Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Comic Book Roundup

With the impending End of Summer, it seems Like A Time Most Appropriate to provide Summary Statement about a few of the Comic Books I read this Summer.  In No Particular Order:

1. Herge, Tintin in Tibet, Flight 714 to Sydney, The Calculus Affair
After seeing how much Clara liked reading Bone, I figured it would be fun to revisit Tintin after many a year, and read along with Clara.  Only half that proposition worked.  I enjoyed the Tintin books; Clara, alas, did not.  Clara's principle objection was to the Art; she was not enamored with the appearance of the assorted characters--Tintin and his spiked tuft of hair annoyed her in particular.  The characters were, in Clara's perpetual word, "Weird."  I, on the other hand, found much to enjoy in the exploits of Tintin and his Companions.  Nice little stories, well told.  They tend to be Children's literature, but of the sort that adults can enjoy without feeling their brain cells die as they turn each page.  The plots, dressed up a bit, would serve as genre fiction--not high literature, but also not a bad way to spend a bit of time.  Having enjoyed these sufficiently well, I'll undoubtedly be reading more Tintin in the months or years to come.  Rumor has it, by the way, that Spielberg has a Tintin series of movies in the works.  So, if you like to be ahead of cultural trends, you should read some Tintin now, so that when the movies come out, you can feel hip.

2. Thompson, Blankets
This is a comic book for adults; a slow-moving, coming-of-age story.  There is much in it that is good, but on the whole, I thought it was just decent.  The storyline isn't terribly exciting--it is "autobiographical"--largely the tale of a guy who hits his teenage years and a) falls in love with a girl and b) falls out of love with his church.  Some of the art was very well done--in particular, Thompson does quite a bit with panels containing no dialogue.  But, all that being said, I wasn't too enamored with the book.

3. Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
I just reread these after reading Wells' Moon story.  The scientist in Wells book and his invention allowing for lunar travel, are an important part of the plot in the first book.  These comics are a sort of trivial pursuit story.  They have nonstop references to just about everything from the literature of the early 20th century.  The hook is that all the fantastical stories written then are true.  And so, the main characters, the secondary characters, the plots, the details, and even the pictures in the background are all out of some story or other.  So, reading the books is largely a matter of constantly thinking either, "I get it--I know where he is from" or "I wonder what obscure book that character is in."  Having read Wells' book for example, I smiled when the scientist guy showed up, and there is a plot development late in the story which makes way more sense now than it did when I first read the story.  (Wells' books are omnipresent throughout--War of the Worlds is the basis for the second story; The Invisible Man is part of the League; Dr. Moreau and his creatures play a big role in the second story.)  So, are these good?  I don't know--they are gimmick books--I suppose if you know enough of the original stories, they are amusing, but I am not sure they hold up well on their own terms.

4. Morse, Magic Pickle
The story of a Superpowered Pickle and his battles against the Evil Vegetables. Yes, it is as idiotic as it sounds.  And now, you are wondering why I read it.  Thereby hangs a tale.  Not a good tale, mind, but a tale nonetheless.  I was at the library with Clara wandering around the kid's section while she was looking for books.  I saw this sitting on a shelf and figured it would be funny to see if I could convince her to read it--it looked, shall we say, somewhat less than high literature.  She, not surprisingly, just winced and said the book looked, you guessed it, "Weird."  So, I told her it looked really funny and she should read it.  She gave me a look of visible scorn  So, I said that if she wasn't going to read it, then I was going to check it out and read it.  So, I did. Clara was mortified.  When we got the checkout counter, Clara made a big point of saying so that the librarian could hear her, "Dad, I can't believe you are going to read that book!" I replied, "It's OK, Clara.  There is nothing wrong with you wanting to read it.  You don't need to be embarrassed."  The librarian then told Clara that indeed  lots of kids have been reading about the Magic Pickle.  So, when we got home, I read it--it was, truth be told, rather lame.  But, don't tell Clara I said that--I told her is was hysterically funny.  She still didn't read it.  I think she didn't believe me.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The State of First Things, August/ September 2010

The second issue with the new format.

