#111 “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami (#10 on The List)

#111 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (#10 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

For my sister, Katherine Ann Niewodowski, who suggested I read the novel


1Q84 is a fantastical novel, with Japanese-style magic realism so eerie and striking that it may cause the reader to question the very nature of reality.

The lives of Aomame, a female Japanese assassin-for-hire, and Tengo, a male Japanese author, are intertwined in this novel; through a series of strange events, both characters find themselves in an alternate reality where there are slight but noticeable differences, such as heavily armed police officers and two moons in the night sky.  Aomame transports herself to this alternate reality when she climbs down an emergency freeway overpass ladder after she had been stuck in traffic in a taxi-cab.  Tengo transports himself when he ghost-writes a story for a young girl who had escaped a secretive religious commune; the story the girl tells and Tengo writes depicts small supernatural humanoid creatures who create a cocoon from threads of air-  in this new reality, these ‘little people’ and the ‘air-chrysalis’ actually exist.  When Aomame is called on to assassinate the leader of the religious commune, and the militant members of the commune begin to take an active interest in Tengo’s writing, Aomame and Tengo’s escape back to 1984 from the alternate 1Q84 becomes much more complicated.

I am fascinated by Japanese culture- especially their art- especially anime and contemporary literature.  I was fortunate to visit Japan briefly on a vacation (for which my sister had to make some sacrifices), and I had a Japanese roommate/fraternity brother in college.  From my limited perspective and in my humble opinion, the Japanese people seem bound to strict social codes of conduct; they seem more Victorian Puritan than the Victorian Puritans themselves.  As such, it seems when they create art, it explodes in spectacularly bizarre and outlandish forms, as if only through concentrated force can they break the shackles of their oppressive social mores.  This seems evident in anime films like Akira and Spirited Away; it is also evident in Murakami’s writing.  When confronted by works of art like this, I begin to question my own perceptions and surroundings.

Like Aomame and Tengo, my and my sister’s lives are intertwined.  Through both heredity and environment, there is no-one in the world more like me, and vice-versa; however, we have very different lives and very different perceptions on reality.  While my personality type is phlegmatic-melancholy introvert, she is a sanguine extrovert.  While socio-politically I am a moderate conservative, she is a knee-jerk liberal ideologue.  She and I both lived in New York City: while I never considered my time there as any more than a temporary adventure and left after two years, she has lived there for over ten years and shows no sign of leaving.  I love her as much as any person in this world can love another person, and I know she loves me the same, but we show it in very different ways.  Knowing how similar and yet how completely different my reality is from my sister’s reality makes me wonder how different my reality is from a complete stranger- or even more-so, a complete stranger on the far side of the planet a hundred years ago.

1Q84 teaches us that reality is really just an illusion, but the connections we make and carry with us are real.Dancin 2





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#110 “City Primeval” by Elmore Leonard (#292 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

In memory of Elmore Leonard 1925-2013

“Now, now-lay off Detroit.  Them people is livin’ in Mad Max times.” –Moe Szyslak, “The Simpsons”


When I think of gritty crime novels, I think of Elmore Leonard.  When I think of crime ridden cities, I think of Detroit, Michigan.  City Primeval combines these two for the best (and worst) of both worlds.

The novel’s two main characters are Raymond Cruz, a hard-boiled but noble homicide detective, and Clement Mansell (aka The Oklahoma Wildman), a homicidal maniac.  Mansell knows how easy it is to get away with murder in Detroit; with his lawyer, he exploits every loophole in the legal system, most notably a purposefully delayed court trial that allows him to walk free after being convicted of a triple homicide.  For no reason at all, Mansell murders (an infamously corrupt) Detroit judge.  Although there is no personal vendetta between Mansell and Cruz, the Oklahoma Wildman challenges the good cop to a duel; the subtitle of the novel is “High Noon in Detroit”.  Of course, Mansell has no plans to stop killing before the showdown…..

Like any Leonard novel, there are lots of ins and outs, dead ends, twists, and sudden turns. The backdrop is a terrifyingly violent metropolis full of racism, sexual violence, corrupt government, abuse of power, and senseless murder.  Leonard does not attempt to qualify any of this; it simply exists as the backdrop that is Detroit against which he draws his maze.

Although I’ve never been to Detroit, I know something about living in a crime ridden city.  I spent three years in college in Steubenville, Ohio.  An old-school steel town, Steubenville had far passed its prime by the early 1990s, and had fallen into depression and crime.  The Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I attended school, was an anomaly in the city, an isolated group of ultra-conservative, yet charismatic Catholics who seemed more interested in proselytizing than higher education.

