In the beginning, reading Anna Karenin can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time. You’ve heard a lot about the place before you go. Muc...moreIn the beginning, reading Anna Karenin can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time. You’ve heard a lot about the place before you go. Much of what you see from the bus you recognize from pictures and movies and books. You can’t help but think of the great writers and artists who have been here before you. You expect to like it. You want to like it. But you don’t want to feel like you have to like it. You worry a little that you won’t. But after a few days, you settle in, and you feel the immensity of the place opening up all around you. You keep having this experience of turning a corner and finding something beautiful that you hadn’t been told to expect or catching sight of something familiar from a surprising angle. You start to trust the abundance of the place, and your anxieties that someone else will have eaten everything up before your arrival relax. (Maybe that simile reveals more about me than I’d like.)
My favorite discovery was the three or four chapters (out of the book’s 239) devoted to, of all things, scythe mowing—chapters that become a celebratory meditation on physical labor. When I read those chapters, I felt temporarily cured of the need to have something “happen” and became as absorbed in the reading as the mowers are absorbed in their work. Of course, the book is about Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty and Dolly and poor, stupid Stepan Arkadyich. It’s about their love and courtship and friendship and pride and shame and jealousy and betrayal and forgiveness and about the instable variety of happiness and unhappiness. But it’s also about mowing the grass and arguing politics and hunting and working as a bureaucrat and raising children and dealing politely with tedious company. To put it more accurately, it’s about the way that the human mind—or, as Tolstoy sometimes says, the human soul—engages each of these experiences and tries to understand itself, the world around it, and the other souls that inhabit that world. This book is not afraid to take up any part of human life because it believes that human beings are infinitely interesting and infinitely worthy of compassion. And, what I found stirring, the book’s fearlessness extends to matters of religion. Tolstoy takes his characters seriously enough to acknowledge that they have spiritual lives that are as nuanced and mysterious as their intellectual lives and their romantic lives. I knew to expect this dimension of the book, but I could not have known how encouraging it would be to dwell in it for so long.
In the end, this is a book about life, written by a man who is profoundly in love with life. Reading it makes me want to live.
“Shahrazad turned to King Shahrayar and said, ‘May I have your permission to tell a story?’ He replied, ‘Yes,’ and Shahrazad was very happy and said,...more“Shahrazad turned to King Shahrayar and said, ‘May I have your permission to tell a story?’ He replied, ‘Yes,’ and Shahrazad was very happy and said, “Listen”:
Of all of the world’s story collections, surely The Arabian Nights has the best framing device—the best fictional pretext by which to justify the telling of the other stories. I mean the story of Shahrazad (as this text transliterates her name), the daughter of the vizier to King Shahrayar. Bitter over his first wife’s betrayal, Shahrayar decides that he will avenge himself on womankind by marrying a different woman every night and having her killed in the morning. As the tally of victims rises, the vizier, who has been charged with procuring these wives from among the daughters of the kingdom’s princes, becomes more and more desperate until one day Shahrazad herself volunteers to marry the king and stubbornly refuses to be dissuaded by her father. On the night of her nuptials, Shahrazad begins to tell Shahrayar a story to while away the hours until dawn when she will be killed. When the sun rises before she can complete the tale, the king decides to spare her until the next night so that he can find out whether a demon kills the merchant against whom he has raised his sword. And so begins the endless series of narrative delays and nesting of tales by which the storyteller manages to make herself indispensable to the tyrannical king—and so too begins the tyrannical king’s education in empathy as he listens to tales of justice and injustice, of fidelity and betrayal, of statecraft and misrule. Some of the tales have more artistry than others.
Some are sentimental. Some seem intended merely to titillate. To my mind, no single tale lives up to the best of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are roughly contemporary to these. Still, the power of the Nights is cumulative in the way of good refrains. Again and again, we are told, “But morning overcame Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence”—only to have the tale taken up again the next night. These lapses and interruptions invest even the silliest tales with gravity, reminding us that all art is an appeal against our common death sentence, a plucky assertion of the meaningfulness of human experience against the overwhelming evidence that we are powerless and disposable. What could possibly have motivated Shahrazad, the safest of all the kingdom’s virgins, to put her body in the tyrant’s bed? One can only call it love, terrifying as it is to invoke that word: love for the victims that led her to love their killer and to gamble her life on the humanity of his heart.
