Thursday, December 30, 2010

Craig Ferguson, American On Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, 2009.

I’m not sure what attracted me to Ferguson’s autobiography: I’m a fan neither of celebrity autobiographies nor of addiction memoirs, but something made me want to read this one. I’m glad I did. Ferguson’s self-deprecating humour and wry observations combine with a level of candour and openness that make for an engaging personal history. We meet his parents and his family, and learn of his yearning to be American (with a very sweet NASA story along the way), before following him into a descent into alcoholism and drumming. Fans of The Late Late Show won’t be surprised that he learns that he loves to make people laugh, leading to a career in both stand-up and film before getting sober with the help of some friends, with a first American sojourn along the way. (It is astonishing to read of both the depths of his alcoholism and his ability to remain employed.) Finally, he finds his way to LA and projects in both film and television, before landing his current gig. There’s a sweetness to the book and its stories, even when Ferguson is sharing his fear of ducks brought on by a bad acid trip (a story that’s changed and reworked in his novel, Between the Bridge and the River, blogged about here). There’s also no shortage of can-do American Dream-fulfilled optimism that shapes the telling. What you’ll read is entirely congruent with the voice you may have experienced when the sandman’s at your door and you’re watching his show anyway, and it will entertain you even as it speaks revealingly about addiction and how Ferguson has addressed it in his life.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Craig Ferguson, Between the Bridge and the River, 2006.

Ferguson’s first novel is a road-trip good-time, a weird and wacky series of pastiches that is strongly reminiscent of the work of both Douglas Adams and Tom Robbins. Ostensibly the stories of two Glaswegians who were once friends, the story careens off into strange asides and amusing characters that one might well meet in Ferguson’s comedy (and bits and pieces from Ferguson’s own life, as you’ll discover in my next blog post on his American on Purpose). We follow George, a defence lawyer dying of cancer who falls in love, and Fraser, a disgraced televangelist seeking escape at a conference of his brother televangelists in the deep South. Along the way we meet the morbidly obese and extensively depraved Saul and his brother Leon, the singer cum actor. We meet crack-heads, anorexics, and snake handlers, and are reminded that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly... and yet they do. Oh, and Carl Jung and Virgil are key figures, too. It’s a wise-cracking tour de force that touches on sex, suicide, addiction, sex, the stories that trap us, sex, and a deeply humane view of what it should mean to us to lead our lives. From chase-like sequences in RVs to the retelling of the story of St. Francis of Assisi, Ferguson’s writing is deeply entertaining and moving, never stepping away from a sharp comedic outlook while sharing interesting asides on myoclonic twitches and the etymology of “cutting to the chase”. The book is at its best in the set pieces, and three morality tales are particularly strong. It’s well worth a read: you’ll not regret it, in your own time between the bridge and the river.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, 2010.

The lights lower in the house, and the screen brightens. Two or three commercials play across the screen as you lean over to your fellow cinema-goer to bet on how many trailers you’ll see, and before the first trailer seeks to tempt you into watching a movie that you have no interest in seeing, one final commercial plays: a young person in a convenience store shoves a couple of candy bars and a pop into his knapsack as the storekeeper sells a lottery ticket to an elderly woman, and then the boy takes off, high-tailing it from the store as the narrator’s deep voice says “We know that’s theft—so is stealing movies” as we cut to a young couple staring at a computer whilst slyly grinning at one another. My stomach tightens at the commercial, though I’ve never illegally downloaded a movie. While I could argue against the false equivalence being established in the efforts of this commercial and its brethren, nothing I could essay would be as erudite, as engaging, or as convincing as Lewis Hyde’s recent Common as Air.

Just as in Trickster Makes This World*, Hyde uses analogies and discursive examples to outline an argument that is very difficult to argue against convincingly. In Common as Air, he argues that copyright is broken: that what once existed to help the development of art and discovery now limits and prevents meaningful building on the “shoulders of giants” that have gone before. He proposes reform, asking us to move away from the notion of property to a commons with stints. Hyde develops this proposal with heavy reference both to the ancient structures and strictures of the commons and to the founding fathers or the United States. At times heavily historical, the reader would be forgiven for thinking in the early pages that she was reading more of an history of ideas than a book dealing with what may be the defining issue of our time. The fifth chapter makes heavy use of Benjamin Franklin to show how his work on a number of scientific fronts could not have occurred without heavy debts both to earlier investigations whose results had been freely shared and to his oft-forgotten co-experimenters. Its argument is that the “founders believed that created works belong largely in the commons so as to support and enliven creative communities” (112); the preceding chapters develop our understanding of the commons, and the successive chapters expand this idea and show how it has continuing relevance to our society and culture, with reference to Bob Dylan, the human genome, and the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. Hyde captivates the reader both in the argument itself and in his myriad and surprising examples. Dealing carefully with both issues of law and culture, the arguments he makes are persuasive and intriguing. The sceptic—who is willing to agree that theft is theft, and copyright works just fine, thank you—will find himself challenged, and the already converted will need to nuance her arguments in the light of Hyde’s work.

What I find most compelling in Hyde’s new book is an essential underpinning of his argument. A serious problem that our contemporary culture faces is that we tend to conceive of freedom as negative: too often we are concerned about being free from infringements by others. Hyde shows that this way of thinking is backwards when compared with the bulk of thinking about freedom through time.
Social well-being in this view cannot arise simply by aggregating individual choices; private interest and public good are too often at odds. Citizens acquire virtue in the civic republic, therefore, not by productivity but by willingly allowing self-interest to bow to the public good (or by recognizing that the two are one). (93)

True liberty is not freedom from, but rather freedom for, a liberty that is entirely congruent with what is extolled in the Magnificat, for example. I need to spend more time thinking about how Hyde’s arguments are working on my own understanding of what it is to live in the communities in which I make my home.

My sole serious quibble with the book is composed of two lines on the frontispiece: “Copyright © 2010 by Lewis Hyde / All rights reserved.” After he so extolled the virtues of Creative Commons licenses, was there an effort to persuade Farrar, Strauss and Giroux to publish Common as Air under such a license?

* I first fell in love with Hyde’s writing when reading his magnificent Trickster Makes This World. If you haven’t read it, I remind you that old time is still a-flying.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Giles Blunt, Crime Machine, 2010.

The newest entry in Blunt’s Detective Cardinal mystery series does not disappoint: it’s a taught, well-plotted murder mystery. Despite some predictable plot twists (who’d have thought that the ignored cold case, the butt of so many jokes, would shed light on the main case—other than every intelligent reader?), the milieu of Algonquin Bay and the always enjoyable and, this time, following his wife’s murder, the especially vulnerable Detective Cardinal. The mysterious crime scene with the beheaded Russian furriers, possibly with a Mafia connection, combined with the clear signs of presence of another mysterious person at the crime scene ties in with local politics and marital discord, all lead to the reader’s enjoyment at Blunt’s deft handling of the multiple strands he weaves together. The challenging aspect of the book is the same issue as I had with Blackfly Season (two books back in the series): because Blunt gives us much of the criminal’s perspective, we see deep and peculiar brutalities and odd character studies that detract from the mystery but fail to add a significant thriller component. Despite this weakness in writing, I continue to enjoy Blunt’s books, and look forward to the next Cardinal outing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi), 1943. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston, 1969.

The Glass Bead Game was a revelation to me in high school: it was a tome that made sense of life, that drew me toward academia and study in what I now know was a dramatically over-idealised way. Given its importance to the earlier me, I’m surprised that, until this fall, my copy has been sitting on shelves, un-reread, the story only half-remembered.

Hesse’s novel follows Joseph Knecht, a young man who is so dedicated to his music that he is plucked from his virtually un-described normal life and sent to the elite schools in Castalia—the region where the real scholars are made. Hesse follows Knecht’s career through two sets of schools, and then into the “order” of scholars and his leadership position in the order. You now know almost everything that “happens”: this story is about ideas, and the reader experiences debates between characters and musings on knowledge, politics, social responsibility, the proper role of study to the state, and more.