A. Must Read Articles
1. David Hart, "A Perfect Game"
An essay about the wonders of baseball.  Marvelously done.  Hart is a wonderful writer, and the subject is sublime.  Somebody really needs to write a paean to football, an even better sport and thus meriting an even greater hymn of praise.

2. Glen Loury, "Why We Didn't Overcome" Review of Freedom is Not Enough by James Patterson
Loury is always worth reading.  His falling out with the conservatives a few years back was an intellectual tragedy--and completely pointless and needless.  Podhoretz wrote a hit piece on him in National Review, which was a real shame all around.  This essay is far more than a book review; it is a nice reflection on why the discussion on race in America is so pathetic.  Loury notes that the Left's attack on the Moynihan report was "a brand of intellectual thuggery that became all too familiar afterward."  And thus discussion (you know, talking and that sort of thing) became impossible in matter relating to race.  Someday, one hopes, it will again be possible to have a polite, informed discussion about race in this country--until then, I am afraid that many, far too many, people will continue to suffer.

B. Flawed, but worth reading
1. David Goldman, "The God of the Mathematicians"
Kurt Godel and theology.  An interesting juxtaposition.  Unfortunately, nobody, including Goldman, is entirely sure what happens when these two mix.

2. Robert George, "God and Gettysburg"
The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy published a pamphlet with the American State Documents, including the Gettysburg Address. They changed the Gettysburg Address, omitting the words "under God."  George notes the change was deliberate.

3. Bottum, "Pullman Sleeper" Review of Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
An amusing review of a very silly book by a very silly author--well it's amusing if you like seeing silly authors get called silly.

4. Robert Miola, "Willy-Nilly" Review of James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Miribile Dictu! Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.  But, the book and review have an interesting discussion of the reasons why everyone has been so keen to argue otherwise.

5. Lee Smith, "The Apologists" Review of Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals
Another salvo in the war against Islamic terrorists and their allies in the Western Intelligentsia

Also, I don't normally mention the poems, but a a couple of them in this issue are particularly good: Robert Crawford, "Not2B.com" and "Saro's Love Song" translated by Joseph Bottum.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Tale of a Tub

"There are certain common privileges of a writer, the benefit whereof I hope there will be no reason to doubt; particularly, that where I am not understood, it shall be concluded that something very useful and profound is couched underneath; and again, that whatever word or sentence is printed in a different character shall be judged to contain something extraordinary either of wit or sublime."

Ah, I too would like to have that common privilege.

The sage to whom I owe that witty and sublime profound thought is Jonathan Swift, in A Tale of a Tub, a tome which has much in it worthy of commendation to those who have not yet perused said tome, and perhaps even much worthy of commendation to those who have previously read it, it, in this case, being a Great Book, and thus, by presumption, worthy of being read on Diverse and Multiple Occasions.  It will cause no Wonder to the Reader to Discover that Your Humble Narrator has become enamored with a book whose author states in the Conclusion:
"I am now trying an experiment very frequent among modern authors, which is to write upon nothing, when the subject is utterly exhausted to let the pen still move on; by some called the ghost of wit, delighting to walk after the death of its body."
The only wonder is that Your Humble Narrator had not read this book before now.

In between the first quoted material, found in a preface and the second quoted material, found (as noted earlier) in the conclusion, there is, in part, a tale of three brothers, Peter, Martin and Jack.  Peter bears a striking resemblance to a particular Church centered in Rome, Martin bears a strong resemblance to an established Church which has broken off from the Church at Rome, and Jack, well Jack is much akin to the assorted and sundry churches of Presbyterian (and, maybe even, dare I say it, Baptist) Affiliation.  All three brothers squabble endlessly over a coat bequeathed to them by their Father, said coat resembling a Book of Some Note.  By the time the Brothers are Done with it, said coat bears little resemblance to its original form.  Martin comes off the best in the book, which may not be surprising given that it is widely rumored that the author of this tome (published anonymously, of course) was a Dean in the Church of Ireland.

