Thursday, December 09, 2004

So. I've been writing this book journal for a year, today, and have compiled some 99 entries up until this one--making this my 100th post. Not quite a book a post, at least in the beginning, and I regret not having exact statistics for you about how many books there have been. I'll add a comment about that later.

I'm taking this moment to post for the first time not about books, but about my philosophy of blogging. I want to try to make sense, for you and for me, of what it is this project is all about.

This blog is not for reviews, though many of the posts contain editorial review type comments. It's for first thoughts. It's for my immediate impressions, my reactions, what I'm thinking about immediately after finishing (a book or a section). As such, the writing is far from polished, and is far from trying to argue a specific idea or point.

I'm casting a net with these pages. I'm publicly saying, I'm here and I've read this piece. I'm willing to think about the piece, and I'm willing to talk about it--by offering some initial thoughts, and by inviting comments that might lead to more interesting discussions. A quick glance through the history of the comments will convince you that discussions are virutally non-existant, but the second reason to have the comments--an opportunity for people to reccomend other pieces to me has indeed borne some fruit.

The blog gives me an excuse to write about books, and forces me to be slightly more intentional about what I do read. It's a place to stop the reading, and to begin to reflect about the reading.

I've enjoyed my first year here; maybe by next year, I'll have finished reading the book I had just started a year ago (I'm not as far into it as I might like).

One year ago:

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.
Mark Morton, The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex, 2003.

Morton is a prof at the University of Winnipeg, and is the language columnist for CBC's Definitely Not the Opera. Herb recommended this book to me back at the end of May, and I stuck in a hold request then. Apparently, it's a popular book.

It's an odd book, really. I love etymology--from the Greek ετυμον (one who discourses) + λογος (words) = thinking about words--so I placed the hold back then, disagreeing with Herb's assessment of a sexual theme. The book is wonderful at exposing the play of words, the way they emerge, adapt, are played with, and are loved. It's fun because Morton obviously loves paying attention to where words come from, and because this is an area of the language where there are a lot of words, even if many of them are of quite recent coinage.

Where the book is lacking is that it's hard to sit down and to read it; it's a book with which the reader is best off dipping into, and enjoying piecemeal. Morton does advocate reading it a chapter at a time, and one might even prefer to read smaller chunks. I found myself smiling and being amused both at the stories behind some words and by Morton's own linguistic exuberance and love of language; for these reasons alone, it's a worthwhile read. I'm not sure, though, that it's one for which I'd pay: for me, it's excellent use of the HPL hold system.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Susanna Clarke, Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell.

M-- recommended this one to me; I can only imagine it was because he'd read only the beginning, and didn't know that the book--which shows such promise in the first hundred pages--rapidly becomes painfully boring thereafter.
Clarke captures the feel of a nineteenth century novel fairly quickly, but her story lacks the liveliness of Dickens, the sensibility of Eliot, or the amusement of manners of Austen. It feels like a work in the style of the masters, and lacks the punch, the zip, the verve. It's just not fun enough.
The story begins with England lacking any magical practitioners. Mr. Norrell fills the void, and takes as a student the only other person capable of performing magic--Strange--and the two perform work that allows England to defeat Napoleon. Norrell's goal throughout is to restore a particular form of magic to prominence and renown, abandoning the wild magic of Fairy and of the mysterious and mythic Raven King of North England. Sadly, the story continues with this, and with just a vague bit of a nemesis.
The problem is that there is no real conflict nor passion. There are opportunities for both, but the staid pace continues seemingly interminably without developing. The nemesis never becomes truly real nor scary to the audience: a sad state of affairs indeed for a work of fantasy.
While an intriguing idea, the book remains imitative in its form, never truly taking advantage of its flexibility. The story is dreary; the novel is unworthy of the praise it has received.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Michael Dobbs, Whispers of Betrayal, 2000.

I've been trying to find the time to blog about this one for two weeks now, but have been a bit distracted.
At any rate, this one is much like the other Dobbs' novels I've read recently, but better plotted & paced than the others. Unlike the careful political intrigue of the first novel, or the silliness of the second, this one is a thriller that is carefully thought out and well executed, with moments of great humour and high pathos.

It was a fun one.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Jon Stewart and the Writers of the Daily Show, America (the Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction.

Hysterically funny. If you like the Daily Show, you will be a fan of this book that does everything from make penis jokes at the expense of Maya Angelou to the highbrow James Joyce teasing, while always keeping its eye on mocking the electoral process. It does that beautifully and viciously, in its textbook format. From the President (King of the Democracy) through to Congress (the Quagmire) to an examination of how other countries manage their leaders, it'll keep you in stitches.

Much of this book will date rapidly, but it's going to maintain a ring of truth--and it's a great companion to the 2004 Presidential Election amusement. So come on out, and laugh at the silliness of our neighbours to the south who can't properly spell the word neighbour.

Michael Dobbs, The Buddha of Bower Street, 1998.

Goodfellowe, part 2, not as desperate, and oddly connected with Tibet. This story is darker than Goodfellowe's first outing--the torturous villanies that Dobbs ascribes to the Chinese characters are particular difficult to read. The book tells of the search for the next Dalai Lama in England, and the desperate efforts made by Goodfellowe and the Tibetans to succeed before the Chinese forces can kidnap the child. Some more fun pulp.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Naomi Wolf, Promiscuities, 1997.

I hadn't read anything by Wolf, and this one had been recommended to me. Essentially, Wolf argues that women in our culture have an unfortunate time with their sexuality: they're not taught it well; they're exposed to an enormous number of inappropriate/wrong-headed examples, stereotypes, and media portrayals; they're asked to live within false dichotomies; as adults, they all too often remain uncomfortable with their sexualities because of these experiences.

Wolf goes through a number of reasons and offers a number of examples of why these things are true, performing what amounts to a series of close-readings of culture, history, texts, and experiences (her own and a selected peer-group). These close-readings are well and carefully done, and her arguments are persuasive. My hesitancy with treating this book in more of a sociological perspective, as opposed to a cultural studies perspective is caused by the very limited sample space that Wolf employs for the experiential histories that she incorporates into her work. Her conclusions, though, make a great deal of sense. While I'm not convinced that the suggestions that she offers for taking away the stigmatization that affects women in regards to their sexualities will in any way afford a comprehensive solution to the problems Wolf enumerates, her suggestions certainly offer a sensible beginning and important considerations (particularly for those people raising and teaching young women).
Miriam Toews, Summer of My Amazing Luck, 1996.

Fun, and funny, but I never really got into it. I'm still not quite sure why.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Miriam Toews, A Boy of Good Breeding, 1998.

When I read a book I like, by an author I've not read before, I tend to go a little bit overboard in terms of then reading a good chunk of stuff that he or she has written. Toews is currently getting my attention--I have two more to read after this one, and am looking forward to both.

That said, A Boy of Good Breeding is not in the same vein as A Complicated Kindness. This is deliberately funny, almost silly: this is small-town in the Mariposa sense, and not in the Horizon-sense. It's a book that seems nebulous, not as focused, as her most recent novel. It's the story of Hosea Funk, mayor of Algren, wanting to meet his father the Prime Minister by ensuring that Algren has exactly 1500 residents and is hence the smallest town in Canada; it's the story of Knute and her daughter Summer Feelin' trying to figure out how to live. Hosea's clueless-ness in life, governance, and love (his poor girlfriend, Lorna!) and Knute's haplessness & luckiness in life, work, and love are endearing. It's a cast of characters and an odd plot that makes you enjoy every moment you spend in Algren--and lament the fact that you'll read the book quickly enough that you wish you could have spent more time there. Like Mariposa, without being sent away back to the big city.
Richard B. Wright, Adultery.

I gave someone a copy of Clara Callan for Christmas a space back, but I must confess that it's not one I've read. Nor, in fact, had I read any of Wright's other books until I picked this one up.

Adultery is the story of Daniel Fielding, a middle-aged editor at a publishing firm. In fact, the adultery has already been committed, and is not to be repeated, when the novel opens: after beginning an affair with another editor from his firm at a book fair, the two travelled to Dover together. While stopped at a car-park, they have sex, and she goes to relieve herself while he sleeps--and she is killed.

