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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BOOK REVIEW: Manga Classics Frankenstein Adapted by M Chandler

Manga Classics FrankensteinManga Classics Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 10, 2020

 

This is Mary Shelly’s story adapted into a manga-style graphic novel. It’s the story of an ambitious young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who races to create a human-like living being, but faced with the horror of seeing the creature alive and in the flesh, Victor flees, abandoning his “monster” to its own resources. Shelly’s story is considered one of the first (if not The first) science fiction novel and is also one of the great works of horror. But it’s not just a piece of cross-genre pop fiction. Because it artfully deals with a number of issues central to the human experience, such as the potential for monstrosity in ambition and question of whether evil is made or birthed, the book is frequently studied as literary fiction and is one of the preeminent works of the Romantic movement.

The manga adaptation follows the beats of Shelly’s story. The story opens in media res with a Captain Walton seeing Victor out on the ice. Victor is giving chase to his creature. Walton brings the haggard scientist aboard. Thus, the tale is told through this device of a story within a story. The manga adaptation even begins with an epistolary (told through letters) entry and revisits that form briefly at the end. However, the story is largely conveyed as a shipboard Victor introduces flashbacks by directly speaking to the Captain. Shelly wrote the novel in epistolary form, which was popular in those days, but it isn’t the most conducive to a graphic vehicle. The epistolary dialogue bubbles are given their own distinct font, and so it’s not hard to distinguish them.

The major points of the story will be familiar to many, even if one hasn’t read the book. [While the most famous of the movies are quite different and less philosophical, elements of the story appear throughout various pop culture media.] In a nutshell, Victor Frankenstein goes off to university, learns to animate a pile of stitched up animal and human parts, and goes deadbeat dad when his creature comes to life. A while later, Victor returns to his home to find that his young brother William has been murdered, and that a beloved family servant, Justine, is to be tried for the killing. Nobody in the family believes Justine is responsible, and Victor (in particular) has reason to believe his sins have come back to haunt him. (However, Victor’s ongoing lack of capacity to truly see what his sins are and to address them is the source of virtually all the suffering in the book – not only his own. While the creature does the killing, Victor often comes off more monstrously. Conversely, the creature explains himself in a way that invites empathy in the reader.)

The monster appears to Victor and tells him the whole story of what happened after Victor fled. The creature wandered off and prodigiously learned how to be human [including how to speak and read classic literature,] largely by watching the De Lacey family from a distance. In his loneliness, the creature introduces himself to the blind old man De Lacey, and the meeting is going swimmingly until De Lacey’s [sighted] children come home and freak out upon seeing the monstrous (if articulate) being before them. This is when, twice spurned, the monster goes to Victor’s home, kills William, and frames Justine.

The monster offers Victor a deal, if Victor will build the creature a companion, it will stop its deadly rampage. Victor travels to England and Scotland, mostly with a friend Clerval, but leaves solo to a remote island to construct and animate the creature’s companion. The creature follows him. With Frankenstein’s bride stitched together, Victor has a change of heart and destroys it as the creature watches. Instead of killing Victor as the self-obsessed scientist expects it to, the creature retreats after delivering an ominous threat. A pair of dire tragedies follow. It is the second of these that results in Victor’s chase of the monster toward the Arctic pole.

Soon, we are back to the point that Victor is on the ship. The crew are petitioning Captain Walton to return toward home even though Victor has already begged the Captain to assume the scientist’s obligation to kill the creature [if the beaten-down scientist is unable to.] Ultimately, Walton agrees to turn back because he is at risk of getting his crew killed. Victor is in poor shape. We see the creature once more, when he comes to ask forgiveness of his creator. The creature explains to Walton that it isn’t the only monster, nor is it the one whose actions really created the tragedy.

I thought the art, which was drawn and shaded in monochrome, was well-done. The artist took efforts to capture the descriptions conveyed in the book. They chose to stick with the convention of reading as one would a Japanese manga (right to left, not left to right,) but there is a handy explainer page up front to make this clear from the start. Also, there are visual cues to help remind one as one reads, e.g. how the bubbles are positioned and angled, etc., and so I can’t say I had any problem reading it that way. It just seemed a bit odd, but I don’t know whether there is a Japanese edition. If there isn’t, it seems like it would have been just as easy to put it together in the manner of an English language comic book, but – like I say – it was no great reading challenge.

