Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ben Bova, Return to Mars, 1999.

A decent bit of SF pulp; nothing to get excited about any way. Something to have read over reading week to rest my brain from school--the reason I'm not reading much nor posting much these days. I do have two books I'd like to blog about at length... maybe this weekend, if I can finish the three papers I need to get done without too much procrastination.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Anne Hines, The Spiral Garden, 2005.

A Globe & Mail review from the same week as One Foot in Heaven pointed me to this book.

So. First of all, the basic plot is as follows: the Rev. Ruth Broggan, a (it's called something else, but it's quite obviously) United church minister moves--not of her own volition--to a much smaller and older church in Toronto than where she had been. She's met by inertia, not all that unusual for a parish: the parish is quite set in its ways, and resists any ideas she has for growth. She feels caught, snagged in a mire that seems hard to escape. The depth of her isolation is brought home in part by the way the story is told: what we read are her EMails and letters, her sermons and her thoughts--and we don't see replies thereto, but do read of her wanting to hear more from her friends, all of whom are at a distance. The story at this point is poignant, and seems to accurately capture the difficulties and challenges that face a minister who doesn't seem to meet the people of her congregation where they are. Perhaps the most interesting moment, for me, is when Ruth speaks of a talk with a neighbouring rabbi:
"As the rabbi got up to leave, he said, 'Well, if there's any way I can return the favour, just let me know.' And I said, 'Actually, there is a way. You can tell me how we know there really is a God.'" (79).
His response isn't what Ruth wants to hear, doesn't really help her--but the way the story is told, we know that not much can help Ruth. She retreats into her manse, promising to stay there until God speaks to her.

Then the television cameras and the reporters arrive on her lawn.

Much of the rest of the book is told--again in notes and messages, EMails and short and scattered writings--from the perspective of the people affected by her absence, and then her re-emergence. This section is where the book gets weird. The first part is almost a neat study of parish dynamics, and the second is an odd mix of hagiography and a postmodern, new-age-y mélange of feel-good, non-denominational (and inter-religious) spirituality. There's little I can say about this section without revealing too much, but there are some moving bits despite the oddness.

One of my favourite bits in this section are Kit's diaries. Kit is one of Ruth's best friends, who unrequitedly and erotically loves Ruth, and tells of what must be simultaneously both a lovely and a frustrating return of agape. The diaries are moving in their depiction of an interesting and thoroughly self-involved woman. The book then comes to an ending that is both unexpected and the only possible ending for such a story; I felt it to be thoroughly unsatisfying.

The book is very well written, and I'm glad I picked it up. I did, however, enjoy the first and more realistic part of it much more than the second that wanders into a weird example of magic realism that never quite anchors itself in a world other than our own, nor adequately critiques this world.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, 1998.

I've been reading this book for what seems like a VERY long time--it's been renewed at least three times, and is about a week overdue from HPL, and has been making me feel guilty. W--. from church recommended it to me, and I've greatly enjoyed it, though it's a very slow read indeed. Thank heavens for two long flights, or I'd still not be done. I need a copy of my own of this book.

At any rate. I've been reading the Desert Fathers quite a bit, and so this book fit neatly into that, and helped me to think a bit about the apophatic tradition. Lane is quite good indeed at exploring the subject matter of the book--quite well summarized in its title--and I especially enjoyed the way he wove his personal experiences and ruminations together with a very careful and clear academic treatment of the various sub-topics. The stories of his life and some of its troubles add a great deal of valuable contextual material to the book that form a lens through which I found it easier to make sense of the history and theology being explored.

Lane's basic argument is that "fierce" landscapes encourage an apophatic response, a rejection of imagery of God, and a focus on interaction with God that is, if not more intense, more specific. He argues that the landscapes in which we live form a habitus: that they influence the way we pray and the way in which we experience God. Much of the book shows different ways in which this process occurs, and explores it in detail. The book is certainly centred on the historical Christian church, though there is some limited treatment of mysticism in the Sufi and Jewish traditions.

It's a great read, if slow-going at times. I need a copy.

A few representative bits:

There's a rare snow leopard at the Saint Louis Zoo,
a trapped lion of the tribe of Judah. I seldom stop
to look at the cage; it seems to painful an intrusion.
I sometimes wonder at what price rare animals should
be preserved from extinction. It's enough for me
that a few of these great beasts still stalk the high
country of the Himalayas, like ancient griffins and
dragons roaming free and seldom being seen. The memory,
the story is enough. (85)

For Meister Eckhart, this involved meeting--like Moses--the
One who is without name, who is a denial of all names.
While this may sound like a repudiation of any speech
whatever about God, in none of these writers does the
task of negation dissolve into a simple anti-intellectualism.
Reason is essential to the work of affirming and negating
all that is and is not God, but the vehicle within us by
which we finally meet God is the human will, our naked
intent. Thought may help us locate the mountain, but faith
is what finally makes the ascent. (108)

Garrison Keillor has described himself as a storyteller
"telling lies" about places that don't exist. Yet he
views that very act as an exercise in faith. Artfully
imagining nonexistent realms expresses a yearning for the
Kingdom of God.
The reason you tell lies about a wonderful place is
that you believe thatif you get every detail right--
absolutely right, and every character in that story
has exactly as many hairs on his or her head as he's
supposed to have--that if you get it absolutely perfect...
you will be lifeted up out of this life and you will
be set down in that wonderful place that you've told
lies about. And all your lies become true.
He keeps telling stories with the hope that ultimately he'll
be able to live his way into them. That's why we all love
tales that give form to a world that is not yet here. (143-44)

Having once known the desert in a way as intimate as this,
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry could never again succumb to the
naiveté of desert romanticism. Those of us whom the
desert has never touched find it much easier to imagine only
the beauty and glory of desert spirituality, thumbing our way
through old copies of Arizona Highways and dreaming of
desert retreats. We suppose arid and empty terrain to be
naturally solicitous of our human need for contemplation.
But the stark, unsettling truth is that the desert doesn't
give a damn. Its capacity for indifference seems almost
infinite. It was precisely this sense of danger and disregard
that fed the spiritual vigor of early desert monasticism.
There is an unsolicitous and ungenteel quality about
the desert Christians that makes them especially attractive
in our current climate of sentimentalized, "feel good"
spirituality. The spiritual life extolled in popular religious
circles today is eminently unexceptionable, generically
inoffensive, and (almost without exception) culturally
correct. We too often substitue amiability for friendship,
agreeableness for dialogue, pleasantry for compassion. The
acrid smell of the desert is lost.
By contrast, one has to consider the surly, discourteous
piety of the desert fathers and mothers. They were "resident
aliens" in a world that fostered gentility and comfort. They
simply did not fit. As Bruce Berger observes, "the desert
notoriously harbors the loner, the misfit, the only child."
It attracts a people who are downwardly mobile, often
cantankerous, ill at ease in polite society. Shun the city
and all of its niceties, growled Jerome from his desert lair.
His Christianity required the harsh solace of open spaces. (187)

Again, it was a superb book, and I was very grateful indeed to W--. for bringing it to my attention. It makes me wonder about a Canadian, a southern Ontario habitus, not à la the trite-ly overused garrison mentality that's so often misused, but something else. I'm not sure what that is, but it's certainly an interesting thought to live with for the next while.

Friday, September 02, 2005

David Waltner-Toews, One Foot in Heaven, 2005.

This book may be the best thing I've read that Jim Bartley's "First Fiction" column in the Globe & Mail's Books section has reviewed since Kelly Cooper's Eyehill last summer. Well, this book and Stephen Marche's Raymond and Hannah.

