September 25, 2015
We were visiting the Seattle Public Library recently and walking down its amazing Spiral of Books, and it made me try to think deeper about what our society is doing to our children and grandchildren. If you are a parent, are you raising your children to read and write primarily on paper? Are you limiting their use of electronic devices, making such implements secondary to books and handwriting? Every year and every time a new thought-controlling device is unloaded upon the public, it gets harder for old-schoolers like me to sit back and not start ranting about Big Brother and Fahrenheit 451.
I don’t want to get overly schmaltzy, but books have dignity, identity. That book sits or, more correctly, stands on your shelf. It stands for something. The voice of its author is undying, and is ready and waiting to tell its story to a new audience. How many other readers have touched that book? How many times has that book returned the favor?
A book can lie on your desk, open to an important page. You can write your name in it and pass it along to family, friends. Give it as a gift. You can run your finger down a page. Feel the paper. Books and paper might be our most noble invention. And one of our highest art forms. A book is a permanent record, an original document. It is evidence. It cannot be clicked away, can’t be deleted, cannot be powered-off.
Toddlers everywhere are delighted when picture or story books are put in their little hands. They also delight in anything electronic, with buttons to push. That’s what worries me.
August 30, 2015
We quickly understood each other and became friendly, because I am not capable of true friendship. — Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1841)
Sir Ethelred opened a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked nose seemed anxious to peer. — Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907)
. . . it seems to them the friendly memories of that year and of their whole long life winged visibly through the transparent blue. Herman Hesse, Beneath the Wheel (1906)
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. — G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
He grabbed the nickel and legged it away as fast as he could kelter, Molly’s shrill laughing pursuing him as though it ran on feet. — Jack Conroy, A World To Win (1935)
When a man’s overcoat is whiter than flour, why should his shadow be blacker than soot? — Vladimir Korolenko, The Day of Atonement
Not I, old man; nothing that crawls the earth is for my sport. — James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie
“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.” — Stephen Crane, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets
It was a torrid morning, hazy, the sky veiled as if with medicinal gauze. — The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda
On another small table stood Zuleika’s library. Both books were in covers of dull gold. — Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson (1911)
You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. — Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson (1911)
It is not love that is blind, but jealousy. — Lawrence Durrell, Justine (1958)
. . .the shining city of the disinherited—a city now trying softly to spread the sticky prismatic wings of a new-born dragon-fly on the night. — Lawrence Durrell, Clea (1960)
He was a fairly humane man toward slaves and other animals; he was an exceedingly humane man toward the erring of his own race. — Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson
We must make a stand, not for the penny, but for justice. What is dear to us is not our penny, because it’s no rounder than any other penny; it’s only heavier; there’s more human blood in it than in the manager’s ruble. That’s the truth! — Maxim Gorky, Mother (1907)
They’ve turned men into weapons, into sticks and stones, and called it civilization, government! — Maxim Gorky, Mother (1907)
Luka: If you believe—he does. If you don’t—he doesn’t. Whatever you believe in, exists. — Maxim Gorky, Lower Depths (1902)
Our emotional life is shared with the animals; we flatter ourselves that human emotions are so much more complicated than theirs. . .We have to wonder. — Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975)
July 19, 2015
Sure. Look at your phone. Don’t look at the cars that could run you over. Look at your phone. That’s more important. Don’t worry that a big Mercury sedan is bearing down on you as you cross the busy unregulated roadway at the mall (you’d have no way of knowing that the way I drive, that Mercury has never borne down on anyone).
Because you HAVE to read that email. Right now. You cannot wait five seconds until you cross the road. Unthinkable. You need to read that email RIGHT NOW. It’s on your phone and you want to read it NOW. What’s more important afterall: that there may be some big motor vehicle hurtling down upon you? OR, that you might have to postpone reading that fascinating email for five whole seconds?
Go on . Don’t give it a thought. Read your email.
July 11, 2015
Recently we saw the new feature animation film Inside Out, and it’s not only one of the cleverest things I have ever seen, it’s also a work of beautiful insight into child development and psychology. Every high school student should be required to watch the film before going out in the world and making babies. It should be part of every parenting class, for it’s such a magical portrayal of what makes children tick.
The film should be seen and then talked about, in depth. I laughed (a lot) and I cried (enough). I hope you are able to catch it while it’s in the theaters.
June 15, 2015
Fact #1: My favorite piece of music in the whole world has always been, and I suspect always will be, Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin.
Fact #2: I’ve been wanting to read Joseph Heller’s “other” novel, Something Happened, for quite a while. I’ve also been wanting to read some of Henry James’s shorter works, like Daisy Miller, etc.
