The past year has been my year of reading European travelogues--Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, Lawrence Durrell, and now W.G. Sebald. Except...moreThe past year has been my year of reading European travelogues--Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, Lawrence Durrell, and now W.G. Sebald. Except none of these books are actually travelogues, any more than a novel is simply a story. They are compendiums. They are philosophical treatises. They are everything. Only--the writers have composed them while rambling. Place looms down into the works. Place catalyzes.
The Rings of Saturn is one of the most beautiful of all. Temporally, the author walks through an area that I myself have seen, so my love wells a little from nostalgia. Even without a familiarity with the Anglian countryside, however, there is no doubt this book is a masterpiece. I don't use that word lightly, but if a work of art can make one see the beauty and inscrutability and humor and cruelty and cravenness and mechanization of human beings side by side with the mysterious things they have built and created, and condemn the darkness of our souls, while still wanting to live, while still, in fact, loving that most tenuous of gifts--well, then isn't that work of art doing all that it is possible to do? Along the way, I learned about the last Chinese empress, silkworms, abandoned missile silos, crumbling country estates, Joseph Conrad, Chateaubriand, Rembrandt's painting of a dissection...I learned so much. Each section ended with a note of pleasure, like a cello string being plucked deep inside the sternum. I dreamed all kinds of beautiful dreams when I finished the book. I was changed by it.(less)
If you are the kind of person who thinks finding a crumbling old manuscript in a dank monastery that turns out to be a fascinating glimpse into a near...moreIf you are the kind of person who thinks finding a crumbling old manuscript in a dank monastery that turns out to be a fascinating glimpse into a nearly-vanished pagan philosophy on living written in verse would be cool...then you and I have a lot in common, and we both like this book already. We are also both nerds, and that's okay. We should probably travel together in order to avoid irritating our companions.
Greenblatt is clearly a scholar of considerable erudition on the Renaissance and European art and thought. While very engagingly written, I do sense that Swerve was written for the general reader rather than a more specialized audience. Perhaps because I have studied and written on similar subjects in the past, I yearned for more overtly scholarly writing (which does NOT have to be boring--The Age of Wonder and its endlessly-entrancing digressions comes to mind). I would have been happy to read several hundred more pages, especially about the ripple effect in Renaissance art that Greenblatt cunningly traces back to the discovery of Lucretius' poem. More than anything, I realized that going to the primary text--"On the Nature of Things" itself--will be the key to serious explorations of this subject.
So, on the hunt I go, but with some delightful background knowledge to buoy me.(less)
Like a banana going soft on your counter, smelling overwhelmingly--cloyingly--of itself, there seems to be something too intense about the prose in Ju...moreLike a banana going soft on your counter, smelling overwhelmingly--cloyingly--of itself, there seems to be something too intense about the prose in Justine, too intense about the destructive love affair it desultorily describes and discards.
I had to throw out the banana. I couldn't finish it.
If that sounds vaguely phallic to you, then I see I've hit the right tone for Durrell's prose. It's a shame, because I can honestly say that his writing in Prospero's Cell--a magical travelogue/sketch diary about the isle of Corfu--was some of the best I have ever read. Just incandescent. The prose here, however, feels bloated. I suppose it mirrors its subject somewhat: Alexandria. Can a city be bloated? Perhaps with trash and tragedy and poverty--the Alexandria inhabited by Justine and the narrator.
Read until you reach the famous line about cities taking on a new meaning once you love someone within the city. Then, honestly, you don't have to continue.
