Monday, December 31, 2007

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Years and years ago, I remember reading a study done by some graduate students who tried to measure the IQs of historical and literary figures. The study included number and length of works, lifespan, vocabulary, and a few other points I do not recall. However, I do remember that Goethe was declared the smartest person, Samuel Johnson was second, and Shakespeare third. I would give anything to find that study.

My first encounter after this was in German class in college when we tried to translate some of Goethe’s poetry. That was fun…NOT!

Years later (before graduate school) I came across some of his prose and, of course Faust. I really liked his stuff, and I got a copy of Young Werther, but it was lost until recently. I decided to end the year with Goethe.

The story is extremely emotional, without being maudlin. I found myself feeling sorry for the young man, and it wasn’t until I read the introduction to this edition that I came to realize how autobiographical this novel is.

If you like the image of 18th century enlightenment figures arguing philosophy, religion, politics, and, most importantly, love and romance, you will like this novel. I can see them in their waist coats, powdered wigs, and knee stockings, walking in a park with canes, discussing these weighty issues. Five stars (How could I give the smartest person who ever lived anything less?)
Thus ends 2007.
--Chiron, 12/31/07 9:08 PM, CST.

A Short Quiz to Kick-off the New Year

2007 marks the first time I have counted the books I read in a single year. I was astounded to find I had read 75 (although, I am reading #76 now, and if I finish by midnight). Check back in a couple of days to see if I made it. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to post a short quiz to start off 2008. This one is all about women. Next time -- something else.

I will send a book to the person with the most correct answers by 5:00 PM CST, Monday, January 7th

1. What was Madame DeFarge knitting?
2. How did Rodolphe send his break up letter to Emma?
3. What job did Lucy Snow have in Belgium?
4. Where did Jane wait for a coach to take her to Thornfield Hall?
5. How did Anna Karennina die?

--Chiron, 12/31/07

Vermeer: Rizzoli Art Classics by Roberta D’Adda & “Renoir Landcapes: 1865-1883” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Normally, I do not like to read art books. More often than not, as with musical biographies, there is a great deal said about the technical aspects of the artist’s methods. This volume on Vermeer is no exception.

However, I did enjoy the brief biography of Vermeer, and the reproductions of thirty-seven of his paintings – including all of my favorites. I think this is a perfect book for the amateur art enthusiast, like myself, as well as trained artists. I like to look at paintings that draw me in, that affect me, or touch me in a deep way. Many of Vermeer’s works do that. Five Stars

While I am on the subject of art, I visited The Philadelphia Museum of Art over the holidays, and saw the exhibit, “Renoir Landscapes: 1865-1883.” Philadelphia is the only venue for this show, and it closes January 6th. I had no idea Renoir painted so many landscapes, and some were breathtaking – others…not so much. But on the whole the collection was more than worth the investment in time and money.
--Chiron, 12/31/07

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Verdict is in?

Faced with a long drive home for the holidays, we purchased two audio books. The first was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I had never read this one, and neither had my wife.

The version we bought was read by Frederick Davidson, who did a wide variety of voices, which helped with the continuity. Listening to an interesting story really passes the time, but does it count as reading the book? Anyone care to weigh in on this?

I am torn. I do remember details, but it is difficult, especially when driving, to go back over a passage to ruminate over and savor especially good sentences and phrases. Of course, my main problem with audio books is the impossibility of curling up with an audio book on a cold and rainy or snowy evening with a cup of tea and a cat on the lap.

The second is Tolstoy’s Anna Karennina. I have read this one, so we will see the difference on the ride home.

--Chiron, 12/26/07

Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóbín

Lately, the name of Colm Tóbín has been popping up in reviews and articles about Irish Literature. I did a little looking and I found out that this title was short-listed for the Booker Prize, so I pounced. Very glad I did! Now, all his other titles are on my Amazon wish list.

Tóbín’s sparse style reminds me of Hemingway – virtually no adjectives, but I had no trouble feeling the colors, textures, sights, sounds, and smells of this tale set in contemporary Ireland.

The story is about three generations of women who are drawn together to nurse the brother, son, and grandson suffering from AIDS. The women have their own problems, which each must face and resolve. These women have a history, and Tóbín is as reluctant to admit to the details of the conflict as is Helen, the sister and principle character.

