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dmsteyn 2012 - only reading boy on my street?

Club Read 2012

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Edited: Apr 9, 2012, 10:59am Top

Here's to 2012, a year of beginnings and endings, like all the previous (and forthcoming) ones.

Oh, and the title of the list/topic/blog is a bit misleading... too be fair, quite misleading... seriously misleading? My brother also reads a bit, as does my best friend, Charles. As does my father. Guess that damned rhymin' Simon's gotten to me...

Currently Reading:
The Complete Poems (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) by D.H. Lawrence
Faust: A Tragedy (Norton Critical Editions) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
All The Fun's In How You Say A Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification by Timothy Steele - reread
50 Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane
Basic Writings of Nietzsche by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann

Finished in:

22. On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony
21. Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty
20. The Mistress's Dog by David Medalie

19. The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje
18. Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence by Anthony Burgess
17. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
16. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith = re-read
15. The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Aries
14. Part 1 of Faust: A Tragedy (Norton Critical Editions) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
13. Goethe's "Faust": The Making of Part 1 by John Gearey
12. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

11. Macbeth (Modern Library Classics) by William Shakespeare = re-read
10. A Brief History of Death by Douglas J. Davies
9. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Norton Critical Edition) = re-read
8. London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City by Steve Roud
7. Unclay by T.F. Powys
6. Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson

5. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
4. End Procrastination Now! by William J. Knaus
3. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake = re-read
2. Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings by John Gray
1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (Edith Grossman translation) = re-read

Dec 31, 2011, 8:40pm Top

That's not even a very good rhyme

Dec 31, 2011, 8:59pm Top

No, it isn't. But seeing as he's only gotten back to rhyming in his songs on the last album, I thought I might take the liberty.

"But all that remains when you try to explain
Is a fragment of song
Lord, is it Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Lord, Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Be Bop a Lula"

Happy New Year's, Barry!

Jan 2, 2012, 1:18am Top

What your street lacks in readers is more than made up for . . . ;-)

Jan 2, 2012, 11:15am Top

Hi, Dewald! I look forward to following your reading again this year.

Jan 2, 2012, 1:21pm Top

Hi, Suzanne! Made up for in BS? ;-) I'm the only one reading at the moment - father's working, brother's playing Star Wars: The Old Republic online... and has to go back to work tomorrow, too :-(

Thanks, Thea! As you say on your thread, here's to a healthy reading year!

Jan 4, 2012, 12:32pm Top

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (translation by Edith Grossman)

Perhaps the most enjoyable reading experience I have ever had - I only wish I could read it in the original 17th century Spanish. Grossman's translation is excellent throughout, and well-worth searching out. The introduction by Harold Bloom in this Vintage edition displays his usual erudition, but he is less curmudgeonly than usual.

All I can say is, give the Don a try. I cannot imagine anyone actively disliking him, or Sancho Panza, for that matter. Theirs is the greatest friendship in all literature, and I am always glad to return to their exploits.

Jan 4, 2012, 1:46pm Top

Glad to see your positive review. One of my goals this year is to read Don Quixote. I attempted a translation by Tobias Smollett several years ago and didn't get very far. This time I'm reading the Grossman translation and hoping that I enjoy it more. Happy to see that you liked her translation.

Jan 4, 2012, 2:54pm Top

I listened to Don Quixote on tape a few years back and loved every minute of it. Not sure what translation it was, but the reader was a master at capturing the personalities of the Don and Sancho. A truly great book, no doubt about it.

Jan 5, 2012, 2:38pm Top

>8 japaul22: Thanks for the post, japaul22. I didn't know that Smollett wrote a translation of Don Quixote - have you read any of his own works? I have some interest in reading Humphry Clinker, but I doubt I'll be doing it any time soon.

>9 Poquette: Interesting, Suzanne. I remember watching an animated version of 'Don Quixote' when I was very young. Not all of 'Don Quixote', obviously. It had the windmills, of course, which seems to be the only thing most people know about the story. I still remember how vividly Spanish the accents were. I've been fascinated with Quixote ever since.

Jan 5, 2012, 3:02pm Top

I had no idea Smollett had written his own works. I will keep it in mind for future reading - thanks!

Jan 5, 2012, 5:07pm Top

Jan 6, 2012, 1:54pm Top

>11 japaul22: No problem, japaul22!

>12 baswood: Thanks, Barry. I'm up to Birds, Beasts and Flowers, and am enjoying Lawrence's take on the four evangelists in 'Evangelistic Beasts' very much. One might not think of Lawrence as a religious poet (and these are certainly very, um, heretical poems) but he obviously knew his Bible well.

Jan 11, 2012, 5:08am Top

2. Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings by John Gray

An extremely well-written and informative collection of essays concerned, broadly, with political matters, though some are more concerned with social commentary. Gray is considered a ‘conservative’ public intellectual, but that does not mean that he propounds a hidebound ideology in his essays. Clearly, he is generally conservative in his worldview, but he has little patience for certain strains of conservative thought. An example would be the neo-conservatives, who came to such prominence during George W. Bush’s stint in the White House. Gray is excoriating towards them, and he has little good to say for strongly doctrinaire libertarians, either. His range of interests is not confined to the political, as mentioned above; he quotes poets, dramatists and novelists, and he is obviously extremely well-read. He has, for instance, a whole essay based on Joseph Conrad’s works. Some of the social issues he confronts are the growing influence of the New Atheists, and the rise of the conservation movement (‘the Greens’). The essays date all the way from the seventies to contemporary times, but they are rarely irrelevant.

When I say that Gray’s essays are well-written, I am actually understating Gray’s style. His writing is incisive and clear, always erudite, and rarely too academic. Yes, there is jargon here, but it tends to go with the territory. I must admit that I finally learned the meaning of many words which have been vaguely floating around my consciousness, but which I never bothered to look up before: irredentist, indefeasible, irrefragable – and those are only the i’s. Shamefully, I must admit that I usually just skip over terms that I do not understand. But, since reading Gray’s concentrated text, I have made a resolution to always look up difficult and unknown words, wherever they may occur. I found my understanding of Gray’s arguments to be greatly enriched by a precise comprehension of his words, which seems obvious, but I am astounded how often people (myself included) fail to argue properly because they do not understand the terms of the debate.

Before getting to the good things about Gray’s exploration of his topics, a few grumbles. Some of his essays seemed just a tad dated. Strangely, this was most evident in his writings about the Bush presidency, and not those on, for example, the Thatcher years. Perhaps this is because familiarity breeds contempt, or because the Bush essays are more concerned with what was then contemporary policy. Arguably, the essays which stood the test of time best are those which, while based on the political issues of their day, still manage to find a relevance to more general human concerns. Some more nit-picking. I found two of Gray’s essays somewhat out of character: ‘Torture: a modest proposal’ and ‘A modest defence of George W. Bush’. Anyone who has read Jonathan Swift, or has a reasonable general knowledge, should recognise the homage paid to Swift’s ‘A modest proposal’ in the titles. In it, Swift proposed (satirically, of course) that the impoverished Irish population of his day could alleviate their circumstances by selling their babies to the rich – to be eaten. If you did not catch the reference, don’t feel too bad: many (most?) of Gray’s initial readers also didn’t, and believed that he was genuinely proposing that torture was a necessary evil/good. Apparently, he still receives letters from aggrieved civil libertarians complaining about this! In any case, my problem with these two essays is not their satirical character. Rather, I found them an uneven mixture of subtly-convincing arguments and heavy-handedness. What I mean is that, at times, Gray had even me unsure whether he was being satirical or whether he was writing in good faith. But, at other times, he gives such broad hints that he is not being serious, that I cannot believe some people actually accused him of promoting torture (or Bush’s policies). Whatever the result, I found these essays a little unbalanced, and preferred the straight essays, which make up the majority of the collection.

Besides these quibbles, I found myself intellectually stimulated throughout by Gray’s arguments, even when I disagreed strongly with them. I am for instance not as strongly opposed as Gray to the idea of progress in human affairs, which he calls a ‘pernicious myth’, although he has convinced me that most attempts to improve humanity end in utopian farce or horror. I also enjoyed his essay on the New Atheists, in which he clearly shows that much of their creed is just that – a creed of a very dogmatic bend, with their atheism as ‘a hangover from Christian faith’. This is to simplify things greatly, as one would have to follow his nuanced arguments to their end to get a clear idea of their import. This is of course a problem that all reviews of densely argued books suffer – one can hardly convey the complexity of the writer’s argument in a short review. But I hope that this is at least an interesting segue into Gray’s work, and that I might whet a few appetites of those interested in political and social commentary. Anyone who feels sceptical towards claims such as Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, or who questions the dogmas of hidebound conservatism or secular liberalism, will find this book interesting, or provoking, at least. I grew up in a liberal atmosphere, but I still found this foray into nominal conservative territory invigorating.

My favourite essay (because most congenial to my interests) was ‘Theodore Powys and the life of contemplation’. I admit to never having heard of Theodore Powys, yet, like his brothers, the more famous John Cowper, and Llewelyn, he was also a writer. And what an interesting portrait Gray paints of him! His books sound fascinating, easily as intriguing as John Cowper’s. Listen to this description of Unclay, his last novel: ‘John Death is God’s messenger, instructed to ‘scythe’ or ‘unclay’ two inhabitants of the village of Dodder. Losing the parchment that contains their names, he determines to spend the summer in the village. Throughout his stay he gives and receives joy, relishing sexual encounters with the village women and rejoicing in his mission of bringing release to suffering humanity.’ That sounds right up my alley, and if it is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Meet Joe Black’ and even Terry Pratchett’s Death (well, not the sex), then one has to remember who has precedence here. It is a shame that most of his books are out-of-print; hopefully, the situation will soon be rectified.

I leave you with one of my favourite quotes from Gray’s book. It is from Michael Oakeshott, and serves as a warning to those enamoured of scientism:

The project of science, as I understand it, is to solve the mystery, to wake us from our dream, to destroy the myth; and were this project fully achieved, not only should we find ourselves awake in a profound darkness, but a dreadful insomnia would settle upon mankind, not less intolerable for being only a nightmare.

Jan 11, 2012, 6:54am Top

>14 dmsteyn: - Thanks for that. I found the Gray essay on Powys here for anyone who is interested. It certainly did its job - I now feel as if I should read TF Powys. I knew about Mr Weston's Good Wine, which R4 recently adapted but nothing about his other works. A quick look at Amazon shows that Faber have recently re-issued some of them but not Unclay.
Re the political essays - I had a economics lecturer years ago who used to preach that everyone should read a quality newspaper everyday, and preferably one they didn't agree with. The idea being that when you agree with a stance you think about it less and vice versa - it seems Gray had something of that affect on you.

Jan 11, 2012, 8:56am Top

Thanks for the link, Jargoneer. The essay isn't exactly the same as the one in the selected writings, which is a bit longer, bit it gives the gist of what Gray has to say about T.F. Powys. I think there was a new edition of Unclay in 2008, but it is quite rare.

Jan 11, 2012, 11:49am Top

> All I can say is, give the Don a try.

You inspire me to look at some of my stashed away books and find that leather bound copy of Don Quixote. I have never read it, only a small part of the beginning, but I will try to pick it up some time this year.

Jan 11, 2012, 2:50pm Top

Good luck with Don Quixote, Psilight. I really think that it is not only an important book, but also quite entertaining.

Jan 11, 2012, 6:05pm Top

Graet review of Gray's Anatomy: Selected writings. Someones got a sense of humour if the title of the book is anything to go by

Jan 12, 2012, 3:53am Top

Thanks, Barry! Not much of a sense of humour, to be honest, but he does try his hand at satire, as I mentioned.

Btw, Barry, had you heard of T.F. Powys? I cannot remember if you guys ever discussed John Cowper Powys's family while reading Porius.

Jan 13, 2012, 5:18am Top

No Dewald, we didn't get into the Powys family. Reading Porius took all my time.

Jan 13, 2012, 6:25am Top

Yes, Porius certainly was an investment. Good luck with rereading it this year (I assume you are still up for it?)

Edited: Jan 18, 2012, 4:51pm Top

I am still knee-deep in an inky morass of tomes - The Gormenghast Trilogy, D.H. Lawrence's collected poems, and some intensely academic works - so I have not had the chance to review anything in a while. Which has left a bit of an itch. As a chronic eczema-sufferer, I know the danger of scratching some itches. Be that as it may, there are always exceptions. So, I've decided to review other things - mostly movies - from time to time, just to fill the gap between books.

So, I saw Margin Call tonight. What an incredibly slow movie! Not necessarily a bad thing, although one of my friends found it quite boring. It's concerned with analysts at an investment bank on the eve of the financial crisis, and how they deal with the impending tsunami caused by their trading strategy. The movie is quite convoluted, especially for something that is mostly concerned with a single night and day. The ensemble cast is really excellent, especially Kevin Spacey as the conscience-stricken head of trading, and Jeremy Irons as the cold-blooded company CEO. While the acting is quite good, the set pieces tend to be very static, with people either sitting in a boardroom, a car, or standing around in corridors.

My other friend, who is a staunch libertarian, and who is studying financial engineering, hated the movie - he accused it of a liberal bias against the financial system, and trading in particular. He tends, however, to see a liberal bias in most Hollywood movies, so this didn't surprise me. Despite this, the movie does have some cogent and troubling things to say about capitalism. This, for instance, is Irons's character, John Tuld, on the looming crisis:

So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That is all for naught... And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. Its just money; its made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than its ever been... It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.

Chilling, but perhaps not completely inaccurate. Unfortunately.

So, a movie with some problems, but fairly thought-provoking.

Jan 18, 2012, 7:04pm Top

The movie sounds good to me. I would enjoy that liberal bias and for me as far as films go the slower the better.

Jan 19, 2012, 4:53am Top

I also like slower movies, Barry. The problem with this one was that it was a bit static, if that makes sense. It was certainly a better movie on the financial system than, for instance, Wall Street.

