Thursday, January 29, 2004

Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally.

Sometimes when I finish a book, I just want to say "shmeh."

This book inspires such a response. It's decent enough, but it can be summed up as follows: Here's how I read the Bible, and make sense of these things. As such, it's interesting enough. Borg doesn't offer any radical new ideas that I haven't heard before--the book is mostly exposition, after all; it offers a reading that is summed up almost entirely in the book's sub-title--nor does he offer a radical new look. This book felt more like a 300-odd page summary of how to approach the Bible with common sense (which I am, from time to time, reminded is not really all that common).

It's not a book that will do anything but incense the literalist crowd. For other people, who haven't encountered these ideas before, it's a decent starting point, I suppose.
A.S. Byatt, The Little Black Book of Stories.

Byatt is a writer that I don't always enjoy; I loved Possession, for example, but some of her novels bore me to tears. This book, though, is a short & charming collection of tales.

The stories in this collection tend toward the fantastic: a dragon, a woman turning into stone, a fetch haunting/helping an older gentleman. What's intriguing is the way a level of realism is maintained. Only in "The Stone Woman" does the story feel like a good example of magic realism; in the others, the fantastic elements are unimportant compared to the sharp eye for detail and the careful and astonishingly good portrayal of the characters.

I think this is a book worth rereading a couple of times; it's worth collecting for one's shelves.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Daniel Pennac, Better Than Life.

A gorgeous little book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

It's a book about books. About the joy of reading. About how to encourage others--especially children and students--to read. His idea? Nothing new, or unique. Read. Share your love of reading. And don't force others to read.

I've mentioned, before, his Reader's Bill of Rights. This book spells them out and explains the rationale behind them. Really, all they are is a set of rights that we extend to ourselves that we don't necessarily extend to children. Pennac says we should; he's right.

This is a short, quick read. But you're going to keep coming back to it. You're going to read it more than once. It's that good. And you're going to enjoy it, that much.

Pennac's words, to end with: "The act of reading, when well done, preserves us from everything, including ourselves." (§ 33)

Monday, January 26, 2004

Finally, some thoughts about James Joyce's Ulysses as an entity.
I take as my text: “Begob he was what you might call flabbergasted” (12.337).

Shortly after I started my blog, my friend M.K. said to me, "Ulysses?"
He couldn’t understand quite why I wanted to read it. He argued and insinuated that the book is over-hyped and pretentious; too difficult and not really worth the effort. This argument—like most of its ilk—might have carried more weight if he’d already read the book himself. Now, M.K. is a good reader, and I value his input. His unstated question was really, “why now?” and that’s a question that does deserve an answer.

So much of the fiction that I love—and here I’m thinking especially of Robert Kroetsch’s work—is by people for whom Ulysses was a touchstone. That it afforded them new ways of thinking about how novels can work, how language can work. Ulysses is a book of options.

Those options tend to mean that it’s an overwhelming book. In many senses, it tries to include everything and the kitchen sink: details, styles, plots, characters… And while James Joyce sews everything together, the reader is asked to spend a lot of difficult thought trying to make sense of this universe. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that the book presents a universe. Frye even agrees with me, to an extent; he wrote that Ulysses is nearly unique as novels go, in that it “is a complete prose epic with all four forms [Frye’s four genres: epic, romance, confession, and anatomy] employed in it, all of practically equal importance, and all essential to one another, so that the book is a unity and not an aggregate” (AC 314). I think that Frye’s description can be extended beyond genre, to include… everything. And because of Ulysses’s comprehensiveness, we’re not sure what, as readers, we should take away with us from a reading, despite the privileged (though suspect) points of entry that are Stephen and Bloom. That makes Ulysses hard to pigeon-hole; that difficulty, in turn, if nothing else, proves that it’s one hell of a good book.

