Monthly Archives: January 2014

Reading Barth, Perl, Gonzalez-Crussi

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The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth

I gave this book about three hundred pages (out of 768) before setting it aside. I enjoyed those three hundred pages. They were funny, smart, and sometimes even philosophically interesting. I just don’t have the endurance that Barth apparently expects of his readers – which is saying something, since I’m not afraid of long books and the historical setting of the novel interests me. Yes, in writing an old-fashioned comic satire a la Smollett or Fielding, Barth is being very post-modern and all that. And yes, maybe I would have found something terrific at the end of the book. But for my money, nothing makes better comic satire or is more “post-modern” in any potentially positive sense of the word than Tristram Shandy.

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Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, Jed Perl

Somewhere in this unusual, gorgeously illustrated little book, Jed Perl quotes a 1719 letter from Antoine Watteau to his friend Jean de Jullienne. “In my view,” Watteau writes, “you must either do away with ornament – or make ornament the essence. It’s not something you add. It’s not icing on a cake. It’s everything – or it’s nothing.” Watteau’s paintings, full of lovers and parties of friends singing and dancing and flirting in overgrown gardens, might at first seem to fall on the side of “nothing,” of impotent ornament. The gauzy trees, the liquid distances, the women with their backs turned and wearing voluminous pink or blue silk dresses that make them somehow look more naked for being clothed – there’s an impression of frivolity in it (if, too, a bit of melancholy.) But despite his odd decision to construct this as an alphabet book with entries written variously as fiction, history or memoir, Perl nonetheless manages to open our eyes to the “everything” concealed in plain sight.

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On Being Born and Other Difficulties, F. Gonzalez-Crussi

F. Gonzalez-Crussi is consistently good reading. This was my third of his books. The author is a retired clinical pathologist with a literary bent and a charmingly dusty sense of humor. On Being Born explores the science, history, philosophy, and cultural meaning of giving birth and getting born. You may rely on Gonzalez-Crussi for some quality sentences and fascinating bits of trivia that will have you did-you-knowing everyone within earshot for days. He moves from the revolution of primordial cooperation among cells – a counter-point to the pseudo-Darwinian law of “survival of the fittest” – to Nabokovian musings (see Speak, Memory) on our differing attitudes toward the twin eternities that precede our birth and follow our death. Readers will be introduced to fun medical terms like “obtundation,” which refers to exhibiting less than full alertness, and to no end of curious facts. For example, the curious fact (and historical obsession with the idea) that the uterus moves within a woman’s body. I was particularly interested to learn about the non-chromosomal contributions of the female gamete to the zygote, which include, pre-programmed into the cytoplasm of the ovum, those polarities which determine left and right, up and down, front and back, for the developing fetus. It was Mama who taught you left from right.

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Marginalia, no.319

The power of improvisation, the power of variations on themes, the power of doing what you have already done but with a somewhat different inflection or intonation or intensity – this is happiness within tradition.

~ Jed Perl, Antoine’s Alphabet

Not improvisation itself, or variation or difference, but the power of these, whether exercised or withheld. That’s what Perl’s phrasing implies. He’s talking about art, but I think this is something like the happiness available to us in our daily lives – lives which are traditions that day to day become ourselves. The novel and unexpected may sometimes be a pleasure but rarely more of a pleasure than the miraculously consistent, like the sun that rises every morning.

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Albert Weisgerber illustration for Jugend magazine, 1905.

Like that perfect moment in a perfect dream just before you realize that you left the house without putting any clothes on.

Illustration by Albert Weisgerber for Jugend magazine, 1905.

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Marginalia, no.318

The great things of life are what they seem to be, and for that reason, strange as it may sound to you, are difficult to interpret. But the little things of life are symbols.

~ Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

The hard part of drawing is to actually see the things you’re looking at. Your idea of a tree, a mountain, a person, will tend to devolve into symbol. You are constantly lured into seeing through your brain, by abstraction, rather than through your eye. But the wild, absurd, incredible fact of a thing in itself is always more than you can grasp.

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Marginalia, no.317

Man might be more tolerable, less fractious and smug, if he had more to fear. I do not mean fear of the intangible, the suffocation of the introvert, but physical fear, cold sweating fear for one’s life, fear of the unseen menacing beast, imminent, bristly, tusked and terrible, ravening for one’s own hot saline blood.

~ J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

If birds made movies, cats would recur in every feature as the constant existential threat to the species. The trouble with being human is that our deadliest predators are either other humans or microscopically tiny creatures like viruses. This insufficiency expresses itself in our science fiction films where the longed-for predator takes the form, say, of a dragon or a well-fanged race of muscular aliens. How many of our personal and social pathologies might be cured if we were reduced to the size of a sparrow?

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Carving of a one-armed man in a row boat

One-armed rowers pull twice as hard.

