Category: @ Your Library

October 5, 2011 Matt

Last week was banned books week, and while most books displayed at the Consortium’s entrance have great literary merit—A Clockwork Orange, Song of Solomon, The Satanic Verses—one stood out as having practically none: Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

The translator for this 2001 edition, Ralph Manheim, quickly highlights Mein Kampf’s literary deficiencies.

“There is no indication that he ever read any of the German, let alone foreign classics, from which he might have gathered some feeling for stylistic principles.”

Mein Kempf is sort of like a train cart with wheels on only one side; it progress simply because it is going down a hill.

There are many complex sentences that, when finished, make no sense.  The translator provides the original German in those confusing areas as proof that the sentences actually exist.

Hitler enjoyed clichés and vague images. In the section “lack of ‘national pride’ he describes a young person’s behavior as something that would “make your hair stand on end.” The fictional abstraction comes home at a “god knows when hour” and what his parents teach him is “not fit to be repeated.”

He rarely brings in outside facts, theories, or notable people.  When he does bring people in at all, they are rival members in the Nazi party, his personal heroes, or fictional generalizations.

It’s a 700 paged tirade soaked in subjectivity.

The National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, writes the introduction that may be the only valuable part in this edition of Mein Kampf.

Unlike Hitler’s work, the introduction is nuanced, researched, and coherent. It’s amazing that Foxman, of Polish-Jewish decent, should look straight into Hitler’s 700 paged craze and soberly conclude that the book should not be banned:

“We dismissed him as a madman and we ignored his wretched book; the result was a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. This is yet another lesson to take from Mein Kampf: the lesson of vigilance and responsibility, of not closing our eyes to the evil around us.”


Mein Kampf

Written in 1926

This edition: 2001

@ your library: DD 247. H5 A327


August 23, 2011 Matt

Ted Hughes is perhaps best known for being the husband of Sylvia Plath. He’s sort of the Yoko Ono of the poetry world. For 35 years after Plath’s suicide, Hughes said nothing of the relationship, and many a feminist accused of him of driving his wife to kill herself (the fact that his second wife also killed herself didn’t help his case). He broke his silence three months before his death, knowing he was terminally ill, and published “Birthday Letters.”

In short, this work is amazing.

I’ve never read a more palpable confirmation of love. It fulfills one tenet of great literature in being shockingly sincere.

Of course the paparazzi behind their relationship makes their relationship highly visible to contemporary readers. Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Plath in the 2003 film “Sylvia.” Lady Gaga references Plath in “Dancer in the Dark.” Psychology majors may have heard of the “Sylvia Plath Effect.”

The couple was attractive, ambitious, and well connected. The persona amplifies the reader’s feeling, but even if we knew nothing about their relationship, formally, this is a powerful book.

The first poem begins where their relationship did, in college. Hughes was a Fulbright scholar from England when he met Plath in Boston.

“Birthday Letters” is more of a narrative than a collection of poems with loosely related themes. The theme is Plath, and his retrospective evaluation of what happened during their eight years of marriage.

The poems tell how they travel the world. She loved Paris but hated Spain, where he felt at home. They do cool things. She cities Chaucer to a herd of cows, they visit the home of Emily Bronte, they’re caught in a storm near Cape Cod.

Hughes was fascinated with America. He pairs deep emotions with products like Nescafe and Kleenex. Remembering his honeymoon with Plath, he writes, “you were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish./ You were a new world. My new world./ So this is America, I marveled. Beautiful, beautiful America!”

If pages were to reflect the time required for a bit of comprehension, “Birthday Letters” would be 600—not 200, pages. Not that the language is complex—for poetry it’s rather straight-forward, and you’d get a lot from just one reading. But Hughes is so subtle and rich that should you spend some time reading the poem again, your reward is inevitable.

Here is an excerpt of a poem that exemplifies most of “Birthday Letters.” Good to know going into this that “Daddy” refers to Plath’s most famous poem of the same title.

The Shot  (excerpt)

Till your real target
Hid behind me. Your Daddy
The god with the smoking gun. For a long time
Vague as mist, I did not even know
I had been hit,
Or that you had gone clean through me—
To bury yourself at last in the heart of the god.

In my position, the right witchdoctor
Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands,
Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other,
Godless, happy, quieted.

I managed
A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown.