The novel deals with the aftermath: Fielding explaining Denise's disappearance, identifying the body, telling Denise's mother, avoiding the press, clumsily apologising to his wife and to his daughter, attending the funeral. The story is how Fielding tries to make sense of these events, of what caused the affair and of his regret. It's well told, spare and elegant, but it never gripped me. I could have put it down without too much guilt or regret. I doubt I'll read it again, and unlike some pundits, I'm unsurprised that it didn't earn a Giller nomination.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Michael Dobbs, Goodfellowe MP.

Some nice fun pulp by the guy who wrote the novel on which was based a miniseries I loved some time back, House of Cards.

This story follows an MP, once a junior minister, whose fortunes have fallen: a drunk driving arrest, a wife in an asylum, a rebellious daughter, a difficult constituency committee, an overdrawn bank account... and a desire to improve his station. Sadly, his morals get the best of him, and he's drawn into trying to make the world better--by reforming the press. Not a good call, really, and so they go after him; all hell breaks loose, and a spot of fun happens. If you like politics, this book's a fun divertissement.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness.

Nomi Nickel lives with her Dad, Ray, in a Mennonite town somewhere in southern Manitoba. Nomi’s sister Tash left a space back, and after that, so did Nomi’s Mom, Trudie. A Complicated Kindness is the heartbreaking story of Nomi's "coming-of-age" without any of the trite sentimentality that normally accompanies such stories: she struggles to try to understand why her mother and her sister left, to figure out why her father keeps selling their furniture, to love her boyfriend, and she dreams of escaping—preferably to New York City.

The heartbreaking part is Nomi trying to make sense of the stifling nature of her small town, run by her uncle Hans—the leader of the church and hence of the local world as well. As she tells of the latest person to be excommunicated, and as she learns more about why her sister and mother left, the limiting fundamentalist strictures are harder and harder for Nomi to deal with.

Throughout it all—from the happiness that her boyfriend Travis occasionally offers, to the pathos of her Little Nell-like friend Lids, to the way she spins with her younger next door neighbour—Nomi is rendered by Toews’s deft hand as one of the most interesting and real teenagers I’ve ever encountered in a fictional world. Nomi’s first-person narration struck me as both wise beyond her years and yet eminently plausible as an interpretation of events by a sixteen-year-old. Toews’s commentary on the nature of a life circumscribed by fundamentalism is damning without ever being painful or overt: her light touch is just right. I got lost in this book: I might not want to live in East Village, but I enjoyed seeing it through Nomi’s eyes, even as I was saddened by it. I hope she meets Lou Reed one of these days.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, 1958.

On the front of my copy of Doctor Zhivago, the catch-line is “One of the greatest love stories ever told.” This may well, in point of fact, be true. I don’t really care, though, and can’t say that I ever was all that interested in the passions that swept through the hearts of Yuri and Lara. Consider me a cold fish.

In the margins of page 412, I wrote that what “startles me so is that Lara seems plausible as a love interest only when Pasternak is describing Yuri writing about her. Here, as the two men who have loved her discuss her ‘special’-ness, while the writing is impressive, Lara’s worth doesn’t resonate.” What I like about Zhivago is what I like about Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, what I like about künstlerromans in general: an artistic need to consider the nature of the creative process, where art comes from, what it is to be an artist. I’m startled by the idea of the movie adaptation, and can’t imagine it being anything other than a love story, plain and simple, on the screen—and that seems to me to be an enormous loss from a book that is, to a large extent, a work of aesthetic philosophy.

The plot of the book, though, meanders so that I picked this book up and put it down far too often over the seemingly interminably many months in which I claimed to be reading it. Despite enjoying it, the book grated on me at times. Its pacing, its plotting, its tediousness were often frustrating. I remember reading someone describing reading Zhivago and starting to get cold from all the winter scenes; I never had that feeling of getting lost in it. The only time I came close was when I was camping, and reading beside a drop in the river: the roar of the water created one of the most pleasant juxtapositions of reading setting against the setting of what I was reading that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not a book that, while I read, I ever forgot that I was reading. I encountered moments of genius, and interesting ideas, and I’m glad that I did—but I don’t think I can echo the effusive praise on the dust jacket.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, 2004.

I'm a sucker for a well-told examination of a moment, a reflection recollected in tranquillity, a commonplace that offers or seems to offer some flickering moment of deeper understanding of the world. Sedaris' book is perfect for that, and I'm sure I'll be rushing off to get my hands on Me Talk Pretty One Day.

The stories in this collection are moments--some brief, some spanning a bit of time, all requiring some back story. Sedaris writes in such a way that the stories feel both spare in the economy of their words and rich in the opulence of the images that he depicts. His eye is exacting, unflinching, and honest in talking about himself and his family. There is a pathos to each story, each bit of misery and delight, and a delightful quirkiness to those things that grasp his attention.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is funny and well worth reading. I really enjoyed it.
Thornton Wilder, Our Town, 1938.

I spent the last couple of weeks re-watching My So-Called Life, one of my more favourite tv shows from high school. A story-arc near the end of the series revolved around a production of Our Town, a play that's constantly being referenced, and which I've never seen nor read.

So I grabbed the copy from my shelf that I've been meaning to read for some years now, and read it the other night.

The play feels trite. It's wobbly, and a product of another era that doesn't hold up to the ravages of time. Gee whittakers, we realise that it's important to be fully present at all times. That all moments of life are potentially great (The famous moment, of course, being when Emily asks the Stage Manager "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?" and he responds, "No. The saints and poets, maybe--they do some."). Treacle, all of it, and hard-pressed to hold anyone's attention.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

James Hynes, Kings of Infinite Space, 2004.

Er. Um.
Well, this book is wacky. Ostensibly the story of Paul Trilby (a Ph.D. in English), exiled from academia into the cubicle world of the Texas Department of General Services, the book... is an odd fantasy that blends Trilby's Hamlet-like indecisiveness with a liberal borrowing/updating from The Island of Dr. Moreau. I'm still unsure of what to make of this book. While most of its reviews treat it as a satire of office-life, I don't buy that theory--or at least don't believe that it's a successful satire.

I'd recommend skipping this one. I'm told that his previous effort, The Lecturer's Tale is quite good; perhaps it's more worth my reading time.
George Bernard Shaw, Arms and the Man.

Another fun bit of Shaw. He asks us to think about our sense of social propriety, what it means to behave well, and behave properly toward others.

Much of the humour of the play comes from dramatic irony (yes, I'd imagine that you all know what it is, but I'm trying to have more outgoing links these days, so you can play more and explore other sites. Also, you can see if you want to argue with this page). The characters are clueless, offering them their charm.

In chatting with a friend from church the other day about what we'd been reading this summer, it occurred to me that I like Shaw because he's like Wilde with a point: the same acerbic, witty humour is there--but it's used to a far sharper satirical purpose. This statement is meant to diminish Wilde, at all.

I'm quite enjoying Shaw. I'm going to have to read several more of his plays.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Kathy Reichs, Monday Mourning.

Enjoyable pulp, nothing special.

I dislike the way Reichs can't manage suspense. Quit talking about it, just let it come. Do not, do not, do not at the end of a chapter write the line "Whenever I think back on that moment, I wish to God I'd done what Tawny was asking. I wish to God I'd listened and understood."

I'll put up with this crap, but only 'cause my brain needed a quick break from thinking.


Monday, August 30, 2004

George Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan, 1923.

"O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?"

My first Shaw, and I got quite the kick out of this fun play. I'm still a little staggered by the depth and breadth of the stage directions; were someone to suggest to me that GBS would be a screenwriter in this day and age, I'd like as not agree, in this sate of mind.

While GBS suggested that Saint Joan was a play that did not treat Joan of Arc hagiographically, and while he's right that her human foibles are only too visible, it's still a play that challenges those encountering it to consider the nature of truth and of revelation. Despite the cynicism that is the Archbishop ("A miracle, my friend, is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. They may seem very wonderful to those who perform them. That does not matter: if they confirm or create faith they are true miracles... Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle"), despite the villainies of Cauchon and Warwick's chaplain, despite the self-interest of Warwick and the Inquisitor, the fervour of Courcelles, there is a sweetness to this play, not just in Joan but in the feeble Dauphin and in Brother Martin Ladvenu. The characters reveal something about the human condition, and the play holds attention with its clever wit.


