Drama Review – The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

In The Bonds of Interest Jacinto Benavente presented a farcical tale of a pair of unconventional seventeenth century conmen. This disadvantaged duo duped everyone they met into believing the quiet member of the team a prestigious nobleman. Because of this, everyone granted them luxuries on credit. When part of the scheme entailed marrying the one off to a nobleman’s daughter, the two would discover whether or not the “bonds of interest” could overcome the desire for retribution.

Even though the comedy described an improbable story, the playwright still adhered to sold writing principles. Whenever a narrative focuses upon the exploits of two main characters, one is always portrayed as the dominant of the two. Benavente employed this method to brilliant effect while applying a twist to it.

The tale presented a scheme concocted by Crispin. While the dominant character, he masqueraded as Leander’s servant. When they encountered people, Crispin delivered most, and sometimes all of , the dialog. He touted the praises of his “master”, while serving as the outfit’s mastermind. The playwright balanced this character’s roles through his words very well.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but the playwright crafted a brilliant plot twist regarding Leander. He did so by making him a well-developed character. While a fugitive from justice, he still behaved nobly in regard to his love interest, Silvia. Even though he participated in a large scale scam, he allowed his feelings for Silvia to allow him to express himself honestly.

The playwright used a clever technique to express this inner decency. He did so in the form of an insult. Crispin told Silvia’s father:

And after all, the only trouble with my master was that he had no money; no one could out do him in nobility of character; your grandchildren will be gentlemen even if that quality does not extend up to the grandfather. (Location 1683)

Leander’s transition illustrated exceptional writing ability on Benavente’s part. I applaud him even more for working it into a farcical story.

The Bonds of Interest included several memorable lines. My favorites included:

Men are like merchandise; they are worth more or less according to the salesman who markets them. (Location 1779)

It is as foolish to trust a man while he lives as a woman while she loves. (Location 661)

Love is all subtleties and the greatest subtlety of them all is not that lovers deceive others—it is that they so easily can deceive themselves. (Location 1240)

I had rather deal with a thousand knaves than one fool. (Location 1550)

With the understanding that the play was a farce regarding an unbelievable series of events, I only had one criticism of it. I admit it’s not a fair one, either. The drama premiered in 1907 and the writing style reflected that of the early twentieth century. At times I read some excessive exposition.

In the following example, Crispin explained his and Leander’s back story.

…But more than this, have you forgotten that they are searching for us in other parts and following on our heels? Can it be that all those glorious exploits of Mantua and Florence have been forgotten? Do you recall that famous lawsuit in Bologna? Three thousand two hundred pages of testimony already admitted against us before we withdrew in alarm at the sight of such prodigious expansive ability! (Location 1261)

To paraphrase Stephen King: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t very interesting. It becomes even less exciting when a character keeps making the same point through consecutive sentences.

While first performed in 1907, The Bonds of Interest contains humor that still resonates. Combine that with the story of two people struggling to advance their station in life through a preposterous “get rich quick scheme.” That makes it just as entertaining today. To borrow a lesson from the play: don’t believe everything I wrote just because I wrote it. Read Benavente’s drama and decide if it bonds to your interest.



Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.


Lecture Review – “The Garden State or Cancer Alley?” by Thomas Belton

Thomas Belton took a pretty eclectic career path on his way to becoming an environmental historian. After receiving a degree in classical languages he ended up working on telephone poles. Following that endeavor, he returned to school with the intent of becoming a doctor. At the time he took an elective class in ornithology. The choice proved rather adventitious as it inspired his interest in the ecology. Once he received his degree in marine biology he made environmental studies his full time pursuit. He landed a job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection working in their Science and Research division. 2010 marked the time when he could add the task of environmental historian to his resume. At that time Rivergate Books published his tome Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the Garden State. Mr. Belton added lecturer to his list of careers when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown this March 14th. At the Moorestown Library he delivered an address called “The Garden State of Cancer Alley?” based on his book.

Mr. Belton shared a number of vignettes from his career as an environmental scientist. He discussed his participation in a veritable “detective story” that entailed “using science in a Sherlock Holmes sort of way.” He participated in a study to answer why large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were entering Camden’s water supply. Using tools such as Graphic Information Studies he and his team managed to identify them coming from one location in the city.

