Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)

I read most of Hermann Hesse's major works way back in High School (I was the odd kid wandering around with "unrequired reading" on top of the abhored textbooks). His novels appealed to my interest in eastern philosophy in general and Buddhism specifically, yet even then I feld that books such as Siddhartha and The Journey to the East were rather simplistic in their approach to eastern thought. I don't remember much about Steppenwolf, other than I had a greater appreciation for it than I had for the other works. Later, when I read Brecht, I thought some of his works had echoes of Steppenwolf (or was it the other way around?).

Hesse comes back again and again to the question of whether one should seek an ascetic path or, to paraphrase Blake, to approach the palace of wisdom by the road of excess. In his own life, Hesse seems to have tended towards the ascetic, although his writings sought to transcend the dualism. The Glass Bead Game is longer than Hesse's other novels (it was originally envisioned, per the Mann/Hesse correspondence, as a series of novels, or a multi-volume work) but the themes are the same. Hesse prosletyses for vegetarianism and meditation, but the duality of the meditative vs. the active life remains his subject.

The bulk of the novel takes place many centuries hence, in the province of Castilia, a mythical place where promising youth are taken for education and where the ritualistic pastime is the Glass Bead Game. The novel describes the early life and education of Joseph Knecht, who rises to the exalted position of Magister of Castilia. But Knecht has a crisis, and the life of splendid isolation, governed by ritual, becomes unbearable for him. He leaves the intellectual yet barren life of Castilia in order to go into the world and make his own small mark. He promptly drowns in ice-cold water. Tragically, swimming was one of the practical arts not studied in Castilia.

Hesse is not, regrettably, a first rate author. The vignettes of life in Castile are interesting, if somewhat stilted, but Hesse's concerns and his expressions of them seem to be a restatement of themes from his earlier novels. Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature following the release of this book.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wolf Solent

In this novel by John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), Wolf Solent is a 35 year old Englishman, living with his mother in London and leading an obscure life as a History instructor at a small school. At the beginning of the novel he is on a train back to his childhood home of Dorsetshire, at the invitation of a local Squire who need assistance in compiling a scandalous history of the vicinity.

Solent is, to say the least, a hyper-sensitive individual. He wants to get away to the country, away from aeroplanes and the nuisances of modern life. Since childhood, he has lived a mostly interior life occupied with his own peculiar "mythology", but he wants an authentic, sensual existence. His life is overwhelmingly an interior affair, and much of the book is taken up with the turbulent thoughts in Solent's head as he wanders the Dorset countryside, burying his face in the local flora and inserting himself into the lives of the locals.

Wolf's father, who died some 25 years previously, was the local rogue, dying in the neighborhood workhouse with "Christ! I've enjoyed my life!" as his last words. William Solent had an open extramarital affair with Selena Gault, the ugliest woman in town, and fathered at least one illegitimate child, now a woman to whom Wolf forms a strangely affectionate attraction. He also has a strangely affectionate attraction to her betrothed, but that's another thread in the fabric of this story. Wof appears determined to follow his father's footsteps, releasing himself from the suppressed life he has lived with his mother. On the train, he fantasizes about seducing the local girls,"white as a peeled willow wand", among the elder-bushes.

He wastes no time falling for Gerda Torp, the young beauty who is the daughter of the local headstone carver. His erotic sensibilities are influenced by the unseen existence of a photo of Gerda suggestively straddling a headstone in her father's yard, and by her uncanny ability to imitate the whistles of the blackbird and plover. No sooner has he bedded her in a pile of bracken in an old cow-barn, with a promise of marriage, than he meets his true soul mate in the form of the introvert Christie Malakite, who lives a circumscribed existence immersed in works of literature and philosophy, above her father's dirty book shop. Oh fate!

Wolf's obsession with Christie and the imminent collapse of his personal mythology as his life becomes intertwined with those around him forms the bulk of this massive book. In the hands of Thomas Hardy, this would have been a pretty straightforward affair, but Powys has a lot of words in him and is not afraid to use them. The novel is dense with descriptions of Wolf's interminable walks and the vegetation that he encounters. Life in its vegetative ripeness and its inevitable decay permeates the book. And under the fertile ground is the death's head of his father, grinning sardonically at the foolish indecisiveness of his son, a Yorick mocking Hamlet. The arrival of Wolf's mother, not one to let the apronstrings become overstretched, complicates matters: Wolf is as much Oedipus as Hamlet.

The supporting characters are a queer lot: Squire Urquhart, a nasty old man whom Wolf tends to see as evil incarnate; the tippling homosexual parson, Tilly-Valley; Jason Otter, the sensitive poet who seems to know Wolf's motivations better than he does himself; Christie's incestuous father; Urquhart's valet, whom Wolf imagines naked in his dirtiness; and Bob Weevil, whom Wolf suspects of cuckolding him. There is also Redfern, the deceased former secretary of Urquhart, in a shallow grave in the cemetery and over whom most of the male characters share some unshakeable obsession.

Powys imagined his book as illustrative of the necessity of opposites and an examination of "the whole mysterious essence of human life upon earth, the mystery of consciousness." My edition is one of the older Penguin Modern Classics, not the more recent volume with A.N. Wilson's introduction, so I don't have the benefit of Wilson's insights. I get the whole "necessity of opposites" thing, as well as the underlying vegetation/sexuality (dark, moist, hidden) thing. I suppose I enjoyed it, but really, this book is like "Twin Peaks", only with a lot of tea and no dancing midgets.

Wolf Solent was the first of Powys' novels, and generally regarded as his best. He is not easy to slog through, and God knows I've tried. Among his other works are A Glastonbury Romance (which I hope to read before I die, but not too soon), a massive Autobiography, and a self-help book called The Philosophy of Solitude. I enjoy dipping into the latter two volumes from time to time but I can really only take him in small doses. He was truly an idiosyncratic writer and, despite a life lived mostly in the United States, a true English eccentric.

A Few Miles of Bad Road

Umberto Eco has a new book called On Ugliness. Good review in the NYT Book Review yesterday.

