BOOK REVIEW: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a dramatization of the last couple years of the deposed King’s life. It is written entirely in verse, which is not the norm for Shakespeare (only a couple other histories are purely verse, most mix prose and poetry.)

The story opens with two gentlemen petitioning Richard II about their dispute. One of the men, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused the other, Thomas Mowbray, of both misappropriating funds and being involved in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (a relative of Bolingbroke’s.) Mowbray denies these claims. First, Richard attempts to mollify the men and bring about a peaceful settlement. When this fails. Richard agrees to allow the two men to undertake “trial by combat” – i.e. dueling to the death. While this seems to provide a solution, as combat is about to take place, Richard changes his mind and calls off the match. Instead, the King banishes both men into exile – Mowbray permanently and Bolingbroke for ten years [adjusted to six years.]

As in Hamlet, indecisiveness is the root of tragedy in this play. Had Richard let the two men duel it out as planned, he likely would have died as King instead of being deposed. If Mowbray had won, then Bolingbroke would not have been around to later usurp the crown. If Bolingbroke had won, he would have automatically received his inheritance upon the death of John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle) and – therefore – Richard wouldn’t have confiscated John’s holdings to fund a war in Ireland. Either way, Richard would have been better off had he let the duel happen. But, because he didn’t, and then took possession of Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he triggered a chain of events that would involve Bolingbroke invading England against minimal resistance [and increasing support] as Richard was off fighting in Ireland.

While this play is generally classified as “a history,” it has been known to be called a tragedy, and the ending certainly fits that genre. In the last act a conspiracy to unseat the newly coronated king, Henry IV [Bolingbroke,] is revealed when the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, is involved in the conspiracy. Aumerle races to King Henry and gets him to grant him leave without knowing what treachery was in the works. Henry agrees, but then the Duke of York shows up asking the King to punish his son for his involvement in the conspiracy. It looks like York is about to have his way when the Duchess (York’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) enters and implores the new king to spare her boy – which Henry does (though he has the conspiracy brutally crushed with most of the conspirators killed and those who weren’t killed being captured.)

Also in the last act, one of Henry’s loyalists overhears an off-the-cuff remark that Henry makes about wishing Richard dead. The henchman decides to go to the prison and take matters into his own hands. The play ends with a mortified Henry rebuking the murderer and announcing that he, himself, will go to the holy land in an attempt to make amends for the suggestion that triggered Richard’s murder.

I found this to be an engaging tragedy. The histories aren’t often as intriguing as the tragedies, but this play features and intense – if straightforward – narrative arc. If you’re interested in reading Shakespeare’s histories, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out. It also sets up what is sometimes called “the Henriad,” [a tetralogy of plays] which includes “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” That makes “Richard II” a logical starting point to take on the four-play epic.

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BOOK REVIEW: King Edward III by William Shakespeare

King Edward IIIKing Edward III by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play, one of the histories attributed to Shakespeare, is among those that have only in recent decades come to be included in The Bard’s canon. While the current consensus among Shakespeare experts seems to be that this play was authored or co-authored by Shakespeare, it remains possible that it wasn’t or that it was only partially written by him. [Fun fact: Shakespeare was known to collaborate, even though only experts know anything about any of his collaborators — and even then it largely seems to be educated guesswork.]

This is not among the most narratively satisfying of Shakespeare’s plays, but histories inherently face the issue of following the events as they happened – at least in some degree. Even kings don’t necessarily live drama-shaped lives. The play addresses two major events in Edward’s life. The first is his unsuccessful wooing of a beautiful Countess after the King’s forces drive back a Scottish attack on the Earl of Salisbury’s castle. This part follows the common dramatic theme of the mere presence of a beautiful woman draining men of both virtue and smarts. For a time, the Countess simply rebuffs Edward’s advances, but when that doesn’t work, she tells him that the only way they can be together is if each one murders their current spouse. The Countess only says this to snap Edward out of it, but when he agrees to take her up on the bargain, she changes tack. She tells Edward that if he doesn’t quit his pursuit of her, she will end her own life. This does snap Edward out of his horn-dog induced insanity.

The second story line involves King Edward’s fight to claim the crown in France. While many will find this the more gripping part of the play, it’s not King Edward III, but rather his son Prince Edward, who is really the hero of this fight. It’s Prince Edward who is engaged in the most savage fighting and who narrowly ekes out a victory.

