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Flowers for Algernon #1–Short Story and Novel (a Short Review)

IMG_1888 When I was in the depths of despair, this summer, I happened upon a PDF of Daniel Keyes’ short story Flowers for Algernon and, before I knew it, I’d read it in one sitting. A day or two later, I even went and wrote up a blog post about it, but I was going through a lot at the time and I didn’t feel like posting it, so I didn’t. Fast-forward to October, I was at a book sale when I came across the novel version of Flowers for Algernon, and my heart leapt for joy! 🙂

So now I’ve also finished the novel and I’ve just had another look at what I wrote in July, and, well, I feel like posting it now. 🙂

July 20, 2017

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As per the pledge on the side of my blog, I don’t usually read short stories unless I have a printed copy, but the other night, before I really knew what was happening, I found myself reading and finishing Daniel Keyes’ twenty-two page, heartbreaking, masterpiece of a short story Flowers for Algernon. I cried a whole lot as I read the last entry. It probably wasn’t the best thing for me to read at this moment, but I’m still glad I did.

If you’ve never heard of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (the short story version), it’s a first person narrative story told in the form of “progress reports” written by a 37-year-old, mentally-challenged man who undergoes a procedure to triple his intelligence. As a short story, it’s pretty much flawless and epitomizes exactly what a short story should be. There is a whole lot of insight to be found in it’s it’s twenty two pages about the human condition and it leaves you with a broken heart, but broken in a way that should give you greater sympathy and understanding for yourself and others. It’s bittersweet and tragic and beautiful.

I don’t know if the subsequent novel version of this story is as good as the short story (I will probably read the, at some point in time, just not right now), but I think this is a short story that everyone should read, at least once.

In answer to my July self, I would say the novel version is as good as the short story. There are slight plot differences between the two, but in essence they’re both the same story and Charlie is the same person. It’s funny, this time I knew how the story would end, yet, as I read the last entry, I still wept nearly as much as I did the first time.

That said, if I had to choose one version to recommend, I’d choose the short story. What Daniel Keyes manages to pack into twenty-two pages is, in itself, a work of staggering genius. The novel version, with it’s additional 200 pages, fleshes things out and adds more food for thought, but the heart and impact of the story is all still contained in the original twenty-two pages.

There’s more I’d like to say about Flowers for Algernon, but for now, I’ll just reiterate what I said earlier, I think the short story version of Flowers for Algernon, is a story everyone should read, at least once. And if you do read it and find yourself moved by it, I’d highly recommend reading the novel as well. 🙂

Ps. If you are interested, here is a link to a PDF of the short story

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What I’m Reading #11

In light of my commitment to try start doing these What I’m Reading posts more regularly, again, I think it’s a good time to do another one of these posts.

Here’s a look at the books I’ve completed reading since April.

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  1. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  2. How to be Decadent by George Mikes
  3. Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot
  4. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  5. A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis
  6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  7. Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot
  8. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  9. Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl—A Woman’s Guide to Holding Her Own in a Relationship by Sherry Argov
  10. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator) (I just realised I photographed the wrong version)
  11. St. Petersburg Tales (The Portrait, The Carriage) by Nikolai Gogol, Richard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator)
  12. The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator)
  13. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
    Not Pictured
  14. The Miracle Worker by William Gibson (I read a PDF version)
  15. Full Moon (Blandings Castle #7) by P.G. Wodehouse (audiobook)
  16. Pigs Have Wings (Blandings Castle #8) by P.G. Wodehouse (audiobook)

If you’re like me, you may have immediately noted a rather jarring title in this list of books and thought that it seemed incongruous and a bit of an eye sore. 😦 A few months ago, I was telling a good friend about this very title and my struggles with the idea of including it on my “2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge” list of completed books. It was such a jarring and off-putting title and I didn’t want my friends to think that was the sort of book I’m interested in reading, because it really isn’t and it isn’t a book I would have chosen to read for myself. At the same time, I wanted to be transparent and unashamed about the books I read.

