Sunday, January 29, 2017

Down Time

It's time for a mental health and sanity check, as it's been too long since my last one.   I need to reduce my time in front of the little screen. so I'm stopping all blogging and book discussion group activities for the time being. I'll be back when I'm back.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: In Defense of Fanny Price

The following is a quotation from Carrots for Michaelmas, a blog belonging to Haley Stewart.  This link will take you to the complete article.  

I want to thank Di from The Little White Attic  who alerted me to this article, "In Defense of Fanny Price,"from which this quotation was taken.

Mansfield Park is about superficiality versus substance. It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue and it’s hard for an entertainment-obsessed culture that glorifies appearances and laughs at the idea of character to understand. All of the characters struggle and are tried and tested…but some fight the good fight and others reveal that they never had virtue to begin with.

This is the best, the most coherent, the clearest statement of the main point of Mansfield Part I have ever read. In a few words she expressed what I've been trying to say for years. 

Thank you, Haley Stewart.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Part I

Lawrence Durrell
Justine:  the first book in the Alexandria Quartet

This is my fourth visit to Alexandria with the aid of Lawrence Durrell, my personal tour guide.  Isn't that what writers are, guides to their worlds?  It has been some time since my last visit, so I had only the vaguest ideas of what was coming.  However, once I started, I began recognize some of what I was reading.

What came first was the memory of the initial confusion I felt when I began to read the novel.  Durrell doesn't believe, at least in Justine, straightforward chronological narrative structure.  Instead, I was faced with short paragraphs and brief references to characters, without any help from Durrell.  Here and there characters were brought up briefly and then off to something else.  It was only I had gotten a way into Part I that I began finding introductions to the characters but in a disjointed fashion, though.

This time though I understood what Durrell was doing.  As the narrator explains very early in the novel, the first page or so, he was going to put down on paper the events of the past year.  If I had decided to do something similar, it would have been difficult to begin as I know that all I would have been able to come up with at first would be fragments, disjointed,  and randomly recalled without any chronological order.  However, the longer I worked at it, the more material I would be able to bring up, and each memory would be accompanied by other memories.  So, as I got deeper into Part 1, I found the fragments were now longer and more complete.  If it had been me, though, I wouldn't have had to courage to include those first brief  fragments in my work, for I would have edited them out and produced a standard commonplace traditional account.  That, no doubt, is why Durrell is a great writer, and I am not.

While Durrell introduces some seven or eight characters, he returns again and again to two of them:  Justine and Melissa.  But, at first I found it difficult to immediately know just which one the narrator was referring to.  It's as if  the narrator mistakenly believes we are as familiar with Justine and Melissa as he is, so he really doesn't have to identify them immediately.   The male characters are introduced without the confusion that surrounded the female characters.  The males are named and their relationship to the narrator is spelled out and occasionally brought back into the narrative. 

As I mentioned earlier, the narrator doesn't provide his reader with a chronological sequence.  When we first meet Justine and Melissa, it quickly becomes clear that he is intimately involved with both of them.  It is only much later in Part I that we are told of their first meeting.  Then comes their first sexual encounter, but not necessarily in that order.

The Quartet, I find, consists of a number of character and plot threads that are intertwined throughout the story. Because of this, at times I simply stop reading, go back to the beginning of the novel, and follow a particular thread, ignoring whatever else is going on at that time.  It is surprising what I find when I do this, even if I limit it just to Part 1.

For example, let's follow the Justine thread and stop when we reach when we reach the part when the narrator tells us how and when they first met.  We first meet, or hear of her actually, on the first page when she is mentioned by the narrator as one of his friends: "Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar.".  Several pages later, the narrator tells us that he has Justine's diary, which he got from her husband, Nessim, who still hoped that Justine would come back to him.  The narrator tells us that he believes he will never see Justine for he and his friends have "taken different paths now."  However, the narrator does have Melissa's child with him and tells us that he "has not named it yet.  Of course it will be Justine--who else?"

Several pages later we read that he catches a glimpse of her from his balcony.  In fact he has seen her many times and knows who she is, even though they haven't met.  He now mentions their many meetings at the cafe, El Bab. Again, pages later, we get a much fuller description of her, and it is obvious they have just been intimate.

Later, the narrator tells us that  he had once agreed to give a lecture on the 'poet of the city,' Cavafy, which was attended by "a dignified semicircle of society ladies."   Justine was in the audience.   He recognizes her, but they do not speak because they have yet to meet.  After the lecture, the narrator, that evening,  stops at a small cafe.  Justine suddenly appears and asks a question about the lecture.  Then she says, "I want to take you to Nessim, my husband.  Will you come?"  She drives them to the house and searched "from room to room, fracturing the silences.  He (Nessim) answered at last from the great studio on the roof and racing to him like a gundog she metaphorically dropped me at his feet and stood back, wagging her tail.  She had achieved me.

