Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Big Book of Irony by Jon Winokur

Utah will never, ever be ironic.

Jon Winokur's The Big Book of Irony is about eight inches by five inches, and 150 pages long. I probably should have anticipated that when I put it on my Amazon wishlist, but maybe I'm not a very accomplished ironist.

I wanted to read this book because I wanted to start planning a unit on irony (and satire, parody, and comedy) for my AP English class focusing on The Importance of Being Earnest and Pride and Prejudice. The Big Book of Irony fails to make this task any simpler--Winokur obstinately refuses to support one definition of irony over another, preferring to embrace its essential undefinability.

On the other hand, for a slim book, it provides a wealth of examples that I can use, since Winokur's method is essentially to collect as many quotations and examples of irony as possible. This approach lends itself to sloppiness--for example, Winokur basically repeats identical observations on the finale of Seinfeld in separate sections, once as his own and once as a quotation from Slate's Michael Hirschorn. Elsewhere he repeats Kenneth Wilson's bizarrely mistaken claim that the separation-prone Quebecois may be offended by the name of the Vancouver Canucks (which can be considered disparaging) while their own hockey team sports the "all-Canadian name of Maple Leafs." (The Maple Leafs represent Toronto, which is in Ontario.)

But it also seems overwhelmingly comprehensive. The best parts are a section of short biographies of those Winokur considers master ironists (perhaps the only list ever compiled comprising both Jane Austen and Sarah Silverman) and a section of real-life examples of situational irony:

During the filming of an episode of TV's Homicide: Life on the Street, a fleeing shoplifter blundered onto the set, saw the show's actors with their guns drawn, dropped the loot, and surrendered to them, thinking they were actual policemen.

Winokur also includes compilations of quotations entitled "Against Irony" and "In Defense of Irony" without comment, though it's pretty clear where Winokur comes down when he makes observations like, "Brutal dictators are irony-defiicient--take Hitler, Kim Jong-il, and Saddam Hussein, a world-class vulgarian whose art collection consisted of kitsch paintings displayed unironically." On that note, I'll leave you with this actual "art" piece from Hussein's collection:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset

Under Elizabeth, the nation regained its self-confidence and sense of direction. At a time when the authority of the majority of her fellow monarchs was under threat or in decline, she upheld the interests of the Crown while not encroaching on those of her subjects, restored the coinage, and created a Church which, for all its failings, came close to being truly national. While many European countries were being rent by civil war, insurrection and appalling acts of bloodshed, she presided over a realm which (with the exception of her Irish dominions) was fundamentally stable and united. She herself was proud of the contrast between the condition of her own kingdom and that of others.

It might not be fair to compare Anne Somerset's stout biography of Queen Elizabeth I with Stacy Schiff's recent book about Cleopatra--Somerset has probably roughly a hundred times the primary source material to work with--but it is difficult to resist the temptation. Elizabeth and Cleopatra are, after all, probably the two most powerful and legendary female rulers in history. (With Catherine the Great a distant third... am I missing someone?) And while I liked Schiff's colorful account, Somerset's chronicle of Elizabeth's life seems to me to strike the perfect balance between engrossing and rigorous. Like Schiff, Somerset often leans too far in Elizabeth's favor. But as the passage above notes, Elizabeth offers much to be praised, if not lionized. She was prudent, and ably protected her nation from the financial ruin that decades of war threatened; she was shrewd, and ultimately outwitted and outlasted the host of Catholic powers--Spain, France, Rome--that demonized her and her rule; she was a great communicator, and her speech at Tilbury deserves its renown:
I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms...

Somerset is smart to let her own prose get out of the way of Elizabeth's, whose words have the power of great poetry. Being a monarch is surely a largely thankless position, but who has expressed as wonderfully as this: "Who longest draws the thread of life, and views the strange accidents that time makes, does not find out a rarer gift than thankfulness is, that is most precious and seldomest found."

But Somerset is also honest about Elizabeth's faults, which are myriad. Her shrewdness meant that she was not particularly loyal, and she felt free to break what few promises she made. She was unerringly temperamental, and though reluctant to imitate her sister "Bloody" Mary Tudor, she sent her fair share of her subjects to the Tower of London for perceived slights. Much of her authority was predicated on a delicate system of romantic gamesmanship, in which her courtiers professed a Petrarchan sort of romantic love for her. (See Raleigh's "The Ocean to Cynthia," where the Ocean is Raleigh, whose first name was pronounced as water, and Elizabeth is Cynthia, a name for the virgin goddess Diana.) These relationships, Somerset explains, cemented her courtiers' loyalty and intimacy and prospered the Queen's reputation, but they also placed the courtiers in a sort of limbo that prevented them from marrying. When they did marry, it was often in secret, and if the Queen found out, as she did in the case of her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, it meant political disgrace or, in extreme cases, a trip to the Tower.

In much the same way Elizabeth responded to the pleas of Parliament to produce an heir by maintaining a long succession of would-be husbands, none of which (to the Queen's clear delight) ever came to fruition. Such was the double-edged sword of Elizabeth's womanhood; it afforded her a kind of power over foreign governments eager to form alliances, but her unwillingness to formalize a marriage made the nation's future uneasy.

