December 19, 2006

Booklog: Mosby’s Memoirs & Other Stories

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 3:52 pm

Mosby’s Memoirs & Other Stories
Saul Bellow
Read: 12.13.06
Rating: Good

Mosby’s Memoirs is another checkmark in my attempt to read the entire Saul Bellow catalog, one that probably qualifies as a “deep cut.” The six stories in this collection were written between 1951 and 1968, a period spanning Bellow’s best years, which began with the publication of his breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). During these years, Bellow also published Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Herzog (1964), which one the National Book Award (and is, coincidentally, my personal favorite). Two years after the publication of Mosby’s Memoirs, Bellow won the National Book Award again, for Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970); six years later he won the Nobel Prize.

All of this to say that, unlike the two other published short story collections, the tales in Mosby’s Memoirs were written while Bellow was at the peak of his powers. I was very much underwhelmed by the shorter works Bellow published later in life, and my hope was that this collection would be equal in quality to his best novels. I did not find this to be the case, but I did come to a number of helpful realizations about Bellow and how I approach his writing.

First, I have a tendency, with fiction in general and Bellow specifically, to zoom impatiently through setting and details (scenery, mood, points of character), hoping to reach epiphanic sentences and paragraphs where deeper aspects of philosophical meaning break through. With Bellow, this is especially the case: his descriptions are good, of course, but what truly separates him from other novelists is his intellect, erudition, and existential insight. This is why I like Herzog best, and why Augie March, even though it is clearly a masterpiece, ranks lower on my list than it probably should. I found the short stories in Mosby’s Memoirs unsatisfying for this reason; they’re heavy on detail and character, but don’t offer much in the way of deeper meaning. As a result, I’ve realized that I should refine my approach to Bellow, namely by paying more attention to his range of experience and description, which is marvelous. The short story as a form lends itself to smaller matters: creating a single finely crafted episode, slicing a few hours out of a character’s life, leading a protagonist towards a small realization about himself. The fact that Bellow (largely) succeeds in his attempts to do so is yet more evidence of his skill.

The two best stories in the book are “The Gonzaga Manuscripts” (1954) and “Mosby’s Memoirs” (1968). They are similar: both protagonists are distinctly Bellowian men-of-letters who find themselves in a Spanish speaking country (Spain and Mexico) on a literary quest. For Clarence Feiler in “Gonzaga,” the grail is a lost collection of manuscripts written by a recently deceased Spanish poet named Gonzaga. Feiler arrives in Spain with his own theories on Gonzaga and his writing, and is distressed when he finds that no one he meets is particularly interested in helping him or sharing his enthusiasm. One of the poet’s friends mocks Clarence’s rapturous attempt to find the lost poems, saying, “‘There’s plenty of poetry already, for everyone. Homer, Dante, Calerdon, Shakespeare. Have you noticed how much different it makes?'” Ultimately, “The Gonzaga Manuscripts” is a meditation on the gap between the ideal of poetry in the mind of the reader — what we think it tells us about the poet — and the actual life lived by great writers.

“Mosby’s Memoirs” is the best story in this collection. The protagonist, Willis Mosby, is an aging public intellectual who hopes to write his memoirs during an extended stay in Mexico. Mosby has the excellent idea to read biographies written by other elderly men-of-letters (Henry Adams, Bertrand Russell), and hopes that the book he’s working on will stand side by side with these. The story has a fine structure, as the narration swerves around Mosby’s thoughts, memories, and the actual memoir he’s writing. Of the stories in this collection, “Mosby’s Memoirs” comes the closest to realizing the level of philosophic and existential weight found in Bellow’s best novels. In the story’s final pages, Mosby takes a trip to an ancient, pre-Christian church, and is driven there by a rather obnoxious tour-guide, who insists on commenting on every aspect of the landscape. In classic form, Bellow inserts this plea in the middle of a paragraph of scenery description: “Inform me no further! Vex not my soul with more detail. I cannot use what I have!”

