Monday, September 19, 1994

The Nose

by Nikolai Gogol
translated by Gleb and Mary Struve

This unusual story is a great piece of work – absurd, somewhat satirical, rather mocking in tone, but with an affectionate tinge to it. Commentary by the translators suggests that there is no reason to Gogol’s surrealism, but I think it could hardly be possible Freudian symbolism was not in his mind. Kovaloyov’s social “impotence” at his loss and his haughty machismo upon reattachment could hardly signify anything else. A very funny and sharp-witted story.

Sunday, September 18, 1994

The Words

by Jean-Paul Sartre

In terms of its style and craft of writing, this autobiography may well be unequaled. The prose is perfect, beautiful and brilliant. The depth of thought in the self-analysis, the clarity of the examination and the honesty, is also brilliant. A lot of the references to Sartre’s childhood reading material went over my head, unfortunately. But that’s minor; I was still awed by his insight and style. Sartre says elsewhere that this is not an apology or a self-repudiation, although it may seem so. It’s merely a totally open representation of a life from its origins to its path to rebirth.

Tuesday, September 6, 1994

Son Of Spellsinger

The seventh and last Spellsinger book.  Crammed with Foster's inconsistencies and unexplained oddities, but it’s a good story. The end, where the truth-making device is brought home, is especially good.

Saturday, September 3, 1994

The Time Of the Transference

The sixth Spellsinger book.  More of the human in the magic animal world. The humor was well-placed, the characters good. But this time the females were domestic – Talea didn’t go with Jon-Tom on his adventure, Weegee tries to “Tame” Mudge – but the worst was that Jon-Tom left for years and Talea kept house for him, waiting alone. That’s stupid, and not at all like her original character. Enjoyable anyway, though I hate it when authors try to impose their own insecurities and fantasies on their characters.

two stars

Thursday, September 1, 1994

Sartre By Himself

by Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Contat, Alexandre Astruc

A transcription of a film of Sartre discussing various issues with fellow intellectuals. It’s an interesting look at his development from moralist, to realist, to moralist for the masses, and it also depicts him working at galvanizing the masses & protesting oppressive actions in the late ‘60s. There’s also a short analysis of works such as Nausea & Being and Nothingness, which I haven’t read – but it’s a start on understanding them, anyway. An intriguing book, if (necessarily, because it’s conversations) choppy and disjointed in structure.

Thursday, August 25, 1994

No Exit and Three Other Plays

by Jean-Paul Sartre

"No Exit," translated by S. Gilbert.  Three strangers, locked in a room.  Can't really say anything about this brilliant allegory without revealing too much.  It should be very widely read.

"The Flies," translated by S. Gilbert.  A reworking of the Orestes/Electra story.  I liked it better than Euripides'.  Sartre made the characters multi-faceted and real; he also added Zeus as an adversary of Orestes who feeds on remorse.  Orestes' refusing to repudiate his crime, create his own freedom and deny Zeus & nature, was very existential, I thought.  Plus, perhaps, the killing could be identified with the workers' violent revolt which creates their own justice maybe.  Anyway, a great, complex play, that also works as an anti-Nazi or anti-occupation message.

"Dirty Hands," translated by Lionel Abel. It was about an intellectual who yearns to act for the Communist Party, and is manipulated by them to such an extent that the man he is supposed to kill sees it all and even tries to reveal it to him.  There’s a great, well-crafted argument scene about the process of power-taking and political machinations between the intellectual (Hugo) and his target (Hoederer).  In the end, Hugo is convinced he acted for the right reasons, despite the party's re-writing of history.  Like Sartre’s Orestes, he too refuses to repudiate his crime and makes his own destiny.  A great, great play.

"The Respectful Prostitute," translated by Lionel Abel. It’s a short, very chilling, scathing attack on American corruption and racism.  I don’t remember it from my previous reading as being this powerful, but it is – a nasty little piece of work.

[read twice]

five stars

Monday, August 22, 1994

The Paths Of the Perambulator

by Alan Dean Foster

The fifth Spellsinger book.  A huge improvement over the last one; and maybe I expected too much from a fantasy series about magic anthropomorphic animals. The only sketchy parts for this one were two places where the humor bits were predictable.  As for the rest, the book was imaginative, funny and extremely entertaining.  (I would like just a little more realism in the characters' actions, more motivations than humor… but that’s a minor complaint.)

