Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D.

A few months ago, Josh threw out some rotten squash.  Here is our resulting squash garden.

And below is our produce:

Not a bad crop for absolutely no effort on our part.  I'm encouraged.  Maybe I should convert the whole back yard into a self-sustaining farmette.

Today's song was suggested by one of my faithful commenters (Mudpuddle, you know who you are, sorry if I'm embarrassing you.)  It is a superb if not breathtaking in its speed rendition of Antonio Vivaldi's Recorder Concerto RV 443 performed by Maurice Steger and the Capella Gabetta Chamber Orchestra.

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain ScienceThe Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book immediately intrigued me when I read of it in a news article. The premise is that certain beliefs about the brain have been fairly recently proven false.

One that the brain does not change and secondly that brain function is localized and permanent.

Dr. Dodge interviews a number of neurologists, scientists, behavioralists and other professionals and also case studies to prove this case.

The first chapter describes Cheryl, who feels as though she is always falling. Her vestibular system stopped working and she can no longer balance. She is helped by Paul Bach-y-Rita who has developed a machine, that replaces the vestibular system and sends balance signals to her brain. While wearing the machine, it's like a construction hat, Cheryl can stand without falling. Eventually, the effects last for a while after she has taken the "hat" off and it is lasting for longer periods of time.

How is this so? Bach-y-Rita states that this is where brain plasticity comes in. The brain is learning to use other pathways to replace the damaged neuro-pathways.

And this is the basic premise of the book. All the case studies, stroke victims, amputees, learning disabled et al... go through therapy that cause the brain to change itself, to bypass damaged neurotransmitters and create new pathways to perform the lost function.

This has been especially useful with stroke victims who have lost the use of an arm or hand. Through careful therapy that trains the brain to reorganize itself the case studies in this book have regained either most of complete use of previously paralyzed limbs.

Doidge recounts case studies of blind people whose brains have taken over the part of the brain that processes sight and began using it for hearing. He describes a remarkable account of a woman who, after losing her sight, can listen to books on her computer faster than sighted people can comprehend. She can hear up to three books a day.

Conversely, studies have shown that deaf people have more developed peripheral vision than sighted people.

Another interesting study was about "phantom" limbs. This is the sad phenomena that sometimes occurs when someone loses an arm or leg but still feels pain where the arm or limb used to be. This can be so debilitating that people have committed suicide to escape from the never ending pain signals. Dr. Ramachandran developed a therapy system that rewired the "pain map" of the brain to stop the brain from sending signals about limbs that no longer exist.

One of the, I'm sure, more controversial chapters is about sexual attraction and how our early childhood experiences can map our brains to determine what and who attracts us. It offers hope for people who are mired into deviant sexual practices that would like to escape but feel they can't.

One case study is about a man whose mother sexually abused him when he was very young. As an adult he found himself in relationships with women who demanded violent sexual experiences.

Doidge also asserts that our attraction to specific genders can be shaped by and reshaped due to experiences and then later therapeutic experiences that overcome the early experiences. I'm sure some will disagree, but scientists have known for years that what information we put in our brain causes chemical reactions that shape our mind and behavior.
Not just sexually, but in every area of life.

Probably the most fascinating case study was of a young woman who was born with half a brain. This was not discovered for some years because the other hemisphere had taken over the function of the other half.

The most questionable chapter had to do with culture and how it maps our brain. Doidge describes how the language we learn from infancy is going to shape our brains specific ways, but also how culture can shape our brains and even our senses. He uses as an example, a group of nomadic people called the "Sea Gypsies" who live among the tropical islands in the Burmese Archipelago who live most of their lives on boats and in the water harvesting sea cucumbers. Their ability to see underwater is significantly more advanced than any other group of people.

The final appendix details some disturbing information about how totalitarian regimes and the media can shape our brains.

It is common knowledge that what information we process can shape how we think, but Doidge goes farther in saying that the changes happen physically as well and determine how our neurotransmitters travel and map our brain.

It seems obvious that what you fill your mind with is going to help you think on either a more critical level, non-reflective level or even in a way that could be called brainwashed. Looking at some of the mob-like activities occurring on certain college campuses today, I think we can say that certain educators are certainly doing their best to indoctrinate their students rather than give them a quality education.

Doidge describes the education systems in totalitarian countries like North Korea to prove that the same happens there. No big surprise there.

He also described the brainwashing of people who join certain cults, but I thought this had been debunked.

