Recommended Reading: Michael Dirda’s Browsings

51etSw1BApL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Near the end of this collection of short essays, Dirda says that his goal with the original weekly columns was “to entice people to try unexpected books, old books, neglected books, genre books, upsetting books, downright strange books.”

Mission accomplished.

Dirda is a book reviewer–a professional book nerd–and his infectious passion for all things bookish is on full display here. It’s hard not to get caught up in the joy of his love for books, though search me for why anyone would try to resist.

His voice in these essays is kind and witty, his boyish enthusiasm rattling off each page like any kid geeking out about a new obsession. Some of the casual chattiness comes off as a bit contrived, but never distractingly so. Dirda is the essayist that Nora Ephron wanted to be.

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Early Christian Fathers

fathersI’ve been reading a great collection of writings by Christian leaders from just after New Testament times. I’ve largely enjoyed it, but as I get into the second half, I’m stalling out–my enthusiasm for this one is just winding down, so I’m putting it back on the shelf for now (sorry, Justin Martyr).

The Ensign had a great article about these writings in the August 1976 issue.

Of the documents I’ve read so far, all were at least good, and some were really great. The four marked with an A+ I highly recommend to everybody. Here are my notes and quotes:

 

THE FIRST EPISTLE OF CLEMENT: A+

This one comes from a bishop who knew and was mentored by the Apostles, and his letter is amazing. It’s actually from within the first century, making it contemporary with the New Testament, and was even included in some early versions of the New Testament. It isn’t canonized scripture for us, but it isn’t far off…the Spirit is there in this one.

35 How blessed and amazing are God’s gifts, dear friends!  2Life with immortality, splendor with righteousness, truth with confidence, faith with assurance, self-control with holiness! And all these things are within our comprehension.  3What, then, is being prepared for those who wait for him? The Creator and Father of eternity, the all-holy, himself knows how great and wonderful it is.  4We, then, should make every effort to be found in the number of those who are patiently looking for him, so that we may share in the gifts he has promised.  5And how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is faithfully fixed on God; if we seek out what pleases and delights him; if we do what is in accord with his pure will, and follow in the way of truth. If we rid ourselves of all wickedness, evil, avarice, contentiousness, malice, fraud, gossip, slander, hatred of God, arrogance, pretension, conceit, and inhospitality.

 

THE LETTERS OF IGNATIUS, BISHOP OF ANTIOCH:  A-

There are seven of these letters–as a whole, I give them an A-, but his letters to the Romans and to the Philadelphians each get a solid A, and my favorite, to the Ephesians, gets an A+. A quote:

9 I have heard that some strangers came your way with a wicked teaching. But you did not let them sow it among you. You stopped up your ears to prevent admitting what they disseminated. Like stones of God’s Temple, ready for a building of God the Father, you are being hoisted up by Jesus Christ, as with a crane (that’s the cross!), while the rope you use is the Holy Spirit. Your faith is what lifts you up, while love is the way you ascend to God.

You are all taking part in a religious procession,185 carrying along with you your God, shrine, Christ, and your holy objects, and decked out from tip to toe in the commandments of Jesus Christ. I too am enjoying it all, because I can talk with you in a letter, and congratulate you on changing your old way of life and setting your love on God alone.

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Reviewed and Recommended: The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell

6199d0InE2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The world waited ten years for a follow-up to the amazing novel The Rule of Four, and last year we finally got it. One of the co-authors of The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell, published The Fifth Gospel, a dense and literary murder mystery set entirely in the Vatican.

It’s a worthy second work, though not quite as gripping and fast-paced as his previous book. In fact, it’s quite slow at times–there’s not much action here. It’s more Agatha Christie than Dan Brown.

But it wasn’t the plot that kept me going. It was the narrator. The Rule of Four was about college students, written by two guys in that phase of life themselves. Ten years later, Caldwell is a husband and the father of three small children, a young professional settling into the life he’s established. Again, this is all reflected in the narrator.

Caldwell loves the family that are his characters and he wants us to, also. And we do.

Even better, the narrator is a religious scholar and a priest. I don’t know if Caldwell is religious or not, but his book is. It doesn’t aim to be faith promoting, but it takes religion seriously. In the eyes of the narrator and the world around him, faith is a valuable, respectable thing that has real heft in our minds and spirits. I was immediately comfortable reading this book in a way that I haven’t been with a novel in a long time.

