So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik
Created by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik this short 16 pager comic book was first published in December 1957 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Illustrating the Nonviolent Method using the case of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the comic very simple and elegantly tells how nonviolent action works.
I read Stanford University's digitized copy.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Naked

Naked by David Sedaris

Naked is a series of 17 essays written by David Sedaris and published in 1997. Sedaris includes a note to say that the events depicted are real but names and identifying characteristics have been changed except for those of his family. The author grew up in Raleigh, and I met him in 1979 when I moved to Raleigh and he worked as a waiter at the Breakfast House restaurant on Hillsborough Street.
The essays in Naked focus on David's life growing up in Raleigh, his college years, early work experiences, and his relationship with his family members. The 40 page title essay Naked relates his week-long first visit to a nudist club and his adjustment to a clothes-free environment and the nudists he met.
As a 1990s retrospective look back on the 19760s and 70s, this book may not be for everyone. I enjoyed it as a tribute to a Raleigh that was much smaller and in many ways than the city we know today, as the gifted writings of a gay man growing up in a intolerant world, and as a long-lost letter from a person I met many years ago who made me feel welcome in a strange city.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut by Antoine François Prévost
Manon Lescaut is a story of a young man, the Chevalier des Grieux, and his lover, Manon Lescaut. Set in the year 1721 and first published in 1731, this story of uninhibited love and its dire consequences was both quickly banned and widely read. The novel begins when a narrator, spending the night in a small town, who sees the townspeople gathered around two large wagons loaded with women criminals who are being banished to the colony of New Orleans. Amongst this "frail sisterhood" sits Manon "whose whole air and figure seemed so ill-suited to her present condition, that under other circumstances I should not have hesitated to pronounce her a person of high birth. Her excessive grief, and even the wretchedness of her attire, detracted so little from her surpassing beauty... " Asking one of the guards about this rare beauty, the guard points to a man who has followed them from Paris, crying all the way and says that he knows her. Asked about Manon, the despondent stranger replies that he is completely in love with her and having failed at all attempts to free her, he plans to follow her to the ends of the Earth. Seeing that the stranger has no money and is in desperate need, the narrator gives him 4 gold louis-d'ors and 2 more to the lead guard, and goes on his way.
Two years later he again sees the young man, poorly dressed and walking the street of Calais, having just returned from America. Greeting him and learning he is still destitute, the narrator offers him a room for the night at the inn where he is staying. That night the stranger, who is the Chevalier des Grieux, tells the story of his tragic three year love affair with the beautiful and charming Manon Lescaut.
Manon is poor but beautiful and the 17 year old Chevalier's love for her is instantaneous and intense. He must have her, and runs off with her to Paris in spite of the disapproval of his father and brother. Losing his savings through various circumstances, he relies on the generosity of friends and his skill at gambling to support their existence. Manon, while she professes love for the Chevalier, uses her beauty and charm to attract the generosity of other men. Instead of her loose virtue turning him away, their mutual love keeps him faithful to her. Eventually they run into trouble with the law and he follows her into exile.
Told completely from his point of view, Manon's life and motives are at best poorly understood. We see her through the filter of 300 years, a translation into another language, and the eyes of a deeply infatuated young man. It is believed that the story is in part based upon an early love affair of the author Prevost.
Manon's story and the Chevalier's love for her has inspired several operas, and, 100 years later, the novel and play Camille by Alexandre Dumas. Both Manon and Camille have been made into movies again and again. I am glad that I have read the original version of this classic love story.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Anansi Boys

The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman takes the legend of Anansi the Spider and updates it. This is about Anansi's two sons Fat Charlie and Spider who grew up in south Florida only to be parted by an angry neighbor that sends Spider away. If you didn't grow up with Anansi tales or read them to your children, you should read about him.

This story is about separated brothers reunited in modern London. But is it also a giant Anansi story with Animal totems living in the cliffs at The Beginning of the World. It is a well crafted story that I couldn't put down and enjoyed to the end. It illustrates how Life is just the tale we tell, and a gifted storyteller can make that tale so much more meaningful. It also shows how the world of our mind is meshed so closely with the world of our perceptions, how Spirit and Flesh, Sacred and Profane dance together to the sound of Song.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc

The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc by Eugene Sue

The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc is the 15th book of Eugene Sue's 21 volume series The Mysteries of the People; or History of a Proletarian Family Across the Age. The series was created to depict the struggle between the ruling and the ruled classes in European history. One family, the descendants of a Gallic chief named Joel, represent the oppressed and the descendants of a Frankish chief Neroweg, typifies the oppressors. Down through the ages the successive struggles between oppressors and oppressed are depicted as each generation of Joel's family writes the story of their lives and adds it to the collective story gathered so far.