Jan 19, 2012, 5:53am Top

>23 dmsteyn: - I heard Paul Bettany talking about that film on the radio earlier this week. Apparently the whole production only took 6 weeks and was filmed in only a few locations which may account for the static nature of the film.

Jan 19, 2012, 6:26am Top

>26 Jargoneer: That's interesting, Jargoneer. I read that it was an independent film, which explains the scaled-down production. I often find that with these types of films, the actors really give their all. The focus on character brings out the best in them, it seems.

My friend, Ania, really loved Jeremy Irons, especially his voice. He's probably got the most appealing British accent out there.

Jan 19, 2012, 7:37am Top

Dewald - enjoyed your reviews of both Don Quixote and Gray. I liked the Oakeshott quote in particular - it perfectly encapsulates my current philosophy, having begun to read up on the esoteric!

By the way, I belive we did talk briefly about the Powys brothers during the Porius read. If you ever make it to the UK there is a second hand book shop in Hay on Wye which seems to specialise in the books of the Powys'...

Jan 19, 2012, 8:34am Top

Thank you very much, zenomax. I won't make it to the UK any time soon, but the Wikipedia page makes Hay on Wye sound very enticing. In the meanwhile, it seems that The Sundial Press has published some of T.F. Powys's books, including Unclay, if anyone is interested.

Jan 24, 2012, 6:24am Top

>27 dmsteyn:. Link for your friend then!

Jan 24, 2012, 6:55am Top

Thanks! I must unfortunately admit to also knowing The Lion King word-for-word (with out checking, the quote is from Scar's song, 'Be Prepared'). It was the most important event of 1994 for me - well, besides South Africa becoming a truly democratic country, and things of that ilk. But, hey, I was only 7 years old.

Jan 24, 2012, 9:00am Top

What a nice day I'm having: we bought a new bookcase today (never can have enough of those), I've been approached to become a tutor at the University, and my copy of T.F. Powys's Unclay arrived in the mail!

Hmm, I hope I don't sound like I'm bragging; I'm just so happy that the year has got of to a good start. I want to thank everyone at Club Read for making last year a great one, and helping to get this one off to a great start.

Jan 24, 2012, 6:05pm Top

Congratulations all round then Dewald. I hope the sun shone on your great day as well.

Jan 25, 2012, 4:13pm Top

Thank you, Barry. I'm not one much for going out in the sun - the eczema explains that - but I do enjoy sunrises and sunsets here in these Southern climes.

Jan 27, 2012, 4:20am Top

3. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (in the Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy)

… when, before a masterpiece, the acid throat contracts, and words are millstones… - p.535 of the Illustrated Trilogy

‘Words are millstones’ – too true, and Peake’s Gormenghast, being a masterpiece, presents one with an equally weighty task when trying to review it. The second book in what is erroneously known as the ‘Gormenghast Trilogy’ (it is not a trilogy, and Peake preferred to call them the Titus novels), Gormenghast continues the story of Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Groan, from his seventh year up to his coming of age. It portrays Titus’ development from callow youth to rebellious adolescent, ending with what Peake describes as Titus ‘outgrowing his kingdom’. There are also various subplots that illuminate the themes of loyalty and rebellion, from the continued rise of the main antagonist, Steerpike, to a delightful (if indulgent) subplot involving the faculty of Titus’ educators, in which his headmaster, Bellgrove, finds love in the most unexpected of places.

Like Titus Groan, the first book in the cycle, Gormenghast is mainly concerned with an exploration of character: it has even been called a ‘fantasy of manners’. You will find neither magic in the novel, nor such pseudo-medieval accoutrements as knights or wizards. There is no map at the beginning of the book. You will search in vain for elves, dwarves or dragons. Peake writes more in the tradition of Dickens than Tolkien, although to say he writes in a tradition is misleading. Nothing quite resembles Gormenghast, not even the other two books in the series. Whereas Titus Groan was a much more contained novel, relating only about a year’s action, Gormenghast stretches the bounds of the Bildungsroman, while Titus Alone will go off on a whole other tangent, with its theme of the stranger in a strange land. Gormenghast is hard to describe, except as the emanation of a truly original mind.

Peake writes with the eye of an artist, which he was. But he is more than merely a good setter of scenes. He is equally adept at creating tension, eliciting emotion, and plotting his novel. The book can also be unexpectedly funny – Peake likes to tease the reader with his wordplay, but also with straight-faced asides that can be hilarious. For instance, in this passage, the young students of Gormenghast are playing an illicit game with hand-held catapults:

There had been a time when clay – and even glass marbles were used; but after the third death and a deal of confusion in the hiding of the bodies, it was decided to be content with paper bullets.

This is so unexpected, and delivered with such deadpan seriousness, that I could not help but roar with laughter. The image of seven-year olds nonchalantly disposing of the bodies of their classmates – with a ‘deal of confusion’, at that – tickles the sadist in me, I guess. But Peake can also be heart-achingly sombre and serious. The fate of Fuchsia, Titus’ dreamy, awkward sister, had me in tears near the end of the book. This is thanks to Peake’s amazing skill at characterisation: he draws out the peculiarities of each of his cast, forming fully-rounded personalities. My favourite character has to be Dr. Prunesquallor. Not only is he a hilariously verbose dandy, but he is also a man of discerning tastes and extreme intelligence, with a compassionate heart to boot.

The two main characters, according to my interpretation of the book, are Titus and Steerpike. They represent opposites who are, however, subtly intertwined. Titus, the privileged golden boy, seems a far cry from Steerpike, the former kitchen boy who, through deceit and skulduggery, scaled his way to a position of rank in the Gormenghast hierarchy. They are both, however, rebels at heart, willing to subvert the ancient laws of Gormenghast to reach their goals. Yet there are differences between them even on this front, differences of method and scale. Whereas Steerpike is willing to do anything to gain stature, with rebellion serving only as a means to an end, Titus only wishes to escape the deadening influence of Gormenghast and its superfluous rituals. Steerpike is brilliant, but, to take an image from Terry Pratchett, he is brilliant like the shards of a smashed mirror, all twinkling with bright points of light, but irrevocably broken. Titus is humane and caring, if somewhat confused and powerless throughout much of the novel. By the end of the story, he will have gained his independence from Gormenghast, but not without paying the cost of innocence lost.

As I said at the beginning of the review, Gormenghast is a masterpiece. It has minor flaws – Peake can stray into some seemingly pointless plotlines, and he is not immune to the odd bit of purple prose – but these flaws are really part of the charm of the work. They highlight the risk of absurdity and irrelevance that Peake walked in writing such an original work. The fact that he manages to pull off this tightrope act with the barest hints of overbalancing only emphasises what a brilliant fantasist he was.

Jan 27, 2012, 7:21am Top

Great review, Dewald! I'd never heard of these books until this year and now my interest is piqued!

Jan 27, 2012, 9:27am Top

Thanks, japaul! I always love learning about new books on LT, so I'm glad you got to hear about Peake here.

Jan 27, 2012, 11:28am Top

Another excellent review Dewald, but you won't convince me that the Gormenghast Trilogy is worth very much.

Jan 27, 2012, 12:05pm Top

Different strokes, Barry. Could you elaborate as to why you don't think it is worth very much? I always enjoy your opinions, even when we differ.

BTW, I bought The Discovery of France today, and was pleasantly surprised to see that you had already written an excellent review of it.

Jan 28, 2012, 2:42pm Top

4. End Procrastination Now! by William J. Knaus

My friend, Charles, lent me this book because I am quite adept at procrastinating. Not bad, not bad. Useful advice and examples, clearly written, fairly succinct. I don't usually go for self-help books, but this was a mostly painless read. I just wish Knaus wouldn't give examples from literature and philosophy, because these tend toward such well-known and clichéd anecdotes, that I found myself sighing with suppressed irritation whenever they cropped up.

Jan 28, 2012, 6:05pm Top

Hi Dewald, It was a long time ago that I read the trilogy and can only remember being hugely disappointed. I think I came upon it with expectations that there would be magic and sorcery and world building and it wasn't like that. I did not like it well enough to attempt to read it again, which sometimes happens when a book turns out to be so very different to how you imagine it to be.

Making a confident decision to read a book like End Procrastination Now is a start I suppose.

Jan 28, 2012, 6:54pm Top

Dewald, I'm getting such mixed vibes about the Titus Groan books. Guess I'll hold off while making a mental note.

BTW, I just knew we were kindred spirits. My middle name is "Procrastination". What was the one best thing you learned from End Procrastination Now! I can use all the help I can get without actually buying the book!

Jan 29, 2012, 6:06am Top

>41 baswood: Barry, that often happens to me when I am expecting one thing from a famous book, and get something else. I still think the Titus novels are at least well-written, which is usually enough reason for me to enjoy a book. The plot and characters just worked for me, but I am well aware that some people really dislike these parts of Peake's writing.

>42 Poquette: Hi, Suzanne, and thanks for dropping by! As mentioned above, I think the Titus books are great, but they can be contentious. As far as the procrastination book goes, I think its most important point is to 'do-it-now' as far as possible. Pretty obvious, agreed. But he does make cogent points about the emotional foundation of most procrastination. And I think his advice to break complex challenges into smaller goals is useful. (He claims to get this idea from Carl von Clausewitz's On War, in which he breaks strategies into tactics).

Jan 29, 2012, 1:27pm Top

Dewald, that's interesting about Clausewitz's On War. I actually have that book but have been procrastinating about reading it!

Jan 29, 2012, 2:12pm Top

I also want to loan that book from the library sometime, but I have to say that the link Knaus makes between the books is very tenuous.

Jan 30, 2012, 3:59pm Top

Saw Midnight in Paris today. I liked the ideas in the movie, but I thought that it was a bit heavy-handed in its execution. I mean, does the main character have to meet every last famous person who came to Paris in the 1920s? And do they have to be such caricatured versions of these famous people? Not a bad movie, per se, but it stretches its premise a bit far. I wish they could have condensed it to one night in Paris (no, not that movie ;-) ), instead of sprawling over succesive nights. I did, however, think Owen Wilson wasn't too bad - better than usual, in fact. And Michael Sheen's pedantic professor was right on the money.

Jan 30, 2012, 6:34pm Top

Midnight in Paris is a love affair with Paris. Not a great movie but a wonderful movie.

Jan 30, 2012, 11:14pm Top

Just now catching up here. I love your Gray's Anatomy review and adore your Gormenghast review. If I pick Peake's trilogy up, I'll certainly have your enthusiasm in mind.

Jan 31, 2012, 3:42am Top

>47 baswood:
Barry, I agree that it was rather wonderful, despite my reservations. Maybe I sounded too negative in my previous comments, because I really enjoyed watching the movie. It was only in discussing it with my friend (who also liked it) that I crystallised my less positive ideas.

>48 dchaikin:
Thank you so much, Dan. I hope you enjoy Peake's writing, if and when you get to it.

Jan 31, 2012, 4:20am Top

Are you currently reading Titus Alone? I really enjoyed both Titus Groan and Gormenghast but found the last one disappointing. Your review of Gormenghast was very good so I'll be interested to hear what you think of the last one.

Also saw Midnight in Paris and I was rather annoyed that there was no Stravinsky in the 1920's since they seemed like they were including everyone who was anyone. I found Owen Wilson's romantic complications predictable and blah, but it was a fun, enjoyable movie and I liked the nostalgia-bubble-bursting that happened at the end.

Jan 31, 2012, 6:00am Top

I'm only going to read Titus Alone in March (probably), but I have read it before. I think there is a dissonance between it and the previous two books that causes a lot of disappoint for most readers. Some of this may have to do with Peake's declining health, but I suspect that he purposely wanted to move away from the style of the two 'Gormenghast' novels. Titus' alienation permeates the book, and the introduction of unexpected technologies also lends it a strange air. I wouldn't say that it disappointed me on the first read-through, but it did surprise me, and not always in a good way. I'll report on my rereading when I get to it, and see whether I've revised my opinion.

Feb 1, 2012, 6:01am Top

5. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I feel a bit ambivalent about this book, which relates vignettes from the lives of several people connected to an international newspaper based in Rome. On the one hand, it is a very dark, depressing collection of related human stories, which offers little in the way of redemption for its cast of ‘Imperfectionists’. On the other hand, it is quite well-written, and provides a thought-provoking fictional take on the world of newspapers, a world which has always interested me.

The book has been described as a comedy, but the humour in it tends towards the bittersweet. Rachman does not pull punches in describing the depressing reality of his characters. I would not say that he takes pleasure in demeaning his characters, but he does seem to have a bleak take on life. Despite this, I did laugh out loud a few times. For example, this quote from the first story of the paper’s young Cairo stringer, Winston, had me guffawing:

As he spoke, the yellow Egyptian sun shone very brightly, as if that golden sphere were blazing with the very hope for peace in the Middle East that burned also within the heart of the Palestinian undersecretary for sports, fishing, and wildlife.

Even here, though, there is an element of sadness beneath the humour: Winston, is obviously struggling against the tide, and, despite his best efforts, he is going under. The situation in the Middle East also does not gel that well with humour. Winston, for instance, also has an embarrassing encounter in the marketplace when he tries to elicit comments on his story by approaching a women wearing a burka, touching her, and asking her about terrorism. Needless to say, this does not turn out well for poor Winston.

As I said, the prose is good, and the structure works quite well. Should one condemn the book for its extreme pessimism, however? I do not think so, even though I disliked what happened to some of the characters for whom I was pulling. There is a Thomas Hardy element to this bleakness of vision, though it is obviously not a traditionally Hardyesque book. The book bears a family resemblance to Evelyn Waugh’s black humour. The obvious comparison would be to his Scoop, which I unfortunately have not read as yet.

All said, I can understand the antipathy some readers feel towards this book. I do not share that dislike for the book, but I also did not love it. It left me feeling disheartened about the future of publishing, and about the human condition in general. There is a glimmer of hope at the end of the book, but you have to squint to see it. Not a book I would recommend to depressives. But it is quite good.

Feb 1, 2012, 3:46pm Top

Should one condemn the book for its extreme pessimism, however?

That would seem to cover a lot of books. Intriguing review. You've left me interested.

