The Poetry of Donald Hall

I wrote recently of a goal to read a new poem every day for 40 days, and how the best thing I got out of it was discovering the work of Donald Hall, who had just passed away. I can’t recommend his Selected Poems highly enough. Two items will have to suffice here. First, the opening of “The Stump.”

stump

Second, here’s Hall briefly introducing a great work called “Names of Horses,” which he then reads. On YouTube, the text of the poem is in the description.

This is earthy, elemental, full bodied stuff, a meditation on the great details of basic life, appreciated fully. It’s not all nature and tools, though–his book also includes plenty of domestic and family life, as well as other aspects of existence. His ideas are open, and his mind is strong.

Another piece in his Selected Poems ends with the lines, “I will live in a steady joy. I will exult in the ecstasy of my concealment.” I want to read much more of his work.

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40 Books and 40 Poems

I’ve now finished 40 books since my last birthday. Here they are:

  1. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
  2. Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
  3. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
  4. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
  5. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
  6. Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
  7. It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
  8. The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
  9. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
  10. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C
  11. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1.20, fantasy)–A
  12. The Way Things Are, Lucretius (1.24, philosophy/poetry, Humphries trans)–C
  13. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington (2.9, memoir, sports)–A
  14. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (2.13, fantasy)–A+
  15. Praise of Folly, Erasmus (2.17, satire, Radice trans.)–B
  16. Lightning, Dean Koontz (3.2, suspense)–C
  17. I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, Robert I. Eaton & Henry J. Eyring (3.5, biography)–A+
  18. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 1, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.10, history)–A+
  19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (3.20, fantasy)–A
  20. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 2, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.30, history)–A
  21. What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Robert Bly (4.5, poetry)–B
  22. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, Adam Rutherford (4.20, science)–A
  23. Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, Robert Bly (4.20, poetry)–C
  24. Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary, Amit Majmudar (5.3, religion, poetry)–A+
  25. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, Sue Townsend (5.14, humor)–A
  26. Dust Devils, Robert Laxalt (5.23, Western)–B
  27. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carre (5.28, fiction)–C
  28. Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, Eric Metaxas (6.5, biography)–A+
  29. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Margareta Magnusson (6.8, living well)–B
  30. Educated, Tara Westover (6.18, memoir)–A+
  31. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (6.23, science fiction)–A+
  32. Things That Matter, Charles Krauthammer (6.28, commentary)–A
  33. Thomas Cole, Matthew Baigell (7.2, art history)–A
  34. Wonder, R.J. Palacio (7.4, young adult)–B
  35. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, Donald Hall (7.6, poetry)–A+
  36. Between Planets, Robert Heinlein (7.6, science fiction)–B
  37. Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, Bobby Fischer (7.11, chess)–A
  38. The Annotated Mona Lisa, Carol Strickland (7.19, art history)–B
  39. Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (7.20, mystery)–A
  40. Art Explained, Robert Cumming (7.23, art)–A+
  41. Based on a True Story, Norm Macdonald (7.24, humor)–A

Also, I revised an original goal to write 40 poems, which just seemed like a chore as I tried to start it, with reading poetry for 40 straight days, which made me smile as soon as I thought of it. I reflected on the point of the goal in the first place–what did I want to get out of it?–and realizing that the experience here was more important to me than creation, I decided to delve into appreciation a bit more.

I started mostly by using the poem in each day’s Prufrock email, supplemented with other sources I know and like. Most of them were OK, but rarely did one really grab me. During this time, though, the great poet Donald Hall died, and as I saw eulogies online, along with quotes from his work, I was intrigued and picked up his self-selected greatest hits, and it was perhaps the greatest book of poetry I’ve ever read. Absolutely amazing. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

After that, I tried bits and pieces of other books and authors I’ve liked, but nothing really stood up to Hall. One awesome new take away from a project like this is more than worth it, though!

