All I Want in Life Is …

June 4, 2015

Fifteen book-related statements and what I say in comparative parallels.

1. Books. Especially books. Books remain my favorite objects in this long life. Among my 6,000 volume library, I have kept some books going back to early childhood.

2. Books. Particularly books with lasting value. I pride myself that I am not caught up with current best-sellers just because other people are reading them. Rather, I want books that may be reread with increasing enjoyment or that continue to provide the information I want as time goes by.

3. Comfy chair to read books. A quiet place to read. I favor quiet: noise repels me. I generally have a book within arm’s reach at all times. I read most often at my desk, in a hard chair, or sitting up in bed.

4. Books. Classics of literature and in other fields. I know the value of some books purchased may dwindle or I may change my priorities, but those classics that are a generation or more old promise continued value and usefulness to me and my pursuits.

5. Money for books. Opportunity to find the books that interest me at discount prices. I find that rather than money the best resource for acquisition is patience and the enjoyment of searching. Some of the very best books in the world can be had for very little money.

6. Library full of books. The fruitful necessity of enough room for the books I want to keep. I once had twice the number of books I have now before downsizing took its toll. We chose the house we occupy in part because what was the family room in the lower level would accommodate about 6,000 books. I want to keep living within such an accommodation.

7. Bookmarks. Bookmarks that are unique, attractive and of the cause each promotes. Bookmarks are a side issue, but I appreciate them. For books that I do not want to deface with library marks, I put the call number on a bookmark I made by covering cardstock with attractive wrapping paper and attaching the call number patch to that.

8. Books. To keep on discovering more meaning in books. Books have not exhausted me, and I have not exhausted them. I trust this symbiotic relationship will continue.

9. A man who reads books. Becoming a better man through books. I can always improve and so much of what I have valued and learned is due to books in total more than to any other factor.

10. Stacks of books. Getting through the stacks of books I have waiting for me to read them. Alas I doubt that I shall ever get to any kind of appreciable end.

11. Time to read books. Better use of the time I have remaining to read the better books. As far as I can tell we all have the same amount of daily time and the challenge is to find good uses for it. My time wrestles against a variety of interests and a habit of volunteering.

12. Shelves for books. That the crammed shelves I have hold up. The only improvement possible is moving or installing compact storage. At this stage, neither seems affordable or necessary.

13. Books. To maintain a steady state library. The idea of maintenance in library size is a realistic one at this point in my 75 years.

14. Tea to drink while I read books. Remembering to keep in shape by regular breaks from reading. Reading books has to compete with church, family, gardening, bicycling, other exercise, and miscellaneous entertainments – all for my continued well-being.

15. Books. To spread the necessity, values, and enjoyment of books. When you are possessed by such a wonderfully profitable opportunity, how can you keep it to yourself?

The above 15 list appeared to me on Facebook and was printed on 1 September 2014. I finally got around to stating my own wishes. The original is clever and emphatic. My responses represent my preferences about the subject at hand that I want to reveal as best I can.

Corrected and slightly revised, 1 January 2016.

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Copyright © 2015 by Roger Sween.


Read in 2013

June 19, 2013

Books  Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

This post continues in process, updated as I return book by book to discussing my reading.

Ratings given follow the system used in the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%; 3-middling; 2-less than average, 1-bottom. Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections; CP-Classics for Pilgrim Book Club; SF-Stratford Festival plays; YA-titles written for teenage or younger readers.

11 June 2013: Antonio Maldo, Do You Believe: conversations on God and religion (2007); 1st published in Italian (2006) 178p.

Through his own contacts and other connections, Maldo held eighteen interviews with noted individuals, mostly authors of great literary distinction or those renown in the film industry. All subjects had an American connection and he met them in New York City, other east coast locations, or one in Rome. The first interview was in 2002, 3 in 03, 2 in 04, 10 in 05, and 2 in 06. The eldest of the contributors was Saul Bellow (1915-2005) followed by Arthur Schlesinger (1917-2007) and Grace Paley (1922-2007). The youngest were Jonathan Franzen (b. 1959) and Spike Lee (b. 1957).