Saturday, August 20, 1994

The Moment Of the Magician

by Alan Dean Foster

Look, I don’t mind that ungulates are non-sapient in one book and intelligent in the next, or that the race of the police changes, or that the social standing of rodents changes --- but when most of the plot or dialogue serves only as comic effect, it makes the reality of the characters, their dialogue, disappointing. I’d like more of the starkness of the original book; this series is getting more and more cartoony. Still an intriguing main plotline, though.

two stars 

Thursday, August 18, 1994

The Day Of the Dissonance

by Alan Dean Foster

The third Spellsinger book.  Still contradictory and jumpily written, although the idea behind the plot was fantastic.  Hugely enjoyable and readable - I read this book and its predecessor on the same day.

 [read twice]

The Hour Of the Gate

by Alan Dean Foster

The second Spellsinger book.  Not the most well-written or consistent series, but great fun.

[read twice]

three stars 

Tuesday, August 16, 1994


by Alan Dean Foster

A young musician finds himself in a rough sword-and-sorcery world of anthropomorphic animals. I'm not used to books with narrators that, while hooking to one character's perception (Jon-Tom's) in general, are omniscient; so that bothered me a bit. And it was redundant in a few places. But it was very well crafted, if not incredibly brilliantly written, and inspiringly imaginative. A good series to get into.

[read twice]

four stars

Thursday, August 4, 1994

Sweet Myth-tery Of Life

by Robert Asprin

The tenth Myth Adventures book.  It wasn't richly comic, but it had the same great cast of characters, same impending-doom plot, and same examination of real life, as the other nine books.  Enjoyable, and made me look forward to reading the next one as well.

three stars

Monday, August 1, 1994

The Devil And the Good Lord And Two Other Plays

by Jean-Paul Sartre

"The Devil and the Good Lord," translated by Kitty Black. I loved it. Goetz is one of the inscrutable characters of literature: why does he act the way he does? Is he pretending to be Good just to do Evil more? But though the play is enigmatic, the message is clear. It doesn't matter if God is alive or dead, if we try to do absolute Good or total Evil. No matter what, we're all equal in that we're buffeted by the winds of fate regardless of what we might want to bring about.

"Kean," translated by Kitty Black. Apparently based on a Dumas play. I don't really know what to make of it. It's a fine comedy and refreshingly (for Sartre) non-communist, with a happy ending. It seems to be a satire of class relations and antiquated gender relations, with a little bit of Shakespearean object-of-desire switching thrown in for comedy. On top of that, it's a comment on the artificiality of almost all relations in life.

"Nekrasov," translated by Sylvia & George Leeson. It was a very cunning and biting farce on politics, journalism and the nature of man. A swindler pretends to be a Soviet official/defector: the consequences are far-reaching, realistic, and work to further the causes of the powers that be, despite what Georges, the crook, wants. Another great play.

four stars

Tuesday, July 19, 1994


by Jean-Paul Sartre
translated by Paul Aster & Lydia Davis

A collection of philosophical essays. I came away with a split opinion: either I was awed by Sartre's brilliance & clear vision, or turned off by his faux "arguments" (simply laying down a few comments & then pretending the issue had been established). And then, there's the fact that most of the references went over my head. It contained:

"Self Portrait at Seventy," an interview, taking up almost half the volume. What I understood, I really liked.

"Simone de Beauvoir Interviews Sartre," a conversation about feminism & the struggle.

"On The Idiot Of the Family," a good academic analysis of his work on Flaubert.

"The Burgos Trial," a strong argument for Basque independence.

"The Maoists in France," just what it says.

"Justice and the State," an essay repeating much of the previous one, on Marxist, or popular, justice, what he calls the only true justice. Here, he says he's a contradiction because he writes bourgeois books but urges Marxist revolution. I think one sees a contradiction only if one sees everything in such black and white, bourgeois-popular, either-or terms. There are gems of brilliance in this essay.

"Elections: A Trap for Fools," in which he argues that universal suffrage serializes us and gives us a false sense of power. It is true, voting delegates no authority: we are choosing people with authority, but we have no power to give (we couldn't represent ourselves, for example). This was the feeblest essay, in my opinion: anyone can work for any case he wants, and if he can't convince others to vote his way, that means they have their own causes. I just don't think voting is as serialized as he says.

three stars

Tuesday, July 5, 1994

Euripides V: Electra, The Phoenician Women, The Bacchae

by Euripides
405-410 BC
translated by Emily Townsend Vermeule, Elizabeth Wyckoff, William Arrowsmith

"Electra": Very good, though not as good as Sophocles' work. I thought Electra was a self-pitying, hypocritical whiner, and apparently that's just what Euripides wanted me to think. Orestes wasn't so bright either. The intro really clued me in to Electra's sexual frustrations, envy of Clytemnestra and jealousy/hatred of her mother's lover Aegisthus. Electra & Orestes' shock at everything still being bad, even after killing their mother, was well done – it brought the point home dramatically: No one's in the right, no one's all bad or good, and violence rarely solves things, even in god-sanctioned "justice." A powerful piece.