Feb 1, 2012, 5:04pm Top

The Imperfectionists sounds pretty good for a first novel. It has been well reviewed here on LT. Light reading for you Dewald?

Feb 2, 2012, 4:13am Top

Thanks, Dan and Barry. I wouldn't say that it was a light read, Barry, but it was definitely a change of pace after Gormenghast. I actually expected it to be much lighter than it turned out.

Feb 2, 2012, 4:27am Top

>51 dmsteyn: - I remember thinking that it seemed like he was trying to go for a sort of sci-fi picaresque but I found it a bit threadbare and wasn't as interested in the new characters. It's been a while since I read the series so I'll be interested in reading your review.

I hadn't heard of The Imperfectionists though it seems decently popular. Nice review - can definitely see why some would not enjoy it.

Edited: Feb 10, 2012, 4:51am Top

6. Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson

I have never believed that the critic is the rival of the poet, but I do believe that criticism is a genre of literature or it does not exist. - Harold Bloom

I enjoyed this book of literary criticism immensely. Empson is an erudite and widely-read critic, which certainly surprised me, as the first edition of this book came out when he was 24. I have a few minor criticisms of the book, but mostly it satisfied my urge for cogent, intelligent literary criticism. It brilliantly realises its premise of elucidating the ambiguity of English poetry, and does so with style and wit.

To illustrate Empson’s general understanding of the – ahem – ambiguous term, ‘ambiguity’, here he is on the slippery subject in the first chapter:

The fundamental situation, whether it deserves to be called ambiguous or not, is that a word or a grammatical structure is effective in several ways at once. To take a famous example, there is no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling, in

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,

but the comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter… and for various sociological and historical reasons (the Protestant destruction of the monasteries, etc.)… these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind… the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.

Sorry for the long quotation, but it helpfully exemplifies Empson’s meaning, his style, and his general approach. Empson is brilliant at teasing out multiple interpretations of any ‘ambiguous’ word or phrase in a poem, and does this throughout the book to illustrate his types of ambiguity. He also brilliantly defends himself from the reasonable criticism that some of his interpretations are trivial or irrelevant.

Empson has fascinating things to say concerning Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. For instance, here he is considering the importance of multiple meanings of words to Shakespeare and his contemporaries:

One must consider… that the Elizabethans minded very little about spelling and punctuation; that this must have given them an attitude to the written page entirely different from ours… that from the comparative slowness, of reading as of speaking, that this entailed, the reader was prepared to assimilate words with a completeness which is now lost… and that it is Shakespeare’s normal method to use a newish, apparently irrelevant word, which spreads the attention thus attracted over a wide map of the ways in which it may be justified.

Some of this is speculation of course, but Empson makes an interesting point; our standardised spelling and punctuation limits the amount of ambiguity we experience when reading a poem or drama, while the Elizabethans had to puzzle out the meanings of written texts. Of course, Shakespeare’s dramas were written to be performed, and Empson notes that the pronunciation of the actors would have influenced the meaning of words (as he says, ‘The words are intended for the stage; they certainly convey something to the audience; and there is no time for them to convey anything more definite before the soliloquy has swept on…’). Shakespeare, however, is incredible in that he may very well have intended many (if not all) the various meanings that his ambiguous words or phrases could accommodate. Empson also complains about Shakespeare’s unlimited propensity for puns, and has an interesting section on his use of the method: ‘the (noun) and (noun) of (noun)’ (e.g. ‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’). Empson claims that, whereas we normally scan across these lines, assuming that the first two nouns are merely synonyms, Shakespeare usually intends us to pay more attention to both words, and their combined effect on the final noun.

I disliked Empson’s somewhat disparaging remarks towards nineteenth century poetry, especially as he usually does not deign to back up these remarks by actually quoting from these poets. To be fair, he does sometimes have good things to say about the Romantics, and even about Tennyson and Swinburne, though one suspects that he reluctantly admits to a grudging respect for only some of their work. I am myself not so blinkered as to love everything these poets wrote, but I would prefer him not to set up straw men that he can easily knock down. I also disliked his editorial comments in the form of footnotes. In these notes, which were added to the third edition of the book, Empson often retracts things that he says in the main text. On several occasions, he claims that he is not quite happy with the main text, but does not know how to improve it. These notes often seemed pedantic and self-indulgent. Admittedly, they occasionally added something to the book. Mostly, however, they seemed like unnecessary grumbles.

Empson’s approach is daring and speaks of a real degree of genius. Can I remember the exact definitions of his seven types of ambiguity? No, but that is not really the point of the book. As Empson says, ‘I call the types useful… because, in complicated matters, any distinction between cases, however irrelevant, may serve to heighten one’s consciousness of the cases themselves.’ Empson’s book, despite being densely written and nominally ‘difficult’, certainly heightened my consciousness. It enriches one’s reading of poetry, and justifies the analysis thereof. Some people dislike poetry analysis, as they see it as a vivisection of a beautiful poem. Empson, however, shows that literary criticism can itself be an art form. Highly recommended.

Feb 3, 2012, 8:35am Top

This review reminds me that I should read some books about poetry, even if only to heighten my consciousness. Very interesting.

Edited: Feb 3, 2012, 9:38am Top

>57 dmsteyn: Thank you for a great review! I'm putting this on my wishlist.

>58 dchaikin: I'm really enjoying Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry .

Feb 3, 2012, 10:19am Top

Thanks, Dan and Deskdude! I've heard you mention Sound and Sense before on the **What are You Reading** thread. Is it about the technical aspects of poetry (the 'how'), or is it about the meaning of poetry (the 'why', I guess)? I would like a clear introduction that I could recommend to friends, so I might check this out.

Feb 3, 2012, 10:33am Top

That title brings back memories. Sound and Sense was our poetry textbook in my senior year in high school back in 1968.

Feb 3, 2012, 1:01pm Top

Seven Types of Ambiguity sounds like it is right up my street. Thanks for your excellent review.

It reminds me that someone has said that one's creativity is in direct correlation with one's tolerance for ambiguity. Is Empson by any chance the source of that notion?

Feb 3, 2012, 2:31pm Top

I don't know whether he is the source of the notion, but he certainly has much to say about Shakespeare's tolerance for ambiguity. I think his best examples, incidentally, come from Shakespeare.

Feb 3, 2012, 5:42pm Top

Excellent review of Seven Types of Ambiguity Your review makes it sound like essential reading for me and so I will hunt down a copy as soon as possible. I like the examples you quoted, which give a good feel to where Empson is coming from.

Feb 4, 2012, 12:17am Top

>60 dmsteyn: I'd say the opening of the book gives a bit of "why," but then the focus of the book is on the "how" with chapters devoted to: Denotation & Connotation, Imagery, Figurative Language, Allusion, Tone, Rhythm & Meter, Pattern, etc.

Feb 5, 2012, 11:02am Top

>65 Deskdude: Thanks! I think our library has a copy, so I'll peruse it sometime.

Feb 7, 2012, 9:46am Top

Nice to feel another nudge here to get to Don Quixote sooner than later, and Poquette what a good idea to do so now on audio! I just put a Grossman translation, read by George Guidall, on inter-library hold.

>52 dmsteyn: I felt a physical, hit-the-wall impotence (frustrated ambition) in Rachman’s The Imperfectionists; he’s not afraid of tension and I’d read more by him. I’m just finishing Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake where the pessimism feels more emotional.

Feb 7, 2012, 11:23am Top

> I've heard of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply, but not Stay Awake. I hope to read your review of it!

Feb 10, 2012, 4:52am Top

7. Unclay by T.F. Powys

Dear, beauteous death! The jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere but in the dark.
- Henry Vaughan

What a strange, unsettling, wonderful little book! Usually, when one looks forward to a book after hearing good things about it, one is somewhat disappointed by the eventual reading. One rarely finds a book that lives up to one’s expectations, as they tend to be unrealistic or misdirected. But sometimes a book comes along that confounds one’s expectations. Unclay was such a book. It is not a perfect book, and I will get to why not later, but it has a magic all of its own. A moral fable with a surprising twist mixed in with a ‘regional novel’ not about a specific region, Unclay kept surprising me with the way it flouted convention. One might think of T.F. Powys as a religious writer, but his views are anything but orthodox, and his depiction of village life is far from a rural idyll.

‘John Death’ (that is, the Grim Reaper) comes to the small village of Dodder to ‘unclay’ or ‘scythe’ two of its inhabitants. Unfortunately (for him, at least) he loses the parchment containing their names, and, after searching for it in vain, Death decides to take a holiday in Dodder. Strange events ensue. Death uses his supernatural powers to influence events, but the people of the village are so caught up in their own machinations that they hardly realise that something weird is going on. The main plot is concerned with Joseph Bridle, a poor young farmer who is in love with Susie Dawe, a young woman in the village. Joseph finds Death’s parchment, discovers his name and Susie’s on it, and decides to ‘cheat Death’ by hiding the parchment. Meanwhile, Death discovers the pleasures of the flesh, and has amorous adventures with several women in the village. When he turns his attention to Susie, he and Joseph enter into a battle of wills for her.

This exposition of the plot hardly does the book justice, however. Powys writes in a beautifully poetic style, with many aphoristic comments that rarely feel out of place. Some of my favourites:

The last supper upon the earth is always a sad meal; the first breakfast in Heaven will be happier.

Life and Death do not quarrel in the fields. They are always changing places in the slow dance. Alive here and dead there. So the evening is devoured by the night, and the dawn by the day.

One would think almost that at the bottom of the well of being one may discover, instead of a mighty God, only the cap and bells of a mad fool.

I indicated that this is in many ways a moral fable. The main contention in the novel/fable is between Death and Love, though this does not play out as I, for one, expected. The metaphors of Death and Love intermingle throughout the book, as the idea of Death ‘ravishing’ his ‘victims’ comes to play. But Death is both terrifying and uncommonly kind. At one time, he threatens to ‘unclay’ a young girl, and this has some uncomfortably paedophilic connotations. But, as Death explains to the girl:

’But many children,’ answered Death, ‘even younger than you, Winnie – both boys and girls – have come here with me, and I have used them as my custom is.’

An uncomfortable subject, to be sure. But I assume that that is Powys’ point. Death and sex and love are uncomfortable subjects (they were even more so in the 1920’s, when the book was published) but they are also important subjects, perhaps the most important that can be explored in literature. Their conflation may lead to disquiet, but it is a disquiet caused by misplaced fear and repression, rather than an actual need for horror. Powys also represents some reprehensible humans in the book, with the implication that it is not death or sex or love that we need fear, but rather the perversions that humans can make of these natural aspects of existence.

The book may be a fable, but it also has the qualities of an excellent novel. Besides the anthropomorphic characters, the human cast is well-delineated, from the Jane Austen-reading Reverend Hayhoe, to Joseph’s niece, Sarah, who believes she is a camel. All of them are not so whimsical, but they are all interesting, if not necessarily equally rounded. The narrative moves along at its own leisurely pace, with Powys providing many interesting insights into village life, and life (and death) in general. A slight criticism may be that these asides initially seem somewhat unnecessary, but, as the book continues, one becomes used to Powys’ method and you accept his meditative prose style.

I know that many people dislike ‘religious’ books. This, however, is not a typically religious book, nor is it particularly polemical in its approach. Powys sets out his stall, but does not expect one to cleave to any particular ideology. Because his believes tend towards to heterodox, some readers who are more orthodox in their beliefs might be offended by the book. The abovementioned allusions to sex, rape, and paedophilia may also stick in some readers’ craw. I, however, loved the mellifluous prose and thought-provoking story, and will be on the look-out for more of T.F. Powys’ work.

Feb 10, 2012, 5:13am Top

... a strange, unsettling, wonderful little book

Apart from one word, it seems to me that that sentence could hold for any book by the Powys brothers!


Edited: Feb 10, 2012, 2:31pm Top

This sounds like a book I would enjoy very much, Dewald, thanks to your excellent introduction. I'm going to look for it.

Feb 10, 2012, 4:44pm Top

I went over to BN.Com to put Unclay on my wishlist, and it is not there. T. F. Powys is barely there. I will keep my eye open for it.


Feb 10, 2012, 5:21pm Top

There are quite a few copies at ABEbooks.com, but they don't come cheap.

Feb 10, 2012, 7:51pm Top

Wonderful review Dewald, When I saw that you were reading it, I was wondering at the strangeness of the title. I had no idea what Unclay could mean. I had a quick read of the entry for T F Powys on wiki, because I thought he might actually be a churchman himself, but it was his father that was the vicar.

Religion was such an important part of peoples lives (and of course still is today for many people)that it is difficult to avoid it and so I don't.

Feb 11, 2012, 2:43am Top

>69 dmsteyn: - I have added Unclay to the list - your review made it sound very interesting and I enjoy reading books with personifications of death.

Feb 11, 2012, 6:52am Top

>70 zenomax: I'm guessing, only guessing, that the word is 'little' ;-)

>71 Poquette:, 72, 73 Here's a link to where I found the book: http://www.sundialpress.co.uk
It's about £15 for the book, and £2 for international shipping. The fact that it made it to South Africa fairly quickly should be encouraging.

>74 baswood: The question of religion is very interesting in this book, Barry, as T.F. Powys seems to have been a believer in God, but his is a very idiosyncratic belief. There is a character in the book who seems to represent God, though this is never made explicit.

>75 DieFledermaus: What other books have you read with personifications of death? I am also very interested in these, and would like to know about others.

Feb 12, 2012, 5:56am Top

Two very popular series have a Death character who plays an important role - Terry Pratchett's Discworld comic fantasies and Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels.

They collaborated on Good Omens - the Death in that novel, a comedy of the Apocalypse, is more in the vein of Discworld.

Gaiman has another characterization of Death in The Graveyard Book.

Jose Saramago's Death With Interruptions describes what happens when Death goes on strike. The first part depicts the societal repercussions and the second half shows Death's feelings on the subject.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has Death narrating the story of a girl who grows up during the Holocaust.

I did a quick check of my books and I think I have rather more with the Devil instead of Death. I also enjoy reading books with Satan or satanic characters.

