Review: The Great Courses: A Day’s Read, by Arnold Weinstein, Emily Allen, Grant L. Voth

51JgdG8wgIL._SL500_[1]Short fiction is not something I’ve ever given a lot of thought to.  I read a good bit more of it last year than I have in a good long time, and have come to appreciate the short story and novella forms. It was with that in mind that I tackled A Day’s Read, from The Great Courses, wanting to know more about both the forms and works that are good, even great representatives of them.  In a series of 36 lectures, Professors Weinstein, Allen, and Voth explore 36+ works of literature which can all be read in the course of a day, some in only a few hours.

It’s a wide-ranging collection of stories that spans several centuries and a number of different countries.  Well-known authors such as Kafka, Hemingway, Balzac, and Joyce are represented along with authors who are lesser known but no less deft in creating small gems.  In the course of the 18+ hours, I compiled a huge list of things that I very much want to read, and authors I want to get to know, such as Borges, Calvino, Lagerkvist, Satrapi, Hersey… most of the authors represented here, in fact.

The lecturers break the works down by theme, which is an excellent way of approaching such a broad selection, but in the end, it’s the stories themselves, the allure of the whole, that tempts me. But you can’t organize everyone’s subjective responses to this information, and so theme — Who are we?  How do we love? — is a good starting point.

I’m a great believer in understanding what we read.  I don’t just mean comprehending the words on the page, but understanding their context in the world, and in our own lives. Approaching literature in easy bites, learning what ideas and concerns drove the writers represented here, makes it easier to approach their longer works with a greater level of comprehension. This course can go a long way to easing the reader into a greater understanding of not only the works presented but literature in general.



(A very personal) Review: The Dead, by James Joyce

January has proved to be — forgive the word play — something of a dead month in terms of reading.  After having come down with the flu… or something… right after Thanksgiving, I pushed through December on holiday energy, and then flattened out completely.  I finished three books that I’d been reading in December, and then stopped reading, except for audiobooks which haven’t really held my attention.  (The exception — A Day’s Read — will probably be the next thing I review.)

19179741[1]Because of this slump, I went back to an old favorite a day or two ago.  I started rereading The Dead, which is the last story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, and a novella in itself. I chose it because it was one of the titles I encountered in the audiobook I’m currently reading, and the discussion of it reminded me not only of how much I love the story, but of how much meaning can be taken from even a short read.  Over the years I’ve found so many different things to ponder in this story, and I thought that refreshing my acquaintance with it would be a good start to the year.

This time I found myself focused more on Gabriel than anyone else, focused on his nervous self-consciousness which reminds me so much of my own. I watched him fret over his speech, still stinging from a criticism which may or may not have been mean-spirited, it’s hard to tell when we can only see it from his point of view. I found myself impatient with him because he mirrored the things in myself that make me impatient. And yet this time, I saw what a huge thing it was for him to turn away from the possibility of irrational anger and toward a deeper, greater understanding, not just of his wife and their marriage, but of life and love in general.

Gabriel is changed by his willingness to go beyond his own insecurities to understand and feel empathy for his wife’s sorrow.  We can redeem ourselves, I think Joyce is telling us, if we step outside of our own heads and attempt to understand the lives of those around us.

I made the right choice of reading material.  The story refreshed me, helped me shake off the mental fatigue I’d been feeling. I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but I know that I’m ready now to move on. More than that, I want to recommend this story to everyone as one that touches concerns that we all share because we’re all human beings.

And if you simply can’t bring yourself to dive into Joyce’s prose (which is beautiful, and not Ulysses) seek out John Huston’s last film The Dead, for a heartbreakingly beautiful cinematic version of this story.  Below, the final scene, with the late, lamented Donal McCann as Gabriel.

Review: Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

10917689[1].jpgI spent just under a week with Geek Love — I should have burned through it in a couple of days, but I found it rough going — and I’m not sure I’m going to make any sense when I talk about it.  But I’m committed to the review so here goes:

I really hated this book.  More than that, I hated that I enjoyed it. I felt wrong enjoying it, as if I was at a carnival gaping at the freak show, feeling a frisson of delicious horror while thanking the powers that be that I’m a norm.  And yet… and yet, the community of people who accept you for who and what you are and vice versa, that’s a rare and wonderful thing, and in a way I felt envious of the Binewskis and the rest of the people in their show. If it hadn’t been for the malignant Arty, they might have rattled on fairly happily for years.