There are some peculiar features to this book. I read it as a sort of gedankenexperiment, an attempt to dream as near-to-possible a utopia as might exist, complete with the challenges it would face in relating to the “real” world. The form of the book is also unusual: it’s almost an anthology. It begins with an introduction to the glass bead game (the central conceit of the book and Castalia, the game is an elaborate formal way of representing the inter-relationship of various aspects—well, of all aspects—of knowledge*), and continues with a dry, academic biography of Knecht with a tone that Hesse deliberately writes in a way that skirts close to hagiography. Then we have the poems Knecht wrote as a student, followed by three of his gedankenexperiments: imagined lives he might have lived in other times and places in the world. We learn much about Castalia, and it seems awfully close to the monastic scholarship ideal (so the scholars can have affairs in their youths, sure, but otherwise they’re celibate, and there’s a disturbing absence of women that is hard not to read as misogynistic in this era—strange that teenage me wasn’t disturbed or upset by that absence/misogyny). In fact, it veers so close that it’s really only possible to distinguish it because of an extended section of Knecht’s career when he’s sent to be a game tutor to a leading Benedictine monastery, to advance Castalia’s hopes of permanent relations with the Vatican.

It’s not a book one would pick up to be riveted by story, but in the extended character study, Hesse reveals in Knecht both an idealist and an ideal. We’re asked both to empathize with the kenosis of true scholarship and civic identity (reinforced by an opposing pair of friend and mentors: Tegularius, whom Hesse based on Nietzsche, who sees little of such responsibilities; and Father Jacobus, based on Jakob Burckhardt, who is the ideal monk and scholar. The universality of the individual’s struggle between these poles is revealed not just in Knecht, but also through Knecht’s ‘secular’ non-Castalian friend, Plinio Designori). We’re forced to engage with just how much an individual has an obligation to be true to himself, and at what cost, when part of society. It’s a theme we see in much of Hesse’s work, but in The Glass Bead Game it plays at a nearly constant fortissimo, unmuted by a need for story.

Just what did teenage me see in this book? I think it likely that I saw in it, in a way that I could articulate nor fully comprehend at the time, a paradox I couldn’t then resolve between creativity and scholarship, and found myself drawn to a place and milieu where I imagined I would be free to live in a way that could explore that paradox. Now, that’s a misreading of the book—Castalia and Knecht show little freedom from the world I remember in high school—but it’s what I half-remembered, before I reread The Glass Bead Game. It also explains why I was so fascinated by the I Ching after reading the book for the first time, given its allusive and elusive way of making sense of what is to come that functions in a book as a symbol of that paradox.

I’m less sure, outside of what’s certainly a more nuanced reading, what I got out of my reengagement with the text. There remains something seductive about the utopia of Castalia, and a slim desire to emulate Knecht (and a wishing that I lived his self-discipline!); at the same time, I find myself more intrigued by the gulf Hesse depicts between scholarship and the world: Castalia can exist after a long, nightmare-like period of war and desolation, but it’s an ill-understood beacon to the rest of the world: a place to be vaguely proud of in a nebulous way, without having any sense of what it’s actually for or about. Despite being on the other side of the “Age of the Feuilleton”, a time when people were more interested in crosswords and diversions than real learning, Castalia is more what lets the rest of the world claim they’ve moved past that age than the epitome of a shift of culture. Hesse’s prophetic (not forecasting, but prophecy à la the Hebrew Scriptures, warning of a loss of purpose, understanding, and right-living) depiction of the world is no less true of our time than it was of a world in the throes of the Second World War—and will likely continue to go unheard.

* Perhaps it was my fascination with the game that led me to become as fond as I am of the work of Northrop Frye: the game imagines that all aspects of human knowledge may be studied as a system, and that the interrelations may be displayed: this is strikingly close to Frye's concept of a verbal universe with a structure that it is the critic's job to study, describe, and comment upon.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Richard Castle, Naked Heat, 2010.

The newest entry in the on-going saga of Richard Castle--sorry, of "Jameson Rook"--this novel is weaker than the last year's entry, Heat Wave. What worries me is why I think that's true. After all, this mystery is well-paced, and has some surprising twists and turns. It stands squarely in line with the TV series, with a similar sense of humour. Naked Heat and Heat Wave have clear similarities with episodes of Castle, with the same unfolding of the case, and characters who are in many ways much like Rick Castle and Detective Kate Beckett. So what's not to like? Well—that's the part that embarasses me. I don't think that the TV character Rick Castle would write like this. I think he'd be a better writer. I grant that's a pretty subjective judgement. Let me offer an example or two. On the first page, describing Nikki Heat, "Castle" writes: "She used the interlude to peel back the lid of her coffee to see if it was drinking temp yet." Castle's portrayed as a language geek on the show, someone who cares about how the English language is used: I simply can't imagine the character allowing "temp" to stay in a published copy of a book, rather than "temperature." Pedantic, on my part? Absolutely. More telling are the lines like this one:
The previous May, just days after he had returned to New York from Cannes, where he received a special jury prize for his role as the bastard son of France's first American ambassador, Reed Wakefield pulled a Heath Ledger and died of an accidental drug overdose. (129)

The overly long nature of the sentence is a stylistic issue; the tastelessness of the simile is egregious. If the simile was being used on the show — and it got past Standards and Practices to make it on the air, an idea I find hard to credit —I could imagine Nathan Fillion pulling it off with his insouciant charm. On the page, it doesn't work.

I've taken several days to wonder why I'm so disturbed by faults like these. (I've also taken several days to ponder instead of to blog, because my beloved has been reading it, and I haven't gotten my hands back on the copy to type out the examples I've used.) How much of my reaction is a fan-boy-esque disappointment in something that didn't live up to my expectations, and how much is something else? Does a television network publishing a book to help advertise a show have a responsibility to make the novel sound as though it was written by the character to whom it's ascribed? How much of my problem is that the mystery itself wasn't as good as Heat Wave? I'm finding these questions interesting, and I don't have clear answers. Despite the flaws in writing (and in not sounding enough like the Rick Castle I watch each Monday night), it's a decent little diversion. I can't imagine that anyone who picks it up is looking for anything remarkable--maybe its real purpose, other than advertising, is to let over-interested viewers leer voyeuristically at Castle's fantasies of a Beckett/Castle relationship, in the not-overly-disguised roman à clef fashion that these books offer.

I'm left disappointed, but more intrigued by my own reaction. The book itself reminds us of the importance of libraries; after all, it's certainly not worth the $24.99 US sticker price.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Maureen Johnson,
       Suite Scarlett, 2008
       Scarlett Fever, 2010.

Why do teenagers and tweens read Twilight crap and other such things when they could read well-written, clever, and entertaining YA novels like Johnson’s? Who needs to worry about vampires and werewolves when one can wonder who will capture Scarlett’s heart? (Note no actual Twilight comparisons should be considered: the books referred to in this blog entry are good, and worth reading. And lack vampires. Deo gratias on both counts!)

Set in a New York that’s neither tourist-y (for the most part) nor exploited for fear or kitsch, Johnson’s stories of Scarlett Martin and her family are rollicking, funny, and engaging. Scarlett’s family runs the no-longer top-notch Hopewell hotel in Manhattan. As the first novel starts, Scarlett is, in the family tradition, given one of the Hopewell’s suites to care for; while it should have been more a formality than real work, the arrival of the mysterious and peculiar Mrs. Amberson changes Scarlett’s plans for how she was to spend that summer. Meanwhile, her brother Spencer is trying to make it as an actor, and the production of Hamlet in which he lands the role of Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern—I can't actually remember if it's specified, and the two roles are treated fairly interchangeably when the play takes the fore) is lacking a production space. Add the challenge of the younger sister, Marlene, who only likes the older sister Lola (who is herself in a confusing romantic space with her rich boyfriend). Toss together with the complications of Eric, the Guildenstern (or Rosencrantz), who may or may not have a thing for Scarlett, and you’ve got a recipe for mayhem, silliness, comedic timing, pratfalls, Shakespearean revenge subplots, and general fun that’s eminently enjoyable. The second novel follows in the series: new romantic interests, new familial complications, new wackiness-es with Mrs. Amberson (whose borrowed dog and put-upon doorman exist to provide set-pieces that Johnson handles deftly), plus school all combine to leave the reader wondering how Scarlett continues to stumble from one thing to the next.