  1. Richard O’Connell, “Prospero” 6/11
  2. Morri Creech, “The Sentence” 6/12
  3. Elizabeth Knapp, “After the Flood” 6/13
  4. Charlotte Mew, “The Farmer’s Bride” 6/14
  5. Joseph Mirra, “Who Are We Not to Judge?” 6/15
  6. Rachel A. Lott, “The Parting” 6/16
  7. Jason Guriel, “My Father’s Stamps” 6/17
  8. Richie Hofmann, “Pictures of Mozart” 6/18
  9. Edward Hirsch, “The Unveiling” 6/19
  10. Scott Cairns, “Adiáphora” 6/20, A+
  11. Dana Gioia, “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves” 6/21, A
  12. Maryann Corbett, “Creed,” 6/22
  13. Rachel Hadas, “Cold Prose” 6/23
  14. Joshua Hren, “The Lesser Angels of Our Nature,” 6/24
  15. Donald Hall, “The Man in the Dead Machine,” 6/25, A
  16. Micheal O’Siadhail, “Conversation with Messiaen,” 6/26
  17. Donald Hall, “The Reasonable Nap,” 6/27
  18. Richard Wilbur, “On the Marginal Way,” 6/28
  19. Elizabeth Poreba, “Kenosis,” 6/29
  20. Eduardo C. Corral, “To the Angelbeast,” 6/30
  21. Derek Otsuji, “The Ditch Kids of the Maui Sugar Company,” 7/1
  22. Geoffrey Brock, “The Day,” 7/2
  23. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/3
  24. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/4
  25. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/5
  26. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/6
  27. Ernest Hilbert, “Until the Sea above Us Closed Again,” 7/7
  28. William W. Runyeon, “Church Bells,” 7/8
  29. David Yezzi, “Learning the Piano at 50,” 7/9
  30. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/10
  31. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/11
  32. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/12
  33. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/13
  34. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/14
  35. Sara Teasdale, “Afterwards,” 7/15
  36. Sara Teasdale, “The Answer,” 7/16
  37. Sara Teasdale, “Autumn Dusk,” 7/17
  38. Sara Teasdale, “Blue Squills,” 7/18
  39. William Wordsworth, The Essential Wordsworth, selected by Seamus Heaney, 7/19
  40. William Wordsworth, The Essential Wordsworth, selected by Seamus Heaney, 7/20

 

One-Star Reviews of Asimov’s Foundation

I have a policy about judging books based on reviews: a well written positive review is a good sign, and a badly written negative review is also a good sign. To put it another way, if an idiot hates a book, I’ll probably like it.

That came back to mind yesterday. I’m reading Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic Foundation right now, and I wanted to get some other perspectives on it, so I looked it up on Amazon.

Pretty sure I’ll love it. Check out some of the Einsteins who gave it one star.

1

“A sci-fi book on people who want to create an encyclopedia?” That sounds…awesome!

 

10

“like reading dozens of books each with its own characters and new plot” Again…awesome.

 

11

This was enlightening.

12

Dwight: It is your birthday.

13

I love reviews that downgrade a book because their copy fell apart.

Reading Update

I’ve finished eleven books so far in 2018. Here they are:

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1.20, fantasy)–A. One of my goals for the year is to read this whole series–to the constant consternation of my students and my own children, I never have. This first entry was enjoyable and solid.
2. The Way Things Are, Lucretius (1.24, philosophy/poetry, Humphries trans)–C. This is a Roman item from the Great Works of the Western World, and it was so-so. Some interesting procedures in its progress, but ultimately I just didn’t care about most of what it had to say.
3. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington (2.9, memoir, sports)–A. A fantastic, important, inspiring story. A student (who happens to be a female athlete) saw it on my desk, so I summarized it and she seemed interested. I hope a movie gets made of this one, so more people will get exposed to Chrissie’s awesome story.
4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (2.13, fantasy)–A+. The best of the three I’ve read so far–several plot strains weave together at the end quite organically. The suspense builds in increasing episodes throughout the book.
5. Praise of Folly, Erasmus (2.17, satire, Radice trans.)–B. This bit of cheeky caricaturing of life and society’s foibles was surprisingly accessible, for a satire written 500 years ago.
6. Lightning, Dean Koontz (3.2, suspense)–C. Ugh. What a predictable, stale bore. I’ve liked some of his books, and this is highly rated by fans, but I rolled my eyes several times, the writing was so bad.
7. I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, Robert I. Eaton & Henry J. Eyring (3.5, biography)–A+. An amazing life story! The method here is not hagiographic, but quite plainly presents Eyring’s life as a series of growth experiences, where he humbly learned and tried to improve. The narratives rooted in his journal entries are gripping. A great read.
8. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 1, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.10, history)–A+. Thoughts and notes here.
9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (3.20, fantasy)–A. Meh. The writing and characters, etc., are all fine and good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that not much was at stake here. Much ado about nothing. Plot wise, Rowling also seems in a bit of a rut, with a third book that follows a template that’s pretty familiar by now. Fans I’ve mentioned this to say that she really shakes up the series with book four, so I’m looking forward to that.
10. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 2, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.30, history)–A. Notes here.
11. What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Robert Bly (4.5, poetry)–B. Never read anything like this before–Bly writes prose poems. I enjoyed his subjects, style, and approach…mostly. He loves wildly juxtaposed comparisons, and often they work, but sometimes they really don’t. The final section was much weaker, to me, than the rest of the book. Still, I plan to read another of his collections soon.