December 13, 2006

Booklog: Why I Am Not a Christian

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 2:04 pm

Why I Am Not a Christian
Bertrand Russell
Read: 12.8.06
Rating: Good

Recently I’ve been reading quite a bit about the “new atheists,” namely Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, who have staked out quite a presence on the Internet and the bestseller list lately. These gentlemen are notable for their ability to ruthlessly engage and attack the basic precepts of religion, despite the fact that in the contemporary cultural climate — especially here in America — the open questioning of religion is generally considering impolite, intolerant, or even rude. Although I’m impressed by what I’ve read so far, and will probably be reading Harris’s book The End of Faith shortly, I wanted to go back into the past and check out Bertrand Russell, the forefather of these gentlemen. In the bookstore, I picked up Why I Am Not a Christian and dove in.

The first thing to know about this volume is that it’s not as much a book as a collection of essays, many of which were read as lectures or published topically. The title essay was given as a lecture in 1927, and, along with What I Believe, an essay Russell had published as a book two years earlier, it makes up the the heart of this particular collection. There are a number of fine essays towards the back of this book, all of which revolve, in some way, around Russell lifelong battle with the ideas (and implementation of the ideas) of religion, especially Christianity. In each instance, Russell’s criticisms are ruthlessly logical, piling argument upon argument. At his best, Russell cuts directly through common misconceptions about religion and its supposedly beneficial aspects, leveling crippling logic to prove that religion is in fact harmful to humanity. As a taste of his writing style, here’s a summary/concluding paragraph which appears towards the end of his essay Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?

It would seem, therefore, that the three human impulses embodied in religion are fear, conceit, and hatred. The purpose of religion, one may say, is to give an air of respectability to these passions, provided they run in certain channels. It is because these passions make, on the whole, for human misery that religion is a force for evil since it permits men to indulge these passions without restraint, where but for its sanction they might, at least to a certain degree, control them.

Obviously, this paragraph alone will convince no one, but coming as it does at the end of a powerful argument, it is deadly.

The shortcomings in this volume stem from the fact that most of the texts written in the 1930s; like many of the intellectuals of that time, Russell’s writings exhibit a rather breathless optimism concerning the future of human attitudes towards religion. Russell seems certain that the old beliefs about Christ and God are in the process of dying. Sadly, as we know, this is not the case — hence the continued need for people like Harris, who continue in Russell’s footsteps. To his credit, Russell did maintain a similar belief in logic and the capabilities of the human intellect (specifically through the progress of science) even after the Second World War and after his being denied a professorship in New York during the fifties (the ridiculous public furor surrounding this debacle is outlined in this volume, in an Appendix by Paul Edwards). After these events, his optimism is no longer breathless, but his faith in logic and progress are undiminished. It’s very impressive. Once the reader is acclimated this this difference of decades, this “problem” with the text becomes more lamentable than critical.

My personal favorite essay is A Free Man’s Worship, which Russell wrote in 1903 as a thirty-one-year-old. It has a delightful fervor to it, reminding me of Camus at his very best. In this essay, Russell explores the fact that science presents us with a a world which is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.” He stares directly into the question of meaning, and comes to the conclusion that mankind’s ability to rise above the ruthless meaninglessness of nature is sufficient:

In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow-men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

As I said, this essay is my favorite, and even if I wasn’t terribly impressed by each and every essay in this book, I found that Russell consistently surprised me with his ability to annihilate common conceptions about religion and morality — usually with a memorable turn of phrase. Here’s another example: “As soon as it is held that any belief, no matter what, is important for some other reason than that it is true, a whole host of evils is ready to spring.”

I’ve only scraped the surface here, so let me just say one more good thing (Russell’s ideas about sex and its role in society and morals are superb) and one bad (Russell’s conception of the “Good Life,” outlined in What I Believe, leaves much to be desired. He is a logician, after all).