The Executioner's Knife is set in the early 15th Century and tells the famous story of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans. Written in the mid-19th Century and translated into English in 1910, the book portrays Joan as guided by inner voices and an ancient legend to save France. The author depicts her as an inspirational figure to the downtrodden French who are caught in the conflict between an invading British army and a divided France. She herself is drawn as a heroine of the people who is betrayed by the ruling classes.

The book only tangentially fits into the series as neither Joan nor her major accusers are related to Eugene Sue's fictional families. He has one of the series' family members present at Joan's execution to tell the story of her death. One drawback for me, a modern reader in the USA, is that the author tells his French readers who each of Joan's enemies were and what they said against her. I found myself wanting to skip over pages in the last section of the book that deals with her capture, trial and execution as each person in her trial is identified by name, position and home city and quoted. As a result this book has over 100 footnotes, most to the transcript of the trial or other historic documents. Each book in the English translation series has a Preface written by the translator Daniel De Leon.

TRANSLATOR'S PREFACE. Whether one will be satisfied with nothing but a scientific diagnosis in psychology, or a less ponderous and infinitely more lyric presentation of certain mental phenomena will do for him; whether the student of history insist on strict chronology, or whether he prize at its true value the meat and coloring of history; whether a reader prefer in matters canonical the rigid presentation of dogma, or whether the tragic fruits of theocracy offer a more attractive starting point for his contemplation;—whichever the case might be, The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc will gratify his intellectual cravings on all the three heads. This, the fifteenth story of the series of Eugene Sue's matchless historic novels entitled The Mysteries of the People; or, History of a Proletarian Family Across the Ages, presents the picture of the Fifteenth Century—a historic elevation climbed up to from the hills of the era sketched in the preceding story, The Iron Trevet; or Jocelyn the Champion, and from which, in turn, the outlines become vaguely visible of the critically historic era that forms the subject of the next story, The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer. As in all the stories of this stupendous series bestowed by the genius of Sue upon posterity, the leading characters are historic, the leading events are historic, and the coloring is true to history. How true to the facts are the historic revelations made by the author in this series, and how historically true are the conclusions he draws, as they rise in relief on the canvas of these novels, appears with peculiar conspicuousness in The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc, above all in this century, when the science of history has remodeled its theory, and, instead of, as in former days, basing man's acts upon impulse, has learned to plant impulse upon material facts. In the pages of this story the central figure is the charming one generally known to history as the Maid of Orleans. If ever there was in the annals of man a figure that superstitious mysticism combined with grovelling interests to annihilate, it was the figure of the pure-minded, self-sacrificing, intrepid shepherdess of Domremy. Even the genius of a Voltaire succumbed. In righteous revolt against man-degrading superstition, his satire "La Pucelle" in fact contributed, by the slur it placed upon Joan, to vindicate the very lay and prelatical interests he fought, and whose predecessors dragged her name through the ditch and had consigned her body to the flames. Harried by the political interests whom her integrity of purpose menaced and actually thwarted; insulted and put to death by the allies of these, ambushed behind religion; the successors of both elements perpetuating the wrong with false history; and even the enlightened contributing their sneers out of just repugnance for supernaturalism;—all this notwithstanding, the figure of Joan triumphed. Even the head of the prelatic political machine, which had presumed to speak in the name of the Deity with Anathema over Joan's head, has felt constrained to fall in line with the awakened popular knowledge. The Papal beatification of Joan of Arc in this century is a public retraction and apology to the heroine born from the lowly. Of the many works of art—poetic, dramatic, pictorial—that have contributed to this conspicuous "reversal of judgment" Sue's The Executioner's Knife; or, Joan of Arc has been the most powerful. The pathetic story cleanses Joan of the miraculous, uncovers the grovelling influences she had to contend against, exposes the sordid ambitions she had to overcome and that finally slaked their vengeance in her blood. The master's hand weaves together and draws, in the garb of fiction, a picture that is monumental—at once as a work of science, of history and of art. DANIEL DE LEON. Milford, Conn., October, 1909.