While this may not be as engaging and gripping as Shakespeare’s tragedies or comedies, it is an interesting way to glimpse history. I have little knowledge of British history, and can’t really say how accurate the depiction of events is, but Shakespeare generally follows the basic contours of events as accurately as was probably known at the time. I highly recommend all of Shakespeare’s works, but if you don’t have time for them all, this is probably one you’ll set aside for the time being.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Controversy swirls around this kid-friendly fantasy novel, a controversy not dissimilar to that which plays out among diehard “Star Wars” fans. This book was the sixth of seven books to be written by Lewis as part of what became “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but it’s a prequel that describes the creation of Narnia. Therefore, some people claim that it must be read first because it shows the dawn of the alternate world on which the rest of the series is based. Others, however, insist that the books should be read in the order written, i.e. beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” [Lest one think one is offending the author’s sensibilities by reading this one first, it should be pointed out that Lewis, himself, said he had no intention of writing more than the first volume when he started, and – therefore — it’s not as though reading this one first is an assault on his plans.] While I have no dog in the fight, per se, this is the first book of this series that I’ve read. I intend to read “Lion / Witch / Wardrobe” at some point, as it is one of the most popular books in the series. [After that, we’ll see; I’m not a huge fan of series books.]

The titular nephew is a boy whose mother is ill and his father is working in India, and, therefore, the boy and his sick mom are living with an aunt and uncle. Soon after Digory meets the next-door-neighbor girl, Polly, who will be his partner in adventure, the young explorers accidentally stumble into the uncle’s office / laboratory. The uncle is what Christopher Booker calls a “Dark Father-figure / Tyrant” – i.e. he is a manipulative and cowardly old man who uses others recklessly to his own advantage. In the case of Digory and Polly, he tricks the girl into donning a ring that will send her into a parallel universe, and then he manipulates Digory into going after her so that he can get a report in order to learn what is on the other side (The rings come in pairs and she has no “return ring.”) [Note: for the adult reader — and even many older and / or more sophisticated young readers – the weakest part of this book is the fact that the uncle was able to create these rings when it’s clear he doesn’t even know how they work. This element requires one to check one’s credulity at the door, and just accept the answer is “magic.” It is, after all, a kid’s book.]

The ring transports the dynamic duo to a forest that serves as a transshipment station between worlds. It is a quiet and peaceful place. Once Digory follows Polly through, the natural question arises as to whether they should go straight back home or check out one of the other worlds. They decide to go into another world to see what it’s like. One of the prevailing themes of this book is the very Biblical question of how one confronts temptation. When they get to the parallel world, they find that its inhabitants have been frozen by some sort of magic. The first [major] temptation of the book regards whether they should ring a bell, an action that will have unknown consequences. In a switch on the Bible story, this time the girl is the voice of reason who urges against temptation, while Digory is quite insistent and – ultimately — gets his way. This unfreezes the world, waking up a beautiful “queen” who turns out to be a witch and completing a collapse of the city that the freezing had interrupted. When Digory and Polly escape back to the forest, they unwittingly bring the Witch along with them, and – even worse – she manages to follow them back to their world.

While the Witch doesn’t retain all her magical powers on Earth, she is quite strong and does manage to create quite a ruckus. Realizing he is responsible for the mayhem, Digory realizes he must get rid of the Witch. In the process of trying to get the Witch back to her own world, Digory, Polly, the magician / uncle, a cabman, and the cabman’s horse are pulled into a different alternate world, a world where Aslan, the lion, is in the process of creating Narnia. The Witch escapes off to do mischief, happy to be back in a place of magic. In Narnia, some of the animals are of an intelligent / talking variety, and – as it happens – this includes the cabman’s horse, Fledge.

Digory believes that Narnia, being a magical place, might have something that can save his ill mother. While he tries to get Aslan to give him some such magical medicine, what Aslan actually gives him is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to again face temptation and to decide whether he will do the right thing. This opportunity involves Digory, Polly, and Fledge going on a mission for a magical MacGuffin, a mission that ultimately, Digory – alone — can complete.

I read an illustrated version of this book. The illustrations might be nice for reading to children, though they didn’t add a lot for adult readers, and were fairly sparsely placed throughout the story.