My friends and I did not see eye to eye with the fundamentalists or the overarching administration, and we moved off campus.  We soon learned that the Jesus freaks on the hill were not nearly as much of a concern as our new neighbors in the depressed Steubenville area.  Dangerous gangs roamed the streets, a friend’s house was hit by bullets, and we learned to never go out at night alone.  A few years after I left Steubenville, in my former neighborhood, for no reason at all, a pair violent criminals kidnapped and murdered two off-campus University students execution style.

(Respect and love for the families and friends of the victims.)

I have lived in such amazing places as London England, New York City, the countryside of Austria, the Suncoast of Spain, and the gulf coast of Florida.  London England fell quickly on the heels of Steubenville, and it stands out as the most glorious place I’ve ever lived.  Meanwhile, Steubenville remains in my memory as the biggest shit-hole I’ve ever lived in.  I wonder, however, if London would have seemed quite as glorious if it hadn’t followed the bleakness of Steubenville.

Novels like City Primeval show us the darkness so that we may more fully appreciate the light.



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#109 “Thursbitch” by Alan Garner (#16 on The List)


By Michael Niewodowski

“Early Monday morning, late on Saturday night, I saw ten thousand mile away a house just out of sight!

The floor was on the ceiling, the front was at the back; It stood alone between two more, And the walls were whitewashed black!”  

-From Thursbitch

To be honest, I was completely lost while reading Thursbitch.  The novel is an enigmatic riddle, and the language is intentionally dense and confusing.  The valley of Thursbitch in Northern England seems to be a mystical place in which the characters of the novel also lose themselves.

At least half the novel follows the story of Jack Turner, a jagger (salt vendor) in the late 1700s.  He leads a cult-like religious ceremony that involves hallucinations that may or may not be due to his mushrooms (I think).  Jack invokes a mystical bull from the heavens that inhabits his body during the ceremony, and the men and women attending the ceremony tear at his body, nearly killing him; Jack recovers by drinking his own urine (I think).  Besides the ceremony, Jack does inexplicable things like carrying a carved stone head from a cave in the valley to his home; consider the following passage for a glimpse into the language and mystery- Jack (carrying and speaking to the stone head): “Now then, old Crom.  How hast tha been this journey?  Did the light hurt thine een?  Never fret.  It’s done; while next time.  We shall burn bonny fires for thee.  And Jenkin shall hold stars right running…Eh dear.  We must look a pair, you and me.  But did you see at all your land and did we mind us ways?  I’ll take you down and put you in your bed, as soon as stones have done supping at the brook.  We don’t want to be trod on by them great lummoxes.  Hush now.” p. 74.  Later, Jack becomes a fire-and-brimstone Christian pastor, preaching to the people of the valley of Thursbitch (I think).  He dies, frozen to death, next to a single female footprint.

Like I said, I was lost while reading the book.

Sometimes it’s fun to be lost, though.  I lived in London, England for a year when I was in my early twenties.  I would often get intentionally lost in the city and attempt to find my way home.  The streets of London seem like someone had a perfect grid and then took an egg scrambler to it and added a couple cans of alphabet soup.  They don’t sell maps of the city; rather they have A-Z (pronounced A to Zed) books with page after page of maps referencing the names of the streets in the index.  After a night out or on a slow afternoon, I would take the tube or a bus to a far away part of the city I had never visited and wander my way to familiarity.  I guess I felt like I had something to prove.

Meanwhile, in Thursbitch, in modern times, a woman, Sal (short for Sally), finds her only solace in the valley of Thursbitch.  She is dying of a degenerative disease that causes her to lose her memories; she is becoming ‘lost’ in time.  The valley is the only place her memories seem to ‘stick’.  She also seems to have some preternatural connection to Jack from the 1700’s Thursbitch valley (I think).

The valley of Thursbitch plays a large a part in the novel; in fact, it is even more important than the characters.

I understand how important landscapes can be to a story.  I once visited Venice, Italy with my family (again, in my twenties).  One day, an incredibly thick fog rolled in over the city from the Adriatic Sea.  While my family stayed in the hotel wishing for a sunnier day, I went exploring.  Most tourists who visit Venice never stray far from the Rialto or the Piazza San Marco; I intentionally got lost in the depths of the narrow meandering pathways.  The memory of that walk is vivid: as I could barely see more than a few feet ahead of me for the fog, every few steps brought something new.  Ancient buildings on both sides suddenly gave way to modern apartments.  I reached many a dead end- either blocked by a building or one of the ubiquitous canals.  Lushly carved bridges sprung up abruptly; one led into a grove of olive trees.  I passed fishermen in their noisy boats coming and going on the larger canals, and on smaller ones gondolas would slip past silently into the mist.  I turned one corner and found myself walking behind a beautiful Italian lady.  She glanced behind her then slightly quickened her pace, while I self-consciously slowed my pace so as not to seem like a stalker.  She disappeared into the fog long before the sound of her heels clicking against the stone walkway faded away.  All the while, the water lapped gently against the stones of the tiny islands, buildings, and passageways.