My favorite episode in Elizabeth's life, and one about which I knew very little before reading this book, is the long captivity of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was the Catholic queen of Scotland, but also Elizabeth's cousin and probable heir, which meant that she was the inspiration of innumerable rebellions and attempted rebellions who wished to depose Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Unsurprisingly, this led to an uneasy relationship between the two. Ultimately, when Mary was implicated in the scandalous murder of her husband Lord Darnley (because she, uh, married his murderer), she was forced to abdicate in favor of her son James and flee to England where Elizabeth had her arrested. For almost two decades Elizabeth held Mary prisoner, ignoring her advisers' pleas to execute her, until serious plots against Elizabeth's life forced her hand. Somerset describes Elizabeth's pains of conscience as the fruit of her stalwart belief in divine right:

She did not regret that Mary had been killed, but deplored the official nature of the deed, for even though it had been unavoidable to do violence to an anointed Queen, it would have been preferable if it had been done unwitnessed and on the sly. Much as Elizabeth had detested her cousin, she was speaking no more than the truth when she told the French ambassador in May 1587 that "this death will wring her heart as long as she lives."

The best part of the story, however, is the fact that one of the conspirators was so sure that Elizabeth's murder would be lauded by the English that he commissioned a portrait of himself and the other conspirators beforehand, making it really easy to identify the other culprits.

Somerset's biography is not made to be a best-seller; it is too thick, too dense, and too respectful of its readers' intelligence for that. (She, for example, leaves odd Latin phrases untranslated.) But it shares with Schiff's Cleopatra a clear, breezy style with a muted undercurrent of sardonicism. It's nearly three times the length of Cleopatra but I found myself being bored with the latter far more quickly. Part of that may be Somerset, but part of it may be Elizabeth, who is legendary while Cleopatra seems only a legend.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

And indeed, it cannot be denied that the most successful practitioners of the art of life, often unknown people by the way, somehow contrive to synchronise the sixty or seventy different times which beat simultaneously in every normal human system so that when eleven strikes, all the rest chime in unison, and the present is neither a violent disruption nor completely forgotten in the past. Of them we can justly say that they live precisely the sixty-eight or seventy-two years allotted them on the tombstone. Of the rest some we know to be dead though they walk among us; some are not yet born though they go through the forms of life; others are hundreds of years old when they call themselves thirty-six. The true length of a person's life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute.

Virginia Woolf's Orlando is a strange book: A sort of love letter to a married woman, in which the woman spends the first half of the book a man. Orlando, the alter ego of Woolf's friend/lover Vita Sackville-West, begins life as a boy serving in the court of Elizabeth I; later, as an ambassador to Constantinople for Charles II he suddenly becomes a she, in a scene that Woolf drags out with laborious humor:

And now again obscurity descends, and would indeed that it were deeper! Would, we almost have it in our hearts to exclaim, that it were so deep that we could see nothing whatever through it s opacity! Would that we might here take the pen and write Finis to our work! Would that we might spare the reader what is to come and say to him in so many words, Orlando died and was buried. But here, alas, Truth, Candour, and Honesty, the austere Gods who keep watch and ward by the inkpot of the biographer, cry No! Putting their silver trumpets to their lips they demand in one blast, Truth! And again they cry Truth! and sounding yet a third time in concert they peal forth, The Truth and nothing but the Truth!

Woolf is quite clearly having her bit of fun, not least from mimicking the silliest floridness of Enlightenment writers, but in the book's general mode, which pretends to be a biography cobbled together from real sources, and in such setpieces as the "Great Frost" that turns Elizabeth's Thames into an endless carnival rink. The circuitous, often inscrutable prose that typifies Woolf's more "serious" fiction is reserved for the book's latter portions, in which Orlando, now a woman, adjusts to the advent of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (the fact that no one thinks it's odd that Orlando is over 400 years old is one of the book's better jokes).

Along the way Orlando falls in love, is rejected, joins a band of gypsies, becomes ambassador, is courted, falls in love again, is reciprocated, and writes a poem--"The Oak Tree," for which the quotations in the text are actual reproductions of a poem by Sackville-West. The point, I suppose, being that Sackville-West's work, as well as person, represents the best of 400+ years of European culture, or, rather, as something that, like the best literature, battles against the expectations of its own age:

Orlando was unaccountably disappointed. She had thought of literature all these years (her seclusion, her rank, her sex must be her excuse) as something wild as the wind, hot as fire, swift as lightning; something errant, incalculable, abrupt, and behold, literature was an elderly gentleman in a grey suit talking about duchesses. The violence of her disillusionment was such that some hook or button fastening the upper part of her dress burst open, and out upon the table fell 'The Oak Tree,' a poem.

But moreso, Orlando learns in his/her 400 years to exist beyond words. She and her husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, speak in a "cypher language which they had invented between them so that a whole spiritual state of the utmost complexity might be conveyed in a word or two without the telegraph clerk being any the wiser, and added [to the telegraph] the words 'Rattigan Glumphoboo,' which summed it up precisely." Or, sweetly, they speak not at all:

...and really it would profit little to write down what they said, for they knew each other so well that they could say anything, which is tantamount to saying nothing, or saying such stupid, prosy things as how to cook an omelette, or where to buy the best boots in London, things which have no lustre taken from their setting, yet are positively of amazing beauty within it. For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.

Of course, a great white space follows. There is an overwhelming suggestion, I think, that since no words can really express how Woolf feels about Sackville-West, any words may do, and the silly, absurd, ironic mess that is Orlando is as great a testament as any that could be made. As such, Orlando is a book as much about the limits of what can be said as it is about the limitlessness of one man/woman.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

27 Views of Chapel Hill

27 Views of Chapel Hill is ostensibly a collection of essays, poems, and short stories connected in some way or another to a small town in North Carolina. What 27 Views of Chapel Hill really is, though, is a love story, as if told by someone who has long since become more than a lover and is now a partner. Someone who knows all of his or her better half's flaws and imperfections but loves nonetheless, focusing instead on the intricacies and quirks that make them great. Some essays discuss people or places in Chapel Hill directly, and others merely use the town as its setting, but in all of them there is an appreciation and adoration of this town that I, too, know and love.

