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

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

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 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.


The Director’s Chair – May 2017

My time here is quickly coming to an end. I will be leaving Rapid City this August in order to accompany my wife as she takes up her new position as librarian at the American International School in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I have enjoyed my time here. This library is a tremendous resource for the city of Rapid City and should be supported enthusiastically by both the residents of the city and county. Do you know all the services that come out of this library? We are still about books and reading (believe it or not, reading skills will always be valuable), but we also have

  • Magazines, Print and Digital
  • DVDs & Streaming Movies
  • Downloadable Music Albums
  • Books on CD
  • Video and Board Games
  • eBooks & Dowloadable Audiobooks
  • 3D Printers
  • Research Databases,
  • Programs – Hands-on, Concerts, Cooking, Book Club, Technology, Movies & more (at least one of which you are bound to enjoy)!

A library, with a little imagination, can be a world of knowledge and entertainment. Why is that important?

“I believe the accelerations set loose by Silicon Valley in technology and digital globalization have created a world where every decent job demands more skill and, now, lifelong learning. …The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over. If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.” [Thomas L. Friedman, “Owning Your Own Future,” NYT May 10, 2017]

Lifelong learning is going to be the key to making and keeping America great. As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you grow. Learning about and collaborating with technology will continue to be important, but sharpening critical thinking, intercultural communication, teamwork and problem-solving will be essential skills in the 21st century. You learn and sharpen those skills by reading both non-fiction and fiction. Reading fiction is particularly important, since it can help build empathy.

Let me put it this way: reading can change your life. Do it.


A list of material read, listened to or watched:

Incarnations: a history of India in fifty lives     [HISTORY 954.0099 KHI]
Khilnani, Sunil

The High Middle Ages      [GREAT COURSES 909.07 DAI]
Daileader, Philip, Prof.

Pete Seeger: in his own words    [BIOGRAPHIES MUSIC SEEGER]
Seeger, Pete

The 40s: the story of a decade     [HISTORY 973.917 FOU]
The New Yorker


The High Middle Ages

I find the study of history to be endlessly intriguing. I think it is the librarian in me. I read a book of history and find myself looking for more information on this personage or that event that was touched upon in the text, then follow that information to other areas of inquiry as to what came before as well as what happened afterwards. History is a mosaic of ever increasing complexity, which makes it endlessly fascinating.

I particularly like the study of the European Middle Ages, a time period that, when I was growing up, was considered a Dark Age. We were not taught very much about what went on because a lot was unknown about the time period. I also found it interesting that the time period could be isolated from what was going on in the rest of the world. That helped focus. I had a metal castle as a boy with plastic knights armed to the ready to defend it and a healthy appetite for movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Black Knight. That has since changed. As I grew older, it was good to find out that my plastic knights were not all there was to the story. There was a lot more going on.

Prof. Daileader’s The High Middle Ages is a continuation of his course on The Early Middle Ages, covering the years 1000 to 1300. This was a time when universities were established on the continent, inquisitions began to operate in defense of Christianity, crusades were launched, and democracy once again found a political foothold. It is a long time frame and a lot of countries’ histories to cover in twenty-four half-hour lectures, but Prof. Daileader does a good job keeping it accessible.

I love these kinds of courses because they disprove my belief that I actually know what something like feudalism is, how the chivalric code came into being, or what the Inquisition was all about. For instance, there was not just one Inquisition, but many of them, and some of them were even expected (a Monty Python reference, for those who are interested). Likewise, the quality of life for peasants was uneven throughout Europe at this time as European society evolved slowly, but inexorably. In my youth, I tended to think of the Middle Ages as a static time with no progress being made, but of course that could not be true. Change is our one constant. Trying to figure out why changes occur is what makes history so interesting.

This is, by necessity, an introductory course on its subjects, but Daileader gives the listener a good starting point for further study of such subjects as “women in Medieval Society,” the Norman Conquest, and Magna Carta, by combining his lectures with the accompanying booklet.

The library has a number of Great Courses on a variety of subjects that can be borrowed. The courses tend to be more in-depth and are led by university professors respected in their fields and winners of teaching awards. Most of them come with an accompanying booklet that outlines the lecturer’s material and offers suggestions for further reading and “Questions to Consider.” This one also comes with a timeline, a glossary, ‘biographical notes,’ and an in-depth bibliography. All these courses are well worth investigating.


Pete Seeger: in his own words

There is something very liberating in watching Pete Seeger sing. If anyone believed in the power of music and song to change the world, he did. You can hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes; and the words and music he wrote carry that message on to younger generations.

For most of my life, Pete Seeger has been a controversial figure. That’s because by the 1960s he had been involved in so many causes (e.g. labor, socialism) and would go on to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement and protesting the Vietnam War, that most people with an opinion either loved him or hated him. Through it all, Seeger seemed to be involved in the ‘folk song cause,’ the freedom of a people to express themselves, whether that expression be for an unpopular cause or the voice of a movement a million strong.

Many people felt threatened by Seeger over the years, not the least of which was the US Government, which blacklisted him along with many others in the 1950s. What was his threat? “It does not make me happy to be the occasion of rancor within any community. I have always sung in hopes of unifying people, not dividing them. But I don’t mind being controversial, or being accused of singing controversial songs. The human race benefits when there is controversy and suffers when there is none.”

To read his words, I have come to realize that there were many sides to Pete Seeger. He was no saint, though he had a philosophy. He believed in the “common man” and saw first-hand the devastation a failed economy could wreck upon them during the Depression. And he witnessed the blight of fascism. “…I was caught up in the social ferment of the 1930s and the struggle against fascism which, in a larger sense, is still with us today. I’ve made as many mistakes as anyone else, probably more, but they have all been my own mistakes. No one ever told me what to think. The long range goals seem just as clear as ever. But the arguments about the exact road to take to get there are sure confusing.”

