Monday, December 31, 2012

Christopher's Top Ten of 2012

So you're telling me we've been doing this for six years?  That, my friend, is madness.  In those six years I've read 313 books, which is probably five or six times the number of books I'd read in my life up to that point.  At the end of the year, it's nice to look back and recognize at least one unqualified success, I think.

Here are the ten best books I read in 2012.  I still have some left to review, like Middlemarch, but I'll get around to it.  I'm not including books I re-read, or any of the Shakespeare plays because, well, that's just not very interesting.  He's been on enough lists.

10.) Baudolino by Umberto Eco - Brent commented on my review of Baudolino by saying, "So this is basically Life of Pi."  He was being snarky, but there's a lot of truth to that.  Both Baudolino and Life of Pi are about finding value in religion and myth while divesting them of the necessity to be exact truth, but while Life of Pi does it with a dishonest bit of sleight-of-hand, Baudolino puts the games it plays with truth front and center.  Baudolino, a courtier of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, creates elaborate lies about the mythical Eastern king Prester John as a way of legitimizing Barbarossa's power.  Then, preposterously, he sets out on a journey to find the king he's invented.  A lesser author would have Baudolino discover that the people and places he's imagined have come to life, but Eco provides stranger, more ambiguous discoveries. 

9.) The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon - What I liked best about The Crying of Lot 49 is that it was fun.  Though it shares the postmodern anxiety about the gulf between language and what it represents, it is neither bewildering nor unpleasant because it recognizes that that gulf opens language up to play.  The sheer ridiculousness of the novel's central conspiracy--that there exists a massive, ancient, and secret rebel postal service--suggests that if we really can't make sense of the world, we may as well have a laugh at its expense.

8.) Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - I think that Roth, too, is having a lot of fun in the sublimely filthy Sabbath's Theater, though it's a fun that is punctured by the demands of grief and the promise of death.  It is a novel about the limits of fun, about what the joys of sexual hedonism can and cannot do.  The aging pervert and puppeteer Mickey Sabbath finds himself unable to deal with the death of his longtime lover, which forces him to reflect on the life he's lived.  Honestly, that description sounds boring as hell, but Sabbath's Theater succeeds because it tempers its poignancy with sexual farce, like a novel-length expansion of that time Rabbit Angstrom asked some woman to pee on him.  More importantly, it deftly navigates sexual morality, neither forgiving Sabbath for the cruelty his libido sometimes produces nor slipping into prudishness.

7.) VALIS by Philip K. Dick - I was originally going to have Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on this list, but I think it got just barely shoved off by VALIS, my final book of 2012.  It may be a record of Dick's growing mental instability, but it is honest about that instability, and I'm not sure I've ever read a book as forthcoming or as raw.

6.) The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark - I think that The Mandelbaum Gate is Spark working intentionally outside of her comfort range: the pace is slower, the characters more sympathetic, the violence toned down.  In my review I suggested that one reason for that might be that Spark viewed the book as being semi-autobiographical, in so far as it is about a Catholic convert with Jewish ancestry.  But even if that's not the case, it's a remarkably powerful book, fashioning the image of a divided city into a metaphor for divided histories and divided selves.  Throw in a light-hearted spy caper, and it might be the best Graham Greene book Greene never wrote.

5.) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers - Writers who are really sensitive to the nature of human existence have an ear for the way people talk past each other, too wrapped up in their own plans and needs to recognize the plans and needs of others.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of the greatest novels I have ever read in that regard.  It is the story of a handful of small town Southerners who strike up a friendship with a deaf-mute, each seeing in his inability to respond an imaginary sympathy to their own worries.  No book I've ever read captures just how it is that a world that is so full of people can be so damned lonely.

3.) (tie) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - I wanted to read Anna Karenina in anticipation of the Joe Wright film that was recently released.  And while that film (which I enjoyed) is so needless of its source material I might not have bothered, I'm glad I did, because it was really great to be immersed in Anna Karenina.  The story of Anna and her doomed love affair with Count Vronsky is an elegant tragedy, but there is something cold and insular about it that does not permit the reader to share in it.  It might have been a very off-putting book if not for the B-plot of the landowner Levin and his beloved Kitty, whose romance is something like the negative image of Anna's, and for the collection of vivid, fascinating characters that collect at the edges: Anna's stoic, suffering husband Karenin; the lecherous, sanguine Stepan Oblonsky; etc.

3.) (tie) Middlemarch by George Eliot - Something about placing these two novels in a tie just seemed right.  Tolstoy reportedly had an admiration for Eliot, and it's easy to see why: Middlemarch is a big brick of a book about an entire community of provincial Britishers, held up by two columnar romance narratives.  Give everyone Russian names and it might as well be Anna Karenina.  Or, rather, if you made a Venn diagram of Tolstoy and Jane Austen Middlemarch would be the vesica piscis in the middle.  When I can, I'm going to give it a proper review, but I want to do it justice.

2.) Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - Housekeeping is, along with The Blue Flower, one of the two books I've read this year I would call revelatory; that is, they exceeded my expectations and showed me something I hadn't seen before.  In Housekeeping, it is the ornate but immaculate prose, which gives voice to sentiments I've often had but had not had the words to describe.  It is the story of a young girl being cared for by her aunt in the Western town of Fingerbone, but more than that it is about the inherent sadness in the separation of things.  I find myself returning to one line of Robinson's again and again: "What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?"  I don't know what that might look like, the knitting up of the fragments of the world, but I know that it is something I have yearned for without knowing that I yearned for it.

1.) The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald - I don't know what to say about this novel.  I think it may be perfect.  Its conciseness, its humor, its baffling lightness--it captivated me in a way no other novel has this year.  It is the story of the German poet Novalis, who fell in love with a not very pretty and not very smart girl but loved her with immense passion and sensitivity.  Each moment, each character, is so carefully and distinctly wrought with only a handful of words.

For lack of anything else constructive to say about it, I'll note this: One of the trends of 2012 for me was an amplified interest in female writers: McCullers, Eliot, Robinson, Fitzgerald, and of course Spark, whom I've always loved.  I read a recent interview with V. S. Naipaul in which he said he's never read a female author who he thought was as good as he is.  Mr. Naipaul, if you're reading this, I'd like to say: 1.) You're kind of a crusty old misogynist fart, and 2.) You clearly haven't read this book, and you should.  (I also read Fitzgerald's Offshore, which might have made it on this list if there weren't a self-imposed one author rule.)


