December 9, 2012

From David Foster Wallace’s essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”, in the collection Both Flesh and Not.

“And if Marx…derided the intellectuals of his day for merely interpreting the world when the real imperative was to change it, the derision seems even more apt today when we notice that many of our best-known [Conspicuously Young] writers seem content merely to have reduced interpretation to whining. And what’s frustrating for me about the whiners is that precisely the state of general affairs that explains a nihilistic artistic outlook makes it imperative that art not be nihilistic.

…Serious, real, conscientious, aware, ambitious art is not a grey thing. It has never been a grey thing and it is not a grey thing now. This is why fiction in a grey time may not be grey.

…If fashion, flux, and academy make for thin milk, at least that means the good stuff can’t help but rise. I’d get ready.”


Dead On.

October 17, 2012

From Nick Hornby’s new collection of essays from The Believer:

“Three of the presents my friends had bought me were book-shaped, and, miraculously, given the lack of deferred gratification in my book-buying life, I wanted to read them all, and didn’t own any of them.”


October 17, 2012

by Carl Dennis

If the body is the house of the soul,
What’s wrong with a little home decoration
More permanent than the drapes in the parlor
Or the fabric on the dining-room chairs?

A forearm, say, adorned with a tropical flower
Or with a palm tree under a deep blue sky,
Suggesting the body is glad to recall
Its stay in Eden, whether or not the soul
Regards that episode as relevant now.

Or consider the young waitress
Who served you lunch just an hour ago,
How her sleeveless blouse revealed
A small heart on her shoulder
Inscribed with two names, Dave and Gretchen,
Under a sprig of lilac.

No need to assume she’s failed to imagine a time
When a boyfriend more congenial
Wakes up beside her only to be reminded
There was once a Dave who was all she wanted.

Could be she wants to send a reminder
To the Gretchen she may become
Not to forget the girl who believed
That holding on was a project worthy
Of all the attention that she could muster,
As much a challenge as letting go.

“Tattoo” by Carl Dennis from Callings. © Penguin Poets, 2010.

Highly Recommended:

July 19, 2012

Music: Carole King’s The Legendary Demos is a must-listen for anyone interested in pop music. The album is what it says: the original demo versions, performed by Carole and her backers, for some of Goffin and King’s best pop songs: Pleasant Valley Sunday, Locomotion, Up on the Roof, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman… It also includes demos for her own songs, mostly from Tapestry, which have a great, quick energy compared to the more staid versions on the finished album. I’ve written a couple times about the genius I think it takes to keep writing great pop songs, and these demos show it in its most elemental form.

Fiction: I just finished Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements.  I picked it up because it sounded like an interesting story. A family descends on their summer home to prepare for the wedding of their first daughter, and entanglements and an exploding whale ensue. I was mostly interested because a great deal of the book is from the father’s perspective, and Shipstead’s author bio said she was born the same year I was, which made me wonder how she’d write a middle-aged man. I can’t speak to how accurate that is, but the book’s depiction of family dynamics and the craziness that comes with a wedding was spot on to me.

Non-Fiction: Finishing Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss. On my left-leaning newscommentary pages there was some discussion that Maraniss is a conservative critic of Obama, but I thought the book was quite well-balanced. When there’s a difference between Obama’s memoirs and the historical record, Maraniss points it out, but he’s perfectly content to ascribe those differences to the fictionalization that happens to any memoir.  A long read, and not the easiest, but offers some significant insight into a person with great depth of experience and, I think, understanding. Reading GWB’s memoir made me lose some of the sympathy I’d gained for him in intervening years; reading Maraniss’ book made me more eager to see an Obama second term.

Movie: Well, we watched American Reunion last night, which was exactly what you’d expect from an American Pie movie. Sort of like the 4th Indiana Jones, it’s just cool to see those characters again. But the movie I came to recommend is Barry Stevens’ documentary Prosecutor, about the International Criminal Court’s first Chief Prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo. As someone interested in a global approach to systemic international problems, I appreciated seeing a film that exposes the shortcomings of international criminal prosecutions while still maintaining the value of the system.