I thought this adaptation was well done. I think one gets a very good sense of the story through the combination of selected text and graphics, as well as the varied styles of text and thought bubbles used to suggest who is speaking or thinking.

I’d highly recommend this book for those wishing to revisit the story in a compact and / or visual form, or even for those who have trouble following the writing style of early 19th century epistolary novels, which can be a bit formal.

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BOOK REVIEW: Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Antony and CleopatraAntony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is Shakespeare’s telling of the tragic love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Mark Antony was one-third of a triumvirate (along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus) ruling Roman territories. Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt. The couple carries out an intense love affair despite the fact that Antony is legally wed to two other women over the course of the play. Early in the play we learn that his first wife, Fulvia, has died and that she was part of a rebellion against Octavius. Hanging out in Egypt, playing kissy-face with Cleopatra, Antony is largely oblivious to events in Rome. Fulvia’s death would be a boon to the love affair, but shortly later [when Antony makes a trip to Rome to deal with Roman affairs, including the campaign against Sextus Pompey,] he ends up marrying Octavia – Octavius’s sister. This marriage is explicitly made to re-cement a growing rift in the triumvirate [and it’s probably also hoped that it might keep Antony from living in Egypt in his own little world.]

While Antony has been accused of being out of touch, he does become irate when Octavius unilaterally decides to renege on a peace treaty with Sextus Pompey. In conjunction with the removal of Lepidus from the triumvirate, being left out of the decision to fight Pompey triggers Antony to take his portion of the Roman lands [the Eastern portion] and jointly rule them with Cleopatra in conjunction with her Egyptian lands. Of course, this brings Antony head-to-head with Octavius. The Battle of Actium, which was fought at sea [though Antony is strongly advised he would be much better off strategically to fight on land,] is a major event in the story. The battle is a disaster for Antony and Cleopatra. The latter prematurely withdraws her fleet, Antony follows, letting his naval forces collapse and the battle is decisively handed to Octavius.

Antony is enraged both by Cleopatra’s apparent betrayal and by self-loathing over his own decision not to fight to the bitter end. Still, his love is so intense that he quickly makes up with Cleopatra even though it appears that he caught her in the act of seriously mulling over Octavius’s offer [delivered via messenger] for a deal whereby she would give up Antony and be spared.

Antony is again enraged when he loses the battle on land, believing he’s been betrayed by Cleopatra once more. Still, he can’t help but be moved when he is told that Cleopatra has died. In fact, she is alive at that point. It turns out that Antony being told that Cleopatra is dead was an ill-considered scheme by Cleopatra to win back Antony’s affections.

This brings us to the most frequently discussed feature of this play, the character of Cleopatra. She is often referred to as Shakespeare’s most well-rounded and intriguing female character. This is saying a lot because Shakespeare has some clever and courageous women among his characters. [True, he also has a number of female characters that serve only as victims, love interests, or some combination thereof.] Probably part of this admiration can be chalked up to the fact that the Egyptian queen is the only female character who has true agency – independent of a father, a husband, a brother, a king, or a fiancé. However, it’s also got to do with the fact that Cleopatra manages to combine the ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ vanity and petulance of a shallow teenage girl with the ‘Ready my battle fleet!’ authority of a commander. She is both in one package, and people [apparently] find her convincingly so. Mark Antony is also a mish-mash of the loyal and virtuous leader we knew from Julius Caesar but dulled by being smitten and lovelorn. [One event that stands out as showing Antony’s character is when he has the wealth of a traitorous man, Enobarbus, forwarded home to him. It can’t fully be determined whether this is an act of pure virtue or a clever screw-you. If the latter, it worked splendidly as Enobarbus is crippled with regret for shifting sides to join Octavius.]

