Wednesday, March 31, 2010

You Really Need to Visit Jonah Lehrer Everyday

Today he talks about Costco and Shopping and neuroscience

Out of context quotation fragment to get you going:

. . . [W]e try to avoid anything that makes our insula excited.

Less on Lady GaGa

This review of the Lady Gaga phenomenon reproduces my own reaction to her, particularly in the last paragraph.

I have no great antipathy toward her work, but neither do I see anything startling, new, or worthy of the tremendous accolades that have been heaped upon her.

A New Poetry Award

The inaugural Ted Hughes Poetry Award recepient (via Books Inq.)--Alice Oswald, Weeds and Wildflowers

And here is an interview and a sample poem from Ms. Oswald

And another  

The first poem required that I find more, and now I'm convinced I need to seek out Ms. Oswald, a name admittedly hitherto unknown to me.  C'est dommage ça--dommage pour moi.

The Passion of Queen Victoria

Link thanks to TSO: Queen Victoria's Passion for Nudity

I'm surprised that anyone is surprised.  Just because one does not wish flagrant display of naked flesh in person in public does not mean that one cannot appreciate great art depicting the nude.  There is a considerable distance between here/now/in-person and artistic representation.  We need to get over our prejudices about the Victorian Era and begin to discover what it was really about.  Rather like our prejudices about puritans in this country.  Steampunk has gone a ways toward reexamination, but not nearly far enough.

Bradbury's "Method"

I'm not so certain one could call this a method so much as an antimethod or an idiosyncratic approach; however, it has evidently worked for a great many years, so who am I to call it into question.  This from my nearly annual reading of Dandelion Wine.  Yes, I'm aware that the book is about the coming of summer, but for some reason it breathes spring for me and so along with Morte d'Arthur and a couple of others not so frequently repeated, the reading of at least a portion of Dandelion Wine is an annual ritual.

Dandelion Wine (reissue 1992)
Ray Bradbury

This book, like most of my books and stories, was a surprise. I began to learn the nature of such surprises, thank God, when I was fairly young as a writer. Before that, like every beginner, I though you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies.
It was with great relief, then, that in my early twenties I floundered into a word-association process in which I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head.
I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weight the word and show me its meaning in my own life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done. The surprise was total and lovely. I soon found that I would have to work this way for the rest of my life.
First I rummaged my mind for words that could describe my personal nightmares, fear of night and time from my childhood, and shaped stories from these.
Then I took a long look at the green apple trees and the old house I was born in and the house next door where lived my grandparents, and all the lawns of the summers I grew up in, and I began to try words for all that. (p. vii)

Steampunk: Darwinists vs. Clankers

A Review of Leviathan by Scott Westerfield

I've been intrigued by this book when I've seen it in stores and tried to pawn it off on my son so I'd have a reason to buy it.  But this reviewer just gave me permission--well, not really, but now I can justify the expense to myself.

Reading Along with The Lord of the Rings

Shelf Love presents a Lord of the Rings read-along with interesting questions and commentary--especially good for those who've wanted to give the series a try but have never made it through.

Does Great Literature Require Free Thinking?

(See the last line of the article referenced below)  Or does it demand deep thinking?

Where have all the Christian Writers gone?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Man Booker Prize, and SF

Kim Stanley Robinson on the Man Booker Prize.

Unfortunately we have to settle for this precis because the New Scientist wants us to subscribe to read the whole.  So better yet, go out to your Library (if it subscribes to the New Scientist) and find the original article.  I'm sure it is far more interesting than the sound-bites.

Less Commuting=Greater Happiness

Jonah Lehrer explains the algebra of a short commute and greater contentment

Everyone thought I was insane when I first moved to my present city and set about choosing my house.  I carefully mapped out the routes to Disney and excluded anything likely to be affected by traffic to and from.  Then I plotted work place and chose places only east of work to live (I learned from living in Columbus that living west of work is a tedious and dreadful thing in terms of commute--sun in eyes morning sun in eyes evening--assuming, of course, that Columbus was having one of its exceedingly rare days of sun.)  And finally, I didn't want to be more than 15 minutes away from work.  Walking distance (not possible) would have been better. 

And now the brain scientists tell me why all of that work was worth it!

A Poet on HIs Poetry

via Books Inq  Ed Byrne talks about his poetry--along with a wonderful poem

And while you're there, check out the rest of the blog--this one is likely to become a permanent fixture on my blog visits.

A Neat Note on Epigraphs

On Epigraphs from the Guardian

Miéville on Ballard

From Philosophy Etc. a review of The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard.

One of the Most Compelling Reviews of Cormac McCarthy I've Ever Read

At Mookse and the Gripes, a wonderful review of Blood Meridian.

It's one of those books I'm always meaning to get to, but never seem to quite accomplish.  Perhaps I should move it up on my list.

Notes on Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7 (in B flat major), Opus 81

You will quickly notice that I am neither a professional musician nor a professional commentator on music.  But I found, as with so many other things, that the act of writing while listening made the listening more profound or the experience more intense.  What I'll place here for you are the edited jottings made while present at a piano recital during which Prokofiev's Piano Sonata in B flat major was played as the concluding work.  Keep in mind that I have little training in music and so some of the terminology may not be particularly accurate or helpful to those with a greater understanding. Most importantly, keep in mind that while the music was not programmatic, my impressions of it certainly are--a human mind trying to make story out of a stream of sensation.

Called a War Sonata (sonatas 6, 7, and 8) we see Prokofiev, already a sarcastic musician at his most sarcastic (comments made by the pianist before playing).  The second movement is vulgar, sleazy, and naughty (not that I heard, but you must need a more fine-tuned ear than I have, or understand better the language of music to hear said vulgarity.)  There is an increase in violence throughout and a sudden calm with bell-like tones.  Perpetuum mobile in the last movement with an explosive ending.

Starts in undoubted modern idiom--the machinery of war very evident from the beginning--martial rhythms, though not a march.  An "unquiet allegro."  The dissonance is in the forefront.  But it slows to a disquiet commentary on the beginning. Silvery tension that breaks down into what sounds like an argument on the keyboard complete with shouting and insults and overriding, mocking commentary.  And when anything tries to be a stately martial theme, it is immediately taken to task and disassembled.  A chromatic greyness--a bleakness that thunders, then whispers--and then the argument resumes, rocking back and forth--thunderous shouting and oblivious commentary and then just stopping--thudding dead.

Second movement--not at all as suggestive as his opening remarks might lead one to think. Domestic--bright at moments, but threaded through with a sort of darkness. Bright twinkles but ultimately dark. Still an argument in the two registers, perhaps suggesting male and female voices. And then a swirling passage, chaos that climaxes and resolves into a dissonant bell-ringing--perhaps a second or a seventh--although the tonal interval doesn't seem to be broad enough for a seventh--perhaps some form of chromatic interval.   And again the alarm bells like the two-tone of an ambulance over the sudden quiet--not moving, a static, beat-holding ringing--it doesn't push forward, it simply sounds and falls. The bell fades away in a long silence.

And then movement three which starts in utter chaos and disarray. With a bass note recurrence a duotone that is the inverse (but not inversion) of the bell we have just heard.  Where as the bell was a rising duotone, this is a drumming, thudding, falling duotone.  To get a sense of the activity of this movement, think ant mound with gasoline just poured on. Frantic energy, wasting motion and activity, churning and thundering. The return of the bell--this time certainly a knell--the end of something--the absolute end and the piece thunders to a stop.

Of the three pieces presented at the recital, this was by far and away the most fascinating and engaging.  Next came the Schumann Piano Sonata in G minor Op. 22 (played second).  And my least favorite piece (little surprise here) was the Beethoven Piano Sonata in E Major Op. 109 #30, which, despite instruction from my betters I found murky, muddy, filled with too much pedal and so compounding "rich harmonies" into a sort of murky soup of antimelody.  Looking at professional commentary, I was surprised to find that I had recognized baroque structures--including fugal structures. However, while they (my betters) note it is in strict adherence to baroque and classical forms, it sounded as though it wanted to move into the romantic era and set the stage for that movement.  But I can't claim to have enjoyed this piece--endured is more like it.

