Category Archives: Literary

Book Review: “Judas” / by Amos Oz

I knew that Amos Oz was an Israeli writer, but that was about it, and I’d never read anything by him. On a recommendation (my therapist’s actually) I thought I’d give it a try, as I’d always had an interest in Judas, and am so glad I did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an unequivocal masterpiece.

It is a novel of ideas (I think you’ll agree that’s rare enough these days) concerning the founding of the Jewish state, the relationship between Jesus and the Jews (and ultimately Judaism vs. Christianity), Judas and the Jews, Judas and Jesus, Arabs and Jews, discussed in unconventional ways, presenting very different (and extremely interesting) perspectives that deviate greatly from the conventional narrative propounded by politicians and religious leaders alike.

Set in 1959 Israel, the story concerns a young Israeli graduate student at a  crossroad in his life: his girlfriend has just left him and married a former boyfriend; he’s dropped out of graduate school mainly because reversals in his family fortunes didn’t allow him to continue, but even then he was stalled on his thesis on Jewish views of Jesus and Christian views of Judas.

Shmuel Ash, the main protagonist, answers an ad seeking a companion for an elderly invalid male. His first name, Shmuel, couldn’t help but bring to mind the prominent place of the schlemiel in Jewish literature, whether Oz intended this or not. He thinks it will just be he and the old man at first but then discovers a much younger woman lives there, whose idea it was to place the ad. She (Atalia) is very mysterious and very beautiful, smelling of violets, and immediately captures Shmuel’s heart.

We gradually find out she is the daughter of one of Ben-Gurion’s arch rivals, the lone dissenting voice in the movement for a state of Israel, believing there could be a two-state solution with the Arabs. For this he was expelled from the Zionist executive committee and branded a “traitor.”

Naturally this interests Shmuel, who has been writing a thesis on the greatest traitor in history, and he spends long hours in the National Library delving into the history of that era. Unfortunately he can find no trace of his papers, no record of his speeches, and has to abandon this research also.

The old man he is taking care of is Atalia’s father-in-law, whose beloved son (Atalia’s husband) was killed in the 1948 war. Although he disagreed strongly with Atalia’s father’s views he invited him to live with him after his fall from grace. The old man comes to love Shmuel as a son during his three-month stay there, and gains Atalia’s grudging admiration also.

It seems Shmuel is the fourth of a succession of young male caretakers, all seduced by Altalia, who had a bit of Estella Havisham about her, then sent away. Things seem to be going differently for Shmuel even though all along he sees her as unattainable.

This is all I will say about the plot, aside from mentioning it has a perfectly ambiguous ending, hopefully it is enough to spark an interest in the book. As a minor spoiler alert I’ll just say there is an incredibly harrowing and graphic chapter devoted to Jesus’ crucifixion narrated by Judas, a real tour de force, which makes the book worth reading for this alone, although there is so much more.

There is not a lot of action, but the story moves apace and Oz tells it carefully and lovingly. As it  turns out, some of the subject matter is taken from the author’s life, as delineated in his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The book wrestles with the big topics of Jesus’ humanity, the basis of anti-Semitism and other prejudice, the hope for eventual peace in the Middle East, and love.

Originally published in 2014, this edition, translated from the Hebrew, was published in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Book International Prize in 2017. Oz is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this book puts him over the top.

3 Poems / Tom Evans

Poem on a Flower

My flower was laden with dew,
so pink, so moist, and open;
Like lips that are parted in two,
her center, her tongue, was golden.

And crossed by green blades of grass,
formed in a triumphal arch;
Through which some great man could pass,
or some great army march.

The Anvil

Forging the malleable soul,
glint of future,
bellowing past;
Stoking the white hot coal,
’til it rings of truth
at last.

While the heart brings forth life,
red and rife.

The Journey

Longer days may be
when summer comes around,
but the little boy must journey
and has not reached the town.
When he is all grown
where will he be found?

The way is full of turnings
the stars have still not shown,
through winter’s blast
and summer’s burning
will he remain alone-
and never find his home?