The worldview of the novel is mature and realistic in a way that most of our society has forgotten is even possible.

Caldwell’s writing is skilled, and yes, there’s plenty of intriguing trivia here to keep the da Vinci Code crowd interested. Like The Rule of Four, The Fifth Gospel largely revolves around reverence for a historical and rare ancient text, another huge plus in its favor.

As soon as I finished it, I realized that I liked it enough that I’ll read whatever Caldwell writes next, whatever it is and whenever it comes out. Hopefully it won’t take another ten years. What better recommendation can a reviewer give?

Reviewed: Pity the Beautiful, by Dana Gioia

41DlOh9NUtL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read some great essays by Gioia as they’ve popped onto my radar over the years, but I’ve only seen a smattering of the actual poetry of one of America’s best and most important poets.

Having just read his most recent collection, I can highly recommend it. Gioia writes about the kind of thoughts and concerns I also care about. His work is what the kids I teach might call “relatable,” though they themselves, ironically, would find his meditations on careers, economics, rituals, and domestic relationships mostly incomprehensible, coming as they do squarely from the heart of a middle aged, middle class man. He’s the kind of man that the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” memorialized, and like that classic bit of TV, this book of poetry might be called prophetic in some future day, when the target audience of like-minded readers will be ever and ever smaller.

There’s no pretension of universality here. In fact, that’s what leads to my one major ding against the book–it includes several poems translated from the Italian by other writers. As good as they are, the tone and style are wholly off from Gioia’s, and break the unity of the rest of the book, like an anachronism in an otherwise convincing fantasy.

Among the best works are “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” which includes such great lines as these:

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

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Reviewed: The Brainy Bunch

downloadI wanted to like this book because I think I would like this family.  Sadly, I’m judging the book based on its content, not how appealing I find the authors.

The cover promises that this is “The Harding family’s method for college ready by age twelve.”  That’s what they’re famous for: of their ten children, those who have turned twelve by now have all been enrolled in at least some kind of college class by then.

But the book isn’t really a useful how-to.  There are a couple of short chapters in the second half that address their methods, but it’s mostly common sense: lots of reading, daily writing of any kind followed by revising, lots of math exercises and computer math games, and then a lot self-directed research on subjects and fields that interest them (and by research, they often mean Google). And a ton of prep for the SAT.

There really isn’t too much more than that.

So what’s in this book?  The first half is entirely stories about the family.  They’re nice, but probably not what anybody’s paying for.  I’ve read the books by the Duggar family, and they also tell stories about themselves, but their stories are just to support the larger purpose of sharing their ideas about life.  For the Hardings, it’s the other way around.

Many chapters are followed by pages written by the children, including the very young ones, that are often nonsense.  The book ends with some random messages from the father to people who are not the reader.  All this shows what this book really is: a vanity project.  That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it hardly inspires confidence that this is worth the reader’s time.

It’s also not very well written.  Each chapter reads like it was written independently of the rest, with no guiding plan.  Concepts repeat themselves endlessly–we’re treated to the definition of quincenera, for example, multiple times.   Continue reading

Notes on Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End 

childhood'sIn June I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  It was excellent; clearly a precursor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey script.

Some stray thoughts as I was reading:

“There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.”  ch. 10.  After superior alien saviors come to Earth and create a paradise, humanity uses its free time to get awesome at everything, thus the changed economy.  Are we seeing something similar now with blog reporting and YouTube videos?  I think we are.

I love prescient science fiction predictions, but Clarke says that humanity’s vastly increased leisure has the dystopian result of us starting to watch TV for up to…wait for it…3 hours a day!  This was written in the 50’s.  Isn’t that cute?

“In this galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns.  Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space.  In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the desserts of the world.”  ch. 14.  This is why I love good sci-fi.  It intelligently inculcates a healthy, humble reverence for the universe.

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time.  In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.  ch. 19.  Alas, Clarke’s generation never could have imagined that civilization would voluntarily extinguish itself through epidemic demographic decline, and would celebrate it all the way to the collective nursing home.  Like his naive TV watching warning, reality turned out far scarier than he prophesied.  It’s always sad when tragic speculation turns out to be, if anything, too optimistic.

Back to Blood

9781619698154_p0_v2_s260x420I spent most of January listening to the audio book version of Tom Wolfe’s newest novel, Back to Blood, during my commute to and from work.  It was 22 hours of pure joy.

