May 31, 2016

Book review: “Fool” by Christopher Moore

Pocket is a randy fool. That’s not a comment on his intelligence. It’s his job. Well, the fool part is. He’s a court jester. But not just any court jester. He’s the fool for King Lear, and Christopher Moore’s Fool (2009) is a retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. But with laughs. There are certainly a lot of laughs in Fool which is not to say that the blood, gore, betrayal, eye-gouging, storm-raging and all those delightful aspects of the Bard’s play that you know and love are missing. Not at all. They’re there all right, as well as a violent backstory that Moore has developed that involves rape and rape — those royals have something of a one-track mind — and the walling-up of an inconvenient relative. Oh, and a goodly number of bastards. And the witches from Macbeth, and lines from The Merchant of Venice and other sacred Shakespeare works. And even reference to that great work Green Eggs and Hamlet.   Full-blooded slapstick But you’re not going to want to read Fool for Moore’s literary analysis. You’ll want it for its full-blooded, slapstick depiction of life in a 13th century Britain, filled with a doddering old ruler, a […]
May 25, 2016

Book review: “Some Recollections of a Busy Life” by T. S. Hawkins, with an introduction by Dave Eggers

T.S. Hawkins was enamored of the ability of some men to make a bull whip crack like a pistol and keep a team of oxen in order. Accordingly, he watched them closely and figured he’d caught on to the trick. [S]o giving my whip a mighty twirl through the air, I brought it back just as they did, but instead of the wonderful report I was expecting, the lash coiled itself a half-dozen times around my neck. At first I felt sure it had taken my head off, but when I found it still on, I carefully unwound the lash and swore a mighty oath never, never to try again. Hawkins tells this story in Some Recollections of a Busy Life which he published privately in 1913 and now has been reissued by McSweeney’s with an introduction by Dave Eggers, his great-great grandson. Eggers is to be thanked for giving this book new life, but I wish he hadn’t repurposed a New Yorker essay of his as the book’s 27-page introduction. It keeps the reader from getting to Hawkins right away, steals a bit of his forebear’s thunder and isn’t always accurate. For instance, when Hawkins was growing up, his […]
May 23, 2016

Book review: “The Ages of Lulu” by Almudena Grandes, translated by Sonia Soto

What’s striking about the 1989 erotic novel The Ages of Lulu by Spanish writer Almudena Grandes is how old-fashioned it is. Yes, yes, there are all those sex scenes in which the Lulu of the title is involved in dizzying combinations of coupling. And tripling. And so on. But it’s a story with a good old-fashioned moral. Actually three of them: First, husband (who is a brother figure and a father figure) knows best. Second, an adult woman left to her own devices who chases sex for pleasure is going to end up in ruins. Third, a woman just wants to be treated like a child.   “Innocence” On the final page of the novel, after Lulu has been saved by her husband from a fate worse than death or, at least, pretty bad — a dominatrix was coming at Lulu with a red-hot hook to do some mischief Pablo’s troops arrived — she is back in his bed, recovering from the welts and bruises of her final foray alone into the forbidden. I tried to pretend I was fast asleep but my lips gradually curled into a smile of newly recovered innocence. That’s not innocence as in purity. It’s innocence […]
May 17, 2016

Book review: “The Looking Glass War” by John le Carre

Published in 1965, John le Carre’s spy novel The Looking Glass War arrived at and helped bring about the beginning of the end of romantic notions about our spies being better than their spies in terms of morality and righteousness. No one pretends to believe such notions today, more than half a century later. And no one is surprised when, yet again, the sins of one side’s spies are exposed and seem pretty much as bad as the sins of the other side. Choose your poison. The Looking Glass War is a novel of profound disillusionment, As a spy in the book says before leaving on his assignment, operating during the cold war is much different than it was operating in World War II: “Nobody wins this one, do they?”   “Discover God” This is a novel of questions which, at their heart, all come down to: Why do we do it? There is, throughout the book, a lust for a faith that will not tarnish, as in this scene in which the group leader is outlining the plans of an operation: Avery knew he would never forget that morning, how they had sat at the farmhouse table like sprawling […]
May 16, 2016

