Thursday, February 28, 2013

Paying the Piper by Simon Wood

We've seen where the sins of the father lead.

I was in the mood for some dessert, so I looked at Amazon's discount thrillers and found Paying the Piper.  I find that crime thrillers are pretty hit and miss; it's really hard to tread the line between suspenseful and believable.  This one did a pretty good job, though, and even surprised me a few times.  Usually the plot falls apart with even a modicum of critical thinking, but I only thought about this one a little bit and didn't see the twists coming.

Paying the Piper picks up eight years after Scott Fleetwood, a reporter for a San Francisco newspaper, is partly responsible for bungling the apprehension of a serial kidnapper.  He was convinced he had made contact with the Piper and led the FBI on what turned out to be a wild goose chase after an impostor.  In retribution, the Piper killed the child he had 'napped.  Now his mistakes come crashing back on him when the Piper kidnaps Fleetwood's own sons.

Wood switches points of view, even letting us in on the Piper's movements and thoughts, which I thought would diminish the suspense of the book.  I should have given Wood more credit, though, as he used the technique to keep the reader off his trail, even as he drops clues all along.

Overall, a quick, fun read.  If you don't think too hard about it you'll enjoy some clever twists.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Revealing Heaven by John W. Price

I enjoy reading things that I know I probably won't agree with. It is an important exercise, helping me to either strengthen, refine, or substantially rethink my opinions. So when I read the brief synopsis of Revealing Heaven, I thought to myself, "Well, this will be different and interesting."

I gave myself an extra day after finishing this book to collect my thoughts, and I'm still of two minds about it. On one hand, I appreciate and applaud what I see as one of Rev. Price's major arguments: God wants people to love one another. The main argument, the purpose even, of the book is that near-death experiences are real and should be embraced by Christians. In making this argument, Price continually claims that the primary object of a Christian should be to love his fellow man. This I like.

Ah, but on the other hand. Too often Price's main argument, regarding the veracity of near-death experiences, relies on conjecture, leaps of logic, and sometimes poor reasoning. Many of his conclusions feel unsubstantiated, or at least under-substantiated. The most common example of this is Price drawing conclusions from low amounts of data. One such instance comes from the chapter titled "Hellish Experiences". As you might imagine, this relatively small chapter was about those who have had near-death experiences that were unpleasant in some way. In the last page and half of this chapter, Price concludes that there are two types of negative experiences. However, Price began this chapter by stating, "Twelve people have related to me near-death experiences ranging from distressing to utterly hellish." Twelve people is a small group, and two sentences later, he shrinks that number even more, saying, "Nine of them were mean-spirited, cruel people. Drawing broad conclusions based on the experiences of such a small group people strikes me as ill-advised. A few chapters later, Price makes an argument based on the experiences of only two people.

On this same objecting hand lies critique of another of Price's arguments. He spends the better part of chapter talking about what he calls fear-based Christianity. Price is referring to "fire and brimstone" preachers, and even mentions Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". His general argument is that people should not be scared into Christianity. But isn't this what Price is doing, at least in part, with this book. If not, then why spend a chapter talking about "Hellish Experiences"? Why make such thinly substantiated statements about these experiences. Granted, this chapter is just a small portion of the book, and Price could hardly be accused of anything worse than try to scare people into being more loving, hardly insidious.

So, I am essentially right where I was before I started this book. "Well, that was interesting." Persuasive? Not really. Thought-provoking? Yes.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

"I am a bad man with a very black heart.  And it was only that badness and blackness which forced me to seek out what I have carried now for many years and brought this night for you.  Because you are young I will tell you I went in search of a weapon.  But also because you are young I will not tell you why I went in search of such a weapon, though in truth while I could speculate, I am no longer capable of recalling the details myself.  When you are older you will be able to imagine what drove me on such a quest.  You will know more than me."

So begins the story teller's tale.  The story teller explains how he went on a quest to find a weapon, but not just any weapon.  Every time he would hear tell of a some new weapon, he would seek it out, only to be disappointed.  Until finally he heard of a sword-maker in a far away mountain.  His quest takes him through a series of creepy episodes (which I'm omitting, to avoid spoiling the novel at it's best).  Finally, he is able to buy a sword, but the price of the sword is that he cannot remember his original reason for seeking it.  So it is that the storyteller has a great weapon, but cannot remember why sought it.