Mark commented that I seem to be taking a “long refractory period to recover from the Joycean jouissance” that is Ulysses, and he’s not wrong. It takes time & effort to absorb a universe that vast; it’ll take a number of rereadings to even begin to feel comfortable there. Those rereadings are going to have to wait, though. Despite being awed by the brilliance of the book, and enjoying its playfulness & its world, I’m not going to reread it anytime soon. I read it because I thought it was one of those things that I should read. Like a mountain to climb because it’s there, perhaps; more like, though, an Eliot-esque statue in a field of Tradition that is important to know, because of how it asks me to read forward and backward. I will reread it, to get to know that statue and individual talent better. But I’ll need some time reading other things, first. It really did flabbergast me, and it'll continue to ask me to think for quite a while.

For the record? The best book ever? I don’t know. It’s brilliant, sure. And I enjoyed it. For now, that’s enough. I’m not all that willing to entertain comparisons of that sort, in any case.
Annie Dillard, For the Time Being. 1999.

I'm a big fan of Dillard's writing. She has the most amazing ability to contemplate a moment, an image, a fact, and to then use it to talk about what it means to live. She can stretch metaphors--without making the reader incredulous--to talk about just what it is that she's thinking about. For the Time Being is no exception. Indeed, even if you've never read anything else by Dillard, I think you should read this book.

This book is mostly about life. Dillard weaves together stories about births--both healthy and those of children with some horrifying congenital problems--and deaths, and life. She ponders the Earth, and Teilhard de Chardin's study of it, along with her own. In the weft there is Kabbalah, and in the warp, stories of the Sufi mystics. All along, Dillard uses numbers--"It took only a few typhoon waves to drown 138,000 Bangledeshi on April 30, 1991." (109)--to talk about people, but succeeds in her aim: to reject the general case. To celebrate the incredible special-ness that is a life. To celebrate the joy that is life.

Along the way, she thinks about theodicy, and offers her own way of making sense of the tragedies of life. I'll not ruin her thoughts by attempting to condense them; instead, I encourage you to read her book.

She's worth your time.
Elmore Leonard, The Big Bounce. © 1969.

Leonard writes good crime novels. This one was first. Short, concise, and cleverly plotted, it keeps moving but does not fall into the trap of believing that frenetic is better. Jack Ryan (and reading this now, I couldn't but think of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan) is a small-time burglar, who gets mixed up with Nancy--a charming young woman interested in getting kicks in whatever way she feels like. Life gets interesting; people act stupidly. It's only the fourth Leonard I've read, but I feel willing to say that it's a typical Leonard novel--enjoyable, pleasant, all too soon done, and not something to which I could return.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

William Kotzwinkle, Jewel of the Moon.

An unremarkable collection of short stories that betrays no understanding of life, humanity, and the social whatsoever on the part of the author. From tales that suffer from the attractions to the overly exotic and to Orientalism at its worst, to patronizing tales of the mundane to weak attempts at writing of the uplifting rejection of an established order, Kotzwinkle's book isn't worth the short amount of time it takes to read.
Stuart McLean, Vinyl Cafe Diaries
More light fun from Mr. McLean; enjoyable and frothy, and hard to put down. Check out the Penguin- based blog for the book, also by Stuart. [Can one listen and not call him by first name? Really?]

I've been a Vinyl Cafe fan for quite a space now. It all started because I was dating a woman I'll call S--. Her dad had been to a Vinyl Cafe concert, and since it had been quite close to his birthday, when Stuart asked the audience for birthday people, one could hear S--'s dad's voice. So naturally, we had to listen to the broadcast of that concert. Not really tough; S-- and I were in the habit of listening to CBC on Saturday mornings anyway, to hear Dead Dog, so we just switch from one CBC to another that morning. The stories sucked me in.