If one can get past the implausibility of the uncle – who is a bit of a doofus – creating these high-powered magic rings that allow trans-dimensional travel, a power beyond that of the Witch who is shown to be in all ways more advanced than the uncle with respect to magic (except, with regards to the rings,) then the rest of the story is reasonably sound for a fantasy novel. I found the book to be engaging and worth reading. As I said, I can’t say whether it is better to read this volume first or sixth, but it does read as a standalone story.

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POEM: Literary Journeys

I’ve taken journeys by the page,
sitting before the Globe’s great stage,
trolling a knight’s tilt at windmills,
and seen where Grendel made his kills
to kick off a much greater rage.


I learned why birds sing in their cage,
and why the caged go on rampage,
while knights and knaves go quest for thrills.
I’ve read of roads…


I’ve spanned the Stone through the Space Age
while living too briefly to be sage,
I’ve moved by dogsled through the chill,
and opulently, with all the frills.
I’ve read of roads…

BOOK REVIEW: King John by William Shakespeare

King John (Folger Shakespeare Library)King John by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories (if not his first,) but is not among his better-known plays. That said, it mixes comedy and tragedy in a way that is engaging and interesting. There were points at which it felt Monty Python-esque and other points at which it was heartbreakingly tragic. In short, one shouldn’t conclude because this play isn’t so well-known that it isn’t an intriguing read.

King John turns heavily on the theme of legitimacy, and the nature of rights to rule and hold title. For the bulk of the play the question of right to rule focuses on the titular character, John, who faces competition in the form of a young boy, Arthur, who many believe has a stronger claim to the crown. But when the play opens, the question of legitimacy is about Philip Faulconbridge, who is an elder son but is being cut out of the family lands as a bastard. But, apparently, Philip’s baby-daddy was King Richard I, and so King John convinces the Philip to give up his claim to Faulconbridge lands and instead be knighted under the name of Richard. Richard [Plantagenet] is a major character in the play and an important supporter of King John.

[Warning: The plot will be discussed in some detail, so those wishing to avoid spoilers should look away now.] The real excitement begins when both King John and King Philip of France show up for a parley at the town of Angers — a fort city in present-day north-west France that was an English-controlled land at the time. The citizens of Angers won’t let either King’s party come inside because there is a dispute about who the actual king is [King John or the boy, Arthur.] As loyal subjects of the King of England, the Angerians will gladly admit the King (and whomever he deems fit) as soon as it’s determined who, exactly, is the king. [This is where the aforementioned Monty Python-like exchanges begin.] The two stupefied Kings eventually agree that their armies will fight and, in that way, determine who the true king is. The armies form up in an open field not far from the city walls. After a series of scuffles, no clear winner is established. However, [Monty Python, round 2] heralds from each side show up within minutes of each other — both heralds claiming that their King won [and, thus, should be granted access.] To which the citizens of Angers essentially say, ‘We can see you.’ [I paraphrase.]

Showing his worth and cleverness, Richard the Bastard, comes up with a new strategy. He convinces both Kings to put aside their differences for a just a few moments to jointly defeat Angers. Once they’ve destroyed the obstinate town, the Kings can go back to being hostiles and can conduct their parley. Both Kings are agreeable to this, but – of course – the citizenry of Angers are not so keen about it. The people of Angers, also being clever, come up with their own alternative plan. They tell the two kings that they can’t help but notice that King Philip has a son and King John has a niece who would seem to make a lovely couple. If the two were to wed, then it would solidify the relationship between the two kings and the town would then gladly host them (because they could do so with no fear of a ruckus breaking out.)

The marriage takes place and everybody, except Arthur’s mother [who feels badly betrayed,] is elated, but only for about two minutes until the Pope’s emissary shows up. The Pope’s man, Cardinal Pandolf, claims that King John is out of favor with the Holy See and insists the King yield to the Pope’s wishes. King John refused to be emasculated by the Pope, and this creates an awkward rift in the newly bonded families. Pandolf tells King Philip that he’d better defeat King John or he, too, will be on the Pope’s shit-list. France decides that going to war with the new in-laws is better than being on the Pope’s bad side.

In the ensuing battle, the most crucial outcome is that little Arthur is captured by King John’s forces, and control of Angers is solidified by John’s men. John orders one of his followers, a citizen of Angers, to kill Arthur – to firm up his position, especially since the bonding by marriage had such an ephemeral effect. Hubert can’t bring himself to kill the precocious boy, and, instead, hides him.

