Category Archives: Journals

These are the reviews of the books I have read and written about.

#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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#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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#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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#101 “Dead Souls” by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#101 Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

Nikolay Gogol went completely mad as he was writing Dead Souls.  After reading the novel, this makes a lot of sense to me.  It starts out as a humorous, biting satire, but spirals off into near incomprehensibleness in the second part.  There are huge chunks of text missing, and the book ends unfinished- literally in mid-sentence.  Gogol died of self-inflicted starvation before he finished the novel.

In Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels the Russian countryside purchasing the deeds to dead serfs from rich landowners.  Chichikov has discovered a bureaucratic loophole that can help him to get rich by mortgaging the deeds to the dead serfs before the government realizes that they are dead; the dead souls are more valuable to him than the living serfs.  The satire is that the Russia would place more value on dead serfs than live ones.

Class distinction and inequality is an oft-used theme in literature.  Nowhere is it better satirized than in Dead Souls.  A lot has been said and written in the last few years about this issue: the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has targeted the top 1% of earners in the United States (those making over $500,000 a year).  I grew up in an upper-middle class family, now I am somewhere in the middle-lower-middle class to upper-lower-middle class range; each range has its own advantages and problems.  It is interesting to see how much attention society places on this issue, but apparently it is nothing new: “we have men so wise and adroit that they will speak to a landowner possessing but two hundred serf-souls in a way altogether different from that in which they will to one who possesses three hundred of them; while to him who possesses three hundred of them they will again speak not in the same way as they would with him that has five hundred souls…in brief, even if you were to go up to a million, you would find different shadings for each category.”  (Dead Souls, p. 57).   I think that most Americans in the “99%” would find themselves just as uncomfortable in the bottom 1% (making $2500 or less per year) as the top 1% would be.  Most of the populace in Gogol’s Russia would have fallen into this category of extremely poor.

This will sound base and unconnected, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Russian literature is for the wonderful Russian character names.  Besides Chichikov, there are characters named Athanassii Vassilievich Murazov, Fedor Fedorovich Lenitzin, and Alexander Dmitrievich Betrischev.  Some of the names from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are even more fun: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, etc.  If I ever write a novel, I will be sure to have a character with a great Russian name.

I think that the “Occupy Wall Street” people would learn a lot from reading Dead Souls and the information about Gogol; sometimes I worry that if they are too successful we’ll all have our exact income percentage projected on our foreheads.  According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Gogol’s intention for Dead Souls was to “rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny…he no longer wanted to write about Russia: he wanted to save it” (p. 112).  If we become too obsessed with fixing class inequality, we could, like Gogol, go stark raving mad.


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#57 Revisited “The Once and Future King” by T. H. White


by Michael Niewodowski

#57 Revisited The Once and Future King by T. H. White (#477 on The List)

Hic jacet Arthurus, rex quondam, rex que futurus (Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be) – inscribed on King Arthur’s tomb.


‘Magical’ is not nearly a strong enough term for T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. This re-telling of the classic King Arthur legend is set in antiquity, but told in a modern style.  From the magician Merlyn’s training of young Arthur (the Wart) to the Knights of the Round Table to the Quest for the Holy Grail to Lancelot and Queen Guinevere’s affair to the tragic ending, one episode is more enchanting than the other.

The Arthurian legends have been told and retold throughout the centuries, setting the scene for Britain’s rich history of fantasy literature, including Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ Narnia series, and Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  The Once and Future King has become a part of our culture; it inspired the Disney film “The Sword in the Stone” and the musical “Camelot”, and J.K. Rowling cited it as a major inspiration for her novels.  It seems strange, therefore, that White’s novel is not better known; it certainly deserves as much recognition as the aforementioned works.  When I chose the book from my list earlier this year, I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was about.

There is a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to be gained from reading The Once and Future King; in fact some of the wisest and most inspirational quotes I know comes from the novel.*  For me, however, reading this book is all about experiencing childlike wonder and joy.  Turning the pages of this novel is like unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.  Consider the following passage in which Merlyn becomes frustrated with the Wart’s training:

Merlyn took off his spectacles, dashed them on the floor and jumped on them with both feet.

‘Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!’ he exclaimed, and immediately vanished with a frightful roar.

The Wart was still staring at his tutor’s chair in some perplexity, a few moments later, when Merlyn reappeared.  He had lost his hat and his hair and beard were tangled up, as if by a hurricane.  He sat down again, straightening his gown with trembling fingers.

‘Why did you do that?’ asked the Wart.

‘I did not do it on purpose.’

