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The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens
Image-Music-Text
Roland Barthes, Stephen Heath
Selected Poems and Four Plays
W.B. Yeats, Macha Louis Rosenthal
On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague
Igor Lukes
The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers - James O'Shea

Before I dive into this completely irrelevant and fictional review of Shea's The Deal From Hell, let me briefly discuss some maybe unknown information which is relevant to this book, and to the goodreads community:

1. In 2000, the enormous merger of two of the country's largest newspapers was put in motion. Those companies were the Tribune Company, most notably the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and the Times Mirror Company, notable publisher of the LA Times.
2. The two companies were incompatible culturally, though financially it seemed (on paper) that the merger would be an excellent success.
3. The merger was effected by large personalities at Tribune, which won over the blasé insouciance of the reigning Chandler family heirs who owned Times Mirror. Some large-ego investment bankers brought the deal together and Shea's opinion is basically that they are evil. The Tribune's newly anointed CEO, a Wall-Street pedigree, Mr. Madigan, cut costs and pursued acquisitions with blind Macbethian ambition. Which is to say: scrambling and self-defeating.
4. The largest merger in newspaper history was a complete failure due to the different objectives and cultures between the rigid and cost-oriented Tribune, and the West-Coast content-oriented LA Times. The combined Tribune Co. went bankrupt, was bought out by method of a leveraged buyout, and subsequently went bankrupt again. It is still in bankruptcy proceedings half a decade later.

An interesting fact: among the living heirs, who sold out the LA Times in 2000 to Madigan and his Wall Street cavalcade: none other than Otis Chandler, the co-founder of GoodReads. Now you know. 

That said, now proceeds a totally unrelated fable about the life and times of an online book community called GoodBooks, and the tragic merger with the larger bully-company, an online retailer famous for crowding out small businesses and brick-mortar bookstores, Yangtze Co.
****
CAVEAT LECTOR: the following is in violation of the GoodReads terms of service, since it is not directly related to the aforediscussed book, <i>A Deal From Hell</I> by James O'Shea, but is rather a illustrative parable derived from the lessons learned therefrom.

GoodBooks: A Deal From Hell: a fable

In a land not so far, and a time not so long-ago, there was a small bookish community, which found pleasant pastures in the electronic Elysium of the internet. This community, which grew and grew, grew near and far and up and down, and more people and more books were always showing up: this community was called GoodBooks. And it should be noted that this GoodBooks, this is a fictional community and not at all related to a similarly named entity.

Who started GoodBooks? That's not at all hard to say! His name was Otis Chumpler, and he co-founded this place with his lovely wife, Elisabeth. Mr. Chumpler was a good-looking, bookish man, smart as a whip, with a thick chevalure like an Iowan field of wheat, a strong angular jaw, and a brazen complexion from the seductive sun of lush Los Angeles beaches and jaunty jogs in the San Francisco parks. He was a young man, still, though he and his wife had found wonderful success in their GoodBooks endeavor, and despite its minor mars and mistakes, it was a good place and it had good people who read good (and sometimes not-good) books. They were happy.

 
Otis Chumpler had a secret. Well it wasn't so much a secret as it was a maybe unknown trivium. He was the son and heir to the Chumpler fortune! You see, the Chumplers had long owned the Los Angeles Gazette and their many subsidiaries - really, it had been a veritable empire of thin grey Gazettes and flimsy faded Chronicles and Times, and even a west-coast Globe, or two! Otis, with his brothers and sisters had sold that huge paper fortune for a fortune of a different paper. Looking on the Gazette Building, a big shiny mirror in Los Angeles, like the lovely Emerald City, but made rather of diamonds! Looking at this fortress, Otis saw his past reflecting like his future, though he didn't know it. The Gazette building was a tall structure! And the grande glass elevator had given Otis his name, for he had been conceived in that very Otis elevator thirty-some years before! Or maybe he wasn't, it's quite impossible to know the point and place of conception.
 
GoodBooks grew and grew, and kept growing, and anyway who knew there were so many bookish people! The staff at GoodBooks were passionate and mostly handsoff, though responsive and kind, interested and warm, always adding content to appeal to the wide interests and nooks and crannies of the many shelves of the many patrons and patronesses of GoodBooks. And still as it grew and grew, everyone was happy.
 
All this growing! The Chumplers of course were happy. And readers were happy, happy to see more faces and reviews and more books being ever and ever added. And the whole places was a small internet haven for those bookish folks.
 
Meanwhile, in another nook, a much larger nook, in fact not a nook at all but rather a continent or a vast ocean or an enormous crater, of the internet there lurked a sort of e-commerce beast, Yangtze Co! It wasn't an evil beast, there are no evil companies, just big ones and small ones and medium sized ones, but this was a big one. Yangtze had been buying up these small nooks and crannies of the internet, little pockets, really, for holding money, and anyway they brought off these little pockets with enormous success, and anyway they had lots of pockets and big pants with plenty of room for more. Well anyway, all these little things that grow and grow and start to become less-little things and even sometimes big things, attract attention from big beasts like Yangtze! Once your a big beast it is hard to grow, your bones and you skin and your clothes just don't allow for it! And so big beasts are always looking to add pockets.
 
Yangtze eyed GoodBooks, counted off some cash to Chumplers and soon enough like the sun down behind the mountains, GoodBooks was a big bookish pocket on the vast-waisted pants of that Yangtze beast.
 
At first there was some rebellion. Who knows why? Some people are always afraid of big beasts, and always will be, and they flee big beasts and live quietly with small beasts. Others waited, and frankly others didn't notice at all! These last were much too absorbed with their Sixty Shades of Sex and Hunger Dames shipments, fresh from the cardboard Yangtze-logoed boxes! The miracles of e-commerce! But the few watchful remained vigilant. And for a while nothing seemed to happen. GoodBooks was quiet. Some left, though, and they were missed.
 
But then, all of a sudden, something happened. Reviews began to disappear! Where did they go? Perhaps somewhere deep in that pocket, or perhaps an even deeper darker abyss, but anyway they were gone now: irretrievably gone. And when the reviews began to disappear, so too did the reviewers! What an exodus! It would seem that Yangtze Co. took some umbrage with the way things were run at GoodBooks. It wasn't a well oiled machine, maybe it wasn't a machine really at all, but Yangtze was a well-oiled machine, and if fingers are lost in well-oiled machines then fingers are lost, but the machine continues. And so fingers were lost, but they were only fingers. And the Chumplers were happy: they had more paper than ever before! and also, anyway, they had all of their fingers. Yangtze was happy, and they were rubbing together their greedy fingers. Or rather not Yangtze, but the people at Yangtze, because after all even big beasts don't have fingers to rub! But the readers, the readers were not happy, and many were missing fingers! It can be very hard to read when one is missing too many fingers.
 
And the exodus continued. Reviewers left or put up feeble rebellions. Big beasts are so hard to beat! How ever did they overthrow that fat old beastly Louis of France? and his wife with the big fat hair? and then the really very fat Robespierre? Such big beasts! But not ever so big as this Yangtze beast, for you could never get hold of it, you couldn't beat it or shackle it or through its big beastly head in a guillotine or even get on the phone with a beastly person, it was everywhere but no where! A big ghost of electric data, dropping from its many posteriors little packages with a smile, but no face! just a Cheshire smile. And it took in its many mouths the paper from many people and this was what the big old beast ate, and it always had things to eat, living on a healthy diet of paper and of fingers.
 
And the beast went on eating, and the best, the best went away, or stayed and fought. But it's no fun fighting a beast, even if you're one of the best. But maybe one day the beast will get sick of fingers? The best can only hope!
Bouvard and Pecuchet - Mark Polizzotti, Gustave Flaubert, Raymond Queneau I just had a very Bouvard-Pécuchetian moment. After writing most of what I thought was a rather good review of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, I clumsily exed out the tab holding my unpublished review. All that hard work and no fruit to bear! Flaubert is a keen master of small human foibles taken to extremes. In Madame Bovary, his very funny, though perhaps severely misunderstood novel about a woman's mawkish sentimentality whose vitality exceeds her own, Flaubert plays with the elements of comedy and tragedy in such a way that our emotions toward Emma are constantly at odds. On the one hand, she is all schmaltz and vanity, she is shallow, she is vapid, but on the other hand, she represents that undying will in all of us that strives for our ideals, that unbendingly demands the perfect image of our future which is ever cast in front of out own imaginations. In Flaubert we are always dealing in extremes, in those who go too far, who do too much: who are self-destructive in their passions to the point of parody. In Bouvard and Pécuchet we are introduced to our dunce-capped duo: the embodiment of human failure and foolhardiness, but also of human endurance and academic fervor. Where Emma Bovary loves too much, but in a false love, an empty love, play-acted from pulp romances, Bouvard and Pécuchet seek an infinite knowledge, but lack the creative genius to form definite opinions, and instead fall on the contradictions and lacuna of scholarly texts on a number of subjects.

Bouvard and Pécuchet meet and become instant friends, as close as brothers. Both work as copy clerks in Paris, and occupy cramped corner apartments, until Bouvard comes upon a large sum inheritance from his avuncular father-figure, and the two head off to live in the country. Like Emma, play-acting in love, Bouvard and Pécuchet are always acting at the proscenium of their solipsism (a shared solipsism, a double madness, folie à deux) and critical reality. Their madness is in their methods: they are copyists by vocation, and as such they can only copy, but never create.
Sometimes Pécuchet pulled his manual from his pocket and studied a paragraph, standing, with his spade beside him, in the pose of the gardener decorating the book’s frontispiece.
Like Pécuchet imitating the illustration in the book, the dunderheaded duo is ever ruined by their own lack of creative capacity. Their imaginations are purely proleptic: before opening a book they have already fully envisioned their success, but they ultimately lack the modest-temperament and genius required for that achievement. Despite their constant failures, the duo is dogged in their scholarship, and their itinerant passions are never extinguished by embarrassment or disheartedness. They are ever in the pursuit of their grande achievement, and care little wherein that achievement comes from: Like artists they craved applause. In Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert splits himself in two: the stock and liberal, libertine Bouvard, and the gaunt, conservative and virginal Pécuchet. Like in Madame Bovary, Flaubert's last novel is both a condemnation and a mea culpa of human stupidity: a final salut to both mental frailty and scholastic endurance. Our pied protagonists are always devouring book upon book, volume upon volume, and mirror their creator's voracious reading appetite: Flaubert claims to have read north of 1,500 books in preparation for writing Bouvard and Pécuchet. And whether Flaubert's unfinished masterpiece is an encyclopedic farce or, in fact, a farcical encyclopedia, is a matter of debate: the reader will be grateful to have a dictionary handy, for each academic whim and fancy is pursued in the parlance and nomenclature particular to that rite. The great tragedy, and the grade statement of the novel, which teases us and jocosely punishes our foolish friends, is:
“Science is based on data supplied by a small corpus of knowledge. Perhaps it doesn’t apply to all the rest that we don’t know about, which is much more vast, and which we can never understand.”
The worlds of science, of literature, of love, are much more in the shadow of our knowledge than in the light: there is ever more to know, and also that which cannot be taught, that which will never be precise or certain, but requires a creative cement to fill in the apertures. Bouvard and Pécuchet simply lack creative genius, they consume and consume knowledge, read books, study at length, but the inherent differences of opinion, vagaries of incomplete knowledge, and contradictions between authors are a pediment to what they believe is true success and enlightenment.
They no longer had a single fixed idea bout individuals and events of that time. To form an impartial judgement, they would have to read every history, every memoir, every newspaper and manuscript, for the slightest omission could foster an error that would lead to others, and unto infinity. They gave up.
"They gave up" is the ringing leitmotif of our foolhardy duo, and despite their frequent differences of opinion, they are forever united in their surrender and transition to greener, untended pastures.

