09 February 2011

Weekly Book Review (Vacation Megapack): "Country Driving", "Cato", "Life Before Man", "Brother One Cell", "Lolita", "Catch Me If You Can", "Baudolino", "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", "Redburn", "The Quiet American", "The Hound of the Baskervilles", "Oryx and Crake", "Broke", "Jitterbug Perfume", "Black Hawk Down", "Mere Christianity", "Sons and Lovers", "Microserfs", "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage", "Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry", "Les Miserables", and "A Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Mecca".

This mega-edition of my book reviews comes on the heels of a three-week vacation in which I did a lot of reading.

Country Driving, Peter Hessler

This book, by a long-time journalist reporting from China, is divided into three parts: an account of Hessler's long trips by car following the length of the Great Wall; the story of his life in a small Chinese village and experiences with a local family; and the account of the rise of a new factory dedicated to producing bra rings.

Let's just start off honestly: Peter Hessler is a boring man. His account of his car trip was not interesting. Faithfully, he reports the events and the details, but without the discretion to discern that his snack-food consumption is not the most riveting of topics. I was happy when he recounted how the hostility of local authorities had forced him to abandon his plan - because the end of his trip meant I no longer had to soldier irritably on through his pedantry. The only part that stood out in this first section was his discussion of the rental company - state-owned and careless and funny.

But as Hessler moved in the next two parts on to discuss his time leasing a house in a tiny village (less than two hundred people) and the founding of a factory, the book becomes not just interesting, but downright intriguing. Hessler is perfectly fluent in Chinese and has a firm grasp on both his own culture and that of China. And as long as he doesn't talk about himself, he has a lot to say.  He chooses his words carefully and is a good observer, and he doesn't try to lever in an unwarranted theme or conclusions.  It's very organic, and the second and third part of the book make it worthwhile.  Read it for a taste of modern China, and pray that you never get stuck next to Hessler at a dinner party.


Cato, Joseph Addison

A decisive influence on the Founding Fathers - Washington in particular - but only moderately interesting in its own right. It goes to some efforts to duplicate the pompous righteousness of antiquity but lacks the polish of centuries to justify its lofty moralizing.

Taking place in Africa after Caesar's victory in Pharsalia, the play follows some minor intrigues around the few remaining members of the Roman Senate who still opposed the victorious conquerer - Cato being the most prominent. The sullen hero of the Republic is given the character of a giant in the play, held up as the sum of all men by everyone around him. Indeed, the breathless praise of Cato is so vigorous that the actual character seems a little wanting - but then, who could live up to praise like that of the barbarian Prince Juba, who is entranced by Cato's glory?

To strike thee dumb: turn up thy eyes to Cato!
There may'st thou see to what a godlike height
The Roman virtues lift up mortal man,
While good, and just, and anxious for his friends,
He's still severely bent against himself;
Renouncing sleep, and rest, and food, and ease,
He strives with thirst and hunger, toil and heat;
And when his fortune sets before him all
The pomps and pleasures that his soul can wish,
His rigid virtue will accept of none.

The play served for many of the Founding Fathers and for Washington in particular as an example of republican virtue. It's no longer performed, probably because it's fairly predictable and pompous. But it's also short, and if you wish to see the source of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death!" and other words of the American Revolution, you should check it out.


Life Before Man, Margaret Atwood

One of the "unhappy family" books, this one tells the story of an estranged couple who have quietly accepted their own break and found solace in the arms of a series of lovers, only to find their routine of quiet desperation broken up by nasty scenes (of loud desperation) as they each find lovers who actually have meaning for them. One of these lovers is a third main character, while the other commits suicide: the strange future of divorce swells from the former and a bleak punishment results from the latter.

The couple engage in a bitter and dignified contest to be the wronged proper: to the best of their abilities and respective talents at manipulation, they try to present themselves as the battered victim after every conflict. The wife, a broken and controlling woman, emerges as a villain of astonishing darkness in her emotional bludgeonings.

All in all, an excellent story about a quiet household war of attempted martyrdom, repression, and selfishness.


Brother One Cell, Cullen Thomas

I try to be a kind man, and I don't wish anyone suffering. But I honestly think that Cullen Thomas could have used a little more before he tackled a full-length memoir about his time in Korean prison.

