The Director’s Chair – June 2017

It is summer! Time to read more fiction.

A lot of American men do not read fiction. I am not sure why that is the case. Perhaps it is due to a lack of imagination on their part. I know that some people will say that nonfiction is based on and presents facts, and though that may be the writer’s aim that is not always the result. Nonfiction collects facts and surrounds them with hypotheses. Fiction–good fiction–tells a story and surrounds it with questions. That is where the magic lies. Fiction is closer to real life, which may be why most American men avoid it? Too much magic in their own lives perhaps?

This month I decided to listen to one of the library’s Great Courses, A Day’s Read, after reading each of the works covered by the lectures, which is why there are so many titles listed below. Originally, I was only intending to list the titles that were available in the library’s collection, but it turned out that too many titles were covered that I wanted to read. So all the works read are listed, though I could not read all of the works for all 36 lectures. Not enough time in the month. Of the ones I could not get to this time (but have read before), I recommend Melville’s Billy Budd and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. A lot of good beach reading material is here, lots of short stories and some really great short novels. I hope to spend some leisurely days in the sand reading Kafka and Borges after this. They were my favorites, but to each his/her own.

As I was reading the titles below, I came across some others I found I had time to read, so I added them at the end. There is just too much good stuff on the library’s shelves!

Happy summer.

 

A list of material read or listened to:

A Day’s Read   [GREAT COURSES 809 WEI]
Weinstein, Arnold; Allen, Emily; Voth, Grant L.

“A Country Doctor” in The Metamorphosis   [FICTION KAFKA]
Kafka, Franz

Manon Lescaut
Prevost, Abbe

“A Simple Heart”
Flaubert, Gustav

“Pantaloon in Black” in Novels 1942-1954, Go Down, Moses   [FICTION FAULKNER]
Faulkner, William

“The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Emma Zunz” in Collected Fictions
Borges, Jorge Luis   [FICTION BORGES]

The Old Man and the Sea   [FICTION HEMINGWAY]
Hemingway, Ernest

“The River” and “Judgement Day” in Collected Works   [FICTION O’CONNOR]
O’Connor, Flannery

The Sybil
Lagerkvist, Par

Invisible Cities   [FICTION  CALVINO]
Calvino, Italo

The Lover   [FICTION DURAS]
Duras, Marguerite

“The Dead” in Dubliners   [FICTION JOYCE]
Joyce, James

“Diary of a Madman” and “Upstairs in a Wine Shop” in The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China
Xun, Lu

“The Party” and “Lady with the Little Dog”
Chekhov, Anton

Hiroshima   [BCD 940.5425 HER]
Hersey, John

The Narrow Road to the Interior
Basho

Norse Mythology   [BCD GAIMAN]
Gaiman, Neil

Looking Backward: A photographic portrait of the world at the beginning of the twentieth century   [ART 778.4 LES]
Lesy, Michael

Ordinary Light: a memoir   [CULTURE SMITH]
Smith, Tracy K.

 

 

A Day’s Read

 

Kafka – “A Country Doctor”

The first work I read and Prof. Weinstein discusses in A Day’s Read is Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor.” Kafka has never been a favorite author of mine and I think that is because “The Metamorphosis” is over-taught and over-rated. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good story, but a bit obvious (which I guess is why it is so often taught). If you want something different, “In a Penal Colony” is a great story, as is “A Country Doctor.”

It seems as if Kafka is always trying to knock his readers off balance (I have not read enough about his life to see if he felt off balance himself). His novels The Trial and The Castle both place the reader in strange and unusual circumstances, mazes from which the protagonists try to reason their way out. He does the same thing in “A Country Doctor.” What at first appears to be a fairly straightforward story of a doctor’s visit to an ailing patient turns into a surreal life-changing experience for the protagonist.

Weinstein does a nice job of walking the listener through an initial reading of the story. Though only five pages long, there is a lot going on in it. From the start nothing is as it first appears to be and from there things become even more incomprehensible, as if the entire incident was just a dream. Or was it? What was it all about? Weinstein asks more questions than he answers in his lecture (always a sign of a good literature professor) and seems to have a sense of humor (also a prerequisite). It is a good start to the thirty-six lecture series.

