Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lawrence Durrell: February 27, 1912--November 7, 1990

A Bowl of Roses

'Spring' says your Alexandrian poet
'Means time of the remission of the rose'

Now here at this tattered old cafe,
By the sea-wall, where so many like us
Have felt the revengeful power of life,
Are roses trapped in blue tin bowls.
I think of you somewhere among them--
Other roses--outworn by our literature,
Made tenants of calf-love or else
The poet's portion, a black black rose
Coughed into the helpless lap of love,
Or fallen from a lapel--a night club rose.

It would take more than this loving imagination
To claim them for you out of time,
To make them dense and fecund so that
Snow would never pocket them, nor would
They travel under glass to great sanatoria
And like a sibling of the sickness thrust
Flushed faces up beside a dead man's plate.

No, you should have picked one from a poem
Being written softly with a brush--
The deathless ideogram for love we writers hunt.
Now alas the writing and the roses, Melissa,
Are nearly over: who will next remember
Their spring remission in kept promises,

Or even the true ground of their invention
In some dry heart or earthen inkwell?

Alexandria--many faint echoes here of the Alexandria Quartet
the Alexandrian poet--Constantine  Cavafy
the cafe by the sea-wall, where met, by chance or design
Darley, Pursewarden, Melissa, Justine
a night club rose--Melissa, an "entertainer/dancer" at the nightclub
a dead man's plate--Melissa's Old Lover whose family kept her from his deathbed
sanatoria--Melissa--TB, sanitarium
it's been awhile since I visited them
Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Theodore Sturgeon: February 26, 1918--May 8. 1985

I have just discovered great news for those who, like me, think Ted Sturgeon is one of the great American short story writers--regardless of genre. North Atlantic Books is finished with its monumental project--The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon--which will include all of the short stories of Ted Sturgeon, including a number of unpublished tales. What started out as a projected ten volume series is now complete--in thirteen volumes.

I have the first volume: The Ultimate Egoist: Volume 1. It contains over 40 short stories, plus forewords by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Gene Wolfe, all of whom have a few great stories of their own out there. At the end of the volume are some thirty pages of story notes on many of the stories. In the "Editor's Note," Paul Williams writes, "The volumes and the stories within the volumes are organized chronologically by order of composition (in so far as it can be determined). The earliest volume (The Ultimate Egoist) contains stories written between the end of 1937 and the beginning of 1940. Some are being published here for the first time; many others are appearing for the first time in book form." The copyright date for Volume 1 is 1994, seventeen years ago; this clearly has not been a rushed assignment.

I am looking forward to spending a few years slowly working my way through the series, reacquainting myself with such favorites as "Bianca's Hands," "Thunder and Roses," "Killdozer," "The Microcosmic God," "A Saucer of Loneliness," "The Silken-Swift," and "A Way of Thinking," and becoming acquainted with many that I've never read or have read so long ago that it will be like reading them for the first time.

The web site for the publisher of the series is

In addition, Vintage Books is bringing out Sturgeon's major novels.

A great feast is in store for us.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Loren Eiseley: "The Shore Haunters"

The Shore Haunters

Here in this dry, rocky, fired-out place
one can still see the subsiding shorelines of a giant lake;
one can still see
where the blue mountain glaciers fed it,
where mammoth grazed,
and now all
is stone and gravel, a Martian landscape
with a few bits of flaked obsidian
high on the bitter shores.

The world changes, that is the lesson, but no one
lives long enough to remember, either man
or beast, and the archeologist
is an anomaly here. The bones of the elephant,
the sandals in the cave by the high lake shore.
speak to no one in particular.

Later, by this great dam
in the Poconos
I see the motorboats and think
we will always be here, that the pinewoods should shrink
is unthinkable, but so was this unthinkable
to the shore haunters--beasts or men--nevertheless
it happened, the vanishing ice and the fire
like the heart's final
contracting country, blackened cinders, dry beaches,
the unimaginable place.