Bartley's reviews are always worth reading, and he finds some treasures. Waltner-Toews' collection of linked stories is breathtaking, the sort of book for which the cliché "I couldn't put it down" accurately describes.

I did find the book a bit difficult to get into. It's very much the product of a Mennonite culture, with worries and concerns that seem exaggerated to me because of the differences between that culture and the one in which I was raised, so I found it difficult to relate to the characters at first. It's odd, though, that my feeling that slipped away. By "Mennonite Baking", I was hooked. It's a beautifully structured story of a young love affair conducted almost entirely through notes, and that is closely linked with the tactile experiences of baking. It's simply brilliant.

The book's back trumpets a snippet of Rudy Wiebe's review: "insightfully, profoundly human," and while I'm normally inclined to snark at such reviews, this happens to be a good description. Waltner-Toews has an eye for people and how they are, how they live, how they think. He never patronises his characters. I'm convinced he must have an impressive pastoral relationship with any animals and their caretakers for whom he's served as a vet--and his clinical, careful attention to detail and ability to present the story in such a compelling way makes me think he must be very good as an epidemiologist.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Dance of Death, 2005.

A nice bit of pulp. Pendergast's evil younger brother emerges as a master criminal, Pendergast and D'Agosta try to stop Diogenes before it's too late. Things snowball badly. To say more would reveal too much.

Far from anything special, this book's an enjoyable and quick little read.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Charles Gidley, The Raging of the Sea.

I started reading this one while helping Lesley to do some house-sitting a few weeks back. The homeowners kindly loaned their copy to me, and I now need to return it. Next week, when I'm back in Ontario, I'll do that.

This book seemed quite promising at the beginning. It's the story of a naval career: an officer dies during World War II, and his son just barely born enters the Navy when he comes of age. The book offers an epic sweep, showing the modern navy from the early sixties through the late eighties, but it never quite delivers.

The story is that of Steven Jannaway, living a life that's defined by his career in the Royal Navy. His personal life, so bitterly personally disappointing to him seems at first eclipsed by his professional life, until that too gradually slips away from him.

The weak story lines aren't really enough to hold much of an interest for the reader, which explains why this book is out-of-print, I fear. The book is really more a meditation on why the Navy is not what it should be. It's about why and how the Navy is exploited for political purposes by the leaders of the country. Why the people with real ideas, who are willing to try new things and to learn from mistakes will never--the sort of people you want to innovate and to lead--are sidelined and ignored. Why the Navy promotes and is run by the safe, the unimaginative. Why the Falklands was profoundly wrong and wasted the lives of good sailors, as far as the main character is concerned.

This was a book that just barely held my interest enough after the first hundred pages. Not one I'd recommend that people look out for.
Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, 2005.

So, first of all, I haven't blogged in a while. Sorry about that. I've got a bit of a backlog built up now.

This one I read in mid-July, and greatly enjoyed the first two thirds of it.

The premise is neat: the main character, Yambo, awakes from some form of collapse--and he's forgotten nearly everything. What's odd, though, is that the memories he's lost are those closest to him--his wife, children, and parents. What he does for a living. And yet his memory of many books and poems remains intact, perfectly usable.

His wife is unable to bring back these memories: she can only describe what she knows about his life, and so Yambo retreats to his family estate, largely abandoned, near Solara. He finds the books, the comics, and the music that he grew up with, and is able to slowly remember more and more details, is able to make the mental connections work again to remember what his life was. It's a weird form of time travel, growing up in Italy during Fascism in a family that was waiting for Facism to die, listening to the BBC during the war.

He finds a secret room with his treasures, finds the comic book that introduced him to his ideal woman, almost exhausts himself in the quest to become himself again. In many ways, it's a neat description of how a life is shaped by the cultures around it, and it's a neat description of the media of the time.

In other ways, though, the book is profoundly weird. From the re-discovery of physicality on the part of the main character to the stroke episode that leads to the disjointed, odd dream-marvelling that makes up the last third or so of the book, the book lacks the consistency and fun of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

It was an interesting read, but one I was glad to put down. Throughout the first third, I was looking forward to recommending it to people, but I really can't do that. The dazzling array of beautifully woven allusions to literature and music were really very well done indeed, but the attempt to muse on what memory means, what memory is, just doesn't quite work.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others, 1985.

A cute little book with every Latin phrase you're likely to encounter in English use. Dated idiom, but a useful reference book. The kind of thing that's fun to dip into from time to time, rather than to read from cover to cover.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2005.

So, I'm slow at getting to blog these days. I read the latest Harry last Monday, the 18th (and finished the last 10 pages last Tuesday), and only now am blogging about it. Be forewarned, this blog post contains SPOILERS.

DO NOT READ these thoughts unless you're unconcerned about knowing plot details and how things end.

It was the best of this series since the first. It's not high art, but it's thoroughly enjoyable pulp. Kind of like the Hardy Boys.

I liked what the Globe reviewer (André Alexis) had to say: "The writing is adequate. It does what it needs to, to create Hogwarts and the world of magin. Rowling has a fine [...] sense of humour, but where the work falls down hardest is in characterizations. Unlike the worlds created by Philip Pullman, Rowling's universe is morally simplistic, black and white." A bit later in his review, Alexis writes "If Rowling had been better at characterization, the death (or possible death) of Dumbledore might have been more moving. It should have been." I'm inclined to agree. I have no real desire to return to these books, having read each once, principally because the characters aren't people I'm interested in.

I had a nice MSN chat with R-- the other night about the book. He also quite enjoyed it--more than I did, I think--and he had some interesting theories about what might come next. For the next two or so years, he's going to have a fair bit of company playing the speculation game. As long as people are reading, I'm happy regardless of the outcome.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

John Bierman, The Secret Life of Laszlo Almasy: The Real English Patient, 2004.

I was in love with Ondaatje's The English Patient for quite a long time, after I first read it in grade 11. It made me read a good chunk of Herodotus.

I saw the review for this one--I can't remember where now--and placed a hold on it, quite some time ago now. At any rate, it finally showed up, and it's quite a good book. The Almasy of Ondaatje is based on the historical Almasy--and one of the things that surprised me was how the historical Almasy was as interesting as Ondaatje's character.

The biography is mostly the story of the early explorations of the Sahara, and Almasy's contributions to it. Bierman paints a vivid picture of the difficulties of the explorations, and the impressiveness of Almasy's contributions.

His work for the Abwehr during the war, and the nervous regard in which he was held by both sides make for a fascinating story--all the more so because there's just not enough information to make up one's mind about Almasy's actions and motivations.

It's a quick read, but an excellent one.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Fred Rogers, Life's Journeys According to Mr. Rogers: Things to Remember Along the Way, 2005.

A nice collection of thoughts that were important to Mister Rogers, after a charming introduction by his wife. It's much like the one I reviewed shortly after I started this blog, and my thoughts about this one are much the same now as they were then.

