main Street, Babbit, or Arrowsmith) was worthy of the accolades that he received. This satirical political novel was written in 1935 after he had already published fifteen novels. It was a time when the United States and Western Europe had been in a depression for six years and Lewis asked the question – what if some ambitious politician would use the 1936 presidential election to make himself dictator by promising quick, gimmicky solutions to the depression.

The protagonist of the story is Doremus Jessup, a small-town newspaper editor in Vermont. Doremus struggles for a year with the new government’s attempts to censor his paper and ultimately ends up in a concentration camp. When he escapes from the concentration camp, he finds himself part of the resistance movement because that is all there is left for him to do. He blames himself for the failed revolution because he did not take Buzz Windrip more seriously when there was still a chance to stop him.

While Doremus Jessup is a generic character, the identity of Buzz Windrip, the power-hungry senator who makes himself dictator, would be obvious to any American in 1935. Parallels are made in his dictatorial control of his own unnamed state with someone who many critics consider to be a reference to Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president when the novel was being written.
The identity of the main ally of the fictional dictator would be equally obvious, Bishop Peter Paul Prang, the popular radio preacher who endorses Buzz Windrip’s campaign, is based on Father Charles Coughlin, the most popular radio speaker of the thirties who had a weekly program on which he denounced President Roosevelt and the Jews for causing and perpetuating the depression. (In his novel, Lewis foresees that TV would have even greater propaganda potential than the radio – this fictional dictator introduces mass coast-to-coast TV broadcasting in 1937 - something that did not happen in reality until 1948.) In the real world President Roosevelt used the radio in a similar way and exerted censorship via his political control over the FCC which held the major networks in thrall through licensing requirements.

Meanwhile Windrip defeats Roosevelt for the democratic party presidential nomination, and after winning the election, establishes a dictatorship with the help of a small group of cronies and a ruthless paramilitary force. Although the fictional dictator Windrip ran for President as a Democrat, any implied attack on Hitler’s Germany was seen as Democratic party propaganda in 1935, since Jews, Hitler’s enemies, mostly voted Democrat. Any discussion of the politics of It Can’t Happen Here should keep in mind that Sinclair Lewis, the author, was a political liberal who toyed with the left wing for a while in his youth. In his novel, Lewis's satire was a confused and over-the-top mixture buffooning small town conservatism with progressive politics. The populist Windrip was both anti-semitic and anti-Negro among other views that could best be described as an irrational hodge-podge with no apparent ideological foundation.

Doremus Jessup, is a moderate Republican newspaper editor whose motto is: "Blessed are those who don’t think they have to go out and Do Something About It!" But then Jessup, like his creator Sinclair Lewis is plunged into the chaos of the Depression, when American society seemed to be falling apart. When Americans looked for solutions to the Depression, the great majority went no further than the progressive platform of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. But for many, these changes were not effective and they looked for something more drastic. Lewis believed that most of those who wanted more radical solutions would not turn to the small American left wing, but elsewhere.

It Can’t Happen Here is not a revolutionary book. It is speculative fiction that posits the rise of fascism in the United States during the 1930s, an eventuality that many people felt couldn't happen here, and so were not on guard against. Lewis's prose is stuffed with florid description and turgid prose, dating the novel and making it hard to plod through. While some of the statements made by many characters seem prescient in that they could be spoken by any political hack today, many of the novel's assertions strain belief, so that I wasn't entirely convinced that it could "happen here". However, in spite of this I still consider It Can't Happen Here to be a noteworthy example of dystopic alternative history.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

An Artistic Revolutionary

Arnold Schoenberg's Journey 



Arnold Schoenberg's Journey

"An artistic impression is substantially the resultant of two components. One what the work of art gives the onlooker - the other, what he is capable of giving to the work of art."  - Arnold Schoenberg



Rereading this book takes me back to the summer of 2007 when I first read it. As then I enjoyed every moment of its readable and even witty text. The author discusses Schoenberg's music and life together in a way that makes them both vivid and informative. He analyzes the music in detail, leaving the reader with an appreciation for the revolutionary impact of Schoenberg's passionate musical genius.