At any rate, Cleopatra’s plot to endear herself to Antony by making him feel her loss fails utterly. Having been definitively routed by Octavius by sea and by land, and now believing his true love is dead, Antony mortally wounds himself in an attempted suicide. [After failing to get a subordinate to do it for him – one of whom commits suicide himself to be freed of the obligation of killing Antony.] The play ends with Cleopatra’s own dramatic suicide by asp. It should be noted that she kills herself not so much because her poorly conceived plan contributed to Antony’s death, but more because she can’t take the idea of being paraded through the streets of Rome and being subjected to the imagined barbs of Octavia –Antony’s legal wife. [At least there is a great deal of explicit discussion of this fear of humiliation, and not so much of regret.]

This was one of Shakespeare’s last tragedies. For many it is one of his most beloved [though I’d put it more in the middle of the pack.] Still, it’s a great read, and I particularly enjoyed the latter acts.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971 by Allen Ginsberg

The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971 by Allen Ginsberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 10, 2020

 

Not to be confused with the poetry collection that derived from the thoughts, drafts, and dreams contained herein, this is an edited and annotated journal from that period. In addition to drafts of poems from that collection, the journal includes prose descriptions of both real world and dream world events – as well as various notes Ginsberg made to himself. In addition to fans of Ginsberg and Beat poetry, the primary audience for this book will be poets and others with curiosity about how the [poetic] sausage gets made.

Many of the entries contained in this volume are dream journaling. That is significant both because one can see how dream images worked into Ginsberg’s poems, but also because it is crucial to understanding Ginsberg’s approach to poetry – an approach which highly valued the subconscious mind. One can see this in a June 6, 1966 entry in which Ginsberg, after complimenting Bob Dylan’s poetry, goes on to work through why he thinks Dylan’s lyrics are so effective. Saying, “…he takes no thought for superficial logic but reads into his mind like a Rorschach blot.” Drilling down into deep and unconscious bits of the mind is crucial to Ginsberg’s poetry, and may hint at why he was so drawn to the Buddhist and yogic teachers who were undisputed masters of this domain of the mind. Some might accuse those who attempt to tap into this stream-of-consciousness of being lazy, but it really is a challenge to draw from that mystical well. An April 8, 1969 journal entry tells of a dreamt meeting between Ginsberg and a collector of literary memorabilia. The two were looking over a Hemingway manuscript, and it says, “We talk ‘Hemingway wasn’t such a good writer,’ I guess, after seeing plodding paper of manuscript.” [It’s not clear whether this is the stated opinion of Ginsberg, the collector, both, or even whether Ginsberg remembered that detail.] Of course, Hemingway thought drafts were to writing as lumping together clay was to sculpting. [At least, I’d guess as much from Hemingway’s famous quote, “The first draft of anything is shit.”] These are very different approaches to the craft of putting words on paper – writer as shaman versus writer as sculptor. [Note: it’s not that Ginsberg didn’t believe in editing. Owners of “The Fall of America” collection might compare its poems to the drafts herein. It’s just a matter of giving more weight to respecting the voice tapped into and less to the pruning and shaping process.]

The poems include those of political protest, confessionals, calls to Eastern spirituality, image-centric poems from travels in America and abroad, poems that aren’t readily categorized, elegies, and ones that are some combination of the above. It was an intense period for Ginsberg both as one of society’s dissenting voices as well as a private person. The former because the war in Vietnam continued to be a charnel house for America’s youth and because the psychedelia witnessed a sharp turn from laissez-faire conditions to an outright war on drugs. The latter because of untimely deaths of some of his close friends, a couple of whom were also major figures in Beat literature, i.e. Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (both of whom died in their 40’s.) This makes for a number doleful or angry poems. However, one can also see times – particular in the last couple years covered by the volume – where Ginsberg shifts tone to one more reflective of the yogic / Buddhist thought process. Perhaps, rage can only burn so bright and so long, or maybe those spiritual lessons were taking root.

