Tag Archives: great writers

on noticing clouds

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A few weeks back, I got a comment from menhir, mentioning that someone had said that there were no clouds in Israel. I decided to photograph some immediately. Went out for a walk and did it. But then… just couldn’t think of any story to tell that would enable me to use the clouds for illustration. I guess I just like a wide open blue sky, and we do have them now and then. Watching clouds in the sky brings me very personal subjective thoughts… nothing I would share in public. I remember the cloud photos of Stieglitz and Steichen, and how people enjoyed them. But clouds never did that much for me as a subject for photography.

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When taking a walk, by myself or with others, I don’t look for subjects. They find me. Some to be appreciated visually, and some as thoughts, memories, dilemmas or inspiration. I do enjoy company, but when walking alone my thoughts are deepest and longer lasting. If I read a fascinating book, it’ll often accompany me as I walk. I have spent a lot of time with Theodore Roosevelt in the past few weeks. First his autobiography, and then ‘River of Doubt’ which Cheri recommended, and got me interested in TR. It’s an excellent book. As a study of Roosevelt, it reveals much of the same man that I got to know while reading his autobiography. Aside from that, it enabled me to know the others who were part of his great adventure in the Amazon, and provided the background to better understand TR’s passion to conquer new territory.

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A hundred years ago, when he lived his life, there had been a great leap in mankind’s understanding of nature and this planet on which we live. Roosevelt was inspired by the first successful expedition to the north pole. He found a romantic delight in the heroic feats of previous explorers who had revealed many parts of the world, unknown to Europeans and the west. The invention of the train, automobile, airplane, electrical light and devices aroused the hope in people that they would soon know and understand all of the world.

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From the start of the tale, we are aware of conditions and attitudes which will weaken and challenge the expedition. He wishes to learn unknown territory, to map the geography and examine wildlife and plant life which may be completely new to him. But because of prejudice, does not choose to first acquaint himself with the human beings who live on that territory. I don’t blame him. As we do today, he accepted the conventions of his time. He was exploring an area of Brazil. And Brazil was a sovereign nation, whose government was cooperating with him. The natives of that country, living outside of those territories that had the advantages of modern technology and culture were considered primitive cave men whose only hope was being civilized by the representatives of western culture.

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At the start of the expedition there were 19 officers, almost 150 hired hands, and 200 pack animals. As the expedition approached that leg of the journey which was completely unknown (to modern mankind), after reducing the crew to 22 men, there was no way of going back, not enough food, and a lack of equipment, especially appropriate boats to enable them to travel efficiently down a river in which the rapids were impassable. They were forced to bypass those rapids each time when encountered. How different the expedition would have been if they had found some way to cooperate with the indigenous tribes who were native to the land. Or if they had made a primary small visit to the area in order to acquaint themselves with the conditions in the Amazon jungle before attempting to follow a river nearly 1,500 kilometers in length.

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But Roosevelt was a romantic hero of historic proportions, and influenced by the standards of his time. He approached his mission with the preconceptions of his day. He traveled with an entourage that was fitting for a king, or for the ex-president of the USA. As difficult as the journey became, through sickness, wounds, fear and worry, he remained loyal to his principles. He was a man who did not fear to live his life despite the dangers.

life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living

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wisdom of the past

Since starting to use the internet, I’ve encountered a regular stream of quotations from well known thinkers and writers, on a variety of subjects meant to enlighten and encourage us. I’ve often felt that the quotations were false. They didn’t always fit the personality of the individual being quoted. Sometimes they quoted a person whom I’d previously read, and the quote seemed highly unlikely. Occasionally they were irrelevant, such as: “Always zip up your fly before going out” by Albert Einstein. When seeing something like that, I wonder how many people go to the source and try to understand the thoughts and intentions of the person quoted.

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I got a comment from our friend Cheri a few weeks ago that included a recommendation of River Of Doubt by Candace Millard. I read a couple of reviews, and bought the book. I had long heard of Theodore Roosevelt, but had never read him. I had read about him in history books. many years ago. I knew he had written quite a bit himself. But none of his books are translated into Hebrew. Thinking about him, and this tale of an adventure of his in South America, I thought that I would rather meet him in his own words before I read the book about him. I got his autobiography. It’s very different to read a man’s account of his own life as compared to how others see him. Even as I read the forward, I felt a great respect for him. I’ve been reading about American presidents and following their speeches and decisions since the days of Eisenhower and I had never encountered anyone like him. He reminded me of Thomas Jefferson who had led that nation a hundred years before Roosevelt.