Though a translator’s note informs us that “tradition has it” Shahrazad bears Shahrayar three children and somewhere along the way earns enough trust to have her death sentence lifted, the tales where never finished by their original author—whoever that may have been. Later editors have felt free to add material, including many of the tales we most commonly associate with the Nights: Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Ali Babba and the Forty Thieves. Husain Haddawy leaves these out of his translation, following the editorial choices of Muhsin Mahdi, whose fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript is the earliest one we have. The fascinating history of the text and of its translation into Western languages is thoroughly documented in Haddawy’s introduction—convincingly enough to persuade me that I’m in the hands of a good translator as I read. (less)
It's sort of weird that I've never read this book before. Having grown up with an English teacher for a fath...more(my thanks to Rich for the Christmas gift)
It's sort of weird that I've never read this book before. Having grown up with an English teacher for a father, I've known the story of Beowulf ever since I watched an 8mm film project one of his students made, the chief special effect of which involved flushing a yearbook photo of the boy who played Beowulf down the toilet in order to simulate the hero's diving into the haunted mere. I've known about John Gardner's retelling of the story from the monster's perspective since studying the Anglo-Saxon epic in high school. I've been teaching Beowulf almost every year since Heaney came out with his translation, and every year I've thought of reading Grendel, but for some reason I hadn't until this year.
The problem with reading a book that you've been hearing about for twenty years is that you think you already know what it's going to say. And maybe one of the reasons I'd never got around to reading Grendel is that I was afraid it would turn out to be one of those by now trite demonstrations that all monsters are really just the misunderstood victims of the majority's prejudice. Since Gardner came out with his book, there is almost no literary monster--from the big bad wolf to the wicked witch of the west--who hasn't had her case re-examined and the evidence against her overturned.
But Gardner's Grendel is more than just a victim pleading for our sympathy. His sense of alienation has passed beyond blame to a kind of existential indifference that is more like Camus' Stranger than the Cookie Monster. The result is an enemy who is no less frightening for his being rendered more human. In fact, everything becomes more frightening: King Hrothgar, heroic Beowulf, the relentless progress of a barbaric civilization. Such depiction doesn't so much turn Beowulf inside out as reveal what has always been implicit in this most pessimistic of epics: the relentless way in which violence begets itself, the sense that chthonic forces hover ever at the margins where the firelight fades into darkness, the understanding that enemies are complicit in creating one another.
This last insight seems particularly relevant in our current context: a lesson for presidents and political rivals and archbishops alike to consider.(less)
Although Borg makes clear in the epilogue that he's offering this reading of the Gospels as a rebuttal to America's religious right, he takes great pa...moreAlthough Borg makes clear in the epilogue that he's offering this reading of the Gospels as a rebuttal to America's religious right, he takes great pains in the text to present his argument with humility and fairness. Public commentators of all stripes could learn a lot about civil discourse from his example, but what is more important is his argument itself. Borg is an articulate and imaginative reader who brings to the New Testament a long career as an historian as well as a heart shaped by a lifetime of belief. He's at his most interesting when distinguishing between the historical context in which Jesus lived and the slightly different context in which the Gospels were written a generation or more later. Borg's Jesus is a first-century Jewish mystic who, experiencing God as all-compassionate and just, opposed the hierarchical purity laws of the Pharisees and the political oppression of the Roman Empire, as imposed by the empire's proxies, the Temple authorities. That is, he sees Jesus as both a religious and a political figure, but one with a political agenda almost entirely opposite that of the current political movement being conducted in his name. Borg side-steps a few of the stickier dogmatic issues (like the Incarnation) but finds agile ways of blending some his own metaphoric readings of the Gospels (for example, the Resurrection stories) with the more traditional literal reading of the text. My sense is that he's probably right about most things, and that, where he's wrong, he's wrong more often by omission than contradiction. The Gospels, after all, belong to that rare company of narratives that have proven, after generations of reading, inexhaustibly rich in meaning and inspiration. Borg does us all a great service by dusting them off and demanding that we look again.(less)