He was for unions; he was against monopolies; he was for free speech; he was against abuse of the environment; he was for “the people”; he was against censorship. The list could go on. He sang to end the Vietnam War, he crusaded to clean up the Hudson River in New York. He believed in the power of people to live in peace, if only their governments would let them. He was Pete Seeger.

All the causes and contradictions of the man are here in this book. Here is all the uncertainty of a man who wished to make a difference for the people of his world, who was willing to stand for something in which he believed. He was not unique in his time and he was definitely of his time (as we all are). Whether you agreed with his stands or not, whether you loved or hated him, especially if you have never heard of him, you should read this book. Then seek out his recordings. In my mind’s ear I can still hear him singing, at the top of his voice, This Land is Your Land.


Incarnations: a history of India in fifty lives       

It has long been a conceit that Western civilization is superior to all others. There were many reasons for this, none of them valid. The world is a fascinatingly diverse place populated by interesting people who have had a significant impact on their parts of the world. Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia is the type of book that highlighted the lives of people, well-known and obscure, who had an impact on history, either good or bad. Khilnani’s book is similar, however where James’ book was filled with mostly familiar individuals, Khilnani for the first time introduced me to many of the people who have had a hand in making India the land it is today.

Starting 2500 years ago with a life of the Buddha and ending with Dhirubhai Ambani, who amassed the Reliance Industries fortune, the book covers such disparate characters as Panini, the codifier of Sanskrit grammar, and the legendary Buddhist king Ashoka, to the great writer Rabindranath Tagore and the brilliant filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Along the way we meet an interesting combination of cultural influencers both eastern and western: the poet Kabir, the linguist William Jones, the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, the politician Indira Gandhi. It is enough to make one wish to delve deeper into this fascinating mix that is India.

I do not find Khilnani as interesting a writer as someone like Clive James, though he does a good job combining reasons why a particular entry is pertinent today with the life and times of the subject. The one glaring omission I see is that a work like this, covering as it does personalities both famous and obscure, the likes of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Muhammed Ali Jinnah, would omit such a cultural icon as Ravi Shankar. Surely his contribution to Hindustani music was as profound as Ray’s contribution to film.


The 40s: the story of a decade        

I have not read this book yet. Not all of it. Sometimes I come across a book that I hesitate reading because I know it is going to be so good that I do not wish to use it up too soon. This is that kind of book. I know the writing is going to be great (the text is from The New Yorker after all) and it has been so far. But the magic is not all in the style of the writing. All of these stories come from the pages of The New Yorker, all written during the 1940s. Written when the history was being made, when the writers were at their typewriters, the films were being made. All of this put my imagination squarely in that troubled decade.

Of course, the war figures prominently, from E. B. White’s uncertainty about where current events will take him, to John Hersey’s graphic description of the bombing of Hiroshima. Character studies include Walt Disney, the German writer Thomas Mann, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and a young writer named Norman Mailer. “The Current Cinema” includes reviews of Casablanca, The Grapes of Wrath, and Citizen Kane. The fascination for me here is that, though most of us have heard or read or studied these cultural icons and their assessments by critics of more recent vintage, here we get to read how they were viewed by their contemporaries when their contributions were new and vital. Fifteen pages on Duke Ellington? Six pages on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh? What publication would you get that in today?

Can you tell I am a fan of The New Yorker? Harold Ross created the magazine in 1925 with the backing of Raoul Fleischmann and hired some of the great writers of the era to work for it. In this collection you can read Edmund Wilson, W. H. Auden, Lillian Ross, George Orwell, Lewis Mumford and Vladimir Nabokov, to name a few. It is a satisfying collection reassuring this reader there was once a time when facts were checked, proofs were read and grammar was corrected. The book is part of a series, so if the 1940s are not of particular interest to you, perhaps the 1950s or 1960s will do. Be forewarned, the writing here is east-coast-centric, particularly New York-centric (I read some of the reviews on Amazon—I often do for entertainment—and some of the ‘reviewers’ bordered on the nonplussed by that bias: hint: the name of the magazine was and is The New Yorker). Any chance the series would go back to the 30s and 20s?


The Director’s Chair – April 2017

How close can we get to life? What can get us there? Prayer? Meditation? Drugs? Why do we make the assumption that there is something standing between us and the experience of living? How many of us are aware of every moment of our day?

Lots of questions to start the month off with. However, the books I read in April are all about these questions, though not by design. Gerald Durrell was a keen observer of the world around him and it shows spectacularly in his writing. Victor Frankl’s classic book is an analytical addition to holocaust literature and to psychology. Ocean Vuong’s poetry was, perhaps, the best way for me to get closer to life, but then words, words, words don’t always do it for everyone. And Oratorio for Prague was a unique way of looking at the past to remind us of our possible future. All of these can be found in the library’s collection.

A list of material read, listened to or watched:

My Family and Other Animals   [FICTION DURRELL]
Durrell, Gerald

Man’s Search for Meaning    [SOCIAL SCIENCE 150.198 FRA]
Frankl, Viktor E.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds   [NEW BOOK POETRY 811.6 VUE]
Vuong, Ocean

Oratorio for Prague   [DVD 943.7104 ORA]
Nemec, Jan, director

Rough Guide to English Folk   [Available through HOOPLA]

My Family and Other Animals


Last year PBS aired a series called The Durrells in Corfu. The series is a dramatization of a trilogy written by Gerald Durrell, the first book of which is My Family and Other Animals (there is a movie of that name that was made in 2005 that was very entertaining and a TV series that aired in 1987). It tells the story of a family that moves from England to the Greek island of Corfu in 1935, all the while going from a cranky, frustrated group blossoming into an actual, caring family. It is an entertaining six episodes that you should watch (especially since it has been renewed for another season).