That tale is a nicely done satire, but it is not the tale itself which was most charming to Your Humble Narrator.  It was the Digressions.  And, wonder of wonders, the chapter title to End all chapter titles, the veritable summa of chapter titles, a gift to the world of Chapter Titles which can only have come from Holy Inspiration, this book contains Section VII, entitled:

A Digression in Praise of Digressions

And the content of that chapter with such a marvelous title--well, the author digresses from the topic promised in the chapter title.

For reasons Obvious to even a cursory perusor of the musings on this blog, this tale of a tub was a subject of great Diversion and Amusement for the author of these musings.  But, the Reader impatiently asks, will this tome be of interest to anyone who is not as enamored with absurd prose masking a lack of thought in service of digressions serving no purpose other than allowing the author to construct sentences whose opaqueness is only exceeded by the lack of content contained therein?

Truth be Told (always a Noble Act): It isn't nearly as good as Gulliver's Travels or A Modest Proposal, but on the whole, it is well worth reading.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


We just returned from a week of camping in Acadia National Park (in Maine).  In short: Acadia is unbelievably beautiful.  (As Janet noted--you don't get to be a National Park if you are just sort of a nice place.)  You could easily spend a month there hiking all over and still not exhaust all the possibilities.  We camped at Seawall, which is one of the two campgrounds in eh National Park itself.  Campgrounds used to be a lot nicer before they started packing everyone in like sardines.  Now they are really just a place to sleep before you head off for the day.  But, for $14/night, you can't complain too much. 

Oddly, in the midst of staggering natural beauty, one of the the most impressive things I saw was the two planned gardens at which we stopped (Janet likes gardens.).

So, if you are looking for a good place to go camping--head off to Acadia.  You won't regret it.

The camping Book Report:

I finished three books on the trip (all read by a campfire at night after the rest of the family had gone to bed--one interesting thing about Acadia--no mosquitoes, so reading by the campfire does not mean being eaten).

1) and 2) Ellery Queen: Wife or Death and The Golden Goose
 These two novels came bundled in a single book ("A Signet Double Mystery by Ellery Queen: 2 Full length novels for the price of one").  I picked up this volume at a library book sale back when I was in college (or maybe high school).  I have had it ever since, but never read it.  I figured camping was a good time to read it.  The one word summary of both novels: Terrible.
Ellery Queen was originally two cousins, but then they let others use the name as a marketing bit.  These two novels were apparently written by hacks.  Both are meant to be the Agatha Christie style solve-the-mystery-using-the-clues-provided.  I think I would have had to read them when I was 7 not to have noticed right away who the murderer was.  The experience of reading them was thus one of hoping that it wasn't really so obvious, that there was a surprise in store, that maybe there was a modicum of cleverness somewhere, but alas, 'twas not to be.  The Golden Goose was the better of the two, by the way, because it at least tried to be funny--it wasn't funny, but at least it tried to be funny.  But, reading this book does have the virtue that for the first time in decades, it will no longer be on my bookshelf.

3) Wells, The First Men in the Moon
Having been utterly disappointed with the first two books I read, I decided to rad this one out of the stack of book I brought along.  I liked the previous books I had read by Wells--not loved them, but liked them, so I figured this was a safe choice to be a pleasant way to spend a couple of evenings.  I was wrong.  It was a disappointment.  This was a pretty influential book, though, so it had the virtue of at least being historically interesting.  I now know, for example, why the first volume of C.S. Lewis' Space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet) was so bad--it was imitating this book by Wells.  The problem with the book is that it was tedious--much of it read like a Jules Verne travel narrative--lots of descriptions abut places which were probably impressive before an era when I have seen countless movies and TV shows about alien planets.  There was an interesting precursor to Brave New World in here.  This book also allowed Wells to go off on his Socialist Utopian dreams, which again was a bit tedious.  Not a horrible book in the end (at least I will keep this one around), but sadly, not the best book to read while camping.

