Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 in Books

As has become an annual tradition, here is a look back at the books I read, 2016. Best of at the bottom.


Treatise on Thermodynamics by Max Planck

The first third is eminently readable for a layperson – a trait so often lacking in scientific works. Unfortunately the next two hundred pages are nigh incomprehensible even when attempting to decipher the equations. That said, I’m glad it clarified the first two laws for me.

Collected Essays of Rudolf Eucken

Eucken is an apologist, and slathers on the unquestioned assumptions in a way I personally think is unbefitting for a philosopher. A couple of choice sections, though.

Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier

The ideas in this odd manifesto are interesting, but for someone who speaks of utility so highly it seems almost hypocritical that his writing style should take such great effort to engage with. The introduction refers to the style as ‘staccato’ and I can think of no better word – you have to fight with each sentence and paragraph’s upsetting abruptness.

Ancient Civilizations of the Old World by Charles Keith Maisels

Maisels’ rather academic work carefully looks at the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indus, and Chinese civilizations, focusing on the transition from hunter-gathers to statehood. Of particular interest is the section on the Indus, but the whole work is very solid, well-researched, a brimming with graphs, pictures, schemata, drawings, and prudently considered arguments.

The White Rectangle by Kazimir Malevich

The originator of Suprematism (and one of the founders of all abstract art) had some thoughts on film. Some reactionary, not particularly deep, thoughts. Stick to Walter Benjamin.

The Orchard by Saadi

A mixture of tales and autobiography this slim volume of 13th-century wisdom is an interesting read. If possible endeavor to find a translation that preserves the rhyming couplets – although I know of none.

Cuisine & Empire by Rachel Laudan

Very informative, brisk, scholarly and chockfull of interesting anecdotes. I’d long been interested in food history, but never taken the time to delve. So I was pleased to not be disappointed.

Ai Weiwei’s Blog by Ai Weiwei

Much of this translated collection is from 2006, discussing architecture and the role of art in totalitarian China. In 2009, though, the criticism begins, comprising the last fifty pages of the 240 pages of blog entries.

One Two Three Infinity by George Gamow

An odd little work. I can’t recommend it for a few reasons: the science has progressed significantly, the explanations are not elucidating, and, though a small point it stuck in my craw: the pictures half the time are pointless, and half the time are not helpful. It’s remarkable to me that Gamow’s work was so popular. His style of writing is not illuminating.

A History of Rome Under the Emperors by Theodor Mommsen

The first section on the Julio-Claudian emperors was very good – but I picked up the work to know more about what came after Nero. Unfortunately, it gets lost deep in the weeds. Without compelling biographies long dry passages on tax and state treasury details, relatively insignificant frontier wars, and so forth bogs the work down. The final third is buoyed somewhat by the early interactions with the growing power of the Christian church and the biographies of Diocletian, Constantine, and Julian – but not enough. The end feels like a race to the finish, by which point I’d lost all interest.

Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener

About 40 pages of this 200 page volume are indecipherable logarithmic sorts of things. However, the other 160-ish pages are really rather fascinating. Be warned, though: Wiener alights from topic to topic with remarkable agility, from Lewis Carroll to Leibniz, Turning to Margaret Meade, Pavlov to Locke, and Von Neumann to Russell. Some familiarity, therefore, with the Western Canon is a must.


American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa

A collection that begins with Dakota Sioux legends, then turns autobiographical in recollections for growing up when Native Americans were being “civilized” at boarding schools, and ending on various political works and poems. I’m glad to have encountered this author.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa

A world-classic, and likely the greatest novel in Brazilian literature, unfortunately this book is very hard to get your hands on. It was only translated into English once, about 70 years ago, and has long been out of print. If you can find it, though, it is definitely worth a read. Rosa’s language is similar to Joyce, in that there’s a rather unique rhythm to adapt to at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s smooth sailing.

History by Elsa Morante

The first chapter of this work drew me in, and it was an engaging read throughout the majority. A Roman family’s struggles to survive World War II – it certainly shares a crowded field, which makes its ability to stand out more remarkable.

Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

The title is a perfectly good description – Neruda is well regarded as one of the finest composers of love poems the world has seen. Precociously he produced this collection at the age of just 19.

