The Golden Ass: The Transformations of Lucius

Written over 2,000 years ago, this is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety. I’m a fan of Robert Graves’ fictional rendition of this era (I, Claudius), so eagerly read his translation. Lucius is the hero of the novel, a nobleman journeying to Thessaly. He lodges with a friend and has a torrid affair with the maid/slave, Fotis, who helps him in his quest to spy the matron of the house turn into an owl night after night. Lucius desires transformation, so Fotis brings him the cream that should turn him into an owl but instead turns him into an ass. Question about whether this was an intentional mistake, because Fotis didn’t want Lucius sleeping with any other ladies in town. The antidote for the spell is to eat roses, so Lucius the ass trots over to munch on some roses but is chased away by dogs and farmers. He ends up stolen by thieves and sets out on his many adventures as an ass with human intelligence.
Posted outside the thieves’ cave, he hears an old woman recite the tale of Cupid and Psyche, the most beautiful woman on earth which arouses Cupid’s mother’s jealousy (Venus). Lucius helps a prisoner escape the cave, they are caught by the thieves, then a new “thief” enters to become their leader, to be revealed as the prisoner’s fiancé. More thefts and killings, interspersed with ribald tales like the woman who hides her lover in a tub, the husband comes home saying he’s sold the tub, the wife quickly says she already has a buyer for the tub who is inspecting it, the lover pops out and says it’s very dirty inside, the husband jumps in to clean it and the wife & lover go at it as the hubby cleans the tub. There’s another interspersed tale about a cheating wife whose husband catches her lover and as punishment, takes the boy to bed with himself instead. There’s a surprising amount of sex in this book, I suppose not so surprising since it is an essential human act.

A Fine Balance

Finally, a book I could immerse myself in and swim around for hundreds of pages, lapping up quirky characters in very real, richly textured stories. A look inside multiple families in India in 1975, during the state-declared Emergency that sweeps through ghettos and tears down illegal housing, along with forced sterilization camps. It’s fairly difficult to sum this up, 600 pages of swirling words, patched together like Dina’s quilt. Currently this is sitting at the top of my list of reads for 2012.
Fresh from the mountains descends Maneck, headed for refrigeration college in a world generally unrefrigerated and thus going bad. His father runs a general store with a secret family recipe for cola that gets swept out of business when advertising money flows in for the big cola players. Maneck shares a train ride with proofreader turned lawyer, Vasantrao Valmik, who at the end of the book invites Maneck to share his story with him the next day (alas too late).

Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.

Maneck becomes a paid boarder in a widow’s apartment, Dina, who is a seamstress who hires two tailors to run a “factory” inside her apartment. Ishvar and Om encounter many difficulties throughout the story, from the slaying of their entire family, to protecting the Muslim tailor, having their house razed, sleeping on the street, rounded up for forced labor camp.
Beggarmaster saves Ishvar and Om from the forced labor camp once he finds they have befriended Shankar, the crippled beggar who he has a soft spot for (and finds they are half-brothers, later). Beggarmaster ends up protecting Dina’s flat from her landlord until he is killed by Monkey-Man whose niece/nephew Beggarmaster has maimed for the begging trade.
Ishvar and Om’s final trip back to their village to find Om a wife ends tragically after forced sterilization and further brutality at the hands of his father’s murderer.

Working with Emotional Intelligence

Doing research for a project, I dove into Goleman’s assessment of how workers with high emotional intelligence are more valuable than those with high IQ & low EI. This is something I’ve known instinctively for awhile – if you can get along with people, be motivated and motivate, listen and communicate, then you’ll be good at your job. Goleman demonstrates real world examples of EI in action throughout the book. One engineering professor told his students about the five secrets to success: rapport, empathy, persuasion, cooperation, consensus building. On the first day of class, he has them work on all of the above, and the class ends up being the most creative and ambitious he’s ever taught.
Emotional competencies leading to success:
* initiative, drive, adaptability
* influence, leadership, political awareness
* empathy, self-confidence, developing others
Goleman’s adaption of emotional intelligence includes these emotional and social competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, social skills.

For star performers of all jobs, emotional competence is twice as important as purely cognitive abilities.

