Sunday, February 28, 2010

Visiting the Glass Family (again)

"Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?"

This is a (late) memorial/composite review of Nine Stories; Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction; and Franny and Zooey. The other reviews offer a lot, I just wanted to add some more thoughts because Mr. Salinger's death motivated me to re-visit his works and because his writing has impacted my life more than any other single author it's appropriate that my first review of his works.

There's a tension in Salinger's work between "worldly" knowledge (phony-ness) and (proper)wisdom. Franny's crisis in F&Z is motivated by her frustration that college is about "knowledge" and not at all about wisdom. Salinger's characters are all critical of superficial knowledge and in love with deep, enlightened wisdom. If someone were going to try to generalize (a phony exercise to be sure; but let me be a little phony for second) Salinger's work, there's a progression from Holden (who is critical of everyone around them and their superificial-ness) to Franny and Zooey (who are ciritical of everyone around them, but are trying to find an "end" for which there criticism is a means) to Seymour (the paradigmatic enlightened one).

One thing that makes a good writer is their way to keep tension alive. For Salinger, this tension between the superficial and the enlightened is deeply embedded. The Glass's love notwithstanding, Seymour's purported enlightenment should be regarded with a grain of salt. If anyone viewed Seymour objectively, they would have to regard him as a crazy person: he throws a rock at Charlotte; he leaves Muriel waiting at the altar; finally he shoots himself. Is Seymour more enlightened than everyone else, or is the tension between detached wisdom and attached worldliness expressed more strongly in Seymour than any of Salinger's other characters?

Salinger dedicates Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by invoking the amateur reader (if there is one left in the world). I think Salinger probably regarded with disdain the professional reader. I think if I write anymore I run the risk of writing a review now amateur enough and too professional. Insofar as this review was too "professional", Mr. Salinger, I apologize.

"Against my better judgment I feel that somewhere very near here--the first house down the road, maybe--there's a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody's having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can't be running back and forth forever between grief to high delight."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Brethren by Bob Woodward & Scott Armstrong

The chaos of his first half term gave [John Paul] Stevens reason to pause. At conferences the Chief read verbatim from clerks' memos and tried to avoid committing himself to a position until the last minute. Brennan's bitterness at the direction of the court's decisions made him a voice crying in the wilderness....Stewart was hard-working but distracted. Marshall parroted Brennan. Blackmun was tormented and indecisive, searching for a way to duck issues or narrow the opinion as much as possible. Rehnquist was clearly very intelligent and hard-working but too right wing. His willingness to bend previous decisions to purposes for which they were never intended was surprising, but Stevens also liked Rehnquist. Powell seemed the most thoughtful, the best prepared, and the least doctrinaire. White was the most willing to discuss an issue informally before it was resolved, but he could become unnervingly harsh. The absence of intellectual content or meaningful discussion at conference was the most depressing fact of court life. Stevens thought that the nation's highest Court picked its way carelessly through the cases it selected. There was too little time for careful reflection. The lack of interest, of imagination and of open-mindedness was disquieting.

I found The Brethren both fascinating and troubling. The book offers an in depth look at the Supreme Court from 1969 to 1975. Woodward and Armstrong did a fantastic job at getting behind the scenes, mostly talking to former clerks, and tell the story of each term. The start of the book deals with the Court's transition from the Warren Court to the Burger Court when both Earl Warren and Abe Fortas retire. Nixon appoints Warren Burger, as Chief Justice, and Harry Blackmun to take their places (which made the lineup Burger, Blackmun, William O. Douglas, Bill Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Steward, John Marshall Harlan II, Byron White and Hugo Black).

From there the story tracks the ongoing struggle to control the Court's direction. The Warren Court was famous for championing civil rights, most notably the Brown v. Board decisions, and generally had more liberal leanings. Burger's appointment, however, was intended to put the Court on a more conservative course, though I don't think it was as successful as Nixon would have hoped. Burger, especially, was a poor choice, at least according to The Brethren. Consider the following passage:

...Potter Stewart knew what it meant to be a Chief Justice. A Chief must be a statesman, a master of the Court's internal protocols, able to inspire, cajole and compromise, a man of integrity, who commanded the respect of his colleges. But, most of all, a Chief Justice had to be a student of the nation's capital, able to see the politically inevitable, willing to weigh the Court's destiny against other Washington institutions.... Warren Burger was none of these things. He was a product of Richard Nixon's tasteless White House, distinguished in appearance and bearing, but without substance or integrity.