Oh who am I kidding?  These are human beings in a fishbowl.  They make their living being gaped at because they’re “different,” and their hermetic existence magnifies not the physical differences, but the mental and emotional ones.  It’s like an object lesson in why it’s so bad to crawl into your own head, and have no one who can or will pull you back out.  The Binewskis are us in our desire to be loved, to be needed, to be unique.  The path they choose is not all that far off of the ones so many of us choose in our desperation to be special in the world.

There’s nothing especially awful about these characters, except perhaps for Arty and even he is a slave to his own needs.  There’s also nothing especially nice about them.  They’re just people who happen to be different from most of the rest of us.  But Dunn pushes us to the edges of the acceptable, the bearable, with her characters and and how they pursue what they see as valuable, so we’re always off kilter in our responses.  If there were no knives and drugs, no flippers or hunchbacks, or conjoined twins, their stories would be sordid tales of a dysfunctional family.

So in spite of the setting, the carnival, the freak show, the geeks and simps, and the grotesquerie, Geek Love is at bottom, a family tragedy, and I don’t feel a bit sorry for any of them even though they break my heart.  This is not a book I will ever return to which is a shame because it is beautifully — if sometimes confusingly — written.

Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter

28696604[1]I literally, like, worship John McWhorter.

“No,” you say, “You don’t “literally” worship him. And quit using “like.””  “Thank you,” sez I, “that’s exactly the response I was looking for. ”

Language is a living thing, and like all living things, it grows and changes. As much as the use of “literally” to mean something that is figurative may make you tear out your hair, there are two things you should remember.  First, that this is what language does, even to the point of some words coming to mean their exact opposite, frex, fast means something that is rapid.  It also means something that is held immobile.  Second, many of the words we use regularly, and think of as proper usage have already changed dramatically.  Why don’t we care?  Because that happened long before we learned to speak.  It’s the newness that drives people crazy.  They believe language must be frozen in dictionary form for eternity.  But it doesn’t work that way.

McWhorter is a brilliant scholar and lecturer, who can counter every argument you can come up with against some new usage in about half a dozen different ways without breaking a sweat.  He explains how meanings change, how spelling and pronunciation change, and how grammar changes. He also explains why they do, how vowels shift from generation to generation, changing the pronunciation of a word over time.  He discusses how word meanings change, citing examples such as our word “silly” which comes from the Old English “sǣliġ” which meant blessed, which later came to mean “innocent” and from there took on a negative connotation of weak-minded or silly.

Drawing examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and even more contemporary sources such as Saul Bellow and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he cites examples of the huge changes English has gone through, continues to go through, will continue to go through, will we or nil we.  As such, this book is an excellent primer on how not to be too pole-up-the-ass about casual usage.  Yes, it’s important for people to know how to communicate clearly in formal settings, but as he quite rightly points out, no language has ever devolved into meaningless babble in spite of the constant changes that it undergoes, and no language ever will.

Whether you’re a language purist or someone who loves watching language evolve, I think you’ll find yourself fascinated by this book.

Review: Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou

35419150[1].jpgSo I’m starting 2018 with a book I didn’t care for.  That doesn’t bode well, does it?  It’s an ARC I’ve been working on for months, and couldn’t seem to force myself through, so I finally decided that I’d had enough, and called it finished at about the 50% mark.

The original title of this book is “Little Pepper,” referring to the nickname given to Moses after he gets revenge for his best friend with a dose of very hot pepper.  He is a little pepper; sharp, hot, taking no shit.  Don’t really know why the title was changed, and I don’t think it did the book any favors since “Black Moses” sets up very different expectations.

It begins in an orphanage in Pointe-Noir in the Congo on the eve of the country’s rebranding as The People’s Republic of the Congo, and it follows Moses’ adventures in this new world.  I wish I could say it intrigued me, it didn’t.  I wish I could say it held my interest, but I’d be lying because I had to read virtually every page at least twice.  Maybe this is a failing on my part, but I never connected with the narrative.

When a book makes me mutter “I really don’t care.” or “I have no idea what I just read.” over a period of months (This book should have taken me a couple of hours to read.) I know there’s no point in pushing myself.  Your mileage may vary.

Review: Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

6582537[1]I’ve heard good things about this book for so long, but never thought about reading it until this month.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe the impression I got that it was a fantasy romance, something I don’t generally read much of, kept me from looking seriously at it. And I can’t tell you why I picked it up this month either because all I remember thinking was, “I need something gentle.”  Honestly it’s been a rough few months, and I couldn’t handle more dark visions or political rants.