Gerald Durrell’s book is worth reading, even if you have seen the series or any of the other dramatizations. My Family and Other Animals is rich in characterizations and the poetry of living in this, for the Durrells, exotic location. Durrell writes with a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s sensibility.

“With March came the spring, and the island was flower-filled, scented and a-flutter with new leaves. The cypress trees that had tossed and hissed during the winds of winter now stood straight and sleek against the sky, covered with a misty coat of greenish-white cones. Waxy yellow crocuses appeared in great clusters, bubbling out among the tree-roots and tumbling down the banks. Under the myrtles, the grape-hyacinths lifted buds like magenta sugar-drops, and the gloom of the oak-thickets was filled with the dim smoke of a thousand blue day-irises. Anemones, delicate and easily wind-bruised, lifted ivory flowers the petals of which seemed to have been dipped in wine…”

It is also full of humor and the obvious appreciation of Gerald for his often exceedingly eccentric family. As the story begins, Louisa, the matriarch of the family, has been widowed for eight years and is struggling to keep her family afloat financially. Lawrence, the eldest son, is a self-absorbed, opinionated would-be writer, who will actually become a famous author in time. Margo, the only daughter, is looking for herself and love; and Leslie is a gun-enthusiast also looking for fulfillment. Finally, there is Gerald, the ten-year-old son obsessed with ‘critters’ and bringing home copious quantities of fauna in all sizes and shapes.

Their world was inhabited by all manner of personalities: Spiro the helpful anglophile; Theo the aristocratic amateur naturalist; Lugaretzia, the long-suffering domestic, and a succession of tutors and artists all brightly outlined by Durrell. As for the natural world, there is one epic struggle between a gecko named Geronimo and a mantis named Cicely that highlights Gerald’s passion for the natural world. One has to wonder what would have become of him if the family had stayed in England.


Man’s Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl was a philosopher, neurologist and psychiatrist who developed the theory of logotherapy, which “focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning.” In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl spends the first two-thirds of the book outlining some of his experiences while caught up in the Nazi concentration camps. After reading that, it might be easy to see how someone could be concerned with looking for meaning in life. “Under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity, which had robbed man of his will and had made him an object to be exterminated (having planned, however, to make full use of him first—to the last ounce of his physical resources)—under this influence the personal ego finally suffered a loss of values.”

How do we lose site of the value of an individual life? Larger events sometimes overtake us. People often need something to believe in or to blame in order to take their minds off of reality. So whether it is racial or religious differences, nationalism, economic fears, or something else, we look outside ourselves to explain our inherent powerlessness in the face of life’s seeming arbitrariness. Those caught up in these larger events are often helpless, bewildered, defiant, or lost. You can see this in pictures taken since the American Civil War, in World War I, in pictures from the Armenian genocide, the Bosnian and Serbian genocides, what is going on now in Syria, and certainly pictures from the Holocaust, among others. These show people caught up in events beyond their control, and it is those events that expose the blackness of the human condition: “Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.”

Frankl must have been an extraordinary man to have been able to look into that darkness and to have climbed out again with both logic and reason intact. Man’s Search for Meaning tells of Frankl’s experiences as a prelude to his outline of logotherapy (and it is only an outline, consisting of just over thirty pages). Logotherapy, in many ways, reminds me of Buddhism: “Logotherapy in neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation…The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.” Is this not enlightenment?

I can see why Frankl’s book was popular. It is short and has a conversational tone. He looks at the human condition, not as one would look at a rat in a maze but, as a result of free will and free choice. “A human being is not one thing among other; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining….Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.” It is an attractive philosophy.


Oratorio for Prague

The year 1968 was a particularly ugly one. The Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, TN on April 4 and Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June; Chicago was rocked by a clash of wills between the infamous Mayor Richard J. Daley and Viet Nam war protestors at the Democratic National Convention; earlier in the year a North Korean patrol seized the USS Pueblo. May 6 saw violent protests in Paris, the same month that saw the flowering of the Prague Spring.


Czechoslovakia had been a Soviet satellite country for twenty years, but in 1968 the government of Alexander Dubcek began to steer the country towards democratization, much to the displeasure of Moscow. Ironically, Russia was coming to the end of its own experiment in the loosening of government controls that followed the death of Stalin and renewing censorship of writers and filmmakers.


Dubcek enacted reforms on April 5 in order to bring more political and social freedom to his country, bring a greater popular enthusiasm to Czechoslovakians. However, it only lasted about four months. During that time, Jan Nemec and his crew were in Prague filming what would become known as the Prague Spring: people enjoying themselves, dancing, students listening to speeches—what looks like optimism. The cameras were also there when, on August 20th, the first Soviet tanks rolled through the city to reassert the authority of the Kremlin.


The official word from Moscow was that the Russians had been invited in by the Czech government to avert what Moscow claimed was an imminent invasion of the Sudetenland by West Germany. In reality, Moscow was simply its sphere of influence represented by the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet counterpart to NATO). Nemec’s film turned out to be the only film of the invasion. It would be seen, when televised, by over 600 million people. Still, the world did not react. America was deeply embroiled in its own war in Southeast Asia and had just had a standoff with Moscow over missiles in Cuba that seemed to bring the world perilously close to nuclear war. Cooler heads prevailed.


The images are disturbing, though they are not as graphic as we have come to expect. There is blood on the pavement, bodies covered by a flag, distraught residents of the city arguing with Russian soldiers. Ultimately, the Czechs were powerless to resist the collective might of the Soviet troops. Dubcek capitulated, was arrested and eventually expelled from the Communist Party and sent into exile.