So there you have it--another year in the books.  If you read this blog and have enjoyed it, thanks.  If you want to join us in 2013--and we'd love for you to join us--send me an e-mail at misterchilton-at-gmail.com.  I'd like to welcome back Randy, who's rejoining us after a year's hiatus and assures me that he is going to review only books about Satan worship.  See you next year, folks!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

VALIS by Philip K. Dick

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than the razor's edge, sharper than a hound's tooth, more agile than a mule deer.  It is more elusive than the merest phantom.  Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

VALIS is simultaneously the most bizarre and the least fantastical book of Philip K. Dick's I've ever read.  It is bizarre because it is about a man, Horselover Fat, who has prophetic visions implanted in him by a benign force through a pink beam of light.  It is not fantastical because it is, almost to the letter, completely autobiographical.

Dick makes no effort to conceal the fact that Fat is himself; he announces it in the first couple of pages.  "Horselover" is a translation of the Greek word Philippos, and dick is the German word for "fat."  And yet in his capacity as narrator, Dick speaks to the man he lovingly calls "Horse," interacts with him, tries to guide him through a long series of griefs that include the suicide and cancer deaths of friends, divorce and alienation.  When Dick says, "I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity," we are in the uncomfortable space between the canny tricks of an accomplished writer and the neurosis of a madman.

But that's one of the most interesting questions VALIS tackles: what separates sanity from insanity?  If Dick admits that he, as Fat, has become unhinged, does that somehow make him less unhinged?  The pink beam that hits Fat reveals to him, piecemeal, a religious cosmogony that he records as a massive exegesis, like Dick did in his own life.  It is a semi-Christian, explicitly Gnostic theology that says that the years between 103 and 1974 AD were imaginary and that the times of the Roman Empire still continue behind the illusory 20th century.  But it also says that the world is inherently irrational, created by an irrational God (this is a quintessential Gnostic tenet) and that the pink light, beamed in by what Dick calls "God," "Zebra," and "VALIS" in turn, is a rational source breaking in through the irrationality.  This source is not divine but human, transmitted by a group of our beneficent kin who never let themselves slip into the mad, unreal world in which we live.

I do not think, as Dick did, that he received information from three-eyed humans residing near the star Fomalhaut.  But there are ideas in here that are compelling, that cannot be dismissed as one man's quackery, and that seem to me to be genuine and heartfelt responses to deep suffering.  I have immense sympathy for anyone who has come to believe that the universe is essentially irrational.  What is most remarkable to me is Dick's ambivalence about whether his/Horselover Fat's cosmogony is sense or sheer senselessness, and the nakedness with which he seems to confess that the fictionalization of his experiences, and perhaps his entire  career as a science fiction writer, represent a desperate attempt to corral the world into sense:

You can understand why Fat no longer knew the difference between fantasy and divine revelation--assuming there is a difference, which has never been established.  He imagiend that Zebra came from a planet in the star-system Sirius, had overthrown the Nixon tyranny in August 1974, and would eventually set up a just and peaceful kingdom on Earth where there would be no sickness, no pain, no loneliness, and the animals would dance with joy.


It is the highest praise I can give the novel that, while I was reading it--and perhaps even now--I couldn't differentiate between fantasy and divine revelation.  The second highest praise I can give it is that, though it serves mostly as a frame for the presentation of Dick's cosmogony, it remains a highly entertaining and deeply moving novel.  The mixture of grief and humor Dick applies to Fat's life is some of his best satire.  Here's Fat's suicide attempt:

What had saved his life initially emanated from a defect in the choke of his car; the choke hadn't opened properly as the engine warmed, and finally the engine had stalled.  Fat had made his way unsteadily back to the house and lain down on his bed to die.  The next morning he woke up, still alive, and begun to vomit up the digitalis.  That was the second thing which saved him.  The third thing came in teh form of all the paramedics in the world removing the glass and aluminum sliding door at the rear of Fat's house.  Fat had phoned his pharmacy somewhere along the line to get a refill on his Librium prescription; he had taken thirty Librium just before taking the digitalis.  The pharmacist had contact the paramedics.  A lot can be said for the infinite mercies of God, but the smarts of a good pharmacist, when you get down to it, is worth more.


I particularly liked the cynicism of Fat's skeptical friend Kevin, and the incredibly dark humor of Sherri, the awful, parasitic cancer patient that repays Fat's kindness with utter cruelty.  The book's second half, which becomes more clearly fictional (and includes plot elements lifted from Dick's first attempt to fictionalize his exegesis, Radio Free Albemuth), is unpredictable and absorbing: Fat and his friends make contact with a two-year old girl, Sophia, who seems to be the earthly avatar of VALIS who commissions them as her emissaries on Earth.

Certainly Dick felt that way--did he, or did he believe, that he had met someone like Sophia?  Or is the book's latter half merely a madman's rationalization his mad philosophy?  The book ends in an unsettlingly ambiguous place, and that its ambiguity speaks for Dick's rationality and reflectiveness makes it no less difficult to evaluate.  As we rev up for "a national discussion on mental illness," I value VALIS, as I do One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, for its urgent reminder that mental illness and mental health are not clear opposites, and that prophets and geniuses are not always easily indistinguishable from madmen.

Brent also reviewed this book in 2010.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve struggled a little with how to review Flight Behavior because my feelings about it are conflicted. I was extremely excited to receive an advance copy for review, and, at first, it met my expectations. The prose was good, the main character, Dellarobia, was well-drawn, and the plot was intriguing: Dellarobia climbs the mountain behind her house, planning to cheat on her husband, only to have her mind changed when the side of the mountain appears to be on fire. Upon closer inspection, it turns out the “fire” is actually a massive migration of butterflies whose migratory patterns have been messed up by climate change.

There are other characters, the primary one being Ovid Byron, a scientist--entomologist, probably--who arrives on Dellarobia’s farm to study the butterflies. He’s the most developed character outside of Dellarobia herself, and when the two of them share a scene, things work pretty well. Kingsolver’s prose is excellent--her language is evocative and warm without being overblown, and it’s well-suited for describing the ethereal beauty of the butterflies.

However, after getting about midway through the book, I began to have misgivings. First, it was the speechifying. Look, I’m not a climate change denialist, and I largely sympathize with Ovid’s (and Kingsolvers) concerns about the environment. That said, there are numerous multi-page conversations that do little to advance the plot, but instead serve as a way to soapbox global warming. Kingsolver is a good writer--surely there must have been a better way to embed the information than exposition dumps disguised as dialog. Some of it is interesting, but no one likes to feel like their novel is preaching to them.