The speaker explained the significance of PCBs in non-scientific jargon. These chemicals are a known carcinogen. Even the US government recognized their danger. He noted in his book they became the first chemical ever banned by Congress. (Page 38) Mr. Belton spent a good part of his lecture describing his efforts to identify their presence in bluefish off the New Jersey coast then tracing their source. Following that he participated in issuing Fish Public Health Advisories. From this experience, he learned how to explain scientific concepts to lay people through his work with the department’s public relations office.

Because of the study, within five years a ban was placed on offshore dumping. Prior to that, this sort of “dilution is the solution” mentality justified the common practice of dumping sewage and sludge in the ocean.

The provenance of the book’s subtitle comprised part of his remarks. A study showed a large number of people with cancer along the Route One corridor; a stretch of highway extending roughly from Philadelphia to New York City. The finding gave rise to the term “cancer cluster.” The search for an explanation to this phenomenon led to the speaker’s analysis of PCBs in bluefish.

An unintended consequence resulted from one of one of his research projects. Out of curiosity, he investigated whether air pollution in Philadelphia affected the pinelands. Working with an expert in fungi, he determined that it did result in acid rain that fell in the region. These results led to his being called as an expert witness in a lawsuit against businesses in the Ohio River Valley.

The Historical Society really should have scheduled this speaker closer to Halloween. I found many of his remarks absolutely horrifying. He described chromium waste sites in Jersey City while discussing the Brownfield Regulations. For those unfamiliar with the chemical, an oozing green slime indicates its presence. In his discussion of Superfund sites, he explained that many received “temporary” clean-ups over a decade ago. They still require permanent detoxification. The funds are not forthcoming. The “Arsenic and Old Lakes” conclusion of his lecture centered on a topic not covered in his book. It described the environmental repercussions from a pesticide factory that began operation in South Jersey back in 1949. As of 2015, $100 million had been spent to clean up the site. The work still needs to be completed.

I did take some solace in Mr. Belton’s explanation of New Jersey’s environmental reputation. When Superfund became law, states such as New Jersey, Vermont and California took advantage of the opportunity it presented. They cataloged their hazardous sites. In essence, the Garden State earned an unfair reputation for pollution because it made a serious effort to rectify this problem.

Mr. Belton certainly pursued many careers during his time. In fact, he recently added that of award winning author when the New Jersey Council of Humanities named Protecting New Jersey’s Environment an Honor Book in 2010.While I haven’t observed him in his other capacities, I compliment him for his stellar work as an environmental historian and lecturer. Because of his performance, he can add another job to his repertoire. His remarks piqued my curiosity about our environment so much, that I purchased his book. Mr. Belton makes a pretty good salesman, too.



Book Review – White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum presented a fictitious account of the most heinous war crime ever committed. The book detailed one character’s ordeal with the use of rape as a weapon during the largest scale use of it in history. The story also explored the effect of this inhumane practice on those not personally victimized by it. An engrossing read that sears into one’s consciousness resulted.

The book’s title derived from the white chrysanthemum representing a symbol of mourning. It established the tone prior to reading the story.

Mary Lynn Bracht crafted a heartrending tale involving two sisters affected by Japan’s occupation of Korea during the Second World War. The scenes set in the 1940s described Hana’s ordeal after the Japanese military abducted her. In order to protect her younger sister, she gave herself up to a group of soldiers who wandered onto her home island. They transported her into distant Manchuria to serve as a “comfort woman”; the Empire’s choice euphemism for “forced prostitution.”

The scenes that transpired during the modern era (2011) described how Hana’s sister Emi struggled to achieve peace with her past. The historical events plaguing the nascent state of South Korea impacted her on a personal level. A larger part of her emotional battle emanated from her guilt over her sister’s selfless sacrifice.

I liked the author’s choice of structure. The chapters alternated between one that depicted Hana’s suffering in the 1940s with one that told Emi’s journey in the 2010s. Ms. Bracht deftly crafted endings to each story line that kept me interested in learning more. Her suspenseful writing style made it very difficult for me to stop reading.

I also applaud the way the author returned to each character’s tale after just one chapter. Ms. Bracht built tension and engaged the reader without dragging out the story. She executed this balance exceptionally.

The author made a great decision to write in the present tense. It gave me a sense that the events occurred while I read. The story possessed a sense of immediacy that enhanced the tension. Hana’s torment took on much more impact; as did Emi’s suffering.

I found sections of this book extraordinarily well written. Here’s an excerpt from one of the best:

The doorknob squeaks as it turns, and Hana feigns sleep. The door swings open and a stream of light shines on her shut eyelids. She relaxes the muscles in her face and mimics the deep breaths of slumber, forcing her chest to rise and fall in a slow, steady rhythm. The flashlight flicks off. The room falls back into darkness. Footsteps pad inside. The door clicks shut. Hana stops breathing.

