Sunday, August 27, 2017

Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford






Mozart's Rondo in C major K 373 arranged for flute is playing.  Rain has finished falling outside, providing much relief from the relentless heat here in Texas.  There's an old folk song about the Devil asking the Lord for a bit of land so God gave him Texas.  The Devil gave it back saying the place was hotter than you-know-where.  If you have ever visited in the summer, which I don't recommend, you will appreciate the Devil's lack of gratitude.

I wrote the above a couple of weeks ago before the hurricane.  My prayers to those in South Texas.  Fortunately, we up here in NE Texas are safe.



Giant Oak outside my dining room window.



ZeldaZelda by Nancy Milford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Some biographies can trudge along but this one bubbled and flowed as Zelda would probably say based on her writings and her penchant for using loads of metaphors for absolutely every concept she was trying to express.

Nancy Milford spent years producing exhaustive research and it shows.

She starts with Zelda's parents and Zelda's birth in Montgomery Alabama. We get an idea of the sort of family Zelda was born into and it gives us a better idea why she developed into the sort of woman she ultimately became.

While Zelda's father, Judge Sayre, was strict, formidable and emotionally detached from his family, her mother Minnie, doted on her and let her do whatever she wanted.

Zelda's natural inclination was to be strong-willed and she thrived on attention. Reading about her social life exhausted me. She must have dated every single young man in Montgomery. Every weekend was filled with dances.

And she was rather daring for the age (this was the 19-teens). She wore a nude colored bathing suit, not just at the beach or pool but around town. She was flirtatious, bold, and addicted to attention.

She met F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was stationed in Montgomery for the war (WWI). Fitzgerald, according to his own temperament, fell for her with all the neurotic passion that forever colored his life.

Through a lot of rolling hills of conflict between themselves, between her family, they finally married in 1920. Zelda was twenty years old and Fitzgerald was twenty-four.

Zelda left her small, warm Southern community for the Big Apple. This might have intimidated some small town girls who had spent all their life in a certain culture but not Zelda. For her New York meant everything she adored on a larger scale: parties, drinking, and being the center of attention.

Neither Fitzgerald nor Zelda had temperate personalities and everything was done in excess. They spent more than they had, they drank more than they could handle. Friends began to dread their parties. A stint in Paris was no different except that Fitzgerald's fascination with the Manic Pixie Girl he had married was beginning slightly to wane. He needed to write and their lifestyle was interfering with that.

At first Zelda seemed to spur his writing, after all, all of his stories are centered around her. Reading about their life together I can safely say most of his books are autobiographical. The heroine is Zelda over and over.

Some have criticized Fitzgerald saying he "stole" her writings or her ideas. That is nonsense. Milford includes scads of Zelda's writings to allow the reader to make an informed comparison. While Zelda is certainly intelligent and at times bordering on brilliant, her writing is no match for Fitzgerald's. After one gets past the glitzy gloss of her descriptive phraseology, one finds very little and much of it is incoherent.

My only criticism of Fitzgerald's writing is that he simplified her. The real Zelda was more complex as Milford's biography shows.

She did try to write and get published and some of her work did get published but I doubt anyone would have looked twice if she had not been Fitzgerald's wife.

She also became obsessed in her late twenties, while they were living in Paris, in becoming a classic dancer. She practiced hours and hours each day with a Russian teacher. There is no coherent reason why she wanted to become a professional ballet dancer. Perhaps to find an identity seperate from her husband, but those who knew her saw strangeness from the get go.

I think without her life with Scott she probably would have become insane anyway, but the excessive drinking and night life probably accelerated her decline.

Frankly I don't know who was worse, Zelda, who ended up in an insane asylum or Fitzgerald, who drank and smoke himself to death at forty with a sudden heart attack.

It's a fascinating study in people who are desperately trying to find meaning in their lives through outside stimulation to the point it pushes them over the edge. Maybe they were terrified of what they might have seen if they stopped and stayed still for a few moments. Their frantic rushing off the cliff was a continual running away from what was inside of them.

