BOOK REVIEW: Sonnets by Sri Aurobindo

SonnetsSonnets by Sri Aurobindo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This booklet collects together the 88 sonnets written by Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo was a guru who set up his ashram in Pondicherry because he was on the lam from the Brits, and Pondicherry was under French control at the time. Sri Aurobindo is a karma yogi (yogi of action and good works) who – together with a partner who the community came to call “Mother” – set up Auroville with the intention of making it a utopia.

The eighty-eight sonnets are arranged in two parts. The first seventy-four were written in the 1930s and 40s, and part II consists of 14 sonnets that were written between 1898 and 1909. The sonnets of the first part are more mystical and also more stream of consciousness. The poems of Part I use vivid language, but aren’t always easy to follow – if one is seeking a coherent meaning from each. The sonnets of part II are less sophisticated (and more easily interpreted) and feature a degree of angst that is completely absent in the latter poems (latter chronologically, earlier in the volume.) The sonnets presented are in varying styles. While they are all fourteen lines of pentameter, the rhyme scheme varies.

At the end of the book there are notes on the collection as a whole, as well as short notes on individual poems. There is also a short section in the back that shows a few of the poems under edits so that one can gain a little insight into the poet’s sausage-making process.

I found these poems intriguing to read. As I suggested, they aren’t always easy to interpret but they have a thought-provoking spirituality to them as well as some beautiful use of language. One needn’t necessarily have an interest in Sri Aurobindo to enjoy the poems, although they are overwhelmingly of a mystical / spiritual nature.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer, DetectiveTom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn continue in this novella as the duo travels to visit Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas in Arkansas. On the riverboat, they meet an old acquaintance who they didn’t know was still alive, the twin of a man who still lives near Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. He tells them how he’s in a bind because he conspired in a diamond theft with two partners, and subsequently swindled the two by making off with the diamonds. The reason he’s headed home is because he figures he can hide out there as long as he makes himself look like his twin, as long as no one sees the two twins together, he can play like he’s his brother. While Tom and Huck agree to be helpful, the last time they see this man, he’s jumped ship and is being followed by the two men, and Tom and Huck assume he’s a goner.

In time Tom and Huck arrive at Aunt Sally’s. Shortly thereafter a man goes missing, the twin of the diamond thief. Eventually, evidence mounts that the murderer is none other than Uncle Silas. Despite the fact that Silas has been a little off, Tom doesn’t believe his kind uncle, a pastor, is capable of such a feat. However, Silas confesses, having thwacked the man on the head, he believes that the man must have died from it. Testimony convinces Silas that he must have gone out to bury the man in an act of incredible somnambulism, and while he has no recollection of it, he believes it must be true.

When it comes to the trial, Tom sits in with the incompetent public defender, committed to proving Silas’s innocence — despite his Uncle’s vociferous admissions. At the last second, Tom does figure it out, and explains what really happened. He’s furthermore able to substantiate his claims using no more than the individuals in the courtroom. By the times he’s finished, even Uncle Silas acknowledges that he didn’t commit a murder.

This is a fine little mystery story, but what makes it really enjoyable is the first-person narration by Huck Finn. While Tom Sawyer does the brainwork to solve the crime, Huck offers a telling that is humorous and whimsical.

If you like “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huck Finn” don’t miss this follow-up.

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BOOK REVIEW: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The story of “Twelfth Night” (a.k.a. “What You Will”) revolves around several men in the city of Illyria vying for the hand of Olivia, a woman both lovely and wealthy. The problem is Olivia is in the dumps, having lost both her father and her brother (which explains how she ends up head of such prestigious household, given the times.) The only thing that brings her out of her sullen state is her affection for a new arrival to the city named Cesario. The problem is that Cesario is not interested because he is secretly a she – the cross-dressing Viola. This tale might have been counted among the tragedies were it not for the fact that Viola’s brother Sebastian shows up on the scene. Since Sebastion is the spitting image of the cross-dressed Viola (i.e. Cesario) and bears other common traits of sibling experience, Olivia transfers her affections without even realizing it. [Viola and Sebastian had both been laboring under the impression that the other is dead.]

In “Twelfth Night” one sees the plot device of mistaken identity from “Comedy of Errors” replayed in a way that is a bit less believable, though in a sense riper with comedic potential. I say this because while it might be possible to imagine two siblings being confused even (if they are of different gender), when the confusion begins (upon Sebastian’s arrival) we find that he is anything but the boyish character we expected given Cesario, granted the difference between the clever but wimpy Viola and the brave and cocksure Sebastion makes for levity. Notably when Sebastian lays out Sir Andrew Aguecheek with the utmost ease. Granted Aguecheek is a Don Qixote-esque character, though perhaps with incompetence owing more to alcoholism than an addled mind (though his mind may be addled as well as pickled.) Of course, there is the love-triangle plot device common in Shakespearean comedies, though “triangle” seems an inadequate geometry.