King John comes to regret the killing of Arthur (which he continues to believe took place) in part because some English noblemen are clamoring for the boy’s release, and (probably) in part because he’s ashamed of the morally reprehensible act. After King John sternly rebukes Hubert for actually following his orders, Hubert tells him that it’s no problem, for the regicidal murder did not actually take place. Again, it momentarily looks like all will be well (to King John and Hubert at least. Readers learn that Arthur, having narrowly talked his way out of being murdered, decides to make a jump from the castle either to safety or death, but it does not go well for the boy – i.e. he dies on impact. FYI – This tactic of revealing information to the audience that characters are kept in the dark about is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s great contributions to the art of story. It might seem like it’s “giving things away,” but it actually creates a visceral effect in which the audience member knows that the bottom is about to drop out on a temporarily pleased character.)

When the truth shakes out, King John contacts Pandolf and makes up with the Pope in exchange for having the French attack-dog called off (especially since a number of the King’s nobles have switched sides.) At first this doesn’t go well. Philip, having already once been treated as the Pope’s lapdog, refuses to make peace because to do so would make him look like nothing more than the Pope’s personal hand-puppet. King John is poisoned by a monk, and, after a touch-and-go period, eventually succumbs. Philip’s son, Louis, does ultimately agree to make peace – not that it does John any good.

I enjoyed this play tremendously. The swift changes of fortune keep one guessing about whether the story will ultimately play out as tragedy or comedy. It’s definitely worth reading.

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Clerihew of American Literary Greats

I
Edgar Allan Poe
always lacked for dough.
Still, he always strived
to not be buried alive.


II
Emily Dickinson
lived a bit like a nun,
but her verse was insightful —
even sans an earthly eyeful.


III
Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain,
wrote personas known to speak plain.
His nom de plume
means “fathoms, two!”


IV
The poet Walt Whitman
had a startled milkman.
Never one to be subdued,
if you just dropped by, he might be nude

BOOK REVIEW: Poems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke [Trans. Will Stone]

Poems to NightPoems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 2, 2021

This is a new English translation of Rilke’s 1916 collection of poems themed around the night. It includes the twenty-two poems of the “Poems to Night” collection, as well as seven draft poems from the same collection and another fifteen poems and fragments on the theme of night. Most of the poems were written during the same period as “Duino Elegies,” which is one of Rilke’s most beloved collections.

The period in which the collection was being composed was a tragic one for Rilke. He was trapped by the war in Germany (while he was born in Prague, he’d been living in France at the time) and all his possessions [in France] were disposed of by his landlord. He had a bit of military service, and — though it was a desk job — he wasn’t cut out for it. And he had an intense affair with a French artist.

The poems mix imagery with a heavy dose of strategic ambiguity — leaving the possibility for the poems to be interpreted in various ways. One might suspect a collection themed around the nighttime and written by a German in the midst of life crises would be deadly morose, but I felt that Rilke balanced the more somber elements with beauty and vibrancy. The poems felt more like a reach for catharsis than a wallowing in suffering (a fault of many poets, in my opinion.)

I found this collection to be evocative and mind-expanding. I’d highly recommend it for readers of poetry.

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BOOK REVIEW: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

CoriolanusCoriolanus by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a brilliant General, and when war is afoot, he’s beloved by his Roman countrymen. However, in times of peace, he’s kind of cantankerous, thinking that people who don’t bleed for their nation should shut their pie-holes and thank their lucky stars for whatever they get in life. This latter fact puts him in conflict with both Rome’s political elite and its commoners. The play opens on this very conflict as rioting citizens are complaining about how the State’s grain silos are full while the rank-and-file are suffering. One gentleman (a friend of Coriolanus,) Menenius, tries to calm the rabble by listening and offering reasoned discussion on the issue. Coriolanus, alternatively, throws fuel on the fire by (and I paraphrase and oversimplify here) telling folks that if they want to get paid, they should join the army.

Soon, Coriolanus is off to war with his arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius — who is also a great General, but for for the competing state of Volsci. Coriolanus is successful in battle, and uses the merit gained him to successfully be elected Consul. Of course, adversaries tire of being shut down because they aren’t all war heroes, and so conflict escalates. Eventually, the Romans run Coriolanus off, sending him into exile. Except for Coriolanus’s closest friends and his family, all of Rome is pleased to see him go.

