Archive for August, 2018

Hunchback

A mistress
to the season’s breeze,
despite a sky
now beyond its reach
and the proof
a lake’s mirror reveals,
once more
gowned in spring’s
fresh bloom,
having survived two
lightning strikes,
pregnant with desire,
multiplying into
a chorus of bird song,
this hunchback
again dons its crown
of leaves.

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The Loved One / Evelyn Waugh

During the same time I was reading Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I was reading another slim novel, Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.  This book, too, is quite witty on the surface.  But its satiric take on Hollywood, the California dream, and spirituality glories in bad taste and the cruel wit of a world in which love and death are perverted to further its main character’s quest for fame and wealth.

This main character, Dennis Barlow, an English poet who comes to Hollywood to make a name for himself, exemplifies the book’s main themes.  When he is fired from a movie studio, he takes a job at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery and crematorium that uses every trick in the book to extract money from its grieving customers.  In the course of business, he meets a young girl “with the glint of lunacy” in her eyes.  Aimée Thanatogenos works as a cosmetician at Whispering Glades, a funeral home that caters to the needs of the rich.  

Her job there is painting the faces of the dead, and she takes great pride in her work.  While beautiful, she is clearly an individual with a low IQ, and yet Barlow takes a perverse interest in Aimée.  To woo her, he courts her with excerpts from the great poets, presenting them as his own.  As the story unfolds, it hilariously satirizes the mortuary business and the gullibility of human nature in terms of dealing with the dead.  Waugh delights in presenting the grisly details of what goes on behind the doors of The Happier Hunting Ground and Whispering Glades.

While The Loved One is a macabre frolic, it is also pokes fun of an American culture where everything is commercialized, including love and death.  The book’s dark humor might be off-putting to some, but with a cast zany characters featuring British bores, snobs, and vulgarians, and Americans like  as Aimée and Mr. Joyboy, a master embalmer, Waugh has written a novel that kept me entertained throughout.

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie / Muriel Spark

While classified as a novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is short enough to read in one evening.  And a good many readers might be tempted to do just that.  With sentences crisp and engaging, Spark is a master of the art of “less is more.”  The story centers around the education of six 10-year-old girls, all students of Miss Jean Brodie, a self-confident and manipulative teacher intent on shaping the lives of “her girls.”  It opens in the year 1936, and the narrative that follows flashes forward and backward around that time period.

In the beginning, it seems that Miss Brodie is an exceptional teacher.  She preaches to her students the importance of beauty and goodness, highlighting the role the arts play in shaping individualism and creativity.  Having traveled throughout Europe, Miss Brodie charms and dazzles the girls with tales of her adventures.  Her promise to her students is, if they follow her instruction and example, they will become “la crème de la crème” of society when older.

But there is a dark side to Miss Brodie.  She is more than willing to groom her girls, as they get older, to help in the seduction of the art teacher in the school, a married man she is hopelessly in love with.  And after visits to Italy and Germany, she is an admirer of Mussolini and Hitler.  Claiming that she is in her “prime,” Miss Brodie believes she can defy society’s norm to get whatever she desires, even if it means using her impressionable students to do so.

Having instilled her perverted beliefs into these six girls, it comes as no surprise when later she is betrayed by one of them.  But which of them will be the Judas of the group?  What makes this novel so enjoyable is observing how Spark carefully assembles the intricate pieces of the relationship between a revered teacher and students destined to grow beyond her control as they mature into adulthood.

While one might be tempted to read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a single sitting, it is best to take time to savor the plot as it unfolds or at least to read it a second time to appreciate the its complexities.  Short as it is, each paragraph seems to have something important to impart.   Beautifully constructed, Spark has created a novel that has won the right to be called a classic. 

Stealing Home

I remember sneaking
off after dinner; usually
we had no ump,
and only one catcher
for both sides.
With no one keeping
score, bases
composed of sticks
and stones,
our bicycles served as
home run walls
in that distant outfield.
The dim stadium
light of dusk hurrying
pitches and swings.
Stepping into the box,
the last batter up
already knew the out-
come of the game.
Even if defiant of curfew,
delivering a triple
could not prevent being
called out when
brazenly trying to steal
home unnoticed.