Notes on Biblical Archaeology Review’s Greatest Hits, part 2

And here are my notes on the twenty articles in the second volume!

 

    1. Israelites and pre-Israelites built elaborate water tunnels in rock that provided water during sieges. Impressive engineering feats that developed over time, and were refined throughout centuries.
    2. Underground tombs in First Temple period Israel have a standard floor plan similar to older catacombs in nearby parts of the world: entrance chamber with several rooms attached to it for burying bodies, with a preparation/funeral room. Engraved walls may resemble what the walls of Solomon’s temple looked like. Empty space between rooms stored bones as new generations were buried, perhaps inspiring Biblical phrases “gathered unto/buried with/slept with his fathers.” Such complexes are large–some are 10k square feet, including one under St. Etienne’s monastery. Rooms are built with a 8:10 cubit ratio, as with the temple–1 Kings 7:10.
    3. Excavations at Lachish show massive destruction in 12th century BC, as Joshua 10 says (by Israelites or Sea Peoples)–clearly done by fire. A large, detailed wall relief of Sennacherib at Nineveh shows his Assyrian conquest of Lachish in 701 BC (2 Kings 18:13), and another destruction by Babylon in 588/6 BC (including the burying of the very important Lachish letters). Side note: in 1938, the original British excavator of this area, James L. Starkey, was murdered in the street on his way to a museum ceremony!
    4. Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a random 8th century BCE structure west of the Gaza Road in Sinai, was some sort of religious site, but no other details are clear. Multiple pottery inscriptions of YHWH and the Egyptian figure Bes are ambiguous, maybe indicating an asherah (a symbol of divinity) or Asherah (proper name–a goddess–and maybe even Yahweh’s wife). One inscription there contains a poetic blessing similar to that in Numbers 6. Name suffixes used there connect it to northern kingdom of Israel, not the nearer southern kingdom of Judah. As with all else at this site, nobody knows why. Side note: Artifacts were given to Egypt in 1994 as part of a peace treaty, and never seen since. A 2011 robbery, soon recovered by government and moved to Cairo, might be them.
    5. Israel was a victim of conflicts between Egypt to the southwest and Babylon to the east. Babylonian Chronicle tells of the destruction of Philistine city of Ashkelon in 604 BCE. Jeremiah 47:4 alludes to economic partnerships. Ashkelon has evidence for rooftop altars, condemned in Jeremiah 32:29. Many Egyptian artifacts there, such as figures of Bes, show a strong cultural influence. A 7th c. BCE ostracon there uses a pseudo-Hebrew script called Neo-Philistine. Contrary to stereotypes that Philistines were beer guzzlers, Ashkelon had refined wine facilities and stores. “Streets” in 2 Samuel 1:20 should be “bazaars.” Jeremiah railed against pro-Egypt policy of Judah; they ignored him and were destroyed.
    6. Small figures show lots of cultural exchange and borrowing from Egypt and Greece in Palestine. Pagan idols were very popular in Israel (despite reforms of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:3-6 and Josiah in 2 Kings 23:1-15), until after the return from Babylonian exile, when they suddenly disappear forever. Elephantine papyri from Egypt shows that dispersed Jews built a new temple there; Samaritans did the same at Gerizim in 4th century BC after being expelled.
    7. 1975-1996 excavation at Ketef Hinnom, a hill outside St. Andrew’s Scottish Church and Hospice of Jerusalem, found uses by several civilizations from 700 BCE (burial tombs) to World War I (ammo and weapons storage for Ottoman Turks). A Byzantine church on the site may have been “The Church of St. George Outside the Walls.” Most important find: a First Temple Period tomb repository unraided by looters! Includes a seal from “Palta” (maybe the official from Ezekiel 11:1,13), jewelry like that in Isaiah 3:18-21, two silver scrolls with variations of Numbers 6:24-26 and Deuteronomy 7:9. These inscriptions are the oldest known copies of writing similar to Biblical text–400 years older than the oldest Dead Sea Scrolls. This shows that the text of P (Priestly) author was developed by First Temple Period.
    8. 1970 excavation found a house in Jerusalem burned by Romans in 70 AD, belonging to family of Kathros, a High Priest (name inscribed on a stone weight in the ruins). Bones and a spear in the debris tell a dramatic story of sudden destruction.
    9. Dead Sea Scrolls were clearly written by Essene sect. Essenes applied Joshua 6:26 in their Testimonia document to their own plight; the “Cursed Man” there may be the same as their arch-enemy, the “Wicked Priest”; best candidate for that is High Priest Simon Maccabeus, founder of an illegitimate priestly line who persecuted those minorities who opposed him, like the Essenes.
