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Tad

Tad Philadelphia, PA, United States Member Since 2005

Shakespeare, Dickens, Homer, Mark Twain, Walt Disney, History.

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A Peek at Dan Harlow's Bookshelf

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Fort Collins 43 REVIEWS / 47 ratings Member Since 2012 14 Followers / Following 1
 
Dan Harlow's greatest hits:
  • The Grapes of Wrath

    "Almost more relevant now than when it was written"

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    Replace farmers from Oklahoma with migrant workers from Mexico and I doubt you'd be able to tell that this novel was written back in 1939. And that's what really stuck me about this novel - how relevant it still is - in some ways even more now than then.

    The first similarity is economic. As I write this we are still either going through a 'great recession' or are slowly emerging from an economic downturn. The causes are different, of course, here in the novel it was bad farming techniques mixed with new technology that drove the farmers from their land. Today it's an over-saturated housing market - people banking all their futures on the bubble of hope that perhaps the value of their own home will increase enough for them to make a tidy profit. And just like land that's been worked too hard, people worked the housing market too hard and it collapsed. Banks came to take the farms in the novel and banks came to take the homes in our own time.

    And both examples were of people running as fast as they could just to stay a little ahead of disaster. The farmers grew crops that destroyed the soil because they had no choice - they couldn't compete with the new farms, the corporate farms and machine efficiency. A family can't compete with a fleet of harvesters and tractors - working the land by hand can't keep up with a tractor. And the same goes for the people with houses these days. Everybody borrowed on cheap credit from the bank to hopefully 'buy low' and then 'sell high', but when everyone does it then there isn't no value in any of it and it all falls apart and everyone still owes the banks. And all they wanted was a piece of a dream, a chance to stay afloat economically, to send their kids to a good college, to make the car payments, put food on the table.

    In the novel the Californian's hated the Oakies, called them lazy, called them animals, called them thieves; in today's world we call the homeowners who lost it all idiots, greedy, lazy. But we also hate the banks. Call the banks greedy, inhumane, a great machine that's too big to die and too big to fail and everybody has to keep feeding it because nobody is really too sure how to control it anymore.

    But there is one difference, and that's the work. When the people lost the value on their homes, when the banks realized that the amount of money in the economy was based on a weak speculation and that there was actually a lot less money than there really was, when that caused credit to dry up, and when that caused smaller businesses to close up because they couldn't run the businesses with no credit, which in turn caused people to lose their jobs, and that caused the economy to drag down deeper and created a vicious cycle that made it worse and worse - after all that, the people had nowhere to go because all the 'poor jobs', the type of work Steinbeck writes about in the novel had all been taken by the immigrants.

    And that cussed more issues. The poor American middle-class blamed the Mexican's and now militia patrol the borders to kick the Mexican's out or do worse things in the desert at night when nobody is looking. A man like Casey in the novel is no different than a immigrant getting killed by some militia border patrol.

    And that causes resentment on all sides and the center can't hold.

    And that's just the economic similarity between the novel and today's times. Politically it's the same too. A conservative will say the poor just gotta work, but the conservative will also be on the side of the businessman and when everyone needs work, the businessman can keep wages down and in turn keep the poor really poor. But that's supposed to be ok because the conservative will say the poor can take help from a charity or a church - but that's easy to tell someone else when it's not you having to beg and take charity, easy to tell another man to beg. But the conservative man is holding on by a thread as thin as can be too and he's causing his own demise because soon the corporation will put him out of work too, his job will be lost and he'll have to go begging and he won't be so mean and conservative anymore. He'll see the value of sticking by your fellow man instead of blaming him for his troubles.

    And that's what the book is about - about family, about sticking together, about helping, about not letting the fruit on the vine rot when others go in need. And that's why it's an even more radical novel today than when it was written because it 'smells' of Communism or of Socialism. And the conservative man doesn't want to hear about that, he doesn't want a union because union men are lazy and he doesn't want socialism because the government will tell him what to do and he doesn't want communism because he can take care of his own family.

    That is until he can't, then he'll be singing a different tune or he'll be turning on his own people like some of the people in the novel who turned against their own just to put food on the table; the great selfishness.