Looks like an ideal Christmas gift.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Neglected Books

I have added a link to a wonderful site called Neglected Books. I like to think that this is the site I would have created if I had the proper time, energy, and erudition.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Independent People

For anyone bracing themselves for long cold winter nights, Halldor Laxness's Independent People makes good reading. I actually read this book in December 1999, outside on the deck of our home in suburban Maryland, late at night with a pipe and snow falling all around. This is probably the optimal method for reading a book set in the isolated frozen wastes of Iceland.

Independent people is the story of an obstinant Icelandic sheep rancher's struggle for independence against time, the elements, family responsibility, and an evolving economic system. For Bjartur, nothing is as important as his land and the sheep upon it, for in his thinking, the land represents true freedom. Wives die, children are lost, and eventually the ranch itself comes to ruin as a result of Bjartur's inability to see beyond the tip of his nose. As with most pioneers, there is a certain insanity in him, and a mad touch of the heroic.

One feels that Bjartur survives a harrowing ordeal in the frozen wasteland (as his wife is dying in childbirth at home) not by heroism, but by the fact that he is so single-mindedly obsessed with his dream of independence that he simply does not consider the fact that he should not be able to live through the night. The tale is a tragic one - for all its simplicity, Bjartur's dream is crushed in the end by his inability to adapt to a changing world. The other characters, especially the girl Asta Sollija, are drawn with depth and care. There is a touch of the comical in this novel, but there is mostly - almost unbearable in parts - tragic sorrow in the life of this man and those he dominates.

I was fortunate to find and read an English translation of this book some years ago. I see that a more recent edition is now available. Pleased to know that it is back in print.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book Notes on LibraryThing

For anyone out there who might enjoy my writing on books (rather than my leftie rants), you may be interested to know that I have begun to cross post some of my book notes from this blog to my LibraryThing catalog (accessible as "reviews" on the Makifat profile page). I am also posting shorter reviews of books read that I have written in my notebooks, but which I have felt aren't substantial enough to note on this blog.

The LibraryThing cataloging continues, slowly and surely. I should pass 3000 books sometime tomorrow, but there is still a long way to go until I have entered my entire library.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Manuscript Found at Saragossa

As a student in the early 80's, I saw a film at the local art house that was quite unlike anything I'd seen before. It was foreign, black and white, and featured (in addition to scantily clad temptresses) seemingly innumerable stories within stories, a narrative Chinese box, all in a quite fantastic vein. The name of the film escaped me for years, but it remained as a tantalizing memory. No one I spoke to seems to have any recollection of the film, and I wondered if it had been a dream after all.

A few years ago there was a new translation of a book entitled The Manuscript Found at Saragossa by Polish author Jan Potocki. This novel is comprised of interlocking stories within stories, gothic and surreal. Set in Spain's Sierra Morena mountains in the early years of the 18th century, the intricate stories make generous use of the elements of hermetic and kabbalistic teachings, as well as Islamic history and the horrors of the Inquisition.

Potocki knew the detailed history of the time and sprinkled his narrative with actual persons and events. He created in this novel a subterranean twilight world, where secretive Moorish sheiks hoard incredible wealth and scheme for the continuance of their hereditary authority in the hidden realm.

Van Worden, the narrator, is manipulated throughout to serve the purposes of a distant relation, the Sheik of the Gomelez. He accomplishes this through tests of character, through the intricate web of stories (including the tale of the Wandering Jew, a popular gothic motif - see also Melmoth the Wanderer and Eugene Sue's eponymous novel), and through, not least, the erotic attractions of two nubile Moorish princesses. A recurring episode pertains to some criminal corpses, hanging near a crossroads, that seem to be resurrected with an almost comic consistency.

The disparate narratives weave together in the final pages. Van Worden learns the object of his manipulation, but is greatly rewarded for providing an heir to the Sheik. The object of the Sheik is a plan for Moorish world domination, a foreshadowing of the anti-semitic and discredited "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Conspiracy theorists, alas, have always been with us.

And of course, while reading this novel, back in 2001, my mind was struck by similarities to a film I had seen many years before. The film? The 1965 production of "The Saragossa Manuscript", which I now own on DVD. Both the book and the film are wonderfully imagined works of art.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel Prize Winner

Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize. I hadn't really been paying much attention to this possibility, but it's a nice acknowledgement of the work he's done to raise awareness of global warming.

And how, pray tell, do the right-wingers react? With a sense of pride for a fellow American?

Sorry, no. A perusal of the comments on the Times article reveal, amidst the general feeling of appreciation of Gore's work, the sour grapes of the right ("questionable science", "Jimmy Carter", and the personal attacks they have internalized by parroting Limbaugh for all these years). Well he won it, they didn't, and it's too late to expect any graciousness from the knuckle-draggers.

In the context of American anti-intellectualism, the ignorant masses always resent the educated. They prefer the so-called "man of action" to the person who procedes based on reasonable judgement. Look where seven years of a "man of action" have gotten us: dissatifaction at home and hatred for us around the world. Gore's honor at least serves to remind the world that there are still some decent Americans left.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Penguin Modern Classics

One of the joys of book collecting is an increased appreciation of graphic design and how it evolves over the years. Penguin Books have had one of the most interesting evolutions in the publishing world. You can't tell a book by its cover, but the quality of Penguin texts married with excellent design standards makes Penguin Books a reliable source of good (and good looking) literature.
I have collected the "old style" Penguin Modern Classics for years. Many of the ones I have are UK editions which were never for sale in this country. I am currently entering my collection into my LibraryThing catalogue.
Today I came across a collection of covers from the most recent incarnation of this series. Lots of use of photography, which gives them a nice clean look. Not a tremendous amount of overlap with the old series, so maybe I should start a new collection....
For a look at the new covers, go to:


I began this blog because I wanted to write about out-of-the-mainstream books I've read. I have finally gotten around to reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. This book has become part of the modern canon, and is hardly obscure, so I'll skip a lengthy plot summary. The novel, in case you aren't familiar with it, is a story of the violence and degradation of slave life and the scars carried by those who labored and suffered under that system long after it ceased to exist as an institution.

