"We need writers who can remember freedom." If you didn't catch this the other week, worth six minutes of your time.
Since the beginning of the year, I made a plan to read and review a book a week. Obviously, I have failed in this endeavour as of today. Lately, I’ve been thinking about my great reading experiment for 2014. As I quoted Neil Gaiman at the beginning of the year: "I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes."And with the tendency to be a bit hard on myself, I have accepted defeat on a certain level, but have taken a long look and plan at the rest of the year in an effort to possibly make it up. Not to you, of course, but to myself. Mistakes are inevitable, but what we do with them defines who we can be.
On average, I probably finish about 20-25 books a year. And I dip into and sample about 2-3 times that many throughout the same time frame. (And I probably buy quadruple that amount – my God what is wrong with me!!) In an effort to be more of a finisher, and not just a beginner, was one of the impetuses of this blog in the last several months. To make up for this discrepancy, according to my Goodreads list I need to read 27 books between now and the rest of the year to end at 52 books read for the year. Having just finished off a week long vacation in which I finished off four novels, I feel I am coming out of my reading funk and ready to tackle this new goal. In looking at this realistically, despite being a voracious reading, I have never been a fast one. So to achieve this goal will take a combination of shorter novels (i.e. The Great Gatsby), a handful of graphic novels, but I won’t shy away from bigger stories that are grabbing my interest (A Prayer of Owen Meaney and the upcoming Stephen King being a couple that I want to read at the moment.)
Now whether I will post a full length review of each book is another matter entirely. At this moment, I don’t plan to. Rather I’ll post reviews of the books that speak to me the most, which I still hope will be about one a week. Not sure how it will turn out, but I haven’t given up defeat. Nor will I.
Fall is a good time for books. The crisp air, the changing colors, long weekend afternoons reading a good book at the coffeeshop. But also there is good music and movies too. Here is what I'm looking forward too in the next couple months. Not a comprehensive list, but what just comes to mind in the moment.
The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell
Revival by Stephen King
Third Man Records Vault Package #22
The Endless River by Pink Floyd
Inherent Vice, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson based on the book by Thomas Pynchon
In a recent interview, Stephen King said, "Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex." After picking up myself off the floor with laughter, I thought it was the most pithy thing I've read about reading good fiction in a very long time.
For a little context, here is the whole passage.
Jessiace Lahey: English teachers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to literacy: Those who believe we should let students read anything they want so they will be more likely to engage with books, and those who believe teachers should push kids to read more challenging texts in order to expose them to new vocabulary, genres, and ideas. Where would you pitch your tent?
Stephen King: You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teaching Moby-Dick or Dubliners to higReading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.h school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.
I've never seen a simile that compares reading to the hierarchies of sexual pleasure, but I must admit, I would have to agree. And thought we might have various definitions of what constitutes "good fiction," I would not even dare expound on it any more since it appears to speak for itself.
In listening to the podcast The Tolkien Professor I came across their wrap-up of Mythcon 45, the annual gathering of the Mythopoeic Society, an organization dedicated to the writings of the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams) and in fantasy literature in general. I’ve never attended, though it’s something that has always been on my radar.
But apparently there was a presentation by the scholar Brenton Dickieson, who presented a paper about a deleted section to C.S. Lewis’ preface of The Screwtape Letters. By deleted, I don’t mean literally gone forever, but was never published and ended up tucked away in some C.S. Lewis archive somewhere. According to Dickieson, the gist of the deleted preface offered a framing meta-narrative to The Screwtape Letters that I found immediately intriguing, in which Lewis states that the demonic letters are a document that was translated by Ransom from the language of Old Solar.
Though I am a dedicated reader of the fellow inkling Tolkien, I have not even as much picked up a book by C.S. Lewis. But I thought who the hell is Ransom? and what is Old Solar? On further googling, I discovered Ranson is the main protagonist in Lewis’ Space Trilogy and Old Solar is one of the languages that is spoken by some of the non-terrestrial creatures he encounters. So, somewhere in the back of Lewis’ mind, The Screwtape Letters comes out from the world of his Space Trilogy adventure. This bit of meta-narrative inter-textual chicanery made me think Lewis knew how to engage in some postmodern fun.
So, why did this grab my attention? I’m a sucker for novels pawned off as translations of lost and/or discovered manuscripts. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco introduced me to the concept when I was a young teenager, unaware it was a trope employed often, but once I discovered that other authors have been playing with the concept for ages, I found it a fun and imaginative way to frame fictional realities. I’m not sure why it appeals to me, it just simply does.
So in avoiding him my entire life, I finally wanted to read a bit of C.S. Lewis to see how some of this connects up, if at all. To being I started with Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in the Space Trilogy.
Ransom is an academic who is on a walking tour through the English countryside and comes across a mysterious house filled with some unpleasant characters. The novel starts off with a strong pastoral gothic tone, with Ransom helping a young man escape, but is taken prisoner himself by a mad scientist of sorts along with his accomplice. After awakening, he soon discovers he is actually now on a spaceship with his captors, on the way to the red planet called Malacandra, leaving the gothic tone behind and heading out into the heavenly darkness of space.
After arriving on the Malacandrian terrain, Ranson escapes and finds himself among a land filled with alien beings, strange flora, and disorienting landscapes. Eventually he finds shelter among a race of beings called the hross. Over time he learns enough language to get by and starts to find his way among this new life, as much as one could in such a situation. Eventually he is called to visit a super being called Oyarsa, who is some sort of god-like creature, but isn’t a god exactly. Leaving the hross behind, Ransom encounters other races on his eventual encounter with Oyarsa and ultimately facing his original captors.
Though the Space Trilogy is usually categorized as science fiction, the story sits a little outside of the usual genre boundaries of the time period. It is more of a planetary romance filled with philosophical musings and literary conceits, and even though it is an important part of the Martian literary tradition, it certainly is not a Golden Age work typical of the American pulp scene. If one is to put a label on it, I would have to borrow the name of the British publication from the 1950s/60s of Science Fantasy.
I liked Ransom’s endeavor of trying to understand the Malacandrian languages and attempting to translate them into English. This concern with translation is a common enough trope in science fiction, but in Lewis’ case, it seems to underscore his interest in philology and linguistics while attempting to put a frame around the Other, whether ineffable or alien. Trying to take an experience and pin it down into words that never do justice to the experience is Ransom’s ultimate struggle.
Dr. Ransom – and at this stage it will become obvious that that is not his real name – soon abandoned the idea of his Malacandrain dictionary and indeed all idea of communicating his story to the world. He was ill for several months, and when he recovered he found himself in considerable doubt as to whether what he remembered had really occurred. It looked very like a delusion produced by his illness, and most of his apparent adventures could, he saw, be explained psychoanalytically. He did not lean very heavily on this fact himself, for he had long since observed that a good many “real” things in the fauna and flora of our own world could be accounted for in the same way if you started with the assumption that they were illusions. But he felt that if he himself half doubted his own story the rest of the world would disbelieve it completely. He decided to hold his tongue, and there the matter would have rested but for a very curious coincidence.
The “curious coincidence” that brings Ransom’s story to public light is that he happens to meet C.S. Lewis and decides to divulge his story to the don, and in so doing Lewis decides to share it with the rest of the world. With Lewis turning out to be a character in the novel who we learn has been narrating the story from the beginning is a nice playful touch that I didn’t expect. Which this meta-fictional masking brings me back to the beginning of my post and the deleted preface, in which The Screwtape Letters was one of Ranson’s translation projects that Lewis also eventually brought to light. The literary implications of this should keep a good handful of Lewis scholars busy for a while and just goes to show there is always a way to bring fresh eyes to a seemingly tired topic.
As the first in the trilogy and as Lewis’ first novel, Out of the Silent Planet was engaging enough, but I don’t find myself needing to read the rest of the series anytime soon. I expect I’ll get around to it eventually, but the novel is a fairly self-contained story that satisfies a taste for Lewis' fantasies for now. It’s philosophical and thoughtful moments were engaging and it will be interesting to see how they play out in the rest of the series. But, instead of moving on to the next in the trilogy, I much prefer to move on to Lewis’ most popular works, The Screwtape Letters.
We’ve all met them at one time or another. A kind of acquaintance or friend that lacks a sort of awareness, doesn’t quite fit it, oblivious to social cues, but where everyone politely puts up with the person, all the while they give each other “a look” that they all recognize something is a little off-kilter about so-and-so.
Now combine that kind of person with someone who is also suffering from grand delusions, criminal inclinations, and methodical mania, and we start to come close to the sort of person in Jenn Ashworth’s first novel A Kind of Intimacy, that of Annie Fairhurst.
Armed with a library of self-help books, Annie has recently moved into a new neighborhood after leaving her husband and baby daughter, and almost instantly begins to obsess about her neighbor Neil, jealous of his girlfriend Lucy, while trying to make new friends with others in the neighborhood, like Sangita and Barry Choudhry, or Neil’s best mate Raymond. Soon enough Annie is listening through the walls, stealing mail, even snatching the occasional neighbor’s dress, offering enough warning signs that Annie is not reliable in telling the reader much of any truth, but rather living in her own emotional world that is impervious to reality. The novel is structured with the consequences of her previous life playing out in her new neighborhood, with each bit of the past being revealed until the final bloody end.
Told in the first person, the novel is often funny and gripping, but just as often is as disturbing as anything you might read. This juxtaposition emphasizes the uncomfortable nature we sense regarding the fine line between manners and violence: a comedy of horrors, so to speak. Ashworth portrays a convincing personality in the character of Annie, trapped in her romance novels and self help clichés, reminding me of a few of the self-deceived first-person characters Joyce Carol Oates likes to explore in her fiction. Though Annie is a bit unoriginal in her new life, where we see first hand that evil is banal, Annie is no less complex in the cliché, where her narrative voice works on several levels of self-deception that only a gifted writer could pull off. Creepy thing is, I think I may have met an Annie or two over the years.
On a bit of side note, the novel got me wondering about the nature of personality itself, reminding me of psychoanalyst Allen Whellis’ short work The Way We Are, in which he says,
We tend to assume that we know what we are, that our nature is obvious, given to us by direct observation of others and of ourselves. Just look around the world and look into your own heart and you will know the human condition. It’s not so. What it is to be a human being is not clear at all, but deeply shrouded. Because, in the evolution from animal life to human life, along with the gain in knowledge and awareness, we have gained also the ability to deceive ourselves. We arrange not to know our nature, not to see what we are up to. Our self-deceptions are so dense, piled on so thick, like layers of paint on a canvas already painted, layer after layer, laid on from school and pulpit and lectern an TV and internet., that it is all but impossible to break through, to get a clear view of what we really are. (16)
Why is Annie the way she is? How did she end up that why she did? I don’t know if it’s possible to know any more than it is possible to know why I am the way I am. But I think it’s a question worth delving into, even through that shroud, a question that suits the work of literature and story quite well. And in Ashworth’s first novel, she excels at such questions in horrifying fun.
I randomly picked this up off my shelf, thinking, I’ll read the first few pages and see if I want to put it on my next-to-read list. A couple hours later I was halfway through the novel.