There are stories about little old ladies who keep a garden, about a woman and her dog, about an old bookstore, and more. I loved reading the story written by my Community Journalism professor at Carolina about how his childhood friendship with James Taylor helped him endure his mother's crippling depression. I was interested to read the accounts of all the U.S. presidents who visited Chapel Hill, either before, during or after their presidency (including Gerald Ford, who took my grandmother on a date while she was an undergrad at UNC). I found the story set during the turmoil of the civil rights era especially poignant, especially the description of the sit in at the intersection of Franklin Street and Columbia Street, which made me think about how far we've come from then to just a few years ago, when some of my best memories were made jumping over bonfires in that same spot after we won the national championship. I liked some of the essays better than others and didn't love the poetry, but overall 27 Views of Chapel Hill was a sweet ode to a wonderful town.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

No, she did not wish to repeat that experience. The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush and the smells s he could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, "Pathos, piety, courage--they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value." If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same--"ou-boum."

A Passage to India is a strange book. One can rifle off the details--in British-controlled India, a Muslim is accused of assaulting an English girl in a mysterious cave--but a summary seems beside the point. As Mrs. Moore decides about her memory of the accused, Dr. Aziz--"Yes, it was all true, but how false a summary of the man; the essential life of the him had been slain"--there is something crucial missing, something ineffable.

The novel begins and ends as a story about the difficulty of friendship and intimacy between the Indian and the English. Dr. Aziz is the great centerpiece of these sections, a stubborn, fickle, but gregarious man who wishes to make friends of Mrs. Moore and her companion, the young Adela Quested, and resolves to take them to the nearby Marabar Caves:

His friends thought him most unwise to mix himself up with English ladies, and warned him to take every precaution against unpunctuality. Consequently he spent the previous night at the train station.

But the middle section--the book is split into three unequal parts called Mosque, Caves and Temple--is something else all together. The Marabar Caves are annihilators of meaning. The echo that attaches itself to Mrs. Moore proves unshakable, and follows her as she leaves, promising a kind of anti-transcendence:

The unspeakable attempt presented itself to her as love: in a cave, in a church--Boum, it amounts to the same. Visions are supposed to entail profundity, but--Wait till you get one, dear reader! The abyss also may be petty, the serpent of eternity made of maggots..

And so the Caves themselves seem to be responsible for Ms. Quested's experience of a violent attack, which is never explained in a "proper" sense. Unpredictably, the English rally around Ms. Quested and use her story to validate their most brutish prejudices ("Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die," one says) and the Indians rally around Aziz and riot. But though this makes for some great scenes of satire (my favorite is when the trial magistrate permits Ms. Quested to sit on the platform to escape the heat of the gallery, and she's joined by every white person in the court save one) Forster's interests lie mainly elsewhere. Ironically, what nearly destroys Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Ms. Quested is just what they had been seeking: a sense of unity, a sense of intimacy and oneness with the other. But when difference is annihilated, nothing remains; when man succeeds in finding infinity he has lost himself:

Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind.

In what must be the most striking prose Forster ever wrote, he symbolizes the problem with a flame:

They are dark caves. Even when they open towards the sun, very little light penetrates down the entrance tunnel into the circular chamber. There is little to see, and no eye to see it, until the visitor arrives for his five minutes, and strikes a match. Immediately another flame rises in the depths of the rock and moves towards the surface like an imprisoned spirit: the walls of the circular chamber have been most marvellously polished. The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone.

At first this seems a symbol of the relationship between the Indians and the English--two mirrored flames, unable to connect--but soon becomes a symbol of the inability to touch, to interact, to communicate with anything beyond oneself. Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested are given brief glimpses of the flame beyond the wall, and perhaps finding only an image of themselves, are traumatized by them. The other conflicts of the novel--Ms. Quested's only-half-wanted marriage to the City Magistrate, the relations between the Indians and their occupiers, the inability to describe or create a unified Indian nation--become slivers of this whole, and the solution promises to be worse than the conflict.

By contrast, the Temple section begins with an extended description of a Hindu ceremony that brings a more beneficial unity:

When the villagers broke cordon for a glimpse of the silver image, a most beautiful and radiant expression came into their faces, a beauty in which there was nothing personal,l for it caused them all to resemble one another during the moment of its indwelling, and only when it was withdrawn did they revert to individual clods.

What is it about the Hindu ceremony that makes it a joy, rather than a terror? Can Prof. Godbole, Aziz's Hindu friend, be right or wise when he remarks of the charges,

I am informed that an evil action was performed in the Marabar Hills, and that a highly esteemed English lady is now seriously ill in consequence. My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz... It was performed by the guide... It was performed by you... It was performed by me... And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself. When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly when good occurs.

Godbole goes on to say that good and evil "are both of them aspects of my Lord. He is present in the one, absent in the other, and the difference between presence and absence is great, as great as my feeble mind can grasp. Yet absence implies presence, absence is not non-existence, and we are therefore entitled to repeat, 'Come, come, come, come.'" Is this what differentiates these unities, an eye to the presence, and not the absence, of God? Or the hopefulness that one is coming to make the unity meaningful?