So, all in all, I cannot say that my book selections were the high point of vacation.

Friday, August 13, 2010

War Movies

Purely coincidentally (at least I think it was a coincidence, but one never knows about the workings of one's subconscious (speaking of which, has anyone doubted the existence of the subconscious since Freud (that's not a rhetorical question; I really don't know (so I should probably look it up)))), in the last week two weeks, I have seen three war movies.  In chronological order (by war, not by date of film (but, as you will notice, if they had been placed in chronological order by date of film, the order would be the same)):

Gone With the Wind
Saving Private Ryan
The Hurt Locker

The first two I had seen before.  Both are classics (but you knew that).  The last one is destined to be a classic--it was fantastic.  But, besides the overall observation that if you haven't seen any one of those three films, you should make a point of doing so, they do make for an interesting reflection on the changing nature of war.  War is a lot less bloody than it used to be.  In The Hurt Locker, we find it to be an utter tragedy when one soldier dies.  In Saving Private Ryan, one guy dies before anyone else does anything, and then a zillion more die before they even get onto the beach at Normandy.  In Gone With the Wind, not only are all the soldiers dying, but a whole city and surrounding region is burned to the ground.  That is the odd thing:  War is just as tragic today as it was in the late 1800s, but the death toll is incredibly smaller now than it used to be.  The tragedy of war seems constant, which means that the unit of tragedy per death had to skyrocket.  There is an interesting math equation in there somewhere, which would enable measurement of the tragic factor in death. 

The other observation--anyone who is not in awe of the courage shown by and overwhelmed with gratitude for the sacrifices of the guys at Normandy and the guys currently roaming around Iraq and Afghanistan is completely and utterly morally bankrupt.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's the end of the world as we know it

And I feel fine.

(OK, the REM song isn't really about the literal end of the world, nor about the extinction of humanity.  But it's a good song.)

Imagining the world if most of humanity was destroyed is an interesting way to pass the time.  Imagine you were the only one left alive in a 200 square mile radius.  What would you do?  Leave? Stay?  And if you couldn't leave for some reason, what would you do? Where would you live--which house--your current one or the nicest one in the area?  What would you spend the day doing?  What would you eat and drink?  Now a lot depends on why the rest of humanity was gone, obviously, and what still works (do you still have electricity in the short run, for example.)  It's an interesting puzzle.

This sort of thing is a staple of science fiction type things.  In some cases the world is populated by roving bands of semi-humans from which our narrator must hide (see, for example, McCarthy's The Road (not even close to his best book, though) or the movie The Omega Man (with Charlton Heston) (or its remake I Am Legend (with Will Smith)).  Those scenarios present an extra element of challenge, so you can consider them advanced work in daydreaming about the end of the world.

Stewart's Earth Abides, a 1947 pioneer in this genre, imagines a more benign world--almost everybody is dead.  Our hero, Ish, slowly gathers some people around him and they have kids and then they have kids, so there is the start of a new age.  But, the older age slowly decays.  On the whole, the book was OK--I am not sure why it has such iconic status in the science fiction world--it wasn't phenomenal or anything.  There are way too many parts in the book which just seem ridiculous.  For example, in the end of the world scenario, one of my first thoughts is how to make sure you will have food and water.  In this book, the municipal water supply still works, so Ish just ignores it.  Twenty-two years later, the reservoir runs dry, and the community faces a huge crisis--where are they going to get water?  Think about that--for 22 years, people are using tap water coming from a nearby reservoir they have never visited being pumped through pipes about which they have never thought.  Is that even possible?  Seriously, could anyone go over two decades without once thinking about the water supply?  Similarly, right after the disaster when almost all of humanity dies, Ish drives across the country to see what is up.  I get that; it makes sense to see if there are places where lots of people survived.  But, he starts in Berkeley, and  never goes to, believe it or not, San Francisco or Los Angeles.  He drives south in California, but rather then drive over to LA, he decides to cut across the desert.  Does that make any sense at all?  I cannot think of any reason to do that; it serves no point in the plot--nothing would have changed in the book if he had gone into LA.  He then visits a few big cities, but before driving down the Eastern seaboard, he decides to go back to Berkeley.   Why?  Again, I have no idea.