I can't say that I started listening regularly until a space after that, well after S-- and I had parted ways. But Stuart's storytelling, whenever I heard it, would make me think "Gee, I really need to make an effort to listen to that."
Eventually, I did. Sunday afternoons, I'd bolt out of church to my car, and listen to it on the drive home. I'd dash into the house--normally during a song, having sat in my car with only the radio on for a minute or two, till an appropriate juncture--where my parents would be listening to it. I'd miss very little. Now, this arrangement works, but it's a bit anti-social, since I'd like to chat with the folks at church for a space, most Sundays. And what to do if there's football on? Clearly, the answer was a switch to Saturdays. Get up early enough to have just finished reading The Globe and Mail as ten o'clock rolled around. Take the crossword and my tea, and sit in the living room, listening to Stuart. This works quite nicely.

I've come to enjoy Stuart's eclectic taste in music more and more (Which is not to say that I like everything he plays; that'd just make me sycophantic. No, I've just come to recognise that most everything he plays is at least somewhat interesting.). But what keeps me coming back are the stories.

Having said that, then, it seems readily apparent that I'd enjoy the Vinyl Cafe Diaries; after all, I've heard most of these stories on the radio a time or two before. Sure 'nuff. And one can hear Stuart's voice, telling them, too, if one is a regular listener to the show. The very pauses are built into the writing. Be careful to use your own voice, should you read any aloud.

The one thing that I would like to say about them is that they're in an odd sort of category to themselves. They are short and ephemeral, here and then gone, but despite their ephemerality, moments stick in your mind, and you'll laugh at times far removed from reading when you recall things that happen to poor hapless Dave and his family.

Three quotations, then, to end off with, all from one of my favourite stories in the book, "Book Club" (132-48).

The funny:
"I found it totally unbelieveable," said Alison Morin. She crossed her legs and picked up her coffee cup. "A cheese would never behave like that in post-revolutionary France." (141)

The serious, proving that Stuart gets books:
She came across a paperback copy of Black Like Me. How could she have forgotten this book? It had changed the way she saw the world. She couldn't believe that she had abandoned it to a cardboard box in her basement. She opened another box and then another. Sitting on the floor with these old friends around, she felt a wave of guilt. She had to get them back on the shelves again. She couldn't leave them locked in the basement like political prisoners. She might not have the time to read any of them, but at least they would be in sight--at least she could touch them, take one down from time to time and flip through it. Just knowing she could do that felt good. (145)

The personally meaningful, to all teachers:
"It's more than just a story," she said. "It's a metaphor. Do you know what a metaphor is?"
Sam had no idea what a metaphor was. "Of course," he said, "We took it in math."

Friday, January 23, 2004

Diane Johnson, L'Affaire
Some more good pulp; some more recovery of my brain.

A wealthy (& quite nice) American, abroad in France, attempting self-improvement, offers her assistance to a family, following a skiing accident. Now, this is Diane Johnson of Le Divorce (also some quite good pulp; better indeed, in my mind, than this outing) fame, so what happens is all suitably amusing & complicated--the new wife, in a coma; the children of the brain-dead husband, legitimate and not; the scheming & the troubles--and therein we have our plot.

This is a pleasant book. Light, and fluffy, its only serious matter is the usual, for a Johnson novel: the differences between les Americaines and the French. One blurb on the back cover says that "If one were to cross Jane Austen and Henry James, the result would be Diane Johnson"; I reassure you all, be not afeard, because of such a remark. It's not quite at that level. It's fun.

Vous vous amuserez.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

I thought that I’d celebrate finishing reading Ulysses by reading some relaxing stuff. What’s more relaxing than a crime novel or four? Mer had two on her shelves, and kindly agreed to loan me the middle two on the list below. HPL was kind enough to loan me the other two. Ahh, public libraries make me happy.

Kathy Reichs
  • Deja Dead
  • Death du Jour
  • Fatal Voyage
  • Grave Secrets

    So. Yes, clearly good enough for me to read all four. I think that the nice generic "you" that is anyone who might read this website would enjoy them, too. Let’s remember that as I state my only problem with them.

