A book lush with beautiful, writhing, "wantoning" phrases about the awakening of a 13-year-old girl's sensuality in Egypt (She has a crush on a makerA book lush with beautiful, writhing, "wantoning" phrases about the awakening of a 13-year-old girl's sensuality in Egypt (She has a crush on a maker of exotic perfumes. When she grows up, she'll make a career out of dissecting mummies.). It creates an atmosphere of crushed rose petals and The Arabian Nights to "flood the soul with beauty," and speaks in essence of love and transformation.
Quotes: "...the city of Cairo gave way to a forest of the mind. A forest where female animals offered themselves to love and in broad daylight were mounted before the eyes of the world."
"My body was so new it was forever; it was so smooth the eye could not catch hold of it but only glide from limb to limb."
"Love...is the Universe's soul — indissoluble and indestructible."
"...it is the imaging mind that makes the world intelligible, and nothing animates the imagination as does love. It is love that makes us human, spontaneous and thoughtful. It is the highest bond and greatest good. The world and all its forms belong to Eros, and when everything is ended love will persist."
Pairs well with Tom Robbin's Jitterbug Perfume (for themes doused with scent) ...more
A pleasant read with deceptively simple storytelling that poses some big questions. (I'm reviewing this on my second read of the book. The first time,A pleasant read with deceptively simple storytelling that poses some big questions. (I'm reviewing this on my second read of the book. The first time, I breezed through it, set it aside and then was surprised how it lingered. This time, I gave it a closer read.)
The narrator Dorrit Weger describes life in a world where at age 50, for women, and 60, for men, people who have not had children or made "needed" attachments become "dispensable." They are moved to group homes where they take part in research experiments and then donate organs (until their final gift) for the benefit of society.
The story takes place in the utopian confines of the dispensable Unit, a windowless luxury shopping mall where everything is free and Dorrit is free to spend her time eating, exercising, writing, and forming loving relationships with the other dispensables. There's exploration, not action. Our protagonist is passive, partly how she became dispensable.
At the same time, she's threatened by a sinister dystopia, imprisoned by distant laws and bureaucracy, and under constant surveillance. Over time, dispensables sicken and display the wounds of the experiments they must take part it. Dorrit's friends disappear as they make their final donations. The dispensable are constantly aware that their worth lies in their monetary value to their more "needed" counterparts in outside world. Their lives, attachments, arts, and pleasures have no value otherwise.
Far from being didactic, the novel lends itself to interpretation and offers itself up for questioning. Recommended for book clubs.
Pairs well with: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Some questions: What are the pros and cons of democratic capitalism? What are the pros and cons of socialism? What are our responsibilities to participate in the political structure of society? What are our expectations for life in a democracy? What freedoms do we expect? What are the consequences/results when we choose not to participate? How do we measure our value? Others? Which relationships do we value personally? As a society? (partners, children, siblings, co-workers, employers, animal companions) Who is needed in our society? Who do we treat as dispensable, and why? What do we value in our own lives? Others? What cultural expectations/roles do we conform to in society? (Gender roles? Feminism? Employment? Family structure?) What cultural expectations/roles do we push back against in society? Why? Are we passive or active in our lives/relationships/society? What justifications do we make?
"But despite the fact that I'd let the house get so run down...at least it was my very own home, my sanctuary, a place over which I and no one else had control, where my dog could run free and I could work in peace most of the time..."
"I suppose I used to believe that my life belonged to me...Something that was entirely at my disposal, something no one else had any claim on, or the right to have an opinion on. But I've changed my mind. I don't own my life at all, it's other people who own it...those who safeguard growth and democracy and welfare, they're the ones who own my life. They own everyone's life. And life is capital. A capital that is to be divided fairly among the people in a way that promotes reproduction and growth, welfare and democracy. I am only a steward, taking care of my vital organs."
"Partly because we live in a democracy, and freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of democracy; without freedom of expression it would collapse. Therefore it is unthinkable to destroy literary or artistic works because the content does not agree with the norms and values of society."
"Life and existence have no value in themselves. We mean nothing; not even those who are needed mean anything. The only thing of any real value is what we produce."
"That's all it was, the dream was just Jock and me and the stick and the beach and the sea and the sky and time passing by, and that was all, there was nothing else. And that was happiness."
"But there are no forbidden values. Anyone who lives in a democracy has the right to wish for whatever they want, and to express any views and feeling whatsoever, as long as these do not offend, threaten or persecute." ...more
An elegant story that draws the reader in — Ursula K. Le Guin's homage to Vergil's epic poem Aeneid told, in the point of view of a woman barely mentiAn elegant story that draws the reader in — Ursula K. Le Guin's homage to Vergil's epic poem Aeneid told, in the point of view of a woman barely mentioned in the poem, with deceptively effortless (researched and honed) prose.