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

Continuing my annual tradition of reading at least one piece of French literature from the 1800s – of which there is a great deal to catch up – I had no expectations for Stendhal, or this particular work. What followed surprised me, with a focus almost entirely unlike what I had presumed.

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

A sort-of updated Conrad, I think it is important to distinguish Naipaul’s character from the author. The work got a lot of flak for being colonialist, or neocolonialist, but since the main character comes from a colonial heritage…that shouldn’t be too odd of a view for him to have. Overall the work had interesting insights and, in my opinion, is miles away from Achebe’s deft criticisms of Conrad in “An Image of Africa”.

The Charles Men by Verner von Heidenstam

It’s difficult to recommend this work. It deals with Swedish heroes of the Great Northern War, and is written for a Swedish audience. Familiarity is expected, and the passing saga-like references are many. Annotations would be burdensome, however. If not bogged down by missed references, it’s an entertaining read.

Chickweed Wintergreen by Harry Martinson

Continuing the Swedish theme, this collection is the most complete of Martinson’s poems. His arc begins with exotica from his sailing days, then reaches the cosmic, before returning to the everyday observations of his world. But the arc is not heroic – his return only sometimes glimpses the cosmic to which he flew. I think his best poems were from a collection entitled Cicada, published in 1953, just prior to his epic space poem, Aniara (selections of which are included and are quite good). Since Cicada, in full, is not available in English I would recommend this collection for anyone interested in the cosmic-everyday interplay.

Children of Gebelaawi by Naguib Mahfouz

Long, long on my to-read list, this work did not disappoint. Allegorical, but inventive, with a closing section that is on-par with Dostoevsky’s ‘Grand Inquisitor’ for boldness and ingenuity.

The Georgics by Claude Simon

Verging on unreadable. Nice idea – a battle fought on the same place by a Napoleonic ancestor as fought by the author during WWII – but so self-consciously stream-of-consciousness/Faulknerian that it can only be described as poorly rendered.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

It takes a particularly adept author to write at length, sincerely and unapologetically, about a Pentecostal revival while holding the attention of an atheist reader like me. This book immediately became part of my ‘Essential American Literature’.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

This one’s tough. Parts appear on the horizon so early you know what’s going to happen thirty pages in advance, leaving a plot to get through instead of enjoy. But on the other hand it does a nice job with certain aspects of psychological portraiture.

Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda

Little-known Italian novelist in the English-speaking world. Humans = reeds, wind = fate. There you go.

People in the Summer Night by Frans Sillanpaa

A very nice, episodic pastoral novel that covers the happenings of a few ethereal nights: a birth, an engagement, a death, and the artist’s own musings on it all.

The Fall of the King by Johannes V. Jensen

I usually am not fond of characters with implausibly tangled arcs – one person has a son who daughter marries the foe of the other whose child then etc. Jensen manages such an arc, and only once or twice pushes the reader to the point of incredulity. Even without a command of Danish history this sixteenth-century-based story is a nice piece of modernist prose.

The Pilgrim Kamanita by Karl Gjellerup

If you remove 2/3 of the Buddhist-esque (through Danish interpretation) philosophy, this would actually make a good film. Reincarnation, eternal lovers, but unfortunately bad writing – original, but not recommendable.

The Thibaults by Roger Martin du Gard

An underappreciated novel – no doubt due to the scarcity in English editions. In the years leading up to the First World War two brothers and a domineering father take different trajectories to deal with their surroundings and challenges. Sounds rote, but du Gard handles the psychologies as deftly as Dostoevsky’s brothers, and with a remarkable naturalistic clarity.

The Days of His Grace by Eyvind Johnson

Admittedly, all the medieval stories of service to one’s king I’ve read this year are beginning to blend in my mind. Set in the waning years of the eighth century I seem to have traveled backwards in pursuit of this theme: The Charles Men, was set in the early modern period, and The Fall of the King in the high medieval. This time one family’s connection to Charlemagne is explored. Johnson’s Nobel Prize is undoubtedly ignominious – having nominated himself as a member of the Academy – but the novel isn’t bad, and has some nice passages. Not a bad read, but not too likely to leave an impression.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

A book that feels more important than good – lots of interesting concepts. I’ve felt its reverberations throughout media for a long time, but all in all the original work didn’t impress. Too many convoluted unexplained terms and mind-bending concepts obfuscate the Blade Runner-ish plot.

