Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: The Roman Way, by Edith Hamilton

The Roman Way My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What does it mean to be an American? Despite living smack dab in the middle of the U.S. my entire life, despite being surrounded by other so-called Americans, despite all my obvious expertise, of course I can't answer that question. It is ridiculous, of course, to even consider that one worldview or way of thinking surrounds everyone in a particular country, from the homeless black man to the millionaire heiress. Hit the streets with intentions of gathering opinions and then draw a general consensus, and I doubt you will hold in the end little more than vague generalizations.

The Roman Way attempts something of the sort with Ancient Rome, and the prospect seems even more absurd. Hamilton asserts, simply by writing this book, that there is some kind of "Roman Way," a peculiarly Roman way of thinking. To support these claims she goes to the Romans themselves, or what's left of them; that is, she relies only on the literary remains. In a way this approach makes sense: "The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can." But there are some obvious caveats: the "Roman Way" gleaned from these writings, of course, will not be that of women, slaves, free men of the lower classes, etc. --in short, 90-something percent of the population. These people are mentioned in the works of the privileged, and consequently in The Roman Way, but always through the very partial lenses of those writers. So this book is not the evaluation of how some 50 million people from two millennia ago thought about the world, but how a few dozen men wrote about it, in a perspective representative of a few thousand.

This much narrower scope makes the subject much more manageable, and there is still much room for discussion. Edith Hamilton does an admiral job, running through Roman literature, from Plautus and Terrence to Juvenal and the Stoics, discussing each author's unique spot in literature as well their commonality with other Roman authors. Homogeneous bunch, they may seem to some -- yet Catullus, Cicero, and Horace, three rich white men of approximately the same era, were each of vastly different stuff. To support her thesis, Edith Hamilton must somehow bring these people together, threading together their common thought.

Just what did bind these people together? Maybe it is Nationalism, sometimes manifested as simple pride in one's country, sometimes shaped into an almost fanatical devotion to Queen Roma. It is a good first guess: the sentiment seems to pervade every inch of some authors' works, especially the political authors. The poems fit in, too, to some extent --The Aeneid was one large advertisement for Rome, after all-- but just how much did the dreamy and intense Catullus care for such things?

Then there is Romanticism -- a tough sell when talking of such a common sense, seemingly unimaginative group as the Romans, but Hamilton convinced me. She drove home her point especially through comparing the Roman works with Greek counterparts. For example, in the Aeneid, when Vulcan forges a shield for the hero, "flames lick the sky." In the Illiad, when Hephaestus fulfills a similar request for Achilles he simply makes the darn thing -- it is loud, fiery, and perhaps even divine, but it lacks that sky-licking flare. I have not read the Illiad, but Hamilton asserts that, though it has a thoroughly romantic subject, it never strays far from what she calls classicism. Those day-dreaming Greeks, it seemed, preferred to keep their daydreaming within the realm of possibility, while many of the normally practical Romans let their minds soar when putting words on paper.

For further analysis of the differences between the Greek and Roman minds we have very convenient sources, namely the Latin plays of Terence, Plautus, and Seneca, and those of their Greek counterparts, on which they were based. Some are intended as direct copies, yet somehow turned out different, probably the influence of that mysterious force again. Then there are the plays of Seneca, which he intended from the beginning to be different, maybe romantic, and even distinctly Roman. Now there's some food for Common Sense: why would Seneca set out to create something so different from the Greek original if he didn't sense another, more home-spun style and sentiment?

It is an interesting theory, but it does require some squeezing and pushing, and I am still not sure what common feelings bound these men together --yet I am sure there was something of that sort, some kind of "Roman Way." Ultimately, it is one of those classic questions of the liberal arts: "you will never be able to answer it, but you will learn a lot by asking it." In this Edith Hamilton does an admirable job, a goddess of classical literature, laying out the facts for us mere mortals --and not shying away from liberal amounts of conjecture and digression.