Along the way the cultural environment of the composer is explored and you learn about composers who influenced and helped Schoenberg. It was a revelation to this reader that Schoenberg was a painter as well. In this endeavor he benefited from his friendship with Gustav Klimt who also was interested in music. The book is organized into thirty essays in roughly chronological order. They cover major periods of development in the musical life of the composer, culminating with retrospective discussions of his impact on musical life and other composers. The discussion of Stravinsky was illuminating in its showing his development in comparison with Schoenberg. A bibliographic essay augments the value of this study for those who want to further explore Schoenberg's music and life.

With its focus on the listener's point of view it is one of the best books on music and artistic culture that I have encountered. The survey of both music composition and the life of musical genius is deep enough to inform without too much esoteric detail. I would recommend it to all who want to better understand both Schoenberg and the development of early twentieth century culture.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Seeking Understanding

Tallyho - The Hunt for Virtue: Beauty, Truth and Goodness: Nine Dialogues by Plato: Phaedrus, Lysis, Protagoras, Charmides, Parmenides, Gorgias, Theatetus, Meno, and Sophist 
by Phillip Lundberg


Tallyho - The Hunt for Virtue: Beauty, Truth and Goodness: Nine Dialogues by Plato: Phaedrus, Lysis, Protagoras, Charmides, Parmenides, Gorgias, Thea
"Bethink yourself, now, Theaetetus, that in a more prudent manner you won't beleive to know what you don't know.  For only to this extent is my art capable and of nothing more, no too do I understand anything like the others, thses great men of the present and of former times, those who are so worthy of marvel.  But this artistry of midwifery, this my profession was imparted both to me and to my mother from God"(210d, p458)




This is a refreshing new translation of nine of Plato's most important dialogues. The dialogues include Phaedrus, Protagoras, and Gorgias among others.

An informative introduction provides both explanations and a defense for the selection and, most importantly, describes the unique nature of these translations. The dialogues are all translated from the classic German translation of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) . According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy "Schleiermacher's translations appeared during the period 1804-28 (though not all of the dialogues were translated in the end), and are still widely used and admired today."
Not only does the translator use Schleiermacher's translations as his source, he recommends and defends Schleiermacher's unorthodox categorization of Plato's dialogues which places Phaedrus and Parmenides in the first of three groupings with The Republic relegated to the third.

The dialogues are engaging and readable in this modern translation that benefits from using the German as its source rather than the original ancient Greek. This reader found the sectional introductions to each dialogue helpful, while judicious use of footnotes provided connections between dialogues of key ideas. The translation was used by our literary study group profitably as a source for a lively discussion of Plato's philosophy, Socrates as presented by Plato, and the importance of philosophy for our lives. Overall I would recommend this selection of dialogues with its unique translation, to all readers interested in enhancing their understanding of Plato's thought.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book of Opposites

The Dispossessed 

The Dispossessed“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change.”   ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed -- which has not been out of print since its original publication in 1974 -- is one of Le Guin's most famous works, and both entertaining and intellectually challenging.


It is a book of opposites: a Utopian novel that doesn't refuse to expose the flaws of its model society; a feminist-themed narrative with a male protagonist; a social commentary that presents communal cooperation as the truest human ideal, yet focuses on the inevitable separateness of the creative individual within such a structure. Through these dichotomies, Le Guin examines the tension between human aspiration and human nature, between what can be dreamed and what can be achieved.

The setting is on twin planets of Anarres and Urras, both of which see the other as a moon. This dichotomy is demonstrated with Anarres as an inhospitable planet that has been settled by revolutionaries from Urras who left behind the capitalist life on their home planet to found a new society on the moon. The resulting community is an extreme communal society where everything is shared and nothing is owned individually. Urras, on the other hand, is a world that somewhat resembles our own – a male dominated capitalist society where women have absolutely no official role in politics, science or education.