The Peasants: Autumn by Wladyslaw Reymont

A bunch of Polish peasants have petty disputes over acreage, religion, and relationships.

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

“Complete” should make one wary. What to say of this collection? It is split it two parts, the longer and the shorter. From the longer, I have long admired ‘In the Penal Colony’ as one of the best short stories ever written. Other highlights from that section include ‘The Hunger Artist’, and ‘Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor’. In general, though, I found the shorter stories to be far better, which account for less than a fifth of the total volume. Some of the longer stories are nigh-unreadable, so perhaps a selection would be best for most casual readers.

Madwomen by Gabriela Mistral

A selection of poems focusing on female perspectives by the acclaimed Chilean Nobel Laureate. As the works go on, as is often the case, the poems mature and become more noteworthy. Particularly adept are her treatments of Greek mythological characters: Antigone, Cassandra, and Clytemnestra.

Les Fleurs Du Mal by Charles Baudelaire (Trans. George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay)

A defining texts of early modernity, the benefit of this translation is that the meter and rhyme is kept – no small feat. The drawback is this leads to a looseness of translation. The edition overcomes this problem with a dual language format, so you may check the opposite page and reassure yourself of Millay's more free-form choices. At its worst the translation comes off as merely dyspeptic, instead of bearing the full weight of Baudelaire's unique "indolence".

Masnavi Books I-III by Rumi (Trans. Jawid Mojaddedi)

I found this translation difficult to bear. The jangly couplets with modern phraseology are likely vastly inferior to the Persian original.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Having seen the Fassbinder adaptation I was surprised by the many differences – most notably the pacing. Doblin’s modernist prose is of a unique type, but it can be grating in the current English translation (by Eugene Jolas). All in all it’s original enough to be rewarding for those both willing to put in the time for 600+ pages, and who are particularly drawn to modernist writing.

Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Imre Kertesz

This slim, but strenuous novella of recursive psychological scrutiny and identity is likely to be worth the effort. It is a difficult prospect to shed new intellectual and emotional light on the ramifications of a childhood and adulthood effected by Auschwitz, but Kertesz manages to do so in an intensely personal fashion.

Graphic Novels

The Planetary Omnibus by Warren Ellis and John Cassady

As a big fan of Ellis’ work on Transmetropolitan I found Planetary a bit oblique. References are deep and left to the viewer to figure out – I had the distinct impression of not getting everything out of it I should have. Sort of like overhearing a bunch of in-jokes, and while you’re able to work out some, you’re very aware of the ones you missed.

Top 5

1.      Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire
2.      Children of Gebelaawi by Naguib Mahfouz
3.      The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa
4.      Tie! The Red and the Black by Stendhal / People in the Summer Night by Frans Sillanpaa

5.      Cuisine & Empire by Rachel Laudan

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Minor Chords for Christmas

This December has felt extraordinarily un-Christmasy.

I grew up loving Christmas, with a deep abiding faith and wonder. As I am no longer a person of faith it makes the holiday season nostalgic in the Mad Men way:

This nostalgia is potent for me, having returned to just outside of the city where I grew up. Every morning I step outside and see my childhood home across the Bay. At sunset the Western sky casts a shadow that fades to the universal intrigue of city lights.

The view from my apartment.

Christmas is typically an experience that's nostalgic for one's childhood - and for family. For me, the familial aspect has never dominated my feelings. Even when I was young Christmas was about faith. And history.

For I went to school in this building:

And, as a cathedral is designed to do, it awed me. The structure had something medieval that overwhelmed me a child. Those tapestries pictured are original Flemish and Belgian works of art from the Middle Ages. The exterior is based on Notre Dame.

My childhood faith was deeply historical for me, and the legacy of Christendom was the source of much of the appeal and mystery.