A ghostly wind howls through the rafters above their heads. The brothel seems to gasp, and the wind rushes through the window. Hana opens her eyes and stares into the darkness. A black shape stands by the door. For a long time, it doesn’t move. The crickets have stopped chirping, and the mice seem to have frozen midstep. The intruder’s shallow breaths fill the void left by their silence.

He takes a step toward her, and she clutches the blanket tighter. He takes another step and before she can stop herself, she sits up and backs away from him, cowering in the corner.

“Do not be afraid,” he whispers. “It’s me.” (Location 1885)

I could stop writing this review at this point. After reading that passage I’m sure some have clicked off of this blog and are buying the book.

For those still reading, the author included some other exceptional usage of language.

His face hovers above her, cloaked in shadow, and she fills in the black void with the man in her memory. The one who raped her first and called it a kindness, before condemning her to this unimaginable life. Not life, but purgatory in the underworld. (Location 1903)

Sometimes old wounds need to be reopened to let them properly heal…(Location 1344)

People these days seem content to search for happiness in life. That is something her generation never fathomed, that happiness is a basic human right, but now it seems like a possibility. (Location 2817)

While an exceptional story and a difficult book to put down, I did disagree with the author’s approach from the denouement through the ending. While Ms. Bracht crafted a conclusion that fit with the narrative thread, I found it unbelievable. Part of that may stem from the other portions being so realistic by comparison. At any rate, I do acknowledge it as a legitimate artistic choice on the author’s part.

Ms. Bracht brought out the plight of the “comfort women” through White Chrysanthemum. Someone once observed that Japanese war criminals benefited from there being no Simon Wiesenthals in the country following the war. Let’s hope there are more Mary Lynn Brachts to continue illuminating this dark chapter of human history.

Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.


Book Review – Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

There’s an old maxim declaring, “Napoleon is the limit of a madman”; meaning that no person could reach a level of insanity greater than the Emperor’s. After reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 classic, it seems that Elmer Gantry established the limit of human ambition. While earning the nickname “Hell Cat” in his youth, he changed his ways upon reaching adulthood; or so it seemed. Following his ordination as a Baptist minister he attempted a series of careers before finding his true calling. Despite myriad ethical failings, the Reverend Dr. Gantry aspired to be the morality emperor of the world. His quest towards that goal made for one of the finest fictional studies of hypocrisy ever written.

One has to credit Sinclair Lewis. He came up with the greatest opening line in the history of American literature. It’s the one beginning I’ve read that really hooked me. The sentence that followed interested me even further. They read: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. (Location 52) At that point, I knew then that the book would make for one fascinating read.

Sinclair Lewis’ writing style made me enjoy the story much more. The author utilized a writing technique more common to comedy and horror than literary fiction. He expressed many of his ideas by using a set-up and then a twist at the end. Throughout this novel he applied this method to illustrate the protagonist’s insincerity. Some memorable examples included:

His kiss promised it. His heart almost promised it. (Location 4629)

But the diversions—He thought about it so much that he made a hasty trip to Cato, and came back temporarily cured forever of any desire for wickedness. (Location 1325)

He was certain that he would never again want to guzzle, to follow loose women, to blaspheme; he knew the rapture of salvation—yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd. (Location 1009)

The best line in the book came from another preacher named Frank Shallard. He delivered an intriguing take on his profession. He observed, What a lying, compromising job this being a minister. (Location 7524)

Mr. Lewis used another unorthodox method to liven the narrative. He included a bit of self-deprecating humor. When one of the characters mentioned a series of contemporary authors he expressed the following thoughts on his own author.

Sinclair Lewis (Lord, how that book of Lewis’, Main Street, did bore me, as much of it as I read; it just rambled on forever, and all he could see was that some of the Gopher Prairie hicks didn’t go to literary teas quite as often as he does! – and that was all he could see among those splendid heroic pioneers)! (Location 7560)

In The Art of Fiction Ayn Rand cited another one of Lewis’ works, Arrowsmith, for examples of a story that didn’t seem believable. Elmer Gantry contained several instances of this shortcoming, as well. When he decided to attack vice, Elmer became a de facto police lieutenant who led raids. I found his decision to marry too fast. His subsequent boredom with his new bride occurred much too quickly, as well.

I had to admit that while I didn’t find the story credible I still enjoyed reading it. What it lacked in realism it compensated for with entertainment value.

