Tag Archives: book reviews

‘Adam Smith kidnapped’ by Stuart Kells – review

In the case of life imitating art, you tend to find meanings of events in life, to liken them to values of adversity in life, and to sublimate them to the divine auguries of purposeful human existence. In fact, this existential approach to the causality of certain human behaviors and characteristics can help you to understand whys and wherefores of the way people are and thus can even disarm all hostility towards strangers without prejudice. Such is the case of Adam Smith, the father of modern idea of Capitalism, author of “The Wealth of Nations” whose such proverbial reputation had piqued me no more than as a boring illustrative curriculum vitae of just another stuffy intellectual with privileged educational and social backgrounds until I read Stuart Kells’s article about the Real Adam Smith whom I might never have known.

Adam Smith, a posthumous son of a successful lawyer and customs official, was a rather melancholic, lonely, but humane thinker who liked to spend time with himself alone but also kept his foot in reality by observing everyday people’s lives and considering them to employ in contextualizing ills of society as a result of ineffective rules of law failing to protect the welfare of subjects. Smith’s brilliance shines on the simple and lucid illustrations of his thinking in common language that the literate and the illiterate could understand. He was a soul of the wit distinguished from his peers and progenitors favoring abstruse expressions of bombastic words pedantic of their academic learning. 

Kells enlightens us that this humane trait in Smith can be originated from the traumatic experience of being kidnapped aged four at the home of his Scottish maternal uncle allegedly by a set of vagrants called ‘Tinkers’ or a party of Gypsies, the Wandering Egyptians. Although who the real culprit of this kidnapping is still a mystery to this day, what the event affected the tender mind was all over but the shouting. It was Smith’s first interaction with the world outside the safety of class, the innocence of childhood, and the security of the family. Already fatherless, the very young Smith must have felt powerless, hopeless, and homeless at the hands of his kidnappers. And this melancholy spell cast upon him became his curse and bliss as it made him look into the pains of other people and meditate on the causes and effects thereof by sympathizing with their sorrows and emphasizing with the sorrowful. 

The kidnapping incident of Adam Smith read like a piece of sensational news to me, a kind of new awakening, the equivalent of modern-day news that a bestseller writer or a prize-winning writer hails from a poor family without expensive private high education. And it makes you think about what makes a person become who he or she is and appreciate the person’s values that overcome adversity. In this respect, Adam Smith is in league with Charles Dickens, who turned his suffering into works of art. It’s a triumph of the human spirit over the travesty of life. All in all, thanks to Kells’s telltale article about the wondrous event, I have abandoned my prejudice against Smith as a cold, stiff upper lipped economist and warmed to his humane side. Maybe I might even read “The Wealth of Nations” into the bargain.

‘The Real Guy Fawkes’, by Nick Holland – review

The Real Guy FawkesThe Real Guy Fawkes by Nick Holland

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was a fateful day for a man, it was a fortuitous day for a crown. A man of imposing physique with a more imposing spiritual credo stood there speechless in the cellar of the House of Lords stocked with barrels of gunpowder that could blow up the parliament to the detritus of the past sovereign supremacy. The captors were in awe of the man’s imperturbability amid the silent trepidation of the weight of aborted stratagem. He was no less than a person than Guido “Guy” Fawkes himself, one of the eight Gunpowder conspirators, the man whose effigies are ceremoniously mocked and burned on 5th of every November throughout England as his eternal Promethean punishment for defiant treason since 1605.

Nick Holland’s The Real Guy Fawkes tells it all about who this unfortunate but formidable man of unshakable faith in his realistic discourse of the accused based on historical evidence gleaned from his exhaustive research superbly blended with his vivid storytelling narrative skills that resurrect the atmosphere and ethos of the era contributing to the making of Guy Fawkes. We see young Protestant Guy with a great linguistic talent, good looks, and full of life, playing a Nine Men’s Morris with his friends. We witness Guy’s conversion to Catholicism, his stint as a valorous soldier in the Spanish Army in Flanders, his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot as the right-hand man of Robert Catesby, the charismatic leader who wanted to bring his beloved England to the One, Holy, Apostolic Church, and his last moment on the scaffold. He was a passionate man of faith who keeps his words by actions, and the image of Guy Fawkes overlaps with that of Father Mendoza in the film “The Mission”, who tried to revolt against the tyrannical oppression of despotism suppressing a freedom of wills and faith incompatible with its claim of totalitarian supremacy over individualism.