There is a tradition, with Christmas, that goes back to the earliest Christmas music we have, from the beginning, of minor chords, and a sorrowful aspect. Those Christmas songs and hymns that are triumphant and celebratory miss the point - the empathy - of the story. Jesus' birth must strike one as tragic - for we know the suffering that must befall him. Indeed, it is a selfish, on-the-knees, weeping sort of ecstasy that would be thankful for the birth of Jesus, seeing Jesus as the alleviation of sins. There is a servile, cringing, component to that rendering.

But the empathetic version, the young man who must suffer and die - whose fate we know through the story - is tragic at birth in the same fashion of the Greek Cassandra. Knowing the future makes the present painful to bear.

So, as I gaze across the Bay to the city of my home, and think, as I have so often done as an adult, how lucky my childhood was - how fortunate those of us who grew up in that privileged decade really were - and how innocent, more so perhaps than any others - I consider the melancholic Christmas songs, ranging across centuries, written and sung by those who understood the essential tragedy of life, the sorrow of our own births foretelling the hardships and sacrifices we all must bear.

Here, then, are five of those minor chord songs that, to me, mean Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet - 15th century

What Child Is This / Greensleeves - 1865

O Come O Come Emmanuel - 1861

The Angel Gabriel - Trad. Basque

Past Thee O'Clock - Trad. English, adapted 1924

Monday, November 21, 2016


Way back in 2008, in a context I don't quite remember, I did a Flickr challenge, to create a mosaic of images:

that represent you. I always liked this mosaic, and found it oddly accurate. I feel the above do represent me. You had to use an image that popped up on the first page of Flickr, based on twelve questions. Each square was filled out thus, top to bottom, left to right:

Name? Ross
Favorite food? Carnitas burrito
Favorite place? San Francisco
Favorite color? Blue / Orange
Celebrity crush? Claudia Cardinale
Favorite drink? Hot chocolate flight
Dream vacation? Bahia, Brazil
Favorite dessert? Cherry pie
Who you want to be when you grow up? Emperor of the United States
What do you love most in life? Laughter
One word to describe you? Perfect
Flickr name (or in my case, blog name)? Poking Badgers with Spoons

Eight years later I voyaged back to Flickr to see what had changed and make a new mosaic, preserving the original images when possible. For the sake of the exercise the same answers were kept as from before, even if they've changed, and I scrolled down the images until the scroll bar reformatted it's size, deciding that distance as equal to "the first page". Here is what followed:

So the hot chocolate flight, Emperor Norton, and Poking Badgers with Spoons remained the same.

To be honest, I prefer the 2008 version more. There is a nicer symmetry to the tiling of the earlier set. Still, an amusing, albeit pointless, exercise in fads revisited.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fiction for Everyone!

I can't talk about the Election, the insanity, and the potential horror the United States is going to unleash on the world. So here's a goofy little project I did the past day or two:

100 Works of Fiction You Should Read*

Ancient Literature

Epic of Gilgamesh (Trans. Herbert Mason)
Iliad - Homer
Odyssey - Homer
Poetic Fragments - Sappho
Oresteia - Aeschylus
Philoctetes - Sophocles
Oedipus Rex - Sophocles
Antigone - Sophocles
Medea - Euripides
Hippolytus - Euripides
Bacchae - Euripides
Lysistrata - Aristophanes
Clouds - Aristophanes
Metamorphoses - Ovid
Odes - Horace
Aeneid - Virgil
The Classic of Poetry
Ramayana - Valmiki
Mahabharata - Vyasa
Buddhacarita - Asvaghosa

Medieval Literature

Poems - Tao Yuanming
Recognition of Shakuntala - Kalidasa
Meghadutta - Kalidasa
Poems - Li Bai
Poems - Du Fu
Poems - Wang Wei
Njal's Saga
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Tale of the Heike
Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu
Rubaiyat - Omar Khayyam
1,001 Arabian Nights
The Orchard - Saadi Shirazi
Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio
Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer
Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri
Journey to the West - Wu Cheng'en
Water Margin - Shi Nai'an
Romance of the Three Kingdoms - Luo Guanzhong