These questions fade into the background of A Passage to India. By the end we are left with a little tableau of an Englishman and and Indian promising friendship, but their horses rearing away from one another. We are left, if we wish, to return to thinking about England and India, but also, if we wish, to see that there are more encompassing concerns at hand, and that there is unity in disunity, and also with a thin echo of Godbole's "Come, come, come, come":

But the horses didn't want it--they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.

Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra is a dogged attempt at the resuscitation of one woman's reputation, sullied over two millennia by misogynists, xenophobes, and axe-grinders. It is perhaps a little late--I suspect that our modern aversion to outdated stereotypes of manipulative and unserious women has scrubbed off much of the tarnish--Cleopatra's reputation as the Great Seducer remains. Schiff doesn't deny Cleopatra's erotic appeal, but traces it to her eloquence, not her lasciviousness, and affirms her canny political acumen. After all, as Pharaoh and later Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was in a precarious position on a Mediterranean shore being carved up by decades of Roman civil war, and her alliance with two of its most preeminent power holders--Julius Caesar and Mark Antony--ensured her survival for decades in a kingdom where monarchs frequently lasted months, or weeks.

The shortcomings of Schiff's project are many, but they are perhaps not her fault. The long stretches in which Cleopatra takes a backseat to the machinations between Antony and Octavian are probably necessary, both for our understanding and because of a spotty historical record. She is probably right when she argues that Cleopatra's record has been maligned, but when she has torpedoed the bias of ancient historians, she frequently finds herself lacking much material to go on. This is disguised in part by presenting the book as stridently non-academic--she quotes, many times, "one ancient historian," and buries the citation in the endnotes--but this is also it's greatest strength: it's fairly engrossing, and its narrative compelling.

One of the most appealing parts of the book for me was the fulsome descriptions of ancient Alexandria, the (I had not realized) foremost city of the world at the time. Rome was a rustic backwater, but Alexandria "remained a swirl of reds and yellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color. Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world: superior in its ways, splendid in its luxuries, the place to spend your fortune, write your poetry, find (or forget) a romance, restore your health, reinvent yourself, or regroup after having conquered vast swaths of Italy, Spain, and Greece over the course of a Herculean decade." Schiff makes much of Cleopatra's expense records, with their absurd numbers of suckling pigs and oysters and golden everythings, and it's easy to see why a man like Antony, with his imperial pretensions, would have such a difficult time returning to Rome, Cleopatra notwithstanding. For Schiff, Alexandria is an image of Cleopatra herself: seductive, exuberant, but also marked by intelligence, prosperity, and a vaunted heritage.

In the end, of course, Schiff cannot excuse the simple fact that Cleopatra's acumen came up short: whether you believe they were in love or not, Cleopatra backs the wrong horse in Antony. In fact, Schiff is nearly undone by her alluring portrait of Alexandria. Cleopatra and Antony's disastrous flight at Actium, a battle staged only to give them a chance to escape back to Egypt once at sea, makes Antony look like a man more desperate to return to luxury than to rule the world. Nor does her description of Antony as a "great brooding hulk" after Actium mitigate the traditional perspective that Cleopatra held undue sway over the once-powerful general.

The greatest part of the story, as it is in Shakespeare (soon to come), the end: Antony, having mangled his own suicide, dying in Cleopatra's arms; Cleopatra committing hers surreptitiously, and somewhat triumphantly, under the watchful eye of Octavian's guard. She cynically implodes the story of the asp, saying that "[a] woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animal." But, she suggests, there is always the possibility that Octavian, remembering the sympathy unwittingly engendered toward Cleopatra's captured sister Arsinoe in Julius Caesar's triumph decades before, had her killed. "While her death reduced the glory a little," she writes, "it also eliminated a host of complications."

My Roman history is not quite as thorough as my Latin degree might suggest. But it seems to me that either Schiff is a popular biographer, not a historian, and thus odd to be the first person to voice this suspicion--or she's working from sources she fails to cite. Is that prejudiced? Maybe. But if reputations are going to be resuscitated, it ought to be by means more stringent than the histories that maligned them in the first place.

But that's pedantic. Cleopatra succeeds, in the end, by straddling the line between popular non-fiction and thorough historical assessment. She won the Pulitzer prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov, and it wouldn't surprise me to see this make the shortlist either.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England

This is in part because, despite criticism's frequently professed desires to "make the past strange," it much more often makes it overly familiar. The depth, passion, and occasional ferocity of early modern religious belief simply doesn't resonate in a secular modern culture committed to toleration and agnosticism, so we tend to reduce its alienness by overlooking it, or translating it into terms we are more comfortable with. But those are by definition not the terms in which these things existed and operated historically; when we use them as the basis of our critical practice, we are looking not at the past but an image of modernity in hose and ruffs.

The influence of the Book of Common Prayer is everywhere, though you may not realize it--it is responsible, for example, the phrases "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and "dearly beloved, we are gathered here today..." But the author of Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England, Timothy Rosendale, believes that it has been insufficiently explored as a literary document.

Rosendale gives a brief account of the Book's creation, depicting it as an attempt--or rather, a series of attempts--at negotiating the bitter Protestant-Catholic tensions of post-Henry VIII England. Interestingly, he argues that much of the Book's efficacy comes from its calculated ambiguity that, like Elizabeth I's public religious persona, deliberately left room for residual Catholic practice. By creating a national uniform liturgy in English, it also helped to create and bolster an English national identity, negotiating the need for the monarch's supremacy over religious practice and deeply held Protestant beliefs about the importance of individual priesthood. In the final chapters, Rosendale turns to the Book's literary influence, tracing its impact on Sidney, Shakespeare, Milton and Hobbes. I particularly liked the chapter on political power in Shakespeare's histories, in which Rosendale argues that the history plays, from Richard II to Henry VI, map the transition to a monarchical system in which power is maintained through representation and symbolism, mirroring the Prayerbook's vision of the Eucharist.