The truth is, during my trip to L.A., in May, I met up for brunch with a friend I hadn’t seen or been in contact with in years. Before we met up, I’d suggested that, after brunch, she could drop me off at at a nearby Barnes and Nobel, and I’d be happy to wait there for my ride. After brunch, she suggested we go to the bookstore together, which I was very glad to do, but it also meant the books I was interested would have to wait, as our tastes in books are very different, and, instead, I’d be spending my time hanging out with her.

When we got to the bookstore, I asked her to show me the books she was interested in and off we went to the self-help, marriage and relationships section. Once we were there, she looked around for a minute, then said, “Ah!” (or something like it) and pulled a book titled Why Men Love Bitches from off the shelf. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite as quick of a knee-jerk reaction to the title of a book before. 🙂 I cringed and said that the title seemed exactly like a book I would definitely not be interested in. 😦  She immediately explained that the author’s definition of “bitch” is a strong, confident woman who knows what she’s worth and stands up for herself.

My friend wanted to sit down and read the introduction with me right in the bookstore, so we did. 🙂 We read and discussed and I still wasn’t very keen on it or interested, but eventually came round to saying that the book seemed sensible enough, if you could get past the title. She, however, was so passionate about it and interested in reading it (and yet she said she never buys books for herself). I really wanted to get her a copy, but I knew that the only way I could get her to accept it as a gift, from me, was if I also bought one for myself and made it a “reading project” of sorts. So that’s exactly what I did.

I still remember cringing as I went to the cash register with not one but two (!!) copies of Why Men Love Bitches in my hand. It was the first time I’ve ever been embarrassed about buying a book. It was such a weird and foreign feeling. I even deliberately chose the woman cashier over the man to avoid further mortification. 😦 Anyway, that’s how I came to be the conflicted owner of a book titled Why Men Love Bitches. 🙂

At the time, I also thought it could be a good way to keep in touch with my friend, i.e., we could read the book and discuss our thoughts. That last idea didn’t exactly turn out, as she’s not much of a committed reader. But I finished the book, immediately after my return home, and thus ensued the struggle about adding it to my” Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge” list, which I resolved, by just owning my decision and adding it to my list. Struggle resolved, I forgot all about it. Or so I thought…

Fast-forward to to the other day, when I uploaded the above picture on to my computer. I hadn’t noticed it when I’d taken the picture, but looking at the picture in Lightroom, all I could see was the jarring and garish title of Why Men Love Bitches sticking out like a sore thumb; every other title faded into the background. (Tom, see what I mean!? :() Immediately, the struggle returned stronger than ever. I can’t quite explain just exactly how jarring the effect was on me, but, suffice it to say, it was significant and the desire to retake the photo, sans the source of my mortification, was extremely strong and tempting. However, in the name of authenticity I resisted and decided, instead, that I would post the picture and tell my story. 🙂

And since I’ve said so much about the the title, I should probably dedicate a few sentences to what the book is actually like: It isn’t all as bad as it sounds. There are some good parts, pretty basic, nothing too revelatory. There are also plenty of bad parts which are, well, bad, cringe-worthy and dumb. For example, there’s a chapter called “Dumb Like a Fox”, that is exactly as dumb as it sounds. As something all “bitches” should strive to emulate, Sherry Argov gives an example of a woman who turns off the breaker in her basement and acts like a damsel-in-distress so that her man can feel manly by fixing it (!). 😦  I would hope that any man I was with would be secure enough in my opinion of his manliness for me not to have to resort to going around and making up problems for him to fix. Life has enough problems as it is. As you can tell, I thought was a pretty stupid and a completely inauthentic way to have a relationship. I felt like I lost several brain cells reading that chapter. 😦 Overall, it’s not really a book I would recommend to anyone.

Anyway, enough about bad books. 🙂

Getting back to the book list, sixteen books here, plus the ten books I’d completed in April makes for twenty-six books this year. Four more books to go and I’ve completed my goal of thirty books for the year. 🙂

These are the four books I’m hoping to have completed by the end of the year.

