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Author Archives: Ben

About Ben

Alice Walker changed my life and Les Miserables blew my mind!

Thoughts: Childhood, Boyhood, Youth

Childhood, Boyhood, YouthChildhood, Boyhood, Youth by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When reading Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, one quickly appreciates that though they read Tolstoy, they do not read TOLSTOY – the master wordsmith who penned War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Yet, continuing on with this realization, one finds a new angle from which to appreciate Tolstoy. Though I doubt he imagined himself destined as a literary godfather to resound down through the ages, his honest tone throughout this autobiographical fiction might convince his contemporary readers of his potential to become so.

Even though he has yet to become Tolstoy, one finds his characteristic style of contemplation and clarity at the helm. However, as a work – especially one claiming to be fiction rather than autobiographical – his decisions of perspective trouble me. While discussing his childhood, I found myself wondering if I was meeting a child prodigy able to analyze his circumstances with such wisdom. When venturing through his boyhood, I couldn’t help but wonder if such a lad could really express himself with such attention to detail. And through his youth, how could such a pompous, arrogant and confused young man discuss his own attitude as if talking about his own grandson?

After accepting this work in its irreparable state – flaws and brilliance in all – one finds the Tolstoy they love. The man who ponders and explains humanity as if from a vantage point on Mount Olympus, wielding an acute focus on truth and a firm rebuke of egotistical distractions. Despite the book ending without any kind of resolution, one looks forward to the career of a writer with such raw talent.

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Posted by on February 3, 2018 in Leo Tolstoy

 

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Thoughts: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra FlyingKeep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don’t you understand that one isn’t a full human being – that one doesn’t feel a human being – unless one’s got money in one’s pocket?

Orwell lays it on THICK in Keep the Aspidistra Flying employing a stubborn protagonist, Gordon Comstock, to wage his war on money and humanity’s dependence upon it.

However, while I find plenty of circumstances to which I can relate – or even principles to which I hoped to adhere in my own younger days – I find Gordon hypocritical and at times nearly unbearable. I absolutely LOVE George Orwell but I do not classify Aspidistra as a favorite.

The story arc begins with youthful naivety – a socialist declaration of war on capitalist society and its life blood. It then peaks with uncomfortable conflict between Gordon and his relationships; trying to marry his principled boycotts and ambition to live a normal life. We then find Gordon embracing his descent into the mud; wanting only to live a menial and destitute life without money at all. I will not divulge the resolution of this…comedy.

Ultimately, Gordon pits himself against an unwavering enemy which fosters an internal conflict – between rising and sinking, living outside of society on principle or within society on money, treating women fairly or selfishly wallowing in his choices. And yet he glorifies the penniless side only to find utter unhappiness. I imagine those who truly hate money would genuinely rejoice in their squalor rather than blame money for it. Perhaps Gordon only blames a lack of meaning in life to the presence of money.

Mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives driving in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave!

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Posted by on February 20, 2017 in George Orwell

 

My Time of Shakespeare: As You Like It

This play has left me with more questions than pleasant emotions or kindly insights. Yes, one must credit Shakespeare with an entertaining “romantic comedy” but also chide him, just a bit, for leaving much to the audience member’s disquiet. Rarely have I felt such a lack of resolution in such a neatly resolved story.

I quickly lauded Shakespeare’s literary construction around the concepts of Nature and Fortune and their relationship to each other. The play begins with a stage set with separation – particularly of Oliver and Orlando and of the Duke Frederick and Duke Senior. Fortune has divided each character respectfully in regards to the kingdom and fathers’ will. Fortune, it would seem, guides the lives of these men while their nature simply reacts to their fortunes. Rosalind also finds herself in a similar plight – kept under the heel of her usurping Uncle but with the unwavering companionship of Celia, her cousin.