Eventually Fitzgerald resorted to writing Hollywood scripts in order to pay debts, including Zelda's stay at a good hospital and their daughter, Scottie's, education.

Very little is mentioned about Scottie. One can only wonder how the effect of two narcissistic and unstable parents affected her. She's seems to have turned out OK and married outside the glamorous world of her parents.

While Fitzgerald stayed in Hollywood, Zelda had returned to Montgomery and lived with her mother, a rather invisible life it seems, after the legendary one. Her illness finally deteriorated where she had to return to the mental hospital. Her last words to her mother was, "It's OK. I'm not afraid of dying." and she ran off. Was this prophetic? She was to die in the hospital as it burned to the ground.

She still outlived Fitzgerald by eight years.

I suppose there will be endless fascination over this infamous couple and this is a good biography, but I don't know if it is necessary because after reading it, I realize that Fitzgerald faithfully recorded their lives in all of his stories.



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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks


I cannot get enough of French music.  Here is Debussy's Pour Le Piano L. 136 no. 11 performed by Cecile Ousset.


The Case of the Broken Butter Dish.



The other night, or I should say early morning (five-thirty am is still night for me) my son Derek was leaving for work when he saw a cat underneath the bird cage.  She bolted out of the house as soon as she saw Derek, but this was disconcerting to say the least.

We have a doggie door and that is undoubtedly how the cat entered but why?  

I understand that Breeya is past her prime.  Poor Breeya.  Her littermate Odie has crossed the river Jordan a few weeks ago and she's alone.  Deaf and mostly blind as well, she's just our little geriatric dog.  In a human nursing home, she'd be the old person in a corner by herself rocking back and forth in her wheelchair asking for  family long gone.

There was a time when a cat would not show her head in our yard and now one is coming into our house?

I started shutting the dog door at night, but one morning after spending an hour cleaning up doggie do off the floor (in the washroom, in the kitchen, in the living room...) I started leaving it open again.

Then we woke up to find our butter dish  on the kitchen floor broken into little pieces.  All human members of our household claim innocence.  My son thinks the cat did it.

Why, cat, why?  Why are you persecuting our household?

I'm not sure what to do.  I hate to leave Breeya outside all night.  I don't like broken butter dishes and I really don't like cleaning up dog manure.

So far I have not come up with a solution.  But Josh did get the cutest little butter dish.






CloudsplitterCloudsplitter by Russell Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I bought Cloudsplitter because the Wall Street Journal's book club had decided to read this book together on Facebook.

Synopsis: John Brown the slave abolitionist insurrectionist is already hanged and dead. Several years later, one of his sons, Owen, in old age relates his life story to an unnamed journalist.

First the positive:

The writing is gorgeous. Banks creates a luscious backdrop as he paints people and landscapes in a pre-Civil era. The reader easily enters into that time period.

Secondly, he writes a good story. If one ignores that he is writing about historical figures, the events and interpersonal relationships and how they are carried out is interesting.

The negative:

Owen Brown has apparently spent his life fighting his inner demons and trying to make sense out of what his father did.

The narrator's voice is spoken in a relentlessly heavy monotone which casts a grey haze over everything as one is imagining the story playing out in one's head while reading the words. It makes reading the book a practice of self-discipline and at 728 pages it can at times be tortuous.

Secondly, Banks is obviously superimposing 21st century cultural attitudes on a bygone time. That is not only annoying it makes the story telling suspect. How accurate is it? I have arrived at the conclusion that if I want to learn about historical events it's better to read several non fiction sources.



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 I think someone asked this on another blog but I also ask:  what are people's feelings about historical fiction.  Do they enjoy it or do they prefer to non fiction history books? And why?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles translated by David Grene; The Frogs by Aristophanes translated by Benjamin Bickley Rogers




I read the book Fifteen Greek Plays by Oxford University Press (published 1943) while bouncing up and down on my elliptical.  I read a play for each exercise session which meant exercising on the elliptical for up to an hour and a half per play.