The ending was completely unexpected – not entirely satisfying, but I feel the characters are on the road to repair the damage the years have inflicted on this group of women survivors. I can’t wait to get to the next Tóbín title. Five stars.
--Chiron, 12/26/07

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Seeing by Jose Saramago

Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize in 1995, comes up with the weirdest story lines. All the Names tells the story of a bureaucrat whose life is dominated by the routines of his job in the office of birth, marriage, divorce, and death records. When his routine is broken, he spirals into some pretty bizarre behavior. The Stone Raft is about a crack that develops in the Pyrenees Mountains, and gradually widens until Spain and Portugal float off into the Atlantic Ocean. Blindness, a bit more conventional as a thinly veiled retelling of Albert Camus’ The Plague, has been followed by Seeing.

In this novel, 83% of the electorate in the same fictional country as Blindness have cast blank ballots. The police attempt to find out what is going on, and all they get are, pun intended, blank stares and stonewalling.

I would love to ask Saramago if this novel is an allegory for the Bush administration. The parallels are eerie and gave me another reason to keep reading to find more threads connecting the two. Paranoia, slippery slope logical fallacies, and obfuscating politicians are only some of the parallels.

His style is also peculiar. For example, one typical section break (he does not use chapters) begins with a single paragraph that runs on to 5 and a half pages in length. The sentences are enormous. Here is an example:

So, what did you find out. The question, as well as being superfluous, was, how can we put it, just the teeniest bit dishonest, firstly, because, when it comes down to it, everyone would have found out something, however irrelevant, secondly, because it was obvious that the person asking the question was taking advantage of the authority inherent in his position to shirk his duty, since it was up to him, in voice and in person, to initiate any exchange of information. (9)

Fourteen commas before we see a period. The only other markers in his sentences are capital letters, which indicate someone is speaking.

The last third of the book provides some comedy and some serious parallels to the Bush Administration. Several police officer are sent to the capital city with orders to prove a particular individual is guilty of the crime of fomenting the rebellion which resulted in the casting of the blank ballots. The government declares the investigation complete, and identifies the guilty party. Foregone conclusions, manipulation of the facts to suit that conclusion, and the manipulation of the press to further the agenda of the government. Sound familiar?

ANOTHER weird thing about Saramago is how he traps the reader. It almost becomes a game to stay with him, follow the huge strings of parenthetical statements, and understand what is going on in this strange city. You have to keep reading to play the game, to understand the game, and then to win the game. A win, I might add that is terrifically satisfying.

Together with Blindness, Seeing is an important book, Saramago is an important writer, and I completely understand the Swedish Academy awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you are a serious reader, this book MUST be on your TBR shelf. Five Stars
--Chiron, 12/23/07

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beethoven: The Universal Composer [Eminent Lives Series] by Edmund Morris

Few things cheer me, warm me, or bring tears to my eyes as does the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. I have long been searching for a biography of Beethoven that avoided the technical aspects of his music and focused on the man and his associates, his loves, and his struggles. In a brief introduction, Edmund Morris writes, “This biography is a story of the life, not a survey of the work. It is intended for general readers, who may love Beethoven’s music but do not necessarily have a knowledge of music theory” [Note before “The Prologue”].
Edmund Morris wrote a terrific biography of Theodore Roosevelt which I greatly admired, so I trusted his description of his life of, to my mind, the greatest composer of the greatest single piece of music ever written – the Ninth Symphony.
I could not have been more disappointed. From the beginning to the end, Morris constantly uses strings of technical terms to describe Beethoven’s music. He talks about keys, chords, and genres of music as if I had a PhD in music theory. Not only that, he inadequately identifies most of the music he writes about, with a few exceptions.
For example, here is a typical passage on page 102:
"Just the opening bars of the three new sonatas showed how much Beethoven’s style had changed. The first, in G major, started with a spasmodic disjunction between right hand and left, as if one (but which?) had come down too soon on the keyboard. The soft A major haze introducing the second sonata turned out to be a mirage that burned off the hard landscape in D minor. The third sonata seemed so uncertain of itself that its initial three-note phrase belonged to no key whatever."
This might be theory 101, but I never had any music theory class, so I am lost. After reading this passage, I played my recordings of the three sonatas, but I could not make any connection with the sounds I heard and the words I read.
Another thing that annoyed me was Morris injecting his right-wing politics in the first sentence. He repeats that old canard about abortion. I could (and have) constructed a similar anecdote, got the same response, and said, "You just missed a chance to abort Adolf Hitler." Fortunately, this is the only instance of this kind of nonsense. Geez.
One last thing: there is no definitive listing of the works of Beethoven with opus numbers and popular names -- something essential, to my mind, for this sort of biography.
Four stars. Mr. Morris: I am taking one star away for fibbing to me in your note, and you are darn lucky I didn’t take more! --Chiron, 12/15/07

