All reviews copyright 1984-2018 Evelyn C. Leeper.
A DOLL HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/02/2018]
A DOLL'S HOUSE (a.k.a. A DOLL HOUSE) by Henrik Ibsen (translated by Rolf Fjelde) (ISBN 978-0-451-52406-5) is a classic, but it has its flaws. Neither of the two main characters is very likeable, or even very three-dimensional. Character changes happen entirely too quickly. (I suppose they have to, if Ibsen was trying to observe the Aristotelian unities.)
The first thing that everyone comments on (because it is so obvious) is the way Torvald refers to his wife Nora: "my lark," "my squirrel," "the little spendthrift," "my little songbird," "my little Nora," "my stubborn little creature," "you little goose," and "you little helpless thing." He even elaborates on these: "the little lark's wings mustn't droop," "don't be a sulky squirrel," "a songbird needs a clean beak to warble with," and referring to Nora's "frightened dove's eyes." And Nora goes along with this, referring to herself as "your lark" and "your little squirrel," and saying, "I'd be a wood nymph." This isn't a doll house--it's a menagerie.
At the beginning of the play (Christmas Eve) Nora is completely wrapped up in herself, one minute consoling Kristine about her childless widowhood, and the next going on and on about her own wonderful children and Torvald's new job and how rich they are. Even after Kristine talks about having to support herself, Nora suggests that she go off to a spa, indicating that she has not really listened to what Kristine was telling her.
In Nora's first discussion with Krogstad, Krogstad asks whether she ever considered whether she did a fraud against him, and she replies, "I couldn"t let myself by bothered by that. You weren't any concern of mine." (For that matter, when Torvald asked what would happen if they borrowed and then he died and they could not repay their lenders, Nora says, "Them? Who cares about them? They are strangers.") But when she wants something of Krogstad, she asks him to think of her children, and to think of the "horrible unpleasantness" she would face, and so on. She expects that Krogstad should consider her feelings and wishes, even though she has no thought for anyone else's--not even her friend's. What favor Nora does for her friend does not inconvenience her, but their conversation, as noted above, indicates that Nora is completely self-centered. Nora also has no idea of how much of the loan she has paid off. Her clumsy fraud indicates she does not think things through very well at all, but acts impulsively to her own ends. Surely she could have written an earlier date?
Nora also regularly lies to her husband, both before and during the events of the play, even knowing what importance he places on her honesty. She lies about eating macaroons, about who bought the macaroons, about whether Krogstad has been in the house, about the mail, about Torvald's illness, and of course about the loan from Krogstad, and she was also going to lie about why she was asking for Krogstad to be retained. Nora first brags about her influence over Torvald, but when she is asked to use it, completely reverses herself and says she has no influence. Whether she is consciously lying at first, or really believes it until she is called out on it is not clear.
As an aside, it seems as if Ibsen is trying to lay some of the blame on Nora for Krogstad's dismissal, by having Torvald say that he gave Torvald's post to Kristine, so he cannot take Torvald back. But from everything else he says about Krogstad, it is clear that he would have dismissed him anyway, and Kristine's arrival just provided an easy replacement.
Ibsen seems in general very sloppy with his medical details. What kind of illness (that Torvald apparently does not even know about) requires a year in Italy ("the south") to be cured of? But then again, does a son really inherit "tuberculosis of the spine" from a father who acquired it through dissolute living? And does one even acquire "tuberculosis of the spine" for oneself by dissolute living? In GHOSTS, Ibsen has the son inherit syphilis from his father. One might believe that Dr. Rank refers to what he has as tuberculosis to avoid admitting to syphilis, but it still seems as though Ibsen has no concept of how diseases are acquired and transmitted, and seems to buy into the notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. (One attempted explanation, at least for GHOSTS, is that the father passed his disease to his wife, who then passed it on their son. That is, in my opinion, a very weak explanation.))