The other issue I had with the book involves its treatment of the non-Dellarobia characters in her hometown. They are, at the beginning, presented in the broadest way possible. Her husband, nicknamed Cub, is a redneck, as his father, nicknamed Bear. His mother, Hester, is overbearing and controlling, and mostly unkind. They’re all deeply religious, and believe that the butterflies are a sign for God. They’re also vehement climate change denialists, at least at the beginning, although their views do change minimally throughout the novel. Overall, though, the book gives them the short shrift. We are told repeatedly what a good man Cub is, even if he isn’t quite the good man for Dellarobia, but we’re never really shown, so my ultimate impression of him was that he was a man-child who never even tried to be an adult. Bear gets even less characterization. Hester is a legitimately complex character, but she disappears for long stretches of the book, and a revelation about her near the end never really resolves. I felt no love in Flight Behavior for any of the tertiary characters, save maybe Dellarobia’s rambunctious friend Dovey, and though the book seems to be presenting some sort of faith-vs-reason dichotomy, it lands so firmly on the side of reason that it sometimes feels more like a satire than a realistic novel.

Finally, there’s the issue of the ending, which I will be partially spoiling below. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now.

ENDING SPOILERS

The novel ends with Dellarobia deciding that, yes, she has married the wrong man, so she decides to get a divorce, move out of town, and go back to school. She breaks this to her son by a) telling him she has some exciting news b) sharing said news i.e. that she’s moving away and going back to school but he’ll still be able to see her c) justifying her decision by comparing it to crapping the bed, and d) withholding what is essentially her going away gift, an iPhone, until her young son admits that things will never be the same. Lest this sounds like an exaggeration, here’s the passage:
“What if I want everything to stay how it is?” he asked.
“Oh, man, that’s the bite. Grown-ups want that too. Honestly! That’s what makes them crap the bed and stay in it, I’m not even kidding.”
His eyes scooted away from hers, avoiding the verdict.
“It won’t ever go back to the way it was, Preston. You have to say that right now, okay? Just say it and I’ll give you the pod-thing.”
He glanced over at her, making sure, and said it. “It won’t ever go back to how it was.”
“Okay” She handed it over. “You’re the man.”
The high-school language ("Oh, man", "I'm not even kidding") seems wildly inappropriate for breaking world-shattering news to your child. This section so impacted my view of Dellarobia that it retroactively tainted the rest of the book. The story begins with her about to make a selfish mistake, and ends with her selfishly upending everyone’s lives and forcing them to accept it whether they like it or not. The very end comes out of nowhere, and feels like a cosmic attempt to validate Dellarobia’s choice, but her treatment of her child and husband had already wrecked her character for me by then. Maybe this is just a personal bias, I don’t know. All I can say is that, while it has its strong points, I ultimately didn’t enjoy Flight Behavior that much, even though I really wanted to.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thirty Days With My Father by Christal Presley

"[S]ometimes I felt sorry for my father, and sometimes I wished he would die. And all the while I loved him and wondered if the war really had made him like he was or if it was just him."

At a writing workshop, a speaker posed a question: "What if you wrote about the thing you fear the most?" This prompt resonated with Christal Presley, and she knew what she feared the most: her father and "the war he brought home with him from Vietnam." This question lead her to decided to talk with her dad either on the phone or in person (they didn't not live all that close to each other) every day for 30 days.

Presley had haunting childhood memories of her father, of him "snapping" and chasing her around the house because she had dropped some plates, or him locking himself in his room for hours, of him announcing that he was going down to the river to shoot himself and then walking out of the house with his rifle. Presley had a relationship with her dad, but it was a relationship of fear and confusion. He was never physically violent toward her or her mother, but she says that there were time when she thought it could escalate to that.

Presley began her writing project tentatively. The phone call on day one of the project couldn't have lasted for more than a minute, consisting of her father telling her that he didn't want to talk about the war, and her quickly hanging up the phone. But she was persistent, sticking with her stated goal. With each passing day, her father opened up more about his experiences in the war. It wasn't long before Presley and her father were discussing things that happened in their home during her childhood, at once apologizing, consoling and analyzing. By the end of the thirty days, Presley's relationship with her father has changed drastically. She looks forward to talking and seeing him, and he with her. And perhaps most importantly, being able to move on from some of darker spots in her past has enabled the brighter spots to shine through. As she put it, "It's interesting how the good memories come back when you stop being angry."

Thirty Days is structured like you would expecting a writing project like this to be structured. It is comprised of 60 sections: an entry for each day and a journal entry that accompanies each daily entry. I found it interesting to see how both Presley and her father changed in how they dealt with each other. Her conservative Christian upbringing resonated with me, having grown up the same way. I think this made me connect with her in a way that I wasn't expecting.

I don't think this book is for everyone. It follows a fairly predictable trajectory, with few twists or turns, and the writing is fairly spartan. However, if you are interested in learning more about PTSD and its affect on families, this book will be a valuable resource.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

MEPHISTOPHELES: Be done with nursing your despair,
Which, like a vulture, feeds upon your mind;
The very meanest company bids fair
To let you feel a man among mankind.
It's not that we propose
To toss you in among the rabble.
I am no ranking devil;
But let us say you chose
To fall in step with me for life's adventure,
I'd gladly, forthwith, go into indenture,
Be yours, as well as I know how.
I'm your companion now,
And if this meets with your desire,
Will be your servitor, your squire!

FAUST: And for my part--what is it you require?


MEPHISTOPHELES: Never you mind, it's much too soon to worry.


How does one review Faust?  It took Goethe's entirely life to complete it, and seemingly contains every thought, every idea, every feeling that he felt was important to human existence.  It's so immense, so bizarre, so full of things to talk about that it defies description.

The story, at least at the beginning, is very familiar: The scholar Faust sells his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for endless knowledge and power.  In most versions of this story, this will predictably come back to bite Faust in the ass, but Faust isn't that kind of book.  By the end of the book, the deal that Faust makes with Mephistopheles seems quaint, and pretty much forgotten.