This was not easy and I must admit I had a habit of checking to see how many more pages were left as I bounced and read.

On the positive side, I have lost twenty pounds since January and, frankly, reading while exercising makes a stationary machine a lot more bearable.

Hercaloo and I exercising and reading The Frogs
I have reviewed some of the plays on a previous post, I have not reviewed all of them, I don't feel particularly qualified to review any of them, but here are my impressions of the final two plays, one for each drama mask .
 https://img1.etsystatic.com/000/0/5503943/il_570xN.150017915.jpg




Oedipus Rex  (The Theban Plays, #1)Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oedipus is the son of the King of Thebes.  He is sent away as an infant because an oracle prophesies that he will kill his father and marry his mother.

 Not much to say. Can't fight the fates. It took Sophocles about fifty pages to arrive at that conclusion. This is one of three plays concerning this tragedy.  The other two are Oedipus at Colossus and Antigone.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus has already become King (Rex) after, guess what, killing his father.  Oedipus does not know that he is the murderer of his father who he thinks is the shepherd who raised him.  After listening to an oracle telling him he would kill his father, he had left home and traveled to Thebes in order to avoid committing patricide. On the road to Thebes he kills his real father in an altercation.  He spends a large part of the play searching for his father's murderer and upon discovering that he is the murderer and also guilty of incest, he gouges his eyes out. (Did I mention this was a tragedy? See unhappy face above.)

Most of this play is dialogue with the chorus coming in at the very end.

One thing worth noting. At first I thought the chorus was the third person narrator to break up the dialogue between the characters. It does provide that function on one level by making general observations about what is occurring. But the chorus also chimes in with a personal identity with emotions. Often the chorus is a lament at injustice and cruelty.

Such is the sad fate of Oedipus. All three plays are worth reading, not only because of their poetic eloquence (even in translation) but also for the sociological and cultural values one can learn from a people who play a role in developing the norms, values and culture we experience today.



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And now, as Monty Python would say, time for something different:

The Frogs of Aristophanes: Acted at Athens at the Lenaean Festival B.C. 405; The Greek Text Revised with a Translation Into Corresponding Metres, Introduction and CommentaryThe Frogs of Aristophanes: Acted at Athens at the Lenaean Festival B.C. 405; The Greek Text Revised with a Translation Into Corresponding Metres, Introduction and Commentary by Benjamin Bickley Rogers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The Frogs is a comedy, and a rather saucy, bawdy one at that, by Aristophanes. The god, Dionysus and his slave, Xanthias, go to Hades to retrieve the great tragic poets, Aeschylus and Euripides, because there are no good tragedy plays among the living anymore.

Dionysus asks his half-brother Heracles for advice on the quickest way to Hades. Heracles, after laughing uproariously at him, informs him of the quickest ways, all of which involve dying. Dionysus prefers to get there alive and, knowing that Heracles did it, dresses up in a lion skin, hoping to impersonate Heracles and with Xanthias arrive at a lake (isn't it the River Styx?). Charon ferries Dionysus across but Xanthias has to walk. Xanthias also gets to pretend to be a donkey on which Dionysus rides.

While crossing the lake a chorus of frogs sing. And that is all you're going to hear about them so why are they part of the title? Another mystery hidden from me when trying to understand Greek literature. Sigh.

While in Hades Dionysus trades places with Xanthias but this backfires on him as Xanthias, pretending to be Heracles acts offended with Aeacus, the doorman to Pluto's house, and demands Aeacus flog his "servant" (Dionysus) to prove his innocence. Later both Dionysus and Xanthias claim to be gods and are tortured to see if they are. The dialogue to this is pretty funny.