But then Coriolanus shows up in Volsci and goes to see Tullus Aufidius. He tells his former enemy that one option would be for the Volscian General to kill his old foe where he stands, but alternatively, if they partnered together, they could easily sack Rome. Aufidius and the Volscians go along with this deal, and soon these great Generals have fought their way up to Rome’s gates. Rome sends three waves of envoys to talk Coriolanus out of burning down Rome. The first two envoys, the Consul Cominius and his old friend Senator Menenius, fail completely. The third wave is Coriolanus’s family and his dear mother, with an eloquent speech, succeeds where the others failed.

And now the Romans are happy, but the Volscians… not so much. In particular, Aufidius is seething because he feels he’s been betrayed. Coriolanus tries to tell the Volscian leaders that, “Look, I got you this far, now you can write a treaty on favorable terms, and Rome is no longer going to look down on you.” But Aufidius still feels that he’s been used and cast aside cheaply. So, he stabs Coriolanus.

This is one of Shakespeare’s last, if not his very last, tragedy. It’s fascinating to consider how his slate of tragedies unfolded. “Titus Andronicus” is generally not regarded as highly as the others because of its savagery – which at the time (and even today) was considered a bit over the top. I will say that I enjoyed the visceral intensity of “Titus Andronicus,” but won’t deny it was a bit bonkers in terms of its brutality. Toward the middle of his career, one has Shakespeare’s best-known and most warmly-regarded tragedies, e.g. “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” etc. that are not as harsh as “Titus Andronicus” but are tragedies for more than the main character. The last few tragedies are much more personal in nature: (i.e. “Timon of Athens,” “Antony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.”) Obviously, a lot of people die off stage as Coriolanus works out his revenge plot on the way to Rome, but as far as on-stage / speaking characters, Coriolanus is the sole victim. I don’t know whether this has anything to do with a lesson in “less can be more” or if it’s just how the dice fell in Shakespeare’s writing, but it does make one wonder. (Like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this one is based on recorded history, and so that certainly is a factor in the number of deaths. However, it also raises the secondary question of why various projects held interest to the Bard when they did.) I will say these last plays aren’t as gripping the one’s in the middle, but they are never-the-less sound stories.

Like all Shakespeare, this is a must read.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie (originally published in 1989,) but I just got to it and must say that it’s one of the most skillfully crafted novels I’ve read in some time. One indication of this is that it is both highly readable and often nonlinear in storytelling. Stories that jump about in time have to keep the reader in a rapt state of attention and need to be written with multiple cues as to where one is in the timeline. Otherwise, if one misses a time transition, one is lost — and then the reading becomes a tedious slog. Irving maintains one’s attention through masterful revelation. The reader is always asking questions that are teased out until (at the optimal time) a revelation is made, but by that time one has a new slate of questions – all of which are resolved by book’s end.

The story revolves around the relationship between the titular character, Owen Meany, and the narrator – who is also Meany’s best friend, John Wheelwright. Owen Meany is a fascinating character mentally, physically, and spiritually. Mentally, he is at the top of his class and is often the smartest person in the room even when the room contains adults. Conversely, physically he is the tiniest kid in class and never grows out of that position, and he has a strange and grating voice that also isn’t cured by puberty. Spiritually, he is not only a person of iron-clad faith, he also believes he is God’s instrument. [Faith and doubt is a major theme of this novel.] The close relationship between Wheelwright and Meany is fire-forged by the trauma of Meany hitting a foul ball that careens into the temporal lobe of John’s mother, killing her instantaneously (and, perhaps more crucially, the relationship survives the the revelation that Owen believes he is God’s instrument.) It should be pointed out that Owen is also devastated by the foul ball killing. John’s mother, Tabitha Wheelwright, is as much a mother figure to him as to John, both because Owen’s mother is ambiguously not right in the head and because Tabitha says she will pay for anything necessary (beyond the scholarship he is sure to get) to allow Owen to go to the Gravesend Academy. (John comes from money but Owen is from a struggling blue-collar family, and so Owen couldn’t go to the prestigious school otherwise – even though he is academically much more suitable for such an educational environment.)