    A writer of mysteries, of stories about crime, naturally has to withhold certain information as she relays her stories. What should be withheld? Well, whodunit, most of the time. How. Why. These are things for which—even if we, reading the story, figure them out—we read. But not details. Not what the characters see, hear, smell. And, in first person narrations, not what the character concludes. If a character figures something out, ending the chapter and telling us in the next, while cheesy, is fine in my book. It’s a commercial-break cliffhanger, to use televisionic terms. But if a character figures something out, and doesn’t share it with us till the end of the book? Or substantially later in it? No. That’s overly manipulative, on the part of the writer. It’s an ineffective and annoying way of attempting to create suspense.

    The really annoying part is that Reichs proves that she doesn’t need to resort to such tactics. But she does, anyway. Maybe she’ll outgrow it?
    Well, I’ll still read her books over Cornwell’s.

    So. I doubt I’ll read these books again. The only mysteries that I’ll continue to return to are those solved by Mr. Holmes. Some things are worth rereading.
  • Sunday, January 18, 2004

    Yes I have yes I finished it yes

    For form's sake: 18. "Penelope." I'm done reading it.
    No question, Ulysses is a brilliant book. Stunning. I need to think about it a bit before I say more, and explain why I'll not be rereading it any time soon.

    Saturday, January 17, 2004

    17. "Ithaca."
    16. "Eumaeus."

    Friday, January 16, 2004

    Ulysses, 15. "Circe."
    My friend Mark said that he thinks "Circe" is the funniest thing he's ever read. I'm inclined to agree.

    The stage direction at 15.4091-92 is gorgeous: "(Arabesquing wearily they weave a pattern on the floor, weaving, unweaving, curtseying, twirling, simply swirling.)"

    I think I love it so because it captures the dance while speaking to Joyce's intricate dance of charactes and ideas that simply swirl throughout the book, but nowhere until now as much as now, in "Circe."

    Jean-Benoit Nadeau & Julie Barlow. Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong: Why We Love France But Not the French.

    Silly titles notwithstanding (and no one really minds the odd Cole Porter reference), I quite enjoyed this book.

    The basic premise advocated by Nadeau & Barlow is that North Americans expect the French to behave just like North Americans:
    The typical traveller to Japan, China, or Africa is more open-minded than the typical traveler to France. The fascinating rites of the Chinese, Japanese, or Zulus may cause travelers considerable discomfort and inconvenience, but travelers in these countries tend to accept the obstacles stoically, reasoning (rightly) that things are just done differently in foreign cultures. For some reason, when it comes to the French, North Americans drop this reflex. (9)

    After putting aside my aversion to their paternalism, I agree with their point.

    What the book attempts to do is to explain to a North American audience what those differences are, and how they’ve emerged from the history, culture and territory of France. The authors do this in three sections: “Spirit,” exploring concepts like grandeur, eloquence, conceptions of private/public spheres; “Structure,” exploring the institutions, laws, and politics of France, and the development of those structures; and “Change,” exploring how France is changing and relating to the world’s increased globalization.

    While the authors frequently seem pretentious, portraying themselves as amateur ethnographers, they do present a coherent—if occasionally repetitious—view of what France is like, and why it’s like that. They even manage to be funny, from time to time. While I’m (sadly) unable to comment on the veracity of their assessments, I’m sufficiently convinced by their presentation that I’m going to read a couple of other books to which they refer. The book was a good read, and what it says makes sense in light of recent events (The book refers in passing to the UN Security Council disagreements, but doesn't treat them in depth; it doesn't need to, because its explanation of the French view of how issues and relationships should be considered explains in turn the French viewpoint that so annoyed those Americans.)
    I'm happy to recommend this book to others.

    And wish that I could go to France. Or at least that my French was in better shape.

    Tuesday, January 13, 2004

    I believe that a work of non-fiction should have a point.