Beloved is the story of Sethe and her family, who reach Cincinatti via the Underground Railroad and build a post-war life there, haunted by the past in the form of the child Sethe has murdered rather than submit to a life of slavery. As a story of human sorrow and strength, it could be a story from the Holocaust, from Kosovo or Iraq or any number of the disasters of human degradation that have plagued our history. It is a story about dealing with wrenching loss and humiliation, finding one's way when one has plumbed the depths of despair. It is a cry from those who historically have had no voice at all.

A consertative commentator recently wrote a column trying to explain why slavery "wasn't all bad". The sheer idiocy of making such a statement in the 21st century shows how disconnected we have become from disturbing historical realities. Give him another 25 years, and Michael Medved and his ilk could be the next wave of Holocaust deniers. After all, once the witnesses are gone, we can make up any story we like about the past, can't we?

A novel is not a historical record, but a well written novel can give insights into the human condition and give some voice to those who have not been heard. I don't know the genesis of Ms. Morrison's novel, whether it is based on any known historical incident, but it stands as a voice or an echo from a people who lived and died in a shameful, immoral system that mocked our ideals that "all men are created equal."

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Two "Gnostic" Gospels

As a teenager, I read a Borges story called "The Theologians", the first sentences of which describe an early Christian who crushed his son under an immense weight so that his double could fly in Heaven. This piece of fiction was my first awareness that there were different strains of Christianity in the first centuries A.D., some of which were radically different from what we conceive as mainstream Christian thought. G. R. S. Mead's eminently enjoyable Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, published long before the discoveries at Nag Hammadi and obsolete from a scholarly standpoint, gave me further insights into the versions of Christianity heavily influenced by Neoplatonism and lumped together under the term "Gnostic".

Since reading those works so long ago, a treasure trove of texts and interpretations of Gnostic literature has been published, the cornerstone of which is Elaine Pagels' seminal The Gnostic Gospels. Over the last several years, scholars have shied away from the use of the designation "Gnostic", as it implies a uniformity of belief that did not exist in those early heterodox centuries. What is clear is that the mainstream Church, in consolidating its power, perceived any Christian belief which advocated direct apprehension of God, without the Church as intermediary, as a threat to its authority. Of the many Gospels and other writings floating around which did not support the Church narrative they had great distrust, and actively sought their elimination. They did a remarkably thorough job supressing these texts, most of which were known up until the 20th century only by their inclusion in writings by Church fathers such as Irenaeus, who quoted them only to refute them. Discoveries at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere have served to correct these deficiencies by revealing, at long last, many of the original texts.

I don't have a dog in this fight. Studying the history of the early Church and particularly the Neoplatonic versions of Christianity is, for me, a fun Borgesian pastime and a good illustration of how all history must be viewed with a skeptical eye, as it is a truism that history is written by the victors. If not for the discoveries of Nag Hammadi, our view of the development of the cultural phenomenon of Christianity would be much different. The upheavals and violence of the Albigensian Crusade, the Inquisition, and the Protestant Reformation have clear antecedents in the Church's response to the Gnostic heresies.

My notes on the Thomas Gospel are a few years old, but I thought it made sense to present them together with a review of Pagels' more recent book.

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas by Elaine Pagels

The Gospel of Thomas was one of the "heretical" texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the late 1940's. Of the many works found at that time, it has excited the most interest due to both its parallels and divergences from the four canonical Gospels. The synoptic Gospels tell a similar story, however, the Gospel of John is quite different in its style, themes, and interpretations of the meaning of Jesus. John is the only gospel to directly imply that Jesus was in fact God.

Pagel's contention is that John may have been written to specifically "correct" the ideas about Jesus presented in the suppressed Gospel of Thomas. Thomas presents Jesus as divine, but encouraging others to look to the divine within themselves, to "drink from my mouth and become what I am." The Gospel of John was written to reinforce the idea, becoming orthodox in the first century, that one does not share in divinity, but comes to it through the sacrifice of Jesus, the one son of God. Pagels devotes much of Beyond Belief to describing how the church father Irenaeus sought to suppress all but the "authorized" Gospels as a means of fostering orthodoxy and eliminating innovation and error. Beyond Belief ends with the familiar story of Constantine and the Council of Nicea, which solidified the creed of the early church and established the authorized New Testament.

Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King

The Gospel of Judas, known previously only through the refutation of Irenaeus, is a quite recent discovery, only becoming public last year. In a theme worthy of Borges, it presents the arch-traitor Judas as the most beloved of Christ's disciples - the only one who understands Jesus' true mission and the transcendent reality of the kingdom of God.

Judas has always presented a problem for the Church. It is through his agency that Christ is betrayed and crucified, necessary steps towards the redeeming event of the resurrection. Yet Judas is reviled as being possessed by Satan himself, an agent of pure evil. More recently, Judas has been posited as a proto-Zionist, knife at the ready, who betrays Jesus as soon as he realizes that he has not come as a messianic king to defeat the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel.

Pagels and King see the Judas in this text as a mouthpiece for criticism of the cult of martyrdom, the thirst for the opportunity to "die in glory for the Lord" so prevalent in the early church. There is also a certain amount of mystical theology thrown in as well (the "Gnostic" idea that Jesus is an emissary of the true God, who reigns above the demiurge responsible for the creation of the physical universe). The text contained in this volume and the interpretations provided by Pagels and King are a worthy addition to the expanding literature of the early Christian era.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


I have finally gotten around to starting a list of links over there to the right.

Jurassic Pork at Pottersville is always on the mark with essays that challenge the short attention span zeitgeist. In an ideal world, his essays would be on the front of all our major metropolitan newspapers (although in an ideal world, that wouldn't be necessary). I recommend TBogg for his own brand of insight, and for a really great sense of humor. He reminds me of myself, back when I still had a sense of humor that scared the living shit out of my adversaries.