Hamilton was a "popularizer" --because she dumbed things down, says the cynic -- because she made things interesting and fun, says the enthusiast. I am obviously a fan: Hamilton herself is classy and classic, and this is the kind of book that will always have a place. The question is one many will never grow tired of asking, the answer one that will eternally remain elusive, and, even though originally published in the '30s, "The Roman Way" has not lost its relevance in the discussion. It is one of the lucky few nonfiction books that will surely grace the shelves of public and school libraries for years to come.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stoicism and the Modern Era

Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow'd.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Ah yes, very nice: manly, noble, heroic. This poem marks the poet's stoic attitude towards the amputation of his leg on account of tuberculosis, a disease which had troubled him since the age of twelve. (But, besides the whole "I'm missing a leg thing" it seemed to work out well enough: Henley wrote the above poem, perhaps the most famous thing he ever wrote; and Robert Louis Stevenson immortalized him further by basing the character "Long John Silver" on him. And they say Nelson Mandela kept a copy of the poem, written on a scrap of paper, during his incarceration.)

The above poem is just one piece of writing in a very long line to promote a strong-willed, unemotional, unflinching attitude towards life's troubles that we have come to call "stoic." This profound seriousness goes at least as far back as Socrates --it is difficult to imagine Socrates smiling, amiright?-- but Stoicism as we know it, as a full-fledged philosophy, did not emerge until the 3rd century BC, created by a Greek man named Zeno of Citium.

The philosophy seems to have taken off immediately, with just about all of Alexander's successors proclaiming themselves Stoics. However, nothing but fragments survive from the first two periods of Stoicism, and we have complete texts only from Stoics of the high Roman Empire, of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD: people like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. (Anyone hoping for a more serious discussion of Stoic beliefs should see "Stoicism," and the two related articles from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

I have known about the Stoics and their works since High School Latin class, and they have always produced from me a kind of ambivalence. Were they wise men or fools? And does such an unforgiving, so terribly masculine worldview have any place in today's society? But --who am I kidding-- I have always had a bit of the Stoic about myself: I use the term "pesky emotions" more often than most, and I have tendency to grow glassy-eyed when I think of the possibilities of self-sacrifice, against an insurmountable opponent for a cause I believe in deeply.

My great interest --no, it is not yet an obsession-- in Ancient Rome must surely add something to the flame. The Stoics embody --or try to embody-- all of the ideals, all the character and strength of a romantic, or else propagandic, view of the city and its empire. Have I lost you? Just imagine the smells: sweat, olives, and leather -- that is Romanticism. Now imagine the stench of piss and shit, rotting corpses, smoke --that is Realism.

Above all, the Stoics seem to be known for their heroic deaths. Seneca The Younger, accused by the tyrannical Emperor Nero of complicity in the Pisonian Conspiracy, was forced to commit suicide. He sat in a bath of warm water and slit his wrists, surrounded by a circle of friends, dictating his last commands to a scribe, stiff upper lip to the end. Cato, chased about the Empire by Julius Caesar, finally knifed himself in Utica. Then there is the so-called "Stoic Opposition," a group of senators who stood up to the emperors, especially during the reign of Domitian -- naturally, heads rolled.

The Stoics's tendency toward martyrdom, together with their strong moral codes, have lead many Christian writers to see them in a kind light. The "last bath" of Seneca, for example, has been seen as a disguised baptism, and Dante placed him in only the first circle of Hell -- the nicest, although it is still Hell. While other pagans were off to the gladiatorial events, wild parties, and crucifixions, Stoics tried their best to be good Christian men --they just didn't know it.

This generally approving view of the Stoics continued well through the Middle Ages, and culminated in the formation of Neostoicism in 1584. This revival movement didn't exactly make waves; however, many of the core principals of Stoicism continued to be held in high regard by some long into the modern era.

Some, however, have looked upon Stoicism with much disdain. I recently discovered some explicit talk of Stoicism in a story called "Ward 6," by Anton Chekhov. It has two principal characters: Dr. Andrey Yefimych Ragin , the superintendent of a hospital in a provincial town, and Ivan Dmitrich Gromov, a patient of Ward 6 --where the lunatics are kept. One day, the doctor stumbles into this ward and consequently discovers a partner for conversation in Gromov. Please allow us to listen in:

"There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this ward,' said Andrey Yefimitch. 'A man's peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.'

