Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lolcats of the Middle Ages

"The mouse was not always the loser in these exchanges, however, especially in the imaginative realm of the marginal grotesque.  Sometimes you eat the mouse, the cat may have philosophized, and sometimes the mouse eats you.  The relationship between mice and cats, and the prospect of an organized mouse insurrection against the oppressor, was actively explored as a metaphor for human society."

From the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog.  Below: The mice storm the castle.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

BabyLit and the Human Condition


This isn't targeted at most of our readership/writership at all, but if you have kids and love literature, you'll probably like BabyLit. They use classics like Jane Eyre, Dracula, and Pride and Prejudice to teach counting, colors, and letters. And the classics aren't just window dressing either--the books barely make sense if you're not familiar with the source material--for example, Dracula ends with "10 garlic necklaces".

Anyway, not a paid endorsement, just someone with a baby girl who needs some Austen in her life.

Monday, January 28, 2013

“Right from chapter one I could tell this was going to be rough"...

'...said the 192-page book, citing Dobson’s speculation in the margin that in addition to “adulteress,” the scarlet “A” worn by the novel’s main character, Hester Prynne, might stand for “America.” “At that point I thought, ‘Oh, boy, here we go.’ And then she wrote ‘red = success.’ I mean, good lord. How could that even begin to make sense?”'

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Sometimes, I feel like the only person in the world who has a hard time loving Vonnegut. It’s not that I don’t enjoy any of his work—Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night both got positive reviews here—but there’s a part of me that feels like his grandfatherly tone and clever prose disguise a worldview that is empty, or at least shallow. Sirens of Titan did nothing to abuse me of that notion; although I enjoyed it, it’s by far the worst Vonnegut I’ve read.

The plot jumps everywhere, but in a nutshell, it follows a man named Malachi Constant, who has been marked by the universe to serve an important purpose. He’s informed of his destiny, although not of the purpose itself, by Winston Rumfoord, a man who’s gotten unstuck in time and space, not unlike Billy Pilgrim, and knows how everything shakes out. Malachi, in the course of the book, goes from the richest man in the world, to a nameless grunt on Mars, to an accidental pioneer on Mercury, and finally back to earth. It’s difficult to talk about the issues I had with the book without spoilers, so

SPOILERS.

Upon returning to earth, Malachi finds that he has become the figurehead of a new religion, one which sees the universe as a series of accidents. In a series of incidents orchestrated by Rumfoord, Malachi parallels Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and subsequent betrayal, although he is merely sent to another planet to live, rather than crucified, along with his unwilling wife and weird kid. Once on the planet, Malachi meets a Tralfamadorian named Salo who’s been stranded for years, waiting on a replacement part for his spaceship, a part that just happens to be Malachi’s son’s good luck charm.

In the end, we learn that Malachi’s entire existence—in fact, earth’s whole existence—has been orchestrated by the Tralfamadorians to get Salo his missing piece. This might work as a sort of punchline, although no one would want to spend a whole novel getting there, but Vonnegut doesn’t take that tack. Instead, Malachi’s existence, which has been more or less pointless, is glossed with probably the book’s most famous quote:

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn't want to be used by anybody.”

Keep in mind, Malachi has just learned that his entire life was predetermined for him by an alien race so that he could play the part of a cosmic UPS man, and he accepts it peacefully. I realize that Vonnegut is the patron saint of humanism, and there’s a very strong subtext to the novel that what made Malachi’s life worthwhile was not simply being a pawn of the universe but in the things that he did throughout his life. This, however, is undercut by Malachi’s complete lack of choice in the matter—he was a puppet, he didn’t lead a particularly happy life, and he had no choice in the matter. To his credit, Vonnegut acknowledges this at the very end of the novel, when Malachi dies and is given, by Salo, a hallucination of Heaven—but it's a cold comfort, an ending as empty as Malachi’s life.

The King James Bible After 400 Years

The King James Bible isn’t just a Bible—in English, it’s the Bible. It’s no longer the most read or bestselling, but the quotes everyone knows—“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, “An eye for an eye”, “I am my lover’s, and my lover is mine”—come from the KJV. When someone is lampooning biblical language, they don’t satirize the milquetoast prose of the NIV; it’s the King’s English all the way. And that’s without even touching on all the literature it has, and continues to, inspire. The King James Bible is one of the crowning achievements of the English language, and its enduring power testifies to this.

The King James Bible After 400 Years seeks to engage with its legacy, not so much on religious grounds but on social and literary ones. This isn’t an attack on the historicity of the Bible or an expose of the difficult passages. It’s (mostly) laser-focused on the past, present, and future of the King James Bible itself. All of the essays are interesting and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed “The materiality of English printed Bibles from the Tyndale New Testament to the King James Bible”, on the different bindings and printings of the versions leading up the King James Bible, and “Postcolonial notes on the King James Bible”, which, although it maintained the volume’s academic tone, did cause me to reflect seriously on respecting other cultures when presenting Christianity.

The essays in the literary section were of consistently high quality as well, although James Wood’s “To the Lighthouse and Biblical language” seemed like Wood had written an essay on To the Lighthouse and added in the KJV-referencing content in order to qualify it for this book.

If this sounds dry to you, it probably will be—I was excited by the title and the list of contributors and found it all very engaging. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the King James Bible, religious history or literary criticism. Everyone else might be better off just reading a couple Psalms before bed.

Primate and Prejudice

2013 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  Even entering into its third century of existence, it still has the power to captivate--even captivate this Polish orangutang.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Maphead by Ken Jennings

There must be something innate about maps, about this one specific way of picturing our world and our relation to it, that charms us, calls to us, won't let us look anywhere else in the room if there's a map on the wall.  I want to get to the bottom of what that is.  I see it as a chance to explore one of the last remaining blank spaces" available to us amateur geographers and cartographers: the mystery of what makes our consuming map obsession tick.  I will go there.

I got a couple of sweet maps for Christmas: one of the different neighborhoods of Brooklyn (thanks, girlfriend!) and this one, that depicts all the streets in the continental United States (thanks, Mom!).  Since I have lived in Brooklyn for four and a half years and know everything there is to know about its borders already, the former serves as a home-beautifying piece of artwork.  But the latter is something I've been poring over at length, because it's so full of information.  It's fascinating how the streets drop out after a certain imaginary line down the center of the continent, and where the big white spaces are: mountain ranges, deserts, thinly populated areas like Michigan's upper peninsula.  Who knew that the area above Minneapolis becomes so sparsely populated so quickly, even moreso than the surprisingly street-covered North Dakota?

Like a lot of people, I've always found maps a source of intense fascination.  When I was in college I used to spend twice as long as I needed to in the shower because our shower curtain was a map of the world.  (I distinctly remember thinking that Cabinda was something the map company made up.)

But the people Ken Jennings profiles in Maphead make me look like a dilettante by comparison: Geography bee contestants, geocaching addicts, U.S. Highway System fanatics, etc.  There is, apparently, a huge number of people who obsess over maps in strange and idiosyncratic ways.  One of my favorite sections of the book is all about those who invent their own, fictional maps, like Austin Tappan Wright, a Pennsylvania lawyer whose massive 1000-pg encyclopedia of the fictional nation of Islandia was discovered only after his death.

Of course, what I really read the book for was the map trivia.  (In case you've forgotten, Jennings was the Jeopardy megachamp who won 74 games in a row.)  Here are some of the ones I thought were interesting:

  • The diagonal border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba isn't really diagonal, but actually made up of vertical north-south lines punctuated by horizontal steps.
  • There's a tiny region between Egypt and Sudan not claimed by either country, making it one of the few such places left in the world.
  • Dwight Eisenhower was inspired to create the US Highway System when, in 1919, he took part in a military convoy across the continental U.S. that took sixty-two days and involved 230 accidents and nine lost vehicles.

Taken as a whole, Maphead is a study not only in fringe obsessives but modern map culture, why and how maps continue to matter in the 21st century.  One chapter, "Frontier" (each one is named cutesily after a cartographic term), is a fascinating study of Google's map division.  Did you know that in 2008, German scientists using Google Earth discovered that livestock graze north to south, aligned to the poles of the Earth?  That's crazy.