    That's the saddest thing about the book - how spot on Steinbeck was about human nature. And for as beautiful as the novel is, as well written as it is, nothing can compare to how true it is. And maybe that's the thing that makes people still so angry about it - that it reveals a truth we don't want to accept about ourselves, that deep down we know that they way we live, that the American dream is not working, that it never really worked and that we either side with the people who will toss us on the heap of irrelevance or we fight the powers that be. And maybe if we worried a little more about if their neighbor has enough in his bowl and a little less about if we have enough in our own then maybe things would be better.

    The novel is a microcosm of American, then and now. And that's quite an achievement because how many novels ring this true 75 years after they were written? And the novel is a damning indictment too, and that's why it still scares people.

    And that ending. What an ending too. It's both hopeful and sad. It's religious and it turns religion on it's head too. It's bleak and yet it's also comforting.

    Now I didn't realize it at first, but this is the third in a series of books I've been reading that deal explicitly with society - 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' talked about a people fighting for their independence in the deserts of Arabia, '100 Years of Solitude' about a village coping with modernity, and now this novel about a country having to find a new direction. And they are also about the poor, about people who have been taken advantage of by a government or an economy and have been cast aside. And that's been a struggle since man understood ownership and it will continue to be a struggle as long as some men side with the very forces that could steamroll everyone in the end.

    'Don't turn on your own kind', Tom says. Well I hope Tom is still somewhere out there keeping an eye on everyone, helping where he can, beat up and bloody but still fighting. The world needs more Tom's and more Ma's. Someone's gotta keep the family together.

    Anyway, brilliant novel. Pure genius.

  • Moby Dick

    "Not a novel; epic poetry."

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    Samurai films are my favorite genre pictures. Mainly what attracts me to them isn't so much that I love Japanese history or ever wanted to be a samurai, it's that I love how a good, proper samurai film teases out the action until the finale. Samurai films are about patience; the slow burn. Shots might linger on the rain, or cherry blossoms, or footprints in the snow, or the sounds of cicadas in the summer heat but the 'action' isn't until after two hours of build up.

    For me anticipation is what I love, perhaps more than the resolution itself. I love waiting for something to happen but I never really was that excited for the thing itself. I suppose I just like having something to look forward to. Expectation and imagination is, typically, far more interesting than reality.

    A samurai would spend his entire life training for battle yet, like the samurai in Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' not be victorious even once. There would be very little glory in a war; only the young and inexperienced would find it romantic while the old veterans would know there is never really any winning a war.

    And that is what Moby Dick is for me: a samurai film set at sea where the warriors are all Nantucket whalers and the villain is a fish.

    Melville, too, must have felt similar about anticipation as I do. His whole novel - though this is not a novel, it's really an epic poem - is imagination and anticipation and beautiful images of the sea and of death and of the whaling life. Yet in the end it's all so futile.

    "Great God, where is the ship?"

    One thing I hadn't counted on about Moby Dick is how even though everyone who hasn't read the novel is well aware of it and the events within, it's not a book you can really know anything about without reading. This is a book, like Ulysses, you have to experience. You have to live through this novel; it has to happen to you. This isn't a story to be told in the normal sense - in fact the book is almost everything but a normal novel after we set sail - this is a book whose art is in forcing you to live the events of the book as if you are on that cursed ship.

    Something that really struck me is that our narrator who is so famously introduced to us in one of the great first lines in a book - 'Call me Ishmael' - slowly ghosts away as the novel goes on. What starts as a book about Ishmael's experience getting on the ship and learning about whaling (and the entire science of whales), he lets go of our hand and we begin floating about the Pequod like a disembodied spirit. We overhear everyone's conversations, even their private mutterings, and the point of view expands out to be in all places at all times. It's an unsettling sensation because Melville is physically enlisting onto that ship as a shipmate and after our initial training we are forced to watch the events unfold to their conclusion.

    I also had no idea that the novel is not really a novel - not in the traditional sense. Moby Dick is, basically, postmodern but from the 1850's. I had expected a somewhat straightforward novel about the grappling with a whale, not 209,117 pages of epic poetry. I had not expected the novel to still feel so fresh as it must have been when it was written nearing on 200 years ago.

