Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Portrait of a Lady

What happens when a lovely young woman from the US jettisons with her aunt to the UK to meet potential husbands?  Welcome to circa-1880 in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and the beginning of a long tale of Isabel Archer, whose father has passed away and is led away to visit the home of her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, in London.  Isabel is a striking young woman, whose home town is a few minutes from my birth place: Albany, NY!  She is fresh off the invitation of marriage from a rather rich young man in the US, Casper Goodwood.   Isabel is a very independent young woman and she believes she is too young to marry.  When she arrives at Mrs. Touchett’s home in London, she meets her son, Ralph, a very mild-mannered young man who is dedicated to his father, a very ill older man.  The Touchett’s marriage is clearly one that is not to be emulated and Isabel learns a great deal from the relationship.  She is kind to Mr. Touchett, so much so that he leaves a large portion of his estate to her upon his death.  Ralph has strong feelings for his cousin and introduces her to a neighbor, Lord Warburton, who also has high regard for Isabel and offers his hand in marriage, to which she also refuses.  During one of her trans-continental trips, Isabel meets the “egocentric” Gilbert Osmond, a painter, who offers much less positive overtures to Isabel, but guess what?  She marries him.  Very confusing but captures the idea: “sometimes when you don’t chase the one you have feelings for, they actually go after you,” and the two marry.  Osmond has a daughter, believed to be from an earlier marriage, but later we learn that she was actually the product of an extra-curricular affair between Osmond and the untrustworthy mentor of Osmond, Madame Merle (who actually was the architect of the wedding between the two).  Osmond’s daughter, Pansy, is close to Isabel and attempts to take her advice, but is led astray by Osmond’s demands.  Another arranged marriage is attempted when Osmond attempts to force his daughter to take the offer of Lord Warburton while Edmund Rosier, whom Pansy had true affection, must wait and attempt to convince her father of his intentions.  The idea of the “perfect marriage” is often presented in this story, as is the concept of choice and individual rights/desires for woman.  Isabel learns of Pansy’s real lineage prior to her final “scuffle” with her difficult husband when he refuses to support her decision to leave town to be with Ralph as he prepares to die.  The ending is left in the air somewhat after Ralph’s death, James doesn’t let the reader know whether Isabel goes back to Osmond or runs off for one of her other “marriage-proposal men” as she is confronted by one that sends her running.  I thought that the detailed conversations and character development isn’t always experienced in the late 19th century novels as it was in Portrait.  While a very long book, but I couldn’t seem to put it down.  I thought the depth of character and writing was excellent, but by no means a fast-paced storyline.  Psychological intrigue at its best.  My first Henry James book and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.  Take this one to the beach or save until a long weekend around a fire place.  Worth the time!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries is a memoir by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine, written during  Guevara’s trip around the continent of South America in 1952.  A special place in my heart as the author’s trip begins in Buenos Aires, the home of my in-laws.  Guevara and his friend, Alberto Granado, decide to take his 1939 Norton 500cc motorcycle to explore the continent.  The two men were in the final stages of their medical studies when they explore their motherland, a trip that included various life harrowing moments on the motorcycle, on a few boats (illegally), in tribal villages, among the decrepit, with limited to no food or supplies, and finally meeting armies from other countries who did not allow them to enter their country.  At times the two had no food, no money, no means of further transportation, and no friends, but at each turn, they always seemed to find a way out.  Guevara was able to make it through the trip as a person suffering from severe asthma.  The two men were able to see one of the wonders of the world (Machu Picchu), the Amazon Rain Forest, a leper colony (Granado was studying this as his expertise in the medicine field), and the Incan civilization.  The trip served as a pre-cursor to Guevara’s future work as a future leader in the communist revolution of Cuba and many other countries in South America.  The book reads similar to other real-life “find my meaning” books, such as Jack Kerouac who wandered across North America trying to find his life’s meaning.  Seeing life with all of its weaknesses and heartbreak gives a person a reason, and certainly it was the case for Guevara.  As a reader, you feel as though you are also on the journey seeing the grit within the various South American countries.  I could never have made that trip – through the treacherous mountains, cold/heat swings, and dangerous life situations.  Another quick read.  The book provides a good understanding for understanding Guevara’s next steps in life.  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Sometimes when you see the title of the book, it can actually make the reader think, “I’m not going to like this one”… for me seeing the title The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I thought more incomprehensible Greek gibberish…  ahhh not so!   So thank you to Zachary Mason, the author, who recounts Odysseus return to Ithaca over a ten year period.  All of the characters we remember from our Classics class om high school are back in the fold.  Mason suggests in his forward that the book contains “44 concise variations on Odysseus’ story that omit stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity” and to a tee, Mason writes with clarity and language that provides the readers vivid and descriptive images to get really enthralled.  I couldn’t put this one down.  I thought I remembered the stories, but with as much unknown from the Greek stories than known, Mason fills in the gaps.  No surprise this is an award winning book.  My favorite chapter in the book, The Bacchae, shares the story of the ship docking on an island and all of the men, except their leader, went into the wild of the night with the women whom lived on the island they landed at after the rugged battle.  The leader stayed in the bed of Circe, while his men were all killed by the drinking of the poison while in the arms of their female murderers.  The leader did not die, as Circe, the female leader, wanted to keep him for herself and continue their love making.  This chapter captures so perfectly the Greek “conundrum,” ecstasy and misery simultaneously!  The book is broken into 46 very short stories all connected together.  The language is easy to interpret and flows well.  One of the best “Greek reads” I can ever remember.  Nice job Mr. Mason.  For students of ancient culture, a must add to your list!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights

