Thursday, December 29, 2016

Henry James on Italy; Odyssey by Homer; Images and Imagination by C.S. Lewis; Political Woman: The Big Little LIfe of Jeane Kirkpatrick by Peter Collier

  I wrote this post before I left for Paris on December 10th.

I'm listening to my favorite Christmas Carols on Spotify. Feel free to listen to your favorite while reading today's post.

In two days I'll be in Paris.  Four books are piled one on top of the other on my table and I am going to write a brief paragraph on each so I can start the year with a clean slate, so to speak.

Henry James on Italy

I love James' writing, however, his need to describe every nook and cranny of Italy can only be inspired by the fact that photography was not accessible to everyone and most people had not seen what he was describing.  Hence his attention to minutia.

He does a thorough and adequate job painting the scenery with his words and he includes more than a few jibes at John Ruskin at no extra charge.  Apparently, Ruskin also wrote of Italy and in a manner James did not approve.

What makes the book worth the money (and by that I mean the two dollars I paid for it at an Independent Book Store) are the prints of oil paintings of different scenes throughout the "Lo Stivale". (That's Italian for "the boot", a nickname because Italy is shaped like, well, you know.)

Images and Imagination by C.S. Lewis

This is a compilation by Walter Hooper of C.S. Lewis' essays and lectures on different authors and genres of literature.  The chapters I enjoyed the most were on subjects I had previously read about or authors whom I had read.

Therefore, his articles on the different Inklings such as Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and, of course J.R.R. Tolkien were interesting to read.  I also enjoyed his analysis of Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey.  I had not read his translation but because I had just read the Odyssey, I could appreciate his comments.

My favorite was his analysis and critique of Malory's translation of the Arthurian legends.  He brings other experts in and either agrees or disagrees with their opinions and explains his point of view in a way I could understand and enjoy. 

This was not true of many of the essays because I was either unfamiliar with the writer or the work.  

 In one of his essays Lewis points out is that he thinks his was the age of the biography rather than literature which I found funny since I have been reading a lot of biographies lately.

Odyssey by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler

And speaking of the Odyssey, I found I enjoyed the story much better than the Iliad.  The Iliad was much too stagnate.  It went nowhere but stayed at the battle field with lots of poetic speeches by warriors, gods and goddesses about what sort of revenge they were going to take on each other and even more poetic descriptions of battle scenes.  I understand that I am exposing my own limitations and taste in literature and not in any way making an intelligent judgement on a timeless work.

The Odyssey, on the other hand, went places.  Odysseus just had a time and a half trying to get home.  And of course the whole sale audacity of the young men back home just eating up all of Odysseus' larder and trying to pressure his wife into marrying one of them for the purpose of taking over Odysseus' possessions primes the reader for the final showdown where our hero slaughters them all and not too soon either.

Odysseus has many adventures, mostly at the expense of his crew, none of which survive.  Life was cheap back then and the gods were not you could turn to.  They were capricious and destroyed men at their whim.  There was no reason, either.  I cannot do justice in this brief review to describe all my thoughts on the subject of Greek Gods.  I would love to know their history and origins, not to mention the psychology behind such inventions.

I wonder if the reason I read through the Odyssey more easily than the Iliad was that the translator, Samuel Butler, chose to put it in prose rather than poem form.  My Iliad, translated by Andrew Lang was written as a poem, which the epics were.

And finally....

Political Woman:  The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick

I am really not going to be able to do justice to this book and it is worth much more than the brief paragraph I am going to give it.  But briefly...

Jeane Kirkpatrick was a political scientist and diplomat.  Starting as a Democrat, she converted to Republicanism as the Democratic party moved farther and farther left.  In a time when women played no significant role in politics, she was appointed by Ronald Reagan to be the American U.N. Ambassador.  She also served as his political advisor.

The best part of this book is the insight it provides as to how our political parties, especially the Democratic party evolved from being a party concerned about American citizens as individuals and protecting their rights insofar as their rights were limited to opportunities in employment and education, to propagating ideology at the expense of the individual.  

She tried to understand the intellectual "perversion" of utopianism.  In her words utopianism was:

"theories ungrounded in experience (that can therefore) never be tested."

This led to what she called "rationalism" whose politica effect was:

"the determined effort to understand and shape people and societies on the basis of inadequate, oversimplified theories of human behavior...(which) encourages utopianism..Both are concerned more with the abstract than the concrete, with the possible than the probable.  Both are less concerned with people as they are than as they might be..."

Kirkpatrick moved to the Republican party after Carter made it clear to her and other moderate Democrats that they were not going to take the "kick me" sign off of America's back for the rest of the world.  Or change their or Europe's or the Middle East's anti-Israel stance.

Carter succeeded in costing America so much respect globally that he practically ensured Reagan's election.  Parallels between that election and our current one are hard to ignore. 

When Kirkpatrick later became U.N. Ambassador under Reagan she tore the "kick me" sign off America's back.  She personally contacted countries that were denouncing the U.S. during U.N. meetings and asking if they were still interested in receiving U.S. aid.

I may add that reading the nasty and even sophomoric tirades that certain third world countries gave at the U.N., not the least of which by the likes of Idi Amin, Fidel Castro and other tyrants one sees the flaws in an organization that gives equal floor to countries that point fingers at the U.S. (to standing ovations!) while their own houses are filthy.

Which leads me to one of the next books I plan on reading:  The Tyranny of Guilt by Pascal Bruckner.

Bruckner is a French philosopher and his book  argues that it is time for the West to stop self-flagellating.  But more about that in the future.