As I continued to read the autobiography, I learned to love the man. He was a true leader and teacher. A modest man, he was very aware of his faults and his limitation. He saw himself as a regular fellow. He writes of an occasion when he was toasted by the crew of a Navy vessel on which he had sailed with his wife. It was a a time when he was working with a Government Commission to revive the inland waterways of the country. At the conclusion of the trip, one of the petty officers proposed the toast as follows “Now then, men, three cheers for Theodore Roosevelt, the typical American citizen!” That was the way in which they thought of the American President, and it pleased him greatly.

As a child he had health problems, was a bit weak. As he describes it, he was neither a genius nor exceptionally gifted in talent. But he kept on working on himself, trying to learn what this life was all about and what was truly valuable. He read and studied as a youth. Often beaten by bullies, he learned how to box in order to defend himself. And as a young man, he left his comfortable environment in a well-to-do neighborhood of New York City, and went out west (in those days the Dakotas were considered part of the west), and chose to live the life of a cowboy. As he progressed in life, he sought out challenges; tried to actually live the experiences that attracted him in books. Moreover, he tried to live his life according to the values he believed in, and though he had the greatest respect and affection for the common man, he was not satisfied to go along with the crowd.

Perhaps he was overshadowed by the second President Roosevelt, but in these days, when so many Americans are disappointed by the present American President, I think it would be very helpful to read this exemplary man. For he saw that there was something wrong with the direction his country was taking, and tried to change things. And he tells us what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to make a change, trying to reform established practices. I don’t agree with all of his opinions, but I do think that what he writes about is important for all who love and care for democracy. And I believe that he presents his values well. He translated the ideas of ‘conservation’ (now called ecology), to a working plan for government, and was the first leader in the world who actually provided tools of government with which to control the abuse of the environment.

He writes:

The men who first applied the extreme Democratic theory in American life were, like Jefferson, ultra individualists, for at that time what was demanded by our people was the largest liberty for the individual. During the century that had elapsed since Jefferson became President the need had been exactly reversed. There had been in our country a riot of individualistic materialism, under which complete freedom for the individual— that ancient license which President Wilson a century after the term was excusable has called the “New” Freedom— turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak.

He writes that he often listen and consulted with those with whom he did not agree. He even deliberates on whether one should listen to the arguments of truly evil people, and says that he was able to learn even from them.

I consulted all who wished to see me; and if I wished to see any one, I sent for him … and I always finally acted as my conscience and common sense bade me act.

I would find an occasional humorous anecdote here and there, and laughed along with him as I read.

There was a big governmental job in which this leader was much interested, and in reference to which he always wished me to consult a man whom he trusted, whom I will call Pitt Rodney. One day I answered him, “The trouble with Rodney is that he misestimates his relations to cosmos”; to which he responded, “Cosmos— Cosmos? Never heard of him. You stick to Rodney. He’s your man!”

He talks about reading and books, giving great advice to the student. He might not have told all about his presidency, but he did tell how he worked to live a meaningful life. Telling that, he manages to cover numerous activities that we all engage in. And there is much to learn from his words. I could bring you many quotes from the book, but I will conclude with a short one that I found most important:

But life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living.

 

contemporary literature part 2

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To continue our discussion on books, I was looking for contemporary fiction which would speak of the existential issues of mankind, of the aspirations of the young generation today, of the influence of technology on the life style and the mentality of contemporary society, and of the eternal questions as they are reflected in this generation. I have to add that in recent years, I have become aware of the ‘post modern’ influence on the arts, and usually I have not been comfortable with that style. I don’t wish to explore the depths of that philosophical point of view in this post. It deserves a post of its own. But I will mention two prominent characteristics of the post modern viewpoint. The narrative often embraces paradox and irony, and there is a general belief that two or more contrary ‘truths’ can exist together.

