Tag Archives: book review

The unlikely duo

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The Unlikely Act: Jack the Baboon and James the Signalman, courtesy of google.com

As a regular customer of a commuter rail, I sometimes wish there was a signalman at my home station instead of an impersonal ticket vending machine without a proper waiting area on a barren platform that makes the nondescript station all the more desolate, drab, and dreary. California wintry mornings are treacherously cold and heartless; they make you yearn for a conspicuous presence of a guiding light of humanity. So it gave me a fillip when I happened on an article about an extraordinary duo from my subscription magazine on the train. 

Let’s take Time Train to Uitenhage in Cape Town, South Africa circa 1890. Meet Jack the Baboon and his senior partner James, the Signalman working side by side watching a train coming toward their station from a distance. James brought Jack to his station after losing both of his legs in a train accident to train the primate to push him around in a trolly, as well as to operate the train signals. Jack was indeed James’s working avatar and a best buddy at work. For good nine years, Jack’s work performance excelled some of his human colleagues, which earned him official employment for which he was paid twenty cents a day and a half a bottle of beer a week. A laborer is indeed worthy of his reward. 

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Jack and James at work, courtesy of google.com

Fast forward the mind’s cinema projector, and I am back at the same home station in the wee hours of cold, rainy California morning. There’s neither Jack nor James, except for a motley of hooded figures of would-be passengers on the platform. All seems crude and cruel except a light with a whistle approaching the station growing bigger and bolder, and I welcome it with the feeling of thankfulness mixed with adventurousness into an unknown new day

‘Joan of Arc: A Life from beginning to end’ by Hourly History – review

Joan of Arc: A Life From Beginning to EndJoan of Arc: A Life From Beginning to End by Hourly History

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

They condemned her as an irreparable heretic, apostate, idolater, and witch and then burned her at stake even though she saved them from their enemy. And yet, in spite of such egregious treachery of her own countrymen, she knew no surrender to fear with stalwart faith in the Cause she intransigently believed to be her divine mission from the greatest man above as the flame rose to her nose, and then engulfed her therein, turning her to ashes. She was no less a figure than Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, the Virgin of Lorraine, whose bravery and belief – be it ever spiritual or psychological- epitomizes existential will to meaningfulness to live a purposeful life, as is vividly and elegantly related in this book.

Each chapter draws up on the substantial aspects of Joan’s purposes, acts, and achievements rather than illustrates religious or spiritual overtones in anecdotes or legends to glow her in a halo. The narrative takes us to where Joan of Arc witnessed the English occupiers’ hectoring of her village folks, including little children by beating, and we feel her indignation at the perpetrators of such violence on her soil. We also come to know that the divine messages she received were not directly from God but through St. Michael, the archangel, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine as the messengers of God with the three divine missions. That Joan of Arc had three cardinal missions of (1) taking up arms; (2) rallying the French to defeat the English occupying army; and (3) putting the Dauphine Charles on the French throne betokens her guiding lights of her life, her purpose of life that constantly reminded her of a “why” to live for. So we follow Joan, a tall and lean girl with her raven hair cut in bob attired in shining armor that weighted about twenty pounds to the frontlines of hand-to-hand combats fighting against the English army without her helmet on to boost morale of the French soldiers and got her neck pierced by an arrow. Then the narrative puts us forward to the dark cell of Joan harassed by five lewd English guards and to the heaps of stake where her body was consumed to ashes.

The lucidly vivid descriptions of each chapter in cogently casual narrative are the elemental force of this book that brings the grist to the mill for the visualization of the whole story as though it were played on a screen. In fact, while I was reading toward the end of the book, a song called “Bigmouth Strikes Again” by the Smiths, in which Morrissey sings, “Now I know how Joan of Arc felt” was starting to being played in my mental stereo set with heightened emotions. It also illustrates the canonical facts that many of us may be unaware of: (1) that it was the French, including the dauphin who later became Charles VI wholly thanks to Joan, who sold her to the English; (2) that Joan, for none other reason than being only human, attempted at several escapes which ended in foils; and that (3) it was twenty-two years after her death on fraudulent grounds of treachery and heresy that the Trial of Rehabilitation exonerated her from such preposterously erroneous charges, thanks to the troubling conscience of Charles VI who belatedly endeavored to make it happen.