There are places in this world in which the individual loses his sense of self in the infinite.  My experiences in London and Venice reflect this truth.  In Thursbitch, the valley is such a place.

I mentioned that I was lost while reading this book.  That is not a complaint; in fact I thoroughly enjoyed the confusion and space cadet glow.  How wonderful, sometimes, to be intentionally lost!Venice in the fog


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# 108 “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo (#873 on The List)

Les Miserables

by Michael Niewodowski

#108 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (#873 on The List)

There is a LOT to say about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  At over 1400 pages, the novel is a sprawling, detailed epic depicting the lives of the poor in the early 1800’s in France.  Set against the backdrop of the on-again, off-again French Revolution, the novel delves deeply into the historical and cultural aspects of the time period.  Hugo gives comprehensive descriptions of the battle at Waterloo, the history of the sewers of Paris, the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the revolutionaries, and the language (Argot) of the poor lower classes (les miserables).

The many movies, abridged versions, and Broadway play have made the story and characters of Les Miserables quite popular and recognizable in modern culture.  The characters are vivid and unforgettable.  Fantine, a single mother who sells her hair, her teeth, and eventually herself, has become the symbol for the self-sacrificing mother.  Javert, the police inspector, is emblematic of stringent law and order.  Enjolras is the consummate revolutionary.  Thernardier is a scoundrel; not necessarily driven to a life of crime by his poverty, rather, he embraces it willingly.  The most important and stunning character in the novel is the protagonist, Jean Valjean.

Jean Valjean is the noblest character I have ever come across in literature.  He stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family; for that, he spent nineteen years in the galleys (he attempted several escapes, prolonging his sentence).  Upon his parole, he is driven to a life of crime, as he cannot find work, shelter, or food.  When a bishop shows him compassion and mercy, he is forever changed, undergoing an incredible transformation.  From that point on, where he encounters anger, he shows compassion: Fantine is angry with him for not saving her job, leading her to a life of prostitution; Valjean rescues and raises Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.  When he encounters greed, he shows generosity: more than once, he is overly generous to the greedy scoundrel, Thernardier.  Where there is ignorance, he shows wisdom; although Marius doesn’t know that it was Valjean that saved his life and carried him to safety through the sewers, he doesn’t tell Marius for the sake of Cosette’s marriage and honor.  Jean Valjean is a truly inspirational character.

Reading this novel has inspired me to try to be more like Jean Valjean.  Throughout the novel, he attempts to improve the lives of others.  For nearly a decade, he is a businessman, and then mayor of a town, helping the economy and livelihood of the townspeople.  However, it is temporary; when Valjean must reveal his true identity and abdicate his position, the townspeople fall back into poverty.  Similarly, I attempted to help others when I was a teacher for nearly ten years.  Although I know I made a positive difference in my students’ lives, it was only temporary and fleeting; like Valjean, I had a propensity for civil disobedience, and I was forced to resign my position.

Jean Valjean found his true redemption and nobility as a father to Cosette.  As a debt to her deceased mother, he rescues her from the Thernardiers, and raises and supports her with every privilege and love a father can give to a child.  Likewise, my main focus in life is my six year old son.  Instead of a career-centered life, as I spent my early adult years, I now choose a family centered life to spend more time with my son; I don’t make a lot of money, but I spend lots of time with him.  I play with him, I read to him, I swim with him, I discipline him, I try to answer all his questions, and I volunteer in his classroom.  I tell him that I love him every day.  I try to remember that I am his first and most influential teacher.  I was never the best chef or the best teacher in the world, but I am the best father I can possibly be to my son.  Like Cosette was to Jean Valjean, my son is my life.  Jean Valjean inspires me to be an even better father.

Look!  I fail my inspirer already!  Jean Valjean never bragged or boasted; in fact he often denied his own good deeds.  He was much more humble than I.  Clearly I have a long way to go before I can consider myself to be on his level.



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#107 “The Golden Asse” by Lucius Apuleius (#997 on The List)

Golden Asse

by Michael Niewodowski

The Golden Asse is an adventure in alienation.

