Monday, March 30, 2020

PLEASURE FROM A PLAGUE

When I was a boy in Brooklyn, horses were still used to pull delivery wagons, and the gutters were spattered with the droppings of those animals. It always amazed me to see songbirds alighting on the fresh manure to extract oat grains that had passed through the equine intestinal tract.

You must find it difficult to believe that anything good could possibly emerge from a disaster like the coronavirus pandemic we are presently experiencing, but I will tell you how something positive came out of a pandemic like the present one when a germ that normally sickens animals made the jump to humans. In the 14th century, a disease called the Black Death or Bubonic Plague invaded Europe and killed about 25 million people -  25-50% of the population.

The city of Florence was overwhelmed with the disease, attracting the attention of Giovanni Boccaccio, a prominent writer. He decided to write a story that would help alleviate the distress of the plague.  His story, The Decameron, describes how seven young women and three men departed the stricken city for a safe location in the countryside a few miles away.

One of the women was elected Queen for the day. She used her authority to determine what the rest of the party would do to remain happy. Some of their hours would be spent in wandering around the pleasant pastoral surroundings. Later, after dinner, all would gather together and each would relate a brief tale for the amusement of the group. All were pleased with her decision and each new Queen behaved in a likewise fashion. The subjects of these tales involved every type of character- monks, abbots, and bishops to miscreants of all sorts including lovers, faithful and un. Some of the tales were ribald and involved descriptions of sex. The group was delighted with this arrangement and so each day was spent with joy in a pastoral setting.  In this manner, over a period of ten days about a hundred tales were told to the delight of all.

Thus, we have an example of how days of tragedy were lightened. I wouldn’t be surprised if some creative forms of entertainment utilizing current technology appear in the days that follow, and of course, there’s reading.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

THE PRINCE OF TIDES

We are spending our seventh season here on Hilton Head Island in the Low Country of South Carolina to escape the snow, ice, and low temperatures of Connecticut.

Hilton Head is a huge (69 square miles) island separated from the mainland by the Intercoastal Waterway. Originally it was occupied by Yemassee Indians and later by escaped and freed slaves known as Gullah who still remain in isolated communities. Over the years the island morphed from a producer of cotton and lumber to a manicured resort development with hotels, grand homes, condominiums, marinas, tennis courts, and golf courses with no resemblance to the genuine Low Country surrounding it.

The South Carolina Low Country was the home of Pat Conroy who became one the South’s prominent writers still endeared in this locale. He wrote many novels including Beach Music, The Citadel, The Great Santini, and The Prince of Tides published in 1986.  Although I read this book when it was first published, listened to it, and saw the movie, I decided to listen to it again.

What prompts someone to reread a book? I believe it is a combination of unforgettable characters with whom the reader identifies and a unique story. I have reread many books. For example, I read Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers three times in print and twice in audible format. I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer once in print and three times as an audible book. And so, I decided to listen to The Prince of Tides again. Like listening to a favorite piece of music, rereads often reveal something new each time.

The Prince of Tides is not an easy book to read. The story line is not chronological, which is particularly disturbing to those who saw the movie. Each chapter is a piece of the whole and does not follow sequentially with many flashbacks. The family includes the grandfather Amos, the father Henry who was a pilot in WWII shot down in Germany who returns to become a shrimper, and his wife, Leila, and their three children Luke, and the twins, Savannah and Tom. The story describes the children’s escapades when they are young, several of the grandfather’s and father’s unusual performances, and a major tragic event that affects the lives of the family members.

I doubt if many of you will read or reread The Prince of Tides, but for those dedicated booklovers who might, it will be a rewarding experience.