BOOK REVIEW: Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Venus in FursVenus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novella revolves around the relationship of Severin and Wanda. Severin is obsessed with Wanda (the titular “Venus in Furs”) to the extent that he seeks to deify her and to submit to her as a slave. The problem arises that Severin can only take this proposition to a middle ground. He isn’t contented with a traditional spousal arrangement, but yet he is unable to submit to the fullest extent of what it means to be enslaved. He, as have many others, believes that if he submits himself fully, he will become the center of Wanda’s world and she will have no need of other relationships. And, as it has for many others, this “domination through submission” scheme frays and fails in time.

Wanda, for her part, recognizes this disparity and is conflicted about the idea of having a slave. Her rational mind thinks it’s a bad idea, her own cravings are for a man with a more commanding personality, but her hedonistic pleasure centers find it a not altogether objectionable state of affairs. After an extended period of spurning the proposition, she goes all in and agrees to test the proposition. If she is reliable, she does this in order to teach Severin a lesson – though one can never tell about the reliability of claims on motive, particularly when made by a character who is conflicted. What is clear is that Severin’s desire to be both her man and her slave is untenable because what she wants in the former is not seen in the latter. As the story unfolds, Severin is exposed to greater and greater challenges to his ability to maintain the façade of slave.

This novella, first published in 1870, is a bit slow-moving, particularly in the early part of the arc. However, it is an interesting study in psychology and how mismatched motives kill relationships. If it seems intriguing, read it, but it’s not a premise everyone will find intriguing. Some will find it disturbingly kinky, though — it should be noted — others will find it far too tame and lacking in explicit sexuality for a book about an intimate relationship.

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BOOK REVIEW: Intimate Ties by Robert Musil

Intimate Ties: Two NovellasIntimate Ties: Two Novellas by Robert Musil
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects two recently-translated novellas written by the Austrian author, Robert Musil. Originally published in Musil’s native tongue in 1911, the novellas in question are: “The Culmination of Love” and “The Temptation of Silent Veronica.” Both novellas revolve around a woman tormented by love relationships and indiscretion. In the first, the woman is haunted by marital infidelity, and in the second, the titular character is entangled in an unconsummated love triangle gone awry.

While I can’t speak to how true the translations are to the original, I will say that the language is beautiful and is the highlight of book. However, these works shun story, and so readers of popular fiction will find them unengaging, and may come away thinking that the book’s greatest feature is its brevity. I will say, that “The Temptation of Silent Veronica” was more pleasurable to read as it built up some tension. Readers of prose poetry may enjoy the play of words and emotional content of these novellas.

For readers of literary fiction and prose poetry, I would recommend “Intimate Ties.” However, I suspect readers of popular fiction will find the book tedious. Particularly, likely to think so are those who pick up the book thinking it is romance or – even more so — erotica. While the themes revolve around love and relationships, the “action” is more in the character’s mind than in the bedroom.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No OneThus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The gist of this philosophical novel’s story is that the Persian sage, Zarathustra, comes down from his cave to inform people of his breakthrough, only to find the townspeople are utterly uninterested. This leads Zarathustra to take his show on the road, where he does better in discovering individuals who rise above the common man, but still they miss the mark of Übermensch – the Superman.

This book somehow simultaneously manages to be abstruse and readable. It can be tough reading when it uses symbolism and leitmotifs that are tough to crack, and when the story arc consists of long sequences of Zarathustra talking at people one after another. [It’s worth noting that I read that this was a particularly challenging book to translate, and so some of the difficulty may result from the edition I read being too literal or not literal enough.] On the other hand, it’s packed with pithy, quotable lines. The most famous of these is, “God is dead.” Others include: “Die at the right time!” “Better know nothing than half-know many things!” and “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.” Also, as I stated the plot in a tiny paragraph, it should be clear that the general flow of events isn’t hard to keep up with.

The quotes I presented above offer substantial insight into the philosophy being presented. First, with “God is dead” Nietzsche is advancing the existentialist fundamental that one needs to look not at religion for life’s meaning or for the means of proper behavior, but one must create one’s own meaning and morality. While some believe that Nietzsche is arguing for amorality, it seems that he’s more arguing to move beyond accepting pre-labeled boxes of “good” and “bad” handed down from on high, and rather insisting that one must make one’s own decisions about such matters. It must be remembered that society’s dictates also include collective prejudices and other negative biases. Second, the whole of the book is dedicated to the recognition that mankind must move beyond its current state of being constrained by the shackles of church, state, and society, and rise to a super-state (i.e. “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.”)

For me, this book picked up in the fourth and final part. This section brings together the more intriguing people Zarathustra interacted with along the road. In general, the book started as a slow read, but became much clearer and more readable as I went. The arguments are not hard, nor is the chain of events, but the way things are stated can be a bit incomprehensible. This may be one of those books for which one would be served by opting for a more heavily annotated edition rather than just the raw text.

