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Tuesday, June 24, 2003  

Off the Web


It doesn't take much to make me happy
And to make me smile within. . . .

-- Deniece Williams

Sometimes, all it takes is a new novel by a master writer. (I keep hoping there is a missing manuscript by Jane Austen, somewhere, but apparently not.) Mac-a-ro-nies reader Hector M.'s gift of Honore de Balzac's The Black Sheep promises hours in that elated state. I am running out of Balzac to read because only his most popular works have been translated into English and made available in the American market. So, this present is particularly appreciated.

The Black Sheep is part of the Human Comedy series in which Balzac attempts to probe both hereditary and societal reasons why people's lives turn out the way they do. Its protoganists are two full brothers whose personalities are exact opposites. Their fates are influenced from childhood by their mother's preference for the older brother, who resembles her in appearance, though he has 'inherited' her father's corrupt ways.

The novel revolves around the contrasting characters of the two brothers. Philippe Bridau, Napoleon's aide-de-camp at the Battle of Montereau, had a brief but glorious career in the army before the fall of the Emperor. A handsome and dashing figure, he is still more popular than his younger brother, Joseph, a man of less adventuresome spirit whom his mother considers a shiftless, good-for-nothing artist.

As in other novels in the Comedie Humaine, to be without money is tto be without power, almost without life itself; and in The Black Sheep it is a struggle to recover the family inheritance that entangles the two young men. In a hostile society in which you must kill to avoid being killed, deceive in order to avoid being deceived, the true nature of each brother gradually emerges. [End notes to Penguin Classic edition.]

I have only begun reading this novel, but know I will not be disappointed.

Let's briefly revisit last week's reviewed book, Thom Jones' collection of short stories, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine. I want to draw your attention to the last story in the collection, "You Cheated, You Lied." This relatively long narrative is about the patients who frequent a third-rate neurologist's office, particulary two of them, a manic-depressive and an epileptic boxer who meet there and fall in love. Jones' captures the intersection between neurological illnesses and mental illnesses. (They often are so closely related there are dual diagnoses.)

He also reproduces the sped-up quality of some patients with neurological/mental health disorders. For example, an ALS victim can go from behaving normally to being unable to do more than blink his eyes in six months, with concomitant changes psychologically. The couple who are the focus of the story are like a whirling dervish. Just when you think their trail of mayhem is about to end, they get new energy and take off again. I recommend "You Cheated, You Lied," to anyone interested in realistic writing about people suffering neurological/mental health illnesses, which definitely are illnesses. I doubt it has been much anthologized because of its length, but the story provides grounds in itself for purchasing Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine.

*The nose

My sinus problem has abated somewhat, partly due to help from Mother Nature. We had a break in the sweltering heat that had become the norm out here in the Pacific Northwest for a while. That allowed me to breathe more easily. I can still feel the nose more than I should be able to, but the feeling of having a vise clamped over it allowing air to neither enter or exit is gone for now. Saline nasal spray and Breathe Right strips may also have played roles in my semi-recovery.


After deciding I had become much too focused on blogging and the book I am trying to finish, I relented and went out on a couple dates. The first went well enough, but, as is often the case, the bad date was more interesting.

He invited me to a modest restaurant, a cafe, actually. (That in itself is not probative, though it makes a better impression if one is invited to a more than middling place, by suggesting the fellow thinks you are worth it.) Before we were halfway through the appetizers, he began to regale me with tales of his medical misadventures. Though he claims to be only 40,* he says he has had operations on his colon, esophagus and, most recently, heart. He described them in excruciating detail. Fortunately, I am a vegetarian. I was able to eat most of my main course, calzone, without the kind of visualization an omnivore would have engaged in.

When he had exhausted an almost non-stop description of his incisions, extractions and scar tissue, the man began describing the veterinary misadventures of his 12-year-old dog. As he was detailing her problem with ear wax, a friend saw me and insisted I come over to his table to look at some pictures from a trip to Brazil he had recently returned from. I was able to extend that visit to about 10 minutes. When I returned to our table, my date was clearly chagrined. He kept darting evil looks at my friend. I told him I was not hungry enough for desert and suggested we call it an evening. After some grumbling about having driven in from the suburbs for a barely two-hour date, he consented. Not wanting to be too rude, I walked him to his car, but said I had a couple errands to run in the neighborhood and did not need to be dropped off at home. I was hoping not to hear from him again, but he has left several messages.

*He has one of those pink, lined complexions, so I am unable to estimate his actual age. Hair was not a help because he is bald and fair-skinned men tend to lose their hair early. Let's guess he is between 40 and 55.

Some time ago, I came across a blog entry by a male blogger who offered advice to middle-aged men reentering the dating game. If I can locate it again, I promise to revive it. I'll consider doing so both a private and a public service.

4:16 AM