Their minds always at work at something which is beyond their reach, they are often too mired in specifics to grasp the larger picture. Their bottom-up approach to everything is ultimately their undoing and frequently leads to their frustration and disappointment. Even in deciding where to live gives them tremendous trouble. For though they have a tremendous capacity for seeing all sides of an issue, they lack the power to synthesize and balance that knowledge to form a clear image of reality:
At times they has almost reached a decision; then fearing they would regret it later, changed their minds, the chosen place striking them as unwholesome, or exposed to the sea winds, or too near a factory, or difficult to reach.
It is hard not to love these clumsy copyists, for every failure is taken in stride, and both stooges and spectators are visited by laughter at the precipitous ruin. Like a slapstick commedia dell'arte, the novel is suffused with physical comedy, but also high-minded ideas and a doggedness of heart that is truly endearing to behold.

Repeatedly, Flaubert refers to the misguided attempts and misadventures of our mock-heroes as having created "monsters" - great failures of applied knowledge. In their agriculurist-phase, after failing in cash crops and fruit, and moving on to garden vegetables:
The cabbages were his only consolation. One in particular gave him hope. It blossomed, grew, ended up being huge and absolutely inedible. No matter. Pécuchet was glad to have produced a monster.
It is the nature of their madness to produce monsters, but fortunately those monsters are largely innocuous: simply mementos of their own folly. However, it is the zealotry of their simple-mindedness which produces these monsters, and has the capacity to create devastation. Like the monomania of the church or the rigid single-mindedness of political demagogues, zealous ignorance is far more dangerous than Bouvard's and Pécuchet's creative impotence. For Flaubert, though his two stooges lack in any real creative power, and in fact, are life-long copyists no matter the manifestation of their ephemeral endeavors, the stubborn ignorance and deliberate blindness of many of his heroes' critics are more likely to incite the reader's censure. Bouvard and Pécuchet are simple men with an innocent, if practically useless goal of self-enlightment, but they are often subject to the iniquities of their fellow townspeople, whether in the form of harsh criticism, personal attacks, or outright swindling, their simpleness is constantly being taken advantage of by their more Machiavellian country-folk. Despite their flaws, Flaubert's protagonists are exceedingly brave, determined and happy: they refuse to submit, despite their follies, to the yokes of others' preaches, and pursue their own happiness with a dogged passion.

Knowledge is a powerful thing: but power is morally neutral. It can be used to achieve progress, or halt and immolate progress; to save lives and to destroy them. Flaubert reminds us that complete knowledge is impossible, what we don't know always eclipses what we do, and the even greater shadow is what we don't know that we don't know. We cannot let this lack of knowledge rule us, we must seek to self-inform, to read in great volumes and in broad topics, to keep us from becoming narrow-minded. But equally important is to form our own knowledge, to synthesize what we take-in, to create our own views, to stand by them, but to remain always receptive and skeptical. It is a danger not to. Our Faustian fools give up everything in their pursuit of knowledge, but are unable to reconcile the quantity of views. As Bouvard and Pécuchet is a panorama of the follies in science and human knowledge, knowledge itself is the very mirror of that panorama. Every failure, folly, mistake, and every rare success feeds into the great accumulation of the human ken.

Still, all their reading had gone to their brains.

Bouvard, coming down with a cold, imagined he was getting pneumonia. Since leeches hadn’t relieved the twinge in his side, he resorted to a vesicatory, which affected his kidneys and made him think he was suffering from gallstones.

Pécuchet felt some stiffness while pruning the arbor and vomited after his dinner, which left him terrified. Then, noticing that his skin was a bit sallow, he suspected a liver condition, wondered “Am I in pain?” and ended up deciding that he was.
Seize the Day - Cynthia Ozick, Saul  Bellow A deeply psychological novel, Seize the Day follows the middle-aged man in the life of a single day in New York City. "Psychological"... "single day"... Bellow's ante into the pool of single-day novels, alongside Joyce's Ulysses and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, is a much slimmer volume than its fellow one-day wonders, but carries perhaps no less of a whollop. The story follows Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man, a failed actor, a failed salesman, a husband whose wife refuses him a divorce but takes his money all the same, and a son who - despite his proximity and frequency of visits with his father, remains philosophically and emotionally estranged. The story is loaded with irony, but in the ironical mass there are small nuggets of truth: strange and wonderful insights into what it means to be alive. According to Herzog: Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is. And Seize the Day is studded with unexpected intrusions of beauty.

For a thorough and well-written discussion of the psychoanalytical edge of this very psychological novella, I defer to s.penkavich's great review of this book. Bellow is a highly psychological writer, in Herzog he re-invents the Hamlet dilemma of betrayal (Herzog's wife Madeline standing in for Gertrude, his friend Gersbach for Claudius), and in Seize the Day we see a textbook case of suppressed emotion (as spenk points out: a lack of 'orgastic' release). The novella opens with this supression:
When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought and there was a certain amount of evidence to back him up.
He conceals his troubles, but his troubles build and boil, wrack and rage beneath the surface, tear him away from the core outward. Wilhelm has self-proclaimedly 'reached the end of his rope' - he is in dire financial straits: unable to pay his rent for the month or support his demanding wife, he is without current employment, having dropped out of school to pursue of pipedream in Hollywood, then quit his job at the Rojax Corporation, where he worked as a salesman, when they divided up his territory. He has failed time and time again, and is won over by glamorous, but meretricious, opportunities which he pursues full-heartedly and abandons wallet-emptied.

What strikes me as the reader is Wilhelm's imaginative vigor for what is new. Like the lovably-stupid Bouvard and Pécuchet, he endlessly pursues "new starts" - the consequence being that he remains in every endeavor a disappointed novice. At each junction of failure he faces the choice to 'crawl back' or to free-fall and hope to catch at a new opportunity before he reaches the ever-rising bottom: he chooses the later. It is a strange failure of human pride which prods us toward our own unhappiness. Our pride eludes us except for grand successes: each success raising and raising the bar, but only a small slip is enough for our pride to drop away beneath us. For Wilhelm, he has never, or rarely, experienced success, and each failure causes him to retreat more and more into himself, to hide away his failures in the shallow recesses of his remaining dignity. His socio-economic pressure compounds his troubles: his free-falls become more and more worrisome as he has less and less financial padding to cushion his imminent ruin.

The most interesting and perplexing character of the novella, however, is Dr. Tamkin: Wilhelm's dubious and mysterious savior. A man of many tall tales, exaggerations, and flat-out lies, Tamkin offers Wilhelm the opportunity to invest in futures with him, guaranteeing him exorbitant profits. He is apparently a psychologist, an expert in hypnosis, an inventive man, but ultimately a shady figure, and likely a crook. He proselytizes his "seize the day" perspective, which borders on ironically religious, to Wilhelm, and frequently psychoanalyzes him to Wilhelm's dismay. The theme of time-perspective is prevalent throughout the novella, and reminded me of this article in the Wall Street Journal which discussed how time-perspective affected our moods. According to the parlance of "time-perspective therapy" it would seem that Wilhelm has a strongly past-negative, and perhaps present-fatalist outlook on his life. He is very much mired with regrets of his past: of his choice to leave school to pursue acting, his choice to get married, his choice to leave his wife, his choice to leave his job, etc. He is constantly reminded of these failures throughout his day and lacks a healthy outlet for relieving his burden: his father will not discuss his son's failures or give him the sympathy which Wilhelm so badly desires, his wife will not talk to him, and he has little else in the way of human contacts. What is ironic in Tamkin's plea for Wilhelm to "seize the day" and live in the "here-and-now" is that the great failures of Wilhelm's life have been made under just that operating mentality. Despite his belabored decision processes, his choices are ultimately made in gut-reactions to opportunities. He follows his instantaneous feelings and momentous emotions, and they continually lead him to undesired paths which he fails to follow through on.

The background of futures trading strikes a particular key in the time-perspective theme. Futures contracts, to be technical, are purchased agreements to exchange goods at a future date, at a predetermined price. When they say that they have purchased contracts for "December rye" they mean that they have purchased the right to sell some quantity of rye-commodity, at some date in December, at the fixed price of the contract (the price fluctuates over time before narrowing in on the exact value as the day of exchange approaches). Wilhelm, whose view of the future is wary if not pessimistic, is in a state of constant agitation throughout the day: he fears the movement in prices and feels impotent but attached to his remaining small savings. He feels that Tamkin is swindling him, but due to his own ignorance and his invested hope in the potential "easy-money" he does not withdraw his savings. Wilhelm is always looking for some easy escape from his condition; he feels that his life thus-far has been very difficult and that at some point he must receive some manna-like relief. Tamkin, he believes, could be that relief, though his hope and his skepticism are constantly at odds throughout the day as he is fed psychology, platitudes, and unbelievable stories.

The final release of Wilhelm's pent-up emotions, at the funeral of an unknown young man (perhaps about the age of Wilhelm himself, hence the excess of emotion), is his ultimate emotional release, but leaves the reader wondering about his still-precarious position. His savings have been decimated, his father has cast him out and refused to help him, Tamkin has disappeared, and he remains jobless with the growing demands of his wife and children. He tells himself that he will return to Olive (his mistress) and invests in her his next "new start" - but a new start which does not renew him, does not renew the reader's faith that he will succeed or even get by. His position remains impossible. Seize the Day is not Bellow's greatest novel, but it is an excellent exercise in the novella format, which from the beginning introduces a tension and unease which pervades the 118 pages.
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle - Chris Hedges One word sum up Hedge's Empire of Illusion: autology. If you've ever wondered what the word is that describes something which describes itself (think: "multisyllabic" or "trochee" or "portmanteau" or "sesquipedalian, etc.), it is autological. In a book which so fervently rails against "spectacle" it so often falls into the realm of spectacle itself: an area which it never attempts to escape from. The book abounds in broad generalizations, half-truths, cherry-picked narratives which seem to illustrate his points, but ultimately lack in an evidence which would support his points. The book, which carries the grandiose subtitle'The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,' fails to rise above repeated attempts to shock: appeals over and over to emotion, to generalized statements which do more harm than they do inform.