Urras and Anarres have very little contact between each other beyond the rocket ships that export minerals from Anarres. Visitors from Urras are forbidden from crossing beyond the walls of the rocket port. The hero of the novel is the physicist Shevek who visits Urras as a sort of unofficial ambassador with an agenda to bring about increased co-operation and communication between the two worlds. This theme of two drastically contrasting cultures intentionally isolated from each is reminiscent of Arthur C. Carke’s The City and the Stars where Alvin escapes from a immortal pleasure-filled life in the city of Diaspar.

Both of these novels involve a man returning back to his ‘home’ society in an attempt to reconcile the philosophies of ‘home’ and ‘colony’ to solve the problems of both. The teachings of these novels is clear – fleeing and isolating oneself from a corrupted society is not a solution. I wouldn’t pursue the comparison very far though; the novels are too different for that. The story is told from the point of view of Shevek and alternates between two timelines; one starting when he flees from Anarres under a cloud of disapproval from his fellow citizens who taunt him as a ‘profiteer’ and the other starting from his childhood and moving toward the point when he leaves Anarres.

The first narrative, based almost entirely on Urras, is driven forward by the reader's curiosity about when (and if) Shevek makes it back home and under what circumstances. The second storyline, which is based on Anarres is interesting because although we know that Shevek made it off Anarres we are not told how he managed it and what happened to his family.

Some of the conversations and speeches on the Anarresti brand of communalism are intense and provide food for thought. This larger theme, together with Le Guin's mature mastery of her craft, give The Dispossessed a universality that has prevented it from becoming dated, despite its roots in the political issues of its time (the communal counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, the original women's movement). This novel achieves more than the typical genre work with serious ideas and literary merit, thus deserving the several awards with which it was rewarded.

Grave Condition, but not Hopeless

The Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

He  was born in December 1918;  known as a Russian novelist, historian, and short story writer. Solzhenitsyn fought in World War II as a commander in Russia’s Red Army and was decorated twice. He was arrested in 1945 for making derogatory comments about Stalin in a letter to a friend. He was subsequently sentenced to eight years imprisonment to be followed by permanent internal exile.

He was an outspoken critic of the Soviet Union and communism and helped to raise global awareness of its Gulag forced labor camp system. He was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West.   He is a stomach cancer survivor and his experiences serve as the basis for Cancer Ward (1968).  He also published The First Circle (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”. Solzhenitsyn was afraid to go to Stockholm to receive his award for fear that he would not be allowed to reenter. He was eventually expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the state's dissolution.  He died in 2008. 



The Novel:   Cancer Ward 

“What is an optimist? The man who says, "It's worse everywhere else. We're better off than the rest of the world. We've been lucky." He is happy with things as they are and he doesn't torment himself.

What is a pessimist? The man who says, "Things are fine everywhere but here. Everyone else is better off than we are. We're the only ones who've had a bad break." He torments himself continually.”   ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward


Cancer WardThe story takes place in the men's cancer ward of a hospital in a city in Soviet Central Asia. The patients in Ward 13 all suffer from cancer, but differ in age, personality, nationality, and social class (as if such a thing could be possible in the Soviet "classless" society!). We are first introduced to Pavel Rusanov, a Communist Party functionary, who enters the hospital because of a rapidly-growing neck tumor.
"The hard lump of his tumor--unexpected, meaningless and quite without use--had dragged him in like a fish on a hook and flung him onto this iron bed--a narrow, mean bed, with creaking springs and an apology for a mattress."(p 10)

Solzhenitzyn himself was released from a labor camp in early 1953, just before Stalin's death, and was exiled to a village in Kazakhstan. While incarcerated, he had been operated on for a tumor, but was not told the diagnosis. He subsequently developed a recurrence, received radiotherapy in Tashkent, and recovered.

The narrative places its focus on the central character of Oleg Kostoglotov, a young man who has recently been discharged from a penal camp and is now "eternally" exiled to this particular province. Only two weeks earlier, he was admitted to the ward in grave condition from an unspecified tumor, but he has responded rapidly to radiation therapy. Among the doctors are Zoya, a medical student; Vera Gangart, a young radiologist; and Lyudmila Dontsova, the chief of radiation therapy.