I'll build the list as I go along. It will be dedicated to meaningful sites that I visit frequently. Except Atrios. God knows why I still visit him frequently. Heh, Indeedy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Quiet American

Last month, in a speech on Iraq policy, George Bush made a curiously muddled reference to Alden Pyle, the "quiet" American intelligence officer featured in Graham Greene's novel. Greene's portrait of Pyle is not a flattering one: he is an immensely naive, unworldly young man ready to remake the world in the image of American democracy. While doing my LibraryThing cataloging, I came across this book last week and decided to reread it in light of Bush's comment and the obvious parallels with the Iraq situation.

Clearly, Bush has either not read this book or is a terribly poor reader. Pyle, in his misguided attempt to enable the fermentation of democracy in Vietnam (ca. early 1950's), facilitates a terrorist act that leaves civilians dead or maimed (the chapter describing the explosion and its aftermath are classic Greene). Pyle, as a neophyte to carnage, is shocked by the result of his actions, but is undeterred, rationalizing that the civilians "died for democracy".

Greene's book shows the Americans bumbling into the French colonial disaster in Southeast Asia, but in essence this provides a background to the moral awakening of the "narrator", Thomas Fowler, the British correspondent who keeps a Vietnamese mistress while trying to stay uninvolved in the political situation. Fowler's contempt for Pyle - who in addition to his subversive activities has tried to "liberate" Fowler's mistress as well - ultimately leads to his abandoning his moral ambivalence. Although Pyle had in fact saved his life in the course of a nighttime attack in the Vietnamese countryside, Fowler assists in luring Pyle into an ambush in which he is murdered. Did Fowler make the decision to let Pyle be killed because of his recklessness in fomenting deadly unrest, because of his contempt for his naivete, or because of Pyle's attempts to seduce Phong away from him?

In the end, Fowler's own hypocrisies and fears are exposed - a self-awakening for which Pyle is the catalyst. But Pyle is no hero. Despite his "quietness", he is a dangerous man - a man without understanding who attempts to remake the world according to his own ideal.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Library, Thus Far

Pleased to note that, after a few months of spare time (ha!) cataloging, I entered my 2000th book on my LibraryThing listings today. Happy to note that I happened to be cataloging Mr. Nabokov at the time. Only two and a half large bookshelves in my library to a smaller bookshelf crammed with Modern Library editions and Penguin poetry some books in the some of the better editions of children's books in my son's room...and then I can move on to the 30 odd bankers boxes in the garage....

Ok, so I really have a long way to go....

I also read Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen King this week. Hopefully, I will write up some notes on this in the next several days.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Alberto Gonzalez

Long overdue. Ignore the "American Dream" crap - the man used the United States Constitution as toilet paper and has helped make this country reviled around the globe while chipping away at our civil rights. Like his boss, he is an arrogant bastard with no redeeming qualities.

Good riddance.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Accumulated Wisdom

Someone said (paraphrase):

George Bush says God speaks to him and no one bats an eye. But if George Bush said God speaks to him through a hairdryer, we would have a constitutional crisis.

The Things That Make Us Happy Make Us Wise

Today I get to be one of those annoying people who have just “discovered” a book that everyone else already knows is great.

Many years ago, in Austin, Texas, a local thrift store hit upon the idea of having an entire store selling donated books, records, etc. for 1-2 dollars apiece. Although it was usually deserted (which makes me think it must have existed then, as now, only in my dreams), it was the kind of place you could visit for an evening, emerging a couple of hours later with a bag full of rare and eclectic works drawn from the crazy mixed up stacks with only minimal and unhelpful organization (I remember seeing Alcott’s Little Men on a shelf labeled “Sexual Issues”).

The staff rotated between a young punker, a frail old woman, and a physically deformed girl with a pretty face and a sweet smile. This was my home away from home and from it I mined several books from the library of the medievalist Augustus C. Krey (who was apparently married to a well-regarded local author), the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (one of my most powerful talismans), and pristine works of English literature which showed up occasionally, bearing the bookplate, in clear careful handwriting, of one Ginger/Virginia Hall (why had she carefully selected such wonderful books, carefully inserted her bookplate, and then apparently never so much as cracked them open – one doesn’t read a 400 page novel without leaving some sort of evidence – I will never know).

One book which I picked up and pondered several times, never to buy, was an advanced reading copy of a book called Aegypt, by John Crowley. Being interested in ancient history and the occult, it would seem a logical choice for me. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a snob about most contemporary literature and, anyway, the name conjured up for me the repugnant image of Alistair Crowley, the great and overrated con man of 20th century occultism. So on the shelf it stayed to my deep regret.

A few years later I discovered an omnibus of John Crowley. By this time, through repeated handlings of Aegypt, the name was firmly established in my consciousness and I figured that if the guy deserved the Quality Paperback Book Club treatment, then maybe he was ok. The book sat on my shelf for a few more years. It included a long novel called Little, Big, which I vaguely thought had something to do with Alice in Wonderland (there was a character called Daily Alice, and we all now about Alice’s difficulty in obtaining the optimal height for whatever task she was up to on the other side of the looking glass). Well, Alice in Wonderland is a great book, but like Harry Potter and the works of Tolkien, it tends to draw a pretty daffy crowd. And my thinking has always been “why read a book about another book when you can just read the original, which must be better anyway?”

Well, a few weeks ago, despite all odds against it, I picked up Little, Big and started reading the first few pages. It has little or nothing to do with Charles Dodgson’s little girl. The more I read, the more I was hooked (or in the vernacular of the novel, the farther in I went, the bigger it got). I was never one for the fantasy fairyland of Yeats and the Little Blue Book of Fairies by what’s-his-name, but Crowley’s writing is so precise, so evocative of the primeval wood and the tobacco-scented soil, so pleasurable, that it is now on my list of favorite books.

There is a permanence in the mythical, architectural oddity of the Drinkwater mansion: in this mansion there are many rooms, and plenty of queer characters to occupy them. The novel evokes the passage of time, the chain of being that binds all who pass their short time on this ancient earth, seen or unseen. It evokes the swirl of life in this decrepit theatre across the stage of which we all pass before a final bow. For me, the end of the book is long in coming, it seems that Crowley is wrapping it up 100 pages before the end, which makes the ending seem both drawn-out and rushed, but no matter, this tale is not told by an idiot. What it signifies, to me anyway, is that “perfection and end” signified by the greatest of the Major Trumps – nothing less than “The World”.