Miserere seat at Church of Sts Gervais and Protais, Paris (1904)

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My Year in Books: 2013

I began the year with the laughable idea that I would read less and spend more time walking around and looking at the world and thinking, and maybe (allowing for human weakness) re-reading books that I hadn’t read in a long time. I managed at least to do some of the latter. In 2013 I paid second or third visits to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Twelfth Night, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I also revisited various favorite authors to pick off works which I’d never got around to before. These included three P.G. Wodehouse novels (Leave it to Psmith, Joy in the Morning, and Bachelors Anonymous) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Inland Voyage and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as Tove Jansson’s Moominpapa’s Memoirs, Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice, and Chesterton’s superb and superbly digressive biography of Thomas Aquinas.

Works of fiction that were new to me last year (though most of them hardly new in themselves) included two collections of short stories by Saki (Chronicles of Clovis was the best), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, two Anthony Trollope novels (The Warden and Barchester Towers), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. I finally managed to read some Nicholson Baker (The Mezzanine), some Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding), and a Georges Simenon novel (Monsieur Monde Vanishes). The Simenon was good enough. The McCullers was mesmerizing. The Baker was terrifically funny but not, perhaps, very deeply satisfying. The Jules Verne title I found almost unbearable. Overall, fiction itself made up a smaller portion of my reading last year than I might have predicted.

Many of the best books I read last year were histories. These included the first four volumes of Francis Parkman’s seven-volume history of French colonialism in North America (The Jesuits in North America and La Salle and the Discovery of Great West were especially good). Richard Holmes’s latest, Falling Upwards (a history of manned ballooning from 1783-1903), was the best new title I read all year, a real joy. F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s A Short History of Medicine, John Glassie’s A Man of Misconceptions (about Athanasius Kircher), and Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner (a biography of a 16th-century Nuremberg executioner) were all wonderful surprises which I’m constantly recommending to friends. Washington Irving’s charming and hilarious A History of New York became an instant personal favorite (though it blends, perhaps, into fiction). Other worthy titles read last year include Christopher Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners, and Gilbert Seldes’s The Stammering Century, about nineteenth-century American religious fads and cult spiritualities. Primary historical texts I read last year included the autobiography of the Sac war chief Black Hawk, memoirs of the American west from the late seventeenth-century by Cadillac and Liette, and the diary of my tenth great-grandfather Thomas Minor, an early settler of New England. E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World was a page turner, the work of an afternoon or two. James McPherson’s Civil War epic Battle Cry of Freedom was more of a trudge. So was Henry Adams’s Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (despite its occasional glories). Generally less impressive were Andrea Wulf’s Chasing Venus, Peter Gay’s Mozart: A Life, and Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas. Peter Hansen’s The Summits of Modern Man (about the birth of modern mountaineering in the Enlightenment and beyond) was a prime example of how a winning topic can be bludgeoned to death with unmusical, academic prose.

Among those books more difficult to categorize (though generally non-fiction of one species or another), I especially enjoyed reading the lectures collected in Professor Borges, F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s Carrying the Heart (essays on the cultural symbolism of human anatomy), and the Sir Roger de Coverly Essays of Addison and Steele. Rose Macaulay’s The Minor Pleasures of Life – a commonplace book of quotations mostly from the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries – was itself no minor pleasure. M.A. Screech’s Montaigne and Melancholy and Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism were both worth the time. Less so, in my opinion, were George Saunders’s The Braindead Megaphone, John Gray’s Straw Dogs, or Bergen Evans’s A Natural History of Nonsense. Books I wanted to like more than I actually did include James Schall’s On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs and Joseph Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life was so-so. Henry Beston’s The Outermost House was a poor imitation of Thoreau. But Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast was a great yarn, and Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal was a nice piece of instructional comic diversion.

I have not made any reading resolutions for 2014, though I’ve already set aside for later delectation some additional titles by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chesterton, and Rose Macaulay. I intend to read some more philosophy (Hobbes, finally, and perhaps some more Hume). Montaigne is sure to show up, as usual. Shakespeare too. I also hope to read Francis Parkman’s magnum opus Montcalm and Wolfe, and the posthumous Patrick Leigh Fermor title The Broken Road, which appears in its American edition soon. I have some more F. Gonzalez-Crussi on order, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. I want to re-read Don Quixote this year, and possibly Moby Dick. I just picked up John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor from the library and want to finally read Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. We’ll see.

One thing I learned this past year: I’m a more productive (and happier) reader than a writer. The best thing I wrote off the blog last year was a 70-page chapter book for my daughter, which I’m quite proud of. The novel which I beat out my brains for these past five or so years exists in a completed draft now. It’s still a mess, however, and last year I was given some helpful perspective on its faults and what might be done to correct them. I hope to take it up again at some point in 2014. It’s been a few months since I’ve been able to look it in the face, but I may be ready soon. Writing seriously-intended fiction for adults is no fun at all. It really isn’t. It’s nothing like reading. Reading adds to life and is, unless you’re doing it wrong, a joy and a pleasure. Writing, on the other hand, takes and takes. It drains the soul. Sure, there are moments of elation, but writing gives birth to such moments only to murder them in infancy. If you ask me.

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