Over and over, Woodward and Armstrong give examples of Burger being an incompetent buffoon at best, a disingenuous threat to justice at worst. At one point they just come out and say it: "The Justices found themselves entering the clerks' longstanding debate: Was the Chief evil or stupid?" To be fair, my impressions are based totally on the picture that the authors paint, but my impression is that Burger did not have the intellectual or diplomatic chops to be an effective Chief. One of the most important jobs the Chief has is determining which justice writes each opinion, if he is in the majority. If the Chief is not in the majority, the senior justice in the majority assigns the opinion. Apparently Burger would consistently withhold his vote (traditionally at conference the Chief votes first) so that he could side with the majority and assign the opinion, even going so far as to change his vote later so that he could assign (this might not seem like such a big deal, but the book details the significant effect that the author of an opinion can have). His clerks did most of his work for him and he could not even be counted on to read a several page summary of cert petitions, requiring his clerks to distill them down to one page and highlighting the important parts. He was a terrible writer and struggled to understand both the issues in cases and his colleagues' positions on them.

Though Burger's failings were illuminating, the more interesting theme, at least to me, was the way that he drove the Court to the left. Before I started reading this book I had always gotten the impression that both the Warren and Burger Courts were pretty liberal while the Rehnquist court was more conservative. I mean, the Burger Court's most famous decision is Roe (you've probably heard of it. it's about fundamental rights). But turns out Burger himself did everything he could to be right in step with Nixon. Nixon's next two appointees (Blackmun and Powell), however, became pivotal centrist votes, and Brennan was certainly pleased to have them move his way. When Blackmun was appointed, people called him Burger's "Minnesota twin" because they both grew up there and everyone anticipated Blackmun to follow Burger's lead when it came to deciding cases, but Burger's style and Brennan's coaxing brought him further and further left (Blackmun wrote the Roe opinion, for example). Not until Nixon put Rehnquist on the Court did Burger have another sure thing conservative vote. This struggle climaxed during the writing of United States v. Nixon. In this case, the Court decided that Nixon must turnover the Watergate tapes, but the reasoning was almost as important as the ruling itself. Burger assigned the case to himself and basically did a crappy and deceitful job of it, which prompted the other justices to mutiny and take the opinion from him, piece by piece.

That was the fascinating part. The troubling part was getting a view into how many cases were ultimately decided. Often the principles and legal arguments did not carry as much weight as maneuvering and bargaining among the justices and whatever personal agenda prevailed. I guess it shouldn't be so surprising (I certainly got the impression that the Court often made things up as it went along when I took Con Law) and it might just be the only way to do things, but for someone who wants to respect the Court and desires it to be a bastion of truth and reason even when it decides a case the other way, this realization was a little disappointing. Nevertheless, this was a great book and I encourage you all (especially you current and future law students out there) to read it.

Back in the day, the Justices got to watch a lot of porn. Didn't even need the internets.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans

Against Nature is an odd little book. Its author, J.K. Huysmans, was a disciple of Zola, whose Naturalist school produced works of stark realism, chronicling the life of the working class. Huysmans eventually rebelled against the Naturalists, and headed in exactly the opposite direction. The hero of Against Nature (A rebours, in French), Jean Floressas Des Esseintes, is a wealthy aesthete who decides that he has had enough of the banality of modern society, and retreats to a small and peculiar mansion outside of Paris to live in isolation, leading the life of the mind.

Des Esseintes' philosophy can be summarized thusly: The era of Nature is over, and the artifice of a learned man can improve upon it in every way. To this end, Des Esseintes spends his time in strange pursuits, creating a hothouse of fake flowers and then, bored with that, a hothouse of real flowers that look fake. At one point, having become obsessed with the work of Dickens, he plans a trip to London, but having stopped on the way at an English restaurant in Paris, realizes that the artificial sensation of being in England has brought him as much satisfaction as he desires, and heads immediately back home.