Hedge's argument is broken into five mostly-disparate sections: the Illusions of (1) Literacy, (2) Love, (3) Wisdom, (4) Happiness, and most grandiose of all: (5) America. To anyone who reads my reviews, it is no secret my love for illusions: how they color life, literature, world-view, their benefits and dangers. What was most disappointing in this book is that the "illusions" Hedges refers to are perhaps believed by no one: who believes pornography is about love? who believes that our political systems is independent of our economic and corporate systems? who believes we have not declined in overall literacy levels, in a country where most adults don't read (or read far below their should-be reading level - Hunger Games? Twilight? and perhaps most appalling Fifty Shades of Grey, which lacks basic grammatical coherence?)? I suspect by far most of us, at least those of us who would read this book, are long disillusioned on these points.

And that is what made this book so laborious: there is nothing new. Despite the slim size, the book feels long, it is repetitive, even it's attempts at shock become dull and worn down by overuse. From the almost wholesale appropriate of Barthes' cultural analysis of professional wrestling, to the worn out rhetoric of class warfare, Hedges' rhetoric is visibly recycled at every turn. The discussion of pornography, which fails to convince is actually an illusion of love, is almost completely concerned with women in hetero-normal pornography, ignoring male actors and porn targeted toward LGBT or marginal communities. Is there anything original in the general claim that porn actresses are objectified? or that they come from broken home situations? or that they are often drawn into drugs and prostitution? No - all these ideas have been regurgitated for decades, and Hedges adds nothing to the wealth of the homogeneous bile of generalizations in the topic. The discussion of Wisdom, or rather the ivory tower of university life in America, transcends generalizations to the realm of outlandish, unsubstantiated and flat-out offensive claims. After bitterly censuring universities' large funding of athletics (one can imagine Hedges was not much of an athlete), he goes on to condemn professors as corporate mouthpieces used as tools to suppress student skepticism and inquiry pertaining to the status quo. In addition to being broadly applied with no evidence what-so-ever, it is a disgusting attack on academics, and ironic given his compulsion to remind the reader of the Ivy League pedigrees of his fringe source material. From there he continues his diatribe about the frigidly unfeeling elite class, whose goal is to suppress the bottom "90 percent" of Americans. If you're thinking you have chewed this bland rhetoric before, you have probably read a newspaper in the last half century.

What begins as a pathetically unoriginal philippic on class warfare becomes bizarre propaganda against the demonic "Christian Right" which Hedges claims are going to unstage the present governmental system with a demogogue and turn our country into a feudal state. At about this point I decided to struggle through the remaining 20-or-so pages, to arrive at the saccharine conclusion that "love conquers all" - perhaps the most half-baked, unoriginal platitude produced by our society which so loves platitudes. In addition to ending the book as it began, with a rip-off, Hedges conclusion manages to be the ultimate non sequitur in a book which never fails to "not follow." From loosely distinguished arguments to poor or irrelevant examples, and lack of any evidence, to the bizarre logic holding together the five sections, this book lacks all surprise except for how quickly it can race to the bottom of any philosophical or political insight. The only surprise at all is that Hedges somehow managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2009 for this pulp. It must have been a tight race between this and 101 Ways to Know You're a Gold Digger.
Open City: A Novel - Teju Cole Open City, Teju Cole's début novel, is a strangely wonderful perambulatory reading experience: insightful, lyrical, decidedly modern and politically prescient. However despite it's numerous successes the overall novel feels a bit like an attempt. In Barthes' "The Death of the Author" he writes (which feels to me too perfect a description of the present novel to ignore):
The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture. Similar to Bouvard and Pécuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth, of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture which is anterior, never original. His power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them
Often authors are discussed in terms of their "influences": the seams of borrowed thread which prop up at odd corners of the text: which flash a bit of foreign color, tantalize our collective literary memories. Cole's novel is very much a tapestry of these imitations. This is not to say that the novel is not well written, or unoriginal, but that what it borrows exceeds what it bears. "Sebaldian," "Proustian," even a bit of a Barthesian or Benjaminian ("Benjaminisch"? "Benjaminig"?) cultural skepticism and lyrical insight: all of these influences are present, but they feel a bit to bare. Sebald's Rings of Saturn is the closest mother of Cole's Open City:
But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight.
If one were to replace "writing" with "walking" it would believably be an excerpt from Cole's novel. The novel's texture is one of sinusoidal dips into memory from the present: there is little plot in the present (and in fact, little plot which directly concerns the protagonist, Julius), but a deep plenitude which lies in the past. "Each one of us carries within himself his necropolis" said Flaubert in a letter to George Sand, a sentiment which is manifest manifold in Open City, wherein the city may very well be the city of the dead, a necropolis of memories walking among the living: always boiling at the surface, constantly re-forming the present.
To be alive, it seemed to me, as I stood there in all kinds of sorrow, was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.
For Cole, the past is a reflection of the present: a point-for-point double, a mime. As one ages, as there are many aged and aging figures in Open City: from Prof. Saito to Dr. Mailotte, the equilibrium between the power of reflection and the power of the living self shifts: in death one is all reflection, all past and no present. In this view, we are all eased into death by our memories, and when we die out memories live without us: shadows on the edifice of time.

What Cole achieves, which breaks from his strong literary traditions in Sebald and Proust, is a distinctly American flavor. The "American issue" is race, has always been race, and Cole's novel is concerned as much with race and Deleuzian "difference" as it is with memory and walking. Throughout the book there are a number of unusual conversations about race, that take place casually: in the street, at the telephone booth, etc. and Cole's view seems basically to be culminated in Farouq: "There’s always the expectation that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has the noble ideas; I disagree with this expectation." Throughout the many disparate narratives: of war, violence, discrimination and revolution, the policy of civil disobedience is called into question over and over, and the narrator is especially attuned to the diversity which is around him. His view of the world is one which is sinister, sometimes cruel, but which he seems vaguely removed from: not that he sees himself as an exception, but rather as an observer. He does not dwell on his own hardships very much, but rather absorbs the pasts and hardships of others. When we are confronted with an episode of his past in which he is decidedly cast as the villain, as the oppressor, as the active-aggressor, he evades it, he picks it up and drops it. His mental response to Farouq's observation on the victimized Other is: The victimized Other: how strange, I thought, that he used an expression like that in a casual conversation. The novel, for it's many strong points, lacks in credulity of dialogue, at least for those of us whose days are not filled with metaphysical conversations with strangers on airplanes and subways (I doubt many of my subway companions could pronounce Deleuze, let alone carry an extended discussion on him - but maybe I take a lower-brow subway than most). Cole's novel at it's best is when he is walking around, thinking to himself, communing with his memories and his active senses (particularly auricular), his musings and meanderings in the same stride with no destination.

The novel is prescient in many ways: political, social, psychological, but it's epiphanies and flourishes of style lack consistency, lack rhythm: Cole attempts to fit in too much, and his own diversions are occasionally his undoing. However, some of his observations are tremendously moving:
Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic. Who, in the age of television, hasn’t stood in front of a mirror and imagined his life as a show that is already perhaps being watched by multitudes?
The spectacular media loves to remind us that ours is the age of narcissism, spectacle, illusion. I can think of no more astute way to define our modern normalcy than a self-styled heroism, a moral impunity, and a constant flirtation with the dream of celebrity. What is often lost in our modern era is the self-communion, the walks about town, the mental and psychological ordering and re-ordering which we must do when we are humbly ourselves: when we are Odysseus, but Odysseus in Ogygian exile. Julius is often alone within himself, even in crowds he is the isolated observer: but his spectatoriship is false, a defense against his own memories which at turns haunt and amuse him. He retreats into the memories of others, into larger-than-self issues such as race, war and oppression, to escape the tiny daemon of his own villainy.

As humans we escape into routine, into obsessions and compulsions which distract us, which we feel better inform us: for Julius walking through New York City (and briefly, Brussels), or observing auspices in the migrations of birds, for Bellow's Herzog it is letter-writing; we all have our retreats, our ticks which mark time for us, keeping us within our bounds of normalcy. Julius's New York is alive for him with details, small horrors, small miracles: the City is alive with change, blood pulsing beneath the surface, ever changing and ever maintaining it's identity like Argo's ship. We are all Argo's ship: we must change, we must shed our sorrows, we must outgrow our pleasures, but we must remain ourselves: we must not shed our memories of what we are, of what created us and of what we have created, or we become wherries whirling in the open sea, lost and unprotected.
Mourning Diary - Roland Barthes, Richard Howard Barthes' mother died on October 25, 1977. Her son, Roland, being an invalid-type had been nursed and coddled by her most of his life, but in their years of his mother's illness adopted the role of nurse himself. Barthes' relationship with his mother was one of extreme intimacy: he lived with her his whole life, and when she passed the world as he knew it changed irremediably. TO chronicle this change he kept a "mourning diary" in which he scrawled away, inconsistently over the proceeding two years, short accesses of emotion, insight, and reflection. Mourning Diary is a strange volume, far more personal even than Barthes' autobiographical Roland Barthes, far more fragmented and disjointed than Lover's Discourse. This diary makes an excellent accompaniment to his Camera Lucida: his mother's death and the subsequent sorting of her belongings and photographs results in the discovery of a photo which will dominate the latter half of Barthes' discourse on photography, and the death of his mother casts a shadow on the entirety of that work.

I am reminded profoundly of Proust and of Proust's narrator whenever I read Barthes, particularly the deeply personal portion of his work. Barthes was an avid re-reader of À la recherche du temps perdu, and in his The Pleasure of the Text he identifies it as his "infinite text": the textual lense through which he views the world: "...I read according to Proust... I recognize that Proust's work, for me at least, is the reference work, the general mathesis, the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony." The parallels between Barthes and Proust (and his narrator) are numerous: both are deeply reflexive, both profound aesthetics, both are sensitive, homosexual (perhaps not the case for Proust's narrator); they are delicate, porcelain dolls: invalids, attached to their mothers to the extent bordering on unnatural, nearly Oedipal. However the reflexive nature of both Barthes and Proust discover in themselves the profound egoism of grief, jealousy, love. For Barthes, he painfully acknowledges the ego-centrism of his grief:
How I loved maman: I never resisted going to meet her, celebrated seeing her again (vacations), put her within my "freedom"; in short I associated her profoundly, scrupulously. Acedia comes from such desolation: no one around me, for whom I would have the courage to do the same thing.
and again:
Mourning: At the death of the loved being, acute phase of narcissism: one emerges from sickness, from servitude. Then, gradually, freedom takes on leaden hue, desolation settles in, narcissism gives way to a sad egoism, and absence of generosity.
The egoism of grief is profoundly different from the narcissism of freedom, though they are related. Where the narcissism of relief is one of independence (I am responsible for no one), the egoism of grief is one of icy solitude (there is no one who I care for). Grief, like all extremes of emotion, is a wholly reflexive process, or rather state: "No progress in pleasures (neither in grief), nothing but mutations."