In the book’s beginning, the author wrote: Elmer assumed he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure. (Loc 167) I’m not sure that “getting religion” dissuaded the Reverend Dr. Gantry from that view. He would’ve disagreed, however. As he eloquently preached:

“–and I want to tell you that the fellow eaten by ambition is putting the glories of this world before the glories of Heaven! Oh, if I could only help you understand that it is humility, that it is simple loving kindness, that it is tender loyalty, which alone make the heart glad! Now, if you’ll let me tell a story: It reminds me of two Irishmen named Mike and Pat—“ (Loc 8135)


“Riding the Rails in Moorestown: A Discussion of Railroads in Moorestown and the Surrounding Area” by Hank Cutler and Randy Acorcey

“You don’t know where you are until you know where you came from.” With these words, Randy Acorcey and Dr. Hank Cutler commenced an engaging lecture. The choice of a travel metaphor to explain history well suited the topic. Mr. Acorcey discussed the development of railroads in South Jersey. Dr. Cutler followed by describing how they affected the local Moorestown business community. The speakers shared plenty of fantastic material for both railroad and local history buffs. The Moorestown Library and the Historical Society of Moorestown hosted this event on January 17, 2018.

The Garden State served as the location for some monumental innovations affecting ante-bellum transportation. Mr. Acorcey explained that in 1832 the Camden and Amboy Railroad became the first line in New Jersey. The C & A introduced the steam powered locomotive. The first one to travel on its rails, the John Bull, came over from England in various pieces. Crews in the US reassembled it without the benefit of instructions.

Before that game changing advancement, horses drew railroad cars. The speaker displayed a photo of one such set-up in Gibbsboro. To answer the obvious questions, Mr. Acorcey explained: “It wasn’t fast.” As to the poor condition of the tracks: “Horses learned to step in between things.”

The C & A selected the perfect president in the form of Hoboken native Robert Stevens. Mr. Acorcey described him as a “prolific inventor.” One of his many innovations included the baggage car. Most important for railroads, Mr. Stevens developed all iron rails. Prior to that, engineers used stone or “sleepers” to set down the tracks. Mr. Acorcey added, with perhaps a bit of understatement, this led to “a few accidents.”

While these innovations certainly improved travel by rails, not to mention safety, modern passengers wouldn’t be impressed. A train trip from Burlington to Mount Holly took 30 minutes each way in the 1860s.

At this point in the lecture, audience members needed scorecards. Just after the Civil War an era of railroad consolidations commenced. The mergers accelerated through the twentieth century. In April of 1969, a passenger train embarked from Moorestown for the last time.

The C & A’s spirit of innovation transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad when the two merged in 1872. In 1895 the new organization built the Delair Bridge connecting Philadelphia and Pennsauken. It allowed train travel directly between those two locales for the first time. The structure still stands and railroad companies use it today.

Dr. Cutler then described how the railroad impacted Moorestown. At one time the town contained three different rail way stations named the East Moorestown, the West Moorestown and the Stanwick. The East Moorestown came first at Chester Avenue and East Third Street. People in the western section of town complained about the location. To accommodate them, the railroad added a second one at North Church and West Central. The Stanwick was built to support the Moorestown fairgrounds.

As an interesting side note on stations, Dr. Cutler added that the Pemberton branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad used the same stations from 1868 until 1968. As remarkable as that may seem, an audience member trenchantly observed, “(Railroad) tracks don’t change (their location) easily.”

The prevalence of railroad ‘sidings’ in Moorestown served as the focus of Dr. Cutler’s comments. These offshoots from the main tracks led into various businesses throughout the community. This facilitated freight transport both to and from these companies. The speaker showed photos of two such Moorestown enterprises that utilized sidings. When Hollingshead Fuel went out of business in the early 1990s, its siding was removed. The JS Collins and Son Hardware store still operates today. While no longer used, those interested can view the original siding in the parking lot.

An audience member asked if either the company or the railroad paid to install a siding. The speakers couldn’t comment on Moorestown, but Mr. Acorcey provided information about the sidings in Camden. He explained that if the business generated enough freight to financially satisfy the railroad, the later would install it. If not, then the business provided the funds to do so.