JOAN: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.
ROBERT: They come from your imagination.
JOAN: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, 2000.

Paul recommended this book to me when we last chatted, and I'm quite glad indeed that he did so. Armstrong's history of the rise of fundamentalism across Judaism, Christianity and Islam is fascinating, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Armstrong's essential argument is that fundamentalism arises in response to modernity, and to the new challenges it presents to religion as it attempts to grow in the face of new knowledge and standards of reasoning. The problem with the experiments that are fundamentalism is they lose "sight of some of the most sacred values of the confessional faiths" from which they have evolved. Armstrong's theory is that this confusion occurs because of a disconnect of mythos and logos: "Fundamentalists have turned the mythos of their religion into logos, either by insisting that their dogmas are scientifically true, or by transforming their complex mythology into a streamlined ideology. They have thus conflated two complementary sources and styles of knowledge which the people in the premodern world had usually decided it was wise to keep separate" (366). That is, reason and mystery both have a place in faith, and reducing one into the other diminishes an experience of God. Or, as I'd put my own concern about fundamentalism, that it makes faith--something that's supposed to be complex and challenging--too simple, too reductionist. Armstrong's careful historical tracing of evidence of her thesis, from about 1470 to the present day, is well written and argued, and makes for a good read.

Now, rather than gush completely, I will take an issue with her book. She has a tendency to oversimplify that occasionally detracts from her argument, though it makes sense given the scope of her book. This book is one that should be read with either a decent knowledge of the development of one or more major religions and its sects and denomination, or followed by such a study. Otherwise, Paul was exactly right: this book is fascinating and informative, and rewards a careful reading.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, 2003.

It’s taken me too long to sit down and write this review. In part, that’s because I went away for a bit, on a canoe trip, and was busy beforehand organizing details & then busy afterward getting used to work again. Mostly, though, it’s because I’m ambivalent about this book: only the deadline of the book being due back at the library today has forced me to sit down for a few minutes.

I was introduced to Borg’s book back in February; the Archdeacon Bob Grigg spoke about it for his talk during our parish’s Lenten book study. At the time, I thought that, while the book sounded interesting enough, it didn’t rate rushing out to add it to my collection—principally because of how it seemed to be summarizing a number of ideas that I know fairly well. So I reserved it from the library, and just a few weeks ago, changed my hold status to active, and picked it up.

It summarizes a persuasive liberal reading of the Bible and of faith fairly well. The book doesn’t really build substantively on anything, or offer any new insights, though. My impression is that Borg has written a book that serves as an introduction, or as a starting point, for discussions/Christian Education sessions in parishes.

Borg’s essential argument is that Christianity today exists in two paradigms, with adherents falling into one or the other. There is the traditional paradigm—which he identifies with a literal reading of the bible, the school of the Left Behind novels, to which he refers so derisively and far too often—and the emerging paradigm that is more liberal and willing to accept metaphor as a basic tool for reading the Bible. He then elucidates what it means to be a Christian of the emerging paradigm.

My first major issue is with the idea that the traditional paradigm is in any way traditional, and not an approach to Christianity that started to gain its force within the last two hundred years; similarly, the emerging paradigm is hardly new—look at the authors of Essays and Reviews, the higher criticism, or, I don’t know, say, St. Augustine’s four-fold levels of exegesis (literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical)?

Borg doesn’t even contrast the two views especially well: the book is a defence of the emerging paradigm, and snide asides and attacks on the traditional method without ever acknowledging limitations in the emerging paradigm concern me: while I’m pretty much right there agreeing with him, I reject the idea that other approaches to faith have nothing to offer the growth of my own faith.

What he does, in the end, is to offer an explication for his own personal faith, and supports and defends most of his own positions relatively well—certainly well enough for an introductory text, if these ideas are new to a discussion/class-group.

My other major issue is with the writing; it feels sloppy throughout. There are a number of issues that better copy-reading and editing should have addressed, but most of my issues are with the never-ending stream of colloquialisms and just plain wacky constructions. While I understand the desire to write a readable and readily-accessible text that sounds much like conversation, such a text can be achieved without these distressing features.

So. Having written far more for this entry than I meant to, my summary? Read three books by Northrop Frye, and you’ll be in far, far better shape (and know far, far more than Borg will teach you): The Great Code, Words with Power, and The Double Vision. If you’re looking for a book to teach from, they’d still be better, but this is decent for a church setting.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One.

I've been a fan of Waugh's since fourth-year. I was supposed to be working on my thesis, so I read Brideshead Revisited. And then Decline and Fall. Vile Bodies, A Handfull of Dust, Sword of Honour... I've now finished most of them, and while I've owned a second-hand copy of The Loved One for a while now, I'd not gotten around to it.

Like all of Waugh, it's a bleak and viciously funny book. Dennis Barlow, a young English poet, has been fired by a studio, and is working at a pet cemetary and living with his uncle. The uncle dies, and Dennis goes to "Whispering Glades" to arrange the funeral. Astonished by the place (as was Waugh; his fascination with Forest Lawn was the inspiration for this novella), he falls in love with it even as he falls for Amy Thanatogenos, an assistant there who helps him. He woos her, and wackiness ensues.

It's a short, quick read, and I'm still amazed that I hadn't read it to this point. While a rather affected book, it's fun, and its savage satire is well-worth reading.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Jeremy Bernstein, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma.

I've been fascinated by Oppenheimer since I stumbled onto the mini-series about him--with Sam Waterston as Oppenheimer--one summer evening in high school.

After that, I spent some time reading about a guy who--despite being a brilliant physicist, and brighter leader--couldn't quite get it all together. He spent some time at the Institute for Advanced Study, another neat place, later in life--which is when the author met him. Most of the book, though is about Oppenheimer's life and studies before the Manhattan Project, followed by his tenure as the director there, and then the hearings which resulted in Oppenheimer losing his security clearance.

It's a well-written book, although it could stand to be better organized and planned, and Bernstein's interjections of personal anecdotes make Oppenheimer and some of the other characters come alive. One gets a feel for what it must have been like as the US became the place to do work in quantum mechanics, what the dynamics of Los Alamos were like, and who these physicists were. Rabi comes across as sagacious, Teller seems like a self-absorbed jerk, and the younger ones--Feynamn, et al.--are seen in all their youth and their promise.

Bernstein's book is worth picking up. If you're at all interested in physics, you'll enjoy this chracter sketch.
Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason, The Rule of Four, 2004.

yadda yadda two Princeton students trying to solve riddles yadda yadda in the middle of a poorly written murder mystery yadda.

This book was poor. It was poorly written, poorly plotted, and poorly conceived. The only thing to recommend this book at all--and what made me downright eager to pick it up--is that it's structured around the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The HP is an endlessly fascinating book, and The Rule of Four persuaded me to get my copy down from my shelves, and peruse it again.

Read the HP. Forget about The Rule of Four and its endless and trivial obsession with steganography. If you really want something fun to think about, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is the way to go. You can see the original--in its wacky combination of languages--here. You can buy an English translation, like me, here.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Kyle Smith, Love Monkey.

Love Monkey is a wacky and entertaining story of an infatuation, a romance, a love-story, an unrequited sob-story. It's in the same vein as Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, a story of a man hopeless in love, and throws in a good wallopping dash of Manchild (with the protagonist at 30ish instead of 50ish).

Tom Farrell is a low-grade almost-editor at a trashy New York tabloid who falls for Julia in what he calls "doses" of her. A man who's not quite sure what he wants, other than her, Farrell's misadventures along his path reveal the author's insights into the nuances of relationships. Moreover, Smith brings new punch to traditional stereotypes of how men and women behave in the big city.

A paean to New York, the book loses much of its energy when it begins to depict the events of September 11, 2001. The writing falls into clichés, the love stories fall away, and what made the book entertaining to that point starts to wane.

All in all, it's a fun divertissement, but nothing special. Just another book that's not bad--and I'll certainly keep my eye out for Smith's next novel--but I wish I could remember what prompted me to place a hold on it in the first place.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

J. Peder Zane, ed. Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading, 2004.

A collection of essays each entitled "The Most X Book I Read," where X ranges from Memorable to Maddest to Double-D-Daring to Smokin' to Technically Elegant to Unpleasant to...