Last night we were walking past a thrift store and noticed large stacks of books for sale in the front aisle, something I hadn’t noticed before in that store. We browsed, and there were only a few books of fiction, most were art books. Among the few items of fiction were: Something Happened, by Joseph Heller, and a collection of short works by Henry James, including Daisy Miller. I bought them both, fifty cents each.
Today we got in the car, I turned on the radio, and the announcer was just beginning his introduction of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and we were able to enjoy the full recording as we drove across town.
I don’t think I really believe in fate, in a mystical sense, but oftentimes there it is, in living color, too actual and improbable to ignore. How otherwise do we explain these things?
Maybe, before the day is out, I should buy a lottery ticket.
May 15, 2015
“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.”
I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.
Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.
Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.
I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.
April 3, 2015
Comparative European Lit 101. We all took at least one course in college with a name something like that. But there was always, in the back of my head, a small nagging question: Why do we compare literature? We read it, we enjoy it, we try to understand it. But compare it?
But now as I think about it, I realize that the only way to completely understand books is to analyze the history, culture, language, and personalities that go into them. Besides influencing one another, writers change society, and society returns the favor.
And I find myself, probably more and more as time goes on, doing comparative lit in my head. Spontaneously. Even obsessively. I compare genres, I compare authors, I compare centuries, eras, hemispheres? I need to know where the books I read fit into the world. It means something. It’s important.
But sometimes (oftentimes, really), my mind comes up with pretty goofy groups of books or writers that, for some crazy reason and certainly out of abject ignorance, it wants to read and compare. The silly thing is that these books have no valid reason for being grouped together and being compared. But the surprising thing is that, once in a while, the comparisons turn out to be quite apt.
Well, this is embarrassing, but it won’t be clear unless I give you examples:
Group A: Room at the Top; Dark at the Top of the Stairs
Group B: Lost Horizon; Teahouse of the August Moon; The Ugly American
Group C: To Have and to Hold; To Have and Have Not
Group D: Samuel Johnson; Samuel Richardson; Samuel Butler
Group E: The Power and the Glory; The Sound and the Fury
Group F: Rebecca West; Nathanael West; Jessamyn West
Group G: Thomas Wolfe; Tom Wolfe; Tobias Wolff
You get the picture. . . Silly, huh? So what I wonder is: am I the only one who makes up these odd, goofy groupings of famous books or authors? If not, I’d be curious to hear the groups that other readers have put together in their own heads. It may be a whole new discipline in the mysterious field of comparative lit.
March 20, 2015
No matter how much she gives you that look, no matter how devastating or gut-wrenching her frown, do not, under any circumstances or under the influence of any intoxicant or undue social pressure, take your wife to see Fifty Shades of Gray (now festering in a theater near you). I walked out half way through. I should have made my exit during the opening credits.
Even if the movie (book too, I presume) had had nothing to do with sex, it would still have been a worthless piece of tripe, with almost no literary quality. The story, the dialogue, character development: pure pulp. But the sexual content made it twice as offensive, and I am shocked that that movie was not plastered with an XX rating. 17-year-old kids should not be seeing that kind of disturbing content.
And it kills me that I paid good money to subject myself to such punishment. And that the money goes into the pockets of the people who created the monstrosity.
But I really shouldn’t overstate my case and thereby foster some kind of sympathy for the poor, misunderstood film, or book. So I’ll be fair: it was only the second worst film I’ve ever seen in my life.
Now, once you’ve withstood your wife’s sad pleas and pouts, try to discourage her from seeing it with her girlfriends. No one should pay money to see this film. It’s a free country and we’re all entitled to our own thoughts and tastes. And you’ve just heard mine.
February 22, 2015
“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.”
That short passage from Stephen Crane’s story Maggie, a Girl of the Streets may seem trivial, at first glance. But after reading Maggie, that bit of banal dialogue proved to be a perfect window into the icy irony and social criticism that Crane put into that classic story, and into his body of work as a whole. There is no question that Crane broke new literary ground in two important ways, at least if we consider this side of the Atlantic.
His prose, in the words of Hamlin Garland, was “astonishing”. He wrote in a style more modern and, I think, more poetic, than any earlier or contemporary American prose writer. He almost certainly inspired the next generation or two of story writers, and they were an innovative bunch indeed.
The other quality that Crane pioneered was the gritty realism of his settings and subjects. He told it like it was, long before that expression became a cliché. He had the most amazing ear for vernacular speech. Add to that a sharp understanding of human nature. The characters and their dialogue are so lifelike that one can’t help but enter their world and identify with their problems.