Along with this separation of characters and of Nature from Fortune, Shakespeare symbolically pits Nature against Fortune via a symbolic wrestling match between Charles and Orlando. Yet with repetitive terms, such as “overthrowing”, we can anticipate a reversal of circumstances. As the Duke Senior experiences banishment into the Forest of Arden, with Orlando and Rosalind to follow, we must notice how these characters, quite literally, leave their fortunes for Nature. In leaving their misfortunes behind for sanctuary in the forest, we may interpret that they begin to guide their lives according to Nature rather than Fortune.

In Acts III and IV, sandwiched within the play, Shakespeare begins the folly and entertainment of love, between Silvius and Phebe, Touchstone and Audrey and Orlando and Rosalind. Phebe, who does not dote on Silvius, Touchstone, who behaves as a chauvinist man intent on Audrey’s abuse, and Orlando who relents to the curing of love by a disguised Rosalind. Honestly, I found it all very silly. I cannot think of a better word. In nature, unburdened by concern for fortune with its impressing greed and fear – left simply with the quality of their characters – these people stumble about like fools with “fools” to teach them and mock them. Luckily, Shakespeare presents such characters as Duke Senior and Corin to keep the patron informed of the new environment mastered by human nature rather than circumstance. The usurped Duke wisely expounds on sweet uses of adversity in developing a person’s nature and Corin explains to Touchstone of the simple exposure of man’s nature as a laborer. In this new setting, Nature and Fortune begin to reconcile not as two things outside of a person but rather the same thing embodied within a person which develops a perspective on circumstances endured in the outside world. Worldly things do not determine the nature of someone’s fortunes but rather their nature and perspective define those fortunes.

However, as the play resolves, the questions begin bubbling like excited water. Honestly, I found the resolution extremely romantic – in the anti-Hemingway sense. Of course, Rosalind works for the coupling of the eight men and women using her best Shakespearean craft. But why the abrupt changes in the usurping Duke and Oliver, Orlando’s brother? Shakespeare offers reasons but they seem completely unsatisfactory and out of character from what we know of them early in the play. Also, did Orlando know of Rosalind’s deceit and play along? If so, why? Then, with the usurping Duke’s conversion and the return of court fortunes to their “rightful” owners, one’s suspension of disbelief snaps irreparably and the patron grimaces at the sudden and perfect arrangement of restored fortunes just when they anticipated a re-imagining of true fortunes to differ from their definition early in the play.

While all of this seems excessively romantic and too perfect, one must remember Jaques and Touchstone. Jaques grows to appreciate the foolery of Touchstone and Touchstone may be the only one of the group who remains true to himself, though not a very respectable self, in nature and away from court. I think Jaques admires this and, in his melancholy, becomes the fool only in as much as he differs in countenance and philosophy from the others. As in all Shakespeare plays, the fool professes wisdom which often flies in the face of accepted truths and reasoning in popularly constructed social circumstances. Within this definition, both Touchstone and Jaques fit the bill. While Fortune and Nature seem to reconcile in the end, perhaps this enlightenment does not settle on Jaques who must journey on.

But what are we to make of Jaques? Why did Shakespeare include him if our good money went to watch a silly play so we could feel good at romantic nonsense? Why does he offer little as to a back story on Jaques? Who is he? What were his circumstances? Why so melancholy? Why is he not of the disposition to appreciate a happy ending as the others?

Like Jaques, I feel awkward and ultimately skeptical about the play’s resolution – as if things unsaid haunt the good fortunes of things said and done. Perhaps Shakespeare couldn’t stand to leave anything real out of his play.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2015 in William Shakespeare

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

LLLI found one! A Shakespeare play for which I care very little – dare I say, I don’t like!

Yet even when confronted with works which do not titillate one’s fancy, I imagine one can still find things to respect or even admire within it. While this play does not stimulate me, it may stand as one of Shakespeare’s best in regards to his occupation as a wordsmith. He effortlessly plays with words like many athletes juggle balls or sticks. His characters dissect words nearly to the point of voiding them of meaning, perhaps leaving the audience look elsewhere for themselves within the play. Comedic? Maybe – to an old English audience more sophisticated in language than this generation.