I have not done justice to any of these books but at least I got them off my chest and back on the bookshelves.

In the mean time, have a joyful, blessed season of Peace and God bless you!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Finishing up the year with eleven books on my Kindle

Hello to all!  Miss me?  I have just returned from ten days traveling in Paris.  The journey was arduous, not on the scale of trekking to a mountain and fighting a dragon for jewels, but still very tiring.  

My journey started with my husband and I arising on December 11 at four a.m. We drove three hours to Dallas, deposited our car at a hotel and took the shuttle to the airport.  We flew three hours to JFK in New York,  and endured a four hour layover made worthwhile with good conversation over dinner with a very nice young man from San Fransisco on his way to scuba dive in the Canary Islands.  Eric and Josh and I disagreed on everything we talked about from religion to politics but developed a firm, if temporary friendship.  We hugged goodbye and I told him I was going to pray for him and he said, "Good!  I want you to!"

And I am.  Josh said that Eric fulfilled his man hug quota for the year, but I think he enjoyed the conversation as well.

The flight to Paris was eight hours.  I read several books on my Kindle.  I will be writing more on my adventures in Paris (the most magical week of my life-that's your teaser!) but suffice to say, that after walking over eight hours a day sight seeing, I fell asleep every evening around seven p.m., woke up wide awake at midnight, read for two or three hours before finally falling asleep around three a.m. then waking up again around six a.m. starving.  Unfortunately Paris does not wake up before nine.  More reading since I can't sleep with my stomach growling.

At the end of our trip we flew back, with all the hours of flying and driving in reverse.

In conclusion, I read eleven books in ten days on my Kindle.  None of them were very long, and my reviews here will be quite short as well.
Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith

This is a collection of essays by Smith about his personal observations about his life, society in London, religion, and socio-political thought from the eyes of a Victorian/early Twentieth century man.

I thought his essays, were lucid, thought-provoking and charming.  I recommend this short book to anyone who likes to read the inner thoughts of a man who combines humor with realism.

The Mouse and the Moonbeam by Eugene Field

This very short book is a Christmas story told by a mouse and then a moonbeam.  A good children's book that has a moral about the consequences of the lack of faith as well as the actual purpose of Christmas.

My one complaint:  I know that at one time (perhaps still is), it was popular to take some license with Bible stories. In this story the moonbeam shares something he saw many years ago.  Jesus as a child is friends with
another boy who winds up being the thief on the cross who finally remembers Jesus and surrenders his heart and soul to spend eternity with Him. 

This never happened, the author just thought it would make a nice story.

To me, reducing  profound Biblical history to a children's story trivializes it into some sort of sentimental tale and robs it of its true power.
The Story of My Heart:  an Autobiography by Richard Jefferies

I don't know much about Jefferies, I'm not sure how this book ended up on my Kindle.  Probably an impulse buy since it was public domain and free.

Apparently Jefferies is one of the transcendentalist writers.  His reflections basically consider our aesthetic reaction to nature as the ultimate experience.  The supernatural is only the ecstasy our senses receive as they drink in the wonder the sky, the stars, earth, trees, etc blah, blah blah...breath into us.

There is no God, no metaphysical.  Anything created by, books, architecture, whatever... amount to nothing and living as a jungle beast alone in the forest is vastly to be preferred.

Whatever.  I read this in one setting, which is a good thing for the author because I wouldn't have bothered to pick the book up again.

Three stars for the quality of writing, not the substance.

Perpetual Light:  a Memorial by William Rose Benet

Benet wrote the poems throughout his lifetime for his beloved wife whose life was cut tragically short.

Hence the evolution of these poems are wonderful to read, beginning with the ones he wrote in his youth, expressing the first giddy excitement of being in love, mellowing with a rich enjoyment of being married to the love of his life and ending finally with the stark and barren wilderness that he finds himself thrust into as he endures his loss and loneliness.

Even in his darkest moments, there are undercurrents of strength and hope.  I enjoyed these poems and yes, I also read these in one sitting, which allowed me to better appreciate the transition of his life journey.

Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine

Our first morning in Paris, which was very early because the sun hadn't risen and our hostel room wasn't available yet, we walked to Montmartre Cemetery.  It was peaceful, though cold, as the sun rose, slowly illuminating the gravestones and chapels.  
While we walked among the tombs looking for famous graves a French woman walked up to us and pointed to a grave we were standing near.

"That is Anrish Ann. He is a German poet."

We looked at the grave which had a bust of the poet on top. The poet's name was Heinrich Heine, which I would pronounce differently than the French woman, but who am I to correct others?

When I woke up the next morning around two a.m due to Jet Lag, I opened up my Kindle and discovered that I had a collection of Heine's poems.

This is a beautiful set of poems by a preeminent 19th century German poet. He writes of love, of longing, of spiritual fulfillment in excellent verse. Another book I refused to put down and read in one sitting.

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood
I started this collection earlier in the year but finished it one early Parisian morning.
This is a fine collection of scary, suspenseful short stories, reminding me of Lovecraft, Steam Punk and other mystery/supernatural stories of the turn of the last century.,204,203,200_.jpg

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Another book I'd been reading for several months but finished in Paris.  

The King in Yellow is a series of short stories written in H.P. Lovecraft style.  The common thread is horror and a mysterious set of letters, documents, or other metaphysical phenomena that leads to the death or tragic conclusion involving the narrator.

The stories are in turn suspenseful, scary and sometimes funny as a few of them turn out to be merely dreams.