Read. Enjoy. And for pity’s sake, if you see a young woman (or man) reading misogynistic Twilight crap, give her these instead: it’s more worth her time to have a plausible young woman who’s simultaneously strong and confused by life as a role model than simpering simpletons she’ll find in other books.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Patricia Briggs, Silver Borne, 2010.

I blame Felicia Day and her twitter feed for my first reading Briggs and her series about a mechanic, Mercedes Thompson, who shifts into being a coyote and whose personal life is a little too intertwined with werewolves. In many ways, it’s very traditional fantasy: a great deal of thought has been put into the nature of werewolves and their pack dynamics (and their revelation of their existence to the wider world), into the fae, into witches and magic and vampires. Underlying each novel to date in the series (and I don’t seem to have blogged about them, but have read each one—embarrassment?) is an acknowledged debt to existing mythology and a clever attempt to update it and bring it into our own world. Its weaknesses, as a series, stem from another convention of too much of contemporary fantasy: the novels verge too often on slipping into the harlequin-esque romance style, and the depth of reliance on mythology and the sheer creativity of the milieu Mercedes inhabits is the saving grace.

This novel is the fifth in the series (after Moon Crossed, Blood Bound, Iron Kissed, and Bone Crossed), and is not my favourite of the lot. Its plot revolves around an attempt on Mercy’s life, fae who want an object in her possession, werewolves trying to upset the pack dynamics, and a werewolf on the verge of ending his life. The elements of the plot fail to cohere sufficiently well: ideas are introduced but not sustained, and emerge later, half-forgotten. The entire suplot of the werewolf unhappy with his existence is weak and implausible given what we know of him from the other books in the series. Finally, the denouement is so scattered and diffuse that it feels like Ms. Briggs simply didn’t know how to bring the story to a successful conclusion. I do hope that the next volume returns to the quality of the earlier books in this series.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Garrison Keillor, Life Among the Lutherans, 2009.

A collection of short pieces, some of the tales and anecdotes in this book are familiar and others are obscure. Many will know “The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra” and “Pontoon Boat”, but “Ministers’ Retreat” and “Lorraine Turnblad’s Tombstone” are far less well known. Each story has its particular Woebegon-ian charm, and it’s an enjoyable book. My sole complaint is that, aside from Woebegon and/or vague references to Lutherans, the book suffers from a lack of organization: it’s not structured, even moving through seasons, and so it really is a book to pick up at discrete intervals. The reader is left only with a sense of the milieu, both of Lake Woebegon and, to a lesser extent, of the midwestern Lutheran mores of which Keillor is the principal hagiographer (or idolater?). It’s an enjoyable read, marked principally by moments of quiet hopefulness about the capacity (too rarely reached) of humans to offer and receive love in meaningful ways.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, 2010.

I picked up this book after seeing it mentioned first on Salon, and then in more detail on Languagehat at this post and then (having myself nearly finished reading the book) at this post. I can’t say that I would have gravitated toward it otherwise: I don’t know why I needed the persuasion, but that Languagehat post convinced me that I would enjoy the book.

The book is a series of essays. Mostly structured around particular Russian books, each essay reveals a great detail about both Batuman’s life and approach to reading and the alternate universe that is graduate school. Isaac Babel serves as the lens for the first essay; the second, fourth, and sixth essays are built around learning Uzbek in Samarkand. The third essay revolves around a trip to Tolstoy’s estate for a conference (her school offering a $1 000 grant for presenting a paper at a conference, and $2 500 grant for research, Batuman applied for the latter, with a proposal to prove that Tolstoy was murdered: a neat idea, but seen through by her graduate school). The fifth piece uses Lazhechnikov’s House of Ice and visits the recreated Ice Palace. The seventh, which gives the collection its name, is about Dostoevsky’s Demons (formerly translated as The Possesed).

Because of their personal nature, the essays are sometimes meandering and lose focus. The Samarkand sections, likely because they’ve been broken up into three pieces separated by two other essays, feel disconnected from much of the rest of the book. While many of the essays do give the feeling of being almost a travelogue at times, they’re not trying to describe a place or even trips: rather, they’re giving a sense of literature and life. They do feel like pieces for The New Yorker, and her work has been published in those august pages.

There are moments which are quite funny, and others which are pathetic (the realisation of what her language and literature teachers in Samarkand are being paid, compared to the remuneration for the University’s rector and her host, is deeply affecting). Occasionally, those two are combined, as the Tolstoy scholars travel to Chekhov’s house and back to their respective institutions. The description of graduate school rings sadly true, though Batuman finds more humour (even if she does so darkly) than I did in my experiences.

I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. I do agree with Languagehat’s conclusion about the unrelenting focus on the exotic, though I wonder if perhaps that’s how to hold the general public’s attention while writing about books most people are unlikely to read in their lives. I do have a renewed desire to finishing reading Dead Souls one of these years...
Ben Karlin (ed.), Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me, 2008.

This book is an anthology of comedic pieces from Andy Richter, Will Forte, David Wain, Stephen Colbert (heavily censored), Dan Savage, AJ Jacobs, Patton Oswalt, and others. The title gives you a good sense of the subject matter: every piece is somehow about break-ups and past relationships. Unsurprisingly, they’re variable in quality and humour. The essays from Savage, Jacobs, and Colbert were my favourites. Savage thanks an ex for helping him to realise his own sexuality; Colbert shares (and his wife censors) a reminiscence of a former lover; Jacobs recalls the woman he wanted to date but never could. Each one writes in his distinctive style and with the clever humour the reader expects.

It’s a book that you can enjoy some essays from, be surprised and perhaps discover comedians in others, while not feeling guilty about skimming over the pieces that don’t hold your attention.
John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle, Let it Snow, 2008.

This collection of three interlinked “holiday romances” is a slight but enjoyable YA piece. All three pieces are fairly conventional in plotting and characterization. I’m not sure if they simply didn’t find enough space, or if the teenage romance genre in which they’re writing precluded surprises. The reader won’t find anything new in the pieces, but they’re an enjoyable enough diversion.

Johnson’s piece, “The Jubilee Express”, traces a holiday journey taken by a young woman following her parents’ arrest: hijinks, train delays, Waffle Houses, and irritatingly absent and just plain irritating boyfriends all serve to advance the plot as she finds unexpected romance. Green’s tale, "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle", follows three friends trying to get to that same Waffle House, to meet a coworker and the sudden arrival of a cheerleading squad. Love is found in unexpected places. Myracle’s story, "The Patron Saint of Pigs", is the most adventurous of the three stories, following a rather self-absorbed young woman who seeks to make amends after having cheated on her boyfriend.

I picked it up solely because I enjoy Green, and am coming to appreciate Johnson: it’s a divertissement, rather than anything substantial—and I’m clearly not in the target audience for this piece.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

David Rakoff, Half Empty, 2010.

I love Rakoff’s writing. I love the way he uses words, the way his delightfully snarky and snide humour enchant the reader and hide Rakoff’s love of the truth he’s writing about, the way I laugh, the way I want to read slowly so that the book will last longer, the way I hear the words in his soft voice and careful inflections. I love Rakoff’s writing, and that makes it hard to write about it any sort of balanced way.