Rusanov and Kostoglotov respond to therapy and are eventually discharged; other patients remain in the ward, get worse, or are sent home to die. In the end Kostoglotov boards a train to the site of his "eternal" exile: "The long awaited happy life had come, it had come! But Oleg somehow did not recognize it."

In The Cancer Ward Solzhenitzyn transforms his own experiences into a multifaceted tale about Soviet society during the period of hope and liberalization after Stalin's death. While Cancer, of course, is an obvious metaphor for the totalitarian state there is also a penetrating look at mid-century Soviet medicine and medical ethics. 
“But substantial X-ray treatment is impossible without transfusion!” “Then don’t give it! Why do you assume you have the right to decide for someone else? Don’t you agree it’s a terrifying right, one that rarely leads to good? You should be careful. No one’s entitled to it, not even doctors.” “But doctors are entitled to that right—doctors above all,” exclaimed Dontsova with deep conviction. By now she was really angry. “Without that right there’d be no such thing as medicine!” 
Of course, the paternalism evident here (e.g. lack of truth-telling and informed consent) was also characteristic of medicine in other countries in the 1950's and remains an important concern in professional ethics.

The novel also explores the personal qualities and motivation of physicians, and the issue of intimate relationships between doctors and patients. The most incisive aspects of the book are its insight into human nature and the realism of its characters.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Steinbeck and Emerson

The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck



"Lookie , Ma. I been all day an' all night hidin' alone.  Guess who I been thinkin' about? Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin' what he said, an' I can remember---all of it.  Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an' he foun' he didn' have no soul that was his'n.  Says he foun' he jus' got a little piece of a great big soul.  Says a wilderness ain't no good, 'cause his little piece of a great big soul wasn't no good 'less it was with the rest, an' was whole.  Funny how I remember.  Didn' think I was even listenin'.  But I know now a fella ain't no good alone." (p 418)


The Transcendental concept of the Oversoul is expressed in the earthy folk language of Tom Joad and Jim Casy as the belief that all human's souls are really just part of one big soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most well known proponent of transcendentalism, defined the Oversoul as the universal mind or spirit that animates, motivates, and is the unifying principle of all living things. In The Grapes of Wrath Casy makes numerous references to this one large soul that connects all in holiness, and they dovetail nicely with the basic idea of strength in group unity. 
Somewhat conversely, American transcendentalism also recognized individualism, a faith in common people and their self-reliance. This concept of the survival of the human life force is symbolized by the survival of the land turtle and Ma's comment, "We're the people — we go on." This combination of rugged individualism and an embracing of all men as part of the same Great Being is physically expressed in the education and re-birth of Tom Joad: His strongly individual nature gives him the strength to fight for the social welfare of all humanity.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, 1967 (1939).
Essays: First and Second Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vintage, 1990 (1876)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Exploring the New World

The Moor's Account 

The Moor's Account
“Telling a story is like sowing a seed—you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree, with firm roots and branches that soar up in the sky. But it is a peculiar sowing, for you will never know whether your seed sprouts or dies.”
  ― Laila Lalami, The Moor's Account



We tell stories both to others and to ourselves. They are seldom written down but once in a great while a writer with imagination may create a story about a real event. That is what the Moroccan-born author Laila Lalami has done with The Moor’s Account. Her novel is a fictional memoir written by Mustafa ibn Muhammad, a Moroccan slave who participated with a Castilian exploration group exploring La Florida. The story tells how Mustafa, who is owned by Señor Dorantes, a captain assigned to the expedition, becomes part of this exploration of the land. They change direction when they discover trace amounts of gold in one of the Indian villages. The leader of the expedition, governor Narváez, captures a group of Indians and he forcibly obtains information from them about a fabled capital city known as Apalache, which is supposed to be filled with even more gold.

The expedition splits up and Mustafa and his master travel with one group over the land and discovers the city of Apalache, but there is no gold. To make matters worse, they are running low on supplies and have become lost in the unknown land. They try to find a Spanish port where they can get help, but there’s nothing to be find. Narváez refuses to give up the idea that there might be gold nearby. He keeps interrogating the Indians for information. He pushes onward, but the expedition is plagued with sickness, a lack of supplies, and constant attack from the natives.

