Wednesday, December 31, 2003

I frequently hate book covers. Consider, for example, the picture for the most recent reprinting of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.

I just finished this book (fortunately, with a more sedate cover--the sepia one, with faded pictures of new orleans behind the central stripe), because it was a condition for my getting an apfelküchen recipe. R-- said she'd give me the recipe if I agreed to read the book. (I'll let you know if I like the cake; I have no baking apples at present, to essay it yet). I'd heard both Toole's name and the title, which knowledge I attribute to the fact that it is a Pulitzer-winning book. R-- refused to describe it to me, though. For one thing, she was laughing to hard at the memory of her reading of it; for another, she said any description she tried to offer wouldn't do it justice.

Now, i don't think that the book is as stunning as R--, or as the Pulitzer committee for 1981, thought it to be. (I'd recommend some Rabelais, instead: perhaps Gargantua & Pantagruel.) All of which is not to suggest that i didn't like the book; I did. I even laughed out loud once or twice. The laughs for me, though, came not from events or descriptions, so much as the occasional turn of phrase that amused me. I sincerely doubt that i'd find it all quite so funny, were I to reread it, certain parodic elements (e.g. Dorian Greene, the professor) excepted.

I also object to the cover that is principally sepia: you see, immediately under the title, the book is described as "the marvelous [sic; silly americans & their crazy spellings], madcap adventures" of Ignatius Reilly. The adventures, you see are not marvellous. Nor are they madcap. The weakly Menippean satire that characterizes the book does not lend itself to the marvellous or to the madcap.

So. Read, & laugh. If you like it, try Rabelais. Better yet... try Lawrence Sterne's Tristam Shandy. hm. I feel a list of recommendations coming on:
  1. Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

  2. Thomas McCulloch, The Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure (excerpts)

  3. Thomas Chandler Haliburton, The Clockmaker

  4. Voltaire, Candide

  5. Aldous Huxley, Point counterpoint

I may add to this list, but don't count your chickens.

There. You have a list. Go forth, reading always, remembering that "to read makes our speaking English good..."

Monday, December 29, 2003

Two collections of short stories by Bill Gaston.
Sex is Red (1998).
Mount Appetite (2002).

Both clever, Both insightful. Both playful. Both concerned with what people want, how people feel.

I shared a few lines that really appealed to me from "Sex is Red" (the title story) with my friend Mark; his observation was that they seemed overly clever, which could lead to the way of badness if done solely for the sake of being clever. Mark's right, of course, but these two collections both avoid that problem. (Mark also commented on the delightful synaesthesia of the title of Sex is Red, which remark bears repeating, with the additional note that the remark offers a word that is used much too infrequently. Everyone likes a nice bit of synaesthesia.) I also enjoy a good pun, once in a while, and this title provides.

Short fiction is not normally a form in which find I can get lost, in which I get transported someplace that is else. There are a few--Linda Kenyon's short short fiction collection You Are Here leaps to mind--but they're too few and far between for me. I think what makes today's blogged collections so vibrant, so enjoyable, is the talent for description that Gaston has. Consider:
So it was obvious, his attraction to her. She wasn't sure how it would rear its ugly head--that was how she thought of it, as the cliché--picturing a kind of clumsy, faceless knob of yearning rising up at her in public, sort of like a penis manifest in human form.
-- from "Sex is Red" (20)
There is throughout both collections an attraction to the just-ever-so-slightly grotesque, to the very edges of politeness... Combined with a startlingly perceptive & honest insight into the nature of the hows & whys of people's actions (and especially the oddness that is sexual attraction), and an impulse to odd imagery (e.g., planting chives instead of grass over the hole in the front yard where once lived a septic tank:
The sprouting did look like grass, thick, slightly cartoony grass, but soon it spiked up high anduniform and rubbery. If the breeze was right, you could smell onion. Then the topflowers came, and their yard had a foot-high green cake with mauve frosting.
-- ibid.
result in stories that you don't want to put down.

Go to your neighbourhood bookstore and buy. Or go to your public library and check-out.

Enjoy. Repeatedly.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Christmas books! A joyous tradition (and completely distracting)!