I’d recommend this book. Whether one accepts its arguments or not, they are worth understanding.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The storm (i.e. tempest) in question takes place off a remote, desolate, and magical island upon which lives the usurped and exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda. The reader realizes that the storm’s timing is too great a coincidence when it’s revealed that among those on a ship caught in the tempest is Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan. The learned Prospero has developed some magic abilities and gained control over some of the island’s airy spirits — most notably Ariel — as well as the deformed monster / slave named Caliban. Caliban was the son of a witch who was previously in charge of the island, Sycorax. Under Sycorax’s rule, Ariel and the other spirits were imprisoned, so Ariel and the others are now in indentured servitude to Prospero.

The brilliant mind of Prospero has hatched a plot that isn’t all vengeance, but also intends to get his daughter a worthy husband in the form of Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. Both father (Alonso) and son (Ferdinand) are washed ashore after the apparent capsize of the ship, but Prospero sees to it that they are separated. The separation not only allows Ferdinand and Miranda to get acquainted, but also allows Alonso to be put through some trials to hasten his willingness to agree to the intended marriage. As Prospero is using Ariel to carry out his plot, under promise that he will free her, Caliban has joined with some drunken sailors and is plotting to kill Prospero so that he can be free of his bookish master. Needless to say, the crude scheme by the trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo is easily thwarted by Prospero and his spirit minions.

In the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, there’re lines that say: “meet the old boss / same as the new boss.” This play focuses heavily on ideas of hostile take over, the inevitable mixed effects, and how tensions are created that will play out. Ariel has at least the promise of being better off — when she works off her debt to Prospero, that is. Caliban is worse off because he is no longer in the power lineage. Caliban’s partners in plotting see a chance to go from being minions aboard a ship to kings of a tiny dynasty on the island. There is also the theme of relinquishing power, and the difficulty of doing so.

Some fun facts about “The Tempest.” First, it’s believed to be Shakespeare’s last play (although evidence is insufficient for certainty.) Second, while Shakespeare’s plays are typically readily divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories, scholars are a bit divided about which category this play belongs. It’s sometimes categorized as a “tragicomedy” because of its mixed features.

With the storm-washed, rocky island as setting, and the supernatural happenings on the island, this is one of Shakespeare’s eeriest and most mind-bending works.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell And The ButterflyThe Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If it had been written under ordinary circumstances, this would be a fine book. It offers some beautiful imagery and language, and – more importantly — is heartfelt, touching, and nakedly honest. But it wasn’t written under ordinary circumstances, which makes it an astounding book. Its author suffered a severe stroke that, after leaving him in a coma for a time, resulted in a condition called “Locked-In Syndrome,” which resulted in his inability to move any part of his body save his left eyelid. It was by moving this eyelid that he painstakingly dictated the book. As one might suspect, the book is concise and sparse in tone, but it read like that could have been a stylistic choice, rather than a necessity.

The title becomes less nebulous once you know it’s about a man with Locked-In Syndrome. The diving-bell represents his body, a clunky cumbersome entity that limited his perception to narrow slices of the world. The butterfly is his mind, which remained free to go anywhere and create anything he could imagine. Some of what I found most fascinating about the book was the author’s discussion of the mental world he created. Though the book deals even more extensively with how the condition changed his interaction with people. Loneliness is a central theme. Because of the severity of the condition, he is restricted to a special facility and can only see his children on weekends. While his children are the most important to him, he also reflects back to people that he worked with in his role as a magazine editor or who he counted as friends.

The organization is not strictly chronological, and I felt this was beneficial. By presenting flashbacks to before he was injured and, eventually, to when he had his stroke, he broke up the tragedy to keep it from becoming overwhelming.

I found the book to be extremely powerful. I would highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

Story of the EyeStory of the Eye by Georges Bataille
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story follows a couple through a destructive series of events as they chase sexual hedonism. They aren’t a couple in the romantic sense so much as friends who share in common both intense sex drives and also a particular psychology. It’s a psychology commonly associated with rebellion against a repressive upbringing. This rebellion manifests both in a longing for perverse and taboo activities, and also in an urge to debauch the virtuous. This love of depravement is first seen in the pair’s actions with a conflicted girl of their own age, Marcelle, and in the climax and conclusion with a young priest in Seville. In yet a darker turn, the two also conflate violence and sexual arousal.

Character development is not particularly strong in this book, and without the requisite background, the actions of the unnamed male narrator and his companion, Simone, can seem hard to believe at times. (To be fair, the book is more surrealism than realism.) While lack of character development and character complexity are a common problem in erotic literature, this book is also smothered in Freudian belief about how strange sexual drives always and everywhere exist in the subconscious in a struggle to break free. In other words, Bataille may not have felt he needed to set up the reader for the bizarre behavior of the narrator and Simone because he saw the pair as not as unusual, but merely as how most people would behave if they were a bit braver and less inhibited.