A couple of the aphorisms that struck me:

I need thinking time when someone asks me
a searching question. I wonder why it seems
to be so uncomfortable for many people to
wait through the silence. People of all ages
have deep feelings, and if we have the
patience to wait through the silence, it's
often astounding what people will tell us. (45)

As a relationship matures, you start to see
that just being there for each other is
the most important thing you can do, just being
there to listen and be sorry with them, to be
happy with them, to share all that there is
to share. (68)

How our words are understood doesn't
depend just on how we express our ideas.
It also depends on how someone receives
what we're saying. I think the most
important part about communicating is the
listening we do beforehand. When we can
truly respect what someone brings to what
we're offering, it makes the communication
all the more meaningful. (78)

Where would any of us be without teachers--
without people who have passion for their
art or their science or their craft and love it
right in front of us? What would anf of us
do without teachers passing on to us what
they know is essential about life? (94)

The most important moments are rarely in
the bright lights with the cameras rolling and
mikes recording. The most important
moments are rarely center stage; the most
often happen "in the wings."
Have you found that to be true, too? That
what you expected to be the big occasion or
the main event turned out to be merely an
excurse for you to be somewhere in order to
be touched by something you might have
otherwise considered of little importance? (137)

Mister Rogers exemplifies a lot of what I think I'd like to be, as a person. And though I often find this sort of collection to be a touch trite, this one never slips into that trap. It's worth a read.
Diana Wynne Jones, Conrad’s Fate, 2005.
375 pages.
My mom asked me to review this one for her, because I was a big Jones fan when I was younger. Charmed Life and Witch Week and The Lives of Christopher Chant were books I loved, and still reread when I need a good grin. Like the other books, this one is aimed roughly at those in grade five and up.
Jones’ latest, Conrad’s Fate, is entirely in that vein: funny, clean fantasy about a young boy, pulled and manipulated by people he feels he should trust. Born into a seemingly impoverished family, Conrad is forced to leave school and take a job before he wants to. Sent to work as a footman at the mysterious Stallery Mansion by his uncle, Conrad tries to escape the bad karma he’s been struggling with for many years. With the help of his new friend Christopher, who is far from being who he seems, Conrad tries to untangle the mysteries of Stallery Mansion and the weird changes that threaten the fate of the whole world—and of the worlds connected to it.
The book isn’t as good as her earlier novels in the Chrestomanci series: it feels formulaic, and is perhaps too predictable at times, particularly for those people who know the recurring characters. The ending wraps things up far too quickly, and feels far from satisfying. Fans of Harry Potter will feel that this is inferior—-and will feel that unfairly, given that the earlier books are much more enjoyable and clever. This book, though, has an irrepressible sense of humour that, combined with the fact that all readers will empathize with Conrad, will let the reader get lost in the English Alps with Conrad and Christopher for an enjoyable space of time.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Max Allan Collins, Cold Burn, 2003.

A CSI book. It's not great--the writing's a bit sloppy, and the characters don't entirely hold true to what one would expect, from the show. But all in all, a quiet little bit of ok pulp for a holiday weekend.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime, 1967.

I came across an interview with Salter in Salon the other day, and it prompted me to pick up A Sport and a Pastime. I'm not sure what it was in the interview that intrigued me, but I thought that I'd take a look at this novel (and at three short stories by Isaac Babel that Salter recommends in the interview; they're up next in my to-read list).

Nor am I sure what to make of this novel. It's intriguing: the story of an affair, as recollected by a man who dreams after the male of the partnership. It floats from one experience of eating to another of sex to a drive in the country. In sparse, economical prose, Salter describes a relationship as confused as any I've ever seen, in which the principals use one another, love one another after the fashion of each, and generally don't know how to be nice to the other person.

It's a beautifully written book. What I found most interesting about it was the blurring of the narration, and the desire of the narrator both for Dean and to be Dean, as the narrator reconstructs the events of the book. It's quite a subtle bit of writing, and I'm glad that the Salter interview caught my attention and brought me to this novel.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. ed. Leslie S. Klinger. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1. 2004.

I decided to write about these stories now, having finished only the first volume of the two currently in print (the final volume, of the four novels, will be released in November), both because I feel I have a good handle on my reactions to the book as a whole, and because I've been reading it for quite a while now.

I had thought, when I bought the complete short stories, that this would be a nice set; that I could read a story before bed on those evenings when I wanted something fairly light, and that each story would take me no more than fifteen minutes or so. Because of the annotations by Klinger, that's not quite true. Some of the notes--explaining what's meant by Scotland Yard, for example--are likely only to be of interest to people who have no familiarity whatsoever with the stories. Few of the notes, though, are like that. Most offer some insight into what various people have made of the lives and careers of Holmes and Watson, and their peculiar relationship with Doyle.

Yes, that's right--the scholarship with which the notes concern themselves start by taking it as fact that Holmes and Watson were real people. Innumerable people have studied one aspect or another of the various stories over the years, both highlighting inconsistencies--which are themselves innumerable--and explaining them away. The notes point to this world of scholarship, offer a brief taste, and offer suggestions for further reading on the various convoluted points.

In short, the notes are fun. It takes me more than twice as long as I expect to read each story, but I'm intrigued by the depth of thought that so many people have given to the stories. When I was a child, I was obsessed with Holmes: I desperately wanted a deerstalker and a Meerschaum pipe of my own, to go about in tweed a la Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Holmes. I've never quite lost that sense of excitement I have when I open a Holmes story, that sense in which everything is so very real. Nor have I lost my admiration for Holmes and his ability to see, to perceive, and to piece together every seemingly insignificant detail in the pursuit of explaining the whole picture.

I'm enjoying Klinger's notes, and I'm re-enjoying the stories for the umpteenth time. I'm glad I bought the books.
Garrison Keillor, Love Me, 2003.

I picked this up on remainder when I was at my unfavourite store a few weeks back. I'd read it before, but I always enjoy Keillor, and it's hard to turn down a book you liked when you encounter it at a remainder table. Once, that is, you've overcome your dismay to find it remaindered, and the thought that you're really being mean to the author by buying it from such a space. Poor Mr. Keillor.

At any rate, Love Me is the story of Larry Wyler, a nice enough Minnesotan novelist who becomes successful as a result of his first novel, and decides to move to New York even though his wife Iris won't accompany him there. Wyler gets an office at his beloved New Yorker, rubs elbows with Salinger et al., and generally lives a nice bit of debauchery, but is unable to write. He takes a job writing an advice column as Mr. Blue (as Keillor himself once did).

The plot's pretty slight. There's the idea that the New Yorker is now being published by a Mafioso, a showdown, quite a bit of sex, and general longing for being able to tell good stories, and more importantly, to know the love of Iris once more.

All in all, the highlight of the book are the letters to Mr. Blue and the responses Wyler sends--spoofing quite a number of people, including President Bush, in an amusing way.

The book's a decent enough read, but nothing to get excited about. It's taken me quite a few weeks to get around to blogging about it.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go, 2005.

I think Ishiguro is one of my favourite novelists writing today.
What's weird to me is that though I wouldn't miss one of his books for the world, I do find that his novels are hit or miss for me. His last, When We Were Orphans, while good seemed to be missing something. I never did care for The Unconsoled--there was something about it that never clicked for me--but I loved The Remains of the Day. Moreover, it's entirely possible that An Artist of the Floating World is my favourite novel.

What captures me first is how Ishiguro writes. His prose is clean, clear, and simple; it's elegant, and there's not a word out of place. I'm at a loss for how to describe the elegance of the prose style: there's an opacity to the writing that simultaneously conceals and reveals what is important to the stories.

Each of Ishiguro's stories is told by a person remembering, looking back on events and words and images that are both indelibly seared into his or her memory and at the same time, the narrator lacks a total conviction in the truth of how he or she remembers the past.

His books are about memory; or rather, they're about how to make sense of memories, and the stories deal with profound questions. How do you understand truth? Can you understand what's shaped the person that you are today? What use can truth have for a life?

Never Let Me Go is one of Ishiguro's best, and, to be crass and rate it, I'd slip it in just under An Artist of the Floating World. The story, that comes out in fits and starts, is told by Kathy H. She and her friends were students at an elite country school, Hailsham, and had experiences that shaped and bonded their group during their time there. Well after leaving, a large part of their identity is shaped by their memories of what Hailsham was like for them.

