Book Comments by Albert Fried-Cassorla

 

"Friends, Romans, countrymen... lend me your ear. And word of a good book to read I will gladly share!"

 

Last updated: 5-9-16

 

 ***** = Loved it and recommend it **** = Enjoyed it *** = Decent ** = Dull * = Why did I bother?

Book Comments

2016

** = Dull

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare - I found this play hard to follow as a book to be read, with too many multiple identities, and too many footnotes to plow through.  Nor was watching the Kenneth Branagh version much more fun.  Dreary, wintery and mainly dull.  However, I loved the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre Company version!  

 

**** = Enjoyed it

Gardner's Art Through the Ages, The Western Perspective, Fourteenth Edition, Volume I

This book was wonderful to read and, when I lacked time, simply to browse through. It covers cave paintings through to the early Renaissance, ending at approximately 1350 AD.  I read it as part of my Art History course at Temple University, as ably taught by Instructor Megan Boomer. You certainly do not have to enjoy each art work presented to get a lot out of the course or the book.  There is so much fascinating material to learn!  Both are a great aid to understanding and enjoying world history too!

One example of a work I would not have ever seen is a portion of the Grave Stele of Hegeso, circa 400 BCE.  In the left portion of the photo, you will see a wealthy woman examining pieces of jewelry brought to her by her servant woman.  I love scenes of everyday life like this, especially something so understandable from 2,400 years ago!

 

 

 

THE AENEID by Vergil is a world-renowned classic. I read it for a course I am auditing, which is otherwise delightful and informative. I am writing this little note just to say how little I enjoyed this book... If you are fond of classics, please do not start here.



Better starting points:



The Bacchae

The Odyssey

Hesiod

Ovid's Metamorphoses (which I am reading now)



This epic was assigned to me in my freshman year in college. I doubt I read it back in 1967. Now that I am retired, I finally took it off my bookshelf, where it had resided "dustily" and uncomplaining for 50 years (!). This time, I completed reading it, though my mind and eyes soon grew numb. Why? For a few reasons: 1) it was assigned by my professor, and I want to get the most out of my course in Greek and Roman Mythology at the University of Pennsylvania. 2) As a more responsible person now, I like to finish what is expected of me. 3) I should be familiar with such an important work, even if it is not IMHO as "good read."

Some points in its favor: the section on Dido and Aeneas is wonderful and SHOULD be read. It is a great, tragic story. Secondly, this is a "foundation myth" for Roman history. Meaning, it explains and perhaps attempts to justify the Roman Empire's beginnings. These stories, though, are apocryphal and are based as far as I can tell on a few lines of Homer. Note that not even a renowned poet such as Vergil can "explain" away the crimes of the Roman Empire.

The second half of The Aeneid is filled with senseless (yes, to my mind) slaughter and the destruction of the Latins by the invading Trojans, all told in lovingly descriptive, bloody detail. Yes there is some remorse on the part of Aeneas, but otherwise not much depth or beauty. Pardon me for disparaging a classic.

 

Vergil will be surely read when Fried-Cassorla's words and far-flung pixels have long ago been evaporated. But you only have so much time in life - so make the best use of it!

 

Laughter in the Dark - a Novel by Vladimir Nabokov

******' 6 out of 10 Albert stars

This work by the master novelist Vladimir Nabokov, prefigures his much more popular novel, Lolita. It incorporates many of the same themes.

This 1938 novel was made into a movie in 1967 that has apparently been lost. How a movie can disappear completely is hard to understand. From various reviews I have read, I understand it was a very good film.

Now on to the novel itself:

I have always enjoyed Nabokov. His erudition and artistry as a prose writer is nearly without equal. He chooses what to describe and how to mix his observations and dialogue so perfectly, that it is a wonder. So for me, reading Nabokov is about the texture, although also somewhat about how the story will turn out.

This is the story of an art critic named Albinus who abandons his wife for a wretched young woman named Margot. She pretends to be interested in him so as to secure his money. That is the essence of the story.

If you're considering reading this novel, I advise making your decision on the basis of a love for this particular writer's craft.  But if you do want to preserve some suspense I suggest you stop reading now.

==============================

 

 

 

Ultimately this book is a tragedy. It is about obsession, deception, blindness and light. I enjoyed the experience of reading it, although I did have a minor sense of dread at the impending sad outcome.

 

****

I recently read The Bacchae by Euripides -  Euripides knew what he was about as a playwright, in terms of creating characters, meaningful conflicts and plot structure.  I enjoyed reading this, (finally!, after it had lain on my bookshelf since 1970 when I was in college.   So, 45 years later, I read the Modern Library hardcover edition.

The main story revolves around a King, Pentheus, who is furious about the growing influence of a god, Dionysus. He is the Greek god of wine, sex and ecstasy.  There is much more to the plot that Pentheus' anger, but the above is the main axis.

Dionysus is an actual character in the play. Pentheus challenges him and his worshippers, women called maenads.   I won't tell you how it plays out. 

I would say that two aspects of the book/play stood out for me: the wildness of the orgiastic rites of the Bacchantes, or worshippers of Dionysus (aka Bacchus, Bromius), and the fact that such people actually existed.    Just how exactly the maenads become wild I will forego here. Suffice it to say that they are and were very sexual and equally violent.  Probably the violence is more remarkable, especially as similar events really occurred.