The encounters reported depended on availability – Arthur Miller and Susan Sontag who were wanted died before the project reached them – so no pretense of statistical representation can be claimed. Determining how much of what is reported is due to what was said or Maldo’s editing remains impossible. Nevertheless, the interviews, about 600 words each, are elegant, lively, and stimulating.

Faith backgrounds include, Jews, Protestants, a Muslim, and Catholics. As individuals, the 18 included believers and non-believers and at least one pronounced agnostic. Nevertheless, all admit to the function of religion historically, in the culture, and in politics. In general, they have all probed themselves over the existence of deity, the role of belief in life and values, the mysteries of life, and the problems of fundamentalism reaching into society. As is often the case, they criticize faiths for rigid doctrine, bureaucracy, the hypocrisy of believers, theocracy or meddling in politics. Many of the interviewed regard faith as a private or personal matter, mentioning that it is not talked about. As intellectuals all, they see faith as a matter of consent and prize religion to the extent that it provides freedom; no one mentions even a glimmer of faith as a work performed within the soul or by the divine. Further, no one mentions a scriptural source as the basis of belief. Maldo poses each time the quote, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” (Hebrews 11.1). Yet no one deals with what this statement means or the individual words signify.

On the whole I found the respondents articulate and full of marvelous expressions on religion and the times in which we live. Reading the interviews produced in me a rapt attention and gave me a profound sense of admiration. I read through the book quickly, penciling on the pages many reactions and notations. Afterwards, I eagerly returned to analyze the whole. Here are but a few gems.

The problem of absolutism is that it leads you to believe that you own the truth. If you start from this assumption, you open the door to every sort of distortion, and you dehumanize whoever doesn’t share your beliefs. – Paul Suster, p.23

…seeking the truth is what makes life bearable. Some time ago, when I was correcting a manuscript, I had a flash of intuition, and from that moment, I swore to myself that everything I produced would have to be sincere, including the articles and conjunctions. – Paula Fox, p.79

My own religion is books, and to me the believers are the people who read, and the sad fact is that I’m just not very interested in people who don’t read, unless they feel like converting to my religion. – Jonathan Franzen, p.88

… I know that there always exists a yearning for God. All the mind can do is learn, and the moment when the mind stops coincides with death. – Toni Morrison, p.120

[Pascal] wasn’t the first to speak of a hidden God. The Bible itself speaks of God who covers his face. And my interpretation – it’s not only mine – is that God covers his face because he can’t bear wheat he sees, what men do. – Elie Wiesel, p.170.

These interviews appear to me to be a host of beginnings. The participants identify a number of authors, novels, directors, and films that have religious or spiritual implications. I am making my list of where to go next.

I give this one a 4+ for its many offerings, even though theologically I found it wanting.

2 August 2013: Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: listening for the voice of vocation (2000). 117p.

Parker, a noted educator, spiritual guide and advocate, explores the intersection of two human concerns of prime interest to me – selfhood and vocation. Selfhood means the inner identity of one’s life; vocation means a recognition of calling as to the principal aims and actions of that life. Presumably each self has a unique identity and thereby each vocation, however it may be categorized, has its unique aim. Realization of self and responsiveness to vocation are necessarily journeys of discovery and development.

Palmer’s personal story forms a base to this guidebook since, though outwardly successful in his early career, he felt unfulfilled and mistaken. The breakthrough to true self came in listening to what his own experience identified as gifts (or strengths) and liabilities (or weaknesses). If we pause to recognize these inward facts, they will define and direct us as a person.

At first reading, I found myself cautiously judgmental because he bemoaned his academic way of thinking through the problem as though it were a head problem “far from the ground.” Since I’m in my head most of the time, this is a hard lease. In a second reading, I found the book tight and consistent with his emphasis on consciousness of experience wile listening to self and connecting with others to be relevant and helpful.