The problem with talking about this book is that it reveals pieces of information gradually, and the reader gets a better and better understanding of what Kathy's situation is, until finally one is left horrified, revolted, and profoundly sad. That is to say, these gradual revelations are the plot, and I'm about to ruin it for you. STOP READING NOW, if you're the type of person for whom knowing what happens is an impediment to enjoying a story.

The world Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy--like all students of Hailsham--are clones. They live in a world of about our own time that has cured cancer and other ailments, in part by having a supply of clones to "donate." After school at Hailsham, these elite students have some time to write a major essay, mature as a person, and then study to become a "carer" --a clone who will tend to the emotional needs of other clones, who, having ceased being carers, have become "donors." After four donations, the donors will "complete." And the outside world is largely uninterested in how the system works. The book is, in part, an interesting study of ethics--one that's been referred to by Martha Montello in a neat article called "Novel Perspectives on Bioethics"--but it's more interesting as a story (and the repeated references to science fiction in various reviews bother me: it's a story about people in a peculiar situation, and what's important is the people. This book is no more science fiction than some of Ishiguro's other works are historical fiction.).

As Kathy sorts through her memories of Ruth and Tommy, and how these two friends shaped her life--Ruth overpowering her and seeking to control her, Tommy always confused and nice, attractive (and attracted) and wrong about nearly everything--she tries to sort out the whys of how her life has been run--at Hailsham, at the Cottages after Hailsham, whether there's some escape from becoming a donor for her and for Tommy. What tears at Kathy is the same thing that she does to the reader, as she tells her story: she reveals bits and pieces, enough to make certain things clear while obfuscating the deeper truths behind what she's saying. Hailsham prepared the clones for their lives without ever explaining or preparing these people for their lives. Kathy tries to make sense of how truths unspoken alter, how their shape and import affects differently when implicit rather than when explicit. How implicit truths are not truths at all. Talking with Tommy, Ruth, and others, she's concerned about how shared recollections reshape.

Ishiguro, though a gifted novelist with a gift for beautiful writing and unflinching honesty, doesn't offer answers, in my view. He shows Kathy's struggle. He asks us to think about these struggles. But I come away from this novel torn and confused, unconvinced that these questions have possible answers and convinced only that they're worth investigating, and convinced that Kathy is a person: for the real question that emerges for her that is primary, that is key, is whether she has a soul.

I was so sad, and so startled when a donor finally dies--not completes, but is referred to as dying. The word "die" is used only once, and given that the book is about what it is to live, it deals also with what it is to die. Kathy's understated sadness, her coming to terms with the loss of Tommy and of Ruth, make her much like Ishiguro's other narrators--detached, in weird ways that prompt yet more questions.

Go read the book. You'll come away from it confused, and better for it. And while you'll be sad, I doubt you'll need kleenex: my own experience was that Kathy's detachedness will be somewhat infectious. More to wonder about.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Ed. Toby Forward & David Johnson, The Spiritual Quest of Francis Wagstaffe, 1994.

The book is a very funny series of letters from a "Francis Wagstaffe" to various bishops in the Church of England, and the responses of those bishops.

Most of the letters revolve around Francis's offer to let all those CofE-ers disillusioned by the upcoming move to ordain female priests join the church that he bought (by purchase thus becoming Archbishop, Primate, and Metropolitan of the Old Northern Catholick Church of East Riding). At any rate, from advice about toupees to getting gun salutes for his investiture to starting television programmes--Baywatch, only with people on missions in swimsuits instead of lifeguards--to casting about for advice, the humour in this collection was enough to keep me in fits. The solicitude and engagement of the bishops who wrote back is quite impressive indeed.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Halldór Laxness, Under the Glacier.

I came across this book because of a review in Salon that talked about one of the character's approaches to Christianity:
When Embi insists to Jón the importance of delivering sermons, at least at Christmas and other ceremonial occasions, the pastor answers: "Oh, no, better to be silent. That is what the glacier does. That is what the lilies of the field do." As Embi only incompletely and reluctantly realizes, Jón is a Christian mystic of the old school, convinced that shoeing and feeding horses pertains more to "the cure of souls" than preaching the gospel. In shuttering the church and turning to the outdoors, repairing farm implements and living off donated fish and bread, he is returning his religion to its ancient roots.
The line about the glacier being silent made me decide to read the book. I decided to love it when I read another line, later in the novel: "Whoever does not live in poetry cannot survive here on earth."

It's a weird book. A young man, a theology student, is sent as an emissary of the bishop (Embi) to investigate what's going on in the parish near Snæfells glacier, where the church is apparently borded up. The student is told to listen to the people, to ask questions, and not to argue--but mostly, not to make up his mind about anything, but merely to record what he encounters.

The people are very strange--from the house-keeper, who feeds Embi only cakes and coffee, to the poet who's a little to fond of modern kitchen counter surfaces, to the pastor who wishes to fix things, to the man who finds horses--only to leave them to go looking for others, to women who disappear, to almost-Buddhists, to new agers who believe in bioinduction... All in all, Embi is frustrated at every turn, to the point of falling in love with a mysterious & disappearing dead woman.

You will find this book odd, if you decide to pick it up. The sparse elegance of the characterizations and the dialogue kept me compelled by the book. Its odd subject matter is intriguing, and though it's hardly riveting in a traditional sense, it's a book not to be abandoned, and well worth picking up.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes, 2003.

Archbishop Williams gave the 2001 John Main Seminar Lectures on "the wisdom of the desert"--that is, what's relevant about the Desert Fathers for our faith today.

The book is the edited versions of those lectures, plus a Question and Answer session, that discuss four principal ideas with which the Archbishop engages: neighbours, silence, flight, and stability. Williams starts each lecture with a saying from the desert fathers, understands the saying in its context, and then deals with what it can impart today. As he goes through his lectures, he hits on ideas of vocation and ministry, of what it means to be a member of the church, and of what it means for one's decisions and attitudes to be a follower of G-d.

The Archbishop is compelling; each point he makes is hard indeed to refute, and I found myself increasingly convinced by his arguments. The one flaw of the book is that it feels like a series of talks rather than like a book: two many colloquialisms or standard modes of speech remain that should have been excised.

For people unfamiliar with the Desert Fathers, this book serves as a wonderful introduction, better perhaps than Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert--my copy of which I can't for the life of me find--at helping a newcomer to enter the tradition of the Fathers. It would be nice if the book had more of their sayings; readers are going to want to find a copy of Merton's Wisdom or Sister Benedicta Ward's The Sayings of the Desert Fathers if they want to spend some extended time with the thoughts of the Fathers.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Jon Fasman, The Geographer's Library, 2005.

Fasman's thriller blends two plots: a contemporary murder mystery, and the sinister recovery of a number of objects related to alchemy. Or, as the blurb from Penguin's webpage about the book puts it, "competing visions of an obscure professor's life take a young reporter from a sleepy New England town to the heart of an international smuggling ring that may hold the secret to eternal life."

The images that the objects provide, and their interpretations, may be the most intriguing part of the book, but the book takes far too long to read for those alone. The contemporary murder mystery is plodding and far from satisfactory in its resolution; the only compelling portion of that tale is the characterization--particularly of the main character, Paul Todd.

All in all, this book seems to be in the vein of the The Rule of Four and The DaVinci Code: it's chosen interesting subject material, and done not enough interesting story-telling around it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Stephen Coonts, Liars and Thieves, 2004.

More of the same from Coonts. Less good than the others.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

James W. Huston, Flash Point, 2000.

