Category Archives: Books

Francisco Goya

Francisco Goya: A Life by Evan S Connell

Read: May-June, 2007

Goya is probably my favorite artist of all time, for two principle reasons. First, he is of Basque origin. In fact, his ancestors (either his grandfather or his great-grandfather) was from the town of Zerain, Gipuzkoa. My mom’s grandfather, Blas Telleria, was from Mutiloa, Gipuzkoa, which is right next door. In doing some research on my genealogy, I found that one of my ancestors was named Blas de Goya, also from Mutiloa. Thus, it seems to me that there is a small chance that Goya and I are “cousins”. Which I find sort of cool.

The second reason I like Goya is because I just plain like his art. Most of it I don’t appreciate much at all. It seems that half of art can only be appreciated in context. In the case of Goya, his paintings of the Spanish royal family, for example, seem to be lauded because he didn’t idealize his subjects and that was radical for his time. For me, it doesn’t seem all that exciting and I don’t really find all that much of interest in those paintings. However, his Black Paintings and many of his etchings are just plain fascinating. I was lucky enough to find a used copy of his complete etchings at Powell’s in Portland. Especially those dealing with the Spanish war with Napoleon I find very interesting. Goya depictions of humanity’s dark side are, in my mind, still unparalleled.

Some of my favorite paintings by Goya include Saturn Eating his Son, the Third of May, and The Colossus.

I just finished reading Evan Connell’s biography of Goya, entitled, simply, Francisco Goya: A Life. Rather than get into all of the minute details of Goya’s life, Connell rather puts Goya’s life into the context of Spanish society of the time. That is, we get to know Goya as much through his interactions with Spanish royalty as through his own deeds. Connell goes on a number of tangents dealing with important Spaniards of the time and their goings on. We learn a lot about the sexual conduct of certain powerful women of the time, partially because these women, including the Queen of Spain, determined so much in the life of people like Goya. I think part of the reason these women feature so prominently, though, is because of the titillation factor.

Connell’s style is very familiar. At first, this was a bit off-putting; it was almost too familiar. But after a while, I became accustomed to his style and actually really enjoyed it. Sometimes, the style makes it hard to follow what Connell is talking about. He uses very colloquial phrases and terms and writes as if he is talking with the reader rather than writing an authoritative biography on his subject.

This is the first book specifically on Goya I have read and it may be that part of the reason that Connell digresses on so many other people is because there just isn’t that much known about Goya himself. I just don’t know. For whatever reason, because of this style, we learn a bit less about Goya the man and a good deal about the Spain in which he resided, the Spain that shaped him and his art. We learn about the foibles of the nobility, the misery of the peasants, and the horrors of war. Thus, as a book on Goya, it maybe leaves a little to be desired. But, as both an account of Spain in the later 1700s and as an entertaining romp through history in its own right, this is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to any Spanish history buff.

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Started reading: ~08/01/01
Finished reading: ~09/01/01
Notes written: 10/26/01

I write these notes more than a month after I finished reading the book. I felt it was a very good book, maybe preaching to the choir in my case, but still making a very good case for the need for skepticism, of a need to think rationally about the things that we encounter every day. Sagan recounts many instances of people being fooled by hoaxes, both obvious and not so obvious, of believing them even after the hoax is revealed. People so desperately want to believe something, anything. They don’t look at things rationally, they don’t try to analyze them. They take things at face value, never trying to understand things more deeply than at the level that they are first told.

Sagan makes strong arguements for the need to strengthen scientific education, not only here, but in all parts of the world. People, especially now, now that our world is dominated by the products of science, need to understand that science more. To be able to intelligently interact with their world, they need to understand it better.

Sagan also points out the similarties between the current “fad” of alien sightings and abduction stories and the apparitions of the Virgin in the middle ages. Of how neither have any hard evidence for their occurence, but still are believed at face value. He describes how current knowledge of the workings of the brain do seem to lead credance to the idea of mass delusions. He looks at the witch trials of previous centuries to show how the majority of people can be brought to believe something that is not true, even something that the educated people of the time try to tell them is false.