My only question, is what extensive research has been made to prove that the brain map has been changed on a physical level. This was not as clear.

However, if it is changed, the good news, is that it does not have to be permanent.

Finally, Doidge does not simply give case studies but also biographies of the scientists, Doctors and educators as well as describing their research. This alone makes the book enjoyable.

My criticism would be that as informative and interesting as I found this book, I did feel that perhaps the case studies were a little cherry picked. I wondered why he did not mention Ben Carson's work with partial lobotomies for patients suffering chronic seizures or even the famous case of Phineas Gage, the 19th century railroad worker that suffered a pole through his frontal lobe from an explosion. A lot of information about where specific brain functions operate was discovered from Gage's accident and his subsequent behavior.

I think it would be prudent to read more than one book on the topic of brain plasticity.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

The Day the Rabbi Resigned by Harry Kemelman

The Brass Quintet No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 5, Allegro Moderato by the Russian composer Victor Ewald is playing.  A jaunty little tune to see you through this review.

The Day the Rabbi ResignedThe Day the Rabbi Resigned by Harry Kemelman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is one of a series by Harry Kemelman, most of which are titled by a day of the week, e.g. Monday the Rabbi Took Off; Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red; Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet et al.. eventually he ran out of days and simply title his books "The Day the Rabbi" or "That Day" or "Some Day".

The Rabbi is David Small the leader/teacher of a Conservative Synogogue and he is a part time sleuth or perhaps more accurately, an extremely intelligent man who is able to put clues together quicker than his good friend Police Chief Lanigan, an Irish Catholic.

The books are a little like a Soap Opera, the positive aspects of Soap Operas, that is to look at ordinary people's lives inside their families and at work and watch as they struggle through the normal conflict/ resolution that all families experience.

Each book also contains a mild mystery but the main thrust of Kemelman's writing is to present life in a synogogue, the congregation that populates it and their surrounding environment and interaction with people of other ethnic backgrounds, primarily Catholic, since the stories take place in certain Boston neighborhoods where the demographics are primarily made up of these two people groups.

I belong to neither people group and I find Kemelman's observations very interesting. Kemelman uses the one people group, Catholics, to highlight the beliefs of the other people group, Jews. He does this through conversations between people from both backgrounds, which at times can border on lecturing. However, it is informative.

He also uses the members of Small's synagogue to clarify the purpose of worship. Or rather that observing the Sabbath is not about worship. What is it about? He answers that question through his stories.

In Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet, a group of men in the synagogue want to buy a retreat in the country in order to have prayer services. And by prayer services, it is meant where each person prays to God according to how they feel led, not memorized prayers or in any kind of traditional sense.

Rabbi Small lets them know that their congregation does not engage in prayer services in the manner of Protestant or Catholics. That is not the point of the congregation and if they persist in this endeavor he will resign.

In The Day The Rabbi Resigned, again Rabbi Small makes it clear that the purpose of synagogue is not to worship God or study the Torah. He was not called by God to his vocation. He is there to study the Talmud and to share his research with his congregation. Again, for what purpose?

To better understand Jewish tradition in order to preserve their heritage. Every rule, tradition, from observing the Sabbath to wearing yarmulkes is about expressing one's Jewish identity. According to Rabbi Small, God is unknowable and it is not the goal of the synagogue to develop any kind of relationship with Him.

Whether this is the general consensus of all Jews or their Rabbis, I have no idea. It is certainly a foreign concept to me. As a Christian my whole belief system is centered around knowing and experiencing God, which we believe is only attained through Jesus Christ redeeming our sins, because otherwise our sins would obstruct that relationship.

Every Rabbi book will in some way develop these basic concepts as expressed through Rabbi Small with, as I said, other Jews and Catholics used as foils to allow the Rabbi to expound.

He even has an atheist Jew, a relative of Small, explain how he practices being an observant, Conservative Jew without believing in God. The atheist in The Day the Rabbi Resigned is a professor at the University of Chicago and is asked to reconcile this seeming dichotomy.

The professor, going into lecture mode explains that Moses made up all the rules himself because he sensibly saw that boundaries are needed for a society to function and flourish. Because he knew he would die, he made up the concept of God so the Jews would continue to follow his rules after he was gone.

Well, that's one way to completely misread the Bible. There are so many ways to refute that but this is a book review not a theological debate. It does remind me of Jeremiah where God tells him that His people have circumcised bodies but uncircumcised hearts (Jeremiah 9:25,26)

As far as the precise plot of this book, several interesting plots circle around each other and, as I mentioned, the actual mystery is rather peripheral.