At his point, I will say 4 given that the although the book is compact it is accordingly slight; the advice is mostly of a signpost nature and requires individual application and testing.

Copyright © 2013 by Roger Sween.

I welcome all comments to blog articles. For personal comments to me, send to my email.


Read in 2010

November 15, 2010

Books Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

Updated 17 June 2013. This post is updated as I return to discussing my reading.

Ratings given follow the system established for the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom. Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections. SF – Stratford Festival plays. YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

John Hassler, The New Woman (2005). BC.  Hassler was a Minnesotan through and through, one of the states most popular authors. By popular, I mean he attracted large audiences to his readings. I was fortunate to hear him three times over a 15 year period and to have a conversation with him at the last. He was in charge of those presentations, assured and practiced in his delivery, but also modest about his accomplishments. Hassler wrote from a common background as though somewhere in the midst of the state; one series of his novels revolve around the city of Staggerford and its residents. Agatha McGee is one civic leader who appeared as a side figure in Staggerford (1977) where in Hassler’s words, “she took over” and went on to star in novels of her own – A Green Journey (1985) and Dear James (1993). Miss McGee returns in this one, eighty-eight in 1998.

A couple of bad turns in Agatha’s life move her to leave her big house on the river. She tries and then settles into Sunset Senior Apartments alongside some old friends and many strangers.  Even though Hassler claimed to have given up short stories, this novel seems like three of them knit together.  Agatha misses a diamond brooch she thinks stolen; she shelters a kidnapped child despite the law and her conscience, and she helps form a support group for the depressed.  The overall plot unrolls Agatha’s internal life, and this is where Hassler excels; he is a master of characterization and stories that follow from character.  Agatha, used to being in charge as a teacher and Catholic school principal, exercising her deep respect for tradition and morality even over the resident priest becomes for readers someone more than her apparent past.

Now, I want to read the other novels. 4

*Ursula K. Le Guin, Powers (2007).  After Gifts (xxx) and Voices (xxx), this novel is the third in Le Guin’s series Annals of the Western Shore.  Though I am a devoted fan of Le Guin, who has long inspired me, these books were previously unknown to me.  I read Powers at once, savoring every word. Le Guin has said that “in art, the best is the standard,” and she endeavors to fulfill that aesthetic.

In her novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), Le Guin contrasts different cultures with one another. In Powers, young Gavir experiences one culture after another.  Gav and his older sister Sullo had been taken by slavers from their distant home and raised in the household of Arcamand, a patrician family of Etra, a city state, one among many. Their teacher was a slave who passed on his conservative learning and traditional understanding to Gavir so that the Arcas could provide continuing schooling for the children, both of the family and slaves.  As a house slave, Gavir had opportunity to devote himself to learning and relationships within the household.

Suddenly the dark underside of slavery descends upon Gavir.  His sister drowns, apparently due to sexual games of the young lords of the town.  Overwrought with grief, Gavir wanders away witlessly and would have perished were it not for a barbaric hermit who shelters him.  Afterwards Gavir spends time with a band of slaves, then as the seeming favorite of Barna’s band, Heart of the Forest.  Barna advocates freedom for all, but acts otherwise as the man in control.  Gavir moves on once again in quest of his origins, finds his own people, but realizes he is not one of them and seeks once more for a home that satisfies.

Ostensibly a fantasy because of the power of visioning the future, Le Guin uses each vivid setting and complex relationship of characters to illuminate the powers of self-discovery and identification. All this in the most excellent prose. 5, or close to it.

Copyright © 2010 by Roger Sween.

*Given to me by Cy Chauvin, who shares my taste in novels and well-knows what I like.

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First appearing as Read in 10 in Ceptsform on Blogspot, the post moved as Read in 2010 to WordPress, 15 Nov. 2010.

I welcome all comments to blog articles. For personal comments to me, send to my email address.