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Everyman by Philip Roth

I read this book in one afternoon it was that good.
Goodbye Columbus was my only experience with Roth and I didn’t care for it at all. This was way back in college, so, despite the fact that John Updike listed him as one of his important influences, I never read anything else by Mr. Roth. Silly me. I have moved Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint to my “To Be Read” shelf.
Before I began this book I was apprehensive. I knew what it was about – the deterioration of the human body – and since I am fast approaching the age of aches and pains myself, I did not want to be depressed.
My fears were unfounded. This novel reminded me of those pleasant voices that provide back ground at the beginning of a film. Never maudlin, never sentimental but realistic in all aspects, the author spins an absorbing tale of the physical and mental deterioration we all must face. As “Everyman” (the character is never named) declines, he reviews past decisions and mistakes and triumphs, and he has some regrets – “Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes. There’s no other way.” He first received this advice from his father, and he passed it on to anyone who would at least listen to him for advice. Five stars.
--Chiron, 12/12/07

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Fall by Albert Camus

We all have secrets. Sometimes we are dying to tell somebody. Most of the time we should keep our mouths shut. The unnamed narrator is one such person. He spends the first third of the book inflating his personality, integrity, intellect, and accomplishments. Then he slowly deconstructs himself in the last two-thirds.
I was completely unfamiliar with this work by Camus, even though I am a big fan. I have read The Plague, The Stranger, The Myth of Sisyphus, and A Happy Death, which was my introduction to the great French existentialist. It has been over ten years since I read the first two on the list, and maybe it is time to go back and have another look.
The Fall is a bit dense at times, and requires a good deal of concentration as you might imagine, but it is worth the effort. Threads of humor streak every page – even if the reader only laughs at the foolishness of the narrator, and Camus mixes in plenty of biting commentary in the tradition of Voltaire and Chaucer. I really enjoyed this. Five stars.
--Chiron, 12/12/07

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bring 'em Back Alive by Frank Buck and Edward Anthony

I remember reading this in about 6th grade, and I loved it then. Unfortunately, this one has aged faster than I have! The prose sounds like the narrator on those old Pathé Newsreels that came with the movies in the 30s and 40s. Back then, I read all I could about animals, especially Africa, India, the Jungles of Asia, and Australia. Somehow, this one has lost its luster. Three stars – just for nostalgia.
--Chiron, 12/11/07

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

This nifty little novel reminds me of a cross between the 1998 Samuel L. Jackson film, The Red Violin and a novel, The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, also made into a film starring Scarlet Johansson and Colin Firth in 2003. I highly recommend both flicks and the book!
Hyacinth Blue revolves around a painting, some people believe it to be a lost/unknown Vermeer, while others think it is a forgery done in the 1930s. Vreeland traces the provenance of the work that, real or not, enchants everyone who sees it. I have seen three Vermeers, and I understand that emotional response completely.
Vreeland’s novel is an easy read, and only research papers and preparation for finals prevented me from finishing it in a day or two. Not as good as Chevalier by any means, but still a worthwhile read.
Not every author can work their name into his or her own novel, but Vreeland has done that. A clever little marker which sets her work apart. My name happens to be in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I had nothing to do with that! Four stars--Chiron, 12/ 09/2007

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fahrenheit 451 [50th Anniversary Edition] by Ray Bradbury

