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.
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.
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.