Aeacus: I'll give you blow for blow.
Xanthus: A good idea.
Aeacus: I struck you.
Xanthias (increduously) No.
Aeacus: Now then I'll strike the other. (Strikes Dionysus.)
Dionysus: Tell me when?
Aeacus: I struck you.
Dionysus: Struck me? Then why didn't I sneeze?
Aeacus: I'll try the other again.
Xanthia: Good gracious!
Aeacus: Not hurt you, did I?
Xanthias: No, I merely thought of the Diomeian feast of Heracles.
Aeacus: A holy man! 'Tis now the other's turn.
Dionysus: Hi! Hi!
Aeacus: But why these tears?
Dionysus: There's such a smell of onions.

And so on. It goes on for a while and each time Xanthias and Dionysus react in pain they find some excuse to explain away their reaction. It's pretty funny.

What I enjoyed, apart from the silliness, was the structure of the poem. How accurate Benjamin Bickley Rogers was I'll never know because I'm no ancient Greek scholar but his translation into English was highly successful in its rhythm and rhyme. I found myself rollicking along on my eilliptical as I read the "question and answer" dialogue. Here's an example:

I showed them scenes of common life,
                                                           the things we know and see,
Where any blunder would at once
                                                          by all detected be.
I never blustered once
                                                         their breath and wits away
By Cycnuses or Memnons clad
                                                         in terrible array.

The highlight of the play is when in the halls of Pluto, Dionysus and Xanthias come across Aeschylus and Euripides in a contest that aims at displaying for the audience a literary criticism of the aims and merits of each man's work.

Aeschylus wins and accompanies Dionysus back to Earth. Even so, Aristophanes shows a critical appreciation of Euripides and also Sophocles. The chorus are the voters who chant the same song the dead frogs were singing at the beginning of the play.

What I would surely enjoy is watching a performance, perhaps even in the original language.



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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election the Brought on the Civil War by Douglas R. Egerton



Look who was sitting on the ledge outside my bedroom window this morning.  Isn't it cute?



Cute little squirrel tail:

Playing is Mozart's Divertimento KV 563

Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil WarYear of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War by Douglas R. Egerton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Douglas Egerton is a professor of History and he does an impeccable job describing the presidential campaign that elected Lincoln in 1860.

In 1857, Dr. Emerson moved to Missouri with his slave Dred Scott, where he hired him out on lease. Missouri was a free state and by hiring Scott out there Emerson effectively brought the institution of slavery into a state that had outlawed slavery.

Scott sued for his freedom and while many people assisted him, he ultimately lost. The question was whether a African slave had the same rights as white citizens and if so what did that portend?

This created a domino effect in both the North and the South. What about the states that had come or were coming into the United States? Would they be free or slave holding?

Northern people of any political persuasion, while not necessarily agreeing to granting slaves equal status as white people, nevertheless, did not want future states or western states to become slave states.

Conversely, southern politicians were concerned that they be allowed to expand their slave trade west.
In Egerton's brilliant account, we learn of both Northern and Southern players that caused a furious presidential race that has probably not been equaled, although our most recent election certainly gave it a run for its money.

The trash talking between delegates had an acuity and eloquence that I marvel at. It was a different time period where politicians had sophisticated vocabularies and powers of expression that surpass any modern novelist.

Their passion surpasses today's as well. Our politicians can get ugly, but these guys were bringing knives and guns into the Senate and House.

We learn of the end of the Whig party and the birth of the Republican party, the Southern Democrats and who were the real orchestrators of the Southern states' secession.

Egerton gives us a step by step account of each area of the 1860 election, thorough and interesting descriptions of the different people running and if he gets bogged down in numbers and polls, that's a minor quibble for a good and wild ride through one of the most turbulent times in America.

If you like history and specifically Civil War history this is an invaluable source.



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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher by Peter Stothard







A couple of weekends ago, Josh and I spent a weekend in Fort Worth.  Our first stop was a cluster of art museums and the first museum was the Modern Art building.  