The speakers presented an impressive amount of information. They both possessed a deep understanding of the topics they covered. However, the speech lacked either a unifying theme or a call to action. The lecture left more questions than it answered. Just how did the topics they covered relate to society on a macro level? For instance: what led to the abundance of railroad mergers? Dr. Cutler mentioned numerous Moorestown companies that no longer exist. Did they decline for similar reasons? The River Line has been in operation since 2004. What conditions led to this resurgence in passenger rail transportation? Do they foresee that trend continuing?

Mr. Acorcey and Dr. Cutler delivered an excellent synopsis of the history of South Jersey railroads. The numerous transportation innovations it facilitated not only changed the industry: they improved society. With that observation, it’s sad to note that the last passenger train left town for good almost five decades ago. The Stanwick station is now a concrete pad. The East Moorestown station moved and converted into a dentist’s office. Upon reflecting on all this, one recalls the words of another creative New Jersey son. In the words of Bruce Springsteen:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.


Book Review – Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Those starving for good fiction should feast upon this offering by Knut Hamsun. It’s a veritable banquet of savory literary techniques that will leave readers returning for seconds. The author’s first book whet readers’ appetites for more of his work. They certainly weren’t fed-up with this one. I’d read Hunger before and just had to return for seconds. It certainly left me feeling satisfied.

When reading Hamsun I find myself recalling a line spoke by Antony in Julius Caesar.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones. (Act III Scene Two)

Hamsun’s life challenged that expression a bit. To be clear: there’s no excuse for Hamsun’s reprehensible conduct during the Second World War. His support of Adolf Hitler mystifies the mind. A native Norwegian, the Nazis occupied the country from April 9, 1940 until the cessation of European hostilities on May 8, 1945. He had no excuse for not knowing better.

With that legacy, the continued popularity of his work bewilders as well. That is, until one reads it. Isaac Bashevis Singer observed that “The whole modern school of fiction stems from Hamsun.” Writings from an author this gifted just couldn’t become interred with his bones.

It amazes me that a book written in 1890 could possess such relevance today. Hunger contained the most intense character study I’ve ever read. It told the tale of a freelance writer living in Christiana (now Oslo), Norway. The character found himself in financial difficulties while struggling to make a living through his craft. As any writer reading this can guess: this is not a story set to end well.

The author presented the narrative in the first person point-of-view. This gave readers unique insight into the character’s mind. I found it extraordinarily clever how the Narrator utilized every opportunity to avoid giving his name. The following passage shows his most clever evasion.

“I would like to see Mr. Christie,” I said.

“That’s me!” replied the man.

“Indeed!” Well my name was so-and-so. I had taken the liberty of sending him an application. I did not know if it had been of any use.

He repeated my name a couple of times and commenced to laugh. (Page 30)

The quality of writing here impressed me. It showed great talent on the author’s part to craft this passage without giving the character’s name. (By my count the Narrator slipped twice in the story and did reveal it.)

The use of an unreliable narrator is my favorite literary technique. Hamsun kept me guessing with this one. The man lied chronically. While starving to death, he used the following ruse to beg for food.

All at once it enters my head to go to one of the meat bazaars underneath me, and beg a piece of raw meat. I go straight along the balustrade to the other side of the bazaar buildings, and descend the steps. When I had nearly reached the stalls on the lower floor, I called up the archway leading to the stairs, and made a threatening backward gesture, as if I were talking to a dog up there, and boldly addressed the first butcher I met.

“Ah, will you be kind enough to give me a bone for my dog?” I said; “only a bone. There needen’t be anything on it; it’s just to give him something to carry in his mouth.”

I got the bone, a capital little bone, on which there still remained a morsel of meat, and hid it under my coat. I thanked the man so heartily that he looked at me in amazement. (Page 91)

The most memorable passages in the book concerned the subject of hunger. The one that has haunted my nightmares for years follows:

At length I stuck my forefinger in my mouth, and took to sucking it. Something stirred in my brain, a thought that bored its way in there—a stark mad motion.

Supposing I were to take a bite? And without a moment’s reflection, I shut my eyes, and clenched my teeth on it.

I sprang up. At last I was thoroughly awake. A little blood trickled from it, and I licked it as it came. It didn’t hurt very much, neither was the wound large, but I was brought at one bound to my senses. (Page 72 – 73)

I think of Hunger as the literary equivalent to a multi-course meal. This review provides samples from the delicious masterpiece Hamsun cooked up. I think it appropriate to conclude with one of the book’s passages regarding writing. Perhaps it describes the author’s own experience while crafting Hunger:

Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired. (Page 20)

Hamsun’s inspired writing has gone on to inspire many others.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Through her approach to oral history, Svetlana Alexievich crafted a unique portrayal of the Second World War. While interviews with Soviet combatants brought a human face to the conflict, the author chose an original method of elucidation. Ms. Alexievich focused her narrative on one group of combatants: women. She also opted to approach the topic as an “historian of feelings.” An enlightening and at times unsettling portrayal of USSR during the “Great Patriotic War” resulted.