Early Modern Literature

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Rabelais
Poems - John Donne
Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare
King Lear - William Shakespeare
Macbeth - William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar - William Shakespeare
Hamlet - William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night's Dream - William Shakespeare
Sonnets - William Shakespeare
Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes
Life is a Dream - Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift
Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe
Haiku - Matsuo Basho
Phedre - Racine
Misanthrope - Moliere
Candide - Voltaire
Fables - La Fontaine
Dream of the Red Chamber - Cao Xueqin
Two-Part Prelude - William Wordsworth (1799)

Nineteenth Century Literature

Faust - Goethe
Fairy Tales - Hans Christian Andersen
Frankenstein - Mary Shelly
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman (1855 edition)
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
The Red and the Black - Stendhal
Old Goriot - Balzac
Middlemarch - George Eliot
Short Stories - Edgar Allan Poe
The Nose and The Overcoat - Nikolai Gogol
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
Les Fleurs du Mal - Charles Baudelaire
A Season in Hell - Arthur Rimbaud
A Doll's House - Henrik Ibsen
Spring Awakening - Frank Wedekind
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Twentieth Century Literature

Selected Short Stories - Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, Blumfeld an Elderly Bachelor, The Great Wall of China, A Hunger Artist, and the complete shorter stories)
Diary of a Madman - Lu Xun
Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories - Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf
Ulysses - James Joyce
Sister My Life - Boris Pasternak
Selected Poems - TS Eliot (Prufrock and Other Observations, The Wasteland, Ash Wednesday)
Short Stories - Jorge Borges
Grande Sertao: Veredas - Joao Guimaraes Rosa
History - Elsa Morante
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
The Stranger - Albert Camus
Pedro Paramo - Juan Rulfo
Eagle or Sun - Octavio Paz
Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett
Children of Gebelawi - Naguib Mahfouz
Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar
Season of Migration to the North - Tayeb Salih
Death and the King's Horseman - Wole Soyinka
Fences - August Wilson

* I have italicized those nine works I have yet to read myself. A list like this should never be complete, always keep reading, expand your horizons, grain of salt, and all that.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Literature Update and Bob Dylan

Today's post comes in three parts.

First, I am just tickled that Dylan won the Nobel Prize. Three pieces of increasingly pedantic information on the topic:

* He is the first American to win since Toni Morrison in 1993.

* He is the first English-language poet to win since Seamus Heaney in 1995, and the sixth overall (the others are Derek Walcott in 1992, TS Eliot in 1948, WB Yeats in 1923, and arguably Rudyard Kipling in 1907. I do not count Joseph Brodsky as his main opus is Russian.)

* Dylan is not the first songwriter to win the award. In 1903 Norwegian poet Bjorstjerne Bjornson won, whose poem 'Ja, vi elsker dette landet', written long before he won the Prize, was adopted as Norway's unofficial national anthem in the 1860s - a post it retains to this day, since Norway has no official anthem.

*     *     *

Second, many years ago, in 2012, I made a list of the Nobel Prize-winning authors I'd read. At that point I'd read only 20% of the 104 recipients. This prompted a desire to acquaint myself with the complete laureate's list. Now, after Dylan's win and 113 recipients, my stats look like this:

So far I have read works by:

Bjornstjerne Bjornson (1903).  I’ve read ‘Poems and Songs’.

Frederic Mistral (1904). I’ve read ‘Mireio’.

Jose Echegary (1904). I’ve read ‘The Great Galeoto’.

Giosue Carducci (1906). I’ve read ‘Barbarian Odes’.

Rudyard Kipling (1907). I’ve read ‘Just-So Stories,’ ‘Kim,’ and selected poetry.

Rudolph Eucken (1908). I’ve read his ‘Collected Essays’.

Selma Lagerlof (1909). I’ve read ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Nils’.

Paul Von Heyse (1910). I’ve read ‘Barbarossa and Other Tales’.

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911). I’ve read ‘The Blue Bird’.

Gerhart Hauptman (1912). I’ve read ‘Before Daybreak’, ‘The Weavers’ and ‘The Beaver Coat’.

Rabindranath Tagore (1913). I’ve read his essays ‘Nationalism’ and his poetry collection ‘Gitanjali’.

Verner von Heidenstam (1916). I’ve read ‘The Charles Men’.