There's a quiz in the back--I scored a 22/40, "cartographically clever," but pretty far from stellar.  So I guess I'm not really the map buff that I thought I was.  I even missed the question "What African country officially administers the enclave of Cabinda?"  But Jennings has a light, breezy style that really makes the book appealing and accessible--even to map dilettantes like me.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

I don't want men to go away  I don't want men to stop what they're doing.  What I want, instead, are some radical market forces.  I want CHOICE.  I want VARIETY.  I want MORE.  I want WOMEN.  I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.  More exciting.  Reordered.  Reinvented.  We should have the lady-balls to say, "Yeah - I like the look of this world.  And I've been here for a good while, watching.  Now - here's how I'd tweak it.  Because we're all in this together.

As Randy declared his theme for this iteration of 50 Books to be crime, I think mine will be feminism.  I made this decision for several reasons: first, I am a feminist.  Let me repeat, I AM A FEMINIST! (this is my version of shouting it from the rooftops, as Moran would have feminists, especially male feminists, do).  There are a lot of important feminist issues being debated today with major policy implications, so I thought it would be edifying to strengthen my base of knowledge and thought on the topic.  Second, I was so surprised and pleased by the relatively sophisticated feminist themes in Gone Girl that I figured it'd be a good topic to follow up on, and I had read good reviews of How to Be a Woman, so I thought it'd be a good next step.  Moran's part memoir, part manifesto isn't exactly the deepest exploration of feminism, but it hits the high points, so it's a good place to start.  Finally, I decided to explore feminism because I find it fascinating.  Two people can come from identical backgrounds and have very similar experiences but still have very different perspectives because one is a man and one is a woman.  This dynamic is particularly relevant for me because as a male feminist, I have a different perspective and am somewhat an outsider to the feminist movement, while still, I think/hope, being an important and useful part.

In How to Be a Woman, Moran gives voice to a number of concerns and issues that I found interesting, important, disturbing, and that probably make a lot of my female friends say, "no shit.  the fact that this is news to you shows you how strong the patriarchy is."  Her test to determine whether "some sexist bullshit is afoot" is
asking this question: 'Are the men doing it?  Are the men worrying about this as well?  Is this taking up the men's time?  Are the men told not to do this, as it's "letting our side down"? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit?  Is this making Jon Stewart insecure?"
Almost always, the answer is: "No, the boys are not being told they have to be a certain way.  They're just getting on with stuff." 
This sentiment is particularly relevant today, I believe.  Fortunately, for the most part (though unfortunately this isn't 100% true), 21st century misogyny doesn't manifest itself in blatantly sexist ways, like a boss smacking his secretary on the ass and calling her sweetheart, or a woman being told she's too pretty to go to law school.  Instead, and perhaps even more insidiously, 21st century misogyny bares its teeth through implied and internalized expectations put on women that men aren't subjected to.  Moran addresses one example in her chapter on having children.  She tells about how, when she was a music journalist, she was always instructed to ask the female artists about their child rearing plans, but was never instructed to ask the same of the men she interviewed.  There is, according to Moran, a pervasive belief that a childless woman somehow doesn't fulfill her true potential as a woman and has less value than mothers.  Another example of these societal pressures/indications that some sexist bullshit is afoot is how a woman's value is tied to her appearance.  Real world example: last week during the lead up to the inauguration, the vast majority of words said and ink spilled about Michelle Obama dealt with her new bangs and her inauguration dresses.  The woman went to Princeton and Harvard Law School!!  Is that really the most interesting thing about her!?  Can't you find anything else to talk about?  Infuriating.

Another thing that Moran touches on that I find fascinating is how destructive feminism can be to feminism, and how we haven't quite figured it out yet.  She writes,
In the most ironic twist of all, feminism is often used as the stick - actually, a stick is inappropriately phallocentric, maybe a "furry cup" - to stop women behaving as freely, normally, and unselfconsciously as men.  Even ... suggesting that acting as freely, normally, and unsefconsciously as men is destroying other women. ... The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right "types" of women is what's screwed feminism for so long.
This is what the thesis of How to Be a Woman boils down to: that women should be free to be and do what they want.  You don't have to hate men, you don't have to be promiscuous, you don't have to be a mother, you don't have to be childless, you don't have to be anything but yourself and a contributing member of society.  I liked this book because that happens to be my preferred conception of feminism, and it was interesting to see how that goal is thwarted in ways that a man can easily be oblivious to.

Still, How to Be a Woman isn't perfect.  First, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't funnier.  I had read that it was a riot and, though it made me chuckle a couple of times, it was merely well written and interesting (of course, if that's the strongest condemnation someone directed at a book I wrote I'd be pretty content.  Also, it's definitely not that I don't think women are less funny than men...another example of the oppressive fist of the patriarchy!).  Second, there are times when Moran loses track of general truths and lets her own experience unduly cloud her analysis.  For example, she rails against weddings as terribly un-feminist.  As a strident feminist who is about to get married himself, I found all of her condemnations possible, but not universal.  The basis for her opinions becomes a lot clearer when she tells the story of her shitty wedding, however.  Of course, this ties back in to what I find so fascinating about feminism: men aren't the only ones whose opinions are influenced by their perspectives and personal experiences.  It reinforces the fact that we should all try to be compassionate, considerate, and empathetic when we deal with others and try to reach grand conclusions.

Friday, January 25, 2013

No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe

Once before he went to England, Obi heard his father talk with deep feeling about the mystery of the written word to an illiterate kinsman:

"Our women made black patterns on their bodies with the juice of the uli tree.  It was beautiful, but it soon faded.  If it lasted two market weeks it lasted a long time.  But sometimes our elders spoke about uli that never faded, although no one had ever seen it.  We see it today in the writing of the white man.  If you go to the native court and look at the books which clerks wrote twenty years ago or more, they are still as they wrote them.  They do not say one thing today and another tomorrow, or one thing this year and another next year.  Okoye in the book today cannot become Okonkwo tomorrow.  In the Bible Pilate said: 'What is written is written.'  It is uli that never fades.

The passage above, from Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease, struck me immediately as a kind of self-justification.  Achebe's decision to write in English has opened him up to criticism from other African authors, like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, but writing a novel--and perhaps, this passage suggests, even writing in general--is a practice imported from European colonizers, no matter what language the novel is written in.  To write an African novel in English is to navigate the competing demands of two conflicting cultures, and to admit that banishing one in favor of the other is impossible.

Like Things Fall Apart, No Longer At Ease is a story of an African who tries and fails to navigate those demands.  In the former it was Okonkwo, the Ibo villager whose fierce pride cannot overcome the advent of white missionaries; here it is Okonkwo's grandson, Obi Okonkwo, who returns from being educated in England to take a civil service position in his native Nigeria.  The demands on Obi are largely financial: he has been educated at the expense of his tribe, who expect him to pay back the money they have spent on him, but also to show the generosity of a privileged son.  His peers expect him to maintain a certain lifestyle as well, as if this were an Edith Wharton novel.  Because the novel opens as Obi is on trial for accepting a bribe, we know how this particular aspect of the tragedy plays out.

But the Western and traditional worlds pull at Obi in other ways: He has fallen in love with an Ibo girl named Clara, whom he cannot marry because she is an osu, a member of the Ibo's "untouchable" cast.  He rails indignantly against this tradition, but even his father Isaac--Things Fall Apart's Nwoye, who rebels against Okonkwo by converting to Christianity--insists that it is a tradition that cannot be dismissed.  The syncretism of Christianity and traditional Ibo religion is one of the book's more interesting aspects:

Everybody stood up and he said a short prayer.  Then he presented three kola nuts to the meeting.  The oldest man present broke one of them, saying another kind of prayer while he did it.  "He that brings kola nuts brings life," he said.  "We do not seek to hurt any man, but if any man seeks to hurt us may he break his neck."  The congregation answered Amen.  "We are strangers in this land.  If good comes to it may we have our share."  Amen.  "But if bad comes let it go to the owners of the land who know what gods should be appeased."  Amen.