At its best, Ginsberg’s poetry is mystically transcendent, caustically burning, or brutally candid. It takes one on a journey to scenic places and through a turbulent time. History is embedded in these journals because so much of Ginsberg’s subject matter is a reaction to what was going on in America at the time: politically, legally / judicially, and diplomatically. One can feel the influence of Blake and Whitman throughout. At its worst, Ginsberg’s poetry reads a little like either collected snippets from the news or a personal to-do list. However, if one is interested enough to read the poet’s journals, one will probably find these lines provide insight into his work and the forces that shaped him. There are few (not many) cryptic notes that will separate the super-fans from those of us who can only guess what Ginsberg was trying to note. Those who aren’t familiar with Ginsberg’s work and who have delicate sensibilities regarding erotic matter should be aware that his homoerotic poetry is explicit, graphic, and widespread throughout.

I thought the editorial comments, which are clearly differentiated from Ginsberg’s text, pulled their own weight. There isn’t a lot of this editorial commentary, mostly a paragraph at the beginning of each year’s entry and then a few here and there throughout as needed to offer background. However, this text does offer valuable insight. For example, one sees toward the end of the volume that Ginsberg begins writing in lyric verse (rhymed and [roughly/musically] metered) verse from his usual free verse. [He also writes the occasional haiku, and more commonly in free verse informed by haiku’s Zen sensibilities.] Through commentary, one learns that Ginsberg went through a phase of being hyper-aware of how easily people picked up lyrics like those of Dylan, while few could recite poetry [particularly modern vers libre poems.] So, Ginsberg went through a period of musically recording Blake’s poems (many of which are memorable / recitable,) as well as writing more lyrical poetry himself. The footnotes were also useful, pointing out where final versions of poems were published and clueing readers into the people, places, and events referred to in Ginsberg’s entries. (Many of which were unfamiliar to me as no more than words.)

If you are poet or a fan of either Ginsberg or the Beats, generally, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don QuixoteDon Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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DON QUIXOTE is among the earliest novels, and – owning to its humor and thought-provoking story – it continues to be one of the world’s most important literary works. The book tells the tale of a Spanish gentleman, Alonzo Quixano, who has a combination midlife crisis and breakdown of sanity that result in his adoption of the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha (a.k.a. Knight of the Rueful Countenance, and [later] Knight of the Lions) and his setting off as a knight errant (i.e. a roving warrior in search of adventure, competition, and opportunities to be virtuous / chivalrous.) We are told that this breakdown is the culmination of obsessive reading of books on Chivalry. These books were the pulp fiction of the time: low-brow, sensationalist, and – to the scholarly-minded — pointless. A recurring debate throughout the book is whether these books are harmful and should be avoided or whether they are a harmless amusement that may even have benefits. For Don Quixote, they are neither; he sees them as a truthful depiction of how knights live an behave.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Don Quixote makes two journeys away from his village in La Mancha. The first trip is short-lived, beginning with some preliminaries before he can strike out as a knight. A handy series of delusions help set events in motion. In his mind, an old broken-down horse becomes “Rocinante” (a regal knight’s steed.) A beautiful farmgirl who he has never met becomes the Lady Duclinea del Toboso – object of his affections [unbeknownst to her.] Finally, an innkeeper becomes the King who Don Quixote asks for knighthood [which the bewildered innkeeper bestows upon the deranged old man.] Shortly thereafter, Don Quixote takes his first beating and is taken back home.

During this time period, his concerned staff and neighbors burn all his books on Chivalry, but that has little impact [possibly because he’s already read all the books and knows them by heart] and soon Don Quixote is riding out on his second sally — this time with his squire, Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is able to face quite a number of ignominious adventures during this outing, including his famous charge on the windmills – which he sees as giant arm-swinging monsters. [From whence the turn of phrase “tilting at windmills” derives to describe the behavior of charging into a futile and ill-advised battle with an illusory enemy.] At the end of the first part, Don Quixote is dragged back to his village by the curate and the barber (two men interested in saving Don Quixote from his madness.) Believing he is under an enchantment, Don Quixote is able to be returned home with minimal kicking and screaming.