  1. Northrop Frye's Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts ed. Robert D. Denham

    • I'm enjoying, although there was no real doubt that I would. Currently, I'm in the midst of "Notebook 3," which dates from about 1946-48.
    • I am feeling, though, that I'd like to know more about yoga. NF seems principally concerned with understanding a number of yoga sutra books he's reading, and explaining them in terms of the gospels. Intriguing.
    • Sex books in a bookshop are not there to tell you anything you don't know; they're there to keep your mind on the subject. Similarly with devotional literature, Christian and Marxist.
      --[P310 fr. n21 (198)]

  2. Jakob Böhme, The Way to Christ. Haven't yet begun.

  3. St. Augustine, City of God. I have wanted this book for quite some time. I haven't started reading it yet, but am rather looking forward to it.

  4. The Cantos of Ezra Pound.

    • Another book I have wanted for some time. This desire is odd; I knew full well that I'd not understand the greater part of what's going on in the book. And yet.
    • So why of interest? Well, they sound pretty...
    • I'm being impressed by my remembering of greek myths, but I wish it was better still. Ah well. Perhaps one day, I'll be a true polymath. <sigh>

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Ulysses: 6. "Hades" & 7. "Aeolus."
coming up next, 8. "Lestrygonians"

I apologise for the white space until the table; I've fidgeted with the html code, but can't figure out how to make the space all disappear. I'll keep playing.

Office Readings for
Christmas Eve (Canada, BAS)
Mattins Evensong
Psalm(s) Psalm 45 & 46 Psalm 89.1-29
1st Lesson Baruch 4.36-5.9 Isaiah 59.15b-21
2nd Lesson (Galatians 3.23-4.7) Philippians 2.5-11
Gospel Matthew 1.18-25
Collect Heavenly Father,
who chose the Virgin Mary, full of grace,
to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour,
now fill us with your grace,
that we in all things may embrace your will
and with her rejoice in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Eternal God,
this holy night is radiant
with the brillians of your one true light.
As we have known,
the revelation of that light on earth,
bring us to see the splendour of your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Alberto Manguel speaks of his Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate as being made of "haphazard notes and indecisions" (292). This assessment is true and yet fails to do his book justice.

I'm still not sure what his ultimate goal was with this book. He writes that he "began this book thinking that I would write about our emotions and how they affect (and are affected by) our readings of works of art," and that he feels that "I seem to have ended up far, very far, from my imagined goal" (xi). Yet what cohesiveness the book does have exists because of that initial goal. Certainly the book otherwise seems scattered. In his A History of Reading--one of my very favourite books about books, and a must-read for anyone who likes to read--Manguel is blessed with a subject that has a built-in organising principle of chronology. When writing about emotions and art, that's less true. His response to this conundrum is to consider images as sources of: story, absence, riddle, witness, understanding, nightmare, reflection, violence, subversion, philosophy, memory, and theatre. Picking a central image for each chapter, he surveys treatments of these concepts in visual media, and essays to provide a sense of the scope of visual response.

The first few chapters read almost like I would imagine a textbook of art appreciation to read: they outline how the viewer might consider form, content, and effect, and wonders how external information--be it biographical, historical, what the artist has said about the work--should be weighed in one's consideration. When I got to chapter six ("Marianna Gartner: The Image as Nightmare"), though, the book, while not abandoning its informative nature, shifted in a way that I have trouble explaining. Manguel's writing no longer seemed at all textbook-y. The chapters became more intriguing, raising more questions than they answered. I wish I could better articulate this shift; however, I find it nearly impossible to talk about.

I bought the book because of A History of Reading. Reading Pictures was on remainder, and it's nigh impossible to say no to a $4.99 book by an author you enjoy, especially when you're even remotely interested in the topic. While I feel little more confident when it comes to approaching an image by myself, and attempting to make some sense of it, this was an enjoyable book. If you like art, you'll at least be intrigued by the relationship between words and images that, while almost always implicit in this book, contributes the majority of my lasting impressions of the book. After all, as Manguel says:
...I would say that if looking at pictures is equivalent to reading, then it is a vastly creative form of reading, a reading in which we must not only put words into sounds into sense but images into sense into stories. Of course, much must escape our narratives becasue of a picture's chameleon quality and because of the protean nature of a symbol. Image and meaning reflect each other in a gallery of mirrors through which, as through corridors hung with pictures, we choose to wander, always knowing that there is no end to our search--even if we had a goal in mind. A line from Ecclesiastes sums up, I think, our dealings with a work of art that moves us. It acknowledges the craftmanship, it intimates the inspiration, it tells of our helplessness to put our experience into words. It is worded like this in the King James Version: "All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing; nor the ear filled with hearing" [1.8]. Hence of a work of art can no doubt be understood, because it is, after all, a human experience. But that understanding, in all its illuminating and ambiguous revelations, may be condemned, because of its very nature, to remain for us just beyond the possibilities of our labours. (149)

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Ulysses: 4. "Calypso" & 5. "The Lotus Eaters."
in midst of 6. "Hades."