Sagan does a great job of telling us why we need to learn science, why we need to think skeptically and critically. He also is sympathetic with people and their desire to believe these things. He would be the happiest man in the world if aliens did exist and visit us, but he sees no evidence of such happenings. He knows that people need to believe, need to escape from their world, either because it is mundane, or depressing, or too horrible to deal with. In some ways, it is an interesting comparison with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. There, comic books exist as a doorway to escape. Sagan knows that people need to escape, but he also feels that we need to be careful, that we can’t confuse reality – that which we can test, for which we have evidence – with fantasy. Joe, in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, sees the ability to escape as necessary, as the only thing that has helped him to deal with the events in his life. Sagan, I think, doesn’t feel this is bad, just that people need to be able to tell the fantasies of their escape from the reality around them. And, the key way to be able to do this is to know more about science, as a window to understanding reality, as a tool for doing so.

I agree completely with everything Sagan says. I may not be quite as wanting to find aliens or these things, but I am wanting the fantastic to be real. I would like to see ghosts and have these other shades of existence be real. But, as Sagan, I don’t see any evidence for these things. I think that we all need to be a bit more of a scientist, that we need to be able to tell reality from fantasy just a bit more than most of us are able to. I think that many of us are easily swayed and confused by stories of the fantastic, that we so desperately want to believe in something that lets us escape our mundane lives, our lives too horrible to deal with, that we latch on to anything that comes along. We are, in some real sense, sheep, that would rather be told what to believe than to try to investigate the world and learn how it is for ourselves. This isn’t true just of the nature of reality, but also in every realm of human existence. We are told by our governments what to believe about the enemy, we don’t think for ourselves. Blind patriotism plays the same role here as blind faith in religion. We don’t think for ourselves, we just believe the status quo given to us by those in power. Sagan wants us all to be a bit more scientific so we can also deal with these kinds of fantasies as well.

The Amazing Aventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Started reading: ~09/01/01
Finished reading: 10/26/01
Notes written: 10/26/01

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Warning! Spoilers follow!

The story in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is about two cousins – Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier – both of whom are Jewish. Sammy was born and raised in NY, Joe in Prague. The book starts off in World War II, and Joe has escaped from a Prague that is about to come under the control of Hitler. He is the only one of his family who escapes. The rest of his family is first interned and then each dies, first his father, then his brother (in an attempt to sail across the Atlantic to freedom) and his mother and grandfather as well. Joe escapes by travelling in a box with the Golem of Prague. He makes his way to NY, where he meets his cousin Sammy.

Sammy is a comic book fan and Joe is an artist, so they create a comic book character, the Escapist. They sell it to Sammy’s boss and it becomes hugely successful. During the time of working on the Escapist, Sammy meets Tracy Bacon, who plays the Escapist on the radio, and Joe meets Rosa Saks. They both fall in love. Sammy eventually develops a relationship with Tracy and they are later busted in a party of several homosexual couples, after which Sammy is forced to service an FBI agent in order to avoid being charged. At the same time, Rosa has become pregnant with Joe’s child. Joe learns that his brother, Tommy, has died on the boat that was supposed to bring him to America and he joins the navy to help fight the Germans, leaving Rosa alone and not telling anyone that he has gone. Sammy wants to avoid a life of being a homosexual, he doesn’t want the stigma. Rosa thinks of having an abortion, but they decide that the best thing is to get married and raise Joe’s child together. They name him Tommy, after Joe’s brother.

Meanwhile, Joe is in Antartica, where he has many travails (his entire company dies, except for one, he nearly goes mad, he finally finds a German base and he and the other man go to kill the lone German there. Joe gets there, after his companion has died, and he accidentally kills the German.) Eventually, Joe is found and he makes it back to NY, but doesn’t reveal himself to his family, not until Tommy sees him once and Joe recognizes him. Joe reveals himself to Tommy and they become friends. Eventually, Tommy gets Joe to reveal himself to the rest of the family, where his feelings for Rosa surface again.