The story touches on themes similar to Le Guin's far more experimental book, Always Coming Home (which creates an entire history and folklore for an invented people as well as contains a narrative). It explores feminine and masculine/peace and war, in a pastoral, pagan setting and meditates on life/love and death.
"...it's not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry." — Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin
"What is left after death? Everything else. The sun a man saw rise goes down though he does not see it set. A woman sits down to the weaving another woman left in the room." — Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin
"As often as we made love I remembered what my poet told me, that this man was born of goddess, the force that moves the stars and the waves of the sea and couples the animals in the fields in spring, the power of passion, the light of the evening star." — Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin
"I felt that night that to have known such fulfillment was to be, in some part of my being, forever safe from absolute despair, from the ruin of the soul. Joy my shield." Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin
Pairs well with: Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (2005), Always Coming Home (1985) (the Book of Honor at Potlatch 18, the 2009 literary convention) ...more
In Defense of Dolphins contains some fun facts about dolphins who are aquatic, auditory, emotional, interconnected, highly-social, intelligent nonhumaIn Defense of Dolphins contains some fun facts about dolphins who are aquatic, auditory, emotional, interconnected, highly-social, intelligent nonhuman beings. Dolphins have spherical brains and have been around in their modern form for more than 10 million years (compared with 5 million years for humans and just 100,000 for homo sapiens). They can share auditory information with each other in a way that would be akin to humans being able to "... see what something looked like through someone's else's eyes." and this may give them a shared and interconnected sense of self, explaining why they opt to remain in a group rather than escape as individuals — if this is made possible — when trapped in tuna nets.
It also offers some interesting speculations: What would humans be like if we had evolved in the water without tools and hands? What if human intelligence were assessed by dolphin standards (with an emphasis on social, emotional, auditory interactions)? How would we stack up?
"We might say that, in the ocean, nature may select for specialists in relationships not tools — for emotional sophistication perhaps more than for cognitive sophistication."
The key idea here is that dolphins are intelligent in a way that is different from humans, best described as "alien" intelligence (per marine scientist Diana Reiss), and therefore, dolphins are ethically entitled to treatment as individuals. White provides some science and research to support a perspective expressed in Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979).
"It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — while all that dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reasons."
To anyone predisposed to imagine that dolphins may be intelligent in ways that are different from humans, there isn't much surprising here. Rather than delving into an understanding of dolphin intelligence, this book skims the surface. In large part, this is because White (while often using terms familiar to the animal rights movement: sentient-ism, speciesism, and anthropocentric bias) makes a strategic decision to address this book to skeptics rather than people who might already be familiar with the concept of respecting nonhuman intelligences (readers of works by philosophers and ethicists Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer, for example.) White's premise is that the case for dolphin intelligence is so strong as to convince even someone resistant to the idea that nonhumans can think, and once so convinced, anyone will naturally understand the necessity of treating dolphins with the same moral code — do no harm — accorded any human individual.
Quote-tastic "What one likes most about the universe is its wild improbability."
"People, he was beginning to understand, are at once the beneficiariesQuote-tastic "What one likes most about the universe is its wild improbability."
"People, he was beginning to understand, are at once the beneficiaries and the victims of their culture."
"I do muscular work, because I have muscles; and if I don't use my muscles I shall become a bad-tempered sitting addict."
"What do you say to people who are dying?...We help them to go on practicing the art of living even while they're dying. Knowing who in fact one is, being conscious of the universal and impersonal life that lives itself through each of us — that's the art of living, and that's what one can help the dying to go on practicing. To the very end. Maybe beyond the end."
"What heavenly lusciousness, what a supermango!"...more
By general awareness, one expects a bit of history and many battle scenes of this famously long 19th century classic by Russian author Leo Tolstoy.
WarBy general awareness, one expects a bit of history and many battle scenes of this famously long 19th century classic by Russian author Leo Tolstoy.
War and Peace (1869) delivers this as it relates the historical clash between Napoleon and Czar Alexander I, although the battle scenes don't come into full force until the second half of the book when Napolean invades Moscow. Much of the opening of the novel concerns itself with Russian society. There's dancing, drinking, and card games. It's romantic and sentimental in the fashion of novels of the era.
A novel of this length and breadth (it is subdivided into four books and two epilogues) requires a patient reader. In time, however, it becomes clear why War and Peace remains read and remembered. Tolstoy describes human emotions and attributes with marvelous precision. He depicts our most personal struggles and quests with tension and clarity. He makes them as arresting as a wolf hunt.
War and Peace addresses great universal themes. A third of the way into the novel, the protagonist, Pierre Bezukhovs, a naive, easily-manipulated youth, encounters the Freemasons and begins to address, on a spiritual level, the feelings of aimlessness and restlessness that plague him.
Through the character of Bezukhovs, Tolstoy asks, "What is the aim of life?" and provides an answer: Love.