Confessions of a Neophyte / Stories by Tom Evans

FYI to anyone interested, I wanted to announce that I have gone the self-publishing route, using Kindle Direct Publishing. The above-titled collection contains 6 stories, 2 or 3 of which I’ve already posted here. My intention is to add more to the collection as they arrive. Disclaimer: there is a nominal fee of $1, but I’d be glad to send anyone free review copies if they’d like one. Just let me know. And if by a miracle anyone should actually decide to purchase a copy I’d appreciate it if you’d leave some comments or rate the book, as this will help move it up the ranks, and, believe me, it’ll need all the help it can get to do so. I’m still not sure how this all works but I believe you can find it if you search Amazon or Kindle under the title or author. If I find a more direct way to provide access I will post what I presume will be some sort of link here. The formatting isn’t that great but until I can get that figured out it looks much better in landscape. As always, thanks in advance for your response, etc. etc.

this link will show you a preview of the book: https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B01M98NKOK&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9Y5-xbD56BR5C

“Spoon River Anthology”

Perhaps Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was, SRA being one of the most idiosyncratic (one might say even accidental) masterpieces in any country’s literature. I believe I first came across it on a summer reading list sent to me by my high school and  it immediately became one of my go to books which I read on a least an annual basis.

It seems Masters (a lawyer by trade who once worked with Clarence Darrow but who had already had several books published at the beginning of a very prolific literary career), had just finished reading the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D., many of which took the form of epigrams-laconic sayings that may or may not harbor  a kernel of truth, while others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives from beyond the grave. Shortly after reading it, Masters, experimenting with free verse, penned some of his own using them as a model and sent them off to Editor Reedy of “Reedy’s Mirror”, a literary magazine published in St. Louis, mostly as a lark, and Reedy liked them so much he asked for more. The poems were serialized there in 1914 under the pseudonym Webster Ford for fear of damaging Masters’s law practice, his real identity being revealed later that year by Reedy.

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, it shattered the myth of small-town America as the bastion of American virtue. Meant to be read as a novel, the reader is required to piece together narratives from single lines and fragments contained in 244 individual poems. In his thinly veiled fictional town of Spoon River, situated in central Illinois near Lewistown, where Masters grew up, the honest, hardworking, chaste, and churchgoing live amidst corrupt bankers, abusive husbands, unfulfilled wives, sexual deviants, and failed dreamers, freed from the shackles of life by death, who “sleep beneath these weeds” confess their deepest secrets, disappointments, frustrations, joys, and warnings to the living in the form of brutally honest free verse poems. The poems are remarkable for the breadth of personalities and the honesty with which they speak. When his book first came out, Masters’ own mother, who was on the library board, voted to ban it. He was exposing family secrets; people were much more private then, and they didn’t want everybody to know their business even though in a small town everybody already knew it. Dubbed a sort of “Peyton Place” of its time, it was unofficially banned for over a half-century in his hometown. It wasn’t that people weren’t reading it- they most certainly were, they just wouldn’t admit or dare talk about it.

Championed early on by Ezra Pound (who wrote “At last the American West has produced a poet . . . ” ) and fellow Illinoisian Carl Sandburg, it was an international best-seller, reported to have sold 80,000 copies in four years, unheard of for a book of poetry. “No volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had attempted so much or had been so original,” says John Hallwas, who edited and annotated the 1993 version published by the University of Illinois Press, which I highly recommend, but only after you have familiarized yourself with the book.

The book went on to influence American masterpieces like Sherwood Anderson’s book of interlocking short stories about a small town, Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ novels Main Street and Babbitt, and the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The work continues to stay relevant for its treatment of the human condition Hallwas also says. Although unknown by the general public, and certainly not taught in schools, it has never been out of print, has been adapted for stage and screen, taught in acting classes, translated into numerous languages, and phrases from one of the poems entitled “Alexander Throckmorton” were quoted by Pope Francis during his recent visit to America.

