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")

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Cathleen Schine, She Is Me, 2003.

One might expect a book structured around Madame Bovary to be, perhaps, a bit more insightful about the nature of the human psyche. One might hope that such a book not be as trite as this one was. One might even hope to be reasonably entertained.

Sometimes I finish a book, and don't understand why I bothered. I finished this book, and wished I had been rereading Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot instead. Or perhaps even something by M. Flaubert himself.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Northrop Frye, Lectures on the Bible, reprinted in Northrop Frye's Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible an Other Religious Texts, volume 13 of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye.

I've read--a couple of times--Frye's books on the Bible. Despite knowing his ideas fairly well, it's quite neat to look at these lectures, to try to piece together what changes he makes both when he's presenting the material orally, and when he's talking to students rather than to a (presumably) better educated audience, via the books.

Imre Salusinszky has talked about Frye's career as a spiral curriculum, and anyone who has read much Frye at all realises that NF returns and returns to certain specific concerns--statements like "the function of the metaphor is to release the imagination by paralysing the discursive reason" (468). These lectures are no exception, and they're certainly far from being as detailed an excursion into the world of the Bible than one finds in, say, The Great Code, or Words With Power. Yet they're intriguing in and of themselves to see the manner in which NF shapes his argument. And the conclusion is as good a bit of explanation about how to read the Bible as one can find anywhere in anyone's writings:
You can't argue the poetic statement because it is not a particular statement. It's not subject to verification. So that is why, I think, the Bible presents what it has to say within a narrative and within a body of concrete images which present a world for you to grasp, visualize, and understand. The end that it leads you to is in seeing what it means rather than accepting or rejecting it..." (607)

Monday, February 02, 2004

Diane Johnson, Le Mariage

I think this ends my reading of Ms. Johnson's works. This one had less to recommend it than the previous two (Le Divorce and L'Affaire). On the other hand, this one taught me some more naughty French words, which come to think of it, are rather unlikely to come in handy. It also introduced me Gary Snyder's poetry. Some of which I'm enjoying. Otherwise, shmeh.