While You Were Out

While you were out
I dispatched a spider that
dared to rest in
trespass upon your pillow.
Alas, catch and
release back into the wild
was an afterthought.
Instead, instinct prevailed.
The size of a quarter,
hirsute, it seemed capable
of reading my mind
with its eight sinister eyes.
Putting literature
to good use, I lashed out
and smashed before
intent gave away the crime.
Self-defense or
manslaughter, I leave for
a jury to decide.
The only evidence of guilt,
a disagreeable stain
glaringly embedded there
next to your ear.

SPQR : A History Of Ancient Rome / Mary Beard

SPQR takes its title from a popular Roman catchphrase, Senatus Populus Que Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome.”  In this tome, Mary Beard traces Rome’s history from its earliest days up the the third century CE.  While the presentation is scholarly, she succeeds in putting flesh on the Empire’s bones in a highly readable format. It is a book that will appeal to both the historian and the interested layperson.

In piecing together the foundational myth of Romulus and Remus, as well as the key figures before actuate documentation, Beard shows that much of what we know about Ancient Rome is based more upon folklore than truth.  She challenges many of today’s sketchy accounts.  In disassembling myths, she meticulously presents the whys and hows of the city’s growth and recreates in great detail how the Romans viewed their culture and long dominance on the world stage.

While the author does spend considerable time describing the autocracy that ruled Rome from its earliest days through its decline, Beard also brings to life how the other classes lived and endured through the centuries.  Rather than focusing on the causes of its decline, the book concentrates on what made Ancient Rome successful for such a long period of time.

Although Rome’s democratic period was short-lived, if indeed it ever was a true democracy, this book shows the importance of its Senate in the day-to-day governance of Ancient Rome’s extended empire.  Even in the era of emperors taking over the reins of power, the Senate continued to play a vital role.  Beard ends this book at the point where the emperor Caracalla in 212 CE decreed that all citizens in the empire were Roman citizens.  This led ultimately to emperors who took power outside Rome itself, and the eventual decline in the importance of the city’s Senate.

SPQR is a scholarly work that is presented in such a way that the average reader is quickly caught up in its epic tale.  Beard succeeds in presenting the importance of Ancient Rome’s governance and culture to Western culture today.  How the Romans interpreted power and citizenship remains an important lesson in this era of global migration and its effects on national politics.  It is a book that I found hard to put down.

Stalin’s Daughter : The Extraordinary And Tumultuous Life Of Svetlana Alliluyeva / Rosemary Sullivan

Born in 1926, Svetlana Alliluyeva began her life inside the Kremlin walls, enjoying the privileges of her father’s power.  The daughter of Joseph Stalin, she ultimately became a victim of his reign of terror, even though she continued to live a life of entitlement as a member of Russia’s ruling elite during his lifetime.  Eight-five years later, she died, almost penniless, in an assisted living facility in rural Wisconsin.  Her life story as portrayed in this biography shows a woman who, in a sense, became a pawn in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union during the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Despite her privileged childhood, Svetlana’s early years were far from kind.  Her mother committed suicide when she was six years old.  Her brother died in a German POW camp during World War II.  And during her father’s reign, many of her close family members were arrested in his merciless purges, including one of her first lovers, who was exiled to Siberia.  Stalin was a distant figure in her life, loving at times, but more often cold and cruel.  It was only after his death that she learned the extent of his evil manipulations.

In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, she made the courageous decision to defect to the United States.  In doing so, she left behind her two children, one of whom she never saw again.  Her defection resulted in international press coverage as well as a Russian smear campaign.  After reaching America, she published two books about her childhood, but following that, her desire to be a writer continued to be thwarted.  All that the world was interested in was her father, a dark shadow she desperately wanted to escape as she began life anew.

Renaming herself Lana Peters, she spent the rest of her life trying to fit into a western culture she had little understanding of.  Having left behind two failed marriages, she suffered another after reaching America.  And during her lifetime, two other relationships resulted in her partners dying of terminal illnesses.  The second half of her life shows a fiery woman with a gypsy soul.  Continually on the move, with a daughter from her third marriage, she lived in numerous communities across the country and even relocations to England, France, and a brief sojourn back to Russia.

Deeply wounded by her childhood, Svetlana was a troubled individual.  Prone to violent outbursts, she was often her own worst enemy.  While never diagnosed as such, she may have suffered from bipolar disorder.  In this fascinating account of her life, Rosemary Sullivan leaves no stone unturned in capturing the essence of her conflicted personality.  A compelling read, she presents a daughter’s moving attempt to escape the past against insurmountable odds.  It is a sad tale of an individual doomed to be always overshadowed by her father’s deeds.