This kola nut ritual appears unchanged from Things Fall Apart, except it is now punctuated by "Amen."  The word sits uncomfortably amid the traditional prayer, and there is a tragic uncertainty in that last line, which suggests that those caught between multiple cultures and religions are less able to make sense of misfortunes when they occur.  Like the title, pulled from an Eliot poem (as Things Fall Apart is from Yeats), these are people "no longer at ease" in their own country.

I read No Longer At Ease because I wanted to read something else about sub-Saharan Africa after Henderson the Rain King, which as I wrote in my review, is really terrific but not intended to be a realistic picture of Africa.  Achebe's warts-and-all approach is just the opposite, but ultimately I thought the book was too slight to be effective.  The character of Clara in particular is so underwritten that Obi's devotion to her never lands, which complicates our perspective on the tragedy as a whole.  Do you guys have any "Africa" books you've enjoyed?

Other perspectives:

The Brothers Judd
Friends of African Village Libraries
Geosi Reads


Occupy by Noam Chomsky

What is your one demand?
[Occupy Protester:] How likely is it that the ruling class in American could develop an openly fascist system here?

[Chomsky:] I think it's very unlikely, frankly.

Blah, blah, blah, a bunch of protesters occupied Wall Street.  The Occupied Media Pamphlet Series has published a number of pamphlets, including this one by Noam Chomsky.  Being a Chomsky fan, I was looking forward to a work addressing an explaining the occupy movement.  I was grossly disappointed.

And not because of Chomsky.  He didn't write this book. What he did, was give a number of speeches and Q&As during various Occupy events; he then, apparently, agreed to have these talks published in the form of this pamphlet.  Undoubtedly, the ideological youth of the movement were eager to have a distinguished scholar and activist's name attached.

The problem with this pamphlet is that Chomsky intentionally avoids taking any responsibility for the Occupy movement.  He supports the movement, both ideologically and practically, but he expressly disavows the role of intellectual leader of the movement.  When asked if he would "ever...allow [his] voice to relay the democratically chosen will of our nation" (whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean), he responds, "My voice wouldn't help you.  And besides, you don't want leaders; you want to do it yourselves."  He'll show Occupy the door, but they have to go through it themselves.

His response reflects a fundamental problem with the Occupy movement: it was a movement that was waiting for guidance and direction.  It was not a movement that guided; it was not a movement that had direction.  As an example, a number of times the questioners asked Chomsky about ending corporate personhood; Chomsky responds by saying, yes, that's a possibility, but let's think about this before we do anything, and let's think about what it would require to do something about it.

When the Occupy movement was happening, I was both fascinated and irritated.  I was fascinated because I liked the idea of grass-roots organization fighting the power.  I was irritated because it seemed like a bunch of people complaining about things without presenting any substantive recommendations for change.  Yes, income disparity is a problem; yes, the foreclosure crisis adversely affected regular people than it did the banks, who caused the crisis.  What are you going to do about it?  I expected this book to answer these questions or fill the gaps in whatever is behind the Occupy movement.  It did not.

And, I want to emphasize that the failure of the book is not Chomsky's fault.  The publishers of this pamphlet want it to be something it's not.  They want to present Chomsky as the intellectual architect of the movement.  He is not.  He was trying to tell Occupy to be its own intellectual architect.  I'm not sure Occupy got it.

Dear Occupy,

Explain to me what the hell you want.

Very truly yours,

-Randy

Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way..."

"...unless the family consists of a morally depraved patriarch and three highly differentiated siblings who, after years out of contact with each other, convene at the family home for a slowly escalating mess made inevitable by their respective and collective dysfunctions, in which case that family is unhappy in the same way as the Karamazovs."

Arrested Development = The Brothers Karamazov, via blog-friend Helen's new blog at First Things.  What say you, Brent?

UPDATE: Obviously, Helen's cheating a little here by nipping the first line of Anna Karenina.  (Is she trying to make Tolstoy even angrier?)  More appropriately, this post would begin:

[Michael Bluth] was the [second] son of [George Bluth], a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his [arrest on multiple accounts of 'light treason], which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this "landowner"- for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate- was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless. But he was one of those senseless persons who are very well capable of looking after their worldly affairs, and, apparently, after nothing else.


Edits mine.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

“She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her poor old father's slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp dart to faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness."

A sentence from Amanda McKittrick Ros' novel Delina Delaney as quoted by Mark O'Connell in his book Epic Fail, excerpted at Slate.  Can you tell what it means without reading the story first?

According to O'Connell, Ros was a favorite among literary types:

There were Amanda McKittric [sic] Ros societies at Oxford and Cambridge. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings were largely responsible for this enthusiasm: the informal Oxford literary group held sporadic Ros reading competitions, in which the winner was the member who could read from one of her novels for the longest without breaking into laughter. Delina Delaney dinners became a fad on the London social scene, and there was an Amanda Game, made popular by the members of the London Amanda Ros Club, in which one diner would put a question to another, who then had to answer it in the style and spirit of Ros’ writing. Lines from her books were commonly quoted in the hallways of the House of Commons. She was a sort of Bizarro World Oscar Wilde: an Irish author who became a London cause célèbre for the complete witlessness of her writing. Her fame even reached the shores of the New World, with no less a figure than Mark Twain crowning her “Queen & Empress of the Hogwash Guild.”


Notwithstanding the distance of history, what makes this kind of poking fun morally acceptable when poking fun at a traditionally incompetent novelist might be seen as bullying or in bad taste?  Is it that Ros, like Dan Brown, profited handsomely from her poor prose?  Or the fact that she probably wouldn't have profited at all without the fandom of those poking fun at her?  Or is it her irascibility and delusions of grandeur, which would have made her seem like a deserving target?

On the other hand, the sentence above hardly displays a lack of intelligence or control--rather, the fascinating thing about it is that, with its highly structured, ornate circuitousness, it seems like the product of someone who knows exactly what they're doing but chooses to do something so bizarre it's outside of our realm of appreciation.  Once you look at it that way, doesn't it open up the possibility that Ros wrote terrible prose on purpose?  Maybe we ought to be thinking about Delina Delaney as an epic success.

Final thought: If Amanda McKittrick Ros were writing and receiving attention in the same way today, would the New York Times use it as an illustration of the perfidy of irony?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

     "Well, I think that Michael was a nice guy and I don't understand why he did it.  As much as I feel sad, I think that not knowing is what really bothers me."
      ...
      The counselor said that he suspected that Michael had 'problems at home' and didn't feel like he had anyone to talk to.  That's maybe why he felt all alone and killed himself.
     Then, I started screaming at the guidance counselor that Michael could have talked to me.  And I started crying even harder.  He tried to calm me down by saying that he meant an adult like a teacher or a guidance counselor.  But it didn't work and eventually my brother came by the middle school in his Camaro to pick me up.

Because I have a crush on a girl who loves this book Because the movie looked good, I decided to read this book before heading to the theater.  I loved this book.  Why?  Answering that question is more difficult:

Cynical Randy:  This is a trite coming-of-age high school novel, which is redundant because all coming-of-age novels are trite.  Why does anyone bother reading this shit?
Sentimental Randy:  Because it conveys a sense of the alienation coupled with the desire to belong that people who went to high school can relate to.
Cynical Randy:  You are such a little bitch.
Sentimental Randy:  And, Perks is noteworthy because the protagonist, Charlie, is an icon of sensitivity.  He's sensitive to everything and everyone around him.
Cynical Randy:  Is anyone still listening to this?  This is a trashy high school novel published by MTV.  It's about as literary as N'Sync.  This is Catcher in the Rye Lite, 0 trans fat, 0 calories.
Sentimental Randy:  But, it's not.  It comes from a different place than Catcher; Holden is outwardly critical of everyone around him.  Everyone's a phony, except him.  Charlie's the opposite: he accepts everyone around him.
Cynical Randy:  You're making stuff up.  I'm calling shenanigans.
Sentimental Randy:  Maybe I am.  Probably.  Maybe I just like this novel because I like it, and that's enough.  In fact, that's definitely enough.