The novel tells the story of Lucius, a Roman travelling through Greece, who accidentally turns himself into an ass.  Lucius is intrigued by magic, and finds a witch; after watching her metamorphose into a bird, he attempts to copy her, turning himself into an ass.  The Golden Asse follows Lucius’ travels and adventures as he attempts to cure himself and retake his human form.  He encounters a great deal of misfortune (he is beaten severely many times and his life is threatened), and some rare good fortune (a confectioner and a cook feed him many delights and he takes on a celebrity role).

The book is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety.  It is also one of the first picaresque novels- a highly episodic novel that depicts the exploits of a lower class hero or anti-hero who depends on his wits to survive in a corrupt society.  Picaresque novels describe a character with a center of isolation and estrangement; very few adventures happen to people sitting in their living rooms surrounded by family and friends.  Lucius is a human trapped in an ass’s body; his entire story is based on that alienation and his search for redemption.

I’ve felt alienated many times in my life, perhaps never so much as when I was once stranded alone on the far side of Norway without knowing a single word of Norwegian…

When I was 19 years old, I spent a college semester backpacking through Europe by rail.  I often travelled alone- sometimes by chance and sometimes by choice.  On one long weekend jaunt, some friends and I rode the rails up to Scandinavia.  I was feeling bold, so I left my friends in Denmark, and took an overnight train through Sweden to Oslo, Norway.  From there, I decided to cross the country to see the fjords and visit the small town of Bergen on the North Sea.  Although the coastlines were clear in that early spring, the mountainous center of Norway was completely snowed over.  From the windows of the train, all I could see was a sheet of white- I literally couldn’t distinguish the land from the sky because of the snow.  The fjords on the coast lived up their grand reputation; they were spectacularly beautiful.  After several hours of exploring Bergen, and meeting some of its Viking-like inhabitants, I headed back to the station to catch an overnight train to Oslo and make my way towards my ‘home base’ in the mountains of Austria.  For some reason, there were no trains, and the station was mostly abandoned.  After a lengthy conversation with a very nice man that only spoke broken English, I learned that an avalanche had debilitated the tracks in the center of the country, and the trains could not get through.  The rail line was to pay for passengers to take a flight across the country to Oslo.  At least, I hoped that was what he was telling me…..

I did make it back to Oslo by plane, eventually back to Austria, and even back to the States, as I am here to attest.  The frightened isolation I felt at the time made the adventure that more indelible in my mind.

I’ve felt very alienated recently, also.  After more than fifteen years as a professional chef, I am changing careers; I start back to school tomorrow to study for a degree in Computer Sciences and Information Technology.  It is very frightening to begin such an undertaking; again, I feel like I don’t speak the language and I’m hoping that any ‘advisors’ are leading me on the right path.

By the end of The Golden Asse, Lucius reverts to his human state, redeems himself, and his ventures come to an end.  Although I’m anxious and apprehensive about the adventure I start tomorrow, I’m also very excited.  I just hope I don’t make a complete ass of myself, like Lucius did.


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My Father the Superhero

by Michael Niewodowski

Eleven years ago today, my father, Michael Anthony Niewodowski, died.  He had struggled with cancer for more than three years.  He was 57 years old.  

Tonight, I will break from my usual format to publish the eulogy I wrote and delivered at his funeral.  It was written under duress and remains unedited.  It was one of the proudest and saddest moments of my life….

My dearest Family and friends, one of my father’s very favorite things to do was to laugh. If you find parts of this eulogy
funny, please laugh, for his sake. And if you don’t find any of it funny…..maybe you could just laugh for my
sake, to make me feel a little better.

Michael Anthony Niewodowski: a son’s perspective.

As I began to write this eulogy, I quickly realized that I could not give an unbiased account of my
father’s life. My father was no ordinary man. He was more. To me, he was nothing short of a superhero, with
extraordinary strengths. He would stand up to Superman, and laugh at the lesser heroes like Batman or

The first time I witnessed my father’s superpowers was at a Cincinnati Reds baseball game, in
Cincinnati. I was two years old. A great baseball player, Johnny Bench, was having a bad game. When Bench
approached the plate, my father stood up in his seat and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “JOHNNY
BENCH HAS BEEN!!” Bench flinched noticeably at this summons. The very next day, Bench announced his
retirement, on the grounds that his fans no longer supported him. That day, I realized my father had forced a
great baseball player’s retirement. There was no doubt in my mind that day or any day since that my father
was nothing short of a superhero, possessed with unnatural strengths.

As a superhero, he needed less fuel than we mere human beings. His diet usually consisted of one
reasonable meal a day, a heaping bowl of ice cream with chocolate syrup, and coffee. Lots of coffee. Cream
and sugar? HA!! His coffee was always black and strong enough to float a bullet.