To return to Nora and Torvald, she asks Torvald to decide what she will wear to the party, but he then also decides she will dance the tarantella. Torvald does not restrain his attempts at control just to Nora (which at least might be understandable in the context of the times), but presumes to tell Kristine she ought to embroider instead of knit. Why? "... because it's a lot prettier" with the needle moving "in an easy, sweeping curve." He goes on, "Knitting--it can never be anything but ugly [with] the arms tucked in, the knitting needles going up and down." That Kristine might prefer knitting or even that she might be able to earn more money from knitting than from embroidering does not matter, or even occur to him; what is important is that his aesthetic sense is not assaulted. (This is parallel to the more modern phenomenon of men telling women whom they do not even know to smile--because that makes the men feel better.)
And then Torvald tops it off by calling Kristine "a deadly bore," when he has exchanged barely a dozen lines with her, monopolized both conversations, and told her she should embroider instead of knit.
Not content with reducing Nora to an animal, he now calls her "my dearest possession," putting her on the same level as his razor and his fountain pen. He finds the idea of "little Nora talking about scientific research" laughable.
And if Nora is completely self-centered at the start of the play, So it Torvald. Nora at least attempts to shield her husband from unpleasantness, but Torvald's reaction to their salvation is to say, "I'm saved!" When Nora asks, "And I?" he says, "You, too, of course," making her sound like a mere adjunct to me and completely forgetting that it was her actions that started this. Torvald is not willing to take the responsibility on himself to save Nora, but he assumes that everyone will focus on him anyway.
And at the end of less than three days, Nora has supposedly undergone a complete transformation from flibbertigibbet to independent woman. This seems awfully sudden.
To order A Doll House from amazon.com, click here.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/28/2007]
And some comments on a film rather than a book: We saw IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON recently, and a few things are worth mentioning:
The decision to change Apollo 8 from an earth orbital to a lunar orbital mission was a last-minute one, made because it was believed that the Russians were planning a lunar orbital mission. As Jim Lovell said, "It was a bold move. It had some risky aspects to it. But it was a time when we made bold moves."
Regarding Kennedy's famous speech. one of the astronauts said that there was a clear and simple mission statement: "Where? The moon. When? By the end of this decade." It would be nice if all corporate mission statements could be this clear.
Today's miracle is tomorrow's commonplace.
Charles Duke said, "My father was born shortly after the Wright brothers. He could barely believe that I went to the moon. But my son Tom was 5--and he didn't think it was any big deal." It sounds as though the astronauts' parents were amazed that twelve men went to the moon; the astronauts' children, that only twelve went.
As ABC News pointed out, of the 12 who walked on the moon's surface, only nine are alive today, and the youngest is 71. The astronauts who took part in this documentary were Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins (who circled the moon but did not walk on it), Jim Lovell (who was on the Apollo 13 flight and hence did not walk on the moon either), Edgar D. Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott, and John Young. Noticeably missing form the documentary was Neil Armstrong. Three "moon-walkers"--Pete Conrad, James Irwin, and Alan Shepard--died before the film was made.
THE SOPRANO STATE: NEW JERSEY'S CULTURE OF CORRUPTION by Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/29/2014]
But apparently all anyone knows about New Jersey is the Sopranos, because we also have THE SOPRANO STATE: NEW JERSEY'S CULTURE OF CORRUPTION by Bob Ingle and Sandy McClure (ISBN 978-0-312-60257-4). Unfortunately, Ingle and McClure blew their credibility with me on page 5. Repeat after me: Dirt does not vote or pay taxes.
Remember the graphic of the United States map showing how much more area voted for Republicans than Democrats? As many people pointed out, dirt does not vote or pay taxes, people do, and the people in the smaller states (such as New Jersey) outnumbered those in the larger states (such as Alaska).
Well, Ingle and McClure have pulled the same trick in this book. They claim that with 19,120 elected officeholders, 154,400 state workers, and 444,000 local employees, New Jersey has an average of 81 government workers per square mile, and that the national average is 6 government workers per square mile. They do add, "Now, New Jersey is the most densely populated of the fifty states, but even so the difference between it and the rest of the country is striking." However, this serves merely to lure the unwary into thinking what they say is true, or meaningful. Let's do the math.