Oratorio for Prague is a document of 1968 told in images. There is a simplicity to the film that makes it all the more powerful. This is a tale subtly told, but it is not an unusual one. It happened in Hungary in 1956, in Ukraine in 2014, and can easily happen tomorrow.


Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Some people get their altered perceptions through drugs or alcohol. The Chinese sages and the Greeks were profuse in their praise of wine for being able to show them truths, in vino veritas (yes, I know this is Latin, but do you know the Greek? I don’t.) While I have an appreciation for wine that goes beyond the pedestrian, I prefer to have my eyes opened by words, especially in the hands of a good poet.

“……I didn’t know the cost

of entering a song—was to lose

your way back.”

His poetry is uncompromising, like most good poetry. And like most good poetry, it needs to be read slowly and painfully, slowing the reader’s heartbeat like a meditation. Each beat an accent of the line in front of you. The breath slows. The head clears, if only for a moment, making you more aware of your surroundings. It can be a shock to the system, realizing how unaware we are of our life.

“…If you must know anything, know that the hardest task is to live only once.”

I think more people would read poetry or listen to it if they knew it could clean out the inherent mediocrity of constant noise that passes for culture but is, in reality, politico-commercial flatulence of the age.

“…There is so much

I need to tell you—but I only earned

one life. & I took nothing.”

As for the author, Ocean Vuong was born in Viet Nam in 1988. He came to America two years later. He now lives in New York City, in Brooklyn. Born Vinh Quoc Vuong, his mother renamed him Ocean.


Rough Guide to English Folk

For such a small island, Great Britain has a really lively folk music scene, as can be attested to with this audio file [available through Hoopla]. The selections go from contemporary to traditional, so there should be something here for everyone who appreciates unique music. It features one of my favorite performers, Northumbrian piper Katherine Tickell, playing “The Wedding/Because He Was a Bonny Lad.” There is also a rousing rendition of “Yarmouth Town” by the recently defunct band Bellowhead.

A great find was the music of Coope Boyes & Simpson, an a capella group currently touring the UK in their final tour. Their music has a real authentic feel to it with close harmonies and songs of the sea, and the file is very generous with 14 tracks of their music.

The Rough Guide music series can be an effective introduction to world music. I have enjoyed both the Hungarian music CD and the Arabic music download. There is a world of music out there. Hoopla (found under our “Digital Library” sources) can be a good place to explore.

The Director’s Chair – March 2017

Clive James is dying and has been for the past six years. In April 2011, he was diagnosed with B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He felt himself to be near the end of his life in 2012. However, as of February 2017 he is still here, writing a column in The Guardian entitled “Reports of My Death” that covers…well, whatever he wishes to write about. This is good news, to me at least, to have such a person around: someone who can write and think and who has something interesting to say. If you need any proof of his abilities in all those areas, pick up a copy of Cultural Amnesia (there is also what I would call a companion volume, Cultural Cohesion, that would do the same). Any book that juxtaposes “Terry Gilliam” and “Joseph Goebbels” in the contents can’t be bad.

James is not the only one in this class. Kurt Vonnegut used to be such a writer. Though gone now, his works are still here and questioning our motivations and circumstances. How we see the world around us and how we act in reaction to that world view can have far reaching consequences. Vonnegut’s Player Piano gives us a dystopian view of a future where technology has had a negative impact. However, one person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia. In Arrival, we get to see ourselves as the ultimate barbarians. We can say we never know enough about life, the universe and everything (to steal from Douglas Adams). This is the premise of Arrival, one of the more intelligent films I have seen in a long while.

There is not a lot of respect for learning in this country, though I am not sure why. Learning is about just that…learning. It is not about being ‘sure’ or being ‘right.’ Any time I think I am right about something I either try to test the idea or read more. Learning is just a way to get the tools one needs in order to think. I can’t think in a vacuum. And sometimes I am too lazy to go get more information. Shame on me. So I read magazines and the New York Times in order to find out what is going on in the world, and I read books like the ones below in order to stay sane. I write about them because…I might as well. I read to help me think. I write to see what has become of all that reading. Thanks for your indulgence.


A list of material read, listened to or watched:

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia     [947 F471]
Figes, Orlando

Arrival     [DVD AR]

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts     [909.0982 JAM]
James, Clive

The Early Middle Ages     [Great Courses 940.1 DAI]
Daileader, Philip

Short Stories in Novels & stories 1950-1962     [Vonnegut]
Report on the Barnhouse Effect; EPICAC; Unready to wear; Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; Harrison Bergeron; 2BR02B.
Vonnegut, Kurt

The Hollow Crown     [DVD HO]


Since at least the eighteenth century, the Russian view has been that the West represented decadence. In those days, France represented the loose morals and soft adherence to high culture that a part of Russia felt was decadent, even as another part of Russia wanted to be just like the French. And so today, we find Russian criticism aimed at America and American culture as being the source of all that is corrupt in the world, even as a sizeable number of them try to absorb as much of it as they can. The more things change…

What makes reading Natasha’s Dance so fascinating is that the culture it describes has always been so fertile, yet so lacking in confidence. In this, as in so much else, Russian culture has a lot in common with America. The stereotypical Russian is loud, emotional, crafty and devout. The stereotypical American can be described the same way. Russian literature of the nineteenth century was epic (War and Peace), intense (Crime and Punishment), and probing (Fathers and Sons); it could be tied to history and the land (the works of Aksakov and Turgenev) or viciously satirical of life in general (the works of Saltykov-Shchedrine or Goncharov). American literature of the same period was epic (Moby Dick), intense (The Scarlett Letter), tied to the issues of the day (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) or satirical (the works of Edgar Allan Poe). What they lacked in similarities they more than made up for in sympathy. So why has there always been such antipathy between Russia and the West?