The writing is style can be a little archaic and after the fashion of a lot of Steam Punk or lesser known authors of the time period, which can be seen now as somewhat melodramatic and sentimental.

Women are described after the fashion of many late Victorian writers in poetical turns.  There are often depicted as goddesses, often unattainable or if attainable, not sustainable because of a tragic ending.  Oh, those Victorian writers. 

Fables for Children, Stories for Children, Natural Science Stories, Popular Education, Decembrists, Moral Tales by Leo Tolstoy 

I don't know if Tolstoy wrote these stories or compiled them.  They are small moral tales like Aesop's Fables, each only a paragraph long.  Still they are interesting and worth reading.

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
This book started out very interesting and written in a lively style.  It quickly turned into a story of imagination with a tremendous amount of detail.  I suppose for a child of the Victorian age who has not suffered the modern child's affliction of information overload, it would be a magical journey.

In a nutshell, a little chimney sweep who experiences nothing but abuse and neglect finally, in a panic, runs away but finally collapses at the edge of a spring.  There the Queen of the Fairies turns him into a Water Baby. 

When he wakes up, he finds himself only a few inches high with gills on the sides of his neck.  The rest of the story is filled with his new discoveries of his environment and the various animals and sea life.

There is also a moral tale of the wrongness of child abuse and also redemption for even the most hardened heart.
Fast and Loose by Edith Wharton
This is the first story in the Complete Edith Wharton I have on my Kindle.
It is very short and I read it in a few sittings shortly before I left Paris.  (I had quite a few early morning readings. 
It was written when Wharton was fourteen years old and though has much that is tragic about it, there is none of the cynical "modern realism" that readers expect from Wharton.  I was surprised to see how positive and even moralistic the story ended.
A young girl, Georgie, breaks off her engagement to her cousin Guy, because, even though she loves him, she would rather be the wife of a Baron.  
She marries the Baron and has a brilliant career among the rich and elite who find her brazen sauciness both shocking and irresistibly attractive.
As the story progresses we see how the jilted Guy lives under heartbreak and also how Georgie eventually comes to repent of her selfishness.
Overall, I thought the story transpired rather nicely even if it ended on a rather melodramatic, if not typically Victorian moralistic tone.
A worthy read for Wharton fans.
The Christmas Child by Hesba Stretton

Miss Priscilla Parry adopts a young girl Rhoda and later an even younger girl, Joan.  She has plans for the girls, none of which includes getting married.  She firmly believes that women should stay single, be strong and independent.  When Rhoda runs off and gets married, Priscilla can't forgive her.
Filled with rage and hatred, she shuts herself up and neglects  poor little Joan.
Every Christmas Eve Joan and Rhoda would go into the barn to look for the Christmas child.  After Rhoda is gone, Joan continues to look by herself.
One Christmas Eve, much to Joan's surprise and delight, there is a child in the manger!

This is a sweet Christmas story, very old fashioned and Victorian but also a timeless message of how hard-heartedness can impact the ones we should love the most, the need for forgiveness as well as to forgive.

On the flight home I was sitting next to a young woman from Tunisia.  She was staying in New Jersey for a couple of months with relatives.  She asked where we were going.

I told her how many hours we had before us.  I added that the day after we arrived, my in laws were coming in from North Carolina.  When they left, the day after Christmas, my parents would be arriving.

After New Year's my son and I will drive them back to Florida and stay with them a week.

So it is lively at the Wilfong home. 

 Which is how I like it!

I pray you all have a similarly blessed time.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell

While I found Coming Up for Air interesting and also rather funny, I did not enjoy it as much as Keep the Apisdistra Flying and Burmese Days.
Possibly because, unlike the other two, this book was written from a first person view point rather than third person as the other two were.

Not that first person narration can't be successful, but Orwell's strength seems to lie in describing the inner thoughts of the protagonist by a third person narrator.

Also, there is no real story line or character development.  Largely it is a man's, George Bowling's, attempts to return to the England of his youth.

It starts with Bowling's present status which is a typical middle class working man, married with children.  He should be happy with what he has, but he is not.  He doesn't mind his children, his wife is a bit of a shrew, but then what wife wouldn't be if married to him.

Bowling does not make this conclusion and I'm not altogether sure Orwell is implying it.  It is what I conclude based on the loutish character of Bowling.

Bowling isn't a lout in that he's cruel or abusive.  But he's not faithful and he is selfish.  He lies to his wife by keeping money squirreled away from her and telling her he's off on business when he's actually returning to his home town, Lower Binfield, which he hasn't been to since he left it for the war (WWI).

What he wants is a vacation all to himself and return to the town of his youth.  In order for us to fully appreciate his visit he hearkens back to his childhood and describes life with his parents, his older brother and friends and schools and everyone in the town.

He particularly remembers a place near the River Thames where gigantic carp swam in a water hole.  He never got the chance to fish there.  He is determined to do so when he arrives.

He recalls his first love, who he leaves for the war.  He describes his experience in the war which is not at all remarkable.  Or rather it is remarkable for a complete lack of action.  He did, however, get quite a bit or reading done.

The first problem when Bowling arrives is figuring out exactly where the town is.  It has developed so much that it takes him some time to find the original section where he grew up.  I'm sure today it would be called the "historic district". 

He checks into a hotel.  Considers mildly flirting with local women, perhaps enjoy a brief encounter, but nothing develops.
 Bowling buys fishing tackle but upon finding, after a lot of effort and directions by people who "think they know" he finds the site of the carp pool.  It no longer exists because a new housing development has supplanted it.

