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.