There was an exhibition by Doug Aitken.  One of his works was a surround sound/movie with random people singing I Only Have Eyes for You.  Here is a recording by The Flamingos.


The Senecans: Four Men and Margaret ThatcherThe Senecans: Four Men and Margaret Thatcher by Peter Stothard

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


The Senecans is an example of how I got boonswoggled into reading a book because of a glowing review from a source I respected (ahem, Wall Street Journal...).

The premise sounded great. Peter Stothard is Editor of the Times Literary Supplement and former Editor of the Times. A mysterious young woman arrives to ask him questions about Margaret Thatcher and a group of men called The Senecans who were advisors or something to the Prime Minister. What ensues is a rather rambling, anecdotal account of Stothard's time as one of these Senecans and why Thatcher fell out of favor.

I say "or something" because it never became clear to me what their exact function was. In fact "unclear" ably describes the entire book.

Stothard talks as though we already know British political history, but even if you do, you don't really see what his connection with Thatcher was. He shares some vague anecdotes about her that never really includes direct contact with Thatcher. The rest of the book is talking about each of the "Senecans" but not so that you learn much about them.

They met on a regular basis (I think) at a pub. I'm not sure what any of them did, or whether they liked or hated Thatcher or each other.

They are called the Senecans after Seneca the younger, an advisor to Nero. I think Stothard was tring to make some sort of comparison between Nero and Seneca and Thatcher and his little group.

This connection is as arrogant as it is inaccurate. Thatcher was a Prime Minister who was voted in and later voted out for some unpopular decisions. Stothard alludes to a Poll Tax without explaining what exactly the Poll Tax was or why it was unpopular enough to oust Thatcher from office.

Nero was a monstrous tyrant that raised sadistic cruelty and perversion to such heights that people are still writing about it 2000 years later. Nero made Seneca commit suicide. Thatcher never ordered any of her "Senecans" to kill themselves.

Yet another example of how people in the first world never seem to understand what it means to live under a real tyrant. Perhaps Stothard should transfer his citizenship to North Korea.

And I find the title "Senecans" to a group of men who hung out at a pub to (kinda? sorta?) learn Latin a dubious title. Whatever they might have discussed about politics or history, ancient or modern is left a mystery. Another thing Stothard vaguely alludes to.

Thatcher, I conclude, he hated. I think. I'm not sure except he describes her in irrelevant, unflattering terms. She dresses frumpy. She holds her pearl necklace in a way that hides the one with a stain. She surrounds herself with "flat-faced men" (is he including himself?).

I suppose if you're an insider you would get all this.

Also, the writing is mediocre. How did this guy get knighted? Not for this book, I hope. He puffs his story up with lots (and I mean lots, like half the book) with irrelevant descriptions of the building he is in and how it is being torn down and inane descriptions of his "mysterious Miss Robbins". He could not refer to her or her questions without informing us of what she was wearing, which direction her toes were pointed and every time she gave a tight-lipped smile or looked out the window. I would say it was intrusive, but what was it intruding on?

Stothard flits about from this person to that person including some background information on a childhood experience with a girlfriend (friend that was a girl, not the other kind) whose father he occasionally visited. The father rants about some things political but not in any kind of coherent way. I have no idea where he stood politically. I realize he inserted this episode so when he reveals the identity of Miss Robbins, the reader will go, "Aha!". I went "Whatever."

I read it to the end as a kind of spanking for buying a book on impulse. Let that be a lesson to me.

And this review is a small revenge (very small, I doubt Stothard will read it) for wasting my time.

I do not have to be an Italian citizen do be well familiar with the works of Nero. If you want to actually learn something about Margaret Thatcher and her term as Prime Minister, seek another source.



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Monday, August 7, 2017

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand



My son is here for the summer from college where he is studying cinematography.  My little green monster has fallen in love with him.  When I try to pick her up and she's not in the mood, her head puffs up like a tiny green pumpkin.  But if Derek wants to pick her up?  She jumps right onto his shoulder.