If you’re interested in reading this book, here’s my suggestions about which essays you should focus on:

Must read: Why I Am Not a Christian; Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?; What I Believe; Do We Survive Death?; A Free Man’s Worship; Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?

Worth a read: Seems, Madam? Nay, It Is; On Catholic and Protestant Skeptics; The Fate of Thomas Paine; Our Sexual Ethics; Freedom and the Colleges; Appendix

Skippable: Life in the Middle Ages; Nice People; The New Generation

November 16, 2006

Booklog: On Natural Selection

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 1:18 am

On Natural Selection
Charles Darwin
Read: 11.14.06
Rating: Excellent

First of all, the design of this volume is lovely. This is worth mentioning straight away, because I would not have bought it otherwise. I’ve been wanting to dip into Darwin for about a year now, but was worried about getting bogged down in The Origin of Species. I definitely made the right decision: reading Darwin, although not terribly difficult, isn’t something I could really see myself doing for 400 pages anytime soon. So this tidy, attractive volume served me well: at 117 pages, it was just the right amount of Darwin for a novice like me who is looking for a brief introduction to the actual thoughts and words of the great scientist — as opposed to the myths and controversies we usually encounter. Plus, the book felt great in my hand, and I enjoyed looking at it as I carried it around. (On Natural Selection is part of Penguin’s “Great Ideas” series, which includes two dozen compact, neatly designed versions of important works of nonfiction).

Darwin’s style is, for the most part, lucid, and even gripping at times. The steadfast confidence with which he sets forth his main theory is very endearing. It’s well-known that Darwin worked on The Origin of Species for years, and had been considering its main ideas for years before that, and was then finally forced to publish what he considered an abbreviated version of his theory in light of the fact that Alfred Russel Wallace was also arriving at the same conclusion. The sense of this is evident even in this abbreviated text, as Darwin seems loath to content himself with a single example to support his hypothesis, instead of the dozen he would prefer to give.

I was surprised to see that many of the most common objections to Darwin’s theory — at least the ones I’d heard — were actually covered by Darwin himelf in The Origin of Species. For example, intelligent design theorists like to use the human eye as an example of an “irreducibly complex” organ which could not originate by “chance” or nature. Darwin addresses this in Chapter VI (“Difficulties of the Theory”)

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered as subversive of the theory.

Basically, Darwin says: yes, I know it’s hard to believe — but given enough time, even an organ as complex as the human eye can arise from natural selection. Here’s a bit of his answer:

We must suppose each new state of the instrument to be multiplied by the million; each to be preserved until a better is produced, and then the old ones to be all destroyed. In living bodies, variation will cause the slight alteration, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man?

These two selections are good examples of Darwin’s method, and demonstrate the level-headed reason that populates his text. It is remarkable that, given the radical nature of his postulation, Darwin is able to write with such confidence and keenness. His prose is the result of years of study, consideration, doubtfulness, and assurance. It’s quite stunning, actually.

I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone like me, who is looking to read Darwin’s original material, but wouldn’t know what to make of the entire Origin. I found that most of the lurking confusion I had about natural selection was allayed by this brief text, and now I find that I may, one day, want to read the entire Origin of Species after all.

November 8, 2006

Booklog: The Odyssey

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 6:07 pm

The Odyssey
Translated by Robert Fagles
Read: 11.5.06
Rating: Extraordinary

This book is a masterpiece.

Obviously, The Odyssey is one of Western civilization’s greatest works of literature, so that helps.

Add to this is the fact that the translator of this edition, Robert Fagles, is a magician. Fagles has also produced a magnificent Iliad, a stunning translation of Aeschylus’s Orestia, and — my personal favorite — a heartbreaking version the three Theban Plays. I’m running out of accolades to pour on Fagles’s translations, but they truly are among the best things I have ever read, so I’m not thinking twice about it.