‘Do you mean to say that Castor and Pollux did blow you to Bermuda?’

‘Let this be a lesson to you,’ replied Merlyn, ‘not to swear…’

(…a lesson I might have done well to learn earlier in life.)

When I was in a graduate English class studying Shakespeare and Marlowe, our professor talked about how much she enjoyed reading Macbeth for the witches.  In the midst of hundreds of hours and thousands of pages of intensive literary criticism, our brilliant PhD professor spoke about the childlike joy she got out of reading about mystical characters.  How refreshing!

We read for a myriad of reasons: to learn, to escape, to change, and to grow.  One of the best reasons to read is for the sheer joy of it.  Personally, I’ve found no novel that has given me more joy than The Once and Future King.  I can hardly wait until my son is a little bit older so that I can read it to him.  What a glorious book!


* “The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That’s the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the only thing for you.  Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

Note:  No reading of The Once and Future King is complete without the posthumously published conclusion, The Book of Merlyn, as White intended.  The Book of Merlyn itself has an interesting story as a “casualty of war.”


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#99 “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

by Michael Niewodowski

#99 Life of Pi by Yann Martel (#49 on The List)

A boy adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean…..with a Bengal tiger.  I admit; I only had to see this image from the preview for the upcoming movie version of Life of Pi, and I rushed to the library to check out the book.  Yann Martel’s first novel is a spellbinding adventure story.  Part survival tale, part religious contemplation, it is a book that I would recommend to anyone with an adventurous spirit.

Life of Pi follows the story of Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel, the son of a zookeeper, growing up in Pondicherry, India.  Even as a young teenager, Pi has a daring character; he simultaneously becomes a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim, much to the chagrin of his parents, not to mention the pandit, priest, and imam.  Pi quotes Gandhi: “All religions are true.”  When Pi and his family (mother, father, brother and most of the zoo) set sail for a new life in Canada,  Pi’s great adventure begins. Cast away on a lifeboat with a 450 pound tiger, Pi puts all of his endurance, survival skills, and faith to the test.

It is strange that in life, sometimes the greatest tragedy can lead to the greatest triumphs.  Pi’s greatest tragedy lead to his triumph- conquering certain death either from the high seas or at the claws and teeth of a hungry tiger.

The greatest tragedy in my life led to one of my greatest triumphs.  I am a September 11, 2001 terrorist attack survivor.  I worked on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center up until 9/11.  On that horrible day, I watched the towers burn from less than a mile away; a few hours before or after, I would have been in the building myself.  As a direct result of this tragedy, for nearly the next decade, I dedicated myself to service.  I took a job at a lower socio-economic high school, teaching Culinary Arts.  I gave thousands of hours of my own time, and thousands of my own dollars to build a program from scratch.  I gave heart and soul to my students and to the community.  I know that I made a huge difference in many people’s lives; after my work as a father, I am most proud of my accomplishments as a teacher.  This culminated in telling my story- this story- to a crowd of thousands of teachers, students, and industry leaders.

Pi’s high-seas adventure ended with a disappointment.  However, the rest of his life became his greatest adventure yet.  My teaching adventure ended with a disappointment.  The rest of my life has just begun.

Life of Pi teaches us that we write our own Story.


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#98 “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace

by Michael Niewodowski

#98 Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. (#107 on The List)

(Hamlet takes the skull): “Alas poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred my imagination is! My gorge rises at it…..” Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1.

We live in very stressful times. From the up-to-the-second paced, information-overloaded world of modern technology to constant, screaming streams of bad (never good) news-casts to an excess of daily obligations, a hysterical reality pervades our culture. Infinite Jest* is a study in anxiety. It is a look at the frantic hyper-angst we experience daily and our desperate, futile attempts to process it positively.

It’s a comedy.

In fact, it is the funniest novel I have ever read. I laughed loudly dozens of times. Three times, I laughed until tears rolled down my cheeks.

Set in an alternate present in which years are no longer told by consecutive numbers, but rather subsidized by corporate sponsors (most of the action takes place in the Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment), Infinite Jest loosely follows the lives of the Incandenza family. The characters are……..interesting. James O. Incandenza, the paterfamilias, has made a film, ‘Infinite Jest’ (aka The Entertainment), that is so entertaining that anyone who watches it, even for a moment, has no other compulsion but to watch it over and over again, eventually dying from lack of sustenance. Incandenza uses an actress in the film that is so beautiful that she must wear a veil over her face to stop men from falling desperately in love with her; Orin Incandenza, one of the three sons, does. If The Entertainment could be weaponized by Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (Quebec separatist wheelchair assassins), it could be a nation destroyer. A CIA-like agent, Hugh/Helen Steeply, undergoes gender re-assignment surgery to more effectively infiltrate and stop the separatist group. Hal Incandenza, the youngest son, is a marijuana addicted, boarding school tennis brat, who plays Eschaton** and contemplates his relationship with his (now deceased) father.