New Jersey has an area of 8723 square miles. Adding up the state and local government workers gives us 598,400, or about 69 per square mile, not 81. Even adding in the elected officeholders as well gives us only 617,620 workers, or 71 per square mile.
Now let's look at government workers as a percentage of the population (a more reasonable measure, I think most people would agree). First we need to get the number of government workers in the United States. The area of the United States is 3,794,000 square miles. Six workers per square mile means there were 22,764,000 government workers in the United States in 2005 (when the book was written).
In 2005, the population of the United States was approximately 300,000,000. Dividing this into 22,764,000 workers gives us 0.076 workers per person. New Jersey had a population of 8,750,000. Dividing this into 617,620 gives us 0.071--less than the national averages!
It may be that New Jersey is as corrupt as Ingle and McClure say. And it may be that the large number of local governmental units is a cause. But the claim that New Jersey is wildly over-stocked with government workers is just not borne out by the numbers.
The rest of the book is a recounting of all the various schemes, conspiracies, and corruptions of state officials in New Jersey. Ingle and McClure do see some bright spots, though. Alas, one of these is the U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie, whom they see as someone who is fearlessly going after corrupt officials. Now, nine years later, after "Bridgegate" and a variety of other less-than-honest doings, this bright spot has dimmed considerably. (In separate articles, Alec MacGillis and Ryan Lizza have detailed Christie's rise to power, including his appointment as U.S. Attorney with absolutely no legal training or judicial background.)
To order The Soprano State from amazon.com, click here.
RHINOCEROS by Eugene Ionesco:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/19/2017]
RHINOCEROS by Eugene Ionesco (ISBN 978-0-802-13098-3) is supposedly a parable of how an entire population can be taken over by a mindless herd instinct, whether it be to become rhinoceroses, Nazis, or Communists. But there are some lines that can be interpreted in quite the reverse. For example. one of the arguments against the rhinoceroses is that humans have moral standards developed through centuries of civilization, and the rhinoceroses don't follow those standards. One of the characters also thinks the rhinoceroses "should be rounded up in a big enclosure." Another objects to the color of the rhinoceroses' skin. The problem is that these arguments are often used against groups that are not Nazis or Communists, but Jews, or immigrants, or homosexuals. It is all well and good to draw parallels to how we often don't recognize dangers to society until it is too late, but we must not fall into the trap of false parallels.
To order Rhinoceros from amazon.com, click here.
THE SKETCH BOOK OF GEOFFREY by Washington Irving:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/16/2018]
The second author in the Great Courses course on American classics was Washington Irving. As was noted in the lecture, Washington Irving wrote a lot that was read in his time, but today he is known for two short stories: "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle", both in THE SKETCH BOOK OF GEOFFREY CRAYON (ISBN 978-0-940-45014-1 [Library of America edition; many cheaper/free versions also available]). Irving is the anti-Hemingway. Where Hemingway is known for his short sentences (his average sentence length is slightly over ten words), Irving starts "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" with:
"In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail, and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market-town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town."
(Okay, this is an atypical sentence, but his average sentence length is still forty words.)
Though the lecturer emphasized Irving's characterizations, I think it is probably true that it is the premise of each story that people remember. And the irony is that these are not very original. The Headless Horseman is a variation on a ghost, perhaps with some inspiration from the legend of the ghost of Anne Boleyn ("With her head tuck'd underneath her arm, she walks the Bloody Tower"). And "Rip Van Winkle" is just a variation on "The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus". But for some reason they have cemented themselves into the mythology of America. Neil Gaiman writes about Old World gods and demons coming to the New World, and many authors have drawn on Native American legends, but the Headless Horseman and Rip Van Winkle are the first United States legends.
To order The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon from amazon.com, click here.