In ten essays, Rakoff jumps from the trouble with Rent and cupcakes to the disturbing cultural insistence that people remain positive even in extreme adversity, with trips to Epcott, Hollywood, and Utah for good measure. His eye is so attuned to both the quotidian and the extraordinary, and he describes it concisely and movingly: he captures experiences in words in ways that inspire me to write (ironically, given the example I’m about to share). Consider this depiction of what the process of writing is like:
It isn't that I don't sympathize with the lassitude. I understand it all too well. Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one's least attractive, that sometimes it's just easier not to do anything. Writing--I can really only speak to writing here--always, always starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food. So truly, if you're already getting laid and have managed to fall in with an attractive and like-minded group without the added indignity of diving face-first into a cesspool every single time you sit down to work, no one understands better than I do why one might not bother. (55)

His metaphors and similes are staggering. He makes an entrepreneur at the Exotic Erotic Ball convention come alive with associations that are at once cliché and fresh: “Decades ago, he would have been a grizzled huckster, an old merchant seaman with fading Polynesian tattoos and missing teeth, producing from his rucksack a cork-stoppered bottle of brown glass. He would whisper of the mysterious contents, a vague pedigree of ground horn, dried animal penis, and the pulverized carapaces of rare insects.”

Rakoff doesn’t write about himself, but he’s present in every essay with an unflinching honesty that makes me want to invite him for dinner (and worry about living up to his standards for both the food and the décor). Describing his response and reaction to his therapist’s death, Rakoff invites one into both the therapy and the hospice room: the emotions are vivid and revealing, necessary and clarifying. My best way of making sense of it is to suggest that Rakoff uses his own life as a prism to reveal the colours that seemed to just be life, refracting the beam to make details come alive so that deeper truths about ourselves can be understood.

Perhaps most helpful and most challenging is the final essay, ‘Another Shoe,’ in which he shares something of his experience with his recent (and ongoing) bout with cancer. He remembers a woman, Brooklyn Mom, with whom he once volunteered, and describes the process of coming to understand what she chose to share about her experience with cancer; he remembers an awkward childhood experience that informs his feelings in the present; of his sense of a lack of larger lessons in the midst of this all-consuming experience. In both his references to movies and books and in the interactions with friends, family, and his own self, Rakoff depicts bleakness and the slight hope that makes continuing possible.

I’m hoping for the next collection of essays. I’m sure I’ll be as effusive again.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Hillary Frank, The View From the Top, 2010.

Enjoyable and sweet, Frank’s latest novel is a multi-vocal exploration of the angst that exists around topics of love, future, and family. Though it stays in third-person narration with a consistent voice, the story jumps in focus from one character to another. Despite their interactions and the inter-related nature of each character’s story, there aren’t clear links between the sections: this stylistic device serves to heighten the feelings of isolation and confusion that are the principal source of unity for the overarching story.

We follow Anabelle, who is about to leave for university from the tourist town in which she’s grown up. She struggles with her relationship with her boyfriend Matt, and her feelings for his best friend Jonah. Matt’s sister Lexi is pining for Anabelle, as is Jonah—but Jonah is also drawn to Matt and Lexi’s mom. At the outskirts of this circle is Tobin, a brilliant cellist who likes Anabelle and is about to leave Normal, ME, to head to conservatory. Tacked on in a way that doesn’t quite succeed is Mary-Tyler, one of the tourists whose parents have a vacation home in Normal: she felt to my reading more of a character like an attendant lord meant to swell a progress, start a scene or two and her sections read as nearly extraneous and fall flat compared to the remainder of the novel.

In describing Frank’s writing of Mary-Tyler, I realised what falls flat for me in with this novel. Despite enjoying it, I found myself distracted by the vital importance of minor characters to the denouement of the plot: we simply don’t know them well enough to be moved, and I felt manipulated in the closing as I read of Anabelle’s father’s crying. This challenge is compounded with the over-easy dismissal of the other characters’ conclusions—Jonah being chased through the fair and Matt heading off to Boston—and the overly neat resolution between Anabelle and Tobin. I found myself disappointed by the conclusion, despite enjoying the book through the rest of my reading of it. I’ve always felt weak conclusions to otherwise strong stories to be an unintentional betrayal of the contract between reader and story-teller, so it’s taken me a few days to sit down to blog about this novel. Ultimately, I’m glad I read it, but didn’t enjoy it nearly so much as I did Better than Running at Night. Frank has a great gift for drawing her readers into her stories. I’m hoping that her next book will leave me as content through its conclusion as through its middle.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hillary Frank, Better than Running at Night, 2002.

I love a good künstlerroman. I discovered Frank via This American Life, and a brilliant piece about a conversation overheard on a train ride. (You can stream it from here.) Better than Running at Night is her debut novel, a quick-moving character study of a young woman named Ladybug (Ellie) Yellinsky. Ellie is beginning her studies at the New England College of Art and Design (this is my only quibble: the school name is clever, no? NECAD—said phonetically, as her father does, it reveals both themes and endings just a little too clearly) mid-year, taking a fundamentals class in order to catch up with her fellow students who began the year in September. She struggles with making sense of what art is, both with her oddball teacher Ed Gilloggley and her two fellow class-mates — and then the next oddball non-teacher. At the same time, Ellie is figuring out what it is to live; she’s in a complicated relationship with another student, is trying to make sense of her relationships with her parents, and is trying to understand who she is, post-high school.

Told in short snippets, and illustrated by Frank’s drawings (she holds an MFA in drawing from the New York Academy of Art), the book is engaging. I read it in just a few short hours, drawn into both Ellie’s life and the lucid exposition of what art is and how the artist works and grows.

My summary might make the novel sound overly familiar, solidly placed within a predictable genre. It’s not: Ellie’s travails and woes never feel trite or overdone, but are entirely plausible. There’s a marvellous moment when Gilloggley shows his three students some of his own drawings in charcoal:
The last slide was of a woman lying on her stomach in bed, partially draped by a sheet. It was a side view, and one arm hung limply over the edge of the bed. A single finger grazed the floor. The arm said everything about how she felt.
After seeing Ed’s slides, I knew why I had come to art school. (182)

The book seeks to use Ellie’s life to make sense of art and life in a way much akin to Ed’s work; revealing Ellie’s emotions and response, her yearning to create, and her desire for a fulfilled life. It resists easy endings, and indeed resists offering detail after the dénouement. It’s a well written, lovely novel; I look forward to reading more of Frank’s work.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Christopher Moore,
        Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, 1995.
        You Suck, 2007.
        Bite Me, 2010.

mmmm… silly fun. The story of Bloodsucking Fiends follows Jody as she becomes a vampire. She finds a minion, Tommy—and wacky misadventures happen as they elude the vampire who turned her. Together with his drug-addled supermarket night crew, Tommy helps Jody deal with the older vampire while also avoiding the long arm of the law (the capable Rivera and Cavuto) and getting some helpful assistance from the Emperor of San Francisco, Protector of Alcatraz, Sausalito, and Treasure Island (and the men, of course!). Hijinks, silly humour, turtles being bronzed, some crazed vampiric sex. All’s well that ends well — thank goodness for the bronizing process — and then... Well, then the story continues the next day in You Suck. Tommy, now a vampire, helps Jody find a new minion: Abby Normal. Wacky misadventures with the old vampire seeking revenge, the night-crew trying to avenge Tommy’s turning while paying off their blue-dyed prostitute, and too many vampires threaten to make San Francisco un-fun. Abby and her science nerd boyfriend save the day in then end... and then the story continues in the newly released Bite Me. While you might think vampire-animals were sufficiently covered by James Howe — well, actually, you’d be right. In this book of the trilogy, the silliness is a bit over the top. A vampire cat is one thing, but vampire parrots, Rastafarian boat pilots, older vampires, and vampire fog viruses is a well-plotted adventure tale that jumps from the viewpoint of one character to another and another, but never really grips the reader the way the first two books do.

All three are fun, silly, light reading. These books are the sort of summer pulp that’s worth using for entertainment. And leave me with a strange craving to find my copy of Bunnicula...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job, 2006.