Loren Eiseley
from Another Kind of Autumn

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ice, Ice, and More Ice

Several days ago, I watched a film about a future ice age and its effect on civilization. That reminded me of a novel I had read several weeks ago about a future ice age. The thought occurred to me that I had a novel and a film about the same topic. Now I needed a poem. Of course, Robert Frost's poem immediately came to mind.

The poem is "Fire and Ice." The film is Quintet and the novel is Ice and Iron.

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

The question seems to be whether the sun will go nova and destroy the earth or will it just slowly die out and the earth slowly freezes. However, Frost, as usual, introduces a personal element here, his own emotional states of desire and hate. In the novel and the film, it is the latter situation that prevails.


Quintet (1979): a film directed by Robert Altman and starring Paul Newman, Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey, and Bibi Andersson.

The planet is in the grip of an ice age. It is never specified that this is Earth, but the characters' names certainly suggest that. Paul Newman is Essex, Vittorio Gassman is St. Christopher, Ferando Rey is Grigor, and Bibi Andersson is Ambrosia. And that goose seen early in the film certainly looks very earthlike.

The film open in what appears to be in the Arctic or Antarctic--two people, Essex (Paul Newman) and his wife? Livia are traveling on foot. They are returning to the City, which Essex had left a decade or more ago. Upon reaching the City, Essex finds his brother, Francha, with some friends. Livia is greeted very warmly, even though she is a stranger, because she is pregnant. No child has been born in the City for years, for the inhabitants don't see much reason for trying to keep the race going. The ice will eventually destroy the City in a few years. In fact, throughout the film one could hear the ice cracking and creaking and groaning as it inched forward.

Shortly after their arrival, Francha, his friends, and Livia are killed, while Essex is out buying some food. Essex's goal now is to discover who killed them and why. Before long Essex solves the mystery: it is a game. The people of the city are obsessed with a board game called Quintet. It is played with six people. Initially five people begin the front game in which they roll dice and move around a board. If they land on a space occupied by another player, that player is "killed" or removed from the game. After four of the players have been removed, the sixth player now enters the game, and the two try to remove each other. The winner, of course, is the last player.

Some people find that this isn't absorbing or exciting enough. After all, there is no reason to go on living; eventually all will die, probably in a few years. So, some have developed a variant of the game. Putting one's life at risk in the game is the only thing that keeps them going. Those who wish to play are notified that that game is on. Five players will then try to kill each other. When one is left, the sixth player then enters the game and the two then go at each other. Francha was a player; that was why he died. However, the player who took him out violated the rules by killing the others.

Essex then takes the identification of one of the dead players and searches for the one who killed his brother, wife, and the others. At first, since they know he's an impostor and doesn't know what is going on, they ignore him. However, once he does find out, the moderator then changes his status to "active" and now Newman has to defend himself or die. Newman's search for the killer now becomes a struggle for his own survival.

Numerous other stories and films have appeared with a similar plot, so that really wasn't the most interesting part of the film. The most interesting aspect was the setting. The film was shot on the island that was the site of the World's Fair in Montreal in 1967, frequently referred to as Expo 67.

The film was shot ten years later. The site had been ignored and was quite dilapidated, just perfect for a film set in a city that was slowly being destroyed by snow, ice, and cold weather. The temperatures were below zero during most of the shooting, and every day a crew went out and watered down the parts of the set that were being used that day. At those low temperatures the water quickly froze. The cast and crew spent considerable time freezing in those low temperatures and slipping and falling on the ice. Even indoors, it was so cold one could see the breath of the actors as they spoke.

Overall Reaction: I thought it was an interesting film. The plot and setting was sufficient to keep me interested, and Paul Newman was Paul Newman. The environment was the real star, and I think I'm going to get it again in July or August--the perfect film for summer in Tucson.