There are two parts: The first is a tragedy, in which Faust uses his powers to seduce a young woman named Margarete.  She has his child, but kills it, and dies for it, although it seems that at the very end she is redeemed.  This story is heart-rending, and Faust's tearful visit to the mad Margarete in her cell just before her execution is pretty hard to take:

MARGARETE: Day!  Yes, day is here, it dawns so gray;
This was to be my wedding-day!
Tell no one that Gretchen was yours already,
My poor wreath's shredding!
What's done is done!
We shall be one,
But not at a wedding.
The crowd is thronging, no word, no laugh;
The square is milling,
The streets o'erfilling.
There tolls the bell, they break the staff.
How they pounce on me, bind me!
Already I am on the scaffold laid,
All necks shrink back from the winking blade
That will glint and find me.
Mute lies the world like the grave!

Now, this part of Faust is strange.  The whole thing is written like a play, but the stage directions are so ornate and the number of parts so monstrous that it could never possibly be performed.  There are lines attributed to figures like "This World's Child" and "Prontophantasmiac" and a talking soap bubble.  There are some talking marmosets.  But at least the overall story of what Faust inflicts on Margarete is recognizable as a genre tragedy.

The second part, however, infinitely ramps up the weirdness.  Faust now finds himself in the court of an Emperor, to whom he and Mephistopheles offer their services by, among other things, introducing paper currency.  Then Faust, in his role as the Master of Revels for the Emperor, has Mephistopheles conjure up the image of Helen of Troy, falls in love with her, and spends a huge chunk of Part II searching for her to be his lover.  Then he returns to the Emperor's court and spends the rest of his life on an urban development project using the power of the sea to build a great city.  There are really great moments--like when Mephistopheles murders an innocent old couple at Faust's behest because their home is in the way of the development--but it's impossible to confine all of those moments into one major narrative.  (Or so it seems to me; I'm sure others have tried.)

I don't mean that it doesn't hang together, but rather that the work as a whole is so ambitious and so bizarre that the issue of "hanging together" seems irrelevant.  Goethe called it an "incommensurable" work--it can't be measured--and I think I agree.  If I've spent this entire review just telling you what happens in it, it's because I have no idea how to approach it or evaluate it, and if I wanted to, it would probably take me a lifetime.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Because You Have To: A Writing Life by Joan Frank

I wish I’d read Because You Have To with a highlighter in hand.

Where most books on writing seem to be written by fairly well-known authors or teachers, Joan Frank’s new collection of essays on the writing life comes from a different place, the pen of a writer who has learned, in her own words, “there may not be any breakthrough.” This is a woman who has published five works of fiction, been reviewed in the New York Times, but has come to accept that she may never be a household name, never able to answer the question, which she addresses in an essay, “Have you written anything I’ve heard of?” in the affirmative.

And yet, she continues to write, and write well, because, well, because she has to. Reading her essays felt more relatable to me, a wannabe writer who has published one story and a couple poems, than, say, Stephen King’s On Writing--although it’s good too. There is a compulsion in everyone who calls themselves a writer to create, to put the words down on paper and make them real, and Frank expresses that feeling more eloquently than most. She understands, and communicates, that writing is not about fame, or money, or notoriety. It’s about desire, about an insatiable need to get what’s inside outside. Every writer, famous or not, can relate to that.

Because You Have To isn’t a book on craft, for the most part. It’s more similar to Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird or Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. It’s full of advice--or sometimes just empathy--about the mundane things in a writer’s life: rejection letters, finding--or making--a place to write, and feeling as though you must “steal” time from the real world in order to get it down on paper.

Ultimately, what a reader gets from this sort of collection probably depends on what they brought into it. If they don’t write, have no desire to write, they won’t come away with a real understanding of the madness; but anyone who’s felt like they would burst if they didn’t tell their story, well, this one’s for you.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

MISTRESS FORD: I shall think the worse of fat men as long as I have an eye to make difference of men's liking.  And yet he would not swear, praised women's modesty, and gave such orderly and well-behaved reproof to all uncomeliness that I would have sworn his disposition would have gone to the truth of his words.  But they do no more than adhere and keep place together than the hundred and fifty psalms to the tune of 'Greensleeves.'  What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many tuns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?  How shall I be revenged on him?  I think the best way were to entertain him with hope, till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease.

Merry Wives of Windsor occupies an uncomfortable place in Shakespeare's works.  It doesn't seem "Shakespearean," whatever that means, even though one of its principal characters is Falstaff.  It should be set in the time of Henry IV and Henry V, about 200 years before Shakespeare lived, but its atmosphere is decidedly Elizabethan, and instead of focusing on the lives of great men and women, it's about a pair of contemporary middle class families.

Bloom calls the Falstaff of Merry Wives an "impostor," and while I don't necessarily want to support that turn of phrase, I think he's right: Falstaff here is hardly the same guy as in Henry IV and Henry V.  His cleverness, his endless humor, are replaced with broad venality and gullibility.  Seeking money, he writes identical letters to the Mistresses Ford and Page declaring his love for them, but they discover his duplicity and punish him by leading him on only to engineer a series of mild humiliations.

Unfortunately, they're not very funny.  In the first, Mistress Ford convinces Falstaff to hide in a laundry basket from her husband, which she then has a servant dump in a laundry basket.  In the second, she convinces him to hide by dressing up as her aunt, whom her husband hates, so he gets the crap beaten out of him.  Finally they get a bunch of children to dress as fairies and pinch him in the forest.  I suspect that on stage each of those moments might play extremely well, but on the page they fell, for me, very flat.  Much of the other humor is derived from the humorous accents of some of the minor characters.  I did, however, enjoy the Latin lesson given by the Welsh parson and teacher Evans to his student William, which the ignorant Mistress Quickly keeps interrupting:

EVANS: What is your genitive case plural, William?

WILLIAM: Genitive case?

EVANS: Ay.

WILLIAM: Genitivo: 'horum, harum, horum.'

QUICKLY: Vengeance of Jenny's case!  Fie on her!  Never name her child, if she be a whore.

EVANS: For shame, 'oman!

But I suspect even that plays a lot better to an audience who has had a rigorous classical education.

I read this a few weeks back, for class.  I'm sure I would have had something better to say about had I blogged about it immediately, but clearly I found this one of Shakespeare's most forgettable plays.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Ovid was keeping track as the temperatures crept to freezing, miserably watching the downward march.  After decades of chasing monarchs and their beautiful mysteries, he would now be with them at the end, for reasons he had never in his whole life foreseen.  She wished he could explain this to the kids who'd been in her yard.  Some deep and terrible trouble had sent the monarchs to the wrong address, like the protesters themselves.  The butterflies had no choice but to trust in their world of signs, the sun's angle set against a turn of the seasons, and something inside all that had betrayed them.