Everything I've read about Against Nature suggests that Des Esseintes is a thinly veiled version of Huysmans himself. Much of this, I imagine, comes from the fact that the book is replete with dry, lengthy discussions of literature, art, and music which seem like the author's vain rambling. And to be sure, many of Huysmans' successors took Against Nature at its word, including Wilde, who refers obliquely to the book in A Picture of Dorian Gray. It's easy to see why Des Esseintes would become a guiding light for the aesthetes, since he spends so much of his time trying to make sure the colors of his walls are appropriate and matching (seriously, there are pages and pages of this), and yet it's hard for me to believe that Huysmans sees in Des Esseintes a paragon of humanity.

First and foremost, Des Esseintes' philosophy is frequently cruel. In the book's most famous episode, he has a jeweler inlay the carapace of a tortoise with gold and jewels, so that he might have a sort of mobile objet d'art. One night, he wakes up from a nightmare to find the tortoise dead:

He got to his feet to break the horrid fascination of his nightmare vision, and coming back to present-day preoccupations he felt suddenly uneasy about the tortoise.

It was lying still absolutely motionless. He touched it; it was dead. Accustomed no doubt to a sedentary life, a modest existence spent in the shelter of its humble carapace, it had not been able to bear the dazzling luxury imposed upon it , the glittering cape in which it had been clad, the precious stones which had been used to decorate its shell like a jewelled ciborium.

In another episode, Des Esseintes recalls a time in which he (thankfully unsuccessfully) devised a plan to turn a young boy into a murderer by bankrolling his expenses at a brothel until he became addicted, and then cutting off his patronage, forcing the boy to turn to drastic measures. It is difficult to read this in a way that does not suggest Des Esseintes' philosophy taken to its most extreme ends, triumphing over Nature but replacing it with a particularly grisly sort of Artifice. It's no wonder that certain rooms in Des Esseintes' home are decorated with Jan Luyken's engravings of religious suffering, or that he expounds his fascination with the sadistic element of Catholicism. It's possible that the the Aesthetes and Decadents may not have been repulsed by this, but it seems impossible that Des Esseintes, having appeared in 1884, would have gathered the same kind of following in Europe after World War I.

In any case, I think many of Against Nature's readers have overstated the parallels between Huysmans and Des Esseintes. Perhaps Huysmans sympathized with Des Esseintes' desire to escape a mediocre world, but his haven is ultimately unsustainable. Having begun to have olfactory hallucinations--imagining smells that are not there--and becoming weaker and weaker, Des Esseintes' doctors force him to return to the company of men. In the end, his disconnect from Nature nearly kills Des Esseintes, and he miserably ponders the only cure:

'In two days' time I shall be in Paris,' he told himself. 'Well, it is all over now. Like a tide-race, the waves of human mediocrity are rising to the heavens and will engulf this refuge, for I am opening the flood-gates myself, against my will. Ah! but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me!'

Rocky by Julia Sorel

It's late and I'm tired and I don't want to give this book any more credit than it deserves (which is none), so I'm going to keep this fairly short and sweet. I got this book at the used book store for $3 because it was short and looked terrible. I was right. It's been a long time since I've seen the movie, so I can't exactly remember how true the "book" (using that term loosely) was to it. I mean, if you're going to watch a Rocky movie, why would you not watch Rocky IV, the best movie ever made? But anyway, I do know that Ms. Sorel skipped/changed some of the best parts. For example, you know the scene from Rocky II where the kids follow him running through the neighborhood, chase him to the top of the stairs and dance around him? how wonderfully hokie was that? well, she adds that scene to this book, except instead of them catching him and an impromptu mosh pit breaking out, he loses them. Lame. Also, the writing was terrible. I might come back and give examples later, but frankly there were just so many. So yeah, don't read this book. It's not even worth the ego boost you get from knowing that your writing is head and shoulders above Ms. Sorel's.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Super Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

I should've known I wouldn't really like this book after I read the first line on the cover written all in caps:

Blah, blahblahblah, b-blah.