The novel is Ice and Iron (1974) and was written by Wilson Tucker (1914-2006). It's a combination post-catastrophe and time travel novel. Tucker provides two narratives, but focuses mainly on one, the story line with the scientists who are studying the oncoming glaciers in the northern US, sometime, I think, during the 21st century. In the first narrative, Billings, Montana, has just been abandoned to the oncoming glacier. The second narrative, really consisting mainly of brief glimpses, takes place sometime in the future, during the period when the glacial period is ending, and the world is warming up once again.

Tucker weaves into the story the strange occurrences of various objects falling from an empty sky--fish, frogs, dirt, etc. Charles Fort wrote at least one book detailing such bizarre happenings. Tucker plays on this and adds the appearance of several humans who suddenly appear on the ice field, seemingly having fallen from the sky. This is the part that time travel plays a role. It's not clear as to how the people from the future have developed time travel, but I have a sneaky suspicion that Tucker is playing a game with a time travel paradox here, one that I had read in a short story long ago.

To be brief, in the first narrative, Canadians and US citizens are moving south to the equator. In the second narrative, we get glimpses of a civilization that is now expanding northward, following the retreating glaciers.

One interesting part of the novel is the mention of a favorite writer of mine, one whom I've quoted here several times: Loren Eiseley. The scientists in the first narrative are discussing the discovery of the artifacts from the future and trying to decide if there is some link there between them and the glaciation. One of the characters then says:

"'Eiseley said that catastrophe breeds discovery. he had observed that significant changes may occur in a time of catastrophe; he believed that early man discovered and first used fire during the previous glaciation, that primitive man moved out of the tropics and followed the melting ice sheets northward carrying fire with him, 'Supporting evidence to that theory was found in 'Asian caves about a century ago. The theory seems to be valid.'

Eiseley is referred to several times in the book, mostly on this topic. One of my future projects is to find out if he really did write this and where it might be found.

Overall Reaction: an enjoyable and fast read.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nikos Kazantzakis: Feb. 18, 1885--Oct. 26, 1957

Unlike some, Kazantzakis tells the reader from the beginning that his biography of Saint Francis is partly a creative or imaginative work.

From Kazantzakis' Preface to Saint Francis:


"If I have omitted many of Francis' sayings and and deeds and
if I have altered others, and added still others which did not take
place but which might have taken place, I have done so not out of
ignorance or impudence or irreverence, but from a need to match
the Saint's life with his myth, bringing that life as fully into accord
with its essence as possible.

Art has this right, and not only the right but the duty to subject
everything to the essence. It feeds upon the story, then assimilates it
slowly, cunningly, and turns it into a legend.

While writing this legend which is truer than truth itself, I was overwhelmed by love, reverence, and admiration fro Francis, the hero and great martyr. Often large teardrops smeared the manuscript; often a hand hovered before me in the air, a hand with an eternally renewed wound: someone seemed to have driven a nail through it, seemed to be driving a nail through it for all eternity.

Everywhere about me, as I wrote, I sensed the Saint's invisible presence; because for me Saint Francis is he model of the dutiful man, the man who by means of ceaseless, supremely cruel struggle succeeds in fulfilling our highest obligation, something higher even than morality or truth or beauty: the obligation to transubstantiate the matter which God entrusted to us, and turn it into spirit."

Nikos Kazantzakis

I think Ford Madox Ford expressed a somewhat similar opinion when several friends and acquaintances suggested that a number of his reminiscences and stories didn't happen the way he said that they did. Ford responded that he was a writer, not an historian.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Three by Bradbury

I will discuss significant elements and the endings of these stories.

These three stories appear in a number of collections and anthologies. I am taking them from a collection of Bradbury's stories titled Twice 22, which includes all of the stories from two other collections: The Golden Apples of the Sun and A Medicine for Melancholy.

"The April Witch"

This is one of those stories that I first read and then dismissed as being lightweight with little substance. Several days later I was still thinking about it, and I began to realize that perhaps it really isn't that lightweight.

It's a tale about Cecy, who, at the age of seventeen, told her folks that she wanted "to be in love."