Throughout the journey, Mustafa reminisces on his past. His family wanted him to become a notary when he was younger, but he defied their wishes and became a merchant. He was fascinated with being a merchant because of how much money they made. His desire for money continued to grow and he soon found himself trading slaves. When the town came under siege, he lost his job and struggled to make any money. With no other way to take care of his family, he sold himself into slavery.

The expedition soon falls apart and the survivors are scattered throughout the region. Mustafa and his master along with some of his other companions manage to find a friendly Indian tribe. Mustafa learns their language and customs and gets help for the expedition. Disease forces them to move once again, their numbers much smaller. Madness begins to set in for some of the survivors, who desert the group and end up resorting to cannibalism. A few members give up on returning home and try to find home among the Indians.

Through all of this Mustafa feels terrified, but also free on his journey. The survivors continue to dwindle in number until there are only four left. Together, they become legends among the different tribes thanks to their medical knowledge. Soon, they are all wed by the tribe. They spend years traveling together, treating different tribes and gathering a large group of followers. Eventually, they run into fellow Castilians, who bring them to New Spain. While welcomed by there own Mustafa finds he is a slave once again. To make matters worse, his wife is enslaved alongside him. The final sections of the story are suspenseful as the reader wonders if Mustafa will ever gain his freedom and with it a return home or some other outcome that will allow his wife to live with him on their own.

Lalami creates a believable account of the expedition from the Moor's viewpoint. This is provides a much different perspective than that of the Conquistadors. Thus the reader has a different view of the Native Americans and their surroundings that they met along the way. This is historical fiction at its best that I would recommend to all who have an interest in the history of the exploration of the Americas.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Into the Void

Notes From Underground 


Notes From Underground
“Oh, gentlemen, perhaps I really regard myself as an intelligent man only because throughout my entire life I've never been able to start or finish anything. Granted, granted I'm a babbler, a harmless, irksome babbler, as we all are. But what's to be done if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble--that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void.”  ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground



A forty year old man introduces himself: "I AM A SICK MAN . . . I am a wicked (nasty) man." This comes from a man who immediately demonstrates his unsureness and his unreliability, as he touts his superstitiousness and refusal to be treated for his (imagined?) sickness. With a few lines of prose Dostoevsky has introduced the reader to a new type of man, one that we will see traces of in characters like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and others in subsequent novels. What do we make of this narrator and his story?

It is a story that is bifurcated into two parts that are very different from each other but intimately connected. The narrator is talking to someone. Perhaps it is the reader or perhaps it is himself, but he is passionate as he speaks out from his "corner" bemoaning the fact that he is not even able to become an insect, much as he would like to. The narration, upon first reading, is strange, but it changes when he draws in the reader by observing that he is not the only one who takes pride in his "sickness". Everyone takes pride in their own sickness. Suddenly we have come upon, become part of, the modern condition. This is the world that Nietzsche and others would later describe and that we live in.

The first part is entitled "Underground" and it is a world where the certainties of "2+2=4" and the philosophies of rationalism and utilitarianism are not welcome. The narrator, in his hole, cannot act and is overcome with inertia -- being constantly offended by "the laws of nature". What is a man without wants or desires who is living a life that is determined? Reason is not the answer, so he speculates that "two times two is five is sometimes also a most charming little thing". (p 34) He is bored and so he begins to write as the falling snow reminds him of an anecdote that occurred when he was twenty-four years old.

Thus the narration changes as the second part, "Apropos of the Wet Snow" begins. The nature of his pathology and his paranoia becomes clear as he reacts with coworkers and meets a young girl. The bifurcation of the story begins to appear in the narrator who, shortly after meeting the girl, starts to have doubts, thoughts like this:
"A sullen thought was born in my brain and passed through my whole body like some vile sensation, similar to what one feels on entering an underground cellar, damp and musty. It was somehow unnatural . . . " (p 88)
He begins to doubt himself (maybe he always has). The girl tries to reach out to him but he cannot reciprocate. Ultimately he concludes that life lived in books is better than his real life. He does little, is disappointed, and begins to write.