Feb 12, 2012, 10:05am Top

Thanks very much for that list, DieFledermaus! I knew about the Pratchett and Gaiman depictions of Death, but had forgotten about Zusak's The Book Thief, and Saramago.

Can anyone else think of other books with personifications of Death? Inquiring minds want to know.

Feb 12, 2012, 2:36pm Top

I heard about these ones but haven't read them -

On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony - sounds a little Pratchett-esque
A Dirty Job - by Christopher Moore - also uses the idea of someone taking on the job of Death
Everyman - anonymous 15th c morality play
Donnerjack - by Roger Zelazny - reviews seem mixed compared to his other stuff
Death takes a holiday - by Alberto Casella, Italian play adapted into several musicals and movies

Feb 12, 2012, 3:22pm Top

Thanks again! I hadn't heard of any of these, except Everyman.

Feb 12, 2012, 3:30pm Top

8. London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant CitySteve Roud

I enjoyed this book about the folklore of London town immensely. Its stories of ghostly visitations, superstitions, public commemorations, strange creatures, and much, much more really intrigued me. It is the sort of non-fiction that, by its very nature, contains many fictional accounts, but Roud does a good job of debunking some commonly-held beliefs and misconceptions. At times, however, this sceptical approach can detract from the joy of reading about the strange convictions people have held through the years. The book is well-written and nicely illustrated, with many pictures and images of the folklore discussed in the book. It also has a generous bibliography for those interested in pursuing the legends contained in the book. On the whole, a wonderful collection of the weird side of London, one of the most interesting cities in the world. It made me want to visit the scenes of these legends, and do some first-hand legend-hunting. I am sure, however, that some will dispute the claim of the subtitle that London is the 'World's Most Vibrant City'. Paris, anyone?

My favourite legend must be that of Spring-heeled Jack, a figure who has interested me since I was a child. Roud is a bit dismissive of Jack, but he does provide interesting background information on the origin of the legend. It is also interesting how this Jack has become intertwined with that later Jack of ill-repute, also infamously of London town. Oh, come now, you know who I mean...

Feb 13, 2012, 10:05am Top

London was vibrant when I lived there, but since I left - I dunno...........

Feb 13, 2012, 11:18am Top

Barry, you are a legend in your own time...

To be a bit serious, I wish they'd do a book like this on Paris - I'm sure the catacombs would fill up a good section of the book.

Feb 13, 2012, 2:50pm Top

Paris, followed by London, are my favorite European cities. London Lore sounds like it would feed one's nostalgia pretty well.

Feb 15, 2012, 8:57am Top

Way back in post @69 - loved your review of Unclay.

Feb 15, 2012, 10:25am Top

>84 Poquette: Suzanne, it definitely does feed one's nostalgia, but it isn't so much wistful as informative of the past.

>85 dchaikin: Thanks, Dan. I really enjoyed Unclay, despite its strangeness and disquieting subject matter.

Feb 16, 2012, 12:54pm Top

9. Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Editions) by Joseph Conrad

Every undergrad's nightmare, Heart of Darkness is one of those seminal texts about which so much can be said, and has been said, that I do not feel the necessity to add my two cents.

Rather, I'm going to write about the reason why I read Conrad's novella again (fifth time), to wit, a lecture at our English department here at the University of Pretoria. The lecturer (Prof Russell West-Pavlov, an Australian lecturer who moved to our fair shores recently) had an interesting approach to Heart of Darkness. Instead of dealing with the book directly, he looked at how the work has influenced other writers and also academics, and how this influencing has led to the novella's status as a canonical classic.

I was suprised at how many other authors have taken their cues from Heart of Darkness, whether directly or obliquely. From T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men', to Zakes Mda's Heart of Redness, writers from all over have used Heart of Darkness to achieve their own agendas. Academics also love this novella: it provides various narrative and stylistic techniques ('Delayed Decoding' being a notorious one) and it also presents interesting ethical and interpretive problems.

Prof West-Pavlov also had cogent things to say about the role different publishing techniques have played in the dispersion of the text. From the original serial publishing of the novella in Blackwoods, to my own Norton Critical Edition, the novella has been presented in every conceivable format, including bootleg copies in India.

I love this novella, despite claims by Chinua Achebe (among others) that it is too racist to teach to university students, which I would dispute. I found Prof West-Pavlov's lecture interesting and informative, as well as practical.

Feb 16, 2012, 3:14pm Top

Hi Dewald! Very interesting take on the role of Heart of Darkness. I have merely read it twice, but it is indeed a seminal and provocative work not only literarily but politically as well. Of course, well known is the role it played in influencing other writers, including American Mark Twain, to support the international efforts to wrest the Belgian Congo from the personal fiefdom of King Leopold. But that is another story itself.

Feb 16, 2012, 4:04pm Top

Interesting comments on Heart of Darkness, Dewald. I once listened to the audiobook, but really would prefer to read it. I think it may be sitting on my Kindle. A bad sign that my ebook TBR pile has grown to the point that I don't remember without checking - yup, there it is.

Feb 16, 2012, 6:41pm Top

I have to confess I have never read it, although I am sure I have a copy somewhere.

Feb 17, 2012, 3:31am Top

>88 Poquette: - Suzanne, I didn't know about Mark Twain's involvement, but I did read in the context's section of the Norton about Roger Casement and E.D. Morel's efforts.

>89 Linda92007: - I think Heart of Darkness would probably work well as an audiobook. It is, after all, Marlow's telling of his story on the boat.

>90 baswood: - No shame in that, Barry. You've been reading so many medieval books that I mean to get to, that I've been fairly in a blue funk. Or green with envy. Whatever.

Feb 17, 2012, 4:40pm Top

I finally read Heart of Darkness last year, after Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (partly an Amazon quest for a Kurtz-like character). I've since been meaning to see how it influenced Coppola's film "Apocalypse Now."

Feb 18, 2012, 3:45am Top

>92 detailmuse: - I've heard of Patchett's State of Wonder, and would like to read it. Haven't seen "Apocalypse Now" yet, but there are excellent essays in the Norton on the relationship between the novella and Coppola's movie.

Feb 19, 2012, 11:26am Top

That essay might be worth checking out the Norton Critical edition. I recommend Apolcalypse Now for the cultural literacy. :) I saw the movie long before I read the book.

For historical context, see King Leopold's Ghost. There is a remarkable amount of ground truth in HoD, which Adam Hochschild dedicates a chapter to.

Feb 19, 2012, 1:09pm Top

Thanks, Dan. I think I've heard of King Leopold's Ghost, so I'll try to check it out some time.

Edited: Feb 23, 2012, 2:07pm Top

10. A Brief History of Death (Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion) by Douglas Davies

This book has a morbid subject, to be sure, but it was a fairly interesting history of death. It focuses mainly on Western perspectives of death, especially Christianity, but it also presents information from other cultures. An example from the start of the book is the story of Gilgamesh, which straddles the occidental/oriental boundary. I learnt some new things about attitudes to death in previous centuries, but the succinct character of the book precludes any deep investigation. I also found that, despite Davies' attempts at fairness and equal treatment of his subject, he sometimes introduces a very Western and strongly Christian perspective. I gather that his field is actually theology, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. I just wish that he would focus more on other cultures, to give a more balanced view.

The book isn't well edited, for the most part. I noticed some glaring factual errors, e.g. Davies claims that Abel said: 'Am I my brother's keeper?' while it was in fact Cain who said this to God after murdering Abel. The spelling and concord isn't always great, either.

Despite the above-mentioned reservatiorns, it wasn't a terrible book, considering its limited scope.

Feb 23, 2012, 1:59pm Top

Hi Dewald, did Davies deal with the use of Death as a metaphor in literature, tarot cards and what have you?

Feb 23, 2012, 2:06pm Top

Not particularly, Suzanne. He mentioned Dante, Milton, and a few others, but it was more about the process of death and the afterlife. I was actually hoping for something on the Grim Reaper and other anthropomorphic representations of "Death", as it were. I think the book I'm reading at the moment (The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Aries) probably has more on this, as well as being more scholarly. To be honest, I wouldn't have read Davies if the Aries book wasn't on loan from the library till yesterday.

Feb 24, 2012, 9:41am Top

>87 dmsteyn:..etc. Yes, interesting comments about HoD, and I will add my recommendation to King Leopold's Ghost to Dan's. It's a fascinating book, an excellent read. I read it as part of an independent study course.

Feb 24, 2012, 10:44am Top

Thanks, avaland. It seems that King Leopold's Ghost comes highly recommended from you guys and from the LT community in general. Also, I like reading up on African history when it is well-researched.

Feb 26, 2012, 11:02am Top

11. Macbeth (Modern Library Classics) by William Shakespeare

A profoundly affecting play, Macbeth is Shakespeare's darkest tragedy, though perhaps not as nihilistic as the pre-Christian King Lear. Not that Macbeth's Christian era has any considerable redemptive effect on the play. There is Christian imagery throughout the play, of course, but I would contend with critics like Empson and Bloom that Shakespeare was not a particularly Christian playwright. It has hard to say anything about Shakespeare from his plays - he is the least auto-biographical writer in the Western tradition, one might say. He may well have been Christian (perhaps even Roman Catholic, as some have speculated) but I do not think his plays, Macbeth least of all, espouse any overt religious message. One can tack such a message onto Macbeth, if you wish, by investing Macbeth's opponents (young Malcolm, Ross, Macduff, and the other rebellious thanes of Scotland) with the ethos of 'good Christian knights', sent to kill the emissary of evil. But I would contend that this is a misguided misreading of the play. Macbeth may be morally abhorrent, but the play is closer in structure to a Sophoclean tragedy, with the focus nearly entirely on Macbeth, not on the 'avenging Christian heroes'.

Bloom contends that Macbeth is extremely horrifying not because of its disturbing imagery and actions:Titus Andronicus is much more bloody, and yet less horrifying than Macbeth, and in any case, playgoers of his time could go to Tyburn to watch bloody executions. Rather, the horror is in Macbeth's extreme interiority and his proleptic imagination, which infects the whole play, as well as those who watch or read the play. Reading Macbeth awakens anxieties in us because it makes us aware of our own propensity and capacity for evil. 'Evil' is, of course, a particularly ambiguous term nowadays, with relativism making such a strong claim to our morality. But, within the confines of world morality, few would claim that Macbeth and his wife's initial ethos of 'the ends justify the means' is not particularly terrible. Even the Macbeths realise the horror of what they have done, though it has diverging effects on the two. In any case, the though that we may be capable of atrocities is uniquely tempting in this play. Macbeth is initially a 'golden boy', though we sense the danger of his propensity for slaughter, even though it is initially in service of the monarch. I never lost my admiration for Macbeth's bravery throughout the play, though I would strongly condemn his actions. It is this dichotomy between centripetal admiration, and a concurrent centrifugal revulsion, which draws one into Macbeth's unique psychology.

Lady Macbeth is the only of other strong character in the play - the thanes and Malcolm are colourless in comparison. But she falls away after the beginning of Act III, and the play then focuses on Macbeth to the near-exclusion of everything else. This is unique in a Shakespearean tragedy - even Hamlet has his mother, uncle, and Horatio. Macbeth is left centre-stage, with his famous soliloquy on death ('Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...'). Though he is killed, we remain strangely uneasy at the end of the play. I think this is because of the above-mentioned identification with Macbeth: we fear our capabilities for evil, but, in a perverse sense, also exult in them. Even more perversely, I felt a distaste for king Malcolm and his easy morality. Perhaps I am merely a misanthropic egoist, always fearing that the 'do-gooding rabble' might come after me as well. All I can say to that is:

Stars, hide your fires!
Let not light see my black and deep desires.

More seriously (well, you judge whether I was serious previously...) is the role of the witches / weird sisters in the play. Do they control Macbeth, planting the seed of murder in his mind? Or has he always had the potential for evil in him? The text is ambiguous about this, but I suspect that Macbeth considers evil long before the witches appear. For instance, they never, ever tell Macbeth to do anything. He comes to the idea of murder all by himself, with some promptings from his wife. And, conversely, when they make predictions to Banquo, Banquo does not run off to kill the monarch. Evil (whatever you mean by that word) seems to reside in humanity itself, not in the outside universe. Which is a bit of a cop-out: the witches are, after all, in the play. Bloom says, despite his fascination with the witches, that they are nearly redundant, which I would agree with, following my interpretation of Macbeth's own culpability. But, then, why did Shakespeare feel the need to add them to the play? Was it only because James I had an inordinate interest in witches and the supernatural in general? This hardly seems like a good enough reason for such a large aspect of the play. Is it because Holinshed mentions them in his Chronicles, on which the play is based? Shakespeare often leaves out things in Holinshed which he finds extraneous. Or did Shakespeare also find witches fascinating? It could be for anyone of these reasons, but I think the last is the most intriguing.

This is, obviously, a great play. It is economical, fast-paced, and cuts to the bone of what Renaissance tragedy could do. It is also frightening, and more so the more one thinks about it. I could say much more about the play - I've left out a whole discussion on the use of humour in the Porter's scene, which Coleridge hated, but which De Quincey examined at length. I also haven't said much about the role of imagery in the play, or the pathetic fallacy of nature responding to the death of the king. Time is short, the art too long.

On a last note: thank God this play isn't as amenable to post-modern reimagings as, say, Othello or The Tempest! I hate polemical interpretations which pervert Shakespeare's plays beyond all recognition. Retellings are fine, but don't give me a Marxist-feminist-structuralist play in which Macbeth is a hero of the proletariat, who kills the factory boss, but then descends into a homo-erotic coupling with the cross-dressing 'Lady' Macbeth, who convinces him to re-exploit the poor factory workers.

Obviously, at the end, he is overthrown because of repressed longings for Malcolm, who resembles his mother. Obviously.

God, help us.

Feb 26, 2012, 12:02pm Top

Love your review of Macbeth, which I have not read really since high school. I actually paraphrased the play for extra credit! Seems insane now and I wish I had kept my manuscript.