    One last thing that I have to confess is that I don't believe Ahab was mad. Obsessed? yes, but not insane. He was a salty captain with 40 years of experience at sea and he knew what he was doing. I don't even think he had a death wish, I just think he saw an opportunity to be truly great and flew at it with everything he had. He was already a great whaler (how else would he have lasted so long?) so he knew he could defeat that fish if he really tried. And I don't see anything wrong with that, too. All those men knew what they were in for and if Starbuck was more of a man he might have stopped Ahab, but Ahab is the sort of person who winds up wither being great or being killed; he is no ordinary person.

    He's very American in that way - he'll damn everything to get what he wants.

    Overall and beyond all the great themes of the novel is just how damn well it's written. There is nothing like this book. The language is so seductive, the imagery so vivid, everything on that ship and the sea so perfectly realized that there were times I had to pinch myself that this was real. Some of the writing is so good that it almost doesn't even seem possible, as if it were written by some God.

    Now that I'm done with the book I'm sad. I've now read Moby Dick and there are only so many great novels in the world worth throwing a harpoon at. But what a voyage getting there!

  • Kim

    "A wonderful friendship"

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    The most interesting, and shocking fact about history is just how young so many of the military commanders and leaders actually were down through time. One of the most famous, Alexander III of Macedon, was barely into his 20's when he began conquering the known world. Wars today are still fought by people the same age as Alexander (some even younger), and there will always be glory in war for a young man wanting to make a name for himself.

    Kim begins with a gun, a giant canon representing the strength, struggle, and oppression of India and the people who wanted control of the subcontinent. The book ends with a choice. In between we get the education of young Kim by his elders who see great promise in this talented, smart, cunning, and devious boy. Some wish to use him for the Great Game, that struggle for control over India (and now Pakistan), others wish to see him stay true to his native people (though little do they know he's actually white - a 'Sahib'), and one man, Teshoo Lama, wishes to set him on the path of 'the way', the true path of eternal salvation and freedom from sin.

    And this struggle for Kim's soul - both figuratively and literally - makes up the heart of the book, and not so much for the character's sake, bot for our own. Kipling is forcing us to decide which way we would choose to go (war, peace, or indifference) by letting us inhabit a main character who makes us feel smarter than we probably are in real life, more cunning than we are even on our best of days, braver, stronger, and more experienced than we would admit to being and then leaving the final decision open to our own interpretation as a test to see what we would do with Kim's talents and teachers influence.

    The novel does seem to aim for an audience of boys aged somewhere between 10 and 16 and Kipling does seem to be square in the camp of hoping young men will grow up to choose the way of peace, like the Lama, yet he doesn't beat you over the head with his morality, either. The life of the Great Game is very exciting, could lead to great renown, money, women, respect: all the things us boys dream of when we're young (and pretty much till the day we die old men, too). And even the simple life of just living your life out with basic comfort, a family, your head down and nose clean (the typical life most of us wind up choosing) is here seen as exotic, profitable, and, at the least, interesting.

    In fact considering how much of the novel is focused on the relationship between Kim and the Lama and how relatively little is devoted to a more exciting life, goes to show just how difficult it is to steer people away from war, from vain glory, from 'illusion' as the Lama would say. Just one encounter with a spy, with a Russian with a gun, with a mysterious gem trader can nearly undo years of fellowship with a peaceful Lama whose earthly reward is begging and heavenly reward is uncertain.

    And so looking deeper into these decisions it seems much clearer how in that particular part of the world even today it's not so difficult to see why young men chose to join up with groups that offer far more attractive and comfortable rewards here on Earth instead of following the ways of a prophet. Life in Pakistan and the surrounding area is harsh, dangerous, other cultures and foreigners look down on them as dirty and stupid, there are no real opportunities, and so it's not hard to understand why on the one hand even a powerful religion such as Islam can teach peace and on the other young men will kill in the name of it.

    So in many ways that I doubt Kipling would have ever imagined, Kim is a very relevant novel today that teaches us quite a bit about ourselves as well as the people of an 'exotic' land in the middle east and subcontinent. Kipling shows us the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, and though he aims for a younger audience, the book is filled with a wisdom that is well beyond the age of the intended reader.