Nessim was sitting on the top of the ladder reading, and he came slowly down to us, looking first at one and then at the other. . .for my part, I could offer no explanation of my presence, since I did not know for what purpose I had been brought here."

If I may cheat here, the narrator believes, later, that  he knows why she approached him, gathered him up, and brought him to her husband.  But that's in Justine.  In the second book, Balthazar, he will hear a different explanation, and the reader will find yet one more in Mountolive.   

It is said that a sign of great literature is that one discovers something new in every reading.  That is certainly true of Justine.  Even though this was at least the fourth reading, I was surprised to discover clues,  interspersed in Part 1, to future events, some that will take place in the other volumes of the quartet.   The narrator would make some offhand remark and then go on to something else and would never refer to it again. It meant nothing to the narrator and nothing to me until this the fourth reading.  I should have picked up on them on subsequent readings.

I wonder what I will find on my fifth reading. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: In the Bear's House, an overview

N. Scott Momaday
In the Bear's House

In the Bear's House is a rather unusual work, as will be seen from the Table of Contents I will provide shortly.  To be honest, I have only the briefest glimpse of what Momaday is doing here, but I find that what little I do see absorbing, as well as perplexing.  Rather than stumble about, confusing you and me even more, I will Momaday tell you in his own words what this book is all about.


Let me say at the outset that this is not a book about Bear (he would be spoken of in the singular and masculine, capitalized and without an article), or it is only incidentally about him.  I am less interested in defining the being of Bear than in trying to understand something about the spirit of wilderness, of which Bear is a very particular expression.  Even Urset, who is the original bear and comes directly from the hand of God, is symbolic and transparent, more transparent than real, if you will.  He is an imitation of himself, a mask.  If you look at him very closely and long enough, you will see the mountains on the other side.  Bear is a template of the wilderness.

I am acquainted with Bear,  indeed more than acquainted.  Bear and I are one, in one and the same story.  My Indian name is Tsoai-talee, which in Kiowa means 'Rock-tree boy.'  Tsoai, "Rock tree,' is Devils Tower in Wyoming.  That is where, long ago, a Kiowa boy turned into a bear and where his sisters were borne into the sky and became the stars of the Big Dipper.  Through the power of stories and names, I am the reincarnation of that boy.  From the time the name Tsoai-talee was conferred on me as an infant, I have been possessed of Bear's spirit.  The Kiowas--whose principal religious expression was the Sun Dance and whose most ancient blood memory was of the mythic darkness of a hollow log from which they emerged into the world--believe that the buffalo is the animal representation of the sun.  Bear is the animal representation of the wilderness.

.   .   .   .   .

Something in me hungers for wild mountains and rivers and plains.  I love to be on Bear's ground, to listen for that old guttural music under his breath, to know only that he is near.  And Bear is welcome in my dreams, for in that cave of sleep I am at home to Bear."

N. Scott Momaday

One comment:  Momaday does not mention that the Big Dipper is found in the Ursa Major or Great Bear Constellation.

Below is the table of Contents that follow the Introduction:

The Bear-God Dialogues
There are ten dialogues.  Some of the titles are  "You are, Urset. I am, Yahweh," "Berries," "Prayer,"
"Dreams," and "Baseball." 

The baseball dialogue is especially interesting for Cub fans.  Urset is the Bear and Yahweh is Yahweh.  Urset begins by telling Yahweh that his children want to play baseball.

Baseball. . .Baseball?

Baseball.  You know, played with bats, a ball, gloves. . .

Oh, for heaven's sake!  OF COURSE I know what baseball is.   I was a pretty fair shortstop in my day.  I taught Ernie Banks everything he knew, if I do say so myself.

My children, my little brood of bears, they are forming a team. Their enthusiasm is boundless.  Why, they even have a name for themselves.

Don't tell me.  .  .the "Cubs."

I really don't know why they can't be a football team.  They are bears, after all.  They are thick and furry.  And they are already accomplished at assault and battery.  It is their nature.  It is what they do.  But baseball!  Baseball is a game of swat, catch, and tag--better played by housecats."


This sections contains nineteen poems, and I will post some of them in the future. 

Only two passages are included in this section:  "The Bear Hunt" and "The Transformation."

As you can see from the Introduction, In the Bear's House is a very unique work.  One of the major themes that I've managed to grasp is the relationship Momaday has with wilderness and his thoughts on the significance of wilderness for all of us.   

This is one of those works that I think requires at least another reading, and probably a couple of rereadings.  

The NFL team in Chicago is the Chicago Bears.
The following link will lead you to the Wiki article on Ernie Banks, probably the most popular Cub player of all time..