So that concludes my commentary on the performance.  I have a great many more notes on both the Beethoven and the Schumann, but I will not try your patience.  One thing I have noted with this pianist is a penchant for the German and Russian schools, and honestly it would have been very nice to have had some break from all the sturm und drang.  I know that the French piano pieces are somewhat slower and quieter and so seem not to call from the pianist the pyrotechnics and brilliance of playing that these might; however, a well-played Satie is not something easily done despite the slowness and relative ease of the score.  It is indeed in that ease that the potential for boredom arises.    I will hope for the opportunity to hear more Franck, Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and others of the quieter, more reflective French persuasion in the near future.  Even if I do not particularly care for it, there is nothing like being in the presence of the artist as the music is played.  It makes music come alive in a way that no recording can.

Monday, March 29, 2010

From Open Culture--The Vatican EXPOSED

Thought that might get you--a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel

One of the Great Sad Events in Literary History

From Sheila yesterday--the Death of Virginia Woolf

Agatha Christie on Life

Because I wanted a record of this on my site, I just blatantly stole it from Happy Catholic.  Thanks Julie, this is a real keeper.

I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.  ---Agatha Christie

A Review of one of Steinbeck's Better Books

Cannery Row reviewed at A Guy's Moleskin Notebook

Five Questions with David Vann

I haven't read the book, but this mini-interview with David Vann makes the book sound most intriguing.


Another country heard from

Looking at others' noble lists of books that have influenced them, I suppose I ought to be embarrassed, but I find it difficult to be so.  And I'm at a loss as to explain why.  Perhaps because I truly believe that however much most of us try to hide it, men never really grow up.  What was there as a boy is there as a man buried under many layers of accumulated muck--but there nevertheless.  Wordworth's "The child is father of the man. . ."  is true in so many ways--and the child always remains with the man.  Women have observed this, sometimes contemptuously, sometimes indulgently.  But there are so many ways (at least I've observed) that it is true and perhaps even, a little, virtuous--so long as one is childlike not childish.

And another.

And another.

And I continue to grow more abashed and want to say--well, if you extended the list, of course. . .But reality--those early influences are pervasive and what I listed really did influence the way I view the world in profound, perhaps immutable (but still somewhat flexible--try that for a paradox) ways.

And later yet another.

Apparently another early reader who is profoundly aware of the influence that can and does exert.

Why We Do What We Do

I very much enjoyed Jonah Lehrer's book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, so when I saw How We Decide in the Library, I thought it was a lead-in and picked it up.  Much to my surprise and pleasure it is a more recent books, so I don't have a long list of back-reading in the Lehrer Canon.  The introduction of this book is promising.

From How We Decide
Jonah Lehrer

But this doesn’t mean that our brains come preprogrammed for good decision-making. Despite the claims of many self-help books, intuition isn’t a miraculous cure-all. Sometimes feelings can lead us astray and cause us to make all sorts of predictable mistakes. The human brain has a big cortex for a reason.

The simple truth of the matter is that making good decisions requires us to use both sides of the mind. For too long, we’ve treated human nature as an either/or situation. We are either rational or irrational. We either rely on statistics or trust our gut instincts. There’s Apollonian logic versus Dionysian feeling; the id against the ego; the reptilian brain fighting the frontal lobes.

Not only are these dichotomies false, they’re destructive. There is no universal solution to the problem of decision-making. The real world is just too complex. As a result, natural selection endowed us with a brain that is enthusiastically pluralist. Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions.  The secret is knowing when to use these different styles of thought. We always need to be thinking about how we think.  (p. xvi)

But the brain doesn’t exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world. Herbert Simon, the Novel Prize-winning psychologist, famously compared the human mind to a pair of scissors. One blade was the brain, he said, while the other blade was the specific environment in which the brain was operating.

If you want to understand the function of the scissors, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously. To that end, we are going to venture out of the lab and into the real world so that we can see the scissors at work. I’ll show you how the fluctuations of a few dopamine neurons saves a battleship during the Gulf War, and how the fevered activity of a single brain region led to the subprime housing bubble.  (p. xvii)

I'll keep you posted on how it goes.  But I anticipate that it will be most enjoyable.

A Reading Plan

is contemplated at Novels, Stories, and More

Poem of the Week--W. H. Davies

School's Out

Not so much a poem as a simple cry for joy and one that all of us, even those most enamored of school (and I was among them) can sympathize with.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Via Books Inq.--The Evolution of Reading

Don't fear the e-reader

I've used some version for 10 years now.  I never abandoned print books.  I did not dry up and fly away.  Metal parts have not (so far as I am aware) significantly replaced important body parts.  Indeed, I have found it liberating to get on a plane, train, or other conveyance with the calm assurance of carrying five-thousand books with me, lest I should get bored or need to consult the 1919 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Catholic Encyclopedia at the spur of the moment.  Being able to find any word in any book with a simple search--lovely--better processor speed would make this lovelier.

So, it's a brave new world that has such creatures in it, and it is with us to stay.  You do not have to become one with the collective, but "turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. . . it is not dying, it is not dying."

Insights from Polkinghorne

John Polkinghorne, a scientist and priest in the Anglican communion, and a man of enormous common sense and decency shares some thoughts on life, the universe, and everything.

More on Lydia Davis

Brief report of a talk given with a link to a conversation from last year.

The Greater Northern Ohio Tourist Board Urges You to Visit

Winesburg, Ohio--in this and subsequent posts.  One of the truly great forerunners of (and an admitted influence on) Hemingway--but nothing at all like him.  The stories "Paper Pills" and "Hands" still haunt me.

Skeletons in the Reading Closet

D.G. Myers brings to light the notion of "reading skeletons."

Of course I find this infinitely amusing and even more amusing to consider the reality shows that could be made from the confessions of discoveries of these loathsome secrets. "Next up, after Supernanny, A.S. Byatt visits a bibliotherapist to treat her love of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

Or perhaps the reality show that would include me Shameless Readers--stories of everyday people who gorge themselves with the most unspeakable and deplorable reading trash.  We could explore the deep dark secrets of people who aren't even aware that they should be ashamed of having read and enjoyed the things they have.

Mr. Myers Suggest a Blog

And I concur--Interpolations

A Review of One of My Favorite Books

One of the reasons I'll be forever indebted to my book group.  We decided, for no good reason that I can think of, to read A Handful of Dust  (reviewed here) and I went on to read everything I could find by Mr. Waugh.  I had already perused Brideshead Revisited and The Loved One, but A Handful of Dust was something else entirely.

A Meme from Quid Plura?

Introductory Text below from Quid Plura?  The choices, distinctly my own.

Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog [I copied this from Quid Plura, but how well you have already come to know how untrue it is for me]. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”

Tom Sawyer--From the time of first reading until today, I have never lost the sense of freedom and of what it is just to be a boy with the interests and the foolishness of a boy, with the pranks and those things that are deadly seriously.  And, there is no skill more powerful than convincing everyone that painting the fence is a privilege worth paying for.

Treasure Island--See Tom Sawyer.  Plus--action, adventure, and a sense of coming into your own.

Dracula--From the time of reading I have never lost the sense that the world is populated with more than what science displays for us.  It is irrelevant to me that Dracula qua vampire did not exist, what He represents is a view of the world as more than material.

The Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft--As much as he might have despised the thought, H.P. Lovecraft does what Dracula does--it gives a sense of a universe without limits--malign, antagonistic, powerful--but deeply mysterious.  It is interesting that an avowed atheist could compose such fundamentally theistic works.  And I don't mean by that mere mockery of the Gods.

The King James Bible--The language will never leave me.  It informs my thoughts, my writings, the writers I like.  Faulkner brings it back for me, as do many of the English writers of the early 20th centruy--round, orotund, unspoken.  It is the language of mystery.

Ulysses--Life as mystery, life as engagement, life as joyous, life as encounter, life as it is meant to be lived aware not only of yourself but of the mysterious conjunction of events that make up a day.  Reality captured in all of its myriad shades.  Ulysses is an education in how to view life--rollicking, comic, harsh, and sad--but ultimately--"Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting. . .then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

And that is what Joyce leaves us to take away.

Lord of Light--See mystery, see new way of looking at things, see opening up to a world of difference.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass/The Hunting of the Snark--The world as weird and wonderful--logic turned on its head and yet sounding very much like things that come from my fellow humans every day. 

The Martian Chronicles/Dandelion Wine--Repeat all the above--mystery, a world within a world, a world outside of the world, worlds transformed, and all in the space of a human head.  Our terrors, our hopes, our dreams, encompassed in a pair of sneakers and a summer vacation or "Ylla" with her gun that sounds like bees and "Usher II" which presages and wreaks revenge for Fahrenheit 451.  The world as poetry made manifest.

