Don Marquis — Forgotten Genius

February 23, 2018

Sometime in my very early twenties, near the beginning of the 1970s, someone turned me on to Don Marquis and his 1910s/1920s stories about Archy the cockroach, a writer of free verse, and Mehitabel the alley cat who thought she was a reincarnation of Cleopatra.

Archy would supposedly leave poems on Marquis’ desk that the cockroach typed by jumping up and down on the keys. There were never any capital letters or punctuation because he couldn’t use the shift key.  Here is a typical poem “The Wisdom of Archy“:

as a representative
of the insect world
i have often wondered
on what man bases his claims
to superiority
everything he knows he has had
to learn whereas we insects are born
knowing everything we need to know
a louse i
used to know
told me that
millionaires and
bums tasted
about alike
to him

In “Archy Hears from Mars,” extraterrestrials reach out to the roach by radio because humans proved too hard to contact. Upon their request that he tell them about his planet, Archy explains:

[… ] it is
round like an orange
or a ball
and it is all cluttered
up with automobiles
and politicians
it doesn t know where it is
going nor why
but it is in a hurry
it is in charge of a
two legged animal called
man who is genuinely
puzzled as to whether
his grandfather was a god
or a monkey
I was reminded to re-read these wonderful works by an article in the Poetry Foundation by Kathleen Rooney who tells the story of Marquis far better than I ever could.
It would be marvelous if another generation of young readers could be captivated  by this brilliant writer.




Brief Review: Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole Novels

January 16, 2018

Jo Nesbo

In November, I reported that I had started to binge read the thriller novels — the Harry Hole series — of Jo Nesbo. Well, I have finally finished them, all eleven, and I have rarely had such a prolonged good time with a single author.

Harry Hole is a Norwegian detective inspector (and later a consultant to the Oslo Police) specialising in serial murders. He is a disreputable drunk (and later a recovering alcoholic) disliked by most of his peers.  However, as the series progresses and he solves ever more difficult cases, his abilities and reputation tend to the legendary.

All the books are centred on Oslo, which Nesbo paints with a knowing eye, but many of the books also include long sections set in Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, and various European cities. Each location, in Norway and elsewhere, drawn with intimate knowledge and careful atmospherics.

These are not whodunits in the style of, say, Agatha Christie cosies; most especially in the later works, we know who at least some of the bad guys are. Rather, the novels are a fine amalgam of procedural and tense thriller. Nesbo has a wonderful ability to mislead the reader about who is doing what to whom, and he builds tension with that ambiguous uncertainty. The novels are also graphic, sometimes grotesquely so, in their use of violence.

Nesbo is also a master at weaving into his tales the cultural realities of modern life; the music, the technology, the changing mores of social interaction.

In my previous reviews of novelists’ work (Laurence Gough, John Le Carre, and John Irving, for example), I have tried to explain the pleasure I get from watching the author grow and change throughout their careers. I’m not sure it is the same with Nesbo; his style and quality seemed to exist even from the first Hole book, The Bat. What progresses as each of the the novels appear is a definite assurance, a confidence to try ever riskier plot developments (it is remarkable, for instance, that in The Police, the 10th novel in the series, Harry Hole does not even appear until page 164).

I am certain that many readers will enjoy these books in whatever order they come to hand. However, I can say with certainty, that reading them in order provides a deeper pleasure. There are important story lines and relationships that play through several volumes, and their interest only grows if you have the background that earlier works provide.

Jo Nesbo is a prolific author; apart from the Harry Hole series he has written at least eleven other works.  I will give him a break for a while but I will definitely be reading his other work sooner rather than later.


The Swerve

January 7, 2018

I thought that a revisit of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard would be an interesting read for a rainy Sunday.

The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church.  Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.

Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.


The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain.  It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.

The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence.   Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs.  Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera.  Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.

Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.

This was a fascinating read.

Mid-Binges Report

November 19, 2017

I have finally joined the 21st century — or at least a part of it: I have been binge-watching on Netflix.

I am completely hooked on “Scott & Bailey“, a British cop show that is brutal in its telling of procedurals, but which allows me to understand life as it is today in Manchester as the characters’ personal lives weave in and out of the murders and other serious crimes they have to deal with.  Series five is currently airing on TV. Over the last ten days I have completed the first two seasons, 14 shows, each as good as the previous. I am looking forward to starting series 3 later today.

When I’m not watching “Scott & Bailey“, the chances are I am binge-reading the entire collection of Jo Nesbo Norwegian detective mysteries. I am currently working my way through “The Redbreast,” the third of the Harry Hole series. Harry Hole is an alcoholic and often deranged senior detective based in Oslo. An outsider. A rough diamond. A brilliant detective. A lot of cliches and stereotypes that Nesbo creatively manages to use to create a very interesting background against which the crimes are committed and solved.  I have four more volumes stacked up on the table beside me.

Not a bad way to  spend rainy days.

Book Review: “The Art of Racing In The Rain”

October 20, 2017

The Art of Racing In The Rain” by Garth Stein is definitely not a book I would have chosen for myself. But it was strongly recommended by a great friend, and he even lent me his copy to read.

It is a sometimes tragic love story between a Seattle-based wannabe racecar driver, his dying wife, and their daughter Zoe. What makes it special is that it is narrated by their dog, Enzo. Enzo is a student of philosophy (via National Geographic TV specials), and motor racing, totally frustrated by is inability to communicate with his human family beyond doggy gestures, and certain he will be reincarnated as a man.

The novel takes us lightly but brilliantly through Denny Swifts’s marriage and career, his wife’s illness and death, the endless and bloody custody battles with evil in-laws, until we reach the final moment of redemption for both Denny and Enzo. It is full of wisdom from both a dog’s point of view and from a deep understanding of race car driving, especially  in the rain.

I loved it and thoroughly recommend it.

The Nobel for Ishiguro

October 5, 2017

I am so pleased that the Nobel Committee has awarded this year’s Prize for Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro.  He joins a very short list of laureates (O’Neill, Steinbeck, Marquez) whose oeuvres I have had the pleasure of reading in full.

Ishiguro is most famous for Remains of the Day, I guess, but my personal favourite would be A Pale View of Hills.

Some years ago I wrote about his “very difficult” The Unconsoled which, even after two thorough readings, I still cannot fathom. But I suspect the difficulty, if there is one, is in my own mind rather than in the writing.

Maybe I’ll spend some of the winter catching up on other laureates.

Book Review: Babylon Berlin

September 20, 2017

Back in August, I read a Guardian piece about an upcoming European crime drama called Babylon Berlin based on novels by Volker Kutscher.

I was intrigued because, after all, northern Europe has been the source of a great deal of excellent detective material recently — Wallender, The Killing, Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, etc;  and the period, Germany of the late 1920s, is fascinating and lively — think Cabaret, So I ordered the only one of the novels held by VPL. It was the second in the series, the one called Babylon Berlin.

Now, I can usually push myself through most material but after two weeks effort, I have reached page 180 of the 520 and I have absolutely no feeling for any of the characters and the plots, such as they are, are tedious and failing to grab my attention.  The beginning of the book seems more like vignettes that might look good on the screen (and which seem to have been included only for that purpose) but which fail miserably on the page due to the dullness of the writing.

I was almost happy to receive the email from VPL telling me my time was up because I’ve given up on it, and I cannot recommend it.