P.S. Almost forgot the link. Buy a new copy - Mr. Crowley deserves the cash.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Still on hiatus. One item of note is that I've recently begun the long procrastinated project of cataloging my books. Fortunately, I've found a site (Library Thing) that is fun and addictive. At our last move, it was estimated that I have collected approximately 10,000 books (the movers would probably sign an affidavit to that effect), so the process of cataloging will be slow.

I will probably begin annotating my reading on Library Thing. I will likely reserve this blog to talk about books I really like, rather than just daily reading. What I will ultimately do with this blog remains to be seen: I really just came in today to check the plants and make sure nothing is starting to smell.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


This blog is going to be mothballed for an indefinite time while I attend to more pressing personal matters. Obviously, my posting has been pretty light and, although I never expected more than minimal readership, I have to admit being somewhat disappointed that there hasn't been much discussion generated by this endeavor, either pertaining to books or to politics (other than a goofy and predictable attack on the good Mr. Vonnegut). At some point, I may get back to it and refocus my attention on the books I really want to discuss. Until then, it's goodbye for now...don't forget to write.

Oh, and speaking of Moth Balls, let's hope that by the time I check in again, our pathetic Democratic leadership develops the intestinal fortitude to confront the war policies of the most despised man in U.S. presidential history. I can dream can't I?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


I have to admit that, bookwise, I’ve been sort of in the doldrums lately. The old question arises – what to read now?

I was all primed for Pynchon’s latest, Against The Day, especially since I really enjoyed Mason and Dixon (itself coming at usual glacial speed after the disappointing Vineland). Maybe it was my state of mind, but rather than another masterpiece along the lines of Gravity’s Rainbow, the new novel seemed like Pynchon was just trotting out his old bag of tricks (silly names, absurd situations, bad puns) without having any real sense that this was a necessary novel. The Webb Traverse plotline is interesting enough, but the “Chums of Chance” are simply grating. I gave up, for the time being, around page 139, and I am someone who almost never gives up a book once I start reading it.

I moved on to Nicholas Basbanes Every Book Its Reader. Basbanes is a journalist who has written about book collectors for years now. He used to have a column in the old Biblio magazine, and now writes for Fine Books and Collecting. His first major book, Among the Gently Mad, was a classic text about book collecting. Unfortunately, it got him started on a series of books about collecting that have lost their punch with each successive iteration. As a confirmed bibliophile, I dutifully read each of them and generally have no quarrel with them, but I pretty much do it out of habit. This latest tome is a series of chapters (which read like expanded magazine pieces) about readers and the books they love. The chapters on Harold Bloom and Elaine Pagels were particularly interesting (Bloom reads at a rate that would put Evelyn Wood to shame), and it’s the kind of book that you can get through really fast. So that’s that.

And now I have moved on to Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s Insatiability, an avante-garde novel first published in Warsaw in 1932. I am a big fan of decadent fiction (one day I should do a piece on the Daedalus series), so I thought this one would be a winner. I’ve almost got the first 100 pages under my belt, but can’t say that I’m fully engaged yet. But it seems to be getting better. Let’s just see how it goes….

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Accumulated Wisdom

"Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich."
-Peter Ustinov

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

A Woman of Two Worlds

In 1907, at the age of three, Dorothy Eady suffered a bump on the noggin which apparently gave rise to a lifelong belief that she was the reincarnation of an Egyptian temple virgin who had been the secret lover of King Sety I, a pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640 BC). Not only that, His Royal Highness used to visit her nightly for years, until her death in 1981, for some snuggling and pillow talk.

Jonathan Cott’s The Search for Omm Sety: Reincarnation and Eternal Love is an interesting narrative of Ms. Eady’s life and times. She may have been deluded, but she was nevertheless an avid student of the Middle Kingdom and participated in excavations and researches in her adopted home of Egypt for much of the 20th century. * She decided early on that Egypt was the place for her, and took the initiative to get there and live there, even under the most squalid conditions. There, she acquired the name Omm Sety, indulged her passions, and acted as priestess of the old religion, performing rites to Osiris and Isis in the ruins of the ancient holy city of Abydos.

Cott leaves open the question of whether Dorothy was truly a reincarnation of the temple orphan Bentreshyt, visited nightly by her lover, or a harmless and entertaining eccentric. At the end of his narrative, Cott tags on an unnecessary epilogue in which he consults with various psychologists and parapsychologists to see if he can get a handle on this reincarnation thing. What stands out is that, aside from colorful anecdotes from her acquaintances, pretty much all we know about Dorothy Eady and her early life comes from Dorothy Eady. There is no independent corroboration of her head trauma, her precocious interest and familiarity with ancient Egypt, or her (apparently quite noisy) visitations from Sety I. A skeptic myself, I have nevertheless had some interesting experiences pertaining to the concept of reincarnation, but in the end I tend to see Dorothy as someone who very successfully internalized a narrative of an alternative existence. This doesn’t make her a liar, but it did give her what she longed for – a rich and rewarding life, a dream of a glorified existence, and the hope of eternal love.

* Some of her writings are apparently still in print.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Ancient Empire

Byzantium: The Early Centuries
by John Julius Norwich

Persons with a casual interest in Roman history might tend to believe that the Empire collapsed and disappeared sometime in the third or fourth centuries A.D. The reality is that the old Empire got a somewhat new lease on life in 330 A.D., when Constantine (called "the Great") transferred his capitol to the far eastern edge of Europe, transforming an obscure port called Byzantium into Constantinople, the New Rome. In this Eastern Roman Empire, the old Latin system changed over time to be overtaken by the native Greek element, but the people and the Emperor never forgot that they were the true and rightful heir to the empire of Augustus. It was only in 1453, scant decades before the voyage of Columbus, that Byzantium reached the end of a long and tired history, falling to the Turks under Sultan Mehmet II. Gibbon might have seen Byzantium as a failure, but it was a failure that lasted over 1000 years, dwarfing in its magnitude the history of the United States and the countries of modern Europe.