When I pick up a book by Christopher Moore, I expect to be entertained, and, every other book*, stretched a bit. A Dirty Job does a decent job on both fronts. Its plot revolves around a man who becomes an agent of Death, and who becomes responsible to collect souls and facilitate their transference to their new people (it seems we outgrow and change souls as we ourselves develop, much as we do shoes; I’m not clear if we can wear them out). This being Moore, there’s wackiness &mdash some poignant, some farcical — as beta male Charlie Asher makes sense of his new vocation. He comes to it just after the death of his wife Rachel and the birth of his daughter Sophie. It’s a story populated with weird characters (and with strong links to some of Moore’s other books and characters, most notably an interaction that also appears in You Suck) and ferocious villains working against Charlie. Interwoven are thoughts and reflections on death, ranging from the Lovecraft-esque to a deep fascination with the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

It’s a set-up with promise that ultimately doesn’t live up to the depth of Lamb or the humour of Bloodsucking Fiends. My problem with the novel is that its plotting at some times clearly telegraphs revelations that need to be less-guess-able, and at other times resorts to such exotic (and small and furry) deus ex machinas as to so stretch the suspension of disbelief I was willing to extend to a book about a man who becomes a “death merchant.” There are some brilliant set pieces — both times Charlie is tied up are marvellous, as is the introduction of the hellhounds — but it doesn’t quite maintain the level of humour in the lighter books. It’s worth reading, and offers a noble paean to hospice care workers, but if you’ve read Lamb, you’ll be left wishing for a bit more after reading it. Memorable line: "I like my tea like I like my men [...] Weak and geen."

* I enjoyed listening to Moore speak with Edward Champion on this episode of The Bat Segundo Show. Its inside-baseball talk about what it is to be a popular-fiction writer is riveting and I encourage you to listen to it. In it, Moore reveals that he has made an interesting deal with his publisher: instead of writing a book a year, he’ll write four books in four years — two in six months and two in eighteen months. The result is some novels he considers lighter (You Suck is one example), and some that have the benefit of more thought and research (Lamb, A Dirty Job). It’s interesting to know about this calculated way of writing, and it doesn’t detract one iota from the six-month books.

Monday, September 06, 2010

David Rakoff,
      Fraud 2001
      Don’t Get Too Comfortable 2005.

I reread Don’t Get Too Comfortable, which book I first blogged about in April of 2007, and then read Fraud. Such marvellous vacation reading. I won’t quibble with what I wrote previously about DGTC — it’s a marvellous collection. The distinction I tried to make, three years ago, about acerbity without meanness is well captured in Ira Glass’s blurb for Fraud:
It’s hard to come up with a pithy remark for the back of this book, knowing that the author could — in half the time and a third of words — come up with something funnier, more piercing, and more deeply revealing. Like a whore with a heart of gold, David Rakoff says all the nasty things we want to hear and then reveals, after we’ve paid our money, that actually it’s all about love.

Glass captures it: while bits and pieces that I read aloud variously made my beloved laugh, or frown and say “he’s kind of a jackass”, Rakoff is always striving to show us more about ourselves and our habits. If you read an entire piece, you never leave it feeling he's a jackass — rather, I came to admire an honesty I wish I was better at mustering. I think that his especial skills is revealing and then mocking the habitual ways of perceiving the world that we take for granted, unwilling or unable to see that there are other avenues to experience what is around us. Fraud is less polished, and has more clever ideas that seem clever (I want to visit the Christmas Freud, and tell Rakoff what I want for Christmas only to be told in return the ways my “wishes are unhealthy or wished for in error”) than is DGTC. Both are so readable, so illuminating, that I kept wanting to read just one more essay before bed.

Rakoff's new book, Half Empty, is due out on September 21st: I’m looking forward to it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, 2010.

Orito, a character in this riveting and sprawling novel from David Mitchell, suggests that we cannot live without stories: “The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories.” Perhaps it’s because I agree so completely that I love this new book; perhaps it’s because I agree that I am one of legion who think Mitchell is the greatest living writer in English. (There is no one else from whom a new book would ensure me being at the bookstore the day of its release.) This novel is well worth reading, and I encourage you to spend time in its world.

Its world is that of Dejima, an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki. Here the employees of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) live and work, forbidden from actually landing on the soil of Japan itself because of its strict policy of isolation at the dawn of the nineteen century, far from both the Netherlands and the VOC headquarters at Batavia (now Jakarta). To conniving, whoring, drinking, scheming, and defrauding that marks Dejima’s occupants comes the young and devout clerk Jacob De Zoet. Tasked first with identifying the corruption, Jacob is not in a position to make friends: he is determined merely to survive his five years and return to Holland to marry the girl he loves.

The island swarms with Japanese inspectors and translators, and much of the first section of the book details both daily life on the island and the diplomatic posturing between the VOC and the Edo magistracy in Nagasaki. Jacob is caught up in the intrigue of his superiors and by his own crush on an unobtainable young Japanese woman, Orito, who is apprenticed as a midwife to the Dutch doctor Marinus. The writing is lush: it is both cinematic in sweep and playful with the words themselves. There’s a marvellous set-piece, early on, in which Jacob chases a monkey who has stolen a leg from the surgeon through a warehouse; if you’re not at once laughing with mirth and astonished at Mitchell’s writing, then this book is not for you.

The second part of the book revolves around Orito’s life once relegated by her stepmother to an isolated monastery of stunning and revolting depravity. I found the shift startling as I read the book; yet in retrospect, it works well both to further the plot and to develop the ideas of isolation and of faith and scientific development with which Mitchell is playing. This portion of the book is deeply disturbing, and I found it challenging to read because of my emotional involvement in Orito and her would-be rescuer.

In the final portion, we (mostly) return to Dejima, now threatened by a British warship whose captain seeks to oust the Dutch and to establish trading relations with the Japanese (inspired by an historical incident). With echoes of Patrick O’Brian, we readers follow the events that are simultaneously inevitable and surprising. I rushed on to the end, reading until well past two—unready to leave the world of the novel and unwilling its end.

Near the end of the book is a set piece I have to share, so evocative and poetic is its writing:

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bath-house adulterers, heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dyers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in-waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page-boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingerers; swineherds; swindlers; lip-chewed debtors rich in excuses; heard-it-all creditors tightening nooses; prisoners haunted by happier lives and aging rakes by other men’s wives; skeletal tutors goaded to fits; firemen-turned-looters when occasion permits; tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year-old whores; the once-were-beautiful gnawed by sores; statues of Jizo anointed with posies; syphilitics sneezing through rotted-off noses; potters; barbers; hawkers of oil; tanners; cutlers; carters of night-soil; gatekeepers; beekeepers; blacksmiths and drapers; torturers; wet-nurses; perjurers; cutpurses; the newborn; the growing; the strong-willed and pliant; the ailing; the dying; the weak and defiant; over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night's rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

One could enumerate the various ways Mitchell brings the reader to consider the nature of isolation, from islands to language to social positions to the very idea of the foreign and so many more. This concern is central in my reading of Mitchell: consider any of the various narrators in Cloud Atlas, or Jason Tyler in Black Swan Green. I’m looking forward to rereading Thousand Autumns in a year or so to see if I can pin down some of my own thoughts on what Mitchell is accomplishing with this recurrent motif. It’s more developed, in this novel; it feels more visceral than it does in the recent past of Black Swan Green or the dystopian futures of Cloud Atlas, as if better capturing the malaise so endemic to contemporary life precisely because of the historical setting.

There’s another point upon which I offer only the briefest of comments, and cite a quotation and an event from the novel. While at times seemingly opposing faith and science, there’s a deep reverence and faithfulness that is staggering. “Hell is hell because, there, evil passes unremarked upon.” Nearing the end of the novel, facing the canon, as Jacob and Dr. Marinus together recite a psalm, I nearly wept.

This book also revolves around artistry. One might think Mitchell a devotee of Frye, when De Zoet answers the magistrate’s questions about Greek myths by saying that the “truth of a myth, Your Honor, is not in its words but its patterns.” (In and of itself, this line should be a sharp rebuke to some reviewers who have worried over anachronisms rather than engaging the story.) The patterns of this book are recognisable, unexpected in the encounter but not in reflection. To offer just one other example of the lingering concern for art Mitchell interweaves into the story, in a disturbing setting and moment of the story, a monk remarks that “Storytellers are not priests who commune with an ethereal realm but artisans, like dimpling makers, if somewhat slower” (perhaps warning us not to expect Mitchell’s next novel in the very near future). As Mitchell considers memory and experience, how we frame and create stories (and our deep, deep need for them), one could read the book as a manifesto about art

I hope you enjoy the novel; I hope you become one of the legion who marvel at Mitchell’s writing. “The belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves love and the mind craves stories.” May you leave the novel with cravings well satiated.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Julian Barnes, England, England!, 1998.