I’m a bit fonder of “Comedy of Errors” than “Twelfth Night.” I think more is done with the identity confusion in that one, as well as it having some great lines (many delivered by the Dromios.) That said, “Twelfth Night” has its funny moments, particularly involving the two plotting drunks, Sir Toby Belch (kinsman to Olivia) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (the aforementioned Quixote-esque knight.)

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BOOK REVIEW: As You Like It by William Shakespeare

As You Like ItAs You Like It by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play tells the tale of Rosalind, the daughter of an exiled Duke whose dominion was usurped by his brother, Fredrick. Rosalind goes into the woods with her best friend — the daughter of Fredrick, Celia — where her father is living in banishment. For a twist, she adopts the disguise of a man. As it happens the [proper] Duke’s forest attracts several other visitors in addition to its usual country folk, including the three sons of Sir Rowland de Boys, one of whom – Orlando – falls madly in love with Rosalind (who has by that point disappeared into the guise of a young gentleman.)

This play uses several of the common plot devices of Shakespearean comedies, including: mistaken identity, girls dressed as boys, the love triangle, and letting the audience in on a joke about which the play’s characters are kept in the dark. As it’s a comedy, you can correctly assume that all works out for the key characters — in fact, things work out quite neatly for everybody. In fact, Rosalind-in-disguise, conducts a scheme that results in a four-way wedding including not only her and Orlando, but also Orlando’s brother Oliver to Celia, a shepherd to a shepherdess, and a clown to a wench.

Of course it’s good, it’s Shakespeare. As for how it compares to the other comedies, I’d put it in the same ballpark as “Much Ado About Nothing” and slightly better than the middle of the pack. However, I have seen that some consider it the best of the comedies. I didn’t find it to have the tension of “The Merchant of Venice” or the intrigue of “Tempest” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but it’s clever and has some well-known pieces of writing, probably most famously the “All the world’s a stage…” speech. If you haven’t read it, get on it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats

Collected PoemsCollected Poems by W.B. Yeats
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers about 300 poems from 12 poetry collections by Yeats. Most of the dozen collections are included in their entirety.

Yeats is considered by some to be the best poet of the 20th century and by most to be among the best. Most poetry readers will be familiar with Yeats’ more commonly anthologized poems such as: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “The Second Coming,” “Leda and the Swan,” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” However, many readers may not be familiar with the full scope of his work. Some may believe that Yeats work is antiquated, not because it isn’t approachable, but because Yeats favored traditional forms (i.e. rhymed and metered poetry) [though he did engage in experimental approaches.] By the time he was writing, there had already begun to be a shift toward free verse, and so his work may seem of a more bygone era than it was. Of course, as will be mentioned below, Yeats work included a lot of political poetry, and political poetry doesn’t tend to age well.

On subject matter more than form, Yeats was progressive and experimental. Yeats poetry drew heavily on mysticism and the occult. In his earliest collection, “Crossways,” he does as many 20th century poets and writers with mystic ambitions or interests did, and turned his attention eastward to India. However, Yeats soon decided to focus on his homeland of Ireland. Hence, one will see references to faeries and Christian mystic notions rather than appeals to Hindu mythos. Many will find Yeats’ appeal to mysticism intriguing.

Yeats’ poems were also often political in nature. He viewed himself as Irish to the core, but was among the Protestant minority. While he was an Irish nationalist who wanted an independent Ireland, he wasn’t so keen on the fact that the full expression of that would mean that his sect, whose power outsized its numbers — would suffer a shift from the ruling to the ruled. “Easter, 1916” is among his most well-known and potent political poems. His feelings about Ireland being yoked into Britain’s affairs can most vividly be seen in “An Irishman Foresees His Death.”

I enjoyed experiencing the full breadth of Yeats’ work from tiny amusing poems like “A Drinking Song” to clever lessons such as “Beggar to Beggar Cried” to more extensive commentary on social issues like “Lapis Lazuli.” I’d highly recommend this collection for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Selected Poems, 1957-1981 by Ted Hughes

Selected Poems, 1957-1981Selected Poems, 1957-1981 by Ted Hughes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 150+ poems extracted from 15 works from Ted Hughes’ early career. Note: there is a second volume that picks up where this one leaves off and continues to 1994, as well as another volume entitled “New Selected Poems” that covers his entire poetic career from 1957 – 1994.

The selected poems are largely free verse. However, particularly among his early works there are many examples of rhymed and near-rhymed verse. As would be expected of a collection of selections covering more than two decades, the topics and themes are varied. However, naturalistic symbolism is the dominant approach across the collection, as seen in one of Hughes’ most famous poems, “The Jaguar.” There are poems that take Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” Greek mythology, or other human-centric subjects for their subject matter, but imagery from nature is the most common means used by Hughes to achieve his aim – even when that aim is commenting on human subject matter.