Her parents responded, "Remember, you're remarkable. Our whole family is odd and remarkable. We can't mix or marry with ordinary folk. We'd lose our magical powers if we did. You wouldn't want to lose your ability to 'travel' by magic, would you? Then be careful. Be careful!"

Cecy's way of traveling was unique, as least for normal humans anyway. She could "sleep in moles through the winter, in the warm earth." She could "live in anything at all--a pebble, a crocus, or a praying mantis." She could leave her "plain, bony body behind" and enter into anything she wanted. She then decides that if she can't be in love in her own body, then she will be in love in someone else's body, sort of a
courtship by proxy , I guess.

She enters the mind of Ann Leary, a young woman, and influences her to go to the dance with a handsome young man. The poor fellow becomes confused because while Cecy is in control, she appears to want to be with him, but when Cecy relaxes, Ann takes control and behaves as though she wishes he would go away.

It's clear that Cecy isn't happy being Cecy with magical powers. She just wants to be like everybody else. She'd give up her powers if only he would love her.

It's a "grass is greener on the other side" story. But, what is on her side? She has the power to travel freely without restriction, to enter into the minds of all possible creatures on this planet, and that includes non-living creatures also. She is willing to give that up for love with a normal human being.
I wonder how many readers would make this deal. One point isn't clear to me: why does she, for some reason, exclude those of her own kind. After all, her parents have magical powers also. Perhaps it's because she wants "to be in love" now, and there are none of her kind in the vicinity.

Is there something immature in wanting simply "to be in love"? Shouldn't being in love come as a consequence of meeting that special person? Does she really understand what is meant by being in love?

Another part of the story seems to be the lesson that one can't have it all, in spite of the advertisements, self-help gurus, and political pundits who promise everything for everybody. To quote another SF writer, "TANSTAAFL" That's Robert A. Heinlein's famous dictum, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

There's yet another point I wonder about. Does she realize what's she's giving up? I wonder how many readers would be willing to give up this power "to travel."

The story, of course, is a fantasy. As far as I know, nobody has had such powers. Or . . .

On the other hand, if one looks at what she can do, is it so impossible for us to even come close to this?

In the past month or so, I've been in the mind of a detective chief inspector at Scotland Yard and

in the minds of a late Victorian family that is slowly disintegrating and

in the mind of a young woman who is in a tournament in which winner is the last one alive and

in the mind of a young woman who can visit other minds and

in the mind of a disgraced Chinese detective who manages to get out of a Tibetan work camp and live with Buddhist monks in the almost inaccessible mountains of Tibet and

in the mind of a Prussian magistrate who is forced to cooperate with officers in Napoleon's army of occupation in investigating a series of murders and

in the minds of people and beings from the far past and the distant future and in galaxies far away.

I'm not an April Witch: I'm an Avid Reader.


"The Flying Machine"

"In the year A. D. 400, the Emperor Yuan held his throne by the Great Wall of China, and the land was green with rain, readying itself toward the harvest, at peace, the people in his dominion neither too happy nor too sad."

A man invents a flying machine and has the bad luck to have it observed by the Emperor. The Emperor orders his execution after finding out that he has told no one of his invention. The man, not understanding why, pleads for his life, saying:

"I have found beauty. I have flown on the morning wind. I have looked down on all the sleeping houses and gardens. I have smelled the sea and even seen it, beyond the hills
, from my high place. I have soared like a bird; ;oh, I cannot say how beautiful it is up there, in the sky, with the wind about me, the wind blowing me here like a feather, there like a fan, the way the sky smells in the morning! And how free one feels! That is beautiful, Emperor, that is beautiful too!"

The Emperor sadly responds, "But there are times . . .when one must lose a little beauty if one is to keep what little beauty one already has. I do not fear you, yourself, but I fear another man."

. . . . .

"Who is to say that someday just such a man, in just such an apparatus of paper and reed, might not fly in the sky and drop huge stones upon the Great Wall of China?"