Marcelle is the most multi-dimensional character. We see her on a teeter-totter that balances primal urges and constraining morality, or shame and abandon. But we don’t get much depth of her either because she is treated largely as a puppet or plaything for the lead characters.

The novel shares some tendencies in common with the works of Marquis de Sade, but it also displays some differences. The eroticizing of degrading virtuous characters is a theme that holds over. It might also seem that the involvement of a Catholic priest is a continuation of Sade’s philosophy as well. However, there’s a difference. In Sade’s work (and similar works of erotic political philosophy) the priests are lecherous and are villains in league with the aristocracy. Bataille’s priest is a man minding his own business, who would like to be virtuous, but the young priest just doesn’t have the inner strength in the face of a strong-willed debaucher.

From the discussion above and the comparison with the works of the Maquis de Sade, it should be clear that there is a great deal of graphic sexual activity and even a little bit of graphic violence in this book. For readers who aren’t disturbed by that, and who are amenable to a bit of bizarre and surreal activity, the book is intriguing both as a story and for its psychological insight. If you read horror, and aren’t disturbed by fetish sexual activity, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Love a Country by Richard Blanco

How to Love a CountryHow to Love a Country by Richard Blanco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out March 26, 2019

 

This book takes one on a roller coaster ride of insight into the author’s relationship with his country as an immigrant from a family of Cuban exiles. At times the tone is hopeful and at other times seething or even vitriolic. Unlike many of the angry works of political verse of late, this one sometimes reflects that most beautiful of pragmatic truths: one can’t truly love anything if one can’t embrace it imperfections and all. As it happens, this wide sway in tone is partly the result of these poems being collected from various sources. Having a poem commissioned by the State Department in a collection with a poem that was a response to a news story about someone being gunned down is bound to result in some variation in feel. Still, I think the poems were well-organized to reflect the various trials and glories one goes through in a relationship. The angry verse is well-positioned toward the middle, and about the time I was over the rage, the storm clouds began to break up and a more beautiful scene unfolded.

The poems are prose poetry or free verse. There is beautiful use of language interspersed with plain-spoken verse.

I’d recommend this collection for poetry readers. I don’t suspect it will have a particularly wide audience. A jingoistic reader who picks it up for its title will drop it like a hot rock long before getting to the aforementioned angry plateau. Which is not to say that there isn’t something to be gained from reading this book even if it doesn’t comport with one’s own views. The issue of division along fault lines of political-philosophy is a major theme of this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Milkman by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This quirky novel is about a girl struggling to stay out of the limelight in a place where a socio-cultural schism leads to the most mundane happenings becoming a source of intrigue and speculation. The reader is never told that the aforementioned location is Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, between reading the author’s bio-blurb and having been around for the news stories from that city a few decades ago, it’s easy enough to draw that conclusion.

There’s a lot readers aren’t told in this novel. For example, we don’t learn anyone’s proper name. The characters are defined by their relationship to the protagonist (e.g. “ma,” “may-be boyfriend,” or “wee sisters”), his or her profession (e.g. “real milkman” the qualifier distinguishing said individual from the titular character [who is not nor never was – to anyone’s knowledge – an actual milkman],) or a peculiarity of said character (e.g. “tablets girl” or “nuclear boy.”) There is actually a character named “Somebody McSomebody.” One can only speculate about the author’s choice to not name the characters. My guess is that it reflects an attempt to emphasize a craving for anonymity and an avoidance of being free with detail.

The titular Milkman is a mysterious militant who takes an interest in the lead character. While the narrating lead tells us that she is definitely not interested in the Milkman, the community soon concludes that she is in a covert relationship with him. While the lead wants to keep her business to herself, there are a couple of factors working against her. First, one of her idiosyncratic behaviors – which one gets the impression she engages in to get a break from people – is walking home while reading, rather than taking the bus. This draws unwanted attention, perhaps ironically as one presumes she does this thinking that she’s slipping out of the public awareness. A second factor is that, while we are never told as much, one gets the impression that the lead is a beautiful young woman. Of course, the biggest factor is that everybody is watching everybody else like a hawk, attempting to find faults in what I call tribe signaling behavior (those actions – e.g. FaceBook posts – that serve to tell people who one is part of some group A and definitely not part of that vile group B.) For example, may-be boyfriend wins a Bentley turbo-charger and there is furor over the fact that said product usually has a little British flag on them, putting may-be boyfriend in a traitorous camp.

In one sense, this is a book about life in a place that has a specific socio-cultural fault line, specifically Northern Ireland. However, there is a lot in the story that is relevant to readers today, as we see sharp politico-cultural divides forming in many places in the world – certainly, for example, in the US. The book will make one sympathetic to the woes of those trying to opt out of tribe-signaling in a community in which to be unaffiliated is to be relegated to the lowest status imaginable.