Donald Macomber, the president of Windermere Christian College wants to get rid of the "Christian" in his college's name. Using his normal strategy for conveying messages, Kemelman informs us of the plot premise through a conversation between Macomber and his friend Mark Levine. Levine, naturally is Jewish. We are not informed of Macomber's beliefs, other than that he is committed to increasing student enrollment.

Macomber asserts that the college was never Christian and the nomenclature was conceived through a desire to make the college seem "morally upright". When the college first started this was desirable to increase enrollment. Now the opposite is true. Macomber feels it is stifling enrollment, perhaps this is Kemelman's observation of modern culture and its shifting values.

The problem is that one of the board members, Cryus Merton, is a "fanatical Catholic" and is influential enough to veto the motion to change the name.

We get to know Merton, who is a faithfully observant Catholic but, if I may say so, another "uncircumcised heart". It turns out that Merton finds keeping "Christian" in the college's name is good for business because his good friend, Father Joseph, sends clients his way and he doesn't want to sabotage that in any way.

Merton also has a niece, a shy, plain, sheltered thing that has just graduated from a Convent school. He sees that a Catholic professor, Victor Joyce, is up for tenure. He thinks that if Joyce got tenure, he would help him influence Macomber. He decides that Joyce should marry his niece in order to produce such a result.

Joyce, desperately wants tenure, he understands that Merton would make sure he got tenure if he marries the niece. Whatever. No problem. It's not like Joyce has to be faithful or anything, which he's not.

The mystery, which takes place after a hundred pages, is when Joyce is killed in a car wreck. He was intoxicated, soaked in fact, after coming from a college dinner. But upon investigation it looks like the wreck did not kill him. If not, who did?

That is what Chief Lanigan is determined to find out and, with the help of Rabbi Small, he does. Or rather Small does and Lanigan is grateful.

One final thought. In a 1973 article in People's magazine, Kemelman said that friends of his who were Rabbis wondered if he was basing his Rabbi on them. Kemelman said no, that if he knew a Rabbi Small he wouldn't like him because he "tended to be cold and stuffy."

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Question:  All books reflect the worldview of the author. What books have your liked that use their story lines as a method to share the authors beliefs? Did you agree or disagree with the author? Does it matter?  Can you enjoy books even though the author's religion (or non-religion) may be diametrically opposed to your own convictions?

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

My brother-in-law, Chris Wade has created another book for children.  This second in his series of creation is about winged creatures.  Here is a sample:

As you can see Chris included a little green buddy of mine.  For more information you can go to Amazon.  You can visit Chris' website here.

Here is the Bach Partita for Flute BWV 1013 performed by Jean-Pierre Rampal.
Seabiscuit: An American LegendSeabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book surprised me by being a very interesting account of a racehorse's life.

It surprised me because I am not particularly interested in race horsing, but Laura Hillenbrand deftly weaves human and animal lives together, I found myself looking forward to coming back to the book and finishing it easily because each chapter contained such fascinating information about all the players involved.

The first chapter focuses on the man who financially backed the horse. Charles Howard came to San Francisco from the East where he had a bicycle shop, but he was one of those people who was ambitious and knew how to make money. I am impressed with those kinds of people. They combine the ability to crunch numbers with risk taking and are will to lose a lot of money as they slowly but surely ascend towards greater and greater gains.

Howard became one of the most successful Buick salesmen of all time. He soon found something else to invest in: horses. Pretty soon, he was making good money at the race tracks. Eventually he bought for a song an unimpressive looking, smallish, crooked legged horse with a stubborn personality. His name was Seabiscuit.

Seabiscuit was under the training of the legendary "Sonny" Jim Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons spent a lot of time working with Seabiscuit but eventually gave up, considering the horse too lazy and too onery. When Howard bought him, he handed him over to his trainer, Tom Smith.

The second chapter tells us about Smith and his unorthodox training methods. Smith had been a mustang breaker and trainer. As the frontier vanished he turned to other work. He eventually found it training Thoroughbreds for Charles Howard. Smith believed in Seabiscuit and with patience and particular racing workouts, he worked the lazy out of Seabiscuit.

Smith paired Seabiscuit with Red Pollard, a jockey from Canada and the third chapter gives us a graphic and grueling description of life as a horse jockey. During the depression most jockeys were young boys who had run away from home or simply left because they were one of too many mouths to feed.