This story was published prior to 1953, less than a decade after the two atom bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Considering that and all the lives lost and damage created by "conventional" bombs, what would you do if you had a time machine that could go back to a certain day at Kitty Hawk in December


"The Golden Kite, The Silver Wind"

The crisis!

"They build their wall," said the Mandarin, "in the shape of a pig! Do you see? Our own city wall is built up in the shape of an orange. That pig will devour us, greedily!"

"Life was full of symbols and omens. Demons lurked everywhere. Death swam in the wetness of an eye, the turn of a gull's wing meant rain, a fan held so. the tilt of a roof, and, yes, even a city wall was of immense importance. Travelers and tourists, caravans, musicians, artists, coming upon these two towns, equally judging the portents, would say, 'the city shaped like an orange? No! I will enter the city shaped like a pig and prosper, eating all, growing fat with good luck and prosperity!"

The Mandarin's daughter suggested rebuilding the city walls in a shape of a club which would drive the pig off. Kwan-Si's people responded by rebuilding their walls in the shape of a giant bonfire which would burn up the club, which was followed by a lake to put out the fire . . . a mouth to drink the lake dry . . . a needle to sew up the mouth . . .a sword to cut the needle . . .a scabbard to sheath the sword. . .

"Sickness spread in the city like a pack of evil dogs. Shops closed. The population, working now steadily for endless months upon the changing of the walls, resembled Death himself, clattering his white bones like musical instruments in the wind. Funerals began to appear in the streets, though it was the middle of summer, a time when all should be tending and harvesting."

Finally the two Mandarins met. "This cannot go on . . . Our people do nothing but rebuild our cities to a different shape every day, every hour. They have no time to hunt, to fish, to love, to be good to their ancestors and their ancestor's children."

The Solution:

"You, Kwan-Si, will make a last rebuilding of your town to resemble nothing more nor less than the wind. And we shall build like a golden kite. The wind will beautify the kite and carry it to wondrous heights. And the kite will break the sameness of the wind's existence and give it purpose and meaning. One without the other is nothing. Together, all will be beauty and co-operation and a long and enduring life."

"And so, in time, the towns became the Town of the Golden Kite and the Town of the Silver Wind. And harvestings were harvested and business tended again, and the flesh returned, and disease ran off like a frightened jackal. And on every night of the year, the inhabitants in the Town of the Kite could hear the good clear wind sustaining them. And those in the Town of the Wind could hear the kites singing, whispering, rising, and beautifying them."

Pure Fantasy! Escapism! Terrible stuff to waste time on. We should get back the real world and its problems. Yet, back when this story was written and for several decades afterwards, the the East and the West were engaged in building nuclear weapons that would give each superiority over the other. Each increase by one side would result in an increase by the other. This was called the Arms Race. If one side had enough weaponry to destroy its enemy twice over, then the other had to have enough to destroy them three times over.

In the story their Walls Race was destroying them. At present, we are trying to insure that our Arms Race doesn't destroy us. Perhaps a little "escapist" co-operation might not be a bad idea, after all.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kenko: Essays in Idleness

About two weeks ago, on Jan. 27 to be exact, I quoted Eric Hoffer on the subject of perfection. It took awhile for me to remember a short essay that's somewhat related to Hoffer's position. The author is Kenko (approx. 1283-1350), a Japanese Buddhist priest. He is sometimes referred to "by his lay name of Urabe no Kaneyoshi or by the name Yoshida no Kaneyoshi," but he is most commonly known by his Buddhist name Kenko. Kenko was a low-ranking member of the imperial court but for some unknown reason he left.

Essays in Idleness seems to have been written between 1330-1332, after he left the court. The oldest surviving text dates back to 1431, about a century after Kenko composed the 243 short essays that comprise the work. It seems as though it was never published during his lifetime.

Essay 82

"Somebody once remarked that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn. Ton'a replied, 'It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful.' This opinion demonstrated the excellent taste of the man. People often say that a set of books looks ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but I was impressed to hear the Abbot Koyu say, 'It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.'