At least in this one I wasn't forced to read as a header to every chapter how ridiculously full of himself and his multiple accomplishments Steven Levitt is, Mr. "I was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, awarded to the most influential economist in the history of the universe under the ripe old age of forty". And I personally am over forty by the way, and that-is-not-young-by-any-standard. Hell, if you're a man you're already past middle age by that time. Practically on death's door for crying out loud. Get over yourself already man.

Their desire for the almighty dollar and their own ideas on politics came shining through. I thought I'd be reading an unbiased account of the "facts". Apparently they didn't even check those. Isn't that what economists are supposed to do? Get to the very bottom of an issue. To the truth? After all, do numbers and statistics lie? I guess I was expecting more than bathroom reading material from this one.
Double ew-ew!

I did learn something though, economists are like emergency room doctors - they think they know everything about everything. I bet people are just lining up to talk to them at parties.

Or running in the other direction.

After reading this, it's not hard for me to guess which I'd do. But you decide for yourself. I'm just a regular old American who still plans on using her carseat and recycling regardless of what their "facts" say.

But then again, I haven't won any awards other than The Most Mischievous at girls camp.
2 stars

Monday, February 22, 2010

No Less Than Victory: a Novel of World War II

...This was a holy war, more than any other in history, this war has been an array of the forces of evil against those of righteousness. It had to have its leaders, and it had to be won - no matter what the sacrifices, no matter what the suffering to populations, to materials, to our wealth - oil, steel, industry - no matter what the cost was, the war had to be won. In Europe, it had to be won.
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

Too bad this was the most compelling part of this book. This was my sixth or seventh book by Shaara and I usually like them a lot. His (and his father's) Civil War books are among my favorite, and I've liked some of his others, but for some reason this one kinda fell flat.

Shaara's style is to follow several people's (some one each side) stories throughout the war. The books are written like novels, but I believe they are based as much as possible on true accounts. I think what made this one a little less magical than the Civil War books was that in the Civil War ones you really got a good idea of each man's personality and character and you got a glimpse of real heroes (like Joshua Chamberlain, a college professor from Maine who started the war commanding 20 men and ended the war as a general. At Gettysburg Chamberlain held the Union's left flank and it is not an exaggeration to say that he had a huge part in winning the war). In this book, Shaara spends a lot of time on the commanders, who spend most of their time (in the novel) bitching about each other and not making many strategic decisions. Of course, battlefield tactics were much more important during the Civil War, so the generals had much more of a hands on effect, which was predictably more compelling. Shaara also profiles a couple of infantrymen, but their story was mostly retreating through the snow, trying not to starve or freeze. Not that they weren't heroic, they just didn't have as much impact as the soldiers in other books.

In the end it wasn't bad, but another thing I loved about Shaara's other books was how much I learned, while in this the afterword had the vast majority of any useful information. I would recommend it if you like Shaara's books and have a lot of time on your hands (especially if you read the first two WWII installments at the same time; the fact that it's been at least a year since I read the second one might have been why I didn't enjoy it as much. oh well).

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

"The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid this price for its privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself."

The Corrections is intense, well written and although more than 600 pages, it is so compelling that it becomes a fairly quick read. This book has been reviewed twice by both Brent Waggoner and

Chris Chilton, each making references to Carlton. I don't have anything further to add to their reviews, except that I enjoyed the book and was only occasionally made uncomfortable by the numerous sexual situations. Wikipedia has this to say about the book, and the drama surronding its fame, "The Corrections soon became one of the decade's best-selling works of literary fiction."

""So, what, you got cigarette burns, too?" Gitanes said. Chip showed his palm, "It's
nothing." "Self-inflicted. You pathetic American." "Different kind of prison" Chip said. "

Saturday, February 20, 2010

5 Quick Reviews

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson - Found this book in one of the community bookcases here at the Peace Corps office and decided to check it out because I remember Billy reading it and enjoying it when we were in Europe. I expected it to be a little bland, as I'm not a particularly out-doorsy type person, but I thoroughly enjoy the book. Bryson has a fantastic sense of humor and managed to make me laugh out loud a number of times. After reading this I thought about how awesome it would be to hike the Appalachian Trail one day but then quickly remembered I'd rather just play golf and watch football.