I reread this novel by Barnes for reasons I cannot clearly explain: sometimes books on the shelves issue calls of loneliness that work their way subliminally to my impulses, asking me to return to worlds and characters and ideas that have grown only faintly familiar. I first read this book in graduate school, when it was recommended to us by the prof for whom I was TA-ing after a discussion on Baudrillard. He suggested—accurately, to my mind—that it would give the reader Baudrillard’s ideas without the lack of fun that accompanies reading Baudrillard (see Browning’s “Development” for a better expression of why this system is actually good pedagogy).

I remembered England, England! as a funny book, one that played with what England was while exploring the idea of the simulacrum and our own living with simulacra. What I didn’t remember was the anger, the ire more akin to a Juvenalian satire than to the Menippean satire I remembered. The plot revolves around a plan to turn the Isle of Wight into a tourist destination: all of the great historical events and places of England will be recreated in better ways, perfect for the quick and unthreatening encounter with history by monied tourists. The structure of the novel is somewhat awkward. The first segment recounts the development of the idea, dominated by the eccentric and forceful billionaire behind the project. The second relates his ouster and the running of England, England!—and the challenges that ensue: the smugglers start smuggling, Robin Hood is mad that Maid Marian won’t put out, and no one actually enjoys with a Dr. Johnson more remarkable for his depression than his witty aperçus, with a host of similar problems to accompany the aforementioned. The new CEO, a woman we readers got to know and like in both the prologue and the first part of the book, struggles both with how to solve the problems and with her own philosophical musings about what the immersion in the milieu is doing to the humans who are coming to over-identify the parts they play. (This latter concern expresses something I often wonder about: what must it do to actors to play roles like Iago day in and day out?) The final segment deals with her life after her own ouster and exile, a return to England (now Anglia) now depressed and restored to an agrarian pastoral idyll that itself is a simulacrum.

It’s in the final segment that the writing finds a balance that I think works; the satire is less angry but still omnipresent, as the villagers re-invent a fair that never-was but is as-they-imagine-it was—England, England! come to England, without the residents paid or paying for the privilege.

The book is not my favourite of Barnes’ oeuvre. It lacks the balance of Flaubert’s Parrot and the staying power of Talking It Over, or the genius of the brilliant A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. The exposition of the theories of Baudrillard, both by the French theorist and by Dr. Max, does not read like a theory lesson but does genuinely engage the reader at the level of story. I enjoyed rereading it, and am left wondering about the rage I perceive in it. Thoughts?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Andrew Burnham, Heaven and Earth in Little Space: The Re-enchantment of Liturgy, 2010.

The state of the liturgy isn’t what it should be, argues Bishop Andrew Burnham in this new book. I came to read this book after reading Dr. Martin Davie’s review, posted on Bishop David Hamid’s blog in April. In what is a collection of six essays looking at different expressions of the same theme, Burnham tries to describe what has been lost and what renewal might look like from a committed Anglo-Catholic perspective. Variable in quality, the book is often highly technical and of interest principally to liturgical scholars rather than the general reader; moreover, the examples of contemporary Anglican liturgy are necessarily limited to the Church of England. While fascinating and erudite, I have trouble accepting one of Burnham’s underlying premises, that the decline in church attendance over the past few decades is attributable to either simplification of liturgy or attenuation of Catholic principles. Correlation is not the same thing as causation.

The first essay shows that the rites of the Church of England are essentially reformed in character, and not catholic. Burnham traces the development and evolution of both the Eucharist and the offices (the former in much greater detail), and makes a convincing argument. One of the points in this piece recurs in various forms throughout the other essays. He argues that while recent reforms have made the surface view of the rites look more catholic, the wide variability and choice permitted in their enactment force the worshipper to have what is a reformed experience. This argument is suspect, to my mind: here, as throughout the book, Burnham returns to asserting that the only possible identification of something as Catholic is a continuity with long-standing uses so deep as to prevent the possibility of any meaningful inculturation or development. I have trouble differentiating his view from a celebration of stasis, or at least of change so minimal and glacial as to be unidentifiable as renewal. (It’s hard to see how Burnham and George Guiver might ever agree on these points, and I find Guiver far more persuasive: see Guiver's Vision Upon Vision: Processes of Change and Renewal in Christian Worship.) Catholicism is not stasis; if our faith is alive, its expression in worship will change over time. Certainly it will always value and celebrate tradition, but to quote the old saw, tradition lies in handing over the flame, not praying over the ashes.

The second essay is an interesting assessment of the state of the two rites of the Eucharist currently in widespread use in the Roman Catholic church.

In his third essay, “Fast or Feast,” Burnham advocates strongly for the renewal of the rhythms of the church’s year. Here he varies between a tedious lament of the waning influence of Christianity on the lives of the general public—and their eating and drinking habits—and a forceful argument that reminds the reader of the distinction between chronos and kairos, an argument that the church would do well to remember.

The fourth essay engages the role of music in the liturgy, and makes a number of conservative assertions and arguments. While not wrong about why contemporary music so often fails to work well at creating or supporting certain moods important to solemn celebrations, the lament reads as cranky and overly conservative, rather than constructive.

In discussing the divine office in the fifth essay, “Town and Country,” Burnham is at his most effective. While I don’t agree with a number of his suggestions, nor his deep concern to restrict options, his argument that modern office forms need to balance and support both corporate and individual efforts to pray the office is compelling. (I have less sympathy for what he misses from the pre-conciliar breviary and the 1911 cursus, and more for a richer use of psalmody.)

I am still unsure what to make of the final essay on Mary. I agree whole-heartedly with his argument, following the Council of Ephesus of 431, that “there is no adequate Christology without an adequate Mariology” (196). Yet he reaches this point by tracing developments and expressions of the hyperdulia owed Mary, and I struggle with the assertion that “If lay folk paused at morning, noon, and night for the Angelus, if the Rosary became part of the daily rhythm of prayer, and if the Marian antiphon at the end of the day were to become once more a nocturnal habit, Christian daily life would again be Christocentric...” (196). The devotions to which he refers, while valuable and appropriate for some, are an expression of faith; they’re not essential. To quote another adage, all may, none must, and some should. I’m not sure they’re indicative of a Christocentric life, so much as merely a certain devotional strand; given Burnham’s concern in this sentence for laity, I’d be willing to agree if the rest of their lives manifested devotion for Christ translated into action and ministry. Despite this quibble, I learned some intriguing things both about Anglican devotion to Mary, and was able to make better sense of my own Mariology.

Despite my issues and disagreements with Burnham, I was glad to have read the book; I look forward to sharing it with a number of other people who might be intrigued by his points.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, 2009.

I don’t keep this reading journal as a way of crowing about what I have read; the blog doesn’t exist to trumpet notches on a bookshelf. Yet there are some entries, when I come to gather my thoughts on a book, that I can’t help but beginning by celebrating the fact that I finished reading it – even, and perhaps especially, when I really enjoyed the book, as in this case!

I first saw reference to MacCulloch’s magisterial monograph in Bishop David Hamid’s blog in October; Bishop Hamid reposts each month (with permission), the reviews compiled for the House of Bishops of the Church of England by that House’s Theological Secretary, Dr Martin Davie. I’ve been very tempted by more than one of the reviews, and a couple of the books have found their ways onto my shelves. Church history is in some ways one of my weaker subjects. Of all of my courses in the subject at seminary, only one wasn’t cross-listed to the Theology department and that was only because it was a reading course. My background, then, is more in the history of ideas, with the various other aspects of history sweeping in only as they affected theological developments. Reading MacCulloch, I was surprised both by how much I already knew and how much I did not. It’s a staggering, 1016 page, work that begins in the period well before the Church in both of the prominent cultures which would influence its early development (Greek and Hebrew) and extends through to the present day. Despite its length, the book’s vast scope means that the pace through the material is breakneck. MacCulloch’s prose is lucid and concise, and deeply funny with a simultaneously scathing and affectionate dry wit offering asides (I’m still laughing at bits about Moravians and a fascination with trombones, and the treatment of Henry VIII’s marital miscellany, but the humour is omnipresent; make sure to read the footnotes and the lists of major sources for each period, where even funnier bits lurk).