In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Someone once told me, 'Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished.' In both Buddhist and Confucian writings of the philosophers of former times, there are also many missing chapters."

The Tsurezuregusa of Kenko
The title is often referred to in English as Essays in Idleness
trans. Donald Keene

No fence straddling or exceptions allowed here: "In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth."

The Abbot Koyu is pretty harsh also: 'It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.'

However, in the brief introduction, Kenko also writes: "What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head."

"with nothing better to do" is the English translation of "tsurezure naru mama ni" which gives rise to the title Tsurezuregusa

Perhaps today he would write that he has "spent whole days before this keyboard" posting on his blog.

"nonsensical thoughts"?

(1) Ton'a (1289-1372) was a distinguished poet, closely associated with Kenko, as well as a monk of the Jishu sect of Jodo.
(2) Loyu Sozu was a contemporary of Kenko, but little is known of him.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXXVII

This is a very unusual quatrain, as well as being the last in a series of four linked quatrains featuring a drinking vessel.

First Edition: Quatrain XXXVII

Ah, fill the Cup:--what boots it to repeat
How Time is slipping underneath our Feet:
Unborn To-morrow and dead Yesterday
Why fret about them if To-day be sweet!

What is unusual about this quatrain is that it disappears after the first edition. I can find no quatrain in the later editions that appear to be this one, even greatly modified. At best I was able to locate in the second edition and fifth edition a quatrain that had one line that was the same: "Unborn To-morrow and dead Yesterday". However, the quatrains, Quatrain 59 in the second edition and 57 in the fifth edition, did not suggest the theme of time passing quickly.
There have been other quatrains that have been modified, but this, so far, is the first that FitzGerald drops completely, except for that one line, from all subsequent versions.

This quatrain repeats a theme that has occurred already in previous quatrains--time is passing quickly. I had to check the dictionary for the verb "boots" to get an exact sense of the line. One archaic meaning of "boots" has to do with giving an advantage or aid. So, the line seems to mean something like "What help is it" to repeat that "Time is slipping underneath our feet." We can't stop or prevent it from doing so. It also suggests that we shouldn't concern ourselves with either the dead past or unborn future if today is sweet or pleasant, and filling the cup seems to be one way of making today sweet.

We should live in the present and forget about the past and the future. It reminds me of Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," especially if one wrenches the following stanza from the rest of the poem.

"Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, - act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o'erhead!"

Longfellow, however, is urging us to work and strive rather than to simply enjoy ourselves as you can plainly see from the last stanza of his poem.

Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

What I find interesting though is that both poets, regardless of their widely differing goals, urge us to live in the present and not concern ourselves with either the past or the future.

Why did FitzGerald drop this stanza? I have read nothing about his thinking as he made the four revisions, so I can only guess. Perhaps he felt that he had already made this point in previous quatrains and felt it was becoming repetitive. As he writes in the quatrain--what good is it to repeat how time passes quickly.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Russell Hoban: February 4, 1925

My first encounter with Russell Hoban was his post-holocaust novel Riddley Walker, a novel like no other I had read. After finishing this book, I had to see what else he had written. So far, I've read most of his adult novels and consider him one of my favorite writers.

Riddley Walker is also a quest novel and the quest is driven by a riddle, the riddle that Walker alludes to at the beginning of the second chapter: "Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same."

He is a walker and he walks his riddles; this is the basic plot of the book. He walks the riddle and attempts to make sense of the world about him.

The Riddle

"Horny Boy rung Widders Bel
Stoal his Fathers Ham as wel
Bernt his Arse and Forkt a Stoan
Done It Over broak a boan
Out of Good Shoar vackt his wayt
Scratcht Sams Itch for No. 8
Gone to senter nex to see
Cambry coming 3 times 3
Sharna pax and get the poal
When the Ardship of Cambry comes out of the hoal."