This is an excellent primer on further study on Joan of Arc with a comprehensive overview of the time as regards the relationship between the Church and the politics, the role of the Church, and its dominance over society, let alone people. It will induce you to look at Joan of Arc not as mythological French virgin whose legacy exclusively appertains to the French as their patron saint only, but as a human who tried to do what she believed was right despite any biological or social inhibitions that she had to rise above. In this regard, Joan is an emblematic figure of courage, hope, and self will to achieve her existential values as someone with purposes in life, someone whom we can identify with in one way or another in our daily struggles of contemporary life. Upon reading this book, you will come to understand what made the American humorist Mark Twain offer such approbation: “Whatever thing men call great, look for it in Joan of Arc, and there you will find it.” Indeed, her steadfast attitude toward her firm belief is something we can deem truly inspiring and remedial to apply to our own way of fulfilling demands placed upon our daily tasks in life.

Ballad of Dido and Aeneas

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Aeneas leaves Dido, courtesy of pinterest

From a land ravaged by a wooden horse with a golden apple for the fairest of the divine beauties appearing to a prince so young, so impetuous in judgment thereof,

There came a poor beautiful stranger destined for the supernal fate to rule the mortal to the diamond eyes of a maiden queen ethereal in beauty, graceful in act and hapless in love.

Blindsided by Juno’s machination, swept by passion growing strong, growing stronger for the stranger,

The queen bade him with tears and roses in succession day and night, in desperate attempt to keep his presence, his body and his soul, all but an entreaty so futile,

So forlorn, with a promise of her kingdom and her fidelity in return for nothing but his surrendering of himself to her and herself to him till the mortal fate was ended, till one had to cross the River of Styx.

Alas, but the queen’s to be thwarted, she’s to be abandoned by the divine plan forced by the arrival of Mercury, god of war whispering to the poor stranger for the imminent departure for destiny far more magnificent, far more supreme,

As dictated by Jupiter, god of all regions crossing death and life forever who put forward a divine plan over mortal feelings however pitiable.

Thus did the stranger set to sail the seas full of perils ever more.

The queen defied, she cried, she pleaded, but all ended in nought as the poor stranger was to depart cruelly with no tender words of love that’s planted, nourished,

And admired by the queen so now distraught by his betrayal of her love with her plea wreathed in tears and flowers.

Now her love became her poison consuming all of her ever more,

Now he became her foe ravishing all of her in surrender of love.

But what of it when all’s ended in a sea of heartaches thousand times, with no reason to reign as a queen without her lover by her side?

Nothing, nothing’s to remedy her spirit that’s broken thousand times, for nothing, nothing would console the lonely queen in cruel abandonment,

But the last will to burn her body and soul consumed in madness of passion on an ancient funeral pyre that engulfed every part of her whispering to her departing spirit that love would come never more – Nevermore!

 

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‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’, by Casey Cep – review

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper LeeFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The theory of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”might have been a rule of thumb in the Wild West, but that was anathema to Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which has become an epoch-defining classic in the canon of American literature.With her restive independent spirit that knew no compromise with tampered artistic sensibilities, Lee labored and waited until she found satisfactorily truthful narratives on her own, no matter how much time it would take. This journalistic trait of authorship combined with intellectual conscience could have been a reason that Lee, despite criticism of being a one-hit wonder, chose not to chase successive fame and discontinued what might have been her next best oeuvre called The Reverend. Casey Cep discovers Lee’s unfinished work and brings it to life and offers an unbiased portrait of one of the greatest American writers in this ambitious Furious Hours.

Furious Hours is composed of three parts: Reverend Willie Maxwell, Attorney Tom Radney, and Harper Lee. Reverend Maxwell was a black provincial Baptist preacher accused of killing five of his family members allegedly by means of Voodoo magic for insurance money in the 1970s. Into this courtroom drama entered a clever and magnanimous Alabaman lawyer named Tom Radney, who helped the reverend to be acquitted of the murder charge, but later found himself defending the killer of his former client. It was an irony of Fate, tragedy and comedy of a drama called life. The trial of the murder of the reverend was also a reprisal of the courtroom drama of To Kill a Mockingbird, where a black dependent was represented by a liberal white attorney. This real-life scenario in her beloved native Alabama piqued Harper Lee’s curiosity, and she decided to write a book called “The Reverend” by attending the trial herself. Cep introduces the elements of the trial in the discourse of the backgrounds of the trial as though she traveled back to the time and witnessed it all like an intelligent, observant time traveler.

