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.