In War and Peace, love emanates from battlefields and ballrooms, "Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly." Various characters at various points in the book express love of life.
Finally, after being taken a prisoner of war and suffering hardship, Bezukhovs arrives at the answer on his own, "Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source."
Once he arrives at this conclusion, Bezukhovs undergoes a transformation. Finding this answer changes his attitude towards people in his life and eases his relationships both personal and political. He begins to relate to people in a loving and non-judgmental way. He realizes, "...the impossibility of changing a man's conviction by words, and the recognition of the possibility of everyone thinking, feeling, and seeing things each from his own point of view." Now, instead of finding other people's behavior frustrating, Bezukhovs approaches adversaries with the sanguine nature of a Buddha. "The difference, and sometimes complete contradiction between men's opinions and their lives, and between one man and another, pleased him and drew from him an amused and gentle smile."
The second epilogue to War and Peace could be read on its own as an essay. It includes a discussion of free will vs. divine will ("Divine will," says Tolstoy) and a debate about history — Is the course of history shaped by the will of the masses or the will of great men? ("The masses," says Tolstoy).
Read this, if you are fated to do so, and for: lots of fun period vocabulary: carabineers, caissons, mazurka, salver, polonaise, sterlet, ecossaise, cambric, caleche, shako, sabretache, quitrent, linstocks, sutlers, snuggery
Pairs well with: George du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby, which also concludes that love is life. The character Trilby embodies the phrase, "All will be forgiven her, for she loved much...," which is also a quote found in War and Peace.
Of note: • Tolstoy's writings influenced Gandhi and nonviolent resistance movements.
• Tolstoy, writing from a Christian perspective, wrote about vegetarianism in "The First Step," a preface to The Ethics of Diet (1883) by Howard Williams. Tolstoy praised the 19th century vegetarian movement, which "...should cause especial joy to those whose life lies in the effort to bring about the kingdom of God on earth, not because vegetarianism is in itself an important step towards that kingdom (all true steps are both important and unimportant), but because it is a sign that the aspiration of mankind toward moral perfection is serious and sincere, for it has taken the one unalterable order of succession natural to it, beginning with the first step."
• In Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, about Dr. Paul Farmer's work providing health care in Haiti, War and Peace is mentioned as an early influence (along with Lord of the Rings) on Farmer. Farmer is co-founder of Partners in Health, which provides health care in some of the world's poorest countries.
In 1894, George Du Maurier, grandfather of writers Angela Du Maurier (Pilgrims by the Way, 1967) and Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, 1938), wrote a book wIn 1894, George Du Maurier, grandfather of writers Angela Du Maurier (Pilgrims by the Way, 1967) and Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, 1938), wrote a book with a villain so memorable his name, Svengali, is still used to describe, per Webster's, "one who attempts usu. with evil intentions to persuade or force another to do his bidding." Du Maurier's novel Trilby also inspired Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910).
However, Svengali doesn't figure largely within the story, which dwells mostly on the life of a young artist and his cadre of friends in bohemian Paris — all highly romanticized.
Take this passage for example, "Oh, happy days and happy nights, sacred to art and friendship! Oh, happy times of careless impecuniosity, and youth and hope and health and strength and freedom — with all Paris for a playground, and its dear old unregenerate Latin Quarter for a workshop, and a home!"
Beneath this over-the-top romanticism lies intent and thematic consistency. At one point, the narrator says, "All this sounds very goody-goody, but it's true."
A euphoric state — a surge of love — permeates the novel, as it meditates on love of art, beauty and humanity, "...love of love, love of life, love of death, love of all that is and ever was and ever will be..." It's also about the characters' love of Trilby, an idealized woman. "One must have something perfect to look up to and be fond of — even if it's too good to be true!" Trilby says upon making peace with her death at the end of the novel.
The story forwards some ideas about equality (across lines of class and gender) that were probably ahead of its time and remain applicable today. At the same time, it contains some jolting racism.
For hospice workers: The novel ends with an idyllic description of the death of a beloved character. Trilby prepares for her death at home with all of her friends around her. They visit daily, read her stories, listen to her recollections, and help her dictate her will, realize she is dying, and make peace with her death. Near death, "...Trilby lay tranquil and happy, and with a sense that nothing remained for her but to enjoy the fleeting hour, and make the most of each moment as it went by."
Pairs well with:The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux and Stagestruck Vampires and Other Phantasms by Suzy McKee Charnas, particularly the story, "Beauty and the Opera". ...more
Influenced by utopian exploration, Calvino's Invisible Cities, offers an unusual creative approach, the traveler Marco Polo visits several cities andInfluenced by utopian exploration, Calvino's Invisible Cities, offers an unusual creative approach, the traveler Marco Polo visits several cities and recounts his adventures to Kubali Khan.
In the end, "The Great Khan's atlas contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoe, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria." Khan also looks to explore "...the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World."...more