So, the book is littered with some silly bits.  But, on the whole, it wasn't a painful read--more of a lazy way to ruminate about the end of the world.  Now, if all of humanity is wiped out, I'll be more prepared--for example, I won't forget to bring a chainsaw when I drive across the country.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

They're meaningless and all that's true

Postmodernism: In Ye Olde Modernist Times, Reason was the chief means of discovering new things and carrying on a discussion.  Postmodernism is the movement to replace Reason with Jargon.

Once upon a time, I really did think that Postmodernism had some substance, but over time I have begun to suspect it is really just Jargon hiding a lack of content.  I am now convinced.  The source of my conviction was:

Penner, ed.,  Christianity and the Postmodern Turn

This book (a Christmas gift) did a masterful job at unintentionally playing the role of the boy in the Emperor's New Clothes.  It has Six Christians, both philosophers and theologians, debating the the relationship of Christianity and Postmodernism.  Some like postmodernism; some don't.  Now what made this book so useful is that none of these six people are the leading Philosophers of the Age--in fact, I doubt many people outside the world of Christian Philosophy have heard of any of them (but I could be wrong about that).  So, the book is a nice demonstration of what we can call Vulgar Postmodernism--this is what happens when postmodernism escapes from the Fortress of Derrida et. al. and migrates to the masses.  The result?  Well...

The highlight of the book came at the conceptual midpoint.  The book is structured as an initial essay by each of the six authors, followed by a response essay by each of the six.  The first sentence of the first response paper:
"I have a feeling that many readers who make it to the end of this book will still be wondering, "So what is Postmodernism anyway?" 
Ya think?

That, it turns out, is the beauty of postmodernism--Not only does it mean exactly what I want it to mean, it also never means what you want it to mean.  So, if you say something nice or cruel or indifferent about postmodernism, I get to say that you don't really understand postmodernism and it means whatever nice, cruel or indifferent thing I want it to mean.  And as long as neither one of us uses any language which actually conveys some precise meaning, we can carry on a 240 page debate about the matter and then all go out for a beer afterwards.

For example:  Lyotard (read: One of the Patron Saints of postmodernism) said that postmodernism is incredulity toward metanarratives.  Aha! you (if you are the critic) say.  Christianity is a metanarrative; thus Christianity and Postmodernism are opposed.  QED.  Aha!  you (if you are the supporter) say.  Metanarratives aren't just narratives which are meta, but have some sort of appeal to Reason.  Lyotard mentioned reason, right there.  See?  So, Christianity isn't a metanarrative in Lyotard's sense of the word.  It's a narrative which stands above all narratives, but not a metanarrative because it needs Faith.  Aha! you (critic again) say.  You get around the conflict between narrative and metanarrative and Christianity and atheism by redefining Christianity.  Aha! you say.  Why do you think you can define Christianity?  That is just the problem with you modernists.  Aha! you say. So, postmodernists deny the reasoned substance of Christianity.  Aha!  you say. Your argument assumes that you have some monopoly about the Truth of Christianity.  But, you are not God.  Aha! you say, so you deny that we can know Truth, which is exactly the postmodernist game in the end.  Aha! you say.  No, there is Truth, but we can only know what can be known within our own language game, and those in a different language game will know different things.  Aha! you say.  So, you deny that the Truth can be communicated, which necessarily means evangelism is absurd.  Aha! you say.  See you don't understand a thing I am saying.  Aha! you say.  I understand completely. Lyotard was an atheist.  Aha? you say.  Why is that relevant?  Aha! you say.  See, you are the one who is confused.