Here she is giving him advice on how to write his next screenplay.



I happen to know that at least one of my readers likes recorder music, therefore I hope you will all enjoy Fantasia by Jerome Bassano (1559-1635).









Atlas ShruggedAtlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Who is John Galt?

That is the first sentence in this book and for most of the book, we don't know who he is. The question is used as a sarcastic expression to mean, "Who knows?"

Eventually we discover Galt is a real person and that he does exist and he gives a 60 page speech at the end of the book to prove it.

How does one summarize or make a coherent comment on a book of this magnitude?

By that I mean it was incredibly long. Over one thousand pages long.

Did it have its good points? Certainly.

What are they?

For one, I agree with Ayn Rand that if one keeps taking the produce and fruit of hard workers and give them to people who have not earned it, after a while, the workers are going to stop working.

We can see this being played out currently in Europe where Germany is trying to hold an entire continent afloat as fringe countries like Ireland, Portugal and Greece, cling on like a bunch of Mr. Skimpoles demanding their "fair share" while keeping an unemployment rate of: Greece 23%; Portugal youth 29%; Ireland youth: 18%; and let's throw Spanish youth in at 40.4%.

Spain is an interesting study because they have had court cases where young adults pushing 30 years of age are suing their parents for not financially supporting them and they are winning in court.

Ayn Rand is from Russia. Her family escaped the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 by moving to Crimea. This was only a temporary reprieve because soon the Communists came and took everything her family had, including her father's pharmacy, leaving them to starve.

It helps to know that about Rand in order to understand her books.

Atlas Shrugged is about Dagny Taggart.  Her family owns rail road company. She is a smart business woman and is able to keep the trains running smoothly and efficiently due to her acumen.

Hank Rearden has a steel company. He has developed a practically indestructible steel that Taggart is eager to replace her old, defective rail roads with.

Another man who was a brilliant business man, Francisco D'Aconia has apparently sabotaged his own copper company. His reason becomes clear to each of them as a totalitarian state takes control of all the businesses and forces the successful businesses to "share" with the unsuccessful businesses for the sake of "fairness". The government forces all people to share their possessions with others for the same reason.

If this sounds unrealistic to you, France passed a law that larger retail outlets like chain bookstores had to sell their products at the same price as smaller businesses to be fair. Also retail work should be considered a Career like any other profession and be paid equal salaries. One wonders equal to what. Doctors? Politicians who make fairness laws?

I do not know how this will pan out but I predict people will buy fewer books because an individual's budget is fixed and if one only has x amount for buying, that is all the money available. I.e. If one budgets fifty dollars a month for books, one will spend fifty dollars whether it is for one book or five on the clearance rack. In other words, these kind of "fairness" laws are not going to help small bookstores only cause bigger bookstores to lose money. The U.S. has a different story but more about that later.


In the book, rhetoric like "the welfare of the people is at stake" therefore, no one has the right to own their own property, success or even their intellect. Everything must be given to those who need it the most.

The predictable result is that the country begins a slow implosion that gains momentum as the successful people are hindered from working because of the ever heavier regulations imposed on their businesses.

What do the successful people do as the world becomes a bigger burden they are expected to shoulder? They shrug. And in this book they start to disappear. The end result-MAJOR SPOILER- is that the country is forced back into a type of pioneer age because all the major companies have gone bankrupt.

What are the bad points?

For one, while I believe in a minimal amount of government, one that does not become so intrusive that it hinders a society's productivity, it is still necessary to enforce laws that prevent big bosses from exploiting their employees. Share cropping, anyone?

Also, I found Rand's "heroes" repulsive.

Based on the characters in this book I would have to say the Rand is a big fan of Nietzsche. Her heroes are all "Ubermen" (and one women who sleeps with all the Ubermen but, uh, that's OK because morals were invented by the lessors to control everyone. One thinks maybe miss Ayn had a personal fantasy thing going in this novel).