It is amazing is that the bacchantes carried on in such a way in the Greek countryside and constituted a major religion.  In fact, when I taught about Dionysus in my English classes as part of a discussion n Greek mythology, students consistently were amazed at its historic popularity. Perhaps it was the most popular religion in Greece before Christianity. Dionysus worship began as early as 1500 B.C., long before the premiere of the play in 405 B.C. 

And so I recommend this book to those interested in delving into the world of the ancient Greeks, and who also want a good story. There are cinematic versions of the play available, but I am not qualified to comment on them. And so I shan't!

 

2015

10 out of 10 possible stars

Shosha by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a meaningful tale.   This is a superb short novel of love, history, philosophy and searching for meaning amidst the impending invasion of Poland by the Nazis.  This 1978 novel was written by Singer, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

     The reasons I praise it so highly is not just that it melds many themes and moods into a cosmopolitan, interesting stew  The lead character, Aaron is torn among three or more lovers. And how he makes his final choices is compelling and reveals a sweet value system.

 

*****

The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton - This was a masterfully written, eloquent introduction to famous ancient Greeks and their accomplishments.

****

The Greek Legacy by Prof. Daniel Robinson - The Teaching Company - Great Courses - Excellent, informative and entertaining.  One objection: Robinson seems, by his tone of voice if not words, to condone the forced death of Socrates because he disrespected the Gods. He jokes at one point that Socrates might have wised he had changed his mind.  I think this is unkind to the courage of Socrates and his brave example.

****

The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester - An interesting account of Lewis Carroll's life as a photographer and how he became an intimate of the Liddell family.  The book discusses photography and individual photos ion great detail but includes not reproductions aside from the cover.  That was frustrating.  But Winchester's writing style is captivating.

2014

**** Will Eisner - The Contract with Gold Trilogy - Interesting, violent, upsetting but powerful graphic novel by one of the founders of the field. A gift from my Benjamin!

**** The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch -  A powerful , sad and uplifting first-hand narrative by of a professor and family man, letting you know various life lessons. Best to learn them while still alive!

**** The Pigman by Paul Zindel - An enjoyable young adult novel that held my interest. sad but compelling.

**** Jill Bernard's Small Cute Book of Improv - A cheerfully written mini-book full of great insights.

**** * I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - A great life story (partial) well told.

* Searching for Spinoza - Anthony Damasio - read 1/3 of it. A little interesting, mainly puffed up with specious insights.

 

 

2013

****

Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw. This play is more of a "read."  Don Juan in Hell is a part of it which I understand has been performed and received well.  Read this play only if you have a passion for intelligent Shavian banter and can tolerate slightness of plot.  Part of the plan is The Revolutionist's Handbook. I never before knew that Shaw was the one who said:  "Hell is paved with good intentions, not bad ones."  He also said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

 

****

Why Does the World Exist? By Jim Holt. This is an excellent journey through the thoughts of various great thinkers about life, death, the birth of the world (or not). Holt wanders a lot, but that is part of the fun.

2011

****

A Spy in the House of Love by Anais Nin  (novel) Nin wrote an impressionistic and highly poetical work, filled with psychological insights about infidelity, love, romance, and more.   Powerfully written.

 

****

The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham.  (novel) This is a cerebral and yet fascinating account of mainly upper class characters in the U.S. , Britain, and France.  It is urbane and sophisticated and presents a surprisingly detailed version of a man's attraction to Hinduism, and various romantic and other complications. What I just wrote it a total simplification, but it may give you some idea of the work.  Most important for me was listening to Maugham.  The way he expresses himself is like a fine British actor of the 1930's, with erudition, style and an amazing ability to paint a word picture.

2010

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger.  Very enjoyable, surprising and carefully crafted tales.  I wish I had time to write more about these gems.

*****

My Mother's House  by Colette  - (non-fiction, packaged as one book with the fiction work, The Vagabond) Her writing is poignant, keenly observed, and poetic. She lavishes so much love and affection on her remembered family, friends, and acquaintances.  I feel sorry for losing them (not all are lost within the memoirs), as if they were my own family.  Her mother comes across as a force of nature, someone strong-willed and full of a love of life. I also love Colette's appreciation of flowers.

*****

The Vagabond  by Colette  - This novel is superbly written if you like reflective, highly literary writing, as I sometimes do.  It had an unexpected and somehow satisfying conclusion, revealing a desire for female independence at all costs.  What a superbly intelligent and artistic writer Collette was!  

 

*****

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.  - This novel by the Greek author It first came out in 1946. I loved its message, about earthiness, basic emotions, living in the present and more.  The story was sadder and more violent than I recalled the film being. But it was also more poetic, reflective and philosophical.  A great book to read when in Greece or on the way there, as I was!

*****

Tragic Ground by Erskine Caldwell - This book was mostly comical and highly amusing despite its title. The main character, Spence Douthit, has a kind of dim-witted charm, like a Jed Clampett dealing with real-live southern poverty.  There is tragedy in the book, chiefly lying in how poor and miserable so many of the characters are.  This is the first book I've read by Caldwell, and if this one is typical, I'd rank him a leading humorist.

 

2009

*****

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - I re-read this recently. This classic is lovingly told and has a more conversational to me than I recall. What also surprised me were the many references to places, traditions, games, garments, foods, history and more... such that an annotated version might well be worthwhile. This sotry retains its power, based on gifted story-telling, strong emotions and a great message about the dangers of the unexamined life and false values.

 

*****

Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco - A sad and beautiful portrait of a dying king. He takes the whole play to pass away and deteriorate. But it is all done poetically... a mediation on human mortality, with saving graces.