June 6, 2012

The title Rachel Maddow chose for her book on the influences of, and on, US military intervention could be equally well-applied to What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel.

Sandel makes a convincing argument that it’s time for  honest discussion about where we see the place of market forces, and what realms of life and society are best left off-limits: “These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods and the proper way of valuing them. This is a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” (10)

And he offers relevant examples of that drift. In confusing the desire to pay with the ability to pay, a market society justifies tiered services, not only in the cultural realm (skyboxes at athletic events) but also in education, health care, and the rest. Where’s the line between legacy admission or making a large donation to a college and buying your way in? Or between buying citizenship or being given a permanent visa for investing $500K in a US business?

“The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another…Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life…For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.” (202-203)

It’s a thoughtful, important book.

The Use of Women

May 28, 2012

I just (ashamedly for getting to it so late) finished Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s first memoir, Infidel. Nomad, the second, is still waiting on my shelf.

It is an eloquent and powerful insight into the process of rational examination she went through on her transition away from Islam and the developing world.

And it made me reconsider something that had spoken true to me at an earlier time but no longer seemed to fit my worldview, and showed me why.

I heard a keynote speaker once who had just come back from Afghanistan, in the early years of the ongoing war. She talked about visiting women and children and asking them about “women’s rights”, and said they responded that while they were concerned about violence and clean water, it was foolish to worry about gender equality and the oppression of women.

At the time, it sounded right. But looking at the problems in many developing parts of the world, it started to seem inadequate. And Infidel cleared up my thinking on the subject. There is no way these problems can even begin to be addressed without exploiting the social potential of women. And that’s why the treatment of women is a development issue, as well as a moral one.

Once again I get reminded how hard it must be to end a novel. John Boyne’s The Absolutist could have ended perfectly on page 292, and instead we get a “60 years later” that takes us to page 309. It’s not as useless as some codas, however, and either last line is haunting.

Boyne called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas a fable, and while that book was heartbreaking, I can see how this one is more honest. If you’re a lover of character, this story of “the Great War” is for you. The first person narration is never hackneyed; the book asks and answers questions at the rate we want, never too quickly or too slowly. There’s a sympathy for the human condition that overrides all.

Religion for Atheists

March 31, 2012

I’m glad I came to Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists at a somewhat slow time.  I don’t know that I would have had the patience for it otherwise, and alongside some parts I took issue with, there were some good ideas. Mostly, I have quotations to share and discuss:

“Much of modern moral thought has been transfixed by the idea that a collapse in belief must have irreparably damaged our capacity to build a convincing ethical framework for ourselves. But this argument, while apparently atheistic in nature, owes a strange, unwarranted debt to a religious mindset–for only if we truly believed at some level that God had once existed, and that the foundations of morality were therefore in their essence supernatural, would the recognition  of his present non-existence have any power to shake our moral principles.” (79)  I think de Botton is mistaken in calling this argument “apparently atheistic.” None of the atheists I know would make such an argument, and all live according to a convincing ethical framework. Most would agree with Christopher Hitchens that it takes a pretty low view of humanity to believe the only thing keeping us from mistreating each other is our belief in God.

“In the secular sphere, we may well be reading the right books, but we too often fail to ask direct questions of them…We are fatefully in love with ambiguity, uncritical of the Modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.” (119)  I think we mean postmodern, here, don’t we? He’s talking about books, so for me Modernist means D.H. Lawrence, maybe edging back to Conrad, and while those authors, to name two, may be concerned with issues of moral complexity, complexity isn’t the same thing as ambiguity. And even ambiguity of meaning doesn’t mean the same thing as having ‘no moral content’.  I think most serious students of literature, even the postmodern, recognize works’ desire to change their audience.

de Botton goes into some detail on his feelings about books as revered artifacts, and the importance of revisiting important texts on a regular basis, the same way religions make use of guided study. I only take issue with the idea that religious communities are the only groups that work with texts this way.