Read in 2009

November 15, 2010

Books Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

Ratings given follow the system established for the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom.    Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections.  SF – Stratford Festival plays.  YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

Will Weaver, Memory Boy (2006).  YA.   After a massive volcanic eruption in which civilization begins to crack, Miles, a teenage boy, and his family leave the Twin Cities in the hope of more security in northern Minnesota.  Miles’ past experiences, as recalled, help them on to a safer place. 3

Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club (1993).  BC.  The Pickles are not your typical quilting club; or, are they?  They’ve been meeting so long in Harveyville, Kansas that by the dirty thirties days of the Great Depression, they have some second generation members.  Queenie, who tells the story is one, and Rita, her opposite – a sophisticate from Denver – is a newcomer.  Rita tries to settle in, but discovered bones of a murdered man divert her attention to solving the crime.  Characters of the quilters, however, take prominence and Rita learns far more than she expected.  A very delightful book.  4

Cormac MCarthy, The Road (2006).  Few books are as gripping and excellently written as this one.  The story of a unnamed man and his young son heading south in hopes of escaping an apocalytptic winter takes the breath away by sheer power of suggestive language and the horror of incident after incident.  Though the premise is the same as Memory Boy above, McCarthy puts that naive book to shame.  One of the best, an absolute 5.  The film, later seen, pales in comparison to the gripping tension and artistic creation of forbodding in the book.

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007).  BC.  Two Afghani women, differing in age by a generation, background and early experience, find their fortunes come together in the brutal days of the Taliban.  I grew amazed how Hosseini, with only The Kite Runner to his credit, could master this compelling story with such command and meaning.  The richness of Afghanistan’s history, peoples and poetic culutre comes through alongside the poverty and brutality.  4

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813; edited by Vivien Jones, 1996).  BC.  For years I put off reading Austen, whom I judged wrote for women.  It took broadcasting her novels to get me going and realize how accomplished, insightful, and satiric she was.  I think of Persuasion as her most accomplished novel until I read Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice that also jostle for first place.  Her books always seem to be about money or the lack of it and the necessity of marriage for women who are not willing to settle for just anything.  But they are all about character of which no two individuals are ever alike. 5, of course.

Avi, Crispin: the cross of lead (2002).  YA.  In the time of Edward III, the high middle ages of 14th century England, Asta’s son, known later as Crispin, finds himself not only orphaned but a public enemy and on the run.  Puzzled and afraid, Crispin barely survives on his own until taken under the wing of Bear.  This independent and enterprising older man helps him onward to further adventures and confident acceptance of himself.  Too much razzle-dazzle for me.  3 

Avi, Crispin: at the edge of the world (2006).  YA.  As Crispin and Bear continue their precipitous flight from the feudal powers after them, I thought all would be resolved and Crispin would gain not only ability with his knowledge and self-acceptance, but some restoration of his rightful place in society would follow.  Instead, much time is spent in the rescue of the mysterious girl, Troth.  Disappointing.  3

Beryl Markham, West with the Night (1983; first published 1942).  BC.  Markham was the first person to fly across the Atlantic, east to west, before Lindberg flew first west to east.  We hardly ever hear of her, yet she was famous in her own day.  Growing up motherless in Africa where her father raised horses, she pursued her own education and interests and in mature years wrote of them.  That writing is fantastic, vivid, arresting and beautiful.  We learn of lion attacks, native wisdom, majestic racehorses, and the awesome grandeur of piloting through the bush.  A stunning book, worthy of much greater attention.  5

Karen Cushman, Catherine, called Birdie (1994).  YA.  Catherine is the spoiled teenage daughter of a feudal lord who does everything she can to avoid being married off to an old baron against her will.  She tells her own story by running comments on the calendar’s day by day designation of which saint it remembers.  The book is jaunty and often silly.  I wished Catherine would get more of a grip on life instead of being saved by a deus ex machina at the end.  Though a Newberry Honor Book, I give it a 2.

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995).  YA.  Brat, latter called Beetle, is as feisty as Catherine but slowly becomes more estimable.  She begrudges her poor situation but finally by observation and clever initiative takes on more worth.  It’s a slow process, but a quick read.  This Newberry Medal Book gets a 3 from me.