 

***

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry - An historically significant absurdist play about a murderous king and his almost as insane wife.  Very buffoonish and is best read with some good background materials to explain the historical setting and people or types caricatured.

 

This

Plainsong by Kent Haruf - This is a fine novel about families out west written from deep understanding of human nature. Just when you think it's as simple as John Wayne's movie dialog, Kent Haruf shows you how exceptional his story-telling really is.

2007

The Cay by Theodore Taylor. Avon Flare Books.  144 pp. - This is the story of a white boy, Philip, who is shipwrecked with a smart, kindly African-Caribbean man, Timothy.  I loved this brief compelling story. Maybe I enjoyed it so much because it sounded authentic and urgent.  I will not reveal much except to say that it has charm and power.

   

2004

****
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton - Vintage International, paperback. 264 pp. copyright 2000. De Botton is a master popularizer in the best sense of the word. He takes difficult concepts and makes them understandable, while not stripping down their complexity. He does this by using colorful illustrations taken from the philosopher under study's text, or from his own experience. The many illustrations add a powerful dimension.
This volume explores: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, Socrates, Epicurus and Seneca.

Section I: Consolation for Unpopularity - The first section deals with Consolation for Unpopuarity and focuses on the life and examples set by Socrates.  This famous philosopher, de Botton reminds us, was more interested in the benefits of rational thinking than in the advice of intuition or the views of the crowd.  De Botton clearly sets out the model for critical thinking on page 24.  Here is the essential process, even more briefly stated: an apparent truth is confidently set forth; exceptions to its truth are found; the original statement is modified and qualified.  Thus a more precise truth is deduced.

Socrates' approach makes sense in many ways.  It's how we arrive at scientific truths, for example.  However, either de Botton's exposition or Socrates' views leave me wondering.  For example, in the dialogue of Plato cited, Laches, Socrates shows some generals the errors of their thinking.  Laches is such a general. He at first believes that a soldier who always advances and continues to fight is the most courageous.    But Socrates reminds nhim athat inthe battle of Platea, the Spartans retreated in the face of fierce opposition, then later resumed fighting aggressively and finally won.

Isn't the lesson of this that it's sometimes wiser to retreat? Then why, by the same logic, couldn't Socrates have retreated in the face of fierce opposition by powerful Athenians?  He could have lived to philosophize another day.  True, he might have lost his credibility as a philosopher.  Then again, he might not have. Like the Jewish Marranos in Spain during the Inquisition, he could have kept his views secret, and yet publicly given the ruling elites the renunciation they wanted. 

What indeed is the consolation of Socrates' philosophy?  I see little consolation, unless you count bringing your wife and friends to tears and misery a great consolation.  Or going dutifully to one's death.  I think it would have been wiser to retreat and live on to fight another day. He could have perhaps gone to an island or rural area and led followers there.

I also disagree with Socrates' views that statecraft is best left to the experts, much as pottery is best done by professional potters, or trireme-building (large ancient warships).  Statecraft is usually presented to the people as the rational determination of what the populace as a while needs.  This is almost always convenient camouflage for the division of economic an political spoils behind closed doors. The sanctity of "professionalism" then becomes a great cloak for misdeeds.

I do like the benefits of critical thinking, though, and I enjoyed de Botton's presentation of it.

Section II: Consolation for Not Having Enough Money - This chapter seems more about Happiness than the apparent title.  A more relevant titles would be "Happiness - Epicurus' advice on how to get it and how to avoid being distracted." 

In general, I love intelligent discussions of how to find happiness. I especially enjoy discussions of Epicurus, who was not the hedonist that people commonly believe he was.   In fact, he lived simply and felt that too much of anything vitiated the potential pleasure to be derived. 

Here are some great quotes from de Botton on page 55 in my edition: 

"The task if philosophy was, for Epicurus, to interpret our indistinct pulses of distress and desire and to thereby save us from mistaken schemes for happiness..... And by providing counter-intuitive diagnoses of our ailments, philosophy would - Epicurus promised - guide us to superior cures and true happiness."

The basic ingredients for happiness, according to de Botton's presentation of Epicurus, are:

  1. Friendship
  2. Freedom
  3. Thought

To quote Epicurus himself:

"Of all the things that wisdom provides to help live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship." 

This seems so completely true to me that I won't elaborate on it (much!)  But I would add health to the top of the list.  Health enables you to benefit form friendship, though good friends can surely help you get through or deal with bad health.

Freedom is curiously interpreted as getting away form the ills of society - retreating to a relatively simple life lived with friends.  I say "curious" because it's not what most of us do; neither the living apart nor the living simply.  Maybe this is what separates the truly successful philosophers from the rest of us.  In any case, freedom does not here imply fighting and dying for various causes.

Thought is powerful, and I see why this is on Epicurus' list of key ingredients for the good life.  But some of the examples lack power for me personally. For example, de Botton or Epicurus cite the idea that after death there is oblivion as a consoling thought. 

For example, in my own words: "I was in oblivious before I was born. I did not mind it.  I will be in oblivion after I die. I probably won't mind at either.... What, me worry?"  If this thought is based on a true perception, I don't see it as realistically consoling.

On the other hand, thinking can help us find pleasures whereas otherwise we might find boredom or causes for depression or worry.

By the way, the quotation by Lucretius on page 6 is beautiful, and I'm glad I re-read it.

Section III: Consolation for Frustration - If you've had enough of my commentaries on de Botton, you'll love the brevity of this section!  Seneca here is the chosen instrument for expressing the ideas of Stoicism. 