Part two of the book continues the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they again leave their home village. It’s worth noting that Cervantes presents this work as if it were a book within a book – in other words, as if he’s presenting collected tales of the life of Don Quixote as they were presented in other volumes. This creates some amusing instances of the literary equivalent of fourth wall breaking. I found that the second part did feel different from the first. Whereas, part one comes across as a conglomeration of tales, a through-flow of story is more apparent in the second part. The two parts weren’t released together, and so there is probably good reason for this besides a literary decision to change styles. The second part has been said to be more reflective – rather than pure farce – and that makes sense as Cervantes had about a decade to ponder what he wanted to say. Much of the second part revolves around the activities of a Duke and Duchess who prank Don Quixote. By this time, the first volume of Don Quixote’s exploits has been in publication for a while and the “knight errant” is well-known as a madman and a buffoon.

Pranking both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is a challenge as the two men are quite different in their vulnerabilities. The Duke and Duchess can use suggestion to exploit Don Quixote’s inclination to mentally conjure grandiose, romantic scenarios. However, Sancho Panza is of sound mind and has a kind of pragmatic insightfulness and so they must – instead — exploit his lack of sophistication and cowardice. The Duke gives Sancho Panza governorship of an island – something that Don Quixote has been promising he would give his squire as soon as some King or Queen saw fit to reward him for his virtuous service as a knight errant – which, of course, is not forthcoming. Sancho rules for only ten days before his hunger and cowardice reach their limits in the face of: first, a doctor who puts him on a calorie-restrictive diet for the health benefits; and, second, a mock attack on his island.

The book ends after a second battle with a disguised Sanson Carrasco. Carrasco, far from the knight seeking fame that he pretends to be, is a villager from La Mancha who wants to see Don Quixote return home to get well. He “battles” Don Quixote once as the Knight of Mirrors about midway through the book, but is defeated (more through a combination of his own inexperience and bad luck than as a result of Don Quixote’s skill.) On this second occasion, he fights as the Knight of the White Moon and defeats Don Quixote – who is forced by the dictates of the wager to return home. At first, Don Quixote plays like he might try out the shepherd’s life for a year, but soon he falls into a funk. Before he dies, he reclaims the name Alonzo Quixano and acknowledges that he’d been out of his mind and that all of his adventures in knight errantry were a farce.

Returning to the question of whether the chivalry books are harmful and should be avoided at all costs or whether they are entertainment with some redeeming features, the reader is really left leeway to conclude as he or she sees fit. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a new question. Plato and his most famous student, Aristotle, argued this same question. Plato believed that all these exciting stories could do is incite people to violence and other unproductive endeavors. Aristotle believed that there could be catharsis (purging of emotions) through dramatic works.

At first blush, it might seem clear to the reader that Cervantes is saying that these works are detrimental. He proposes that they, literally, dried out Don Quixote’s brain and turned him into a madman. However, one might come to feel differently as one sees the influence that Don Quixote has on people. While everyone recognize that he is a madman, most also recognize that he has a sort of wisdom and courage about him. He stands for virtuosity, even if he doesn’t have the power to back it up with weapons that he imagines he does. Sancho Panza also has a sort of wisdom, and one suspects that this sagacity has increased through his exposure to Don Quixote. For the brief time that Sancho Panza is governor, he makes some sound decisions and he never exploits his position to his own gain. While none of the battles of Don Quixote amount to much, people are moved by his advice and his virtuous example.

This is a hard book not to love. I will admit to thinking that — particularly in Part one –it could have benefited from an editor, but given its seminal literary position, it’s hard to give this criticism much weight. [What I mean by it is that there are numerous repetitive examples of Don Quixote mistaking one thing for another and getting into an unwise fight throughout the first part, few of these scenes are anywhere near as effective as the relatively early ‘tilting at windmills’ scene. Therefore, there is a bit of tedium in these scenes.] That said, the book is witty is places and laugh-out-loud funny in others, and it offers philosophical food-for-thought while never being overbearing in the process. If you read fiction, you should definitely read this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-Shan