In a nutshell, Bowling finds he can't go home again. His home is now a tea shop, and his family's furniture is the antique decor, including family photos, which still fills the rooms.  What a strange feeling that must be.

 He did accidentally run into his first love.  Or rather recognized her and followed her into a store.  She is no longer the slim, attractive girl he was attracted to, but heavy and square and judging from the mundane gossip she is engaged in with the store owner, not educated.

Finally, he gives up and returns home, deflated and depressed.  But, alas, his trials are not over.  His wife checked up on him and found that he was not at the town he purported to be in because the hotel he claimed to be staying in was now defunct.

Her natural assumption is that he was having an affair (there had already been a precedent set).  This time he was not but how can he persuade her that he was just visiting his childhood home.  He can't and the story ends with an indication that poor George has quite a few weeks of scolding and sleeping on the couch in store for him.

Returning to childhood is always a failed experiment.  At least for George Bowling.

Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  George Orwell

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; Deception by Randy Alcorn

There are no spoilers in this review.


  Normally I do not read best sellers but after reading a review of the movie, I became intrigued.  The premise is provoking.

A young woman commutes on a train into London every day.  She passes by a row of houses with porches adjacent to the train tracks.  

Each morning she sees a couple having breakfast on their porch.  They are openly affectionate with each other and the woman, Rachel, enjoys watching them.  In a way she feels a connection to them.

She has even named them:  Jason and Jesse.  Their happiness and marital stability gives her a kind of comfort.  Because just four houses down is the house she used to live in with her husband.

Her husband still lives there, only now with his second wife.

This aspect of the novel which is pretty much all I knew about it, resonated with me because I used to live in places where I took a commuter train or a bus to and from work and home.

I also would see the same people either at the depot or along the way and one does develop a sort of imaginary connection with them.  Not that I gave anybody names or fooled myself into thinking I had any relationship with them but I did enjoy the familiarity, if that makes sense.

That is where the similarity with my life and Rachel ends.  We soon learn that nothing is as it seems, not even Rachel.

Without giving anything away, because I know a lot of you would like to read the book or see the movie, which is currently out, I'll just say that a murder occurs and Rachel has the horrible feeling that she is somehow involved, maybe as a witness, maybe something worse.  When you read the book or see the movie you'll know why.

The book is written in first person, present tense.  Normally I do not like that format but it works in this case.  Mostly we get Rachel's perspective, but there are two others who also contribute a few chapters, which is well done and effectively serves to forward the story.

Having said that, this book does not encourage me to read any more best sellers. 

It seems the unreliable narrator is in vogue these days.  No one can be trusted, not even the person telling you the story.  It was fascinating when Henry James used it, here it comes across as trendy.  I noticed in other reviews many compared the book to Gone Girl, which apparently uses the same tool.  The comparison did not persuade me to read Gone Girl.

No doubt many will enjoy this book. It is your typical murder mystery and the writing is well crafted.

I personally found the characters, all of them, sad, pathetic, empty, isolated and alienated. I felt no sense of satisfaction at the end. But maybe that's how books are written nowadays: without a moral compass or sense of purpose, only nihilism.

  Is that the norm in popular novels nowadays?  Creating characters that all suffer from Radical Attachment Disorder?  I would be very interested as to why anyone would enjoy spending time immersed in stories like that.  Isn't life bleak enough without fantasizing about it?,204,203,200_.jpg 

Deception is the third in a series of murder mysteries by Randy Alcorn and, in my opinion, this is the best written.  It came ten years after the second book and he must have really developed his writing chops during that time.

Ollie Chandler, whom we met in the first two novels, though as a background character, is the star.  He is a homicide detective, recently widowed, estranged from his daughters, and the ultimate cynical agnostic. 

A professor of Philosophy and Ethics is murdered in his home and the evidence is bizarre.  Dr. Palatine has a rope around his neck, three gun shots in his chest and several vials of blue ink injected into his veins.  

On his computer is a message:

"I, Dr. William Palatine, do not deserve to live.  I've crossed boundaries and forfeited my life.  I admit my arrogance.  I deserve judgement.  I should be cast into a deep sea with a millstone around my neck."

Ollie arrives wearing his trench coat ( like Bogart in the Maltese Falcon, not a rain coat, "that's what Columbo wears") and fedora and accompanied by an Oregon Tribune journalist (the Chief's idea of creating good rapport with the press).   He sees too many "bread crumbs", like someone was trying to leave a lot of different clues on purpose to cover up any accidental clues they might actually have left.  They were left in a way only someone familiar with homicides could accomplish.  This discovery leaves Ollie with an uncomfortable and risky conclusion.

What I liked about this book?  Just about everything.  It was a well developed mystery that left a bread crumb trail of clues that the reader could add up and arrive at a believable conclusion.

In addition to that, Ollie is just plain funny.  He's a wise guy, quick-witted, sarcastic and cynical.  The banter between him and the other characters are fun to read.  I loved reading about Ollie.  I was sorry the book was over and I hope Alcorn is going to write more about him. 

In fact I'm re-reading it to my husband and I'm enjoying it all over again, especially since I know how it ends I can appreciate all the subtle hints and clues provided throughout the story.

Probably the only thing that someone wouldn't enjoy is that Alcorn is a Pastor and even though the protagonist is a non-believer, the story is written from a Christian world-view.  

That does not make the story sickly sweet and syrupy.  Alcorn does not shy away from the grittiness of life.  In fact, he is more realistic than the author of Girl on a Train because Hawkins' characters are paper thin and people in Alcorn's novel, as in real life, have more dimension.