Whatevs.

Writing this review made me feel infinite.

Christopher's Review

Christine's Review

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

Africa reached my feelings right away even in the air, from which it looked like the ancient bed of mankind.  And at a height of three miles, sitting above the clouds, I felt like an airborne seed.  From the cracks in the earth the rivers pinched back at the sun.  They shone out like smelters' puddles, and then they took a crust and were covered over.  As for the vegetable kingdom, it hardly existed from the air; it looked to me no more than an inch in height.  And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.

What do you do when it's twenty degrees in New York City?  Well, you read books about Africa.  Literary Africa offers a kind of earthbound escape, not so different from the escapism of science fiction or fantasy, though it also offers the risk of reducing a continent of real people and cultures to a playground for white men and their symbols.  (This is what Chinua Achebe rightly blamed Joseph Conrad for.)  Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow's novel about a Connecticut millionaire who goes to find himself in rural Africa, runs that risk but succeeds, I think, in part because its fantastical Africa is more nuanced than Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and in part because it's such a terrific novel.

Henderson the Rain King manages to be somehow more personal and universal than the culture-clash narrative you might expect.  The titular Henderson (first name: Eurgene) is a vibrant, wonderfully realized character, brash but needy, overflowing with good intention but reaping mostly misery.  His problems are uniquely his own but essentially human.  A voice nags inside him: I want, I want, I want--but never identifies what it wants, much less how to get it.  It's this voice that drives him to Africa, where he hires a guide to take him "off the beaten path."

Henderson visits two neighboring cultures: The Arnewi and the Wariri.  The Arnewi Queen Willatale identifies his need as grun-tu-molani: "Man wants to live."  In gratitude and love he vows to rid the village of a scourge of frogs that have invaded the sacred, and thus untouchable, water supply:

"Grun-tu-molani," the old queen said.

"What's that?  What does she say?"

"Say, you want to live.  Grun-tu-molani.  Man want to live."

"Yes, yes, yes!  Molani.  Me molani.  She sees that?  God will reward her, tell her, for saying it to me.  I'll reward her myself.  I'll annihilate and blast those frogs clear out of that cistern, sky-high, they'll wish they had never come down from the mountains to bother you.  Not only I molani for myself, but for everybody.  I could not bear how sad things have become in the world and so I set out because of this molani.  Grun-tu-molani, old lady--old queen.  Grun-tu-molani, everybody!"

But Henderson's plan backfires--he blows up the cistern with the frogs--and leaves in disgrace, eventually coming to the village of the Wariri, where the bulk of the novel takes place.  He befriends the king there, Dahfu, who has been educated in Western medicine yet remains ensconced in a tribal system that refuses to grant him total legitimacy until he captures a specific lion believed to house the soul of his father, the previous king.  Henderson, moved to participate in a village ceremony by hoisting an immense statue of the culture's rain goddess, becomes the "Rain King," a title with its own set of ritual responsibilities.

Dahfu has committed himself to a theory of human physiology and behavior that says that human beings can absorb traits from animals and vice versa, and for this reason he keeps a lion (though not his father, who remains at large) in his private room.  By exposing Henderson to this lion, he hopes to unlock his human potential, and although Bellow seems at times to be surprisingly in sympathy with Dahfu's ideas, it seems to me that Henderson blooms when forced to confront the fear of death the lion inspires in him:

My nether half turned very cold.  My knees felt like two rocks in a cold Alpine torrent.  My mustached stabbed and stung into my lips, which made me realize that I was frowning and grimacing with terror, and I knew that my eyes must be filling with fatal blackness.  As before, he took my hand as we entered and I came to the den saying inwardly, "Help me, God!  Oh, help!"  The odor was blinding, for here, near the door where the air was trapped, it stank radiantly.  From this darkness came the face of the lioness, wrinkling, with her whiskers like the thinnest spindles scratched with a diamond on the surface of a glass.


Bellow's prose is really something, though it seems more mature and reserved, less ornate than in Augie March, which was published just five years before.  Henderson, too, is something like an older Augie, in his unending quest to live more fully.  Even Bellow's sense of plot seems more developed, in that it replaces the sprawling, aimless narrative of Augie March with a tight, concise story that resists the urge to travel all over Africa, focusing instead on one story, one friend, one friendship.  Henderson the Rain King avoids the Heart of Darkness trap because it refuses to be about Africa, or about America (though Henderson, the millionaire pig farmer, is as essentially American as the scrappy Augie) but about one man's--and thus every man's--fear of death and need to live, his grun-tu-molani.

Bonus material: This spoilery comic. 

Other reviews:

Books That Matter (really comprehensive)
Kristin's Book Blog
Connecticut Museum Quest (really negative)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

And yet the more I thought of the lady's face and of her manner the more I felt that something was being held back from me.  Why should she turn so pale?  Why should she fight against every admission until it was forced from her?  Why should she have been so reticent at the time of this tragedy?  Surely the explanation of all this could not be as innocent as she would have me believe.

Randy recently recapped The Hound on this esteemed blog, so I mostly defer to his recap.  The aspect of this fun, lively novel that I wanted to touch on was the privacy aspect.  The quoted passage is a perfect example of the pervasive view that people only need privacy protection if they have something to hide.  This mistaken belief is used to erode civil liberties time and again, and it doesn't help that most of the time it shows up in pop culture it's true: the person does, in fact, have something to hide.  Like Randy pointed out in his recap, The Hound of the Baskervilles very much shows the utopian version of law enforcement.  Holmes, as far as I can tell, isn't technically a member of the police force and we don't know exactly what he did while he was snooping around Devonshire, but his intrusion into Stapleton, Lyons, etc's private affairs is much harder to object to because they were, in fact, guilty/complicit.  I could go on and on, but I'll leave it at that.  But the story was fun and Holmes is always entertaining.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The King of Torts by John Grisham


There was his face, in one of those hideous sketches made famous by The Journal, and just above it was the headline
THE KING OF TORTS, FROM $40,000 TO $100,000,000 IN SIX MONTHS. Under it was a subtitle: "You gotta love
the law!"

I was worried about reading this Grisham book and making it only my second blog post here.   I am a lawyer, but I have not read anything else by Grisham...I promise.  I feared I would just LOVE Grisham and  be like that old lady from North Dakota who wrote an absolutely glowing review of Olive Garden, which was roundly mocked by the city-types (see http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/231419/).  Unfortunately for me (and Grisham, I guess), I did not come away as impressed as Ms. Hagerty was about Olive Garden.  Although, the book did remind me of Olive Garden...

First, like Olive Garden, Grisham is predictable.  The plot is simple.  Clay Carter is a bored and slightly overqualified public defender who falls ass-backwards into a lucrative mass tort against a pharmaceutical company.  After this initial success, Clay thinks he's invincible - and a relative orgy of financial excess and free-wheeling settlements follow. Then, of course, there's a fall from grace - a fall that Grisham couldn't have made any clearer:

Throughout the long night, Clay drowned in self-pity—his badly bruised ego; the utter humiliation among peers,
friends, and employees; the delight of his enemies; the dread of tomorrow and the public flogging he would take in
the press, with no one to defend him.

Finally, Clay, and the reader, learn a lasting lesson from this experience: money isn't everything.  Bet its the first time you've heard that one!  

Second, like the food at Olive Garden, everything in this book is plain and one dimensional.  The supporting characters are all stereotypes: there's the street-wise black guy, the whoring gold-digging blonde, the ambitious young associate and the lazy mooching roommate.  The most absurd characters, by far, were the group of plaintiff lawyers.  They were all slick, fast-talking, uncaring, money-hungry, morally deficient, and universally hated by all, including their own clients.  Consider this quote from a dissatisfied client (a.k.a. any client, ever), which perfectly encapsulates the general attitude towards plaintiff lawyers: 

"You're a bunch of crooks, you know that? I don't know who's worse—the company that made the drug or my own
lawyers who're screwing me out of a fair settlement."
"Sorry you feel that way."
"You're not sorry about a damned thing. Paper says you're getting a hundred million bucks. Thieves!"
 