Book review: “Daybreak — 2250 A.D.” by Andre Norton

I wish I could say that Daybreak – 2250 A.D. by Andre Norton has great literary merit. But it doesn’t. It was one of the first novels in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to grapple with the idea of what the world would look like after a global nuclear war. But it’s overlooked and ignored now, although it helped pave the way for scores of books and films that came after, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I could tell you that, to my mind, it’s the best of the more than 200 novels that Norton published during her 93-year-long life. But that doesn’t say a lot. She was never much of a stylist. No, I love Daybreak – 2250 A.D. because it’s a captivating adventure story with psychological themes that resonated deeply with me when I first read it in 1960 at the age of 10 and that still resonate with me when I re-read the book every few years or so. I refuse to call this a guilty pleasure.  Although no literary gem, it’s not a bad book. It’s a good book.   Opened a door Maybe you have a […]
May 14, 2016

Meditation: The Poem of Pentecost

Picture this: Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire and the followers of Jesus going out into the world to proclaim the good news. A large crowd gathers, but the people are confused because they’re not confused. Everyone can understand what’s being said, and they respond with a kind of poem of wonder: We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. The good news transcends the barriers of language. It rises above the blockades of fear. And, today, we are the preachers and we are the listeners: We are Chileans, Iraqis, and Poles, inhabitants of Canada, Ghana and France, Laos and Russia, Norway and Nigeria, Israel and the districts of Argentina near Buenos Aires, as well as travelers from Ireland, both Christians and converts to Christianity, Lebanese and Americans, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. With faith, we are all […]
May 12, 2016

Book review: “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” by Mary Beard

One night in Asculum in 91 BC, the crowd at the theater was made up of Romans and people from the town and other parts of Italy that were allied with Rome. That alliance, though, was fraying, and a four-year conflict, known as the Social War or the War of the Allies, was about to break out. Tensions were high. One comic performer took the stage, and, as was his schtick, he made fun of Rome. Bad move. The Romans in the audience got so mad that they attacked him on stage. And killed him. Then, it was the turn of the next comic to come out, a comic whose routine, a great favorite of Roman audiences, ridiculed the country bumpkins outside of city. Fearing that the other part of the theater crowd would take out their own anger on him, he pleaded: “I’m not a Roman either. I travel throughout Italy searching for favors by making people laugh and giving pleasure. So spare the swallow, which the gods allow to nest safely in all your houses!” It worked. The comic did his act and survived. But there was a bloody postscript, as Mary Beard writes in SPQR: A History […]
May 10, 2016

Book review: “Sor Juana’s Love Poems/Poemas De Amor” by Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz, translated by Joan Larkin & Jaime Manrique

On one of the first pages of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dolly Oblonsky is packing to leave her womanizing husband and is described as taking something out of an open chest of drawers. That’s how one translation has it, but, while researching a story about translations for the Chicago Tribune, I had occasion to compare this scene in six English language versions of the masterpiece. What I found was that other translators identified this piece of furniture differently — variously, as an open bureau, as an open wardrobe, and as an open chiffonier. In the original Russian, it was the same word, but it was transformed into English in these four different ways. Translation is always a dicey proposition. Talk to translators, and they’ll tell you that it’s an art, not a science. It’s not a mathematical equation but an interpretation. And, if one Russian word for a piece of furniture can result in such varied responses by translators, how much greater variance is implicit in the translation of poetry? For instance, how would one translate The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot into another language? Orthese lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins: I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- dom of […]
May 3, 2016

Book review: “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation” by Natalie Y. Moore

In The South Side, WBEZ reporter Natalie Y. Moore examines the myriad ways in which the lives of African-Americans in the Chicago region are limited, constrained, stifled and lessened by segregation. She focuses on her home territory of the city’s South Side where she grew up, went to school and now lives, but her analysis fits the West Side as well. It’s also relevant for the other portions of the seven-county metropolitan area where blacks live concentrated together and set apart, particularly many near western and near southern suburbs. And, of course, for much of the nation, as her subtitle A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation notes. Segregation [Moore writes] is crippling because it’s the common denominator in innumerable challenges in black communities, from housing to jobs to food access to education to violence. Moore tells the history of how racial segregation came about here and considers a variety of ways through which it might be reversed. Much of what she describes has been detailed many times before by social scientists, by newspaper reporters and by groups, such as the Chicago Urban League, devoted to better race relations.   Back in the local conversation What’s particularly important about The […]