You raise the question of why the witches play such a prominent role. Everything you say is true about them not playing a direct role, but they do establish the atmosphere of the play. Many people are simultaneously spooked and fascinated by any appearance of the supernatural particularly of the evil variety, and the psychological impact of this element really contributes to an overall feeling of evil which is borne out by the actual evil being perpetrated by the Macbeths. In other words, just as Shakespeare uses comic relief as a device in his histories and tragedies, perhaps in the end that is the function of the witches, as an effective atmospheric device. Just a thought.

And yes, God save us from the post-modern polemical interpretations. Just the thought of it . . . ugh!

Feb 26, 2012, 12:31pm Top

Thanks, Suzanne!

I agree that the witches are an effective atmospheric device, as you put it. One thing that my Modern Classics version, however, made me think about is our depiction and conception of the witches. According to the Classics introduction, the stage directions in the 1st Folio never refer to them as witches, only as 'weyard' or 'weird' sisters. They seem more akin to sylphs, or even the three Fates, than witches according to this reading. There is only one instance in the play where they are called witches (the 'Aroint thee, witch' speech), and they seem very put out by this description. Also, many of the scenes with them may have been written, at least partly, by Thomas Middleton after Shakespeare retired. So, I'm still undecided about the role of the 'witches' in the play.

O, and I just added that last bit as a joke ;-)

Well, sort of...

Feb 26, 2012, 12:40pm Top

Did not know about Middleton's role re the "weird sisters." If true, that sort of reinforces my theory. They certainly have symbolic value beyond their rather elemental contribution.

And if that was a joke, I'm stuck with my prejudices hanging out all over the place! ;-)

Feb 26, 2012, 5:23pm Top

Dewald , don't be disappointed that you could not put all your thoughts in your review of Macbeth. You might end up with a dissertation or a book. The witches are just great theatre aren't they; what a way to open a play - Shakespeare's darkest play opens with a thunderstorm.

You can do wonderful things with post modernist imaginings - does anybody take this stuff seriously?

Feb 26, 2012, 7:11pm Top

Obviously, I don't!

Feb 27, 2012, 3:51am Top

>105 baswood: - Barry, you're absolutely correct - one could easily end up with a dissertation or a book! Not that there aren't enough of those out there...

>105 baswood:, 106 - I'm sure some people take these things seriously, and they can work in the (admittedly rare) cases where Shakespeare's ethos is preserved. I just think that it is a shame that so many modern interpretations go in for shock value or complete perversions of the original play.

Feb 29, 2012, 10:38pm Top

Great stuff on Macbeth.

Mar 1, 2012, 8:46am Top

Thanks, Dan. I hope my somewhat revisionist reading doesn't cause problems for the students I'm tutoring. Oh, well.

Edited: Mar 10, 2012, 10:00am Top

12. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

Watch out, Reader; here everything is different from what it seems, everything is two-faced…

You are about to read a review of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino… Ok, I will not attempt to mimic Calvino’s style, though it would be interesting to write a review referring to a second-person You or Dear Reader. In any case, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a brilliant book in more ways than one. Not only does it tell an affecting story, but it is also a bit of a puzzler, with multiple stories told within the main story.

Calvino begins the book with a scene that introduces the mind-bending scope of the book: A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book; specifically, Italo Calvino’s new book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. The same book I am reviewing. Or is it? This is only one of the tricks in Calvino’s hall of mirrors. The main story of the book concerns the Reader (me?), his experience of reading different books, and his meeting with the Other (female) Reader. Each time the Reader begins to read a book (beginning with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller), just when the book’s opening premise is being unfolded, he (the Reader is male) is interrupted in his reading by some or other unexpected event. The first time, it is because the book has been bound incorrectly, with the same opening section repeating. When he goes to the bookshop to get a new version, he meets the Other Reader, who has the same problem. And so a strange journey to the heart of reading begins, with the Reader exploring different books while trying to get into a relationship with the Other Reader.

After a while, you realise that the main story and the other stories are not hermetically sealed from each other; they influence each other in subtle, often unobtrusive ways. The strange thing is that the main story seems more realistic than the other stories, initially at least. At first, it also seems more prosaic than the other stories the Reader reads. But this is thrown out of the window later, as the Reader chases Ludmilla (ah, the Other Reader has a name!) around the world. The main story still remains more “formulaic” than the other stories: it is the classic boy meets girl, boy tries to get into girl’s pants story (a simplification, true, but still). As with Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the subsidiary stories often seem like they could be more interesting than the main story. It seems that Calvino takes great joy in letting his imagination run free when creating scenarios, but he prefers to string the reader (the Reader?) along and then leave him (her?) hanging. Some of the secondary stories obviously cannot be taken further than the initial scenario, as they are circular, even insular, in construction, but some others seem like brilliant openings that could lead anywhere.

Calvino has entertaining things to say about reading and reading habits. This, for instance, could be the motto for anyone with a to-be-read pile of books:

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days are Numbered.

And so on. My favourite category of books Calvino mentions has to be the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified. Yes, dammit, you books know who you are! Calvino’s eccentric humour also shines through in this section.

He also writes entertainingly about writers and their existential condition. For instance, he has a whole section of the main story related through the diary of “Silas Flannery”, a mock Irish writer. At the end of this section, Flannery writes:

I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he can’t go beyond the beginning… He returns to the bookshop to have the volume exchanged…

Oh, what a tangled web Calvino weaves! Everything is smoke and mirrors, even the ending.

I thought this book was very clever – perhaps too clever, but that is debatable. I enjoyed it immensely, and will soon be reading more of Calvino’s books. But now it is time to read something a bit more straightforward…

Mar 5, 2012, 8:12am Top

Dewald, an excellent review of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller! This has been buried deep on my wishlist, but I am bumping it up.

Mar 5, 2012, 9:44am Top

Wonderful review of If on a winter's night a traveler! A lot of books are clever just for cleverness' sake, but this isn't one of them.

Mar 5, 2012, 12:32pm Top

Thanks, Linda and Steven! This is a clever book with a soul.

Mar 5, 2012, 1:10pm Top

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller is one of my all-time favorite books. Delightful review and reminder of it all.

Edited: Mar 5, 2012, 2:14pm Top

I'm glad to hear that you love If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (or should it be traveler?), Suzanne. Happy to remind someone of a good reading experience!

Mar 5, 2012, 4:41pm Top

110 - Great review! I've seen it mentioned in many places, but didn't know a lot about what it was about.

Mar 5, 2012, 5:07pm Top

Excellent review Dewald. Thumbed. Any book about books and the reading of them always piques my curiosity. I note that I already have If on a winters night a traveller on my to buy list.

Books and people who read - In Night Train to Lisbon the hero of the book says that he can tell the people that read for pleasure and those that don't. This got me thinking about the people that I know and wondering if I could tell who were habitual readers for pleasure and who never read a book apart from instruction manuals or stuff to do with their work. I don't think I would have many surprises. Now I am not sure I could tell just by looking at someone, but I would have a good idea after a few minutes of conversation (assuming I don't ask a direct qustion).

Mar 6, 2012, 10:49am Top

>116 janemarieprice: - Thanks, Jane!

>117 baswood: - Interesting idea about being able to tell those who read for pleasure from practical readers, Barry. I've been surprised in the past by people who read and, conversely, by people who don't read. I've even read (funnily enough) of some writers, like Faulkner, who claimed to have stopped reading for pleasure after they began writing. Which seems strange to me, at least. Maybe they worried about being influenced in their present work.

Edited: Mar 7, 2012, 10:58am Top

We, my wife and I, picked up some of Calvino's books last year, including On a Winter's Night a Traveler, but I have yet to open any... Anyway, terrific review.

#117/#118 - optimistic/pessimist thing, but I'm always surprised to find that someone does actually read for pleasure.

Mar 7, 2012, 11:31am Top

>87 dmsteyn: to >95 dmsteyn: - Obviously I am coming to this thread really really late, but any discussion of Apocalypse Now always grabs me. I read Heart of Darkness after the first time I saw AN and it certainly does draw on the novel. However, the film also strongly draws on Dispatches, by Michael Herr, his reporting on the Vietnam War following a HoD theme. The Redux version of AN may bring this out even more.

A lesser known novel is The Book of the Heathen, which takes place in 1897. An Englishman in what was then the Belgian Congo is accused of the murder of a black child, which is not something we tend to think happened often. This is the era covered in King Leopold's Ghost, which was indeed an excellent if horrifying book.

I am not so sure about the analogy of HoD to State of Wonder. Patchett seemed to me to be labouring with this. I kept thinking of The Boys from Brazil instead, which I am sure is not what she intended. I usually like her writing, so I was somewhat disappointed.

This is somewhat long winded; I will follow along more closely now that I have found your thread.

Mar 7, 2012, 11:45am Top

I defy anybody to read the first page of If on a winter's night a traveler and be able to put the book down. It has one of the all-time great openings. The problem is that the first page leads to the second page, and on and on, and pretty soon it's too late! ;-)

Mar 7, 2012, 12:46pm Top

#120 - SL - I've just added Dispatches to my wishlist. I had not heard of it before.

Mar 7, 2012, 1:01pm Top

>120 SassyLassy: - Feel free to jump in on the thread at any time, especially if you're going to add such interesting comments. More books that I want to read...

>121 Poquette: - I agree completely with you, Suzanne. Strange that some of the reviews are so pessimistic... Did it bother you at all that the Reader who is addressed by Calvino is male? You being, yaknow, not male.

Mar 7, 2012, 2:13pm Top

>123 dmsteyn: Actually, Dewald, thank you for noticing. I was not offended at all. In fact, it never occurred to me because my alter ego is actually male.

Edited: Mar 10, 2012, 10:10am Top

13. Goethe's "Faust": The Making of Part 1 by John Gearey

Finished this book, and part 1 of Goethe's Faust yesterday. I don't think it's necessary to write a review about this critical work (you'd need to have read Faust to get much from it), but I'll put up some thoughts on Part 1 later. On the whole, I liked Gearey's book: it stuck to the play, and gave me many interesting insights into Goethe's approach to Faust. Sometimes I felt that Gearey was trying too hard to apologise for Goethe's erratic style in Part 1 - some parts of the play just don't really make sense, or are so esoteric, that any explanation ends up looking strained. But more of that later.

Mar 10, 2012, 1:27pm Top

>Did it bother you at all that the Reader who is addressed by Calvino is male? You being, yaknow, not male.
This is exactly what came to my mind when I read your review (albeit with one eye closed, since my copy is still in my TBRs). I look forward to finding out.

Mar 11, 2012, 1:21pm Top

14. Part 1 of Faust: A Tragedy (Norton Critical Editions) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is perhaps the quintessential German author, and Faust is perhaps his quintessential work. It took him his whole life to write Faust, with the writing of Part 1 stretching over 30 years. There are various reasons for this; anyone interested should read John Gearey’s Goethe’s ‘Faust: The Making of Part 1 to find out more. Obviously, this slow percolation had a profound impact on the form and content of the ‘dramatic poem’ (it is not quite a play, despite Goethe’s calling it a tragedy, and despite the fact that it has been performed. It is closer to Seneca’s closet dramas, or Milton’s ‘Samson Agonistes’). As Goethe aged (matured?), his conception of the poem changed, leading to profound changes in the main character of Faust and in the structure of the first part.

The poem begins with two interesting prologues, one in Heaven and one in the theatre. Both were only written much later, after Goethe had made radical changes to the poem. The prologue in Heaven introduces the idea that Faust will, like Job, be tested by God and the Devil, represented by the ambiguous evil spirit, Mephistopheles. This scheme already hints at the fact that Faust will eventually be saved, in contrast to the original story and Marlowe’s play, in which Faust is damned. This prologue also contains some of the poem’s most famous lines: ‘Man errs the while he strives’ (Es irrt der Mensch, so lang’ er strebt)

We are next introduced to Faust in his room. He says that he has plumbed the depths of human knowledge, but he is still unsatisfied. Unlike the legend and Marlowe, Goethe does not have Faust make a pact with the devil at this early stage. Rather, Faust summons what Goethe calls ‘the Earth Spirit’, who rejects Faust’s pleading for understanding. (It is rather more complicated than I am sketching, but this is just a general relation of the plot). After some more exposition, Faust decides to commit suicide by drinking poison. He is prevented from doing this by the ringing of the bells proclaiming Easter morning. This highly symbolic redemption of Faust reminds the reader that this is not the traditional story of Faust’s damnation. Ironically, it is after this that Faust makes the pact with Mephisto, who arrives in the shape of a dog. The terms of the pact are that Faust will lose his soul if Mephisto can ever provide Faust with a moment’s experience to which he shall say ‘Stop, thou art so fair’. Mephisto also utters the lines that will serve as Bulgakov’s epigram to The Master and Margarita. After Faust asks him who is, he responds:

Part of that power which still
Produceth good, whilst ever scheming evil
Ein Teil von jener Kraft,
Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gut schafft

The rest of Part 1 is concerned with what has come to be called ‘The Gretchen Tragedy’: Faust falls in love with a girl called Margarete, or Gretchen, and through the machinations of Mephistopheles, he wins her heart. The tragedy is that he manages to kill Gretchen’s mother with a sleeping draught, and then impregnates Gretchen. Her brother, Valentine, challenges Faust to a duel, and is killed by Faust with the help of Mephisto. Faust deserts Gretchen to partake in the Walpurgisnacht celebrations with Mephisto (more on this below) and Gretchen kills her child. She is imprisoned, and apparently loses her mind, singing songs reminiscent of Ophelia (there are a lot of connections to Shakespeare in Goethe’s poem). Faust eventually returns to free Gretchen, but she does not recognise him. When he finally convinces her of his identity, she refuses to leave. When Mephisto enters the dungeon to hurry Faust along, Gretchen recognises that he is a devil. Mephisto claims that she is doomed, but in the penultimate lines of the poem, an unseen voice proclaims from above that she is ‘Redeemed!’ The poem ends with Faust and Mephisto fleeing like condemned criminals, which they are. Things do not look good for Faust’s salvation.