Its painfully obvious that Grisham thinks plaintiff lawyer's sole purpose in this world is to put good companies out of business for honest mistakes.  In one case, Clay brings a class-action against a brick manufacturer who made a deficient batch of mortar, and his aggressive negotiations force the company to declare bankruptcy. Grisham portrays the brick company as the benevolent corporation who made an honest mistake and the plaintiff lawyer as the evil outsider looking for profit (as he did in every case described in the book).  He spends an entire chapter talking about how Clay's actions led to the devastation of a small town.  This view is overly simplistic and wrong; and I spend most of my day fighting plaintiff lawyers.  The purpose of this book, however, is not to present all sides of an argument.

Despite the predictable plot and simplistic characters, King of Torts, like Olive Garden, gets the job done.  Its just fun to read about large settlements, private jets, yachts and tropical island vacations.  With all my complaints about Grisham, the dude can write.  He dumbs down big ideas, but does do a good job concisely explaining legal details without slowing his fast-pace plot.  Despite its predictability, I never wanted to put the book down.   So if you're looking for the reading equivalent of an Olive Garden meal, read this book and don't complain.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

He left me, and I stayed there and the rail, looking at the bitter Black Sea and its steep forested shores by which the Argonauts had sailed and where presently Trebizond would be seen, that corner of a lost empire, defeated and gone under so long ago that now she scarcely new or remembered lost Byzantium, having grown unworthy of it, blind and deaf and not caring any more, not even believing, and perhaps that was the ultimate hell.  Presently I should come to it; already I was on the way.  It would be a refuge, that agnosticism into which I was slipping down.

Mid-century Turkey, as described in The Towers of Trebizond, hardly qualifies as a foreign country for Westerners: you can't throw a stone without hitting a well-heeled Brit writing his "Turkey book," or a BBC crew filming a television program, or even Billy Graham on a missionary tour.  The protagonist Laurie travels to Turkey with her Aunt Dot, who has two goals: to write her own Turkey book and to aid Muslim women by converting them to Anglicism, though she rarely makes headway in either.  With them is the Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, an "ancient bigot" whose name perfectly captures the kind of religious boorishness he exemplifies.  Also, a camel.

Aunt Dot's earnestness and Father Chantry-Pigg's obliviousness might otherwise make for a darkly tragic novel of culture clash, but Macaulay's light touch ensures that the setup remains comic and harmless:

But first it was to be the eastern end of the Black Sea, and we were to sail in a ship that took camels and plan our campaign from Istanbul.

"Constantinople," said Father Chantry-Pigg, who did not accept the Turkish conquest.

"Byzantium," said I, not accepting the Roman one.

Aunt Dot, who accepted facts, said, "How many of our friends are in Turkey just now?"

"A lot,"  I said.  "They are all writing their Turkey books..."

It also contains one of my new favorite sentences:

Then he stopped laughing, and said in the voice one uses when a friend has been killed by a shark, "You heard about poor Charles?"


Yet The Towers of Trebizond is heavily invested in questions of personal faith and social religion.  Laurie, coming from a stolidly Anglican family, is carrying on an adulterous relationship with a married man which has led her away from the Church:

I was agnostic through school and university, then, at twenty-three, took up with the Church again; but the Church met its Waterloo a few years later when I took up with adultery; (curious how we always seem to see Waterloo from the French angle and count it as a defeat) and this adultery lasted on and on...


Turkey seems like an awfully odd place to set a story about one woman's struggle with her specifically English religion, but it provides an isolation for Laurie that is crucial to her self-reflection.  Moreover, Macaulay draws an explicit link between Laurie's faith and the Orthodox Christianity that has disappeared from Turkey, only to be found in the form of ruins.  I particularly like this exchange, in which she talks with a Turkish convert to Anglicism who is thinking of converting back to Islam for her lover:

She sighed as she ate her yoghourt.  I thought how sad it was, all this progress and patriotism and marching on and conquering the realms of culture, yet love rising up to spoil all and hold one back, and what was the Christian Church and what was Islam against this that submerged the human race and always had?  It had submerged Anthony and Cleopatra, and Abelard and Heloise, and Lancelot and Guinevere, and Paolo and Francesca, and Romeo and Juliet, and Charles Parnell and Faust, and Oscar Wilde and me, and Halide and her Moslem man, and countless millions more.  It kept me outside the Church, and might drive Halide out of it, it was the greatest force, and drove like a hurricane, shattering everything in its way, no one had a chance against it, the only thing was to go with it, because it always won.


I love the control Macaulay exhibits in this passage, carrying us along rapidly as if on the hurricane of love, yet her prose is brilliantly clear.  And I appreciate this attitude, because I think we are bombarded constantly with the idea that love between two people is stronger and more valuable than any belief or other facet of human experience.  It can be a destructive force, too; it binds us to another flawed person, after all.  No wonder that it blindsides us so frequently with agony.  And yet it is hard to escape from under, as Laurie knows.  Macaulay has a way of making everything seem ironic or insincere, but I think that these words are genuine.

Eventually, Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg abscond into Russia to convert the Soviets and Laurie has to travel around Turkey on her own.  The farcical elements of the book recede without them, though I did laugh at the bit in which Laurie, having mistook the phrase in her Turkish phrasebook for "I don't speak Turkish," accidentally asks everyone she meets to "telephone Mr. Yorum," until a real Mr. Yorum appears at a hotel and they share a very confused dinner.

The end of the book caught me completely by surprise.  It seems, like I've said, like a harmless tale, one in which even getting killed by a shark is played for a joke and not for pathos.  Yet the ending is incongruous and deeply sad, in a way that is somehow more sad because the book is exceedingly not.  It was, for me, one of "the times when you wake suddenly up, and the fog breaks, and right and wrong loom through it, sharp and clear like peaks of rock, and you are on the wrong peak and know that, unless you can manage to leave it now, you may be marooned there for life and ever after."

Emily Dickinson's Scraps

Rebecca Onion at Slate's The Vault passes along this collection of Emily Dickinson's papers digitized and hosted at Amherst College.  Taken together they give the impression of a mind that is ceaselessly composing, but not always organized; many of these are scraps of poems written of scraps of paper, even old envelopes like this draft of "A great Hope fell":



It's fascinating to see Dickinson in the act of composition here: She gives two options for the last word of the second line, reading either "You heard no noise," or "You heard no crash."  The former is the one I've seen in print, though I don't know to what extent Dickinson composed final drafts and what she did with them.  Similarly, the third line may read either "The Ruin" or "the damage was within," or a third word I'm not sure I can read--it looks like "horse," but that doesn't make much sense.

You can access the whole collection here, though I will tell you nothing in it approaches the sheer simple poetry of this poem, "Kate's Doughnuts":


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I'm the bitch who makes you better, Nick....I'm the bitch who makes you a man.

Gone Girl is a thriller, and as a result I can't really talk about it without spoiling it.  It's good, though, and worth the read.  I can't remember a book that evoked such strong impressions in me and then completely turned them on their head.  I'm still trying to figure some things out, but I will say this: I think it's probably hard to write a thriller/mystery that straddles the line between predictable and absurd, but this book achieved that goal in a very satisfying way (even despite the review I read prior to reading the book that clued me into the twist).

For the first half of the book, I was distracted and kind of pissed off by the constant, uninspired misogyny.  All of the women were shrews or nags, constantly slaves to the whim of their feminine emotions.  The book is half told through Nick, the husband whose wife, Amy, goes missing, so I wanted to chalk it up to him being a misogynist and that trait being just one of the ways Flynn tries to make him somewhat of an antihero (or just a miserable jackass).  But the hits keep coming from other characters, too.  Nick's sister and father spit out unflattering opinions of women in general, and the perspective comes through in the chapters from Amy's POV, told through her diary entries from the day she meets Nick through her disappearance.  The sentiment is so internalized as she berates herself repeatedly for being upset when Nick is an inconsiderate jackass.