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I am rereading an old favourite.
You see, I met, at a party this last Saturday, a woman I shall refer to as M--. a lovely woman, indeed, and we got to chatting. In time, I learned that she was an English grad, too, and so we got to talking about what we're reading, and what we've loved of late, and what we'd recommend, one to another.
M-- was quite surprised that I knew whereof she spoke, when she told me that she works in Wymilwood (I didn't tell her that I've always felt that the /y/ should be short). She seemed even more surprised that I know the geography of the campus wherein that building is located, given that I am not a graduate of that august institution. "Why," she asked, did I know this? So HE came up. And having explained that he's a source of abiding interest for me, we chatted about HIM for a space. M-- mentioned that she'd not read much of him, but that she's been impressed by his turns of phrase, his grace and elegance in his writing. So we talked about what I like of his, and why I'm so interested in his thought.
I recommended to her two of my favourite books. Volumes One and Two of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939, edited by Robert D. Denham.
One might have thought that this would be the end of that. That, since I've read these books an inordinate number of times, the only outcome of
this recommendation would be that, hopefully, M-- too would come to love these books. That I'd remember the conversation when I glance to the left, from my computer screen, and see a shelf and a half groaning under the weight of thick green tomes.
And yet.
Despite having many other things to read, I'm rereading these letters. I blame M--.
Why reread? Because these books are addictive.
Because, despite the fact that I feel discomfited by my seemingly voyeuristic role as I read these letters between two young lovers, I can't help but marvel. At the wonders of love, as found between two people so completely suited one to the other. At the scoldings, the advice, the longing to hear from the lover so cruelly held at distance. The joy of receiving the next letter, and the savouring of the reading of it. The attempts to slow down the reading; the pausing, the sheer comfort & joy derived from hearing from the other.
These letters almost form an epistolary novel. We read of Helen & Norrie's love for one another, of their despair at being apart, of their trials & tribulations, and of the thoughts that they can't but share with one another.
To read these letters is to share in the reflected joy of the happiness that the two feel because of one another. And so I am happy, indeed, to read these letters again, though. So, thank you, M--, for making me think of them again.
I do hope you enjoy reading them yourself.

from letter 13, NF to HK (July 1932)
I have judiciously weighed the question of whether or not I should "mind very much" your saying that you love me and have decided that I do not. I find the statement even agreeable. But you frighten me a little, you sweet child. "Love" may mean anything from a quiet friendship to an overwhelming passion. It may be anything from a purely sexual impulse to a declaration of honourable intentions based on a close survey of the economic field. In the sense that I like you better than anyone else of your sex, I love you. I love you in the sense that I would do anything for you. In the sense that no revelation of weakness in your character would diminish my respect for you. In the sense that I think of you a great deal, and always affectionately. And so on. But if I were to go into poetic ramifications of the subject, and tell you that you filled my days with sunshine and my nights with longing, I should be merely a liar, and you would be well advised to regard me as an insidious and designing villain. Don't you see, darling? I can't write you a sustained love letter, because when I try--and I have tried--the result sounds like a Chopin nocturne scored for brass. It acts like a tonic on me to hear you say that you love me, certainly. But it does make me rather nervous to be carrying such a warm and pulsating little heart around in my pockets. I'm afraid it might drop out and break.
- (1.53-54)

from letter 19, NF to HK (Summer 1932)
There are so surprisingly few things that really matter. Music matters, and babies matter--so do poetry, sunsets over marshes, plain food, and people's flea-bitten souls. But that's about all. So why bother about anything else? People who laugh at dreamers and star-gazers merely can't distinguish what's necessary from what's important. A wash-basin is necessary, but it isn't important and should be minimized. These practical-minded people are also necessary but not important, which is why they hate to feel slighted.
- (1.80)

from letter 88, HK to NF (20 August 1934)
I should like to kiss you good-night,--all I can do is love my little candle [by which HK was writing the letter], and it is fading out. So I shall think about you, and how much I love your face and your eyes and your hands and the way you talk. And next winter when I listen to a Mozart Quartet I shall remember how much you love it too. Because you and I have many things to do--my darling, I can't feel lonely when I have you. Even if you are in Stonepile and I am in a female gathering hearing tales of how seasick one can get.
I feel like talking to you for hours on end.
- (1.319)

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Another post about another book that my mom brought home for me to read.
When I was very little, I loved the TV show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood [sic; Silly Americans.] So. The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember, by Fred Rogers, seemed to be calling out to come home to visit me, my mom said. [N.B. the link is to, not, so that you can see a picture & a review.]