Alcorn shows desperate people in desperate circumstances but pierces the darkness with an otherworldly light, which allows the reader to sympathize with every character as they struggle with their personal demons.

I'm glad I read both, even though I enjoyed only one because they provided a sharp contrast and provided me with the opportunity to evaluate what I value in a good read.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

I have finally finished this book containing three novels by George Orwell.  The first, Burmese Days, I reviewed last year and you can read the post here.  

I set the book aside but last month read the remaining two stories. 

Keep the Aspidistra Flying comes largely from the viewpoint of Gordon Comstock, a poet, working at a bookstore while trying to launch his career as a writer.  He is poor, lives in a lower income-but not the lowest as we later see- tenement house run by a persnickety landlady who  exacerbates Gordon's already hard life with rules such as no smoking or making tea in his room.  Not that Gordon observes any of her rules, it's just annoying to have to cover up his "crimes".

He wants to live solely as a poet but he's not rich.  The money he makes at the bookstore is barely enough to pay his bills and keep him from starving, hence his is a grinding existence.  He has a girlfriend but he can't afford to marry her.  He shakes his fist at his lot.  Yet it is his choice to live like this.

Gordon worked at a business where he wrote jingly sort of slogans for advertisement posters.  He made a decent salary and met Rosemary there.  But he felt this sort of work beneath his artistic soul, as if he were prostituting his talents.  So he quit and began working at a bookstore for dirt wages where presumably he was able to keep his philosophical integrity intact.  He smirks at the "riff raff" who came in to read best sellers and popular romances, since he himself only read literature.

Yet he despises a lot of the classic authors as well.  Why are these "literary" authors considered so high brow when they write dreck, he moans to himself. Gordon leads a frustrated existence.

He has a girlfriend, as already mentioned, her name is Rosemary, but he can't afford to take her anywhere or do anything with her, least of all marry her.  He absolutely refuses to take any money she offers although he's not above receiving funds from his sister, even though he knows she is sacrificing financially in order to help keep him out of dire straits.

His friend, Ravelston, is an ardent socialist or communist, and a firm believer in a social revolution that would equally disperse the income of the rich and spread it around to the poor.  Since he himself is rich and on some level either doesn't make the connection that he would stand to lose a portion of his own money or, more realistically, he understands all too well that such "equal distribution" doesn't impact the rich as it does the middle class who, under such a system, are punished for earning wages by having a good chunk of their income taxed away, he can afford to be so "broad minded".

This has nothing to do with anything, but I imagine Ravelston looking like Russell Brand.

Ravelston does understand this, sort of; enough to make him feel guilty.  He attempts to exorcise this guilt by befriending Gordon.  It's his "see I'm mingling with the unfortunate" statement.  Nevertheless, Ravelston enjoys life, lives in a comfortable apartment, and has a girlfriend with whom he enjoys everything that Gordon cannot.  

Interestingly, Ravelston's girlfriend, also a member of his communist group, refuses to associate with Gordon or any of the lower classes, since they dress so poorly and stink.  I think this reflects perfectly the Armchair Socialist in our day.  They feel virtuous and fashionable espousing a theory that creates "equality" while enjoying their exclusive, elitist life; which is why they live in Aspen and not Harlem.

One could sympathize with Gordon if he wasn't so arrogant or so foolish.  An American magazine pays him handsomely for a set of poems. Oh, what Gordon could do with it!  Pay his rent, groceries, a couple of pack of cigarettes!  What does he do?  Blow it all away in one extravagent night.  

He invites Ravelston and Rosemary on an evening at a restaurant but succeeds in making it a painful experience for everyone by being so wasteful with his money, refusing contributions from either his friend or girlfriend, that what could have been a nice month's salary is gone before the next day.

As if that isn't bad enough, Gordon has gotten himself so drunk that he ends up with a prostitute, assaults a police officer during a raid and wakes up to find himself in jail.  Ravelston posts bail and, because the book store owner fires him for his conduct, allows Gordon to live with him.

What has any of this got to do with an Aspidistra?  If, like me, you didn't know what an Aspisdistra is, it is a type of plant that  people keep for decorative purposes.  Gordon's apartment has one that he purposely neglects and abuses but the poor thing refuses to die.

When Gordon eventually leaves Ravelston and lives in an even grimier apartment, behold! another Aspisdistra is placed there by his current landlady.  The plant seems to signify a middle class existence.

I say this, because in the end, Gordon at rock bottom, admits defeat.  Not only has his life sunk to a Sartre-esque existence, Rosemary is pregnant.  They must marry as far as Gordon is concerned.  A strong pro-life statement produces this conclusion, which raises Orwell in my esteem.

Rosemary suggests she abort the baby.  His response:

Though they were feet part he felt as thought they were joined together-as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his.  He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating- a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning. 

'No fear!' he said.  'Whatever happens we're not going to do that.  It's disgusting.'

He returns to the advertising company, receives his old job and enters into a middle class existence. He marries Rosemary and they move into a nice apartment, nothing upscale but appropriate for a middle income family.

One thing is lacking and Gordon goes out to buy it, but not without a row with Rosemary.  He wants an Aspisdistra.  Rosemary doesn't want such an ugly plant in her apartment but in the end Gordon gets his way.  

The story doesn't end there.  As they walk down the stairs to the florist, Rosemary stops suddenly.

'Oh Gordon!'


'I felt it move!'

'Felt what move?'

'The baby.  I felt it move inside me.'