Fortunately, Flynn flips this message on its head.  Earlier in the book, Nick talks about the effect of his parents' divorce on his mother.  His father was emotionally abusive, and after his mother escaped from his influence she blossomed and became the happy, caring, outgoing person she was before she married him.  At this point, I noted that I hoped that the incessant misogyny was a vehicle for the theme that women aren't these terrible creatures, but that men's cruelty toward them shape them into (or make them seem to be) these insufferable bitches.  Nick even confirms this at one point, thinking, "I turned her into the brittle, prickly thing she became.  I had pretended to be one kind of man and revealed myself to be quite another.  Worse, I convinced myself our tragedy was entirely her making.  I spent years working myself into the very thing I swore she was: a righteous ball of hate."   Even this theory is a little suspect because it denies women's agency and ability to live their lives uncontrolled by men, but I thought it was better than the irredeemable misogyny I thought Flynn was espousing.

About halfway through, however, the chapters from Amy's point of view switch from her diary to her experiences after her (spoiler alert) staged disappearance and we see what a brilliant sociopath she really is.  She immediately launches into a diatribe against exactly the anti-feminist situations that had so irritated me in the first half of the book.  She explains that for the first half of her relationship with Nick she was pretending to be the "Cool Girl," the one who pretends to like football and pretends not to mind when her boyfriend/husband ignores her and generally acts like a doormat.  "They're not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they're pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be," she says.  Most of her bile is directed at these women themselves, but that makes sense coming from the character, who, it turns out, has a massive superiority complex.  I think we can safely consider the criticism to be directed at society as a whole, which convinces women that if they are to ever find a husband they have to become something they are not and simply cater to his desires.  I must say, it was a relief to see the book take this direction, not to mention thrilling.  I had suspected that Amy might not be dead, but I had taken her diary character (which it turns out was almost entirely made up in order to frame Nick) at face value, and it was exciting to be completely surprised.

The remainder of the book continues to subvert this message, with Nick becoming the pawn to be manipulated to meet Amy's wants and needs.  I thoroughly enjoyed Gone Girl and would definitely recommend it, especially if you're looking for something fun and not too deep.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Glittering Images by Camille Paglia

History shows that, for both individuals and nations, political power is transient.  America's true legacy is its ideal of liberty, which has inspired insurgencies around the world.  Politicians and partisans of both the Right and the Left must recognize that art too is a voice of liberty, requiring nurture without intrusion.  Art unites the spiritual and material realms.  In an age of alluring, magical machines, a society that forgets art risks losing its soul.

Camille Paglia's art book Glittering Images is remarkably unremarkable.  I don't mean that as a judgement on the book's quality, but a question about its purpose.  What, exactly, is this book meant to do and for whom?  It is easy enough to tell from flipping through its pages that there is no real guiding theme to the double-handful of artworks Paglia chooses to discuss, and if you were to assume that the only real criterion for inclusion is that Paglia really likes each one, you'd be about half right.  Paglia likes to position herself as an outsider to the critical establishment, but it's a special class of people who can publish things merely because they like them.

What Paglia wants to do is reintroduce art to a culture that is drifting away from it, and thus drifting away from itself.  Art, Paglia says, has been caught in a "political cross-fire" between Leftists who rush to defend mediocre shock art like Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," which ignited a firestorm of in the 1990's, and Rightists who believe that "the art world is a sterile dead zone of elitist snobs and that artists are pretentious parasites and con men."  But Glittering Images is too slim to present itself as a primer for the art novice, who probably wouldn't look to someone like Paglia for such an artifact in the first place.  Yet, insofar as it manages to be accessible and readable yet still serious and thoughtful about art, it marks a step in the right direction.

Each work is representative of a period or style Paglia deems significant, and the format "is based on Catholic breviaries of devotional images, like Mass cards of the saints."  In this sense form follows function, since one of Paglia's central (and strongest) points is that a diminishing religious tradition is one of the culprits of art's endangerment.  Some of the works are quite well known, but most are not, and in one case, Paglia reproduces a little known portrait by African-American artist John Wesley Hardrick:



Always attuned to the rich palette of black skin, Hardrick appreciatively streaks Xenia's shapely, bare arms and shoulders with tawny, caramel tints--fashionable "high yellow."  The aura around her head, achieved with confident, choppy strokes, captures her aspirations and creative hunches, a scintillating burst of gingery gold.  This is a woman who knows the world and feels at home in it.


Glittering Images would be a worthwhile effort if all it did was bring that little known but wonderful painting a larger audience.  (A Google search for it before the book's publication probably would have been useless!)  Similarly, I find Paglia's commentary most fascinating when it champions the forgotten, such as the maligned Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka or Eleanor Antin's "100 Boots":



As a work of Conceptual art, 100 Boots consisted of temporary on-site sculptural installations documented by photographs (taken by Philip Steinmetz), which were sent uninvited to a distant, dispersed audience.  The formal, squadron-like patterns assumed by the boots parody the frigid geometries then being made my Minimalist sculptors... Antin strategically varied the look of the cards so that "seductively beautiful" images were not he rule.  Most of them have the bleak desolation reminiscent of existential European art films.


The random mailing of the photographs is what elevates "100 Boots" beyond a mere gimmick.  What must those who received these pictures in the mail have thought?  It must have been as if you had received a postcard from old friends, but old friends you can't remember and don't recognize; in fact, you don't recognize them because they don't seem to have any appearance at all.  And when that incorporeality is juxtaposed with their martial dress and arrangement, isn't there something menacing about it, now that you think about it?

I think Paglia is less successful when she treads common ground.  Her pieces on David's "Death of Marat" and Mondrian's "Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow" made me look at those works in new ways, but I got very little out of her explications of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Jackson Pollock.  Too much of the book is taken up by rote history and social context, but every now and then thoughts burst through that expose the bloodlessness of most academic criticism:


...Mondrian's floating, weightless images vibrate with an internal drama.  Do his black lines define and limit his colors?  Or is color, like a divine spark, an autonomous form pushing its way toward life?


Paglia ends with a chapter on the man she believes to be the greatest living artist: George Lucas.  Her evidence for this is, even stranger, the volcano planet fight scene from The Lord of the Sith.  I knew she believed this before I picked up the book; it's half the reason that I wanted to read it.  But Paglia's connective, impassioned way of thinking and writing does not lend itself to persuasion and I found myself disappointed in the argument it presents.  Although, any book that compares the volcano planet of Mustafar to "J. M. W. Turner's eyewitness painting of the catastrophic burning of the British Houses of Parliament in 1834" earns points for sheer chutzpah.

Is this part of Paglia's attempt to convince us that great artists are still among us?  Or does the idea of George Lucas as the world's greatest living artist meant to bolster the argument that art is in dire straits?

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

A spectral hound which leaves material footmarks and fills the air with its howling is surely not to be thought of...if I have one quality upon earth it is common sense and nothing will persuade me to believe in such a thing.  To do so would be to descend to the level of these poor peasants, who are not content with a mere fiend dog but must needs describe him with hell-fire shooting from his mouth and eyes.

This is a fun novel.  First, Sherlock treats Watson like a little kid; this amuses me to no end.  Second, unraveling the hound's mystery makes this an easy page turner.

But, what I love about the novel is the distinction Watson draws above: the distinction between reason and superstition.  Watson, as an educated, enlightened man is above buying into the foolish superstitions.  In a reversal of the more orthodox faith crisis, Watson is regularly confronted with a need to question the efficacy of reason.  As the novel progresses, the reader (and Watson) are given more and more evidence that the Hellish hound exists.

This evidence is all but confirmed when Sherlock and Watson see the hound itself, glowing and fiery in the night.  Of course, reason carries the day, and Sherlock's brilliant mind explains to everyone else how the hound came to be.  A rational, scientific explanation, free of any supernatural non-sense.