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Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot
Dove Descending: a Journey into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets by Thomas Howard
The Divine Comedy
by Dante Aligheri

If I’m successful, it will mean, that I will have read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets twice in one year. Though, by the time I’m finished Thomas Howard’s Dove Descending: a Journey into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I’ll likely have read it far more than twice this year, as I’ve been going over each section of each poem several times as I read Thomas Howard’s commentary.

Looking at the books I said I was hoping to read, in my last post, some I haven’t touched, but I actually managed to get around to finishing quite a few.April to readrs.png

I’m also going to try to finish the last few chapters of Notes from Underground (A Norton Critical Edition) by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Michael R. Katz (Translator/Editor) before the year is out. I will likely also read some of the T. S. Eliot essays and commentary.

But N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, Martin Buber’s I and Thou and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Poetry will be sitting out the rest of 2017. Maybe I’ll have another go at them next year. 🙂

Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon #1–Spoiler Free Review and Initial Thoughts

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I just finished reading this brilliant and under-appreciated masterpiece and have plenty of thoughts and a lot say about it. Too much, in fact, for one blog post, especially since I’m swamped with work and a tight deadline. I can’t say much more than a few paragraphs about it at the moment, so I thought I’d start with with a simple, spoiler-free review and some initial thoughts. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of posts on this book. 🙂

This statement, by Arthur Koestler, that precedes the novel, pretty much sums up everything you need to know going into Darkness at Noon.

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The “so-called Moscow Trials” were a series of three show trials, held in the Soviet Union between 1936-1938, in which Stalin had several leading Bolsheviks from the Russian Revolution and top officials (anyone who could who could possibly threaten his power) arrested, tried for treason and found guilty. Most of those convicted were given the death sentence and shot. One of the most bewildering things about these trials were the seemingly voluntary and willing confessions of guilt obtained from the accused. The trials were a sham, the accused were hardened men, heroes from the revolution who had not committed the crimes they were accused of, so why did they confess (especially when confessing would almost certainly lead to their death)?

Darkness at Noon is Arthur Koestler’s 200 page attempt to answer that question and he does so with an insight and brilliance that is pretty amazing. Set during the time of the Moscow Trials, in the Soviet Union, we follow the story of Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik leader, as he is arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and tried for treason against the very government he helped bring to power and devoted his entire life to. While in prison, Rubashov deliberates on the question of whether or not to confess to crimes he has not committed and if so: why? and if not: why not?

Rubashov is a fictional person, but the people and events that the book is based on were real. Koestler, himself, was once enamored by the idea of a Communist utopia and an eager and fanatical member of the Communist Party.

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“I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and corpses of the drowned.”

Arthur Koestler The Invisible Writing

Drawing on his seven years as a member of the Communist Party, Koestler gets to the heart of the ideology behind the thoughts and struggles and actions of those committed to the Revolution. He creates an extremely well-rounded and lifelike portrait of someone who has rejected his conscience, made the Party his god, and spent his life sacrificing others for the Cause on “the principle that the end justifies the means–all means, without exception”–only to find that the Cause now demands that he be sacrificed (and there are no exceptions).

Something I thought about a lot as I was reading, that has continued to baffle me since I finished, is the question of why this book is not more well known. I imagine the answer may have something to do with the fall of Communist Russia, perhaps people think that it’s no longer that relevant. This is probably a subject to expound on in another post, but I’ll just say here that I think this book is as relevant today as it was when it was written because it deals with human nature and our tendency, as humans, to justify our means to get our ends, our tendency to see others as means to an end instead of an end in themselves, our tendency to paint the world in black and white and form tribes and groups that value the collective over the individual and it clearly shows the terrible place all that leads to.

Another thing about this book, that took me by surprise, from the get-go, was the undeniable connection and similarity I kept seeing between Darkness at Noon and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I even stopped to confirm that Nineteen Eighty-Four was written after Darkness at Noon and that it wasn’t the other way around. This is definitely subject I want to explore further in another post, because there’s stuff in Darkness at Noon that I’m sure George Orwell drew on in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four (and possibly Animal Farm, as well) and I think he was influenced by Koestler in a significant way.

That said, comparing Darkness at Noon to Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bit like comparing two of your favourite kinds of oranges against each other. Both have their merits, but Darkness at Noon is in no ways inferior; it can easily hold it’s own and is even superior in ways.