Written by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace, winner of the Booker Prize in 1999, is a personal story set in post-apartheid South Africa. David Lurie is a professor at Cape Town Technical University, teaching the British Romantics and Communications 101. His desire for a female student leads him down a path that ultimately ends in his exile from the university. With no where to go in particular, he visits his grown daughter, who lives on a farm and runs a dog kennel in the uplands of the Eastern Cape. While living on the farm with his daughter, a terrible crime is perpetrated, with the rest of the novel exploring how David tries to make sense of his daughter, himself, and the society in which they now live.
The novel possesses a sparse prose style, with each sentence perfectly framed and executed. But for a literary novel, it doesn’t lack on meaningful action or plot either, with several strands of story interweaving with one another, compelling the reader at almost the pace of a thriller.
The novel begins with “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well,” brings to mind a few thoughts. The idea of sex as a problem is quite interesting in itself, but solving that perceived problem is one that quickly begins to unravel once David’s desire for a younger woman takes hold. David Lurie is a bit of a reprobate, with his last name suggesting to me the word lurid. In regards to his actions toward his student Melanie, he is somewhat unaware of how his advances are viewed by the opposite sex. And though he is willing to admit guilt once he is brought before a University tribunal, he’s unwilling to confess any contriteness for what he has done. The viewpoint of the novel is well balanced between being uncomfortable and sympathetic, leaving the reader to pass moral judgments.
But as the novel progresses to the country and farm where a terrible crime takes place, against both David and his daughter Lucy, it brings a harrowing counterbalance to David’s missteps, where moral judgments are encouraged, though fraught with complexities in a post-apartheid South Africa. There is a bit of exploration regarding “white guilt” and it’s interweaving of “victim’s guilt,” where it seems to suggest that the sins of the fathers justifies the crimes perpetrated. To use an English class cliché, this is a “reductionist” reading of the moral complexity this novel tackles, but those ideas are in the mix among this searing portrait of human nature.
The copy I read was the Folio Society edition, printed on Abbey Wove paper, bound in cloth, with an introduction by Christopher Hope and illustrations by Andrew Gibson. It’s a nice standard edition typical of the Folio Society for the contemporary fiction they produce. The art by Gibson reflects the starkness of the prose without being distracting to the novel itself. The introduction by Hope is excellent, providing great insights. In speaking about South Africa after the election of Nelson Mandela, he says,
An election, however, is not an exorcism. In the apartheid era people were classified as superfluous ‘appendages,’ and disposed of like so much rubbish. Yet suddenly it seemed better to forget how deadly things had been for so long, in the hopes of going forward peacefully. The prevailing ideas at the time might be summed up as: amnesty for the culpable; amnesia for everyone else.
Disgrace will have none of it. In this most fierce of his novels, J.M. Coetzee demolishes the pretence that cruelty and murder, customary instruments of policy for centuries, may be expunged by the arrival of a new and better government. No other South African novel has been so admired abroad and so excoriated at home….A dozen years after it first appeared, Disgrace still disturbs and confounds.
Even though Disgrace is a disturbing read, it is compelling and engaging and worth one’s time.
Despite countless articles and classes on the topic, the King James Version of the Holy Bible is seen primarily as a religious text and rarely as a literary one. Of course, there is nothing wrong seeing it as a religious text, for that is its primary purpose, but what is unfortunate, is that some cannot get past its text-proof practicalities to its deep literary richness and ambiguity. It is probably because of its literary characteristics that the Bible continues to spawn conflicting religious and non-religious interpretations, but I would argue that by understanding the literary aspect also helps to clarify how it has been interpetaed as a religious text.
Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at University of California, Berkeley, helps takes us a little further along to consider how the Bible, particularly the King James Version of 1611, has influenced countless American writers in his book Pen of Iron. By seeing the Bible through the eyes of American fiction, it helps us recognize how biblical language has shaped our literary expression and culture, and in turn see the Bible through a different lens.
What Alter focuses on is not only how certain biblical stories or symbols are re-imagined in American fiction, but about how KJV style informs American expression, where “…the language of the Bible remains an ineluctable framework for verbal culture in this country” (3). Sometimes style is seen as aesthetic window dressing that the story is told through, but it is much more. As Alter iterates a few times, style is “a way of imagining the world, of articulating value” (180).
The writers and work that Alter considers are Melville’s Moby Dick, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Bellow’s Seize the Day, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, along with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with even an offhand reference to hard-boiled crime novelists. He offers insightful analysis of key passages and techniques that writers use to exploit certain biblical styles, in a give and take negotiation with literary history engaging with American complexities.
Let me touch briefly on one of these techniques. Parataxis is when simple declarative clauses are typically brought together by the use of the word “and.” This is seen in an example of Rebekah at the well from the 1611 English version, “and she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels” (Genesis 24:20). This is a fairly simple example, but illustrates what kind of syntax and diction was not present in early modern English until after the arrival of the 1611 KJV. Parataxis can be used for several effects, but usually creates a forward motion in the narrative where clauses can have equal weight, a phonetic compactness of diction, sometimes connecting dissimilar ideas or images in conjunction with each other, and often in fiction, creating ambiguity in the space between clauses.
To give a quick idea how this may look in a novel, Alter has plenty of examples he takes us through, but let’s try out McCarthy’s The Road.
In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons and carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all (28).
Though minimal usage of the connecting word “and,” Alter describes this paratactic passage as “the framework in which the landscape is laid out: there are no casual or hierarchical relationships here, just one detail of devastation after another as the observing eye scans them, with ‘and’ the dominant conjunction and only the most minimal syntactic subordination allowed. Several sentences are merely noun phrases without predicates, a procedure that here is basically a modernist extension of the logic of biblical parataxis” (173).
This is really nitty, gritty stuff that dives deep into how prose is constructed, and thereby how fictional worlds are imagined. I suspect that creative writers would really enjoy this book, whether they have an interest in the Bible or not. But I imagine for the general reader who didn’t enjoy English class, this book is probably not your cup of tea.
But at least consider, “The essential point for the history of our literature is that the resonant language and the arresting vision of the canonical text, however oldentime they may be, continue to ring in cultural memory. We may break them apart or turn them around, but they are tools we still us on occasion to construct the world around us. That is precisely what a series of strong American writers since Melville have been doing” (183).
Ulysses by James Joyce is one of those books you either hate or really hate. There are a few people who must love it, since it consistently ranks high on 100 best lists for fiction, from Modern Library’s to the New York Times, but I don’t think I’ve actually met anyone who’s raved about it, let alone liked it that much. Even Virginia Woolf once remarked that she was at first amused, stimulated, and charmed by it, but soon was “puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” (223) Even though Woolf changed her view a few years later, at this point, Ulysses seems more admired than beloved.
I’ve only dipped into Ulysses on occasion, not going much further than 50 pages or so. Which for me is odd because I think of Joyce as one of my favorite authors, having read Portrait of an Artist as Young Man several times, along with being in awe of the mastery in Dubliners. I even like his poetry. And even though I haven’t finished Finnegan’s Wake, I find it much more pleasurable prose to dive into. But Ulysses has eluded me somewhat, just simply bidding my time to figure out a way into that world.
With Kevin Birmingham’s new study, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle of James Joyce’s Ulysses, has given me a few new ways in how to approach Joyce’s impenetrable brick. In fact, after finishing Birmingham’s history, that reads more like an intellectual thriller, I’m bit excited to try out Ulysses once again.
A combination of biography, history, literary insight, and political commentary, Birmingham brings to life the world of Modernism at the turn of the last century, covering much, from censorship, anarchist movements, little magazines, and World War I witch hunts to such legendary characters such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, and of course, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. He traces how Joyce’s stature and reputation built over time and when Ulysses finally saw the light of day, how a growing group of dedicated readers defended and disseminated his work under the threat of great personal cost.
[Sylvia Beach] would issue the single most difficult book anyone had published in decades. It would be monstrously large, prohibitively expensive and impossible to proofread. It was a book without a home, an Irish novel written in Trieste, Zurich and Paris to be published in France in riddling English by a bookseller from New Jersey. Joyce’s readership was scattered. The book was at turns obscure and outrageous, its beauty and pleasures were so coy, its tenderness so hidden by erudition, that when it did not estrange its readers it provoked them. Ulysses was not even finished, and already it had been declared obscene in New York and burned in anger in Paris. (203)
Why divisive? Why groundbreaking? First off, despite it’s high minded literary intricacies, the book contains enough vulgar and disgusting details that many took offense. It went so far in some people’s view that the Dublin Review asked the Vatican to put the book on the Index Expurgatorius, in which “merely reading Ulysses amounted to sinning against the Holy Ghost, the only sin beyond the reach of God’s mercy.” (221) First thing I thought was: really? But Ulysses apparently did provoke a tremendous amount of emotion, both political and religious.
Nearly a century later, the reactions of Ulysses can feel overblown – like hype from like-minded friends and bombast from journalists trying to sell papers. These days, Ulysses may seem more eccentric than epoch changing, and it can be difficult to see how Joyce’s novel (how any novel, perhaps) could have been revolutionary. This is because all revolutions look tame from the other side. They change our perspectives so thoroughly that their innovations become platitudes. We forget what the old world was like, forget even that things could have been another way. And yet they were. To understand how thoroughly Joyce broke conventions, it helps to remember how stringent they were. (224-225)
I’ve known Ulysses was censored for a period of time, but I really didn’t know the details or how that played out in the culture at large. And even though I knew Ulysses included the profane along with the sacred and mundane, I guess it certainly couldn’t have been that terribly offensive. Having not read far enough into the novel, I missed out on those dirty bits, but after finishing Birmingham’s study, let me tell you dirty bits they certainly are. In fact, for a man my age, I’m not easily shocked, but even I had a figurative blush cross my face a couple times while reading The Most Dangerous Book.
But is something that is vulgar or disgusting the same as legally obscene? That’s the question. Birmingham provides an excellent history of censorship in the US and Europe, which is worth reading the book just for that. This history culminates in the 1933 trial of The United States of America v That One Book “Ulysses,” in which Judge Woolsey made Ulysses legal to sell and trade in the US and effectively changed obscenity law for decades to come. From the decision:
In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of a mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers…when such a great artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?
Joyce has attempted – it seems to me, with astonishing success – to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in the penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. (328-329)
It’s that last part of Judge Woolsey’s decision that probably brings us back around to why people dislike Ulysses so much: it’s damn bloody difficult reading. It’s not a normal narrative or story in any sense of the word. As Birmingham points out,
Narratives are the way we make sense of the world. We parcel existence into events and string them into cause-and-effect sequences…Novels are important because they turn that basic conceptual framework into an art form. A beautiful narrative arc reassures us that the baffling events around us are meaningful – and this is why Ulysses appeared to be an instrument of chaos, an anarchist bomb. To disrupt the narrative method was to disrupt the order of things. Joyce, it seemed, wasn’t devoted to reality. He appeared to be sweeping it away. (226-227)
And dissecting this disruption is where Birmingham’s book truly shines. We know that Ulysses has its dirty bits, and if one starts reading it for that sole pleasure, you will likely find yourself sorely unfulfilled. But Birmingham provides enough literary insight and cultural context of the broader impact of Ulysses that I started finding a foothold on what the book is doing that I didn’t quite understand before.