"The Phoenecian Women": It was very good, holding my interest despite my familiarity with the plot. The character development, again, didn't quite hold up to Sophoclean standards, but the drama and dialogue were superb. The ending (when Creon takes charge) was especially gripping. Oedipus played a minor role, but his lines were pure poetry, with quite a bit of clever use of "light" and "dark" metaphor (he being blind and all).

"The Bacchae": Before I read the insightful intro by W. Arrowsmith, I was going to pan the play, but now I see the meaning and message of the play that I missed (although I still think character development is lacking). I now see the conflict between Pentheus and Dionysius is central as person vs. person, not merely hubris vs. a god. And what I thought was disorder and sloppiness – Dionysius' transformation from the traditional Olympian in disguise to something like a force of nature – I now see is intentional. I did like the way, minutes after the reader's sympathy has shifted from Dionysius to the torn-apart Pentheus and Agave, the Chorus also shows its humanity by ceasing its ecstatic reveling at Pentheus' death and pitying Agave, gently helping her regain her sanity. A good play, and even though this is my second read, perhaps it bears even further investigation.

[read twice]

four stars

Tuesday, May 31, 1994

Thank You, Jeeves

by P.G. Wodehouse

In which Jeeves leaves Bertie because the latter insists on playing the banjolele.  Rifts between two couples and a pair of kids ensue, and a business deal crumbles, all with B. in the middle and blamed for a good half — but it all turns out right in the end.  A comic gem.

Monday, April 25, 1994

Good Omens

by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Two respected authors, one in the realm of satirical fantasy, one in the realm of dream-like inspirational fantasy. Very funny, with educated, high-brow black humor. Not as brilliant as a Sandman comic, but enjoyable.

Saturday, April 16, 1994

The Greek Passion

by Nikos Kazantzakis
translated by Jonathan Griffin

An allegory for the death of Christ. Very Kazantzakian - full of pious sinners, unrepentant whores, sex, violence (two priests wrestle, very graphically, at one point), terrifying divine revelations, and so on. I liked it a lot. The Agha (a.k.a. the Pilate) was a great character. Again, Kazantzakis stresses the variety of paths that God stretches before us martyrdom, asceticism, domestic comfort – all, perhaps, equally valid.

four stars

Tuesday, March 15, 1994

Mississippi Solo

by Eddy L. Harris

In his first travel adventure, Harris goes down the Mississippi, from Lake Itasca to the sea, in a canoe. It was very good, although not up to par with his later two books. The style was patchy and the narration overall was barer than Native Stranger's – less description, less musing and philosophical reflection. Nevertheless, an engrossing and exciting book, if only because of the description of the feat itself.

three stars

Tuesday, March 8, 1994

The Zap Gun

by Philip K. Dick

This was like a lot of PKD books - many names; many characters, almost all with Dick's education and interests; some bad writing; some good writing; a demented, convoluted plot.  This book was even more convoluted than most: (a) there are weapons designers for East and West, who get weapons from trances; (b) the weapons are not real, due to a secret agreement; (c) a real nut, a weapons fanatic (who like all civilians thinks the weapons are real) is appointed to the government; (d) alien satellites begin to take Earth cities; (e) an obscure comic book contains East & West's weapons' sketches (this phenomenon never explained); (f) an ancient "war vet" is found who seems to be from the war with the aliens, which just started.  Anyway, I enjoyed it for what it was, familiar as I am with Dick's themes and obsessions.  It contained passages clearly the same as some PKD stories: "War Game," "War Vet" and "Beyond Lies the Wub."

two stars

Sunday, March 6, 1994

Three Men In a Boat

by Jerome K. Jerome

Three rather lackadaisical friends decide to take a boat trip down the Thames, only to run into some rather amusing adventures. I liked this book quite a bit. It started out incredibly funny, a laugh a line, then became anecdotal, only slightly interesting to me. When Jerome started adding in history factoids, seemingly just to show off, it got tiresome. And he didn't follow up on the characters he established at the beginning, just linked one story to another. However, though it bordered on boring at times, the humor and stylish tone lasted. The high-minded yet clueless tone of the narrator clearly influenced P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie.

four stars

Tuesday, January 11, 1994

South Of Haunted Dreams

by Eddy L. Harris

Another travel book by Harris, a black author, this time about a motorcycle trip through the U.S. South. I thought it was almost as good as Native Stranger. It was told with the same poetic description, the same raw honesty. He shows great skill as a writer by arranging his experiences and thoughts in such a way as to form a novel-like construction, with buildup, climax and denouement, even though it is (for the most part, certainly) non-fiction. The pure honesty of Harris' presentation & the depth of his thought made this book no disappointment.

four stars