Distractions and Indians

I just gave up on Matthiesen’s In the Spirit of Crazy Horse after over 100 pages. For some reason I could not focus. So while I won’t write about the book b/c didn’t finish it, I did want to pass along the brief knowledge that I gleaned. Most of this is probably well known, but was fresh to me:
* Occupy-Alcatraz (1969-1971): the island was chosen as a location because it represented qualities found on a reservation: isolation, no running water, non-arable land. $24 to buy the island was offered, payable in glass beads and red cloth, alluding to the sale and transfer of Manhattan Island 300 years earlier.
* AIM was infiltrated by FBI, treated like any other rebel group of the era.
* We’ve treated natives incredibly poorly over the history of the nation. I’ve driven through reservations in the west; they are depressing and dreary, lacking life or hope.
I blame my inability to focus on the creep of technology. On that note, I have a new piece out about distraction subtraction. Excerpt:

We all know this deficit of attention is a real problem. My life has been broken into two-second increments. Sometimes I’ll forget what it is that I just left the table to do, and frantically look for the browser back button in my head to return to the previous thought.

Radio Silence Issue Number 01

A new magazine about literature and rock & roll has slipped onto stage and has me swooning. The flip of each page had me anticipating a delicious treat, like this description of an empty stage from Geoff Dyer:

I remember absolutely nothing about the music, which is rather surprising given that it was the first concert I ever attended: only the fact and circumstances of having gone. And of the immense totemic power of the unmanned drum kit on stage before the band came on. The sense of latent energy and expectation it exuded remained undimmed, whenever I saw a drum kit onstage, throughout the many years of subsequent gig-going – so even that memory has qualities of premonition, of the hours and years of waiting for the next band to take the stage.

Jim White includes a tale of being rescued by Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree which he coincidentally has on hand during a trip to Knoxville, where the book is set. Not that it’s very fun to read things online, but the magazine has posted his story in its entirety. Zach Rogue points out this distaste for reading online: “Like most people, I would imagine, I don’t read all that deeply when I read online. I skim” and “The smell of paper awakens the part of my brain that looks for chance discoveries.”
It is essential that we continue to read printed material in order to retain the ability to read deeply. I appreciate the effort of the magazine team to continue this tradition, highlighting new stories and rediscovered F. Scott Fitzgerald/Edna St. Vincent Millay. I also appreciate the book recommendations of Suttree and Pnin. Adding to the list.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

The dream team of Hedges and Sacco tackle America’s most shameful secret: the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. Days of Theft covers the Native American condition in Nebraska, South Dakota, where the husks of men give in to alcoholism and encounter shootouts with federal agents. Days of Siege details Camden, NJ’s descent into hell beginning in 1960s as manufacturing fled along with white flight. Days of Devastation dips into the awful practice of raping our land for minerals, the plight of coal miners, the destruction levied against the beautiful Appalachian mountains.
I’ll overlook the typo on page 171 where Congressman Hechler’s name is inadvertently turned to “Heckler” in order to quote him on how he got the black lung bill passed:

And I didn’t think it could pass at first until I began to raise hell. You know, I started out in Congress as an activist but found that wasn’t enough, so I became an agitator and I found that wasn’t enough so I became a hell-raiser, and that was effective.

Days of Slavery ends up in Florida, with migrant workers overpaying for rent for a spot on the floor of a trailer, chained up at night, wages docked, unable to move from their condition, all so Trader Joe’s can have a decently priced tomato. I’d rather grow my own.

A House for Mr. Biswas

I originally read this over ten years ago, but it made such an impression that I thought of it occasionally, and recommended it recently to a friend, which enticed me to consume it again. An Indian living in Trinidad, Mohun Biswas bounces from house to house after his father drowns. Vivid, arresting prose about the life of everyman Mr. Biswas, a sassy unconventional hero who becomes a journalist in Port of Spain. He rebels against living in the house of his wife, with the rest of the Tulsi clan. He becomes imperial, demanding that his children bring him pencils, ink, paper while writing in bed. He tests the limits of his power against everyone. Mr. Biswas is one of the most engaging characters I’ve read recently.
Highly recommended.

He was going out into the world, to test it for its power to frighten. The past was counterfeit, a series of cheating accidents. Real life, and its especial sweetness, awaited; he was still beginning.