It's always fun to me to see how others have reacted to books--especially ones I've read, but really any book--and so this was a diverting, if unexciting book. It's not worth shelling out for, but as a library book, not a waste of time.

I will quote a segment from "The Most Elegant Book I Read" by Howard Bahr, referring to William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee. It struck me as true and sad, especially after reading last week of the decline of reading in the USA; it's a sic transit gloria mundi et ubi sunt for reading. Pompous and pretentious, it's nevertheless honest, and I sympathize with Bahr:

In our culture, we no longer care to make distinctions, and we have exchanged even the pretense of Percy's "exterior" for the cheap illusion of honesty. To those who find this occasion for applause, I submit the following answer to a question on my final exam last spring:
There is also a reason for people to dislike literature. The reason literature class can be dull and difficult is because of poetry analization[sic!]. The common man dislikes poetry because he does not know the meaning of half the words being used.
Also, if one did understand the vocabulary of the author, it would still require deep thoughts from the reader to grasp the meaning of the poem.
I would probably enjoy literature [the lad goes one,] if there was no such thing as technology. Technology has made easier for people to be lazy and simply flip on the television rather sit down and read a book.

You may supply the missing words yourself, together with the larger implications of this remarkable admission. Let us be common. Let us find the great voices of humanity dull and difficult. Let us, above all, celebrate laziness, avoid deep thoughts, and blame it on technology rather than our own tragic indifference. Thus the marrow goes, and all our vitals, and at last our collective soul. (228-29)

Sunday, July 11, 2004

H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream, 1990.

Bissinger, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, took a year off to investigate the culture of high school football in the States. This book, focusing on the 1988 Permian Panthers of Odessa, TX, tries to get a handle on what makes football--and high school football, at that--the all-consuming passion that it is. I don't think he entirely succeeds.

In addition to chronicling the highs and lows of the team's season, introducing us to the players--and what consumes them, other than football--and telling us the story of the season, Bissinger also teaches us about the town of Odessa, and why it is so largely devoted to "Mojo"--their moniker/cheer for the Panthers. He starts the book proper with a cursory description of Odessa, which, for a time in the '80s, had the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita murder rate in the United States, but moves on. Bissinger explores in depth racial tensions--desegregation came to Odessa only in any real sense in '82--school districting that may have been gerrymandered to the advantage of Permian High over cross-town Odessa High. He describes the town's history and growth, contrasting it with that of neighbouring Midland.

Despite all of his investigations, each interesting and worthy of exploration, the book never really escapes the cheesiness epitomized in its subtitle. All Bissinger really tells us is that football is popular because it's what the people of Odessa, and similar towns throughout Texas and the Midwest and the whole USA, have chosen to care about. I've visited towns like these on band tours, and I've seen this phenomenon firsthand. I love football. But telling me that it's like this largely because it's almost always been like this just doesn't quite cut it. It's an interesting enough book, and a quick read, but it's far from earth-shattering. If you go rent Varsity Blues, you'll pick up the highlights of Friday Night Lights just as quickly.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Kelly Cooper, Eyehill.

I picked this one up after it was reviewed in the Globe & Mail's "First Fiction" column. This book may just be the best collection of short fiction I've ever read.

The writing feels like I imagine Saskatchewan: yes, I know that sounds trite, but the writing is simultaneously spare and evocative. These are stories that are well-crafted, but don't feel so polished as to be solely art pieces. Cooper uses a mimetic style that is far and away one of the more arresting descriptive styles I've seen in a long time.

These pieces are about relationships not fully understood: one character to another, one character to a town, people to places. All of these relationships have something to do with Eyehill, and with the morality that belongs to a farming community: you can't shoot another man's dog, it's hard to talk about the fact that you've had no kids, what it means to look out from the top of a grain elevator. I'd not describe this book the way that the jacket does, about the principal recurring characters, but rather I'd say that this book is one about connections.

Instead of quoting a bit from a couple of the stories, I'll link to a story of hers that's on the web here. The publisher doesn't have a great web site (it's mostly promises of more to come), so I'm not going to link to it. But get your hands on this book and read it; I'm glad I listened to the Globe's Jim Bartley with his review.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye Unbuttoned: Wit and Wisdom from the Notebooks and Diaries, selected by Robert D. Denham.

I love spending time with Frye. Denham's done a good job of selecting a number of intriguing statements, any one of which is worthy of careful thought & reflection.

The problem I had with this book is the problem I have with any collection of aphorisms: one doesn't run into the next, the way the ideas do in Frye's own published work--and one of the thing's that's exciting about Frye is the way each idea produces the next, in a fun interplay that may be the best reason to read him. So: a collection of aphorisms is slow to read, and leaves one with little memory of specific ideas (despite 30+ Book Darts), unlike what a coherent argument produces in me by sympathetic vibrations.
Diana Wynne Jones, Deep Secret.

This book that precedes The Merlin Conspiracy. Do you know, as decent as Deep Secret was, I liked its sequel far better? While both are very much of Jones' milieu, the other one seems to have more of a real concern for the lands and the worlds that the stories tread upon.

Still, this was a fun diversion.
I suppose I really need to finish Zhivago.
Diana Wynne Jones, Mixed Magics.

I did a search the other day, and discovered the existence of two Chrestomanci books I'd not read before. I had my favourite children's librarian obtain this one for me.

Mixed Magics is a collection of four short stories: "Warlock at the Wheel," "Stealer of Souls," "Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream," and "The Sage of Theare." All but one of the stories involve calling out the name and having that dapperly dressed Enchanter (well, when he isn't in a dressing gown, but even that'll be quite nice) show up and help out with the situation.

I don't think any of the stories are all that exciting: they're too much the writing of someone not content to leave stories off in places that invite readers to wonder. All the same, it's fun to spend time with Cat again, and in the worlds of the honourable Mr. Chant.
James Patterson and Andrew Cross, 3rd Degree.

Fluff. An explosion. A friend being beaten by her husband. A liaison with the deputy director of Homeland Security. Some more death, some sadness, and a solved murder with ends neatly tied up in string.

My palate was cleansed; it certainly wasn't stimulated.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Thomas Lynch, Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality, 2000.

I've mentioned Lynch's earlier book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. I quite liked the earlier one, and while this newer book doesn't seem nearly as startlingly original as The Undertaking, I enjoyed the time that I spent reading this book.

This book is a collection of essays that muse about what it means to live, and what part death plays in life. The same concerns of the earlier book are reproduced, perhaps with yet more careful reflection about Lynch's position. Given that, then, why read this book? My answer to that question is that Lynch spends more time thinking about and talking about language, and its role in life and death. While that concern was far from absent in The Undertaking, it's front and centre here: he conveys his deep respect for language and what it can accomplish. And that's an idea I'm always happy to read about.

From "Y2Kat":
"I am a slave to words. I am their servant. The acoustics and meanings, their sounds and sense, sometimes make me shiver--the precision, the liberties, the health and healing in their meanings. Language is the first among God's many gifts. To name and proclaim makes us feel like gods. To define and discern, to clarify and articulate, to affirm--surely this is what our maker had in mind when we were made in that image and likeness. Not the beard or lightning bolts or bluster. It was no big bang. It was a whisper. It was a word made flesh--our Creation. And the real power of Creation is the power of words to guard us like angels, to protect and defend and define us; to incite, and excite, and inspire, to separate us from the grunting, growling, noisome, wordless, meowing things. ..." ( 217-18)

I like reading Lynch's pieces not because of any concern of my own about mortality, but because his own sober reflections encourage reflection on my part--about words, about life, about death, and about what it is to think.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Diana Wynne Jones, The Merlin Conspiracy, 2003.

Jones was one of my favourite authors when I was younger, thanks to books like Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant. She's a brilliant, imaginative & exciting author--far worthier of being read than JKR, in my humble opinion, but oh well.

This latest novel twins the stories of Arianrhod & Nichothodes as they try to save the world of Blest, and generally make sense of their own lives. Like all of Diana Wynne Jones's books, the kids are far more willing to recognise the world for what it is while working for its betterment than the adults. Roddy & Nick have to make sense of their respective magics, and work together to stop the takeover by the evil person whose name I'm not going to tell you (so as to not ruin the surprise).