    That is to say, underlying the facts presented, there is a case being argued. For a moment, let’s consider a biography—say, Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens. It’s a well-done biography. Certainly it’s comprehensive. Underlying all of the details that Ackroyd feels we need to know is an argument: that Dickens, having experienced such poverty and abominable conditions as a child, resolved not to experience such conditions again, and resolved to work to better the lives of those around him. Hiccoughs of life, unexpected difficulties, and wilful straying because of lust & other temptations put aside, Ackroyd offers this lens to help us to understand Dickens’ motivations & actions, his beliefs & his ideals. I enjoy Dickens because Ackroyd makes an argument.

    In a book that is not a biography—and hence not constrained largely to follow a life’s pattern from parents to upbringing to adult life to death—an argument is all the more essential. Now, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction intentionally (I seem to fall into books of that ilk, rather than selecting them). One I did read last year, because my friend Yaacov recommended it to me (and I am nothing if not catholic in the face of book recommendations), was Tom Pocklington & Alan Tupper’s No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren't Working. I disagreed with a lot of it, and got quite irked while I was reading it (not least because the book doesn’t seem to understand the concept of flow, but oh well). I did, however, respect Pocklington & Tupper for engaging with a difficult issue, and for arguing well for their conclusions (however much I may disagree with those conclusions).

    What I really do not care for is works of non-fiction whose argument is so weak that, saying it, I don’t really care to find out how the argument works. The book I finished last night, Scott Hahn’s Lord, Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession resides squarely in this latter category. It’s entire argument is that confession is good for you. OK, makes sense, fair ’nuff, sure, but… I was given to expect much more from it. And sometimes, just sometimes, the expectations we bring to books make sense and deserve to be part of our critique of the book.

    Ignoring for a moment Hahn’s dismissive attitude toward the two non-Roman-Catholics that he cites (Luther & C.S. Lewis), the book is weak. It’s poorly argued, has no sense of cohesion whatsoever—the chapters bleed into one another without making points, or letting one see what point exists in separating the material (save for having chapter divisions every few pages, so as not to lose the attention of people who can concentrate for less time than the average gnat)—and is so full of platitudes as to leave one feeling that one has just finished consuming the most trite bit of cloying cotton candy. The book seems to be a confection designed to attract money from the faithful who buy it, leaving them unfilled.

    One might—I did—expect a book about confession to have some sort of survey of the historical development of the RC sacrament of penance. After getting through a saccharine testimonial, Hahn begins such a survey with Adam & Eve (a good place to begin, to be sure)… and then lets it crash and burn, unfinished.

    One might expect that such a book have a fairly careful examination of the theology underpinning confession. My advice? Spending more than two pages on that might be of use.

    The book has countless other faults. The only other one which I will share is the book’s annoying habit of being trite. Mostly with its subheadings. Consider “Pact House,” “Substitute Teaching,” “Mutual Savings,” “Rite Turns,” and “Un-Bull-Leaving Israelites.” I like a good bit of humour, even in a serious work. No book, though, need resort to such overly clever bits of tripe… err, trite-ness, in an effort to convince the reader to stay with the topic.

    Leave the book on the shelf. Go read Augustine’s Confessions. You’ll get the important stuff out of it, too, and at least you might enjoy the read.

    I need to learn to remember my Readers’ Bill of Rights right #3: the right not to finish what I start.


    Monday, January 12, 2004

    Yesterday, 13. "Nausicaa." Today, 14. "Oxen in the Sun." Sometimes slowness happens, sometimes distractions. While I'm enjoying the book--it's time to be done.

    Sunday, January 11, 2004

    Aha! Some good pulp, finally.

    Anna Davis' Cheet is the story of a young female cab driver in London. Juggling work and five complicated lovers, Kathryn Cheet's life is a bit too complicated, even for her. The book reads like a much more interesting Bridget Jones. More importantly, this is pulp at its finest: a hint of mystery, a hint of literary pretensions [without slipping into the annoying], and some sex combine in an amusing and enjoyable quick read.

    Saturday, January 10, 2004

    Ulysses: 12. "The Cyclops."
    I'm starting to have real fun, reading this book.