Danielewski loves incorporating strange textual elements into his writing.  This novel is no different.  The story presents as a poem with five sets of colored quotation marks, each color representing one of the children recounting the events of the evening.  The children are recounting how Chintana, a babysitter is watching them while the storyteller tells his story.

However, this window-dressing adds little to the important tale, the tale told by the storyteller, the tale of the fifty year sword.  The tale is Danielewski at his best: original, unnerving, and creepy.  His story weaves situations which are horrifying in a guttural way.  Things that are horrifying because they are not incomprehensible.  He puts them out there without trying to explain them, making them all the more horrifying.

I recommend this if you want a creepy story.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

"Indeed, promoting capitalism often results in a system that resembles medieval feudal societies." 

"The loans of foreign aid will ensure that today's children and their grandchildren will be held hostage." 

John Perkins is a repentant capitalist who wants to blow the whistle on the American empire.  Much of this book is about his job as an "economic hit man."  An economic hit man is a person who works for an American construction firm (i.e. Haliburton, Bechtel or even oil companies) trying to secure lucrative projects abroad.  The Hit Men go to countries with economic or strategic potential and propose massive infrastructure projects with highly inflated growth projections.  The idea is that a dictator (or similarly unaccountable leader) will rack up a huge debt with some quasi-American financial source (IMF, World Bank etc.) to build these projects.  The money sources gladly hand over the money, especially given the overly optimistic economic growth models used to justify them by men like Perkins. The projects generally are only marginally beneficial to the population of the leader's country but extremely popular within the leader's family and political bases.  The debt, however, allows  for America (the ultimate lender of dollars in all cases) to hold considerable sway over the debtor country and their political decisions.  That sway leads to empire-like arrangements; a big example being extremely favorable contracts for western oil companies or military bases.The more intriguing part of the story occurs when some dictator begins to reject these contracts, like in Chile, Ecuardor, Panama and Iraq.  The consequences is a "convenient coup."

The beauty of this book is its consistent logic: cash rules everything. Everything else about this book sucked.  Perkins is sanctimonious - bordering on full of shit.  After railing about the disastrous situations he created for people of third-world nations, his come-to-jesus moment was quitting his job and starting an OIL COMPANY. His writing is repetitive and a bit boring - perhaps a fictionalized version would have been more readable and informative, ala John Grisham. The message, however, is important, so its probably like cough medicine and worth choking down.

Oh wait there's more.  Decided to make this a double-post.

A Law Unto Itself: The Untold Story of the Law Firm Sullivan & Cromwell - By Nancy Lisagor 

The secret, unauthorized history of my law firm and it's not pretty. I have no other comment about it. 

Read the "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" and you can imply the roles large multi-national firms play in this game of world domination.  According to this author, S&C has been playing this role for almost 150 years. But, officially, none of what Ms. Lisagor said is true (even though it seems well-researched).

Anyway, don't read this book. Don't.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Not Less Than Everything, edited by Catherine Wolff

The concept of discipleship is helpful here: obedience to external commands is never enough. Our behavior, our motivation, our identity should reflect the teachings and the example of the one we are following.

Heresy is a tricky thing. Do it right, and you end up Martin Luther, lionized for throwing off the shackles of a legalistic and ungodly institution. Do it wrong, and you end up ostracized, forgotten or, worse, mocked by history, a cautionary tale.

The original blurb for Not Less Than Everything was something along the lines of, “Catholic writers write about their favorite heretics,” and, of course, how could I pass that up? Having read the book, I don’t think the description does it justice, but it was helpful in keeping me in the right mindset--namely that striking out, passively or actively, against the Catholic Church was a big deal. As a Protestant, I can just find a new church. A devout Catholic may believe, like the Whiskey Priest in The Power and the Glory, that excommunicated from the church he's damned. It adds weight to the decisions faced by the various “saints” in the book, not all of which have been--or, in the case of a few, ever will be--beatified. What they have in common, however, is their willingness to put their fate in God’s hands, trusting that following Christ’s example takes precedence over strict adherence to every papal edict.

As in most essay collections, the quality of the writing in Not Less Than Everything varies a fair amount. Some of the essays, such as the one on Max Scheler, are a bit esoteric; others, such as the scintillatingly titled, “A Pastoral, Person-Oriented Theology Worthy of Vatican II”, are just dry. Most, however, take an interesting approach to their subjects without lapsing into hagiography or strict biography. The best essays, in fact, tend to be the ones that treat their subjects as a jumping-off point, like Tom Beaudoin’s essay on Ignatius of Loyola, which he uses to make a larger point about the unstable relationship between critically thinking about one’s religion and blindly accepting it, and Ann Patchett’s The Worthless Servant, which tells a simple but powerful story of a priest who goes out to the highways and byways, giving cold glasses of water in Jesus’ name.