The privileged and care-free circumstances of the characters also disappointed me. They take their social status for granted and in so doing fail to realize any consequence for their boredom induced mockery of love and relationships. Even the King’s vow to avoid love and pursue study for three years may suggest his longing for meaning in a privileged life but he devalues the pursuit of that meaning (even if in the wrong direction) by abandoning the vow fairly easily. Only at the end, when real consequence halts the lovers’ suits do they realize they do not live in a world apart from agony or sadness rendering their labor’s lost.

I can respect many things in this play but ultimately the word play and character play fail to comprise a coherent plot or stimulating idea. It all seems meaningless. But perhaps we witness Shakespeare’s labor’s lost in this endeavor of his loved passion for play writing.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2014 in William Shakespeare

 

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Thoughts: The Wayward Bus

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t care at all about what the bus represents.

It might shine as a dumpy emblem of the American journey to either the realization or implosion of our future plans. But the story strikes me more as the common American journey not necessarily from childhood to manhood, like the universal Buldingsroman, but rather the solitary transformation to self-realization from what to who. After all, what can these characters do with a Virgil like Juan Chicroy? The prototypical guide never wavers, never falters, offers insights and leads the way. An effective guide allows the hero to transform through struggle rather than lecturing. But what if the guide does waver and falter? Perhaps if he does, the heros can delve even deeper into their primitive selves and come to a better understanding of the meaning in their lives.

Even if this all rings true, I don’t care about the bus. Steinbeck impresses with his dynamic grasp of character and in no better fashion than exemplified in The Wayward Bus. His others works provide an academic smorgasbord of analytic sweets but in this book we have a company of characters who seem to serve no purpose other than to mirror the readers very own emotional conditions.

Whether Steinbeck intended this or not, I gleaned a sharp sense of relation to these people. Each one not only reflects the emotional states of demographics sharing their circumstances but also exposes the fundamental emotional core from which they all crawl. Any reader who picks up The Wayward Bus will find themselves within its pages with near perfect likeness. They would first find the character with whom they relate but then find themselves in the shoes of the other characters with complete sympathy for their circumstances and emotions as if they share them in reality – perhaps before they even know of people who really live those circumstances.

What a talent! With ease, Steinbeck has me feeling like a middle-aged, unsatisfied and insecure woman, a confined adolescent yearning for life, a cardboard businessman and a happy-go-lucky salesman, feeling the strain of feminine beauty before infusing me with the integral masculinity which fundamentally drives me as a carrot just within my grasp.

So no, I do not care about the bus. But I haven’t read many books in which I care so deeply about the people. They are me.

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Posted by on October 19, 2014 in John Steinbeck

 

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My Time of Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Act II, Scene 2 from the Painting by Sir J Noel Paton, RSA

Act II, Scene 2 from the Painting by Sir J Noel Paton, RSA

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this – and all is mended –
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I’m an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call:
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

As a comedy, this play embellishes Love as its overarching theme. One notices how love effects each character differently throughout the course of the play and yet we understand it as an autonomous essence – a Cupid – something which exists absolutely of its own accord. Helena’s first monologue describes her thoughts on a personified Love. The universal experience of love binds all creatures in a common condition but fuels each individual fire to different outcomes. For some it drives them to humble indignity, others to indescribable bliss, and still others to serve the vengeful will of spite – to be wielded as a weapon of revenge! Yet in one common experience of love, whatever its form, we find ourselves unified, intertwined.

Shakespeare has a notorious sense of humor about mistakes – innocent, meaningless mistakes – which effect the fates of his characters catastrophically, leading them to their direst ends. These mistakes, such as Puck’s accidental “blessing” of Lysander’s eye, and others within Shakespeare’s works, not only serve to engage the audience, but cause one to wonder how Shakespeare himself would have behaved at a future party with nihilists and existentialists. I can only posit that he rebuked the general belief of his day that Fates and supernatural powers spun the world on their finger and jovially jerked us with their puppet strings. Perhaps he felt that these Fates possessed fallibility much like people or if the many twists in life lack the meaning men often place on them.