And some passages I found interesting and helpful:

“Because the ego is inherently vulnerable, its predominant mood is one of anxiety…Even under the most auspicious of contexts, it is never far from a relentless, throbbing drumbeat of worry, which conspires to prevent it from sincere involvement with anything outside of itself. And yet the ego also has a touching tendency constantly to trust that its desires are about to be fulfilled. Images of tranquility and security haunt it: a particular job, social conquest or material acquisition always seems to hold out the promise of an end to craving.” (148-150)

“It is telling that the secular world is not well versed in the art of gratitude: we no longer offer up thanks for harvests, meals, bees or clement weather. On a superficial level, we might suppose that this is because there is no one to say ‘Thank you’ to. But at base it seems more a matter of ambition and expectation. Many of those blessings for which our pious and pessimistic ancestors offered thanks, we now pride ourselves on having worked hard enough to take for granted.” (188)

“Christianity also knows that any pain is aggravated by the sense that we are alone in experiencing it. However, we are as a rule not very skilled at communicating the texture of our troubles to others, or at sensing the sorrows they themselves are hiding behind stoic facades. We are therefore in need of art to help us to understand our own neglected hurt, to grasp everything that does not come up in casual conversation and to coax us out of an unproductively isolated relationship with our most despised and awkward qualities.” (221)

“It may be that we are asking too much of our own secular artists, requiring them not only to impress our senses but also to be the originators of profound psychological and moral insights. Our artistic scene might benefit from greater collaborations between thinkers and makers of images, a marriage of the best ideas with their highest expressions.” (239)

“There is a devilishly direct relationship between the significance of an idea and how nervous we become at the prospect of having to think about it.” (267)

Tragedy and Melodrama

March 16, 2012

“Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilised world.”  Jose Ortega y Gasset

I just started Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and that’s a prefacing quotation. I like Krakauer’s books; they demonstrate the brilliance and tragedy inherent in everyday life. Well, not everyday life, but in real people’s lives.

But before this I had just read Tatiana de Rosnay’s The House I Loved. Her first novel, Sarah’s Key, was very well-reviewed and much loved by many readers. I hadn’t read it, but when I saw this new, third novel, I thought I should try it.

It’s an historical novel set in 1860s Paris, as Georges-Eugène Haussmann undertakes his rebuilding of the city. Our narrator, Rose Bazelet, is haunted by her memories as she stands guard in her house against the destruction of her neighbourhood.

The description was appealing to me, but the writing wasn’t. It’s exacerbated by the 1st-person narration (Rose is writing to her dead husband), but the melodramatic tone was off-putting, and some of the writing was just awkward.  “I knew, then and there, that that tall bearded man with the redoubtable chin was to become my bitterest enemy.” “This had not concerned me, as my daily life as a mother and wife had not altered. It is true that the prices at the market had soared, but our meals were still abundant. Our life was still the same. For the moment.”

And as it went on, it got worse. Finally, two pages from the end:

“There is nothing romantic about Monsieur Zola’s writing. There is nothing noble about it either. For instance, the infamous scene at the town morgue (the establishment down by the river, where you and I had never gone to despite its growing popularity for visits by the public) is no doubt the most powerful piece of writing I have ever read in my entire life. It is even more macabre than what Monsieur Poe achieved. So how, you are surely wondering, can your meek, bland Rose approve of such literature? You may well ask. There is a dark side to your Rose. Your Rose has thorns.”

What? “where you and I had never gone to”?

And the feeling of melodrama isn’t helped by the ending. Rose just never felt real to me, which is a shame, because I think there could be a great story, in that history. It feels like playing at tragedy.

Reading Journal

January 12, 2012

I’ve decided to keep a reading journal…I know that I’ve already forgotten many of the books I read in 2011, and (as much as it pains me to say it) I don’t write about everything here, like I should.

So Far:

Finished in January 2012:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Maya Angelou.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Michael Lewis.

Reading Right Now:

God is Not Great. Christopher Hitchens.

Death Comes to Pemberley. P.D. James.

James’ “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice is, so far, a whole lot of fun and true to the spirit of the original. My favourite line:

“[Mr. Bennet] and Darcy rapidly came to the conclusion that they liked each other and thereafter, as is common with friends, accepted their different quirks of character as evidence of the other’s superior intellect.”

And G., I promise I’ll be done with my current reads in time for our Gone with the Wind February Challenge!