    Friday, January 09, 2004

    10. "Wandering Rocks" and 11. "Sirens." Slight progress since Monday.
    "Sirens" is gorgeous, and it actually manages to describe a musical moment or two, reasonably well.
    I had felt the need for a divertissement.

    I remember an English teacher in high school, who once said that "Reading is kind of like sex. Most of the time you want the serious, good stuff--relationships, or great books. But there are times when you just need to get laid, and times when you just need to read pulp."

    My mom & sister are big fans of Patricia Cornwell. So Blow Fly is home from the library at the moment. I read it. It was awful. The plot was razor thin and lacked any and all cohesion. Not a mere moment seemed plausible. The characters seemed unrealistic and annoying. Why can't half-decent, popular authors learn when to call it quits? Isn't there a point at which an X amount of money is sufficient?

    I mean, really. I need some better pulp.

    Monday, January 05, 2004

    I finished 9. "Scylla and Charybdis." It's as though I was even making progress, reading Ulysses.

    Sunday, January 04, 2004

  • Over breakfast, I finished 8. "The Lestrygonians."

    I'm debating what to add to my current reading list. Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, and Marcel Proust's Swann's Way top the list (all part of the reading everything I own project). Would you like to weigh in?
  • Friday, January 02, 2004

    Sitting Practice, by Caroline Adderson. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2003.

    There are few pleasures in the world greater than sitting quietly in the dark, and listening to Bach. Whether it’s in the pureness of the Two and Three Part Inventions, the stately elegance of the Goldbergs, or the brilliance of the fugues, I get lost.

    It’s the fugues that really get me. An instrument, or hand or foot at a keyboard, plays a theme. Then there’s an answer. Then another voice comes in with subject and answer, again. He changes them, a bit. Maybe we don’t get to hear all of them. Maybe he has three or four different expositions of the subject and answer going on at the same time. He weaves in other melodic and harmonic ideas that add to, but never distract from, the subject and answer. Then, finally, the subject and answer again, intensified, fraught with all we’ve been shown. That a fairly simple idea could have that much to say! That it could mean that much! I never fail to be astonished.

    I finished, this evening, a book that is a fugue. A book that begins with a call to attend Ross & Iliana’s wedding, that than moves on to the story of the accident that leaves Iliana paralysed. A second section that begins with the preparations for the wedding, and then deals with the after-effects of the accident. A third section: the actual marriage, & its problems—Ross’s Buddhism, their new life, Iliana’s affair, their rapprochement. The end. Having read it, you are able to trace the subject, love, and its answer of being worth it. While reading it, held spellbound by the variations—the contrasted love of parents for children, of brothers for sisters, of neighbours for each other; the food, and descriptions thereof, that make the mouth salivate for enjoyment; the terrible complexities inherent in communications, in expectations—yet always listening for the return of the theme, and it’s answer.
    Caroline Adderson is not indulging in some post-modern trick in revealing only sections to us at a time; she is sharing with us a verbal fugue. She tells her story, in what is obvious at the end, the only way that the story can be told well. Each moment reaches simultaneously backward and forward; her fugue seeks to exist long after the last note dies down.

    It is not a perfect book. Iliana is never as fully real to me as I wish she was, and there’s far too much of Ross. The balance feels ever so slightly off kilter. Vancouver is idealized, and never gets described when it should be; for all that the city tries to be a character in the novel, it is, in the end, only a place that could be interchanged for any other slightly trendy city.

    Yet, despite these (and a few other, minor problems), this book is deeply wonderful. Adderson writes smoothly, realistically, and with no end of love for her people and their plights. The book's characters are alive, and there were for me far fewer moments when I was reading a story than there were moments when I wanted to smack people around, get them to think straight, to talk straight, to act straight. For me, that’s always the first sign of a good book. The second is like unto the first: I was sad when it ended. I’ll have to reread it before returning it to the library. It’s one that will need to be added to my shelves.

    It’s a book that you should go read.