Karen Cushman, Matilda Bone (2000).  YA.  Matilda is as oblivious of her station as Catherine and as slow to wake up as Beetle,  but goes through the same slow progress.  The medieval setting, which is why I read these books, comes through here, primarily regarding the primitive and nonsensical practice of medicine.  3, begrudgingly.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin (2007).  Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has a lot to do with the restoration of his father’s work in sequencing more fully the legends and tales antecedent to The Lord of the Rings.  This story, though appearing sketchily in The Simalrilian and Tales appears here as a novel.  It has the ring of Tolkien’s awesome prose and proceeds as continuous high tragedy.  I liked the pace and style of it as the unfortunate Turin works through Morgoth’s curse upon him and all his family.  4

Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing (1950).  BC.  This was Lessing’s first novel and the first one I have read.  I was surprised how good it is.  We know the outcome from the beginning, but we don’t know why.  By filling in the great blank of motivation and misunderstanding, Lessing captures our attention and interest into the complex of character, station, aspiration and regret between the Rhodesian farmer, his sorry wife, and the black servant who tends to her.  4

William Shakespeare, Macbeth (ca. 1606; Mowat & Werstine, 1992).  SF.  I had not read Macbeth since senior year in high school nor ever seen it acted.  However, we were going to see it at Stratford, and coincidentally the St. Olaf College President, a former English Professor, invited class reunion planners to his seminar on the play.  The discussion of the Macbeths and their motivations increased our interest.  In this read, Macbeth appeared to quickly fall to temptation while his Lady obsessed over it until her own doom foreshadows his due end.  5

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano [de Bergerac](1897 ; Burgess, 1998).  SF.  One of my long-time favorites, seen only previously on film and television versions.  This more complete script makes greater sense, especially of Roxanne showing up at the battlefront and of Cyrano’s death scene.  5

Jean Racine, Phèdre (1677; Rawlings, 1961).  SF.  Contrary to Euripides’ Hippolytus and Renault’s The Bull from the Sea, where Phaedra otherwise schemes, here Christian conscience wracks her, only understandable by knowing the influence of Jansenism on Racine.  Consequently, because of all the handwringing, I did not care for it as much.  4

Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters (1901; Dunnigan, 1964).  SF.  I must have seen this some years ago because I vaguely remember it.  It is reminiscent of Cherry Orchard in setting and interpersonal dynamics but a different story.  Chekhov’s technique in these dramas was to tell an unrelenting story of stressful changes over time propelled by action that happens off stage.  The power of a Chekhov play grows on you with reflection though it was never fun to read or watch.  5

Robert Lawson, Mr. Revere and I (1981; 1st published 1953).  YA.  On his famous ride, Paul Revere rode a horse named Scheherazade.  At first, she is the very proper British horse of a foppish regimental officer.  Through rough circumstances, Scheherazade becomes a member of the Revere family.  She tells all.  Though her prim voice continues, her attitudes change over time as she begins to see the merits of the colonists and their revolution.  One of the best YA novels and historical send-ups I have ever read, and very delightful.  5

Edward F. Droge, Your Intelligence Makeover (2005).  Droge, who eventually earned a doctorate, began as a poor student.  Now he lauds learning and in this book proposes easy steps to demonstrate it.  I found the book seriously flawed in concept and execution, starting with the diagnostic tests to gauge areas of strength and weakness. I read it because books of this kind appeal to me, but I cannot recommend it.  2

Burn this Book; edited by Toni Morrison (2009).  Intellectual freedom is one of my primary interests, and when I saw this brand new book already remaindered for $4.00, I bought it at once.  According to the subtitle eleven “PEN writers speak out on the power of the word.”  They may be our shining lights – John Updike, Orhan Pamuk, Nadine Gordimer, etc. – but their contributions – mostly new with some older – are uneven, some with factual errors, some flat, some without much relevance.  Considering all he went through with a fatwa on him, Salman Rushdie’s seemed weak.  The exception was Russell Banks, “Notes on Literature and Engagement,” who contrasts novels of social influence with novels of insight thanks to authorial identity, a quality not to be sacrificed to public expectation.  3