To attempt to offer a summary of the book would be audacious, given that it is in many ways itself a compendium. One observation I would make is that MacCulloch is interested not just in Christianity as we tend to think of it – that is, as a monolithic faith, albeit splintered into sects – but as it has been in varied forms and in possibilities. Much of what was new to me was about aspects of Christianity under- or mis-represented in most treatments, especially around non-Chalcedonian offshoots and local inculturations. The discussion of the Arian church in Europe was particularly fascinating.

MacCulloch has a gift for making the material deeply engaging, and introducing the reader to the major sources and gists of the various periods and types of Christianities that he elucidates. Many chunks of the book might seem deeply uncomfortable to anyone who comes to it with faith convictions that do not allow for serious consideration of other convictions. I think, as a whole, it’s a book that rewards the reader who already has at least a fairly familiar grasp on the history of the faith: the pacing is such that some topics receive short shrift, and background knowledge can help one fill in gaps. At the same time, as Dr. Davie noted in his review, much the fun of the book is deciding whether one agrees with the view MacCulloch propounds – or, perhaps, how one would nuance it. The thought I had throughout was that, if one needed to assess someone’s knowledge of Church History, asking them to compile a list of what they’d want to emend from the book in their own re-telling of the stories would be a very good assignment indeed.

I am glad that I spent the time with this work that I have; it has been a long read, and it has rewarded me richly. I have to agree with MacCulloch’s concluding words, about my reading experience as well as about the future of the faith he studies:
Original sin is one of the more plausible concepts within the Western Christian package, corresponding all too accurately to everyday human experience. One great encouragement to sin is an absence of wonder. Even those who see the Christian story as just that – a series of stories – may find sanity in the experience of wonder: the ability to listen and contemplate. It would be very surprising if this religion, so youthful, yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets. (1016)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rachel Hawkins, Hex Hall, 2010.

I read this YA fantasy novel on the advice of K--, who’s mentioned some books from time to time that I’ve enjoyed. This one is unremarkable: it’s full of time-worn tropes, and feels somewhat like a True Blood crossed with Twilight crossed with the standard boarding school bildungsroman.

Sophie Mercer, a young witch, casts a spell that goes awry and is sent to Hecate Hall (Hex Hall for short), a boarding reform school for misbehaving witches, warlocks, weres, shifters, and fairies, and one vampire—who happens to be Sophie’s new roomie. Cue the stern but caring headmistress, the obligatory not-dead-after-all Romantic poet, the hot groundskeeper, the extra hot boy who’s involved with the new archnemesis who in turn is doing everything she can to make Sophie’s life impossible. Add in the complexities of a family history that’s anything but ordinary, and you’ve got yourself a novel. No stirring necessary. Now, that’s not to say this book isn’t decently written: I think it’s quite well plotted (if, perhaps a little too obvious in the foreshadowing and telegraphing what is to come). My lack of fulsome praise comes more from the pedestrian characters (even if three of them do ride brooms on occasion) and the insufficiently creative environs. I will use the cliché “two-dimensional” as the characters don’t rise to needing better description from me; for two examples about the milieu, I’ll point to the contrast the main character draws between the groundskeeper and Hagrid, as well as Sophie’s detention exercise (cataloguing magical objects which wander about from shelf to shelf).

For all these criticisms, it’s far more entertaining than the sexist and abysmally written Twilight pabulum. It's better plotted than the Potter novels, and yet not nearly as rich in the world the author spins into being.

All in all, Hex Hall made me long for decently done YA fantasy.

sic transit Gloria mundi, et ubi sunt

  • Robin Mickinley (See especially The Blue Sword)

  • Pamela Service (The Reluctant God)

  • John Bellairs (Anything you open will reward your time.)

  • Rosemary Sutcliff(Start with Sword at Sunset)
  • Friday, July 09, 2010

    Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, 2010.

    Pullman’s book is a fascinating retelling of the gospels. He uses a twist so widely-reported (and so nearly explicit in the title) that I’ll not attempt circumlocutions here as I try to blog about this book: Mary had twins, Jesus and Christ. Pullman tells the story with the former as a devout and wise teacher, frustrated by his inability to hear God’s voice; and with the latter as a manipulative editor who fakes the post-resurrection appearances to reveal what he hopes an institutional Church will be able to use as it grows and leads. The story is well-told and compelling, even as it will leave most readers who have a commitment to the Jesus of the gospels discomfited to varying degrees. I want to note in this blog entry two facets of the book which I find particularly interesting: the style of the telling, and the argument Pullman makes about God in general, Jesus in particular, and the Church which he feels should be damned.

    Pullman tells his story in short sentences as part of many short chapters. Stylistically, it reminded me of nothing so much as the gospel of Mark. There’s a distinct lack of the kind of descriptions present in most novels. As just one example, Joseph proclaims himself an old man when told to marry Mary–but we have no description of him, nor of the kind of flower that issues from his rod as a sign when Zacharias is trying to decide who should become Mary’s husband. There are also marked gaps in the story-telling: as Pullman relates the Annunciation, Mary allows an angel who “had assumed the appearance of a young man” in through her window. After his explanation that God wants Mary to have a child, there’s a glaring omission as the next paragraph simply relates that “And that very night she conceived a child, just as the angel foretold.” Implicit or at least strongly possible is the idea of a physical role for the angel; yet I find interesting what Pullman is willing to hint at when later in the story he explicitly changes famous sayings and stories about Jesus—or has a character change them. Is this early non-change-but-hint an attempt to keep the religious reader unoffended for a bit longer? Is the desire not to drastically alter key moments with vivid associations? Or is it to keep some element of mystery present about the possibility of God acting? While the book’s sentences are crisp and active, impelling the story along with enough speed that the book may be easily read at a single sitting (again, like the Gospel of Mark), some of the alterations to the canonical stories are made more or less obvious by the adopted style that’s more like that of a gospel than that of The Golden Compass.

    I need to be perfectly clear when I speak about the argument Pullman advances in the book about God, Jesus, and Church. I am a priest, and my signed a solemn declaration at both my ordinations “that I do believe the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” I don’t mention that statement to excuse my issues with Pullman, or to explain them away, but to make clear that I come to an interesting book which I did enjoy with biases that show forth in what I am about to write.

    I think that what I read in this book may justifiably be called an argument that Pullman advances in the book precisely because it is so continuous with what the reader encounters in the His Dark Materials cycle, and in Pullman’s varied public statements and interviews. And yet I find it less persuasive here because it seems too convenient, too easy: anything Pullman wants to explain away can be the editing or revising work of the scoundrel Christ rather than the good man Jesus. Moreover, a substantial chunk of what Pullman argues is fallacious even if continuous with widespread understanding. Enough generalities; some particulars. The character of Christ invents a dove and a voice saying “This is my beloved son” at Jesus’ baptism (compare Mt 3.13-17; Mk 1.9-11; Lk 3.21-22; Jn 1.29-34—I’m not going to give passages from all four for the rest of these examples, but just the one which I think Pullman is drawing from most heavily); Christ is the devil who tempts Jesus after his forty days in the wilderness—and, notably, changes the final temptation about temporal power to speak of a Church much like that of history as a means of control/help (Mt 4.1—11); Christ records the sharing of food as a miracle, the feeding of multitudes (John 6.1-5); Christ invents Peter’s assertion that Jesus is the Messiah, and that Peter has the keys of heaven (Mt 16.13-20); Christ invents the distinction between Mary and Martha’s roles (Lk 10.38-42); Christ plays the role of Judas from the gospels (Lk 22.47-53); and on, and on, and on, through the post-resurrection appearances (esp. Lk 24.1-12 and 24.13-35). This device of twins is a way of explaining away the miraculous, of keeping the anti-establishment teacher of Jesus as an honest man with no interest in Church—and clearly not as someone who would rise from the dead. As scribe and as actor, the character of Christ is a redactor who brings Church and faith in Jesus into being—and hence is the scoundrel of the title. It’s a device that explains away differences between the four gospels found in the New Testament, and which attempts to explain away an idea of a truth that is revealed rather than invented. In short, my problem with the argument is literary: it’s just too easy a solution, one that allows Pullman to craft a Jesus as an earthly teacher who’s politically naïve but essentially admirable who is then used by malevolent and/or self-interested others to their own ends of control. Pullman’s Jesus is a tool of hegemony, and it’s a much weaker story as he tells it than as I read in (especially) the canonical gospels and in other retellings.