I think stoicism has its uses and its abuses.  It can be a camouflage for a philosophy of quietism, or the belief in doing little or nothing in the face of evil or adversity. We could all use a bit of stoicism, it seems to me, when dealing with situations that can truly not be remedied.  The problem is that situations that we feel are unsolvable today can, by dint of creativity, science, or other means, become solvable.

That's a good thing!

Some of the examples of Seneca's stoicism trouble me.  Nero despises him.  But could he have evaded Nero?  This is not touched upon. The focus is more on Seneca's acceptance of a death sentence. How wonderful.  How brave.  Maybe.  Better yet to get out of Dodge! (if he could have)

More egregious, it seems to me, is Seneca's advice to Marcia on the unexpected death of her son, Metilius.  Because Marcia greaves for too long, Seneca more or less tells her (in my words): "Lady, what did you expect? Nothing is guaranteed you in this life.  Not even an hour free of catastrophe. So get used to it."

A more humane and helpful way of consoling Marcia might have been: "Dear Marcia, words cannot heal your pain.  But do try to go on with your life.  Your son would have wanted you to.  And he would have wanted Time to be your great healer -- so do your best to allow it to be."

 

 

 

 

****
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway, The Scribner Library Edition, copyright 1940, 471 pp. -- This great novel of the Spanish Civil War excels in many ways: as a portrait of the Republicans fighting the Franco's fascists, as a character study of wonderfully portrayed band of men and women fighting together in the mountains, as a suspense novel, and as a philosophical meditation upon on the meanings of war sacrifices, and love and commitment.

I think the novel has aged well because of the strong personal connections among the characters. Robert Jordan is the committed fighter. He is philosophical, weighing the meaning of love and of his commitment to Maria, his compatriot and informal war-time wife. Maria is portrayed as loving and devoted. However sweet she is, she remains believable, not saccharine.
Pilar, the older woman, is a guiding force, a moral center even with her cursing and frequent insults to almost everybody. That she cares tremendously about Robert Jordan and Maria makes her the maternal or mother-in-law figure of the tale. Her stories about bullfighters and incidents between fascists and loyalists and wonderful, often horrifying and always well-told and poignant.
Pablo is the wayward loyalist who destroys detonators needed for a mission. He is presented as a fighter with failings, but a strong force. He is neither black nor white, and his moral ambiguity makes him interesting.

If this great novel has a flaw it is not revealing enough about the moral issues in play at the time between the two sides in the Spanish Civil War. Hemmingway seems to automatically assume the readers will reflect his sympathy with the loyalists. But he wrote the book only a few years after the war, when the issues were fresh. Now, they have receded, and we have a war book that presents moral issues about war in general (well-presented), and about who stood for what (not as well presented).

Is War worthwhile? is not really questioned by Hemmingway, who was more of a freedom fighter than a pacifist, after all. But within the context of a war novel told from a committed combatant's point of view, this is a marvelous and well-told tale.

2003

***
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf-
I wish I could say I loved ths book. After all it is a pioneering work, examining one day in the life of a character. I read the book over several months, enjoying passages here and there, but not really following it.

Most of all, if I liked anything it was Virgoinia Woolf's voice. You hear a woman reflecting as women do, with their concerns and interests.

And it can be poetic. Here's a poetic passage, portraying the impressions of the character Septimus:

"To watch a leaf qwuivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. ... Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves.... all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, was the truith now; that was beauty, that was the truth now, Beauty was everywhere." (P. 70, Harvest Book edition.)

With the help of a college course, I might have gotten a good deal more out of it.

 

****
Walden by Henry David Thoreau -
This is the second time I have read this book, and I enjoyed it much more this time! It may be because I am older and better able to appreciate it -- or because I heard the book this time rather than read it. Over the course of 3 months, for 15 minutes a day on walks, I listened to Thoreau, as read by a talented actor. What a treat!

I think there's a tendency to think of Thoreau as "the guy who lived like a hermit in the woods and thought everybody else should." Yes, that is part of the Thoreau image.

But he was so much more than that. Thorueau was a great observer and love of nature and its seasons and moods. He also loves human nature -- witness his appreciation of a wood-cutter. This man is simple in nature, and one who enjoys singing and sounds. Thoureau loves him and enjoys his company.

Ultimately it is Throureau himself who is good company, whether or not he was a social creature himself. His closeness to nature, his love of philosophy and poetry -- these are wise and inspriing.

inc

 

****
Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda -
Translation by W.S. Merwin, illustrations by Jan Thompson Dicks. These are stunningly beautiful and often haunting poems by Neruda . They are never easy fare, which is mostly for the better beause of their power. They make you reflect, ponder, and reward you with the amazing thoughts and senitments expressed. I read them one a night over time. 79 pages. Chronicle Books.

 

****
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham -
This novel tells of the life of the impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, a banker who abandoned his life and his wife to paint in Tahiti. The chief character is called Charles Strickland, and because the novel is historical it is hard to tell where reality ends and fiction begins. But this is a wonderful story well-told by a master novelist. Maugham uses language beautifully, and these 218 pages go by quickly. Characters are believable, and the verbal pictures of Tahiti and its inhabitants are gorgeous.

I loved this book for its tale-telling, dialog and sense of adventure. What follows is a small complaint, even though I give it two paragraphs!