Although Furious Hours is primarily about the forgotten case of the Reverend that was something of an OJ trial of the day in the context of regarding a black defendant and white legal bureaucracy, its linchpin behind the facade of the drama is Harper Lee, who thrived at the expense of Nella Harper Lee, an ambitious intelligent writer who moved from a big house in Alabama to a rent-controlled apartment in the New York City to pursue a literary career. It seems to me that Lee was disillusioned with the glamor of the city literati scene that looked priggish and stuffy. Her peers dismissed her book as a one-hit wonder and criticized it for being a lesser of serious literature. Notwithstanding this asinine and supercilious criticism, Lee did not conform to public demand of the next bestseller by declaring she had “said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Lee was in fact a writer who wanted to write a book with universal themes of human life, not bound by a vocation of regional specialty of “Southern” cultural backgrounds littered with sinful racism. She was a writer struggling to live up to her literary principle and personal conviction that her contemporaries did not appreciate. Maybe that’s why Cep introduces Lee in the last of the three parts of the book in the sense that a fashion designer always walks the runaway last in a fashion show escorted and applauded by models, staff, and spectators.

Furious Hours is a fine act of literary ventriloquism fused with Lee’s story-telling voice in Cep’s own narrative, which results in this ingenious creative nonfiction. It is a wonderful collaboration of two writers, a predecessor and a successor, bound by the magic of literature, transcendent of time and space, just as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Grand Horse” was superbly completed by Nina Akamu centuries later. This book will have more admirers of Harper Lee’s literature and new admirers of Cep’s feat of narrative skills that grasp the attention of the reader cap-a-pie.

‘Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen,’ by Mary Norris – review

Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma QueenGreek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen by Mary Norris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ancient Greeks knew what appealed to the senses. The cult of beauty was the caryatid pillars of the culture that sublimated the human body into a divine canvas of the mind. So much so that they codified the value of beauty in their belief system, ranging from mythology to philosophy, in pursuit of kalokagathia , the harmonious combination of physical beauty with spiritual goodness. The perennial upshot of this Greek admiration of kalokagathia is Mary Norris’s charming Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen, a wonderful cabinet of her infatuations with all things Greek, ranging from awesome Goddess Athena to dashing Sean Connery as Agamemnon, to the whimsical variations of Greek pronunciation, and to her exhilarating skinny-dipping in Aphrodite’s Beach. With her gift of scintillating narrative skills flavored with accessible erudition, Norris warmly invites the reader to her own delightful Greek festival of words, gods, romances, and delicacies.

It is said that when you love, you want to know. An erotic impulse charged from the imposing physical presence of Sean Connery as Agamemnon became a stimuli that galvanized a shy celibate Catholic bluestocking into her never-ending solo odyssey in pursuit of a mystical ambrosia, the food of the Greek gods, for the sensuous delight of the arcane Eleusinean Mysteries. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part reference book, Greek to me is a lovely treatise on Norris’s lasting affairs of the heart with words and adventures in the land of the capricious Olympians, olive trees, and phonetic alphabets with infinite varieties. The scholarly subjects of mythology and language of Greece are never dealt with academic superciliousness or elitist snobbishness that separates them (and the author) from a general reader. Contrariwise, Norris is an intelligently gorgeous writer who wears her erudition lightly and writes in plain language felicitously topped with her artless witticism that makes her a winsome literary troubadour. If Edith Hamilton, author of Mythology and The Greek Way, has an aura of dour-faced platonic conservative teacher of the ancient Greek mythology and the culture, Mary Norris is of a coterie of amiable Socrates, sharing her knowledge with the public – literate, illiterate.

In the exhilarating sensation of naked freedom astride the gushing foams of wild waves in Aphrodite’s Beach, the reader feels connected to the author’s paroxysm of pleasure and transformed into a votary of the goddess of love. Norris’s solipsistic adventure becomes a tour of coterie, traveling beyond the territorial borders into the mythological world of gods and goddesses in search of the Golden Fleece fit to one’s appropriate need. Although the chapters devoted to the lexicons of the Greek language can be taxing to comprehend to whom it all looks Greek, most of the book is invested with the vicarious Eureka pleasure of going there, being there, and seeing there, all made possible by Norris’s goddess Athena-like literary prowess. Besides, if the reader happens to be a quiet solo Catholic woman graduating from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ (more specifically, all-women Douglass College therein), secretly desirous of solitary skinny-dipping in Aphrodite’s Beaches basking in freedom from insecurity, this book will feel like a new friend.