The Uber-people have all the smarts and are really the only ones who should be allowed to live. Everyone else is a parasite and cannot justify their existence. This comes straight out of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Uber-people have the right to keep their intellect and the fruits of it to their individual selves. No one has the right to take it from them. OK, I agree, but Rand moves on to say that no one should help anyone else either. If you starve, too bad. You just weren't smart enough. Rand believed in survival of the fittest.

I cannot brook this. I firmly believe in helping people who genuinely need help (not people who believe they are entitled to the fruits of others' labor such as able-bodied persons who make personal choices, bad choices, like abusing drugs or having a lot of babies or growing up in a culture where everyone lives off the welfare state). People who are old, infirm, temporarily unemployed or children who are helpless to the immoral choices of their families need help. Not because they deserve it, but because it is right and good to help them. But the government does not have the right to coerce me. That's called stealing.

Oh, and U.S. bookstores? At first it seemed the big chains like Barnes and Noble, Books-a Million and Hastings were going to run the independent bookstores out of town. Some did run. Or, I should say, they changed.

Instead of suing the big stores to force them to be fair, one charming local bookstore simply changed their product line and added a restaurant. They are thriving better now than when they sold books.

And the other small bookstores? They are doing better than the chains by selling mostly used books at a much cheaper rate than the chains. I buy most of my books used now. So leave people alone, keep the government out and it's amazing what individual entrepreneurship can accomplish.

And France? I was there last December and I found loads of books cheap on outdoor racks. With my fellow book buyers I browsed and acquired quite a few books for a Euro a piece. So I assume the law is for new books not used books.


My stash that I brought back with me from Paris this past December.  They were about one Euro each.





Despite the book's length, I found Atlas Shrugged a worthwhile read.  It is good to learn other people's philosophies even if they don't completely coincide with one's own.






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Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis





C.S. Lewis was a huge fan of Wagner because he loved Germanic and Norse folklore as well as early English legend as his good friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien did. Here is a link to Wagner's opera Parsifal based on the 13th century epic poem about an Arthurian Knight.  Wagner liked doing things on an "Uber" scale and the opera is four hours long, but you can enjoy part of the Prelude while reading my latest review.


The Pilgrim's RegressThe Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


C.S. Lewis is mostly known for his Narnia Chronicles. Some of us are also familiar with his Science Fiction Trilogy. Then there is the bulk of his work that fall under the genre apologetics.

I've read most of Lewis' work but I had not read the Pilgrim's Regress before. He wrote it shortly after he became a Christian and it is interesting in its insight into one man's conversion experience and also as a comparison to his later works.

Inspired by John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Lewis wrote his work as an allegory. It starts with a young man, John, who is living on a pleasant countryside with his parents.

As a young boy, he gets smacked for doing the wrong thing, such as shooting at birds or pulling flowers out of the garden, even though he really doesn't understand why this is bad. When John asks why these things are wrong he is told that the Steward says so.

He asks who the Steward is and is told the Steward is the man who makes the rules for the country.

John asks why. Because the Landlord set him to do it.

Who is the Landlord? The owner of all the country.

One day John's parents take him to see the Steward. He is in a large, grand, formidable building and stands behind a pulpit or Judge's Bench. The Steward is an affable old man who cheerfully waves them towards him, but when they get down to business, the Steward puts on a scary mask and pontificates about the "Rules" and how one must obey them or there will be dire, dire consequences.

John looks at a card with the rules on it that the Steward had given him.

"Half the rules seemed to forbid things he'd never heard of and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing and the number of rules was so enormous that he felt he never could remember them all."

Then the Steward asked if John had broken any of the rules. John is petrified. The Steward takes the mask off again and mutters, "Better tell a lie, old chap, better tell a lie. Easiest for all concerned." then "pops the mask back on again." So John denies breaking any of the rules.

Afterward the Steward takes off the mask, becomes his cheery self again and whispers down to John, "If I were you, I wouldn't worry too much about it."