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine

One of my New Year's resolutions was to read as much of Lawrence Durrell's works this year as I could.  Today I begin with Justine, which is only appropriate since my first introduction to his writings was this work.  Several decades ago, I was in grad school and on the reading list for a course in 20th century novels (or perhaps 20th century English novels) was Justine.  I had heard of Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet, but I had never read anything by him before.

I started reading and was confused and bewildered by the first three or four pages as it seemed to be nothing but randomly placed paragraphs with no coherent plan to structure them.  I was a bit dismayed, a complete novel like this!   Then the following jumped out at me.  It wasn't the first sentence of a chapter, or even of a paragraph.  It was buried in a longish paragraph, but I had to stop and read it again, and again.  It told me what Durrell was up to.  I was hooked. I read Justine and then went on to read as much of Durrell as I could find.   Now, it's time to do it again.

The sentence:

"The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this--that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side."

I doubt if it grabs others the way it grabbed me, and I can't explain why.  It just did. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Baltasar Gracian: Luck

No. 139

"KNOW YOUR UNLUCKY days:  for such there arewhen nothing goes right, and even though the game change, the bad luck does not:  you know them after two throws of the dice, and you retire, or play on, depending upon whether this is such a day, or not.  Even the mind has its periods, for no man is wise at all hours, since it takes luck to think straight,  just as it takes good luck to write a good letter, for all good things have their season, beauty not always being in style, judgment itself turning traitor, now making us too soft, now too harsh: thus anything to come off well, must be of its day.  Just so does everything go wrong with some, and everything go right with others, and with less effort.  All they touch stands ready, the spirit is well-disposed, the mind is alert, and their star is in the ascendant.  Then is the hour to strike, and not to squander the least advantage.  But the man of judgment will not let just one throw augur the day unlucky, or lucky, for the former may have been only mischance, and the latter only happy accident."

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom

I know it's unfashionable to talk about luck nowadays.  We have other explanations for it, I suppose, but do they really explain  those long sequences of fortuitous or unhappy  events that strike us all at times?  Or explain why some people are blessed more often than can be expected, or conversely, cursed more often than others.  Do those explanations really answer why or do they just provide another more sophisticated way of hiding our ignorance from ourselves, a scientific way of disguising our real answer of "I don't know."

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Two by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn 
Pawn's Gambit and Other Stratagems
short stories

Pawn's Gambit  is a collection of  fifteen short stories, many of which made their first appearance in SF magazines and anthologies, ranging from 1981 to 2014.  

"Pawn's Gambit"

This is the title story and also the last story in the book.  It's an alien abduction tale.  Kelly McClain awakens in a strange place, not knowing how he got there.  He has heard recent stories from around the globe about abductions and that all agreed that they had to play some unfamiliar games and were then returned to Earth.  After his initial panic, he settles down to wait.  Eventually he is contacted by one of the Stryfkar who explains what will happen to him.  The games, the alien explains, are their ways of studying other races.

The alien doesn't tell McClain is that the games have a deadly purpose.  The Stryfkar were nearly defeated by another race, the Chanis.   The games are designed to identify those races that possess characteristics similar to those of the Chanis, and they will be destroyed before they pose a threat to the Stryfkar.

Normally, the winners of the games were returned safely home while the losers would remain until they finally won.  After losing several games they would have more experience with the games than newcomers, so they had an advantage, regardless of how poor a game player they were. Eventually they also would be returned. After having played several games, McCain is shocked to find the Stryfkar have changed the rules.  Now, he and his opponent would play three games and the winner would be returned home while the loser would die.

Inserted into the narrative are communications among the Sryfkar which give the reader more insight into them and their actions and which  allow the reader to see the growing threat to Earth which McCain is unaware of.

Several other SF works involving game playing for high stakes are Philip K. Dick's The Game Players of Titan, and The Player of Games by Iain Banks.  There are many others, no doubt.

I found the most interesting part to be the relationship that developed between McCain and his opponent, Achranae, as they struggle to overcome the cultural barriers so as to be able to work together against their common foe.  I can only wish this story be expanded to develop this more thoroughly.

"The President's Doll"

This tale points out something I should have noticed myself long ago, but never did.  I actually don't feel that bad because I know of nobody else who saw it either.    That something is a needle.  This is why I think the story should have been titled "Voodoo Acupuncture."

In the voodoo tradition, a person is cursed by creating a small doll with some bodily parts of  the victim, such as fingernails or hair clippings.  Once constructed and the proper formula recited, needles inserted into the doll result in a corresponding damage to the victim.  In contrast,  in acupuncture, the practitioner inserts needles into the patient at certain specific nerve junctions to block pain or to solve some physical problem.

