Category Archives: Journals

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

#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!

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* “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:

FROM INTERNAL INTERLACE-SYSTEM E-MAIL MEMO
26 JUNE
YEAR OF DAIRY PRODUCTS FROM THE AMERICAN HEARTLAND

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
endtranslNTCOM626
(pp. 138-140)

****See character map: http://www.sampottsinc.com/ij/file/IJ_Diagram.pdf

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#97 “Cocaine Nights” by J.G. Ballard

by Michael Niewodowski

#97 “Cocaine Nights” by J.G. Ballard. (# 102 on The List).

Crime is alive and well in the Spanish beachside resort town Estrella del Mar, and so are the residents- most of them anyway. A quintuple arson murder shocks the transplant residents, despite their accustomedness to gambling, drug dealing, prostitution, robbery, and even rape. Spain’s sun-coast (Costa del Sol) is an early retirement Mecca for northern Europeans, especially the English. Along the Costa del Sol, most towns are virtually crime-free, governed and policed by the expatriates- seemingly having expelled the Spanish from their own coast. “Things are different in Estrella del Mar,” the characters often inform us. Even the victims of crime in the town act like they are “swallowing an unpleasant medicine for [their] own good” (p. 127). However, compared to the tranquilized, zombie-like residents of the rest of the Costa del Sol, the residents of Estrella del Mar are lively, athletic, cultured, and exciting. When Frank Prentice inexplicably confesses to the quintuple murder, his brother, Charles Prentice, goes to Estrella del Mar to investigate, entering a world he does not understand.

“Cocaine Nights” is a ‘page turner that will keep you guessing.’ It also asks important questions about the role of crime in society. Is crime a necessary part of a thriving society? If pain is often an impetus for positive change in an individual, is not crime an impetus for positive change in a society? “Name me a time when civic pride and the arts both flourished and there wasn’t extensive crime,” (p.261) referencing Shakespeare’s London and Medici’s Florence. It certainly works for the residents of Estrella del Mar; crime, cocaine, heroin, and LSD keep the residents very lively. Meanwhile on the rest of the coast, the same North European expatriates are dulled and dimmed by “socially acceptable” prescription medications and boredom in a completely safe condo compound; they watch satellite TV World Cup re-runs with the noise turned off. Wouldn’t a few designer drugs and some criminal mischief do them good?

The parallels with “Cocaine Nights” and my own life are interesting (well, at least to me they are). When I was 18 years old, the summer after I graduated high school, my parents gave me a graduation gift of spending a month in Alicante, Spain on the Costa del Sol. While I was there, a good friend of mine was robbed at knifepoint of her purse, watch, and jewelry by a gypsy. Although it wasn’t a life-changing experience, I still remember the excited fear I felt at hearing about the encounter, even twenty years later. The rest of us were much more vigilant after that.

Living on the suncoast of Florida, I have catered (literally) to rich, Northern transplants. I have found them to be much closer to Ballard’s zombie-like residents of the Costa del Sol than the residents of Estrella del Mar. “We’re building prisons all over the world and calling them luxury condos.” (p. 220). Despite living in ‘paradise’, and despite all their money, they usually seem bored or angry. However, upon visiting a place like Miami Beach, with it’s propensity for crime and drug use, I found a much different, much more lively type of transplant resident.

Maybe the greatest trouble in paradise is ennui.

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