One fascinating aspect of character development is that Irving keeps the reader in Owen Meany’s corner. This is no small feat as the boy can be a bit of a pill, being a self-important know-it-all with a Biblical level of faith and (in some cases) dogmatism, as well as – oddly enough – a palpable disrespect for his own parents. One way this is done is by making Meany relatively reasonable, moral, and consistent – i.e. even when he is irksome it is usually in opposition to even more irksome forces. The other way that the author achieves this is by showing us that all the likeable characters in the book stay in Owen’s corner, as well. The most telling example of this is when John admits that he secretly hasn’t forgiven the batter two before Owen in the lineup for a play that allowed his friend to get to bat [while Owen, himself, is exonerated.] When John’s grandmother, who initially finds Owen to be painfully annoying, becomes Owen’s benefactor and primary maternal figure we know that there is something about this guy.

As kids who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, Owen and John enter adulthood at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and the story climax revolves around there diverging paths. Neither is a fan of the war, but Owen believes he has been called by God to participate for a very specific purpose. Therefore, he ends up in the bizarre situation of struggling to get sent to war while the Army finds him unfit for combat because of his diminutive stature (and his friends and family think he’s lost his mind.) The climax and conclusion tie up all the loose-ends generated by the book, including a few that one may have dismissed as purposeless “quirky behavior.”

Interspersed throughout the book are flash forwards to the “present day” (mid / late 1980’s.) These were the least appealing part of the book to read, though they did serve a purpose. For the most part, these sections consisted of John Wheelwright ranting about American politics or discussing his troubled relationship with the church he attends or the school at which he teaches. Ultimately, I saw these as a way to show John’s loathing for the American government and America because he believes they stole the genius of Owen Meany from him and from the world. As I was reading them, I wondered if they weren’t Irving’s way of getting across a loathing for the Reagan Administration and the Iran-Contra Affair. However, these parts also created an evocative lonely feel because one notices all the characters with strong individual identities are absent. This is not to say that the character of John Wheelwright / narrator is ill-developed, but he is a bit milquetoast compared to Owen or even characters like Hester or Grandmother. John’s obsession with national and institutional entities rather than individuals makes one feel the loss at points throughout that John has felt since Owen’s demise.

If you read fiction, this is a must-read. It is storytelling at its best. Despite excellent foreshadowing that lets the reader know the the book is on a tragic course, how this plays out is full of unexpected turns. The book is emotionally charged and intellectually engaging. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Inferno [a.k.a. Hell] by Henri Barbusse

The InfernoThe Inferno by Henri Barbusse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a translation of the French novel, L’Enfer, which is alternatively entitled Hell or The Inferno in various English language editions. It’s a short work with a simple premise, but is nevertheless psychologically and philosophically intriguing. An unnamed narrator, lodging at a rooming house, discovers that he can see and hear into an adjacent room. The book describes what this man witnesses, as well as doing some philosophizing about what he sees and the conversations he hears.

While the events of the book are voyeuristic and said voyeur does witness various sexual dalliances, it’s not a graphic – and certainly not a pornographic – work. The author is as much interested in the pillow talk as he is in the acts of intimacy, which it’s not clear how well he can see anyways.

It should also be pointed out that not all of what the narrator witnesses is carnal in nature. It could be argued that the most fascinating scenes involve an old man who is dying. In addition to the non-erotic intimacy of dying, itself, there’s a scene in which a priest comes to offer the dying man last rites. At first the old man is agreeable enough to this, but as the priest’s dogmatism and accusatory tone becomes oppressive, the man has enough and tries to send the priest away. The scene turns expectation on its head as the priest is so fearful for the man that he ultimately tries to just get the man to say the bare minimum needed to ensure his salvation. But, by that time the man — who doesn’t seem fearful at all – is no longer interested.

Another intriguing scene sits toward the end of the book. It’s one in which the story goes meta- on itself. The narrator, this time dining at a restaurant, witnesses a well-known writer who is sitting at a nearby table tell his guests about his new writing project. What he describes is the same as the book one has just read (in subject but not in tone) – i.e. it involves a boarder who is a voyeur, peeking in on an adjacent room. The difference is that the fictitious author wants to make it all humorous. This offends the narrator’s sensibilities. The narrator presumably wishes such a book to be more like the one that one is almost finish reading – deeper and more philosophical.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and evocative. It puts the reader into the voyeur’s seat and shows one people’s behavior when they think they are alone, they think they are only with a loved one, or they are engaged in intimate activities with someone with whom they don’t have a truly intimate relationship. It makes one think about how well one really reads the people one comes in contact with.

If you are interested in the psychology of intimacy and solitary behavior, this book raises some interesting considerations. I’d highly recommend it for individuals not too weirded out by the book’s voyeuristic aspect.

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