The first volume of a trilogy, Norwich's Byzantium: The Early Centuries approaches the Eastern Empire through a narrative history focusing on the personalities of the early rulers, beginning with Constantine and ending in 802 with the death of the Empress Irene. Compared with some of the more infamous Roman Emperors, most of the Byzantines come across as fairly competent and hard working. One had to be, for in those days Byzantium faced numerous threats - from the "barbarian" tribes of Europe and central Asia as well from the Sassanid Empire of Persia. Towards the end of the volume, another threat arises, this time from the obscure reaches of Arabia - the formidable armies of early Islam.

This isn't to say that Byzantium didn't have its share of bloodthirsty megalomaniacs, from Justinian, who (in addition to recovering large portions of the Western Empire through the agency of his superlative general Belisarius as well as instigating a massive building program in the capital) was responsible for the slaughter of 300,000 citizens in the Hippodrome at the climax of the Nika Riots - to the "pathologically cruel" Phocas, who bequeathed to the Empire a legacy of torture and paranoia.

The frustratingly consistent thread running through this history is the endless theological debates on the nature of Christ that caused so much turmoil and wasted energy. Religious advocacy and repression took up much of the energy of the Emperors, making it so difficult to find points of commonality upon which a truly strong state could be built. Religious schism also made more difficult the forging of strong alliances with Western Europe, an issue which will arise again and again in the coming centuries, culminating in the infamous Fourth Crusade, in which Constantinople was sacked by the princes of the West.

Norwich does not spend much time on social and economic history. Little is said of issues such as the Iconoclast controversy, apart from its impact on the policies of the later Emperors of the period under examination. For this, we look to the magisterial works of George Ostrogorsky and A.A. Vasiliev. Still, for a enjoyable introduction to a fascinating and obscure Empire, this work is recommended.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Borges and Vonnegut

I was compelled to read these short books by a respected reader on a Belgian blog. One is a memory of a author in his twilight, another is a memoir/essay by a writer in his eighties. My literary tastes tend more towards Borges than Vonnegut, but I found both books rewarding in their own way.

With Borges by Alberto Manguel

For a few years in the mid-1960’s, Alberto Manguel was a reader for the blind Jorge Luis Borges in his apartment in Buenos Aires. This slim book is a remembrance of those times, “memories of memories.” As a longtime Borges reader, I found the description of his mode of living interesting, and was pleased to see that he shared a fondness for Durer’s The Knight, Death, and the Devil (his print was in his bedroom – mine hangs in my library). Borges lived and breathed reading – the sort of person who could pick up any printed material and find some meaning in it. The apparent simplicity of his works, most of which were quite short, belies their true complexity. I recall reading an analysis of “The Garden of Forking Paths” and being blown away by the layers of meaning in the story, layers that are not apparent in a casual reading. Borges, like Nabokov, demands that the reader read with sharp attention.

My one complaint is that my paperback edition lacks the photographs of other editions. If I had known, I would have opted for a more expensive edition.

A Man Without A County by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut had, apparently, maintained that he was through with writing. One suspects that the sad state of the world in the Bush era compelled him to speak out on the madness that we have all come to accept, the slow death by torture of the earth. “The good Earth” he writes as an epitaph, “we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.” Vonnegut comes perilously close to cranky old man territory, with a fondness for words such as “nowadays” and “damn fool” (as in “damn fool computer). But, hey, as a freethinker and member of Brokaw’s “greatest generation,” he’s entitled. Kurt Vonnegut is a proud humanist, a thoughtful humorist, and a decent soul in a country where such attributes are in short supply.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard, 77, Critic and Theorist of Hyperreality, Dies

The French critic and provocateur Jean Baudrillard, whose theories about consumer culture and the manufactured nature of reality were intensely discussed both in rarefied philosophical circles and in blockbuster movies like “The Matrix,” died yesterday in Paris. He was 77.

One of his better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive “hyperreality,” where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning. Since illusion reigns, he counseled people to give up the search for reality.

“All of our values are simulated,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom.”

NYT Obituary:

I never got too much into Baudrillard, but found some of his ideas interesting. Echoes of Rimbaud: "True life is absent."

Rest in Peace

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Renaissance Festival

The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance by John Hale

At first flush, designations such as Medieval and Renaissance don’t seem to mean much. They are often arbitrary beginning and end points for whatever phenomenon one wishes to examine, whether social, political, cultural, religious, etc. In the past, hearing the term Renaissance applied historically, my mind immediately turned to the Quattrocento, a brief period in which Italian arts and architecture reached an apogee under the patronage of what seemed to be proto-Mafioso strongmen. Over time, I came to realize what a limited perspective this had been. The Renaissance was in fact a truly European phenomenon with complex antecedents and a number of highs and lows depending upon whether one is considering the age in terms of social conventions, artistic achievement, the rise of the mercantile class, the expansion of the limits of the known world (the discovery of the New World was a direct result of the expanding mercantile economy), religious innovation (the Reformation), innovations in leaning as a result of the “rediscovery” of ancient authors, or the many other perspectives Hale examines in this volume. Braudel wrote of “the perspective of the world”, and what one sees in this volume is the awakening of thought and energy to a new way of perceiving the world. Fore Hale, Europe discovered itself in the Renaissance, and began to see the world as one of expanding horizons, as cartographers worked feverishly to redefine the limits of the Earth in an age of discovery.

Hale touches on a wide range of themes in this work. My only complaint is that the major themes tend to get lost as he attempts to provide almost too much detail, too many names and examples to illustrate his themes. But once I got used to his pace, I began to appreciate the details – the odd moments when an obscure voice from the past speaks to us to provide details of a life lived and insights into a cognitive terrain in which we see some dim ancestry to ourselves, just as we see, taking shape, the outlines of our own world in the maps of the 16th century cartographers.

John Hale suffered a severe stroke soon after completing the manuscript of this book. His wife thoughtfully enlisted the aid of David Chambers, a former student of Hale’s, to see the book to completion. It is clearly the culmination of a life’s work in Renaissance studies, and a fitting tribute to the author.

Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome

This morning, I was pleased to find a $2 copy of Apicius' Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome in the Dover Edition. Classical Studies have long been an interest of mine, and Apicius provides a look into a rather unusual aspect of Roman life (hummingbird tongues, anyone?). To be sure, there was a difference between the eating habits of the patricians and the plebians. I suspect Apicius leans towards the former in his book of cookery. My interest in Ancient Rome has been rekindled recently as I've been watching HBO's series "Rome" on DVD (interesting series, with the usual liberties taken with known facts and chronology, but still fun).

Now, I'm aware that this particular edition has a bit of controversy. The translation was made in 1936, and the translator apparently had no problem diverging from the original text and making his own substitutions for ingredients. Probably not a big problem if you are actually trying to make these dishes in your kitchen and need some accessible ingredients, but I can see it bothering those (like me) who really want accuracy in translation. But $2 sure beats the $250 editions.

Dover Editions are treasures, especially if you can find them used and in good shape. My copy of Mayhew's London Labor and the London Poor that I mentioned in a previous entry is a very nice unabridged 4 volume edition. The down side is that they are often older translations in the public domain, many of which have been superseded by recent scholarship. The Wallis Budge books on Egyptology, for instance, are nice but irredeemably inaccurate. All would be forgiven if they would bring back Aurel Stein's Travels in Desert Cathay.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Huzza! Huzza! The Devil's dead. Now we can all do as we like!

Ladies and gentlemen, pray how you do?
If you all happy, me all happy too.

The Last Days of Mr. Punch by D.H. Myers

This slim 1971 volume purporting to be the memoirs of Mr. Punch (nee Pulcinella) of Punch and Judy fame is in large measure compiled from a variety of sources. Paramount among these is Henry Mayhew's massive and entertaining 1861 London Labour and the London Poor. Myers illustrates his book with some amusing old Punch drawings. The little bugger didn't get by on his looks.

On the end flap, the author presents Punch, a comic trickster figure, philosophically as "the problem of whether it is a good thing to wipe out evil...The a certain controllable shape and size to evil, and if you kill him, then evil may truly run rampant." In some versions of the show, Mr. Punch, a character with a very low threshold for anger, kills the Devil.

I tended to read this book more as light comic fare, rather than as a dissertation on the nature of evil. Punch is clearly from a time when sociopathic violence and casual cruelty were seen as acceptable fare for audiences of all ages, not that things have changed much. Giving philosophical sophistication to one puppet beating the bejezzuz out of another comes perilously close to accepting the sociocultural value of the Three Stooges, which I'm not prepared to do.

This was simply a nice slim palate cleanser to read as a chaser to a truly disturbing novel (The Road).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Let's Return the Cake

So I was at my 6 year old's school this morning for a "Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss" assembly. The kids were getting ready to recite various books and poems. The teacher had just explained that "Dr. Seuss" was turning 65 this week, when one of the moms raised her hand excitedly and blurted out "Isn't he dead?!"

The teacher then explained that it is the Dr. Seuss character that is turning 65.

The school psychologist probably spent the rest of the day conducting grief counseling sessions.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Happy Anniversary

Love and kisses to my wonderful wife. You know who you are!

Literature and Reality

The first book I picked up after September 11 was The Plague by Albert Camus. I had read it some years before, but the sense of fear and anxiety induced by the attack and the subsequent anthrax episodes put my mind back to this seminal book of the 20th century. Bear in mind that the following notes were written back in October 2001.

I was compelled to reread this novel following the events of September 11. The sense of enclosure, fear of random death, the necessity for a will to continue mirror the situation in America over the last month, with the fear of anthrax substituted for the plague bacillus. The description of Oran at the beginning of the novel, its blandness and frivolity, not to mention a certain ugliness, again strikes a chord to an attentive American reader. Camus writes that
"[t]he evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance" and that "the most incorrigible vice [is] that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill."

Whether we can muster the courage and determination to meet our adversary head on, even with the knowledge of the fights futility, as Rieux does, remains to be seen. After our flag-waving, our bomb strikes, and our propaganda undertaken to accomplish our obscure objectives, we will understand the final lesson: that the plague never ends.

In February 2002, I reread George Orwell's 1984 and wrote the following notes. I will only say now that, with the Iraq War having been instigated in the interim as an endless war for all the wrong reasons, the complicity of the media in making Orwell's model of thought control as co-opted by the Bush Administration a reality is far from "subtle".

I reread this novel upon realizing the similarities between Bush's "War on Terror" and Oceania's never-ending war with Eurasia/Eastasia. Media manipulation today is more subtle than Orwell's "doublespeak", as is the Bush/Ashcroft campaign to erode the rights of the individual in America. Totalitarianism can creep up quite slowly, almost imperceptibly. The fears and tortures of Winston Smith are more terrifying now than they were when I first read this book in high school, simply because their potential reality is more imaginable than ever before. Didactic and perhaps a bit overwritten, 1984 has passed beyond literature into a state alarmingly close to today's reality.

A few weeks ago, a correspondent noted that I hadn't referenced 1984 on my blog (I had, in fact, made a reference several months ago to "chocolate rations" which might have escaped readers unfamiliar with the works of the fine Mr. Blair, but no matter). Perhaps this post seeks to remedy that deficiency in some small manner. A more considered, and wonderfully argued perspective on 1984 can be found here:

Friday, February 16, 2007

Andrea Palladio

For over a decade, I have lusted after Bruce Boucher's Andrea Palladio: The Architect in His Time. This is a big wonderful book on one of the most inspiring architects of all time. The $95.00 list price for the hardcover was prohibitively high, although a softcover is available for much less (see link below). But a book like this deserves hardcover, and I was quite pleasantly surprised this week to find it in a library bookshop for $6.00. Yes, it's ex library, but the stamping, etc, are minimal, and the book is in wonderful shape.

The Renaissance architecture of Palladio was a prime inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's design for Monticello. My wife and I visited Monticello some years ago, and it was a dream come true to visit my favorite American house and find that it more than lived up to it's reputation. Palladio made it all possible.