Grief has a rhythm, a texture to reality, a vacillation and wave of intensity, rather than a progression or "adaptation" period. For Barthes, love, grief, never fade, if they are genuine they are ever renewed in sharp waves of emotion. Despite sharing the same imagery, Barthes' views on the ocean of sorrow are different from many before him. Henry James wrote:
Sorrow comes in great waves — no one can know that better than you — but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see.
For James, sorrow is an ocean which wears us down, but which we redirect, which we overcome, which passes us by. There is a calming solace in the repetition of waves crashing, but slowly a resistance building, and ultimately a vast ocean overcome like a summer rain. For Barthes, the imagery of the ocean is one of recurring pain, renewed intensity: the dull acedia of the trough and the jarring pain of the crest.
If only I could utter the profound desire of self-communion, of withdrawal, of "Don't concern yourself with me," which comes to me straight and inflexibly from the somehow "eternal" suffering - a self-communion so true that the inevitable little struggles, the caricatures, the wounds, everything that inevitably occurs as soon as one survives, are nothing but a bitter froth on the surface of a deep sea...
It is the rhythm and routine of suffering which haunts Barthes, it is the on-off up-down vacillations which renew the strength of his pain.
What affects me most powerfully: mourning in layers—a kind of sclerosis.
[Which means: no depth. Layers of surface—or rather, each layer: a totality. Units]
It is the illusion of discontinuity which is the cause of pain in grief: the feeling that it weakens, that it goes away, even if for a minute, that instills both hope and horror that one day grief will die away, fade.
I waver—in the dark—between the observation (but is it entirely accurate?) that I’m unhappy only by moments, by jerks and surges, sporadically, even if such spasms are close together—and the conviction that deep down, in actual fact, I am continually, all the time, unhappy since maman’s death.

But like all great passions of emotion: grief is self-indulgent. The retreat into oneself is the surest form of egoism. The diary is a profoundly egoistic format; it is a mirror into oneself which bars entrance to others, which gives the illusion of inaccessibility and uniqueness of feeling: but which ultimately a self-guarded prison. Barthes' grief is self-propagated, it is deliberately given vigor: Barthes' pain is a recurring self-infliction. The naked heartbreak in his diary may as well be written with a knife upon his heart, coming in waves themselves: frequent enough to sustain pain: never enough time for the sutures to heal. For Barthes, his own pain is the only "monument" which he feels worthy of his mother's memory. While he knows that his mother would hate to see him suffering, he cannot bear the thought of a release: one which would afford him an access of happiness in a world without his loved mother. Despite the seeming self-effacing nature of this sacrifice, it is a morbid narcissism: it is the hope that someone will suffer eternally for him. In his mother's death he sees the last barrier to his own death brought down, he sees his death as inevitable: mortality as universal: all men must die, I must one day die. If she lives on in his memory, it is a horrible second-hand life, a life which no one can want, least of all a mother. Like King Lear casting off his love to indulge in the egoism of flattery, or immortality in filial love, Barthes adopts acedia, casts off pleasures, retreats into his excesses of emotion: sacrifices to the false idol of immortality in grief.
To whom could I put this question (with any hope of an answer)?

Does being able to live without someone you loved mean you loved her less than you thought...?
The Phantom Tollbooth - Jules Feiffer, Norton Juster Reading "grown-up" literature is excavating the human soul, the adult soul: a mangled mess of contradictions and self-deceptions, screwy motives and the odd self-adherent logic of artistic creation. But Literature (capital ell) is a pyrrhic battle between message and evasion: one must avoid moralizing outright, must avoid overt allegory, but must never be too subtle, too veiled, lest you be resigned to snobby undergrabs and many rubbish bins. The Phantom Tollbooth is a strange beast: decidedly accessible to children, but remains lovable to adults. It's championing of the struggle against moral short-cuts, boredom, and mental waste is timeless, ageless, and remains prescient, even to me: a grown person 52 years after it's publication!

My grandmother has always said: "only boring people get bored" - I am guilty of sometimes serving this packaged wit cold when a friend laments "I'm bored!" but I think forcefully throwing this book at them would be a better remedy. What is signifed in my grandmother's aphorism is that interested people are interesting, and more importantly are never idle. My family (paternal side) is a hard-working, conservative, New Englander family: we don't watch much television, we read lots of books, we listen to NPR and read the Wall Street Journal, we somewhat self-indulgently talk about the cultural decline in literacy and how we are not a part of it. But the story of Milo is one which is both entertaining, lovable, but also cautionary. By no means is Milo a bad child, a dull idler, but rather he has not found passion yet. He is bored because his urban living, his deadening routine has stayed access to the bliss of potentiality.
The only thing you can do easily is be wrong, and that's hardly worth the effort.

We are plagued, as a modern, urban society by the two-headed monster of routine. Routine comforts us, it gives us an escape into the dull and Terrible Trivium: the small tasks which comfort us and distract us from important, difficult work and choices. Our society is filled with spineless and indecisive people (the Gelatinous Giant) and those who feed us half-truths, who coddle us into a mire, into a trap (Monster of Insincerity): they are not villains, and these flaws do not define all people, but are characteristic in turn. Our weaknesses, our daemons, are our horrible defenses, our cozy citadels in the mountains of Ignorance. It is not the absence of bad habits (hours of dull television, bad reading or no reading) that marks an individual's decline, but rather the presence, the support, of our defenses. The demons of the mountains of Ignorance are impotent without our compliance, they feed on our weakness for what is easy. If we allow the glittering sovereigns of Rhyme and Reason to go fugitive in their empyrean prison, we lose our grip on true happiness, we become boring, we become easily bored.

Thankfully, there is nothing boring in The Phantom Tollbooth: its play with language is unrivaled certainly in children/young-adult literature, and rivals even the masters of play (Joyce, Nabokov, etc) in the grander schema. With a dual reverence for words and numbers, rhyme and reason, and a prevailing apotheosis of time, beyond the value of currency: something never to be wasted, Juster champions all forms of mental activity and cerebral play. I can imagine no better way to introduce a bored student, particularly one ahead of his class, to the ever-infinite vistas of imagination and invention than to hand him or her this book.

“It has been a long trip," said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; "but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn't made so many mistakes. I'm afraid it's all my fault."

"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays - Joan Didion Joan Didion is an insightful and skeptical thinker, an astute ironist, and a beautiful prose stylist: Slouching Towards Bethlehem exemplifies her craft. While all of her essays are exemplary in form, some fall by the wayside of memory, and even only a week removed from my first foray in Didion, only a few remain with me with any moving power. Slouching Towards Bethlehem skirts the two worlds of my known (intimacy) and my unknown (distance): what it means to be a twentysomething, a skeptic, a thinker, an observational outsider-insider, a reader, and the world of the 1960s: the vestigial mirage of the American dream, and the fairy-dust optimism particular to California (and to drug-addicts).

I had held off reading Didion for a while, because more than I knew about her writing, I knew about her celebrity. The Joan Didion of 2013: the sheepish-looking neuresthenic of the upper-upper crust, with silver tableware and imported china, damask upholstery on ormulu footed furniture, does not invite sympathy nor empathy. She has become her own horror, a self-damaging neuralgia grown completely inward into herself. But the Didion of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (and, I hope, The White Album which I plan to read sometime soon) is a different sort of woman: one which balances the Janus faces of reflection: inward as well as outward. Much of this collection is a reflection on external, cultural phenomena: a murder case in Southern California, the alluring celebrity of John Wayne, the apotheosis of marriage in Las Vegas, the drugs and counterculture of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and she develops a personal narrative about it: how she is affected by these phenomena, and what it meant to be exposed to them. Her essays have a literary flair, which court Fitzgerald-esque lyricism and Hemingway-an precision, exactness: her essays are thoroughly American, of an American rhythm and tempo, with a focus on the corroding core of the "American dream."

A particularly resonant essay, "Goodbye to All That" describes Didion's eight-year sojourn in New York City, when she was twenty up through twenty-eight.
one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.
As a twenty-three year old (recently initiated, adieu, twenty-two) I understand the conviction that what one feels, one is the first to feel, perhaps the only one ever to feel: all emotions feel unique, curried with the salt of freedom. If young childhood is the realm of dominant solipsism, young adult hood is the era of narcissism, egoism. It is necessary, I think, to go through this deeply narcissistic phase: we must, at sometime, be the true heroes of our life stories: alone and valiant like Odysseus. At twenty-something, the consequences of our actions are minor, we are yet-formed, yet-completed, we are free to fall and free to rise, but still free to be forgiven. In this period of our lives we must design and build a genuine ego, to replace the mask of entitlement and privilege of youth. Everything which is new is new only by our point of reference: ourselves, and impossible to conceive the true universality of it in the present. Literature, history, makes us feel often that we are not alone, that what we are feeling is rooted in something which is universal, eternal: but we still believe that we have a unique strain, an undiscovered permutation of the human condition.

Didion's essays On Self-Respect, On Morality, On Keeping a Notebook reveal the narcissistic compulsions of young adulthood: an age wherein we pen (figuratively and sometimes literally for the diary-inclined) the narrative of out life-stories, and also develop the character which we will assume. What draws people to literature, to story-telling, to TV and movies, is our desperate need for linearity in life. We understand the beginning-middle-end mentality, the rhythm of narratives is very comforting to us. We are a profoundly moralizing species, and narratives help us find meaning, even if it is artificial, created, posed: it comforts us to think that every action has an equal and opposite re-action, we are comforted by the abstract concept of justice, and the practice of it when it is in our favor. Didion acknowledges this compulsion:
I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.
As humans, we need some escape, or if not escape overtly, some structure which guards us from the brutal chaos of reality. We conceive of ourselves heroes, we are heroically justified, our self-respect buds, we become a solitary wanderer, discoverer, thinker, inventor: we measure ourselves by our potential, not necessarily by our accomplishments.
To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
Self-respect, according to Didion, is a "moral nerve" - those with self-respect "have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things." It is in the golden era of our lives, our twenties, when we are forced to pay for things: our material needs with money, and our mistakes with our self-respect. There is not currency so valuable as self-respect, and no wealth which is harder to regain when it has been lost.

I was moved, was empathetic, to what Didion has to say about her life, particularly her more personal essays. Her descent into neurotic inwardness is perhaps the extreme condition of her reflexive mastery in her earlier essays and works: for it is this aspect which shines. She is coolly self-aware at the age of thirty-two, where she has become a prisoner of her own privilege and self-communion in her later years.
I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.
Marcovaldo - Italo Calvino, William Weaver Italo Calvino is always fun to read. While Marcovaldo does not have the Borgesian or post-modern tropes of Invisible Cities or If on a winter's night a traveller, it is a heart-warming collection of brilliantly crafted stories, the pinnacle achievement being the lovable naivete and inventive imagination of the titular Italian, Marcovaldo. The whimsy and lyricism of Calvino's prose is worthwhile enough to embark on the too-short modern voyage of this short book, though it has much else to offer as well.