I do wish there was more focus on Gauguin's underlying philosophy. An encyclopedia article told me that he admired the local people for their simplicity. This is implicit but not stated by Strickland, but it could have been. Instead, Strickland is shown as a complete misanthrope, who mistreats just about everyone he meets. So his admiration for locals barely comes through in the novel. I have had a print of a Gauguin painting hanging in my home for 30 years. It shows an apparently happy African man kneeling by the seashore, wrapt in reverie and happiness. How could a total misanthrope create such paintings? The vicissitudes of human nature may be exactly what Maugham is trying to present, but I think we'd have benefited from a clearer picture of this disparity.

Gauguin also wrestled with large questions such as "Who are we?" and "Where are we going?" as he titled some of his paintings. We don't learn about Strickland's philosophical questioning -- but I may be being to literal. The questioning occurs in his paintings, after all.

Remember, I loved this classic book and encourage you to read it!

 

 

**
Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead -
Although this is a very brief and world-renowned book, at only 145 pages plus addenda, I simply could not get into it. Some of the best parts are the first-hand reproductions of quotes by actual islanders, such as teenagers. This may simply be a reaction I had to the book that others will not have.

*****
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel -
a play. Bantam Doubleday Dell - This is a very touching and sensitively drawn play about a dysfunctional family. The mother, Beatrice, is very self-centered. One of her daughters is about to enter a science fair. Another daugh4ere has health problems. This summary sounds more depressing than it is - though it is a sad tale. The ending is uplifting, and it consistently interesting. Zindel knows hot to dramatize, and it's clear why this play won a Pulitzer Prize back in 1971.

2002

****
A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin - 1
951. Harcourt. A memoir of growing up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, reverentially told with all of the golden hues of fond experiences recalled. Kazin just about glows with the pleasure of recollection of sights, smells, attitudes, personalities and more. It makes me sad that he is no longer around, one who could love, recall and appreciate so well. Filled with deli food, stoops, handball, his parents, Jewish friends, walks in parks, literary inspiration and more.

***
The Eyes by Virgina Woolf
- selected stories on cassette. The Eyes itself is a ghost story, but told well. Listening to Woolf on cassette makes you more aware of her portraiture and powers of observation.

 

****
Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour An Introduction by J.D. Salinger -
This is obsessive Salinger…. The first story is about a miffed bunch of would-be wedding attendees. Full of great characters, embarrassments, eccentrics. Seymour, by contrast, is an obsessive monologue. I enjoyed it in parts, mainly because Salinger is so genuine. His thought rhythms are real, and the Upper West Side Columbia area setting rings true.

 

****
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier -
Book on tape. In its most simplified form, this is a story of a Confederate soldier who leaves his wife to go to war. I loved the poetic sections dealing with the seasons, folk lore, and romance. This description is so far from doing justice to the book and its author's tremendous skills justice, that I recommend they read a full review elsewhere.

 

 *****

The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain - A Book of Qutations - Dover Thrift Editions. 1999, 57 pp. I bought this book at the Mark Twain Writing Studion, part of his original Elmira home, located now at Elmira College.

Imbued with the spirit of Twain, I sat in his chair, became inspired, wrote a Great American Novel, toold amusing anecdotes, smoked a cigar, went on a worldwide speaking tour and... no wait, that was his life.

I did sit in his chair. As to the novel, still working on it. Twain could be sentimental: "No woman or man really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century." (Notebook)

Witty: "An uneasy conscience is like a hair in the mouth." "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please."

I kept dipping into this book, laughing, pondering. I still am.

 

****

 

The Fearless Caregiver: How to Get the Best Care for Your Loved One and Still Have a Life of Your Own. Edited by Gary Barg, Editor in Chief of Caregiver Magazine. - Capital Books, Sterling, VA 2001. 264 pp., with index. With so many of us being responsible for an aged person who needs care, this book is timely and fills a palpable need. The book gives you practical advice on getting the right medical care, feeding your own inner self as a caregiver, finding resources for yourself and for loved ones, normal aging vs. dementia, and much more.

Having a family member with Alzheimer's Disease, I was particularly touched by Gary Barg's account of his own grandfather in a section entitled, "Okay, We Go Now." It tells the story of Barg's Hungarian-American grandfather. Rather than simply break into a take of woe and forgetfulness, this account shows us a real person, someone who painted an entire house for a birthday celebration, and enrolled in college later in life. Though this story makes the Alzheimer's more poignant when we see it portrayed, it also shows us a real person and makes us realize we do not suffer alone. Personally, it also makes me impatient, as in thinking: "When will we (scientists) ever lick this disease!?" The cure has been too long a-coming.

For those of us who now care for others or who ever will (most of us), this book is both a boon and a comfort.

 

****
Oh What A Paradise It Seems by John Cheever - Published in 1982, Ballantine Book paperback, 1982. 105 pp. Cheever manages many themes and come sup with a more upbeat and loving message about life than I've seen in some of his other books. This is the story of a man, Sears, who falls in love with a beautiful real estate agent, Renee.
But then, it's not about these two. It's about an environmentalist named Horace, who is trying to save Beasley Pond, a body of water turned into a dump by corporate interests who are paying off officials in the town of Janice, NY. Another couple with a baby enters the story. Don't ask what happens then! But it is very inventive.
At the end of the tale, Cheever or the narrator, or Sears speaks of the beauty f one hour of love-making with great eloquence. It is perhaps unfair to reproduce it here, because it comes after the import of an entire story that makes it believable. But I love it, it so here goes, with ellipses:

"The sky was clear that morning and there might still have been stars although he saw none…. It was that most powerful sense of our being alive in the planet. It was the most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. … What a paradise it seemed!"