That isn't an exact transcript of this book.  But it is pretty close.  Well at least in my language game that is what the book said.  If you have a different reading of the book, then the problem is that you still trapped in a Modernist belief that the book I just read might have some meaning independent of what the reader decides it means because after all, as Derrida told us, texts are really just mirrors, so I see myself in every book I read, and you see yourself in every book you read, and so we are not actually reading the same book anyway.  Which of course makes me wonder why you would read my review of a book since it seems logically impossible for you to determine what a book says without reading it yourself.
It just occurred to me that The Police actually wrote the Postmodern Anthem.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Atheism is Dead

One of the many things the world needs today:  A better class of atheists.  Seriously.  This is the subtext of David Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.  And, in this respect, Hart is entirely correct.  Why can't the modern world have atheists of a higher intellectual caliber?  Once upon a time, there were really intelligent atheists--Marx, Freud, Nietzsche.  Those guys are worth reading.  Now we get Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and those guys...well, just try reading their books.  Just try.  I think the only people who could read those books for profit or pleasure are those who have never, and I mean never, once read a theologically literature writer.  The new wave of atheists set up straw men for children and then work really hard to knock down those straw men.  Sometimes, they even manage to do so.

Hart's book is a merry romp through the historical idiocies of the New Atheists.  These atheists are guys who seriously argue we would all be better off if Christianity had never existed.  Really now?  In their rush to glorify the pagan past, they seem to have forgotten to discover just how, well, nasty and brutish those pagans were.  And in their rush to denigrate all things Christian, they seem to have forgotten to find out just what Christianity introduced to the world.  Set aside the theology of Christianity--who would argue against things like hospitals, the abolition of slavery, and equal rights for all men?  But, the New Atheists can't be bothered with historical accuracy--which is why Hart's job is, to be honest, not terribly difficult.  One senses throughout that Hart really wishes these New Atheists would present an argument somewhere, anywhere, that he might actually have to, you know, work to dismiss.  (And, don't even get Hart started on the philosophical failings of the New Atheists.)

I ran into this same phenomenon a few years back.  I was engaged to provide the response to Charles Freeman, who was talking about his book, The Closing of the Western Mind.  To do so, I read the whole of Freeman's book--not just skimming it to see if there was anything good in it--I read it with attention to detail.  It was palpably silly.  I am by no means an expert on the early church, and yet, the historical inaccuracies were painfully obvious.  I was thus terribly amused to run across this in Hart's volume:  "In 2003, for example, the amateur historian Charles Freeman published a volume called The Closing of the Western Mind that is an almost perfect compendium of every trite caricature of early Christianity devised since Gibbon departed to his long home....Along the way, Freeman provides a few damning passages from the church fathers (always out of context and without any mention of the plentiful counterexamples found in the same authors), attempts long discourses on theological disputes he simply does not understand, continually falls prey to vulgar misconstruals of the materials he is attempting to interpret, makes large claims about early Christian belief that are simply false, offers vague assertions about philosophers he clearly has not studied, and delivers himself of opinions regarding Christian teaching that are worse than simply inaccurate."  I wish Hart was exaggerating there for comedic effect, but he isn't.  I cannot even begin to covey my disappointment with that book--here I was, all set to participate in an interesting discussion about the whether Christianity did in fact cause a closing of the Western Mind, only to discover that the argument on behalf of the proposition wasn't really even worthy of debate.  Nor was it at least humorous (where's Voltaire when you want him?).  Dreary prose coupled with facile argument.