The roommate of a Navy fighter pilot--Tomcats--is killed by terrorists in Israel; the pilot retaliates, writes to the Hill, gets war declared on the terrorists, bombs them, gets shot down, etc. Predictable, and plotted a little too loosely. Some fun, but not convincing enough for me to read anything else by Huston.
Stephen Coonts,
America, 2001,
Liberty, 2003.

Hm. Well, that's all of the published Jake Grafton novels; now we can move onto something else.
America is the story that revolves around stolen submarines, plots to destroy the United States' economy through electromagnetic Tomahawk missiles, a Star Wars -type space defence missile shield. Improbably, ridiculous, decent pulp.

Liberty was written after the attacks of September 11th. Like a number of other books, it's about bad guys--this time terrorists, instead of agents of other states--trying to get a hold of WMDs, in this case Russian nuclear warheads. Jake has to find all four before they're exploded. Naturally, life's complicated. He decides to retire at the end of the book--two or three books late, in my opinion, but hey. Decent fun, nothing special.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Stephen Coonts,
Under Siege, 1990
The Red Horseman, 1994,
Cuba, 1999,
Hong Kong, 2000.

Four more Jake Grafton novels. (Two to go)

Under Siege I've read before. Jake serving his Joint Chiefs tour, in the Counter-Terrorism sector. A whole bunch of drugs lead to domestic terrorism, assasination attempts, etc. Decent but unexciting.

The Red Horseman is a tad too unrealistic. Russia/CIS falling apart, post Gorbachev, etc. Nukes stolen, invading the country that they were sold to by corrupt Russian forces officials, etc. Jake's there with the Defence Intelligence Agency, observing and then running the show. Hard to swallow.

Cuba deals with Castro's death, biological warheads. Jake's in command of the carrier battle group that's in the Caribbean, and has to deal with the mess. Solid.

Hong Kong is weaker than Cuba. Coonts' plot has Grafton sent to Hong Kong back to investigate Tiger Cole, his old bombardier from Flight of the Intruder, now the consul-general to Hong Kong, a tad after the Chinese takeover. Revolution ferments, bad things happen, more Jake in hand to hand combat.

Two left--let's see how they are.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Stephen Coonts,
Flight of the Intruder, 1986,
The Intruders, 1994,
Final Flight, 1988,
The Minotaur, 1989.

Four Jake Grafton novels.

The first one, Flight of the Intruder, has become a movie that's not awful, but the story definitely makes a better book. What the movie does do well is attempting to capture what life is like aboard an aircraft carrier as the pilots of the air wing conduct bombing missions over Vietnam in the dying days of the war. Lots of implausible bits, but on the whole, it affords a view of what life must have been like.

The Intruders, which was written after the other three that I'm posting about here, but is the next in the sequence, is about Grafton's life aboard a carrier immediately after his last tour ended, this team with a Marine A-6 squadron, instead of a Navy squadron, thanks to an ill-advised barfight with a civilian. Really, it's about Jake trying to decide if the Navy will be his career. Sadly, this book's a little too much like Flight of the Intruder and Final Flight, in a way that The Minotaur is not. More implausibility, more general fun.

Final Flight is a nice, riveting thriller about a plot to steal nuclear bombs from a carrier. Nice segue from attack planes to fighters like the F-14, and far more interesting than Top Gun-type crap.

The Minotaur is all about Jake finding a life in the Navy after his flying days are done, and is an intriguing little spy thriller that's quite nicely done.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Dragon Wing and Elven Star.

The first two volumes of the Deathgate cycle. I've been rereading some pulp, just relaxing and resting my brain before I tackle the new Ishiguro novel. At any rate, these two are a bit of mindless fun. The cycle of novels lets Weis and Hickman invent all sorts of new worlds and play with them, bringing back old favourite characters for new purposes.

Elven Star is the more fun of the two, with Zifnab and the constant references to other works of fantasy, fiction, and our science. Neither book is taxing, and they're both pleasant enough. I haven't yet decided if I'm going to read the rest of the cycle; it may well take up too much time. 5 more books to read, if I do. I think it'll depend on how my mood is.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Stephen Platten, ed. Ink and Spirit, 2000.

This book, a collection of four essays that attempt to make some sense of a connection between faith and literature, is the written form of the Launcelot Fleming Lectures of 1999.

Platten's introduction to the collection is a survey of major poems that treat with faith: he spends time with Matthew Arnold, Arthur Hugh Clough, Alfred Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and R.S. Thomas, among a few others, as he describes the shift from a Victorian engagement with both faith and literature to a far more skeptical twentieth century that also attempts to eschew literature. His essay attempts to locate the conversation between religion and literature as it exists and has existed in poetry.

David Scott's piece is entitled "Religion, Literature, and the Third Millenium." He starts with one of the earliest English poems, Caedmon's hymn, and the story from Bede that surrounds its creation. Scott argues that as poetry often needs a midwife to help the poet, so can the Church be such a place, as it was for Caedmon and, at the end of his career, Hopkins. He feels that the tradition of the pastor-poet, a la George Herbert, has fallen by the wayside, but can be recovered: not just from pastors as poets, but from all following a few simple rules. He starts with Mayakovsky's rules for what a poet needs to be of service to the state (existence of a social task that can be accomplished only through poetry, exact knowledge, materials/words, means of production, habit of elaborating words), and adds a few of his own:
"I would add to that, time to be still and let the poems make their journey from out there, into your mind and heart, and through to your hand; a good, no, a brilliant, no, the best library in Western Christendom to let you feed on the tradition; colleagues who understand and use you for what you can do and not for what you can't; the opportunity to keep in touch with poets of all cultures, religions, and nationalities." (49-50)
If these things are provided, Scott suggests, the Church can help to bring forth poetry that speaks to all peoples that have ears to listen.

A.N. Wilson's "Christianity and Modernity" offers a far bleaker view than does Scott. Wilson argues that Christianity is not reasonable, and is dying. As such, literature that is an expression of Christianity will die too. He attributes this death to a loss of common symbols: the Roman Catholic abandonment of the Latin mass, and the Anglican Communion's churches' move from the BCP. Because of the loss of common symbols, there "will be Christians in the next generation, but we can be sadly certain that there will be no Christian literature--that came to an end with the generation of T.S. Eliot." All we have left to look forward to is the rise of an unadulterated religion--one whose symbol is not the cross but the crescent moon, in Wilson's view.

Penelope Lively's essay, "Religion and the Rise of Fiction," was perhaps the most interesting to me of the four in this book. She believes--and I fully agree--that fiction is exciting because it's a place to offer truth and to raise questions. As such, it's an almost ideal vehicle for faith. (She excludes poetry completely from her survey, and I think poetry can do the same thing, but that's a separate issue.) She's also happier about tradition than is Wilson. Her almost Frygian view, that all fiction depends on other fiction and stories, and that we can produce things that are "new" only insofar as we have processed what is past, is one that celebrates what is past. The very richness of past stories ensures the richness of stories yet to be told--and these coming riches will offer us new places, ideas, and methods for offering truth and raising questions: for learning and growing in faith.

The concluding essay, by Richard Marsh, is a single-poet piece called "David Jones and the Elusive Memory." Marsh traces the development of Jones's poetry, primarily as it investigates and tries to make sense of what it is to believe after the Great War. This development coincides with David Jones's conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his conception of what myth means and what its use is. In Jones's conception, "humanity's very nature involves the making of things," and that through "this making, this assembly of signs and symbols, humanity stretches out of itself from the material and visible world towards reality, the ground of which is divine" (109). Central to the making of signs is the Eucharist: worship and poetry together participate in encountering the divine.

The afterword, by Ronald Blythe, is a fairly weak piece that recaps--much as I've just done--the arguments of the four essays and the introduction, and tosses in some deserved praise.