The plot is as simple as can be: he smuggled in some hash, got caught, and went to prison for a while. He was plainly guilty, captured in a straightforward way (he signed for the package at the post office and was immediately arrested), and served a sentence almost completely free of incidents. He was treated with deference and kindness by a prison system that gives foreigners a much cushier treatment, and seldom came into any conflict. It was the kind of experience that might make for an interesting essay. Not a book.

To try to jazz it up, Thomas tries the old trick of bouncing back and forth between media res and prelude.  But when this runs dry after a couple of chapters, he's left trying to draw out a few anecdotes to fill the rest of the pages.  He discusses basketball games and work in the factory and how he prepared his instant noodles.  And all the while when you read, you can almost hear him thinking, "Okay, only 25,000 more words.  It almost looks long enough."

As a fairly self-involved fresh-from-college young man, Thomas will occasionally mention an impressive book he read or use the flimsiest pretext to wedge in a quotation from Walden.  Sometimes it sounds like a conversation with a sophomore English major or a freshman philosophy major, and it's just about as enjoyable.

Perhaps most frustrating, it's not until very near the end of the book when Thomas arbitrarily decides to rename himself "Brother One Cell," finally explaining the title.  He gives himself this title.  Yeah.

Thomas seems to have learned nothing when he leaves the prison.  You learn very little from reading his book.


Lolita, Vladimir Nabakov


Over the last year, regular readers may have noticed that I went pretty crazy for Nabakov.  I've steadily been moving through his works, poring in particular and repeatedly through The Defence and Pale Fire.  But it was Lolita that left me receptive to the others in the first place.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Lolita is about the obsession of a genteel European émigré with a teenager. He plots, seizes, holds, and loses her. And as with so much else of Nabakov's work, there is a depth that draws you in. Even beyond the major plot-point mystery that occurs halfway through the book, there are questions we ask: how reliable is Humbert Humbert as a narrator, considering his position of attempted justification and frequent periods in asylums? When he whitewashes over his moments of brutal violence, what goes unsaid? Can such an educated and intelligent man really be so dense as he occasionally appears? The ten thousand coincidences of the book: the division into three phases each totaling a perfect third of the text, the playful repetitions of themes, and so on - are these coincidences truly accidents within the text (and thus intended by Nabakov but not by Humbert) or are they creations of an unreliable pervert?

The writing is marvelous - Nabakov spends time crafting each sentence carefully, all without losing the insidious flow of narrative from the subtly deranged mind of Humbert Humbert. And Nabakov's erudition is almost frightening; his offhand allusions make me scramble.

Lolita is a masterwork, and should be mandatory.


Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale

Frank Abagnale is a likable rascal.  He works very hard, actually, at both being a rascal and being likable.  He spent years pretending to be a pilot for Pan-Am, passing bad checks, practicing as a doctor, and working as an assistant District Attorney.  Without a doubt, Abagnale is one of the best con-artists of all time.  And his story is hilarious.

The book was made into a movie, but there were only so many of Abagnale's clever scams that they could fit into the film.  The book yields so many more, and tells them in an engaging way.  And it's shallow enough to have an additional charm: Abagnale's constant reminders that no one ever got hurt.

He never swindles any individuals, he says.  He doesn't pick pockets, and when he pulls a trick that nets him thousands of dollars in private bank deposits (he scams a guard uniform and stands outside of a bank with a sign instructing people that the drop is broken and they should give him their deposits instead) he earnestly informs the reader that he returns the private money and only keeps the corporate funds.

Once, a bank teller approaches him and tells Abagnale that he doesn't have any grudges about that bad check.  He wasn't hurt by it.  "See?" We can hear Frank saying.  "I'm a good guy.  No one really got hurt.  And wasn't I clever!"

He was indeed clever.  And it's always fun to read about con-artists - there's some inner voice saying that smart people deserve to take advantage of stupid people, as long as no one really suffers.  Tom Sawyer got that fence painted.  Frank Abagnale got rich.

