The October Online Book Choice Is:

The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffmann

I asked the old woman what sort of a man a sandman was. ‘Oh Nat,’ she replied, ‘don’t you know that yet? It is a wicked man who comes after children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody, and then he throws them into his sack and carries them to the crescent moon as food for his little children, who have their nest up there and have crooked beaks like owls and peck up the eyes of the naughty children.’

A creepy read for your Halloween pleasure: this short story embraces the macabre. Our hero, Nathaniel, suffers lifelong torments from the sinister Coppelius. He passes from lucidity to madness and back to lucidity again. The recurring images of eyes, vision, glasses, spectacles, scopes, all are interwoven throughout the story. What do we see that is real? What is only an illusion? Eventually illusions lead to madness.

‘Madman! How can you have eyes?’ But Coppola had already put aside his barometers and, reaching into his capacious coat pockets, brought out lorgnettes and pairs of spectacles and laid them on to the table. ‘Here, here: glasses, glasses to put on your nose; they’re my occe, lov-ely occe!’ And with that he fetched out more and more pairs of spectacles, so that the whole table began to sparkle and glitter in an uncanny fashion. A thousand eyes gazed and blinked and stared up at Nathaniel, but he could not look away from the table, and Coppola laid more and more pairs of spectacles on to it, and flaming glances leaped more and more wildly together and directed their blood-red beams into Nathaniel’s breast.

Hoffmann wrote many short stories that have the same sinister tone about them. He is best known for writing The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a tale that Tchaikovsky softened by setting to music. The original is much darker, with toys coming to life and engaging in battles with mice, the Lady Mouserinks and her threats of ‘Take care, my queen, that the Mouse Queen does not bite your little princess to pieces!’ or the Seven-Headed Mouse King’s rhyme ‘Don’t go to the house, don’t go to the feast, can’t let yourself get caught like a wretched little beast. Give me all your picture books, give me your Christmas dress, or I’ll nibble Nutcracker all to bits and you’ll never have any peace. Squeak!’

If Tchaikovsky had followed the story more faithfully, it would have turned the Nutcracker ballet into a Halloween event.

Hoffmann died in 1822.

The August Online Book Choice Is:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl


Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived 3 years in the Nazi concentration camp system. Separated from his family, he learned later that his wife, parents, and brother were all murdered by the Nazi regime. After his liberation, Frankl came to terms with camp horrors by conceiving of the psychotherapy known as logotherapy (logos from greek: ‘meaning’), the basis for this book.

Harold Kushner writes in the introduction:

‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.’

How can a person make sense of his world when it has become insensible? Frankl dedicates the first part of the book to concentration camp life and reflects on how he and his fellow camp mates survived, and why some did not survive. Frankl is clear: these survivors surrendered their humanity:

‘On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles — whatever one may choose to call them — we know: the best of us did not return.’

After the shock and apathy towards his situation set in, Frankl (and the other prisoners) began to suppress emotion in order to make his situation bearable and to survive. But the mind can essentially bear anything if it has something to work on, whether it be forming ideas, or thinking of a loved one, or imagining what one will do after one is freed. Frankl mentions the Nietzsche quote ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how’ and Frankl survived by using his mind. The Nazis could attack his physical form, but not his mental state.

Where the first part of the book can be read for religious inspiration, the second part of the book is an examination of logotherapy and how its tools can be used to find meaning in life. Frankl used these logotherapeutic tools to come to terms with camp life.

‘Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.’

So, what is the point of it all? Frankl offers that every person’s ‘point’ will be different:

‘One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment, Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.’

Viktor Frankl died in 1997.

The July Online Book Choice Is:

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri


This book of short stories is notable for its crisp delivery; there isn’t a word wasted. Each story is tied together by the teller’s interpretation of or interaction with India and explores the lamentations and celebrations of the Indian, the American, and the Indian American. The book also moves nicely among the cultural differences that arise from Indians who are expatriated from their country of origin. It is a really well-written book.

The following quote is from the short story ‘A Real Durwan’:

’The only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut. It was with this voice that she enumerated, twice a day as she swept the stairwell, the details of her plight and losses suffered since her deportation to Calcutta after Partition.’

Though this short story is deftly written, it was the only one where I saw the ending coming from a mile away. It felt a little formulaic. But perhaps that is the point with some stories; reiteration keeps the idea in focus.

Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

The June Online Book Choice Is:

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco


Someone is murdering monks in the abbey and it’s up to William and his sidekick Adso to find out who’s behind it. William, a friar and former papal inquisitor, and his apprentice Adso use deductive reasoning to solve the crimes being committed; a medieval Holmes & Watson, if you will.