The character of Marcovaldo is a man caught between two abysses. He lives in a northern industrial city of Italy in the postwar 1950's through 1960's (though the particular city is never mentioned, and likely is an imagined city, I imagined it as loosely based on the industrialized city of Turin) which bridged the eras of poverty with economic boom. Marcovaldo is the lovable-loser, a character trope very popular in post-modern/post-modern fiction, as a break with the great thinkers and heroes of previous literary movements and from the classical characters of Hamlet, Odysseus, etc. He works at a shipping firm, doing menial work which he does not enjoy but which puts meager food on his family's table. He has a wife and five children which share his whimsy and naivete, though they are much more accustomed to the modern world in which they live. Marcovaldo is torn between the world of beauty which he feels is impossible in city life, the beauty of nature and of romantic notions, and the world, the reality, which constantly makes demands on him, awakes him rudely from his reveries.
This Marcovaldo possessed an eye ill-suited to city-life: billboards, traffic-lights, shop-windows, neon signs, posters, no matter how carefully devised to catch the attention, never arrested his gaze, which might have been running over the desert sands. Instead he would never miss a leaf yellowing on a branch, a feather trapped by a roof-tile; there was no horsefly on a horse's back, no worm-hole in a plank, or fig-peel squashed on the sidewalk that Marcovaldo didn't remark and ponder over, discovering the changes of the season, the yearnings of his heart, and the woes of his existence.

Each story represents a short aphoristic anecdote, taking place in one season of one of the five-years encompassed in the collection (spring-summer-autumn-winter). Most stories are very short, and every one is charming in a whimsical if not magical way. A number of the stories stand out to me after having finished: Marcovaldo dreams of sleeping out beneath the stars, among nature, but after sneaking out with his pillow, he is held at bay by an arguing couple, then is distracted by a traffic light, the smell of a cabbage truck, etc. until he finally can get to sleep only to moments later be woken at dawn. Another story has him jealously hoarding the secret of some wild mushrooms growing along the road, only to find another has discovered them as well - he relents and invites everyone to join in picking them, only for everyone to get sick from the poisonous fungi. Marcovaldo's romantic imagination is constantly foiled by the reality in which he lives. Where he sees fresh, wild mushrooms he finds poisonous ones, where he sees a river surfeit with fish he finds them poisoned by an upstream paint company, a mountain escape is the grounds of a sanatorium, the romantic sleep beneath the stars: no sleep at all.

There are two layers to the message of Marcovaldo: on the one hand, Marcovaldo is representative of a flawed view of the world, and the unhappiness and disappointment inherent in unreasonable attachment to the past, or out of reach ideals. Sometimes I wish I had been born in 1900, gone to literary salons and fashionable soirees, rode in hansom cabs. But that is an overly romanticized vision of a past era, and era gone. And it is gone because the world I live in now is better, much more accommodating, far fairer, and people in general are better off. Sure I may never know what it's like to collect love letters in a small gilt-rim cigar box, or go to an illustrious debutante ball and gossip in the corner beside a girandola mirror, but on the other hand, t-shirts are so much more comfortable than those starchy collared shirts and breast-coats, so, there's that. While Marcovaldo's attachment to a natural world which is far beyond the city limits, and beyond his practical grasp, he is never disheartened, and that is what makes him so lovable. He is a fool, but a very lovable fool.

On the other hand, there is a tension between the advantages of industrialization and the beauty and benefits of naturalization. Calvino is far from supporting an unindustrialized world, one without cities, one made for the Marcovaldos of the world; but he is also condemnatory of the excesses in industrial cities: pollution, traffic, waste, blind consumerism. The character of Marcovaldo is deliberate in his ridiculousness, but so are the many citizens of the silly city somewhere in Northern Italy. Those who resist industrialization seem as ridiculous as those who violently support it. Calvino sees it as an inevitablity, though one which requires a better balance. Cannibalistic consumerism infringes on the natural beauty, but it is capable of a beauty of its own, and the urban images which Calvino fills these pages with illustrate that potential beauty.
Marcovaldo went back to look at the moon, then he went to look at a traffic light, a bit farther on. The light flashed yellow, yellow, yellow, constantly blinking on and off. Marcovaldo compared the moon with the traffic-light. The moon with her mysterious pallor, also yellow, but also green, in its depths, and even blue; the traffic-light with its common little yellow. And the moon, all calm, casting her light without haste, streaked now and then by fine wisps of clouds, which she majestically allowed to fall around her shoulders; and the traffic-light meanwhile, always there, on and off, on and off, throbbing with a false vitality, but actually weary and enslaved.
The city has a coldly modern art to it, a "false vitality" - it is art, it can only imitate life. To Marcovaldo there is not value to this false beauty, it is unnatural and mechanical. But Calvino's descriptions of it show that though it does not fit the ideal, there is some art to be had in the man made world. Man is like the traffic light in the city, morning:on, evening:off, in to work then back to home, enslaved to routine, chained to the consumerism which drives him. The city is not an ugly place, but rather is the prison of a stifling life. Marcovaldo, for all his dislike of the city, is not an unhappy man, though he is plagued by modern troubles, and though he is constantly made the fool of his own gambits, he is a many happy in his childhood-in-middle-age. He has not lost the innocence of youth, not lost that vitality or winsome hope for adventure, invention, imagination. Though Calvino supports a sojourn in nature, he does not completely condemn the world which is reality, the world with winking traffic lights. More important that escaping the city is escaping routine, being spontaneous, being enthusiastic, loving life for what it has to offer and not grudging it for what it lacks.
Mozart and Salieri - Puchkin Mozart and Salieri is certainly a "Little Tragedy" - a tiny tragedy, in fact! And it's ancient, so you can read it here. The short etude of a play is a small illustration of genius and of envy. Salieri is a man completely devoted to music, hailed as a brilliant musician and composer, and he was very happy with his music, his life, free from envy and full of creative vigor, until Mozart his the scene. Mozart is a genius, so much so a genius with a capital gee that it casts Salieri's own ability into the shadows his own doubt. Enter Mozart, with a strange straggler in tow, a blind violinist. Mozart has been composing his famously unfinished "Requiem" - Salieri conspires to poison him to keep him from ruining the future of music with his inimitable genius.

The verse-play is very, very short, and only holds three characters (blind violinist, Salieri, Mozart). Each is representative of a different phylum of music-man: the undisputed, natural genius (Mozart), the dedicated and all-sacrificing achiever (Salieri), and the happy mummer (blind violinist). Salieri is the only envious man in the bunch. While Mozart has no man to envy, he has no reason or time to envy either - he has a childlike disposition, loves joking about with Salieri hiw friend, but his music is something which flows from him, and is not perceived as the product of intense labor (though of course it is, a private labor). The blind violinist is significantly without sight, he plays Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on cue, happy to play another man's composition for the love of sound. He is a sort of Shakespearean fool, though he has no speaking role and may well be a mute violinist as well. He serves to disrupt Salieri's composure, to draw an even greater contrast between the two masters: Salieri who is too grave for his own good, totally self-abnegating to his art, and Mozart, the family man and jolly prankster who is in love with life.

And Salieri justifies his crime with the self-styled choice of destiny:
SALIERI
No, I cannot withstand it any longer,
Resist my destiny: I have been chosen
To stop him -- otherwise, all of us die!
All of us priests and votaries of music,
Not I alone with my faint-sounding glory...
He extrapolates his jealousy to the musical community as a whole. He is saving the world from... from what? From a foregone future of Mozart's genius. He lacks the same creative genius that Mozart has an imagines that musical composition will end for everyone, there will be no peaks to reach, no music which can compare to Mozart's Everest "Requiem."
MOZART
...Salieri,
That Beaumarchais could really poison someone?


SALIERI
I doubt he did: too laughable a fellow
For such a serious craft.


MOZART
He was a genius,
Like you and me. While genius and evildoing
Are incompatibles. Is that not right?
Beaumarchais, the author of the Le Figaro plays, was accused of poisoning his wives for their inheritance money, and in many ways this hypothetical murder of Mozart is more an homage to love-murder than to Mozart. Salieri loves Mozart, Mozart the artist and maybe Mozart the man, but his passion is wounded, for he perceives that Mozart (man) does not live up the impossible grandeur of his expectations, Mozart-genius. His Machiavellian aims are obviously misguided and irrational. They follow only the twisted internal logic of a madman, though Salieri does not seem to be courting real madness in Mozart and Salieri. And if he is, it is a solemn madness, a self-aware madness, his attempts to delude himself of his own viciousness. His vanity is wounded, his hard work feels for naught, though it is obvious that Mozart admires him, his work, his dedication. As Mozart cannot imagine a genius-wrongdoer, Salieri cannot conceive a serious-fool ("too laughable a fellow for such a serious craft" - murder-craft or music-craft, either).

The blind man does not envy Mozart, he can't - Mozart is far too remote from him - maybe he envies some other sidewalk songster, but could never envy Mozart nor even Salieri. But Salieri's envy is expanded by his own self-appraisal of his work. The greater the genius the greater the grudging of envy - for Salieri has given up everything, he has achieved so much, has been immortalized for his operas like Armida. But Mozart stands to surpass him. He envies Mozart but he admires him, his artist productions are celestial to Salieri, and it would seem that he is more fearful that Mozart-man will outlive Mozart-genius than he is about Mozart upstaging musical art. He sees Mozart-man, the fumbling fool bringing home sidewalk violinists, as a threat to the genius who composed Mozart's many great musical creations. And the death of Mozart, which he shudders to regret moments after the act is complete (like Edmund's relent in death for Cordelia's murder in King Lear). But he returns to composure, the act done. And in his poison-murder, Salieri immortalizes the beauty of Mozart from the potential self-harm which her perceived. And we can imagine that the epitaph which adorns Salieri's grave would be an appropriate final parting from Salieri to Mozart:
Rest in peace! Uncovered by dust
Eternity shall bloom for you.
Rest in peace! In eternal harmonies
Your spirit now is dissolved.
It expressed itself in enchanting notes,
Now it is floating to everlasting beauty.
Ulysses - James Joyce I began a chapter-by-chapter review of James Joyce's Ulysses (which I have aborted - for now - at chapter 11: review here), but it began to feel too much like a summary, and there is nothing more impotent than trying to summarize Ulysses. Doing so is to very much miss the point.
The longest way round is the shortest way home
Joyce's novel epitomizes and parodizes this platitude. Bloom's longest way home (a roving roaming through the streets of Dublin, to avoid disturbing his wife's affair with Blazes Boylan) is Joyce's shortest way home (creating a fictional character so real and so complete, a nearly flawless portrait in fiction, and one of the most original uses of the English language). The novel is difficult, it is a challenge, it was a long month of reading, a long way round, but having arrived home it is hard to look back and say I'd change the journey. It feels impossible to deny that Ulysses is a great novel, an important novel, an innovation of the novel, it is easy to admire but perhaps hard to love.

The story is rather simple: Bloom's wife Molly has an assignation at four-o-clock with Blazes Boylan, meanwhile Bloom runs a number of errands throughout town, from morning to the wee-hours of the next morning, he meets young Stephen Dedalus, a brilliant young man, who Bloom hopes to take under his wing. But it is never so simple as that, as much as the story is about the character-trifecta of Bloom, Stephen, and Molly, the spectral fourth man is the very man above the pages: the man in the brown mackintosh, James Joyce, the master of the English language. Ulysses is wholly woven in the fabric of the English tradition: the fugue of two golden braids: the Homeric journey of The Odyssey, and the family drama, the precocious prince, of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Joyce does not shy away from what he borrows from these pillars in English literature, but owns them, parodies them, and makes them his own: Stephen, the caustic student, poorly-paid history teacher, who hasn't bathed in nine months inherits the aesthetic genius of the Prince of Denmark, while the plodding Poldy, ad-man and consciously-cuckolded husband and father, Ireland's middle-brow everyman, is cast in the mold of Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways: both molds much too grande for themselves.