'But it did really move?  You're sure?  You really felt it move?'

'Oh, yes.  It moved.'

For a long time he remained kneeling there, his head pressed against the softness of her belly.  She clasped her hands behind his head and pulled it closer...Somewhere in there, in the safe, warm, cushioned darkness, it was alive and stirring.

For all the dark and dreariness of Gordon's life, the story ends on a hopeful note.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Andrew Lang

Listening to Fantasia by Ralph Vaughn Williams, one of my favorite composers.    You can listen here.

It's November 3rd and finally down to 75 degrees.  I mean here in my house with the air conditioning on.  It's still hot outside.  Clouds have finally covered up the sun and it is beginning to look a little bit like fall in Texas so maybe we can finally enjoy some cooler weather.  I'd put my guinea pigs in their pens outside but the acorns are falling pretty hard.  I'd hate for any of them to get beaned.  I had to come inside from reading on my swing for fear of getting pummeled myself.  Where's Piglet?  He needs to come to my backyard with a big basket.

The Iliad

I vaguely recall reading The Iliad in high school but all I remember is that Achilles chased Hector round and round the city of Troy before finally catching him and killing him.  I remember feeling sorry for Hector.

I believe most people know the basic theme of the Iliad but in a nutshell:

Iliad or "Ilium" is another name for Troy and this epic poem starts about ten years into the Trojan war against the Greeks.  Homer is credited with writing it but it is likely that he compiled older oral lore and put it all in poem form.  The reason I think this is because there are parts of the tale that are not included in the poem, such as Paris kidnapping Helen, or the death of Achilles.

Let me first admit that I'm not a big battle scenes fan and this is what The Iliad largely is.  My translation is by Andrew Lang and it is beautifully poetic and eloquent.  It also seems to take forever to say anything.  "Then Achilles put on his bronze shoes and his breast plate.  He put on his fine helmet, engraved with gold and many fine stones, he picked up broad shield, inlaid with beautiful designs..."  I'm paraphrasing, but couldn't we just say "Achilles got dressed and bounded out for war"?

There are long (very lovely!) descriptions of the battles, the glory of conquest, the warriors' armor, the banquets, the lamentations and the glorious funerals honoring the fallen.  There are also some pretty horrific descriptions of the merciless treatment to the victims as well as animal sacrifices, which have always bothered me.

I could not help but contrast it with animal sacrifices in the Bible mandated by God.  God's animal sacrifices were reparation for sin and consequently gave the people to understand how awful sin was and that it led to death. The innocent animal was receiving the death sentence the person deserved.  This ritual pointed to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the one and final innocent sacrifice to make reparation for the sins of the world. 

 In Greek mythology and probably their culture,  animal and sometimes human sacrifices were to get the gods to do what the people wanted.

In The Iliad it is interesting to note that the gods took sides.  Practically all of them, led by Athena and supported by Hera, take the side of the Greeks.  Zeus, however, and also Aphrodite and Ares take the Trojan side. 

Before reading The Iliad, I never before appreciated how powerful Athena was portrayed.  She is the one most involved the war, coming down in the form of humans to advise, encourage and exonerate.  She physically overpowers and conquers Artemis, and Aphrodite and even Ares, in fact, she gives them all quite a bruising.  Aphrodite and Ares she even throws down to earth.

Considering the status of women in Greek culture I find this amazing. She seems to be second in power only to Zeus, and even then, her side wins.  I would like to study this more and find out the origins of the cult of Athena and how a woman came to be so powerful as a goddess, while the human women seemed to be so helpless, especially around Zeus.

Death and war seemed to be so much a part of life back then (as opposed to now, ha, ha) and caused so much suffering.  Elaborate funerals were developed unto an art form.  

The lust for battle and conquest are given places of honor, something we can see even in Arthurian legend and Viking lore.  And what about today?  What are everyone's favorite scenes in Star Wars?  My son, when he was young, used to fast forward through the scenes with any dialogue straight to the light saber fights.  He'd fight along with his own saber.  He still does that, only now he makes movies with light saber scenes which qualifies it as a serious art form and not playing anymore (wink).

I'd be interested in reading other translations to see if they are easier to read.

Does anyone else like the Iliad and have a favorite translation?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

 Playing on youtube is a lovely rendition of Love's Sorrow by Fritz Kreisler performed by YoYo Ma and Patricia Zandler.  I hope you will enjoy it as well while you read my post.
Rosaria Champagne was a tenured professor at Syracuse University in 19th Century Romantic Literature and Cultural Studies.  Her primary field was Critical Theory which is also known as Postmodernism.  Her specialty was Queer Theory which is a postmodern form of gay and lesbian studies.

She and her lesbian partner owned a couple of homes, fostered abused dogs, and provided hospitality to gay and lesbian students at her university.  She enjoyed cooking vegetarian meals, making peached iced tea and baking bread for guests.  Champagne (I use her maiden name here since she was not Butterfield yet) was also the coordinator of the Welcoming Committee, the gay and lesbian advocacy group at a Unitarian Universalist Church where she and her partner were members.

She had spoken at numerous college Commencements, Convocations and Gay Pride rallies.  Her professorship was rigorous and had high standards.  As a result she was prolific at writing research papers in her fields.

She had written a paper on the gender politics of the Promise Keepers, an Evangelical Christian group for men.  Her next project was to write a paper on the Religious Right.  She decided she needed first hand accounts so she called up a Pastor from a local conservative Christian denomination.  His response surprised her.