Like so many other things that I've been reading lately, Aeschylus's trilogy is concerned with human beings thrown into the crucible of extremest inte...moreLike so many other things that I've been reading lately, Aeschylus's trilogy is concerned with human beings thrown into the crucible of extremest intensity, pressured from every direction my conflicting obligations, driven to violent action and violent remorse. Few poets are as willing as Aeschylus to stare into the profound darkness of human suffering and name the curse that seems to hold us to the wheel of our own violence. Yet, even fewer are ultimately as hopeful about the possibility of our breaking that wheel, of our suffering a way through to wisdom and truth. In this way, Aeschylus is a religious poet who believes in redemptive sacrifice. And by placing his faith in the power of civic institutions to domesticate the chthonic forces of our souls and turn them toward public service, he is also a political poet. At a time when it is hard for poets to be either of these things, a time when our families and our politics seem equally bound up in sterile cycles of fear and retribution, Aeschylus may have much to teach.(less)
My brother Mike described this as the only book I've ever given him that he didn't like. I can understand why: lots of literary references, lots of in...moreMy brother Mike described this as the only book I've ever given him that he didn't like. I can understand why: lots of literary references, lots of in-jokes for English majors, graduate students, and anyone who's ever suffered through a course in literary theory. But I'm all of those things, and as I read Small Word through for the second time--this time in preparation to teach it at the end of my British Lit class--I found myself liking it even more than I did the first time. It's more than just a very funny satire on the pretensions of literary geeks; it's also a cleverly plotted, semi-allegorical critique of love, Romance, and sex, as well as a lucid primer on the very critical theories whose self-important adherents it mocks. It has its flaws, of course. All satire can get cartoonish at times, but I'm disappointed by the xenophobia with which the book surrenders to the most superficial stereotyping in order to depict its non-anglophone characters--the German critic is a Nazi, the French critic a lizard-like homosexual, the Japanese translator a humorless, mechanistic stiff who sings karaoke. English, Irish and American characters do not escape mockery, of course, but they tend to be depicted with more sympathy, their vices more charming than repugnant. Persse McGarrigle, the virgin Irish poet whose romantic quest drives the novel's plot, remains irretrievably (and delightfully) naive from beginning to end, playing Candide in the conferences and dupe in the bedroom. I identify with him less than I did on my first reading. This time, I find myself liking Morris Zapp and Philip Swallow. For all their infantile self-importance and infidelity, each emerges from his experiences chastened and restored to humanity. The book ends comically--all marriages and reunions. And the marriage between Philip and Hilary Swallow--the fragile, at times tediously mundane cohabitation that is the subject of some of the novel's least funny, most poignant scenes--somehow emerges as normative. Joy isn't elsewhere as the young or would-be-young imagine it--somewhere one must fly to in a never-ending quest--but at home with the windows open, letting the breeze blow in.(less)
Nearly all of these stories are about men who are bewildered by the complexity of sexual relationships and the weirdness of gender identity in an unst...moreNearly all of these stories are about men who are bewildered by the complexity of sexual relationships and the weirdness of gender identity in an unstable world: men whose careers are falling apart, cowboys and astronauts who aren't sure what to do with themselves, boys whose fantasies come true in ways that only reveal how unprepared they are for intimate relationships. Everyone is sexually abnormal in ways that make them vulnerable. Everyone is wounded and sad in ways that make human connection nearly impossible. Yet some of the best stories are poignantly funny. "Cowboy Pile" pretends to a kind of documentary investigation of the phenomenon of cowboys' piling on top of one another, motivated by a kind of machismo that doubles as an existentialist engagement with absurdity. The title story catalogs the effects of whatever mysterious forces are breaking up the marriages of even the most modern, gender-reconstructed couples. Maybe the paradox about relationships that Molina is exploring is best summed up by the teenage narrator of "Privacy, Love, Loneliness," a boy whose girlfriend likes him because he's different, but who is afraid that if she saw how different he is--how fucked up, he says--she wouldn't find it so charming: "We got silly and started playing that game--rock, scissors, paper... I told her that I liked what this game said about things, namely, that all power was relative... After a while, I suggested that we play a variation: privacy, love, loneliness. Privacy excludes love, love beats loneliness, loneliness pries open privacy, since if you got too lonely you'd be willing to give up some of your privacy." The stories play out just about every variation of these forces. Even when they end comically, they aren't very comforting. As if love were a game you might win sometimes but that you could never get good at.(less)
The first of the poems in Thom Gunn’s Collected to really knock me out appears half way through his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). In the...moreThe first of the poems in Thom Gunn’s Collected to really knock me out appears half way through his second book, The Sense of Movement (1957). In the poem, “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” Gunn pays homage to his former teacher with a portrait of the Stanford professor that compares his training of Airedale terriers—an activity that requires “boxer’s vigilance and poet’s rigour”—to his life as a scholar who must
…keep both Rule and Energy in view, Much power in each, most in the balanced two: Ferocity existing in the fence Built by an exercised intelligence.