Like I said, I think this book is completely under-appreciated, so I’m determined to do my part to make sure this book does not fall into complete obscurity. 🙂 If you’re interested in politics or philosophy or psychology or literature; if you’re a fan of George Orwell or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky, it’s highly probable that you’d like this book and I’d highly recommend it!

And if you do read it or if you’ve already read it, let me know what you think! I love to hear your thoughts about it. 😀

Reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling #2–the Underground Man, Prufrock and Other Thoughts.

I’d been wanting to make my next “Reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling” post a post about the connection between a story in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio, in Fear and Trembling, but it’s been a stressful and busy month and I haven’t yet been able to afford the time. So instead, I thought I’d blog about this quote that made me laugh out loud:

IMG_0788“The slaves of misery, the frogs in life’s swamp naturally exclaim: ‘Such love is foolishness: the rich brewer’s widow is just as good and sound a match.’ Let them croak away undisturbed in the swamp. “
–Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

It’s been a very pleasant surprise discovering Kierkegaard’s sense of humour, especially, his way of addressing and countering those he’s opposing. The above quote is a perfect example. It reminds me a lot of the way Dostoevsky has the Underground Man address and dismiss his naysayers in Notes From Underground. The Underground Man is, of course, far more acerbic and arrogant; Johanne de Silentio is definitely more humble and benign. Nonetheless, I can’t help but see similarities between them when it comes to addressing the opposition. 🙂

Something else I’ve been surprised to discover (though it may be too early for me to really judge properly, as I am still only a bit over halfway through) is how Fear and Trembling seems to be just as much about Kierkegaard’s regret regarding his lack of faith for, and the resulting loss of, his relationship with Regine as it is about the faith of Abraham in being willing to sacrifice Isaac. Going into it, I knew there was going to be a knight of faith and a knight of infinite resignation (hopefully, more on them another time), but I had no idea they were both hopeless romantics.

IMG_0791[1]And yet it must be glorious to get the princess…”
–Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Footnote “50”  (in the above, second to last, paragraph) says:

“Kierkegaard writes in his journals (Papirer IV, A 107): ‘If I had had faith I would have stayed with Regine’ The entry is dated 17 May 1843.”
–Alastair Hannay, Fear and Trembling

I might expand on this further at some point, but reading this section I was reminded a lot of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and John Greenleaf Whittier’s saddest of all sad words:

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'”
–John Greenleaf Whittier “Maud Muller

Sad stuff. 😦 But it’s definitely not all heartbreak and “What if?” There’s been plenty about faith and sacrifice (though mostly faith) that I’ve been reevaluating and pondering, and an equal amount of stuff I’ve been perplexed with, and a whole lot of other unexpected stuff that Kierkegaard’s surprised me with. I’m looking forward to what’s to come. 🙂

This is another one of those books that I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of in my understanding of it. It’s definitely a book I’m going to have to keep coming back to in order to really understand. Luckily, Kierkegaard is a brilliant writer and thinker; he’s one of those minds you can visit over and over again and never tire of.

Jordan B. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief Audiobook

This post is really just for one Intended Reader (you know who you are 🙂 ), but it’s also for any die-hard Jordan B. Peterson fans out there who may appreciate this too.

About a week ago, I discovered that some talented and blessed soul has started to record an audiobook version of Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief! 🙂 

So far, there are 5 parts (I’m halfway through the fourth) and Mr. Narrator has gotten to the end of section2.2.2. Unexplored Territory: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology”, which is nearly fifty pages into the book–definitely enough to get started! There are a little over 250 view counts for part 4 and 150 view counts for part 5. The more views this audiobook gets, the more likely it will be that Mr. Narrator will continue to record, so feel free to help out. 🙂

Summer is in full swing and I don’t really have the time, at the moment, to write much more about Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief or this audiobook or Dr. Jordan Peterson. Maybe I will at some point. I just wanted to share this, as soon as I could, with my Intended Reader, as well as anyone else who may be intending to read Dr. Peterson’s book who may benefit from and appreciate and love this as much as I do.