Le Morte D'Arthur Et exspecto in resurrectionem Arturus Rex, regnum Brittaniae.  I still await his return from Avalon and every spring engage Mr. Mallory once again as I await England's darkest hour with its promise of its most shining.  Again the world as mysterious, lovely, and dark.

All of these works formed my sensibility--my love of the surreal and my preference for the hours of evening and night when the things turned dim and dark by the sun can emerge to wreak havoc or to paint fairy circles on the lawn.  Foolish, perhaps, but to deny it--what silliness. 

Please feel free to join in the fun either in the comments or at your own blog.  You don't need to list all of your ten if you're not so inclined, just one or two--but most importantly--why.

Just in Time

Easter Poems

Including Joyce Kilmer's response to Yeats's poem on the Easter uprising, etc.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Scholarly Seder

From Books Inq., this fascinating article about a scholar's seder.

Hurrah Another lovely poem

Another poem from Quid Plura?

I love alliteration and use it excessively.  It's the sound of the words and their rhythm that makes poetry an art. 

At Open Culture: The Endlessly Self-Delusive Sam Harris

Sam Harris: Science can provide definitive answers to moral questions.

Wow, I can't wait to hear the insight of Josef Mengele and Werner von Braun on questions of equality of humanity.  Or the insights of people who can't even give appropriate credit for work when accepting a Nobel.  Or those that steal and publish their graduate student's work.  I expect these insights into moral questions to be profoundly stirring.

Mr. Harris has no religion and so arrogates one of the possible functions to science and proceeds to undermine any validity his viewpoint may have had.  He is right only in one thing--moral questions do fall into the realm of knowable facts--but they are not empirically knowable as witnessed by the fact that we have many who see nothing wrong with slavery, slaughter, and mayhem if it serves their purposes. 

Science is a useful tool for knowing the natural world.  To presume that the natural world reveals some sort of morality is to dive head-first into a sea of pantheism where our observations lead the way.  Surely the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are clear enough pointers as to the way our observations can lead.

Back to the Hugos

The Guardian considers Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness.

Fred recently considered it here.

I have to be honest, I just don't see it, didn't see it, and don't quite get it.  I've read the book three or four times trying to get what others did out of it, and it just doesn't work for me.  But perhaps it is time for another go-round with it.  As one's viewpoint changes stories that previously did not engage become more engaging.  If I were to nominate one LeGuin for everyone to read it would, without doubt, be The Dispossessed.   Although I am also very partial to The Lathe of Heaven.

But to be fair, this is the book everyone goes ga-ga over and everyone holds up as her triumph.  I am definitely a dissenting voice in this match.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Critics and Reviewers

A note from Novels, Stories, and More on the difference between critics and reviewers.

I have vanishingly little interest in criticism--I find the apparatus often gets in the way of the text and makes it nearly impossible to enjoy or appreciate it. Critics have ruined Ulysses for the common reader for whom it was written.  I find that criticism tells me more about the critic than about the work under investigation--and sometimes it tells some very interesting things.

I fall, therefore, into the world of the book reviewer.  I'm unlikely to reveal new layers of a text or different understandings or open the world of the book to anyone other than those who have not already read it.

Best Poetry Blogs

Best Poetry Blogs (Books INQ.)

An Author in Complete Control of Her Work

Maeve Brennan is an amazing writer. I've lingered over this book of short stories for so long a time, in part because other things intruded, but mostly because I don't want to let go.  I really enjoy spending time in her world.  Her work reminds me (a little) of the few short stories I've read by Elizabeth Bowen--work I care for far more than I did The Death of the Heart.

To give you a sense of why I find so much good in Maeve Brennan, just glance at the excerpt below.

from "The Poor Men and Women"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

There must have been a time when he knocked on all the doors of the terrace to find out who was open to him, but for years now he had come straight to her. His feet slapped the pavement inoffensively as he went along. He begged in silence. She kept thinking he might say something to her, but he never did. One time she threw a friendly remark after him, and he turned back so confused that she was ashamed. It was a long time before she tried to speak to him again. No matter what the weather was like, he appeared at the door on the dot. Even on the worst days of winter he did not spare her, but stood before her, shivering, dripping, shrinking, and smiling, with his cap and his shoulders black from the rain, and his upraised hand turned to flaming glass by the wet and cold.

I am taken aback by the power of this prose to evoke, by the beauty of the language, and by the detail of the observation.  Maeve Brennan has of recent date become one of my favorite writers.  And there you have it, the Irish still rule--amongst my favorites: James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Oscar Wilde, William Trevor, Maeve Brennan, Elizabeth Bowen (at least the short stories), and the list continues always to increase.

Harvard at Open Culture

Harvard comes to iTunes U

The Pen/Faulkner Prize

Pen/Faulkner Awarded to Sherman Alexie War Dances.

Guess I'm going to have to try to get into this author's materials.  I haven't been mesmerized by what I've encountered so far, but perhaps I've started off on the wrong foot.

An Elegy for Easterly--Petina Gappah

I do not read books in translation nor books by authors outside the United States simply for the pleasure of being able to claim some sort of faux-eclecticism.  I read a book because something about it engages me, and Ms. Gappah's book of short stories certainly did that.  I've posted numerous excerpts from the book in the recent past, so you already have a sense of the quality and breadth of the writing.

An Elegy for Easterly is a book of short stories and it is an uneven book.  Some of the stories are superb--masterful, controlled, eminently entertaining.  Others seem to have lost their sense of purpose and it is at times difficult to make out what the author was trying to get at.  All of the stories have a very highly refined sense of place that allows one a better sense of a small portion of the African continent.

Let me start with the perceived flaws: at times it seems that Ms. Gappah wishes to limit her audience to those with a robust knowledge of the languages and systems of southern Africa.  There are chunks of undigested Zimbabwean language(s) here and there throughout the text that ultimately become frustrating--not because one cannot understand the story without them, but because they become like the long names in Russian novels--one pauses and puzzles over them so long that the thread of thought can be lost.   This is a choice she has made for a reason, but not, I think, a particularly meaningful or successful one--certainly not for this one reader.  The only other flaw is the unevenness of the stories.  Some stand out as brilliant: the title piece, "At the Sound of the Last Post," "Something Nice from London," "The Maid from Lalapanzi," "The Mupandawana Dancing Champion," "Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros."  In each of these she has captured something--a moment, an understanding, an emotion or several emotions, so perfectly that one wonders if it is possible to do so better.  But there are other stories "Aunt Juliana's Indian" and "Midnight at the Hotel California" that do not seem to do so as well. Perhaps I merely need to revisit them, but my initial impression was that they did not seem rounded and complete: they seemed merely to stop somewhere along the way.  I was profoundly confused by the point of "Midnight at the Hotel California" and must revisit it.

While I've visited the flaws at length, in the context of the full work, they are minor and at very worst slight imperfections that do not detract from the strength of the majority of very strong stories.  And what is remarkable is their range. From the sharp sarcasm and irony of "At the Sound of the Last Post" to the subtle social horror of "The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie's Bridegroom," Ms. Gappah seems to be able to handle all sorts of themes.  Unlike other recent (and superb) books out of different parts of the African Continent (Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them and Maaza Mengiste's Beneath the Lion's Gaze) Gappah deals with smaller, more domestic horrors rather than the terror of entire societies torn apart by war and hatred.  Her horrors include life under inflation of three million percent, life under the spectre of AIDS with irresponsible men continuing to spread the contagion, and the life of horrible poverty and despair chronicled, at least obliquely in stories like "An Elegy for Easterly" and "The Mupandawan Dancing Champion"  (although this latter is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, like many of the stories in the collection).

Ms. Gappah introduces us to the culture of Zimbabwe, a nation emerging from the oppression of Europeans into the oppression of Africans, but still vibrant, alive, active, interesting, and vital.  That is the miracle of these little stories--we are invited into a culture at once a little familiar and utterly foreign and given a glimpse of people at their best and their worst.  We're given insight into the destructive forces that tear a society apart, and the forces that help to glue it together.  Often in the same story.