Karl Gjellerup (1917). I’ve read ‘The Pilgrim Kamanita’.

Carl Spitteler (1919). I’ve read his ‘Selected Poems’.

Jacinto Benavente (1922). I’ve read ‘The Bonds of Interest’.

William Butler Yeats (1923). I’ve read ‘The Tower’.

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924). I’ve read ‘The Peasants: Autumn’.

George Bernard Shaw (1925). I’ve read ‘Pygmalion’, ‘St. Joan’ and ‘Major Barbara’.

Grazia Deledda (1926). I’ve read ‘Reeds in the Wind’.

Henri Bergson (1927). I’ve read ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic’.

Sinclair Lewis (1930). I’ve read ‘Main Street’.

Erik Karlfeldt (1931). I’ve read ‘Arcadia Borealis’.

Ivan Bunin (1933). I’ve read ‘The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories’.

Luigi Pirandello (1934) I’ve read ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’.

Eugene O’Neil (1936). I’ve read ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’.

Roger Martin du Gard (1937). I’ve read ‘The Thibaults’.

Frans Sillanpaa (1939). I’ve read ‘People in the Summer Night’.

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944). I’ve read ‘The Fall of the King’.

Gabriela Mistral (1945). I’ve read ‘Madwomen’.

Herman Hesse (1946). I’ve read ‘Siddhartha’.

Andre Gide (1947). I’ve read ‘The Immoralist’.

T.S. Eliot (1948). I’ve read ‘Prufrock and Other Observations’, ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘The Waste Land’.

William Faulkner (1949). I’ve read ‘The Sound and the Fury’, ‘As I lay Dying’, ‘Light in August’ and ‘Go Down Moses’ and the short story ‘A Rose for Emily’.

Bertrand Russell (1950). I’ve read ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ and the essay ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’. I intend to read ‘The Philosophy of Leibniz’.

Par Lagerkvist (1951). I’ve read ‘Barabbas’.

Winston Churchill (1953). I’ve read his speeches and intend to read ‘The Second World War’.

Ernest Hemingway (1954). I’ve read ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and the short story ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ and intend to read ‘A Farewell to Arms’.

Juan Ramon Jimenez (1956). I’ve read ‘Platero and I’.

Albert Camus (1957). I’ve read ‘The Stranger’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘The Plague’, and the essay collections ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ and ‘The Rebel’.

Boris Pasternak (1958). I’ve read ‘My Sister, Life’.

Salvatore Quasimodo (1959). I’ve read ‘The Incomparable Earth’.

Saint-John Perse (1960). I’ve read his ‘Eloges’.

John Steinbeck (1962). I’ve read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1964). I’ve read ‘Being and Nothingness’, ‘Nausea’, the plays ‘No Exit’, ‘The Flies’ ‘Dirty Hands’ and ‘The Respectful Prostitute’, the short story ‘The Wall’, and the essays ‘Portrait of an Anti-Semite’, ‘Self-Deception’, ‘Marxism and Existentialism’ and ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’.

Giorgos Seferis (1963). I’ve read his ‘Logbook II’.

Nelly Sachs (1966). I’ve read ‘O the Chimneys’.

Samuel Beckett (1969). I’ve read ‘Waiting for Godot’ and intend to read the trilogy ‘Molloy’, ‘Malone Dies’ and ‘The Unnamable’.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). I’ve read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’.

Pablo Neruda (1971). I’ve read ‘Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair’ and ‘The Yellow Heart’.

Harry Martinson (1974). I’ve read ‘Chickweed Wintergreen’.

Eyvind Johnson (1974). I’ve read ‘The Days of His Grace’.

Eugenio Montale (1975). I’ve read ‘Cuttlefish Bones’ and ‘The Occasions’.

Saul Bellow (1976). I’ve read ‘The Adventures of Augie March’ and intend to read ‘Herzog’ and ‘Henderson the Rain King’.

Vicente Aleixandre (1977). I’ve read ‘A Longing for the Light’.

Odysseas Elytis (1979). I’ve read ‘The Axion Esti’.

Czeslaw Milosz (1980). I’ve read his ‘Selected Poems’.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982). I’ve read ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, the short story ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ and the essay ‘Word Are in a Hurry, Get Out of the Way’ and intend to read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.