But this book is not just about Ulysses, it is about the man James Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle. Having never got around to reading the standard Richard Ellmann biography of Joyce, many of these personal stories and moments were fascinating, and definitely more blush-worthy than Ulysses itself. Let’s just say some of Joyce’s letters to Nora is some of the most extraordinary vulgarities I’ve ever come across, coupled with a tremendous pathos and intellect. Another part of Joyce’s life that is explored is the development of his eye disease and how it affected his writing and relationships – it was harrowing to say the least. For Joyce to have gone on and written the far more difficult yet more humorous work Finnegan’s Wake under the shadow of blindness and debilitating pain, puts his art in the face of pain and death into stark and haunting relief.
So, is Ulysses worth reading despite it difficulty? I think every reader can find a why in if they want to. Some people can pick it up and enjoy the hell out of it. Others, probably most, walk away confused, bored, or both. But that is no reason to give up. Some of the most rewarding experiences tend to be the most challenging. Birmingham’s own manifesto for Ulysses inspires one to try the challenge, providing a path to its multiple pleasures.
It’s tempting to think of Ulysses as a book about how feeble life has become in the modern era. The warrior King of Ithaca is reduced to a lonely, cuckolded ad salesman, and the defiant genius who penned the novel was reduced to a rueful figure tapping his cane down foreign streets… Even a book like Ulysses, we consider essential to our culture heritage, might never have happened – might have ended in a New York police court or with the outbreak of a world war – if it were not for a handful of awestruck people. Joyce’s novel, with its intricacies and schoolboy adventures, with each measured and careful page, gave them what it gives us: a way to sally forth into the greater world, to walk out into the garden, to see the heaventree of stars as if for the first time and affirm, against the incalculable odds, our own diminutive existence. It is the fragility of our affirmations – no matter how indecorous they may be – that makes them so powerful. (342)
I’ve always have had a moderate interest in Stephen King, reading bits and pieces here and there, but have never been fully convinced of his talent until last year when I read The Shining for the first time, along with it’s “sequel” Doctor Sleep. It was a great reading experience, and despite a few quirky things about some of King’s prose and scenes that can bug me, I started to understand why he has such a legion of constant readers.
I think the thing that King is best at is creating a fully realized world that combines the mundane and believable with an everyman or everywoman facing an unbelievable situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and oftentimes it is a mix.
His latest novel Mr. Mercedes has a great beginning premise. In the spring of 2009, when the country was in the throws of the financial meltdown, hundreds of job seekers are lining up in the cold predawn hours outside a job fair, hoping to find some sort of work to help them make it through the day. As they are waiting for morning to come and the doors to open, a Mercedes comes along and suddenly plows through the crowd, killing men, women, and children. Eight dead, fifteen wounded.
The scene is as horrifying as one could imagine. King spends time with the people in the line, particularly a young man who befriends a young woman and her young baby. The baby becomes a bit of a focal point, with people incensed that a woman would bring a baby out in such cold weather. But it drives home the desperation that the mother is facing: no money, no family, no friends to help out, and becomes a symbol of the desperation everyone in the line is facing. When the horror begins, the young woman and her baby do not make it out alive.
The story then picks up several months later with retired detective Bill Hodges, who wasn’t able to catch the Mercedes killer, and is in a struggle to find meaning after retirement, with thoughts of suicide crossing his mind often.
One day Brady Hartfield, the Mercedes killer, sends Bill Hodges a letter that flaunts and celebrates his murderous accomplishment. Brady invites Bill to a highly secure chat website called Debbie’s Blue Umbrella, in which he intends to manipulate Bill into a dialogue that he hopes will destroy the detective’s life. But the letter wakes Bill up from his lifeless days, and Brady gets more than he bargained for.
Essentially the rest of the novel is Bill re-opening the investigation, without approval of the police course, and goes down a road with a cast of characters, haphazardly discovering new evidence, all the while engaging and enraging Brady with a bit of digital cat-and-mouse game.
The novel starts strong, but for me, the long middle part feels loose and unfocused. Marketed as a crime thriller, this does have the occasional thrill, but it comes in predictable spurts, mostly the first 12 pages and the last 100 pages. But halfway through the novel, I almost put it down due to its lack of anything interesting going on storywise. Even the characters weren’t interesting enough to keep me going as the plot plodded along. But I decided to push through, simply for the sake of an experiment to be able to review the book as a whole and not a half.
There are a couple clues in the novel itself that I think shed light on it faults. The narrator when speaking of Brady’s writing activities says, “He learned in high school that thinking too long about writing doesn’t work for him. Too many other ideas get into his head and start sliding all over each other. It’s better to just fire away” (164).
I don’t think I could find a better description of a good chunk of this novel. It has the feeling of being “discovery written,” with not much planning ahead where the characters are headed and very little going back over to tighten up the story. Now whether that is the actual case or not is irrelevant, but about 250 pages of this story reads like it does. When it comes to crime fiction, usually the best stories can be quite intricately plotted, and matched perfectly with the characters’ history and motivations. For me, it’s usually this intricacy in crime fiction that can make it so satisfying, whether it’s Sherlock Holmes, a work of American noir, or even Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. As the Mercedes killer is about to engage in his final bloody plans, the narrator reveals about Brady, “He’s aware of what a crude and makeshift plan this is; the stupidest no-talent screenwriter in Hollywood could do better” (377). That’s certainly true in this case.
I also find it difficult to excuse such lazy characterization. A retired rogue detective: check. A psychopath bordering on the cartoonish: check. A spunky and apparently funny sidekick: check. There are actually two of those. Hell, there is even a sick and manipulative mother! I really don’t mind having stock characters in a crime story, just make them more interesting or different than what we’ve seen often enough, or put them in situations we’ve not grown immune too. There are interesting and entertaining ways to mess with clichés, but unfortunately it doesn’t happen in this story.
Despite these problems with the novel, there was something about it that did keep me reading. Part of it was the challenge to finish something I wasn’t enjoying, but by the last 100 pages, I was enjoying it more that I expected to. It was a real mix that didn’t really come together all that well, but I suppose well enough.
The thing is, King could do better, much better.
The last couple months I have not posted a proper review. This wasn't the plan, but it's interesting how it crept up on me. Rather than just being lazy, I've noticed that some of my reading habits I simply don't want to share or review. Why? Because some things are best left behind closed doors.
Now that may sound a little mysterious, but there are things I am interested in that are quite personal in nature, and the last thing I want to do is blab about it to a group of interested friends and complete strangers. With the rise of Goodreads, Amazon reviews, book blogs, and so on, reading has become more of a social experience than maybe it has been in the past. (?) I am really just guessing on this, but certainly reading habits are always changing, and whether for good, bad, or neither I'm not keen to guess.
But that doesn't mean my book blog is going anywhere. Just need to finish up a couple of more personal books that have riveted my attention, then I have a slew of new books I'm sure I'll have some opinions about to share. Vandermeer's Authority is on the plate, as well as King's Mr. Mercedes coming out this Tuesday. With a few more things on the dock, it will be a good summer of reading.
For the last month I’ve been slowly digesting this book to review for a historical quarterly. And when the review eventually shows up in print I’ll post a link. But I wanted to at least draw attention to this thought-provoking and enriching history now rather than later. For those who have traveled through the canyon country of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, this book brings to together a myriad of environmental and cultural divisions seen through the lens of roads. On first look, it may sound as dry as the desert it describes, but trust me, this book is a fascinating work that has deepened my appreciation for the redrock landscape, the issues it provokes, and the history it contains. From the back of the book:
The canyon country of southern Utah and northern Arizona—a celebrated desert of rock and sand punctuated by gorges and mesas—is a region hotly contested among vying and disparate interests, from industrial developers to wilderness preservation advocates. Roads are central to the conflicts raging in an area perceived as one of the last large roadless places in the continental United States. The canyon country in fact contains an extensive network of dirt trails and roads, many originally constructed under the authority of a one-sentence statute in an 1866 mining law, later known as R.S. 2477. While well-groomed and paved roads came to signify the industrialization of the modern age, twentieth-century conservationists have regarded roads as intrusive human imprints on the nation’s wild lands. Roads connect rural communities, spur economic growth, and in some cases blend harmoniously into the landscape, but they also fracture and divide, disturb wildlife and habitat, facilitate industrial development, and spoil wilderness.
Rogers reflects on the meaning of roads amid environmental conflicts that continue to grip the canyon country. Transporting readers from road controversies like the infamous Burr Trail battle to the contentious web of roads in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument to off-roading in Arch Canyon, Rogers demonstrates how the conflicts are deeply rooted in history and culture. The first permanent Anglo-American settlers in the region were Mormon pioneers and current views about land and resource use in southern Utah often derive from stories about how those pioneer ancestors defied wilderness to found their communities in the desert. Roads in the Wilderness will be of interest to environmentalists, historians, and those who live in the American West, challenging readers to think about the canyon country and the stories embedded in the land.
My only complaint. I think they should have used a different photograph for the cover. Thought it may be cliche, the dirt road that follows the Colorado River in Dead Horse Point State Park would have made a more striking cover.
As the second book in the Deptford Trilogy, it’s not an easy thing to review The Manitcore without tipping a few secrets from Fifth Business that would, to me, spoil the pleasure and horror of the dénouement that concludes the first (review here). So on that note, I’ll try to keep things held back if I can help it, but I think after I read the third book in the trilogy, I hope to write a summary review of the whole tale, spoilers included.
After the events of Fifth Business, David Staunton travels to Zurich seeking out the help from a Jungian psychoanalyst, in this case Dr. Johanna Von Haller who has trained with Dr. Jung himself. Of course only someone like David, successful criminal lawyer and the son of a billionaire, could afford to go to the center of the psychotherapy world to seek help. At first he is reticent to go through with it, but after an imaginary cross-examination of his life, he is determined it must offer him something that will help.
In Fifth Business David Staunton is a very minor character, mostly seen in the background as a child and later as the events of Boy Staunton end the novel. And while Fifth Business was the story of Dunstan Ramsay, The Manticore is about David as much as it is about Dunstan’s “best” friend and David’s father Boy Staunton.
To put it plainly, Boy is kinda an asshole. Some might even argue “kinda” is putting it too kind. And even though there is not much to like he is fascinating to read about, considering it was Boy’s careless throwing of the snowball in the beginning of Fifth Business that spawned these series of tales and stories. This middle novel reveals much about how assholes can and do effect those closest to them.
David is asked by the analyst to write a history of his life, a journal of thoughts, and it is this narrative along with notes of therapy conversations that make up the bulk of the novel. David recalls the moments in his life that matter, discovering the masks he has put on, the lies he has told himself, attempting to figure out the truths of his family. Robertson Davies’ titles this section of the novel "David Against the Trolls," which comes from a poem by Isben that the therapist quotes:
To live is to battle with trolls
in the vaults of heart and brain.
To write: that is to sit
in judgement over one’s self.