Michael St. John Parker, The World of Charles Dickens (1999).  This is really just a pamphlet, but amazingly informative in a few thousand words and apt illustrations.  I think you would have to go to London to buy a copy; I was lucky that a friend made the trip and gave it to us.  4

Daniel G. Amen, Magnificent Mind at Any Age (2008).  I read this in preparation for a session on brain research, but Amen has a lot to him.  Magnetic resonance imaging has advanced recent brain science by allowing us to see activity inside the skull that we could approach before  largely by introspection or behavioral observation.  He tells the basis of his research, most of which gets at dysfunctions, but the bulk is solid advice for healthy living, brain development, and continued learning – all with “skills, not pills.”  I put a chapter of this book to work in my article “Success.”  4

Sandra Dallas, The Diary of Mattie Spenser (1997).  BC.  The discovery of a pioneer woman’s diary in Territorial Colorado leads to following her life over her first two years there.  Then her aged granddaughter’s perspective gives satisfying context to what happened after.  Mattie emerges as a spirited woman with high hopes from marriage and a new life.  Hardship follows, but Mattie persists where many of the women and some of the men of her acquaintance do not.  Children die; men go wayward, but Mattie survives.  Dallas is excellent at character with engaging stories and convincing background.  4

Edmund Cooper, The Overman Culture (1972). Michael Faraday and his classmates live in a contrived world, populated with figures from the past.  Not only are the children named after historic figures with Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill their contemporaries, but war with the Germans goes on somewhere outside their shell.  Gradually, Michael and his chums determine they are flesh and blood while their parents, teachers and others are “drybones,” entities that cannot bleed.  Their discovery of an abandoned library takes them farther on the path to learning the wider context to human existence.  Not until their persistence leads to a confrontation is all explained.  3

Edmund Cooper, The Cloud Walker (1973).  Humanity has been to the brink of self-inflicted extinction twice before.  In the third age of humankind, Kieron struggles against the luddite ethos that endeavors to avoid the same past progression that leads to annihilation.  Apprenticed as an artist, Kieron dreams of flying and experiments with kites and balloons.  Only protection from his feudal lord keeps him from an inquisition’s imprisonment and worse.  And only after Kieron’s tactical advantage of balloon-borne bombs ruin a fleet of pirate invaders does the course of history alter once again.  3

Edmund Cooper, Five to Twelve (1968).  Dion Quern, born in 2025, rebels against the order of his world.  A quirk of late 20th century feminism and attendant birth control has led not only to twelve female births for every five males, but a shift in power.  Women are in charge and that power gives them control of longevity drugs.  Dion is caught while burgling a woman’s apartment, but Juno likes his spirit and keeps him on as a sport for sex and then as a contracted partner because she loves him.  Dion is never happy about his situation; he falls into plots against the female establishment, and bickers with Juno throughout the novel.  Only when he has been brainwashed for all his crimes and without memory of his past does he experience a glimmer of future change.  3

For a further analysis of these three Cooper novels, click on Edmund Cooper.

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Copyright © 2010 by Roger Sween.

First appearing as Read in 09 in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 7 Jan. 2010, the article moved as Read in 2009 to WordPress, 15 Nov. 2010.

I welcome all comments to blog articles.  For personal comments to me, send to rogdesk@charter.net.