In contemporary culture another fellow Illinoisian, the late folksinger songwriter Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans” being his most well known song) has a song on his first album entitled “Spoon River,” obviously influenced by the book, though set in the Civil War time period, and more nostalgic; Richard Buckner, another admired folksinger songwriter made an entire album using some of the poems set to music, entitled appropriately, “The Hill” (after the prefatory poem), both well worth checking out.

I leave you with this,  spoken by my favorite Spoon River denizen, Fiddler Jones:

“Fiddler Jones

THE EARTH keeps some vibration going

There in your heart, and that is you.

And if the people find you can fiddle,

Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.

What do you see, a harvest of clover?

Or a meadow to walk through to the river?

The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands

For beeves hereafter ready for market;

Or else you hear the rustle of skirts

Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.

To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust

Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;

They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy

Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”

How could I till my forty acres

Not to speak of getting more,

With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos

Stirred in my brain by crows and robins

And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?

And I never started to plow in my life

That some one did not stop in the road

And take me away to a dance or picnic.

I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—

And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,

And not a single regret”.

 

The Dream Songs / John Berryman

A scholar and professor as well as a poet, John Berryman graduated from Columbia in 1936, then went to study at Cambridge University for two years on a scholarship. Early on he wrote a critical biography of the American writer Stephen Crane, and first achieved national attention for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a dense, brilliant book-length dialogue with the seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet. Berryman taught at Harvard and Princeton, among other places, finally taking a position at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his death. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. He taught many well-known future poets , one of whom (Philip Levine) characterized him as brilliant, mesmerizing, difficult, and demanding, but the best teacher he ever had.

But it is The Dream Songs that made him famous and on which his literary reputation will rest. The book is listed on the American Academy of Poets website as one of their Groundbreaking Books of the 20th Century, and was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. There are 385 of them, composed in a form consisting of three stanzas divided into six lines per stanza, in free verse with irregular rhyme schemes. The songs are all numbered but some of them also have individual titles. The poems teem with allusions to past and present events (capturing the Fifties and Sixties decades very well) and to literary figures, many of which are elegies for Berryman’s recently deceased poet friends, including Delmore Schwartz,  Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. It is a veritable literary Spoon River Anthology with its many paeans to the great writers throughout history he felt connected to.

Its main protagonist is named Henry, a white American in early middle age who sometimes makes up in blackface as a minstrel.  An unnamed friend who speaks in several of the poems calls him “Mr. Bones” and he then often refers to himself as that in future poems. Although Berryman insists Henry is not him, the dream songs portray many experiences of his life, like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide, mainly his father’s suicide. He compares Henry to Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna Karenina, in that, as Tolstoy did with his heroine, Berryman took Henry further than any normal life could take us.

The best summation of these poems I’ve read is by Kevin Young, an African-American poet  who edited The Selected Poems for the Library of America edition who states in his introduction to that volume “The voice shifts from high to low, from archaic language to slang, slant rhyme to full, attempting to render something of jazz or, more accurately, the blues—devil’s music. What emerges and succeeds is something of a sonnet plus some—a devil’s sonnet, say (the three sixes stanzas too obvious to be ignored). Berryman’s heresy is against the polite modernism that preceded him. That the poem can let in all sorts of Americanisms—… and not as signs of culture’s decay, but of its American vitality, is fearless and liberating.”

Among my favorite ones are Numbers 1, 4, 14, 28, 29, 40, 145, 149, 155, 187, 206, 224, 265, 301, 312, 324, & 347 – so many good ones I’d like to quote them in full but I’ll let you discover them on your own. The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. Despite the grim subject matter of some they are often hilarious,  but can also bring you to tears.  Some of it is tough going and its not for the faint-hearted, but the improvident beauty studding every poem is well worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Meadow” / James Galvin

First published in 1992, James Galvin’s The Meadow depicts the century-long history of a hay meadow in the mountains of the Colorado/Wyoming border, told through the  eyes of Lyle, Ray, Clara, and App, of their unsentimental struggle to survive on an independent family ranch, along the way debunking much of the traditional romantic myth of the American West as we know it. Galvin knows the meadow like Thoreau knew Walden and the surrounding areas, and writes of it as intimately, giving it a sense of place only a native could. Imagine Walden as a western novel and you have a sense of what the book is like. Similar to Stoner (discussed here in an earlier entry), The Meadow is a quiet classic that you somehow discover because it has been kept alive mostly through word of mouth. It had received, along with Cormac McCarthy’s  All the Pretty Horses, the award for Best Novel about the West that year, but unlike McCarthy’s novel which was a huge bestseller, The Meadow suffered a very different publishing fate, as few bookstores carried it. It came out  in paperback the following year and subsequently obtained a devoted following.