Many of the episodes in the novel seem to be governed by a more extreme version of Murphy’s Law: if it can go wrong, it will; it can always go wrong, so it always will go wrong; when it goes wrong, it will go wrong in a very, very bad way. This leads to situations in which normal tasks like fixing a squeaky bed, re-parking a car, or interviewing with college admissions become epic struggles reminiscent of The Iliad.***

My father was tightly wound. An annoying song, a squeaky wheel, or a less-than-helpful customer-service-representative could send him into paroxysms of angry frustration that most of us will never know. Besides his more-than-full-time job as a surgeon, he worked sixty to eighty hours a week on home repairs, family auto repairs, and intensive yard landscaping. Even entertainment and relaxation were full-time jobs for him; he would meticulously plan out nearly every aspect of the family vacation- the rest of the family were clearly only along for the ride. For the most part, my father and I differ on this account. I consider myself to be fairly calm, although I imagine that many people that saw me working as a professional chef would say otherwise.

Anxiety and addiction go hand in hand. Most of the characters in Infinite Jest are extremely anxious, and extremely addicted. Much of the action is set at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. In the world of Infinite Jest,
The Entertainment represents the ultimate drug; some characters literally beg to view the film, despite full awareness that it is essentially suicide.

I have recently come to terms with a fifteen-year adrenaline addiction. A professional restaurant kitchen environment is, by design, a high stress environment. Most chefs, myself included, would trigger the fight or flight mechanism to get a rush of adrenaline; this gave us the ability to accomplish superhuman feats of skill and organization. I honestly did not recognize the addiction nor even the ‘adrenaline drug’ while I was working as a chef. I feel very fortunate that I never succumbed to much more serious alcohol or drug addiction, like so many chefs and restaurant workers do.

We all need some sort of escape from reality— some entertainment. For now, I have replaced my adrenaline rush with this healthier(?) escape into 1001 novels and writing this blog.

At over 1000 pages (I listened to more than 56 hours of unabridged audiobook), and with 388 footnotes, David Foster Wallace’s novel is a magnum opus, extravagant in details, with intricate and intense plot and character connections****.

The hyper-anxiety– the hysterical reality– that Wallace so adeptly describes is amplified by his suicide less than ten years after publication of Infinite Jest.

(Hamlet, still holding the skull): “….Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen?” Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1.

The rest is silence…..except, of course, for the footnotes.


*In an attempt to be true to Wallace’s style, I will use footnotes in this blog. In a break from his style, I will use asterisks in the place of numbers.

**Eschaton is a world domination and destruction game played on several tennis courts where tennis balls are nuclear weapons lobbed at opposing countries.

***For example: consider the following excerpt from Infinite Jest:


Dear Sir:
I am writing in response to your request for additional information. In block #3 of the accident reporting form, I put “trying to do the job alone”, as the cause of my accident. You said in your letter that I should explain more fully and I trust that the following details will be sufficient.
I am a bricklayer by trade. On the day of the accident, March 27, I was working alone on the roof of a new six story building. When I completed my work, I discovered that I had about 900 kg. of brick left over. Rather than laboriously carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel by using a pulley which fortunately was attached to the side of the building at the sixth floor. Securing the rope at ground level, I went up to the roof, swung the barrel out and loaded the brick into it. Then I went back to the ground and untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 900 kg of bricks. You will note in block #11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 75 kg.
Due to my surprise at being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and the broken collar bone.
Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were two knuckles deep into the pulleys. Fortunately, by this time, I had regained my presence of mind, and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of considerable pain. At approximately the same time, however, the barrel of bricks hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel from the force of hitting the ground.
Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel now weighed approximately 30 kg. I refer you again to my weight of 75 kg in block #11. As you could imagine, still holding the rope, I began a rather rapid descent from the pulley down the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up. This accounts for the two fractured ankles and the laceration of my legs and lower body.
The encounter with the barrel slowed me enough to lessen my impact with the brick-strewn ground below. I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the bricks in considerable pain, unable to stand or move and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my presence of mind and unfortunately let go of the rope, causing the barrel to begin a
(pp. 138-140)

****See character map:


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