It's a short, cute little book.
Each page has a pithy aphorism from Mr. Rogers. Now, normally, I loathe and detest inspirational aphorisms. These ones, however, aren't in-your-face, or overly annoying. They are optimistic, but they're more thoughtful then most of the genre.
It was a cute book, and it made me smile. It made me remember cardigans, and Daniel Stripèd-Tiger, and King Friday XIII, and the trolley that led to the neighbourhood [my description, so a proper spelling this time] of make-believe: I never liked it as much when he just put models of the buildings on the kitchen table.

Nostalgia can be fun.

Monday, December 15, 2003

I have been reading Ulysses, in the Gabler edition, of course--I mean, one of my best friends is a disciple of a disciple of Gabler. Paul might well be aghast if I were to read a different edition. (for those of you wondering what difference it all makes, this link begins to explain bits and pieces about the various editions, and does refer you to other sources.)
At any rate. It's also more of a rereading, to this point, since two Decembers ago I got through "Hades" (the 6th episode) before I got distracted. As of now, I'm only through the Telemachiad (the first three episodes: "Telemachus," "Nestor," and "Proteus," before the text shifts to describe more about what Bloom does that fateful day).
Each time I open something by Joyce, I'm reassured and pleasantly surprised by what I find. That is to say, it's always delightful. He plays with this language in a way that seems effortless to the reader, endlessly inventive, and delighting in the capacities that English affords him. The reader cannot but be pulled into this delight, in an almost perfect example of what Barthes would call the jouissance that the text offers. The rich, dense mass of allusions stuns the reader--asking, perhaps the reader to consult a companion book or two for help, from time to time--and yet the allusions are part of the play, part of the fun.
Someday I will try to finish Finnegans Wake. For now, I'm happy that I can believe that I live in Dublin, at least for a space.
So there are nice things about having a mother who's a librarian. She brings me home books. On the other hand, there are some bad things: she brings home books.
This week's "Matthew, I thought that this might interest you" is called God's Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible--A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal, published this past August by St. Martin's press, and now widely available.
Short version? Don't buy it.
Longer version?
  • The author--Bryan Moynahan--seems to be confused as to whether he's trying to write a hagiography, a biography, a thriller, etc. ad inf. This lamentable fact is almost certainly due to a desire to make the book appealing in as wide a variety of circles as is possible. After all, a book about a guy who was persecuted by the Roman Catholic church for having the audacity to translate the bible into a language that people actually spoke? It's a story that sells as well today as Foxe's book of martyrs ever did. And why not capture the biography market, too, without appearing stuffy? So. Quite a nice attempt to cover all the bases at once, but please, hire another 8 guys.
  • So. I mentioned John Foxe's Book of Martyrs [yes, it can also be spelled Fox, but Foxe looks cooler.]. Nifty book, btw, that details the early Protestant martyrs. For quite a long time, it was this book beside A Pilgrim's Progress and a bible as one of the first that nice English Protestants would want in their homes. What's the problem with this being the source that seems to get the most prominence in Moynahan's study of Tyndale? Oh right, the fact that it's polemical, anti-catholic, and tends to invent stuff to fit its needs for proselytizing &c. Now, of course, Moynahan does use other sources, but Foxe is the one who seems to be kept constantly in view of the reader.
  • The hagiography, as mentioned above, annoys me. The book sets up a fairly vicious Thomas More against Tyndale, and celebrates Tyndale with hardly more than the occasional equivocation. Now, was more ruthless in routing out heresy? Sure. And it wasn't a nice time back then, so yeah, heretics got burnt. I don't mean to minimize how we all should rightly be appalled at that fact, but it's history. A more balanced presentation of Thomas More would have helped [throw in some nice details, make him look a little appealing], as would have a more balanced presentation of Tyndale done for him.
  • um... forgetting that Latin is an inflected language, and that syntax isn't crucial to meaning? Kind of a big thing to forget, and indicative of the lack of full understanding about how languages are used to convey meaning. Yes, the Vulgate was written in a particular style. But that's just one possible translation.
  • Perhaps a little less waxing rhapsodic about how gorgeous Tyndale's phrasing is? Yes, the man had a way with words. Maybe a little bit of explanation about why, rather than bludgeoning the poor reader with interminable lists of examples of nice turns of phrase. Y'know, maybe some talk about scansion? explaining How latinate cadences--the cursus tardus, the cursus planos, the cursus velox--work to make it sound good, rather than just saying--well, Tyndale studied rhetoric at Oxford, so, man, he knew what he was doing? I dunno, stuff like that? If you're going to talk about language, make a freakin' effort to do it decently!
  • There are quite a number of decent comments about word choices. I like the discussion (73) about why Tyndale chose "love" instead of "charity" for the greek 'αγαπη from the text for 1 Cor. 13.13, basing his decision on the Old English "lufu" rather than on the Latin "caritas."
  • The book, on the whole, does not seem overly well organised. Moynahan bounces from one idea to another; the book could use a decent editor's hand in reshaping and reordering most of the material.