One day Dellarobia Turnbow climbs the side of her mountain on her family's property in eastern Tennessee, intending on an illicit rendezvous with a man who is not her husband, but something stops her first: the mountain is on fire.  Or, at least, that's the way it seems.  Later she discovers that what she's seen is not fire but an enormous cluster of monarch butterflies who have settled on the mountain, diverted somehow from their traditional wintering home in Mexico.

The monarchs intrude upon Dellarobia's life: They contemplate her family's plan to cut down the mountain's trees for money.  Tourists come, and she becomes a minor celebrity.  Scientists come, living on the Turnbow property to study this unusual event.  Some changes are good and some are bad; most lie somewhere in between.  And even though Kingsolver is careful to keep her representatives of science cautious in their claims, her metaphors make it clear--such upheavals can only be the result of global warming.  What Dellarobia undergoes is, quite literally, a sea change.

Kingsolver seems to have two goals here: One, to illustrate the way climate change can affect an individual human life, to rescue it from abstraction.   Two, to bridge the gap between the academic and the regular Joe, and illustrate the possibility of common ground between them.  I'm not sure she succeeds in this second goal; while Kingsolver clearly writes out of great affection for the salt-of-the-earth types that make up Dellarobia's community, she doesn't wholly avoid the temptation to skewer them as rubes.  For instance, Dellarobia convinces her husband and father-in-law (Cub and Bear, respectively) to take one last look at the land before signing the logging contract, without telling them about the butterflies, which leads to an absurd plot point in which Cub announces at church that Dellarobia foresaw them in a vision.  This ensues:

Dellarobia felt the doubtful stares.  She'd been sitting it out every week in the cafe, drinking coffee and making her grocery list, in no way deserving of a miracle.  And yet a small shatter of applause broke out, like a handful of gravel on a tin shed.  Someone very close to them shouted: "Heaven be praised, Sister Turnbow has seen the wonders!"  It was the man who'd come in late, with the sporty sunglasses on his head.


The sunglasses, the out-of-place folksiness of "Sister Turnbow" and "seen the wonders," which are somehow incongruent with the casualness of the church and its cafe, and the sheer stupidity everyone in this scene seems to share--they add up to something that isn't the friendly ribbing that I think Kingsolver is aiming at.  Contrast the character of the scientist, Ovid Byron, who is described as "Tall, dark, and handsome, but extra tall, extra dark.  Okay, extra all three."

Is it a surprise when Dellarobia falls in love?  Kingsolver chooses to make Byron an immigrant from the US Virgin Islands, who Dellarobia thinks sounds like a "reggae singer."  In other words, she amplifies his otherness, emphasizing his status as an outsider--while fetishizing his exoticness, something which Kingsolver seems to share with Dellarobia.  There are good narrative reasons to do this, as there are good reasons to satirize casual fundamentalists in sporty sunglasses, but when you do them both the novel is thrown off balance.  In other words, I don't think Flight Behavior represents both sides as equally as it thinks it does.

But I do like the point that Dellarobia makes about the impossible divide between these two camps when she theorizes to Byron that the problem is essentially social, that the reason her community does not believe in global warming has less to do with stupidity or cowardice than the human tendency to divide itself in two.  "The environment," as she says, "got assigned to the other team."  She goes on:

"These positions get assigned to people," she said.  "If you've been called the bad girl all your life, you figure you're already paying the price, you should go on and use the tickets.  If I'm the redneck in the pickup, fine, let me just go burn up the some gas."


The enmity between the believers and the skeptics, that is, precedes even the belief itself.  Yet, is Kingsolver aware of the ways in which the novel unconsciously preserves that divide, instead of breaking it down?

Flight Behavior is strongest, I think, when it focuses on the first goal: creating a vivid depiction of an individual life who comes to see the upheaval of her life as part of a larger, global phenomenon.  The butterflies are a powerful metaphor that dominates the work.  Like Dellarobia, they are lost, confused, struggling to survive against impersonal forces that are much stronger.  We want the butterflies to make it because of their beauty and mystery, and because if they do perhaps that implies that Dellarobia too can make it, that she too can "[fly] out to a new earth."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

But man, without God, born as he is unarmed, would have been obliterated by hunger, fear and cold; and if he survived these, he would have crawled like a slug midway between the lions and the lice; and if with incessant struggle he managed to stand on his hind legs, he would never have been able to escape the tight, warm, tender embrace of his mother the monkey... Reflecting on this, Jesus felt more deeply than he had ever felt before that God and man could become one.

I have never seen Martin Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ, but I know the controversy: Willem Dafoe's Christ experiences a sort of dream sequence as he is crucified that tempts him with the life he might have lived as an ordinary man, married to Mary Magdalene, for whom he has long held romantic and sexual feelings.  That may depart fairly radically from the Gospels, but there is something appealing in the idea of a more human Jesus who suffers greatly under the yoke of his task and yearns for the simple pleasures of human life.  The modern, evangelical conception of Jesus seems to me to render the scenes of his temptation in the desert inexplicable.  How could Satan hope to penetrate such a bulwark of mildness?

I thought Kazantzakis' original novel might be a picture of that more human, more palpable Jesus.  I was pretty wrong.  I was hoping that it would put Jesus in a historical context, against a realistic backdrop of Roman Israel, but Kazantzakis' Temptation seeks to outdo the Bible itself in visions, signs, and wonders.  Here's one I picked at random from about two hundred:

Suddenly he uttered a cry.  He felt a horrible pain in his hands and feet, as though he had been pierced by nails.  He collapsed onto a rock, the sweat pouring over him in cold granules.  For a moment his head swam.  The earth sank away from under his feet and a fierce dark ocean spread itself out before him.  It was deserted but for a tiny red skiff which sailed bravely along, its sails puffed out, ready to burst... Jesus looked and looked, then smiled.  "It is my heart," he murmured, "it is my heart..."


That's fairly effective, isn't it?  The vision of Jesus' heart as a small red boat in a great dark ocean is very powerful.  But there is no ground to the novel, these visions come so frequently that there is no non-visionary mode to provide contrast.  By the end of the novel, I grew extremely weary of them.  Kazantzakis, I think, is trying to recreate some of the inherent wonder and mystery of the Gospels (and probably even moreso books like Daniel and Revalation).  But what is the point of replicating the style of those texts, which, let's be honest, succeed pretty well on their own?