****
Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle - This is the book of philosophy that I wish I'd read in college, or even in 11th or 12th grade. I say this because I feel my introduction to philosophy got bushwhacked by existentialism (Sartre, others) and epistemology - theory of knowledge, (Kant, Locke, others). While these are interesting aspects of philosophy, I feel the central questions of the field (and of life) ought to be:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is enduring happiness?
  • How can a person be happy?
  • What does it mean to lead a good life?

Aristotle delved into all of these questions and more in this book. Happiness related to leading a virtuous life, that is, "doing good." But he is not simplistic about it.

The cool thing about this writer (if may use such modern language!) is that he covers so much ground so well, interweaving ideas and pulling apart threads for better illumination. He explores true and false friendships, expectations within friendships, generosity, honor and much more.

If it was important, Aristotle thought about it and left us with something of value that has last over 2000 years. Quite an accomplishment, for a man dead so long, and clearly "alive" for just as long.

These excerpts give you just the barest flavor of Aristotle's writings:

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life.

Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world, and these attributes are not severed as in the inscription at Delos-

Most noble is that which is justest, and best is health;
But pleasantest is it to win what we love.

For all these properties belong to the best activities; and these, or one- the best- of these, we identify with happiness.

Yet evidently, as we said, it needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the lustre from happiness, as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death. As we said, then, happiness seems to need this sort of prosperity in addition; for which reason some identify happiness with good fortune, though others identify it with virtue.

Read more online if you life, in the full original text. Visit http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html and I would encourage you to read the first chapter.

 

****

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern - The Penguin English Library. First published 1759. 615 pp. plus footnote pages. This novel is the original "shaggy dog story." It wanders, digresses and entertains. Often, it was hard for me to follow, though going with its flow is more in order.

The story -- such as it is -- concerns the birth of the hero, Tristram Shandy. This happens late in the book. In between are many delightful portraits of eccentrics, including Tristram's Uncle Toby, his own father, Doctor Slop, and many others.

One of the great pleasures in reading this book was simply hearing the language, and feeling as though I got an ear-full of the vernacular of 250 years ago with this little time machine called a paperback.

 

****

Mark Twain's Short Stories on Cassette - "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" to "Membranous Croup" - commuters library, as read by Thomas Becker. This 2-cassette collection made me feel like Mark twain was there in my kitchen, or with me as I walked around the block. He is and was droll to the utmost! No wonder we and I love him!

Fenimore Cooper ravages that other author of his period. Membranous Croup highlights women's greater concerns for their kids' health than men. This persists today, methinks. The various adventures of the WIlliams's with lightning rod salesmen and more are exquisiutely entertaining. Anyone who has ever dealt with a less-than-scrupluous contractor will enjoy it

 

*****
The Travellers' Book of Colour Photogaphy by Van Phillips and Owen Thomas - Hard-bound large format book from Paul Hamyn Limited, London, 1970. 255 pages with index by nation and place-name. Every morning for two weeks, I enjoyed perusing this splendid book of color photos from lovely placvs around the world. It covers how to take shots of various popular attractions, such as the Cathedreal of Notre Dame, the Empire State Buiding, windmills on Mykonos, people at work and play, and much more. I liked the relaxed, peaceful attitude of the book's text, with its amusing side notes and helpful tips. It speaks of a peaceful time, though when it was written the Vietnam War was raging. This to me said that almost mno matter what the season of man, time can be found to aprciate beauty... if tha is what you want to do.

 

*****
The Fantasticks by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt - paperback by Avon Library. I loved the book because I am a big fan of the romantic, humorous musical, which I saw at the same time. See my play review for what I thought of the play in detail. But here I'll note that reading the book reveals even more than watching the play the simplicity, wisdom and poetry of the stage work. You see the essence and understand more what an essence is, before actors add their own life force to it.

2001

****
Holidays on Ice -
a book on tape by David Sedaris. Sedaris is, in my opinion, our funniest writer. His story about Santa's Elves brims with vitriolic humor, lampooning over-zealous parents, randy elves, and more.

The story rings so true even in its absurdity, that I would not be surprised if Sedaris did actually do a stint at Gimbels as an elf. The other stories are not quite as successful but are often interesting.

****
Adventures in the Skin Trade
by Dylan Thomas.

This is a marvelous collection of short stories by one of the famous poets of the first half of the 20th century.
But don't look for "normal" short story language here. Most of the tales are rich in poetic style and even difficult to follow in comparison to traditional narrative.
Don't let that impede you, though, If you're looking for rich, satisfying language, entire nebulae and star-clusters of intoxicating words.
Here are just a few sample words from "An Adventure from a Work in Progress":

"Time that had fallen rested in the edges of its knives and the hammock of its fires, the memory of the woman was strong on his hands, her claws and anemones, weedrack and urchin hair..."

Two stories, at minimum, are funny in this book. One is the title story, part of an unfinished novel. It concerns a young Irishman who gets his finger stuck in a bottle of Guinness beer and visits an infinitely stuffed used furniture warehouse. He soon has various adventures, complete with lively colorful Irish characters as we'd expect.
The final story in the collection, "The Followers," tells the story of two blokes who follow a modestly pretty young woman home in the rain. They give her a name, Hermione Weatherby, and imagine she has many loving sisters waiting to party with them in kimonos.
Standing in the rain, they see her enjoying a cozy domestic evening with her mother. One of the ladies opens a photo album and looks at a man, whom we are told may be a lost lover of the younger woman. The two onlookers feel sad, lost, silly and leave.
To me, this story was about companionship, loneliness, and the heart's need to feed on something other than itself, even at the price of self-deception. Although I have not described the mood and characters, the tale is as charming as the movie Waking Ned Devine. I even read some of this story aloud to my wife, and we laughed together.
The version of this book I read was a New Directions Paperback, 178 pages.