He gets caught, of course, and turns in his black hat for a white one.  His story and his tricks make excellent reading - and just try not to love the guy.  It can't be done.  Maybe that was his best trick: to turn himself into a nice guy.

Check it out.


Baudolino, Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco indulges in one of his favorite topics with his newest book: lies.

He once again writes of the medieval world, as in The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, telling us the story of an Italian peasant boy, Baudolino, who rises to be the adopted son of Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Great, on the strength of his lies. The story is given to us as a narrative spoken by a much older Baudolino to a refugee of a sacked Constantinople.

It's a bolder story than The Name of the Rose, which took place in an obscure corner of the monastic world. Baudolino's first half, indeed, attempts to tell a hidden story behind some of the great events of the twelfth century, attributing to his clever young protagonist the creation of the Magi relics given by Frederick to the Archbishop of Cologne as well as the peace eventually achieved with the Lombard League. The insertion of Eco's hand into history is down with a very delicate touch - rather than a Forrest Gump-like farce, we are given a plausible and realistic story of a boy with quick wits who was in only the periphery of great events.

For most people, as for myself, this is a corner of history with which they will have only a passing familiarity. The first half of the novel is a brilliant blend of personal narrative of the life of an intriguing young man and sweeping history. And all the while, we question the truth of it. For Baudolino establishes himself immediately as a "Prince of Lies" (as his skeptical listener in Constantinople labels him), and for all that his story is essentially plausible, this man whose fortune has been made by falsehood is easily labeled an unreliable narrator.

It isn't until the second half of the book, though, where we see a definite trend into the fantastic. With an abrupt transition, the story changes from a could-have-happened to a what-really-happened, as Baudolino launches on an epic quest to the east in search of the legendary Prester John. Prester John, a figure of medieval myth who supposedly ruled the ideal Christian kingdom, lies at the end of a long and bizarre journey filled with monsters and impossibilities. It's almost like a different book, as Baudolino ceases speaking of Italian treaties and papal intrigue and embarks on his strange Odyssey among cyclopses and rivers of moving stone. For a short time the reader must attempt to "interpret" the events - "What is this foolish medieval person really seeing? The unicorn must just be some kind of reindeer or something." - but in a short time this must be abandoned, and we must accept that the entire thing is a lie.

But this exploration of lies and their power dwells so heavily on its theme of falsehood's ability to inspire truth, illustrated so well in Eco's carefully portentous prose, that even after we stop trying to unmask the "real" story in this second part we're not just left with a fable. For all that Baudolino is unreliable, he is telling a true story.

Baudolino is a wonderful book, well-worthy of the accomplished Eco.  Carefully designed, well-written, and compellingly told.  If you enjoyed his previous works, you will definitely like this one.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

In one of his more pompous moments in Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway slapped down his assessment of the book that is widely regarded as Twain's masterwork:

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

While Hemingway was a voracious reader and had excellent instincts, and while Huckleberry Finn is certainly amazing, this may be overstating it a bit. Melville came before and Hemingway himself came after, and both could be justly said to have at least a smidge of talent. But while Hem may have been laying on the hyperbole a bit thick, he wasn't far off. Twain's book is amazing.

It has its flaws, of course. It's a little jolting to read, because the transitions that occur as the theme and tone change are so abrupt. The entrance and exit of the King and Duke both constitute a wrenching shift from the good-natured river story, as does the occasional side trip (Huck pretending to be a girl, Huck among the feuders). And as Hemingway noted, the bizarre turn in the book that occurs after Jim is captured is hard to swallow - it has a note of forced levity about it, like a nervous person whistling as they walk past a graveyard.

Twain has mentioned that he had some trouble writing the book, and had to pick it up and put it down again repeatedly while working on other things, so this may account for the slight turbulence. And thankfully, it's nothing like a fatal flaw. These dips in the current barely distract from Twain's elegant juggling of perspectives.

Through Huckleberry's common-sense and Twain's deadpan description, the tale of a boy and an escaped slave journeying down the Mississippi on a raft is both a rollicking good story in its own right and an insightful commentary on contemporary society. The character is just educated enough to understand the world ("All kings is mostly rapscallions.") and just naive enough to retain his morals ("But that's always the way; it don't make no difference whether you do right or wrong, a person's conscience ain't got no sense, and just goes for him anyway.")