Of course, no superhero is complete without a really cool car. My father’s batmobile of choice was
a white1984 convertible Cadillac with red leather interior. Many of his happiest times were spent cruising
around with the top down.

He ruled his backyard with absolute supremacy. If a tree had the audacity to grow crookedly it
would soon be bound by winches, chains, and pulleys. If a tree dared to erupt it’s roots from the ground and
disturb the grass, or lose it leaves too soon, or bloom at the wrong time, or even so much as give my father a
dirty look, that tree was in big trouble. My father would quickly set about cutting the roots out from under it
with a stump grinder, until even the faintest wind would knock it down. The grass in the yard would never
be anything but the perfect shade of green. If a weed dared to show it’s head, it wasn’t for long.

No superhero is complete without an archenemy, either. My father’s nemesis was an unlikely
villain: a squirrel. A constant battle waged between my superhero father and the squirrel. After all
birdfeeders are meant to feed birds, not furry critters. He spent many a dime on squirrel proof birdfeeders.
He tried boobytrapping the birdfeeders against the squirrels– for example, he used squirrel repellent, greased
the wires to the birdfeeders, and even chased the squirrel around the backyard. However, he was constantly
foiled by the squirrel. It often made me wonder why there were always corncobs, the squirrel’s food of
choice, stashed in with the birdseed!

Just as he ruled his garden, he also ruled his palace. Whether in the house or the motor home, no
single inch went unchecked. To my superhero, the only evil was imperfection. He spent almost every waking
moment assuring that the house was in pristine, perfect order.

He had unnatural physical strength. I once saw him fall from a 10 foot ladder, straight onto his back
on the hard concrete. Any normal human would have been injured and hospitalized. Not my father. He was
up and back on the ladder before I could even ask him if he was alright.

But, even superheroes need rest. What you may not realize, though, is that superheroes do not rest
the same way that normal humans do. Vacations were a string of thousands and thousands of miles traveled.
There were sightseeing projects that would put Clark Griswald to shame. His relaxation was to escape the
everyday grind and to explore new and different worlds. His travels took him to 5 continents, and over 50
different countries. However, he continually told us that the country he loved the most was the United
States. “It is the most beautiful country in the world,” he would say, “Everything you can see in another
country, we have here.” Indeed he should know, during his life, he traveled to all fifty states.

Superheroes, as a general rule, save lives. My father spent his life and work focusing on this. My
father was involved in life saving on a daily basis. He spent his days honoring life and making every effort to
improve the quality of life of those around him. I have witnessed many men thank him for saving their lives.
Even in his retirement, he never stopped doing his job. He volunteered his time and money to perform
surgeries in Ghana, and in Haiti.

The lives he improved the most, and saved most often were the lives of his family. He has saved our
lives upon the sea, on the roadways, and even in our own home. Many times, our house and our family has
been in danger of fire. I have seen the man gather burning logs with his bare hands and expel them from our
house. He literally threw them out the back door! True, it was he who lit the fire in the fireplace, and piled
the logs so high that they came tumbling out of the fireplace, but in the end, he always saved us.

As far as improving the lives of his family, he has done so unquestionably and amazingly. When my
sister and I were old enough to leave the nest, our wings were never clipped. On the contrary, he gave us the
freedom to fly from one side of the globe to the other. My father gave me the opportunity to attend the
finest culinary school in the world, to chase my dreams to London, and to work at the top of Manhattan.

When Michael was inflicted with cancer, he scoffed at it, just as any superhero would. “Live by the
sword, die by the sword” he would say. There was never a day that he let the cancer slow him down. He
fought it for more than three years, even though he was only supposed to live six months. Instead of letting
it slow him or stop him from performing his job, he simply went on. Despite the cancer growing in his body,
he removed cancer from others in Africa and the Caribbean.

My father was a superhero for this reason: not a single day passed that he did not either try to
save someone’s life or make someone’s life better.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I could have never
asked for or even imagined a better father. I never looked up to Superman because to me he was always less
than the superhero I had at home.

If I ever had a hero, it was my father, Michael Anthony Niewodowski

Michael Anthony Niewodowski in Ghana


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#106 “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” by Jose Saramago (#194 on The List)

Picture 2

by Michael Niewodowski

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a novel about a single word.

After more than forty years of impeccable service in his profession, Raimundo Silva, a proofreader, intentionally alters a line in a history book manuscript; he changes “During the siege of Lisbon in the twelfth century, the king of Portugal asked help from the Crusaders, who had stopped to re-supply their ships; the Crusaders said that they would come to help attack the occupying Moors” to “the Crusaders said that they would NOT come to help attack the occupying Moors”.  As the proofreader is the last in line to examine a manuscript before publishing, the book was published with the erroneous information.  Silva’s decision is inexplicable: when asked “why?” he responds that he simply had a “Mr. Hyde” moment.  Rather than fire the proofreader, his superior suggests that he write a fictional history of the siege in which the Crusaders do not help the Portuguese.