Saturday

About a year ago, I discovered Ian McEwan, and read ‘Saturday’ and ‘Amsterdam’ by him. My impression was that he has a beautiful language, and is a writer of classic gifts. Then I began to read his ‘Black Dogs’, and was unable to continue to the end. It was the first time I began to wonder whether the post modern point of view had begun to find it’s way into contemporary literature. This year I discovered Margaret Atwood, and continued to read her after purchasing a Kindle. The Kindle was bought primarily to make it easier for me to purchase recent books in English, without waiting a long time for the books to be sent to me. After getting the Kindle, I discovered T.C. Boyle and Richard Ford. I feel that I’m beginning to learn the nature of the fine writing of this generation.

Robber Bride

Sometimes it takes a while to acclimate to a different culture. I didn’t expect the new literature in the west to express my viewpoint, or to be concerned with the issues that most concerned me. I’m an Israeli, steeped in the Jewish culture, and also an old man. I am aware that society has moved forward, and that I haven’t kept up in many ways. But as I have mentioned on occasion, I’ve always believed that a sign of great art is that when we enjoy it, even when coming from very different circumstances than those of the artist, we feel that the artist is touching on some meaningful points of our own lives.

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In reading Atwood, I enjoyed her lively imagination, and her beautiful poetic prose. It seemed that she was a vehement critic of certain failures of society, especially in relation to woman’s place in society. But I was also dismayed by a prevalent sense of alienation in her writing, the pessimism, and the almost constant sadness. I read three of her dystopian volumes. I believe that she has some very important things to say. But at the same time, there is a sadness and a helpless attitude in her writing that is very discouraging. ‘Cat’s Eye’ was a masterpiece. But it was fatalistic, unhappy. And it’s major character was alienated throughout her life, and unable to enjoy love or a healthy union with a partner. Worst of all, I had the impression that her characters found it hard to make life changing decisions. ‘The Robber Bride’ was another fine book of hers that I read. And here too, I felt that choice had been overcome by fatalism.

The Women

I discovered T.C. Boyle a couple of months ago. I have read two of his books, and have already bought a third. The first I read was ‘The Women’. It tells the story of the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. I was familiar with Wright’s work, and had even read some of his writing. I felt that I knew a little bit about this great American architect. I didn’t know much about his personal life. When reading the book, it seemed a bit like reading about the life of a celebrity. I believe the story was built on a skeleton of relevant facts. And it was very interesting to get a lot of information on his private life, and be able to see him from a different perspective. But I felt that someone who was unfamiliar with the work of the man, would have gotten a very mistaken impression of what his life was all about. For each of us has good characteristics and bad. And by ignoring all his good points, the man seemed like a megalomanic donkey. In reading some of the reviews after having read the book, I encountered such opinions. But I believe that the portrait was twisted and warped.

Independence Day

The fourth contemporary writer that I encountered was Richard Ford. His name turned up in a review of another book which I decided not to read. But from what I did read about Ford, I thought that he might be a good example of a prime author of this 21st century. I chose to read his book, ‘Independence Day’ first, because it had received two prestigious awards. It was very well written. There was both subtlety and depth in the drawing of the characters, and a psychological understanding of the forces at play, between the lines of the narrative. But the hero of the story was in fact an anti-hero. This was a man who avoided commitment at all cost. He was unable to love, and had great difficulty parenting his children. Like other characters I had met in recent reading, he seemed a sort of helpless loser who was pushed and dragged through life by fate. He spoke of ‘existence’ as being enough for him. There seemed no drive to achieve something that was greater than himself. It wasn’t only that he was devoid of any great aspirations. He seemed unaware of anything greater or more important than banal human affairs.

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And so my friends, I would like to ask you who are more involved in the English language culture than I am… is this all there is? Are there other new authors out there who give us a spark of hope? Is there a more balanced approach to the affairs of man? Or is this the spirit of the times today. I know that sadness is as much a part of life as happiness. But are books today offering just the sorrow of life? I have received some recommendation for new reading in response to the first part of this article. I haven’t really checked them out yet, because we are in the middle of the holiday season. But I would be very happy to receive still more recommendations, and reading material I might try. It is not that I have nothing to read. I have never run out of things to learn, and I can continue to read the wisdom of the past and to enjoy it. But I would like very much to understand the direction of today’s generation, and I was hoping to find something a little more positive. I do appreciate your comments.

contemporary fine literature

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Let me share with you, my friends, a quandary that has been occupying my thoughts in the last two months, since the purchase of my Kindle. Though I was once very fond of European and western literature, I’ve not kept up with what was happening in that area of artistic endeavor… for many years. And so, with the newly acquired ability to order books in English and have them delivered in a matter of minutes, I started my search for contemporary literature in the west.