William Golding (1983). I’ve read ‘Lord of the Flies’.

Jaroslav Seifert (1984). I’ve read his ‘Selected Poems’.

Claude Simon (1985). I’ve read ‘The Georgics’.

Wole Soyinka (1986). I’ve read ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’.

Joseph Brodsky (1987). I’ve read ‘To Urania’.

Naguib Mahfouz (1988). I’ve read ‘Children of Gebelaawi’.

Octavio Paz (1990). I’ve read ‘Eagle or Sun?’ and ‘A Tale of Two Gardens’.

Derek Walcott (1992). I’ve read ‘Omeros’.

Kenzaburo Oe (1994). I’ve read ‘Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness’.

Seamus Heaney (1995). I’ve read ‘North’.

Wislawa Szymborska (1996). I’ve read ‘View with a Grain of Sand’.

Dario Fo (1997). I’ve read ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’.

Gao Xingjian (2000). I’ve read ‘Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather’.

V.S. Naipaul (2001). I’ve read ‘A Bend in the River’ and intend to read ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’.

Harold Pinter (2005). I’ve read ‘Betrayal’.

Tomas Transtromer (2011). I’ve read ‘The Great Enigma’.

Mo Yan (2012). I’ve read ‘Life and Death are Wearing Me Out’.

Svetlana Alexievich (2015). I’ve read ‘Voices from Chernobyl’.

Bob Dylan (2016). I’ve…read? ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, ‘Time Out of Mind’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘Love and Theft’, ‘Desire’, ‘The Basement Tapes’, ‘John Wesley Harding’, and ‘Nashville Skyline’.

So I’m a little familiar with 76 of 113, or 67%. I intend to read them all.

*     *     *

Third, and finally, in recognition of Dylan's poetry, here are ten favorites, presented chronologically:

Bob Dylan’s Dream – 1963

While riding on a train goin’ west
I fell asleep for to take my rest
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had

With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words were told, our songs were sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside

With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we could ever get old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split

How many a year has passed and gone
And many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a friend
And each one I’ve never seen again

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that

Oxford Town – 1963

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town

Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien’?

Me and my gal, my gal’s son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don’t even know why we come
Goin’ back where we come from

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev’rybody singin’ a sorrowful tune
Two men died ’neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev’rybody’s got their heads bowed down
The sun don’t shine above the ground
Ain’t a-goin’ down to Oxford Town

The Times They Are a-Changin’ – 1964

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Love Minus Zero / No Limit – 1965

My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall
Some speak of the future
My love she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge
Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring
The wind howls like a hammer
The night blows cold and rainy
My love she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

Ballad of a Thin Man – 1965

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You raise up your head
And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says
“It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?”
And somebody else says, “Where what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God
Am I here all alone?”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To ax-deductible charity organizations

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, “Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word “NOW”
And you say, “For what reason?”
And he says, “How?”
And you say, “What does this mean?”
And he screams back, “You’re a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home”

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Desolation Row – 1965

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on pennywhistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
A perfect image of a priest
They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
(About the time the doorknob broke)
When you asked how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands – 1966

With your mercury mouth in the missionary times
And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes
And your silver cross, and your voice like chimes
Oh, who among them do they think could bury you?
With your pockets well protected at last
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass
Who among them do they think could carry you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheets like metal and your belt like lace
And your deck of cards missing the jack and the ace
And your basement clothes and your hollow face
Who among them can think he could outguess you?
With your silhouette when the sunlight dims
Into your eyes where the moonlight swims
And your matchbook songs and your gypsy hymns
Who among them would try to impress you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

The kings of Tyrus with their convict list
Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss
And you wouldn’t know it would happen like this
But who among them really wants just to kiss you?
With your childhood flames on your midnight rug
And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs
And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs
Who among them do you think could resist you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Oh, the farmers and the businessmen, they all did decide
To show you the dead angels that they used to hide
But why did they pick you to sympathize with their side?
Oh, how could they ever mistake you?
They wished you’d accepted the blame for the farm
But with the sea at your feet and the phony false alarm
And with the child of a hoodlum wrapped up in your arms
How could they ever, ever persuade you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

With your sheet-metal memory of Cannery Row
And your magazine-husband who one day just had to go
And your gentleness now, which you just can’t help but show
Who among them do you think would employ you?
Now you stand with your thief, you’re on his parole
With your holy medallion which your fingertips fold
And your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul
Oh, who among them do you think could destroy you?
Sad-eyed lady of the lowlands
Where the sad-eyed prophet says that no man comes
My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums
Should I leave them by your gate
Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait?