The triptych of Ulysses: Stephen - Bloom - Molly, serves to expose the characters of Dublin and of the primo-trio of the novel from various angles and perspectives. Early in the novel, Bloom ponders the word "parallax" and wonders what it means, and parallax serves as an astute definition of the novel's structure. Parallax is the apparent displacement of an observed object as result of the change in perspective of the observer (in American middle schools, it is often taught as the "apparent bend in a straw" in a half-full glass of water). Ulysses, like Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu is a concave-complex of mirrors, focusing one locus of character (or in this case, three loci; in Proust: many). The character of Molly from Bloom's perspective is challenged by Molly's soliloquy in the capping chapter; Molly sees Stephen as a clean, friendly youth, though we know him not to be; Bloom is condemned as a Jew who has never suffered short funds, though we learn that not only is he a thrice baptized Christian, but that he has plenty of financial difficulties. The long litany of characters represents a multitude of mirrors which reflect the small world of Dublin, and particularly the middling man, Leopold Bloom. Modernist fiction is about reflecting the world as it is, as it really is. In the words of Proust: "genius consist[s] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected." Ulysses is certainly a mirror, more aptly a network of mirrors, but what is a reader to take of the quality of those reflections?
—It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.
Thus is Stephen's witticism about Irish art, and despite the political overtones as they relate to Ireland's servitude to the English king, it also serves as an aesthetic metaphor for the larger novel of Ulysses, which is not a true-to-life mirror, but rather one that is cracked, deliberately distorted. The funhouse mirror set in front of the "reality" of Joyce's Dublin, to Bloom et al, manages to reflect the truth of the human condition through comedy, confounded consciousness, and evasion. If each chapter appeals to a certain sense, a certain truth, the overall effect is a sort of Barthesian "infinite text" - one which is infinitely referential to all other ideas and fictions. The broken mirror which constitutes Ulysses in fact serves us better than an undamaged mirror; in the skewed distortions, in the pier-glass parallax of the novel, we see, as much as Bloom and Stephen's reflections, our own reflections. As we read Bloom's thoughts on death, and family, women and sex, we ponder these things ourselves. What Joyce lacks in Proustian plenum of ideas, he makes up with his jocular skepticism and whimsy:
Only man buries. No, ants too. First thing strikes anybody. Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.
Every Friday buries a Thursday, indeed! I won't equivocate, though: much of Ulysses is lost on me, much of it is deliberately obscure and perhaps dated too much. There are streams of text which seem to indicate almost nothing (I think particularly of the drunken banter at the tail-end of chapter fourteen). However, despite the occassional obliqueness Joyce also treats us to an endlesslesslesslessness of wordplay, particularly pleasant to the ear:
Bloom. Flood of warm jamjam lickitup secretness flowed to flow in music out, in desire, dark to lick flow invading. Tipping her tepping her tapping her topping her. Tup. Pores to dilate dilating. Tup. The joy the feel the warm the. Tup. To pour o’er the sluices pouring gushes. Flood, gush, flow, joygush, tupthrob. Now! Language of love!
The vitreous qualities of Proust and of Joyce are in many ways equal but different. While Proust's narrator observes the world from a number of perspectives: class, jealousy, grief, etc. He remains invisible to us, we do not see him, we only see through him. The mirror is intact, it is nearly perfect, but it is flat and faces only outwards. The mirrors of Ulysses are shattered, broken, they face every which way, but in being broken, in giving us a distorted image of reality, they bring us closer to the complete image.

Love, family, death, Ireland, infidelity: all these things come to mind when reading (or thinking about, or pretending to have read, or pretending to have thought about reading) Ulysses, but a significant feature which is not often discussed is the effect of Time, and particularly the characters' dispositions towards Time. Whether haunted by the past, the future, or the present, Bloom has a rather antagonistic view of Time: the deaths of his father and son largely mire his thoughts on the past, while he takes a fatalist view of his wife's imminent infidelity. Bloom's resignation to Molly's transgression is one of the strangest dynamics in literature. He has an uncommon knowledge of the impending cheat, but deliberately avoids interrupting it: 4-o-clock at 7 Eccles St. but he keeps himself away all day, he knows it is going to occur, and he senses it occur even prematurely when he sees Boylan leave the Ormond Hotel. Like his view on death (Thursdays buried by Fridays, etc. etc.) his view on the past and present is one of uncanny insouciance. On the other hand, his spouse Molly has a mind almost completely fixated on the past, one which is maybe too nostalgic for its own good, though she has perhaps the healthiest relationship with Time of the three central figures. Her amorous history totally suffuses her consciousness, and she is often reminded of her life in Gibraltar. We learn that her sexual history is much more abbreviated than her husband assumes, and in fact Boylan is her first affair. Though she looks forward to her next assignation with Boylan, her marital reverence for Bloom is prevalent throughout her soliloquy. Stephen, like Bloom, is stalked by death in his past, his mother's death, for which he feels a ponderous guilt; he is unhappy with his present life, where he feels he is mistreated and underappreciated in comparison to the boisterous medical student, Buck Mulligan, and seeks to escape his situation through drinking and carousing.

Ulysses is a strange novel, it is a fat book with fat ideas and a fat appreciation for language. I think that it is hard to deny the novel's importance, in terms of critical accomplishment, innovative design, and unfettered treatment of life as it is. But it is not a book which is easy to love, and it is not a book which is easy to read. Furthermore, the chapters, famously written in different styles, are uneven. I cannot recommend chapters to be read like short stories, for that would miss the point, miss the excellence of Bloom's creation; but yet the novel is a bit misshapen: where it hits, it hits hard, where it misses, it is laborious. While Ulysses is a great novel, an important novel, it is not the perfect novel. That accolade would demand a greater control of form and pacing, which I think was not at all Joyce's intent anyway: in Ulysses, Joyce creates, not the perfect book, but the perfect character, the complete man, the bonafide outsider. Maybe the two things are mutually exclusive? The longest way home is an uneven trail, with dalliances and circuitous routes, and dead-ends: it is the shortest way home for Bloom, it is the only way home. Ulysses would not be quite Ulysses if Bloom did not wander and ponder about town, nor would The Odyssey be what it is if not for the many stays and stalls and threats and opportunities which stand between Troy and Ithaka.

Ulysses should be read. I believe that. It should be read and enjoyed for what it has to offer, and I think it offers something different for all who read it. But for me it offered sublime beauty in a crass reality, it exposed that even the low-minded are capable of accidental beauty, an aesthetic of their own. While the aesthetic power of Stephen is undeniable, the middle-brow Bloom's is much more intermittent: his mind is very much distracted by his own lascivious imagination and languishing past-sorrow and past-guilt. Molly, who represents the lowest class of the three, has a certainly lewd stream of consciousness, but which has become famous for the final throbs of beauty which permeate her escalating affirmations: yes, yes, yes. Love, death, and most importantly beauty, are everywhere, they are eternal and universal: one need not be an aesthete or a genius to appreciate beauty and wonder, or likewise to appreciate and love Ulysses.
Love - Jean Stewart, B.C.J.G. Knight, Suzanne Sale, Gilbert Sale, Stendhal At first I really loved Stendhal's essays on Love. His theory is that the pains of love are necessary in order to "crystallize" the object of one's love, which basically is a process of transcendence from the real to the ideal, a state which is necessary in real, passionate love. Furthermore, Stendhal dissects love into a number of classifications which range the gambit from passionate romantic love to egotistic physical love to mannered love, etc. It is these meandering discussions of love, what it is and what it isn't, the stages of falling in and out of love, the nuance between love and jealousy, and their co-dependance, which make the first half of Love a real pleasure to read. However, this collection is very imbalanced. The first half is superb, but the second half falls very short of the standard set by its preceding pages. Particularly the generalizations about love in different locales grew very tiresome, as many of these descriptions also felt very dated and now irrelevant.

These essays, while a joy to read, didn't ring with brilliance the way love in fiction does. Love is a sort of strange thing to approach in a methodical essay format, and while I think it works in some short shimmering passages herein, the essays mostly feel coldly scientific. And what qualifies anyone to write about love in this way, anyway? Certainly I have a lot of thoughts on the subject, which typically make their mischievous ways into my reviews here, for better or worse, but am I any authority on the matter? Probably not, I'm a veteran of wedding singles tables, and anyway the closest I've had to a long term relationship is with the "Romantic Comedies" listing on my Netflix account. And what qualifies Stendhal's authority on love? He's french, anyway, which helps. He wrote these essays in a passion to unrequited love for his Italian mistress (who probably helped to inspire the character of Mathilde in The Red and the Black). Whatever his qualifiers for talking about love, it's hard to deny him when he has insights like:
The memories produce a semblance of love; there is the pricking at your pride and the sadness in satisfaction; the atmosphere of romantic fiction catches you by the throat, and you believe yourself lovesick and melancholy, for vanity will always pretend to be grand passion.
or:
Some people, over-fervent, or fervent by starts - loving on credit, if I may put it that way - will hurl themselves upon the experience instead of waiting for it to happen. Before the nature of an object can produce its proper sensation in them, they have blindly invested it from afar with imaginary charm which they conjure up inexhaustibly within themselves.
Stendhal is an astute observer of the psychologies of love and passion, vanity and jealousy: that's what makes his novels so emblematic of realism (even if I think they're a bit melodramatic - but what do you expect? he's french). He is a man who has clearly been steeped in the language of love, the fictions and philosophies of l'amour, but at times his image of it seems almost too big, too grandiose. I felt, when reading this, that all those loves, all of the many kinds and stages of love, where somewhat false to Stendhal. He seems to be trying, at one and the same time, to raise his own (unrequited) love for Countess Dembowska up to a pedestal, but also to vouchsafe it in the realm of the unattainable, the fictive. His love for the countess is the idol which he adores, but it's an idol out of reach, and maybe one which isn't so great: all gilding and no substance.

For Stendhal, love is about what you feel, the subject, the "I" in "I love you." Stendhal's analysis is a dissection of one man, a man in love, in a vacuum. The object of love, the "you" constantly eludes his analysis, and his concept of love is a solitary madness, not a folie à deux. But that is a very selfish, vain kind of emotion. Love is a strange ambiance, a nuance of reality: a world of two. A shared madness is the madness of love (it is the madness of genius which is solitary). Werther, Don Juan: men which Stendhal uses to represent two opposed views of love, are two-of-a-kind. For Werther, his love, his infatuation, with Charlotte, incorporates everything into his love, paints the world with her imagined-love, and ultimately entraps him in his own illusions, and vain imagination. For Don Juan, his passion is removed from emotion, his body is split from his spirit, and his conquests are unreal to him. But Charlotte is unreal to Werther, also. Werther's love is not for Charlotte as she is but as he designs her to be. He is "in love" with the illusion of potential, of what could be or might have been. These loves are different for Stendhal, he sees Werther as a sentimental and passionate man, but he misses the point of Werther's sorrows: Werther does not love Charlotte, but vainly loves to be in love, he is a man of infinite emotion, but emotion without aim, targeting on the passing fancy of the insipid Charlotte.

