Archive for February, 2015

Tolstoy—Tales Of Courage And Conflict / Leo Tolstoy

This collection of stories by Russia’s preeminent author opens with a story written in 1854 and concludes with one penned in 1893. Spanning a good portion of his life, they serve to reveal the different sides of Tolstoy’s personality as he ages. Written when the author was just twenty-four years old, the first three stories focus on the French siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Tolstoy takes the role of an embedded journalist on the battlefield to present a “you are there” portrayal of the fighting. He chronicles the reactions of a number of officers as they summon (or fail to do so) the courage to face a devastating bombardment and the strong possibility of being killed or seriously injured. The stories that follow have a folkloric quality to them, with the author mixing religious symbolism into various stories about the Russian peasantry. The best of these is the marvelous tale of a fallen angel in What Men Live By. One novella length story, Lost On The Steppe, vividly recounts an unnamed narrator’s evening trip by sledge across the Steppe during a blinding snowstorm. Lost and facing the threat of freezing to death, it chronicles his growing anxiety. A second novella in this collection is the piece that most impressed me. The Death Of Ivan Ilyich tells the story of a high court judge who, after a fall that caused a slight bruise, gradually becomes incapacitated by pain and declining health. While no physician can name the illness he suffers from, over the course of the next year he begins to waste away. It hauntingly captures the inner thoughts of an individual who is forced to deal with the terror of his approaching death. A number of the stories deal with the troubled relationship between a husband and a wife. I could not help but wonder if these were a reflection of Tolstoy’s own unhappy marriage. But the overarching theme throughout is the author’s growing spirituality, with strong overtones of an interest in Christian socialism. These stories are dense and detailed, and provide a wonderful glimpse into Russian life in the 1800s. For the uninitiated, this collection will make an excellent introduction to Tolstoy’s marvelous prose. And for those who have read his longer novels, these stories will serve to enhance their appreciation of this gifted Russian author.

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All Towns Have One

All towns have one,
a deserted, haunted house,
the primary focus
of every eight-year-old boy
around campfires and
after “lights out” during
weekend sleepovers.

Seen peering from
its cracked, cobwebbed-
encrusted windows,
grizzled and bald-headed,
the tormented ghost
of a rumored suicide waits
with knife in hand.

Music has been heard
coming from its basement,
prowling like the wind
through decades of clutter;
a lamenting guitar
played without the benefit
of strings or fingers.

Despite an assertion
of having ventured within
last Halloween night,
no one believes that older
boy’s account of entry,
since obviously, he is still
alive to tell the tale.

Thin As A Shadow

A stop sign has not
brought us to a standstill
nor have we been
pulled over by a policeman.
This simultaneous
flashing of taillights here
in winter’s gloom
is rush hour’s response to
a higher authority.
The competition to break
the speed limit has
been replaced by the race
of a startled heart.
Without motion, how loud
car radios sound.
But the news is out of date.
With both hands,
steering wheels are gripped.
Nobody honks,
wonders where that phone
went when dropped.
No longer hard as concrete
or solid ground,
a surface thin as a shadow
commands respect.

And to think, a minute ago,
it was merely rain.

Brooklyn / Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn is the sixth novel from Colm Tóibín, and the second that I’ve read by this talented Irish author. What makes his novels special is the masterful storytelling that features characters fully brought to life, warts and all. Set in the 1950s, Brooklyn focuses on the journey into adulthood of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman, as she migrates from a small town in provincial Ireland to the United States. Unable to find work at home, when an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she reluctantly decides to leave her widowed mother and older sister and relocate to a strange country. Tóibín does a marvelous job of portraying Eilis’ torn emotions as she sets out to make a new life overseas, and his description of her roiling journey by ship is sure to leave a good many readers feeling a bit seasick themselves. He also vividly captures her initial homesickness once she settles in an Irish boardinghouse in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Eilis soon finds work in a large department store, and when she least expects it, a suitor appears, intent on winning her affection. A blond Italian from a large Catholic family, Tony is clearly determined to win her hand in marriage. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with him, devastating news comes from home. Her older sister has died unexpectedly, and Eilis is being encouraged by family members to return and provide comfort to her grief stricken mother. She decides to do so, with every intention of returning to Tony in a month’s time. But once she gets home, it is clear that her mother is determined to keep Eilis in Ireland. In the final chapters, Tóibín builds suspense in regards to what this young woman’s decision will be. His conclusion features several unexpected twists. This coming of age story vividly recreates the rhythm of life in the 1950s in both a backwater Irish town and a bustling American big city. Its beautiful prose breathes life into instantly likeable characters, hauntingly portrayed. If not familiar with this Irish writer, this novel will make you a fan.