Ms. Gappah's collection is a fine, nay, an excellent debut and I highly recommend that you become acquainted with this talented and nuanced writer.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior Ori and Rom Brafman

I don't read a lot of nonfiction and I tend to be very selective about what I do read--it has to amuse me in some way.  This book certainly qualified.  I love books that spell out the obvious and help me codify or qualify observations I have already made.  Sway is that kind of book par excellance.  What Sway sets out to do is to tell us why we sometimes find ourselves doing the oddest, strangest, most counter-intuitive and often counter-productive things.

Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman have identified trends in thought or behavior that sometimes dominant our decisions and thought to the point of irrationality: risk aversion, commitment, diagnosis bias, value attribution, fairness, group dynamics.  We've all seen these in action but what Brafman and Brafman do is show us how these trends affect things like fatal airline crashes, losers on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, the concept of fairness as it varies among cultures, the price of eggs, and the outbreak of bi-polar disorder. 

The authors bring all these things together, and more, in ways that are both plausible and reasonable from point of view of human psychology.  As I was reading the book I thought about how many times I had done the same or similar things for precisely the reasons delineated, event thinking in the terms expressed in the book.  Unlike the insights of Malcolm Gladwell and company, these seem to be both well-founded and clearly defined.  Moreover, the authors provide some insight into how one might avoid the traps that such trends in thought lead to.

Very enjoyable, very insightful--in a light sort of way.  And therefore, highly recommended to those interested in trends in thought, thinking, and cognition.

The Sheila Variations

My sincere thanks to Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed for introducing me to the delightful blog that is The Sheila Variations.  I pass that kindness on to all of you.  The blogmaster shares a deep interest in all things _Ulysses_ and, perhaps (I've not investigated enough to know at this stage) all things Joyce.  But the first thing I encountered upon entering the site was a warm greeting from Patrick Henry--a personal hero.  Go and enjoy!

An Introduction to the Fibonacci Sequence

This little clip was originally found at Open Culture, a place to which I was directed by a much more somber spectacle--a documentary about the crimes of Nazis in Germany.  But this was lovely and I wanted to share it more broadly.  Although, my audience can hardly be considered to expand on anyone's.  Nevertheless, I do hope you enjoy.

Poem of the Week

Thomas Campion's transfiguration of Catullus--"My Sweetest Lesbia"

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Pure Clear Light--Madeleine St. John

It is one of my great regrets in life that I often come late to the table.  I have read two other Madeleine St. John novels and picked this up right before my trip and was drawn in.  In preparing to write a brief review, I looked her up only to find that she died in 2006--what a shame, because I, for one, could do with a great many more books like this one.

Most of Ms. St. John's novels are simple domestic dramas--sometimes tragedies, but in this case a kind of uxb planted firmly in the middle of a loving marriage which inexorably changes the marriage.  Flora Beaufort and her husband Simon are a happily married couple when Flora visits France with their three children while Simon stays behind to become embroiled in an affair with a young accountant.  Flora returns home and begins to take more seriously the question of God and religion which disturbs Simon deeply.  He tries to control the direction of this while carrying on the affair.

From these contours you can see that it is a story of love and faith which really is the equivalent of anything Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh has written on the subject.  It is a deeply Catholic novel with the concerns about who we are and how we are defined against the backdrop of faith.

The prose is simple, lucid--it never strays into the land of the poetic, but it is well-wrought for its purposes--lightweight, wry, agile, and easy to read.  Never sentimental, St. John is able to invoke enormous sympathy for her characters and their plight despite the vast and somewhat chilly authorial distance from them.  But the distance allows both perspective and compassion.

from A Pure Clear Light
Madeleine St. John

She shrugged it off and went on with the VAT returns., but she could not quite divest herself of the feeling that God had been watching the whole affair from its inception and was now laughing quietly to Himself: which, it there were no such person, was ridiculous, and if there were such a person was--what, exactly?  She put down her pen and sat, speculating for a moment. What, exactly, might one fairly expect the consequences of the Virgin's mediations to be--supposing, that is, that God existed?  Had she been given a sign? She saw that this would not do: any further down that road, she thought, and I'll be back int he Middle Ages before I know it.

But then, she had the fairness to ask, is that, considering  where we all now are, such a very dreadful destination? Flora felt suddenly a  sense of the unmitigated grossness of the superstitions of the modern age. You could be crushed to death if you weren't lucky. If you got the sum wrong. Hail Mary, she said, full of grace;  etcetera. You could just conceivable get to a point, she thought, where it didn't matter whether or not God existed: where the possibility that He did and might even listen to you was absolutely all there was between you and Hell. Because we do know now, at any rate, that hell exists.

All of the prose is this clean and clear--this focused and direct.  And mysterious, it forms a very ambiguous, but very rich and entertaining story.  We have the conflict from the resolute, waffling, adulterous husband:

from A Pure Clear Light
Madeleine St. John

Simon might not believe in the existence of God--indeed he categorically did not--but he was on the way to the great cutting room in the sky nevertheless. He might not believe that a person called God was going to put him through the viewing machine and decide whether or not to save him or let him fall to the floor, but he had some sense nevertheless of there being some ineradicable rule by which this decision might--however purely theoretically--be made. He was on his way to a time, a place, where--when--this awful accounting would have occurred if there had been a person called God; that there was no such person did not alter the inexorability of the journey or of its theoretical destination.
The sheer confusion of the conditional along with the absolute certainty of some form of judgment leads Simon straight into Huis Clos.  And would lead Flora there, perhaps.  But. . .

And one final beautiful note.  I love the exactness with which Ms. St. John describes the state of not-quite-being-able-to-say:

from A Pure Clear Light
Madeleine St. John

Flora considered the question. 'Ye-e-es,' she said. 'I suppose that's what I mean.'  But there was something other, something more, or something, even, less, that she meant--in that strange and tiny space in the mind where it is just possible to mean without having the word which conveys that meaning. And one could not have said whether it were fatigue or fear which prevented her from searching for, and finding, the right word. The reasonable word. The mot juste as English-speakers say.

It is a shame that Ms. St. John is no longer with us, because it is from such quiet, strong, and powerful books that a name is made.  I can only hope that the three or four novels she left us enter into the "Catholic canon" and are read by those with an interest in the successors to Greene,  Waugh, O'Connor, Endo, Percy, Bernanos, and as Ms. St. John would have it,  etcetera .

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Philadelphia for a convention

Expect blogging to be light--but I hope to get to some more Petina Gappah and a wonderful book by Madeleine St. John.

Query for those in Great Britain--is St. John as a last name still pronounced sinnjinn, or is it more like St. John?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dancing News from Zimbabwe

I'm really enjoying Petina Gappah's collection An Elegy for Easterly--and what follows shows one of the reasons why.

from "The Mupandawana Dancing Champion"
in An Elegy for Easterly
Petina Gappah

Fame is an elastic concept, especially in a place like this, where we all know the smells of one another's armpits. Mupandawana, full name Gutu-Mupandawana Growth Point, is bigger than a village but it is not yet a town. I have become convinced that the government calls Mupandawana a growth point merely to divert us from the reality of our present squalor with optimistic predictions about our booming future. As it is not even a townlet, a townling, or half a fraction of a town, there was much rejoicing at the recent ground-breaking ceremony for a new row of Blair toilets when the district commissioner share with us his vision of town status for Mupandawana by the year 2065.

More on Solar

The arctic influence on McEwan's Solar.

Richard Wilbur Poem for the Day

Ecclesiastes 11:1

In Honor of St. Patrick's Day--Maeve Brennan

When I started out this morning I had no intention of posting what follows.  Not because it is not good, but because I had other items in the line-up, which may still make it into the rotation for the day.  But I was so moved and touched by the lines you're going to read because they bring together such a splendid story of dreams and disappointments, that I thought, what a nice way to commemorate, quietly, the day.

from "A Free Choice"
in The Springs of Affection
Maeve Brennan

In the hall below, Hubert waited alone and watched for Rose to come down the stairs. He held her lace handkerchief in his hand. He had seen it slip from her sleeve as she entered the drawing room, and he had picked it up and put it in his pocket to keep for her. He would have told her he had it, but she had given him no chance to speak to her. She had danced off, and then she had gone on dancing, round and round the room, and finally she had begun dancing with that Nolan fellow, and he had gone off in a rage to the dining room and eaten ham sandwiches one after another so that he would not have to watch her smiling in the arms of that glorified corner boy, that ladies' delight, that actor at love.

Hubert was angry and anxious. She had slipped away. He had lost her forever.