Lawyer sidenote:  I also enjoyed this novel because we see the utopian ideal promised by reason properly applied: no crime is unsolvable, if the right mind applies itself.  This utopian ideal is represented in every single crime drama currently on television.  The reality of criminal investigations bemoans this ideal.  I mention this because one of my (anticipated) themes for this year is crime.  Yup.

One down.  Forty-nine to go.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"The only building in sight was a small block of yellow brick sitting on the edge of the waste land, a sort of compact Main Street ministering to it, and contiguous to absolutely nothing."

Ann Althouse has started a project where she's blogging one sentence a day from The Great Gatsby, which she contends is uniquely made up of all perfect sentences, and breaking it down.  Althouse is primarily a political blogger, but her allusive, connective way of thinking is perfect for this kind of project, and I've really been enjoying the results.

Is The Great Gatsby made up of perfect sentences?  I don't know; I haven't read it in years, though I'm planning on reading through it in the spring sometime before the Baz Luhrmann film comes out.  I think the sentence above, which Althouse blogged about yesterday, is an interesting test subject because it contains what I perceive as a flaw:

Let's examine the post-waste land segment. Our yellow block is on the edge of a waste land. If it's an edge, could there not be interesting things somewhere else? No. We're told that it's contiguous to absolutely nothing. I'm having a bit of a hard time understanding how the building can be on an edge when everything around it is nothing — absolutely nothing — especially since there's Main Street in the picture too. A sort of compact Main Street ministering to it.

That's a mystery, so I take it we need to get the message: There is a mystery here.


Althouse is being generous because she's starting from the assumption that every sentence in the book is perfect, so if something doesn't make sense, it must be all part of a design.  But that's an awfully high standard to set for anyone, even F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I think it's more likely that the phrase "sitting on the edge of the waste land" is merely slightly sloppy.  If the building is on the edge of the waste land, it must also be on the edge of whatever is beyond the waste land, but it isn't: it's right in the middle of it.  Not the edge, but the center.  Now, "the edge of the waste land" is more evocative than "the middle of the waste land," and maybe Fitzgerald decided that it was the better choice despite its inconsistency.

Althouse reads the reference to the waste land as a reference to Eliot's poem "The Waste Land," which was published the same year that Fitzgerald began writing the novel.  I'll buy that.  I hear another allusion in the description of the building as a "small block of yellow brick"--The Wizard of Oz.  Wait, you say, The Wizard of Oz came out in 1939, and you're right, but L. Frank Baum's novel came out in 1900, when Fitzgerald was four.  It's certainly possible that he read the book as a kid.  In that case, Althouse is only slightly off when she reads the block as a "child's toy."  Perhaps the building represents a ruined or abortive fantasy, a childlike wonder that fails to spread to the bleakness of its real world surroundings.  It's made of the same stuff as the yellow brick road, but it leads nowhere; it is "contiguous to nothing."  Therefore its yellow "jazziness" and "hopefulness," which Althouse identifies, represents a promise as of yet unfulfilled.

Note: This post is part of a resolution I made to myself to blog more non-review content, as long as that content is about books.  I'd also like to welcome our new reviewer Kunal, and welcome back Randy and Billy, our prodigal sons!

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

After reading this blog for many years, I have finally decided to post now that I am finally reading non-legal books.  Diving in to real reading after this many years inevitably means I am reading books everybody else read 5 years ago.  Enter Devil in the White City, which, as far as I can tell, has already been blogged about twice here (and probably read by everyone else).  Re-read Jim and Billy's posts for a detailed analysis of the plot, but for my purposes, there are three pillars of plot in this book: 1) the rise of industrial Chicago; 2) the 1893 World's Fair; and 3) MURDER.

I am new to the Fifty Books Project and cheated just a bit.  I mostly read this book at the end of last year (I am a slow reader, there's no way I'm getting to 50...).   I bring this up because there was a contemporary event which actually enhanced Larson's narrative for me: Sandy Hook. Consider the book's introduction of its all-important setting:

Nothing like the Whitechapel killings had occurred. Jack the Ripper's five-murder spree in 1888 had defied explanation and captivated readers throughout America, who believed such a thing could not happen in their own hometowns. But things were changing. Everywhere one looked the boundary between the moral and the wicked seemed to be degrading. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued in favor of divorce. Clarence Darrow advocated free love. A young woman named Borden killed her parents.


Enter a deranged H.H. Holmes to take advantage of a city in the midst of massive social and, more importantly, economic change.  This change, especially Chicago's meteoric economic growth, is the true protagonist of this book.   In the clearest example of juxtaposition I have seen since Romeo and Juliet, Larson elaborates on twin effects of Chicago's massive industrialization:   freedom and isolation. Considering H.H. Holmes' penchant for killing single women, the below sentence, which was ostensibly used to describe Chicago's  unprecedented population growth,  demonstrates the haunting way Larson uses setting to foreshadow evil:

Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs."

All of Larson's seemingly glowing descriptions of "the white city" and the wonders of industrialism have an alternate (and understated) application to H.H. Holmes. Devil in the White City is about change: Change creates wonders like the World's Fair and Chicago's new skyscape, but it also creates conditions for the horror of Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes.  I may have missed this point (and simply enjoyed the book's great writing and interesting facts) if it weren't for Sandy Hook. Its hard to miss the similarities.  We are obviously living amongst change (no need to elaborate as I write on an internet based blog); and there is new type of evil in the world.  Are the shooters of Columbine/Aurora/Sandy Hook the Jack the Ripper/H.H. Holmes of our age? Maybe.  In any event, it's a good book.

Friday, January 4, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

She wrote, "I have had enough blood and terror to last me for the rest of my life."

This fascinating book tells the story of William Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937 and his daughter, Martha (SPOILER ALERT: Hitler seizes full control of Germany and starts World War II).  In the Garden of Beasts is the second Larson book I've read (Devil in the White City was the other), and he does a wonderful job of taking letters and other accounts and turning compelling episodes of history into almost novel-like stories.  Beasts was  very readable and never lagged.

When Dodd was named ambassador to Germany, he had no diplomatic experience and was actually Roosevelt's third or fourth choice to assume the position.  This lack of experience and unfamiliarity with the traditions and expectations of diplomats at the time (the "Pretty Good Club") caused endless friction with members of the State department back home but ended up, along with his experience as a history professor, serving him well.  While he was tasked primarily with ensuring Germany paid its massive post WWI debts to American companies, his endeavor was to serve as a "lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness."  However, even Dodd did not realize the extremity of the situation when he first arrived, admiring the way the Nazis had revitalized the country and hoping that moderate factions of the government would eventually overcome the more fanatical members.  Though attacks on Jews and sometimes Americans (usually for not standing at attention and saluting during SA parades) were rough patches, they seemed generally isolated at first, and Dodd believed the governments' assurances that they would be stopped in the future.  As Hitler gained more and more power and the regime became increasingly intolerant and censorious, Dodd became one the first and most vehement voices warning against the coming disasters (in fact, he was "dubbed the Cassandra of American diplomats).

Interestingly, Martha played a large role in shaping her father's views on the Nazis and the political climate in Berlin.  Originally enamored of the Nazis and living in Berlin, Martha (who was 24 when the Dodd family, also including Mrs. Dodd and Martha's 28 year old brother, Bill, moved to Berlin) spent much of her time interacting with high ranking members of the German government (including a love affair with Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo from 33-34), various intellectuals and society members, and foreign correspondents and diplomats.  She witnessed much of the tide of totalitarianism as it affected those closest to her and eventually turned completely against the Nazis, even having a long, passionate affair with a Soviet diplomat/spy and doing a small amount of spying for the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB).  Martha also fascinated me for two reasons: first, I thought it interesting to think about how differently her affairs would have been covered if she lived in today's internet age.  Who knows, maybe the daughter of the American ambassador to, say, Russia or China sleeps around with all kinds of prominent people and government officials and no one cares because whatever, but I feel like if Twitter and 24 hour news existed back then she would have been much more prominent and discussed.  Second, Martha also interested me because she slept around so much!  She boned down with everyone!  Which, good for her!  It was remarkable how little of an issue it was.  Sure, people talked about it and maybe looked down on her behind her back, but given the progress of feminism and women's sexual liberation in the mid 1930s, I was surprised to find that she wasn't a pariah.  Very interesting.