'You should go and preach that philosophy in Greece, where it's warm and fragrant with the scent of pomegranates, but here it is not suited to the climate...'"
counters Gromov, and continues by calling his conversation partner "flabby and lazy," along with further condemnations of his character. Then he has this to say about Stoicism:

The Stoics, whom you are parodying, were remarkable people, but their doctrine crystallized two thousand years ago and has not advanced, and will not advance, an inch forward, since it is not practical or living. It had a success only with the minority which spends its life in savouring all sorts of theories and ruminating over them; the majority did not understand it. A doctrine which advocates indifference to wealth and to the comforts of life, and a contempt for suffering and death, is quite unintelligible to the vast majority of men, since that majority has never known wealth or the comforts of life; and to despise suffering would mean to it despising life itself, since the whole existence of man is made up of the sensations of hunger, cold, injury, and a Hamlet-like dread of death. The whole of life lies in these sensations; one may be oppressed by it, one may hate it, but one cannot despise it. Yes, so, I repeat, the doctrine of the Stoics can never have a future; from the beginning of time up to to-day you see continually increasing the struggle, the sensibility to pain, the capacity of responding to stimulus.
This does nothing more for the doctor than amuse him: he does not take the warning Gromov, and ultimately Chekhov, are handing him. Things end badly for him: the doctor's new habit of regularly visiting Ward 6 is viewed with suspicion by his superiors and he is consequently fired from his position. Soon, he is lured into Ward 6 and locked in as an inmate; he dies shortly after from a stroke.

It is easy to sit on a perch -- to be the one of the richest men in the world, yet play at being poor. Philosophy, all philosophy is as much a luxury commodity as statuettes of gold. I often see it in this way. But Epictetus, at one point a slave who was heavily beaten and abused by his master, to the point of a permanent limp, gives that argument pause. I leave you with another quote:

Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject-matter. For as the material of the carpenter is wood, and that of statuary bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person's own life.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Awful Library Books

Behold, Awful Library Books, a blog run by two librarians from Michigan with a mission: to weed out all of those outdated, odd, and just plain awful books from their and other libraries. The format is plain and simple: each post features one book, with its cover and perhaps a few other images, and then a brief riff and/or description. They have been doing the same old song and dance since April 2009 and have garnered a surprising amount of press, from the usual dozens and dozens of run-of-the-mill blogs, to prominent websites like BoingBoing and MomLogic, to mainstream media like Time -- heck, the two even made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Behold, the first and last time I post a clip from that show on this blog:

The two librarians started with their own library, but I imagine that eventually went a little dry. Now, they receive numerous submissions from people around the world. Most of them, unfortunately, are of the "har, har, this book is old" variety. "Oh look, this girl has hair and clothing that was fashionable in the 80s but now is not!" And then there is the outdated, (more openly) misogynist stuff: "A woman's place in [the world] is on her back!"

Much as I like to disagree with those fair and balanced, imaginary people I quoted up there, I have to admit, the routine gets a little old. They are probably all the rage amongst other librarians -- I bet some even envy them. But that squeaky clean, "librarian humor" is just not for me. (Picture, for a moment, me as a librarian.... Yes, I too am glad that's over!)

Nevertheless, if you stick around long enough, they uncover gems like those shown in the clip above. And if you lust for more, PopHangover has a list of their ten favorite (awful) books, and the duo themselves compiled a list of their favorite books of 2009 And, oh yeah, don't forget my personal favorite, Crafts for (The?) Retarded:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fireside Stories, by Abe Kurp

Dum loquor, hora fugit --Ovid *

The hours always flew by: Grandfather in his arm chair by the fire, his little grandson on his lap. The old man would tell stories and the boy would listen. They were fanciful things, cobbled-together bits of classic tales, weaved together by some universal thread. Meandering things, these stories were, full of inconsistency and repetition. But he was a storyteller by nature, and the child loved it.