In a lecture that the author once gave he remarked that “…trolls may be persuaded to yield deep secrets. They may, to some heroes of the inner struggle, yield what Jung spoke of as ‘primordial experiences’ - secrets from the depths of human spirit.” (x)
Jungian analysis has always been an interest to me, with its use of myth to reveal aspects of a person’s life. I’m not necessarily convinced of its impact to solve serious mental health issues (I would say the same of Freudianism) but it certainly provides a deep and rich vein for literary exploration and personal reflection. And this novel is Jungian through and through without being constricted by its direct exploration of Jungian analysis. I would be interested if real analysis is similar to what is depicted in the novel – I’m not sure. But the narrative deployment of mythic reflection in that analysis depiction is well done and thankfully doesn't come off pendantic. Considering that Joseph Campbell’s huge rise didn’t occur until the 1980s PBS Power of Myth specials, I would also be interested in how The Manticore’s first readers in 1973 digested Davies’ use of myth. I would expect that those who enjoy Joseph Campbell would simply love this book.
This might give you the impression that the novel is a lot of talk and little action. But be assured, stuff happens, with a good number of surprises and stories, from the death of David’s mother, his first sexual experience arranged by his father, his growing alcoholism, his unrequited love, his rise as a criminal lawyer and being a witness to a client’s execution – it’s a rich and troubled life
In the introduction by Michael Dirda, he attempts to define what a Robertson Davies novel is like.
Some readers find Davies’s novels, laced as they are with monologues about philosophy, art, and religion, distinctly and even garrulously old-fashioned. In truth, they aren’t naturalistic fictions at all – ‘I’m not in any way a devotee of realism,’ Davies has asserted. Instead his books are romances or philosophical fantasies, examples of what one might dub North American magic realism.
I’ve never come across the idea of North American magic realism. It’s an interesting idea that I can see in Davies work, but maybe even that is trying to pin down too much that doesn’t quite fit, though I think it’s an interesting place start. But what one does get with a Davies’ novel is a strong and lively narrative, with truly memorable characters, that keeps one reading and thinking all along till the end, casting a spell and a shadow, a bit of a dream and a nightmare.
Marcel Theroux’s new novel Strange Bodies is that type of hybrid between literary endeavor and genre tropes, a mix of the thoughtful along with plotted twists worthy of a Sherlockian tale. The central idea that Theroux delves into is the mystery of consciousness – what is it? what is it not? – which has been a common staple for science fiction writers ever since Mary Shelly dreamed up her nightmare story of Frankenstein.
Nicholas Slopin, a beaten down academic and a failed husband and father, is called upon by a document buyer to authenticate some unknown letters by the inimitable Samuel Johnson. Slopin being an expert in Johnson is tantalized by these new finds but cautious. After viewing the originals, he is convinced that his buyer is being taken for fraud. The seller Sinan Malevin, a Russian émigré and his employee Vera Telauga, assure Nicholas that the letters are indeed not forgeries, but as Nicholas presses them he finds out the letters are not originals either. Nicholas is introduced to Jack Telauga, a large burly man of tattoos, who is either half drugged or half crazed most of the time, but who speaks and writes like Dr. Johnson himself.
Now mind you, we are being told this story by a Nicholas Slopin who is being held inside a London psychiatric hospital. Apparently Nicholas Slopin died in a car accident several months back, but this other individual insists he is actually the real Nicholas Slopin, and to set the record straight, we become the captive readers of his unfolding narrative.
So who are these people? Is Jack a mere counterfeit of the historical Dr. Johnson? Is the mental alive Nicholas the same as the authentic dead Nicholas, though they appear to be two different people? Theroux keeps the answers until the end, and thought it seems obvious where things are going, the story keeps drawing you by giving it time to breath with Nicholas’s life. There is an uncomfortable sadness about it: failed relationships abound, reminding one of the precariousness of one’s happiness and how much is made or unmade in the relationships we enter into, with others and with ourselves.
Nicholas while is stranded in hospital with no hope of getting out, ruminates on his situation:
The strong temptation is to begin every session here with the words “The irony is…” I’m poor in everything but ironies, and to be truthful, I’ve forgotten what’s so good about irony in the first place. It’s just the resting state of the universe. Johnson puts it best in a section I can recall from memory. “The real state of the sublunary nature,” he calls it, “in which, at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design or purpose.”
…Good becomes bad, bad good; love degenerates to dullness and senseless animosity. Irony is not order, but it gives a shape to things…God is not just, perhaps, but his grasp of irony shows that at least he has a sense of humor. This is supposed to be comforting. (77-78)
But the little irony that Nicholas holds on to for a shape of his peculiar situation is far from comforting and only throws into relief how much he has fallen from any life that he once had.
I was thoroughly taken with Marcel Theroux's writing – he certainly does not embarrass his more well-known father Paul. The writing never appeared to contain a false note amid the strangeness, establishing it’s believability with a voice that could have easily gone off the rails. At one point a character speaks about how language is essential to the construction of consciousness and that without it humans would be no more than a perambulating carcass. Whether one believes such things or not (I lean towards the not) it is clear that Theroux’s language has imbued some paper, ink, and binding with a story that is alive with flesh and blood, constructing a man’s mind that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. From forged letters to forged people, in the end all secrets are told, and told well enough that makes the story not just an engaging thriller, but a worthwhile exploration of identity, the mind, and the body.
With work overwhelming my reading time the last couple weeks, I didn't get my usual review out. Which only went to remind me of all the unread books before me. But I don't despair, especially after reading Christopher Howse's humorous take on the issue:
Do your books shame you in front of visitors, like an overweight dog or a Persian cat with knots in its fur? Do their eyeless backs seem to follow you round the room begging you to read them, after all these years that they’ve stayed on the shelf, unloved as Miss Havisham?
Then I think you should fight back and not let those heavyweight tomes kick sand in your face. A survey has found that half of an average home’s 138 books go unread. I’m surprised it is as low as a half. Books aren’t meant to be read.
Reminded me of the much funnier essay How to Justify a Private Library by Umberto Eco in his collection How to Travel with a Salmon. When someone saunters into your home and asks the first question that pops into their head, "Have you read all these books?," Eco provides the best answer:
In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm. “I haven’t read any of them; otherwise why would I keep them here?” But this is a dangerous answer and invites the obvious follow-up: “And where do you put them after you’ve read them?” The best answer is the one always used by Robert Leydi: “And more, dear sir, many more,” which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration. But I find it merciless and angst-generating. “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office,” a reply that on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.
It almost sounds like a punchline set-up. A psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist walk into a . . . what exactly? In this case, not a bar, but something far more dangerous and intoxicating. The place is called Area X, a wildlife forbidden zone of sorts, cut off from civilization, once sparsely inhabited by humans, overtaken by nature, and where things skulk in the shadows. The all-female group, unnamed except only by their professions I've listed above, are the twelfth expedition that have crossed the border. The opaque bureaucracy, The Southern Reach, has deployed eleven previous expeditions meeting with less than successful results, some violent, some unexplained, but all overtaken by Area X. According to the biologist who narrates, “Our mission was simple: to continue the government's investigation into the mysteries of Area X, slowly working our way out from base camp.” (4)
Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation reminds us that we do indeed live on an planet that is more alien than we tend to recognize. But in addition to nature containing it's own secrets, there are other mysteries in Area X: the abandoned lighthouse, the underground “tower” with writing scrawled on the walls, along with the the sounds at night, which the biologist describes as,
... the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)
This desolation is very palatable in the prose, and comes in many forms throughout, relentlessly taking its toll on the group. After just the first few pages, you know this will probably not end well.
The story is essentially a survivor's diary, struggling with two worlds: the natural world of fungi, forests, and fauna, and the preternatural entities that have colonized it. The biologist's restrained voice serves as a contrast to the lush chaos of Area X, as she attempts to place order on nature through her lab samples and record of witness.
But this is not only a exploration story, but also unexpectedly a story about marriage. The biologist’s husband signed up for the previous expedition, and though some version of him did make it back home, he was soon picked up by The Southern Reach and she hasn't heard from him since. Her narration is interspersed with memories of her husband and her reticence to share certain things about herself to him. Going to Area X is partly for her to find out what happened to him, but also to find something they could share with each other, that having the same experience somehow will bring them closer even though they may never reunite.
To borrow a music term, I would describe Annihilation as a sort of chamber horror, a quartet of unease. It embodies a perfect balance between setting, character, tone, and plot, with a sense of dread that infiltrates your mood immediately. The writing hits all the right notes, sentences building to hypnotic effect, slowly taking you under it's spell. As part of a planned trilogy, this story is self contained, but leave plenty of questions for future volumes to unearth. In listening to an interview the Jeff, the next volume, Authority, appears to be a converse of the first novel: instead of another expedition into Area X, it is an “expedition” into The Southern Reach, where corridors and offices replace the marshes and forests, bringing to mind a different sort of desolation. As the characters navigate these opposing territories I look forward to the weird footpaths Vandermeer will take us.
In reading Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I keep thinking that the thing about books on writing is that they can provide a glimpse into the mind of an author, but only of that author. Even though writing books may tackle all the same topics: character, point of view, setting, each writer has their unique approach, however slightly. Of course there are some fundamentals, like spelling and grammar that don’t change often, but just because I know all the chords and scale for G minor key doesn’t mean I know how to write music using it. But ultimatley, what works for you as a writer will likely not work for me. And that's ok.
So why do I keep going to back to books on writing? Well, for one, I’m interested in the creative process. I’m interested in how authors break down the stories they tell. Or how to build the stories they’ve discovered. And maybe I'll pick up on something I never consider. But deep down, I think that if I read enough books on writing that somehow, someway, that novel inside me will finally come out. But alas, it is a fool’s dream. If I want to write that book, then I all I need to do is write that book. No amount of reading about how to do it will replace the act of creation itself.
Nonetheless I simply enjoy the shoptalk of writers, keep returning such books, and Good Prose is not a bad place to spend time with. Primarily focused on non-fiction writing, it covers the basics like every other writing book, along with a bit of career memoir, with a warm conversational style that you just can’t help but want to put the book down and start writing yourself. It gave me a bit to think about, especially about the process of being edited, along with some excellent analysis of classic non-fiction works that I wasn’t familiar with, such as John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, which fall in current wheelhouse.
The title of the book is intriguing. One of the thoughts I had was, why only “good” prose and not “great”? While reading along, I found that the “good” in the book title seems to me less about a quality of scale, but more about creating prose that possess a moral good, to put it crudely. And by that I mean that non-fiction writing should be about truth and facts obviously, but not about spin, melodrama, or manipulation. Good prose should be enlightening and entertaining and not commercial or political pandering. This really struck me towards the end of book when the authors talk about the tension between art and commerce and eventually bring David Foster Wallace into the conversation, quoting him,
…the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose: the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved. (135)
In framing writing within this dichotomy, it has given me a lot to think about my own intentions and the reasons why I write. I don’t think I have had a desire to write out a want to be loved. But as an occassional misanthrope, the converse never occurred to me in this particular way: writing as an act of love, a gift freely given, with no expectation of being loved back. How does a writer do that? It’s a good question.