    10. A house south of a synagogue in Capernaum dates from 1st century BC; in middle of 1st century AD, its largest room became a Christian church–domestic items disappeared, it was built up, and Christian inscriptions appeared on the new walls; in 4th and 5th centuries it was built up into even larger holy structures, ending with an octagonal church, a shape used for very sacred spaces. Early pilgrims identified it as originally St. Peter’s house, and there are ambiguous inscriptions on the walls that may or may not confirm that.
    11. Around Sea of Galilee, fish species named “musht” is called St. Peter’s fish, but the fish in Matthew 17:24-27 is probably a barbel, though the fish in Luke 5:1-7 is surely a musht caught by a trammel net (multiple nets are mentioned, partners are involved). Different kinds of nets are mentioned in figures of speech by the prophets.
    12. A drought on the Sea of Galilee in early 1986 revealed a sunken boat that was excavated and dated to the 1st century BC or 1st century AD. It is of the kind used by Jesus and the Apostles: four rowers (or an option for sailing with a mast), and could carry up to 15 men. Sandbags at one end could be used as pillows (Mark 4:37-39). Exciting story of digging it up while racing rising waters, would-be looters, and decaying timbers!
    13. A student photographing Jerusalem’s Golden Gate in 1969 kneeled in the adjacent cemetery and fell through the ground, into an old tomb that revealed parts of another double-door gate below the Golden Gate. Its age is unknown, but 19th century digging by Charles Warren found a wall 41 feet underground and 46 feet in front of Golden Gate. He described masonry similar to lowest courses of the wall on either side of the GG, which is probably pre-Herodian, and maybe as old as Solomon.
    14. In June 2004, a sewer repair project in Jerusalem revealed steps that were then fully excavated; they turn out to be part of the Pool of Siloam, from John 9:1-11. Coins in the plaster of the steps show that it is from the time of Jesus. (This corrects a location for the pool from Byzantine times by the end of Hezekiah’s Tunnel.)
    15. The historian Josephus says that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded at the remote hilltop fortress of Machaerus. Forgotten for centuries, it was rediscovered in the 19th century, and explored from 1968 off and on until recently. Very well preserved, it’s easy to see the courtyard where Salome would have danced and even where Herod’s throne would have been there!
    16. In 1968 a tomb was discovered in Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period with eight ossuaries (boxes to hold bones permanently after the rest of the body has gone). One of these boxes held the bones of the only victim of crucifixion ever found (though many near Eastern and Mediterranean civilizations did so). His heels had been pinned together by a nail that bent in the upright wood, so his feet were cut off so the body could be buried; some wood was still on the nail. His legs had been lined up together, then, with his knees sticking out to the side from the cross. Arms bones showed that he was nailed between the bones of the forearm, not his hands. His legs were broken so he would die faster, so he could have been buried before dark the same day (see John 19:18). Evidence from throughout the tomb shows that his family was wealthy, but most died young. He was in his 20’s, and was probably executed for politics. His name was scratched into the box: “Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol.”
    17. A plaque in the Colosseum in Rome gives information about the emperor who built it and when, but holes in the stone suggest other metal letters had been attached before this carving. An expert did some great logic puzzle work and surmised that the letters on those holes said that it was built with “booty.” The only place that much money could have come from for Rome at that time was their recent looting of the temple when they destroyed Jerusalem. The riches stolen from the Jewish temple financed the building of the Roman Colosseum.
    18. Christians were often sent to the infamous ancient copper mines of Faynan district in Jordan as punishment by Roman and even by early Byzantine rulers (for being the wrong kind of Christian). Faynan is mentioned, with different spellings, in Genesis 36:41 and Numbers 33:42. These mines were very dangerous–early Christian historians thought of men sent there as martyrs. Damnatio ad metalla: condemned to the mines!
    19. Sussita was an impressive mid-size city on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee, probably established 3rd century BCE by Hellenistic Ptolemies, then integrated into Roman territory as part of the decapolis, and later by Byzantines. All three civilizations built sacred structures there, including hundreds of heavy columns. Sussita was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 CE and never inhabited again.
    20. Aphrodisias is a city in southeast Turkey. In late classical times, it was clearly home to a diverse array of religious groups, pagan, Christian, and Jewish. Religious graffiti (such as menorahs and crosses) is common in the city. A marble pillar has the longest Jewish inscription in Greek, a list of donors to the synagogue. Among the many names are theosebeis (“Godfearers”), non-Jews who supported and even participated in Jewish religious life.