No one babied these kids. They starved themselves to stay underweight, they worked for pittance and were often seriously injured and barely received medical treatment and then only after all the races were run because no one could afford to lose time transporting someone to the hospital between races.

Many jockeys scrambled back to the race from the hospital, regardless of their condition because if they missed one of their races they'd get fired.

It makes you glad that eventually laws were passed to prevent this type of exploitation.

Yet at the same time, these half-starved underpaid kids still somehow managed to scrounge up money for alcohol and prostitutes, rather proving the adage no one got poor because they were good with money.

The rest of the book describes Seabiscuit's training under Smith and riding under Red and also another jockey named Woolf and the different races they ran.

This is a credit to Hillenbrand's superior writing skills that she can turn a race horse into a riveting experience. Seabiscuit won some, lost some, but won more and more and became the Depression era favorite. Hundreds of thousands of people packed the stadiums to see him run.

The climax came when he ran against War Admiral.

War Admiral was the sire of the infamous Man o' War who terrorized race tracks about twenty years earlier. Sea Biscuit was a grand sire, his parents being Hard Tack and Swing On, but his grandsire was Man O' War. This perhaps diluted some of the hellion spirit he might have inherited from Man o' War because he had none of the demonic temperament his grand sire was known and feared for. War Admiral, however, being a direct sire, very definitely inherited it. Apparently the hardest part of the race was getting him to walk to the starting gate without trying to trample the groomsmen.

It took a lot of obstacles, injuries, weather, but mostly the enigmatic stubbornness of War Admiral's owner, Samuel Riddle who perhaps thought it beneath his horse to run a "mere Western winner".

Finally, the race did take place and reading it was suspenseful. Both horses broke records but Seabiscuit finally broke out in the lead and won by at least one horse length. When I came to the end I cried a little and then felt foolish but I couldn't help it.

Seabiscuit went on to run more races and did well, but Smith finally retired him to the same ranch he retired to. They died within a couple of years of each other. Seabiscuit was only fourteen which is rather young for a horse, but he ran a long, hard road.

Before that he sired hundreds of "little Biscuits" most of unimpressive form but a few racers. War Admiral who was retired shortly after his race with Sea Biscuit had more success, siring forty stakes winners.

Hillenbrand is exhaustive in her research and compelling in her prose. Whether you're interested in race horses or not you will probably find her writing enjoyable.

Reading this book has inspired me to read others like it. Perhaps I need to read about the race from War Admiral's perspective.

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If you'd like to watch Seabiscuits famous race with War Admiral click here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

I thought it would be appropriate if you listened to some music from the Thirties while reading my post. Enjoy!

And for your weekend reading pleasure:

Red HarvestRed Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If all of Hammett's characters in every novel has a sameness to them, then it is in the context of Theme and Variations.

The tough dame is the same but her name is different as are her words and the dark adventure she participates in. Her name in Red Harvest is Dinah Brand. She is an able seductress who knows how to get money out of just about everyone. The men know it and love her irresistibly anyway. She may be alluring, but she's also big and tough and not above slapping men around.

The hard boiled detective is also the same and maybe that's why Hammett doesn't bother giving him a name. We know he's a Continental Op from San Francisco and as usual it's from his first person narrative that we learn the story.

Everyone else, including the cops, are crooks. They're mean as snakes, hard as nails, and value no one's life, including their own. Few of them survive the story.

In a nutshell, the Continental Op has been called to Personville (called "Poisonville" by everyone) by a Donald Willsson who is murdered before the Op gets to meet him. He then begins to investigate Willsson's murder and in the meantime discovers that Willsson's father, Elihu, owns Personville, but the thugs he brought in to help him control strikers have themselves taken over and gotten out of hand. Poisonville is a cess pool of competing gangs shooting each other up.

To see how the un-named Op cleans up you'll have to read the book.

For myself, I wonder what the fascination with the crime world was back in the first half of the century. Was everyone's life so sheltered that it provided a salacious thrill to read or watch on the big screen a bunch of crooks chasing each other around in cars while emptying machine guns all over the place?

It was a bit of a roller coaster ride, even for me. The Op gets around quickly and avoids getting himself killed very narrowly through out the story. There's no down time anywhere from beginning to conclusion.

Dashiell Hammett wrote his fiction based on his own experiences as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, from which he based his fictitious Continental Op Agency.

Red Harvest was inspired by the Anaconda Road massacre where company guards opened fire on striking minors in Butte Montana, killing sixteen of them.