 

Prevost – Manon Lescaut

The next two reading choices were not quite to my liking. Manon Lescaut is known to me as an opera, one by Puccini and the other by Massenet. Now I admit that I am no great fan of opera, though I do have one or two favorites (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Bernstein’s Candide to be precise, though I have been known to struggle through Wagner every now and again). I think I might someday appreciate the art form if I were ever able to devote the time to it. But that is neither here nor there. The novelette Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost I was not able to get through, even after listening to Weinstein’s enthusiastic appraisal of the work. Like the opera, I found the work silly and uninvolving. Weinstein claims it to be a very good representative of a French novel of the early eighteenth century and a good example of the social mores of its day. Perhaps. I am not fan of the earliest English novels either, so I moved on.

 

Flaubert – A Simple Heart

I like Flaubert’s work. Madame Bovary is one of my favorite novels. I like Flaubert’s style of realism sprinkled with his own humanity. It seems to me that he really understands his characters. He may not be very sympathetic to them (as with Emma Bovary), or he may show the human struggle in a single character, as in A Simple Heart. This is indeed a story of a very simple heart, embodied by the domestic servant Felicite (meaning happiness in French), whose life is one of simple pleasures and heartaches and toil. I love that Flaubert does not shy away from the disappointments in Felicite’s life any more than he does the comedic absurdities that we all can be prone to. I have read that A Simple Heart was written by Flaubert as a tribute to George Sand. If so, it is his realistic take on the sentimental tale Sand excelled in. Though not a big fan of her work, I enjoyed this story very much.

 

Faulkner – “Pantaloon in Black”

Weinstein points very perceptively to an issue at the end of his lecture on “Pantaloon in Black” that I believe strikes at the very heart (or rather one of the hearts) of this story. It is the issue of misinterpretation. He claims that Faulkner in his story ultimately is questioning the number of times we believe we get things right in our lives when we try to understand another’s motivations. Though this story ultimately for me is about how one person responds to tragedy, it is also about how his actions are misinterpreted by everyone around him, not the least being the deputy sheriff at the end of the story.

I have always liked Faulkner’s writing since reading Absalom, Absalom as an undergraduate. He struck me as an author who really knew his characters and had the ability to get to the very heart and essence of their being. However, this ability did not make reading him easy. Anyone who has attempted The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom, or many of his shorter works will tell you that his style is dense and could be unforgiving (I think it took me four tries before I could work my way into Absalom). However, he could also be a great storyteller; all one has to do is read the much anthologized “A Rose for Emily” to read a great writer at work.

In “Pantaloon in Black,” Faulkner is eloquent where his protagonist is not. He ably narrates the pain of a man who has lost the focus of his life after losing his young wife. It is a painful story to read. Rider, the main character of the story, seems to figuratively ride the pain of his loss through the familiarity of his once everyday life, only to find that he himself no longer has a place in that life. Disorientation leads to tragedy or release, depending on your point of view.

I wish Weinstein had taken up the question of the title, “Pantaloon in Black.” There could be several meanings hidden in this. As a character in pantomimes, Pantaloon was shown as greedy and conniving, which does not fit with Rider’s character at all. He could also be a buffoon, which could imply how the others around him view Rider. His aunt certainly wants to help him, even if she cannot understand him; and the deputy sheriff at the end views him as something of a silly enigma. If this is the case, could it not be that in some ways we are all pantaloons?

 

Borges “The Garden of Forking Paths” and “Emma Zunz”

One of the great things about listening to the Great Courses is that they introduce the listener to things they might not be familiar with, and so it is with the works of Jorge Luis Borges. I had never read any work by him before and I knew it was a gap in my reading. I did not know how large a gap it was until I read these two stories.

His world is that of the “Twilight Zone”: Sterling’s invitation to enter a world not only of sight and sound, but of mind. Borges requires the reader to bring a lot more to these stories than most other writers do. It is, after all, his world. Weinstein tells us that Borges has been called dry, “too cerebral and inclined toward game playing.” I don’t experience any of that. The reader does have to follow the author’s lead in the story, but then isn’t that true of any author?