But, the one virtue of Freeman's book came in the introduction.  He writes, "This book is dedicated to my wife Hilary, with my love.  While I have been dealing with the complex and often stressful relationships between Christianity and pagan society in the fourth and fifth centuries, she, in her work as a psychotherapist, has been dealing with similar tensions in the minds of her clients.  So our concerns have often overlapped."  That passage, more than anything else I have ever read, explains the New Opponents of Christianity--they see historical study not as, you know, history or something like that, but rather history is simply a means of psychotherapy.  The goal is not to understand the past; that would be too, well, boring.  The goal is to help liberate their readers (or clients if your prefer) from their obsession with Christian morality (read: Christan sexual norms, for the most part).

[I should note that Freeman is not an atheist.  He does believe in God--that nice warm, fuzzy God who likes everything that Freeman likes.  Freeman also thinks Dawkins is rather silly.  It's sad when even the set of authors who are broadly making the same arguments find each others' work to be puerile.]

So, Hart's book is good, but it is really unfortunate that it needed to be written.  The New Atheists aren't really worthy of Hart's attention, but it is nice to know that somebody took the time to write this book.

And, if you want to get a nice flavor of Hart's book, you can read his essay in First Things.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Of what import are brief, nameless lives...to Galactus?

A novel which uses the quotation in the title of this blog post as an epigraph cannot fail to be worth reading.  And if you know the source of that epigraph, then you should most certainly read the book discussed below.  However, if that epigraph means nothing to you, then a) I feel really sorry for you, and  b) you are obviously not a complete nerd.

(And to relieve the curiosity of those whose nerd-quotient is rather low, the quotation is from Fantastic Four (no. 49, to be precise), but if you at least knew it was from the Marvel Universe, then that is close enough.)

The book:

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The single most amazing thing about the book:  it is full (and I mean full) of references which only the truly nerdy will get and it won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. 

I read the book after it was strongly recommended to me (by Mallory Cohn (who is equally conversant in matters of high literature and nerdiness (prior to this recommendation, she was the source of my inspiration to read both Dickens' Our Mutual Friend and Gaiman's The Sandman (and now with the success of Oscar Wao, she has entered the "If Mallory says it is worth reading, then it is worth reading" category)))--who even wrote the title on a piece of paper and handed it to me so that I would not forget the title).

The basic story is an intergenerational tale of a family from the Dominican Republic whose later generations migrate to the United States.  It has quite a bit about the politics of the Dominican Republic in it and a hint of  Latin American magical realism going on (just a hint; it isn't overdone--there is a curse on the family (well, maybe it is a curse--that is sort of the point)).  Just on those grounds, the story is pretty good, the writing style is nice, and the book may be worth reading.

But, the thing that elevates the book far above its natural genre is the nerdiness factor.  Consider:
1) a government official in the Dominican Republic (whose dictator is a rather evil, brutish thug) is described as being not exactly a ringwraith, but not exactly an orc either;
2) Oscar (who is the nerd in the story) uses the pick-up line on a girl he just met that if she was in his game, he would give her an 18 charisma;
3) Oscar is at one point described as being so distracted that he loses interest in the last few issues of The Watchmen as they come out.

Now here is the great thing about those things--they aren't explained at all in the novel.  Either you get them or you don't.  If you get them, they are all pretty funny.  And the novel has a constant stream of references just like those.

Anyway, there isn't much more that needs to be said--this is probably the best literary novel for nerds I have ever read.  I seriously doubt it is Great Book territory, but it is certainly a novel I was very happy to read.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Coffee Cantata

After reading about the bewilderment suffered by Your Humble Narrator at the lack of an appropriate Hymn to Coffee Tables, Aimee Gould (she who still leaves comments here under the name of her son, Noah (sooner or later, Noah will object to this wanton appropriation of his name for purposes of blog-commenting (probably later, since Noah is such a budding gentleman))) went one better and instead of composing a Hymn to Coffee Tables, leapt right to that Summit of all Poetic Arts by penning an Ode to Coffee.  Herewith, published for the first time.

Ode to Coffee
(set to the tune of the Mount Holyoke College Alma Mater (If you don't know the tune, then 1) shame on you and 2) here it is.))

O' true coffee we owe thee devotion,
For your flavor, robust, rich & strong.