Cold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the t'Ang Poet Han-ShanCold Mountain: One Hundred Poems by the t’Ang Poet Han-Shan by Hanshan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This brief collection gathers one hundred poems from the T’ang Dynasty poet Han-Shan. Most of the poems included consist of a single eight-line stanza of unrhymed verse of varied meter. [With a few exceptions that had more or fewer lines (often four or twelve.)] I do like that they didn’t pad out edition that I read with a lot of inane babble [as publishers are want to do when a volume is on the thin side.] Part of the reason that they may not have done so is that there is virtually nothing known about the author. It’s not even known whether there was a Han-Shan (i.e. as opposed to a group of people whose poems were anthologized under one name.)

The poems reflect Taoism’s disdain for pretension, authority, or scholarship for scholarship’s sake. Many of the poems reflect Zen sensibilities (which became entwined with Taoist sensibilities.) That is to say, like Zen koan, they seek to interrupt the tendency to overintellectualize matters. That said, in places the poems take a bit of a mocking attitude toward Buddhism. Nature plays prominently among the poems. And some of the poems are humorous or irreverent.

There are footnotes that are helpful in explaining verse that references teachings and events that would have been known to Han-Shan’s readership back in his day, but which most individuals who aren’t experts on Chinese folklore, literature, or religious teachings wouldn’t be likely to get, otherwise.

I enjoyed these poems tremendously. While I can’t say how they related to the original text, the translations were — on their own – works that conveyed wit and wisdom. I’d highly recommend this collection for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody

Introducing Sartre: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, author, and critic, and this introductory guide discusses each of those aspects in descending order of emphasis – meaning it’s largely about his philosophy but it offers insight to his literary works and touches upon his criticism. This is the third book in this series that I’ve read, and I found it to be the best, so far. The other two books I’ve read also each explored the work of a philosopher (fyi – the others were Baudrillard and Kant,) and I think this one was the most appealing to read because it was able to draw upon Sartre’s literary work to convey his philosophical ideas more narratively. Because of this, the book required less intensity of concentration to keep complicated concepts and jargon straight. (Not that any of these books is particularly challenging, but with the hook of characters and stories it’s that much easier to hang on the ideas being expressed.)

As with the other books in the series, the book consists of many tiny sections, each of which uses graphics (usually in the form of cartoons) to emphasize certain information. In the case of this book, there were about seventy-five sections. Many of the sections discuss biographical aspects of Sartre’s life, and influential world events he lived through. The philosophical sections delve most heavily into the existentialist and phenomenological concepts most closely associated with Sartre, but also investigate his political philosophy. With regards to his political philosophy, there was extensive discussion of Sartre’s ideas about freedom and Marxism. Sartre was an ardent advocate of Marxism, but – like many – the theoretical appeal it held for him was somewhat tarnished by the brutal realities seen in Russia and the Eastern European satellite states. As alluded to, there are sections that discuss historical events as they pertain to shifts in Sartre’s thinking.

There are sections that explore Sartre’s various literary and philosophical publications – most notably “Nausea” which is Sartre’s most well-known literary work and which contains some of his most influential ideas. As for his work as a critic, the book focuses heavily upon Sartre’s writings about Baudelaire.

The graphics are all black-and-white cartoons, most of which serve a function similar to text-boxes in reiterating key concepts, or sometimes showing competing ideas in the form of a discussion. They are simply drawn and easy to follow.

I found this to be a useful way to gain some insight into the work of Sartre, who was little more to me than a familiar name before reading this book (though I was aware of his affiliation with existentialism.) If you are looking for a concise guide to Jean-Paul Sartre, this book is worth checking out. I read it via Amazon Prime.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel in Dickens ed. by Gina Dalfonzo

The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His WorksThe Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book captured my attention because (I must confess) I’m delinquent when it comes to the writings of Charles Dickens. I’ve only read “A Christmas Carol” and that is admittedly sad given the profound impact of (and masterful storytelling in) Dickens’ work. The challenge confronting me is that (excepting “A Christmas Carol”) the works of Dickens tend to be huge bookshelf-cracking tomes, and so I’m seeking a strategy by which to approach his publications – given the time investments involved. Because this is a book that largely consists of excerpts from his various works, I figured it might help me devise a plan of how to tackle Dickens (figuratively.) I believe it did help me in that regard.