When writing about art, I am reminded of the phrase “writing about music is a bit like dancing about architecture.” And before I mix my metaphors too far, I think you get my point. It’s difficult for expressive mediums to communicate something about contrasting mediums, without losing something in the process. Not that one medium is superior over another, but because they are simply different beasts. So instead we talk about it, approaching it from certain angles, hopefully casting a light on its different and shifting facets. That’s the most I can do with Joe Sacco’s The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme * An Illustrated Panorama.
In this successful attempt at a Bayuex-like tapestry, Sacco details over the course of a 24 foot length black and white graphic narrative, the build up, first day of battle, and aftermath one of World War One’s most significant moments. Each panel flows into the next, packed with thoroughly researched details, masses of soldiers and supplies, filing into the arterial-like trenches, moving towards the hope of a decisive push into No Man’s Land, with concluding panels weighed down with the immense cost of this bloody battle, which has only just begun.
This book can be read in a couple ways, either by flipping through the panels one by one or spreading out the entire work on the floor. Either way you read it still has impact. The work also includes a booklet, with an introduction by Sacco, along with an annotated version of the foldout providing details to look for in the larger work. In addition there is an essay by Adam Hocshchild about the Battle of the Somme, adapted from his history To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, that reminds one of how damn bloody this battle was.
There is one particular aspect of this book which I found interesting. Self described as an “Illustrated Panorama,” I wonder if that label actually captures what I was seeing in the work itself. The word “panorama” gives the sense of standing in one place, while moving a camera over the course of a large area, hopefully capturing it all in one piece. But I would argue that Sacco’s Great War is not actually a panorama. The view point of the reader/viewer is one of NOT standing in one place as the events unfold over the course of the panels. In actuality, from panel to panel, along with time passing, certain perspectives change, and the reader/viewer actually moves forward into the landscape until the climax panels in No Man’s Land, after which the perspective starts to recede backwards to the front line as the narrative unfolds. I would argue that a more apt description would be “perspective-rama,” but that sounds too clunky and even then doesn’t fully describe the conflation of narrative, time, and perspective that is taking place seamlessly throughout the work.
One thing I would have liked more about this work is having the viewpoint not solely from the British side. It would have been fascinating to see the panels unfold over the battle and we eventually ended up on the German side. Considering that the most popular novel about WWI was German – All Quiet on the Western Front – I think it was a missed opportunity for Sacco to illustrate the enemy and see the contrasts and humanity of the soldiers on both sides of the violence. Despite this, the work stil succeeds.
With the 100th anniversary memorial of WWI coming up this year, Sacco’s Great War won’t replace any of the tremendous histories that have come out recently. But if you are not one to read history much, spending an hour or two with Sacco’s art will give you a brief sense of why this war still casts a long shadow over the last century.
Ever wonder why your life turned out the way it did? Was it fated by some childhood incident that sparked a journey that you wouldn’t have otherwise taken? I sometimes wonder about those kinds of things. What if this happened instead of that? How would have things turned out differently?
Probably more interesting is recognizing those moments that did have such a lasting influence, but are so buried in our past, that we rarely call it up for reflection. But what are those moments? How much was in or out of our control? This reminds me of the classic tension between freedom and fate.
These are a few of the sketchy thoughts I’m having after finishing Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business a couple weeks ago. Dunstan Ramsey, the narrator and central character, looks back on his life after retiring as a history teacher at a boys school, has one moment from his childhood that sparked a series of trajectories that he couldn’t have planned for, desired, or brought about by sheer free will, but has carried his life through unexpected turns and discoveries. According to him, “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.” (1) This involvement began when he jumped out of the way of a snowball that ended up hitting Mrs. Dempster in the head, causing her to fall, and ultimately resulting in her going into early labor and delivering a premature baby boy.
First I thought, that’s some nasty snowball. How’s that even possible? Well, there is a secret in the snowball which is revealed in the end, but it is a secret I won’t spoil here. But there you have it from the beginning, Dunstan recognizing that one moment that set his life on a particular path, affecting all those involved: Dunstan Ramsey who jumped out of the snowball’s trajectory; Mrs.Dempster, the Baptist pastor’s wife, who not only delivers early, but seems to have lost a bit of her mind due to the accident; the baby boy, Paul Dempster, who’s own journey goes in unexpected worldwide directions; and the kid who threw the snowball in the first place, Percy Boyd Staunton, who Dunstan describes as his lifelong friend and enemy.
Even though this is primarily Dunstan’s story, he seems to be the observer, sharing plenty of the other characters’ stories. In fact Dunstan eventually learns his role in this grand scheme, summed up as the “fifth business” which is defined before the novel even starts as “Those roles with, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.” from Den Danske Skueplads by Tho. Overskou.
But being the ”fifth business” does not make Dunstan’s story any less interesting or uneventful. From his seemingly minor adventures as a child, to his recruitment to go fight in World War One, his travels over the Europe and South America searching out saints and magicians, along with his lifelong, yet platonic, relationship with a former pastor’s wife, Dunstan’s obersevations and friends are imbued with a mythic quality without losing any sense of reality, along with a playful and deeply wrought humor.
I prefer not to spill too much of the story here, but from what I’ve said so far, do not mistake this novel for a simple series of slices of life lessons spread across time. This novel is beautifully constructed, with a long game plot that was completely unexpected, and one that should be enjoyed without any major spoilers from me.
One aspect of the novel I really enjoyed was it’s exploration of magic and religion. Yes, magic, like in card tricks, which Dunstan as a boy teaches to Paul Dempster as he watches him for his mother. This innocent moment of teaching card tricks to an even younger boy has far-reaching consequences thoroughtly suprised me, illustrating Davies’ mastery of narration and plot has the lightest touch.
And speaking of the lightest touch, Davies’ working through religious ideas and pursuits didn’t come off clunky in the least, as could be the case in lesser writers. In fact his treatment of religion is evocative without pandering to the cliche dictonomies common in what I see in my Facebook feed.
Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?
Philosophers have tackled this question, or course, and answered it in ways highly satisfactory to themselves; but I never knew a philosopher’s answer to make much difference to anyone not in the trade. I was trying to get at the subject without wearing either the pink spectacle of faith or the green spectacles of science. All I had managed by the time I found myself sitting in the basilica of Guadalupe was a certainty that faith was a psychological reality, and that were it was not invited to fasten itself on things unseen, it invaded and raised bloody hell with things seen. Or in other words, the irrational will have its say, perhaps because ‘irrational’ is the wrong word for it. (186-187)
Perhaps Davies is trying to come up with another word for it, but if so, he doesn’t let that get in the way of telling a good story that doesn’t need to provide clear definitions of “truth” or “beauty,” but instead let’s the characters have their say.
But I won’t get to far afield, since like Dunstan, “I had schooled myself since the war-days never to speak of my enthusiasm; when other people did not share them, which was usual . . . why was I always excited about things other people did not care about?”(154) Religion and myth, along with history and lit, is something that I always find interesting to talk about, but rarely find people who share an enthusiasm in a approach that avoids the reductionist in us all. I’m told that either I am wrong or right about some particular thing, even though for me that is beside the point. Like Dunstan says of a particular type, “they have the cruelty of doctrine without the poetic grace of myth.”(213) Discussing such things is not about putting people or ideas in particular boxes to keep my worldview in comfortable balance, but like fiction itself, is about exploring and understanding the ideas and people that have created the culture we live in, risking that we may change because of it.
Though Davies use of myth is one of the hallmarks I hear most people talk about when it comes to his novels, don’t mistake Fifth Business for some religious story. It is less a religious story and more of an Biblical story in the best sense, with plenty of sex, war, peace, murder, exploring the perennial myths of youth, aging, guilt, wealth, and fame.
For those familiar with this novel will notice I have not mentioned it is actually part of a tryptich typically referred to as The Deptford Trilogy. After Fifth Business comes The Manticore and then lastly the World of Wonders. I have not read the other two works yet, though I understand they can be read as stand alone works, but they also play off each other, revisiting particular characters and events from the other novels, while expanding the Deptford universe. I plan to dive into those works soon enough, but wanted to consider Fifth Business as it’s own creation before being colored by the rest of the stories that will come to build off from it. But starting from where I stand now, I can so far concur with others who have claimed that this is Davies’ masterwork.
So what more can I say? This novel is one that I’ve heard about for years and have always heard good things. I ignored reading it for so long, unfortunatley. But since the beginning of the New Year I have made more of a conscious effort to read some things that I’m more than familair with, but never have got around to spending time on. In reading Fifth Business I could not have expected to enjoy it as much as I did. In this I’ve learned something, and not in just an abstract manner, but to not resist all the good books I’ve heard about for so long. I know I won’t get to them all, but at least I’ll be able to remedy a few before my fate closes in on me.
This is the best thing online I've read all week, by the novelist Elizabeth Catton:
These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.
We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a deep, essential affinity between the consumer and product — this soap is “you”; this bank is “yours” — and social networking affords us countless opportunities to publicise and justify these brand loyalties as partial explanations of “who we are”.
The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word — characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer — is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right.
The idea that a work of literature might require something of its reader in order to be able to provide something to its reader is equivalent, in a consumer context, to the idea that a cut-price mobile phone might require a very expensive charger in order for it to function.
Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.
For the whole essay, here.
The Mask of Dimitrios is one of those books that a good number of people today may not have heard of (I never heard of it until a few years ago), but is an established classic of it’s genre that has inspired the likes of John LeCarre and Alfred Hitchcock. And while Eric Ambler’s taut spy mystery was first published in 1939, it could have easily been written in the last decade it holds up so well.
The story is about a mystery writer by the name of Latimer who is vacationing in Istanbul and happens across a colorful character – Colonel Haki – the former head of the Turkish secret police. Colonel Haki being a bit of a raconteur and a fan of Latimer’s novels, tells the story of Dimitrios, a thief, spy, murderer, who has eluded European authorities for years, but has just that very day washed up dead on the shore. Haki offers to take Latimer to view the body to illustrate how crime and killers is a messy business and never fits into a satisfying story like the mysteries Latimer plots, and quick enough Latimer begins to have a little obsession.
It may have been that I had had a good lunch and was feeling stupid, but I suddenly had a curious desire to know more about Dimitrios. As you know, I write detective stories. I told myself that if, for once, I tried doing some detecting myself instead of merely writing about other people doing it, I might get some interesting results. My idea was to try to fill in some of the gaps in the dossier. But that was only an excuse. I did not care to admit to myself then that my interest was nothing to do with detection. It is difficult to explain, but I see now that my curiosity about Dimitrios was that of the biographer rather than of the detective. There was an emotional element in it, too. I wanted to explain Dimitrios, to account for him, to understand his mind. Merely to label him with disapproval was not enough. I saw him not as a corpse in a mortuary but as a man, not as an isolate, a phenomenon, but as a unit in a disintegrating social system. (57)
Of course this intellectual curiosity with his desire to “understand” a criminal leads Latimer along a path with twists, turns, and interesting characters living in the shadows, and leading him through the "disintegrating social system" of Smyrna, Athens, Belgrade, Sofia, and eventually Paris. The story has a wonderful tone of unease that reminds me of movies like The Third Man, North by Northwest, and even a little dash of Casablanca.