And yet, I did like some of the ways that Kazantzakis manipulates the fundamental Gospel story: He makes Jesus not just a carpenter but a crossmaker, reviled by his community.  He makes Judas into a brother-rival figure that personifies a more militant, revolutionary vision of the Messiah as a Jewish warrior-hero.  Judas remains fiercely loyal to Jesus, though there is immense philosophical tension between them, and ultimately Judas' betrayal is depicted by Kazantzakis as a planned event.  (This is, I think, the basic idea represented in the recently discovered "Gospel of Judas," too.)  And yet, I would have enjoyed the tension of that relationship much more if I had felt that Jesus and Judas approached any reasonable human likeness.  In a book of symbols, they remain symbols, and get lost in the crowd.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig J. Heimbuch

Craig Heimbuch could almost be me. We were both born in the Midwest, to families and cultures that were more outdoorsy than us. We both have an unnatural, borderline prejudicial fear of rednecks. We‘ve both fought insecurities about financial stability, fatherhood, our relative manliess. The difference between us is essentially this: To combat his insecurities, Heimbuch took up hunting. I decided to read 50 books a year, which isn’t as memoir-ready.

And Now We Shall Do Manly Things is essentially summarized above, the through-line being Heimbuch’s journey from freelance writer to freelance writer with a gun. As with most “I did this” memoirs, the tone is light, but there’s a real pathos to the early sections, where Heimbuch reflects on his own history, from marriage through childbirth, and a poignancy to his description of his parents and extended family—outdoorsmen all— people he clearly loves but feels disconnected from in some essential way. Everyone has felt it, the sense of otherness, and Heimbuch, at his best, captures the feeling wonderfully. At his worst, he attempts to inject humor that just doesn’t work—most of the fictional conversations played out like vaudeville routines with no punchlines—but for the most part, I laughed where I was supposed to, and the book read amazingly fast.

The big question I had, coming into the book, was this: would it change my mind about hunting? I’ve always thought hunting for sport was kind of stupid at best, and kind of barbaric at worst—though I’m sympathetic to the idea that, if left unhunted, deer would overrun the world like so many graceful vermin—and I was genuinely hoping to have my perspective enlarged. To an extent, it was: Heimbuch’s discussion with various hunters made sense, especially the oft-repeated bromide that “if you’re willing to eat meat, you should be willing to kill it”, and, by the end of the book, I was rooting for him to finally get his elusive pheasant. On the other hand, the descriptions of field-dressing turned my stomach and I’m not planning to start hunting myself anytime soon, so, I don’t know... maybe I should be vegan?

I’m glad I read And Now We Shall Do Manly Things. It’s likely not a book I would have sought out myself (I received a free review copy), and it’s helped me understand a mentality I’ve been around but have never really understood. If I were feeling hyperbolic, I might even say it’s caused me to reconsider my own life and what it means, to me, to be a man. Maybe I’ll write a book about it.

Henry VI Part II by William Shakespeare

I have been very busy, and although I've been reading, I haven't been able to post like I've wanted to.  I'm taking a class on Shakespeare now, and as such I've been reading these plays at a pretty fast clip--faster than I'm able to post on them--and I know that our readers aren't as interested in them probably, but I've committed to posting about each book, and I'm gonna do that, dammit.

Henry VI Part II reflects my mental state perfectly: it's a hot mess.  It's hectic; it's disjointed; it's scatterbrained.  It's probably a lot more fun if you're familiar with the history of Henry VI, who apparently was not fondly remembered by Shakespeare's age.  Otherwise it's hard to keep track of the various subplots: There's the Duchess Eleanor, caught summoning demons to foretell her husband's political future.  There's the Queen Margaret, carrying on an affair the Duke of Suffolk.  There's Richard of York, scheming for the throne.  There's a popular insurrection, led by the charismatic rebel Jakc Cade.  And there's Henry himself, impotent as all this revolves around him, preferring to pray in his room than try to control his state.

If there's an overarching narrative to be found, it's that: The realm is going bonkers because Henry is an ineffective king.  Each weird mini-plot is in some way a response to the void in power that Henry represents; Eleanor, Margaret, Suffolk, York, Cade--each asserts their own power because they perceive that the king cannot or will not assert his own.

The most entertaining of all of these is Cade, and I enjoyed the play most when he is in it.  Cade is York's plant, suborned to destabilized the country's political situation, but Cade himself often approaches a compelling anarchist vision of political and economic freedom:

CADE: I think you good people!--there shall be no money.  All shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

BUTCHER: The first thing we do let's kill all the lawyers.

CADE: Nay, that I mean to do.  Is not this a lamentable thing that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment?  That parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man?


Cade and his followers condemn and kill for the crime of merely knowing how to read.  Shakespeare intends this to be satirical, of course, but there is sense in the satire:

CADE: ...Though has most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used and, contrary to the King his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill.  It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.  Thou hast appointed justices of peace to call poor men before them about matters they were not able to answer.  Moreover, thou hast put them in prison, and, because they could not read, thou hast hanged them when indeed only for that cause they have been most worthy to live.


Here an ironic silliness (I love that "noun and a verb and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear...") is transformed unexpectedly to a very pointed criticism of a political system which is stacked against the poor and uneducated.  Cade is engaging because he is the center of the play's ambiguity.  Like the noble characters of the play, Cade shallowly seeks his own self-interests, and yet he manages also to give voice to a number of unsettling moral issues.

The rest of the play, I'm afraid, is something of a slog.  I could never keep the Suffolks and the Somersets straight, nevermind the Beauforts and the Buckinghams, much less the two characters named Clifford.  Seeing it on stage is probably good fun, but even then I suspect that Cade usually steals the show.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Fifth Queen Crowned by Ford Madox Ford

'But to make the King,' Cranmer uttered, as if he were aghast and amazed, 'to make the King--this King who knoweth that his wife hath done no wrong--who knoweth it so well as to-night he hath proven--to make him, him, to put her away... why, the tiger is not so fall, nor the Egyptian worm preyeth not on its kind.  This is an imagination so horrible--'

'Please it be your Grace,' Lascelles said softly, 'what beast or brute hath your Grace ever seen to betray its kind as man will betray brother, son, father, or consort?'