Forewarning: there is a large cast of characters, and it’s a good idea to keep a Latin dictionary handy since there are a lot of references to the Catholic mass. And William and his fellow monks break into Latin during regular speech without hesitation.

And this book has some great vocabulary: not every day one comes across words like tatterdemalion, hypotyposis, and quodlibetical.

Adso and his mentor William engage in many debates, many involve questioning the path of the church, its past and future, the righteousness of the church fathers, and how both relate to each other. It was a tumultuous time then and the line between politics and religion was muddy.

The nicest parts of the book are the scenes with the scribe monks, who are set to copy out manuscripts in the abbey’s library. The passion that they had for their work can be illustrated in the following quote:

‘The day before, Benno had said he would be prepared to sin in order to procure a rare book. He was not lying and not joking. A monk should surely love his books with humility, wishing their good and not the glory of his own curiosity; but what the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks.’

Monks prepared to sin? Even enough to commit a murder? The mystery deepens.

The April Online Book Choice Is:

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt


This interesting history follows how the book On the Nature of Things survived its path from Ancient Rome to Charlemagne’s Middle Ages to Renaissance Italy. Poggio Bracciolini plays a major role in saving Lucretius’ important work. A humanist and a scribe, Poggio worked in Rome’s papal system for a time, and was noted for his elegant handwriting, which was a commodity in short supply in 13th century Europe. No book is safe from time; they are all doomed to decay and the withering hand of time, and Poggio’s interest was in saving secular works from destruction. Many of these books were in monasteries across Europe and Poggio searched through these monasteries finding many treasures that would not have withstood that withering hand. And after many centuries, even the monks wouldn’t know what they had, especially when they considered Lucretius’s work to be pagan.

‘Who knew what was sitting on those shelves, untouched perhaps for centuries? Tattered manuscripts that had chanced to survive the long nightmare of chaos and destruction, in the wake of the fall of the Roman Empire…’

By finding the book itself and then having it copied out Poggio initiated the ‘swerve’, that would change the direction of how the world thought.

For two millennia, religion had dictated and determined the thinking of most everyone. People worshipped and feared the gods, first the entire swath of the Greek & Roman pantheon and then transitioning to the Christian Church and divinity of one god. There was always an underlying dread to living due to a fear of suffering in the afterlife.

Lucretius was a follower of Epicurus, part of  a sect of free thinkers in Ancient Rome, and wrote of the need for free will, and how to unshackle oneself from the bonds of the gods. Life can be good! It can be argued that hyperreligion can stifle the natural course of humanity.

Over time, On the Nature of Things was circulated and soon it began to influence a new generation of free thinkers. Free will and determinism was taking anchor. The Enlightenment was soon to follow.

It is worth noting that Shakespeare, center of the literary canon, was influenced by Lucretius’ work. Certainly, the U.S. would not have the type of governance structure it has without the influence of his book. Thomas Jefferson was a noted epicurean.

The Swerve and On the Nature of Things are available for checkout.

The March Online Book Choice Is:

King Richard II by William Shakespeare


Ben Whishaw as Richard II

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…

The Tragedy of King Richard II is one of the few plays that Shakespeare wrote entirely in lyric verse. It is the prologue to the tetralogy consisting of Richard II, Henry IV (parts 1 & 2), and Henry V.

In the play, Richard sees his rule as divinely gifted from providence:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord…

Richard had seized John of Gaunt’s (Henry’s father) properties and wealth (it takes a lot of money to fund majesty), which then provoked Henry to usurp the throne from him.
Holinshed’s Chronicles of England (Shakespeare’s source material) lists the articles that the English Parliament drew up for Richard’s removal from the throne, two of the most prominent being Richard’s order for the Duke of Gloucester’s murder, and that he ‘wastefully spent the treasure of the realm.’ Shakespeare uses these reasons to justify Henry’s ascent to the throne.

It is a strange transfer of power, from a king who relents his crown without a fight. And there is a transfer of sorts within Richard; his character at the beginning of the play is royally conceited but after his removal from power, he is self-reflective and thoughtful. Here is Richard preparing to surrender, speaking of himself:

The king shall be contented: must he lose
The name of king? o’ God’s name, let it go:
I’ll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman’s gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood,
My sceptre for a palmer’s walking staff,
My subjects for a pair of carved saints
And my large kingdom for a little grave,
A little little grave, an obscure grave;
Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway,
Some way of common trade, where subjects’ feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live;
And buried once, why not upon my head?