Women by Charles Bukowski - Man... Bukowski is something else. Though the main character has a different name (Henry Chinasky), it seems pretty clear that this book is essentially about Bukowski's own sex life. And man-oh-man is he one repulsive S.O.B. -- That said he is highly readable and makes a lot of clever observations about life and the way people treat each other. While he's a little more pessimistic than I am about human nature, I found myself agreeing with him more often than I would have liked to. I'll also say that I don't find him to be particularly misogynistic, as I've heard some claim, because he seems to have an equal distaste for both genders.

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis - More and more I find myself enthralled with the study of history, particularly early American history. I devoured a biography of Benjamin Franklin and I found Founding Brothers to be just as interesting. Ellis focuses on different aspects of the lives of Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Burr, and Washington and manages to present them in vignettes that read like short stories rather than a textbook. I would very much like to get my hands on Ellis' The American Sphinx about Thomas Jefferson. After that I need to find a good Washington biography. I found it interesting that the American Cincinattus was as revered by his contemporaries as he is by their ancestors.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke - Many thanks to Nathan for sending me this novel from home. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's sort of a harry-potter-with-adults type book. Set in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, magic is a known force in the world but has since faded from use and considered only in historical terms. The novel focuses on the two titular magicians who bring magic back into practical use and the events that befall them after the fact. I particularly enjoyed the structure of the novel. It's written almost like a historical text, complete with footnotes used to elaborate on historical anecdotes merely touched upon in the main text. I think they're adapting this into a film this year.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - I don't really know how I feel about Heart of Darkness, obviously its the most critically acclaimed of the five books here, but I also found it to be the most disjointed. I will say that it made me appreciate the film Apocalypse Now that much more, as I found it to basically be a more interesting version of a similar story. I guess overall I was just off-put by Conrad's writing style and structure of the narrative as a whole. I will say that I didn't find it to be particularly racist as I've read in some criticisms.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Gods, my gods! How sad the earth is at eventide! How mysterious are the mists over the swamps. Anyone who has wandered in these mists, who has suffered a great deal before death, or flown above the earth, bearing a burden beyond his strength knows this. Someone who is exhausted knows this. And without regret he forsakes the mists of the earth, its swamps and rivers, and sinks into the arms of death with a light heart, knowing that death alone...

The Master and Margarita is one of those books whose fame comes partly from being discovered too late. Bulgakov was a famed playwright in Soviet Russia, and in the twelve years prior to his death he labored over this book, knowing completely that it wouldn't be published in his lifetime. It wasn't published until the 1960s, and today is one of the hallmarks of 20th century Russian literature.

The Master and Margarita is a rich, Faustian satire about the devil appearing in Moscow. He calls himself Woland, and begins by interrupting a conversation between an editor and a poet about the existence of Christ. After the conversation ends, the editor has been beheaded and the poet driven nearly into madness. This is just the first step--the book's first half chronicles the various and sundry ways that Woland causes havoc in Moscow, inducing death, madness, arson, and imprisonment, mostly in the city's literary and dramatic community. Most of these antics are performed by his retinue, which include a naked witch and a talking cat named Behemoth (which is totally what I'm going to name a cat, if I ever get one).

The titular characters don't appear until about halfway through the book: The Master, who has been arrested for writing a novel about Pontius Pilate, and Margarita, who desperately loves the Master. In exchange for returning the Master to her, Margarita agrees to become a witch and serve as the hostess for Satan's grand ball, which is as colorful as you might imagine. Interspersed are chapters of the Master's book about Pilate.

It's clear why the Soviet powers wouldn't have found The Master and Margarita acceptable. For one, religious subjects were taboo in atheistic Russia. Secondly, much of the havoc caused by Woland is a sly jab at the reigning policies of censorship and imprisonment. In this respect, Woland and his crew serve both as a symbol and its opposite. Though it is they who nearly destroy Moscow's literary elite, it is also Woland who saves the Master's manuscript about Pilate. The Master, regretting the trouble it has caused him, tries to burn it, but Woland reproduces it, quipping that "Manuscripts don't burn"--apparently now a rather well-known phrase in Russian. Here is the implication--the hope?--that authors survive in their works, something Bulgakov must have clung to in the face of a terminal disease. The book is largely comic, but also bittersweet, and the paragraph I've quoted above is one of the last that Bulgakov wrote. It expresses his exhaustion and frustration, and though he leaves the paragraph unfinished it is simple enough to imagine that the sentiment is "death alone can calm him." I don't know if death brought Bulgakov calm, but one hopes that he would have felt validated by The Master and Margarita's publication and subsequent popularity.