Pastor Ken Smith of a local Reformed Presbyterian church invited her over for dinner with him and his wife.  This lead to several dinners together and what she describes as a "train wreck" of her life.

Ms. Butterfield is a reader.  Her routine after supper was to get in her pajamas and read in bed for the evening.  When she decided to study the Religious Right she immersed herself in the Bible spending five hours reading it daily.  If that doesn't put the average Christian to shame, nothing does.

To make a long story short, Rosaria Butterfield became a Christian but she didn't come peacefully.  

I often wonder:  God, why pick me?  I didn't ask to be a Christian convert  I didn't "seek the Lord."  Instead, I ran like the wind when I suspected someone would start peddling the gospel to me....How did a smart cookie like me end up in a place like this? (from the Acknowledgments page.)

There were things I liked about this book and, things, frankly, I did not like.

First of all this book should really be three books, each book developed to a much deeper level.  I felt as if none of the sections provided enough detail to provide the reader with adequate information to clearly understand her walk before her conversion, her struggles with conversion and her life as a Christian.

She admits that the book took her fourteen years to write because she and her husband kept adopting children and at six children, plus other foster children, the book understandably suffered several interruptions.  Nevertheless, I think after fourteen years she could have come up with more than 148 pages worth of material.

We learn a little of her life as a professor and the lesbian community she was involved in, but not enough for anyone to have individual faces.  We know they treated her conversion as a tragic betrayal over which they mourned, but other than that we know nothing of them. 

I also would have liked to have learned a little more about her upbringing.  She tells us her family was Catholic, her father died while she was still young and that's it.  She practiced a heterosexual life until the age of twenty-eight and then became a practicing lesbian.  That's a full package there and it would have been nice if she had unwrapped it for us.

We know very little about the church she joined or the people that populated it.  We don't really even know how she met her husband or why she married him.

We do know that immediately after leaving the gay lifestyle she jumped into an unhealthy relationship with a man who also struggled with same sex attraction.  This part has its value as it shows that we can't take everyone's profession of belief at their word.  

I think she included this part to explain why she left Syracuse University to teach at the college where her fiance was attending seminary.  He eventually left as it became apparent that he had not actually surrendered his life to Christ, but she stayed long enough to meet the man she is married to today.

I do congratulate her on her courage.  While still at Syracuse, she was elected to talk to the Graduate Student Orientation Convocation at the beginning of the year.  In her book she includes the entire speech which reveals her change of life and beliefs, and the change in her coursework as a result.  There was much disappointment and outrage.

However, interestingly enough, it also provoked a lot of curiosity.  Her new coursework centered around her new beliefs and the classes were filled to capacity, with students sitting on the floor.  She began hosting people at her house (her partner had moved out) for Bible study and it was attended just as much as her previous groups were.

Butterfield provides insight into the University culture, sometimes without intending to.  She admits that her Women's Studies syllabus went as thus:

NB (nota bene, or, "note well") Students are expected to write all papers and examination essay questions from a feminist worldview or critical (postmodern) perspective.  In Spanish class you speak and think in Spanish.  In Women's Studies you speak and think in feminist paradigms.  Examination essay questions written from critical perspectives outside of feminism will receive an automatic grade of F.  Papers written from critical perspectives outside of feminism will be allowed one revision.  Any student who is unable to write and think from a feminist critical perspective or worldview with a clear conscience should drop the class now.

How did I get away with this?  The secular academic world is bold in its protection of worldview.  

She goes on to say that all her colleagues had the same syllabus, working as a bloc.  She admits that "an interpretive community consciously and intentionally protects its way of thinking."

  So much for celebrating diversity in academic thought.

And yet, even as a Christian, Butterfield throughout the book is critical of Christians (by which she means conservative evangelicals) who, according to her all think alike and therefore, don't think at all.  She seems to have trouble coming to grips with the fact that being a tenured professor where the criteria seems to rest largely on your lifestyle choice doesn't make you an intellectual heavy weight. 

Did she forget she admits that University professors "protect their worldview?"  It's not the Christian community that creates "safe spaces" from people with opposing opinions or wants to censor classic literature due to "micro aggressive" stories that could produce "post-traumatic triggers".  

When over eighty percent of University educators are on the extreme liberal side of the  cultural spectrum, I don't believe a lot of intellectual exchange is transpiring.  

 My niece is half way through her first year at the University of North Texas.  She complained to her mother, my sister, that in her English Honors Literature class they only discuss literature in the context of sexism and racism.   What a waste of golden opportunity.  Instead of imbuing students with a love for literature they are teaching them to despise it.

Butterfield's personality seems to be one of intensity and single mindedness.  When she left the gay community and entered the Christian community she remained just as intense and single minded.  She joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church which, from what I can tell, is orthodox in its belief and solid in its faith.

However, they firmly believe, at least Butterfield does, that their form of worship is the only one that is truly Biblical.  This includes singing only Psalmody (the Psalms in the Bible) and without instruments.

She is also a hard core Calvinist.  She insists that we do not choose God, He chooses us, even against our will as in her case.

I wouldn't mind any of that, I'm probably more in the Calvinist camp than any other even though I struggle with some of its more extreme tenets, at least as they are understood by modern Reformed Scholars and Theologians.  I have been reading through Calvin's Institutes, something I recommend every Christian to do, and I don't perceive some of the harsher sounding precepts propounded on today by some Reformed Theologians, even though I have the greatest respect for them and know them to be far more informed and intelligent than me, hence my struggle.