My favorite essay in the collection is the most different. “I Pray I May Be Ready With My Witness” tells of the conversion and struggles of troubled poet John Berryman. Berryman is one of my favorites, and reading about his childhood, his conversion, and his eventual suicide was heartbreaking. It is written by Paul Mariani, who I’d never heard of, and I’d like to close the review with an excerpt:

Protesters were being tried, imprisoned and fined, while others--college students--were being gunned down for refusing to participate any longer in the madness of Vietnam. The homeless were still homeless and the hungry went on being hungry. And, yes, his own body was failing and, yes, he had made mistakes and, yes, he was a human wreck, but he would bear witness in a terrible time as best he could. He hoped and prayed the heretic Origen was right after all and that Hell was “empty / Or will be at apocatastasis,” that is, at the end of time. Human failure--sin--seemed inevitable, given who and what we were. And, yes, no doubt we would suffer for it “now & later / but not forever, dear friends & brothers!”

I like to think of John Berryman as the patron saint of purgatory, shoulders hunched, still climbing on all fours the steep inclines of those mountains toward that distant summit shimmering in light, relieved to know he can sin no more.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I'm proud to say I would never sabotage a fellow female like that now.  Not even if Christina Applegate and I were both up for the same part as Vince Vaughn's mom in a big budget comedy called Beer Guys.

Tina Fey is hilarious.  I bought Bossypants at the airport on the way to see Meagan and by the end of the flight the woman next to me asked what I was reading because I was that guy who was laughing out loud to a book on a plane.  Bossypants isn't exactly a memoir, just a collection of stories and musings from Fey, with lots of good SNL and 30 Rock anecdotes.

Fey is great because she is realistic and sarcastic without being cynical.  She is deeply appreciative and grateful to be doing her dream job, but also doesn't take anyone else's bullshit.  I admire her feminist theory: she recognizes and calls out the double standards that she has faced in comedy and TV, but she's too busy being successful to let someone else's insecurities get in her way.  I also like her approach to family and motherhood.  A lot has been made recently on the internets about whether women can have it all (i.e. family, career, marriage, etc), and Fey's response is basically "look, my husband, daughter and I are going to make our family work in the way that's best for us.  If we're happy, then it's working, and I'm not going to get caught up in what I should be doing or should be wanting."  It is a wonderful non-gendered approach to the topic.  Asking whether "women can have it all" doesn't make sense.  The question is whether Tina can have it all, or Billy can have it all, or whoever can have it all, and it's up to each individual person to decide what "it all" is for them.  Toward the end of the book Fey muses about her current predicament: whether to have another child while it's still safe to do so or to squeeze some more show business out of her career that she may not have the opportunity to enjoy after she hits middle age (as women in show business often don't).  She says that she will have another kid and will never regret it, unless she doesn't, and she won't regret that, either, and it's none of our business either way.

But beyond all that, Bossypants is a fast, hilarious book, that I recommend to anyone.

Beyond the Possible by Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani are the type of church people I would never have heard about growing up. If I had heard of them, it would not have been in a positive light. The people in the pews of the churches my family attended would have found Williams and Mirikitani lacking; some would have thought them reprehensible. Williams and Mirikitani are the founders of Glide Memorial Methodist Church is San Francisco, a church that reached--and reaches--out to the downtrodden, the outcasts, the addicts. A church that loves unconditionally. A church.

Beyond the Possible tells the story of how Glide came to be, starting with the childhood and formative years of Williams and Mirikitani. The early lives of these two are worthy of print on their own. Williams grew up in a segregated Texas town in the 1930s. He was a good student and athlete, and worked hard to get into college. After he graduated from college, he was one of five young men who helped desegregate the all-white Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. The students at Perkins had made a formal request to desegregate their school. This was the first voluntary desegregation of a major educational institution in the South.

During World War II, when Mirikitani was about two years old, her family was interred at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas. Her family never expected her to do much else other than marry and provide a good home life for a husband, but she pushed herself to do much more.

The personal journeys of Williams and Mirikitani, combined with the the revival of a dying church in the middle of San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, make for an extremely compelling narrative. Much like the story of Glide, the story of Williams and Mirikitani is winding and intricate. I feel at a loss when I try to sum up either, not sure of what to leave out. It all seems so integral.