Grandfather was an old and skinny man, converging on 70 years old, who wore thin-rimmed spectacles and a well-trimmed beard; he spoke in a low and gravelly voice, and had only a few, yellowing teeth remaining. He carried about him an eternal air of great dignity --despite the thin wisps of white hair that fluttered upwards of five inches above his head --despite the drooling --despite the rickety, toddling manner in which he walked.

He had been a professor at the local college. Now he lived in the house of his youngest son, in a big tan-colored house, the finest amongst the fine. This son -- a surly little thing from birth -- was rarely around, usually away on business; how else could he pay for the house? As for her, the mistress of the house, when she was not out socializing with the neighbors, she kept herself quite locked up in her private chambers. She employed a woman, in fact, whose sole employment seemed to be the deterring of unwanted intrusions.

So the old man was often left alone with the boy, his only grandchild. Their relationship had begun without promise, with befuddlement and bewilderment on both accounts. But one day, Grandfather set aside his newspaper and began telling a story. The boy, a little surprised, set down his toys and did his part as a listener. That first day he sat on the far end of the rug, at least ten feet away from his grandfather. But the next day, he sat in the middle, then on the other side, and so on, until the end of the week, when he sat on his grandfather's lap.

Grandfather stole from all the greats: anything to keep the story afloat and keep his grandson happy. Virgil, of course, and Apuleius, and Homer and even Hesiod. Amongst the epic tales of these grand old heroes he mixed in tales of his own experience: from his time in the war, his young manhood, his several attempts at love. As for the boy, he only listened and stared into the fireplace, ever fascinated by the endless undulations and alterations.

One day, it was story time -- the boy was ready, but the old man was not. There was no sign of him; of course he was not in his usual spot by the fire. The boy checked the other rooms: the kitchen, the hallways, his grandfather's bedroom, and every other place in the house to which he ready access.

He asked two maids. They ignored him. He walked out to the stables, to inquire if, by some fluke, Grandfather had gone for a ride, but the stable hands abruptly and rudely brushed him aside.

He was forced to do it: to see his mother. He spent the next few hours in his room, playing listlessly with his toys, his mind always wandering. He tried to gather strength, to face the dark dread in his stomach. His few previous attempts to see his mother in her room had all ended the same: boxed ears, a horrible scolding, the loss of one meal. But maybe today would be different; besides, he had to know.

He slowly and solemnly approached the big French doors of his mother's room. He lifted his little hand and knocked, defiantly, three times. The hoarse voice of the maid said, "Coming... Hold on a second, please."

She opened the door. His appearance brought a look of disgust to her face. A voice from within --his mother's-- ordered the woman to "let the man in, you ninny. I swear, the small hand of a clock moves faster than you." The maid reluctantly did as she was told.

The boy entered -- his mother was surprised, but only for a moment. Then she welcomed him to her room, like any good hostess. She did not offer him to sit or have a drink. She asked, "What would you like, dear?" in a soft, placating voice.

"I want to see my Grandpa." The boy returned her frigid terseness.

"Oh, dear me," she said. "I had a feeling it was something to do about that. Your father -- I mean, your grandfather, is away. He went away dear, and he won't be coming back for a very long time."

"Where?" said the boy. "Why?"

"To London, dear, on his business trip," was her only response. The interview was soon over after that. The boy returned to his room and cried.

Three weeks later, the boy was playing in the kitchen when he heard a noise at the back door. The door opened and closed while he went to investigate. Standing there was his Grandpa, wearing a brightly colored shirt, with deeply tanned, leathery skin. The old man stooped, arms wide open, beaming a smile, as his grandson ran into his embrace.

* For more on the above-cited Ovid quote, including a little background, its meaning, and an audio reading, kindly visit the appropriate post on the Latin Via Proverbs blog.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ides of March

Beware, beware, be a very wary bear.

It's March 15th, the Ides of March. On this day, more than two millenia ago, William Shakespeare got into an epic, bumpin' and frumpin', no-holds-bard (bard, *snicker*) fist fight with Julius Caesar. Scholars continue to quarrel over the exact outcome, though someone in the crowd was supposed to have said, "Beware the Ides of March, 'cus J.C. just brought it today, motherfucka'." The precise meaning of this phrase remains unclear.