Time magazine listed Red Harvest as one of the 100-best English language novels from 1923-2005 and Andre Gide called the book "the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror". (From Wikipedia)

If you're a Crime Noir fan, you'll enjoy this novel because crime doesn't get any more noir than Red Harvest.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Short History of Russia by R.D. Charques

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I am being a little unconventional in my music this post.  I am listening to a musician that my son would listen to before he had his license and I had to drive him everywhere.  It was a good time and our best conversations took place while traveling around town.  This song, a remix of Roberta Flack's Do You Know Where You're Going To by TobyMac brings back some fine memories.  Love you Derek.

A Short History of RussiaA Short History of Russia by R.D. Charques

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a concise and informative book that gives an excellent overview of Russian history.

It starts with Russia's Eurasian background and the Slavs, explains the Mongol influence and how it formed the Serf culture that became a prominent part of Russian culture, all the way through to the rise of Communism, where Serfdom was simply renamed as "Comrade". It's not unequal distribution if you don't call it that and it is equal distribution if you do.

Chapters are devoted to each Tzar and also Catherine the Great, the one Tzarina. When reading the barbarities of every single one of the Tzars (and Tzarina), one wonders if any of them were sane and one does not wonder if the outcome of Soviet Revolution was inevitable. And while many of the Tzars or the wives were German, they still managed to keep Russian isolated from the rest of Europe.

Even so, the aristocracy looked to Europe for its fashion and style but maintained 12th century Asian primitivism when governing its people. This would pave the way for the Communists in the 19th century who embraced Marxism, finally culminating in the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.

Charques' book goes into greater detail as to the different groups who rebelled against the Tzar and aristocracy, when they fought in unity and when they fought against each other, one group finally destroying the other.

Lenin's methods were no less brutal or sadistic than any of the Tsars, the difference is that he annihilated the aristocratic class and created another aristocratic class, which was developed to a higher level with each succeeding leader.

Again, it's not an aristocracy if we don't call it that (wink). We call it "Comradeship". Of course Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev etc. and their fellow party members managed to live in aristocratic luxury as the rest of the nation suffered an existence of grinding poverty, but reality is determined by rhetoric or so Soviet propaganda asserted. This is still true today and not only of Russia. Orwell was right.

Under Stalin millions starved as he tried to stamp out the peasant rebellion. Peasants preferred to destroy their farms and livestock rather than submit the earnings of their labor to others. It helps to read the history of Russia to better understand Ayn Rand. One sees why she calls people who demand the wages of others and call it "equal distribution" as "looters". The sharing was clearly one sided, as was the receiving.

More would have starved if it were not for Europe and American intervention, supplying food as they were able. So the outside world had some understanding as to what was happening in Russia and I cannot help but wonder why the West was not more proactive in putting Stalin out of commission or at least not conceding him Eastern Europe. He could not have put up a fight if Churchill and Roosevelt had chosen to put Western Military installations there. His army, due to his own paranoid machinations, were mostly disabled, but I suppose the world had become war weary.

Too bad. It's interesting to speculate what history would have looked like had we fought a little longer.

This book was a textbook my mother used when she was studying Russian history at Syracuse University in the early 1970s. As a result the entire grisly story of Stalin's monstrosities were as yet unknown, and the book stops with Stalin. Perhaps for diplomatic reasons Khrushchev is not mentioned, since he was still alive.

An interesting point the author makes is that Lenin understood that to make his Soviet survive they would need public relations with the West. He achieved this through diplomatic actions by allowing Ballet and circus troupes to travel around the world. He knew this would not only lend legitimacy to the Soviet Regime but also allow agents to integrate into Western society, especially in the Fine Arts and Media, and thus planting seeds of revolutionary ideology.

This is a good book for anyone interested in increasing their understanding of how Russia arrived at its present cultural and political conditions.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories by Robert Penn Warren

I was trying to take this photo when Hercaloo ran down my arm to pose for the camera.  She has turned into a little camera hog.

Since this review is about a Southern writer and his contribution to Southern literature I thought it appropriate to listen to some Hillbilly Blue Grass.  The song is Oh Death performed by Ralph Stanley.

The Circus in the Attic and Other StoriesThe Circus in the Attic and Other Stories by Robert Penn Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Robert Penn Warren. Warren is mostly known for his novel All The King's Men, which won him the Pullitzer Prize.