As Latimer finds out more about Dimitrios, we flash back and forth between their two lives, preserving a bit of the political and criminal machinations of Europe between the two big wars. And as Latimer travels from city to city one cannot help to avoid the thought of where the 1930s eventually headed. Though Hitler is mentioned only once, his long shadow is hard to miss.
I need to mention that the edition I read is a well designed Folio Society production. With wonderfully done illustrations by Paul Blow and an introduction by Ambler expert Simon Winder, if one could, we should all read our books with such aesthetic subtleties that enhance the experience. As an avid Folio Society collector, in the future I plan to have more reviews of their kind. The introduction of this one in particular provides excellent insights into the political environment of Europe of the time and into the nature of the novel itself.
The emerging gap between Latimer’s own vision of himself as an apolitical British straight arrow and the actual nature of his quest from morgue to brothel to flophouse, investigating a dead Levantine petty criminal is brilliantly arranged by Amber. The genre assumption is that Latimer stands for the good deed in a naughty world, the incorruptible Englishman in a world of dodgy Europeans. The Mask of Dimitrios does a marvelous and gleeful job of dismantling any such idea. (xiv)
This gleeful dismantling is evident from the beginning, as the structure of the novel illustrates more of a meta-mystery where the narrator leans towards the ironic without being distant towards its characters or losing any of the suspense. Even the mystery of who killed Dimitrios is cleverly played. Towards the end, I knew that some sort of surprise was on its way, but I didn’t expect the turn that it took and found myself purely entertained with just the right amount of political afterthoughts to occupy my mind after the book was closed.
What W. H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith is the latest in the Princeton University Press series Writers on Writers, which have included On Doyle by Michael Dirda, On Whitman by C.K. Williams, and Notes on Sontag by Philip Lopate. Hooking up a well known writer with an even more well known writer is a sellable enough idea which in this case delivers.
The Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith known for his various mystery series (No 1. Ladies Detective, Sunday Philosophy Club, 44 Scotland Street) has a definite passion for W. H. Auden and his poetic legacy. I was mostly interested in reading this for two reasons, one is Smith has been on my radar for awhile and of the little I've read of him, he has this effortless style that always entertains, and second, Auden is one of the modern poets that I've simply have not read much. With the title such as it is, I am reminded of books such as How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. I'm skeptical about these types of books that promise will “do” something for you or “change” your life. Seems more like a marketing scheme simply to sell the title – literary criticism as self help, and well who isn't attracted to a little self help? Which is not to say books can't change lives, they do all the time, though in likely less numbers than I suspect is to be believed. It's just the simplified marketing that can be irksome. Literature is more than just what I can get out of it to help mend my personal problems. Fortunately, Smith addresses this aspect of the book early:
“The title of this book is in a way a lighthearted homage to de Botton's remarkable book. But something that is lighthearted can be very serious in its intention. I believe that reading the work of W. H. Auden may make a difference to one's life. Of course we can be changed by reading or listening to something that moves us deeply, that makes us see ourselves or the world in a different light. It may be a poem that has this effect, or it may even be the great Proustian novel itself. In any event the work of art we are confronted with unlocks within us the recognition of something that had escaped us before. We are changed because we now understand something that we did not understand before.” (3-4)
So certainly in the case of Alexander McCall Smith, Auden has done something for him and this infectious book is simply an enthusiastic sharing of what Auden might be able to do for you as well. The majority of the book Smith explores his own life intertwined with Auden's life along with how several poems have enlightened him throughout his literary journey, including “New Year Letter,” “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” “The Fall of Rome,” “If I Could Tell You,” “Musee des Beaux Arts,” “Funeral Blues,” “Lullaby,” “In Praise of Limestone,” and of course “September 1, 1939.” Of these, only two I recongnized, “Musee” and “September,” both which I have really liked over the years, especially “Musee.” Others I'm sure I've come across before but don't remember. And then there were the ones I've read for the first time, such as “In Praise of Limestone,” which I'm going to spend some time with figuring out it's turns and crevices.
Sometimes all it takes is a good introduction to help me navigate through an oeuvre and start reaping the benefits of new stuff to explore. A highlight for me was the chapter “If I Could Tell You I Would Let You Know” which explored themes of determinism, free will, and blame in Auden's work, leading me down some thought paths that was unexpected. Another thing I appreciated about the book is that Smith doesn't avoid criticisms that Auden has received over the years. This balance is refreshing and strengthen's Smith's insights, which are neither saccharine or blind.
In finishing this book, I'm not sure if Auden has done anything for me in particular. But my interest is up and I've already been browsing through the Auden collection that's been sitting on my shelf for longer than I remember. In looking up one of the poems that Smith talks about I found another poem on the next page that I found even more striking, “Leap Before You Look,” which begins:
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
If all this book did for me was to lead me to this poem then I have no complaints.
For the past couple years I've made a resolution to read a book a week. For me that was quite a push and even though I fell short every year, I did end up reading more than I have been reading. This year though, I'm done with such resolutions. It's not that I won't keep up my reading, but when it becomes a more of a rule I'm attempting week in week out, then it starts to suck the fun out. And no likes to have their fun sucked out.
But in checking out more reader blogs lately, all the the different reading challenges have caught my attention. There's the TBR Triple Dog Dare, Century of Books, and there's even A Novel Challege that lists all the challenges one could imagine. The idea of a challenge seems an interesting way to keep one's reading fun and diverse. Though like a resolution, I imagine it could end up being a slog. But I guess it all matters what kind of challenge you decide to sign up for.
Since I am one to not likely join someone else's club, I decided to come up with my own challenge. One that gives me some nice freedom, variety, and enough form to guide me down some new paths. I call my challege the Five x Five. Here be the details.
I picked this book up a while back expecting some enlightening discussion on the mystery genre, hoping it would provide some insight from a writers perspective on how mystery stories are put together. Mostly wishing for a book on craft and wring, but instead what I got was more of a historical overview of the genre.
P.D. James is one of the best known mystery writers out there and certainly knows her stuff. As the title states, James primarily focuses on detective fiction, a part of the mystery genre, but certainly not the only kind out there. With this laser focus on detective fiction, James begins this book from the early days of the genre, looking at novels such as Caleb Williams, Bleak House, and The Moonstone. From there we quickly move into Sherlock territory. After which she moves the discussion to the British Golden Age – Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham, etc... - with a brief side journey to American crime fiction – Hammet, Chandler, Macdonald. In addition to all these names, she covers a lot of ground touching upon numerous detective writers, from the likes of Chesterton, Innes, Crispin, and many more.
After finishing this little book I really wonder who is the intended audience. If you are a mystery fan, it might be an enjoyable quick read, but there is nothing here that you're probably are not already familiar with. Myself as an occasional reader of mysteries, I found myself not terribly engaged with the overall discussion and found it very general though informative. Having said that, I did find a few new writers that I'll be adding to my list to read in the future. But after finishing this book, I just didn't really come away with anything that for the most part wasn't already on my radar.
I wouldn't say it's a bad book. It's just kinda there. Easy and informative. If you are a new mystery reader or a massive fan of P.D. James, this book would probably be right up your alley. But for the most part I think there are probably better non-fiction works out there that cover the subject in more depth and engaging discussion.
Sometimes you get a desire for a type of book without knowing why. As the New Year started, I began to think about the kinds of books I haven't read much of and the idea of novels of the West started to take up my thoughts. Being a native of the American West, it is difficult to appreciate what makes it different from the rest of the country. It takes a little effort to gain a different perspective about where you are from and how that may or may not have shaped you as a person. In addition, since we are saturated with a homogenized media culture, I sometimes forget that people here are different from people over there. In the age of the interwebs and casual air travel, geography collapses and I appreciate less how it makes or unmakes us.
With all these thoughts working around my head, I decided to take up a novel that looms large in the Western literary landscape, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Published in 1971, it won the Pulitzer Prize and in a poll by the San Francisco Chronicle was named the number one novel about the West (Grapes of Wrath was second). As a side note, in a second poll by the Chronicle, Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian was voted as the second best non-fiction book about the West.
Picking up Angle of Repose at the bookstore and reading the summary on the back, the story initially didn't really capture my imagination or interest me much – there are other Stegner novels I'd find immediately more interesting. So I started reading based solely on the reputation of the author and book not expecting much, except that is should be good if not really good. But what I did find in fact is that it is great, if not really great.
In the back of my head, I’ve always wanted to make this a lively and active blog, if not for anybody, at least for myself. So 2013 passed, and in this little corner of the web continued to remain on life support.
Well I hope to change that. Instead of focusing on writing, I’m going to focus on reading. Ya, just like a million other blogs. But this will be mine and those who cross my path and find it interesting enough, I hope they drop a note here and there.
In addition, with a more consciously focused effort, I’ve been entertaining the idea of giving this site a different name. Simply naming a site after oneself doesn’t make much sense, unless one is famous or wishes to get famous, and even moderately well-known bloggers usually go by some other name. Well my real name is out there (you’re welcome NSA), but it doesn’t really give any context or meaning to what one might find here.
So, what to name it? Not sure. Even thought the URL will not change anytime soon, I probably will be trying on a few different names over the course of the month. We’ll see.
But since this is the beginning of the New Year, most people enjoy a little inspiration to get their illusions firmly set before falling apart in the next month or two. Instead I rather prefer Neil Gaiman’s advice he wrote a little while back:
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Learning how to write fiction is a tricky business and one that really only learns by actually doing it, stumbling over words and sentences until something rises up out of the muck that might resemble a story, let alone a good story. Still trying to figure that out, but never giving up.
For me I can sit down and write something non-fictiony without much struggle, whether a review, essay, or a brief historical exploration. But coming up with a plot and characters is something that still eludes me. So, for better or worse, I'm returning back to taking a class or two at the local university to kickstart my fiction deficiency, starting in a couple weeks.
In the meantime I came across a great little article on tips from Faulker's writing life. Most are things we've all heard before, but others I haven't really considered, like "don't worry about style." I like that idea and as one less thing to worry about it works for me.
Just came across this:
Scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University have found that reading the works of the Bard and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the reader’s attention and triggers moments of self-reflection.
Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read works by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T.S Eliot and others.
They then “translated” the texts into more “straightforward”, modern language and again monitored the readers’ brains as they read the words.
Scans showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.
After discussing the implications of this, one of the researcher's conclude:
“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive,” said Professor Davis, who will present the findings at the North of England education conference in Sheffield next week.
“This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”
People still get away with writing shit like this? That seems to be the real tragedy.
"...that the repeated use of “flickering irony,” a doubtfully heard meaning which destabilizes the secure knowingness of the audience, combined with the precarious ironization of everyday words within a temporality of gradual and fragile recognition of the buried life of ordinary language, creates a peculiarly Sophoclean world of discomforted exchange, a world that contrasts both with the fierce, self-implicating metaphoricity of Aeschylus and with the pathetic interplay of cliché, reversal, and rhetorical self-awareness in Euripides. A more nuanced and more worrying Sophoclean irony, if you will."