Does it make sense? No, but after reading the novel, it does. This is a series of locations that Riddley Walker visits on his quest. Try reading it out loud; it makes a little more sense.

Reading Riddley Walker is a mind stretcher, and it makes one see the English language in a new way.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Robert Frost: "Storm Fear"

Reading recent weather reports about what is happening in the Midwest brought this poem by Robert Frost to mind:

Storm Fear

When the wind works against us in the dark,
And pelts with snow
The lower chamber window on the east,
And whispers with a sort of stifled bark,
The beast,
'Come out! Come out!'--
It costs no inward struggle not to go,
Ah, no!
I count our strength,
Two and a child,
Those of us not asleep subdued to mark
How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length, --
How drifts are piled,
Dooryard and road ungraded,
Till even the comforting barn grows far away,
And my heart owns a doubt
Whether 'tis in us to arise with day
And save ourselves unaided.

What must it be like to be in an isolated farmhouse, miles from neighbors, listening to a winter storm howl outside, and knowing that they are alone and totally dependent upon themselves?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm, Pt. 2

I have finished Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, and I don't agree with the reviewer who stated that this was "very probably the funniest book ever written." I did find it a pleasant and enjoyable read. I might read it again some time in the future, but that will be some years down the road.

Perhaps the problem is that the novel is a satire, a parody on what the Wikipedia entry calls "the romanticised, sometimes doom-laden accounts of rural life popular at the time, by writers such as Mary Webb." One of the major problems with satires and parodies is that the reader must be familiar with the subject of the satire or parody. I haven't read anything by Mary Webb or any of the other "doom-laden accounts popular at the time," so it is very possible much of the humor went right on by me. The closest I've come to the atmosphere at Cold Comfort Farm would probably be Wuthering Heights, but it lacks the intensity and seriousness of Bronte' novel. I never thought of Wuthering Heights when I was reading the novel, but the Wikipedia entry mentioned it and then I did see some resemblance.

Flora Poste has decided to live with relatives as she hasn't a sufficient inheritance to support her, and, in spite of her lengthy education, she lacks any skill or talent which would help her support herself. Once at Cold Comfort Farm, she decide to enlighten them and to improve their lives by bringing them into the 20th century. In this respect she reminds me of one of Jane Austen's heroines, Emma. Emma and Flora are both blessed with the same virtue, the itch to meddle in other people's lives.

Emma restricts her efforts to matchmaking, while Flora recognizes no such limitations on her abilities and acts accordingly. Fortunately for those around her, Emma fails, and those who were blessed with her attempts eventually were able to go on and find their own spouses. Emma, if I remember correctly, ends with three marriages, one of which is the heroine's own.

Flora, however, is amazingly successful in her efforts. She persuades Amos to buy a Ford van and preach the gospel to a much wider audience than just the small chapel in the neighborhood. His absence then allows Reuben to manage the farm, something he's been waiting decades for. Flora decides that extreme makeovers are the solution for several of the women on the farm, and this results in several marriages and Aunt Ada's (she who hadn't left the farm since she saw "something nasty in the woodpile" at the age of three) trip to Paris.

Flora even manages to find a unique solution to her own problem--her inability to support herself. She decides she's in love with her cousin Charles, so now it's his problem. Since he's wealthy (he owns his own airplane), it shouldn't be much of a problem.

I don't know whether it was fortunate or unfortunate that Fiona's efforts were so successful. I would have to wait a decade or so before making a decision. Since there is no sequel, we shall never know how it all turned out. Did they all live happily ever after?

Overall Reaction: a light novel, enjoyable reading. I remember that my reaction to the film version was the same.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Langston Hughes: Feb 1, 1902--May 22, 1967

Today is Langston Hughes' birthday:


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

The second line--"like a raisin in the sun?"--provides the title for Lorraine Hansberry's highly acclaimed play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which depicts the experiences of a black family in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood when they receive a $10,000 insurance check and try to decide what to do with the legacy.