Always fun to read a book written by a NYU faculty member, in this case NYU Law faculty member Kenji Yoshino.  The book is called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.  Yoshino is an Asian American who shared his personal journey of “covering” his identities throughout his life, first as a gay male and then as an Asian man.  He shares a poignant quote in the forward of the book: “It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma (in many cases because it is known about or immediately apparent) may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large” … this process will be referred to as covering. Yoshino shares stories from current culture to illustrate his points, using the stories of celebrities and other well-known pop-culture icons who have “covered” their identities to be seen as “main stream” (normal, if that is a good word choice), that hide their inner self so that they can be accepted by others.  Much of the first half of the book is Yoshino’s story on how he chose to “cover” his gay male identity from college through his teaching role at NYU.  He also shared the various relationships with his parents, friends, teachers, and law colleagues throughout his decision to “come out of the closet.”  The second half of the book focuses on his racial identity and concludes with the connections of the identity issues with the civil rights movement.  Yoshino is a brilliant man who decides to share his wisdom with those who may need his voice to assist with the ability to be yourself, even when our society has so many expectations of who one should be.  Yoshino draws many stories from legal cases that are landmark cases in our society and how far our country has moved – though much further to go.  This was not an easy book to write, as the author notes, based on what he believes may happen to him as a result.  Yoshino shares the various stages one goes through in the “uncovering” of self and connects to other developmental models of discovery of self.  This is a very good read for anyone who would like to understand the insecurities and difficulties inherent in not being “the majority,” whether it be sexual identify, ethnicity, religious background, or any other under-represented group.  Thank you for your courage in sharing this very personal story Dr. Yoshino.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


What a fun read… the children’s book Matilda by Roald Dahl.  Matilda, the lead character, grows up in a family where her mom and dad ignore, and actually abhor, their daughter while they love their son!  Matilda is a gifted young woman, intelligent and becomes an avid reader when her mom leaves her at home to play Bingo during the afternoons each day.  Matilda’s academic talents are noted when she enters kindergarten and her teacher, Ms. Honey, recognizes the talents she has, especially her reading abilities based on the many books she read as a child.  Ms. Honey goes to the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (an ominous name clearly indicating some bad news for Matilda ahead!).  Miss Trunchbull is not at all excited to hear from Ms. Honey and in fact heard from Matilda’s father prior to her arrival to school that she would be “a student to watch” based on her “bad behavior” at home.  Ms. Honey can’t believe that this brilliant well-mannered little girl could be as Miss Trunchbull says Matilda’s father suggested.   As the story unfolds we learn how horrible Matilda’s parents are with her and show no care or concern for her and only care about watching the “telly” and eating dinner (a tv dinner).  But the family and Miss Trunchbull are in for a real surprise when Matilda is pushed by the evil headmistress and is able to develop “mystical powers” that allow her to use “magic” and as the tale unfolds she is able to save Miss Honey and herself from the evil headmistress and her own parents.  Of course all good stories have a great twist and “a happy ending” and in this case, both are true.  Matilda’s special “powers” save her from having to leave town (her father’s illegal business dealings finally are revealed and the family leaves town before her father is arrested) and finally Matilda is able to support Ms. Honey and reveal the secrets that held Miss Trunchbull as headmistress.  All ends well as Matilda finds a new “parent” and the school will finally be run as it should be.  A fun read and going to see the Broadway rendition of the show in a few weeks makes it even better!  Kids will love this one.