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: Spillover by David Quammen

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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SPILLOVER is a fascinating and in-depth exploration of zoonoses – i.e. diseases that can jump from various animal species into humans. This continues to be a germane topic in the face of our current zoonotic pandemic – COVID-19. The book came out in 2012 / 2013, but has seen a groundswell of interest because it’s the most well-known popular work on this subject. One will read a few sentences in the book that seem prescient, but the author and the many experts he consults would be the first to state that this is no act of mystical precognition. Rather, a zoonotic pandemic seems to be an inevitability given humanity’s huge and growing population and the nature of our interactions with the rest of the animal kingdom. Of course, no one could say precisely when or what pathogen would lead to “the next big one,” of which – it so happens – we are currently amid. Though coronaviruses do come up as potential candidates, but so do others (e.g. certain strains of influenza.)

The book is organized differently than most. It’s cut up into bite sized chunks, with 115 chapters that are usually not more than a few pages each. However, chapters aren’t the relevant unit of interest so much as the book’s nine parts, each of which takes on a particular zoonosis, or class thereof. Because zoonoses are such a huge topic, the author focuses on a few that are of particular interest for varied reasons, including: the challenge of tracking the disease’s origins, the potential to be the next big one, the global influence of some diseases, as well as other reasons a particular zoonosis generates an interesting story.

The first part explores one of the lesser known zoonoses (except for in locales where outbreaks have occurred, e.g. Australia,) Hendra virus. While a common species of bat (the flying fox) is the reservoir for Hendra, what makes the story gripping for humans is that humans contract the disease through the intermediary of horses. While interaction with exotic wildlife is the the mode throughout the book, the fact that, here, transmission occurs from one of humanity’s closest animal friends increases the closeness-to-home effect.

Part two shifts into one of the most dramatic and well-known of the zoonoses, Ebola virus. Ebola is familiar from Richard Preston’s book “Hot Zone,” though Quammen does explain how Preston sensationalized and overstated the physical effects of the disease. [Presumably what Preston did was take the most vicious looking case and describe it through as dramatic of analogies as possible, such that it became unrecognizable from the typical case.] At any rate, it’s a disease that grabs one by the fear center because – while it doesn’t spread readily – it’s highly lethal and is unarguably an unpleasant way to go.

Part three delves into malaria and P. falciparum, the bug that causes it. Malaria has profoundly shaped human existence in the tropics. A vector-borne disease carried and passed by mosquitos, Malaria is widespread throughout much of the world and continues to generate debilitating effects. Many concepts are drilled into one while reading this book, and one worth mentioning here is the differentiation of reservoirs and vectors. A lot of the stories in this book revolve around scientists’ searches for reservoirs – the species where the pathogen resides in waiting. It’s often much more difficult to uncover a reservoir species than it is a vector (vectors invariably coming into direct contact with humans, whereas reservoirs can be far removed from humans.)

Part four investigates Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS.) This is one of the most relevant sections because SARS is a corona virus — like COVID-19 — and it served as a harbinger of a corona virus pandemic. SARS is also at least vaguely familiar to most people as it was a relatively recent epidemic.

The next two sections zoom out a bit and, instead of diving down into one zoonosis, they each consider a range of bacterial and viral zoonoses, respectively. Part five discusses Q fever, Lyme disease, Psittacosis, and other bacterial diseases that enter humans by way of other animals. Part six explores a range of viral diseases and – in the process – gives a bit of a lesson as to why viruses present such a risk as well as how different viruses work. This section covers rabies and Nipah virus.

Part seven tells the story of the search for the Marburg virus origin and reservoir. Marburg is similar to Ebola, but the story of the epidemiological search for it makes for intriguing reading. Part eight discusses HIV-AIDS and its simian predecessor, SIDS. What made this fascinating to me was that I learned that HIV has been around (at least) since the first decade of the twentieth century. If you’re like me, you associate the origin of AIDS with the 1980’s. However, with so many people regularly dying from so many different conditions in central Africa, it wasn’t obvious that those killers were getting an added help from a virus that crippled immune systems. It also took scientist a while to realize that SIDS was resulting in the death of chimpanzees. (It’s possible for a reservoir to be unaffected by a disease, and this is what they first thought to be the case.)