Wolfe is our modern Mark Twain, our finest satirist and journalistic chronicler of our society as it really is.  As such, it’s only fitting that my comments here take the form of an interview with myself:

Q: What did you think of the narration by Lou Diamond Phillips?

A: Amazing.  I’ll never be able to read this book without hearing his voice now.  It was perfect.  Not only did he have to do characters of both genders and all ages, but several ethnicities, and even speaking fragments of four other languages!  If there’s some kind of industry award for audio book performance, he should get the highest honor.  Listening to him work was bliss from beginning to end.

Q: Didn’t all the sex scenes bother you?  Didn’t you think they were poorly written?

A: Wolfe catches a lot of flak for these two almost contradictory criticisms, but I think they work together.   Continue reading

Please Read Kent Haruf’s New Book

benedictionWhen Dan Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code was about to come out, I put it on hold at my library.  I was something like 800th on a waiting list that kept growing.

I’ve been on the waiting list for Kent Haruf’s upcoming book for a while now, and the release is less than two weeks away.

I’m number 4 out of 5.

Haruf deserves to be more popular.  I’ve read two of his earlier novels, Plainsong and Eventide, and deeply loved both, especially Plainsong, which is one of my favorite books.

Think of Haruf as Cormac McCarthy, but without the stark violence.  His tone is just as detached, just as washed-out as McCarthy’s, but where McCarthy wants us to ruminate on the condition of a fallen world, Haruf actively wants us to rebuild our broken communities.  His work always left me with a soft hope for the decency of most people, and the summary I’ve read for his new book, Benediction, brings it all back.

I really look forward to this.  I hope you do, too.

2012: My Year in Books

2012 was by far the worst year of my adult life for total number of books read: I only finished 17 books the whole year; my next worst year was 2001, when I finished 19.  Clearly, I need to tackle my problem with distraction.

Or, in terms of quality over quantity, it wasn’t bad at all: I gave five books a perfect ten for enjoyment; my worst year for that was 2008, which only had 2 perfect tens.

Below is the list, with dates finished, my 1-10 score for much I liked reading it, and either a brief comment or link to my review.

 

1. Comstock Lode, Louis L’amour (1/18, Western)–7.  Good, but no different from others of his I’ve read.

2. Cloak, James Goff (2/7, fantasy, young adult)–8.

3.  Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (4/6, literature)–10.  I can’t believe I never finished my review of this!  I made some notes: I jotted down my two favorite quotes:

“I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

I also wrote down that I loved her usage of Numbers 6:24-26.

4.  Mozart: His Life and Music, Jeremy Siepmann (4/14, biography)–9.  Innovative biography mixed life story with music appreciation to the benefit of both.

5.  Maphead, Ken Jennings (5/11, memoir, humor)–9.

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Elric the Existential Emperor

Elric_of_MelniboneThe Elric saga is a masterpiece of dark fantasy, a sword and sorcery epic that aches in existential angst, more indebted to Lovecraft than to Tolkien.

The first volume in the cycle, Elric of Melniboné, introduces us to the melancholy emperor Elric, a skeletal albino whose keen mind makes him a poor fit for the ancient kingdom of superhuman savages he rules.

We follow him on a quest to thwart a usurpation of his throne and rescue a blood-relative damsel in distress (an influence on George R.R. Martin, perhaps), while growing in power so much that an expanding epic is practically demanded by the denouement.

Even more audacious than the stark story itself is the pervasively dour prose, an exercise in contorted anguish, a French philosopher scribbling in the gloom after watching Reservoir Dogs:

And Elric stepped into a shadow and found himself in a world of shadows.  He turned, but the shadow through which he had entered now faded and was gone.  Old Aubec’s sword was in Elric’s hand, the black helm and the black armour were upon his body and only these were familiar, for the land was dark and gloomy as if contained in a vast cave whose walls, though invisible, were oppressive and tangible.  And Elric regretted the hysteria, the weariness of brain, which had given him the impulse to obey his patron demon Arioch and plunge through the Shade Gate.  But regret was useless now, so he forgot it.