The last book in Ford Madox Ford's Katharine Howard series (1 2), as the name suggests, opens on a scene of victory: Katharine is crowned Henry's queen, and the return of her cherished Catholicism is nigh.  How you read this development hinges probably on your religious affiliation; for me there is something unseemly about Henry's playful needling of the Archbishop Cranmer early in the book about the church's return, especially now that Thomas Cromwell, the Protestant villain of the first two books, has been put to death.  I read in the second book a more ambivalent stance than I was able to find in this one.  What are we to make of a Henry VIII who is only good to the extent that he is Catholic?

Katharine remains the series' moral center, which bodes poorly for Henry's soul, since we know that by the series' end she must be executed.  (Spoiler alert.)  I found the machinations by which Katharine is brought down to be pretty disappointing, although the intrigue was the best part of the first two books.  The death of Cromwell leaves a pretty immense gap that the ambitious knight Lascelles, a pale Cromwell substitute, fails to fill.  In The Fifth Queen Crowned, subterfuge gives way to slander: The courtiers, peeved by the Queen's power and at Lascelles' urging, gin up a lie about Katharine's infidelity with her cousin Culpepper and force Henry's hand.  In the end, she gets a pretty nice speech at the King's expense:

If I have wounded you with these my words, I do ask your pardon... I would have you wounded by the things as they are, and by what conscience you have, in your passions and your prides.  And this, I will add, that I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of my cousin Culpepper or of any other simple lout that loved me as he did, without regard, without thought, and without falter.  He sold farms to buy me bread.  You would not imperil a little alliance with a little  King o' Scots to save my life.


But the book as a whole was neither as fun or nuanced as the previous two.  In the end, I stand by my judgment of the first book: that The Fifth Queen books are Ford still struggling with both what he wanted to say and how.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Good Pope by Greg Tobin

The Good Pope is the story of the life of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a man born to peasant-farmers in rural Italy, who became one of the most influential popes in modern history. Greg Tobin constructs the life of Roncalli--Pope John XXIII--using a wide variety of sources, describing a humble man, full of passion for other people.

Tobin does a great job of making what could have been a boring recitation of facts about a good man's life into an interesting story. One of the ways in which he accomplishes this is by showing Roncalli's humorous side. At the pen of Tobin, Roncalli is a man who carried his sense of humor with him as he traveled to his various posts, including the Papacy. One of my favorite examples of this was when Roncalli was asked how many people worked inside the Vatican City State. He replied, "Oh about half of them."

Roncalli entered the clergy at a time when the Catholic Church was involving itself in social change. The Industrial Revolution was leaving many people cold and hungry in its wake. The Church set up soup kitchens and shelters to combat this social ill. Roncalli was secretary to Bishop Radini-Tedeschi, who was a vocal proponent of these social programs. Many of the sweeping changes that were a part of Vatican II had their roots in this period of Roncalli's life.

Tobin assumes very little advanced knowledge on the part of his readers, taking time to describe what may seem to some as common knowledge about the Catholic Church. As Brent alluded to in his review, Roncalli--at least as Tobin describes him--was nearly devoid of character flaws. Whether this is due to the editorial choices of Tobin or simply reflective of Roncalli's life is open for debate. But there are numerous points throughout the book where Tobin shows restraint and caution in his reliance on sources. It appears that Roncalli was a man with a deep faith in the Catholic Church and a deep love for humanity.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

Never have I had less to say about a Shakespeare play than I do about Comedy of Errors.  Not that it isn't great--it is, but its charms lie mostly on the surface.  It's probably a lot more fun to see than read, and it's probably even less fun to read someone else talking about it.

It's the classic mistaken-identity sitcom episode, more or less.  Two brothers, separated as children, both named Antipholus (I just missed the other kid so much, I named the one I kept Antipholus too, says the bereaved father) end up in Ephesus, where one lives.  In case that's not absurd enough for you, they each have a manservant named Dromio.  When Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus, well... you can probably imagine what kind of hijinks ensue.

Comedy of Errors is true to its name, delivering up a series of pretty funny set pieces that involve the Antipholuses and Dromios confusing one another.  The best moment, I think, comes when Dromio of Syracuse encounters the wife of Dromio of Ephesus, whom he describes this way:

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE: ...She is spherical, like a globe.  I could find out countries in her.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE: In what part of her body stands Ireland?

DROMIO: Marry, sir, in her buttocks.  I found it out by the bogs.

ANTIPHOLUS: Where Scotland?

DROMIO: I found it by the barrenness, hard in the palm of her hand.

ANTIPHOLUS: Where France?

DROMIO: In her forehead, armed and reverted, making war against her heir.

ANTIPHOLUS: Where England?

DROMIO: I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no whiteness in them.  But I guess it stood in her chin, by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.

ANTIPHOLUS: Where Spain?

DROMIO: Faith, I saw it not, but I felt it hot in her breath.

ANTIPHOLUS: Where America, the Indies?

DROMIO: O, sir, upon her nose, all o'er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain, who sent whole armadas of carracks to be ballast at her nose.

ANTIPHOLUS: Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?

DROMIO: O, sir, I did not look so low.

If ever Shakespeare needed a rimshot, it's here.  If there is any real depth to the play, it comes from the theme of losing one's identity, which is what worries the Syracusan Antipholus:

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling forth there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.

Antipholus sets up a paradox in which he searches for his brother to individuate himself, to become again a whole drop of water, even though to do so he must confront his own sameness by finding him.  The water-drop motif is repeated unintentionally by Adriana, the wife of Ephesian Antipholus, whose worry about her husband's disinterest is only exacerbated by the fact that he no longer seems to recognize her:

Ah, do not tear thyself away from me;
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself, and not me too.

The bittersweetness of these lines is not like anything else in the play, and stands out in sharp relief.  By contrast the Ephesian Antipholus, in whom the identities of his wife and brother are so intimately tangled, walks through the play caddishly unconcerned with anyone else.  Perhaps, if you want to look past the slapstick, the message here is that real human relationships imply the risk of losing one's own identity--but the alternative is just being a selfish jackass.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud

I haven’t read the entirety of Scott McCloud’s career-making graphic nonfiction book, Understanding Comics, to which Reinventing Comics is a partial sequel. Fortunately for me, Reinventing Comics covers mostly different ground; unfortunately for me, it was mixed bag, due partially to its datedness at points--it was published in 2000--and its sometimes dry subject matter.