Another thing I found interesting were the was in which Germany and America were different, but also kinda similar.  For example, at one point a Jewish group in America staged a mock trial of Hitler in Madison Square Garden, which infuriated the Germans.  They simply could not understand why our government didn't just shut it down.  On the other hand, there are several times when Larson describes the treatment of Jews in Germany that I at first found outrageous, but then realized were a little too familiar.  One example was when Larson wrote about the benches in the park, the least desirable of which were painted yellow and were the only ones upon which Jews could sit.  My righteous indignation was tempered a little when I realized we were basically doing the same thing to African Americans at that time, a point that Larson once mentions that the Germans made in response to a critical speech by an American government official.

Overall I heartily recommend Beasts and probably anything else by Larson.  Very interesting.

Flesh of My Flesh by Kaja Silverman

Finitude is the most capacious and enabling of the attributes we share with others, because unlike the particular way in which each of us looks, thinks, walks, and speaks, that connects us to a few other beings, it connects us to every other being.  Since finitude marks the point where we end and others begin, spatially and temporally, it is also what makes room for them--and acknowledging these limits allows us to experience the expansiveness for which we yearn, because it gives us a powerful sense of our emplacement within a larger Whole.  Unfortunately, though, finitude is the most narcissistically injurious of all the qualities we share with others, and therefore the one we are most likely to see in them, and deny in ourselves.

One day you will die.  This is an astonishingly hard concept to accept.  Many, I imagine, never do, at least not until death intrudes upon them.  Death is always something that happens to somebody else, not to me--I've even rejected it in this very paragraph, by opening in the second person.  A more truthful beginning would be: One day I will die.

The thesis of Kaja Silverman's book is that the unwillingness or inability to see ourselves as mortal is the greatest cause of suffering, cruelty and violence in human history, and that if we recognize mortality (what she calls "finitude" above") as the essential similarity between all of us--we become capable of the very transcendent experience we seek by denying death.  She calls this "analogical thinking," and traces it through a series of works from Ovid, Leonardo, Rilke,  Freud, Terence Malick, and contemporary painter Gerhard Richter.  Silverman works mostly in a psychoanalytic vein, yet the breadth of the study makes it incredibly persuasive.

The fundamental story of this way of thinking, she argues, is the story of Orpheus, whose gaze at Eurydice banishes her back to a land of death from which he is excluded.  Boldly, Silverman argues that there is an "Orpheus inside every Oedipus," shoving Freud's quintessential human narrative aside to argue for another primal story.

I thought this book was incredible.  I think it ought to resonate with anyone who has felt the fear of death, and especially those of us who have found some comfort in the idea that if it is an inscrutable terror, it is an inscrutable terror that each of one us will face.  For Silverman (and every other atheist critic, to be sure) religion is an offshoot of man's fear of death.  The violence done in religion's name, then, is sadly consistent with its purpose, which is to say, "Death for thee, but not for me."  I'm not willing to go that far, but I think that Silverman's thinking can be accommodated by a believing psyche, as her brief thoughts on analogical thinking in Donne shows.

Perhaps most impressive: Flesh of My Flesh is a rigorous and thoughtful piece of academic criticism that is neither unintelligible nor pointless.  That's a rare breed.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Three Plays by Shakespeare

I read three plays by Shakespeare which I have not before reviewed on this site for a class last year.  Here are my brief thoughts on each of them, from the one I liked the least to the one I liked the most:

Titus Andronicus: I couldn't stop thinking about Titus when I saw Django Unchained last week.  Both are revenge narratives--the revenge aspect of Django I won't go into needlessly here (you can read the plot summary on IMDB) but Titus gets his revenge on the Goth queen Tamora, her Moorish companion Aaron, and her sons Chiron and Demetrius, who have raped Titus' daughter Lavinia and killed his step-brother with the aid of the other two.  Shakespeare plumbs the sordid depths of folklore and myth to cobble this plot together, but he feels compelled to outdo his sources: Like in the story of Philomel, the brothers rip out Lavinia's tongue so that she cannot identify them as the perpetrators, but for good measure they cut her hands off as well.

Since Tamora is seeking revenge in turn for Titus' sacrifice of her son as a prisoner of war, it is possible Shakespeare is making some commentary on the cyclical, all-devouring nature of revenge.  Yet, it seems plain that the greatest joy of seeing Titus performed is to watch the brutality of each escalating incident of vengeance, which I think reduces the power of that commentary.  It reminds me too much of Django, which I thought was entertaining but fundamentally shallow.  It is a rare Shakespearean play where the fun is in the spectacle, not the language, which is really devoid of anything interest except for what comes out of the mouth of Aaron, more eloquent than his Roman masters.  Here he is determined to protect the child he has with Tamora from Chiron and Demetrius, though the child's skin tone gives reveals their intimacy:

What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys,
Ye whitelimed walls, ye alehouse painted signs,
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never turn the swan's black legs to white
Though she lave them hourly in the flood.

Timon of Athens: I am convinced by those who contend this play is not finished; it was never performed, and it has a strange raggedness.  That's a shame, because it's really fascinating.  Timon is a wealthy patron in Athens, noted for his generosity, but when he finally runs into debt he finds that all of his former "friends" have abandoned him.  Disgusted, he leaves Athens in self-exile and wanders around the forest heaping scorn on all mankind.

Timon's about-face is too exaggerated and compressed to be convincing; he never quite becomes a human being.  Yet, his long rants against Athens and all of humanity are a lot of fun, and some of Shakespeare's most bitter and ornate poetry.  I particularly like when Timon, digging for roots to sustain himself, accidentally digs up the last thing he wants--gold:

What is here?
Gold?  Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, gods, I am no idle votarist:
Roots, you clear heavens.  Thus much of this will make
Black white, foul fair, wrong wright,
Base noble, old young, coward valiant.  Why this, what, this,  you gods?  Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants frm your sides,
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads.
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th'accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: I have been saying for years that the freshmen where I teach should read A Midsummer Night's Dream instead of Romeo and Juliet.  They read one tragedy a year, and come away with the idea that all Shakespeare is murder, suicide and madness.  (Plus, Romeo and Juliet is 30-40% penis jokes.)  Midsummer, on the other hand, is a lot of fun, and what's more, it's the only play of Shakespeare's that I would actually call funny.  The inept play the Mechanicals put on for the noble characters at the play's end never fails to crack me up in its badness:

BOTTOM [as Pyramus]: Thus die I: thus, thus, thus.
[He stabs himself]
Now am I dead,
Now am I fled,
My soul is in the sky.
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon, take thy flight.
Now die, die, die, die, die.

I'm actually laughing as I write this.  Although, maybe my freshmen wouldn't really get the humor--they might think this is the most moving passage in the play, and post it on their tumblrs.  Of course, Midsummer also offers the really fantastic scenes where Puck transforms Bottom's head into that of an ass, and then gives the Fairy Queen Titania a potion which makes her fall in love with him.  People have been doing cheap transformation scenes for hundreds of years, and they're always the same: Michael J. Fox stares into the mirror, his hair, nails and teeth start to grow, and he screams.  OH NO, I'M A TEEN WOLF.  Shakespeare, five hundred years ago, gave us the most original and amusing take on transformation scenes; Bottom just rolls with it, unfazed by it all, not noticing he's changed, and not being in the least shocked that a Fairy Queen wants to get her bone on with him.  The rest of the scattershot plot is all great, but it's the Bottom scenes that really elevate this, for me, to one of Shakespeare's greatest works.

EDIT: I accidentally wrote that Tamora's sons kill Lavinia, when in fact they only rape and mutilate her.  Titus himself kills Lavinia, in fact, out of either shame or an overflow of vengeful feelings.