All of the stories in this book present a colorful picture of Southern Culture from the Post Civil War era to the Depression, both time periods that afflicted the South with profound poverty. Many of his stories focus on individual people inside that climate of poverty and reconstruction, which was occurring in the south. The stories are valuable for that attribute alone.

They are also stories that paint a portrait of a man's dreams and how they are shaped and impacted by his relationship with his family inside his community at specific epochs of time.

All the stories are from the viewpoint of a man who has aspirations that are usually defeated by a domineering mother or wife, often a faithless wife. Because this premise is built into the majority of the stories in this collection one gathers that perhaps they are based on the author's life.

The first story is Circus in the Attic. The protagonist expresses his dreams by secretly creating a tiny model circus in his attic while carrying on his mediocre life as a teacher, movie ticket taker, while writing his "great novel" that is never finished...and also caring for his sickly mother who takes decades to finally pass away.

When she does die, he marries a widow, and when her son goes off to war the man gains some notoriety in giving speeches supporting the war effort. In the end, the son is killed in the war, his wife is killed in a car with another man and our protagonist is left alone. He no longer even has his circus to comfort him because he sold the pieces off at auction for the war effort.

This story is the longest in the book, starting at the Civil War and ending with WWII. Through the years, we see, as the man ages, the Southern landscape changing dramatically as reconstruction and wars make their mark.

The other stories have similar themes, although some deal with poor white people living in the hills, others with towns folk, all from a Southern perspective, allowing the reader to gain insight into how the South survived the devastating effects of a lost war, years of poverty and grew out of the stump, so to speak.

The last story, Prime Leaf is the most frightening because of the evil it exposes in small town politics where not even family members are safe from lynch mobs or each other.

If you are interested in the history of the South, plus the good writing of a man expressing his own struggles and heartbreak against personal demons, then you will enjoy reading this book.

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For more information on Robert Penn Warren click on the following links.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Pretty, is it not?  This is Hercule's pruning job on my centerpiece.  Ah, well.  It kept him occupied long enough for me to write this review.

I am listening to The Introduction and Moonlight Music from Richard Strauss' Opera Capriccio.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (Ripley, #1)The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a ponder-provoking book. I won't give the plot away since I don't know if there's someone out there who hasn't seen the movie with Matt Damon; so I will give the premise and then my thoughts.

Thomas Ripley is a crook living in New York City. He scams people by fooling them into thinking they owe on their insurance. He has quite a few checks to cash from all the people he has tooled.

He meets a Mr. Greenleaf who sends him on a quest to Europe to persuade his son Richard, known as "Dicky", to return home and carry on the family business. Ripley agrees to this because he is paid handsomely and he sees future dividends.

While Ripley sails for Italy he begins re-inventing himself. He acquires a certain persona while on the ship and then another as he meets Dickie and his friend Marge in Mongibello.

When he meets Dickie, after a little bit of posturing, he lays his cards on the table and tells him his dad sent him hoping to get him to return to the states. But Ripley decides that he doesn't want Dickie to return to the states because he doesn't want to return.

If, like me, you knew you were reading a Crime Noir book, you were not surprised to see Ripley reveal in increments his sociopathic personality. It was obvious from the start that he was a crook but the way he swindled Greenleaf into thinking he was a good friend of Dickie and the way he would giggle uncontrollably to himself when thinking over his ludicrous opportunities, the reader can gain he is mentally ill.

I've read other reviews that say that this was the popular homosexual cliche of the fifties, which was to portray unstable people as gay as a symptom of emotional instability. I doubt this because Patricia Highsmith was a lesbian and I see no motive for her to follow this trend, if it was a trend.

However, I do think Highsmith pours her persona into her anti-hero. Ripley has a horrible relationship with his Aunt who raised him and it is implied that her domineering personality ruined him. Highsmith had a similar relationship with her own mother who she claims told her that she tried to abort her by taking turpentine.

The story is an interesting study of a person with a schizoid personality disorder. Ripley has certain desires and he carefully plans how to achieve these desires.

He develops an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with Dickie, whom he barely knows and who has given him little encouragement. Nevertheless, Ripley is persuaded that Dickie does not love or care for Marge, an author and friend (or girlfriend; it's unclear) and Marge is nursing an unrealistic fantasy of marrying Dickie.

Somehow Ripley persuades Dickie to go on a brief vacation with him. I'm still not sure of the motives and perhaps Ripley wasn't either, but he decides that if he cannot have Dickie, no one will and he murders him.