This novel is a tragicomedy of ideas, powerful in the sense that it identifies the direction that much of modern thought will pursue. The dramatic expressiveness of the prose betrays a narrator who is bereft of the will to engage in life. It is a form of nihilism that eats away at the narrator. Dostoevsky's answer, not given in this short novel but found in The Brothers Karamazov and elsewhere, is a faith that is absent here. That does not mean that this is not a rich text, filled with ideas and deep with meaning. It is a book that challenges the reader in ways that resonate forward more than a century later.


Sunday, March 05, 2017

Happy and Unhappy People


Short Stories 
by Anton Chekhov

Short Stories
“As a rule, however fine and deep a phrase may be, it only affects the indifferent, and cannot fully satisfy those who are happy or unhappy; that is why dumbness is most often the highest expression of happiness or unhappiness; lovers understand each other better when they are silent, and a fervent, passionate speech delivered by the grave only touches outsiders, while to the widow and children of the dead man it seems cold and trivial.”   ― Anton Chekhov


This collection contains only thirteen of the hundreds of stories written by Chekhov. It does not contain the longer stories like The Steppe of Ward No. 6, but it does include a judicious selection by the translator Elisaveta Fen.

Chekhov's stories portray individuals and their relations with each other in specific situations. These often demonstrate the results of difficult choices with sometimes devastating results. I particularly enjoyed stories like "Enemies", "Teacher of Literature", and "The Cross of Anna". Each of these were a little further developed than some of the briefer sketches. 

"The Cross of Anna" tells of the loss of innocence of a young girl when she marries a pompous and boring middle-aged man, with the idea of helping her young motherless brothers and a weak father who is a drunkard. At first she is dominated by her older husband, but when noticed by the governor of the province at a charity ball she is launched into provincial society. Her enjoyment of the new pleasures this brings turns her head away from her family and leads her to despise and defy her husband. In response to her success with the governor he awards her husband the cross of Anna, which he wears on a ribbon around his neck. This is the source of the Russian idiom, 'Anna around his neck' describing an unwanted burden. 
"Teacher of Literature" portrays a favorite Chekhovian theme -- the emptiness of material prosperity and the tedium of provincial life with the gradual erosion of the 'happiness' of a young man.  
While "Enemies" is the story of a clash between classes with a relatively poor doctor juxtaposed with a wealthy landowner.  Surprisingly Chekhov explicitly states the moral of the necessity for greater tolerance and understanding between different types of people at the end of the story.

The most notable aspect in my reading was the modern feeling that I encountered in reading Chekhov. These stories, while set in a very different place and time are still relevant in the twenty-first century. The irony and sometimes melancholy nature of the stories shapes the realism that is found throughout Chekhov..

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Quotation of the Day



"Nature attains perfection, but man never does.  There is a perfect ant, a perfect bee, but man is perpetually unfinished.  He is both an unfinished animal and an unfinished man.  It is this incurable unfinishedness which sets man apart from other living things.  For, in the attempt to finish himself, man becomes a creator.   Moreover, the incurable unfinishedness keeps man perpetually immature, perpetually capable of learning and growing."

-- Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

It was a Pleasure to Burn

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 
by Ray Bradbury


“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door...Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”   ― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451



This is one of the great dystopian novels of all time, especially for bibliophiles. In this age of Kindles and Nooks and Ipads this story seems almost nostalgic, a fifties rendition of the future that reminded me of an Orwellian world ruled by a Huxleyan culture.