  • Ok, I'm done complaining. The book entertained me, at least. I didn't have too many overpowering urges to throw it down in disgust. Just a general feeling that the book could be a lot better, had the author picked an audience and written to that audience. And maybe been a smidgen more balanced... fortunately, not something a cursory review like this one has to attempt to do.

    Friday, December 12, 2003

    Some thoughts about The Postmodern Bible

    I said the other day that the book reads like a textbook; now nearly finished reading it, I find no reason to disagree with that assessment. I think it does need to be slightly modified, though. This book is a survey text--and at that, a fairly good one--that explains the important ideas that comprise major movements of literary theory: e.g. Reader-response Criticism, Narratological Theory, Deconstruction, Feminist & Marxist theories. It does do a great job of referring the reader to the primary texts, evaluating the various contributions made by the major thinkers of each movement.

    Moreover, this text coheres because it does revolve around the application of these movements to a single text that presents unique challenges to those attempting, say, a deconstructionist reading. Having said that about this book's coherence, though, the title is perhaps misleading; the title did mislead me. I came to this book expecting to derive from it a sense of how the Bible is being read by scholars with respect to these theories, not a general introduction to those theories with a few comments about their applicability to the Bible.

    So the book has proven a helpful refresher, reminding me of things I struggled to understand when I first began learning about them, and generally confirming the fact that six years of studying literature haven't been entirely wasted. It's this sense of being reminded of details that makes me think that the book might be an excellent text for English 470A at UW, "Contemporary Critical Theory," of which course the description thereof reads:
    "Contemporary critical theory offers an array of competing constructions of text and culture. This course examines several topics in recent critical theory, such as gender, race, subjectivity, textuality, and popular culture."
    Combined with readings from the primary texts, this book might prove a good way to organise the material that that course was supposed to impart. It's not, however, a book I'd chose if I was teaching a course on the Bible, or even on the Bible and literature.

    Thursday, December 11, 2003

    STC needs--and this is not, for me, a new thought--a good editor. He meanders so.
    I like a good meandering as much as the next person, especially when we slip readily from English to Greek to Latin to French. I do have trouble remembering the ultimate purpose, though, of the argument, when we meander so.
    My comment the other day about footnotes made something else occur to me, upon rereading. That is, when I pick up the book, it takes me a while to get used to it. There is a rhythm to prose from that time period, a delay that is not present in so much of what I read. I adjust, and am always fairly happy when I recognise that I have done so, but it takes a few moments. Once the adjustment happens, everything is so much easier to follow.
    Except for the meandering, sometimes.

    From Chapter I: "As the result of all my reading and meditation, I abstracted two critical aphorisms, deeming them to comprise the conditions and criteria of poetic style; first, that not the poem we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure, possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential poetry. Second, that whatever lines can be translated into other words of the same language, without diminution of their significance, either in sense, or association, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious as their diction."

    Tuesday, December 09, 2003

    So far today:

    from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Biographia Literaria
    - I'm in the middle of chapter two.
    - It's amazing how interesting STC's footnotes are. I find that I get lost in their arguments. By the time I'm done reading one, I've forgotten what he was discussing before I jumped to the footnote.

    from The Postmodern Bible by "The Bible and Culture Collective"
    - I'm reading chapter two, "Structuralist and Narratological Criticism," and hoping it will annoy me less than chapter one ("Reader-Response Criticism") did.
    - This book reads overly like a textbook, and so far doesn't seem to be presenting any intriguing new ideas.