If you aren’t familiar with Dr. Peterson, he’s a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto. I wouldn’t really recommend this audiobook as an introduction to him, but I would suggest checking out his 2017 Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief UofT lectures as well as his current series “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories”. Both lecture series are jam-packed with wisdom and insight into the human condition and what it takes to create order out of chaos, become a brave and well rounded individual, and find truth and meaning in this crazy world. I’d highly recommend his lectures to anyone interested in becoming, as Electric Youth (and College) so aptly put it in their brilliant tribute to Captain Sully, “a real human being and a real hero“. 🙂

 

Reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling #1 (and Other Thoughts)

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If you’ve hung around me long enough to hear me talk about my philosophy regarding book reading, you’ve probably, at some point, heard me talk about my belief in the importance of reading a book when the mood strikes as opposed to arbitrarily reading it.

Something I don’t really talk about much, but that I actually think is far better than reading when the mood strikes, is reading a book when you feel it’s an absolute necessity to read–i.e., when you’re in a sea of despair or confusion or in the darkness and something draws you to a particular book and seems to say that it just might contain a lifeline or a light to help you find the truth, or wisdom, or consolation, or comfort, or faith, or the answer that you need at that moment. Sometimes, one passage at the right time is enough to resuscitate. I guess the reason I don’t usually include “reading out of necessity” in my philosophy about reading is because, the times that I find myself reading out of necessity are, for the most part, times that I really wouldn’t wish on anyone. The finding a lifeline part is great, the feeling like you’re drowning part not so much.

I’ve had a pretty rough month and a nightmare of a last week. It’s been difficult to find something I’m in the mood to read, because, really, I haven’t been in the mood to read anything. But read: I must. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what would be good for me to read right now.

I think I found my answer last night, when I suddenly felt it was incumbent on me to read Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It isn’t too surprising as, lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice and faith. I’ve also been feeling a lot like Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac, trying not to look at the horror of the thing, but instead trying to hold on to the faith and belief that it’s the right thing to do and that somehow it will all work out for the best. I don’t know how Abraham did it. My sacrifice seems to make far more sense and, yet, half the time, having faith that “all manner of thing shall be well” still feels impossible. But all that to say, if ever there were a perfect time for me to read this book, that time would probably be now.

This actually isn’t the first time I’ve tried to read Fear and Trembling. In early 2014 I  started reading it, but I skipped the 30 page introduction and jumped right in. That was probably a mistake, as I didn’t really understand what Kierkegaard was doing and what he was trying to say and I ran out of motivation to continue reading after about twenty pages. It was also probably just a matter of it not being the right timing too. I was pretty comfortable with my life and not being asked to make any leaps of faith or momentous sacrifices at the time. I came at it from a place of intellectual curiosity, but definitely not out of necessity. Right now, though, it feels like a necessity.

I’ve gotten twenty pages into the introduction, today, and, so far, everything I’ve read has confirmed that this is the perfect paper path for me to tread at this moment. I’ve also found myself thinking that this might be a good book to blog about, so I’m gonna try that, but I make no promises. I’ve tried to do this in the past, alas, so far, without success. Hopefully, this time around, I’ll be more successful. I guess time will tell.

Disclaimer disclaimed, consider this the first installment. 🙂

I Said to My Soul, Be Still…

I was reading T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets today when this section from “East Coker” hit me right in the heart like a jolt from a defibrillator.

On it’s own, it’s an amazing and brilliant passage. But, in addition to that, it pretty much sums up everything I’m going through and everything I need to hear right now.

“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

                                        You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again,
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
  You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
  You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
  You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
  You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.”
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “East Coker”

I can remember thinking, when I read it the first time, that this was a brilliant and deep passage, but it didn’t quite jump out at me. I guess I didn’t need it as much then. This time, reading it was like being resuscitated. Everything about it is perfect for me, at this very moment. It’s as if it were written just for me.

I’ve been learning to be still and sit with the discomfort, but it isn’t easy and I still needed someone to “say it again.” Who better to have say it than the supreme T. S. Eliot? 🙂