THE MATRIX AND PHILOSOPHY by William Irwin:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/01/2010]
THE MATRIX AND PHILOSOPHY edited by William Irwin (ISBN-13 978-0-8126-9502-1) is good--up to a point. The problem is that the essays pretty much all center on the question of "what is reality?" and after a while seem to be repeating the same ideas over and over. This is part of a series on "[pop culture entity] and philosophy", where the pop culture entity might be a movie, a television show, or a filmmaker. Most of the others seem to provide a broader range of topics, and might not seem as repetitive.
To order The Matrix and Philosophy from amazon.com, click here.
THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/11/2015]
THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro (ISBN 978-0-307-27103-7) is set in a post-Roman Britain. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who wish to visit their son in another village ... or is he? Their memories are fogged, but it is not just age. Everyone seems a little confused about the past, including those that they meet along the way. These include a Saxon warrior, an orphan, and a knight, and all of them have their own goals, which are at times in conflict with each other. Both the warrior and the knight, for example, want to find the dragon that lives nearby, and resent the interference of each other. There is a boatman who seems somewhat out of place, perhaps even otherworldly. And so on.
If this sounds a bit (or a lot) like a fantasy novel, it is. And it is by an author best known for the novel THE REMAINS OF THE DAY--hardly a work of fantasy. Indeed, when THE BURIED GIANT came out, many genre writers assumed that Ishiguro would do what many "mainstream" authors do when they write fantasy: either deny it was fantasy, or claim to have invented a new genre. But Ishiguro surprised them by saying that of course he was writing fantasy, and fantasy in the long tradition of fantasy. (He and Neil Gaiman even had a discussion of fantasy on BBC radio.)
There is more to this than just fantasy, of course, and what Ishiguro is writing about through his premise is something that is very much applicable to the present.
Of course, this was not Ishiguro's first foray into the fantastic--his novel NEVER LET ME GO is basically an alternate history about cloning. Both THE REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO have been made into films; one wonders if this will be also.
To order The Buried Giant from amazon.com, click here.
NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/20/2005]
Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO (ISBN 1-4000-4339-5) is a science fiction novel (and an alternate history novel), but is not going to be found in the science fiction section of your bookstore or library. (I say it's alternate history because it takes place in the late 1990s and we find out that the technology diverges from our world's some time in the 1950s, but its alternate history content is minimal, and it could just as easily have been set in the near future.) Ishiguro doesn't reveal this technology or his premise until well into the book, but by now most reviewers have talked about it. If you want no spoilers, stop now. Okay, if you're still reading, here goes. Ishiguro posits a sub-class of donors (and carers) who are actually clones raised for the purpose of donating organs. Ishiguro seems to understand cloning, and also knows all the mis-understandings that the public seems to have. He uses the first to construct his characters, and the second to construct the public policy that drives the world these characters live in. As a science fiction book, this is remarkably spare in its technological details, spending its time looking at the social effects of technological advances. And so it is perhaps a purer science fiction novel than many which have a lot of technology, but very little about the effects of that technology. "A story which could not have taken place without the scientific content." Yep, that about describes it.
There are, of course, parallels to slavery and other oppressions which attempt to justify themselves by making their victims less than human. But those arguments no longer carry as much weight with the population as a whole, at least as literally taken, while Ishiguro's premise (alas) does. And Ishiguro presents a solution to this, when the main character accuses another, saying, "[Marie-Claude] never liked us. She's always been afraid of us. In the way people are afraid of spiders and things." To which another character replies, "Marie-Claude has given everything for you. She has worked and worked and worked. Make no mistake about it, my child. Marie-Claude is on your side and will always be on your side. Is she afraid of you? We're all afraid of you. I myself had to fight back my dread of you almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I would look down at you all from my study window and I'd feel such revulsion . . . . But I was determined not to let such feelings stop me doing what was right. I fought those feelings and I won." This, it seems to me, is the ultimate answer to prejudice, the bridge between the generation that can feel such revulsion and future generations that do not.
To order Never Let Me Go from amazon.com, click here.