Though I violently disagree with Wilson's polemical essay, each piece in this collection offers interesting insight, and at the very least points to new things to spend some time reading. This book doesn't quite do what I had thought when I bought it, sight unseen: I had expected a more coherent overarching approach to the study of the interaction between faith and literature. Instead, it does something more interesting still: it offers starting points and questions, and will leave me thinking for quite a long time about one of those things that I find terribly interesting.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain: the Story of a Vocation, 1996. (Vol. 1 of Merton's Journals)

I took the first volume of Merton's journals with me to Cuba because of a 150-odd page section in the middle of it: Brother Patrick Hart calls it the "Cuban Interlude." It's a description of what Cuba was like for Merton when he visited it, some 65 years ago, and I thought it would be a neat thing to reread while I was in Cuba.

What was startling was how true some of Merton's pointed observations remain to this day. One of the most striking of these remarks was his comment that a view of some part of Cuba from a distance looks lush, and tropical and vibrant--and that the promise is invariably better than what that place looks like up close. It's hardly fair for me to generalize that statement to what things are like now--I visited Holguin during the middle of a rather depressing drought--but what I saw agrees, and quite a number of other people have made similar remarks to me.

Merton visited some 19 years before the 26th of July movement succeeded, and so his experience was well before the socialism that currently holds sway over the country. He describes a Cuba that is focused on goals: building a stronger, more palatable existence with the help of the United States. It's not so different a time from now, as Cuba builds a solid existence without the Soviet subsidies that supported it despite the American embargo. He depicts an earlier but not a simpler time: I envy the ability that he had to widely travel,and to get a feel for what life was like in Cuba. The only problem for me is that he's so terribly and morally earnest: he feels the need to keep his Catholicism and his enthusiasm for it solidly in the foreground of his writing. What's otherwise a fascinating travelogue is marred by the intensity of this focus; because I was reading this section for the parts about Cuba, I found it frustrating in ways that, when reading to learn about Merton's life-development, I hadn't previously encountered.

The non-Cuban sections of the journal, in New York City and then at St. Bonaventure's, as Merton prepares to enter the monastery are as thrillingly intimate as ever. This is a book I can come back to time and time again, thrilled to learn even more about Merton's life, and piecing together tidbits of information into a coherent understanding of how his life actually came together.

I'm always happy to recommend Merton: if you can get past the off-putting-ness of his earnest-ness, this book is a great read. All seven volumes of the journals are great reads, for that matter: the real trick for me now is going to be resisting the urge to reread the next six.

Friday, March 04, 2005

David Eddings, The Belgariad (Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, Enchanter's Endgame), early to mid 1980s.

Read whilst in Cuba.

After returning, I reread the Mallorean (Guardians of the West, King of the Murgos, Demon Lord of Karanda, Sorceress of Darshiva, Seeress of Kell), 1987ish-1992ish.

So. Why reread Eddings? I reread for the Belgariad for the umpteenth time whilst in Cuba. It was something light and fluffy for the trip that I knew that I'd enjoy, and the books were ones I'd not cry over if I lost. Part of the point of the trip was to turn my brain off for a space, after all. I reread the Mallorean upon my return because I wanted to remember the end of the story.

So. A few thoughts about Eddings?
David & Leigh do some things very, very well. The books are funny and light, and they often do get to thinking about some slightly interesting issues--why religion can overwhelm rational thought in some people, for instance--although the issues get too far short a shrift, and are vastly oversimplified. These books are good pulp, and that alone is enough to make me happy.

My one criticism is far from new. Like all series of this length, or like authors who spend too much time with characters that are all basically the same--I'm thinking of Heinlein, here--the characters lose individuality as the series progress. The characters, more and more, all start to act in the same ways as one another, and they tend to start speaking exactly like every other character. Different people sound different, and they act differently. Let's remember that, authorial folk.

The one thing that I'd point to that's done beautifully throughout both series is the way magic works in the books: "the will and the word." The sorcerer gathers his or her will for an action, and then speaks, calling for the action to take place. The action is typically something that isn't hugely possible in an ordinary sense, and makes noise audible to other people capable of magic. The sorcerer has to understand how to do what he or she wills done. This conception of magic is simple, but strikes me as fairly profound, because it concisely captures our desire for magic and how it should work.

At any rate, the books aren't as spectacularly novel as Tolkien's oeuvre, or Lewis's Narnia, but they offer a fun world in which to spend a few hours. I like going back there from time to time, but this time--while I enjoyed my time there--I don't really feel as though I'm likely to want to go back. I'm going to have to think about why that is.
Jon Stewart, Naked Pictures of Famous People, 1998.

Stewart's collection of short riffs is hit or miss. Pieces range from the too obvious--as in "The Recipe", where he pretends to translate a codex, only to find how to run an awards show--to the disappointing (the first piece in the book, showing the prejudices felt towards as well as the ugly sides of the Kennedy clan). There are some shining moments--the Larry King interview with Hitler is Stewart at his best. All in all, the book isn't something I feel the need to have on my shelf, but I'm glad I read it.
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves

Wodehouse is funny. I've been meaning to read a few more of his books for a space now, and this one was brought to my attention in an article I read a few weeks ago, because of Arts & Letters Daily.

Jeeves normally solves all the problems of Bertie Wooster's friends; not only does Bertie feel unappreciated, he feels that Jeeves is losing his touch. After all, suggesting that Gussie Fink-Nottle go to a masquerade as Mephistopheles to win over Miss Madeline Bassett was crazy, and worked out so poorly, that Bertie feels that he should take over. Humour ensues.

So, fun fluff, eminently enjoyable and not too painfully dated. Light fun makes for good plane reading.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

In the coming days, I'll blog about what I read in Cuba. For now, a list:

Jon Stewart, Naked Pictures of Famous People
P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!
Stephen Platten (ed.), Ink and Spirit
David Eddings, The Belgariad (Pawn of Prophecy, Queen of Sorcery, Magician's Gambit, Castle of Wizardry, Enchanter's Endgame)
Thomas Merton, Run to the Mountain (Vol. 1 of the Journals)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

Edmundson works through a variety of ideas, but this text celebrates two central ideas: a work of literature is true, insofar as it represents life as it is--an ongoing, present tense "is"--and that literature helps us construct what he calls our "final narratives", or helps us establish for ourselves what is important and how we should live our lives. In short, he takes Matthew Arnold and Marcel Proust, and slams them together with Richard Rorty as he tries to convince the reader of his case.

Arnold's position, that literature may have to come to replace religion as a guide to life, seems less likely now with literature's relative obscurity in the place of popular culture, and has certainly fallen into disrepute in the academic world. Edmundson argues that it needs to be revitalised: that it's easy to apply readily forgotten theory to texts, and it's easy to research the texts, but what's difficult and most worth doing is to engage with the text itself and to ask what the texts ask of us, how they ask us to grow. This process is Emersonian, and Edmundson quotes him as saying "The life of man... is a self-evolving circle, which from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end." Edmundson expands upon this idea by quoting Proust's adage that "Reading... is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it, but does not constitute it," and suggests that it is this life of the spirit that is absent in classrooms. He suggests that that absence may well be why we have fewer and fewer students of humanities in universities these days, as this idea of literature as a touchstone falls further out of favour.