The rest of the movie is a highly suspenseful battle of chess moves and counter moves as Ripley alternately impersonates Dickie and plays himself while traveling through Italy to avoid suspicion as Dickie's disappearance becomes known and is investigated.

Whether Ripley became a popular anti-hero, I don't know. Apparently there are many Ripley novels. I found him to be a sad person and the ending may or may not surprise or satisfy you. He is simply a man who is satisfied with carnal cravings and he has no moral compunction about feeding those cravings. If that's all there is to life, how empty for him.

It makes me wonder if Highsmith wasn't living her own fantasy through her creation. Did she feel alienated? Was this her way of lashing out?

As propelling as the story line was, the ending left me flat and I am not motivated to read anymore of the Talented Mr. Ripley. As far as I am concerned he can Rest in Peace.

On a positive note, the book can marginally serve as a colorful travelogue for those who like to vicariously enjoy traveling across Europe.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A time to grieve.
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Odie, a few hours before his passing. July 5, 2017

I got Odie and his sister Breeya for my son when he was eight years old.  He wanted to name them "Odie" and "Nermal"  after two pets in his favorite comic strip, "Garfield".  I wasn't thrilled with the name "Odie".  Couldn't my son have chosen something more "doggish" like "T-Bone" or "Sir Bow Wow the Third"?

No, "Odie" it was, but I drew the line at "Nermal".  I couldn't see myself calling Nermal in for din din or walkies or "Nermal! Let that poor bird go!"

So Derek named her after a girl he had a crush on in his third grade class.

They reached their fourteenth birthday this summer but Odie had been slowly sliding down that inevitable descent for the last several months until he finally reached the bottom. 

Death is horrible and it was hard watching Odie's life slowly ebb away,  but I believe that God restores all things.  

I am listening to Bruckner's Symphony No. 2, George Solti is the conductor.

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The Beautiful and DamnedThe Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aside from the Great Gatsby this is the only other novel I've read by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Years ago when living on a small Caribbean island, with limited things to do, I read a large collection of books that I had had the foresight to bring with me (it got dark at 6pm every evening after which it wasn't safe to leave my apartment). One book was a collection of Fitzgerald's short stories and I enjoyed them immensely. This book I also enjoyed.

The Beautiful and the Damned starts like most of his short stories. Young man falls hopelessly in love with young, beautiful, charming, highly intelligent yet distant girl. Her beauty, her charm draw the young man in like a siren's call. Her smile, which is no more than a mask of aloofness, lets no one in and drives him mad, almost to despair.

Fitzgerald invented the prototype of the Manic Pixie Girl that is so popular in Romantic movies of today. You know the type, she's sweet, sexy, devil-may carish. She dances in the rain, sings along in movie theaters and other behavior that would be considered irresponsible and weird in real life but comes across as funny and sexy in the movies.

The man is mesmerized and the fact that she's just out of reach emotionally keeps him reaching for her. Today's aggressively eager woman might learn a thing or two from these girls. Don't chase the boy, run away and have him chase you.

Ah, but I'm hopelessly old-fashioned. I'm also happily married, but that's topic for another time.

Most of Fitzgerald's short stories end with the boy finally catching the girl. I don't say they all end happily, they're more complicated than that, but they don't continue into married life.

The Beautiful and the Damned does. The boy in this story, Anthony Patch, does finally catch the girl he passionately pursues but that is half the story. The rest of their story is about their married life. It is not a pretty tale, it is a tragic, but fascinating one.

The interest does not lie in the storyline per se. I suppose lots of authors have written about drunk people racing toward destruction, but Fitzgerald's writing simply bubbles and flows like an icy, clear water brook down a mountain side. His insight into the human soul, his ability to lucidly display its depraved nature, its desperate longing for greater things and its inability to save itself both repels while it simultaneously draws the reader in.

Anthony and Gloria get married. They soon discover that what, on Anthony's part at least, manically attracted them to the other person was not enough to sustain a marriage.

Gloria is still lovely to look at, but her impulsive behavior,self-absorption and strong will have lost some of their allure.

We are not entirely sure why Gloria married Anthony. He perhaps bored her less than the other men who sought her attention. She doesn't seem to have much of a conscience or reason to do anything except have a good time.

And what is a good time to Anthony and Gloria? Getting pleasantly inebriated with friends. This naturally costs money and neither of them have much. Anthony is counting on an inheritance he will receive at his grandfather's death.