*****

Call It Sleep - a novel by Henry Roth. This powerful novel was ranked among the most neglected books of the past 25 Years by critics Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler. The story concerns the life of your David Shearl, a child of immigrant parents who grows up in the Jewish Lower East Side.

David's father, Albert, is a suspicious, angry man. He seethes and may indeed even be crazy with jealousy, resentment, anger and more. Albert makes young David's life a living hell. Yet David's mother, Genya, is warm and nurturing.

What makes this novel so strong is its wonderful portraits of totally believable people living in the early 1900's -- Jews, Irishmen, Polish -- all presented with an eye for detail, an ear for dialect, and with a magnificent capacity for story-telling. Other lively characters include David's caustic-tongued Aunt Bertha, her ineffectual husband, their two annoying but believable adolescent daughters, sadistic Rabbi's, a flashy Polish boy named Leo who introduces David to the joys of roller-skating and kite-flying, and more.

The central action of the book concerns an episode involving Leo, Bertha's daughters. This story is brought to a full boil and comes off like Tennessee Williams in its raw power. Other sections are highly imagistic, lit beautifully by fine writing that feel genuine, no matter how elaborate. Other sections are imagistic and stream-of-consciousness and feel a bit like Faulkner's Light in August. I did occasionally tire of the intense dialect. And I found Albert's anger dreadful -- but kept coming back to find out where it would lead. I had this book on my shelf for almost 25 years, and I'm glad that I finally decided that the day had come to read it.

Another interesting fact: Henry Roth never wrote another book. He said that this was all he had in him and retired to raise waterfowl in Maine. We're fortunate that he gave us this work before moving on. This book is highly recommended by yours truly!

 

***
Big Trouble - a novel by Dave Barry. An occasionally amusing novel by the well-known humor writer. It features would-be drug lords, a dysfunctional couple and their daughter, and more. Some scenes are funny, but not highly recommended. I listed to this novel on audiocassette.

 

****
The Pearl by John Steinbeck. 1947. The classic writer's account of a Mexican pearl diver who finds the largest peal in the world, and the bad luck it threatens to bring him and his family. The writing is fluid, balanced, intense and unrelenting. The tale is a bit hard to bear, though I wont say why. Still, it does not end on a totally bleak note. This parable tells us much of the dangers of materialism, and how evanescent happiness is.

****
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. 1956. 1962 Grove Press edition, translated by Anthony Kerrigan. A collection of short stories by the Argentine great. Borges writes as if he had an inner ear clued into the entire history of our race. I enjoyed these stories, though some were difficult to penetrate. "Funes, the Memorious" is a great story of a man who could forget nothing. The Library of Bebel seems sprung from a fantasy Borges had while Chief Librarian at the main library of Argentina. Listening to Borges is like listening to a seer. A major part of the experience is immersing oneself in the mind of a man who is so learned and yet not pretentious, who breathes history and wisdom of the ages.

2000
****
The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. by J.P. Donleavy. This novel came out in the 60's and was a follow-up to the highly successful The Ginger Man. Donleavy is lyrical, sad and comical. All in a style that is at once economical and in love with language. He never repeats himself, changes mood without altering style. But what I love most about him is a kind of comical empathetic view of life and romance.

 

Strange Days: My Life With and Without Jim Morrison by Patrician Kennealy. This is one angry, intelligent woman. Kenneally was the common-law wife of the Doors' lead singer, one of two such people. The other is Pamela Courson. If you're fascinated by The Doors and Morrison, as I am, then this book will be for you.

The Party and other stories by Anton Chekhov. Delightful, complex, insightful, wise, sensuous. What a writer!

****
Sleeping at the Starlite Motel by Bailey White - A Simon and Schuster cassette book, 4 tapes. Bailey White is that soft, slow-voiced Southern woman who seems like she's 90 years old but who is probably 50. No matter, her voice is pure and distinct, an authentic observer and storyteller from the South. Not given to Grand Guignol scenes like, say, Flannery O'Connor, she observes quiet portraits of real people with telling detail and lyrical style and wisdom. I enjoy listening to her!

1999

****
A Confederacy of Dunces by William Kennedy Toole. A rambunctious comedy about an overweight, coddled middle-aged man in new Orleans. His Mom forces him to leave the house and seek employment -- with hilarious consequences. Enjoyed listening to this, as read by Arte Johnson. Go to it for caricatures and comedy.

****
Isak Dinesen Festival by Isak Dinesen and William Luce - This is a 6 tape series, consisting of Julie Harris reading selections from Out of Africa, Colleen Dewhurst reading Babette's feast, and Harris performing Luce's one-woman play, Lucifer's Child. Isak Dinesen (1885 - 1962) herself reads The King's Letter and The Wine of the Tetrarch. A very endearing portrait of a wise lady who seems to have lived life to the fullest. Even her blood-lust for big game becomes excusable, given the grandeur and warmth of her soul. By The Audio Partners, 1997.