According to Weinstein, the overriding question in Borges’ work is “Who are you?” Answering that question in these two stories brings the reader, on the surface, into two very different worlds. However, both protagonists live in a maze in which there can be many choices, but from which there seems to be inevitable outcome, especially for Emma Zunz.

I cannot say too much about Borges, except to recommend reading at least these two stories. They are terrific! I am looking forward to reading the rest of his work. As Weinstein states: Borges “is cerebral, but he can break your heart.”

 

Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea

Hemingway is the writer of the moment. By that, I do not mean that he is finally getting his fifteen minutes of fame. He has had more than that and it has been well deserved. What I mean is that Hemingway, at his best, writes about moments in his characters’ lives and brings the reader into those moments so that we, too, can experience them. The style is subtly used in his novels (it is a difficult effect to sustain in a long work). Some of his best short stories are structured around such moments in the lives of his characters (e.g. “Big Two-Hearted River” parts one and two are a case in point). The Old Man and the Sea is a character study as much as it is a narration of this type of moment in the old man’s life and how the circumstances test the man’s courage, resolve and adaptability in the face of nature.

The Old Man and the Sea embraces a number of Hemingway’s themes that have been present throughout his work: man vs. nature, ‘grace under pressure,’ the often existential exploration of man’s role in the universe (a theme of this course, too). Santiago, the ‘Old Man,’ is one with deep knowledge of his role as fisherman. He has been one with the sea, knows how to read it, knows of its dangers. He knows that he cannot subdue the sea, but he can live with it as long as he follows its unwritten rules, rules he knows because he has spent long hours in its presence, long attentive hours. When he hooks the marlin his moment of truth has arrived. Unlike the main character in “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” in which the protagonist makes a sudden decision that changes his life forever, Santiago must endure his epic struggle. In the past, he could have survived on the strength of his body, but as an old man he must rely on something else.

You can attest to Hemingway’s knowledge of fishing and the sea in the way he wrote this story. His language is very meticulous, very precise in the detail of the old man’s approach to his ordeal with the marlin. In the simplicity of Hemingway’s telling of the story, we can acknowledge Santiago’s competence as he rises to the challenge which the marlin presents to him. Hemingway’s prose is often rhythmic, as it is here, but I don’t think it is always effective. Sometimes it rings false in this story, but I think that is because Hemingway was being too ambitious. He is telling a tale he heard many years before, but he wants to make more of it. Towards the end, he makes Santiago a Christ-like figure carrying the cross of his mast through the fishing village. It cheapens the story in my mind. Leave the man to be just a man. And finally, in the end, he dreams of lions. What happens to him? Does it matter? Has he survived the test?

 

O’Connor “The River” and “Judgement Day”

Flannery O’Connor is another of my favorite writers. Her Wise Blood is a chilling novelette about Haze Motes and Enoch Emory and their search for meaning (that would have been a good story to include in this course). “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is a wonderful story of a family’s unfortunate meeting in the wilderness. And the ‘wilderness’ features in a good many of O’Connor’s stories. She is a Christian writer in the best sense of the term; her works often explore the meaning of religion and its clash with the secular world where both are often found wanting and redemption is hard to come by.

Weinstein acknowledges the clash between the sacred and the secular in O’Connor’s works, and it is something that is obvious in these two stories. “The River” tells the story of a young boy who is introduced to the ‘sacred’ by a sitter and the profound, though unexpected, effect it has on him (and just what was Mr. Paradise doing at the end of the story?). “Judgement Day” tells a different story of a displaced southerner living in New York City and searching for something he calls ‘judgement day.’ Both these protagonists live in landscapes peopled by distorted characters; is the distortion that of the characters’ themselves or that of the author? Weinstein sees them as searching for a place where the soul can live. The reader may get the sense that that place is not of this world, at least as far as O’Connor is concerned.