What I do mind is how Butterfield apparently went from being an elitist Lesbian to being an elitist Christian.  She does not hide her contempt for Conservative Christians making sweeping statements about them (us) about how we hate gays (untrue!) and worship in "Disneyland Churches" with our coffee bars and Contemporary worship bands and Praise teams.

It's almost as if she wants everyone to know, "OK, I've become a Christian, but remember, it was against my will and I'm still very smart, not like all those other yahoos who call themselves Christians."  Apparently she has not been able to shed the "us and them" mentality she fostered before her conversion.

The last section concerns the growth of her family after she married Kent Butterfield.  They adopted five children from a couple of months old to teenagers, all "children of color" as she calls them.  She refers to her family as "transracial" which sounds a little pretentious to me.  Can't you just say you adopted some black kids?  

Nevertheless I do commend her for it, especially since she also home-schools them and are foster parents as well.  She includes some interesting stories about the tragic lives of some of the children they fostered and I would dearly have loved to have read more of this.  

To recap: putting her occasional pontificating aside, I really would like to see her write three books elaborating on each section she skimmed across in this one.

You can hear Ms. Butterfield on this Youtube channel.  Her speeches are worth listening to:

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Edge of the Chair edited by Joan Kahn

Happy Halloween (slightly early)!  Here is Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky to listen to (but play it softly!) while reading today's post!  

Of course I must write at least one review about a scary book I have read, although in fact I am reading three concurrently.  I'll write reviews of those when I have finished reading them.

I can't remember where I found The Edge of the Chair.  Either east of me at a book fair in Marshall, Texas (where the public library there has several fairs where they sell thousands of books throughout the year.  It is the best type of fair I've come across and for a dollar a book, you really can't beat it!) or west of me at an Independent bookstore in Gladewater, (the Capital of antique stores, at least in East Texas) called, crazily enough, Gladewater Bookstore.

The Edge of the Chair is an anthology of both fact and fiction.  

The fiction stories are by authors such as Alexander Pushkin (The Queen of Spades); Ambrose Bierce (A Watcher by the Dead); and others such as Graham Green, Harold Pinter, Jack London, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, and William Faulkner.  John Buchan, G.K. Chesterton, Guy de Maupassant and Dorthy L. Sayers also contribute to this section.  There are more but I list the ones who have not since disappeared into obscurity.  (The book was published in 1967.)

The above writers do not always write of the supernatural but also mystery and suspense.  Some, like Pushkin's Queen of Spades offer a combination of the supernatural and the psychological.  The stories range from thrilling to entertaining but all were fun to read.

Bierce's A Watcher of the Dead also combines the psychological with the supernatural or so we are lead to think.  Two men bet a third man that he won't spend the night in the room with a dead body because our primitive psyche will project supernatural conclusions, over riding what our senses tell us.  The third man decries any notion that man cannot reason himself out of any situation and accepts the bet.  The conclusion arrives with unforeseen consequences that inflict everyone involved.  

Dry September by William Faulkner is horrible not because of its suspense but because of its all too accurate and harrowing picture of the South in Jim Crow times. A woman, for no other reason than loneliness and a desire for attention and importance, falsely accuses a black man.  This offers certain citizens of the town, one thug in particular, to act out his own criminal proclivities with the contemporary culture on his side.  Not even because most of the people in the town like him or agree with his intent, but because it's easier to stand by and do nothing.  

Other stories by Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers are fun mysteries.  Christie, is the usual whodunit.  Chesterton's is always more than a whodunit, but rather a why did he do it?  The reasons are always comments on the inner motives of man and the truths they cling to and follow to their logical end, even if it means murdering someone to maintain the illusion. 

 But the anthology ends with a a story by Sayers that is as suspenseful as the ending is unexpected and, if I may say so, hilarious.  I give no titles so as not to ruin the opportunity for any reader out there who may run across any of these stories in other collections.

These are only a couple of the fiction stories I offer as a sample.  The remaining stories are non fiction.

These stories include descriptions of murder trials, some where the narrator is obviously sympathetic with the victim(s) and others where the narrator clearly defends the murderer(s).  The latter, as in the case of Rattenbury and Stoner by F. Tennyson Jesse, the author justifies the murderers, if not the crime, and roundly condemns society for judging these poor oversexed lovers who felt compelled to kill the one lover's husband.  His argument was they lacked the intelligence to do otherwise and therefore should not have been found guilty.  I was not convinced. 

A particularly fascinating non fiction is by William Seabrook who describes a personal experience in Haiti with zombies in Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields.  His graphic descriptions and personal conclusions left me thinking about the possibility  Zombies and a desire to read more of his writing.

Another non fiction was Shattering the Myth of John Wilkes Booth's Escape.  I did not know this but back when this account was written, a family had in their garage a coffin with what they avowed was the corpse of John Wilkes Booth.  The author, William G. Shepherd traces the history of the man behind the corpse through documents and letters to prove who the body actually belonged to.

There are many non fiction stories some interesting, some less so but hands down the best was an excerpt from Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Most people recognize Saint-Exupery as the author of La Petit Prince (The Little Prince).  He was also a pilot and wrote several books both fact and fiction about the adventures of flying during the thirties and forties.  Prisoner of the Sand comes from his novel, Wind, Sand and Stars.  This particular excerpt is about a time he and his co pilot crashed his plane in the desert of Saudi Arabia.  Their ordeal and final deliverance is one of the most nail biting stories I've ever come across and, as a result, I bought the book.

The Edge of the Chair was a gem of a find, and I encourage you to scour your local bookstores and library fairs (or ebay or Amazon, which is easier if less fun) for a copy.