*Ahem* It's March 15th, the Ides of March, the one time each year when the old dusty Romans are dusted off and trotted around the bustling forum we call the Mainstream World. Did you know the Romans invented concrete, domes, glass-blowing, and a hypocaust heating system? Prefer the Ancient Greeks? Pfft, the only thing they every invented is homosexuality. "However, the screw press [for pressing olives] was almost certainly not a Roman invention." Wikipedia ruins all my fun.

Oddly enough, though I am, and have been for years, a fan of everything Roman -- I refuse to add the affix "-phile" to something I merely like (take that, Society!) -- I have not (yet) pissed my pants over this day. I guess it's same old same old for me. I liked the Romans before they were cool -- everyone else is just a poser.

For proof, ou can read some of my reviews of Roman-related books on the appropriate Goodreads shelf. And while you're busy with that, I'll be here scratching my head, wondering why I don't yet belong to the The Roman History Reading Group. Also, why haven't finished listening to that podcast course about the history of the Roman Empire?

Oh, and here's an Esperanto translation of Hadrian's famous "Animula vagula blandula" poem. Yeah, I happened to translate that yesterday, for no special reason or occasion. Yeah, I do awesome stuff like that all the time.

Animulo, vagulo, mildulo,
Gast' kaj kunulo de la korp',
Al kie vi nun iras,
Nuda malforta kaj pala,
Sen nia estinta plezur'?

Then there is the Latin original:

Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis!
Quae nunc abibis in loca,
Pallidula, frigida nudula
Nec ut soles dabis joca?

Then, for you cretins out there (you know who you are) who do not understand either of these hallowed languages, there is this blog post by poet Tom Clark, which features a variety of English translations, as well as some of Clark's explanation and commentary.

Cum amor,

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review: Medea, by Euripides; translated by Robin Robertson

MedeaMy rating: 4 of 5 stars
Medea is an intriguing and difficult play -- the former largely due to the latter. Based on Greek mythology, it follows part of the tale of Jason and his wife Medea. Medea, a "barbarian" princess from the kingdom of Colchis, follows the Greek Jason, of Golden Fleece fame, to Corinth. Things go fairly well until Jason runs off with a younger woman, the daughter of Kin Creon, the king of Corinth. The play opens with this atrocity; it ends with a far worse one.

Medea is left to languish in her house while the new lovers get familiar amidst the palatial bedsheets. Then the king himself comes to her house and orders her to leave the country. But Medea has murderous intentions. Even her nurse -- a classic example of the wise and temperate servant, set against the excesses and stupidity of the masters, a common trope long into the Victorian era (Nelly, from Wuthering Heights, anyone?) -- speaks of her mistress' plot in the first speech of the play. Medea, in a terrible act of anger towards Jason, but also as a form of self-destruction, plans to kill her two young sons.

She hopes, of course, to gain revenge against Jason. But it is also a form of self destruction. Failing the existence of any maternal love or even plain human empathy, Medea is, at the very least, gruesomely cutting short her bloodline. All hopes of any kind of immortality, therefore, are ended. To say nothing of the children...

Soon Jason himself swings by the house, surely fresh from the "marriage" bed. Although he is confident of his dominant position in society -- and therefore is arrogant enough to feel his acts justified and to order Medea to accept her fate -- still he has misgivings. Perhaps he genuinely feels guilty; perhaps he feels obligated to see after her welfare; perhaps his sole concern is for the children. In any case, the ol' Kobe Bryant tactic doesn't work, and Jason leaves Medea as angry and stubborn (*hmph* women) as ever.

Then the King of Athens comes by -- yes, Virginia, kings do make house calls -- and Medea makes him promise to shelter her in his city after she flees Corinth, and to keep her safe even against military attacks.

Then things get crazy: Medea pretends to be reconciled; accordingly, she has her two boys deliver gifts to the new bride; but these gifts are poisoned, and both the princess and her father die offstage. Jason seems not to like this and returns to the house in a fury. But Medea is too busy for talking -- too busy killing her sons; their cries of terror can be heard from inside the house. Jason holds an argument with his former wife through locked doors. Then the chariot of Helios, the sun god and Medea's grandfather, carries her above Jason's head, to freedom. The End.