Tangled Up in Blue – 1975

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the caf├ęs at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue

So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Not Dark Yet – 1997

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Thunder on the Mountain – 2006

Thunder on the mountain, fires on the moon
There's a ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go

I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you're trying to run me away
The writing's on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that's where the music coming from
I don't need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day

The pistols are poppin' and the power is down
I'd like to try somethin' but I'm so far from town
The sun keeps shinin' and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need

I've been sitting down studying the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this cruel world today

Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I'll stand beside my king
I wouldn't betray your love or any other thing

Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's church and I've said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows

I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain't no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams

Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down

Everybody's going and I want to go too
Don't wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I've already confessed – no need to confess again

Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I'll plant and I'll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer's on the table, the pitchfork's on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself

Saturday, October 8, 2016

2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

Scene: a shadowy room, with typical low-lighting and cigar smoking. Around a large boardroom oval are beefy men, sweating through their white-collared shirts, sleeves rolled up and black ties loose from top buttons left open.

Shadow One: As apparently very incongruous and not at all Norwegian-looking members of the Nobel Committee, we must decide on a winner for this year's prize.

Shadow Two: We've only got three hours before Thursday's presumed deadline.

Shadow One: At last check the Committee was split between Murakami, Adunis, and Ross.

Shadow Three: Murakami is by far the most famous serious novelist on the global stage. We've only awarded five Asian Literature prizes - we need to give it to him.

Shadow Four: But there's only been one previous Arabic-language award. We've had two Japanese winners already. Adunis will help address this imbalance. And he's Syrian.

Suspiciously Trim and Handsome Shadow Five: But... Ross.

Shadow One: No one reads his blog.

STH Shadow Five: But it's so good!

Universal murmurs of approval.

Shadow Four: Due to the obviously political nature of our award we have to be very careful in giving it to an American. They may get ideas about their literature being quality.

Shadow Six: Haven't we nominated Philip Roth, like, fifty-eight times?

Shadow Seven: And Joyce Carol Oates?

Shadow Six: Oates would bring important representation to non-human authors. As a sock puppet her body of work is extraordinary.

Joyce Carol Oates, middle.

Shadow Three: There are more than four billion Asians. Five prizes in 115 years. Murakami.

Shadow Four: We all know that the Peace prize is going to go to Santos. We can't lose sight of Syria. It's the most important human rights disaster in the world today. We can't just acknowledge European Modernists, and turn a blind eye to those of the Middle East. The only Arabic author was from Egypt.

Shadow Eight: Speaking of Africa, what about Ngugi Wa Thiong'o?

Awkward silence.

Shadow Eight: No one read his work, did they?

Awkward shuffling and coughing.

STH Shadow Five: America hasn't won in 20 years. In an election year when they can nominate an insane man such as Donald Trump, it would be wise to nominate an author who has always stood up for truth, justice, and the American way. Ross would be a good choice, and, like Adonis, he has only one name.

Shadow One: Has he ever been published?

STH Shadow Five: ...No.

Shadow Seven: Wait a minute... You're not a beefy Norwegian. Who are you?

There's a pause, STH Shadow Five throws something, and after a bang, runs out of the room amidst a cloud of smoke.

Shadow One: Well that narrows it down somewhat. But we've still only a few hours before we need to announce.

Shadow Six: ...I think we need to postpone our statement.

General murmurs of assent.

Shadow One: You're right. Let's take one more week to decide.

Will the Nobel Committee reach a decision by next week? Which author's work will they decide is the world's greatest? What became of the Suspiciously Trim and Handsome Shadow Five? 

Find out next week on 'Nobel Prize Theater'!

Who will win?