(I may actually pick Justine up again, since it does provide an interesting version of the metafictional novel. It wasn't right for me this time around, however.)(less)
It's incredible the feats of understanding and compassion that can be achieved simply by talking to people. This remarkable book holds a glass to the...moreIt's incredible the feats of understanding and compassion that can be achieved simply by talking to people. This remarkable book holds a glass to the multiple voices of the Balkans, just as the former Yugoslavia was beginning to dissolve into violence and genocide in the early nineties. Hall, like a novelist, presents us with people and their stories first. He asks difficult--sometimes explosive--questions of those he meets while traveling throughout what is now Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia. He doesn't give us an easy "answer," but he provides us with portraits, and in so doing, troubles the notion of nationalism and ethnic divisions everywhere, not only in the "impossible country." It is a deeply moving, lovingly written book.(less)
A must-read for anyone devoted hopelessly, helplessly, and sometimes even selfishly to books and authors. Full of delightful literary criticism, memoi...moreA must-read for anyone devoted hopelessly, helplessly, and sometimes even selfishly to books and authors. Full of delightful literary criticism, memoir, personality sketches, and excursions temporal and otherwise, The Possessed is one of the most enjoyable books I have read in a long time. It's also very funny and will add book after book to the mountain of books you were already intending to read. I had some quibbles with Batuman's attack on MFA programs in the Introduction, even though some of her points were well-taken. I also think that at times, the author's flat narrative voice can cast a tone of mockery on people that I doubt she meant to mock, such as her dedicated teachers in Uzbekistan, who were being paid less than $200 to tutor her in poetry and history for an entire summer. There were times I disagreed and felt piqued, but these feelings did not draw me away from the collection of essays; rather, they made me wish that Batuman was an acquaintance and that I could argue with her in person. I think she is a critic and writer who may very well become a big star.(less)
I'm certainly entrenched in the "preaching to the choir" camp of Pollitt's audience, but nevertheless, had a wonderful time reading this collection of...moreI'm certainly entrenched in the "preaching to the choir" camp of Pollitt's audience, but nevertheless, had a wonderful time reading this collection of short essays, most originally published between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties.
Not only is Pollitt a witty, eminently quotable, and warm writer, she also does not shy from controversy. I think what I admired the most was her strong emphasis on social justice and addressing the root issues of many "women's issues" the media chooses to focus its blathering, inaccurate chorus on from time to time. Namely, she is not afraid to call poverty what it is, and point out the social forces that uniquely disadvantage women within systems of race and class oppression.
I was especially compelled by Pollitt's arguments regarding surrogacy and fetal rights. I don't think I'd ever thought through the issue completely before, but her incisive writing pared away the tangle of conflicting rhetoric on the subject to point out that the more we separate mother and baby when we consider pregnancy, the more we treat a woman like a vessel, and the child carried therein as a mere temporary passenger. This was an eye-opener for me.
At the end of the day, it comes down to treating women as people, 100% of the time, with rights that are sacrosanct. Would that society could find this simple in practice...(less)
It is fitting that this book ends with the image of a ring actually owned by the real main character of the novel, inscribed to his beloved. The Blue...moreIt is fitting that this book ends with the image of a ring actually owned by the real main character of the novel, inscribed to his beloved. The Blue Flower itself is a tiny object--perfectly made--and contains multitudes in its perfection.
The tale of the Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenberg's (Novalis) love for a fairly ordinary girl of twelve is perhaps one of the most moving historical novels I have ever read. Fitzgerald does more than recreate a bygone era, she conjures it effortlessly, and with minimalist master strokes of observation and dialogue. Indeed, I often read whole chapters more than once in order to treasure the compression of character, setting, and scene, which like the best artistry, remains completely unobtrusive.
Writerly artistry aside, however, these are *characters*, and oh what characters they are. I dare you not to love Fritz's younger brother, "the Bernhard," ("Not all children are childlike.") or really, any of his charming, brilliant siblings. Famous philosophers and writers compete with their equally fascinating "ordinary" counterparts to reveal a complete picture of German life at this time. As A.S. Byatt points out in a retrospective of Fitzgerald's work, part of the poignancy of reading The Blue Flower lies in realizing the finite nature of these characters' lives. We come to love them, and forget that they were real people, and succumbed to mortality just as real people do.
As for the tragic love between Fritz (the stormy young poet) and his Sophie (an apparently unsophisticated and merry youngster), it is both touching and comic. "Hardenburch!" she screeches when she sees him; he refers to her as "my Philosophy." In the end, the novel itself is a meditation on love and philosophies of living. There is something beautiful about Fritz's love for Sophie, who is not his equal. Love itself, one realizes, is a transfiguring and worthy emotion, apart from the worthiness of its object. And yet, less showy demonstrations of love and empathy on the part of other characters reveal some inherent weaknesses in Fritz's single-minded reverence. He is a fascinating character of compelling vision, and the many real quotes from his writings underline this. At the same time, the book is not merely a portrait of him, and all of the characters come to take on equal weight as the story continues -- they are all capable of their own surprises and insights, and I loved them all, even Sophie. Fritz, by his nature, alters those around him, and events do not only happen to one person; instead, they happen to everyone.