I trace the conflict back to Peter the Great. He was the one who went on a trip to Western Europe and decided that Russians needed to catch up with ‘civilization.’ In founding St. Petersburg, the young tsar managed to create a schism both in the country and in the psyche of the Russian people. That being said, the dichotomy has been a good one for Russian art and culture. There have been two distinct schools of Russian literature since the nineteenth century: one classical in nature and realist in philosophy and originating in Alexander Pushkin (it includes Tolstoy and Turgenev); the other more baroque and fantastical and originating with Nikolai Gogol (it includes Dostoevsky). Visual arts have struggled between the more classical approach of European art and an adherence to nativist subjects and sympathies.

Orlando Figes has done an interesting job of analyzing the many facets of his subject. There can be no doubt that there are similarities between Russian and American cultures, but like any good family it is the dissimilarities that make it interesting.

The quest for power has always been a bloody one. Shakespeare made a career of charting the uses and abuses of power (Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, etc.), mainly because he was reflecting the anxieties of his time. Elizabeth I was nearing the end of her reign, but she had no clear heir. Consequently, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to the future of England.

Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies on leadership and kingship. It was almost as if he was trying to show through the popular entertainment of the day how England could go one way or the other after Elizabeth. The second tetralogy is made up of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Here he showed how a great ruler (Henry V was seen as uniting England after years of unrest) can arise out of uncertainty. The first tetralogy, made up of Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III, shows how evil can arise from weakness. The portrait of Richard III that emerges in Shakespeare’s play represents that evil and its ability to derail the state.

The Hollow Crown is a distillation of the plays in the first tetralogy and does an effective job of combining storyline (it is quite violent) with Shakespeare’s poetry. Admittedly, the three parts of Henry VI are not of Shakespeare’s best work. They tend to be static and can be long-winded. However, Richard III is a wonderful play. In The Hollow Crown, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Richard III with such intelligent malice that he rightly steals the show. Why is it we love such evil characters? Is it cathartic? Do we long to be bad?

The Hollow Crown is long (6 hours), but worth every minute as a reminder of how corrupting the desire for power can be. But not only that, it is a cautionary tale of how our desire to believe and to accept political theatre can lead to chaos. As humans, I think we have an innate need to believe in something greater than ourselves. We would do well to question such desires.

Player Piano was Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel. I have read some of his others. Slaughterhouse-Five is a masterpiece. Player Piano is, in my opinion, not, though it is a solid story. I think the problem with Player Piano is one of pacing. I found the novel dragged through the first one hundred pages, so I switched to reading his short stories, which are far superior and represent some of Vonnegut’s best work.

Vonnegut used science fiction to address some of the social issues of his day. While that was common enough, it is interesting to see how the themes of his short stories echo concerns that are still with us today: e.g. overpopulation, the proliferation of war, political correctness. One of my favorite Vonnegut short stories is “Harrison Bergeron.” It is set in a world where everyone is supposedly equal. Even though there are people who are more intelligent, talented, or capable, the United States Handicapper General has devised rather sadistic methods for leveling the playing field. A beauty is forced to wear a hideous mask; a person with a high IQ is forced to wear a headphone that disrupts his thoughts every twenty seconds with a mind-numbing blast. Mediocracy reigns until the title character appears.

All of the stories in this volume were written around the same time as Player Piano, but they are tighter, better constructed. The focus makes them that much more enjoyable. They remind me a little of Chekhov’s work, but then I guess all good short stories should. Vonnegut was a master, so even if you are not drawn to his novels, look for his stories.

I like books like Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. They offer a means of poking around history in order to discover unknown players, as well as discovering new information on known players in world history. Since these are not biographical essays, but rather digressions, James can take us anywhere he will. And he does. That is another reason why I enjoy his books so much. Not only can I be introduced to someone like Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, an eighteenth-century German philosopher, but I get to take the associative ride that James takes the reader on. Sometimes it can be a wild ride (so much so that one can forget who the essay being read is about) which can be a drawback if I want to learn more about the subject. However, I spent most of my time tracking down many of the works mentioned in the text to see if I wanted to follow up on them, and in many cases I did.

The reader can use a book like this simply to get to know more about some of the great personalities in history (e.g., Charles Chaplin, Ernst Junger, Egon Friedell), as well as some scoundrels (e.g., Josef Goebbels, Grigory Ordzhonokidze). I knew something of about half the names in the index, but there were few I had ever read a biography of (in my opinion, well-written biographies are few and far between). James includes entries for four of my favorite filmmakers (Cocteau, Fellini, Chaplin and Gilliam), which makes me all the more curious as to what he would have had to write about Kurosawa or Renoir or Bergman. One could spend a lifetime following up on some of the names, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about Manes Sperber (his three volume autobiography is two-thirds fascinating), the “cabaret star and polymath” Egon Friedell, and the reluctant general Isoroku Yamamoto.

James puts forth his book as something of an argument against totalitarianism and for liberal democracy. As he sees it: “Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come…What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life, which we will find hard to defend if we share the same aversion.” With the current aversion to knowledge and expertise, a fear of multiculturalism around the world, and a misguided conceit that all knowledge can be found on the internet, ergo we do not need to learn anything, many have fallen into a lazy, self-satisfied trap of ignorance. Wake up! “There is too much to appreciate…The real adventure is in what we do to entertain ourselves.” As we know, education is everything.

In the film Arrival, the ‘Other’ has indeed arrived. They are from outer space and the world would like to speak to them, mainly in order to find out how much danger it is in. We are a suspicious species. Each country’s army is in charge, in America and around the world, of the twelve landing sites of the others. At first the different countries involved share information in order to facilitate an understanding of this puzzle of communication. The Americans bring in a linguist and a physicist in order to lead contact with the visitors. Then something happens. China gets spooked and becomes hostile to the others. Russia joins them. Time is running out. What is to be done?