Your caffeine is such a sweet bonus,
Those choosing decaf are wrong.

So from east & from west now we gather,
Magic beans that give life all day long.

Our honor, our love and our loyalty,
Dear coffee we offer to thee
Dear coffee we offer to thee.

And, let's be honest.  That may be the finest composition in the history of the West.  It has also given me a new occupation for committee meetings--I will now strive to compose an entire volume of Poetry devoted to Coffee.

He was a poet and hated the approximate

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

This is one of those books about which I have been hearing for years, never read, but found at the Granby Library Book Sale a few months back--50 cents seemed like a good price for it, so I bought it.  Now I have, at long last, read it.  But, I guess that was obvious from the fact I am now writing about it.

The book is a series of ten letters Rilke wrote to a young poet (hence the clever name of the volume).  What is it about?  Hard to say--it is about all sorts of things.  The Young Poet (Kappus) wrote Rilke, asking for criticism of his poetry.  Rilke wrote back with some advice, but no criticism, saying that a young poet should ignore all criticism, look deep within himself for inspiration and write, not worrying what anyone else would think.  In other words, writing poetry is like blogging--if you start thinking that you have an audience, then the whole enterprise becomes downright depressing--after all, where is the joy in ruminating about assorted odd details of life if one starts with the premise that said ruminations must be enlightening to others? Far better to imagine one's audience is oneself, and just write for the sheer amusement of the act itself.  Rilke notes that a young poet should start by asking himself if writing is as important as life itself, and if so, then it is worth writing.  I am not sure if blogging is worth life itself--if I could never write another word, would I be willing to go on living?  Somehow, I suspect I would.  Thus, I suppose the immediate conclusion is that I will never be a Great Blogger.  Which then sets the mind reeling.  There are Great Books, books which stand the test of time and are well worth reading 100 years after the book is published.  In a hundred years, will there be Great Blogs?  Is there a single blog out there, anywhere, which will be worth reading 100 years from now?  The answer is pretty obvious.

But, returning to Rilke, he ruminates about all sorts of issues in these letters, which means, oddly, that if he were alive today and not 100 years ago, he might have blogged about these issues.  (Does anybody still write letters these days?)  Are Rilke's reflections interesting?  It's hard to say.  He, like Dylan Thomas, writes in ways that cause one to wonder, "Is this deep and insightful or simply trite?"  Take, for example, this passage from Letter 8--and I'll note up front that the passage is longer than I would have liked to use, but the problem with these letters is that Rilke doesn't ever say anything concisely.

From Letter 8:
"We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us. The fact that people have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called "apparitions," the whole so-called "spirit world," death, all these Things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied. To say nothing of God. But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the reality of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens. For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don't think we can deal with. but only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn't exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. for if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe's stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells. We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares have been set around us, and there is nothing that should frighten or upset us. We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with, and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us. We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them."

Now, I think that is potentially quite interesting.  But, I am not sure.  It's like poetry in this respect--it hints at what it is trying to say, but doesn't say it explicitly.  The reference to Poe's stories is clever (now I want to go read some more Poe--I have the Library of America volume of Poe, so I have been slowly, in odd moments stolen here and there, been working my way through his complete collection of stories--Poe is Great, by the way, but I'll write a further review of him if and when I ever finish up the volume (at the current rate, that will be in about 2017--will blogging still exist in 2017?).  The general point (being made by Rilke, not Poe) is, I think, right, but a bit disconcerting---does a denial of the possibility of the bizarre really corrupt human relationships?

But, that is what Rilke is like--the letters are worth reading once.  I suspect they are worth reading multiple times.  I suspect I will reread them at some point.  But, I don't know that I will ever think they are Great.

And the even bigger question--if I knew a young poet who was graduating from high school, would I give this book as a graduation present? 

[The title of the post is a quotation from Rilke found in my copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It is from The Journal of My Other Self.  I have no idea what it means.]