I am quite cynical when it come to religion--particularly religious institutions. And while I still hesitate to call myself an atheist, deep down, I know that label probably fits better than any other. In spite of this, or perhaps it is because of this, I found the story of Glide extremely compelling. A church that is a group of people advocating for social justice and loving others unconditionally is a church that I could see myself attending... occasionally.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Is Jane Austen overrated?

That's a question posed by the title of Ron Rosenbaum's article in Slate, enticingly luring you with the promise of Slate-style contrarianism.  But since the anti-Austen faction (led by notable stalwarts like Charlotte Bronte and V. S. Naipaul) has been so vocal as of late, this isn't the contrarianism you've been expecting: It's the backlash against the backlash.

The answer, according to Rosenbaum, is No, but also kind of: 
Enough! Please! We get it. I’ve written it myself several times. Jane Austen is a serious—and seriously great—figure of seriously great literature. Don’t diminish her work by calling it chick lit! Did I mention she’s a very, very, serious (but brilliantly comic and satiric) author?
But it’s begun to seem like she’s now assumed the role of the designated highbrow writer for light readers. It’s not that she’s overrated. It’s that she’s in dire jeopardy of being overhyped—and dumbed down in the process.

Rosenbaum's argument is close to what I've been telling my senior students for years now: It isn't that Austen is overrated, really, but mis-rated.  Austen is widely loved, but for reasons other than what makes her writing so brilliant and unparalleled.  Yes, the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is compelling, and it would be nice to live at Pemberley for a little while, but Pride and Prejudice is more than a playground for our own retrograde fantasies.  What makes it, and the rest of her novels so compelling, is the simultaneous sharpness and subtlety of her satire, the fluidity of the narration, and the careful attention to individual character.  In this last facet I don't thinks he has any equals besides Shakespeare, and in the first two none at all.

Rosenbaum does a good job skewering the cottage industry of Austen schlock, though with a measure of glee and unsubtlety that I'm sure he didn't pick up from Austen herself.  (Satirical she was, snarky she was not.)  I agree with his thesis 100%: It is the reduction of her novels, whether to "chick lit," or moralistic pablum, or fodder for Regency dress-up parties, that threatens to overshadow how invaluable they are.

What really fascinated me, though, was his conclusion.  He theorizes that:

...silly as they are, the zombie, sea monster, and horror movie mash-up versions of the Austen novels are, if not deliberate, then unintentional expressions of What’s Missing From the Snow Globe World of Austen. That sense that she is not questioning the moral order of the universe, the horror of unredeemed human suffering, and the meaning of the human presence within it. She doesn’t have to, but let’s not ignore the fact that she doesn’t. She does not venture into the realm of theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the alleged goodness of God with the prevalence of evil—which almost every great novelist and dramatist does.

Rosenbaum may be correct when he says that the mashers-up are responding to the "sense that she is not questioning the moral order of the universe," but I question whether that's true.  Just today in my AP class we did a close reading of Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, annotating the ways in which he unknowingly embarrasses himself.  For one, he seems to think it is appropriate for a proposal to reference the inevitable death of both of Elizabeth's parents:

But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to chuse a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place -- which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years... To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother's decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to.

Pride and Prejudice may not have much in the way of metaphysics, but it is not ignorant of death, and because Austen does not "stray into tragedy," as Rosenbaum writes, does not mean that she creates a "Snow Globe World" in which tragedy is non-existent or impossible.  Death looms over Pride and Prejudice; the possibility that Mr. Bennet will die before his wife and daughters are provided for gives Jane and Elizabeth's romances their urgency.  It is very concerned with the way death affects the living, and with the unjust social structures that would amplify the tragedy of death by casting the female Bennets out of their home.

Rosenbaum recoils in disgust as the moralizing vacuity of William Deresiewicz's "self-help" book on Austen, but it's no more fair or accurate to depict them as amoral.  It is possible, and I think not a stretch, to read her heroines as people who have no time for metaphysics because their society has set them to the task of procuring husbands.

Rather, what Rosenbaum interprets as a lack I think is one of Austen's great gifts: a lightness of tone even about the most serious of matters.  Certainly I appreciate it more now that I'm faced with the overblown seriousness and melodrama of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, who were more or less her contemporaries.  It's a rare gift--Wilde inherited it, and if he hadn't gone to prison to produce De Profundis and "Reading Gaol" we might think of him, too, as a talented figure who doesn't quite fit the description of a "great novelist and dramatist."  (I will let the question of how we might think of a James Austen or an Olivia Wilde go unasked.)