It's not her best book, but it's riveting & fun, & I like coming back to her writing.

Over a library in one of her stories, she put an inscription about the books inside that I think I'd like above my books one day: "Monuments more lasting than brass..."

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising, 1986.

It's always nice to reread some pulp.

Red Storm Rising is a gedankexperiment. Back in 1985/86, in the height of the Cold War, Clancy wondered what a modern war would like. This book details a potential cause (albeit with the USSR as the aggressor), and a war plan for the Soviet side.

He posits the need for a severe resource grab, and in this case chooses oil. Clancy (or his main character, Jack Ryan) is fond, in later novels, of arguing that all wars are just examples of "grand larceny writ large." The Soviets try to achieve surprise before attacking Germany--in an effort to capture Europe--in order to prevent NATO from interfering while the Soviets would attempt to capture the Persian Gulf and its oil.

At any rate, the novel is vintage Clancy. It's fun, it jumps all over the place, and it presents a neat bird's-eye view of tactics and strategy for war in a modern environment. Except that it's twenty years out of date now. And there are no longer any modern states for the United States to worry about...

A pleasant distraction that's mostly just light fluff, the book still disturbs you, as any book about war is likely to do.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Lisa Moore, Degrees of Nakedness, 1995.

I've forgotten why Ms. Moore's collection of short stories was recommended to me; that's one of the unfortunate disadvantages of meaning to blog about a book, and then putting it off for three-ish weeks.

So. Her book is weak. It has flashes of description and characterization that are quite good, but for the most part, she's far too concerned with sex and far too little concerned with trying to tell an interesting story well. The stories reflect an obsession on the part of the narrators, an inability to fully comprehend what sex means--if it does--and what role it should play in their lives.

There are, as I said, a couple of moments that work fairly well.

From "Sea Urchin":
This is the sad thing about loving. It's a skill, like working up a clay pot on a wheel. As though the form is slipping to life by itself, the hands slicked with juicy mud are doing all they can to contain it. Just the tiniest squeezing of muscles in the hands keeps the pot perfect. It's such a shock to throw a pot for the first time and see how unsimple it is, to have it skew, deform and collapse in seconds, against what you expect.(30).

It seems to me that while this passage doesn't share a new analogy, it spells out the analogy well. It's a simile that really does work, and invites repetition: it shares the messy delicateness that is trying to love, trying to maintain a relationship, and it does so simply and without over-elaborating upon the idea.

A real problem with these stories is evident just after the point that this passage comes from: the slipshod nature of the jumps from one idea to the next, intended to create juxtapositions that ask the reader to make sense of some oddly related ideas, instead are jarring and startling to the reader. I wonder if perhaps the speaker hasn't fully made sense of the relations herself, and so the disconnects remain disconnected, rather than linking smoothly.

In "Haloes," Moore uses a line that I find intriguing: "the haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon. It's important that it's not a bejewlled or perfect finger. It only points to something" (136). While it seems to me that this is the idea behind each of Moore's stories, I'm inclined to argue that the person pointing needs to have some sense of the "why" behind the pointing, and I'm not convinced that that "why" is present in these stories--or, in fact, that the finger is pointing at something worthy of consideration.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Glenn Yeffeth, ed., Seven Season of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show.

This collection of twenty-two essays begins with some degree of promise, examining certain aspects of Buffy. In particular, Nancy Holder's "Slayers of the Last Arc," is a piece that argues that the final conclusion of the show works well both artistically and in the context of the show as a whole. While I'm more tempted by its seductive appeal to Joseph Campbell's outline of the quest myth (from Hero with a Thousand Faces) as an explanation, it is one of the few pieces that doesn't fall into the trap that most of the rest do. That is to say, it has a clear argument and it doesn't just follow a story--it uses quotations from the show to argue a point. It's a real essay!

The other extreme--and I won't pick on a particular author or essay, here, are the pieces that say, wasn't Buffy great? Don't you miss it when X happened? Who really was Buffy's best boyfriend?

So. Some decent essays, some crap. Much like those essays that you'll find online--and in short, spend your time looking for interesting pieces there; unless you can get this Yeffeth book from the library, it's not worth the price of purchase.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Ian Fleming, Casino Royale.

When I was a kid, I loved the idea of James Bond. I'd heard of him--and even seen a couple of the movies--and still wasn't allowed to take the books out of the library. Not their restriction: my mom's. She thought it wasn't yet age-appropriate material. Or so she always said: she never mentioned that they're poorly written, unexciting books, too.

Casino Royale is where Bond made his first appearance in print. It's a slow, plodding book--the first half deals with Bond trying to beat a Russian spy at Baccarat, and the second half is him recovering from being tortured--and setting up SMERSH as his future antagonistic agency. The entire book is a plodding exploration of the philosophy and psychology that Fleming creates to explain Bond. That is to say, the whole book sets up the rest. Whether they're better, substantially, is hard to say: the extensive descriptions that are so much a part of Fleming's style do not provide a background of excitement necessary to a spy/thriller novel, in my opinion.

Stick to the movies.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Laura Kipnis, Against Love: a Polemic, 2003.

This book, by Dr. Kipnis, is far from as exciting as its reviews and its cover suggest it might be. The book jacket says that the book "examines the meaning and cultural significance of adultery, arguing that perhaps the question concerns not only the private dilemma of whether or not to be faithful, but also the purpose of this much vaunted fidelity." Fair enough, as things go, but let's make it simpler: she says that while love is fun, it's for the short term--and, in most cases, can't be sustained over the long-term. She's quite forceful in her presentation--one might even say that she's polemical...

Her analysis follows in a Foucauldian mould, investigating structures that exist to exert control on a number of levels--the personal, societal, and so forth.

She begins by pointing out that since love, in its first and initial moments is so very fun, it's not something that should stoop to becoming "work," as marital therapists are so fond of arguing is necessary (there are some quite enjoyable moments of railing against just such therapists, too).

The second chapter suggests that binding monogamy is a type of prison: that it exists based on strictures that prevent, on injunctions, rather than being based on love itself.

In the last of the compelling sections--chapter three--Kipnis offers what feels like a fervid paean to adultery. The excitement, the perils, the fact that adultery is ultimately about stealing time for the new lover lead to new perils. What she's asking is why this excitement fades, and why this experience should be denigrated in the public eye when monogamy is a thing of the past (a point that she most carefully explores in this section).

The final chapter deals with fidelity and adultery as reflective of society. It looks at the changes from the unexamined infidelities of Kennedy to the over-examination now current in modern US political culture. Kipnis argues that the development of fidelity in love-based partnerships as a metaphor for trustworthiness in leadership and governance is a very recent development, and that it's not, ultimately, sustainable simply because of the lack of permanence in modern relationships. Her implied criticism--that would be much stronger if it were made explicit--is that a trope that is doomed to failure should be recognised as such by canny participants, who should essay a move beyond it instead of living within the status quo. Obviously, this chapter moves away from an investigation of the personal aspects of love and adultery, and paradoxically, this movement both succeeds and fails. While the final chapter of the book is intriguing, and while it is perhaps the best argued portion of Kipnis' thesis, it doesn't fit nearly as well with what has gone before. This discontinuity, combined with a negligible conclusion that makes no real effort to sum up her work left me disconcerted and unimpressed.

The book jacket asks "What is the trade-off between personal gratification and the renunciations society demands of us?"; the answer that Kipnis provides is that what we give up is not worth the price. Unfortunately, the book wasn't worth the surprisingly long time it took to read: the pacing forces the reader to slow down, and really, it's just not worth doing. Certainly finishing the book wasn't worth the 75 ¢ fine that I've incurred for returning the book three days late.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Denise Levertov, This Great Unknowing: Last Poems [with a Note on the text by Paul A. Lacey.

Levertov's poems are spare. Each carefully chosen word seems to be distanced from each other word, and yet would not work without it. At her best, she describes specific images--the feet of a homeless man, in "Feet"; the branch, in "Drawn in Air"--and lets the description offer what other atttendant ideas that would be reflected upon.