The book’s theme is how biblical teachings feature in the works of Dickens. While my own reading objectives tend toward the secular, I figured that knowing about the moral conundrums and growth, or lack thereof, of characters would be a good way to understand Dickens’ canon as stories and not only as reflections of religious attitudes. Moral dilemma is, after-all, a central element of storytelling — universally, and not just with regards to religious or mythological contexts. I feel I was correct in this regard, as well. I did learn about which stories were most likely to appeal to me.

I do believe the book was as much about how Dickens (not by himself, by any means, but as part of an artistic and societal movement of the day) influenced the nature of Christianity (both in his time and beyond) as it was about how the Gospel influenced Dickens. I’m not saying this with intent to blaspheme. It’s just that the nature of the problems and how they were approached is very different between the time of ancient Rome and Dickensian London. So, one has a kind of general teaching of being charitable and kind to those less fortunate and it is applied to policy questions that were nonexistent at the time of the Bible or that individuals in the Bible were silent upon.

There are three chapters or section to the book. The first looks at attitudes toward the poor. If one knows anything about the works of Charles Dickens, it’s that they virtually all deal with down-and-out characters having to make their way through worlds controlled by (often uncharitable) wealthy people. This was true of my beloved “A Christmas Carol,” but I know it’s also a major feature in “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “Bleak House,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and others. This first section takes up about half the book. The second section involves the issue of redemption, and it’s about a quarter of the book. The final section is also about twenty-five percent of the book and it looks at living a good life. Each of these chapters has a series of excerpts. Generally, there is a short paragraph of editorial input before each excerpt to explain any necessary background as well as to provide some insight into why the excerpt is included (i.e. how it relates to the book’s theme.) While most of the excerpts come from Dickens’ major novels, it should be pointed out that there are some that come from other works (i.e. nonfiction and short fiction.)

There are some artistic drawings that are congruous with expectations of a Dickens book. Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of ancillary matter, though there is a Forward. I didn’t feel anything else was particularly needed (though a timeline of publications and / or an appendix with concise plot summaries might have made the book a bit easier to use.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the works of Dickens, I’d recommend this book – particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) if you have interests at the intersection of literature and religion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

Timon of AthensTimon of Athens by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a tragic take on a premise similar to that of “The Merchant of Venice.” That is, there is a gentleman who is generous to a fault — and much beloved because of it — who ends up suffering for it. [It’s also a bit like the “Oedipus” trilogy except that, instead of the discovery of unintended incest that sets the lead character walking the wilderness, it’s Timon’s discovery that he isn’t as rich in friendship as he’d thought.] In “Timon of Athens,” the lead character (Timon) is going about business as usual (i.e. being a patron to artists, lending to those in need, and holding banquets) when debt collectors begin to gather at his gate.

At first, Timon is unconcerned. Surely, his friends will help him get through this rough patch, just as he has helped so many of them over the years. However, when he sends his servant out to borrow what he needs to get back in the black, he faces rejection after rejection. Eventually, it hits Timon like a hammer that the only reason he ever got any love was because he was always supporting, feeding, and purchasing the products of Athenians. This realization hastens a sea change in Timon’s attitude. Timon decides to hold one more “banquet” to which he invites those he’s been good to and who’ve not offered the slightest reciprocity. At the banquet, the dishes are uncovered to reveal stones in water. Timon then gives the assembled crowd a piece of his mind. Then, Timon takes off to live in a cave in the woods – shunning contact with humanity.

One intriguing character is Apemantus, who is a Cynic philosopher. [Cynicism was a school of philosophy that was largely ascetic, nature-oriented, and which rejected many of humanity’s norms and values (e.g. valuing comfort and wealth) as anathema to a good life.] Apemantus features in the first part of the story, insulting both Timon and his guests, but also serving as a harbinger of what’s to come when he explains that these sycophants only associate with Timon because of what he does for them. In the second half, Apemantus visits Timon in the latter’s cave and – among other insults – accuses Timon of being a copycat by adopting Apemantus’s way of life.