There are a couple pages of explanatory notes, but – otherwise – the book is all poems, and no forwards, conclusions, graphics, or other ancillary matter. It’s 222 pages packed with poetry.

I enjoyed Hughes’ poetry and am fond of his use of natural imagery. That imagery is vivid and evocative, but some readers may find it a bit arcane or obscure for their tastes. One has to ride it like a river, rather than excavating like an archeologist. I would highly recommend this book for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Spoiler-laden summary: To be fair, you’ve had almost 400 years to read it or watch it.] The “nothing” that there is much ado about in this play is the [non-existent] hanky-panky of Hero, daughter of Leonato and the female lead. As it happens, a couple young and studly bachelors (Claudio and Benedick) roll into town after valorous service in the war. This causes some angst in Don John, bastard (Shakespeare’s word, not mine) brother to the Prince of Arragon, because his stock just plummeted. Don John, thus, devises a plot exploiting one of his minions and one of Hero’s attendants to make it look like Hero is flirting about with a strange man. This is a problem because it’s 1623 and Claudio wants his bride to be able to wear white.

When Hero is accused by some credible [but misled] witnesses including her fiancé, Claudio, she passes out from incredulity. Claudio takes off without knowing her condition. A Friar with a devil on his shoulder suggests Leonato tell everyone that Hero’s heart gave out and she died. Friar Francis is one of a handful of steadfast fans of Hero (as well as her cousin and best-friend Beatrice and – by extension – the man courting Beatrice, Benedick – who’s not so much sure of Hero’s virtue as he is sure that Don John is a jerk.) Sad as it is, Hero’s father and her fiancé are ready to relegate her to skanks-town, but her smart-aleck bestie / cousin Beatrice and the priest each have her / his own idea of how things can be set straight. As mentioned, the friar thinks that if Claudio believes Hero died, the better angels of his nature will make him come and atone for his accusations. Beatrice’s approach is to whip Benedick into challenging Claudio to a dual. (Which Benedick is not keen on because he’s war buddies with Claudio, but he plays it strategically by giving Claudio an opportunity to do the right thing while still challenging him.)

This is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and so in the end everything works out after the twists and turns. Unfortunately, things even work out for Don John – for the time being, at least. The bastard (Shakespeare’s word) goes on the lam knowing the jig is up on his plot. His man, Borachio, rolls on him, and with Hero “dead” things are about to get serious. So, if you were expecting the villain to get it Shylock-style, you’ll be sadly disappointed.

Of course, it’s brilliant; it’s William -frickin- Shakespeare.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a RiverSeven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I enjoy writing that’s quirky and rambling as long as it jettisons pretension and brings in some whimsicality. This book by Jung Young Moon plays into that wheelhouse. If you’re expecting a novel with a story arc and character development, you may not like what you find. Personally, I wouldn’t call this a novel (though the author does,) but it’s one of those books that defies neat categorization. I’d call it creative nonfiction, and – more specifically – an “essay of essays,” which is to distinguish it from an essay collection. [Comparing it to fiction, it would be more like a novel-in-short stories than a collection of stories.] The author’s own words about how the book was composed are more insightful than my own, he called it, “… a mixture of stream of consciousness technique, the paralysis of consciousness technique, and the derangement of consciousness technique…” [As far as I know, the latter two are his own designations.]

Saying the book is rambling (and “pointless” in the best sense of that word) isn’t to suggest that the book lacks a theme. It’s a Korean’s take on things Texan after having spent a substantial amount of time there. But that Korean take on Texas is given an added twist into interesting territory by this particular Korean’s off-beat worldview. So, while many writer’s have considered the psychology, motives, and possible conspiratorial links of Jack Ruby (the assassin of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald), Jung focuses on the issue of Ruby leaving his dogs in the car while he went to shoot Oswald. The author discusses the book as though it – like the sit-com “Seinfeld” – is about nothing, but I think it’s more about a chain of somethings turned on their heads and viewed through a fun-house mirror.

While the Seven Samurai are referenced in the title and are discussed at various points throughout the book, it’s more as a reminiscence than a throughline. That is, if one is expecting any great insight into Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork – either its story or as a film – that’s not how Jung uses the reference. He does talk in detail about cowboys and cowboy-ness. That may seem like a rough segue, but film fans may see a connection. Kurosawa’s film was famously the basis for the Western, “The Magnificent Seven.” I think there’s a connection in the broad appeal of machismo that both samurai cinema and Texas draw upon. [But maybe it was just some sweet alliteration for use in the title.]

I enjoyed this book immensely and would highly recommend it – except for readers who require order or who insist a book make a point. It’s humorous by way of strange lines of thinking and an alien outlook on a singular culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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