I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Its humorous, albeit with the dark undertone of conflict ever-present. It’s readable and the reader will find themselves carrying about the plight of the lead.

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BOOK REVIEW: William Blake ed. by J. Bronowski

William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters (The Penguin Poets)William Blake: A Selection of Poems and Letters by Jacob Bronowski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a selection of poems and letters by William Blake. The poetry includes several of Blake’s collections in their entirety, including: “Songs of Innocence,” “Songs of Experience,” “The Everlasting Gospel,” “The Book of Thel,” “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “America,” and “The Song of Los.” Additionally, it includes selections from Blake’s “Poetical Sketches 1783,” “MSS c. 1793,” “MSS c. 1803,” “MSS c. 1810,” “The Four Zoas,” “Milton,” “Jerusalem,” and “The Gates of Paradise.”

This selection gives the reader all of Blake’s most well-known and beloved works in the form of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience” and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The former presenting the short and lyrical poems such as: “The Lamb,” “The Little Black Boy,” “The Tyger,” and “A Little Boy Lost.” The latter best voicing Blake’s philosophy, which was spiritual but yet ran afoul of the zeitgeist by rejecting the morality of the day – particularly as regards sexuality and relationships. In truth, Blake was considered a madman by many of his contemporaries. At this point, it’s hard to know the degree to which he was truly insane versus just in conflict with the prevailing mode of thought. I’ve read that Blake’s biographies (particularly Chesterton) heavily overplays the insanity angle. It should be noted that Blake was also a painter, and his images – which are in some cases nightmare fodder – probably helped establish his lunatic status. Still, his poetry reads much less objectionably to the modern ear [possibly why Blake was one of those poets who was not well-known or well-read during his lifetime, but rather gained a major following after he was deceased.]

Most of the works that are merely sampled from are collectively called “Blake’s prophetic works” – e.g. “The Four Zoas,” “Milton,” and “Jerusalem.” These are epic poems expressing a mythology developed by Blake. For most readers, sampling these works will prove sufficient. The prophetic works involve many characters and an unfamiliar mythological base (i.e. as opposed to reading Norse or Greek mythology for which the educated reader likely has some helpful background.) In their day, the prophetic works were considered nonsensical, but more recent scholars and reviewers tend to look upon these poems in a kindlier fashion. At any rate, the select chapters aren’t enough to give the reader a flow of the story, but rather merely a taste of the language and tone of the works.

The letters number fewer than twenty, and include thank you notes and explanations of the drama going on in Blake’s life at the time. Ordinarily, I would consider the inclusion of these documents mere padding, but I’m more fascinated by Blake as a person than I am many other poets and so the letters do shed a little light on Blake as a man. Still, because one is only getting snippets of information and all from Blake’s side, the insight offered by the letters is quite limited. In my opinion, the editor should have either left the letters out or heavily footnoted them to provide background context to make sense out of them.

I’d recommend this book. I think the editor’s selection strikes the right balance in excerpting the prophetic works. I think most readers can skip the letters, unless one has a major fascination with Blake.

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BOOK REVIEW: Prussian Nights by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Prussian Nights: A PoemPrussian Nights: A Poem by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This long-form narrative poem tells a tale of inhumanity in the Soviet advance toward Germany during the Second World War. The narrator is a run-of-the-mill soldier who witnesses rape and murder by his comrades. Solzhenitsyn was a young officer in the military during the war, and it’s probable that the story of the poem draws from his real-world experience during the war. It’s said that he composed and memorized the poem while he was in the Gulag.

While the poem’s story focuses on violence and inhumanity perpetrated by some soldiers, it isn’t particularly graphic in its description. Rather, the author sets up scenes and leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. It’s also true that in some cases the narrator is witnessing the aftermath of violence and not the act itself. It’s not a pretty story, but readers needn’t be concerned it will be gratuitously graphic.

While the translator chose to stick to rhyming verse, the poem is quite readable. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. Many will find this appealing because the readability is high. However, others may find the lack of metaphor and poetic approaches to language to make for unappealing poetry. There’s not a lot of symbolism and the meanings seem quite literal. That said, the imagery is often vivid and evocative, and the metered verse reads smoothly and lyrically.

The book has a feature that I like, which is the original [Russian] is on the left-hand page with the English translation, produced by Robert Conquest, on the right. The translation didn’t come in greatly useful for me. I had two years of Russian back in college, but that was a long time ago and I read Cyrillic with the unconfident stammer of a first grader. Still, it’s interesting to get a taste of the original.

I’d recommend this book, regardless of whether one is a poetry reader. The story can be read as just that, a story, and it offers insight into the ugly inhumanity too often set free in the act of warring.

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