I’m not going to keep you in suspense any longer; I loved this book.  It was nothing like what I expected and yet it was exactly what I needed.  It is gentle even though the characters and situations can be harsh.  It’s a fantasy filled with magic, but honestly you don’t have to believe in the magic to love this book.  You can explain it away if it makes you feel better to do so.  It’s romantic and yet not a romance.

Sisters, and sisters, and sisters populate this book.  Fair and dark like Snow White and  Rose Red. Wild and cautious, practical or flighty.  They clash, they protect each other, and they work magic even without knowing they do.  They draw both good and bad to themselves, and the joy we take in this book is watching them deal with both.  I don’t wish they were my sisters, and yet I see myself and the women I think of as sisters in them.

More than anything this is a contemporary fairytale.

No matter what you think you may know about this book, if you haven’t read it, you can’t know what a joy it is, or the sheer pleasure of the prose, which is lovely and rich. I want more of the Owens women (Thank goodness Hoffman has written a prequel!) and more of Alice Hoffman.

Review: Great Masters: Brahms- His Life and Music (Great Courses), by Robert Greenberg

41gz9KEeiQL._SL500_[1].jpgBack in the day, I was not a fan of Brahms’ music.  Emphatically so. As a result I believed the critics who said he was not deserving of the praise heaped on him.  And then two things happened.  First, I fell hard for the Academic Festival Overture, and began to listen to other works of Brahms with a more open mind.  Second, I listened to this course.

I’ve said before that Professor Greenberg has a knack for sharing his enthusiasm about a composer, and he purely loves Johannes Brahms.  He also has a knack for contextualizing composers and their music in terms of not only their life experiences, but historical events and trends as well.  And in this case he does a beautiful job of giving us a young Johannes who was set to play piano in Hamburg brothels when he was just a child. A natural musician and composer, a man who was a puzzle even to those closest to him, and a composer who, in holding to the rigorous musical forms of the past while expressing the spirit of German romanticism, produced work that made him the true heir to Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach.

Brahms had issues. His childhood experiences in Hamburg brothels soured him on women, and though he fell in love several times in his life, he never married. Possibly this was as much a result of his mania for freedom which kept him from taking any real jobs for most of his life, as it was the trauma of those early years.  But he led what appeared to be a happy, orderly life, had a great many friends in spite of his famously wicked temper and general grumpiness, made a good deal of money, which he then gave away freely, and not incidentally produced some glorious music.

I admit that the professor has some weird verbal tics. He’s often over dramatic (You should see one of his video courses!) and a bit goofy, but his information is top notch and I don’t think you could do better for clear, concise, and memorable learning experiences on music and music history.  His Great Masters series, of which Brahms is one, is reasonably priced through Audible, possibly a bit less so directly from The Great Courses. But so far I consider them well worth the price.  In fact, I sometimes find myself thinking longingly of listening to yet another of Greenberg’s courses.  They’re that good.


Review: Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

613XwhmG+4L._SL500_[1].jpgThis is a story I’ve read any number of times since I first encountered in college, and I decided to try an audiobook this time around.  Big mistake.  I don’t know what the problem was, but it felt like a wholly different book to me, and not one that I particularly enjoyed.  Possibly it was the narrator, a number of people have expressed negative opinions on his work in their reviews.  Possibly it’s a different translation, but I see no indication of who the translator was, and I really don’t have the energy to compare the audio and hard copy versions side-by-side.  Bottom line: this didn’t work for me.

On the off chance that you don’t know the story, writer Gustav von Aschenbach feels restless and takes himself off to Venice where he finds the weather oppressive, but the proximity of a young Polish boy enough to keep him in the city in spite of his health concerns. Much is made of Aschenbach’s work ethic, his moral stance, his belief that will power will carry one through all troubles. And yet in a moment, all of his professional nobility is shattered by the appearance of a luminous boy, a perfect amalgam of Eros, Hyacinth, and whatever other gorgeous, mythic youth Aschenbach’s besotted brain tosses up to explain away the experience of being utterly gobsmacked by desire.

The irony here is so think you need waders.