Joyce, the man who reinvented fiction for the 20th Century, get his first full biography treatment since Ellman's 1958 bio.
From the jacket: " Gordon Bowker draws on material recently come to light and reconsiders the two signal works produced about Joyce’s life—Herbert Gorman’s authorized biography of 1939 and Richard Ellman’s magisterial tome of 1959—and, most importantly by binding together more intimately than has ever before been attempted the life and work of this singular artist, Gordon Bowker here gives us a masterful, fresh, eminently readable contribution to our understanding, both of Joyce’s personality and of the monumental opus he created. "
Looking forward to getting my hands on it.
The Inquisition is a word that evokes a time and place when the world was in the grip of religious intolerance, usually of a medieval, Spanish, or Catholic variety. It was a dark time that thankfully we are glad to have left behind. Or have we? In Cullen Murphy’s new book, "God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World", he offers a broad narrative covering the history of the Inquisition, while at the same time emphasizing the development of modern tools that allowed its extensive growth.
These tools included a system of law and administration, reliable communication systems, a bureaucracy of record-keeping and retrieval, the power to interrogate people, along with a source of power to enforce it all. The Inquisition brings to mind religious institutions, but Murphy points out that the political state are as much a part of the game as anyone, and today are the prime inheritor of the Inquisition’s “achievements.” The Inquisition is the harbinger of our modern society, pioneering methods of surveillance, censorship, interrogation, and torture, common practice in secular society, where “the issues posed by the Inquisition enfold the world we call our own.” (24)
“Looking at the Inquisition, one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform – the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardized law, communications, administrative oversight, and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite; not merely by thugs but by skilled professionals. And in its higher dimensions it was animated not by greed or hope of gain of love of power, though these were never absent, but by the fervent conviction that all must subscribe to some ultimate truth.” (23)
What this “ultimate truth” was seemed to change depending on the time and place. Just as there was not one Inquisition, but many Inquisitions, so too the “ultimate truth” would change, but ultimately seemed centered around the power to control. These many Inquisitions are divided up in the book by chapter, starting with the Medieval, then going through with the Spanish, then Roman, then the global Inquisition where it has been in places as unlikely as Santa Fe, New Mexico and the Portuguese colony of Goa off the coast of India. But Murphy continues with another Inquisition, the secular, covering aspects of Elizabethan England, Communist USSR, the Stasi of East Germany, even the War on Terror and Guantanamo Bay.
This modern inheritance was fascinating and made me think a little harder about the political realities I sometimes don’t fully realize, such as the actually physicality of torture. Techniques developed during the Spanish Inquisition included one particular technique known as the Queen of Torments. Typically the hands of the person to be interrogated were tied behind his back. Then by means of a pulley or a rope thrown over a rafter, the body would be hoisted off the ground by the hands, and then be allowed to drop with a jerk. Joints could be pulled from their sockets. Muscles could be stretched to the point where elasticity would never return. Damage to the brachial plexus, the nerve fibers running from the spinal cord to the arms, could cause paralysis. The weight of the body hanging from the arms contorted the pleural cavity, making breathing difficult (the typical cause of death in crucifixion, for the same reason). (90)
This technique is now common use among the torture of prisoners, from John McCain during Vietnam to Manadel al-Jamadi at Abu Ghraib, who died from its implementation.
Another torture development, one I thought only recently invented, is one the imaginative Spanish called the Toca, “the reference being to the fabric that plunged a victim’s upturned mouth, and upon which water was poured,” which one recognizes immediately as a prototype of “waterboarding.” Murphy quotes an expert on the subject, who summarizes “while this is sometimes called ‘an illusion of drowning,’ the reality is that death will follow if the procedure is not stopped in time.” (92) In addition, the water is commonly contaminated with hair, vomit, saliva, mucus, urine, etc…
But let me not give you the impression that Murphy’s book is a long tirade against modern torture. While he provides a fascinating look placing torture in context of then and now, his story is much bigger as he covers a wealth of information in understanding the Inquisition from its beginnings up to the historians today who are engaged in not letting the memory of its importance be forgotten.
And while Murphy emphasizes that secular society inherited many of the Inquisition’s methods, the spirit of the Inquisition has continued within the Vatican establishment up to our own day. The official Vatican institution was called the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquistion, which in 1908 was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), a sort of uber-correlation department keeping tabs on potential heretics, tracking dangerous books, and making their influence known by putting pressure on organizations to remove people from positions of theological influence. Some of these high target “heretics” include the novelist Graham Green, theologians Charles Curran and Hans Kung, and Jesuit editor Thomas Reese.
“The instruments available to the CDF are not what they once were. It does not torture, except perhaps in a psychological sense. It does not burn books, or their authors. But it can withhold a license to teach as a Catholic theologian. It can bar people from jobs at certain Catholic institutions, and dismiss people from those same jobs. It can apply pressure through the leadership of religious orders. It can also formally ex-communicate, though that is rarely done. The CDF holds the greatest leverage over Catholics in positions of official influence – and in particular, insidiously, over those among them who wish to remain loyal to the Church as an institution. It has no leverage at all over those who simply decide to walk away.” (177)
I’ll let you make your own parallel conclusions to your own religious or non-religious environment.
Even in talking about these two topics above, torture and heretics, it only scratches the surface of what this book covers. Murphy touches on a bit of everything, from the Cathars of France to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, from Torquemada to the Aztecs of Mexico, and yes, even Month Python’s famous skit comes up. He has a witty, encompassing style that brings together a vast amount of information distilled in an entertaining, thoughtful reading of the sources and their importance today. Having only read a little about the Inquisition in my life, the book gives a good sense of where to continue particular areas of interest in the subject. I’m already browsing the library stacks to continue learning about this endlessly fascinating and important history.
Well, after a bit of a hiatus, I'm back in the City Weekly this week. (Next week too!)
Just got out of the habit, but it's a nice gig when you can get it.
This week I give a brief preview for Utah Opera's production of Beethoven's Fidelio, playing now. His only opera and one that definately is as powerful today as it was when it originally premiered.
(Ya, ya, Beethoven, boring, I hear you say. But remember the ending scene of the King's Speech, when he was giving the King's speech? Well the music was Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, which underscored that moment perfectly, and created a transcendent, aesthestic moment. So try an opera for once in your life, it won't kill ya.)
I am hoping to contribute more over the next while to the CW, hopefully 2-3 times a month. As a writer, it's a nice break from other involving projects, providing me a clear, deadline-driven focus.
Now, back to the novel...
Of course I haven't said enough about The Prague Cementery yet, so let's indulge a little more. I couldn't help but share this perfectly intriguing letter by Umberto Eco for Amazon.com readers. I know it's just another piece of marketing, but to hear Eco talk about his own book before it is released seems out of character for him. Regardless, I find the letter interesting on a few levels. Enjoy:
Dear Amazon Readers:
The nineteenth century teemed with mysterious and horrible events: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious forgery that later inspired Hitler; the Dreyfus Case; and numerous intrigues involving the secret services of various nations, Masonic sects, Jesuit conspiracies, as well as other episodes that—were they not documented truths—would be difficult to believe.
The Prague Cemetery is a story in which all the characters except one—the main character—really existed. Even the hero’s grandfather, the author of a mysterious actual letter that triggered modern anti- Semitism, is historical.
And the hero himself, though fictional, is a personage who resembles many people we have all known, past and present. In the book, he serves as the author of diverse fabrications and plots against a backdrop of extraordinary coups de théâtre: sewers filled with corpses, ships that explode in the region of an erupting volcano, abbots stabbed to death, notaries with fake beards, hysterical female Satanists, the celebrants of black Masses, and so on.
I am expecting two kinds of readers. The first has no idea that all these things really happened, knows nothing about nineteenth-century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously. He or she should gain a certain sadistic satisfaction from what will seem a perverse invention—including the main character, whom I have tried to make the most cynical and disagreeable in all the history of literature.
The second, however, knows or senses that I am recounting things that really happened. The fact that history can be quite so devious may cause this reader’s brow to become lightly beaded with sweat. He will look anxiously behind him, switch on all the lights, and suspect that these things could happen again today. In fact, they may be happening in that very moment. And he will think, as I do: "They are among us…"
So, what I really want to know is who is this most cynical and disagreeable character of Eco's creation? That is quite a set up, which I'm not sure what to make of it just yet.
James Wood, an avowed atheist and one of the best literary critics currently working, in a recent lecture tackles the New Atheism's simplistic explaination of religious belief. Instead he encourages fiction as a better vehicle to explore the nuanced way belief and unbelief actually work in the lives of real people. Good stuff.
Part of the weakness of current theological warfare is that it is premised on stable, lifelong belief – each side congealed into its rival (but weirdly symmetrical) creeds. Likewise, in contemporary politics, the worst crime you can apparently commit is to change your mind. Yet people's beliefs are often not stable, and are fluctuating. We are all flip-floppers. Our "ideas" may be rather as Woolf imagined consciousness, a flicker of different and self-annulling impressions and convictions...
An essay or work of polemic finds it hard to describe the texture of such fluctuation, whereas the novelist understands that to tell a story is to novelise an idea, to dramatise it. There is no need to make a tidy solution of belief; to the novelist, a messy error might be much more interesting.
I would agree to a certain extant. In fact I may even go furthur, and suggest that great fiction helps explain the complexity of human nature and offers much wisdom in understanding our world and the people in it, more so than traditional non-fiction narratives. What say you?
Another incisive essay about the decline of English depapartments.
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.
I think that most of these type of essays have really great points, being myself averse to theory-dominated textual "studies". But while much can be gained from the minority who are critical of the status quo, who is trailblazing new solutions for the future? What solutions are there?
In my previous post I say that Eco's new book will not be out until Fall of 2012 (which is what the New York Times said, those idiots!). It actually will be released November 8th, 2011! While others stand in line at midnight release parties for Harry Potter or George R.R. Martin to get there hands on the freshest copy - I would do the same for a new Eco. So, please don't bother calling me or emailing me on November 8th - the reading life will be good that day.
My favorite living author Umberto Eco has a new novel Il Cimitero Di Praga, which seems to be causing a bit of controversy. Unfortunately, English readers will have to wait unti the fall of 2012 to see what's the hoopla. (At least it will come before the Mayan apocalypse!)
Eco, who made his literary debut 30 years ago with In the Name of the Rose, takes on freemasonry, conspiracy theories, forgery and the unification of Italy amongst other things in this latest novel, but at its core is anti-semitism and perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most pernicious – forgery in the world: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The main character of Eco’s novel, the fictitious* Simone Simonini, whom he describes as ‘the most hateful man in the world’, is a master forger in the employ of various secret services. Fuelled by anti-semitism, he concocts the ultimate conspiracy theory, where a mythic meeting of the elders of Zion takes place in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, detailing their nefarious plan to rule the world.
It’s not the first time that Eco has examined conspiracy theories, or indeed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (for example, they play a significant role in Foucault’s Pendulum, but this time the focus in particular on the most famous anti-semitic conspiracy theory, and his choice of a convinced anti-semitic protagonist has rasied objections.