What I appreciated most about Rosendale's book is what I have quoted above. One of my deepest misgivings about modern criticism is a sneaking suspicion that it does not treat texts seriously, using them as templates for various ideological, political, or philosophical agendas. While Rosendale happily points out the positive aspects of various critical schools (for example, he praises the way in which New Historicism has "emphasized... the idea that the literary is not walled off from other spheres of culture"), he is careful to treat the religious impulses that created the Book of Common Prayer as genuine and not outward manifestations of psychological or political pressures.

Furthermore, books like this (and too a lesser extent, McCoy's) allay my fears that scholarly language need be obtuse or somehow "beyond me;" not only is Rosendale's text highly engaging and fluid (his paraphrases of his critical sources tend to be far more lucid than they), but occasionally he'll do something like this:

"...even the Zwinglian sacrament is clearly set apart to operate in a different symbolic register; after all, a completely desacralized Eucharist would be nothing more than a snack(rament).


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Alterations of State by Richard McCoy

Richard McCoy's Alterations of State is a survey of Reformation-era literature that seeks to investigate changing ideas about sacred kingship. To those of us who, in our high school history classes, congratulated ourselves for not belonging to a society that believes in divine right, McCoy's book does a good job outlining the theological complexities of that philosophy, which give it force beyond the need to consolidate a monarch's power.

McCoy argues that the idea of sacred kingship was ultimately a response to the Reformation's abolition of "real presence" from the sacraments, churches, and relics of England. He takes us back to Marburg (cue Ford Madox Ford) where Zwingli rejects Luther's claim to Christ's presence in the Eucharist and tells us that "Monarchy's enduring power derives in part form a vague but persistent desire for a real presence in the face of an 'essential absence.'" That is, because we could no longer locate Christ's presence in the traditions and icons of the church, a national vision of Christianity required that presence to be relocated in the figure of the King himself.

Alterations of State is persuasive and thorough, yet highly readable. Most of the chapters are organized by the authors in whom McCoy tracks the conflicts over sacred kingship, including Skelton, Shakespeare, and Marvell. Perhaps the most interesting of these, for me, was the chapter on Shakespeare, in which McCoy contends the relationship between Hamlet and his father's ghost mirrors the Reformation-era compulsion for an obviated spiritual presence in the Catholic sacraments. Though I wouldn't recommend this for most readers here, I found it fascinating.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Here then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals…

Moby Dick is the book that this blog followed into a black hole. I started it months ago, and finished it weeks ago, but hadn’t the time or energy to write about it. Other things intervened, I suppose, like the advent of the school year—I’m not sure what made me think I could start and finish it in the last two weeks of summer—but I’ll admit that to review such a monster was a daunting prospect.

Weeks later, then, the strongest impression I retain is the Moby Dick’s sheer immensity. Not its length—though it is long—but its size, its capaciousness. The narrative which everyone knows, the story of Ahab chasing the white whale around the world for his revenge, comprises perhaps less than half the novel, nearly crowded out by the narrator Ishmael’s encyclopedic treatises on whales and whale hunting. There are chapters on eating whales, painting whales, whale anatomy (in fact, the sperm whale’s head gets six pages of its own), the historicity of the story of Jonah, and many chapters painstakingly detailing why whalers deserve your reverence. The best of these, I think, are the chapters where Ishmael expounds on the meaning of whiteness:

Is it by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink?... And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

The effect of Ishmael/Melville’s towering erudition and knowledge, then, is more than merely to impress. Like the whiteness of the whale, which is made of all colors and therefore seems like none, the great conglomeration of information that is Moby Dick teeters toward meaninglessness. The whale is loaded with so much symbolism that it ceases to symbolize anything.

Moby Dick is an “inscrutable malice” and an “intangible malignity,” not because he is so mysterious but because he is so well-known. In its capaciousness the whale manages to be both the “colourless, all-colour of atheism” and a stand-in for God. In his way Ahab comes to represent man’s vengeance for the fall, to lash out against his maker:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Ahab is the other lingering impression: Monomaniacal, blood-lusting, and unwavering. He’s named for a Biblical king, and it’s only through him that the novel’s overblown, King-James-cribbed language works, with its “thees” and “thous” and ponderous, circuitous sentences. The back of my copy calls Moby Dick a “hymn to democracy” because it is the “image of a co-operative community at work,” but one might say the same thing of the Peoples Temple. One of my favorite episodes is when the Pequod meets a ship that has been effectively commandeered by a sailor with pretensions as a prophet, but he pales in comparison to Ahab’s religious intensity:

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with theee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

As great as that is, I found that I didn’t love Moby Dick as much as I hoped it would. I expected it to be life-changing, but the long discursive chapters, serviceable to the themes as they were, never faded away to make room for the heightened intensity to the plot. It overwhelmed me and awed me, but did not—completely—endear itself to me. Mostly, I found myself impatient to get back to Ahab. Is that a criticism of Moby Dick, or a praise of it?

Friday, September 30, 2011

19 Cloud Atlas-David Mitchell

David Mitchell uses a variety of genres to portray 6 amazing story lines: diary, epistolary, mystery novel, memoir, interview, and a sort of third person limited storytelling. The variety of forms reminds me of Melville’s efforts at stylistic variety in Moby Dick. Yeah, I’ll make that comparison, deal with it.