It seems superfluous to recommend this one, so instead just let me mention the little-known fact that there are two sequels: Tom Sawyer Abroad and Tom Sawyer, Detective. In these books, Huck and Tom go around the world, have adventures, and solve mysteries. They are not very well-written, on the whole, and it surprises a lot of people to know they even exist.  The version of Tom Sawyer from these sequels was the one used for the much-derided comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore, and the film adaptation of the same name.


Redburn, Herman Melville

Before Melville was an old sea hand, spinning tales about his adventures around the world and producing Moby-Dick (which is perhaps the Great American Novel), he was a scared kid on his first voyage to sea. In Redburn, he tells the story of how he came to be on ship and what his life was like aboard. There's a very thing bit of fiction overlaid - the narrator is ostensibly one "Wellingborough Redburn" - but by and large the whole is a presentation of his experiences and views. He discusses the dashing of his expectations (he presumes kind treatment and to be invited to the Captain's table) and the sufferings undergone by the common sailor. Long hours of tedium, toil, and terror: that was Melville's lot, it seems.

Frequently, he speaks of himself with wry amusement, marveling at his own naivete. But at other times, his commentary has the dissatisfied ring of judgment about it. For readers of Moby-Dick, it's a familiar tone.

Redburn drags on at times, especially near the latter third. But perhaps the first section can carry the weight alone, for it sparkles with Melville's humor and insight. Rather less polished on the whole - or maybe just less literary - the book doesn't aspire to be more than what it is: a clever travelogue with a hint of bildungsroman. If you really like Melville, you should read it, but almost everyone else can better profit from a read (or re-read) of Moby-Dick.


The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Graham Greene's acclaimed book about the interactions between a British journalist embedded in Vietnam and a newly arrived American aid worker is much more about the protagonist, a jaded opium addict who resents the clumsy Yank - cherchez la femme. The book begins with the death of the "quiet American," and flashes back and forth between the murder investigation and the prior history between the two men.

The protagonist is actually not very interesting: selfish and bitter, his motives are perfectly clear and rather dull. But he is an excellent vehicle through which to observe the American, whose good-natured but malice-purposed blundering is rooted in a sense of honor that crashes senselessly through the real world.

The British journalist has been in-country for a long time, and when aided by his experience and his native brains, he wields devastating criticism. Limited by his cowardice, it remains unsaid, but he whips through the brashness of fellow journos and the weary deceptions of the French military. Only his own actions go essentially unchallenged: when he indulges monstrous selfishness by using every artifice to keep his teen-aged girlfriend by his side, he gives himself a pass (presumably because he's fully aware of his own villainy) but when his American rival begins to work with secret factions, he brings the full brunt of British sarcasm to bear.

The book is sharply-written and smart, with the deliberative brilliance of something that has been worked on by a conscientious writer for a very long time. It well deserves its reputation as Greene's best, and you would do well to pick it up. It's brevity doesn't demand a heavy investment of time, your returns will be ample.


The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have been reading the Sherlock Holmes mysteries with great enjoyment ever since I started them last month, beginning with A Study in Scarlet (which remains the best of them so far). This lengthy mystery is the most famous of the mysteries, adapted into film repeatedly. It's short but good, and unlike several of the Holmes stories it doesn't content itself with a single revelation at the end, but has a series of interesting twists as well as a varying style as Watson switches between fresh narration and transcribing of his diaries.

A very good mystery, worth reading.


Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood appears to specialize in writing guttingly realistic portrayals of emotional turmoil or very clever science fiction books with weaker characterization. There's almost no middle ground. Maybe she has some sort of switch that gets flipped back and forth.

I actually read the semi-sequel to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, last year. However, even though they're set during the same time and with some overlap, very little was spoiled. I might say that the ending was spoiled - a global plague wipes out all but a chosen breed of mutants - but this future event is immediately obvious from the first few chapters.