For those without the mental agility to process irony will certainly object to Eco's latest narrative. But personally, I cannot wait.
Once in a while you read a work of investigative journalism that blows your mind. This one did. You might have already heard about or read this article, but if you haven't, then do yourself a favor. It reminds me why blogging, etc, can not hold a torch to the long-haul work of a journalist discovering a world that needs to be revealed. Amazing work that deserves the attention of everyone who dares calls themself a journalist.
Today is the 119th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkein. There are a million things I could say about the man, but I'll reserve it for another time. But today is when his friends, admirers, and fans, raise a toast. From the Tolkien Society:
On the 3rd January 1892 JRR Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. To celebrate this event, on this day each year Tolkien fans around the world are invited to raise a glass and toast the birthday of this much loved author 21:00 (9 pm) your local time.
I'm unsure what I will drink, but tonight I will be raising a toast to the man and his imagination.
Denis Dutton has passed away. He was a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and founder and editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature. But he is most known for creating the indespinsible website Arts & Letters Daily, co-creator of the website Climate Debate Daily, as well as the author of the recent book on bio-aesthetics, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.
Of course I never knew him, but I truly admired him from afar. A&L Daily is always the first website I check everyday after firing up my browser. If you are not a vistor, do yourself a favor. I like what Theodore Dalrymple (aka Anthony Daniels) has said,
The agenda of the English-language press, upon which the sun never sets, was driven to a startling degree by Arts and Letters Daily, produced in Christchurch. I once published an article in an excellent cultural journal of limited circulation about a subject of interest to few of my compatriots. I had forgotten about it; but suddenly, a frenzy of interest erupted in it. In the space of a few hours, at least 20 radio stations contacted me, wanting to talk about the article. I found this utterly mysterious until I discovered that Arts and Letters Daily had posted it shortly before.
A man, however, is not to be measured wholly by the quality of his achievements. I wish only that I were able to turn as fine a compliment of Denis Dutton as Doctor Johnson turned of Sir Joshua Reynolds: that he was the most invulnerable man that he knew, for if he should quarrel with him, he should find the most difficulty how to abuse him. Denis Dutton was of that ilk.
In speaking of Charles Darwin in the introduction of The Art Instinct, Dutton said "I hope I have done justice both to him and to the great artists whose achievements so captivate us." Dutton has done justice to more than just Darwin and the artists that inspired him, he has done justice to the "humanities and sciences" and honest inquiry in the chaos of the interwebs, and we are better for it.
And last, but not least, he had a great sense of humor. From his visit on The Colbert Report:
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
To me there is nothing better than getting books for Christmas. Here's the skinny on what I received this year. (Friends are awesome!)
If you write, like me, I just wanted to share something cool from Small Beer Press, that little indie publisher that has some of the coolest stuff around, not least of all Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.
Starting last year and continuing again for 2011, they have created A Working Writer's Daily Planner. It's filled with writing advice, prompts, contest deadlines, publishers info, and much more. It won't help you write more or better, but it might get you a little better organized so you can write more, and maybe, even just maybe, better.
"The perfect supplement to any writer’s life, this new edition of A Working Writer’s Daily Planner is even better than before, packed with more of the information writers need to organize their work schedules, track upcoming deadlines, and learn about grant opportunities, contests, and workshop programs. For 2011 we turned to those who know best what writers want—writers themselves—and asked them what resources they’d find most useful. The result is a unique and indispensable tool that makes it easy for writers to keep track of the practical, business end of writing, leaving more time for them to actually spend writing."
As for me, my one and only New Year's resolution is to write a helluva lot more. NaNoWriMo got me started a little, but this coming year will put everything to shame I've done up till now. Or at least that's my plan, and since you now all know (all 3 of you), then I've got some accountability to someone, somewhere.
If you read any Russian literature, you have certainly come across the names Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, those tireless translators, who also happen to be husband and wife. I first came upon them when their translation of The Brothers Karamozov was released back in the early 1990s. It was one of the most transendent reading experiences I've had. If you have not heard much about them, here's a New Yorker article that will get you up to speed.
Just wanted to point your direction over to Lapham's Quarterly, who has an interview with them in their "podcast" series. The occassion is on the recent release of their new translation of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, but they talk about all kinds of things, including the myth that Dostoevsky's prose style was poor. And they even openly consider House of the Dead by Dostoevsky as their next project. Great interview with some of the best literary minds of our time.
Here's a direct link to the audio.
Every year I read this poem during Christmas time. Whether you are of a religious persuasion or not, these is much pleasure and wisdom in Eliot's sounds and images. The picture above, Adoration of the Magi, is from one of the my favorite artists Hieronymous Bosch.
Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
When I tell people that I read a lot, and that what I read is usually prose written before the last century (though not all of course), I sometimes get the question, "are you taking a class?" To keep it simple I answer "no, I just like to read." The usual comeback I get is "why?" Why indeed!
Usually people are tied up in their busy lives to take a break and enjoy the pleasure of literature. I don't blame them. They do what they know. And if they "really" want to know what's going on in the world, they'll turn on the cable news talking heads, watch the latest blockbuster smash-fest, or veg out to the latest episode of big brothers dancing with stars on a island. They do what they know, but it is unfortunate.
But if the person who asks me "why" really wanted to understand their lives, society, politics, war, death, or life, it would always serve one to look into the wells of literature. I was reminded of this as I took in the election coverage last night, thinking to myself nothing new is under the sun. The political sound bites, the manipulative cant, the cable commentary, has already been done to death a thousand times before, and offers me no real wisdom regarding the state of our union, or the character of the nation. (Though it does provide plenty of easily ridculed personalites.) I think it's simply beyond the grasp of news-makers, who sole purpose is to report any story that garners the most attention (regardless of accuracy or honesty), thereby increasing their bottom-line commercial ad-revenue.
So, I was pleased this morning to come across an essay by Mark Edmundson on William Blake's poem London and what it can tell us about ourselves, today in America. From the beginning,
Sometimes you need some help to see what's directly in front of you: It's often the most difficult thing to see. Looking for a compressed vision of the state of America now, I'm inclined to turn not to any of our esteemed journalist-pundits or renowned public intellectuals but in the direction of the poet William Blake, who did his work 200 years ago.
If he were to recast "London," probably his best-known poem, for the uses of the present, he might be inclined to retitle it "New York" or "Washington" and update some of the diction. Other than that, I'm not sure that he would have to change all that much. Grandly, shockingly, the poem reveals us to ourselves.
Though I don't agree with everything in the essay, I encourage you to read the full piece. It is well worth taking the time to think it over. And maybe, just maybe, next time you want to get the low down on the latest "thing that's happening", instead of turning on the idiot box, maybe consider turning to a novel or poem that has lasted beyond it's moment, which may tell us more about ours lives than any pundit can profer. Doing so can bring pleasures that our social media complex can only dream of.
Well the madness is about to begin once again. Just a few days ago I remembered National Novel Writing Month was coming up on November 1st. I've participated in the past, with paltry results, but I thought I'd give it another shot. The thing I like about NaNoWriMo is the development of discipline that can occur with a group of people supporting you through the process. And discipline is what I need. I already have a story in mind, one I came up with a few weeks ago, and have written some character and plot notes, but haven't begin the actual story yet. So, here's to the madness.
Everyone loves Peter Pan. It’s a perennial childhood favorite, in books, plays, musicals, songs, art, films, the list could go on. The recent film Finding Neverland in which J.M Barrie, Peter Pan’s creator, is played with the romantic charm of Johnny Depp, leaves the audience with a story of hope, imagination, and tenderness. Mr. Barrie must have been such a wonderful person, and George Davies, the boy who inspired Peter Pan, what a plum lucky kid he must have been.
Awhile back I was browsing in the a local book store and came across Neverland: J. M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan by Piers Dungeon. After reading just the first few pages, I was gripped by a story I was not aware of. Not enough cash on me at the moment, I went to the library to pick up a copy. I hate to parrot a cliché, but I literarily could not put this book down, until . . . well I’ll get to that later. But here is the scope of the book,
From Michael Dirda at the Washington Post:
There might be scarier books this Halloween season, but it's unlikely that any will be as luridly creepy as "Neverland." Even if you already know a little about the sinister background of J.M. Barrie's classic play, "Peter Pan," you will be in for a shock. In these pages Piers Dudgeon presents a multi-generational history of psychological domination and submission, unnatural family relations, predatory abuse and suicide. He also connects three great works of the popular imagination: George du Maurier's late-19th-century bestseller "Trilby" -- the novel in which the evil Svengali, through hypnosis, transforms a beautiful tone-deaf girl into a singing sensation but in the process destroys her soul; J.M. Barrie's death-haunted "Peter Pan," once titled "The Boy Who Hated Mothers"; and Daphne du Maurier's Gothic romance about spiritual possession, "Rebecca."
This book delves into the family histories of several people, exploring the fateful moments, deliberate manipulations, and pernicious abuse that occurred over decades, in which these literary creations were born from. Even D.H. Lawrence once said after the passing of one Sylvia’s boys Michael, "J.M. Barrie has a fatal touch for those he loves. They die." And I thought Lewis Carroll was a little creepy – he apparently can’t hold a stick to J.M. Barrie.
And it is not an easy read. After reading for a couple days and getting to the midway point to the book, it had a dark disturbing effect on me. I didn’t sleep well. I would become slightly nauseous thinking about it during the day. I think I even had a nightmare. It was simply a grisly reading experience. So after about halfway through, I had to force myself to stop. I may one day go back and finish it, but at that moment I just couldn’t go on. It seemed like a tragedy without any possible catharsis. (The only other time I had to stop reading a book due to sleepless nights and disturbing dreams is Whitley Strieber's Communion, but that's another story for next Halloween.)
And while Dungeon’s exploration probably reveals more truth than not, it is a little on the sensationalist side. Since I am not an expert in the area of Edwardian children's literature and literary scene, I'm unsure which historical arguments are tenuous and which are more grounded. The book has been criticised for being too high on emotion and low on some particular details. But even if half of what is revealed in this book is accurate, it’s tragedy enough.
Regardless, I highly recommend this book. It reveals very interesting aspects of later Victorian and early Edwardian culture and customs. It gave me a deeper respect of Daphne duMaurier as a writer and turned me on to her short story collection, Don’t Look Now. But most importantly it reveals a story that needs to be told. Hopefully another writer in the future will expand on Dungeon’s good work, correcting his mishpas, while having a more academic approach. Even so, it couldn’t be no less disturbing a story than before, and is one helluva frightening read for Halloween. As one critic has summarized, "I defy you not to be captivated."
Just when I thought McSweeney's was about to possibly run out of ideas on how to package their literary quartlery (of which the recent San Francisco Panorama was brilliant), they come up with another doozey I was not expecting.
Of the several items inside this head, included is a 100-page annotated lost novel by Michael Chabon. I'll have to shelve this in my closet - just a little too freaky looking to put alongside my Grantas and Paris Reviews, but funny nonetheless.
In the October issue of The Believer, there is a great and fun article about Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series and Brandon Sanderson's big break in finishing up what Jordan started. Absolutely worth a read.