I leave it to you to seek out the story and see why this is the beginning of the perfect culmination, why these little phrases say so much and round out what must be a nearly perfect story of love, heartbreak, disappointment, and unexpected joy.  And why, as one brick in the edifice, they make the Rose and Hubert story so much more moving and sad.

St Patrick's Day

Happy St. Patrick's day to all.  An occasion for some to drink green beer, perhaps become uproariously and (to their own minds at least) hilariously drunk.  A license for drunkenness for a day--a free pass. 

But having now visited Ireland--a country with which I have no ties whatsoever--genealogically I may be one of 10 caucasian people in the United States who has no Irish ancestry whatsoever--I think somewhat differently of this day.  Having seen the post office pillars that stand as silent memorials to those who lost their lives in the most recent series of troubles, having read the Easter Proclamation, having seen the Famine memorial has brought home to me a very different view of Ireland--one both more somber and more lovely.  And St. Patrick's day gives me cause and pause to pray for the continued peace of that nation, for its continued adherence to the beliefs for which it was so long punished, and for the continued livelihood and prosperity of the people who brought so much to the world of the arts and to American life and culture.  Without Ireland there is no Joyce, Yeats, Flannery O'Connor. . . the list goes on.

So, happy St. Patrick's day.  Before you imbibe, recall the struggles of the past and the difficulties of the present and say a little prayer for the future so that Ireland may continue to be a refuge of artists and an example to the world.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review Pulled

I had posted a much more negative review that I'm entirely comfortable with of Peter Carey's Wrong About Japan.  I have pulled the review and simply noted that I have read the book.

I don't like to post negative reviews for a number of reasons and I had promised myself that if it didn't get at least 4 stars I wasn't going to spend the time to review, etc.  I did in this case for reasons I can't quite articulate and it does a disservice to the writer.

It is enough for everyone to know that for what I felt were good reasons, the book did not appeal to me.  There was nothing particularly wrong with the writing and my reasons for disliking it were entirely subjective and not based on the merits of the work itself.  Therefore, it is unfair, and worse, unkind of me to post anything that could be seen as detraction.  I apologize to all of you and to the author and will, in the future, endeavor to keep any such to myself, noting only when I didn't care for something.  You'll normally see this by seeing an entry in the Read column with no rating or review.  If such an entry occurs you'll know what it means.

Again, apologies for all.  I don't particularly like to be negative in reviews or discouraging because writers have enough going against them without me adding to it.


Ian McEwan, Solar, reviewed at Bookmunch

Episode 25

The Short Story, Episode 25: Leo Tolstoy--at the Guardian--next up J. G. Ballard.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Fatwa Against Terrorism

ToC, Introduction, and notes in English. 

The first sixty or so pages of the Fatwa in English along with the complete ToC to give a sense of the extent of the teaching of the document.  How refreshing it is to read, what a pleasure it is to know that people of good will work toward the same ends regardless of differences of thought and opinion. 

A Book I've Always Meant to Get To

At least recently.  WSJ comments on Zeno's Conscience.

Interview with a Poet--Seamus Heaney

Via Philosophy, etc., this interview with Seamus Heaney.

A Moment of Good Advice for All

Whether or not one holds to any faith, much less that of Judaism, which gave rise to the Psalms, or Christianity, which took them into its heart, these words are words for the wise.

Psalm 90:12

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.(KJV)

Teach us to number our days aright,
       that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Make us know the shortness of our life
that we may gain wisdom of heart.  (Translation from Liturgy of the Hours)

As I said, whether or not one believes in God, it is good to know and remember that as good as the days are and as wonderful as life can be, it is not forever.  As to whether anything follows--that is a matter for faith.  But what concerns us here and now is to understand how that shortness of life can inform the heart and make it both compassionate and wiser--not choosing foolishly among the many foolish choices that can make up a life.  Our choices, in a very real sense, end up defining who we are for better or for worse.  Those choices are acts of will that make the world a little better or a little worse for everyone in it.  And they extend from the enormous and influential issues that rest on the shoulders of our leaders to what it is we have for breakfast.  Each thing we choose precludes, obstructs, or displaces millions of other choices and defines in the bleak unknown that lies ahead where we can go.  Some choices more so, others less so.  And this is the beginning to wisdom--to know that every choice has an influence and care must be exercised for all--but the color of your hallway carpeting is perhaps less meaningful than what you do about your neighbor who has no food.

Ostensibly about Climategate

An indictment of the American system of colleges and universities.  And is it, perhaps, mostly on target?  I certainly think there is some truth to it, judging by those I daily interview for positions and find lacking in all sorts of essential knowledge and skills.  But then, there may be any number of reasons for that.

The Age of Innocence--An Appreciation

A marvelous appreciation of one of Edith Wharton's finest novel-length works, The Age of Innocence.

While, in general, I don't agree with Ms. Wharton's conclusions regarding marriage and love, I did not live Ms. Wharton's life, which is a compelling argument in favor of her positions.

Logic in Verse

D. G. Myers has a couple of posts up about poetic syllogism.  The previous link is to the second of these, but go to the main blog and read down--you'll enjoy the subsequent posts as well. Contribute to the discussion, if you're of a mind to--we can all learn as we talk.  I'm grateful people are willing to post serious and interesting pieces about literature.  Even if the premise is one that I find difficult to fathom, it is worth hearing it spelled out and properly argued and Mr. Myers always does so with humor and graciousness. 

A Foray into Morte D'Urban

At Novels, Stories, and More a review of J. F. Powers masterwork, Morte d'Urban.  Or I should say an appreciation with the promise of a review.

"An Old and eldern Knicht"

Sir Patrick Spens--the poem of the Week at the Guardian

Get your monthly recommended requirement of the ballad.  And some eldern Anguitch.  (My name for English that is more difficult to read--a pormanteau of anguish and Englitch--or something of the sort.)

"Ars Gravis, Vita Levis"

At Quid Plura? a new poem.  One I would call a romp.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The One Who Needs This Knows Who He Is

Do It Yourself built-in shelving

You know who you are--and providence provides--you need only ask.

A Room of One's Own Redux

Does having a room of one's own equal a masterpiece?  Only if you're Virginia Woolf.

Lenten Reading--Chesterton on Aquinas

Unlike many of my co-religionists I am emphatically NOT a fan of G. K. Chesterton (except perhaps the Father Brown stories--I debate with myself over their merits.)  I found The Man Who was Thursday tedious to the point of tears.  The poetry is just short of dreadful and most of the fiction a trial.  Now keep in mind, I am a minority opinion and this evaluation really says nothing at all about the work of Chesterton and says a tremendous amount about me.  But I offer this preface to say that I am once again enjoying Chesterton's biography of St. Thomas Aquinas--a figure who fascinates me endlessly.  Reading through it, I am once again inspired to one of those ill-fated mini-forays into the wilds of the Summa (probably with Peter Kreeft as my guide).  I don't really expect to get far because I never do.  I get to about the point of Divine Simplicity and find my head reeling from thoughts about things that no one can really know, and yet a great many spend an enormous amount of time speculating on.  That said, the fault is not in St. Thomas, but most certainly in Steven, and I find the man and his work inspirational.  So much so that Chesterton's biography of him is consistently one of the Chestertonian opus that I can approach and enjoy.

from St. Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox"
G. K. Chesterton

Now, the first thing that Aquinas did, though by no means the last was to say to these pure transcendentalists something substantially like this. "Far be it from a poor friar to deny you have these dazzling diamonds in your head, all designed in the most perfect mathematical shapes and shining with a purely celestial light; all these almost before you begin to think, let alone to see or hear or feel. But I am not ashamed to say that I find my reason fed by my senses; that I owe a great deal of what I think to what I see and smell and taste and handle; and that so far as my reason is concerned, I feel obliged to treat all this reality as real. To be brief, in all humility, I do not believe that God meant Man to exercise only that peculiar, uplifted and abstract sort of intellect which you are so fortunate as to possess; but I believe that there is a middle field of facts which are given by the senses to to be the subject matter of the reason, and that in that field the reason has a right to rule, as the representative of God in Man. It is true that all this is lower than the angels, but it is higher than the animals, and all the actual material objects Man finds around him. True, man can be an object; and even a deplorable object. But what man has done man may do; and if an antiquated old heather called Aristotle can help me to do it I will thank him in all humility.

Off the Beaten Trakl

Issa reviews a new translation of the Poetry of Georg Trakl.

Samples included.

I've yet to read a good translation of much of this poet's work.  The samples posted seem quite promising.