The story is not very complicated, and the main attractions are the strange character of the enigmatic Crake and the book-spanning mystery of who "Oryx" might be, as viewed through the eyes of their dim friend Snowman. It's amusing that the global apocalypse is immediately made evident, but the identity of oft-alluded-to Oryx is only discovered in the big reveal at the conclusion: this lopsided set of priorities in the mind of the narrating Snowman rings perfectly true. Along the way in the story are a wide variety of imaginative changes in the future world: vat-grown meat, megacorporations evolving into autonomous city-states, and custom-made animals. Some of the innovations of which Atwood conceives are no longer quite as impressively predictive, of course: last week, for example, a team of scientists announced they had grown pork in a vat.

Atwood is a great storyteller, and her imaginative tale of a dystopian future - or utopian, depending on your agreement with the villainous Crake - is a great read. You won't lose out if you decide to pick it up.


Broke, Glenn Beck


This intellectually bankrupt book tries to draw a parallel between modern America and other situations, such as Rome and early America, to make the argument for a minimalist state and Beck's own strange form of Mormon-based libertarianism (which is similar to other forms except that it heavily endorses Christianity). This book is terrible in a magical way, like a precious gem of dumb.

Crazed exaggerations and unfounded labels masquerade as document-supported reasoning, thanks to that magical technique of providing a citation for the non-insane portion of a half-mad sentence. Beck will declare that Margaret Sanger wanted to eliminate all minorities [footnote] and she was a progressive, so all progressives must want to eliminate all minorities. The footnote is a fig leaf behind which he conceals his pustule-studded craziness. This occurs about every other sentence.

There is the typical Founder worship and Constitution veneration, which is not wholly misplaced - the Founders were brilliant men and the Constitution is the best governing document in history - but Beck will also schizophrenically suggest ignoring it; at one point he suggests that the House should handle all spending bills and the Senate should handle all revenue bills, which is hilariously different from the Constitutional order. Does he not realize this? Does he not care? Is he just stupid? No way to tell.

So anyway, save your time and do something else besides reading this book.  Any other activity you could perform would be more productive, up to and including licking the wallpaper.


Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins

This is the fourth Tom Robbins book I've read, and I think I've learned two things:

  • It is essentially impossible to fairly and adequately summarize a Tom Robbins novel.
  • If we could harness Tom Robbins' libido, world energy demands would be completely sated (no pun intended).


As best I can say, though, Jitterbug Perfume concerns two main storylines, following the evolving lives of an immortal couple who once created the perfect perfume, and the modern-day perfumers who pursue both this fragrance and the secret of immortality. Along the way, everyone's having a whole lot of odoriferous and well-described intercourse.

If Tom Robbins is like any other author, it is Kurt Vonnegut. The two authors differ in that Robbins is much more detailed than Vonnegut. Robbins thus lacks the latter's sweeping simplicity, but somewhere between the whirlwind of clever phrasing and the blizzard of interesting factoids is a quiet spot that is very much like Vonnegut. They both have single and beautiful central ideas to their books, and they both ride those ideas hard and put them away wet.

Tom Robbins' books often benefit from a pause in the middle, to think about what has happened. If you read them all the way through, straight through, I think you lose some of the impact of the scrambling series of events. He speaks often of high emotion and great loss and extraordinary pleasure, and it can get a bit numbing without a few moments taken to reacquaint your senses with normality. His books are like a bouquet rammed right into your face; let yourself lean back sometimes away from the thorns and scent.

This is my favorite of his books so far; take a look.


Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden

I'm sure there was a story in Bowden's book, and some deeper meaning. His tale of American soldiers under fire during a disastrous raid in Mogadishu must have had a purpose. But I guessed I missed it. While harrowing and affecting in parts, the whole quickly dissolved into a tide of undifferentiated violence.

The difficulty may lie in the high casualty rate suffered by the mission. In war reporting, it's typical to try to do perspectives - to show the conflict through the eyes of just a handful of individuals. But everyone in this book gets shot. Only a few of these characters stand out as individuals (the captured soldier, the Somalis). The rest are faceless: brave soldiers labeled with one or two unique facts and soon dead in a horrible way. After a few chapters, the reader is forced to stop trying to keep track and remember them. There's seems to be little point, since no one endures to maintain an emotional connection. It's exhausting.