The Walpurgisnacht ceremony is probably the strangest, most incongruous part of the play. Gearey spends a fair amount of time trying to interpret this section of the poem, with little success as far as I am concerned. Much of this section, especially the rather tiresome ‘Intermezzo: Walpurgisnacht Dream or the Golden Wedding of Oberon and Titania’ (yes, another Shakespeare reference) is rather heavy-handed satire, with many topical references to very minor writers who had criticised or praised Goethe. In fact, Goethe himself appears in the ‘Intermezzo’, though in a disguised form. He also refers to the Weimar theatre company, saying that they will easily be able to stage the ‘Intermezzo’, as it is only one personage speaking after another. This is apparently supposed to be funny, but the humour really does not translate well from the 18th century to today, or from German to English. Or maybe I am making excuses for Goethe’s strange yen for obscurity in this passage. Whatever it may be, I found this part of the poem fairly pointless: it has almost nothing to do with Faust, who barely speaks during the ceremony, and is completely absent from the dream. It also does not advance any of Goethe’s themes. All in all, it is simply bizarre, and mars the cohesion of the play. I would not have minded some comic relief, but this just does not make sense. Mephisto is, in any case, much funnier than this pointless babbling.

I wish that Goethe had revised the older sections of Part 1 instead of presenting such a patchwork poem. I am, however, aware of the claims that have been made for him, that he left the play unchanged because it served as a monument to his artistic progression. As Gearey quotes Bernard Shaw:

I have never admitted the right of an elderly author to alter the work of a younger author, even when the author happens to be his former self.

Besides these caveats, I found Part 1 interesting and worth reading. I have read that Part 2 is much more cohesive and better-written than Part 1, so I am looking forward to that.

Edited: Mar 11, 2012, 5:19pm Top

Thank you for what you have given us on Part 1. Harold Bloom thinks, if I remember him correctly, that it is Part 2 that makes Faust a work of genius, but it is Part 2 that is commonly skipped by otherwise literate people. I am quite sure I have read Part 1, but I need to read it again, and I need to read Part 2.


Mar 11, 2012, 8:24pm Top

Faust is one of the embarrassing lacunae in my reading. I have read the beginning of Part I several times but managed to derail myself each time. Perhaps another try is in order. Very thoughtful review, Dewald. Thanks!

Mar 12, 2012, 5:32am Top

>128 Mr.Durick: - Thanks, Robert. I have also read some of what Bloom has to say about Faust, but will have to check the specifics some time. I think people might skip Part 2 because it is even less of a straight dramatic work than Part 1. Or they might just be fatigued...

>129 Poquette: - Suzanne, don't worry about lacunae in your reading: I have several of my own which need addressing.

Mar 12, 2012, 6:50pm Top

I also have a gap with Faust, in fact I was not even aware of the story line until I read your review.

Did the Norton Critical edition add anything to your reading experience, although perhaps not as you read the John Geary book

Mar 13, 2012, 8:59am Top

Barry, I haven't read all of the Norton criticism and background, as most of it is only relevant to reading the whole poem. I did, however, find Goethe's notes on writing the 1st Part interesting. Gearey writes about this process at length, but it was interesting to read Goethe's own thoughts.

Mar 15, 2012, 7:12pm Top

Goethe for me is merely one section of a very large gap. Honestly, I'd never thought about approaching it before reading this review. Great to read and learn from you thoughts, Dewald.

Mar 16, 2012, 3:32pm Top

Thanks, Dan. Your comments always bring a smile to my face :-)

Mar 18, 2012, 4:38pm Top

15. The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Aries

In this magisterial history, Philippe Ariès presents Western Man’s changing attitudes toward death over the last thousand years. It may seem like a morbid occupation of one’s time, but Ariès has gathered a seminal representation of the West’s often inconsistent attitude toward the end of life, the afterlife, and even life itself. Although Ariès has focused mostly on French documentation, he has gone to great lengths to show how this is applicable to all of Western culture, including Britain and the United States (which obviously only comes into the picture after about 1600 AD). Ariès does a tremendous job of reconstructing the cultural milieu and viewpoints of contemporary people from the Middle Ages up till the present day. Although I found myself occasionally disagreeing with some of his cultural interpretations, I found the book immensely informative and detailed. Ariès gives a sweeping overview, but also manages to give specific information on customs and beliefs. This is both the history of hard facts and dates, and the more diffused history of culture.

Ariès divides his analysis into five categories, each concerned with broad time-periods (which tend to overlap somewhat) and specific attitudes towards death and its related cultural baggage. I will not go into each in great depth, although each is interesting in its own right; this is merely a very crude and broad overview of Ariès’s categories. The first is the Tame Death, which coincides with the early Middle Ages, and which is illustrated by the death of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s paladins. The second, the Death of the Self, is concerned with a burgeoning individuality at the end of the Middle Ages and towards the Renaissance. The third is Remote and Imminent Death, which basically covers the period from the 1500s to the 1700s. As Ariès says, ‘Where death had once been immediate, familiar, and tame, it gradually began to surreptitious, violent, and savage… death, by its very remoteness, has become fascinating…’ This is the age of the Marquis de Sade, with disturbing developments like the idea, if not the practice, of necrophilia. The fourth category is The Death of the Other, which consists of the Romantic idea of the Beautiful Death. Death has, broadly, shifted from a concern of one’s own death to a concern about the death of family and friends. Of course, these concerns have always been there, but Ariès shows how they become overpowering during this period. The final category, the Invisible Death, is concerned with contemporary attitudes towards death. Again broadly, this category covers the way in which industrialised society has banished death from everyday consciousness. Because of modern man’s more delicate sensibilities, death and its more unpleasant aspects have been removed to peripheral institutions, like hospices and funeral homes. Ariès does, however, note that in the later twentieth century, some changes are also noticeable in this attitude, as exemplified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and other thanatologists’ attempts to re-personalise death.

The part of the book that I was most interested in was that dealing with the Macabre in art and literature. Although not necessarily an enjoyable subject, I found the 15th and 16th century attitudes towards death (or personified Death) fascinating. I found it interesting how Ariès inverts commonsensical expectations by associating the Macabre with a love of life, instead of a fascination with death. I do not completely agree with him, but I found his arguments refreshingly different.

Another place I disagreed with him was his interpretations of the Brontës’ attitude toward death. Obviously, they were quite intimately acquainted with death: they lived in a parsonage surrounded by a churchyard, after all. But I think Ariès makes some conceptual leaps when he tries to relate their literary output to their attitudes toward death. Having read most of Emily’s works, I find it somewhat reductive to say that nearly everything she wrote reflected a deep-seated morbidity. Admittedly, Ariès makes a more subtle argument than this, but I still find it dangerous to too closely tie biographical details to literary composition.

On the whole, I found Ariès’s book fascinating and even enjoyable, despite the subject matter. I think modern man is almost morbidly averse to morbidity. People fear death for many, complex reasons. Having experienced grief first-hand, I do not want to deny the power of this fear, but I would like to posit that an intense fear of death is one of the most detrimental approaches to life. As Ariès’s book shows, man has come up with many reasons to fear death. As he also shows, however, there are more to embrace it.

Mar 18, 2012, 5:46pm Top

Some great reviews - If On a Winter's Night a Traveler and Faust.

The Hour of Our Death sounds fascinating if a bit daunting. Added it to the list.

Mar 18, 2012, 5:53pm Top

Fascinating review, Dewald, despite, as you say, the subject matter. I was vaguely conscious of the fact that death has been seen in varying lights from one era to the next, but I have never seen it laid out quite so systematically. I am curious, in the section which you describe as the "age of the Marquis de Sade," the 1500s to the 1700s, where death became "surreptitious, violent and savage," it occurred to me that this is the era of the Inquisition, which certainly trafficked in death surreptitiously, violently and savagely. Is this mentioned at all in that context? I was also wondering whether the Black Death warranted any mention and in what context.

At any rate, an intriguing topic, I must say, and it seems to fit right in with some of your other recent reading.

Mar 18, 2012, 6:22pm Top

I've had that Ariès on the wishlist forever, it's such a classic. But I'm slow to get into sociology...

This is the age of the Marquis de Sade

Is that a direct quote from Ariès? It sounds a bit odd (Sade was born in 1740); actually, it's odd even if what's meant is something like "this is the age of sadism".

Mar 18, 2012, 8:00pm Top

Dewald, still reading about death then.

Excellent review of what sounds a fascinating book. I need to read it as I am intrigued by Aries depiction of the early middle ages death as "Tame Death"

Another addition to the to buy list

Mar 19, 2012, 12:58pm Top

>136 DieFledermaus: - Thank you, DieFledermaus. It is a bit of a daunting book; it reminds me of what Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall: 'It smells in every word of the sepulchre'.

>137 Poquette: - I can't remember anything specific on the Inquisition, which would be an interesting addition to the book. A shame. Ariès does, however, have quite a bit on the plague, which comes right after the bit on the Macabre art. He mentions the plague pits, and also says that he is not quite convinced that this catastrophic quaility of the late Middle Ages means that there is a correlation between the plagues and the macabre. The Macabre art was 'that of the artists, poets, and preachers and was not used by ordinary people when they thought about their own death', e.g. in their wills. Ariès often draws this distinction between the experiences of common people and the more elevated echelons of society, which may have been better preserved, but does not necessarily reflect the everyday experience of most people.

>138 LolaWalser: - Thanks for posting - I agree, the 'age of the Marquis de Sade' is a bit general, and it's not a direct quote from Ariès. As I mentioned, the time periods tend to overlap a bit, but Ariès does include Sade in the category of Remote and Imminent Death. I think I emphasized the Marquis because Ariès has a lot to say about him, though Ariès certainly does not focus exclusively on him. Ariès has much to say, for instance, concerning the 'vanities' of the late 17th and 18th centuries.

>139 baswood: - Yes, still reading about death. I find it difficult to talk about this aspect of my reading with friends and family, so I put it up on LibraryThing. I'll have to get over my reticence, as this might form a part of my MA thesis.

Mar 19, 2012, 8:47pm Top

Thanks, now I'm really curious about the book.

Mar 20, 2012, 8:18am Top

>137 Poquette:, 140 Re: The Inquisition. I caught the very end of a radio author interview yesterday on God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy. Sounded like it might be interesting.

Mar 20, 2012, 4:08pm Top

Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Linda. Always interested in good history books.

Mar 22, 2012, 7:30pm Top

Terrific review of The Hour of Our Death, and I'm intrigued by Aries' themes. Wondering how the 20th-century carnage (well, that's how I look at it) fits in - the world wars, the holocaust and so on.

Mar 23, 2012, 10:08am Top

Curiously, Ariès doesn't have much to say about the World Wars: it may be a sore point, as he says that 'After 1945, my mother wore mourning for a son killed in the war for the twenty-odd years that remained to her.' It's one of the few times that he gives a personal anecdote.

Mar 23, 2012, 10:34am Top

16. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith

I reread this play because of my tutoring work. This is one of the few later eighteenth-century plays to remain part of the critical canon, the others being Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal and The Rivals. Other plays of this time tended towards mawkish sentimentalism, and have not stood the test of time too well. Even this play, despite its good-natured humour and satirical exploration of human foibles and class disputes, also has some aspects that may make it seem 'flawed' to a modern reader or audience.

The story is very slight, which is not too much of a problem for a comedy. Problems, however, crop up when Goldsmith attempts to represent the morality of the different sexes. The main male character of the play, Marlow, is an unrepentant misogynist. Apparently, he cannot speak coherently with upper-class women, but has no problem in speaking to those of the lower classes, with whom (it is implied) he has many amorous assignations. When he is introduced to Kate Hardcastle, she must pretend to be a barmaid to catch his eye (i.e. she 'stoops to conquer'). Goldsmith and his audience apparently saw no problem in a man who goes to a county house to meet the woman he is expected to marry, and who then decides to proposition the 'barmaid'. Even though things work out nicely in the end, I found the resolution somewhat disturbing.

Perhaps it is somewhat wrong to bring one's present-day prejudices to bear on a historical document. Goldsmith is, after all, writing during a very stratified period in English history, and I am told that he is much less openly patriarchal than some of his contemporaries. Still, after discussing the play with a few lecturers, we came to the conclusion that some of the older writers, including Shakespeare and even Chaucer, crafted much more sympathetic portrayals of women and their situations than Goldsmith does.

The play is, however, quite funny, and does present a cogent satirical reading of certain class differences, while not radically departing from the class system that shaped Goldsmith's views.

Mar 23, 2012, 2:14pm Top

This is one of the few later eighteenth-century plays to remain part of the critical canon

What a sad commentary on an era.

Mar 23, 2012, 4:13pm Top

I hope to see She Stoops to Conquer in an upcoming screening of the National Theatre's production of the play.


Mar 23, 2012, 4:30pm Top

>147 dchaikin: - Yes, isn't it? England did, however, produce many excellent poets and prose writers during this time. I think critics have bashed the era's dramas because they are nearly all aimed at 'moral upliftment' in a very didactic way.

>148 Mr.Durick: - I hope you enjoy the play, Robert. I saw a student production of it in my first year as an undergraduate, and I think it works much better on stage than on paper.

Mar 25, 2012, 12:46pm Top

17. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

In the 1970s and ‘80s, my father was involved in a bush war in Namibia and on the border with Angola. He was a medical officer, and never experienced front-line combat, yet he still rarely talks about his experiences. If there is one thing that Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn has taught me, it is respect for the troops of armed combat. I do not want to go much into my father’s war here – like Vietnam, or Iraq, it was pretty much a political snafu, with very little moral justness to it – but I will say that, on a fundamental level, the idea of a ‘just war’ seems to me particularly BS after reading Matterhorn. Yes, a defensive war might be justified. Some kinds of international intervention, even. I have never been in a similar situation, and, God-willing, never will be. So I cannot claim to speak from anything but a theoretical position. However, war really seems to me to be humanity’s nadir as a thinking species.