The final main event of the story is Sammy’s testimony before a Senate committee dealing with the delinquent effects of comics on kids. Sammy’s past creations, often boy side-kicks to male heroes, is brought to light, and the inference that he has done so because of his own homosexuality is made. Sammy decides that he is now finally free of his secret, of his life of lies, and he goes to LA.

The book is very complex, with many levels and many investigations of Sammy, Rosa and Joe and their feelings and how they deal with their situations. I don’t think I’ve digested the book on all levels and I’m sure that I would have to reread it several times to get everything in there. There is much about the building of Golems, of superheroes, of escaping from reality. Joe escaped from war, from death, but lost his entire family in the process. Sammy escaped from a life of what he felt would be shame, but had to live a lie in order to do so. Joe then escaped from his second family, ran from them, because he couldn’t bear being with them. Joe both couldn’t give up hope that his first family might return, but couldn’t believe that they would.

The role of comics is central to the story, in that they symbolize the need for escape from reality that most of us have. Sammy’s life was not as bad as Joe’s during the war, but his life before was worse. He didn’t have a father that was there for him, he didn’t have a complete home. He didn’t have the opportunities to learn and to explore that Joe did: music, magic, escapism. He didn’t have the full family life that Joe did. Sammy was also lame, and he needed to escape from his life, more than Joe did. Joe needed to fight back, but Sammy needed to escape, needed to escape almost all aspects of his life, even later on, when he was an adult. He felt he had to escape his natural feelings, his homosexuality, because it was not viewed well by the public. He had to hide everything, and sacraficed his only chance for love to do so.

All of the characters are strong and well developed. I connected with all of them. The book had a little of everything, even a little bit of sex. The story felt like we were growing with these characters, learning with them, there with them as they experienced life. It felt like maybe I was learning something about life as they did. That I experienced things that I would never have experienced myself. Sammy’s homosexuality felt like a natural thing for him. You could tell that he was scared and nervous about exploring this side of himself. He never fully let himself experience it, never fully let himself love Tracy. And, he regretted it forever.

I think that this book will be the kind that I get more out of with each successive rereading. I feel that, right now, I haven’t gotten much more than just the plot and the things that Chabon directly tells us. There is a lot more levels, I think, that I’m not fully digesting, not fully realizing. Chabon does try to tell us directly the main points of his message, by having the characters realize certain things for themselves.

It is interesting that Sammy’s homosexuality is revealed because of his habit of teaming heroes with boy side kicks, but, as he points out, the heroes are playing more of a father role than a corrupting role, much as he is to Tommy. Tommy is his ward, just as Robin is to Batman and so forth. Sammy never felt more than as a father to Tommy, and it is interesting that the same kind of relationship in his comic book characters is what brings his homosexuality to light.

I will definitely have to reread this book and think about it more to try to get more understanding of the book. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

Read: April 28, 2007

One of my favorite authors as a kid was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though I have to admit, I only read his Sherlock Holmes work (which might have come as a bit of a disappointment to Doyle, as he wanted to be known for something besides Holmes). So, when I first learned of Michael Chabon’s novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, The Final Solution, I was definitely intrigued.

The story is short: it took me only maybe 2 to 3 hours to read it. While it is well written, it uses grammatical constructions that were, at least for me, sometimes hard to get around. But, in the end, it was a very pleasant story that I greatly enjoyed. The mystery, while not overly complex, is enough to keep the book moving.

The real story, though, is not about the mystery that the old man finds himself drawn into. Rather, it is about the old man himself in his later years, when his body has failed him and his mind is beginning to as well. This is his last case and, while not as taxing as many he found himself dealing with as a younger man, considering his physical condition, it is about all he can handle. As such, it isn’t a traditional Sherlock Holmes story in that sense. It isn’t a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but rather a story about Sherlock Holmes the man. And, as such, I rather enjoyed it. But, as a Sherlock Holmes mystery, it wasn’t quite what I had hoped.