The Nobel Prize Committee honored Ms. Alexievich with the Literature prize in 2015. After the announcement, I read her work on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan: Zinky Boys. I found The Unwomanly Face of War a similar style of narrative. As the author explained, “It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings.” (Location 210) “I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.” (Location 213) For emphasis, she later added: “-True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being.” (Location 476)

The author delivered a trenchant observation on the subtleties one can discern from a face-to-face interview. She wrote:

The tape recorder records the words, preserves the intonation. The pauses. The weeping and embarrassment. I realize that, when a person speaks, something more takes place than what remains on paper. I keep regretting that I cannot “record” eyes, hands. Their life during the conversation, their own life. Their “texts.” (Location 2008)

Of course, the actual interviews comprised the most memorable portions of this work. The most harrowing tale described both the horrors of war with its awful aftermath under Stalin’s regime.

My husband had been arrested by the NKVD; he was in prison. I went there…And what do I hear there?…They tell me, “Your husband is a traitor.” But my husband and I worked together in the underground. The two of us. He was a brave, honest man. I realized that someone had denounced him…Slander…”No,” I say, “my husband can’t be a traitor. I believe him. He’s a true Communist.” His interrogator…He started yelling at me, “Silence, you French prostitute! Silence!” He had lived under the occupation, had been captured, had been taken to Germany, had been in a fascist concentration camp—it all was suspicious. One question: Why did he stay alive? Why didn’t he die? Even the dead were under suspicion…Even them…And they didn’t take into consideration that we fought, we sacrificed everything for the sake of victory. And we won…The people won! But Stalin still didn’t trust the people. That was how our Motherland repaid us. For our love, for our blood…” (Location 5025)

The woman quoted (Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina) fought with the underground. After the Germans captured her she served time at the Croisette concentration camp in France.

Ms. Alexievich received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” As one woman she interviewed told her: “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.” (Location 2294) The Unwomanly Face of War proves it.


In Memoriam – Glenn Walker

Glenn Walker“When you inspire one person you have already changed the world,” Sabina Nore wrote. Through his influence Glenn E. Walker earned the distinction of changing the world many times over. A writer, teacher and pop culture maven, Mr. Walker passed away far too soon on December 6th.

While writing professionally, Glenn still provided his tutelage to local writers through the South Jersey Writers’ Group. While serving as Membership Director he also led the group’s blogfests. In fact, he’s the person who introduced me to the organization.

Had it not been for Mr. Walker’s encouragement and support you wouldn’t be reading this right now. Glenn served as an invaluable inspiration to me when I began pursuing serious writing back in the early 2000s. Even now whenever I write something, I still ask myself, “What would Glenn say about this?” Three drafts later I’m still asking the same question.

Anyone who writes knows that it’s not a field of endeavor for the thin skinned. We can all recall either receiving harsh comments or outright discouraging critiques about our work; but never from Glenn. He always provided constructive feedback. The noblest intentions motivated his observations. Glenn understood that the most important task of a critic is to inspire a writer to write.

I first met Glenn at a critique group. His passion for writing really impressed me. Whether reviewing science fiction, political dramas or treatises on gardening, he showed the same enthusiasm. That love of craft carried over into his support of aspiring writers.

The highlight of my own writing career involved Glenn. He always promoted writers through “Writer Wednesdays”, “Follow Fridays” and by re-tweeting blog posts. When I last saw Glenn during the summer of 2015, I thanked him for his re-tweets. In fact, he’d just re-tweeted a pseudo-obituary I’d written about Pink Floyd’s recent break-up. With his most matter-of-fact tone he replied, “Hey, we’re a writing community. We support each other. It’s what we do.” I’ll never forget what he did next. Glenn shook his head and in his bass baritone said, “Man…that one on Pink Floyd.” I’d used the names of various songs from the band’s catalog to tell the story in that piece. I remember telling a friend at the time: “Something I wrote impressed Glenn Walker! This is my Nobel Prize in Literature!”

Malala Yousafzai once instructed: “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Like a great writer, Glenn didn’t tell us: he showed us.

I extend my deepest condolences to Glenn’s family, friends and fans.