A reader can see this play in two lights: in the originally intended, traditional view; or else in the modern idiom. For the former, imagine a Greek theater, with an all-male cast and probably an all-male audience. The play is performed in a heavily patriarchal society; some of the male actors are wearing dresses, assuming high-pitched voices. The play tells the mythical story of a woman who turns bloody and vindictive -- yes, yes, typical woman -- but gets away unpunished -- not typical.

Then there is the chorus. In this play, it was intended to be a group of Corinthian women, who commiserate with Medea and encourage her to seek revenge, though they frown upon "punishing herself" -- ie, by killings her own children. The chorus of Ancient Greek theater usually played a very distinct role -- to play the part of "society," to give the main characters advice and incite into the "right" actions. How odd it is, that this group of vindictive, seemingly vindicated women was played by men -- their lines were written by a man -- in a play performed exclusively for men.

And, to those wondering if Euripides was a kind of rogue, with radical views, remember that the play was based on long-standing mythology. Mind, this play was not particularly popular -- it finished third in the Dionysia festival in 431 BC -- but Euripides certainly was not run out of town. Perhaps some scholars have it all figured out (I hear some call this play an example of proto-feminism!), but I'm still a bit baffled.

Then there is the other light: to look on this play as a work of modern times. Certainly, we don't read it in the Ancient Greek anymore, and the translation I read, by Robin Robertson, seemed especially tuned to the modern ear. This way we can completely, without reservations, sympathize with Medea -- though probably not approve of her actions. And we can pass off her comments on the weakness of women as simple irony. Oddly enough, this approach seems to make this play less of a puzzle, at least for me.

I bet if we had read this in high school instead of Antigone I would have jumped back into Ancient Greek literature sooner. I am only just testing the waters of that hallowed genre, yet I am already certain that Medea must be one of the best plays in the bunch, especially from a modern perspective.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009 My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Oddly enough, this is probably the first short story collection I've read cover-to-cover. This is cause for celebration, or at least a new "shelf" on Goodreads. I think I'll call it "short-stories." (oooh!)

If you're going to read your first short story collection why not this one? It is part of an annual series that collects a few stories and non-fiction pieces published that year in some of the better magazines and websites. So it's a smörgåsbord -- or perhaps a "mixed bag" if you are a cynic, or if that little circle above the "a" frightens you.

After the Introduction by Marjane Satrapi -- which explains her early reading tastes and devotes not a single word to the works it is introducing -- there follows 30-50 pages of random facts, of the kind commonly found in the "Uncle John's Bathroom Reader" series. So "out-of-place" and "confused" are words sure to come to mind. In other words, between Satrapi's admission to being humbled while reading giants like Dostoevsky, and a list of the "Best Craigslist ads," I was scratching my head (perhaps only metaphorically), wondering just what I was reading. But it's all good. Satrapi is always fun to read, and who doesn't like reading a few lists of trivia? Especially me, who once-upon-a-time read almanacs avidly.

Then there are the stories. I find there is no need -- nor am I able -- to write about every single story in the collection. Instead, a general word about the stories as a whole: eclectic and varied; decidedly leftward leaning (doesn't the cover speak that clearly enough?); and, as always with these collections, variable in terms of quality. Tastes vary, although I doubt any story in this collection will cause even the most picky reader to throw the book down in disgust. Nor do I doubt that everyone will find at least one worthwhile story.

And now about some of my personal favorites (Note: Some of these works can be read online, in part or in full, so I will be sure to post a link where appropriate):

The Chameleon by David Grann (non-fiction): about a 30-something French man, Frédéric Bourdin, a serial impostor, who often posed as a young boy. He used to wander around Europe, creating new characters and scenarios, sometimes convincing people for many months at a time. He says he only wanted love and attention. The law enforcement were always unsure of how and for what to punish him. His ugliest hour came when he posed as a missing American boy and hoodwinked the lost boy's family for several months, though eventually turned himself in. He is now married and has a young daughter, and claims to have given up his old ways.