The writing is excellent: clipped and fast-paced, it wastes no time on pretension or style. Bowden just thrusts us into the chatter of gunfire and screams of the wounded, gauzed with the laconic detachment of the soldier. If his intention was to make the reader sick of war, he succeeds. But there was no point, no conclusion, no catharsis. At the end of the book, we've staggered through a tortured recounting of a raid that failed because of a few relatively minor mistakes, accomplished nothing in the long term, and left a grotesque trail of broken bodies and minds behind it.

Maybe this was Bowden's larger point, but I'm not sure we need him to tell us that.

It's rare I'll say this, but stick with the movie. The montages and deviations from the real events are better suited to telling a story, and you'll be spared from this bloody grind.


Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was probably the greatest Christian apologist since Augustine (if an atheist can presume to judge). His Chronicles of Narnia provide a safe and entertaining way for parents to introduce their children to the stories and morals of Christian theology, and his A Grief Observed (his introspections after his wife's death) join with this book, Mere Christianity, to provide some of the most brilliantly-written and cleverly-reasoned apologies that have ever been produced.

Mere Christianity is based on a series of BBC talks, adapted for book form. Using calm and rational reasoning, clear expression of ideas, and easily understandable examples, Lewis sets out to prove that there is a God and he is a Christian, and then explains how a Christian should act. He is clever and earthy. He also happens to be wrong.

He goes wrong, in my view, fairly early on. I guess this makes good sense: if I only disagreed with his assessment of God's views or how best to be a Christian, I could be fairly said to have been converted. And in fact I think many of his other conclusions are fairly sound; if you accept that there is a God and accept that he is the Judeo-Christian version, then most of Lewis' conclusions from those premises make sense.

Lewis argues that there must be a God because there is an innate moral law in all people, and this law must have had a source. He further argues that other aspects of our nature, such as religious awe and yearning, must also reflect a divine source.

It's a clever argument, and often used. But it's a faulty one.

The moral laws that have come to be in almost all societies are those laws that are required to have societies. Potential societies that did not evolve these laws simply dissolved - they failed to become societies, and so they do not exist.

There are no doughnut-shaped planets. That doesn't mean that there is a God who hates doughnuts, but rather that those planets that were forming up into donuts collapsed under their own weight and became spheres instead: planets can only exist in certain forms. Societies are the same way. A society that has no laws against mass-murder fails to perpetuate itself.

One good way to illustrate this is to note that there are no immutable moral laws. "Thou shalt not kill the innocent" has almost never been a real law, for example. In various places and various times, it has been perfectly fine to kill the innocent for being Muslim, a witch, a widow, and so on. If there is a divine law in our hearts, it is a very poor one.

Neither does Lewis' reasoning hold up when he argues that man's yearning for the divine implies the existence of God. In the first place, I'm not convinced that this is a universal at all (I suspect it's purely cultural), but in the second place it'd be perfectly reasonable for humans to evolve a yearning for the divine if it served to preserve the species in some bizarre way. Mother Nature preserves what works, she doesn't care about its reflections of a greater truth.

To wit, here's something weird about the human eye: the optic nerve enters in through a hole at the back of the retina. It's actually kind of an intruder in the spot where it comes in; it takes up space and prevents any light from being sensed in that bit of the eye. Human beings don't know this - looking around, there aren't any hovering gaps in your vision - because the brain engages in elaborate trickery to pretend our vision is whole. It sort of fills in the missing space with an illusion constructed from your surroundings. For some fun illustrations of this phenomenon, you can check out this page.

To me, this illustrates that human nature is not indicative of any higher order. And not because of some puerile "badly designed" snarkiness: I'm not saying that the design of our body is too poor to be the work of God (although the positioning of the prostate does seem foolish). Rather, our senses' willingness to create a continuous and elaborate lie to make our lives more comfortable and survivable shows that the way we work values utility - not ultimate metaphysical truth.

So while Lewis presents and eloquent and frequently persuasive case, and he does so in a way that is approachable and pleasant, I think he is ultimately mistaken. But regardless of your religious view, you owe it to yourself to read his efforts. It's a coward's lot to avoid an argument that might persuade you just because you're comfortable. I strongly recommend this.


Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence

You must read it.  It is a story with a simple plot: a boy is torn between his possessive mother and two other women.  But the depth cannot be sounded.

If it has a flaw, it's that it drags a little near the middle.  But this is only because of Lawrence's extraordinary ability to capture the minutiae of human interaction.  This portrayal and explanation of the bizarreness of emotions is perhaps his greatest gift.

In almost all books, relationships ring false.  This is so common - almost ubiquitous - that we seldom notice the flaw unless it's too prominent.  It's just something that we must accept and ignore, because the subtleties of the way love and hate flow are just too delicate for most authors to parse.  In books, people like those that are nice to them and hate those that are cruel, with exceptions for completely sound and sensible psychological flaws.  At its most complex, it's generally something like, "She likes nice boys really, but her father beat her, so she likes men that are mean."

There are exceptions, of course.  The great Russian writers sometimes escape this trap.  And some modern writers like Annie Proulx or Margaret Atwood do, as well.  But by and large, no one can go too deep without seeming irrational.

Lawrence goes deep, and it works.

When his characters turn in anger to someone who is being kind, or when they are scared of something innocent, or when they love some ordinary thing, you know and understand their feelings.  They're acting in strange ways and complex ways, but Lawrence's exquisite gift for the bon mot turns out every thought with such precision that we almost feel the same way.

D.H. Lawrence lays out human feelings bare, and makes us intimate with them.  This book is an essential one.


Microserfs, Douglas Copeland

My brother works for Microsoft, and has for some time.  And like anyone who follows tech news, I am at least somewhat familiar with the corporate culture and goings-on of this powerful company.  So I was eager to get into Microserfs for those reasons in addition to the already compelling fact that it was written by Douglas Copeland.  I have only recently discovered Copeland, but I enjoy him.  He's one of those writers who collects strange facts and bits of trivia, and then strings them together loosely around a central plot; he's rather like Chuck Pahluniak, only much more pleasant to read.

Copeland's story of a small group of Microsoft employees who leave to form a start-up is a shallow and fun story.  He must have done some serious research or must have been a hopeless nerd (we can spot our own) because the complaints, chatter, and lifestyle of the programmers rings quite true.  It's dated (written during the early 90s) and so a lot of the references and views are unintentionally humorous: they discuss how Apple's collapse is imminent, how 3DO is ever-so-promising, and what it's like to work at the rebellious young company Microsoft.  But these are characters fully stocked with the minds of techies, and some things remain constant.

The book is not at all challenging, and its larger themes are drawn in crayon.  But Copeland's writing is decent enough, and it has a happy ending.  In general, a fun book and one I would recommend for a casual afternoon.


Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Lord Byron

A promise: I will not use the words "Byronic hero."

This poem is the first example of Byron's famous "Byronic hero" (whoops).  The protagonist, a wealthy young man on the Grand Tour of the continent, travels from great city to great city with a running commentary that's flowing and erudite.  Harold is rather embittered by his debaucheries at home, and so when he takes ship it's with a bit of a jaded tongue.  And yet he's pensive and pleasant, often drifting into odes to what he sees:

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

It's a famous poem, and many love it.  For myself, I have always found little in Byron to connect with - his Don Juan and Vision of Heaven and Earth didn't speak to me.  I can't really put my finger on why.  But this will be the last Byron I will read for a while, I think.  I'd advise you to skip it.



Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry, T.S. Eliot

I have said of Eliot that his poetry is almost as excellent as his criticism is bad. It seems that after reading this essay, I must recant. Eliot's poetry remains excellent, and his criticism is at least mixed in quality.

My disagreements with Eliot have never been petty ones. Even when I have disagreed with him - as when he claimed that literary criticism should be essentially directed towards helping the poet improve the work - I have marveled at his cogent phrasing and excellent support. He may have been wrong, but it sure was pretty.

In his discussion of Ezra Pound, he embarks on a brilliant defense of a great poet with that same beautiful argumentation. It's very well done.

Ezra Pound suffered the ignominy of being a defender of Nazis, and that will perhaps always be the second line in any article about Pound: "The founder of Imagism and a highly influential modernist poet. Fell from grace later in life with his vocal support of Hitler and Mussolini." And that's probably just. But his poetry: ah, his poetry!