The poem is Augustan in its form, Latinate in its diction, and philosophic in its argument, yet it feels warm and humane throughout. In this respect, the poem reminds me of Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”—another homage to a public intellectual. Like Auden’s, Gunn’s poem is elegiac. Though Winters would not die for another thirteen years, Gunn is already aware that “night is always close, complete negation/ Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion.” The poem knows that the mind is as mortal as the body and so turns for its consolation to teaching: the dissatisfied urge to “raise from the excellent the better still.”
It is all the more moving to me then that some of the last great poems of the collection are elegies to Charlie Hinkle, one of Gunn’s graduate students, who died of AIDS in the late 1980’s. Written in the same iambic pentameter couplets in which he wrote “To Yvor Winters, 1955”—and so many of his other long meditations—“The J Car” also mourns the loss of a great mind, one that must suffer the knowledge that “he would not write the much-conceived/ Much-hoped-for work now.” But the bulk of the poem’s attention is on the body, on the life of sensations that dissipates slowly with the body’s diminishment. Gunn describes meals he shared with his friend in the last year of his life, meals during which “the connection between life and food/ Had briefly seemed so obvious if so crude.” He notes the painful contrast between his friend’s sickness and his own health, including such details as “I’d eat his dessert” as if shy of presenting his visits in a saintly light, yet he doesn’t let the narrative tip into self-indulgent assertions of guilt either. In a similar display of tact, he steers away from the emotional traps inherent in elegy, mourning his friend without idealizing him, achieving a tone to match his friend’s taste for food like Sauerbraten “In which a sourness and dark richness meet.”
[click on the first comment on this review for the last paragraph](less)
"At dusk the sky turned blood red and his sister took him out walking along the outer edge of the barracks to watch the sun go down over the mountains...more"At dusk the sky turned blood red and his sister took him out walking along the outer edge of the barracks to watch the sun go down over the mountains. 'Look. Look away. Look. Look away.' That, she told him, was the proper way to look at the sun. If you stared at it straight on for too long, you'd go blind" (65).
This novel about a family's exile to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II is artful in the way it manages emotion by looking at and looking away from intensely painful experience. Incidents are few as their days of tedium go by, but the imagery is rich, the language taut in a way that sustains the narrative's drama. Ultimately, this is a book about restraint. The longer that restraint goes on, the more one feels the agonizing power of everything that's being held back.(less)
I think this is one of the best books of literary criticism I've ever read, a nearly overwhelming demonstration of Helen Vendler's powers as a reader,...moreI think this is one of the best books of literary criticism I've ever read, a nearly overwhelming demonstration of Helen Vendler's powers as a reader, which are primarily the powers of imaginative identification. Perhaps the reason Helen Vendler reads Keats so well is that she reads as Keats wrote, immersed in that famous negative capability that allows reader or writer to be not herself but the other, the object of her contemplation. To Vendler, this means primarily reading the poem along the line as if one were writing it and asking at every moment of choice, Why would I do it this way and not another? If I am Keats, why am I writing an ode? Why am I rhyming these particular words? Why am I listing these adjectives in this particular order? etc. Of course, she does not plague us with cheesy rhetorical questions as I am doing here but dazzles us with the insights such investigations yield. This is the closest kind of reading--not the invasive closeness of the detective with his magnifying glass, looking for clues by which to convict or acquit, but an intimate sympathy with the lyric speaker, letting oneself think with another's language for a while.
If the literary imagination I'm praising sounds too mystic, know that Vendler's is backed up by an immense amount of hard research, the most interesting of which is her deep familiarity with what Keats himself read (a familiarity made possible by the Houghton Library's ownership of Keats's personal library). In ode after ode, she traces words and phrases and syntactical constructions back to Milton, to Spenser, to Dryden's translations of the Georgics, and, of course, to Shakespeare, supporting her claims of influence with reference to underlinings and marginalia in his books.