Because of Henry’s usurpation, the Bishop of Carlisle prophesies the coming calamities, England’s Wars of the Roses, a conflict that lasted more than 30 years and which was brought about by the ineffectual rule of Henry VI, Henry’s grandson.

My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act…

The Hollow Crown is the BBC television program based on Shakespeare’s plays that lead up to the Wars of the Roses. The program’s title comes from lines spoken by Richard:

…Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits….

The first in the series is Richard II, starring Ben Whishaw, convincing as a pensive king.  The Henry plays follow to round out the tetralogy.

Place a hold on The Hollow Crown here.

The February Online Book Choice Is:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles


This slim volume is a good western story. The two protagonists, one a war veteran, the other a freed Kiowa captive, travel from one end of Texas to another to fulfill an oath. For one, her destiny is unknown; for the other, it is a mission.

The journey itself is through lawless terrain, and our two heroes must maneuver through the good and the bad. Captain Kidd books halls and reads the London Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Daily Journal as they travel, earning dimes to pay their way.

‘They slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their firelit homes, they left the cattle circled and bedded beside the flooding Red to come and hear the news of the distant world … Now he took them away to far places and strange peoples. Into mythic forms of thought and the structures of fairy tales.’

The underlying third character of the novel is the state of Texas:

‘They came downhill to a stream crossing where the clear water made its way between great curving bluffs. Level strata of limestone in stripe after stripe carved back into a deep hollow with the big trees hanging down from overhead. It was like being in a tunnel. Maidenhair fern in bright lime-colored bouquets grew out of the limestone where water seeped through and it smelled of water and wet stone and the green fern … Two great live oaks overhung the stream from above. They dropped their leaves one at a time into the water. The new leaves were coming in and pushing off the old ones slowly, slowly. They fell like pennies.’

The novel itself is small. It could have been more expansive. The author had room to grow her characters, but instead keeps them, and subsequently her story, focused.

The January Online Book Choice Is:

Dubliners by James Joyce


‘Most people considered Lenehan a leech but, in spite of this reputation, his adroitness and eloquence had always prevented his friends from forming any general policy against him. He had a brave manner of coming up to a party of them in a bar and of holding himself nimbly at the borders until he was included in a round.’

Dubliners is hard, gritty, and real. There is no tidy finish to each story. Every character plays his part for good or bad. Joyce called these stories epiphanies and he was certainly influenced by the Catholic concept of epiphany. Some are failed, but some offer a glimpse of hope, and a chance for renewal. These are wretched characters, desperate, disenchanted, or suffering from an abuse, inflicted on them by others or by themselves. Though the characters in each story are separate, they move together in the same time and space of Dublin.

‘He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense … He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died … his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.’

The writing is luminous:

‘As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses, where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life …’

January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany.

The December Online Book Choice Is:

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-8-18-27-pm

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon with a bright future who was diagnosed with cancer while still in residency. How does a surgeon keep working once such a bleak diagnosis has been made? All the time and training and effort were now placed on a balance scale with family, and writing, his other passion. It became a time of doubt. And of determining what was important.

‘I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.’

Paul comes to terms with the loss of a life before it’s lived, and subsequently loss from death. He asks the central question Is There Meaning to Life? Scientifically? And what about philosophically? What does it mean to have lived a worthwhile life? Is there meaning in a life lived intensely but also in a life lived without distinction? None of us has much time.

‘That morning, I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.’

Paul Kalanithi raged against the dying of the light. He died in March 2015 from lung cancer.

The November Online Book Choice Is:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-52-38-pm

This book feels like Faulkner and for good reason. Anderson was mentor to the young writer in the mid 1920s, and also to Hemingway and Steinbeck, among others. Thomas Wolfe credits Anderson as being the ‘only man who ever taught me anything.’ His book can be considered the first Lost Generation novel, and that would have a huge influence on these young writers. It is worth reading for that reason alone.

The book is a book of stories that read like vignettes in a play. Anderson plays on this by announcing his intent:

‘Alice’s step-father was a carriage painter, and given to drink. His story is an odd one. It will be worth telling some day’
and
‘The story of Louise Bentley, who became Mrs. John Hardy and lived with her husband in a brick house on Elm Street in Winesburg, is a story of misunderstanding’
and
‘The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands.’

The town of Winesburg, its characteristics, and the daily life of the townspeople, is the common thread in each story. Each story is unique and carries its own weight but is tied to the others. Here is some lovely writing:

‘The story of Doctor Reefy and his courtship of the tall dark girl who became his wife and left her money to him is a very curious story. It is delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg. In the fall one walks in the orchards and the ground is hard with frost underfoot. On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.’

Sherwood Anderson died in 1941.