Ultimately, the pop-culture remorae that cling to Austen cause Rosenbaum to reassess his appreciation of her.  His conclusion is that she doesn't "plumb the depths" like the greats do, and I leave it to you to decide for yourself how deeply she plumbs, and how important such plumbing is to your conception of greatness.  I will conclude by saying that I think it's her subtlety, her nuance, and her narrative control that keep us coming back to her, the blurriness between her voice and her characters', her inability to be pigeonholed and pinned down.  And as long as we're still wondering what exactly it is her novels are and do, they are as compelling as they ever were.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

My life has for several years been a theatre of calamity.  I have been a mark for the vigilance of tyranny, and I could not escape.  My enemy has shown himself inaccessible to intreaties and untired in persecution.  My fame, as well as my happiness, has become his victim.  Every one, as far as my story has been known, has refused to assist me in my distress, and has execrated my name.  I have not deserved this treatment.

William Godwin's novel Caleb Williams was originally titled Things As They Are, which is admittedly a strange title for a fictional book.  Godwin, a 18th-century radical writer and philosopher, believed that his fiction spoke to fundamental truths about the operation of the class system in the England of his day, and while that might have been so, the Gothic improbabilities and overblown melodrama of Caleb Williams make the title even stranger.

Caleb is a servant in the household of Ferdinando Falkland, a wealthy landowner who is renowned but depressive and withdrawn.  Another servant informs him that Falkland was once cheerful and sociable, but a conflict with another squire, named Tyrrel, took such a toll on him that his character was forever changed.  Godwin devotes a full third of the novel to this story.  Tyrrel, Caleb learns, was so jealous of Falkland's eminence and popularity that he endeavored for years to destroy him.  Falkland's behavior in account is comically noble--at one point he just happens to be in the right place to save Tyrrel's beloved cousin Emily from a deadly fire--but all that ends when Falkland is put on trial for Tyrrel's shocking murder.  Falkland, being noble and well-loved, is acquitted of the crime, but Caleb notices inconsistencies in the story that suggest Falkland may have been guilty after all.

Caleb's curiosity gets the better of him, until he essentially goads his master into confessing.  Though Caleb insists he will remain silent, Falkland persecutes him doggedly throughout the rest of the novel, falsely charging him with theft, condemning him to prison, and generally making his life miserable.  Caleb's counter-accusation of Falkland only serves to make his crime more notorious, because Falkland's nobility protects his reputation.  Caleb, having escaped from prison, finds he has become an infamous criminal.

It seems as if Godwin has set up a classic tale of vengeance, but Caleb only desires to be out from under Falkland's persecution.  In fact, the most interesting element of Caleb Williams is Caleb's insistence throughout his ordeal that Falkland remains essentially good, and his unwillingness to accuse his former master except when he feels there is no other recourse.  The novel wears its social program on its sleeve in a way that often seems preachy and didactic, especially a long section describing prison life, peppered with footnotes directing the reader to firsthand accounts of the English prison system.  But Godwin's depiction of a man who has so thoroughly absorbed the dictates of social inequality that he prefers suffering to exposing his master to infamy is its strongest commentary.

Unfortunately, it cannot salvage Caleb Williams' ragged plot.  The resolution in particular is extremely unsatisfying--after fleeing Falkland's persecutions for 200 pages, Caleb's solution is to accuse Falkland a second time, but like, harder.  This scene has an elegant reversal to it--instead of denigrating Falkland, Caleb somehow manages to force a confession from him through adulation--but Godwin fails to explain why this scene couldn't have taken place months before.

I read this novel for a class I'm taking on 19th-century literature, so that's a lot of what I'll be posting over the next few months.  One thing I'm noticing about the century as a whole: They thought abstract nouns were awesome.  (Fortitude, depravity, sensibility...)  Apparently we didn't decide that "show, don't tell" was a maxim of writing until the 20th century.  It might be a long semester.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

News from Heaven by Jennifer Haigh

The fictional town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania exists. Anyone who has been to Franklin, Oil City, Mercer, or any number of hamlets and coal towns throughout the Quaker State would recognize it. The Episcopal church two blocks from the Catholic church two blocks from the Baptist church, families made wealthy by coal, out-of-work coal miners not sure what else they can do, land scarred by unscrupulous strip-mining companies, the high school athlete who's the talk of the town: all familiar.