Continue reading

2017: My Year In Reading

I finished 30 books in 2017. It was a good year for reading–nine perfect scores, including three in a row! The biggest development was getting new glasses over the summer–after suffering headaches that slowed me down for far too long, I finally took care of this, and I got much more done after. On the downside, I now see some big holes: no poetry, no science fiction or fantasy, not nearly enough of what I started the year wanting to read. Alas. Still, a great time.

  1. Eliza, Keith and Ann Terry (1.8, biography)–B
  2. Where Love Is, There God Is Also, Leo Tolstoy (1.14, literature, Dole trans. / Jordan intro)–A
  3. Eclogues & Georgics, Virgil (1.21, poetry, Mackail trans.)–C
  4. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (2.11, classics, poetry, Neville Coghill trans.)–A+
  5. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (3.11, literature)–B
  6. A Walk Among the Tombstones, Lawrence Block (3.20, mystery)–B
  7. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher (3.27, biography)–A+
  8. The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher (5.29, religion, politics)–A
  9. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (6.23, history)–A
  10. Born Fighting, James Webb (6.27, history)–A
  11. Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov (7.1, drama)–C
  12. Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw (7.27, drama)–A
  13. Everything That Remains, The Minimalists (7.27, memoir)–A+
  14. Purgatory, Dante (7.29, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A
  15. The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (8.22, fiction)–B
  16. Nightworld, F. Paul Wilson (8.26, horror)–A+
  17. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (9.17, satire)–A
  18. Paradise, Dante (10.17, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A+
  19. How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreher (10.23, literary criticism, memoir)–A+
  20. Speak To The Earth, Rachel Peden (10.31, nature, memoir)–A+
  21. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
  22. Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
  23. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
  24. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
  25. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
  26. Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
  27. It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
  28. The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
  29. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
  30. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C

C.H. Spurgeon, Rachel Peden, Katrina Kenison, and Me

bassThis is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.

It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?

Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.

(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)

 

IMG_20171214_055708

In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.

This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.

No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading

The Great Books Podcast

Two months ago, National Review magazine launched a weekly podcast called “The Great Books.” My first thought on hearing about this was, “What does a literature podcast from National Review have to offer the world?”

The answer begins with another question: what would the world want from a National Review literature podcast? An appreciation of classics from a socially and politically conservative viewpoint, I suppose.

But that could be the source of its failure as well: when conservative outlets analyze any media or cultural product entirely through the lens of the right wing, it tends to collapse in on itself in an implosion that leaves no trace of itself. Five minutes later, this empty exercise may as well have not even happened. After all, you never hear explicit left wing preaching on NPR–it’s just assumed that that’s the worldview the audience values, and the reports proceed accordingly.

I’m glad to say that the new NR podcast avoids this danger admirably.

I’ve listened to three episodes so far: those for Macbeth, Paradise Lost, and Agamemnon. Each was superb: an expert on each text is interviewed for about half an hour, plot points are discussed in a delicate way that doesn’t try to avoid spoilers but which is far from a SparkNotes summary, and the greatest focus tends to be on timeless themes.

Conservative ideas are never outright given center stage, but are obliquely integrated usefully and organically into the conversation. For example, in the Agamemnon discussion, a parallel is drawn between Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. The comparisons and contrasts were genuinely enlightening to both texts, and it was just a minor caveat in the larger discussion, as well as an insight I’d never had on my own.