It really is a masterpiece. Perfect. Read it!(less)
The title of this book could just as easily read "The Age of Wonder: How the General Reader Will Discover the Beauty and Terror of Science." I just fl...moreThe title of this book could just as easily read "The Age of Wonder: How the General Reader Will Discover the Beauty and Terror of Science." I just flat out loved this book. Holmes is an engaging biographer above all, and the principal "characters" of this book leap to life as engagingly as any in a novel. Joseph Banks, William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, Humphry Davy -- I had no more than a passing knowledge of any of these figures before reading "The Age of Wonder," but now I have a vivid sense of their lives, preoccupations, and above all, their uniquely brilliant minds.
I think, even more extraordinary than rekindling the reader's awe at scientific discovery (and awe certainly abounds -- Thrilling balloon voyages! Solo treks into the jungle! Crazed astronomers peering into deep space! Well-heeled literati huffing nitrous oxide!)is Holmes ability to render the context for these discoveries and the ripples they made in artistic thought as well. It turns out that prominent Romantic thinkers and poets such as Coleridge and the Shelleys and Keats cared deeply about questions of the universe and how it came to be and how science and art should treat the central subject of the human soul and a human God. Who knew?! Well, actually, I didn't really know this. Or, more accurately, hadn't considered it at length. I loved the chorus that The Age of Wonder creates: scientists, philosophers, and writers all approaching the same questions from their own angles, debating vigorously and oftentimes admiringly along the way.
Holmes shows us a band of scientists who are only just discovering their identities as "scientists" (indeed, the term is actually coined in the events of the book), finding a way to exist and have relevance in civic life. Simultaneously, he reveals some of the most beloved poets and novelists of the period articulating the terror and hope of science in their own works. And, and....well, and lots more.
Before I give anything else away, you should probably go and read this book.(less)
I read this play in one sitting while sitting in a park. Even though I was quite chilly, I honestly could not tear myself from the bench. I would love...moreI read this play in one sitting while sitting in a park. Even though I was quite chilly, I honestly could not tear myself from the bench. I would love to see this play someday. As literature on its own, it's already spellbinding.(less)
This book is split into two sections of essays. The lyrical essays in the first section are probably of more interest to the general reader, since the...moreThis book is split into two sections of essays. The lyrical essays in the first section are probably of more interest to the general reader, since the critical essays are often in response to other works of French literature (not having read all of them, it's a bit harder to follow Camus's arguments). The very last section contains some interviews with him, where he emphatically denies being a nihilist.
What was unexpected for me is that the lyrical essays are almost all nature essays in some respect, or about the combination of man and landscape. One of these, "The Desert," is probably one of the most beautiful essays I have ever read. Even when I disagreed with Camus, his prose, descriptions, and turns of phrase have a kind of indelibility, an indelibility that seems as if only those words, in that order, could provide the right shade of meaning for what's expressed. To me, this is always the most beautiful, and moving, writing -- writing that organizes and hallows the world by its very form. These are travel essays; they are meditations on existence; on mens' lives (unfortunately, women are there to be like a landscape--a surface from which to draw pleasure in looking); on religion; youth; the spirit at odds with the corruptibility of the body. The perfectly chiseled prose leaves me speechless and almost unable to argue, even when I don't agree. Reading the lyrical essays, and then some of the critical essays and interviews where Camus sets himself apart from the literature of the absurd and some of his contemporaries, I see his point. It is not disgust at all that wells from these short, vivid, and meditative pieces, but rather a kind of boundless ability to confront beauty, accepting joy and terror together. There is a kind of arrogance, to be sure, especially in his focus on Mediterranean culture, but that didn't hamper my enjoyment. It's tempting to reach for even more lofty statements of my own to recommend this anthology, but I'll be more concise and simply say that I loved it and plan to treasure it.(less)