This is the surface story of the film Arrival. There is not much action, except for a rogue army response to escalating tensions. The real story of the film is one of time and our perception of time. I don’t want to give too much away, except to warn you to stay awake. Despite appearances, there is a lot going on in this film and Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner give outstanding performances. Forest Whittaker is in it, too, but I hardly recognized him. See it.

Finally, I want to highlight the Great Courses collection. The library has many roles it plays and those roles have changed over the years, but continuing education has always been and continues to be a prominent one. You can learn many things thanks to the collections, both actual and virtual, that the library makes available. One of our finest has to be our Great Courses collection.

In this era when anyone can post on internet and claim expertise, these courses actually are conducted by real college and university professors. Some of them are very entertaining (John McWhorter comes to mind), some can be a little annoying (Robert Greenberg has an odd sense of humor, but a great grasp of his subject), most of the presenters inspire confidence in the listener or viewer that they know what they are talking about. Will you agree with everything they say? No. But then you shouldn’t. This is a great place to begin to learn about linguistics, Russian literature, strategic planning, science, or any number of other topics.

I listened to Philip Daileader, a professor from William and Mary College, as he taught the history of the Early Middle Ages, essentially the history of Europe from around 300 to 1000. It is an overview, 24 lectures lasting each around 30 minutes, so he does not get much time to delve deeply into a topic. I wanted to learn more about “athletes of God,” the Carolingian Empire, and the Vikings (a particular interest of mine). Still, this course is an ideal stepping-off point for anyone interested enough to continue pursuing a history of the middle ages. The booklet accompanying the course has a very generous bibliography, so even though the course was recorded in 2004 it can serve to point the way towards more recent scholarship in the field. I learned a lot from the course, and that is always the goal.

That’s enough for this month. I read a little bit more than this, e.g. The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times on a regular basis just to keep up with things. I did watch some interesting films, too: The Hollars, The Brand New Testament to name just two.

No, librarians do not sit around reading all day. We do, however, have the good fortune to work in a place where fascinating things come past our noses. Some are hard to resist.

The Director’s Chair – February 2017

Let’s face it: we know little of our own history. In an era when some people cannot identify the current Vice-President of the United States, never mind the name of the Secretary-General of the United Nations or the current Chancellor of Germany, it is not surprising that some of the major historical figures, both famous and infamous, have become less distinct in our collective memory. One of the reasons I read authors such as Clive James and Tony Judt is the intelligent ‘conversation’ they engender between writer and reader. Like good teachers, their writing arouses curiosity. I have been extensively educated (which has made me very good at certain trivia games), but I had never run into Manes Sperber, Leszek Kolakowsi, or Egon Friedell until I listened to Tony Judt (see below). Alternately, I admit that I do not know much about baseball, so I have spent February brushing up on a lot of things. Below is a list of a few of them so, play ball!


What I read, watched or listened to:

Red Harvest   [HAMMETT]
Hammett, Dashiell

History of Baseball in 100 Objects: a Tour Through the bats, balls, uniforms, awards, documents, and Other Artifacts That Tell the Story of the National Pastime   [796.357 LEV]
Leventhal, Josh

Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century
Judt, Tony  (available on audio through Hoopla)

Voronezh Notebooks   [Poetry 891.713 MAN]
Mandel’stam, Osip


“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.” So begins the story of the Continental Op coming to town and blowing the place wide open in Hammett’s Red Harvest.

The Continental Op (short for operative) was Hammett’s (author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) most durable creation, appearing as he does in two of his novels (the other is the Dain Curse) and in numerous short stories. He is described as short, pudgy and calculating; the perfect hard-boiled detective to come out of the pulp fiction detective genre of the 1920s and 30s.

Red Harvest was Hammett’s first novel and in some ways it shows. The action is lean and powerful at the beginning, but as the story progresses it gets bogged down in Hammett’s ultimately successful attempt to clarify his convoluted storyline. There is a high body count here, but most of the action happens away from the narrator, mainly because it is the result of the Op’s machinations.

Personville was a dirty town and someone had to clean it up. The Op was hired to do so after his original employer was gunned down before he even got to meet him. What follows happens fast and furious; it is a fun ride, but could have been improved with a bit more detail. One has to wonder if there are still small towns out there just like Personville. As an introduction to Hammett’s work, a reader could do no better.

Poetry can be very tricky to translate. This is because, at its best, poetry is language pared down to its essence. It can involve the reader emotionally or intellectually or visually, or any combination of the three. Reading poetry requires patience and imagination and concentration. It requires taking the time to read slowly. It is also meant to be heard aloud, and you can find plenty in downloadable audio through Hoopla and Overdrive (accessed through the library’s website).

Osip Mandel’stam (1891-1938) was a Russian writer who lived through some of the more turbulent times of twentieth century Russian history and who ultimately fell victim to the autocratic paranoia of Josef Stalin. As a poet, he is considered by many to be world-class. The reason why many English readers have never heard of him is because his work is especially difficult to translate. Good poetry can be particularly difficult to move from one language to another; great poetry, almost impossible.

Voronezh is a small town south of Moscow, essentially in the middle of nowhere. It was a good place to put internal exiles, which is why the Mandel’stams ended up there in 1935 after Mandel’stam’s arrest. The Notebooks were composed between 1935 and 1937, after which the couple was allowed to return to Moscow. Mandel’stam was arrested again after returning to Moscow and was sent to Siberia. He was never heard from again. No one knows when or where he died.

It was just luck that Mandel’stam’s poetry from the Voronezh Notebooks even survived. He was a literary star in the twenties, persecuted by Stalin during the thirties, and forced to live by doing translations. It was his wife, Nadezhda, who memorized his poetry while in exile, in order to ensure its survival. These days, it is good to remember that words have power over autocrats and that poetry can be more of a weapon than any bullets (the Russian have known this for a long time).