The birthmarks on the shoulders are part of a motif connecting the stories. I found it subtle, but I understand how one could find it unnecessary. There are other gems of transitional bliss inside each story, either preceding or following. The structure is important to note; one half of each story is told in chronological order starting in the 1800’s. The sixth story takes place in a future when mankind has returned to its hunter-gatherer roots; this story is told in its entirety. The reverse order of stories unfolds as we return to the 1800’s.

“The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing” provides the experience of a San Francisco notary in route home from assignment. Pious and inexperienced, he contracts a sickness and a doctor friend makes efforts to preserve his life. The opening journal entry finds Doctor Goose searching for teeth on the beach (brilliant). The “eat or be eaten” theme, and the baseness of mankind are introduced subtly.

“Letters from Zedelghem” gives us a 25 year-old composer in 1931, Robert Frobisher. RF writes letters to his friend (and possible lover) Rufus Sixsmith in London. RF sends him mail from Belgium, but ended up there as a result of being down on his luck, and games of chance were the cause. As he fled his creditors in England, he decides on a whim to offer his skills at musical notation to a famous yet retired composer. Love, loss, and humor, particularly the upper class ironies Jane Austen would love, should be enjoyed here. “Her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning.”

“The Luisa Rey Mystery” brings death to the forefront. The dangers of a nuclear power plant are revealed by the Sixsmith report, yes the same Sixsmith that received Frobisher’s letters. Keeping all parties quiet takes some murder. A page-turner, and the one story I was upset about having to wait 200 pages to learn the second half. “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.” p.396

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is the dud of the group. Connection to the Luisa Rey mystery comes through his being an editor. Somehow he gets locked away in a convalescence home. More is being said about the nature of society not respecting septuagenarians. Meh.

“Orison of Somni-451” is fucking awesome. This is a clone future in a Korea rife with genetic engineering. Movies are dubbed disneys, smart phones are sonys, and clones don’t have souls. Except for one Somni-451. She is used by a rebellion to prove the immorality of cloning. She is being interviewed before being put to death for her part in trying to overthrow the system.

“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ ev’rythin’ after” is the story of Zachary Bailey, a native of Hawaii, the Big I. His experience as a goat herder gets interesting as his pagan god-fearing society allows a visiting anthropologist to stay for several months. Zachary is cautious of her “smart” but begins to trust her after she shares her knowledge of the world before “The Fall.” Dialectically challenging, the violent and peaceful societies on the islands would give any historian an education in atrociology.

Many of these stories could be worthwhile as novellas, but together they speak to the apocalyptic future that our way of life has in store. This has definitely moved to #1 on my list for the year. At 500 pages it was surprisingly quick, but the depths of thought ranged from life and death, philosophy to humor, and conscience to responsibility.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

18 Wittgenstein’s Mistress-David Markson

There is no better way of keeping sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.” -Leonardo
Allow me to introduce you to the crazy intelligent Kate: as unreliable a narrator as you’ll ever find. She begins her story by acknowledging her search for another living being (the cover holds the first sentence of the novel). Believing she is alone in the world she tells her story of living in museums around the world, traveling to the battlegrounds of ancient Greece, and revisiting locations of personal history. Along the way she leaves messages in the hope that somebody else exists.
The problem for the reader: is she the only living woman, or is she mad? The writing style is stream-of-consciousness, and it’s as good as Joyce on crack. She is sitting at a typewriter, over the span of several months, writing an autobiography. Where a day’s worth of writing ends you have to be told by Kate. She offers that she was mad during many moments of her solitary journey, but her honesty seduces the reader to trust what she is writing now. Much of her surroundings appear tangible: clothes dried in the sun, a jar to fetch water from a stream, a canoe, the beach, and the forest. Many of the objects she describes in her house must be real, an atlas, a painting, and half empty bookshelves:
“There is space. Many of the shelves up here are half empty.
Although doubtless when I say they are half empty I should really be saying they are half filled, since presumably they were totally empty before somebody half filled them.
Then again it is not impossible that they were once filled completely, becoming half empty only when somebody removed half of the books to the basement. I find this second possibility less likely than the first, although it is not utterly beyond consideration.”
These philosophical questions pepper the novel, but Kate seems to have an answer for each of them, and you start to trust and understand her point of view. Logical impossibilities that she answers in her madness:  
“Once, when I was listening to myself read the Greek plays out loud, certain of the lines sounded as if they had been written under the influence of William Shakespeare. One had to be quite perplexed as to how Aeschylus or Euripides might have read Shakespeare...Finally it occurred to me that the translator had no doubt read Shakespeare.”
Her actions also seem quite realistic. She travels around the world in any car that still has gas and a working battery. Early in her search she carries baggage and objects, transferring them each time a car runs out of gas. At one point she drops hundreds of tennis balls down The Spanish Steps. Sounds fun, but  she stops carrying things and begins leaving things, forgetting.
Kate makes countless classic allusions to Greek dramas, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. More of her allusions are to artists and paintings: Van Gogh, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, De Kooning, Magritte, and El Greco. The facts she presents, alongside possible encounters of individuals that lived in the same town during the same time periods, lose value as she tries to connect the lives of masters, apprentices, students, and offspring. At many points you think she is just showing off her knowledge of obscure details about artists, the name of Rembrandt’s cat for example. But she can’t remember the name of her own cat, and obviously “one does not name a seagull.”
She claims to have lived in the Met, the Tate, and the Louvre. While in these museums she burned frames of paintings to keep warm, but also hung her own paintings between the masters. Kate clearly has knowledge of art history, but she offers small truisms that you believe until you can no longer trust her sanity. The reader’s trust turns to sympathy. And with that sympathy you question everything she says. Kate has some facts, but they are not remembered accurately. According to Kate the following was said by Leonardo, sadly, it was not:
There is no better way of keeping sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.” -Michelangelo  

p.s. What happened to 10-17? number 9 was read so long ago and the post so horrible...I'll try to keep up. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