Later John's Uncle George has notice to quit his farm. He has to see the Steward. John and his parents walk with George to see the Steward. All of them are wearing masks now, except George who is too upset to put his on. John, his parents and the Steward walk him to the edge of the Land up to the Landlord's castle. where he then had to walk on by himself. George is very upset but has no choice.

"Nobody ever saw him again.

'Well,' said the Steward, untying his mask as they turned homweard. 'We've all got to go when our times comes.'"

John is concerned about being turned out without any notice like George. He asks his mother if George might be put in the black hole.

"'How dare you say such a thing about your poor uncle? Of course he won't.'"

'But hasn't Uncle George broken all the rules?'

'Broken all the rules? Your Uncle George was a very good man.'

'You never told me that before,' said John.

That is the introduction to John and his journey across the Landlord's Land. I think most of us recognize the Church of England and what it had converted Christianity into by the time of C.S. Lewis, although it had been developing in that direction for some time. Namely, that God and His presence had been largely removed from worship and all that was left was ceremony and "rules" that the average citizen acknowledged one needed to follow in order to be "civilized."

I have heard the term lately of "Christian Atheists." These are people who claim they do not believe in God but believe that the rules provided by Christian belief are necessary for a society to flourish. That is what many churches have devolved into. "Be a nice person. Don't hurt anyone, but don't take any of it too seriously."

John is not satisfied with this because it does not speak to the deep longing in his being that wants something more than to simply be a "good person" and get along with others (Sesame Street, anyone?). So he embarks on a journey, like Pilgrim in Bunyan's story, and on the way he travels through several lands and meets many strange sorts of people.

Each country, of course, represents a segment of society present when Lewis wrote the story in 1931. First John finds sex and plenty of young girls to have sex with. He finds that the pleasure he experiences is short lived and simply doesn't reach to the bottom of his desire. He keeps seeking but never finds what he is looking for. Unfortunately for him, he finds that his sex partners proliferate and he has a miserable time escaping them.

This is meant to be taken symbolically. While it is easy enough to throw someone over after you're tired of them, a type of "spirit" of them stays with you. This is sometimes called emotional baggage but it also is something more profound.

From there he meets Mr. Halfway who presents True Love to him through his beautiful singing. Or at least John thinks so. It is actually quite shallow but sounds so beautiful it deceives him for sometime. He finally stays with Halfway's daughter only to find she is really just a sister of the other girls he was with.

My favorite place he visits is the Lost Generation, because I've just finished reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Lewis nails some of the pretensions of the Jazz Age. He describes them:

"They were all either young, or dressed up to look as if they were young. The girls had short hair and flat breasts and flat buttocks so that they looked like boys: but the boys had pale, egg-shaped faces and slender waists and big hips so that they looked like girls-except for a few of them who had long hair and beards.

'What are they so angry about?' whispered John.

'They are not angry, they are talking about Art'"

Lewis penetrates through the falsehood of the Jazz Babies, then those who like philosophy without spirit, the "rational" or scientific age. And also the Barbarism and Paganism that was looming overhead with the rise of Hitler though he does not explicitly name him.

In the end John travels all around the world until he ends up back where he started, however, he is not the same person thanks to the fact that he meets with Reason, a woman on a white horse, and Old Mother Kirk.

The conversations that John has with the people at each stopping point is illuminating to Lewis' own spiritual journey.

At one point John is told that his desires created a Landlord because he needed one to exist. Reason later tells him that the opposite is true. The Doubters are the ones who need the Landlord to not exist, hence their own logic is built on that premise.

In the end, John does find what he is looking for, which can be summed up in a teaser:

Science can try to explain how a tree came to be. But it cannot tell us why it is beautiful. Finally meeting the Landlord answers that question and also fulfills all of John's deepest longings, which is to be in intimate fellowship with Him.

The conversations Lewis writes between a Spiritual pilgrim and every argument against seeking the Landlord makes the book a valuable read.




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