Wild Berry Blue by Rivka Galchen: A story of an eight-year-old Jewish girl who "falls in love" with a former heroine addict who works at McDonalds -- I'm not making this up. The story is told from the point of view of the girl, all grown up, and we learn at the end of the story that there have been many similarly odd infatuations since.

Diary of a Fire Lookout by Philip Connors (non-fiction): Even with all the exciting works of the collection within the realm of fiction, somehow this simple diary of a man who sits in a tower in Gila National Forest in New Mexico and looks for forest fires is near the top of my list. There are some touching moments (he finds a solitary, dying fawn), and some interesting encounters (with a pair of "smokejumpers," people trained to jump out of planes to combat fires in rugged, otherwise unreachable areas; and with a pair of hikers, who were planning to hike, if not all, then most of the Rocky Mountains). I am a bit miffed that people with degrees from upper-crust universities seem to gravitate towards that kind of job (*sigh* you are not Thoreau); still, this an interesting piece of work.

Mississippi Drift by Mathew Power(non-fiction): The writer joins a group of "river vagrants" as they attempt to sail down the Mississippi River. The skipper and primary constructor of their makeshift boat is a guy named Matt, "a dumpster-diving, train-hopping, animal-rights-crusading anarchist and tramp," who runs his ship with an oddly totalitarian grip. During the story we also encounter "Poppa Nuetrino," a kind of grandfather of trash-boat builders and the main proponent of a "Whoa, man -- far out!" kind of "philosophy." There is a biography of this man, The Happiest Man in the World, by Alec Wikinson. Regarding Matt and his own trash boat, the other crew members steadily dropped off, until Matt was alone and the boat eventually capsized.

The Temp by Amelia Kahamey: A new woman, a temporary employee, steps into a typical humdrum office and steadily convinces the other employess -- without saying a direct word about it -- to quit their jobs for happier pastures. An uplifter, for sure.

To be frank, this collection is loaded with works taken from magazines that I never read. But it is nice to get an annual look into the world of well-pressed button-down shirts and the soft-spoken voices of NPR personalities. And for the record, there are only two classes of people who use the word "intelligent" when they mean to say "smart": the under-educated and the over-educated.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

FANCY CATZ - teh cutiest LOL caz in teh WORLDZ!

Review: You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons, by Mo Willems

You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons - The World on One Cartoon a Day My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Usually these kinds of post-college trips around the world lead to nothing more than a few souvenirs -- perhaps an object that perfectly sums up a culture, for the low-low price of $15-- and the satisfaction of knowing that you're just that much better than everyone else. Sure, this little group of "true travelers" all know of their superiority over the tourist horde. Sure, they may now throw around the term "culturally enlightened" a bit more. But, hopefully, it ends there. Most people don't write a book about it, and those that do rarely get published.

The author of this book, when he's not playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers while posing as a black man (really, who is he fooling?), is apparently a children's-book author of some renown. At the time of the trip, 1990-1991, he was just another fresh-faced youth with a goofy haircut -- but fame tends to add relevance to just about anything.

During the trip, Willems drew a daily single-panel cartoon, depicting the day's most interesting happening. Years later, in a time known as 2006, he regathered these hundreds of cartoons, added some explanation or commentary to each, and sent them out into the world in an orange, paperback binding. And I bought it! (or checked it out from the library -- books are expensive!)

I'm not one to make sweeping statements, but, well, here it is: most people want to travel and "see the world," but most people don't. In this book, Willems repeatedly voices his hope that it will encourage others to make the plunge. How many it encouraged, I don't know, but I'm not convinced. A series of black-and-white, kid-style drawings of the world is not the world. Nor do the occasional funny moments lift this book to anything thrilling. I say, if you want to see the world, without seeing it, read a traditional travelogue or log onto the Internet.

Nothing against this book, however. The author seems like a nice guy, and I wish him luck with writing stories about crazy pigeons that find hot dogs, and may or may not drive buses. I just wasn't terribly, terribly impressed with this book.

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