Living in the woods, Timon stumbles onto a cave of gold. While he could take this money and return to his previous life, that path holds no allure to him. He has no interest in the money. When news of this discovery circulates, people come to the woods to seek Timon’s good favor only to be rebuffed. Alcibiades, a military man who was also wronged by Athens and who now promises to destroy the city, is given gold. Also, Timon gives some money to a couple of prostitutes so that they can go spread venereal disease among the Athenian population. The painter, the poet, and the senators who come to Timon are cursed and sent away. Even Timon’s servant, Flavius, is told to go away, although he is tolerated when it becomes clear that he is – in fact – an honest man who never sought anything more than his just recompense for virtuous service.

It’s generally believed that this play wasn’t a completed work, but rather a work in progress. The pacing at the end does become a bit abrupt, but it’s hard to know for certain. It’s also the case that some points could use fleshing out – notably the discovered gold which gives the latter bit of the play some drama but which also strains credulity. As Shakespeare’s tragedies go, this one is at the other end of the spectrum from “Titus Andronicus” in terms of bloodiness, which is to say it isn’t at all violent. We don’t see Timon’s death but only hear about the discovered grave, and otherwise the soldier who Alcibiades tries to save is the only other fatality of note. There are some critics who don’t even classify this work as a tragedy, but rather as a problem play.

It’s a simple story, but is potent in that it shows such a clear and definite character change. While it’s not one of Shakespeare’s more popular works, it’s definitely worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear (Project Gutenberg, #1128)King Lear by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg page

 

This is the tale of virtuous children, wronged, who nevertheless do the right thing when the time for filial piety is at hand. This play combines two such tales.

The main story involves King Lear pitting his three daughters against each other in a competition to see which daughter will describe her love for him in the most glowing and grandiose terms. When his eldest two daughters (Goneril and Regan) engage in fawning and over-the-top bootlicking while his youngest daughter (Cordelia) will only say that she loves him like a daughter should love her father, Lear becomes enraged with his youngest. While he’d intended a roughly even three-way split of dowry awards between his daughters, he changes his mind and divides Cordelia’s share between the other two. Even when Kent, a nobleman and the King’s right-hand man, begs the King to reconsider (because Kent can see that the older daughters are all talk and no love,) Lear banishes Kent. Not surprisingly, when Lear is later in need, the two toady daughters are less than helpful – turning him out into a wild storm, in fact. A French prince agrees to marry Cordelia even without the dowry because he, like Kent, can see that she is the cream of the crop as far as Lear’s daughters are concerned. As Queen, Cordelia is later in a position to come to help her father in his hour of need. Kent, like Cordelia, maintains loyalty even after being spurned by the King. Kent takes a disguise to continue his service to the King.

The subplot involves another loyal nobleman, Gloucester, who has two sons – a legitimate one named Edgar and a bastard named Edmund. Edmund, like Iago in “Othello,” cleverly goes about poisoning the relationship between Gloucester and Edgar, resulting in Edgar fleeing and adopting the disguise of a peasant. After Edmund’s ambitious plotting becomes known to Gloucester, the nobleman (now blinded for being loyal to Lear in opposition to Goneril and Regan) meets Edgar on his way to Dover. Because of Edgar’s adoption of a crude and common manner of speech and the fact that Gloucester is blind, the father doesn’t recognize his son. A disguised Edgar agrees to lead Gloucester to the chalky cliffs of Dover where the father can suicide plummet to his death. Edgar, however, doesn’t lead him to his death, and along the way learns that Gloucester is remorseful and wishes good things for Edgar.

This is a cautionary tale about our inability to recognize virtue and vice, and the tendency to read the signs wrong. About valuing pretty words over devoted action. Both Lear and Gloucester wrong a soft-talking child while failing to recognize that ambition, not love, motivates the cheap words of each man’s other child(ren.) Definitely, a must-read.

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