But first, the good: McCloud is a remarkably versatile artist who clearly loves the medium and is adept at communicating fairly dense information in an intuitive way. I’m not sure the information in this book could have presented any better without changing its format completely. The entire book, aside from the appendices, is written in comic book form which sometimes works great, such as when demonstrating various distribution models, and sometimes doesn’t add much, as during his discussion of diversity in comics.

The downside is that a lot of the material here just isn’t that novel or interesting. One only has to walk into a comic book store, or even look at recent comic book movies, to see that the landscape is dominated by superheroes, mostly straight, male and white. McCloud’s solution to this problem--that more women, minorities, and gays be promoted in the comics world--is sensible, but doesn’t bring anything new to the table. His discussion of genre is similarly circular.

The back half of the book mostly discusses the pros and cons of creating and distributing comics on computers. Since the book was written in a largely pre-broadband time, many of McCloud’s suggestions seem quite prescient--online distribution, microtransactions, experimental layouts and formatting--but they too suffer from a little bit of been-there-done-that in 2012 (although it is notable that DC and Marvel both adopted same-day-as-print digital releases this year). McCloud’s once-exciting predictions about everything being available everywhere have been tamped down by both real-world issues, such as the complex legal weaseling necessary to move “everything” online, and by the fact that the future he talks about is largely here and doesn’t seem to have increased mainstream acceptance of comics much. Online, there are comics about everything under the sun, instantly available, but if no one new is reading them, what does it matter?

I don’t mean to be hard on Understanding Comics. It’s very well put together and I enjoyed reading it, but I’d recommend Understanding Comics or McCloud’s Zot omnibus as an introduction--Reinventing Comics is a little depressing.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Good Pope by Greg Tobin


Giuseppe Roncalli. Pope John XXIII. Il Buono Papa. Whatever name he is called by, he is an emblem of the modern Catholic church, the initiator of Vatican II, which brought about massive and controversial changes to the Catholic church. I knew nothing about John XXIII when I received this book, and I was impressed reading his story.

Unlike many popes throughout church history, John XXIII didn’t come from an aristocratic or high church background. He was the son of a poor farmer who rose to prominence on, essentially, his good reputation and seemingly inexhaustible compassion and willingness to work for the poor. This led to his promotion through the Catholic ranks and his eventual election—by electors who probably expected him to be a placeholder pope—to the highest office in the Catholic church.

I am not Catholic or exceptionally well-versed in Catholic history, so I can’t speak for the accuracy of Tobin’s book. Based on the material presented here, John XXII comes off extremely well—devout without being a scold, committed to his work without neglecting his friends and family, able to lead without being haughty. My favorite anecdote in the book concerns Paul XXIII’s modifications to the papal gardens: he had a sprinkler installed with a remote control so he could soak cardinals as they walked through the garden. It’s a funny story, but also serves as a fitting metaphor for John’s entire papacy, as he attempted to puncture some of the unnecessary pretentions of the church, such as the Latin mass, without losing what he saw as truly important. Tobin does a good job through this short biography of making John XXIII an interesting character in spite of the fact that he seems to have very few dramatic flaws. The Good Pope is, then, primarily the story of a good man who does great things within his sphere of influence. There’s very little in the way of scandalous secrets or backroom dealings—with Rocalli, according to Tobin, what you see is what you get. 

Although I’m not Catholic, I am a Christian and found portions of John XXIII’s life inspiring. I wonder, however, how interesting a non-religious person would find this bio. I found the political aspects surrounding Vatican II extremely interesting, but John XXIII’s spiritual journey is undeniably the core of the book (Vatican II has hardly begun when John passes away). I suppose that, religious or not, we can all find something inspiring in a man who put feet to his beliefs so effectively and consistently. I’ll be interested to see what Carlton has to say about the book when he reviews it later this month.

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

Any attempt to define literary theory in terms of a distinctive method is doomed to failure.  Literary theory is supposed to reflect on the nature of literature and literary criticism.  But just think of how many methods are involved in literary criticism.  You can discuss the poet's asthmatic childhood, or examine her peculiar use of syntax; you can detect the rustling of silk in the hissing of the s's, explore the phenomenology of reading, relate the literary work to the state of the class-struggle or find out how many copies it sold.  These methods have nothing whatsoever of significance in common.  In fact, they have more in common with other 'disciplines'--linguistics, history, sociology, and so on--than they have with each other.  Methodologically speaking, literary criticism is a  non-subject.  If literary theory is a kind of 'metacriticism,' a critical reflection on  criticism, then it follows that it too is a non-subject.

Terry Eagleton's primer on literary theory pretty quickly establishes the impossibility of identifying "literature" as a definable category, and continues its own self-dismantling by establishing that literary theory, too, is meaningless, less a discipline in itself than a wholesale borrowing from other university departments.  Well, for those of us who find the specter of "Theory" to be intimidating, that's something of a relief: if it doesn't exist then we don't have to deal with it.

I'm half-joking.  In one sense, Literary Theory: An Introduction does a really excellent job of demystifying the practice of literary criticism, partly by exploding the idea of it, and partly by just giving a really clear historical account of it.  Eagleton goes through the major schools of literary thought of the 20th Century, one by one, illuminating both their strengths and their weaknesses: phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, psychoanalysis.

For Eagleton, most of these approaches come up short, especially those that in his view are divorced from any examination of the real world and its structures of power.  Yet it's possible to come away from Literary Theory wanting to dive more into one of the methodologies Eagleton dislikes; such is his clarity and even-handedness, though perhaps he would consider that faint praise.  Eagleton wants to guide us to a political (that is, Marxist or feminist) approach to literature, an approach he emphasizes is not a methodology but a reappraisal of what it is we want to get out of literature.  And while he has me convinced that any approach that fails to deal with the connection between the text and real social implications is wanting, I don't think I can endorse his ultimate conclusions that we ought to study literature to become better people.  Especially when he claims that "there is a point in studying literature, and that this point is not itself, in the end, a literary one."  Beyond the fact that somehow this political focus on literature always ends up supporting the same kind of politics, that strikes me as a viewpoint that ultimately devalues literature by considering it not a integral part of the social fabric, but as a means of understanding that might be replaced by an anthropological dig or a demographic study.  When Eagleton begins to argue that the proper place for literary theory to go is championing workers' revolutions in Eastern Europe, I've already hopped off his train of thought.

But at the same time, if you're interested in the current state of argument about how we ought to look at literature, I highly recommend it.  Nothing for me has been as clear or comprehensive on the subject.