In any case, these mistakes lend to a much larger idea of manipulation and control within the play. Oberon and Puck use a magical elixir to bend the natural order of love to their will – much like the duke and Egeus try to bend the natural governance of love surrounding Hermia and Lysander to Egeus’ will. Before the fairies enter the play, we have a particular dynamic between our four lovers – Helena, Hermia, Demetrius and Lysander. To begin, the dynamic looks a bit like this: Helena chases Demetrius and Demetrius chases Hermia who loves Lysander. After the first application of the elixir, mistakenly applied to Lysander’s eye rather than Demetrius’, the dynamic shifts to look a bit like this: Lysander chases Helena; Helena chases Demetrius; Demetrius chases Hermia. The fairies spin the sides of the Rubix Cube only to get further from colorful harmony. The second application produces the next dynamic: Hermia chases Lysander and Lysander chases Helena who loves Demetrius.

We now have a perfect inversion of the initial dynamic. Hermia now replaces Helena in the original dynamic – pining after a man who loves another – Lysander replaces Demetrius chasing a woman who rebukes him while shunning a woman who loves him – Helena now experiences Hermia’s previous place and Demetrius Lysander’s. With this inversion we see the very inversion of love as well – into rage and pending violence. Earlier, we witnessed happiness mixed with sadness in Helena and bitterness in Demetrius. Yet it all centered around love. In this dynamic, the men seek to harm each other and Hermia wishes to attack Helena. Yet, amidst this discord, one can hope that it can serve a better purpose in causing each character to sympathize with the one who now experiences their previous position – thus, again, unifying them in one condition.

The natural has deformed into the unnatural – like producing life outside of birth. Consider how Oberon and Titania argue in their first scene about their manipulation of Theseus and Hippolyta. Titania likens it to the shifting of the very seasons.

Yet in addition to the dynamics between the characters, Shakespeare, again, adds further dimension to the play with his signature play-within-a-play. In the final acts, after Puck labels mortals as fools (Act III, Scene II), these mortals witness a play during which they call the players fools, in so many words – adding their commentary and pompous judgement much like the fairies did while entertaining themselves with the mortal’s drama in the woods! With different powers, different parts, and different lives, Shakespeare unifies all characters by exposing a singular, fundamental experience through juxtaposition in similar scenarios. The lovers share the fairies’ experience and the players’ the lovers’.

And yet! as Puck addresses the audience in his final speech, which coincidentally mirrors the Prologue of Pyramus and Thisbe, do we as the audience not see ourselves as the same dramatists in the woods or players in the play? And do we then, with our disbelief no longer suspended, not look at Master Shakespeare as the fairy king manipulating our very senses and feelings?

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2014 in William Shakespeare

 

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Thoughts: The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who LaughsThe Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh, pathetic division of an intellect, of a will, of a brain, between two brothers who are enemies! the Phantom of Poverty and the Phantom of Wealth! Abel and Cain in the same man!

Romanticism at its finest – or should I say at its most indulgent.

Hugo weaves a tale thematically similar to his others – ascending his poetic podium to lecture on the plight of the socially disenfranchised and the tragically fated – with his signature ability to embellish dualities which simultaneously describe unity between characters and symbols. If we follow him; find our place in his monolithic scope of the human experience, we may even catch a glimpse of warm redemption and happiness within the .

I enjoyed the symbolic feuds and implied parleys. I appreciated the ideas. But I did not myself envision any of them. Hugo takes it upon himself to think for the reader – to analyze every thought-process and action, every scene and character dynamic, leaving the poor reader to either swallow the spoonfuls or reject them outright. But what real choice do we have but to swallow them? It is, afterall, Victor Hugo.

Nevertheless, I admit that his analyses, his definitive romantic tendency to “tell” rather than “show”, even with flawlessly chosen words and artful dictation, burdened the reading experience with a sense of arduous journeying rather than blissful discovery.

But I cannot think of any better lecturer than Victor Hugo.

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Posted by on October 11, 2014 in Victor Hugo

 

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