Stendhal offers a view of love which is compelling, and which is complete, though one which is only a view. There are many loves, and though Stendhal attempts to dissect love in an objective way, and though it seems to be a rational view of amorous affection, it is a tainted and biased view. Love lives and loves vainly in the shadow of Countess Dembowska, a ghostly shade which haunts these pages.
A Midsummer Night's Dream - Stephen Orgel, A.R. Braunmuller, Russ McDonald, William Shakespeare It's Midsummer! The world is crazy! Hermia loves Lysander, Demterius loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, and no one loves Helena! *sudden FAERIE MAGIC* Lysander and Demetrius love Helena! Helena thinks they're mocking her and flees them both, no one loves Hermia! *more Pucking around* All is right, relatively... there are some weddings, in any case. Again we see Shakespeare aligning flowers with madness (cue Ophelia's floral coronet, Lear's flower crown, now Oberon's pansy potion). All the world is not just a stage, but a staging of a dream. An absurd dream, an enchanting dream, and amusing (and bemusing) dream: A Midsummer Night's Dream!

The story of the two lover pairs, while it gets the major focus in adaptations like "Get Over It" is really the backseat absurdity to the real high comedy of Titania, Bottom, and (to lesser degree) the players. The whole play is about the closest I have read of farce: meaningless, roving, absurdly funny. The play is wholly summered up by Theseus and Hippolyta:
HIPPOLYTA
...Seem'd all one mutual cry: I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder.

THESEUS
My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee'd, and dew-lapp'd like Thessalian bulls;
Slow in pursuit, but match'd in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla'd to, nor cheer'd with horn
The play is a complete "discord, such sweet thunder" - it is farce, it is pure entertainment no message. A Midsummer Night's Dream is like the Spartan hound, bred purely for the sound but useless in the hunt (of meaning). Likely because this play was written as a sort of farcical epithalamium for a noble wedding in which Queen Elisabeth was in attendance (hence her allusions in the play). There is not quite a total lack of meaning in the play, though it does lack the heavy moral and philosophical implications of some of Shakespeare's great tragedies or late romances/tragicomedies. What the lover's story signifies to me is the farce of young love. Love-at-first-sight, which is apotheosized in Romeo and Juliet is turned from romantic tragedy to nightmarish comedy. What I notice again and again in Shakespeare is the almost meaningless pairings of young lovers. Hero and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, everyone in Twelfth Night, even Edmund's nonchalance in picking between Goneril and Regan in King Lear: there is nothing predictive in pairing, all young love leads to success of failure and the courting is only a superficiality; in the words of Hamlet's Player King:
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own
Young lovers' thoughts and actions are their own, they choose who the "love," but ultimately that is meaningless because the destination of those choices is decided by fate not supposed affection. Though Hermia and Lysander are mutually "in love" it is hard to say whether they will be the happier couple than the still-enchanted Demetrius and Helena.

What makes this play so funny is the endearing humanity of Bottom, turned into an ass and become the object of affection of the faerie queen Titania. Bottom is adorably childlike in disposition, and full of innocent exuberance. He is the less grotesque and better-natured clown than Malvolio. He has the self-awareness to know Titania is mad, and not madly in love, but he enjoys his sojourn in the faerie realm, making friends with the small attendants: Peaseblossom, Mote, Mustardseed, and Cobweb. Contrary to Twelfth Night, wherein the whole cast, save Feste, is somewhat insane, too imaginative, or in any case "too much" of something, in Midsummer Night's Dream the human cast, except Bottom and perhaps Puck, seems largely unimaginative. We are alone enchanted by Bottom and by Puck: Bottom because he is silly, but always self-possessed (his composure at being turned ass puts Gregor Samsa to shame for his shock); Puck is the benign trickster, a sort of Ariel to Oberon's Prospero, but with a joking/pranking disposition like Iago or Hamlet. Puck, the benign joker, Bottom the good-natured joked. We love Bottom because he is the better human than ourselves: he is easy going, he is shrewd (admittedly without wit), and yet he is not beyond us: He is no Hamlet, his consciousness is not infinite, we know its circumferences from the play.
Hamlet (The Pelican Shakespeare) - Stephen Orgel, A.R. Braunmuller, William Shakespeare Why do we love Hamlet so much? Certainly he is Shakespeare's single most-perfect creation, and among the ranks of Falstaff, Iago, Macbeth, as the Bard's most-memorable creatures. But why do we love him so much? It's kind of an odd question, "We love him because he's Hamlet!" is the answer I guess, but it is what makes Hamlet Hamlet that I'm pondering, coming off my re-read of this great tragedy.

In Hamlet, we are posed the famous dichotomy: "to be or not to be?" But somehow throughout the play, everything defies being/not-being. If a tragedy is something which didn't have to happen, Hamlet is the ultimate tragedy, which goes so far beyond the the tragedies of Seneca and Sophocles that it renders the definition almost anachronistic. Hamlet is the ultimate tragic figure, he has such freedom throughout the entire play to escape his "fate" that we are puzzled as readers what really compels him to his death. He could leave Denmark, sneak back to Wittenburg, he could rally the public who adores him more than Claudius to his side to overthrow the villain-king, he could simply sit by and wait for Claudius to die at which point he would be the natural heir. Instead he is paralyzed by the knowledge of his father's murder. He is not simply a "prince who thinks too much" but a prince who knows too well, he cannot reconcile his life with the knowledge he has.

What is curious in Hamlet, is his lovable villainy. Hamlet is perhaps more a hero-villain than he is a villain-hero. He is the agent, if not actor, of the play's eight deaths (including his own): the wicked trick played on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the insanity and suicide of Ophelia, the stabbing of Polonius, the fatal sparring of himself and Laertes, the accidental poisoning of Gertrude, and the last-moment murder of Claudius. Despite his crimes, he is shockingly detached. He is unmoved by his murder of Polonius, and even his mother's death elicits only a "Wretched Queen, adieu." He is the quintessence of disinterest, and when he is confused and mourning, it is a cerebral kind of mourning: more perplexed by the confrontation of his disinterest and the conventions of how interested he should be. Hamlet loves no one. His relationship with the previous Hamlet is a distant one, his father (in the form of his ghost) clearly has nothing in common with his son besides his name, his urge of "Revenge, Hamlet!" is expecting a revenge hero of the philosophical prince. By Act V his mourning for his father is decidedly ended, and replaced with a matured poise and reconciliation with death. We do not believe Hamlet when he tells Laertes he loved Ophelia, his nonchalance and cruelty in their courtship has illustrated his disinterestedness in her. Even Horatio he seems not to love, though he know Horatio loves him - his urging of Horatio away from suicide is not to preserve his friend's life but to preserve his own sullied reputation!

But despite his crimes and faults, readers and audiences love Hamlet. I suspect it is because we so identify with him. Hamlet is a dual-character, both young university man of 20 and matured man of 30 (in Act V, according to the gravedigger); he is solipsistic as a child but with the awareness of a philosopher; the cunning of Iago with the playful wit of Rosalind or Falstaff. But most importantly he alone is aware of his own consciousness, which seems without circumference. No one understands Hamlet except Hamlet, Horatio comes closest but still falls short. Hamlet is everything we are, but everything we are still somehow falls short of the Danish Prince. We feel grossly misunderstood, we feel that we are alone in our understanding of our Selves - and that is precisely the case of Hamlet. But Hamlet is still and enigma to us, he is the impetus of self-transformation: he is always changing yet always distinctly himself. He is nearly the conceptualization of himself, defying the imprisonment of language, slipping out from under definitions, escaping out the window when we shut the door behind him. He is infinite, but he is tragic: he meets his end with full knowledge and with cold distance.
HAMLET
O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.

GUILDENSTERN
Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

HAMLET
A dream itself is but a shadow.
ROSENCRANTZ
Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a
quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.
A shadow's shadow - what a concept! And that is what Hamlet is, a shadow of a shadow. He is the darkest umbra of our consciousness, he is the villain and victim of himself. There is no true villain worthy of Hamlet, except Hamlet himself.
for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.
Hamlet is the shadow to the light of thought. He is in full acknowledgement of his freedom, but he chooses instead to see only his prison. Hamlet writes his own tragedy: the end shocks us, it seems beyond what should have happened, and only Hamlet himself could have conceived the bloody end which is the culmination of his own shadowy thoughts.

Opposing the likes of the prized prince to the manikin man Claudius is almost to approach farce, it is an absurd mismatch of wits. But Hamlet undoes himself, as we all undo ourselves. What compels us toward our own destructions if not our knowledge? Is not the seduction of tree of knowledge the origin of our first fall? Our ambitions make us deliberately overlook our risks - we are aware of them, but they are peripheral when our eyes are landed on a prize. By Act V, Hamlet is detached from his family drama. His few weeks at sea seem to have cured his melancholy, yet he returns by his own volition to the fateful prison of Denmark, to the eightfold fatality of Denmark. He returns to kill Claudius, though by Act V we are not sure why, and it seems it is only the impetus of inertia and not the passion of revenge.

"Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark" is a synonymatic phrase for meaninglessness. What would the play be without the prince? Not only does he speak approximately a third of (what I believe is) Shakespeare's longest play, but he nearly writes the play himself - what of the remaining 2/3 of dialogue is not about Hamlet? In King Lear the tragedies of Lear and of Gloucester are mostly divergent, only commingling in the final scenes: they exist in the same world but neither Edgar nor Lear writes the play. Hamlet literally writes the play of "The Mousetrap," though we suspect the largeness of Hamlet also rivals his creator in writing his own play, Hamlet. We are endeared by Hamlet's otherness, his intellect, his strangeness. He loves no one, he is widely loved, but scarcely understood. Hamlet is aloof, enigmatic, villainous and heroic. We love Hamlet, but Hamlet will never love us back.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie - Laura Joffe Numeroff, Felicia Bond If you give a mouse a cookie is the story of the perversity of desire, and more particularly the stunted pleasures of the bourgeoisie. Written by the exquisite Laura Numeroff, in what can only be assumed was a violent passion for sterile aloofness from the society which she condemned, and a lust for concision which would socialize her treatise against the deadening wants, making it accessible to the masses. I can imagine her, unbathed, ignorant of her own hunger and thirst, cutting every insignificant word in a Flaubertian frenzy for le mot juste.

