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.