09-St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves-Karen Russell

I saw Karen Russell have a conversation with Wells Tower a few months ago at the NY Public Library. I went because I read the review of her new novel Swamplandia and was intrigued. I bought her collection of short stories, one of which was expanded for her acclaimed novel. Karen is 29. She is one of the New Yorker magazine’s 20 under 40 and she is trying really hard to be someone else: Kelly Link. I love the fantasy realism of Kelly Link. Karen Russell writes in a way that feigns originality, but falls way short, and hits too hard on the southern child narrator. The short stories are soft, easy reads. And I usually like that about short stories. This collection grabbed me twice, the title story and the one that became the novel. I do not recommend this collection. And I won’t be reading Swamplandia.

Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger

I assigned Nine Stories as the summer reading for my upcoming AP English course. Students respond well to Catcher in the Rye, I reasoned, and might respond well to Salinger's other work, and a set of short stories, as easily portioned as it is, might take some of the burden of summer reading away. Whether or not those things are true--well, I'll tell you that in a few days when I find out how many of them completed the assignment.

Nine Stories remains as I remembered it: a collection of plain-spoken, yet acutely detailed, accounts of human interactions. I am still mostly baffled at "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" (What is it about Ginnie's interaction with Selena's brother that makes her go back on her demand to be paid for the cab fare?), mostly bored by "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes," and heartbroken by "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" and "The Laughing Man," which probably are the best offerings here.

I was less absorbed in "Teddy" than I was the first time around--when you know for sure what's coming, that Teddy accurately predicts his own death, his long, plodding conversation about the nature of reincarnation saps the story of its dramatic thrust. The most rewarding to re-read--that is, the one that seemed richer for offering things I had missed the first time around--was "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," about a young artist who fakes his way into teaching at an art correspondence school.

The narrator--a nineteen-boy who is decidedly not the Parisienne De Daumier-Smith, friend of Picasso--takes the job out of boredom, or listlessness, or maybe is simply trying to get away from the stepfather he has to bum around with now that his mother has died. His students are irredeemably bad--not necessarily without talent, but puerile, or pornographic, or both. But one, a Catholic nun in Toronto, piques his interest, and he writes her a very personal letter asking her if he could mentor her as a painter.

What the narrator finds, perhaps without looking, is a kind of religious epiphany. Sister Irma's painting is a scene of Christ's crucifixion, and he experiences it as a secular vision. There is something unmistakably modern in his awe; it is the reaction of a world for whom artistic revelation has usurped religious revelation, who cherishes the symbol because it is more palpable than the murky truth to which it refers. It is easy to point out the tone-deafness of his letter to Irma--he asks, credulously, if being a nun is "satisfactory, in a spiritual way," and privately imagines that she is a young girl he might rescue from her vows--but it is also achingly sincere. This quasi-spirituality is so powerful that it gives Salinger a chance to try out some rare poetic flourishes:

Just before I feel asleep, the moaning sound came again through the wall from the Yoshotos' bedroom. I pictured both Yoshotos coming to me in the morning and asking me, begging me, to hear their secret problem out, to the last, terrible detail. I saw exactly how it would be. I would sit down between them at the kitchen table and listen to each of them. I would listen, listen, listen, and with my head in my hands--till finally, unable to stand it any longer, I would reach down into Mme. Yoshoto's throat, take up her heart in my hand and warm it as I would a bird. Then, when all was put right, I would show Sister Irma's work to the Yoshotos, and they would share my joy.

But it is Sister Irma's parish priest that writes back, withdrawing her from the school. The worldly nature of the narrator's epiphany has not enabled him to make a real connection or a real communication, as is often the case with more religious epiphanies. An agnostic, he fashions the nun into a goddess-figure, who then acts, like a goddess, inscrutably.

But the moment that elevates the story happens at the end, and is something I do not think I totally understood when I read it a couple years ago. The narrator, having dressed up in a tuxedo for dinner and then having changed his mind, watches a girl undress a mannequin in a store window:

She was changing the truss on the wooden dummy. As I came up to the show window, she had evidently just taken off the old truss; it was under her left arm (her right "profile" was toward me), and she was lacing up the new one on the dummy. I stood watching her, fascinated, till suddenly she sensed, then saw that she was being watched. I quickly smiled--to show her that this was a non-hostile figure in the tuxedo in the twilight on the other side of the glass--but it did no good. The girl's confusion was out of all normal proportion. She blushed, she dropped the removed truss, she stepped back on a stack of irrigation basins--and her feet went from under her.

The narrator calls this his "Experience," and has to steady himself against the glass. Clearly, this epiphanic moment has usurped the last one--but why? I think it is because he senses the girl's great bafflement at seeing him, tuxdedoed, outside her shop window, and that in some way she is experiencing an epiphany of her own, an inscrutable spiritual vision. For him, it is not the experience of the vision, but the embodiment of it, that truly satisfies, being the god-figure instead of the saint.