For me, the pleasure in reading O’Connor is that her stories are inhabited by characters who live in spite of their being distorted, by beliefs, by circumstances, or by fate. Her stories are filled with a sardonic humor in both her observations and the in the cluelessness of her characters. In contrast to the stories of Borges, O’Connor’s characters are not concerned so much with questioning who they are, but why. They appear to find themselves in situations which, despite their most fervent beliefs or intentions, they have no control. Hers is a very deterministic view of life.

 

Lagerkvist – The Sibyl

This is the story of two people who have both been touched by the gods, each in a different way and each struggling with the experience. The narrator is a man who had been cursed by a criminal about to be crucified after denying the man the respite of leaning against the wall of his house as he was on his way to his execution. His curse, a particularly awful one, is to live forever, but to find no joy in anything. As this man begins his wanderings, he meets the sibyl, whose story makes up the bulk of the narrative.

For some reason, this story reminds me of Harold Ramis’ film Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. It has to do with experience and how we utilize experience in our lives. These two characters are presented as having been touched by god, but their experiences are so different and not particularly positive that I think it leads us to question everything. The man’s experience (Weinstein identifies him as Ahasuerus) puts him in a biblical context, since the man who curses him increasingly appears to be Jesus. The woman’s experience is with a goat-god in an environment where she is used by everyone–parents, priests, and even the god. Since we all grow out of our experiences, it seems as if Lagerkvist is making that one of his points. However, there is a lot more going on here.

This is the first work by Lagerkvist that I have read. The book was published in 1956, so I will take Weinstein’s word that the subject matter was more shocking then than it appears today. I do like the author’s juxtaposition of the religions, as well as his view of both of them from an outsider’s perspective. Amid all the symbolism, I have to wonder why the woman’s lover had one arm. This is one book I will have to read again.

 

Calvino – Invisible Cities

You could drink twenty espressos in ten minutes and not get the kick you get out of these stories, Weinstein says of this book. He claims that Invisible Cities is Italo Calvino’s masterpiece and I will take his word for that since I have not read any of Calvino’s other works (but like Borges’ works, I will be exploring more of them). I can say that Invisible Cities is a work of beauty, an enigma, a mystery breathtaking in its scope and complexity that leaves more to the reader to resolve (if a resolution is even possible). I will be reading this again, too.

I went to amazon.com to read some of the reviews of this book left by readers. The one star reviews of works are often the most interesting. The reviewers are often so certain of their opinions, e.g. what a bore!, if you are looking for a plot, look elsewhere! It is as if they were warning of a bridge washed out on a darkened road along which the reader is traveling and are trying to save their life. Well, the darkened road may be there for that reader, but sometimes it is what we bring to a work that gives light to illuminate the path to the bridge that is still there and sturdy and able to carry a reader to the end of the story. The title of this work should give the reader some clues as to how to approach it.

There are many questions here since Calvino plays with the narrative. Who is telling the stories? Do we have both Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as narrators? Polo is describing the cities he has seen, so what is invisible? At one point, Polo says that each city he has described was actually a description of Venice, his home city. Do we take him literally? If not, what does he mean? Weinstein finally brings up the concept that we, as readers, as participants in whatever activity we are involved in, bring our own ideas, our own concepts, our own prejudices to things, and that that baggage often gets in the way of new ideas, new ways of looking at something. He questions whether we can ever get a fresh perspective of the world. Are we our own invisible city?

There is a lot to engage with in this slim volume and I want to spend some more time with it.

 

Duras – The Lover

Who is the lover? And who or what is the object of his or her love? It is a complicated question and Duras gives her story free range to explore the emotion. It is possible that The Lover is semi-autobiographical (as some critics have suggested), but personally I think that is a useless designation. Many writers use parts of their life in their fiction, but there is no formula for distinguishing fact from fiction. Duras herself, in The Lover, adds to her own cryptic stand on writing: “Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement.” Why not just accept The Lover as a short poetic meditation on love: of family, of the ‘other,’ of life; and on the act of loving itself.

Marguerite Duras was born in Indochina, what is today Vietnam, though she lived most of her life in France. She is known for her screenplay for Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima mon amour, about a brief love affair between a Japanese businessman and a French actress in post-war Hiroshima. She also wrote many novels and plays and was a highly respected member of the literati in France. The Lover won the Prix Goncourt in 1984.