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To understand what I was looking for, you should have an idea of my taste in reading material. I won’t speak of the subjects that I have been following in my own language, sometimes in translation. For I have an interest in history, philosophy, and anthropology, as well as the physical sciences. But what I haven’t been reading for years, is contemporary fiction and poetry. And that is what I wished to explore and update. In fact, even describing this subject was a bit hard for me, because I kept thinking of ‘modern literature’, forgetting that ‘modern’ is a designation for a cultural period that has already been swept into the past.

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In my younger days, I devoured the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and quite a few of the modern European writers and Thinkers. I was especially enthusiastic about the American and English writers. I will mention just a few of my very favorite volumes and writers. Albert Camus was an all time favorite. But I especially appreciated the Stranger and The Plague. I read many of the works of Saul Bellow, but the book that stood out more than all the rest, was ‘Henderson the Rain King’, and I recommended that book to many of my friends. I would recommend it to all of my readers, if you haven’t read it. It is a truly exceptional literary adventure. I read all of John Steinbeck, and loved ‘East of Eden’ the most. Admired Earnest Hemmingway very much, and though many have read his ‘Old Man and the Sea’, and that is truly one of the great peaks of modern literature, there are some others, like ‘Moveable Feast’ that are well worth reading. One of the books I came upon almost by accident, was ‘Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes written as a short story in 1958, and later expanded into a novel. It left me with a life long impression, and is one of the reasons that even now I continuously look for new works of Science Fiction. But I regret to say, that I haven’t found much recently that has captured my attention in that field.

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Another modern science fiction book that really made an impression on me was ‘Cat’s Cradle’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. But the more I read of him, the more treasures I found, and I believe that ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is one of the great works of 20th century fiction. I especially loved the conversation between man and god. William Faulkner was a great inspiration for me. Reading his prose was like reading poetry, and it was while I read him in the original English, that I first ventured to think that I might like writing in that language. I would suggest ‘The Sound and the Fury’ to those who have not read him. And of course, the mention of this inspiration brings to mind Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English though his own language was Polish, and is surely an inspiration for all those who have learned to love English as a second language.

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Discovering Jack Kerouac lead me to the Beat Generation and a treasure trove of fine writing after WWII. I could write at length about what I found there, but this post has a different purpose. Yet, in that connection (and again, I can’t tell the whole story here), I would like to mention still another great book, which came out late for me, but which I managed to read, and I treasure it to this day; ‘Straight Life’, the autobiography by Art Pepper, that great saxophone player and composer, whose music I love and listen to, often. And I can’t forget the important contribution of Norman Mailer to the public discussion of values and the meaning of life, even if he was not always at his best, and embarrassed himself by his actions on more than one occasion. Still I consider ‘Advertisements for Myself’ a beautiful example of the aspirations of some of the finest intellectuals in the west after WWII.

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Though I have a special love for thinkers, and writers who are influenced by philosophy, I do like adventure and amusement, and spent many enjoyable hours reading Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. Their writing offered a penetrating view of the society around them, even while entertaining the reader and offering an escape from some of the more dismal realities of their times. Such writers were a balance to such as Aldous Huxley and Arthur Koestler, two of my favorites… who continuously grappled with the possibilities of further expanding the awareness of man, and coming to terms with meaning in life. And here I might mention that Koestler too adopted English as a second language.

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So this gives you an idea of what I look for and what I have found valuable in reading western authors. It is just a partial list, but it represents my taste. And I was sure that if I went looking for contemporary authors, I would discover like minds among the present generation. In the last few months, I have found three very interesting authors, and I am presently reading their works. I have read four volumes by Margaret Atwood, two books by T.C. Boyle, and am presently reading ‘Independence Day’ by Richard Ford. I realize that this post is getting long as it is, without a discussion of these writers as compared to my expectations. Perhaps I will have to write a ‘part 2’ to this post, for further discussion. But let me just say, that I hope to find inspiration in my reading. I believe in human choices, and believe that even when criticizing the wrongs of society, and our own failures as human beings, it’s equally important to be constantly on the look out for what can nurture our own potential, and that of our fellow man.