A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed. In an ironic reversal of sorts Firemen no longer save buildings from fire (since all buildings are completely fire-proof) but, instead, they burn books. Books have long been abandoned since the multitudes live in a society where literature has deteriorated into tiny bites of data as life has speeded up (sounds like twitter). Everyone communicates orally and the home is dominated by large television wall screens that broadcast interactive reality programs. One of the book burners, Guy Montag, slowly rediscovers the importance of books and becomes one of very few humans struggling for some meaning and truth in his life. Montag is a fireman. It is his job is to set fire to books so that no one will read and consequently understand the hopelessness of reality. One day he has to burn an old woman who will not leave her books and this effects him deeply. Later that day his says to his wife, "You weren't there, You didn't see. There must be something in books, things we can't imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don't stay for nothing."(p 48)

He meets a young woman named Clarisse who intrigues him and spurs further thoughts about his life and its meaning. Of course the story of Adam and Eve immediately comes to mind. But this allegory has deeper meanings. What is the role of the book and what are the limits of language? What would you do if you realized your life is devoted to the destruction of that which you love? Are you willing to engage in the search for Truth? For Montag, who has suffered from an unidentified malaise for some time, these thoughts have a momentous impact, leading him to question his job and the direction of his life.

The novel is written in an allegorical style with a fantastic background that mixes futuristic ideas within a rule-bound society where the masses are ruled by videos and drugs. Bradbury is effective in creating an evocative nightmare tale, for he is a brilliant storyteller. This, like most of his stories, has a fantastic edge. The denouement is brilliant and the result is a book that you will never forget. Once you have seen the amazing cinematic recreation by Francois Truffaut you will have additional images to put along side those of this book, emblazoned on your mind forever. This along with The Martian Chronicles is among my favorite Bradbury works and some of the best fantastic fiction I have read.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Commonplace Entry



If it were true that eternal laws existed, ruling everything, human in an absolute way and which only required of each human being complete obedience, the freedom would only be a farce. One man’s wisdom would be enough. Human contacts would no longer have any importance, preserved perfect activity alone would matter, operating within the context set up by this wisdom which recognizes the Law. This is not the content of ideologies, but the same logic which totalitarian leaders use which produces this familiar ground and the certainty of the Law without exception.

Logic, that’s to say pure reason without regard for facts and experience, is the real vice of solitude. But the vices of solitude are caused uniquely by the despair associated with isolation. And the isolation which exists in our world, where human contacts have been broken by the collapse of our common home, again following the disastrous consequences of revolutions, themselves a result of previous collapse.

This isolation has stopped being a psychological question to which we can do justice with the help of nice expressions devoid of meaning, like ‘introverted’ and ‘extraverted’. Isolation as a result of absence of friends and of alienation is, from the point of view of man, the sickness which our world is suffering from, even if it is true, we can notice fewer and fewer people than before who cling on to each other without the slightest support. Those people do not benefit from communication methods offered by a world with common interests. These help us escape together, from the curse of inhumanity, in a society where everyone seems superfluous and considered as such by others.

Isolation is not solitude. In solitude, we are never alone with ourselves. In solitude we are always two in one, and we become one, a complete individual with richness and the limits of its exact features, only in relation to the others and in their company. The big metaphysical questions, the search for God, liberty and immortality, relations between man and the world, being and nothingness or again between life and death, are always posed in solitude, when man is alone with himself, therefore, in the virtual company of all. The fact of being, even for a moment, diverted from one’s own individuality allows it to formulate mankind’s eternal questions, which go beyond the questions posed in different ways by each individual.

The risk in solitude is always of losing oneself. It could be said that this is a professional risk for the philosopher. Since he seeks out truth and preoccupies himself with questions, which we describe as metaphysical but which are indeed the only questions to preoccupy everyone. The philosopher’s solution has been to notice that there is apparently in the human mind itself one element capable of compelling the other and thus creating power. Usually we call this faculty Logic, and it intervenes each time that we declare that a principle or an utterance possesses in itself a convincing force, that is to say a quality which really compels the person to subscribe to it.

Recently we realized that the tyranny, not of reason but argumentation, like an immense compulsive force exercised on the mind of men can serve specifically political tyranny. But this truth also remains that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning. This beginning is the only promise, the only message which the end can ever give. St Augustine said that man was created so that there could be a beginning. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth, it is, in truth, each man.

from The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.

a reading of this entry by Jean Luc Godard may be found @ OPEN CULTURE