Holland’s role of compassionate and open-minded narrator helps the reader to understand what motivated Guy Fawkes to involve in such an epochal plot and who the person of Guy Fawkes was. The infamy that chained Guy Fawkes in the unbroken shackles in the darkest dungeon of history becomes justifiably lessen, and the eternal mockery of his likeness becomes faded off as a collective echo of demotic populism orchestrated by the powers-that-be with systematic religious prejudice. Personally, I feel that the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day is akin to the eternal punishment of Prometheus, which should be lifted in order that his soul can rest in peace. If you feel the way I do, or if you understand what it meant to be a Catholic in the Reformation era and before the Second Vatican Council, then you will probably agree with me.

‘Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the ‘Foot Voyage”, by James Loxley – review

Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the 'Foot Voyage'Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland: An Annotated Edition of the ‘Foot Voyage’ by James Loxley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first learned of Ben Jonson from Stuart Kells’s Shakespeare’s Library as a member of the Shakespeare triumvirate, I was piqued by the personal background of this unreconstructed Elizabethan playwright and poet and wanted to know more about him. My search for the intelligence of Jonson then met a devotee of Ben (a Tweeter equivalent of Sons of Ben) in London, England, which led me to the treasure cave piled with Jonson’s writings and the writings about him. Among the treasure is this pleasant travelogue of Jonson’s famous walk from London to Scotland with his unknown companion in 1618.

An energetic vicambulist and a lover of sensory delights of life, Jonson’s journey to Scotland, the land of his birth, on foot seems natural and celebratory of his feisty and adventurous spirit in comparison to his statuesque contemporary men of letters. Be it that his working-class background or unconventional Modus Vivendi, Jonson meets people of all walks of life, ranging from a madwoman to a jovial tinker, and to a scullery maid to the lords of stately houses, like a learned troubadour and interacts with them as such artlessly genial attitudes are also reciprocated with respect in jovial mood. The unknown companion whose identity is open to presumptions is nonetheless a vital witness not only to the authenticity of Jonson’s celebratory foot journey but also to the recognition of his humaneness that gives life to the textual figure of Jonson, bringing the reader close to this literary celebrity in his unvarnished prose narrative. In fact, it is this plainness of account without a platitude of florid language in want of erudition that reveals the person of Jonson and the realistic views on social and cultural landscapes of the Elizabethan era devoid of heavyweight academic stuffiness and intellectual seriousness.

Further to the authorship question, I like to think that Jonson as a producer must have commissioned his apprentice or trusty servant of literacy to write it because (1) the original manuscript called ‘A Discovery’ was burned in the 1623 desk fire; (2) the scrolls of documents presented by the Aldersey Family in Cheshire contains a manuscript entitled “My Gossip (c.f. the term meaning a kin through God) Jonson”; and (3) most of all, the narrative does not possess Jonson’s literary allure and erudition proprietary to his oeuvres. Notwithstanding the dubious authorship, the narrator went, saw, and narrated Jonson’s foot voyage to Scotland, where both were made honorary burgesses, a well-deserved titular trophy for the journey completed.

With respect to the motif of this voyage, I think it was intended to be a literary supplement to his well-heeled subscribers as an entertaining accouterments to their library in an appreciation of their patronage. In this regard, it could also have been a wager journey benefiting from the subscribers in the promise of delight from the travelogue to the seekers of vicarious pleasure as if they were traveling with the famed literary figure of their time.

Contrary to the introduction of the book as an appropriate read for upper-level students of English literature or scholars devoted to Ben Jonson, this book is accessibly enjoyable even to a general reader like myself and recommendable to the initiated and the uninitiated with a promising delight to the mind. Upon finishing my travel with Ben Jonson and his unknown companion, I now see him as an artless man of action with bouts of hearty laughter and a caring heart attentive to his ill servant and a lowest sculler maid in a manor he visited, not as an unapproachable Elizabethan celebrity whose star in in the constellation of universal literati sparkles radiantly in the celestial fresco. His bibliographic tantrums of temper were proverbially formidable, but his humanness wonderfully saturated with his literary feat and artistic talent dominated the vice as readers will see in this travelogue. And I think Jonson will like us readers to think of him that way. Or I like to think that way as a fan.