In the end, we’re the only witnesses to Aschenbach’s fall from grace, from the pedestal which he worked so hard to climb. We don’t really know why he was so smitten, whether there was something in his past which made him susceptible to a beautiful boy. We see him tart his desire up as casual interest, fascination, as a desire to touch perfection, and as love, but by the end, he’s become something he formerly scorned — an old man trying to be a young one — in order to be more attractive to Tadzio. It’s difficult to watch, and yet impossible to look away from the trainwreck of Aschenbach’s end.

Though my favorite Mann story is The Blood of the Walsungs, Death in Venice will always hold a special place in my heart. I’m sorry the audiobook didn’t stand up to the task.

Review: What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

34114362[1]I held off on reading this because the election was still too recent, too painful. And yet, what better way to work through it than by reading Mrs. Clinton’s thoughts on her life, her campaign, and yes, on what happened?  I’ve seen reviews that complain that the book was about all these things instead of an examination of what went wrong and I have to scratch my head over that because I’m not sure we can ever really know what happened, not in any granular way.  Too much went wrong.  Clinton takes the blame for the choices she made that proved to be poor ones, she states on several occasions that she was the candidate and the buck stops there.

But she does discuss other factors. Trump’s bitter, divisive campaign that embraced the worst America has to offer. Bernie Sanders (In spite of some reviewers saying she lays all the blame on him, that’s simply not so. Her criticisms are the same ones I had, and I was a Sanders supporter.), James Comey and those emails, third party candidates, Russian interference; they all contributed to her loss.  In the end, Clinton seems to believe that the email kerfuffle so close to the election was the single biggest factor. She rightly blames Comey for poor judgment. But there is no single answer and to her credit, she never tries to offer one.

But beyond that, the reader is given a peek at who Hillary Clinton really is.  Daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, these are rolls she cherishes even more than her political career. We hear about her parents, her mother in particular, who shaped her early years, her husband who supported her in everything she chose to do. (Let’s get this out of the way right now: She admits her marriage was in crisis at one point. They worked through it, which is what adults do if they can. And she says several times that she has never regretted marrying the man who is her best friend. There aren’t any salacious details here, just a woman talking about who she is, and how she got here.)

We get a glimpse into the campaign including a bit of second-guessing, inevitable in a losing campaign. And she talks about coming to terms with the fact that there are people who simply do not like her. I get that.  If all I had to go on was the collection of speeches and commentary she’s made, I might feel the same because she often comes across as stiff and reserved. Her diction is precise and the combination makes her seem a little school-marm-y.  But I know her work, I know her reputation, and I like her very much.  After the election I was sad for what we lost.  After reading this book, I’m sad all over.  She would have been a good, even a great president.

I suspect a great many people are going to be reading this through glasses colored by their political beliefs, which is to be expected, but I would hope that if they’ve gone to the trouble of reading what she has to say, that they will try to do it without preconceptions of how they will react.  Read with an open mind as you’d read anything. That’s the only way to get the value of any book.

I’m grateful to a friend for having gifted the book to me.  He was not a Clinton supporter, but wanted to read it, and knew I did as well. His response was heartening.

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan

32620349[1]I had bought this book a few months ago in the heat of my challenge to read a lot of books about books, but last night when I was looking for something new to occupy my mind, I realized I couldn’t recall a thing about it.  Why had I thought I’d want to read it?  No clue.  But it was one more book about books I could add to my list, so I began reading. And I was hooked.

Sullivan tells us exactly as much as we need to know about any given character or situation, and he tells us exactly when he needs to.  This is a tight narrative that teases us with clues, but never telegraphs the facts.  I can tell you that the solution to the mystery drove me crazy, and when I realized whodunnit, I slapped my forehead and said, “Oh for heaven’s sake, of COURSE!”  It all made perfect sense, and I never saw it coming.

It’s a book filled with damaged people, though Lydia, who survives a horror I can barely imagine, may be the most damaged of all.  So much so that I found it uncomfortable to be inside her skin for the bulk of the novel. I wanted to shake her and say “Get over it!” all the while knowing that there is no way to get over what she’s been through. Her connection to another damaged soul sets the mystery in motion, and eventually leads to a solution both sordid and heartbreaking.

If the book had a fault it was, I think, that the Epilogue seemed rushed, as if Sullivan had told us what we needed to know and the rest was just sweeping up the crumbs.  I think he could have written it out in a few more chapters to make it more satisfying. But I’m not going to complain too much because I enjoyed the heck out of this book, and hope to read more from Matthew Sullivan in the future.