Weinstein sees the relationship between the narrator and her lover as being the main focus of the narrative, but after an initial reading I would have to disagree. Though obviously it is one of the story’s main components, the jumbled structure of the narrative forces the reader to compare the various relationships the author juxtaposes one against the other. Though brief (my copy of The Lover was only 117 pages), Duras was able to express the complexity of the relationships the narrator had with a plethora of characters, i.e. her mother, two brothers, her lover, Helene Lagonelle, and even some minor characters. It is a brilliant tour de force of writing.

Like many of the works in this course, The Lover should be read slowly. In fact, all good literature should be read slowly. A story should be lingered over, picked at and prodded; enjoyed as much for its rhythms and patterns as for the story itself.

 

Joyce – “The Dead”

If Melville’s Moby Dick is the pinnacle of nineteenth century literature in English (and I would argue that it is), then Joyce’s Ulysses is its twentieth century equivalent, both serving as linguistic and cultural benchmarks of literary creation. As such, these two works also suffer from their places in the cannon since, being works of art, they require the reader to bring a great deal to them if they are to be enjoyed. I don’t think anyone would argue that Melville’s Billy Budd or “Bartleby the Scrivener” are not more accessible to the general reader than the tale of the white whale and the obsessive sea captain. So, too, no one would argue that Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners is less accessible (in fact, even down right more enjoyable) to the general reader than either Ulysses or his epic, Finnegan’s Wake.

“The Dead” is one of fifteen stories Joyce published as part of his first book, Dubliners. It is generally considered to be a masterpiece, though many of the stories in Dubliners can be considered as such. Joyce was an innovative writer (by some accounts he knew more than fifteen languages, which helped culminate in the linguistic feats of Finnegan’s Wake) and his works can be challenging, but his earliest work exhibits Joyce’s ability to express the finest of details using the simplest of methods, as he does in “The Dead.” There is no extraneous or superfluous writing in this story and because of that we get to know this group of characters deeply and intimately.

Prof. Emily Allen loves this story, as do I. She reads “The Dead” as a multilayered narrative of the challenges brought about by time, both through loss and change; the struggle of each of us not only to understand others, but also to come to terms with ourselves. Joyce’s language is poetic, the rhythm of his prose hypnotic, the effect electric.

 

Lu Xun – “Diary of a Madman” and “Upstairs in a Wine Shop”

All great literature is only as good as its reader. What that means is that a great work, whether it be Moby Dick, War and Peace, Manon Lescaut, To Kill a Mockingbird, et al., benefits from the maturity, knowledge and experience the reader brings to it and relies upon the individual reader to read critically and inquiringly in order to fully come to life. Consequently, saying that a book is boring or that the language the author uses is too difficult for the reader (common comments on Amazon) is no criticism of the writer but rather of the reader. It is like saying of art, I may not know much about art, but I know what I like. Unless the viewer of a work of art can answer why they like or dislike something then they really don’t know what they like or dislike at all and are only broadcasting their own ignorance or prejudices.

The reason why I bring all this up is because I am not sure at all as to what I bring to the stories of Lu Xun. These two are the first of his works I have read and they seem to me to be fairly pedestrian and obvious. I agree with Prof. Grant Voth’s assessment of the first story as a criticism of Chinese history. The ‘madman’ views Chinese history as a record of inhumanity, where people are ‘consumed’ by history (though his view is a more literal one). One can certainly see that this was the case during the Mao years with its devastating “Great Leap Forward” and Cultural Revolution (though these stories were written at the beginning to the twentieth century, also a time of great unrest in China). I still feel there is a lot I am missing in these stories with my shallow knowledge of Chines history.

Prof. Voth brings up the Chinese Revolution of 1911-1912 as the background for the second story, “Upstairs in a Wine Shop.” The two protagonists of the story are defeated men, just as were the revolutionaries of 1911, who end up propping up the very social norms they had wished to topple in their youth. It is a sad and pessimistic commentary of China in the early part of the twentieth century.