The final part is a wrap up that zooms out to look at the nature of episodes of ecological imbalance and “outbreaks” of species. In this case, “outbreak” is used to describe any explosion of population growth of a species. While the section opens with a species of caterpillars [forest tent caterpillars] that would occasionally flare up, killing off trees on a large scale, it discusses human population growth as an outbreak that – like all others – will inevitably end one way or another. This section also discusses influenza (which isn’t a major topic earlier in the book,) presumably because it had been the lead candidate at the time for the “next big one.” And “the next big one” is a related overarching theme in this section.

The book is annotated and has an extensive bibliography. There are few graphics, but there are maps that are helpful for those who aren’t familiar with the areas where many of these disease outbreaks originated (e.g. central Africa.)

I found this book to be intriguing. It teaches the reader some basics of epidemiology as it goes about telling the story of the spread of these diseases. [e.g. It will help one distinguish virulence and transmissibility – terms that are often used by neophytes interchangeably, but which are distinct in important ways.] However, the focus is always on the story and, therefore, it keeps these lessons interesting throughout. I’d highly recommend this book for those who are interested in the pandemic, zoonoses, or the challenges of combating disease.

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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 Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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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: Places Lost and Found ed. Ronald Koury

Places Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson ReviewPlaces Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson Review by Ronald Koury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 30, 2020

 

If good travel writing is virtually travel, then this essay anthology mixes global travel with time travel. It’s a collection of travel (or at least locale-centric) writings previously published in “The Hudson Review.” While the oldest of the included pieces consists of translations of Tocqueville’s journals from his trip to America, the bulk of the works are from the twentieth century to recent years (and almost all from latter twentieth century onward.) This temporal aspect offers the reader unique insight into how various destinations have changed – particularly if it’s a place one has visited. Only about one-fifth of the essays feature locations in the United States, and the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, and Oceania are all represented among the twenty-five pieces presented.

While most of the pieces are straightforward travel essays, there are a couple that – while focused on location – aren’t what one might typically consider travel writing. One of these, which is probably the most evocative piece of writing in the book, is called “Blue Grotto” and it tells the story of the author being regularly taken to a bar by her father when she was a child [an occurrence that could probably not happen at the time of publication, let alone today, without child services becoming involved.] The other outlier is entitled, “Making it Uglier to the Airport,” and while it sounds like it would be about cutting it close while traveling, it’s actually a review essay about changing architectural notions regarding aesthetics.

The other essays include not only run-of-the-mill style travel writing that uses vibrant descriptions to make a location sound appealing (e.g. see the pieces on County Cork and the Hudson River,) but also include a number of essays about what might be termed “dark tourism” in today’s parlance. Dark tourism is travel to places that are or have been (in recent history) war-torn, crime-ridden, disaster damaged, or otherwise prone to turn up in the nightly news. The essays on Cambodia and Haiti (of which there are two) are prime examples. There are also pieces that fall somewhere in-between, featuring destinations that are a bit rough or challenging, but which are by no means dangerous. A great example of this – oddly enough – was a story of travel to Fiji, but only because the author chose to stay in the home of tribesmen of a remote village.

As a traveler, I found this book to be fascinating. As I mentioned, I got a lot out of the fact that it offered insight into temporal, as well as geographic, destinations. For example, I’d made a similar trip to Cambodia, but about twenty years after the one made by the author, and so it was intriguing to read about similarities and differences. (The trip in the book was much sooner after the disastrous reign of Pol Pot, and so there were many differences.) If you enjoy travel writing, I’d recommend you give this book a look. I was impressed with how broad a range of locales were explored.

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POEM: Rocketed by Book

I donned this book like sunglasses
to tweak my old worldview,
but that intent was overshot
and I saw all anew.

I peered at the page and there saw
another universe.
Through eyes not mine, but no better —
nor in any way worse.

Eyes that’d seen things unknown to me,
but not this world of mine.
We’ll have to work together to
unravel space and time.

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

Amazon.in page

 

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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