Michael Chabon on Finnegans Wake

Last month I found this issue of The New York Review of Books (courtesy of my awesome department chair), featuring an article by hipster wunderkind Michael Chabon about the year he spent reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

While not exactly a gloss, it is a piece where Chabon creates a clever framework for viewing the text.  To wit:

Other than its simple unreadability (indeed its apparent hostility to being read), the principal knock against the Wake—what Seamus Deane in his introduction to the Penguin edition calls “the gravamen of the charge against Joyce”—is that, in Deane’s paraphrase, Joyce “surrendered the ‘ordinary’ world, the world as represented in the great tradition of the realistic novel, for a world of capricious fantasy and inexhaustible word-play.” Eliot, Pound, Stanislaus Joyce, Frank Budgen, and other early champions of Ulysses found disappointment in this apparent surrender, and the truth is that, for all the real, nutritious, and hard-won pleasure that can be wrested from the Wake—as from a bucket of lobsters, by a determined reader with a pick and a cracker—anyone who has first loved or admired Ulysses must, as Joyce himself anticipated, find disappointment in Finnegans Wake.

Seventeen years of tireless labor by a mind blessed with a profound understanding of human vanity, with unparalleled gifts of sensory perception and the figuration thereof, and with one of the greatest prose styles in the English language produced a work that all too often, and for long stretches, can remind the reader (when not recalling Yertle the Turtle) of the Spike-Milligan- meets-Edward-Lear prose tossed off by the Writing Beatle in five minutes between tokes and takes of “Norwegian Wood.” But to find disappointment in the Wake’s, and Joyce’s, supposed turn away from approved modernist procedure, derived from Flaubert, which subjects shifting states of consciousness to the same rigorous accounting as the bibelots furnishing a provincial lady’s sitting room, is to miss the point.

I also appreciate that he compares the Wake to Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.  I did the same thing in my article on the Wake several years ago.  =)

Notes on Drawing Lessons From the Great Masters

I’ve been wanting to read Robert Beverly Hale’s Drawing Lessons From the Great Masters for years.  As I finally did, I jotted down a few notes: underlined items are an immediate “to-do” list.

Watteau’s “Nine Studies of Heads,” just one of many drawings I loved in the book.

 

* see things as cubes, spheres, cylinders, eggs

* contour lines add depth, purpose

* lines separate angular planes where they meet

* heaviness of lines indicates darkness, light

* practice drawing blankets over furniture

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Reviewed: Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces

For years, I’ve wanted to read Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, the beginning of his famous lectures on physics at MIT.  It looked like such a great review of the high school science I didn’t pay attention to at the time, and I’d heard so much about what a great teacher Feynman was.

Now that I have, I’m disappointed.  Feynman’s teaching is good, but hardly legendary.  He throws in a few good quips and analogies; clearly, he wants to be accessible, but his presentation still feels typical.  Maybe it was more refreshing at the time.

But half a century after these lectures were given, I can’t recommend them as the introduction they’re meant to be.

In the first chapter, Feynman complains that his illustrations of atomic particles must be restricted to two-dimensional drawings.  So I went on YouTube and found the video below, including the series that follows it (in fact, the whole “Best of Science” channel is excellent—there’s a great source for some basic science intros).

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Reviewed: Maphead, by Ken Jennings

On page 113 of his 2011 book Maphead, Ken Jennings casually mentions that he and Brandon Sanderson were roommates in college.

Woah, woah, woah.  Back the fun bus up.  Did that just say what I think it did?  The guy who won 74 consecutive games of Jeopardy! and the guy who finished writing Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time series shared a living space?  Dude, this dorm room is holy ground.  It should be consecrated as a nerd shrine.  All the geek faithful must be required to make a pilgrimage to worship there.

And this isn’t even the best part of Maphead, a book where Jennings channels his childhood love of maps into an exhaustive exploration of all things geographical in our world.

Jennings is just as creative in his field research here as he was in Brainiac, and he has a genuine gift for telling stories.  Continue reading

25 Years of Pulitzer Winners and Me

In a rare turn of events, no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year.  That got me to thinking about my own history with that award.  Here are my notes on the last quarter century of Pulitzer winners.

  1. 2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.     Sounds interesting, but I’m not really that excited by it.  Probably won’t read it.
  2. 2010 Tinkers by Paul Harding.     Read it.  Really enjoyed it.  Gave it an 8/10.  Review here.
  3. 2009 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.     Read it.  Moderately enjoyed it.  Gave it a 7/10.  Review here.
  4. 2008 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.     Not familiar with it.  The title alone is enticing, but is it enough so that I’ll look into it?  Honestly, if it’s not already on the priority list, chances are it won’t claw its way in anytime soon.
  5. 2007 The Road by Cormac McCarthy.     Read it.  Loved it.  Gave it a 10/10.  No review necessary–what could I possibly add?
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