Marlantes shows that the people on the ground are not perfect, not by a long stretch. Having been a Marine in Vietnam, he should know. Nor does he paint those in charge behind the lines as some kind of monsters, either. The book contains very little moralising of any kind, in fact. It is left to the reader to decide who is to blame; who is in the right, who is in the wrong. By leaving this mostly up to the reader, Marlantes shows up the ambiguity of moral judgement. Can you pass judgement on someone without having been in their shoes? Unfortunately, we as humans sometimes have to, despite our lack of perfect knowledge. Still, Marlantes shows the danger of this. Situations make us do things. Stress, pain, fear, love, hate – these emotions give the lie to man as a rational being. And sometimes, even at our most rational, we are left with insoluble dilemmas. Each human being has to decide for him- or herself how they will comport themselves, and then he or she has to live with the consequences. The main character, Waino Mellas, exemplifies this personal responsibility. He has to make choices – heart-wrenching ones, sometimes – and accept that they are sometimes the wrong choices. There it is.

The novel’s style fits it subject. Marlantes writes plainly and, for such a long book, surprisingly succinctly. I usually prefer a few more bells and whistles in my reading matter, but this seemed appropriate to such an honest, unblinkered book. The writing is economical and fast-paced, but not stilted or clichéd. I was worried after seeing a James Patterson blurb in the front cover, but Marlantes is a much better writer than that might imply. Although the book is plot-driven, Marlantes does not let character or motivation fall by the wayside. He also does not shy away from occasional philosophical speculations between his characters. Some people may find this tedious; I found it enriching. The novel is relentlessly grim and quite graphic, but never gratuitously so. You do not want to enter a warzone after reading this book; the horror is just too vivid. You may, however, feel an urge to do something meaningful with your life. That is, to me, a sign of life-affirming literature.

I found Marlantes’s treatment of racial tension between the troops interesting. Obviously, it is very pertinent to the society I live in, here in South Africa. Marlantes has cogent things to say about racism and bigotry in general, such as that we can never really understand another person’s racial experience; we can only try to empathise with each other, cautiously gaging one another’s feelings. I am too young and geographically-removed to bring much understanding to the situation in America during the 60’s, but it does seem to me that we in South Africa are dealing with very similar problems. Not quite the same, of course: understanding the differences between similar situations is part of the, if not solution to the problem, then at least its amelioration. Marlantes’s sympathetic portrayal of black and white characters deserves special commendation. He has done a wonderful job of highlighting not only the differences between his characters, but also the similarities.

I have not read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, but am aware that Matterhorn is based, to a degree, on this work, and I may look into it later. I think, however, that the book stands well on its own feet. This is a powerful novel, which sounds somewhat clichéd, but it is true. Even if I never experience combat, I feel that I have, in however small a way, gained insight into the crucible of war.

Mar 25, 2012, 3:44pm Top

Your review of Matterhorn is edging me ever closer to thinking about reading it. Being an afficionado of the actual mountain, having made a pilgrimage thereto, I was mightily offended that this book desecrated the pristine image of said mountain by associating it with the Vietnam war, of all things. Thus, I was prejudiced against the book from the get-go. But aside from the title, it does sound interesting. Very thoughtful review. I have Eschenbach's Parzival here ready to read once I finish Arthurian Romances. Maybe I'll read that first and then think about tackling Marlantes' book.

Mar 25, 2012, 4:30pm Top

An excellent review of Matterhorn, Dewald. I loved that book and would definitely recommend that you read it, Suzanne. It is unlike any other war-related book that I have ever read.

Mar 25, 2012, 7:03pm Top

Your personal stories are a wonderful addition to your review, great stuff.

Mar 25, 2012, 7:10pm Top

A bunch of us here at club read 2011 read Parzival last year. It is well worth reading. Matterhorn is also well liked, but I have not got round to it yet.

Mar 26, 2012, 11:50am Top

>151 Poquette: - And you are, turn, edging me towards reading Parzival! I would like to visit Matterhorn someday, too.

>152 Linda92007: - Thanks, Linda. I haven't read many books concerning war, but of the few, this one certainly stands out.

>153 dchaikin: - Thank you, Dan. I am grateful that, as far as personal stories go, I don't have my own war tales to tell.

>154 baswood: - I remember that, Barry. I am very interested in Parzival, but I'm afraid of getting sucked into an Arthurian reading binge.

Mar 26, 2012, 5:37pm Top

18. Flame Into Being: The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence by Anthony Burgess

What a thumping, whizz-bang biography-cum-literary-critique this is! Never having read anything by Burgess, only having seen the unfortunate film version of A Clockwork Orange at an unfortunately young age, I came to this book with little in the form of expectations. I had read his introduction to Mervyn Peake’s ‘Titus novels’, which I enjoyed, but I was not really prepared for how entertaining and erudite Burgess can be. He writes exceptionally well, turning what could be either a damned dry exercise in hagiography, or a vituperative denunciation, into something life-affirming and quite interesting indeed.

Many people strongly dislike D.H. Lawrence. They have their reasons, some more reasonable than others. I like him, or rather, I like his work. Admittedly, I have not read that much of his oeuvre – most of the poetry, some of the short stories, none of the novels, I am ashamed to admit. I will rectify this soon. Whatever you think of Lawrence as a person, or as a writer, you have to admit he was an original. I would say that he was a genius – maybe a cracked genius, depending on one’s views of him, but still brilliantly unique. Burgess obviously agrees with this view, but he does not flinch from criticising Lawrence’s failures. Burgess contends that Lawrence’s works must be approached as a totality. One cannot really come to a conclusion about Lawrence only on the basis of one of his works. Especially if that work is, ahem, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In his quest to elucidate Lawrence’s peculiar brilliance, Burgess follows his biography, while lavishing most of his attention on Lawrence’s artistic output. The son of a barely literate coal-miner, Lawrence never went to Oxbridge, never became acceptable during his life, was buried in New Mexico, not Westminster Abbey, and still elicits jeers from certain cognoscenti of the written word. Lawrence has been yoked to many causes, from prophet of sexual revolution in the 60’s to writer of the proletariat in modern times. He would probably have detested these appropriations of his ‘meaning’. Or maybe not. Lawrence was a contradiction as much as anything else. He believed many things, then repudiated them later. What matters is that ‘he stands for that fighting element in the practice of literature without which books are a mere décor or a confirmation of the beliefs and prejudices of the ruling class.’

Lawrence was versatile, prolific, and modern, while retaining the great eye for detail of a Thomas Hardy (that other poet-novelist) or a George Eliot. Burgess maintains at the end, after looking at all of Lawrence’s works, even the ephemera, that Lawrence was, in the end, a ‘professional writer’. He wrote to earn money, without ever bowing to Mammon or popular taste. He was also ‘professional’ in that he ‘professed’ to writing as a vocation. Apparently, he could write in any circumstances, interrupting his work mid-sentence to pay attention to domestic chores, which his wife, Frieda, apparently left to him. In many ways, as an aspiring writer, I am jealous of Lawrence’s abilities, of his genius. Anyone would be. But I would not have liked to be Lawrence. He seems to have been a volatile, often dislikeable person, and his circumstances were never the most amenable to sanity or health (he was tubercular all his life, and died from this in a sanatorium in Vence, Switzerland). He was, however, also a generous, loving person at times. What matters to us is what he has left us. It is quite a large bequest from someone who only lived to be 44 years old. I am with Burgess in praising Lawrence’s attitude to art, with Lawrence always being ‘on the side of life’. As Burgess says at the end, ‘We need his perpetual reminder that all literature is subversive. And, whatever life is, we need the eloquence of his allegiance to it.’

I look forward to reading more of D.H. Lawrence and, not incidentally, Anthony Burgess, in the future. This is an inspiring book for those who want to learn something about Lawrence, and are willing to look behind their preconceived notions about him. It is also entertaining and funny. What more can you ask from a literary biography?

Mar 27, 2012, 7:16pm Top

I agree with you Dewald Flame into Being is a great biography. I have read most of Lawrence and believe that he was a genius. I can't really understand why he is so unfashionable these days.
Thumbed of course

Mar 27, 2012, 11:09pm Top

I'm not a fan of Lawrence myself (the only work of his I managed to complete was Sea and Sardinia), but you might be interested in Aldous Huxley's portrait of Lawrence (and Frieda, and others from their circle) in Point Counter Point, if you don't know it already.

Mar 28, 2012, 8:02am Top

A great review...you've given me a sense of D.H. Lawrence as a person, and you've made me want to read to Lawrence and Burgess.

Mar 28, 2012, 10:19am Top

>157 baswood: - Thanks, Barry. Have you read much of Burgess's own work?

>158 LolaWalser: - Burgess mentions Point Counter Point in the biography, along with the unconventional friendship between Lawrence and Huxley. I've only read Brave New World by Huxley, which is obviously a very different novel to Point Counter Point. I'm tempted to give it a look, after I've read a bit more of Lawrence and Burgess.

>159 dchaikin: - Thanks, Dan, and I hope you get to Lawrence and Burgess. I think I'll start with Lawrence's early works, and work my way through the novels.

Mar 28, 2012, 10:29am Top

I haven't given much thought to reading biographies of writers, but this one is going on the wishlist. Lawrence is one of my favorite authors. I haven't read anything by Burgess except Clockwork Orange, but that will change soon as my reading group is doing two of his biographical novels next month.

Mar 28, 2012, 11:03am Top

>161 StevenTX: - I see you have Nothing Like the Sun and A Dead Man in Deptford. Are these the ones you are going to be reading? I'm interested in both those novels, so I look forward to your take on them.

Mar 28, 2012, 1:34pm Top

I have read Earthly Powers, but so long ago that I only remember that I thought it was excellent.

Mar 29, 2012, 11:56am Top

I thumbed your great review, Dewald. Not sure I'm ready for Lawrence at this time, but I'm glad to know about this bio. Burgess I only know through other pieces of his excellent nonfiction, although I do have a first edition of Earthly Powers. But not sure when I'm going to read it.

Mar 29, 2012, 12:07pm Top

>164 Poquette: - Thanks, Suzanne. I'm really looking forward to reading some of Burgess's fiction, and Earthly Powers sounds very interesting.

Mar 29, 2012, 3:03pm Top

#162 - Yes, we'll be reading Nothing Like the Sun and A Dead Man in Deptford in April (or at least I'll be... the other four members of this reading group can't always be counted on).

Mar 30, 2012, 3:39am Top

19. The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Who hath desired the Sea? Her excellent loneliness rather
Than forecourts of kings…

- Rudyard Kipling

An excellent, lyrical book, very affecting and interesting. Despite its main conceit of an ocean voyage as life-changing event having been done many times before (e.g. William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth), and done well, Ondaatje manages to keep the book surprising and varied through his excellent delineation of character. The novel is autobiographical in a sense (the main character is named Michael, and Ondaatje made a similar voyage as a child), but only in the same sense that Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life is autobiographical. As Ondaatje puts it, ‘Although the novel sometimes uses the colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography, The Cat’s Table is fictional... down to the narrator.’

Michael makes the 13-day journey from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) to England, stopping at Aden and Port Said, and passing through the Suez Canal on the way. Although this is the first book by Ondaatje that I have read, I have heard of his beautiful writing before. This is amply demonstrated throughout the book. What impressed me especially was the sympathy with which Ondaatje draws his characters. From Michael’s two friends, brash Cassius and weak-hearted Ramadhin, to the other members of the ship’s ‘cat’s table’ (the dinner table for the poorer passengers), they are all plausible human beings. Ondaatje also provides some intrigue by keeping the reader in the dark about some of the characters, such as a shackled prisoner who is only allowed to walk the deck late at night. The main mystery of the book is worked out interestingly, and despite not being a ‘mystery book’, it kept me guessing for a while. One might criticise Ondaatje for being a tad too explicit in revealing this secret, but as I said, this mystery is only secondary to the book’s meaning.

My favourite aspect of the book was Ondaatje’s depiction of the narrator’s friendship with Cassius and Ramadhin. This is done beautifully with a verisimilitude that is rarely achieved in fiction, which usually depicts the friendships of boys either through rose-tinted spectacles, or as one damn adventure after the other. Although there is an element of escapade to Michael’s friendship, it is mainly posited in order to undermine the traditional depiction of ‘boys’ own adventure’. Ramadhin is shown to be an intelligent, thoughtful boy who, despite his ill-health, still supports his friends. Cassius, despite his belligerence, proves to be a caring if damaged boy. Ondaatje shows how their friendship develops during the days of the voyage, and he also depicts how this relationship continued (and ended) after the voyage. It is a poignant tale of young blood coming to its first boil, realising the hard truths of adolescence and adulthood.

The story can be sad; it can also be funny. My favourite character was Mr Fonseka, a Ceylonese man on his way to teach in England. He is wise and very humane. He is also very widely read; it is he who says the above quotation from Kipling during a burial at sea. His friendship with the boys is, in the end, life-affirming as he helps them deal with their losses and burgeoning self-awareness.

A very good book, worth one’s time and attention. I will be reading more of Ondaatje.

Mar 30, 2012, 7:49am Top

Excellent review of The Cat's Table, one of the best books I have read this year! Was this your first Ondaatje? If you decide to read his other novels, you'll notice a lot of the same kind of characters - he always has a thief, for example. In the Skin of a Lion is my favourite.

Mar 30, 2012, 8:50am Top

Between you and Cait, I might end up reading Ondaatje some time. Love you reviews, Dewald, and this is another good one.

Mar 30, 2012, 2:06pm Top

The Cat's Table is now on the wish list, thanks to your enticing review, Dewald. The English Patient is one of those books that is equal to more than the sum of its parts, and it sounds as though this one has some of the same qualities.

Mar 30, 2012, 5:22pm Top

Anil's Ghost is also very good and I can't remember a thief in it. Good review of The Cat's Table one that I plan to get to sooner rather than later

Mar 31, 2012, 4:28am Top

Thank you all! Although this was my first Ondaatje, I will definitely be reading more of him. I have The English Patient and Divisadero on the TBR pile, but will look out for In the Skin of a Lion and Anil's Ghost.