What is God? by Jacob Needleman

And suddenly, incomprehensibly, all at once, despite the heavy summer air that always absorbs most of the starlight – suddenly, as if by magic, the black sky was instantly strewn with millions of stars. Millions of points of light. Millions of worlds. Never, before or since, have I seen such a night sky, not even in remote mountains on clear nights. It was not simply that my eyes had become normally adjusted to the darkness; is was as though an entirely new instrument of seeing has all at once been switched on within me.

In What is God? Jacob Needleman, Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University explores this timeless question. Needleman emerged from years of philosophical training at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany with little more than bored distain for the classical texts of the Judeo-Christian philosophical tradition. However, an unsettling meeting with the venerated Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki combined with his acceptance of a position teaching those very texts to undergraduates forced Needleman to reexamine his dismissal of Jewish and Christian thinkers.

Needleman does indeed convey to the reader a certain mysterium tremendum he developed through the study of Jewish, Christian and Eastern Scriptures. However, he saves much of his excitement for the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher, who argued that that people cannot perceive reality in their current state because they do not possess consciousness but rather live in a state of a hypnotic “waking sleep.” In this light, much of What is God? could be thought of as Needleman’s record of his “waking” from an “atheistic” existence to the realization that “the lives we were intended for, the very nature of the human experience must change, including the very structure of our perception and, indeed, the very structure of our minds.” This may well be the case but Needleman fails to offer the reader the how/where/when/ or even the why this must happen. Toward the end of the book he writes as length in a sort of philo/psycho-babble that proves impenetrably opaque. It is in this aspect that What is God? is most disappointing. Needleman certainly goes a long way toward offering the reader a sense of the numinous but fails to offer any idea as to how one should respond.

What is God? is an important question and worth more exploration that western culture currently places on its exploration. Needleman, however, does much to excite one’s passion, but little to advance one’s knowledge on the subject.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Remarkable Creatures - Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species by Sean B. Carroll

Sooo.....we did evolve from apes. I knew it! That explains so many things, all the hair in unusual places, the urge to groom my husband, why my youngest hangs on me like a monkey.

Carroll includes a quote on the last page of his new book, talk is cheap, exploration and discovery is hard. Boy, oh boy is that true! Some people are just born to find stuff. Some people are just pre-made to tackle decades of dealing with sunburns, throwing up, fire ant bites, fevers, sea-sickness, more throwing up, starvation, bitter cold, gale force winds, spear-holding natives, being buried in sandstorms, and sore bums from riding donkeys. But I don't know, being the first to set foot in unexplored wilderness, places no humans have tread in thousands of years, if at all, may make it worth it. Just maybe...

A great group of mostly men (and a few briefly mentioned women - Mary Leakey), some tiny men (Darwin), some Indiana Jones types (Roy Chapman Andrews), and some nerdy, but cute multiple Nobel Prize winning scientists (Linus Pauling) are included along with several others in this book. I learned a lot of things I didn't know about some the greatest explorers of the last centuries. What trials they went through to make their discoveries. What great determination!

After reading this I felt a great urge to marry a determined explorer and let him take all the credit for my discoveries, maybe take up rock collecting again, or visit the nearest fossil beds, as I live in Idaho and there are a lot of past tense creatures buried around here, not including our current state political leaders....


Read this book if you are the least bit interested in science, you've always wanted to discover something new, and if you've ever in your life hit a rock with a hammer with hopes of finding a diamond inside.

Just be sure to wear protective glasses if you do that.
Trust me, I know.
4 stars.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole

The story of John Kennedy Toole is a pretty infamous one: In 1969, Toole committed suicide by connecting a garden hose to his exhaust pipe through the window of his car. In 1980, after pressing upon author Walker Percy, Toole's mother succeeded in publishing a novel that Toole left behind. In 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for that novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.