I borrowed the book from Wayne to read "Feet," as I was looking for poems for the Maundy Thursday service at church. It's a gorgeous poem, perhaps the best in this odd collection, that I didn't end up using: image piles on top of other images, and demand time to be considered, require time for the reader to construct a sense of what's being talked about. It was so beautiful a poem that I thought it wouldn't quite work, aloud as background: it, like the best of her poems in this book deserves the full attention of anyone who encounters it.

I referred to it as an odd collection because it is not ordered by anything other than date of composition, far from Levertov's normal method. It's a book that I'm going to have to find a copy of for my own library.

I'll end with an excerpt from the beginnng of another of my favourite poems in the book, "Mass of the Moon Eclipse":

Not more slowly than frayed
human attention can bear, but slow
enough to be stately, deliberate, a ritual
we can't be sure will indeed move
from death into resurrection
As the bright silver inch by inch
is diminished, options vanish,
life's allurements. The last sliver
lies face down, back hunched, a husk.

The pauses and caesuras in the lines slow down the words in a reading even as the poem talks about slowing down. The line breaks leave ideas not hanging but suspended, like the moon as it slowly vanishes behind Earth's shadow. The rest of the poem is just as good. Go look for it.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Thomas Merton, Geography of Holiness: The Photography of Thomas Merton, (ed. Dema Prasad Patnaik).

Wayne Allen very kindly leant me this collection of Merton's photography.

Merton--whom I'm very fond of--sometimes frustrates me by making me incredibly jealous of him. This book is yet one more example of that. Merton's shots exhibit a clear understanding of lighting: he captures shadows that both obscure and reveal, drawing attention to intriguing negative spaces, while washing important subjects almost out of the picture. Plate 28 [Darjeeling (the Kanchenjunga)], for example, almost makes the mountains that dominate the landscape disappear into the clouds, calling the viewer's attention and focus to the tiny trees that dot the mountain in the middle-ground.

Always the photographs ask you to consider details; the shots draw you in with the sense of line. In plate 29 [Darjeeling (Terraced Plantation)], the winding road contrasts sharply with the ridge-contours of the planting, pulling the eye to the very small cluster of flowers in the foreground.

Plates 59 & 60 (both of the monastery of Christ in the Desert, NM, a place I'd very much like to visit), are of shadows from pegs emerging from an adobe wall: the mottled colours of the wall soften the jutting pegs & sharp, spear-like shadows that that they cast. Both photograps are of an enclosing feature, but both reveal a tremendous lightness and openness that invite reflection.

While some of the photos are of exotic locales, Merton also reveals an eye for the beauty that is around him: chairs on the porch of his hermitage, fields, roots, rocks, a wagon wheel, doors... He frames each shot in such a way as to present life and action in the stillness of the photograph, and his eye for composition makes me jealous indeed.

These are a gorgeous series of photos, and I'm grateful indeed to Wayne for sharing them with me.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Russell Smith, Muriella Pent.

A poet from the Caribbean comes to Canada on a six-month residency. He stays at the home of a recently widowed woman (Muriella, herself) who aspires to be a writer herself. Complications with the sponsoring Arts Board, comments from the poet that are astute but not politically astute, other artists, interactions with the two students drawn into Muriella's orbit--Brian and Julia--combine to tell a comedy of manners that is about writing, art, and love.

That's a short blurb that might well fit on a book jacket, and as such it does Smith's novel a great disservice. For while this book, like his earlier ones, has its flaws, it's a beautifully and carefully crafted story that reveals a much more observant storyteller whose craft has been carefully honed.

While the obsessive fascination with sex and physical appearance has not left, it serves to advance the story as well as character development in this novel. The miscellany of forms--narration, epistolary excerpts, news/magazine clippings--offers differing perspectives without feeling cobbled together. Most importantly, the story, built around four intriguing people, is captivating and thoroughly enjoyable.

Smith is reading from it next month (tickets available at Bryan Prince, among other places); that event is something to look forward to.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Society of Saint John the Evangelist, The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.

The book I used for lectio divina for Lent book this year was the rule of the SSJE for the North American Congregation.

It's not a book that can be talked about in the same way as I talk about most of the other books I read.

This is a book with a very specific focus: it lays out the principles by which the Brothers of the SSJE live. It addresses all aspects of their common life, and of the expectations of the society for its members. In short chapters of no more than two pages each, it essays to begin explanations of the call of the society, of the vows the brothers take, of the ideas and actions that are important for their corporate life, and of what it is to live as a brother of the SSJE.

The rule is written in such a way as to demand careful reading, thought, and attention--id est, with the concept of lectio divina in mind. What the book asks of its readers is that they reflect on how they lead their own lives. It was the perfect book for Lent, but it's one I think that I'll need to keep rereading regularly.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Spalding Gray, Sex and Death to the Age 14, 1986.

I picked up Gray's book because of an exceptionally praising article in Salon, which celebrated Gray and lamented the recent confirmation of his death. I hoped Gray would be another Davies.

You see, reading an author shortly after his death is not a new thing for me. The first one I remember finding after hearing an obituary was Robertson Davies, a guy I'd always meant to read. Gray isn't the next one, either: there have been a couple others in between, and generally, I've been quite sad that I didn't discover the author's works prior to his or her death.

Gray's monologues were interesting, certainly, and I enjoyed the book. Moments of it were wonderful: things to make the reader laugh and vivid depictions not just of the world but of the motivations of people sparkle, drawing the reader in. Ultimately, though, the monologues fracture, move from a point. They're entertaining, but nothing more--which wouldn't be so bad, were it not for the fact that the monologues offer glimpses, snatches of some insight that lingers forever just out of reach.

I may read another. Gray told the author of that Salon piece that he far preferred his novel Impossible Vacation to most of his other work, and I got it from the library at the same time that I picked up Sex and Death to the Age 14. Right now, though, I don't feel sufficiently motivated.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Jennifer Toth, The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, 1993.

Toth's study of life underground in New York is fascinating. Drawing from her work as a journalist, the work is largely anecdotal, describing her encounters with a large number of people who live beneath the surface. The anecdotes and character sketches are supplemented with statistics and interviews with officials, and together, the information draws a picture of a vast--and, in many cases, more caring--city underneath the official city.

Toth examines why people go underground, and deals with the truth behind the stereotypes of such people, and the limits of those truths. Her compassion for the people she describes is palpable. Though many suffer from the ravages of drug addiction and mental illness, she helps them tell their stories: this in turn lets Toth show the reader what different communities are like, how children are raised, the status of women, how authorities are attempting to help/deal with the underground dwellers, and more.

While the book could well stand to be laid out more clearly, it does give a comprehensive survey of what life looks like, and how it's organised, under the surface. Movingly and compassionately written, it's as hard a book to put down as it is to keep reading. I'm glad I read it.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Chris Gudgeon, The Naked Truth: the Untold Story of Sex in Canada, 2003.

It helps to have a good idea of what you're getting into when you open a book. Moreover, it helps to understand just what your expectations are.

Gudegon's book is aimed at a wide audience, and received quite good promotion, for a Canadian book--sex does sell, after all--and so I shouldn't have expected, as I did, a deep, academic survey of the history of the perception of sex in Canada. Yet, for a popular book hoping to attract a large audience, Gudgeon's book does quite well.

His book works through topics like public nudity, strippers, the status of women (especially in relation to sexual mores), swingers, porn, homosexuality, censorship, and legislation aimed at all of these and other aspects of sexual behaviours and identities. What bothers me most about the way he does look at these topics is how poorly organised the book is--it skips from topic to topic, and I didn't get a good sense of where his argument is going--and frequently I didn't feel sure that I understood how it had been developing.

His argument, though far from startlingly original, is quite intriguing. He believes that Canadian society has always suffered from what Gudgeon terms "neurotica": that we as a society have always struggled with a unique inability to cope with representations and discussions of sex. We are, he argues ambivalent toward sex despite "the frozen north... [being] flaming hot." Our laws are confusing about most issues relating to sex: particularly so about the legal status of stripping and prostitution. We hem and we haw and we react oddly, and eventually become a bit more open, but deep-seated confusion remains.

All of what Gudgeon has to say is interesting. He writes clearly and engagingly. What is perhaps most disconcerting is his understandable attempt to be funny in dealing with his subject matter: sidebars like "St. Augustine's Top Five Pick-up Lines" and "Releasing Your Inner Cougar" seem like something one should expect in a trite magazine, and serve only to lighten the treatment. They're not needed.