History, reality, and even life itself can hinge on a single word. In his novel, Saramago questions the validity of written history and shows us how tenuous our understanding of reality can be.  The proofreader’s fictional account is much more interesting and exciting than the “true” history of the siege.  For Saramago, the truth should never stand in the way of a good story, and his-story trumps history.

Most of us can probably relate to Raimundo Silva’s “Mr. Hyde” moment; we all do things that are unprofessional or just plain wrong at work.  When I was a high school teacher, I often used curse words in front of my students. I was teaching Culinary Arts, and I had come from a professional restaurant kitchen environment, where screaming curses is commonplace- even expected. I brought the intensity of my 3 and 4 star restaurant experiences to the classroom, but I knew that it was unprofessional in the high school environment; ironically, this “Mr. Hyde” intensity made me more effective at my job, and my students more engaged and prepared.

Aptly, it was a single word that brought about my demise at my teaching job.

A student accused me of being a bully; if he said “bully” once, he said it a hundred times to any other parents, teachers, or administrators who would listen to him.  This was a student who had become disenfranchised and retaliatory because he had been cut from a competitive culinary team.  Although I NEVER threatened physical violence, it was pretty easy to construe “bullying” from my using curse words, and I was labeled and shamed.

When I was a child, a bully was someone that threatened physical violence to get something from another person (usually lunch money). Now, the definition of a bully is much broader; apparently, you only have to make someone uncomfortable to be considered a bully.  According to Norwegian researcher Dan Olwen (a supposed expert) a bully is someone who “intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words, or in other ways.”  By this definition, Mahatma Gandhi was a bully: he bullied the English through non-violent civil disobedience, intentionally inflicting discomfort upon them.  By this definition, Jesus Christ was a physically violent bully: he intentionally inflicted physical injury upon the moneychangers in the temple.  (Suddenly, my company doesn’t look so bad…..)  The word “bully” has become a buzz word, and it is thrown around a lot.  I would prefer a definition that does not encompass nearly every man, woman, child, and animal, as Olwen’s definition does.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon teaches us to choose our words wisely.  A single word may change history.

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#105 “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (#13 on The List)

Cloud Atlas

by Michael Niewodowski

#105 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (#13 on The List).

“Based on the novel by David Mitchell”

A great film is like a novel delivered in its entirety in about two to three hours.

I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas a few months ago, and I was blown away.  It was a breathtaking, sprawling, and thought provoking film.  After seeing the film, I checked out the novel to see how they compare.

Cloud Atlas consists of six separate stories, spanning centuries and all the stories are interconnected.  The novel begins with the first half of each story- a journal by a merchant at sea on the Pacific Ocean in the 1800’s, a set of letters from Belgium to a lover in the 1930’s, a conspiracy murder mystery story from the 1970’s, an Englishman’s memoirs from the 2000’s, a final prisoner interview from Korea in the 2100’s, and an oral yarn from a post-apocalyptic Hawaii set far in the future.  Then the novel works its way backwards in time telling the second half of each story.  Imagine nesting Russian dolls.  One of the amazing things about the novel is the author’s range- each story is completely different from the others.  The interconnectedness is even more amazing- each story references the one before it: in the letters, the lover reads the Pacific journal and comments on it, the heroine in the murder mystery reads and studies the lover’s letters (as well as searching out and listening to his musical composition “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”), the Englishman reads and later publishes the murder mystery, the Korean prisoner watches the film version of the Englishman’s memoirs, and the people of the post-apocalyptic Hawaii worship the heroine of the Korean prisoner interview as a god.  Furthermore, the main character in each story has a matching birthmark in the shape of a comet.  Are we meant to believe that the main character of each story is a reincarnated version of the earlier?  The heroine of the murder mystery believes so; the Englishman flat out denies it.  The novel leaves that and many other decisions to the imagination of the reader- especially, ‘how may one’s actions affect others, even centuries later?’.

The film version follows each of the six stories faithfully.  However, instead of telling half of each story chronologically, then working its way backwards in time with the second half, the movie continuously shifts from story to story.  Amazingly, this is very effective in telling each separate story as well as connecting them.  I imagine that a great deal of deliberation went into this decision; the producers must have considered telling each story consecutively, and also considered following the novel directly.  For a visual experience, the continual shifting was probably the best decision- it keeps the viewer on his toes to keep up with each story as well as the connections.  Another excellent decision the filmmakers made was to have the same actors play different roles in each story- Tom Hanks plays the main character in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, Halle Berry plays the heroine in the murder mystery, etc; each actor also appears in a supporting role (often unrecognizably made-up) in each of the other stories.