The mystery involves a murder and a missing parrot. It is the old man’s task to find the parrot and, in doing so, the murderer. The biggest disappointment for me is that the solution of the mystery doesn’t really involve any great insight into the case by the old man, the kind of piercing insight that is the hallmark of Sherlock Holmes. It is rather the help of a little boy that leads to the solution. The one time when the old man offers some great insight into the case (dealing with the motivations of one of the suspects), it comes entirely out of the blue. There is no reason for him to know what he does. He attributes it to his bees. But, unless he has a network of “spies” in the town, which is unlikely given his living arrangement, I don’t see how he would have that insight, unless it was a blind guess. And the Holmes I remember didn’t do blind guesswork.

So, as a Holmes mystery, I was disappointed in the story. But, as a story about Holmes in his final years, it was very enjoyable. Seeing the old man’s reactions to his difficulty to move around was very interesting. And his fear, not of death, but of an ignoble death — of dying with his face in his porridge — seemed to me to be in character.

One thing that struck me as odd and out of place. One chapter is from the point of view of the parrot. I found this particularly odd in a Holmes story, as nothing of the sort ever occurs in Doyle’s tales. I’m also always perplexed by these sorts of approaches since it seems we have no idea how a parrot looks at the world. How can anyone know how to write anything from a parrot’s point of view.

Finally, we never learn the true value of the parrot. There is obviously great interest in him, but we never learn why. A number of reasons are put forth, but no definitive one is stated. I’m sure this is intentional, but I would have liked to know something about what the meaning of the bird’s ramblings really was.

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel, just not so much as a Holmes story. For someone expecting a mystery in the Doyle style, this isn’t that story. But, as a story about the man himself, it is very good and I highly recommend it.

Nobody Gets the Girl

Nobody Gets the Girl Nobody Gets the Girl by James Maxey

Read: January 2007

I’m a big comics fan.  Not the biggest, I’m sure, but I enjoy comic books.  And I mostly read superhero comics, my favorites being X-Men, Fables, The Ultimates, Powers and Supreme Power.  There are a number of novelizations of comics or comic-based movies, none of which I’ve read.  However, there are also a couple of stand-alone novels based upon the comic book conventions that I’ve found and really liked.  The first was Superfolks by Robert Mayer.  It was really good.  It was about a superhero that is going through a midlife crisis.

The second is Nobody Gets the Girl by James Maxey.  In some ways, this is a very conventional superhero story, including an origin story for the hero, the typical battles, and the weird pseudoscientific explanations for things.  But, it gets a lot darker than most superhero tales.  There are probably no real “good guys” and the bad guys, of course, don’t see themselves that way.  In their own mind, they are freedom fighters, fighting against the supreme “good guy”, who wants to create a utopia at the cost of personal freedom.

The hero, Richard Rogers, is a regular guy who is going through a bit of a crisis.  But, he wakes up one day and his whole existence is gone.  The world he knew, the people he knew — including his wife — no longer exist.  Or, better said, they exist, but have no knowledge that Richard ever existed.  Soon, he learns the reason for his predicament, which has to do with a scientist traveling in time and preventing Richard’s conception.  He joins the scientist’s super-team, comprised of his two daughters, and tries to help the scientist — nicknamed Dr. Know by his daughter — implement his utopia while protecting him from his arch-enemy.

The story is well written, fast paced, and while using some of the unrealistic pseudoscience that comics always use to explain things, the world that Maxey sets up to explain the existence of super powers and such is novel.  It relies a bit too much on quantum physics, which all of these things seem to these days, but it does so in a unique way.

Furthermore, Maxey places his story in the “real” world, with the political problems that we face in our own world.  When super-powered terrorists attack cities, many, many, many people die, as you would expect if such things could really happen. It’s not like the Marvel or DC battles in which cities are destroyed, but it seems that no one really dies.  In that sense, the story is a bit more realistic (in the vein, in some ways, of The Authority).  The characters are compelling and interesting.  Their powers are also interesting and well utilized; one daughter has Magneto-like powers but uses them in a completely novel way compared to Magneto.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes the comic book/superhero genre.  It is an intelligent take on the genre, with enough unique twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.  And it is a relatively quick read too.  Not like a comic book, but still pretty fast.