Family Tree

When taking that photo album
down off the shelf,
it’s best to read it back to front;
to view first
the bare gaps in a family tree
losing its leaves,
starting after the shock of loss,
when sad omissions
began to haunt each photograph.
Then paging inward,
to hurry past those last reunions
and discover, fully leafed,
branches bending under the weight
of heavy fruit,
when temporarily, time stood still,
seemingly inattentive.
Regressing backwards, linger
as happy occasions,
birthdays, and holidays accumulate
like spring blossoms.
What a kind conclusion, to finally
reach the photographs
that do not include any siblings,
but show a family tree,
already sprouting another limb.
To appreciate, overhead,
that branch supports you still.

Colonel Roosevelt / Edmund Morris

Colonel Roosevelt is the third and completing book of Edmund Morris’ definitive biography on the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt. In the first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris takes the reader from Roosevelt’s childhood up to the point where he comes President in 1900. Theodore Rex examines the years of his presidency and chronicles Roosevelt’s numerous accomplishments during that period. As this concluding book opens in the year 1908, the now ex-President is on safari in East Africa. In graphic detail, it shows the hunter Roosevelt collecting hundreds of animal specimens for the Smithsonian. On his return to America, traveling through Europe, large crowds and royalty greeted him warmly. It is assumed by most that he is likely to become President again in 1912. Once he returns to the United States, Roosevelt is confronted by a problem that was to plague him until the end of the days. After eight years in the White House, he had become accustomed to wielding power. He found it difficult being out of the limelight. While he proclaims he is not interested in running for president, every step he takes in public life says otherwise. In 1910, Roosevelt openly begins to campaign against the policies of William Taft, his anointed successor in the White House, quickly becoming the leader of the Republican Party’s progressive wing. When the conservative wing fails to support his bid to become their nominee for president in 1912, he forms the Bull Moose Party and succeeds in dividing the Republican Party to the point where Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, secures enough votes to become President. Where the first two books showed Roosevelt to be a youthful, energetic man, Colonel Roosevelt shows him aging rapidly and falling out of step with the electorate. Just fifty years old when he left the White House, for the next ten years Roosevelt tries and fails to fill the void left in his life after leaving public office. It is not through lack of trying­—trips to darkest Africa, a harrowing journey down the River of Doubt in South America, and writing numerous books and a flood of magazine and newspaper articles occupy the remaining years of his life. But he clearly misses being in the spotlight, and becoming more strident in his political beliefs, he soon begins to find fault with not only Taft and Wilson, but also many of his closest supporters. Suffering from atherosclerosis, Roosevelt’s health declines rapidly in his mid-fifties. Overweight and refusing to admit the passage of time, the start of World War I finds him trying to raise a battalion of volunteer soldiers to be sent overseas to fight. His attempts are gently rebuffed by the Wilson administration. As he nears sixty, he suffers several life-threatening health events as well as the death of one of his sons on the battlefield in France. In 1919, having just turned sixty, he develops a pulmonary embolism and dies shortly afterwards. His final words are addressed to a long time valet: “James, will you put out the light?”

Having spent a good chunk of the last two months reading this splendid trilogy by Morris, there is no doubt that Theodore Roosevelt led an epic life. While I did not always agree with his political beliefs or actions, I found Teddy delightful company during these long winter nights.

Italian Opera

The instruction given us
was to stay out of the living room,
our cooperation insured
with a bubbly glass of Seven-Up.

With an ashtray and
coaster placed for each participant,
they arrived, encumbered
with hats, wearing Sunday dresses.

Those wives, each dabbed
with competing scents of perfume,
seemed younger somehow,
and bolder, without a husband near.

What I most recall about
Mother’s card club gathering was
how their voices arose
between hands, operatically entwined.

The language might as well
have been Italian, considering my
inability to decipher
the meaning behind their laughter.