    My other issue is theological rather than literary. Pullman’s idea of prayer is speech; his idea of prayer answered is God’s voice speaking clearly to an individual. This vision of prayer is made explicit in his retelling of Jesus praying in the garden before the crucifixion. It’s a popular notion and shared widely—but it misses the essential point that prayer is the offering of self to God and opening of self to grace. It’s especially odd to me that he works from this mode as he quotes psalms: to have been immersed in the psalms and not have some sense of what prayer is smacks either of inattention or simple pushing of agenda. And so the whole overwrought chapter is a continuation of the argument I describe in the paragraph of above, of Jesus not wanting church to become and existing as hegemonic tool. I felt more discomfort after this chapter than after any other, for while the church on earth through history has certainly been that at times, Pullman is ignoring the idea that the Church may exist more broadly than that as well—and that it may well also be ideal that we strive for, as well as constantly falling short in its erring human existence.

    Two long paragraphs of discontent might suggest that I disliked the book, despite my earlier assertion. I did enjoy it; I was challenged by it; I’m glad I read it. I’d certainly recommend it to others. If nothing else, it will ask the reader to return to Pullman’s sources and engage the Jesus one meets in those four remarkable sets of stories –each one of which is just as ideological and bound on conversion to a set of conclusions as is Pullman’s new book. Rowan Williams suggests a theme that he reads in the book that “the price you pay for transmitting a spiritual vision” can be very high in institutional terms, and that Christianity has paid too high a price. (On Start the Week, 5 April 2010)—and that he disagrees. I do too, but Pullman’s book is compelling nevertheless.

    Thursday, July 01, 2010

    Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl, 2001.

    I’m late to the party, on this one. I saw a reference to this book on a blog I read, and months later, grabbed it from the library. I'm glad I've shown up.

    Artemis Fowl II, 12, is a criminal mastermind with a missing father, a mother who’s missing her mental health, and a valet who is remarkably good at all sorts of combat. The Fowl family, long felonious, has had an economic downturn, and Artemis plans to reverse that by stealing fairy gold. Kidnapping a LEPRecon officer—the first female officer, Captain Holly Short—he holds her for ransom and works to fend off the LEPRecon squads under the command of the foul-cigar smoking Commander Julius Root. Mayhem and hilarity and death ensue. It’s a well-done fantasy novel for youth that is both more intelligent and lacks the pretension of the Potter novels.

    The puns are fun; the adventure is fun; the clever re-imagining of the fairy world is fun: the book is just plain fun. Enough so that I’ll read at least the next in the series (Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident). It was exactly the right sort of enjoyment in the midst of a couple of other long books.
    Tom Sharpe, The Gropes,* 2009.

    I loved Blott on the Landscape as a lad: it's funny, sharp, biting in just the right ways, and does a marvellous job of skewering people's self-importance. So given the opportunity to read another by Sharpe--my father bought it as a plane book, and then left it lying around--I picked it up. It's a palate-cleanser, but nothing more. The plot of The Gropes is well enough done: an odd, matriarchal family combined with a gormless bank manager, his doppelgänger son, and romance novel-obsessed wife combined with her brother who might be a minor or even major criminal leads to silliness and suspicion. It falls a bit flat at the end, although I suspect most readers will find themselves almost happy for the bank manager--but all in all, there's nothing in this book to make me want to recommend it to anyone. If you happen to be renting a cottage and it's lying around and you forget your newly acquired copy of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet at home, sure, give it a read. Otherwise, buy and read Mitchell's new book instead.

    * Why no link? Well, Amazon was about my only option. While I do buy books from Amazon on occasion, I try to avoid it. So--if you want to acquire this book (or any other!) check out your local bookstore. In the Hamilton area, I strongly recommend Bryan Prince Bookseller, where I picked up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet yesterday...

    Monday, June 28, 2010

    Scarlett Thomas,
         Dead Clever, 1998.
         In Your Face, 1999.
         Seaside, 1999.

    Thomas’s first three books are murder mysteries, with the mostly delightful Lily Pascale as their detective-protagonist.

    At the beginning of Dead Clever, Lily, who is not making it as an actress, returns to her mother’s house in Devon—-and finds herself hired as a tutor by the local university. It seems she has an MA in literature, having written about crime fiction, and from this background comes her sneaking suspicion that the skills of a literary critic are the skills of a detective. There's a reason to find her suspicion plausible, as a recently dead and mysteriously beheaded university student had been a student in one of Lily's classes. Other disturbing phenomena occur, and Lily finds herself investigating away. The reader learns a fair bit about organic chemicals of the Ecstasy and similar substances, as well as anti-depressants and so on as Lily sleuths her way through a very different sort of university than the kind at which I studied.

    In Your Face sees Lily in London, after an old university chum phones her up after the three subjects of her recent magazine piece on stalking turn up murdered on the same morning. Naturally, there are complications—-romantic, and otherwise.

    In Seaside, Lily is hired to figure out which one of a pair of twins is dead—and who killed her. Another couple of deaths and some wacky characters and hijinks follow along.

    All in all, they’re decent mysteries. Thomas has a predilection for inserting, in between segments of the narratives of Lily’s investigations, italicised thoughts, plans, and conversations of the guilty parties. The technique lacks the balance it needs: mysteries shouldn’t be solved with deus ex machina revelations, and this technique helps to avoid that—-but the method is uneven in terms of what is and isn’t revealed; we teeter too much over the precipice on both sides of too much and too little shared, and the books feel unstable because of it.

    Lily is smart, thinks critically (most of the time), and funny; it’s easy to enjoy her progression through the stories. My problem with the characterisations in the novels has more to do with the minor characters—often introduced, dropped, brought back, ignored without sufficient care. Beth, the girlfriend of Lily’s younger brother is a prime example: other than as an almost-victim, she pops up solely when convenient to advance the plot, and isn’t well integrated into the books as a whole.

    The first two of the three are quite worth reading; I’m far less fond of the final entry in the trilogy, which veers from the clever into the trite and formulaic.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    Scarlett Thomas, PopCo, 2004.

    I have an odd fascination with Thomas’ writing despite its flaws. There’s something deeply attractive that I can’t identify or explain about her writing—and whatever it draws me back to read yet another of her novels—and yet, there are issues that make me frustrated with it at the same time. PopCo is much like her more recent The End of Mr. Y.

    PopCo is the fictionalised retelling of Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Alice Butler, who works for the toy company which gives the book its name, attends a product development camp in Devon—and is seconded to a group charged with developing the new viral product for teen girls. In the pseudo-boarding school environment of the camp, there’s sex, suspicion, cliques, games of Go, and interesting food recipes (one for a tasty sounding cake called “Let them eat cake”). This tale is interwoven with that of Alice’s childhood: she was raised by her grandparents (a mathematician and a puzzler) after her father ran off to try to solve a coded treasure map his father-in-law had deciphered. The former set of stories lacks sparkle and teaches too much about advertising and marketing; the second set tries to balance narrative and exposition about code-breaking, without entirely succeeding.

    Despite the entirely predictable ending to both sets of stories, there is something deeply endearing about this book. I was captivated by both the stories and what Thomas is trying to teach. And who can dislike a book with a frequency table for how often letters occur in written English? It’s worth reading, especially if you’re a Naomi Klein fan or like your harlequin-esque sex mixed with some decent thinking.