Jennifer Haigh returns to her town of Bakerton with this collection of ten interconnected short stories. The stories meander through the life of the town, jumping from one Bakerton family to another, overlapping here an there. Bakerton's halcyon beginnings are the backdrop for the first story, one about Jewish and Polish immigrants. In the penultimate story of this collection, the Bakerton Borough Council tries to force a descendant of the Baker Family to clean up their property, which borders land that the council hopes to lease to a correctional facility. Through a large cast of characters, whose last names become familiar by the end of the book, Haigh portrays the decline--but not the death--of a coal town. These are uniquely American stories.

Haigh is quick with a funny or poignant turn of phrase. One of my favorites came from "Favorite Son," a story about a former high school football star who has fallen on hard times. The story beings, "For a certain kind of teenager, a small town is a prison. For another kind, it is a stage." Haigh is an excellent storyteller, at once adept at ensconcing her readers in her often uncharitable fictional town and at conveying the humanity of her characters. News from Heaven is at times a little somber, but that's to be expected from a collection of stories about the economic decline of a coal mining town. I very much enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading other works by Haigh.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Shardik by Richard Adams

"Ah, Lord Shardik," he prayed silently, "the empire was pride and folly. I am sorry for my blindness, and sorry, too, for all that you suffered at my hands. Yet for others' sake, not mine, I entreat you not to leave us forever without the truth that you came to reveal. Not for our deserving, but of your own grace and pity for Man's helplessness."  

Richard Adams has a knack for creating immersive fantasy worlds. He draws you in with created languages, detailed maps, and elaborate traditions. Watership Down, his first novel, is an excellent example of this cultivated veracity. The story centers around a group of rabbits, with their own culture, language, and mythology. These details help to root the reader within Adams' fantasy world.

Two years after Adams published Watership Down, he published Shardik, his follow-up to the international bestseller. He relied on many of the same elements that made Watership Down work so well: a fantasy world rooted in a real-world epoch (in this case, early Medieval), different groups of people with detailed mythologies and traditions, and animals.

While the book is titled after Shardik, an enormous bear, the main character is a man, a hunter from a small, island village. While out hunting, Kelderek comes across a bear larger than any he has ever seen, prompting him to report back to the head of the Ortelgans that he has seen their bear god Shardik in the flesh. This sets off a series of events, culminating with the Ortelgans, emboldened by the power of Shardik, making their way into the mainland, and overthrowing cities and villages. Kelderek, thought of as a simpleton prior to his encounter with Shardik, see his standing rise among his fellow Ortelgans. Before too long, things begin to unravel for Kelderek and the Ortelgans.

Perhaps the main theme of Shardik is the creation and power of myths and religious beliefs. The myth of Shardik evolves and adapts throughout the story. The myth of Shardik at the close of the novel is quite different from Ortelgan beliefs at the novel's opening. But the cult of Shardik remains.

This is the third novel by Richard Adams that I have read. While I enjoyed it much more than The Girl in a Swing, it did not come close to rivaling Watership Down. Shardik opened well and kept my attention for the first 400 pages, but it started to drag around two-thirds of the way through and did not really pick back up until the last 50 pages. Unlike Kelderek, many of the supporting characters lacked definition and because of this were rather easy to confuse. I did not dislike Shardik, but would hesitate to recommend it to anyone who had not yet read other works by Adams.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Food Digested Takes Another Name

A year or so ago, someone ripped off a bunch of 50 Books' reviews. We were angry--livid, in fact--but, unfortunately, couldn't find the words to express our frustration in pentameter. Fast forward to this year, when I discovered John Donne's take on plagiarism, and Alexander Pope's reinterpretation. If only we'd known then what we know now...
But hee is worst, who (beggarly) doth chaw
Others wits fruits, and in his ravenous maw
Rankly digested, doth those things out-spue,
As his owne things; 'and they are his owne, 'tis true,
For if one eate my meate, though it be knowne
The meate was mine, th'excrement is his owne.
- John Donne, Satire 2
Pope's take is similar, but, while Donne comes right out and says that plagiarists produce excrement, Pope makes the reader complicit by using words with sounds that can't help but conjure a cruder word, one would never be found in 18th-century poetry...
Wretched, indeed! but far more wretched yet
Is he who makes his meal on others’ wit:
’T is changed, no doubt, from what it was before;
His rank digestion makes it wit no more:
Sense pass’d thro’ him no longer is the same;
For food digested takes another name.
- Alexander Pope, The Second Satire of Dr Donne
Get it?