The Road

The Road is Cormac McCarthy's version of the perennial sci-fi genre, the post-apocalyptic novel. McCarthy does not impose the supernatural/fantastic element on the genre, although there is plenty of horror to go around, including the constant threat of cannibalism. This isn't a stretch for the author, who explored necrophilia in Child of God, incest in Outer Dark, and general moral depravity in Blood Meridian. He is, however, a thoughtful and precise writer- qualities which distinguish him from the Stephen Kings of the world in his treatment of a common theme.

The Road follows an unnamed man and his son as they make their slow hazardous trek to the sea some years after an apparent nuclear holocaust. The landscape is ashen and dead and the bleakness of the extended nuclear winter and the hopelessness of survival on earth in the wake of the catastrophe are well portrayed. I can't write too much about the plot without giving spoilers to the narrative. Suffice to say that McCarthy tries to give some faint glimmer of hope at the end, but that hope is surely a mirage, a temporary reprieve from suffering in a future in which all hope has been annihilated.

On a personal note, as the father of young boys, the narrative of the man and his son adrift in the wasteland holds a real poignancy. This father-son relationship is surely the most tender and true bit of writing that McCarthy has yet written. The dedication, to John Francis McCarthy, is presumably to the author's son.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Beckett Trilogy

While reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the sense of despair in that novel made me think of one of the masters of existential hopelessness, Samuel Beckett.* I have been a Beckett fan for years, admiring him no less for his humor than for his articulation of 20th Century angst. In that vein, I am posting some older observations on the trilogy comprised of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. There is no dearth of worthwhile interpretive books and essays on these works: what follows are simply my synopsis and thoughts regarding them.

(*One contrast with regard to McCarthy: Beckett doesn't have to imagine a post-apocalyptic world - for him, each human life is an ongoing apocalypse, a decrepit ramble towards nothingness.)

The Trilogy

Molloy, the first volume in Beckett's trilogy, is comprised of two sections, purporting to be notes scribbled by two quite different characters, each in his own state of isolation. The first is Molloy, an almost feral vagabond whose goal, when discernible amid the odd and humorous reveries of life as a tramp, is to reach his "mother's room." He writes, apparently, from her room, but she is absent and there is no real idea of where she has gone or of how Molloy has come to take her place. Molloy is a wild man, hardly verbal, shaggy and urine-soaked with a bum leg and an aversion to human contact. For all this, he seems comfortable with his extreme situation, and with being outside of society and its norms. He has no great love of life, and appears to be content in his room, waiting to die.

The second "author", Jacque Moran, begins as a self-satisfied, if rather obsessive, suburbanite. He is given vague instructions regarding Molloy that take him out onto the open road, where his mode and manner of living rapidly disintegrate as he loses touch with the sense of society and his place in it that he so highly values. He badgers his son into abandoning him, murders a man for no real reason, and, after descending into his own kind of madness, returns to pass the remainder of his existence in his own now dilapidated house.

Beckett's prose is poignant and scatological, reflecting the disturbing situations each of these men find themselves in. Molloy is the individuals desire to escape from society and its suffocating norms, taken to the nth degree. He is taken into police custody for vague reasons concerning which he has no real curiosity. He is subsequently taken in (for sexual purposes, he suspects) by a charitable matron whose dog he has accidentally run over on his bicycle. He cannot wait to regain his grubby clothes and make his escape from this intolerable confinement. He is content to gather "sucking stones" (to ward off hunger) on a beach and spends pages devising elaborate mathematics for the purpose of shifting the stones from pocket to pocket.

Moran is the man cut loose from society, whose values and pretensions disintegrate in the absence of that society. There is a tinge of Buddhist thought in these pages: Molloy is almost Buddha-like in his detachment and his pessimism regarding the human condition and the tragedy of birth, the escape from which is the elusive goal - the annihilation of nirvana. Moran is the fool, discovering the abyss that confronts the unprepared mind when the illusions of life and its apparent certainties are swept away.

Malone Dies and The Unnameable thematically continue the narrative begun in Molloy. Whereas the first novel in the trilogy possessed at least a modicum of dramatic action, these simply reflect the thoughts of first a dying, and then a dead (vegetative?) man. The search for the self and the realization of the horror of existence continue, and some of Beckett's most grotesque images occur in these works: the bizarre sexual relations of Malone and Moll, the Dante-esque episode wherein the Unnameable/Mahood trudges through the entrails of his dead family in the course of a spiral descent into nowhere. These works, especially the third volume, are emotionally difficult to read. Still, they are powerful statements on the hopelessness of existence and the stasis of the self in the absence of meaning.

Also Of Interest

Michael Robinson's The Long Sonata of the Dead (out of print) is a somewhat useful guide to Beckett's work, and to the trilogy in particular. James Knowlson's book on Beckett, Damned to Fame, is by far the best biography, rounding out the somwhat dour view of Beckett presented in Diedre Bair's earlier biography.

Various editions of the trilogy are available. They are of course included in the superlative Grove Centenary Edition of Beckett's work, now available from Amazon at a very attractive price (down from the original $100 list price). Personally, I am hard pressed to abandon my collection of Beckett's works, mostly dog-eared paperbacks and foreign editions, painstakingly assembled over the years.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

But What About the Books?

I have neglected any book posts for a while. Having kids means that one's reading time is necessarily limited, although I do usually get some time to read later in the evening. Gone are the days when I had several books going at once: now I just hit them one at a time. Currently I'm reading John Hale's The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, a fairly hefty tome, but quite worthwhile. I hope to post some notes on past books read sometime in the next few days.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Weird Coincidence

I tend not to get too weirded out by things, but strange smells permeating Manhattan (I don't know what it is, but I'm sure there's nothing to worry about, says the Mayor)-

- and dozens of birds mysteriously dead in downtown Austin on the same day

sure strikes me as a little.....odd.

And I will be more than a tad concerned if Bush shows up on the teevee within the next few hours, wearing a gas mask and telling us to go shopping.

Now where the hell did I leave that duct tape?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dancing with Mom