But Toole left behind another manuscript: a novel he had written in 1954, at the age of seventeen, called The Neon Bible. Toole's mother, who had been so adamant about publishing Confederacy, fought the rest of his family to keep The Neon Bible from public eye, an effort which failed with her death.

The introduction--a sort of bitter defense penned by Toole's literary executor, who promised Toole's mother he would prevent the publication--does not say why she was so reticent to give up The Neon Bible, but perhaps it was because the woman who saw so much genius in her son's second novel realized the first was pretty mediocre.

The Neon Bible opens with a young man on a train, his first time. This gets him thinking about trains:

But I had a train of my own. It was a toy one I got for Christmas when I was three. That was when Poppa was working at the factory and we lived in the little white house in town that had a real roof you could sleep under when it rained, and not a tin one like the place on the hill that leaked through the nail holes too.

This clumsy segue leads to a long story about the man's upbringing in a small Louisiana valley town, and the struggles of his impoverished family. The narrative tracks the way that, as he grows up, he becomes increasingly aware of the damaging effect by the town's preacher and religious establishment, which scrutinizes his family--especially his eccentric Aunt Mae--and generally antagonizes all individuality and creativity. The neon bible sits on top of the local church, its color and brightness serving as a stark contrast for the darkness beneath.

To discover in The Neon Bible the seeds of what made Confederacy so fantastic requires deep digging. The philosophical streak of Ignatius Reilly is non-existent; Boethius, for instance, makes no appearances. The broad, pointed comedy that makes Reilly so over-the-top here is veiled by youthful earnestness. Take, for instance, Toole's description of the local grade school teacher:

Mr. Farney was different from the other people in the valley. I heard he was from Atlanta, but that wasn't why he was different. It was the way he acted that made him strange. He didn't walk the way other men did. He walked more like a woman who swayed her hips.

This may surprise you, but I believe Mr. Farney is a homosexual. I say veiled, but only in the sense that Toole chooses to view everything through the lens of a child--not that it is in any way subtle. In fact, The Neon Bible seems to be an exercise in unsubtlety. We might charitably call it earnestness. But Toole's style here reminds one of Picasso, who only felt free to twist his figures into Cubism when he had mastered the realist form.

Of course, it's barely fair to criticize the effort of a seventeen-year old, but there are so many wonderful things to say about Confederacy that Toole's legacy seems safe. Unfortunately, The Neon Bible is vastly more interesting as an artifact than a novel, and serves as a valuable lesson regarding the publication of the works of the deceased, both in controversies past, like Nabokov's, and possible, like Salinger's. Moreover, it is a lesson for the aspiring writer that first novels don't have to be masterpieces.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton

Syme had for a flash the sensation that the cosmos had turned exactly upside down, that all trees were growing downwards and that all stars were under his feet. Then came slowly the opposite conviction. For the last twenty-four hours the cosmos had really been upside down, but now the capsized universe had come right side up again.

G. K. Chesterton is one of those writers I'd always meant to read but somehow never got around to. There's not much excuse for it--he's very accessible, has written dozens of books, most of which are now in the public domain, and The Man Who Was Thursday received rave reviews from both Chris and Carlton, which finally pushed me over the edge.

Thursday starts out like a philosophical novel, with a confrontation between two poets in a park. One of them, Gregory, is an anarchist; the other, Syme, is not. After a verbal battle in which Syme accuses Gregory of not being a true anarchist, Gregory takes Syme on a bizarre tour of the London underground to prove his commitment to his ideology, culminating in an anarchist election, where Syme becomes the titular Thuursday. What happens at the election and afterwards is complex and full of spoilers, but without giving anything too important away, Syme eventually meets the head anarchist, Sunday, and his board of weekday-monikered directors.

It's hard to say much about the plot of Thursday without spoiling it, which wouldn't be as big of a deal if the book weren't so well-plotted. There are compelling philosophical questions at the heart of the novel, but it plays out like an absurd comedy until a surprisingly touching final act. The questions of chaos vs order and good vs evil are present but the ultimate question the novel poses is less obvious and, again, too much of a spoiler to mention here.

I'd love to do more in-depth analysis but a) I'm not sure I have any great insights and b) it would only decrease the enjoyment that anyone reading this review would get from the book. It's free, it's short, it's funny. Read it.