August 9, 2011 Matt

Too bad Shakespeare rarely used stage directions. They can be quite enjoyable for people whose only contact with a play is through writing. Contemporary playwrights have made great use of them, perhaps because they know people will actually read their plays, at least on a greater scale than in 1610.

Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B” has a healthy amount of stage directions; all of the 11 scenes have a paragraph of stage directions. The prologue gets two.

J.B cover

“J.B” is a modern re-telling of the story of Job, a biblical man who lost all his children and livelihood as a test of God. Perplexing for a man who has seemingly done nothing wrong.

MacLeish won three Pulitzer prizes before his death in 1982, two for poetry and one for drama (the one for drama was for J.B; it also won a Tony that year). He’s primarily famous for “ars poetrica” and promoting the arts as the Librarian of Congress.

The play is set in the “Mad Men” era—1957—so Job’s name is appropriately transformed to “J.B”. His speech, like that of his five kids and wife Sarah, would fit right in with the popular television show.

But the story of J.B is actually a story within a story. The prologue introduces two key characters, Mr. Zuss and Nickles. Both older men are actors of little success. They appear in the theater to (presumably—nothing is clear in this piece) play their own parts as God and Satan. To see Job’s story, the pair climbs a ladder and watches from the rafters.

While Job is on stage, they watch with masks. God/Mr. Zuss wears a white mask that smiles but with its eyes shut. Nickles/ Mr. Satan also wears a white mask, but one that frowns in disgust and pain, its eyes open to the world. Mr. MacLeish was a fan of symbolism.

It’s been said that great plays can never be understood in one showing. This play is no different. For those not so thrilled by thinking, this play will be a bore. Yes there are gory scenes in the middle—how Job’s children die could only happen in the 20th century—but most of the play’s weight lies in its philosophic questions and poetic arrangement. It is after all, “A play in verse.”

The work can be self-conscious. No policeman would report to you of the death of your children with the following words:

“I heard/two words. I don’t know what they mean. I have brought them to you like a pair of pebbles/ Picked up in a path or a pair of/ Beads that might belong to somebody.”

The characters aren’t developed as much as the issues that drive them. The kids are there to be cute; the policemen and journalists—MacLeish calls them “messengers”—are there to deliver messages; Job suffers, his friends are no help, and his wife eventually leaves him. What they talk about is more important than who they are.

They confront many perplexing, paradoxical things (the story of Job is inherently perplexing). MacLeish’s cast of a dozen or so characters collectively consider the authenticity of guilt, the righteousness of God, and humanity’s (purpose?) on earth, among many other things.

In line with the bible, J.B’s comforters have the same biblical names— Eilphaz, Zophar, Bildad–and are hardly comforting. “God is far within History—Why should God have time for you?” Bildad asks.

The other two have different views on divine justice and whether anyone should feel guilt: Eliphaz says that humanity or god have no control over the universe, while Zophar says that we should assume we’re always guilty—“your sin is simple, you were born a man.”

Until God (aka “The Distant Voice) appears to Job, he continues to ask for an explanation of his guilt. Eventually he stops asking, and believes that guilt is required to be human. That’s what separates us from any other species; it’s the founding criteria for a soul.

You can flip to the back of the book, around page 152, for a possible explanation as to what Job learned from his encounter with God.

“He does not love. He/is,” Job says.

Though MacLeish was primarily a poet, he makes great use of the theater’s atmosphere. It’s quite striking when silence, darkness, and drums appear.

Those who love poetry will enjoy MacLeish’s free play with meter (the play is free verse, but now and then he uses meter). Justice and sociology major may have fun connecting dialogue to theories they learned in class.


July 26, 2011 Matt

Like many academic titles before, Dr. Robert Edgerton’s latest work, “A Comparative Survey of Suicide: Scandinavia, Asia, Africa, United States,” aims for objectivity. Some academics like to inflate the meaning of their findings with colorful or incredibly dense prose, but Edgerton’s straight-forward style encourages the facts to impact the reader. The closest he approaches to…

June 28, 2011 Matt

Of course the Jewish State is set up elsewhere. But people still wonder what if. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is Michael Chabon’s 400 page exploration through the question, what if. What if the Jewish State was set up in Alaska, specifically Sitka Alaska. What if Sitka was now a metropolis with 3.2 million people, with…