Two men got a brilliant idea.  Dr. Sam Pak, expert in acupuncture, and Dr. Pierre Christophe, from Haiti, very knowledgeable about voodoo, decided to combine their skills and create, essentially, acupuncture at a distance.  Once Christophe had created the doll, Pak wok insert the needles into the appropriate pain centers when necessary.

Detective Harland  of the Washington DC police becomes involved when he is assigned to work with the Secret Service on a case, the Case of the President's Missing Doll.  The President is a believer in the efficacy of acupuncture, but it wasn't as widely accepted in 1987 (when the story was first published) as it may be today, in some circles.  It would be politically embarrassing if the President were to be seen visiting an acupuncturist or one being seen to enter the White House.  So, acupuncture at a distance seemed the perfect solution, until someone broke into the Pak/Christophe Clinic and stole only one item, the President's doll.

Harland and Maxwell, the Secret Service agent, have one task:  find the doll and get it back before it is used.

It's a clever tale, and probably one that Zahn wisely decided to leave as a short story.  I don't think there's enough here to expand into a novella, much less a novel.

These are just two of  the fifteen short stories in this collection.  There's a post-holocaust love story, a drug sniffing dog tale, aliens who pose a threat to the solar system on their way elsewhere, a strange telephone book, a troll who works at a toll-booth, a wizard who, for fifteen years, has always showed up too late to use his powers to solve a problem,  and an old-boys insider trading network that employs telepaths, among other strange and entertaining tales.  Some are demonstrably SF while others are fantasy, and some are somewhere in-between.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Minute Meditation

We exist in the element of language.  Someone  has said that to think is to talk to oneself.  The implications of this equation are critical.  Language is necessary to thought, and thought (as it is manifested in language) distinguishes us from all other creatures.

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from the Preface of The Man Made of Words

Is it true then that we can think only about something for which we have a word?  The appendix to George Orwell's 1984 contains a thoughtful essay on this. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Resolutions for the New Year

Well, this is that time of the year again, so I thought I would post my few resolutions.  Making them public might encourage me to work more diligently in keeping them.

I will avoid bringing in politics as much as possible. In the past it's been difficult, but I think I succeeded.  However, this year I may find it harder.  I doubt that keeping politics out of my posts will deprive anybody for I'm sure that it will be almost impossible to escape political discussions, reports, haranguings, and tirades.  So, I hope to provide an oasis here.  For those curious about my position, check out my post BALANCE at

My second resolution is to reduce Mount TBR to a molehill, or at least start on it.  That means reducing book purchases and relying more on the library.  I hope this doesn't cause a recession in the publishing industry, but it must be done.  I also need to redouble my efforts in encouraging the various discussion groups I'm a member of to select more books that I have at home.  This, of course, will reduce the number of books to purchase and help reduce Mount TBR.

Last year was the Year of Austen in which I read everything I had by Jane Austen, which includes all of her novels, her juvenalia, and uncompleted works.  It was one of the high points of the 2016 reading year.  I also saw an excellent film adaption of her short work "Lady Susan."  For some obscure reason the powers-that-be called it Love and Friendship.   I thought it one of the best adaptations of her works that I've seen and highly recommend it. 

 Since that worked out so well, I have decided that 2017 will be the Year of Lawrence Durrell, during which I will reread everything I have by him, which is close to his complete output--novels, travelogues, and poetry (that will be THE problem).  In addition,  I have just learned that an unfinished novel of his has been published, so I will have the pleasure of not only rereading him, but of reading something by him for the first time (even if it is unfinished).

I will begin with what has to be the obligatory starting point, The Alexandria Quartet.   After that, I may then revert to reading them in their publishing order,  or perhaps continue on to The Avignon Quintet or The Quincunx.

You are all welcome to join me.   

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXIV

Would God punish us for tasting certain of the pleasures that He created? 

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXIV

What!  out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
   Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke! 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXVIII

What!  out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
   Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!

After adding this quatrain to the second edition, FitzGerald left it as it was, unchanged through the next three editions.

His point seems fairly straight forward, at least to me anyway. God creates us from nothing and then  provokes us by forbidding certain pleasures that He Himself placed in our path.  The penalty seems cruel and unjust in that it will be everlasting.  The tone, actually, strikes me as indignation, more than anything else:  the unfairness of it all.

Is this why God created us, brought us out of nothingness in order to punish us eternally for violating some arbitrary rules?   If this is an accurate translation and not slanted by FitzGerald's own religious beliefs, then I can see why Omar Khayyam was a controversial figure in his time and afterwards.  Part of the problem is that scholars suspect that a number of the quatrains in The Rubaiyat attributed to him were actually written later by others.

In any case, whoever is responsible for this quatrain has asked an interesting question, and  one that will be answered solely based on one's own beliefs.