He laments students seeking entertainment instead of education, though he is sharply critical of an academy structured to provide just that. What a literary education does is to wake people out of the slumber induced by the opiate that is popular culture: reading, he tries to convince us, is a powerful force that does more than entertain (and herein lies the distinction between Faulkner and Stephen King), but provokes growth and challenge. Proust comes up again as Edmundson tries to say that a lasting work of literature is one that offers deep, meaningful opportunities for this type of engagement:
It seems to me that they would not be my readers but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a sort of magnifying glass like those which the optician used to offer his customers--it would be my book but with it I would furnish them the means of reading what lays inside themselves. So that I would not ask them to praise me or to censure me, but simply to tell me whether 'it really is like that.' I should ask whether the words that they read within themselves are the same as those which I have written."

This idea of Proust's begins the conversation with the question, does this text live? The most compelling comment that Edmundson shares with us comes from Lionel Trilling.
Describing his initiation into modern literature, into Kafka, Joyce, Proust, and their contemporaries, Lionel Trilling writes: "Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me, and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has become very intimate."

Do the texts we read live? If they don't, what fault is it of ours? Edmundson wants this long essay to make us ask ourselves that question, and to take reading seriously.

So there's a summary of the book. Here's what I think.
I take reading seriously.
You have only to take the briefest of glances at how I spend my free time, my money, my thought--this very blog--to see that. This book of Edmundson reads like an argument for the existence of God: it's convincing only insofar as the person hearing the proof already believes. Why Read? hectors, dares, challenges, and never really becomes persuasive, as it would need to if it wants to affect non-readers.

I look to literature as I look to religion, as ideas that I need to examine to determine how to live my life aright. I'm not convinced, though, that we should sell the study of literature as being the modern day vision of a seminary. I think that the study of literature is something that should be shared among those who care deeply about books, and that that's something that we pass on to others we encounter almost like a particularly benevolent virus. Let's take reading seriously because we enjoy stories, and let's leave books like Why Read? on the shelf, taken down only to offer us points to debate.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality, 1988.

I can't remember if I looked at this book before, or not. Reading it, it seems to me to be far from controversial, far from overly challening. In fact, seventeen or so years after it was published, it almost reflects the status quo--or will, as soon as we start blessing same-sex marriages in the Anglican church. In short, while it reflects on an argument, and was at the time of its publication quite challenging, the book is more saddening than anything else--saddening that, as a church, we've made so little progress in almost twenty years.

Spong zips along through a history of marriage in the church, carefully goes through the biblical arguments about sexuality (and goes through the two major approaches to sexuality), and then makes three proposals: institute "betrothal", or a recognition of a meaningful relationship between two people that occurs prior to marriage but that can include a sexual component; allow the blessing of same-sex unions; and recognise that post-married people still are sexual beings, and that we shouldn't limit their options, either.

Throughout the book, he stays within one view that he's always maintained: sex can exist in both good and bad forms in human life, and that it's the church's job to celebrate what is good and work against that which is destructive and dangerous. It's not a riveting book; nowadays, just reading the Statement of Koinonia covers the basic outlines of his argument. It does, however, provide a decent introduction to a subject that still seems to have far too much of the church's attention.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Tom Clancy, The Teeth of the Tiger, 2003.

This book is weak. It's not a good Clancy, nowhere near Red Storm Rising or Without Remorse or Debt of Honor: instead of careful thought and analysis, he indulges in fantasies of killing terrorists swiftly, without mercy or real justice.

Unwilling or unable to come up with plausible new characters, Clancy spins off Jack Ryan's son & Jack Jr.'s two cousins, coming up with characters that aren't even as plausible as cardboard caricatures. The story meanders, focuses in far too much detail at the wrong times, never becomes particularly gripping. In short, it was a waste of money even though bought on remainder. Avoid this book like the plague: it will bore you, and possibly rot your brain.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stephen Marche, Raymond and Hannah, 2005.

Hannah and Raymond meet at a party, and go home together for a one-night stand. It becomes a week-long fling, deep and serious, and tearful at its supposed conclusion, when Hannah heads to Israel to study Torah at an egalitarian yeshiva. Raymond is stuck in Toronto, working on his Ph.D. in Literature on Robert Burton. The affair continues, love at quite the distance, and the relationship is jeopardized by a number of the things that can happen in a long-distance relationship.

Jim Bartley, the Globe & Mail's "First Fiction" reviewer, wrote about Raymond and Hannah:
"I don't think I've ever had better vicarious sex -- certainly not in an English Canadian novel. This is sex as voracity, fuelled by the birth of volcanic, insatiable love. Marche describes almost no specifics, yet burns up the pages with need and joy. Shame is banished. The id rules. The spirit revels." (15/01/05, D11)
Bartley is exactly right: the prose captures the intensity of the relationship, the tremendous physicality of it, and then, for the nine-month absence, the mental anguish of separation. Marche is now on my Keats List: the man describes so much, so well, and keeps the reader engaged in the story.

Where I quibble with Bartley is in his attack on the odd feature of the book. Each short section has a marginal note. His problem with this is that the notes sometimes feel unneccessary and are somtimes vital to understanding the section to which the note is attached. I found it charming: the device, far from being frustrating, is wonderful for two reasons. It slows down the reading. It also asks the reader to consider whether they'd frame the section the same way the author depicts it: it's a way of adding weight, or colouring, or shadow to a section: it can set a tone of the prosaic, or suggest that what is happening is in someway transcendental. The notes are signposts, and they're neat. They remind me of the brief descriptions in most English translations of the Bible, explaining or offering a title for the next section: and in this way, they mimic the two things being studied by the main characters: Hannah's Torah, Raymond's Anatomy of Melancholy.

There's a great musing of Raymond's, describing what Universities are, that I'll end this blog:

Raymond considers the broader context of the university

The most obvious feature of the university, when considered within an urban context, is that it is the location of the books. Only slightly less obvious is the fact that the social function of the university is to provide people just ending adolescence with a place for open-ended sexual intercourse. The libraries of a university awe all private book collections. Similarly, the sexual life of the university, both in quantity and intensity of focus, puts to shame the sexual lives that surround it. Books and sex: the university concentrates what mature men and women dip into only when time and occasion permit.

But what eludes us is the co-incidence of books and sex. Why is the site for the concentration (or disposal) the same? Is it that sex and books are the substance oif youth and must be, then, simultaneously contained?

Jerk off, read a chapter, go to sleep. Night after night. (109)

Monday, January 31, 2005

Nick Hornby, Polysyllabic Spree, 2004.

This collection of articles appeared in Believer magazine from September 2003 to November 2004. Hornby starts each piece with two lists: books bought that month, and books read.. He then goes on to talk about why he bought what he did, why he read what he did (and why he didn't read), and what he thought about books that month.

In short, the pieces aren't really reviews, although they sort of are--and so I needed to read the articles just because of the similarities to this very blog. All of his essays are breezy, chatty, and light: they take reading seriously, as an absolutely essential part of life, but he never takes reading too seriously. Reading is essential to Hornby's life, but never becomes snobbish about any notion of canon.

I enjoyed reading his reactions to various books. I loved watching how one book led to another and how one blurb on the back of a book could lead to the next. These articles are far more fun as a description of a reader than they are of the books mentioned within the pieces. Pick it up: it's a quick read, and if you're one of those people who can't stop reading, then you'll love this book.

One short example of the way Hornby writes about books:

Books are, let's face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. "The Magic Flute" v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. "The Last Supper" v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. ...And every now and again you'd get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I'm still backing literature 29 times out of 30.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice, 1997.

I have said much about this writer's work. There isn't a lot to say about this collection of Christmas stories, other than to know that it includes his earliest work for NPR: the "Santaland Diaries." Sedaris details his time spent as an elf at Santaland, in Macy's department store, and what he sees and overhears. The stories are funny, and one can see why they caused such excitement, but I prefer the drier and more self-mocking stories of the later collections.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 1887.