“Diary of a Madman” was apparently inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s story of the same name and was “the first published Western-style story written wholly in vernacular Chinese” (Encyclopedia Britannica online), though according to Voth the diary was written in the vernacular, surrounded by a frame written in formal Chinese. China’s history and literature seem like another world from the one we inhabit here. Considering how important China will become in this century, I would think it is a country well worth studying. I think I will continue reading Lu Xun.

 

Chekhov – “The Party” and “The Lady with the Dog”

There are many masters of the short literary form and I have read a number of them while following this course, e.g. James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O’Connor. I would also recommend a number of authors that are not included in A Day’s Read, i.e. Laurie Moore, Ann Beattie, Edgar Allan Poe and John Cheever to name only four. One author who absolutely needed to be here was Anton Chekhov.

Chekhov was born and lived in late nineteenth century Russia, a time of increasing social and political change. He was educated in medicine and practiced as a doctor for a while. He had supported his family and his education through writing comic sketches that appeared in newspapers and the many journals published at the time, giving him ample opportunity to hone his craft. Today, he is considered a true master of the short story, as well as being the only Russia playwright of his time still being regularly performed in theaters.

Chekhov writes of love and the relationships between the sexes with a startling depth and empathy, as in both “The Party” and “The Lady with the Dog.” He is rarely pedantic, often amusing, always realistic even in the face of a character’s dreams. What is so satisfying, for me, is that Chekhov never appears to lose sight of the fact that his characters live in a real world, in spite of their hopes and dreams and struggles. He also often acknowledges his place in Russian literature in his stories, quoting, parodying or paying homage to the works of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Gogol, as he does in these works.

These stories are a good place to start in reading Chekhov, but really almost any of his works would do. They are all entertaining.

 

Hersey – Hiroshima

On August 6, 1945, the United States used the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. It has been estimated that the blast killed 100,000 inhabitants of the city. John Hersey wrote his extraordinary “non-fiction novel” in 1946. It is the story of six people who survived the blast and the ensuing catastrophes. Hiroshima was published in 1946 in a single issue of The New Yorker, alone without any cartoons or other articles. It was the first time the magazine had published in such a format.

Relentless is the one word I would use in describing Hiroshima. The narration of the novel is straightforward and undramatic, and I would agree with Voth that the style made the work all the more powerful. In such a maelstrom of death and destruction, to read the stories of the six main characters and the people whose lives they touched on that and the ensuing days, is to read a story of the horrors of war juxtaposed against the resilience of those unfortunate enough to find themselves caught up in those horrors. It effectively gives a human face to that horror.

The question will forever be debated as to whether the United States should ever have used the bomb, particularly on a civilian population, but morality is never black and white. Arguments can always be made and trade-offs justified, especially at a distance. It is easier not to consider the human face of the victim. Is war ever justified? Is it ever worth the price paid both by victor and vanquished? There is always a cost. Hiroshima gives the reader a chance to get close to those who paid the high price of war.

I listened to this book in audio, with Ed Asner reading. The presentation was too fast, as if the producers were consciously trying to fit the book and its update on to a four CD format. Consequently, the presentation suffered in the expression, as if there were better things to do.

 

Basho – The Narrow Road to the Interior

“Months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.”

So begins the poetic tale of Basho’s journey to the ‘far north’ or ‘the interior’ (depending on which translation you get; the original title can mean either). I have read this work quite a few times and every time it is different, just like those solitary drifting clouds would be. Basho was a poet renowned for his haiku, a cryptic literary form the best of times, but one that has the power (even in three short lines) of putting the attentive reader in the very heart of a moment. The haiku here, distanced from the reader as they are by several degrees of separation (i.e. time, language, culture, etc), require a level of increased patience and sensitivity. This is a work like no other.

Voth classifies this work as travel literature, but acknowledges that it is only on the periphery of the genre. As straightforward as it is, there is nothing straightforward about this book. Though Basho’s journey can be followed on a map, he was going into uncharted territory. It is extraordinary that he is able to take the reader along with him.