His work grew and matured as it launched from the tender details of his early Personae down to his later monumental Cantos, but it never lost its sparing and yet delicate style. He was one of the first proponents of a "just enough" philosophy in Paris, joining with Gertrude Stein and influencing Ernest Hemingway, and his discipline would always remain marvelous. To read Eliot's elegant defense and explanation of Pound's verse was a treat, since for once that grandmaster of British criticism and I are in agreement.

I would nonetheless recommend that most people skip this particular work; unless you have an especial interest in either Eliot, Pound, or literary criticism as a genre. Despite its excellent quality, it is a specialized topic and I suspect most people will find it quite uninteresting.


Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

I believe I reread this at least every year, despite its formidable length and density. And every time, I just want to start it over again immediately. It's one of my favorite books for good reasons.

The story, in broad strokes, takes places in France and centers on the ex-convict Jean Valjean. Redeemed by a saintly bishop, he becomes a wealthy man and adopts a young girl. But his past haunts him, and as his adopted daughter falls in love the chaos of the post-Restoration discord sweeps them all up.

If there was ever a book that begs for abridgment, this is it. Hugo indulges himself in lengthy chapters about completely unrelated events such as the history of Waterloo or the functions of slang in a language. Having read them all, I can fairly say that skipping them has almost no loss to the main plot. And yet, it seems like such a terrible thing to do. When I was a teenager I paused to read the foreword in the library edition, whose author is now unknown to me, and I was struck by her musings on the topic of abridgment. "It would be difficult to safely remove any part of the whole. For as dedicated readers know, it's impossible to say which part will ignite the soul with Hugo's glory."

That is truly the way of it. Hugo will happily spend forty pages discussing wallpaper, and his extended metaphors during the frequent periods of moral struggle will run into multiple chapters on their own. But removing the chapters detailing the history of the gamin street-children robs the gamin character, little Gavroche, of so much that lies behind him. Cutting out the dark contemplations of Inspector Javert might be expedient and easy, but then the depth of this complex and brutal half-villain are made shallow.

There can be no two ways about it: Hugo was self-indulgent and prolific almost to a fault. But this is a book of more than just a melody. it's a huge opera of singular grandeur. If you have the stamina and the curiosity, it is recommended.


A Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Mecca, Sir Richard Francis Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton was a rebel and an adventurer with an intelligence and style that remain unparalleled. He translated the Kama Sutra and traveled deep into Africa to find the source of the Nile. And those are only some of his most prominent achievements. He lived an active life of intrigue and brilliance, mastering languages and cultures without ever losing his dry English sangfroid. Here in his Pilgrimage, he told the story of one of his greatest adventures: his infiltration of Mecca in a hajj. He was the first European to penetrate the holy city of Islam.

Burton's story is detailed and long, with frequent sidebars and explanations of customs, history, and language. He discusses his previous experience - the year before his journey he had spend time learning the customs of the wandering "Dervaysh" people of Islam, and even had himself circumcised to further evade detection - before launching on his journey. He was attacked by bandits several times on his journey (starting from the first steamboat ride out of Egypt) but his real danger lay in the possibility of being discovered. Any one of the companions he so fondly remembers would have killed him had they learned that he was an infidel only pretending to be a Muslim in order to smuggle himself into the holiest place in "Al-Islam." He changes disguises, invents excuses, and sometimes just has to flee in order to navigate the complex world of ritual so alien to Europe.

Throughout his narrative, Burton displays his erudition with frequent references to classical and contemporary writing. Today it might be called ostentation, but it was fairly in keeping with the time, and perhaps necessary to a man who was seeing what none in his audience could have personal experience with. His casual racism also deserves some understanding, of course, even if it sometimes verges on the absurd; Burton considered himself quite the "physiogynmist", and occasionally takes pains to explain what the shape of a skull means about a person.

Burton is extremely thorough in his story, but his obvious love for what he's doing and the frequent outbreaks of rollicking adventure make his account flash by - as long as you have a serious interest in the matter. If you like travel writing or cultural studies, then definitely pick this one up. But if neither of those are particularly interesting topics for you, avoid it.

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