****
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Originally published in 1934. This is not a breeze of a book. But is beautifully written account of a physician and his wealthy wife, and their escapades in Switzerland and on the French Riviera. The story has some resemblances to Fitzgerald's relationship with his wife Zelda. The character Nicole in this book also suffers from schizophrenia.
The story mainly concerns this couple, Dick and Nicole Diver. Dick has an affair with a young actress. This damages his marriage, and seems indirectly related to Dick's incipient alcoholism. Finally the book fixes on Nicole's love affair with Tommy. This book is more a joy in the telling, in the way Fitzgerald notes and denotes the world, telling a story of particular people, an age, and a social class, with lyrical distinction.

Dave Barry Turns 50 by Dave Barry. 1998, Crown Publishers. Funny and creative humor from the pro, one of the wittiest people writing today. It helps if you're turning 50. Very big on Baby humor and issues. Surprisingly, he has occasional serious moments and telling observations.

 

***
White on White by E.B. White. On audiocassette. These are personally selected essays told by his son, Joel White. The essayist is in good, relaxed form., veering between humor and quietly observant wisdom. The essay on the circus and time seems especially wise. A poem about a bumblebee sounds just boring.

 

*****
Naked by David Sedaris. 1997. Abridged, on audiocassette by Time Warner Audiobooks. Sedaris is capable of having me laughing uproarariously. This tape did not have that effect, but his persona is lovable, honest, and acutely observant. He creates great family portraits, tells a tale of a visit to a nudist camp, reveals coming out at a gay camper/adoloescent, and more. We all enjoyed this on a car ride. Not all fun and games. He also tells of his Mom's death from cancer.

 

****
The Kiss and other Stories by Anton Chekov. On audiocassette from Sound Room Publishers. These tales are powerful, and short. We do not learn outcomes, but we see carefully, sensitively drawn portraits. Chekov is the master. Includes Not Wanted, the Helpmates, A Misfortune, The Head f the Family,. The Trousseau, Expensive Lessons and Anyuta.

***
The Fixer by Bernard Malamud. On Audiocassette by Warner Audio Publishing. This classic book tells the story of Yakov Bok, a repairman or fixer in Tsarist Russia during a time of pogroms. Simply and compellingly told, this is a personal tale of victimization. Bok begins to fight back, I believe at the end. I was frustrated, though, by not knowing the exact outcome, which the author does not reveal.

 

****
Alibi Ike, Haircut and The Love Nest by Ring Lardner. Newman Books on Cassette. These are three stories read on audiocassette by actor Henry Morgan. Funny tales, especially Alibi Ike. You can hear the "ring" of authenticity of Ring's baseball experience coming through in that story. Ike is a great character, an eccentric fleshed out with great imagination!

****
The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini by Benvenuto Cellini. Washington Square Press. August 1963 edition. Cellini is a great writer, a colorful portraitist of his own incredible career as a goldsmith and sculptor at the height of the Italian Renaissance. His temperament is at the heart of the narrative: willful, spiteful, easily insulted, quickly angered, proud, and passionate. He insults Popes, alienates Cardinals, feuds with Emperors, escapes from jail, survives a poisoning, wins unexpected victories in court, and creates great art. I loved his Perseus, which I saw in Florence. How it was built, the trials, and technical challenges, the inspiration -- the sheer muscle and will required to build it -- this is a story in itself. A wonderfully colorful story by a remarkably acute observer of his age.

Parachutes and Kisses by Erica Jong. 478 pages. Originally published 1984. A Signet paperback. A delightful account of a young woman's romantic flings, divorce, sensual and sexual escapades, trip to Russia to touch her grandfather's past, and -- finding her true love, and lust, Bean. Not much through-line of the story, but still fun to read and poetic. Filled with life force, sensuality and humor.

1998

***
Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. 222 pages. A Dutton Paperback, translated by Walter Arndt. Originally published 1831.

Read by Albert Fried-Cassorla albert@fried-cas.com in November, 1998. This Russian novel in verse is entertaining and readable in small installments. This is a story of a young nobleman's growing love for Tatyana. At first, she adores him. He puts her off. Later, the tables are turned. She marries another, still cares for him, but refuses to be unfaithful.
The charm in the book lies in its varied and witty portraits of Russian noble society, complete with ennui, elaborate costumes, poses, affectations, a duel, a suicide, word paintings of landscapes, and friendships with equal deftness, and more. Pushkin seems a modern, even though the scenery is old. I liked the casual wit, but even more the sense of everyday emotions, and grand emotions, and snatches of realistic conversation. You could envision being friends with this poet. What's more, you'd want to be.

*****
The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen. Number 13. The Pocket Poets Series. City lights Books, 1939. 48 pages, purchased for $1.00, who knows when. A brief account of Albert Fried-Cassorla.
This is a wonderful book of poetry, as light to carry and hold, and as violet and white in its pager as love itself. Patchen is a marvel of romanticism (small "r"). read it to yourself, and to someone you love.

 

****
Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw
Penguin Books, 1957. Originally published in 1924. Read August, 1998.

A brief account of Albert Fried-Cassorla

This is a charming and yet scary tale of history (hagiography, or biography of a saint), religion, state power and charismatic personality. Joan is presented in this play as a sweet and true believer, who claimed a direct connection to God. As such, she is feared by all who represent major institutions.
Shaw's style is more than witty; it is ingenious. He brings Joan back from the dead, only to show that those whom bemoaned her passing would indeed be so threatened by her return, that they would easily burn her at the stake again. An enjoyable read -- and probably better as a stage play.