Ultimately her book makes the argument that, taken in the order that she chooses more for narrative convenience than logic, the odes form a kind of sequence through which Keats more and more courageously refined his ideas about art and the artist's relationship to the mortal world. While I find I can't take the sequence theory literally, the effect of the argument is undeniable. By the time she reaches her sixty-page explication of "To Autumn," she has laid the groundwork for understanding that poem as the culmination of every concern on Keats's mind in that last year of his career as a poet, everything that he had to master in order to achieve the almost rippleless equanimity that plays across the surface of that poem. I can't imagine putting down her book at the end without the conviction of having experienced more deeply and felt more fully than ever what must undoubtedly be among the richest and most beautiful poems in our language.
It is as if I had never really understood before what it means to read.(less)
I bought this book three or four years ago for a graduate course I was taking on Wilde and Joyce. For that class, we read mostly Wilde's criticism (th...moreI bought this book three or four years ago for a graduate course I was taking on Wilde and Joyce. For that class, we read mostly Wilde's criticism (the dialogues "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist I & II"). Studying these and seeing Wilde's influence on Joyce helped shake me from the opinion that Wilde was clever but shallow and to see him as a canny and restless subversive. Still, as I read his major plays this winter (trying to pick one for the Brit Lit course) and reread The Picture of Dorian Gray (in order to put it on the extra credit list), I found I still can't quite get my mind around Wilde—can't settle the question of why his work fascinates and disturbs me while remaining ever beyond my endorsement. I love to cheer on his swashbuckling satire of Victorian self-satisfaction, narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy (and wish we had a latter-day Wilde to counter our new Victorians). But I can never find a norm to stand on in his work. I find certain ideas of Aestheticism compelling—for instance, the effort to disentangle art from a slavish relationship to moral norms—but, practiced in the form of Dandyism, it seems as ridiculous to me as Philistinism. Still, I find that Wilde's work pricks at my own complacency, that I can't read him without laughing at myself and without brooding over the world's almost unbearable insanity. The dissatisfaction that I can't quite articulate is part of why I find myself coming back to read him again.(less)
I loved Don Paterson's earlier collection, Landing Light, when I first heard him read in 2005. So I was eager to dive into this latest volume of poems...moreI loved Don Paterson's earlier collection, Landing Light, when I first heard him read in 2005. So I was eager to dive into this latest volume of poems in forms that range from sonnet to haiku, poems in Scots dialect, and poems adapted from Spanish, French and Chinese (among others). Here, again, are the pliable rhythms and the searing intellect I've learned to expect from Paterson, this time in a darker key. This volume is loaded with elegy and metaphysical anxiety in the tradition of Larkin's "Aubade." It's sad and sobering and steady. And really quite beautiful. I especially like some of the longer poems, but here's a short translation I'm fond of:
On this wine-bowl beaten from the purest silver, made for Herakleides' white-walled home where everything declares his perfect taste — I've placed a flowering olive and a river, and at its heart, a beautiful young man who will let water cool his naked foot forever. O memory: I prayed to you that I might make his face just as it was. What a labour that turned out to be. He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago.
**spoiler alert** I take a certain satisfaction in completing this volume as it means I've now read all of the Salinger work that remains in print; bu...more**spoiler alert** I take a certain satisfaction in completing this volume as it means I've now read all of the Salinger work that remains in print; but I must admit that this is the least satisfying volume out there. Both novellas re-examine Seymour Glass, the character Salinger created in his 1948 short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and whom, in these later Midrashim, he seems desperate to defend from subsequent criticism.
"Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" is by far the better of the two stories. The charm and brilliance of Salinger's Nine Stories flash out intermittently as Buddy Glass, Seymour's younger brother, tells the story of Seymour's wedding day (the title is taken from H. T. Wharton's translation of one of Sappho's epithalamia), a day Buddy spends locked in debate with Muriel's angry matron of honor over Seymour's suitability as a husband. There's a narrative here, but it's largely an exercise in obliquity (neither Seymour nor Muriel appear directly) and an excuse to fill in background anecdotes about the ill-fated couple. Though parts of Seymour's diary render beautifully the sensitive artist-perfectionist's doomed effort to love, in Muriel, the imperfect ordinariness of the world, I couldn't help but feel that these were ultimately just instructions on how to read "...Bananafish." As in that story--and in Catcher in the Rye--the enemy is psychoanalysis, the fashionable pseudo-science that labels the emotionally precocious seers of the world neurotic and sets out to make them normal in a world where normalcy is the real insanity. Here is Seymour's account of his meeting with Muriel's mother's analyst (a gloss, perhaps, on Holden's encounter with Mr. Antolini): "...he seemed to feel that I have a perfection complex of some kind. Much talk from him, and quite intelligent, on the virtues of living the imperfect life, of accepting one's own and others' weaknesses. I agree with him, but only in theory. I'll champion indiscrimination till doomsday, on the ground that it leads to health and a kind of very real, enviable happiness. Followed purely it's the way of the Tao, and undoubtedly the highest way. But for a discriminating man to achieve this, it would mean that he would have to dispossess himself of poetry, go beyond poetry. That is, he couldn't possibly learn or drive himself to like bad poetry in the abstract, let alone equate it with good poetry. He would have to drop poetry all together. I said it would be no easy thing to do. Dr. Sims said I was putting it too stringently--putting it, he said, as only a perfectionist would. Can I deny that?" (86-7). As Buddy Glass struggles, as both a narrator and a debater, to defend his brother, it becomes clearer and clearer that the real spiritual center of the story is supposed to be the happy old deaf-mute (shades of Holden again) who leaves only an empty glass and a cigar butt as evidence of his existence. In the end, the blank page is held out as the most eloquent of explanations.
Still, in "Seymour: an Introduction," Buddy goes to the page again to try to explain his older, smarter, nicer, more saintly brother to us--this time without even the pretense of any narrative save that of the writer's own story of trying to write about his emotionally burdensome topic. Just as Holden Caulfield blames himself for Allie's death, Buddy is wracked with guilt at surviving Seymour; but while Holden punishes himself and so gains our sympathy, Buddy punishes us with his self-conscious, endlessly over-written prose and so manages to alienate us not only from himself but from Seymour as well. Underneath the torturous surface, the story wants to be a reflection on the relationship among writer, subject and audience, but Salinger spoils it with his reflexive need to respond to his own detractors. He's too anxious to correct misperceptions (Seymour is not gay, alright!?), and in the end it feels like reading a set of rather pushy end-notes to an otherwise subtle and lovely oeuvre. (For Catcher... readers and teachers, here's one nice note to apply to the Radio City kettle drummer and other performers beloved for their nervousness: "'The sage is full of anxiety and indecision in undertaking anything, and so he is always successful.'--Book XXVI, The Texts of Chuang-tzu"(240).)
[On a final, personal note, having disparaged this as the least of Salinger's books, I hasten to add that I will long treasure my own copy for the very kind inscription written in the front cover by the friend who gave it to me for my birthday.](less)
This was a really delightful book with which to start my summer reading: the life story of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the son of minor nobility in eigh...moreThis was a really delightful book with which to start my summer reading: the life story of Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, the son of minor nobility in eighteenth century Italy, who, at the age of twelve, leaves the family table after a fight with his father, climbs a tree, and swears never to set foot on the earth again. Though he never breaks his promise, as he grows up, his reasons for keeping it evolve away from this youthful impetuousness, deepening into a kind of wisdom. On the one hand, the trees are a separate realm, a world of solitude in which, like Robinson Crusoe, he must invent both the material means of his survival and the rules that give his life significance. On the other hand, the trees are no desert island of detachment. By moving from tree to tree, Cosimo can cross first the wall that separates his family from his neighbors and then the boundaries between the (increasingly irrelevant) nobility and the common life of his village. The branching trees that touch one another and the earth they spring from become a metaphor for the fragile interdependence of human society and of all life--though we are reminded early in this twentieth century novel that the great forests of Europe, already dwindling in the eighteenth century, are all but gone now. The tone of the story, narrated with two parts wonder and to one part skepticism by Cosimo's younger, earth-bound brother, blends the exuberance of human freedom and creativity with the pathos of human limitation, perhaps reminding us that our limitations--not just those imposed on us, but those we choose for ourselves and abide by--often aid in the creation of what is most beautiful about our lives.(less)