The discussions are never preachy, in any way, but are loving analyses of cherished classics. That’s it. And it works terrifically. They’re often like mini version of the huge lecture courses I like to get from the library, usually on several CDs at a time, where some professor waxes on about the many facts regarding a text. The big difference here is that the podcasts’ conversation format is much more lively–there’s clearly a script of questions, but there are also clearly spontaneous comments and connections from both interviewer and interviewee.

What could anyone want from a literature podcast by National Review? What more could we want?

“The Great Books” podcast is available to hear online and in a variety of apps, in addition to an option to download episodes. My only complaint is that these podcasts aren’t available on YouTube, which would be even more convenient for me. Maybe it’s because there’s no video component, but still.

Screenshot 2017-11-16 at 4.53.46 PM

 

Ten Favorite Books: Fiction

This week a friend posited this exercise for a list: our ten favorite works of fiction. I then realized that I had never made such a list before. I scoured my record of everything I’ve read, considered only the perfect-ten A-plusses, and came up with these:

10. Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

A tour de force of satire, and an absolutely perfect portrait of late 20th century us. A huge achievement in making us look at our warts in the mirror and laugh our heads off at them. By far the best American novel of the 90s.

9. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomson, The Rule of Four

Incredibly fun puzzle mystery, without being ponderous or pandering. A flawlessly fun read.

8. P.G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters

The first Jeeves and Wooster book I ever read, and still the best. We all type LOL every day, it seems, but how often does something actually make us laugh out loud? This book did, many times.

7. James Clavell, Noble House

I didn’t think a 1000 page novel about a British business executive in Hong Kong in the 60s could be the most exciting, engrossing adventure story I’d ever read, but here we are.

6. James Joyce, Dubliners

A phenomenal achievement of the mind, this little collection of stories has history’s greatest difference between the simplicity of the narratives and the depth of the ideas.

5. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

The bleak setting, the haunted and violent saga, the elegantly complex plot and style: this is the greatest novel from 19th century England, which is saying a lot.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

A surprise, just like Noble House. Who would have thought a long, rambling Western would also be the most humane, exciting, passionate celebration of life I’d ever see between two covers? I wish I could read it again for the first time.

3. Frank Herbert, Dune

The cover of the current paperback edition calls it “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece,” and if anything, that’s playing it safe. This majestic epic broke all the rules, and in doing so, wrote the ones we’ve been following ever since.

2. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

The one and only truly counter cultural book I’ve ever seen–a story so bogglingly original that it has endless surprises and challenges for everybody…and is genuinely funny on every single page.

1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

It’s difficult to even begin describing the wonders of this super masterpiece. Let just one bit of praise suffice: this grand work has the best rendering of life’s very largest dramas and its very smallest details. One or the other would be enough to put it on this list, but it has both. Amazing.

Quote About Reading Great Books, From a Great Book I Once Read

Winston stopped reading for a moment. Somewhere in remote distance a rocket bomb thundered. The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off. Solitude and safety were physical sensations, mixed up somehow with the tiredness of his body, the softness of the chair, the touch of the faint breeze from the window that played upon his cheek. The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

–George Orwell, 1984, Part II, chapter 9

 

Strategies For Reading and Relationships

In relationships, never give up on people. Stick it out, make it work.

In reading…just the opposite. A book should always be a perfect ten. If your connection to a book ever cools off, feel free to kick it to the curb and find another one. Plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of books in the library. Life is short and you deserve the best.

Just don’t get these two ideas confused. Your life will be fun for others to watch, but frustrating for you.

Comparing Three Translations of Les Miserables

I recently started reading Les Miserables. I’m up to Part III and–no surprise–it’s amazing so far.

It had a rocky start, though. I researched translations and couldn’t find one that stood out, so I figured I’d just try the old original standard translation from the 19th century, the Wilbour translation.

I only got a few pages in before getting tired of the pretentious contortion of it all. I decided to find a copy of Denny’s translation from the 70’s. My local library district actually didn’t have that one, but do you know who did? The library at the school where I work! How great is that?

And from page one I loved it. I don’t know how well it reflects the French, but this English version hums and sings for me with pitch-perfect tone.

Here are two passages I really like so far, compared between three popular versions: Wilbour’s, Denny’s, and the recent Julie Rose translation.

This is the end of Part II, chapter 8:

Denny 1

Denny

Wilbour 1

Wilbour

Rose 1

Rose

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