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‘Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward’ by Paul Johnson – review

Humorists: From Hogarth to Noel CowardHumorists: From Hogarth to Noel Coward by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s gobsmacking to see how people misidentify humor with mockery or sarcasm in their misconception about laughter (the loud the better) as a product of a merry heart. Whereas humor should be appealing not only to the senses but also to Reason with a natural assistance of wit to discern the light side of life and to elevate it to wisdom of life it bears, people tend to derive funniness from faux-pas and gaucheness of targeted individuals as if they were Olympian gods and goddesses laughing at the sorrow and travail of mortals on earth. That being said, this aptly witty book by Paul Johnson is an intelligent receipt against the philistine understanding of humor drawn on his erudition and sharp witticism.

Johnson sees humor as a handmaid to hope in life that gives a jolt to a meaning of life, a mental and physical therapeutic means to make the strains of existential malaises bearable, and presents us a society of famous artists who shares the same views on the pristine essence of humor. Life is indeed a comedy in a long shot and a tragedy in close-up. If our human existential life is a tragedy at the core, it also has a periphery of comedy, which helps us to understand and embrace the attitude of “Amore Fati” Love of Fate, regardless of a boundary of classes, races, and genders. Accordingly, finding humor in human suffering is one of the manifest functions of arts in sublimating human emotions and thoughts into the aesthetically pleasing and intellectually satisfying artifacts.

From Johnson’s humorists, the persons of Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton strike me as scintillating artists of classless humor whose abilities to draw humor upon people of all walks of life and to look upon the bright side of existential life and kindly side of human nature, for human nature is the same in all professions as it is in water, not stone. Even madness does not look grim and dismal in the eyes of amiable Chesterton: “The mad man is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

This is the fourth book by Paul Johnson I have read, and it never ceases to amaze me with his erudition and wit manifested across pages after pages at the expanse of his will to enlighten general readers in plain English accessible to all. If you think abrupt peals of boisterous laughter in disguise of hearty mirth in public places are none other than a sign of incivility and citizenship, then this is a fit read that you will enjoy to your quiet hear’s content.

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On Ovid: The Exiled Poet in Woe

oviduo

People tend to think that the books of antiquarian authors are far-fetched from the reality of our digital era, whereas our calendar years on the evolutionary scale amount to microseconds on the twenty-four-hour biological clock. Apart from a great divide of time, great writers of all time show us the wounds and mirth at the heart of humankind and stand observant of the anfractuous human lives as though to be seen through opera glasses. In this respect, Ovid, author of Metamorphoses, can be regarded as an ancient trailblazer of popular literature whose subject matters, such as cause and effects of love and devotion, are still appealing to readers.

Ovid first gained popularity with The Ars Amatoris (The Art of Love), a kind of self-help book for men on how to woo women and keep their love with practical tips under the guise of a formal didactic reference to avoid censorship. Heroines, a series of dramatic monologues centering on mythological women, including Penelope, Dido, and Ariadne, lamenting on their mistreatment at the hands of their men, earned him the sobriquet of best-seller writer of his time. However, what Ovid secretly and really craved was a learned readership vis-à-vis the reputations of his peers Horace and Virgil whose works were regarded in high intellectual esteem by the elites. Hence, Metamorphoses, a series of 250 stories of gods and immortals intertwined in a vortex of love, lust, grief, and terror, was his magnum opus, a kind of literary vindication of mass demotic literature. It seemed that Ovid as a man of flowering Roman letters arrived at his pinnacle of literary career until fortune’s malice overthrew his state.

Ovid suddenly fell out of favor of the emperor and exiled to Toms, a city on the Black Sea. Whys and hows of Ovid’s exile are still clandestine to this date as Ovid also never recorded any details about what caused the emperor to banish him to the backwater of the empire. As with many a conspiracy story, there are hypotheses of the cause of this unfortunate event: (1) Ovid had a love affair with Livia, Augustus’s wife, while married with children; (2) Ovid knew of an incestuous affair between the emperor and his daughter Julia; or (3) the error might have been of political nature because Ovid might have gossiped about certain political factions. But then any of the above can be a figment of imagination.

Notwithstanding the above, I like to think that Ovid is a great benefactor of mankind with his dazzling reworking of Latin and Greek myths and entertainingly vibrant guidance of practical love. In fact, he was far more gentlemanly in treating women regardless of their age and looks than any of our contemporary man writers. To Ovid asking a woman’s age was highly improper and telling a woman of good things about her are a must to keep her love ongoing. In light of the above, none of the aforesaid presumptions rings true to me, and it is my presumption that maybe Ovid’s jealous contemporary despising the well-deserved success of Metamorphoses conspired against him and pushed him to banishment in the outpost of Rome, the city Ovid loved so much.