All in all, it's a neat book, even though I think it has some serious flaws. Its examination of censorship, and the not-great/not-awful nature of R. v. Butler case [about pornographic/obscene materials] is quite well done indeed.

I did enjoy reading the book, but it's not one that I think I'd give anyone as a present. It's more of a fun and interesting divertissement.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.

I reread Lynch's book because I finally bought a copy of it for myself. It's one I've long wanted to own, and its addition to my library seemed like a good time to reread it. I came across this book after reading a profile of Alan Ball in the Globe. This was the book, the profile informed me, that prompted one of my favourite shows, Six Feet Under.

The book was a finalist for the National Book Awards, and won an American Book Award in 1998; reading it, it's immediately obvious why.

Lynch, you see, is a poet. His prose doesn't read like most; it's crafted with an eye to evoking images, and to cramming the shortest passages with dozens of finely honed, careful ideas. He points out a number of times in the book that his subject is one of the two subjects that have fruitful for poets--death (the other being sex, of course)--and his own work as a Funeral Director provides a rich repository of observations for talking about people confronting death. His chapters range from describing an idea for a combination golf course/graveyard to a hypochondriac, to an attempt to rebuild a bridge to allow access to a cemetary to a discussion of what it is that a Funeral Director does to divorce to life to death...

Throughout, Lynch argues that we try to ignore and marginalize death. That we seem to hope that by ignoring it, we may avoid it. And yet, he says, it is only by confronting death that we can live. He posits this idea so beautifully that I'll not try further to summarize it here. Instead, I'll tell you to go read it. I think you'll enjoy it; you'd be hard pressed not to.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Michel Tremblay, Birth of a Bookworm.
Trans. Sheila Fischman.

Any reader--and by that word, I mean anyone who is consumed with reading--will love this book.
Tremblay describes, in a series of vignettes, his growth as a bookworm. Each major development happens in relation to a particular book or set of books. We learn of his dismay--so amusing, given what Tremblay does for a living--at his first non-picture book, that had words set-off as dialogue as with a play! I read with sympathy of his desire for Snow White to end differently, and his subsequent imaginings and tellings of what just might happen next. Of being so enveloped in Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute, that he missed most of a familial vacation. Of his first exposure to drama, in Agamemnon. Of becoming sick, worried about a character in... of falling in love with a character... of reading almost all of the books from the Index...

Tremblay writes movingly about these defining experiences, capturing--as he is well-able indeed to do--the sorts of exchanges that he'd have with his mother as they argued about this book or that, about Michel being unwilling to remove his nose from a book. These stories will ring true for any reader. You will remember your own cognates of these experiences, and you'll smile, being oh so very happy yet again to have discovered the wonder of books.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Robert Waldron, Walking with Thomas Merton: Discovering his Poetry, Essays, and Journals.

I'm getting ready to give a short talk about Merton's poetry, for a Lenten series at my church. Naturally, in addition to rereading Merton's poetry like a dervish, I'm reading others' writings about Merton's poetry, too. This is quite a new little book that details Waldron's efforts to get ready to give a day-long retreat based on Merton's poetry. Hence me picking it up.

Waldron's book is a journal he kept while preparing for the retreat. There are some lovely, well-considered and argued ideas; there's more uninteresting gobblety-gook. But the whole book's only 106 pages, so the skippable bits won't wear on you too much.

If you're interested in the poetry--and you've read it--you might enjoy this book, as an example of how someone else approaches teaching it. If not, or if that idea doesn't interest you, don't worry yourself. Go read the journals (again). They're so much fun. And even if it does interest you, you're better off with the more academic & much better written Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton, by Michael Higgins.
It has, sadly, been far too long since I have posted. Pesky job, interfering with stuff I enjoy—like reading. To quote Daniel Pennac “Time spent reading is always time stolen. Like time spent writing, or loving, for that matter” (Better than Life 146).

So. Today, perhaps, a couple of entries. Beginning with one that will convince you I’ve not been reading.

Slings & Arrows.

A six-part miniseries that was on TMN, and that ended last week. And that I hope they'll replay. The short synopsis: Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) returns to the town of New Burbage, home of the New Burbage Theater Festival—a fictional version of the Stratford Festival--following the death of the Festival's artistic director. Tennant is named interim artistic director, despite the fact that he "went mad" during a production of Hamlet seven years earlier, leaping into Ophelia's grave and not returning. Scheming board members & staffers, frustrated folk (including Tennant's ex, now playing Gertrude), lousy actresses, and a movie star playing the big role combine to make this series six exciting hours of television well worth anyone's time.

So, why talk about this miniseries on a reading blog? Well, a couple of reasons. For one thing, I think that it is important to take film seriously, as something worthy of reflection, and as something worthy of careful discussion. For another, this series does two great things. Most importantly, Slings & Arrows shows a couple of ways of approaching a text, and of finding ways to enter into it, of making sense of it, of expressing what one thinks of it. The series also shows—perhaps better than any other thing I've ever seen—that theatre, that Shakespeare, that high art has the capacity to challenge and to transform anyone, from any sort of background. Doing both of these two things, it's not a didactic show; it's funny, well-written, full of good acting, and it's enjoyable.

Go read it, the next time it's on.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Eduation at Home.

I can't remember now where I stumbled across a recommendation to this book. I was intrigued, though, by the notion of home-schooling--or indeed, any education--based on the classical trivium method of learning. The short explanation of that term is that students would work through material in a spiral curriculum of three stages: grammar, then logic, then rhetoric.

This book does not deal at great length with a theoretical understanding of the trivium, but rather inserts explanatory material as it outlines a modifiable curriculum based on this approach. The authors' project is one that, at heart, I can easily agree with--get kids reading. Get them reading for fun and for learning. Get them to absorb information, then to think about it, and then get them writing to express their views and their conclusions. Keep them reading. Get the to read great books, get them to enjoy the challenge that is learning. In short, as Francis Bacon wrote, "Reading maketh a full man, writing an exact man, and conference a ready man."

Now, sure, I disagree with quite a number of the texts that they recommend in their great books curriculum, and I disagree with a couple of their ideas--I'd put more emphasis in some areas than they do, but hey, that's to be expected. A parent with no formal teaching experience or education could quite easily take this book, put in a great deal of time and effort, and teach his or her kids very well indeed. To the point where most profs I know would be thrilled to have those kids in their classes.

The book, though, isn't really all that fun a read. One has to follow through pretty well all of it to extract any more of the argument than I've summarised in this blog entry, and that will get tedious, because the basic argument is repeated again and again--partially because this book is at least partly designed to help people who haven't studied education. For those who have, reading the Wikipedia description and then Browning's poem, "Development" ought to suffice--except for the resource lists, or generally, to think about how you'd educate your children in an ideal world.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

John Gould, Kilter: 55 fictions.

Gould's collection of short short fiction made the shortlist for the 2003 Giller prize, which is how I first heard of it. I was sufficiently impressed by the book that I wish I'd been able to read it before now.

It seems to me that the nature of short short fiction is such that it presents a few vivid images, a scene, a moment, and asks you to step back and to ask yourself what you make of the moment. Using so very few words to create moments--occasionally with striking poignancy--is truly impressive, and I come away from reading this book startled by Gould's virtuosity.

The only quibble that I have is that, because I feel each story asks for the moment of reflection--that each story demands that you step back, consider, and reflect--a collection like this is not ideal for reading in a few sittings. Its nature requires more time, more fitful time spent reading.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Stephen Fried, The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader.

Fried spent three years at Har Zion, a conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, chronicling the retirement of the long-serving rabbi and the synagogue's search for its next leader. The story is more than simply a chronicle of back-room machinations and religious politics; Fried asks his readers to think about their spirituality as he develops a better understanding of his own. This book is a fascinating and compelling read; I couldn't put it down.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Chris Gudgeon, An Unfinished Conversation: The Life and Music of Stan Rogers.

Paul, the interim organist at my church lent me this book. I'd been giving him a lift home, and "Northwest Passage" played from my CD player. We talked about Stan's music--thoroughly boring my other passenger--and Paul told stories about what Stan was like. This prompted Paul to lend me the book. Thanks, Paul.