Jayne Anne Phillips

Bookmunch visits Lark & Termite

International Reading

From Literary Saloon, a long list of the best in international fiction

And Now, the View from Hungary

Imre Kertész--The Union Jack, a review.

I have only recently become acquainted with the work of Mr. Kertész and I have to say that what little I have read compels me onward into the rest of the oeuvre.  Like J. M. G. Le Clézio, Mr. Kertész is one whom I must thank the Nobel Committee for bringing to my attention.

I Am Alone. . . Utterly Alone

A nice review of Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky.

It is possible to get more depressing, but even in the works of those who would be as depressing--Sartre, Beckett, there are usually elements that relieve the unrelenting oppression (thus making it more oppressive).  Mr. Bowles is not long on humor, though he is a very, very talented, skilled writer.  It does not, however, ever pull The Sheltering Sky out of the realm of the terminally depressing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Multiply-To-Be-Dreaded Master Poet of Dundee

A poetical gem found within the pages of the 40 Bad books article.  I present for your delectation and delight:

The Poetry of William McGonagall

It must be read to be believed and so I present this excerpt from one poem within Poetic Gems.

from "Loch Leven"
William McGonagall

BEAUTIFUL Loch Leven, near by Kinross
For a good day's fishing the angler is seldom at a loss,
For the Loch it abounds with pike and trout,
Which can be had for the catching without any doubt;
And the scenery around it is most beautiful to be seen,
Especially the Castle, wherein was imprisoned Scotland's ill-starred Queen.

What more need be said on the matter?

Super Cool

Twilight Zone Radio Theater 3 Episodes free!

Shields on the Novel

Views of Reality Hunger by David Shields.The consensus--who cares? and go away--said far more politely, of course. 

I'm of the ho-hum school.  The book is subtitled  "A Manifesto" so it's obviously a book driven by one person's agenda.  From the description of it, not an agenda I have the least interest in.  I haven't cared for most of the highly footnoted fiction I've glanced at, nor with most of the fragments, anti-novels, or experiments in form.  They're all fine for what they are, but I'm obviously not the intended audience and I'm okay with that.  If an author wants to write for the 30 people in the world willing to tolerate her/his written version of LaTourette's, more power to him/her.

A Bestseller's Database

Again from Books Inq.--a Bestseller database.

Interesting to peruse and see how many I have read and how many I've forgotten completely.  Also neat is to see some of the anomalies:

Willa Cather Shadows on the Rock
Joseph Conrad The Arrow of Gold--not one of his more notable books, but presence on the list at all is remarkable.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Hound of the Baskervilles--Not really unexpected as a best seller--I just tend to forget that Holmes crept into the 20th century.
Elizabeth von Arnim The Enchanted April (misfiled under Elizabeth)

Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose
William Faulkner The Reivers--Again, not a stand-out book by the author and, I believe, his last, but still to see Faulkner on such a list is a bit of a surprise.
Ellen Glasgow Vein of Iron
Hemingway hits the list five times, but Hemingway was nothing if he was not accessible by a large reading public--whether or not that public got from his books what he put into them may be debatable, but still, we see A Movable Feast and For Whom the Bell tolls among the others.
Aldous Huxley--Eyeless in Gaza (Interesting)
V. Basco Ibanez--The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--unjustly neglected nowadays.
Sinclair Lewis--Babbit and Main Street
Vladimir Nabokov--Lolita--for all the wrong reasons, I suspect
Boris Pasternak--Dr. Zhivago--I often wonder how many actually read this best seller--ditto on Eco
Katherine Anne Porter--Ship of Fools--Lest we forget the ends to which we are driven by foolish politics.
Edith Wharton--Age of Innocence and House of Mirth, among others.

This among a plethora of Kings and Micheners.  I did not see as so notable the presence of Steinbeck on the lists many times.  I've actually wondered about the presence of Steinbeck on the classics lists because most of his material reads like fairly standard best-seller fare.  But, to be fair to him, he is perhaps a writer for whom I failed to acquire the knack.  I enjoy what he writes, but I don't sense anything much below the surface--it seems that what you read is what you get.  But then, I mistakenly thought that about Hemingway for a long time.

I do note that well-known "literary" writers make the list when they write about sex--Myra Breckenridge, Portnoy's Complaint (or anything else by Roth with the exception of The Plot Against America), anything by John Updike--and above plausibly The Reivers and notably Lolita.

A Plethora of Bad Books

At Books Inq. a link to a list of bad books--at least in someone's opinion--I'm so gratified to see someone agreeing with me on Let the Great World Spin.

More Award Winners

Best Translated Book Award winners at Literary Saloon.

Tolstoy on Reading

Wuthering Expectations guides us through Tolstoy's guide to reading.  Very nicely considered.  Perhaps I should turn back to Tolstoy.  My wife got me the newest War and Peace and it has been a while since I've indulged.

James Wood on "Lyrical Realism"

At Times Flow Stemmed a cogent excerpt of a review of James Wood on Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered.

The Kindly Ones on the Con side

Another reviewer takes on The Kindly Ones and finds it to be lacking, or perhaps too much:

"There is a French tendency to confuse graphic pornography and intellectual refinement (cf. Houellebecq) and, whilst some of the criticism leveled at The Kindly Ones in the US press has seemed a little prudish, the degree of sexual deviancy and its predictability is a real problem here."

Note to Self: Don't Even Pretend Like This is a Possibility

Giving up book buying

Even reading the title I start to shake a little, and my mouth goes all dry, and I get this dull headachy feeling like when you've been without caffeine for, oh say thirty seconds or so.  If books came in IV drips, I'd say sign me up even though I'm constitutionally against the use of piercing metal objects on my body.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Poem from the Chinese

At Books Inq. "River Snow" by Liu Zongyuan


from "Something Nice from London"
in An Elegy for Easterly
Petina Gappah

We wait for the Friday morning flight from London, as I stand with my mother, my brother Jonathan, and his wife, Mukai, and watch through the transparent glass of the observation platform. Our somber faces are out of place, surrounded by those that smile in anticipation, with mouths that laugh and fingers that point out to children, there they are, there she is, he is here at last; they arrived on time. My mother stares unseeing at the passenger below us who crane their necks to look up at the platform, anxious to catch a glimpse of a familiar face, arms waving and jangling with bracelets, faces broad with smiles. They have made an effort for the flight, the women in manicured wigs and weaves, their England clothes fitting well, their skin lightened by years and maybe even by just as little as six months of living out of the heat and stress of poverty. Those receiving them have also made an effort, or may it's not such an effort. They will have been happy to put aside their quiet desperation to wear the shining joy of welcome. For these passengers bring with them more than their loved selves, they bring something nice from London, the foreign money that will be traded on the black market and guarantee a few more month of survival.

To be so desperate for the returned of loved ones, not for themselves but because of the euros, pounds, or dollars that will assure the survival of the family for a bit longer--this is life in desperate times--in times of monumental inflation.  I found this beautiful and heartbreaking.

And One Last

Because I know after all my coy references you are desperate to see the creepy Joyce Statue people  (the people themselves are not necessarily creepy, just what's being done).  Personally, I prefer Molly in the foreground (as does my son).  In the background the grounds of Trinity College.

How to Make Divine Simplicity. . . well. . .

Less than simple.  Maverick Philosopher with scattered notes on Divine Simplicity

And Another for no Better Reason

Throughout the central blocks of Dublin, from North of the Liffey near the old Irish Post office to as far south and west as the National Library/National Museum, there are scattered 16 plaques that honor events, moments, words, of Ulysses.  For reasons I cannot fully explain, this is one of my favorites--at the Junction where O'Connell Street becomes Westmoreland, across the street from the building that is still called the Ballast House.

And then:

Just so you know that Ireland loves her artists--the building, built on the same spot, obviously not the original.  (It says Foundation stone laid on 10th April 1981, A stone from the original Ballast house is below the foundation stone at top, and a stone from the Royal Liver Building (Liverpool) is at the bottom.):

Just Because--Joyce in Dublin

In Dublin, there is at least one person who does the Statue of Liberty thing w/r/t this Joyce Statue.  I saw him once near Molly Malone and, as with all such, found it unspeakably creepy.  But not this.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Yann Martel's Forthcoming Book

Beatrice and Virgil reviewed at Biblioklept

I did read, and enjoyed enormously Life of Pi.  I little care if every book club in America read it and enjoyed it.  It does not matter to me that it is sometimes classed with YA books.  The book itself is solid, interesting, and conceives of a rather interesting voyage and the questions it raises about faith and living in sacred time are interesting far beyond the measures of the book.