Read in 2008

November 15, 2010

Books Read Entire, Listed Chronologically

Note: The ratings given follow one’s used in a book club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom.  Abbreviations used include: BC – Book Club selections.  SF – Stratford Festival plays.  YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

Amy Ephron, One Sunday Morning (2005).  BC.  Though compared to Edith Wharton sendups on the social elites of 19th century New York society, I found this brief novel shallow, stupid, and boring. 1

Penelope Lively, The Photograph (2003).  Gift*  A landscape historian finds a picture of his deceased wife holding hands with her sister’s husband.  He does not rest until he discovers what was going on.  This quest starts a chain reaction among all those involved.  Excellent treatment of character and manners.  4

Diane Lee Wilson, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1998).  YA.  A young Mongol girl, fascinated with riding and horses, impersonates a boy and by chance is trusted with carrying a secret message to the great Kublai Khan in China.  A well done historical.  4

Brian Aldiss, The Dark Light Years (1964).  Though I had read the short story that spawned this science fiction novella, the story intrigued me all over again.  Aldiss is profound in contrasting human assumptions with alien existence.  5

Ayn Rand, …Answers (2005).  Since Rand’s death, her executors have resurrected a number of unintended books from recordings made of her speaking off the cuff.  This one organizes by topic her responses from question and answer sessions following formal speeches.  Though Rand was an early influence on my life, and although some of her answers are stimulating, many show her as extreme, violent, merely opinionated, and irritated.  I take this collection in its chance randomness as revelatory about Rand but lacking in sufficient overall context.  Valuable to students of Rand but cannot be rated due to its peculiar incompleteness.

Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum (2005).  BC.  Though Erdrich is a noted Minnesota author, this book is the first of hers I have finished, so I take that as a sign that it is easier.  An authentic native drum so captivates an appraiser of antiquities that she steals it from the estate.  The magic of the drum haunts her until it brings its own return to its place of origin.  A beautiful story that crosses half the U.S., generations, and peoples also, thereby, fascinates.  4

Alfred Duggan, Growing Up in Thirteenth Century England (1962).  YA.  Duggan treats a microcosm of Edward I’s time by profiles of the teenage children in three upper class families.  Perhaps this makes sense since these had the most options, but I would have liked to see something more bourgeois. A clear picture of feudalism emerges, most of it comparatively grim.  4

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975).  BC.  An English woman in colonial India finds her life suffocating and to escape it spends more and more time in the palace of the local prince to disastrous results.  I had expected more, but the story turned very flat.  2  Another novel with a similar theme, The Holder of the World (1993), by Bharati Mukherjee, I found far superior because of its meaningful merit and evocative movement.  Give that one a 4.5.

George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1900).  SF.  Though straying from the historical, Shaw’s comedy of the aging Caesar mentoring the teenage Cleopatra is a joyous romp of satire in the face of puritan traditions and illuminates the true worth of magistracy.  5

Lope de Vega, Fuente Ovejuna (1619).  SF.  Previously unknown to me, the prolific maker of Spanish classical drama, regarded in Spain as second to Cervantes in their literature, was a later contemporary of Shakespeare.  In this play, the residents of the village “Sheep’s Well,” rise against their vicious feudal overlord and kill him.  All face death until the clement understanding of Ferdinand and Isabella reprieve them.  As insightful to the time of its setting and time of its writing as any Shakespeare drama.  4

William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598).  SF  Of interest to me is how Shakespeare’s minor plays, some of them very neglected, are so fascinatingly wonderful.  LLL is a courtly piece in which the King of Navarre and three of his fellows swear off women in order to devote themselves to study.  Then arrive the Princess of France and three of her women.  As the principals match up, the women test the seriousness of the men’s interest and find them faithless.  A messenger intrudes with the report of the King of France’s death; the Princess is now Queen, contrary to all history.  So the play abruptly ends with this conceit of loss, though they men are set tests for a year and a day, upon which the women shall return to see what is proved.  Yes, a slight story, most elegantly told with a hilariously silly subplot.  For Shakespeare, this is a 3, overall in literature a 4.

Euripides, Trojan Women (415 BCE).  SF.  Along with Euripides’ Medea, this is one of the most gripping and terrible tragedies I know, not excelled after 2,425 years.  The women of Troy, soon to be sent into slavery, and the anguished Helen each have their say bringing the play step by step closer to grief until Hecuba, widowed of King Priam, and bereft of all her sons faces the final disaster.  5!