Anthony is both contemptuous of his grandfather and also fears him because a wrong move could cost him millions of dollars. His grandfather points out Anthony's lack of ambition and also employment. He offers to provide Anthony employment. Anthony is a writer. His grandfather can get him a job as a war correspondent. (WWI has just started).

Anthony immediately protests. He could never desert Gloria! At the same time he imagines himself in uniform and the glamour this kind of work would give him.

Gloria would also like to work. A friend who produces Hollywood movies would like to give her a screen test. But Anthony absolutely refuses to permit it. His wife will never degrade herself like that.

So what do they do? Live on what little stipend and savings they have, but mostly they spend it on alcohol and parties with friends. They also make very foolish decisions such as renting both a country house and apartment in New York City.

They see that they are acting foolish but cannot seem to stop themselves. They know they must stop holding and attending parties, but when the evening rolls around, the empty life they see around them impels them to the social amusements. Life isn't worth living until after the fifth or sixth drink.

This cannot last and it doesn't. The grandfather dies, but unfortunately he dies shortly after walking in on a typical gathering of Gloria and Anthony's and everyone there is quite sloshed. The grandfather, a strong prohibitionist, goes home, cuts Anthony from his will and dies.

Anthony retains an expensive (and I mean very expensive) lawyer to contest the will. The court case drags on for years in Bleak House-ian style. In the meantime, Anthony is drafted, travels south for training but luckily avoids actual service since the war ends before he finishes boot camp.

He returns to Gloria and they carry on.

The two slide steadily toward the abyss. A few unexpected things happen toward the end and I won't deprive you of a good read by spoiling it.

Anyone familiar with Fitzgerad's real life can see obvious autobiographical connections. I was constantly reminded of Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" where Hemingway describes Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda in a way not very different from Anthony and Gloria.

Because they were close friends who spent a lot of time together in Paris, I found myself comparing Hemingway's writing to Fitzgerald's. I can only describe Hemingway's writing as a large, heavy, aggressive predator and Fitzgerald's as a lightweight boxer who rapidly and gracefully dances around his opponent getting jabs in that are only painful to himself. Hemingway enjoyed slaughtering his perceived enemies.

Hemingway's stories may pack a punch, but Fitzgerald's go down as smoothly as one of the alcoholic beverages his characters are forever imbibing.

Here is a very interesting article from the New Yorker about F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It was written in 1926.
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Breeya, Derek and me saying "goodbye."
"Behold, I make all things new." Revelation 21:5

Monday, July 3, 2017

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

The Shostakovich Cello Concerto is playing, performed by the incomparable YoYo Ma.  I hope you will enjoy listening to it as well.

Incidentally, the card in the picture below was painted by my mother before her Macular Degeneration became too advanced.

My Family and Other Animals (Corfu Trilogy, #1)My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All in all, a cute story. Gerald Durrell, about twenty years after the fact, hearkens back to a segment of his childhood that was spent on the island of Corfu. The year is 1935 and WWII is gathering like storm clouds on the horizon but you won't get any hint of that in this story.

When he is ten years old, Gerald's family, which includes his widowed mother, brothers Larry and Leslie, sister Margo and a dog named Roger pack up and move to the island of Corfu.

You must erase from your mind the overcrowded tourist-stricken Corfu of today and imagine a virgin island with old world charm.

Uh, and also old world primitivism. After finally finding a villa with indoor plumbing or at least a bathroom that doesn't require a trip to the beach, the Durrells settle in.

We soon are acquainted with peasants and villagers, all who are friendly and hospitable. As an example, Gerald, one afternoon finds himself far from home and ravenous so he simply wakes up a friendly neighbor (by sending his dog barking like a maniac to the man's porch) who immediately shares his own repast of cheese, grapes and wine with him.

Gerald enjoys the people, enjoys his eccentric family (because he is equally eccentric), the peculiar people his mother assigns to tutor him (Theodore a diffident scientist in love with puns and corny jokes, Katelvsky, owner of many birds and even larger owner of romantic fantasies of which he plays the hero saving a lovely lady, and Peter, alas, Peter did not last long due to his "inappropriate interest in sister Margo- and her equally inappropriate interest in Peter) and most of all the animal life.

Gerald's story flows back and forth like a warm Mediterranean tide between his adventures in capturing animals (magpies, a ferocious seagull, a lumbering turtle, a large assortment of insects) and his family and friends.

His stories are told with charm and with the innocence of childhood, which is no small accomplishment since Durrell was no longer a child when he wrote the story.

For people interested in a time long past as well as natural history this is an enjoyable little read.

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