I am and always have been a huge movie fan.  I am ambivalent about book to movie films, however. The old adage is true- the book is ALWAYS better than the movie, but a good adaptation can be wonderful.  In general, I enjoy watching the movie adaptation before reading the book; I have never found an adapted film version that I did not later greatly enjoy reading the book.  However, if I read a book first, and then see the film, I am often disappointed by the changes and disparities.  Many people disagree with me on this point. When learning or teaching a Shakespeare play, I find it very helpful to see as many film adaptations of the play as possible; literary critic Stephen Greenblatt praised Shakespeare for his “extraordinary malleability”.  I have seen dozens of film and stage versions of Macbeth, and I learn something new from each adaptation.

On the flip side, a poor adaptation of a great book can make me furious!  Films like “I Am Legend”, “The Scarlet Letter”, and “Sleepy Hollow” are travesties.  Any viewer would be far better off spending the money and time reading the actual book instead of watching the film adaptation.

Book to film adaptations can be tricky: I thoroughly enjoyed “Life of Pi”, even though I saw it after reading the book.  “Les Miserables” is a book to stage musical to film version- it worked for me; for many others is was a ‘miserable’ experience.  I am far more enamored with The Hobbit novel than the recent movie.  “Cloud Atlas” stands out as a film to rival Cloud Atlas the novel.  That’s a rare feat.

Cloud Atlas 2


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#104 “The Graduate” by Charles Webb (#428 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#104 The Graduate by Charles Webb (#428 on The List).

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”  This is one of the most famous and memorable lines in the history of film.  The popularity of the film version has made Charles Webb’s The Graduate very familiar.  The 1963 novel and the 1967 film are both light satire of early 1960’s Americana.  Despite my mother’s description of the material as “pure pornography”, the content is not all that shocking- far less than what is found in any given Shakespeare play.  Both novel and film versions are amusing, but I found the novel to be much, much funnier.  Faced with dozens of extremely awkward moments, the main character, Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate, must find a way to graduate to adulthood.

Growing up is difficult and awkward.  Adolescence can be especially trying, as children learn to become adults.  After working with teenagers for eight years, I learned a lot about this topic.  Like an anthropologist, I studied their habits and activities.  One popular activity is to relate humorous anecdotes of awkward situations.  On Facebook, a teenager will update his status to: ‘That awkward moment when….’ For example: ‘That awkward moment when you say hi to your crush’ or ‘That awkward moment when everyone is serious and you start laughing’.  Usually, these moments are displayed as a source of humor and solidarity; those who relate click ‘like’ on the status update.  I would have loved to have seen Benjamin Braddock’s Facebook status updates:  ‘That awkward moment when your father’s business partner’s wife tries to seduce you….and she’s naked’ or ‘That awkward moment when you have to tell the girl that you have been dating that you have had an affair with her mother.’  I don’t imagine too many teenagers or young adults would completely relate to Braddock’s situation; I imagine he would have still gotten a lot of ‘likes’.

I was a very, very awkward teenager.  I am very tall (six feet, nine inches), and my body grew very fast; I was 6’7” in seventh grade, just as I was entering my teenage years.  Far from intimidating, I was as skinny as a rail and extremely uncoordinated.  I didn’t ‘fill out’ until I was in my twenties, and it took even longer for my coordination and mental capabilities to catch up.  After I graduated college, I attended culinary school; learning culinary arts did wonders for my coordination and motor skills.  Yet, after years of dealing with awkwardness, I still had mental blocks in certain areas.

In my mid-twenties, I was a journeyman chef living in Cincinnati, Ohio.  One night, my friends and I went to a club.  I couldn’t dance, and I stood out like a sore thumb; for years, I had avoided clubs and dances.  That night, some girls saw me floundering and laughed at me.  That was the last straw.  In true Niewodowski fashion, I completely over-compensated: I signed up for year long, twice weekly ballroom dance lessons.  The dance lessons at Arthur Murray turned out to be a wonderful experience!  For a year, I waltzed, mambo-ed, fox-trotted, swinged (swung?), hustled, cha-cha-ed, and rumba-ed with the prettiest girls in town.  However, for the first few weeks of lessons, I had to force myself to overcome a serious mental block; before each lesson my hands would shake, I would sweat, and I would stutter with fear.  My dance instructor must have thought I was a basket case upon first getting to know me.  Emotions have never been accused of being rational.