The titular titmouse is a scathing manifestation of our ruling, yet tirelessly servile, middle class – his small figure manifests the smallness of our self-worth, and the relative largesse of our smallest desires. Every visible aspect of the overall-clad hero hearkens us to the plight of the middle class in the late twentieth century. The mouse, like man, is easily won over to new “needs” – endlessly trying to fill the vacancy of his own heart, deadened by the loss of illusion, by the evaporation of virtue, and the brutal ennui of routine. But as the significantly unnamed mouse usurps his pleasures and whims from his remote human benefactors, we too usurp our desires. Whether from the conspicuous consumption of the upper classes, from the romantic visions of novels and television programming, or from the simple white noise of broadcast advertising, which we subconsciously mold into our own desires – desires for things which we do not want. René Girard identifies this parallel with chilling accuracy to our present condition: "The distance between Don Quixote and the petty bourgeois victim of advertising is not so great as romanticism would have us believe.” It is easy to replace “bourgeois victim” with our murine hero, raising to idolatry his search for false desires, which leads to a parodically circuitous odyssey of “want.”
Numeroff’s story is one of deceptive simplicity, but with a jarring impact. In less than three-hundred words, she is captures the movement of emotion of her literary predecessors, primarily of French origin, though also hearkening back to the Homeric epics. Proust, James, Balzac, Dickens are among Numeroff’s literary forefathers, and her precision for language shows a heavy influence of Flaubert, contemporarily manifest in the logical exactitude of Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. Take or example the opening sequence:
If you give a mouse a cookie,
He’s going to ask for a glass of milk.
When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw.
When he’s finished, he’ll ask for a napkin.
Then he will want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache.
Immediately we are drawn into a contained cosmos of desire – which is postulated in a hypothetical, though illustrated in an ever-present reality. While we are kept somewhat distanced from our mouselike counterpart by the conditional, we are drawn in by the seeming reality of the action, the omniscience of the narrator, an almost godly knowing, reminds us of a master Chess player, foreseeing the hero’s moves, up to his ultimate epiphany, from the first line. We are acquainted with the mouse with such immediacy, we feel we know him, we feel as though he is a part of us, or perhaps more than we are – despite his size. Though we are removed from the hero’s consciousness, we feel he is both naïve of his circuitous desires, but also disturbingly manipulative. This contradiction, this naïvete matched with perturbing self-possession, concerns the reader – how aware am I of my own desires? We are moved, our uncertainty of the hero’s self-awareness is never satisfied. We observe the seeming naïvete and it enlightens us to our own short commings of self-awareness. “To see someone who does not see is the best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see” argued Barthes, and it is precisely the salient power of If you give a mouse a cookie.

The godless landscape of If you give a mouse a cookie is one marked by a total secularization of morality and gratification. The parallels to our own secular society, in which we are diminished to figurative animals - beasts of pure will driven in the vain effort for satiety of our animalistic desires. Instead of a God, the world within the story is governed by a maternalistic hand - more reminiscent of Neo-Marxian doctrine of entitlement than it is to the classical Judeo-Chrisitan rule of centuries past. Instead of being ruled by virtue, or protagonist is ruled by the ever-demanding "want!" of his body. Cookies, milk, soft bedding, but no time for self reflection, no orison nor even secular gratitude is shared by our profane hero. We compare the mouse's struggle for "want" to the Defoe's struggle for need in Robinson Crusoe, and we are dismayed at the descent from virtue of our present day society, in which our vices and excesses have supplanted our virtues and reservations.

In his gustatory pursuits, we observe his coy glances, his polite demeanor, but ultimately his ingratitude. And what disturbs us as the reader is his humanlike disposition, his canny vanity, his concern with appearances and hygienic preoccupations, and his servility to routine. His look into the pierglass is so human that one expects to see our diminutive friend the next time we check for our own milk-mustaches – the parodic symbol of self-indulgence and minor fall from poise. The vanity implicit in our héros de rongeurs is startling parallel to our own fall from grace, manifest in Milton's Paradise Lost. Despite his many pleasures, his many "wants" they are startlingly mundane to us, they are self-serving but unambitious. He foregoes the search for self-discovery, for transcendent pleasure, for the pleasures of immediacy, which feed his vanity and his comfort. His look into the mirror reveals to us a world of pleasures forgone, given up, in the vain restraints of society, with which he is disturbingly complicit. His concern for his milk-mustache, his imagined need for a haircut - a purely imaginary need for our rodent friend, one which is purely vain and removed from true necessity, disturbs us, but warms us to him. He is made more human to us, but that is precisely the element which disturbs us and makes us question our own vain pursuits.

But our hero’s desires are manifold. What begins as a novel of unhealthy appetite of necessity and hunger, become a hunger for a higher appetite: the hunger for the aesthetic.
He’ll probably ask you to read him a story. So you’ll read him one from one of your books, and he’ll ask to see the pictures. When he looks at the pictures, he’ll get so excited he’ll want to draw one of his own. He’ll ask for paper and crayons.
What began as low hierarchical needs (according to Maszlow), rises with expediency to needs of self-realization in his pursuit for artistic expression. This passage is the greatest drop of the mask of our narrator revealing her greater purpose: to expose the mimetic nature of our deepest desires. Upon hearing the story, which we imagine is the very story we are reading – a classical representation of the meta-literary play often attributed to post-modern writers, and seeing the illustrations, he is moved by a previously unknown desire. Due to the constrained world in which the narrative takes place –a small house, presumably in the suburbs, a set-manifestation of the class so brutally satirized – we must consider this desire within the constraint of the story. What moves our hero to request a bedtime story? We can only assume it is a routine he has usurped from his benefactors, a further emulation of their posh lives which they take for granted. The story is so moving to the mouse that he is immediately affected. What author can claim artistic impulse in a void? Certainly no contemporary author is without his or her literary influences. Literature too is circuitous in its search for the truth: every author seeks the “answers” behind his characters, behind his plot, behind the meaning of his life’s work, but each author usurps his questions from his literary forefathers (or foremothers). Where is literature without Homer? Without Sophocles or Plato, Plutarch? The question we are never answered is what moved the unnamed author of the unknown bedtime story to write it? We know only that our bourgeois protagonist seeks emulation of that art.

If you give a mouse a cookie ends with an almost Borgesian nihilism: “ Looking at the refrigerator will remind him that he’s thirsty so…he’ll ask for a glass of milk. And chances are if he asks for a glass of milk, he’s going to want a cookie to go with it.” Thus desire begets desire, begets desire – the search for fulfillment is endless, and our hero is left always hungry for something new, but can never identify what that is. We are left haunted by this “children’s” story, but the foolishness of the petite protagonist, who wants big things – but those “big things” seem very small to us. It makes the reader turn in upon himself/herself and wonder: what do I want? And what is the ultimate path of my “wants”? Can I ever be fulfilled or am I resigned to the mazy route of routine-desire?

Imagine waking up to realize the fruition of your ultimate desire is only the begetting of more desires? Desires of things which you only believe that you want? Chilling.
The Odyssey - Homer, Robert Fitzgerald, D.S. Carne-Ross Homer's The Odyssey is so grounded in the foundation of world literature that it is largely beyond reproach, and likewise beyond praise. Homer's two epics, this and the Iliad, are two halves of the same foundation: the journey out, and the journey back; the external conflict, the internal conflict; the war saga, the family saga. The two comprise such a vastness, that it would seem that most, if not all, Western literature are the offspring of Homer. From the Iliad we have War & Peace, Moby Dick; from the Odyssey we have (obviously) Ulysses, Catcher in the Rye, and even Anna Karenina, which is the sort of family-odyssey counterpart to Tolsoy's other epic. With so much influence Homer has had on literature as we know and love it, it is nearly impossible to say anything about it: it is the Odyssey! You know it before you read it, it is pervasive in our culture, it's alluded to everywhere. So what can I say? Read it! And importantly, read the Fitzgerald translation - much better than the Fagles one. The writing is alive and modern without being hackneyed and colloquial.

I have read the Odyssey three times now, and I always find myself enjoying it immensely. Every re-read has a new treasure. There is no "ideal age" to read this, in fact, it seems to age with you perfectly. The parallel stories of Father and Son are moving in their own ways. While Telemakhos aspires to be as great as his father, he is something wholly different, but with rival grace and greatness. Unlike Odysseus, the war hero and great bravery of Ithaka, Telemakhos is more timid, but humble. He has a grace which his father lacks. On my first journey through the Odyssiad, I was vexed by the story of the son, I wanted to get to the story I knew: Odysseus and the Cyclops! the Sirens! Scylla and Charybdis! Circe and Kalypso! While these stories are exciting, they lack the emotional impact of the parallel story at home in Ithaka. Odysseus is the original trickster, the eternal youth-at-heart, impervious to personal growth but with a compensatory charisma what make people forgive his lack of poise (Poseidon excepted). We can observe in Telemakhos a true progression, and a truer emotional character than his father.

Telemakhos' family life is source of constant internal struggle. His relationship to his father who he has never met is a mix of god-like worship, regret and doubt. He was born while Odysseus was at war in Troy, and knows only his father as the figure of legend. Because the figure of his father is so tall, he is debilitated with self-doubt and feelings of low-esteem. He is not taken seriously by the suitors despite his true claim to the house of Ithaka, and partially it is because he scarcely believes in his own entitlement to that house. Because of his complicated relationship to his father, his maternal relationship is likewise in an unsteady state. While he is deferential to his mother, he is somewhat distanced from her grief. His love for his father can only be a kind of superficial hero-worship, while Penelope's is genuine feelings of love and devotion.

Very little is explicit in Homer. He is removed by centuries from the psychological analysis of his characters, and he gives no clues as to what his characters think or feel, he only tells us how things appear, things acted, things done. Telemakhos' journey is the journey of knowledge, and knowledge is a source of pain to him until Odysseus reveals himself in Ithaka. As in the story of Hamlet, knowledge is a wound, a paralysis to action. The more he learns about his father, the less Telemakhos' feels capable to deal with his absence. While he is largely free to action in the start, removed from real entanglement in his mother's bed, convinced of his father's death, as he learns more about his father and about his likely chance of return, his poise is shaken. He cannot in good conscience marry off his mother, but can neither hold off the suitors alone. His father becomes more and more real to him through the stories of Nestor and Menelaos - men who he respects, removed from the island of Ithaka.

The story of Odysseus is the story of, literally and metaphorically, struggling to stay afloat. He is caught in the fray of fates: Poseidon poised against him, Athena for him, and Zeus ultimately but reservedly in line with his daughter than with his brother. Odysseus's pride is his greatest flaw, and it ultimately undoes his own cleverness. While the narrative saves him from death at sea, the message of The Odyssey seems to me a caveat against pride. The suitors are prideful and disrespectful even to the gods and they are sent packing to Hades, Odysseus is prideful and is kept away from home for twenty years despite his accomplishments and reverence. Odysseus, like Othello, believes in his own mythological persona. In his re-telling of his story, he shuffles blame off of himself, largely blaming his crew's thoughtlessness or the gods' rage for his misfortunes. He learns later of his fault from Kalypso, though he seems still too prideful for his own good. Like the trickster he is, he can't help himself but to take credit for his tricks: unmasking his "Nohbdy" disguise to credit himself with Polyphemos' blindness. But it is Odysseus who is blinded, by his own hubris.

The Odyssey is a must-read for everyone. And nearly everyone has read it, so that recommendation is moot.