I recently acquired the Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and have begun making my way through the stories I enjoyed so much when I was younger. The four novels, though, are not in the first two volumes of the ASH: they'll appear in the third volume, due to be published around November. I wanted to reread A Study in Scarlet, though, because it sets the tenor for the stories.

The story is as I remember it: fun, light, entertaining. It sets up Holmes as the ultimate observer, able to acquire even the minutest detail and then--the important bit--able to correlate all of the pieces in his mind, thereby assembling a completed jigsaw puzzle that lays out every nuance of the truth.

Despite the Holmesian ideal that has haunted me all my life--I first read this story when I was very young--this story is feather-light, indeed. A murder, the word "Rache" (German for revenge) written in blood on the wall, another dead man, more dead people, evil Mormons, revenge, fair maidens, adopted daughters, long-lost fiancés, etc. All in all, this story is a trite little puzzle that wraps up neatly. It's not a story worth thinking about too closely, in its silliness, but it's one to come back to and to re-enjoy, de temps en temps.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Nick Hornby, Songbook, 2003.

Hornby's collection of essays about pop music--31 songs and 5 albums--is a good example of what it means to take pop music (at least as a broadly inclusive term) seriously.

Hornby discounts the idea that memorable songs are indelibly associated with specific memories, moments, or feelings; rather, he argues that good songs are in some way catchy and arrest the hearer in some way, be it for melodic, lyrical, or some other reason. As he puts it, "I wanted mostly to write about what it was in these songs that made me love them, not what I brought to the songs" (5-6). The book is, in one respect, and extended polemic that demands that pop be taken seriously:
That's the things that puzzles me about those who feel that contemporary pop (and I use the word to encompas soul, reggae, country, rock--anything and everything that might be regarded as trashy) is beneath them, or behind them, or beyond them--some preposition denoting distance, anyway: Does this mean that you never hear, or at least never enjoy, new songs, that everything you whistle or hum was written yeards, decades, centuries ago? Do you really deny yourself the pleasure of mastering a tune (a pleasure, incidentally, that your generation is perhaps the first in the history of mankind to forgo) because you are afraid it might make you look as if you don't know who Harold Bloom is? Wow. I'll bet you're fun at parties. (16)

He goes on to talk about how much he's enjoying being driven "potty" by "I'm Like a Bird" by Nelly Furtado. While I can't say I've ever been a fan, I remember donning and having a whole bunch of friends and students going about singing that for months on end, seemingly ceaselessly. Horny acknowledges that he'll eventually "solve" the song, and that it "will seem thin and stale soon enough," which means that it is "disposable" in one sense, but what's interesting in his argument is that he asks why disposability "makes any difference to anyone's perceptions of the value of pop music" (17). He argues that the disposability might be "a sign of pop music's maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse" (17-18). (There's also a funny moment where he writes "That's what gets me: The very people who are snotty about the disposability of pop will go over and over again to see Lady Bracknell say "A handbag?" in a funny voice. They don't think that argument's exhausted itself?" [17]) Going through all these songs, showing what attracted him to them is the single best argument in his arsenal in the war to convince people to take pop seriously.

Because our tastes in music are so different, there were only one or two songs that I would have included in my own discussion. His chapter on Aimee Mann's "I've Had It" and Ani DiFranco's "You Had Time" is one of my favourites, but I don't think it's because I like the two songs so much; it's because he's so good about "You Had Time":

"You Had Time" sets itself a further handicap: it begins with more than two minutes of apparently hopeful and occasionally discordant piano noodling.... DiFranco's song is nothing if not ambitions, because what it does--or at any rate, what it pretends to do--is describe the genesis of its own creation: it shows its workings in a way that would delight any math teacher. When it kicks off, the noodling sounds impressionistic, like a snatch of sound track for an arty but emotional film... But it cheers up a little when DiFranco makes out that she's suddenly hit upon the gorgeous little riff that gives the song its spine. She's not quite there yet, because she hasn't found anything to do with her left hand, so there's a little bit more messing about; and then, as if by magic (although of course we know that it's merely the magic of hard work and talent) she works out a counterpoint, and she's there. Indeed, she celebrates the birth of the song by shoving the piano out of the way and playing the song proper on acoustic guitar--the two instruments are fused together with a deliberate improbable seamlessness on the recording, as if she wants us to see this as a metaphor for the creative process, rather than as the process itself. It's a sweet idea, a fan's dream of how music is created; I'd love to be a musician precisely because a part of me believes that this is exactly how songs are born, just as some people who are not writers believe that we are entirely dependent on the appearance of a muse. (46-47)

Hornby goes on to talk about the song proper and its peculiar attractiveness that astonishes him by not being "anticlimactic" after the song's introduction, but this description of the beginning of the song is so spot-on in terms of its close-reading of the song and depiction of just how it works that I wish I could write music criticism like this--if, perhaps, with a little more variety in sentence structure. (The man uses more colons and semi-colons than I do, and more clauses than a lawyer hell-bent on obfuscating fourteen different meanings, so I may just like the collection because I have a bad habit of writing like that, too.)

At any rate, this is a nice little collection that I wouldn't buy--maybe if more of the analysis was like this chapter, and maybe if more of the music was music that I cared about I might acquire it, but as is, it was a nice one to take out from the library. I am looking forward to reading Hornby's collection of essays about books, Polysyllabic Spree: I think I may bite the bullet and buy that one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, 2000.

As I've already talked at length about two other similar books, here and here, I'm just going to quote a short section from this book.

     "Let me get this straight," one student said. "You're telling me that if I say something out loud, it's me saying it, but if I write the exact same thing on a paper, it's somebody else, right?"
     "Yes," I said, "And we're calling that fiction."
     The student pulled out his notebook, wrote something down, and handed me a sheet of paper that read, "That's the stupidest fucking thing I ever heard in my life."
     They were a smart group. (93)

I like reading Sedaris's stuff.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Thomas Wharton, The Logogryph: A Bibliography of Imaginary Books, 2004.

Wharton's The Logogryph is the closest book I've ever read to the book I want to write.

In fragments, Wharton describes both a vast number of imagined books and the experience of reading them. He depicts the reading of stone books, of books written in three dimensions in ink underwater, of book constructions in landscapes, of books written solely to capture stories that exist only in oral form...

More importantly, Wharton describes experiences of reading--rapture, total absorption, distractedness, disinterested-ness, and everything in between--in terms of the soul and of the body as readers respond to texts.

All of this is done within the loose framework of a writer obsessed with a touchstone story that is the giving of stories, literally as well as metaphorically. The Logogryph is a kunstlerroman told in fragments, grasping for and after stories, with little of the development of the artist except as far as the boundless possibilities of reading exist.

The Logogryph is a beautifully made and beautifully told book; I don't think anyone who loves reading can fail to be absorbed by what it describes, or to be moved by Wharton's exploration of reading.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

David Sedaris, Naked, 1998.

I've been waiting to read this book since the end of September, when I read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
I placed holds on Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day and they've both just arrived for me at the Library.

I wrote, of DYFiCaD:
The stories in this collection are moments--some brief, some spanning a bit of time, all requiring some backstory. 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.

I'm now at a loss to say much else about Naked, and I suspect will have the same feeling after MTPOD. This inability isn't due to Sedaris being boring or repetitive; each story is fresh and exciting. I'm constantly befuddled and amused and saddened by Sedaris's anectodes: in each one, I'm drawn into the story and don't want to leave at the other end. What my repetitve assessment indicates to me is that Sedaris's strength as a writer is to capture these moments--a strength that comes across to the reader lately come to these stories, and one that's well known indeed to listeners to This American Life.

Go read Naked; you'll enjoy it.