William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well (1623).  SF.  As one of  the “problem plays,” the problem here is that Bertram refuses to recognize his marriage to Helena so that she must win him by obtaining his ring and bearing his child when he deserts her.  Most interesting is that Helena and the other women are heroic while Bertram is a cad.  Another 3, 4.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).  BC.  Do you know of Mr. Rochester, the brooding master of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre?  Rhys wrote a prequel of Rochester’s earlier life and his wife’s origins in the slave-holding Caribbean.  She is the crazy woman who burns down the hall at the end of Jane Eyre.  Now you know why.  Though a slender novel in size, WSS is profound as an artistic deconstruction of the pretense (or naïveté) of imperial fiction.  I never could understand Rochester’s attraction for the otherwise worthy Jane. 4

Vince Starrett, Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933).  In a series of chapter sketches, Starrett treats Holmes and Watson analytically as though these characters had real lives, and thereby explains away the inconsistencies in their stories.  Entertaining even if you are not a Baker Street Irregular.  4

Kiran Desai, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998).  The young son of a middle class Indian family is a disappointment to them.  He has a low-level postal job and no ambition.  Suddenly he goes off on his own to live in a tree in an abandoned orchard.  His joyful solitude lasts until the neighborhood discovers him as a “holy man” and his notoriety spreads.  Chaos follows.  Desai has a wonderful way of writing with subtlety of connotation and verve of expression.  This one was a great delight and I must explore more of her books.  4

Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia (2008).  LeGuin has been among my favorite authors for 30 years.  In her mature writing through this period, she blends exquisite prose, inventive situations, and depth of portrayal that always succeeds.  In Lavinia she takes a slight reference near the end of the Aeneid to Aeneas’ Latin wife and builds a whole, marvelous story around her that is visionary, feminist, culturally significant, and artistically satisfying in the finest sense.  A 5 once again.

Steven Saylor, Roma (2008).  I came to Saylor through his early books on Gordianus the Finder, a classical period version of detective, who at first appealed to me as an industrious man able to step outside his illusions.  His grunt work for Cicero in various cases, though critical of that articulate Roman, illuminates society in the years of the “great men” Sulla, Pompey and Caesar.  Though Roma’s subtitle is the novel of ancient Rome, it is not so much a novel as an episodic series of stories and novellas that dramatize key episodes from the city’s prehistoric location to Augustus’ foundation of empire.  The novelistic elements are two – two family histories that weave in and out of the major events and the evolution of Rome itself as a polity and culture.  Though containing enough pettiness among the characters to wear me down, Saylor always vaults his homework into tensions that reveal even as they rise to intrigue.  4

Nancy Freedman, Sappho: the tenth muse (1998).  Though Sappho’s poetry exists in scraps and a vaporous mystery surrounds her life, numerous books seek to make her into a whole person.  This novel is one that I owned for several years before I got around to reading it.  Freedman, new to me, writes with elegance and power and consistently uses metaphor and simile as no one I have read before.  My only complaint was the heavy doses of eroticism and subsequent jealousy among characters that detracted from Sappho as a poet, feminist, and intellectual of her day.  I wanted to believe that Sappho invented the concept of romantic love, a woman far in advance of her time and place.  4

Penelope Lively, Consequences (2007)  Gift*  Lively takes refreshing approaches in her various novels.  This one tells the story of three generations of women through the 20th century.  Each – mother, daughter, granddaughter – must seek her own path and relationships and thereby exercise both will and choice among the chance opportunities that life and history deal out.  What a beautifully conceived and executed book of verity and significance!  4

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*My friend, Cy Chauvin, and I have exchanged books at holiday times for several years.  Because we share many of the same interests, including appreciation of the novel of manners, several of Cy’s gifts have been Lively books in this genre where she excels.

Copyright © 2009 by Roger Sween.

Orignally Read in 08 and appearing in CeptsForm on Blogspot, 22 Jan. 2009, the post moved as Read in 2008 to WordPress, 15 Nov. 2010.