Despite illness and death at 28, Crane left us a sizable collection of novels and stories. We all read The Red Badge of Courage in high school. I remember nothing about it, sadly, and did not read other Stephen Crane works until now. That is my loss. Besides Maggie, I have now read many of his collected short stories. The Monster was powerful and ahead of its time in social consciousness, and The Open Boat was impossible to put down. In a very few short but prolific years, Stephen Crane made himself into one of the best American writers, of any era.
December 12, 2014
I’m no authority on American drama, having seen far too little good drama on the stage, and having only scratched the surface of what’s available in print. I’ve always thought, for some reason, that Arthur Miller, Eugene O’neill, and Tennessee Williams were the Big Three, universally accepted to be head and shoulders above the rest. But now that I’ve read some of the collected works of William Inge and Horton Foote, I think Big Five might be a little more accurate. And I don’t doubt for a second that there have been plenty of brilliant playwrights I’ve never even heard of.
But, of the recent plays I’ve read, the ones that really stood out and tugged my slightly-frayed heartstrings most were Inge’s Bus Stop and Come Back Little Sheba, and Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful and The Chase. These four plays are so touching and gripping that I don’t see how to distinguish them, in terms of greatness, from the plays of Miller, O’neill or Williams.
Horton Foote and William Inge wrote plays cut very much from the same cloth: they wrote about regular small town people in the midwest or south, they wrote about being poor, getting old, finding someone to love or losing that someone. They wrote dialogue that sounds like regular small town folk. They didn’t embellish, but they somehow brought to light the deep-down problems that are real and inherent for us all.
Foote’s The Chase is exceptionally engrossing, and depicts a scenario and an issue—mob violence—that was so powerfully portrayed in Theodore Dreiser’s short story Nigger Jeff a generation earlier. But Foote’s characters are complex and conflicted, which makes the drama all the more compelling. I don’t expect I’ll ever have a chance to see these terrific plays on the stage, but at least I’ve seen them come to life in my head, and there they will stay.
December 6, 2014
I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard a better expression of what religion should be than this eloquent description by Charles Eastman [also called Ohiyesa], a native American doctor, writer, and leader. If all religions actually practiced such humility and humanity, we would be living in a world free of war, hate, and hunger. Here are Eastman’s words:
“The original attitude of the American Indian toward the Eternal, the “Great Mystery” that surrounds and embraces us, was as simple as it was exalted. To him it was the supreme conception, bringing with it the fullest measure of joy and satisfaction possible in this life.
The worship of the “Great Mystery” was silent, solitary, free from all self-seeking. It was silent, because all speech is of necessity feeble and imperfect; therefore the souls of my ancestors ascended to God in wordless adoration. It was solitary, because they believed that He is nearer to us in solitude, and there were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker. None might exhort or confess or in any way meddle with the religious experience of another. Among us all men were created sons of God and stood erect, as conscious of their divinity. Our faith might not be formulated in creeds, nor forced upon any who were unwilling to receive it; hence there was no preaching, proselyting, nor persecution, neither were there any scoffers or atheists.
There were no temples or shrines among us save those of nature. Being a natural man, the Indian was intensely poetical. He would deem it sacrilege to build a house for Him who may be met face to face in the mysterious, shadowy aisles of the primeval forest, or on the sunlit bosom of virgin prairies, upon dizzy spires and pinnacles of naked rock, and yonder in the jeweled vault of the night sky! He who enrobes Himself in filmy veils of cloud, there on the rim of the visible world where our Great-Grandfather Sun kindles his evening camp-fire, He who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose war-canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas—He needs no lesser cathedral! . . .
The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him, as to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes to the brothers of Saint Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation. Furthermore, it was the rule of his life to share the fruits of his skill and success with his less fortunate brothers.”
November 27, 2014
You might say that Rebecca West’s 1956 novel The Fountain Overflows is more or less a British version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They do have much in common, subject-wise. But there is a difference: While A Tree Grows has more warmth and poignancy, more emotion and power, West’s novel has not only that wonderful British cleverness, but it has perhaps as much depth of perception and depth of character as anything I’ve read in recent years (which is about as far back as my dwindling memory goes). I can’t claim to have read much Proust, but it seems to me The Fountain Overflows is almost Proustian in its youthful but sublime sensibility.
The book is quite autobiographical, and Rebecca West was a leading feminist of her day. The mother she depicts is such a strong, loving person, regardless of constant adversity, that she will certainly stick in my mind for many Saturdays to come. Every child should have such a mother (I did, thankfully). And I felt so much in common with this family, their love of books and classical music, and refinement without superficiality. Given that Rebecca West wrote this fine book, and given that she and her real family were its inspiration, I have a pretty good hunch that she was at least as beautiful to know as she is to read.