“When a child first begins to smile
The bitter and the sweet part company,
And the sober limits of that smile
Open, oceanic, into anarchy.”

“I’ll marvel at the world a little more,
The kids, the snow,
But like a road, a smile’s authentic,
Disobedient, no whore.”

We should make a point of embracing poetry. It forces the reader to slow down and think. Mandel’stam’s poetry puts the reader right in the middle of his exile, his ability to connect without a filter to the world around him. These poems are not about great events in history. They tell the story of one intelligent man’s survival in a world made hostile by politics. Andrew Davis did a marvelous job of translating them.


Given how American baseball is considered, it is interesting that the History of Baseball in 100 Objects goes all the way back to 1301 to begin its story, and then reaches even further into history: “References to ancient Egyptians playing stick-and-ball games can be traced to about 2400 BCE as part of religious rites and also simply for fun.” It took America to make it a religion again.

Every lover of the game really should own a copy of this book, rich as it is in the mystique and lore of America’s national pastime. Though the first 50 pages or so linger on the pre-history of pro ball (Did Abner Doubleday really invent baseball?), the real action begins with the Cincinnati Red Stockings Game Ball from 1869 and goes all the way to the World Baseball Classic Championship Trophy of 2013. Along the way we are shown “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s shoes, the home run crown of the immortal Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente’s 3,000th hit bat from 1972 and, my favorite, the National League Championship Series ticket of 1969 (the New York Mets won the series that year).

I am not a big fan of baseball, so I learned a lot from this book. Though the Negro Baseball League was active in the 1930’s, the first black player played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the 1880’s. Ball parks only began to use lighting after 1935. The first televised game was August 26, 1939 and AstroTurf was first put in use in 1966.

If you are a student of the game, you might know most of the information in this book, but the illustrations alone make it worth perusing. Baseball has had a significant impact on the American psyche. It is a game we may have forgotten how to ‘play’ in recent years. We should relearn.

Tony Judt’s Reappraisals is more than just a reprint of book reviews and articles that first appeared in newspapers or journals. In it, he expresses his purpose as bringing the past “into sharper focus.” The reason, as he saw it, was: “Not only did we fail to learn very much from the past—this would hardly have been remarkable. But we have become stridently insistent—in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities—that the past has nothing of interest to teach us. Ours, we insist, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but explaining why requires readers giving careful consideration to his words and connecting the dots. History may be taught as a series of wars and dates, but it is actually made by personalities and thinkers, many of whom most of us have never heard.

Arthur Koestler was a political theorist and writer. He was once a communist (as were a few of Judt’s subjects in this book), which may explain why he is seldom spoken of these days. The author of such minor classics as The Ghost in the Machine and The Sleepwalkers, he did produce one lasting work of greatness, Darkness at Noon. Still, his impact on Zionism and Communism in the mid-twentieth century was felt equally via his presence as well as his writings.

Primo Levi was an Italian writer and chemist (is he well-known in this country?) who wrote eloquently of his experiences as a witness during World War II. “Like all such witnesses, of course, he wrote both to record what had happened and to free himself from it (and was driven forward be the sense that he was doomed to fail on both counts).” His testimonies highlight the benefits of revisiting historical, social and political movements.

Manes Sperber was a Jew from the shtetl who became an intellectual and a Communist in Germany in the 1930s. He wrote a three volume autobiography and his experiences show that then, as now, society and history are always in flux and that security is often an illusion. Sperber was, “constantly tempted by “knowledge,” only to shrink away from it, wary of its illusory quality, skeptical about its philosophical and historical adequacy.” He shared not only his Jewishness with these other individuals, but also the struggle for cosmopolitanism, intellectualism, and sanity in a world racing ahead of them.

These three, along with others (e.g. Hannah Arendt, Eric Hobshawn, Leszek Kolakowski), make the case for Judt: “The extermination of the past—by design, by neglect, by good intention—is what characterizes the history of our time. That is why the ahistorical memory of a marginal community that found itself in the whirlwind may yet be the best guide to our era.” Shining a spotlight on various moments as he does (e.g. France in 1940, Israel in 1967), Judt is able to lead the reader deeply into his subject. By doing so, he illustrates not only his own deep knowledge of his subjects, but also the vital uses of such knowledge. The world is a complicated place.

The only way to make sense of the world today is to read. Read newspapers, histories, novels, and even some websites. Challenge preconceived notions. Hold ideas up to scrutiny. There is evil in the world, but it is rarely pure. There is good in the world, but it is rarely innocent. Lift every rock. You may be surprised what you find underneath.

What the Director’s Reading – January 2017

Winter is the perfect time of year to catch up on one’s reading. Dour days make way for cozy evenings beside a fire or a heating duct, tome in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. Or so perceived wisdom would have us believe. I happen to think that anytime is a good time to read. But not only read. There are just as entertaining/informative/instructive things to listen to, watch or interact with and all can be found at your library or through its website. One can only wonder why more people don’t do so.

There have been a number of studies over the years concerning the benefits of reading, particularly of fiction (check out this article from Psychology Today). Just recently, I read in the New York Times how challenging your brain will keep it healthy (NYTimes, January 1, 2017, on Page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: How to Become a ‘Superager’). I enjoy a challenge. Heck, I already play the ukulele! So I made a New Year’s resolution to read a few books each month and then to write about them (writing helps me remember what it is I read). Contrary to what people think, librarians do not get to sit around and read all day, except for the odd professional article or two. This is a window into how I spend my free time.