Immediately upon finishing it, if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to run out and  tell others with a like mind about it. Even better (though rare) if you find someone who smiles and excitedly replies, yes I’ve read it, and you launch into an in-depth discussion of it. Although different in scope and milieu, it reminded me a lot of Vern Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, published the previous year, also an elegy for a lost time and place, although The Meadow reads more like a novel written by a poet (which Galvin) is, with its close attention to detail, meticulous musical prose, plotted structure (though it also contains just the facts, ma’am), and unrequited denouement. By the end of the book, we know these people, unfamiliar as they may seem, intimately; we become linked to them because we cannot help but identify with and admire their heroic age-old struggle for survival; stoic, on the edge of a subsistence living, yet loving the place for what it gives them materially and spiritually. Even if you’re not interested in the subject matter, read it for the writing itself;  in its way, for what it is, The Meadow is a perfect book..

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

It’s common knowledge that the art of letter writing is in abeyance, if not totally a thing of the past, due to many factors that I won’t go into, but I can think of no more worthwhile collection to read than Flannery O’Connor’s “Habit of Being.”  During her all too brief lifetime (she died at 39 from lupus) O’Connor published two novels — “Wise Blood” (1952) and “The Violent Bear It Away” (1960) — and two story collections — “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955) and “Three by Flannery O’Connor” (1964) — all of which secured the high reputation she enjoys to this day. Two posthumous books further embellished it: the story collection “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965) and a volume of occasional prose, “Mystery and Manners” (1969). She had not long been one of my favorite writers (she was just beginning to become known), with her spare, perfect prose, her ideational fiction, and the sardonic wit, scathing humor, and self-effacement so evident in everything she wrote, but it wasn’t until her letters were published in 1979 and I eagerly went out and bought them (something I have never done before or since), that I realized the she was not only a writer through and through, but a person well worth knowing. And that is what these letters accomplish for all time- making present the living, breathing Flannery O’Connor.

Entertaining, fascinating, inspirational, a veritable writer’s workshop,  an exercise in faith, a profile in courage, a daybook, a hobnobbing with her fellow literati, or an account of a life lived to its fullest, warts and all- call them what you will- her letters are all these things and so much more. Flannery O’Connor was the most religious (it’s not even close) of  great American writers, not difficult in a sense, as most modern writers proportionally denigrate religion; a devout Catholic, her religion was her habit of being,  especially after her diagnosis of lupus relegated her to a seemingly staid life with her mother in Milledgeville, Georgia. An avowed Catholic and staunch apologist of her church’s doctrines, you would think such a woman, a woman who admittedly kept The Confessions of St. Augustine on her nightstand might be a dogmatic one-trick pony, but throw all the stale cliches the facts of her necessarily proscribed existence might engender away, she was a dynamo who loved her life, her South, her mother, her birds, and, almost on the same plane, her religion and writing, and she gave her all to them, as these letters attest. Her mother had forbidden any biography be written while she was alive, and only one (deemed “severely insipid”) has been written since. Sally Fitzgerald (along with her husband Robert her close friend and patron and the editor of these letters) explains why this may be in her Introduction to same: “I have come to think that the true likeness of Flannery O’Connor will be painted by herself, a self-portrait in words, to be found in her letters . . . There she stands, a phoenix risen from her own words: calm, slow, funny, courteous, both modest and very sure of herself, intense, sharply penetrating, devout but never pietistic, downright, occasionally fierce, and honest in a way that restores honor to the word.”