    I am a little uncomfortable with some of the generalizations Kipling paints with concerning nearly all the ethnicity. Mahbub Ali, a Muslim, is dangerously close to the stereotypical dangerous and shady Afghan Muslim, Hurree is a buffoon even when he's tough as nails and brilliant, Creighton is far too fatherly and pretty much stands for all of British colonialism, the two chaplains (a Catholic and a Protestant) are comic relief, and even the Lama seems very one-dimensional and straight out of a bad Hollywood interpretation of the wise, Tibetan monk.

    Yet there is also real friendship between Kim and the Lama that transcends the page and in moments of crisis for the two of them genuinely had me worried for the outcome and that strength of the friendship helps sell the idea of the way of peace in the face of so many more tempting options. And it's that friendship on the page, the real art of the novel that made me really love the book despite its flaws.

  • The Master and Margarita

    "There is nothing else quite like it"

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    Russian literature gets a bad rap for being dry, thick, and dull, when the reality is much of the most respected Russian literature is filled with fantastic flights of fancy, and outrageous absurdities. Take, for example, a small scene in Anna Karenina where all of a sudden we get narration from the point of view of Levin's hunting dog. This scene seems so natural it's easy to forget we're getting the inner-monologue of a dog. Gogol, who Bulgakov is most similar too, was famous for his absurdities: his story The Nose is about a man's nose that leads a life of its own. And even that most serious of authors, Dostoevsky, wrote his best works about the struggles of man against the powers of the supernatural. And while many good people would scoff at the idea of religion being lumped into the same category as mere "fantasy", the idea of a naked witch riding a man turned into a pig over a sleeping Moscow is not that much harder to believe than an angel falling from heaven and corrupting all of mankind.

    But what is this book about? Yes, the plot is easy enough: The Devil comes to Moscow, causes all sorts of trouble, then leaves, but that's not what the book is "about". For me, this novel was about a search for truth.

    Famously, Communism biggest flaw was that after awhile everyone under it grew apathetic, nobody bothered to fix or change anything because it couldn't be fixed or changed; there was no point looking for the broken pieces because it would just cause a lot of trouble. But couldn't the same thing be said of religion? How do we know that the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate happened as it says in the New Testament? Bulgakov makes a good case for his version of events being much more realistic than what's in the Christian Bible. Yet the story we have in the Gospels talks about a man who while being crucified suffered so that man could be forgiven for all their sins and on the third day after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Millions of people take that for an absolute, unarguable fact.

    But how do stories really get told? Aren't the best stories really just exaggerations built upon more exaggerations? Couldn't the story of Homer in The Odyssey have started out as a true tale of a man lost at sea for awhile who managed to return home (an exciting enough story as it is), but then have been built upon by countless storytellers who turned it into the epic poem we now know? And maybe that's why in this novel The Master is belittled by the editors - not just because he's written the true (and less supernatural) version of events concerning Pontius Pilate and Jesus - but because he's dared to use his imagination at all in communist Russia. After all, Russia at the time was a state built on scientific reason, absolute logic, and pure atheism; Russia was building a new world order but was failing miserable, as Voland quickly discovers and as Bulgakov so humorously explores.

    One of the greatest feats the novel pulls off is creating Pontius Pilate as a sympathetic, complex character. He's not made out to be the good guy, but neither is he all evil, either. And by the end of the novel we understand the real meaning of what Jesus (Yeshua here) preached when he said all men are good (something Pilate completely disagreed with). Salvation awaits for even the most troubled of people and is where, I believe, Bulgakov was being optimistic about what would happen one day in Russia - that communism would fail (which it did 60 years later).

    However, all this would be just dry academic babbling if the book itself weren't any good, and oh, boy is this book wonderful. Ranging from moments of pure insanity - a cat with a gun - to moments of beautiful tenderness such as the fate of Judas and the moonbeams, this novel covers so much ground that it's nearly impossible to pin down and say with any certainty what it's really all "about". What is is though is wonderful, funny, and touching. The Master and Margarita is one helluva story and there is nothing else quite like it.

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