Joyce on Joyce? Or rather not?

This article from the Guardian claims to have letters from Joyce and Pound on the Wake.  Perhaps so, and if so, it just confirms my thoughts in the matter.  But if not, well, the thought's in the right place--and I say that as one who profoundly loves the play of the Wake.

Wallace on Updike

An essay by David Foster Wallace on John Updike.  I was peripherally aware of this piece, but now that it has come into full consciousness and expresses my thoughts about the several writers mentioned at the beginning, I shall reread and seek to find if Mr. Wallace has expressed my own reservations about Mr. Updike's fiction.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Stories from LOA

Via Whispering Gums, an online series of which I was unfamiliar--the current edition being Kate Chopin's "A Respectable Woman.

Is Mr. Hitchens Really This Utterly Clueless?

Wow, the sheer hubris, arrogance, and self-aggrandizement is certainly breath-taking to witness.   A critique could go on for hours--but this was the same man who railed at Mother Teresa during her funeral: for such a one is there really any explanation or rebuttal?

Jewish Fantasy Writing

Why no Narnia for Jewish Writers?  Reviews of Lev Grossman et al.

an excerpt:

To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition. Let us take two central examples: the magical world and the idea of evil.

I find this interesting for several reason--chief amongst them was that I was reflecting on how we've lost the sense (if it ever properly existed) of salvation as a communal experience--the Exodus--and replaced it with a very protestant Pilgrim's Progress sense of  how it works.  Paul spent much of his writing talking about how we are all one body--but most of us today don't get the concept--mystical body of Christ--what's that.  Because, it would seem to imply, if we are all one body, then we are more intrinsically responsible for one another because the body must depend on all its parts.  True, Christ said, "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out"  so there is room for expulsion.  But how can we do that when we're never properly inCORPORated.  Ah, another tangent--I really must learn not to do that--but tangents are so much more interesting than chords.

Rene Char via Books Inq

A review of Stone Lyre a new translation of some poems by René Char.

Stephen King on the Short Story

R.T. provides this link to a interesting comment by Stephen King on why people don't read short stories any more.

For me the short story is an amazing art form.  All too often when I am reading novels, I think of Pascal's famous statement to the effect of , "Had I more time I would have written a shorter letter."  I remember completing The Witches of Eastwick and thinking "There was a really good short story buried somewhere in all that."  And so with many authors whose ability to talk far exceeds the matter about which they have to talk (myself included).

The skills required for a short story are prodigious, one must straddle the line of concision between poetry and novel (although Lydia Davis et al. are presently at blurring that line even further.)  One must have supreme command of what it is one is about in a short story.  There is no line, no word even that can be wasted.  I recall reading a few of Raymond Carver's short stories and thinking how luminous, whole, and true they were.  I recently read Jay McInerny's collected short fiction and was astonished by how much better it was than some of the novels.

The sort story cannot carry you as long or as far as a novel, in many cases.  But then one turns to stories such as "The Dead," "The Lottery," "Turn of the Screw," "A & P," "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," "Hand-Carved Coffins," "The Necklace," "Lady and Her Pet Dog," and others too numerous to count and realize that they have taken me much, much further than many a novel.

A short story is a powerful conveyance, but the sensibility for reading it is quite differently focused and located than that for reading a novel.  And sometimes it, like poetry, is more alienating than inviting--its constraints and strictures more corset-like than many would find comfortable.

But for me, I often use Short Stories as a "way in" to authors whose longer work I have avoided or is not familiar to me.  I can read a short story and tell in a very short time whether this is a voice, a person, a sensibility, I can enjoy, or at least endure for a longer spell.

Revisiting Brideshead

Brideshead Revisited revisited

A book of wonderful complexity, I find myself headed back for it again and again to see if any of the screen adaptations, any of the talk of it, any of the swirl of ideas and nonfacts about it hold weight.  And I always find myself wondering in the wake of revisiting.  I don't know what to make of it still--in some ways the most enigmatic and inscrutable of Waugh's work and the most unlike the rest of the opus.  Give me the relative simplicity of Vile Bodies or A Handful of Dust, or even Scoop over this troubling and haunting spectre.  Or not.  I love the entire opus from Decline and Fall through Scott-King's Modern Europe, through to the Posthumous collections.  A master of laser-like intensity and, one would suppose, perhaps not the most pleasant of persons to spend time in a room with.

Magnificent Beginnings

Better than best first lines--magnificent beginnings. . .

Or at least favorite ones.  Doesn't include some of mine, and seems to have a chronochauvinist bent, but so be it.

True Love

What your romance titles say about you

The Worst of the Worst

Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astrozombies reviewed at the New Yorker.

I have to say that the title of the book certainly includes two possibilities for the worst, each in a different Genre.  Showgirls has to be one of the very worst A-Budget highly touted films ever made.  Because it is so bad it has become cultic and made the producers and director back all of their investment and then some.  Bad movies are something of a specialty for me--and I would include in the honorable ranks that howler Dante's Peak, notable not merely for bad film-making but also for atrocious science.

Books and their Makers

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at the New Yorker

Rube Goldberg Ascending

Indeed, he is:

And the full article:

How Go OK's Amazing Rube Goldberg Machine Was Built

Contrary to the article, this does not appear as though it could have been shot in one continuous take.  Moreover, some pieces of the device are a little obscure in their operation.  That doesn't stop it from being delightful.

Books v. E-books or i-Books, or whatever

Another country heard from

An interesting analysis that parallels our own.  Prune away the massive popular tree-killers and make room for the real book-making art. 

Resurrection from a Jewish Point of View

Fascinating article about the resurrection of Jesus.

A Jewish scholar admits the possibility, but questions the meaning.  This is profoundly interesting and the reasoning behind the scholar's conclusions also fascinating.  If you've an interest in the subject, you owe it to yourself to take a look.

The Government and Schlitz Beer

Consent of the governed?  Who can say?

(probably from Books Inq.)

This, I hope, tantalizing taste:

Glenn Harlan Reynolds in The Washington Examiner
In fact, when I think of the federal government's brand now, I think of Schlitz beer. Schlitz was once a top national brew. But, in search of short-term gains, it began gradually reducing its quality in tiny increments to save money, substituting cheaper malt, fewer hops and "accelerated" brewing for its traditional approach.

Each incremental decline was imperceptible to consumers, but after a few years, people suddenly noticed that the beer was no good anymore. Sales collapsed, and a "Taste My Schlitz" campaign designed to lure beer drinkers back failed when the "improved" brew turned out not to be any better. A brand image that had been accumulated over decades was lost in a few years, and it has never recovered.

The federal government, alas, finds itself in much the same position.

Sven Birkerts Treading the Same Old Ground

Gutenberg Elegies, countless articles, and this one to add to Sven Birkerts's dismal croaking about the fate of reading.  I may say that like I don't care for what he has to say, but I enjoy every word and I'm trying to figure whether he is a Cassandra, or just plain wrong, or somewhere in between (methinks the last of these for which the first was made).

Another Gargoyle

Another Gargoyle poem from Quid Plura--as usual quite fine.

Burton Visits Wonderland

What can one say?  Burton visits wonderland and makes it his own, and because he is such an engaging film maker with so powerful an imagination, I don't even mind.  He eviscerates the Alice stories and sews them back together with his magical thread and I find myself wanting more.

Really, the film probably should have been called Jabberwocky, because that is the core and the theme.  While the characters from the Alice books are all gathered round, they are gathered round the Frabjous day and the Jabberwocky holds pride of place in this story.

Even my son, who has become notoriously picky about deviations from the sacred canon of his books (when it come to film, excoriating the film makers for the liberties they took with  The Lightning Thief even while enjoying the film) I say, even my son loved this film, talking about it frequently and often seeking to parse and critique the auteur's choices.  "Did you notice the Queen of Hearts had heart-shaped lips?"  "Do you think it was necessary to have the jabberwocky's head bounce all the way down the steps?"  And so forth.