Now, having said that, I was somewhat disappointed by the book. I had been expecting something weightier, something more akin to those academic biographies which I'm so used to reading--the kind that stretch to 600+ pages... and this book is not that. It's a relaxed, largely uncritical look at Stan's life. It's more designed for public consumption than for academia, and when considered in that light, it's good at what it sets out to do. It also ends with Stan's lyrics, which are irresistible in and of themselves. And hey, with a recipe for grog--and a great parody of "Barrett's Privateers" about grog, how could it be a bad book?

So I just need to remember to accept books as I find them, without expecting them to be something other than what they are. Accept the pig without faulting it for not being a giraffe, and such.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Kathy Reichs, Bare Bones.

Much the same as the ones I mentioned earlier. Quite good, pleasant reading. Nothing taxing, but a fun little bit of forensic pathologist crime-solver fiction.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Reliquary.

More of the same as Relic. That'll be enough of that bit of nostalgic rereading, then. On to other things.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Jonathan Raban, Soft City (1974).

Raban's collected thoughts only begin to cohere as a unity at the very end of this intriguing book. His essential argument is that a "good working definition of metropolitan life would centre on its intrinsic illegibility," that "most people are hidden most of the time, their appearances are brief and controlled, their movements secret, the outlines of their lives obscure" (222). That is to say, more so in cities than elsewhere, each of us constructs an identity that we choose to share; that identity tends to be fluid and mutable, adapting as we move from one set of associations to another. Because of this shifting, because of these masks, it's nigh impossible for an
observer to make sense of the city-dweller--let alone his relations to all other (and equally mutable) citizens.

In order not to "live in cities badly", we need, Raban asserts, "to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom" (230). His own attempts to that end in this book are necessarily autobiographical, and offer his own fascinations with events, historical and literary (predominantly 19th c.), that show characters making space for themselves in cities (principally London). His discussion swirls from newcomers to stylistics to consumerism to the modern shamanism of the civitas to physical spaces played against imagined spaces.

Throughout his discussion of the city, his acute eye for detail as well as his careful reading of works that essay some description of cities makes his reading of what a city is and what a city should be quite different from the usual prescriptions we find in Le Corbusier or Mumford. Raban's thesis that we need to understand cities better--even as he rejects the idea that such an understanding is entirely possible--in order to make them better, safer places, is not rooted in moralism (or Manicheanism, which Raban also condemns quite soundly) but in an empathy that is quite admirable.

It was quite a neat book; I'm glad I picked it up.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

François de la Rochefoucauld, Reflections; Or, Sentences and Moral Maxims (1665).

It is an odd sort of collection that takes as its object wisdom or advice. Yet it is indeed a long-standing one, indeed, that one can even find within most religious books.

La Rochefoucauld's collection, like most others, causes me to stumble, while reading; I find that my eyes glaze over after reading an aphorism or two, and I have trouble distinguishing one maxim from the next.

My conclusion remains that maxims are useful only in two cases: to inspire self-reflection, or to have a quotation to slip into something one is writing. Certainly, they are of no use in advance, and their wisdom is only really perceptible in retrospect.

An aphorism or four, for your amusement and your own collections:

¶ 122
If we resist our passions, it is oftener because they are weak than because we are strong.

¶ 250
True eloquence means saying all that is necessary and only what is necessary.

¶ 259
The pleasure of love lies in loving, and our own sensations make us happier than those we inspire.

¶ 330
We forgive to the extent that we love.

¶ 344
Most men, like plants, have hidden characteristics that chance brings to light.

¶ 379
When our integrity declines, our taste does also.

¶ 486
Those who have had great love affairs are forever glad, and forever sorry, that they have ended.

First Supplement, #VIII
If we cannot find peace inside ourselves, it is useless to look for it elsewhere.

Third Supplement, #XCII.
It is more necessary to study men than books.
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Relic.

Some nice light brain-candy.
My mom had brought home Preston's new book, Codex. It was quite awful. Trite, obvious, overly predictable, and corny. So I decided to go back and reread Relic, which is actually decent for this odd genre that mixes detective/horror/sci-fi in a jangled mishmash.

I quite enjoy Special Agent Pendergast; he's in that detective tradition to which I'd be quite happy to belong.

Rereading this book, though, had the unfortunate side-effect of renewing my desire to visit the Museum of Natural History, though.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Italo Calvino, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller.

Some few works of fiction force you to slow down. They ask you not just to enjoy, to lose yourself in them, but to consider quite carefully the implications of all that the texts assert. This novel is among that select few.

I've been wanting to read this particular Calvino for some time. I forget where & how I first heard of it. Certainly its peculiarity, its referential nature, the very nifty-ness of the story was part of the recommendation that I was given.

Other sites give detailed plot summaries; I will only say that the book tells the story of two readers--one of which is YOU, as you read--who fall into a story, but who run sharply into the fact that only the beginning of the story is seemingly extant. Then the readers struggle to find the rest of the story only to be offered another one, and another. Meantime, the readers fall in love, have misadventures, while Calvino offers quite a number of theories of reading for consideration.

The titles of the varied stories are worth quoting:

If on a winter's night a traveller
Outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of wind or vertigo
Looks down in the gathering shadow
In a network of lines that enlace
In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?
--he asks, anxious to hear the story.

Each of these, mind, is a fictional story that Calvino has an author begin. Each of these is a story that begins to attract the Reader(s), and ends, Scheherazade-like. There is a bizarre yet fascinating plot involving a man named Marana, who is somehow involved in the production of fake stories, translations, obfuscations, revolutions, plots, who seemingly exists not entirely within time. Separate and widely diverse, we are constantly reminded that these stories have nothing within them in common--and yet, as you've just read, their titles together form a sentence (although the Reader protests that that too, is accidental...).

What intrigues me so much about this one story, this overall story that both is and isn't, lies in its fascination with what the importance of a story is for. In the multiplicity of reasons, of fors. And of the one reason that cannot be refuted--reading is captivating.

Some lines that particularly struck me:

"Reading," he says, "is always this: there is a thing that is there, a thing made of writing, a solid, material object, which cannot be changed, and through this thing we measure ourselves against something else that is not present, something else that belongs to the immaterial, invisible world, because it can only be thought, imagined, or because it was once and is no longer, past, lost, unattainable, in the land of the dead..."
"Or that is not present because it does not yet exist, something desired, feared, possible or impossible," Ludmilla says. "Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be..."
(72, fr. "chapter four")

You are always a possible you. Who would dare sentence you to the loss of you, a catastrophe as terrible as the loss of the I. For a second-person discourse to become a novel, at least two you's are required, distinct, and concomitant, which stand out from the crowd of he's, she's, and they's.
(147, fr, "chapter seven")

You have little cause to rejoice, Reader. The secret that is revealed to you, the intimacy between the two of them, consists in the complementary relationship of two vital rhythms. For Irnerio all that counts is the life lived instant by instant; art for him counts as expenditure of vital energy, not as work that remains, not as that accumulation of books that Ludmilla seeks in books. But he also recognizes, without need of reading, that energy somehow accumulated, and he feels obliged to bring it back into circulation, using Ludmilla's books as the material base for works in which he can invest his own energy, at least for an instant.
(150, fr, "chapter seven")

"The novels that attract me most," Ludmilla said, "are those that create an illusion of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure, cruel, and perverse as possible."
(192, fr. "chapter eight")

Lovers' readings of each other's bodies (of that concentrate of mind and body which lovers use to go to bed together) differs from the reading of written pages in that it is not linear. It starts at any point, skips, repeats itself, goes backward, insists, ramifies in simultaneous and divergent messages, converges again, has moments of irritation, turns the page, finds its place, gets lost. A direction can be recognized in it, a route to an end, since it tends toward a climax, and with this end in view it arranges rhythmic phases, metrical scansions, recurrence of motives. But is the climax really the end? Or is the race toward that end opposed by another drive which works in the opposite direction, swimming against the moments, recovering time?
If one wanted to depict the whole thing graphically, every episode, with its climax, would require a three-dimensional model, perhaps four-dimensional, or, rather, no model: every experience is unrepeatable. What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.
(156, fr. "chapter seven")