Another banned book, and another book from my youth. I first read this in high school, and I remember feeling perplexed -- why would anyone want to burn books? Reading it now, considering the lack of reading skills of today’s millenials, considering the state of public education, considering the attempts by the radical, religious right to censor all sorts of literature and drive them from libraries and school curricula, we are dangerously close to the dystopia Bradbury describes here.
Bradbury writes, “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored, life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?” (56). Chilling. Terrifyingly prophetic.
This 50th anniversary edition includes an interview with Bradbury. In response to the question, “How important is reading to the health of a democracy like ours?” he says, “Let’s imagine there’s an earthquake tomorrow in the average university town. If only two buildings remained intact at the end of the earthquake, what would they have to be in order to rebuild everything that had been lost? Number one would be the medical building, because you need that to help people survive, to heal injuries and sickness. The other building would be the library. All the other buildings are contained in that one. People could go into the library and get all the books they needed in literature or social economics or politics or engineering and take the books out on the lawn and sit down and read. Reading is at the center of our lives. The library is our brain. Without the library you have no civilization” (183-84). Read! Five stars.--Chiron, 12/05/2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

On Wednesday, September 5th of this year, I was reading my “Books—A-Million, Page-A-Day, Book Lover’s Calendar,” and I read the entry for this book. It sounded like an interesting premise – a man is born in 1871 at the age of 70 years old. As his body grows, his age declines. Of course, the blurb by John Updike didn’t hurt one bit. I bought the book, and finally got around to reading it this weekend.
At first, I was confused. The narrator (of the title) kept referring to different ages, and I was unsure where we were in time. I almost gave up, but I kept at it, and I am glad I did. Updike was right, it is an “enchanting” story of love lost, found, lost, and found again.
Greer has a penchant for embedding literary references in his story. The first time I saw one, I “harrumphed” at the obvious borrowing, but then I began to look for more little nuggets buried in the brain of a 60/10 year-old man/boy. For example, he writes, “Reader, she married me” and “the creature had to stay in the attic” as homages to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. We also have a “Gordian knot” and a reverse of Scarlet O’Hara when Alice redecorates the bedrooms “from old dress material.” The novel deserves another read to search for more references.
Max Tivoli was, at times confusing, but it all becomes clear in the end. A sad story, but one told with a strange sense of humor, and I could not help but feel sorry for Max. If you have ever loved and lost, you will enjoy this book. It has a decided 19th century feel to it. Four stars.
--Chiron, 12/4/2007

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

I am adding this to my annual list late – I read it last spring as part of my World Literature II class. I assign and read, this novel every time I teach this class, because I love it so much. To me, Bovary is one of the best, most important, and most interesting novels of the 19th century. I put it up there with all the big ones – Middlemarch by George Eliot, Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
Flaubert has captured all the great movements of the 19th century in telling this tale of romance, fantasy, love, hate, greed, rejection, and desperation. Naturalism, realism, and symbolism can be found woven throughout the story of Emma Bovary, trapped by the conventions and sex roles then imposed on women. Her flaw is an inability to separate reality from fantasy. She can’t see through the men who want to use her, until the end, by which time it is too late.
If you have never read this classic piece of literature, run out and get a copy. Flaubert once said, “I am Emma Bovary,” and this remark has caused a great deal of controversy. However, I think he was right; furthermore, I believe, at times, there is a little bit of Emma in all of us.
By the way, the Isabelle Hubert film version of the book did not receive critical acclaim, but I like it – a LOT!
6 stars – this is the first time I have awarded this rating. Reserved for only the absolute best of the best.
--Chiron, 12/1/07

Pontoon by Garrison Keillor

I have been listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” since the 70s. I missed it when Garrison moved to Denmark with his wife for a short period, and I was happy when he returned and restarted his weekly show on NPR. (In the event you have never heard the show, today is a good day to start.) Over the past few years, the show has become increasingly more religious – a lot more gospel music, and a lot more reverence for religion. I have successfully ignored this for the rest of the show which is radio at its best.
Pontoon is vintage Keillor, with an extra measure of earthiness thrown in. The writing sounds exactly like Keillor’s voice, and all the familiar characters and places are here.
A smooth read, I could easily have finished it in one sitting if it weren’t for that pesky job I have to go to everyday! I do not mean this as a criticism – after the last two I read, I desperately needed a dose of lightheartedness. I really could not see anything wrong with this book. The story is slow, but so is life in Lake Wobegon. If you are a fan of the show, you will love Pontoon. Five Stars.
--Chiron, 11/30/2007