Mar 31, 2012, 8:36am Top

Great review of The Cat's Table, Dewald. I love Ondaatje but have shied away from this one because I heard him read from it a few years ago and thought he was a terrible reader - read in a monotone that practically put me to sleep. But being a great writer does not require one to be a great reader, so maybe I should give this a chance after all.

Apr 3, 2012, 12:36pm Top

Thanks, Linda. I have very little experience with author readings - most of our South African authors are based in the Cape, so I rarely have a chance to listen to them. I have listened to a few on YouTube, but that's not quite the same as a good live reading. Shame about Ondaatje - guess he's no Dickens, then.

Apr 3, 2012, 12:53pm Top

Here are short reviews of the first two short stories I've read for The 30 Days of April Challenge on the Short Stories group.

1. 'Under the Dragon’s Tail' by David Medalie

A woman goes to meet with her ‘father’, a South African who became a famous actor in America. He is in South Africa making a film based on King Lear (the title of the film and the story comes from Lear). There are interesting ties to Lear throughout: the man disowns his daughter, denying that he ever knew her mother, and they are finally reconciled after a major storm forces them to shelter together. The title also refers to the migraines the women suffers from, which she describes as a lizard seated on her head, wrapping its tail around her head.

All-in-all, a very good story. Medalie obviously has a great knowledge of twentieth-century Hollywood, as he intersperses interesting anecdotes throughout (obviously, they are somewhat adapted to fit into the story).

2. 'Indian Summer' by David Medalie

A very short story (only 2 ½ pages), this one concerns a woman who befriends her ex-husband’s parents. He has convinced them to emigrate from South Africa, despite their friendship. Emigration is a very pressing concern in contemporary SA, and Medalie handles it interestingly. The title refers to the weather conditions of the story, but also to the friendship of the protagonist and the older characters: a brief reprieve before loneliness.

This story told a bit more than it showed, but was still fairly good.

Apr 4, 2012, 6:23am Top

Short Story 3: 'Recognition' by David Medalie

An old woman, the wife of an ex-prime minister of the previous (Afrikaner) regime in South Africa, is invited to a reception by the new president (probably Nelson Mandela, though Medalie never mentions his name), together with the widows of other previous prime ministers as well as widows of veterans of the armed struggle. She is seated next to a black woman, whom she only recognises after the president talks to her. Medalie is reticent about the details, but this black woman obviously represents the widow of Steve Biko. The two women, who apparently have little in common, ‘recognise’ in each other the wish, as the old Afrikaner lady expresses it, ‘to make sure that no one is going to take the past away from me.’

This story has complex resonances, and hints at the problems of reconciliation. It is also somewhat prophetic, as it was only written in 1996, before the real difficulties of the new South Africa were as clearly crystallised as they are today.

Apr 4, 2012, 2:20pm Top

The stories by David Medalie sound very interesting indeed. For those of us who know South Africa only from a great distance it appears they would be like reading between the lines of the newspapers and history books.

Apr 4, 2012, 4:46pm Top

I agree that they give an interesting first-hand take on contemporary South Africa. I'm a bit wary of pushing his collection too hard - I know him personally, so I feel a bit jittery in recommending his stuff. Not even to mention reviewing it.

What I can say is that his stories at least aren't polemical, as many South African short stories and poetry unfortunately is.

Apr 4, 2012, 7:05pm Top

It's good to know they aren't polemical. I hate getting caught up in politics while trying to enjoy good literature.

Apr 5, 2012, 6:52am Top

Short Story 4: 'Friendly Fire' by David Medalie

In this story, ten-year old Linda and her slightly older sister Pam accompany their parents to the farm of the two most popular girls in Pam’s grade. While playing a game of hide-and-seek, the popular girls play a terrible prank on Linda. To Linda’s surprise, Pam sides with her, rejecting the friendship of the other two girls. Years later, Pam cheats on Linda with Linda’s husband. Linda is able to forgive her husband, but she cannot forgive Pam because, as Linda tells her friend, ‘Pam chose me’.

The best part of this story was Medalie’s evocation of childhood and the isolated setting of rural South Africa. It is probably the most universal story in the collection; anyone can empathise with the pain of childhood and divided loyalties.

Apr 5, 2012, 6:21pm Top

Short Story 5: 'The Other Two' by Edith Wharton

Waythorn is the third husband of Alice. They are called back from their honeymoon because Lily, Mrs Waythorn’s child by her first husband, Haskett, has contracted typhoid. Over the next few weeks, Waythorn keeps running into Varick, Alice’s second husband, who moves in the same circles as Waythorn. He also meets Haskett, who has moved to New York to be closer to his child. All three men finally meet while visiting Waythorn’s house on different errands, leading to much social embarrassment.

Not having read any of Wharton’s novels, I can only say that this seems typical of her subject matter of New York bourgeoisie. Waythorn’s treatment of his wife seemed a bit unkind, and his embarrassments somewhat paltry, but -this may be because I am seeing them through a 21st century lens. A very well-written story with interesting characterisation.

Apr 6, 2012, 10:05am Top

I've finished two books, both of which I am not going to review, for different reasons:

20. The Mistress's Dog: Short Stories 1996-2010 by David Medalie

Although this is a very good book of South African short stories, I am not going to review the whole book, as I know David personally and would not want an unfair bias to shine through. I have posted mini-reviews on some of the stories in previous posts, so you can get an idea of the book from there.

Apr 6, 2012, 10:13am Top

21. Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

I read this book for a Philosophy course I am taking on self and subjectivity (I could choose between this and Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, which, although a seminal work, is almost unreadable except in the original German). A full review of Merleau-Ponty's work would probably comprise ten pages, so I will not attempt that. Rather, I'll just say that the book is quite brilliant, but very difficult: it is packed with information, hypotheses, refutations, and other philosophical argumentation. I am going to re-read it sometime in the future... probably way in the future. If you are interested in 20th-century French philosophy, and tired with Sartre's socialism and Derrida's deconstructionism, this is a good book to get hold of.

Apr 6, 2012, 1:25pm Top

The Mistress's Dog looks very interesting, Dewald. Since it is available in a Kindle edition, I am adding it to my wishlist.

Neither of the two LT reviews posted for Phenomenology of Perception are in English. Interestingly, I went to amazon.com and they have the Kindle edition available for rent. I've never seen that before. When I was a senior in high school (oh so many years ago), I did an independent study project on Sartre. I came across my final paper the other day while cleaning out the attic and did have to laugh, as I'm not sure how much I really understood about him. But my teacher didn't either. She consulted the French teacher and they decided to give me an A.

Apr 6, 2012, 3:30pm Top

Hi, Linda.

I hope you enjoy Medalie's book. I don't want to push it too hard, for obvious reasons.

Good story too on Sartre! I haven't read any of his books in their entirety, but I know that he and Merleau-Ponty were good friends until they had a falling out over socialism. They patched things up later, just before Merleau-Ponty's early death.

Apr 6, 2012, 5:29pm Top

Short Story 6: ‘Theft’ - Katherine Anne Porter

I always find these very short short stories hard to review without giving away everything about the story. In this one, an unnamed woman goes home in the rain, and leaves her purse out to dry in her room. The next morning, it’s gone. But the story is not really about this ‘theft’ per se. Rather, it is a meditation on ‘theft’ in general:

‘In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible…’

I found it interesting, but I was a bit confused about the setting. I assume it is New York in the 1920’s, but you cannot really tell much from the details of the story.

Apr 6, 2012, 11:23pm Top

I always find these very short short stories hard to review without giving away everything about the story.

That sums it up nicely. For that very reason I worry that my little teases are so devoid of information that they leave out the essence of what made the story appealing in the first place.

Apr 7, 2012, 6:08am Top

I really like your 'little teases'. I think that I might be giving away too much information in my précis.

Apr 7, 2012, 1:48pm Top

Well, at least we have defined our respective styles! ;-)

Apr 8, 2012, 2:01am Top

Short Story 7: 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' - Flannery O'Connor

A family go on holiday, only to run into a band of… misfits. Meaning, serial killers. No, I’m not going into the details.

What a strange story! It begins with farcical elements – the unnamed grandmother is hilarious, as are the children, John Wesley and June Star – but things go to hell in a handbasket pretty soon after the family set off on holiday. The grandmother doesn’t want to go to Florida because a murder, ‘The Misfit’, has broken out of ‘Federal Pen’ and is also on his way there. Should have listened to the grandmother.

This is quintessential Southern Gothic, almost a parody of the genre. Needless to say, I enjoyed it immensely…

Apr 9, 2012, 11:03am Top

22. On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

In a world that mixes magic and technology, Zane is a loser on all fronts. Not only has he gambled away his savings, but he also wastes his last few dollars on a magic stone that is supposed to show him money, but it is really a dud, only leading him to small change. He also missed the opportunity to buy a gem that would have led him to the love of his life. In despair, he decides to end his life. Just as he is about to shoot himself, Death appears on the scene. So Zane shoots Death instead.

Zane is forced to become the new Death, inheriting the powers of his predecessor. Admittedly, this is not a terrible idea for a fantasy novel, and having been written in 1982, it predates Terry Pratchett’s Discworld ‘Death’ by a few years. But Pratchett is a much better writer than Anthony, both conceptually and stylistically. Anthony seems to throw in ideas as they come along, often leading to contradictions and non sequiturs. His mixture of magic and technology also seemed unnecessary, to say the least. I would have found the book more interesting if it was based in the ‘real’ world, without the magic. Anthony could still have made an exception for Death as anthropomorphic being, leading to a more coherent book. After all, the book does not really focus on the magic in the world; most of Death’s encounters are with very normal people in normal circumstances. Why Anthony needs to introduce flying carpets, dragons, etc. is beyond me.

On the other hand, I did find the use of the different Incarnations of Immortality absorbing. I also thought the introduction of a Christian eschatology interesting, but Anthony fumbles this, as much else, by being too much of a teller than a shower. Satan is extremely clichéd, which is not really a bad thing, but his interaction with Zane is predictable and somewhat boring. I also thought that Anthony’s handling of Zane’s relationship with the main love interest, Luna, could have been handled more interestingly. I liked the idea that Death goes on strike, refusing to reap Luna because Satan has cheated in order to get her to hell. That was fine. It was Anthony’s awkward style and leaps of logic that irritated me.

I realise that this was Anthony’s first real attempt at a more ‘serious’ book after the success he had with his Xanth series. And it is not utterly terrible. Death has a few interesting conversations with the dying, the most interesting being one with an atheist. To a degree, I wish that Anthony had added some humour to the book, as it seems that this is what Anthony is really best at. Anthony also has an incredibly long and tedious note at the end of the book. He relates his own experiences with mortality while writing the book, which is fine, but then goes into excruciating detail about his life, his children, fans, the writing process, and so on. It could easily have been cut to about five pages, instead of the 25 page monster that it ended up being.

So, I may be tempted to read some of Anthony’s humorous books, but I will be avoiding more of his Incarnation series.

Apr 9, 2012, 1:36pm Top

Your review of On a Pale Horse is very interesting. I presume you picked this to fit into your readings about Death. Anthony has written so many books, it is a wonder he isn't repeating himself. I actually have one of his oeuvre entitled Tarot, which has a lengthy introduction that also goes on and on. I thought I had read it but I cannot remember anything about it. But in looking at it now, I'm thinking it might fit into my current pagan influences craze even though it is about matter transmission and travel to distant planets, including one named . . . are you ready: Tarot.

I thumbed your review. Nice work!

Apr 9, 2012, 2:37pm Top

Hmmm... Think I will avoid Piers Anthony good review

Apr 9, 2012, 2:38pm Top

Thank you, Suzanne! I noticed that his books receive diverging reviews: hopefully Tarot is better than On a Pale Horse.

Apr 9, 2012, 3:55pm Top

Barry, I hope it wasn't anything I said! ;-)

Apr 9, 2012, 4:13pm Top

Barry, I don't blame you...

Apr 9, 2012, 4:15pm Top

Short Story 8: 'The Man of the House' - Frank O'Connor

A young boy has to take over the running of the household after his mother falls ill. He goes to buy medicine for her, but things do not work out as expected.

That sounds very vague, but the story really is more complicated than this summary might imply. There is delicious characterisation, and the way O’Connor handles the symbolic relationship of boy and mother is quite beautiful.

Apr 10, 2012, 2:37am Top

Short Story 9: 'The Man Who Shot Snapping Turtles' by Edmund Wilson

Stryker loves the ducks that live on his pond, but hates the snapping turtles that kill them. He makes various attempts to get rid of the turtles – yes, including shooting them – but in the end his neighbour, Clarence, convinces him to rather exploit the turtles. The two men start a turtle soup business, which flourishes. The story, however, comes to an unfortunate ending for both men.

This and the Flannery O’Connor story were my favourites so far. This story is exciting and ingenious: not only is the story interesting in itself, but it also has many possibilities for symbolic interpretation.

Here is my favourite extract:

“If God has created the mallard,” Stryker said, “a thing of beauty and grace, how can He allow these dirty filthy mud-turtles to prey upon His handiwork and destroy it?” “He created the mud-turtles first,” I said. “The reptiles came before the birds. And they survive with the strength God gave them. There is no instance on record of God’s intervention in the affairs of any animal species lower in the scale than man.” “But if Evil triumphs there,” said Stryker, “it may triumph everywhere, and we must fight it with every weapon in our power!” “That’s the Manichaean heresy,” I replied. “It is an error to assume that the Devil is contending on equal terms with God and that the fate of the world is in doubt.” “I’m not sure of that sometimes,” said Stryker, and I noticed that his bright little eyes seemed to dim in a curious way as if he were drawing into himself to commune with some private fear. “How do we know that God isn’t getting old? How do we know that some of His lowest creatures aren’t beginning to get out of hand and clean up on the higher ones?”

Apr 10, 2012, 11:11am Top

198 - Sounds interesting. I added Memoirs of Hecate County to my wishlist.

Apr 10, 2012, 4:27pm Top

Yes, I also want to read the rest of his stories.

Apr 10, 2012, 4:41pm Top

I've continued the thread, so head on over to part 2 (no, I couldn't come up with an equally facetious title).

Group: Club Read 2012

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