He writes in his diary, "I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everyone is a nun." This is not quite right; one must be a god to grant freedom to a nun, and though everyone is in some respect a nun, I think Salinger is suggesting that everyone is a little bit more than that. Or, rather, that nuns and the god for whom the toil are not entities as separate as one might have thought.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The tongue is a rhyming fool. It wants to rhyme because that’s how it stores what it knows. It’s got a detailed checklist of muscle moves for every consonant and vowel and diphthong and fricative and flap and plosive. Pull, relax, twitch, curl, touch.... Rhyme taught us to talk.

I came into The Anthologist with a chip on my shoulder. The only other book I’ve read of Baker’s is The Fermata, which was awful. I’ve been reading reviews of his newest book, House of Holes, and it sounds equally stupid. But, on the other hand, I read about The Anthologist years ago, before I knew who Baker was, and was fascinated by its central conceit: that a man, hired to write an introduction for a poetry anthology, would be unable to write it without digressing over and over again. This was before I read Pale Fire, or heard of Tristam Shandy, but the idea still held appeal. Plus, it was short.

So I am happy and somewhat surprised to say that I really enjoyed this book, even though my mental comparison to Pale Fire was way off. Where the latter is a chess puzzle, The Anthologist is a diary (unsurprising) and a light, enjoyable primer on poetry (unexpected). There is a story here, about the titular anthologist and part-time poet, Paul, pining for his long-time girlfriend, Roz, who left him over his inability to finish the introduction, but while it’s the primary narrative spring, the gears that turn around it are more interesting. What’s effective though, is how the relationship narrative actually lends weight to the technical talk surrounding it. It feels surprisingly organic, and even though the writing isn’t amazing, it is sometimes funny and never embarrassing.

This might seem like damning with faint praise, but I don’t see it that way. The Anthologist feels like a beach read for the serious reader, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I still don’t think I’m going to be picking up House of Holes.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

She had married him for his looks which were admittedly star quality; but marriage was not a film; Cora was not a director; she had cast him in the role of a husband and he was hopeless at it. In screenplays the husband has a script to go by. Johnny had next to none.

The only other Spark book I’ve read, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, did not in any way prepare me for this slim volume. Strangely, it reminded me much more of late-era Don DeLillo: it is similarly dispassionate, features a lot of stylized dialog, and even the plotline reminded me a lot of DeLillo’s Point Omega. It is, however, much colder and crueler than that; no one does distant like Muriel Spark.

The story follows Tom Richards, a film auteur whose entire live revolves around his film career. Not only does he spend most of his time either on the film set or working on his scripts, he sees the world as a giant set itself. He wonders, more than once, if the world is just a dream God is having, and it isn’t hard to see why the question fascinates him—in his mind, the world is a dream in his head. The story begins after Tom has a fall from a crane while shooting a difficult shot, which brings his family together. The family consists of Claire, his sort-of, open-relationship wife, Cora, his child from an earlier marriage, about whom Tom nurses some disturbingly romantic feelings, and Marigold, Tom and Claire’s daughter, who no one else in the family really understands or likes.

Redundancy is a recurring theme in the book, both the American and British sense. American, in the sense that all the characters feel redundant to one another—Tom’s stream of young actresses are ultimately made redundant by Claire; Marigold is born redundant, since Cora already exists—and British in the sense that everyone seems to be losing their jobs, to such an extent that Marigold decides to make a documentary about redundancy. At some point in the novel, Marigold disappears, and, since this seems to be one of the few Spark books that has a mystery at its center, I won’t spoil what eventually happens. I will say that this is where the book most closely reminded me of Point Omega—in both novels, a strange girl disappears and no one seems especially miffed. Here, though, the reasons no one really cares are spelled out, and boy, are they cold. It’s hard not to see some parallels with Spark’s own life—as covered here—and her estrangement from her own child.

Everything ultimately explodes in violence, according to the blurb on the back, although “explode” is probably a bit strong. Instead, things fall into a not-so-nice cyclical arc. Things get a little muddled thematically, but Reality and Dreams is a funny, nasty, thoughtful piece of work.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Far Away Home by Susan Denning

She had no strength to stay awake and bid the disappointing year goodbye.

I picked it up on a lark (cheap on kindle, good reviews), and while it started strong by the end it was only disappointing. Far Away Home tells the story of Aislynn, a teenager from New York in the late 1860s who moves west to fully realize her independence after her father dies. According to blurbs on Amazon, Denning put in a lot of effort to make sure her book was historically accurate, which allowed her to paint vivid portrayals of the characters and settings that I appreciated. The first quarter or so of the book was especially good. Denning brings the characters to life through several moving scenes, at least at first. But then, about when Aislynn heads west, the book starts to unravel. Gone is the depth of all the characters except our protagonist, and she becomes uneven. Whereas I was moved by Aislynn's neighbor/love interest's recollection of Aislynn's mother's death (when Aislynn's mother doesn't even actually appear in the book), when one of the main characters dies towards the end I could only muster up a hearty, "Eh." I find a good rule of thumb when evaluating books is that if you start rooting for the protagonist to die in the end because they are annoying, the book has become boring, or both, then it's not a great book. Also, Denning drops the ball on the conclusion; Where she was probably going for meaningful and hopeful, she ended up with my-editor-needs-a-final-draft-by-wednesday-shit-how-am-I-going-to-finish-this-oh-well-here-goes-nothing...

Also, Denning doesn't do a good job of making the conflict matter. For example, at one point a couple that Aislynn befriends on the trip out West tips over in their covered wagon and drowns as Aislynn looks on. And at this point if I wrote one more sentence I'd have equaled the amount of time that Denning spends on this presumably traumatizing event.

I could go on, but hopefully no one else will read this book, so I'll leave it at that.