November 26, 2014
It was sad this morning walking in downtown Los Angeles and wishing familiar smiling faces a happy Thanksgiving with their families and receiving the same wishes in return, and then seeing the various homeless people limping or dragging themselves down the sidewalks, looking lost, no place to go. There are so many homeless, and L.A. is just a big unfeeling corporate wasteland. So millions of people pass by countless men and women who have no shelter, let alone a warm Thanksgiving meal, and spare no more thought for these creatures than for any other creature than crawls across their path. So hardened and conditioned are we city dwellers to this ubiquitous misery that we walk right by not even looking or seeing half the time. How can we help being apathetic when trouble is everywhere and we are made to feel powerless by the systems that run our lives?
November 15, 2014
Weak and abusive parenting is poignantly contrasted with the sweetness of first love in the exceptional YA debut novel of Sarah Lynn Scheerger, who has published several picture books for young readers. The Opposite of Love (Albert Whitman and Company, publisher) is a good balance of sensibility and hard-boiled, with natural yet funny teen dialogue and an effective use of shifting point of view between the two main characters.
“As much as he wanted to believe the muffins were a sign, maybe they were just muffins.” There’s a great deal of depth and dimension to these teenage characters, who are torn by conflicting forces, fears and emotions. We are told explicitly and we are shown heartbreakingly the truest meaning of that elusive title. Adult readers will relate to this well-told story almost as easily as their own high schoolers.
October 4, 2014
I get a kick out of the way American characters are depicted in British novels. Somehow they all come out sounding like George Babbitt– a little coarse and homespun in their speech. I noticed it recently in Lost Horizon by James Hilton, which had one American among its cast of characters, and you would swear you were hearing the voice of George Babbitt. It doesn’t bother me, it’s just interesting and funny. I’ve seen other examples, but can’t recall where right now. Can anyone think of a good example of this phenomenon?
September 26, 2014
Please see my son’s blog, http://5432fun.tumblr.com/ , for my latest music review, plus lots of other musical events and insights. Thanks.
September 21, 2014
If holocaust literature is a genre, then I have recently read some of its best examples. Rachmil Bryks was a holocaust survivor from Poland, who wrote his stories in Yiddish, many of them during the holocaust itself in the Lodz ghetto and even in Auschwitz. They were published after the war, and eventually translated into other languages. The collection I read was titled A Cat in the Ghetto, and included the title story and several other stories. The longest story was “Kiddush Hashem”, a gut-wrenching portrait of life (and death) in Auschwitz. It is never easy to read such stories, but I do recommend Bryks’ stories because of their honesty and authenticity.
For similar reasons, I found The Pawnbroker, the 1961 novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, one of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last several years. The Pawnbroker is the Harlem-set story of a holocaust survivor trying to cope with the pressures of everyday life with a profoundly-damaged body and brain. It has to be a difficult task to describe the innermost thoughts and feelings of a holocaust survivor, especially for a writer who did not have first-hand experience. But in The Pawnbroker, I would say that Wallant came as close to the mark as could be hoped for. With spare, hard language and experimental syntax, Wallant seemed to draw quite effectively from the stylings of Nathaniel West and James M. Cain. Sadly, like West himself, Wallant died young after completing four novels. But his Pawnbroker left us a character as memorable and as broken as Orwell’s Winston Smith, and it’s hard to overlook the parallels between 1984’s dystopian society and the reality of Nazi terror, which left so many broken victims like Wallant’s iconic Pawnbroker.
July 5, 2014
Should I keep reading? 70 pages into the book and hopelessly intrigued by a neat and clever plot? Or should I dump the book into the return slot at the library first chance I get? That was my moral dilemma. After a brief soul-search, I decided to keep reading, and except for one detail the book is a bright little gem. The book is called Jacob’s Ladder, the year was 1921, and the author was E. Phillips Oppenheim. The detail that stopped me cold in the middle of a paragraph? The thinly-veiled indication that E. Phillips Oppenheim was an anti-semite.
I know nothing about the man except that he was an English writer who published more than 100 novels and dozens of story collections and thus was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. And it wouldn’t be the first case of anti-semitism in mainstream literature, by a long shot. What about The Merchant of Venice, or take a look at Oliver Twist. Of course, the Jewish characters in those classics were stereotyped candidly and directly. And, Shakespeare and Dickens both instilled redeeming qualities into the characters to somewhat offset the stereotype. The characterization that bothered me in Jacob’s Ladder was obliquely done and so insidious that it almost went by me undetected. I cannot, even now, be absolutely sure of my theory: it was a hint of racial prejudice, a descriptive word or two plus a stereotyped occupation.
So I would really like to know if others have read Oppenheim’s books and come away with the same impression. Maybe what I saw in Jacob’s Ladder was just a tiny moral hiccup in a vast body of otherwise creditable work.