A list of material read, listened to or watched:

The Pioneers; or the Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale (1823)   [F Cooper]
James Fenimore Cooper

The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages (1932)        [871.0309 WAD]
Helen Waddell

Nutshell (2016)      [F McEwan]
Ian McEwan

My Brother’s Book (2013)   [811.54 SEN]
Maurice Sendak

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World (2006)
Blackstone Audio (available through Hoopla)

I don’t know if I had read Last of the Mohicans before seeing the most recent film treatment of it by Michael Mann. That was a terrific film, but its storyline was actually based on a 1936 film treatment of the novel. The only other book I had read in the Leatherstocking series (there are five of them) was Deerslayer, the fourth in the series and having the youngest representation of the character Natty Bumppo, alternately known as Hawkeye, Deerslayer or Leatherstocking. The others are The Pioneers, The Prairie, and The Pathfinder. The Pioneers was the first one written by James Fennimore Cooper, in 1823, and includes the character of Natty Bumppo as a man of 70.

The Pioneers is the story of the clash of two ways of life. Set in and around the town of Templeton, the picaresque storyline concerns the interactions between those living in the town, representing ‘civilization,’ and those living outside in nature. ‘Civilization’ has come rather recently to these environs and often clashes with the more ‘natural’ way of life embodied in Natty Bumppo and his friends. Though Cooper’s sympathies can be a little ambiguous at times (one gets the impression he grew up in just this type of ‘civilized’ environment on the edge of the wilderness), his resolution of the story seems to reflect the struggle of a young country with just these type of issues.

The Pioneers starts off slowly, as is typical of Cooper’s conversational style of writing and as he establishes his many characters, but once it gets started the story holds interest. I get a good sense from this story as to why he was the most successful American writer of the early nineteenth century. His characters are interesting, though a bit stilted in their delivery. Perhaps everyone back then spoke the way these characters do. Besides that, there are enough real emotions and situations to involve most readers.

The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages is a truly fascinating history of scholarship, learning and poetry from the late Classical period through the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. What I love about this book is the many personalities it highlights (and there are a bewildering number of them; too many to justify a single reading) along with their stories. The Middle Ages was a long times ago, making it hard for us to relate to its experiences and realities. Having someone like Helen Waddell lead the reader through those stories is a unique experience, and one that I will revisit often.

Latin was the lingua franca of scholarship, government and the church of the time and, considering the amount of literature passed down to us, I can imagine that the lives Ms. Waddell illuminates represent a small fraction of this fascinating era. Take, for instance, Paulinus, who lived in Rome in the early years of the fifth century. In his older years, he sold himself into slavery in order to ransom the son of a widow. He was shipped to Africa, but was eventually returned to his life of quiet simplicity when his innate nobility was revealed. Was the story true? The literature of the Middle Ages is full of such stories. Perhaps the question should not be ‘was the story true,’ but what role did such stories play? And what are our stories?

Admittedly, The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages is a dense read. Ms. Waddell packs a good deal of information into 240-odd pages. But if you are looking for something completely different, learned but with a dash of humor, this could work.

There is something of Blake in Maurice Sendak’s artwork, at least here in this slim volume. My Brother’s Book tells the story of Guy, who eludes a bear and finds solace under his brother’s protection. The artwork is the interest here. It is more baroque than his children’s book illustrations and the story might be considered a bit less accessible than Where the Wild Things Are or I Saw Esau, but it might be the best introduction to an exhibit of his works coming to the library this summer.

Nutshell is the first novel by Ian McEwan I have ever read, but it will not be the last. He is the author of The Good Son, Enduring Love and, most notably, Atonement, which was made into a movie in 2007. He is a very thoughtful, articulate Englishman if the The Paris Review is any indication. They published an interesting interview with him in issue 162, “Ian McEwan, The Art of Fiction No. 173.”

I cannot write too much about the story of Nutshell, since I don’t wish to give away any of the story. Suffice it to say that it concerns a love triangle: Trudy, the wife of John, and John’s brother, Claude. Oh, and the story is narrated by Trudy and John’s unborn child.

Yes, the premise is preposterous! The narration is articulate and culturally informed, which makes it all the more absurd coming as it does from a fetus, but then what should we expect? The unexpected is what makes this novel so satisfying, even though the plot is straightforward almost to the point of being cliché. However, the unborn child (never given a name) is like a conscience, an omniscient presence held back from participation in the action by the thinnest of barriers. Still his running commentary on events, based solely on what he can hear and feel around him, is perceptive to say the least. I would like to get to know the kid…after he is born. And I will have to explore McEwan’s other works as well.

Marian McPartland became an institution in jazz during her ninety-five years as pianist and radio personality. She hosted Piano Jazz on NPR for thirty-three years and her guests included the royalty of jazz, piano and otherwise, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Tony Bennett, as well as pop figures, Willie Nelson, Alicia Keyes, and Renee Fleming among them.

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World, an audiobook available through the library’s digital collection on Hoopla (accessed through our website) and narrated by the author, begins as a name-droppers delight. In telling her series of anecdotes, Ms. McPartland lets us into the diplomacy of doing a radio program with a varied array of musicians. The logistics of doing an ongoing radio show are mingled with the sheer joy Ms. McPartland brought to her conversations and playing. She was known to have an encyclopedic command of tunes, seeming to effortlessly reproduce and improvise on any one suggested by a guest, all in a very laid-back and intimately inviting manner. I listened to her show off and on from the late 80’s until her death in 2013 and this audiobook brings me right back to the pleasure of those days in discovering a deeper delight of jazz with such a wonderful guide. Listening to this audio really highlights to me how diverse jazz was and is, and how little I know about the many obscure, but marvelous performers she has stories about.

I love this type of material. It tells me about something I know a little about and gives me a path to follow towards a deeper knowledge and appreciation of its subject. And let’s face it, Jazz is worth delving deeper into.

That’s some of what I read and listened to this month. I’m looking forward to what next month has in store.