Dark--indeed far darker than Alice ever got (at least to this male reader--female opinions on Alice suggest that it is far darker for women than it is for almost any man--men seem to see the humor in the illogic and enter into the game fairly readily--women seem to think it the stuff of nightmares). In fact, my son and I were parsing the word "frumious" which Carroll himself apparently sees a a mix between fuming and furious.  But I pointed out that it was just as likely to be a mix between fruity and luminous.  My son solemnly cited the author, but I countered that once the word was made without formal definition it could mean anything I liked. His response, "Yes Humpty-Dumpty."  My wife chimed in with "Fuming and furious makes more sense."  Which opened the door to, "Well then it must be wrong, for in the world of Alice it must not make sense to make sense."  Her exasperated reply said it all.  But Son was right there with it, and I think the sense/unsense argument won him over to "fruity and luminous."  We both then speculated on why the combination might be particularly repugnant.

Ah well, off on a tangent.  I was telling you about Burton's film.  But perhaps the dialogue above tells you more than I could ever say in a straight narrative.

Go and see it.  Do not expect Alice, but Alice through the warped lookingglass that comprises every Burton film.  For him Roethke could have composed the words "Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire."  This is one man I'd love to have a conversation with sometime.

Splendid, enjoyable fun, for those inclined to allow themselves the liberty--highly recommended.

The Literary Vagaries of Philip Roth

The Guardian considers Roth.

I still haven't come to terms with Roth and don't know that it lies within me to do so.  So much a product of his generation that he can be alienating to those who are not, his often fetishistic descriptions of sex are sometime beyond the pale of nauseating.  And then he gives us The Plot Against America, a masterpiece. 

Part of my problem with Roth is that I simply can't figure out how seriously to take him when he is writing about sexual excess.  Is he writing to critique or writing to promote?  Sometimes it seems the former, and then I find myself most amenable to his writing, and other times it seems the latter and it's all I can do not to throw the book across the room. 

William Carlos Williams

Not that you need it, considering it is one of the most anthologized and overanalyzed poems in the English Language, but The Guardian walks behind "The Red Wheelbarrow" in their poem of the week.

Another Joycean

Received a note from a fellow reader of Joyce who directed me toward his site.  If you're interested in Joyce (or baseball--interesting combination) you might want to check out the site.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

from Wrong About Japan

I picked the above referenced book from the library more for its subject matter than for the author.  Indeed, the name of the author was somewhat obscured by the plethora of tags and IDs from the library.  What a pleasant surprise to find that it was by Peter Carey--an author whose work I had formulated a wish to take in.  Now, I know this will not be exemplary of his work; however, it provides an entrée to the prose--a sampling, as it were.

from Wrong About Japan
Peter Carey

"Come!" he called from the bathroom, "Come now. Quick!"

Whatever he had seen in the bathroom, I knew immediately, was very strange. He'd already seen weird Japanese stuff on the way here--the white-gloved taxi driver, the extraordinary neon-lit shop of pink and organe and blue flowers, a newsstand filled with countless manga with spines two inches thick.  But the strangeness he was now negotiating was of a different magnitude.

"Everybody with a taste for traditional architecture," Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in 1933, "must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection." He then lamented the cost of traditional construction and described his own compromise between cost and custom. "I at least avoided tiles, and had the floor done in camphour wood. To that extent I tried to create a Japanese atmosphere, but was frustrated, finally, by the toilet fixtures themselves. As everyone knows, toilet fixtures are made of pure white porcelain and have handles of sparkling metal. Were I able to have things my own way, I would much prefer fixtures--both men's and women's --made of wood. Wood finished in glistening black lacquer is the very best; but even unfinished wood, as it darkens and the grain grows more subtle with the years, acquires  an inexplicable power to calm and soothe. The ultimate, of course, is a wooden 'morning glory' urinal filled with boughs of cedar; this is a delight to look at and makes not the slightest sound."

"Dad, come now! Look!"

God knows what Tanizaki would have thought, but I was certainly as startled as my son, for the toilet in our traditional hotel looked like a contraption designed for a science-ficton comedy. Its arrays of yellow, red, and blue buttons beside the seat might, as one could guess, lower or raise the device, convert the toilet to a bidet or--surely this must have been my misunderstanding--a shower. However, it was not immediately clear how one would flush it. Finally I pushed the blue button and the toilet indeed flushed, but then water started gushing from a faucet into a triangular basin in the corner of the room.

We burst out laughing.

It was at just his moment, before we had time to discover that the seat was electrically heated, that the telephone rang.

It is perhaps in the bathrooms of even the most closely allied cultures that we find ourselves most uncomfortable.  Why, exactly is the urinal shaped that way and what is the meaning of the curious flap that overs it over and makes it look something like half-an-egg sticking out of the wall.  What are those buttons supposed to do and if the water is automatic at what watching eye must I wave to get it to flow.  And if it is not automatic, where is the knob, button, switch, lever, or device that will cause it to flow.  So for me, this passage hit home with a pleasant sort of recognition.  And, of course, it is one of those things that you would never in a million years want to ask anyone about.  Can you see calling down to the front desk and asking for someone to come up and show you how the toilets and faucets work?

On my first trip to Dublin I stayed at a hotel where I finally had to ask the clerk downstairs how to keep the power on in the room.  There was this slot that I had discovered that if you ran your room key through it lit up the lights for about thirty seconds.  I figured that there was then some secret master switch I needed to find during that thirty seconds or so of light.

Ah no, I was just to leave my room key in the slot.  Once I knew the secret, I thought it elegant and simple.  How many times do I leave a room with the lights on so wastefully simply because turning them off and finding one's way back to the door could be so cumbersome.  So here, just as one enters or exits the room, a place to keep your key.  You'll always know where it is upon entering or exiting.  Very, very nice. 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Advice for would-be writers


Jewish Fiction in America

D. G. Myers discusses Ezra Brudno's The Fugitive

The Seafarer

Son announced that he had just read the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer" ( in a translation quite similar to this one).

Being 11he said, it was interesting.  I asked him if he had read it aloud.  He naturally responded no.  Now I won't go off on my diatribe on poetry as a spoken as well as a written art and how every poem should be heard as well as read and that poetry demands reading aloud (oops, I just did).  But I did ask him to read it aloud for me, and as he did so we paused every few lines and reviewed what was going on both in the "story" of the poem and in the language.  What amazed me was his very clear grasp of what the poem was about, the differences between the seafarer and the youth and why those differences occurred. 

I am convinced that if parents, teachers, or anyone would just take a little time and listen to their children reading and stop and ask them questions, we would improve education in this country 10,000% in a single year. It takes so little time, and it is time so well spent, and time lavished upon love both literary and familial.  In this kind of sharing, we share what is important, indeed foundational to many of us.  He loved it, and I loved it, and I was able to revisit (in quite a different language) what I had read so many years ago in my Anglo-Saxon classes (so much of which is completely lost to me now.)

Author's Choice

More lists

Literary Saloon gives a Dutch list of the best books of the decade

And the Guardian gives us a list of authors' favorite books of the decade

What is interesting here is to see Jonathan Franzen's entertaining, but hardly magnificent The Corrections set amongst first class works such as Atonement, The Plot Against America, and Snow.  Franzen's book was competent, well composed, entertaining, and unfortunately by the nature of what Mr. Franzen decided to do with the material utterly trivial.  The Plot Against America brought me back to Roth for the first time in decades and made me wonder what I had been missing. 

Also notable is the presence of The Kindly Ones on this list.  A highly controversial work, I started it once and got about 50 pages into it before I decided that I needed to table it and wait until I had the leisure to devote to it and really read through it.  It is decidedly not a book to be consumed in 5 to 10 page segments throughout a day, week, month.

I was also interested to see Out Stealing Horses, a book I just recently picked up, on the Guardian List.  As well, it is notable that The Road made the Guardian list of favorite twice.  I don't think The Road would be my favorite, though I suspect that it would be in the top five.  For me, if I had to choose one book, and I'm not quite certain of the copyright, so I may be out of the Decade a little, I'd choose A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  On the other hand, were I to choose my favorite book that I've read in the past 10 years, it would likely be The Golden Bowl by Henry James.  Each is, in its own way, a book of fine and elaborated complexities.  The manifestation of these complexities is different and to different purpose--but The Golden Bowl still transfixes me with images of faces swimming out of a ghostly dark--my impression while reading it was that only Ingmar Bergman could do it justice were it to be filmed.  If I can find it again, Edith Wharton's reaction to The Golden Bowl is priceless, and nicely summarized my own bemusement upon finishing.  But it is a book that grows powerfully in the memory and powerfully in the reconsideration of it.