 

Gaiman – Norse Mythology

This is a review of the audio version of Gaiman’s book read by the author. I tried reading the book, but the prose did not take me to Asgard nor to the hall of the giants as it did when I was listening to Gaiman’s narration. This is not surprising, considering that the tales he is retelling here are part of an oral tradition going back more than a millennium. The gods in these stories, Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and the rest, appear to me to have a great deal in common with the Greek gods. They are ideals of courage, strength, beauty, cunning and wisdom very much bound by human vices of greed, jealousy, lust, and the rest. In this respect, do they give an accurate representation of the values of Scandinavian society in the first millennium c.e.?

These are interesting stories. Some can be disturbing, like the way the gods treat Loki’s children (as well as the children themselves). Others, like the story of Thor’s ‘wedding,’ are humorous. Though ‘gods,’ I never get the sense that they were immortal. There are several mentions of the inevitable end of Asgard and the gods, overwhelmed by the frost giants and the dark forces that surround the gods and must be continually fought back. Again, does this reflect an overwhelming sense of foreboding in early Scandinavian society that perhaps comes from an extended winter’s darkness (and has that survived to the present day?).

Gaiman tells a good story, and his reading of these tales is well done (even if his diction can be less than perfect). Certain stories should be told in the dark where the listener’s imagination can be let free, where we can inhabit, if even for a short while, a world lit only by fire where shadows writhed to life and flames whispered secrets only once to those who listened.

 

Lesy – Looking Backward: A photographic portrait of the world at the beginning of the twentieth century

It is conceit to think that the world is a familiar place, even as technology has given us the illusion that it is shrinking. There is such a diversity of languages, religions, ethnic cultures and lifestyles around the globe, most of which we may be blissfully unaware unless we have been lucky enough to have traveled extensively, and even then unless one spends some time in a culture we only get a mere taste of. And if the world is diverse today, it may be safe to say that it was even more so just a hundred years ago; just as diverse, just as violent, just as interesting as it is today.

Looking Backwards offers the reader a glimpse of what the world was like a little more than one hundred years ago at the turn of the 20th century. As it is today, the world was beset by wars, e.g. the Spanish-American war, the Russo-Japanese war, the Boer war. It was a place where atrocities occurred, e.g. the Boxer Rebellion. It was a place of natural disasters, e.g. the San Francisco earthquake, the Martinique eruption of Mt. Pelee, the Messina, Italy earthquake. Yet looking into the eyes of the people in the photographs the viewer can see just how much we have in common with them, people for the most part going about their daily lives, whether they be in Cuba, Palestine, or Georgia. The more things change…

There is one particular picture, taken in New York, of “immigrants on the deck of the U. S. S. Amerika.” It is a picture of a sea of men, all in hats, with every expression: fear, joy, excitement, uncertainty, eagerness… Who are these men? Where are they from? America was once a land of opportunity, but opportunity was never a certain thing; it was a gift, as it is today, to be made into something or squandered away. What happened to them once they landed? My guess is that they contributed to making America great.

 

Smith – Ordinary Light: a memoir

There are some books worth savoring. Jane Austen’s Emma is one of them. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is another. Tracy Smith’s Ordinary Light can stand with them as a book worth spending a good chunk of time with. Ms. Smith is a writer and poet, recently named Poet Laureate of the United States. Since she is a poet, it should be no surprise that she lingers over details of a remembered life. In recalling a book she used to read with her mother: “The protagonist’s pressed jumper and shiny 1950s shoes, like emblems of a world in which perfection was the likeliest of all outcomes, a world in which children ran from house to house under a clear blue sky, listening, eventually if not at first, to a calm and clear voice telling them what to do, how to be, a voice that watched over them, guarding against harm. A world a child could grasp and parse and line up confidently in her mind before drifting off to sleep,” even the language she uses expresses her allegiance to the expressiveness of words. This is a beautifully written book. It will be a treat to watch, listen to and read her tenure as poet laureate.

I have not read this entire book. I am going to take my time with it. And since this will be my last column as director and my last column on what I have been reading, I should have more opportunities for following my interests. I will be leaving Rapid City in August, off to warmer climes and more exotic locales. This has been fun. I want to thank everyone for their support of the library. It deserves it.

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