Although I had graduated college and culinary school,  I don’t feel like I matriculated into adulthood until I learned to dance.  All of us face trials and tribulations as we grow from teenagers to adults.  Fortunately, most of us graduate into adulthood without having to face ‘that awkward moment when you and your ex-mistress’ husband confrontationally discuss her sexual techniques’ like Benjamin Braddock.


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#103 “Regeneration” by Pat Barker (#170 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#103 Regeneration by Pat Barker (#170 on The List)

I have been apprehensive to write this journal entry.  I am going to touch on politics, and that is something I am loath to do in a public forum.  I am a very proud, patriotic American, and the deep political divides in this country pain me.  I have chosen to move forward, however, with courage and the hopes that my few readers will bear with a view that may differ from their own without hatred or attack.

Pat Barker’s Regeneration deals with the recovery and regeneration of World War One English soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (then called Shell Shock) at a mental hospital called Craiglockhart.  I have experiences with PTSD, but I think I will write about that in another entry; after all, Regeneration is the first novel in a trilogy, and the other two novels are on ‘The List’.  Barker interweaves fact and fiction in the novel: Craiglockhart War Hospital was real, as were the main characters Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon. The novel begins with a cannonball: a decorated soldier, Sassoon, has submitted a declaration of objection to the war and his refusal to take part in it any longer.  The letter has been published in the London Times, and has received a great deal of attention.  Unsure of how to deal with his declaration, the ‘powers that be’ send Sassoon to Craiglockhart for an examination of his sanity.

Many people objected to the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade.  Some went so far as to call the wars ‘immoral’.  I think that it is difficult enough to examine the morality of a person’s daily decisions, much less the morality of an entire war.  Counter-terrorism and foreign policy issues are extremely important to me; when I vote, at least 51% of my decision is based on these issues.  After my experiences on September 11, 2001, I doubt that anyone could blame me for this choice (except, of course, for the ideologues).  I fully support the Bush administration’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.  I truly believe that the United States is safer because of our military intervention overseas.  Whether or not all the facts were clear before the invasions, whether we are much safer or only slightly safer, whether it was moral or immoral are questions that I will leave to the many talking heads on cable networks.  At the very least, it is clear that these were hugely humanitarian efforts; the people of both countries are far better off with democracy in place rather than murderous dictators.  I also fully support the Obama administration’s covert invasions of Pakistani areas to eradicate Al-Qaeda cells, and especially Osama bin Laden.

It is interesting to me, however to compare the two approaches.  On the one hand, the Bush administration used a multilateral coalition invasion of enemy countries, whereas the Obama administration has used frequent covert, unilateral raids in an ally country.  There is no question that President Bush could have ordered unilateral strikes into Pakistan to eliminate terrorist cells, and probably even Osama bin Laden; the technology and force were certainly available.  Bush believed that diplomatic relations with Pakistan outweighed the risks of invading a tenuous ally in the volatile Middle East; only after seven years of diplomacy did Bush begin to work with the Pakistani government to request raids and ground skirmishes on the Afghan/Pakistani border.  Despite the many, many characterizations to the opposite, it seems that President Bush was a diplomat and that President Obama is a cowboy.  This is not a criticism, just an observation; I am a fan of diplomats and cowboys alike.

The Bush administration’s hope was that democracy in the Middle East would spread like wildfire- that upon witnessing democracy in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan, other Middle East countries would overthrow despotic dictators and insist on democracy.  I thought this was a very quixotic view when it was announced.  Amazingly, the last few years have seen exactly this situation: in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, the people have fought or are fighting to overthrow oppressive dictators and install democracy.  The actions of the Obama administration in Pakistan remain to be seen.  A nuclear Pakistan would make a very powerful, very dangerous enemy to the United States.  I hope that our relations have not been damaged beyond repair.

From what I understand of World War I, it was the most immoral war fought in the western world in modern times.  It was the first time that modern technology played a role in warfare, and gas warfare was so horrific that it became outlawed after the war at the Geneva Convention.  The war was based on centuries of prejudice, misunderstandings, and militarism. Unlike the recent wars in the Middle East, World War I did not end tyranny or oppression; it merely set the stage for the rise of fascism and communism and World War II (a war which did indeed end tyranny and oppression).  The ‘fog of war’ precludes us from seeing what long-term results will come from our military actions in the Middle East; we can only hope that we follow the important lessons we have learned from the mistakes of World War I and the triumphs of World War II.

Novels like Regeneration are important reminders of these lessons. By the end of the novel, Sassoon is even more adamant about his declaration of objection, and rightly so.  Regeneration should be required reading for all U.S. military leaders.


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