As with the Iliad and the Theban plays, this book comes with a (hefty) introduction by Bernard Knox — it’s essential reading. I’m not terribly fond of introductions, usually, but Knox’s are superb: a perfect mix of scholarship, lucid writing, and erudition. Even though the introduction is over sixty pages, skipping it would be a huge mistake.

I’ve never read all the way through The Odyssey until just now, and I’m glad I waited, especially since I enjoyed the reverse allusions I experienced from having read Joyce’s Ulysses first. As a result, the theme of fathers and sons seeking one another came to the forefront: not just in the epic relationship between Telemachus and Odysseus, but also in smaller instances throughout the story. Especially killer was Odysseus’s visit to the underworld, where he meets Agamemnon and Achilles, both of whom are eager for news about their sons. Odysseus is able to give Achilles a glowing review of his son Neoptolemus, who (quite brutally) finished his father’s work at Troy, and the king of warriors responds joyfully, prancing through the underworld bursting with pride. On the other hand, Odysseus cannot give Agamemnon any news of his son Orestes, which leads to a heartbreakingly ironic set of lines: the reader knows that Orestes has revenged his father’s ignoble death in glorious fashion, because Homer has relayed the story early in The Odyssey, when Telemachus visits Menelaus — but Odysseus has been traveling for years, and the news hasn’t reached him. Odysseus, the long-traveled, is unable to give Agamemnon the news that would save him from an eternity of wallowing despair in Hades.

Fagles’s translation is easily readable — the going is nearly as fast as fine prose — and full of color. For example, here’s Athena’s response to Odysseus’s concern about the suitors that await him in Ithaca:

Those men who court your wife and waste your goods?
I have a feeling some will splatter your ample floors
with all their blood and brains. (13:451-53)

Isn’t that great?

In sum: The Odyssey is one of greatest works of all time, Bernard Knox’s introduction enables the reader to savor it to the fullest, and Robert Fagles’s translation is simple, tight, and a joy to read. I couldn’t be more pleased with having read it.

October 4, 2006

Booklog: Jude the Obscure

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 3:47 pm

Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy
Read: 10.2.06
Rating: Poor/Fair

I’ve avoided Thomas Hardy for most of my life: first from ignorance, then on the advice of a few friends whose taste I trust. Then I read an inspirational article in the TLS this summer, on the relationship — both personal and working — between Hardy and Henry Ibsen, which directed me towards Jude the Obscure. The description I found there led me to hope that the novel’s themes (anticlericism, the emerging modern person, etc) would be right up my alley. So I took the dive.

I wish I hadn’t. The themes I was looking for are present in this novel, but Hardy’s breathless, exuberant style was hard to handle. The first half of the book wasn’t great, but I knew the good stuff — Jude’s relationship with Sue and their struggle with the external world — was yet to come. It came, and kept coming until the book’s final pages, but Hardy’s overbearing style (especially the dialog) made the final 200 pages, which should have been deeply tragic, a chore to read. I truly wanted this novel to be good, even great, but unfortunately that was not the case.

Sorry, Hardy: I’ve had enough of you, and won’t try again, unless I have no choice.

September 27, 2006

Booklog: Fun Home

Filed under: booklog — ted @ 5:03 pm


Fun Home
Alison Bechdel
Read: 9.24.06
Rating: Excellent

I agree with the general tenor of reviews I’ve read on Library Thing: this book is lovely — quite the masterpiece. Fun Home is one of finest combinations of literature and art I have ever encountered. Bechdel’s simple, elegant drawings allow the reader to enter into her family and their house, and her use of “mixed media” gives the comic an authentic, historic feel.

Most impressive to me is the way Bechdel weaves literature and mythology into her book: comparing her father to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and telling her story of sexual discovery through literature. For some people, life and literature are deeply intertwined: this, contrary to much of what we’ve been told, is cause for celebration, not shame — and this is something Bechdel understands deeply.

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