There is a growing branch of literature which consists of nonfiction. How is that possible? The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to SvetThere is a growing branch of literature which consists of nonfiction. How is that possible? The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996 was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus for her work, which consists primarily of interviews of people affected by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl or the Soviet War in Afghanistan. As for Americans, we have John McPhee, who has written a series of nonfiction works of high literary quality.
I have just finished reading his Uncommon Carriers, which deals, in turn, with long-haul truckers; a place in France where ships’ pilots are trained; boats that tow barges on American rivers; the parcel sorting services of UPS; and mile-and-a-half-long coal trains. In between, there is a delightful essay by the author about retracing the route of Henry David Thoreau and his brother John described in A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers—which I had read when it was first published in the New Yorker.
McPhee likes to take what looks like a boring subject that nobody would write about and turn it into a gem. For instance, there is that tetralogy he wrote about American geology beginning with Basin and Range and ending with Assembling California. One would think that McPhee’s books might be a tad boring, but they never are....more
It's a crying shame that Hunter S. Thompson blew out his brains back in 2005. The world has become ever so much more crazed -- especially in the UniteIt's a crying shame that Hunter S. Thompson blew out his brains back in 2005. The world has become ever so much more crazed -- especially in the United States. His Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame & Degradation in the '80's, aka Gonzo Papers Volume 2, is even more relevant today than when it was written in the waning days of the Reagan Presidency and the Iran-Contra Scandal.
What Hunter Thompson could have made of Donald J. Trump with his tiny hands and his mantra, "You're fired!" What a model for the leader of the Free World (so to speak)! I see a pair of tiny handcuffs in his future, with a one-way bus-ticket to Palookaville.
Today's politics have brought me closer to Thompson, and I will probably read a lot more of him in the days to come. I remember, when I was an angry young man in the 1960s, how I hovered on every word written by Norman Mailer! Now I feel the same way about the man Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury" memoraliazed for all time as Duke....more
I began reading this book with a certain sense of foreboding. Is the author going to spend several hundred pages detailing the many steps taken in theI began reading this book with a certain sense of foreboding. Is the author going to spend several hundred pages detailing the many steps taken in the process of becoming a Catholic? That could be deadly (but not always, as for instance, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain).
In any case, I was way off the mark. That is not the way of G.K. Chesterton. His The Thing: Why I am a Catholic is actually a set of thirty-five brilliant, but disconnected essays on things that people (mostly modernists) have said about Catholicism that Chesterton gleefully refutes. Perhaps the book should have been titled The Thing: Some Wrongheaded Things People Have Written About Catholicism.
These wrongheaded things include such things as: The "cult" of Service as a replacement for religion, humanism as a replacement for religion, the attack on the home, unthinking reformism, and so on. Some of the essays are more sprightly than others, though Chesterton is always capable of letting loose with a "zinger" that puts a whole new light on whatever subject he discusses. For instance, at one point, he writes, apropos of "The Slavery of the mind":
For instance, as history is taught, nearly everybody assumes that in all important past conflicts, it was the right side that won. Everybody assumes it; and nobody knows that he assumes it. The man has simply never entertained the other notion.
He goes on to wonder whether England would have been better off if the Scots won the Battle of Culloden in 1746 .
In the end, I know less on why Chesterton is a Catholic, and a whole lot more on why I wouldn't mess with Chesterton if I were unthinking in what I say or write about religion. ...more
For the last 45 years or so, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite writers. He is so deceptively simple that it is difficult to write about himFor the last 45 years or so, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite writers. He is so deceptively simple that it is difficult to write about him without erecting a series of barriers to muddy what would otherwise be a limpid stream. (An exception: Garry Wills's Chesterton.)
Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes is an earnest attempt by a Jesuit author (James V. Schall, S.J.) who has read much of GKC's work -- but unfortunately through a Thomistic and Aristotelian scrim. There are a lot of abstract nouns like Virtue, Duty, Humanism, etc. Where Chesterton approaches his subjects with a light touch, Schall can at times read like drying glue.
Still, he does have some good points:
In a sense, what Chesterton has to teach us is precisely with those whose ideas or actions are wrong in some objective sense. We do not, if we think about it, want to end up by approving what is wrong or evil in errant actions. Neither do we want to deny wither the intrinsic dignity of the person in error or the fact that free people can do evil things that ought not to be done. It was characteristic of Chesterton, who loved controversy and debate, clearly to grasp the logic of ideas or passions that would, if uncorrected, lead a person or a society of persons into error or sin.
That is certainly true, probably nowhere more so than in the Father Brown mystery stories, in which the detective/priest is probably more interested in setting things right than in seeing that the guilty party is apprehended.
The person interested in Chesterton would probably do better to read GKC directly. Fortunately, there is far more of his work currently in print than when I started collecting his books in the 1970s....more
Is Henry Miller famous? Or is he just infamous? Or is he both?
I have just finished reading a book of his essays, reviews, and prefaces entitled StandIs Henry Miller famous? Or is he just infamous? Or is he both?
I have just finished reading a book of his essays, reviews, and prefaces entitled Stand Still Like the Hummingbird (1962) and find myself alternately idolizing and deploring the man’s work. Of course, he is probably most famous for his novels featuring S-E-X, especially The Tropic of Cancer (1934). And yet, he can write like a Bodhisattva, as in the essays “The Hour of Man” and “The Immorality of Morality.”
In the latter essay, he wrote what I regard as the definitive answer as to how to live in the era of Trump:
Neither would I urge one to run away from the danger zone. The danger is everywhere: there are no safe and secure places in which to start a new life. Stay where you are and make what life you can among the impending ruins. Do not put one thing above another in importance. Do only what has to be done—immediately. Whether the wave is ascending or descending, the ocean is always there. You are a fish in the ocean of time, you are a constant in an ocean of change, you are nothing and everything at one and the same time. Was the dinner good? Was the grass green? Did the water slake your thirst? Are the stars still in the heavens? Does the sun still shine? Can you talk, walk, sing, play? Are you still breathing?
And yet, in another essay entitled “To Read or Not To Read,” Miller brags about reading fewer books “I tried to make it clear that, as a result of indiscriminate reading over a period of sixty years, my desire now is to read less and less.”
Is it perhaps because Miller also sees himself as a painter, particularly of water colors? The ones I have seen are pretty good, and I shouldn’t be surprised if the author likes the act of pure creativity involved in coming up with these scenes, which he does not paint from life.
In the end, I see Henry Miller as, at times, gifted by his muses—and at other times merely producing when the muses aren’t present. There is a certain lack of consistency in his work. I will continue to read him for the times I find he is spot on. This book has elemts of both Henrys....more
In the 1960s and 1970s, when I used to dread the approach of another lonely weekend, I wished I could meet a girl like Eve Babitz, intelligent, articuIn the 1960s and 1970s, when I used to dread the approach of another lonely weekend, I wished I could meet a girl like Eve Babitz, intelligent, articulate, and drop-dead beautiful. And there she was, living just a few miles from me in Hollywood while I was in Santa Monica. Describing a friend of hers, "she lacked that element, raw and beckoning, that trailed like a vapor" behind her.
Like her first book, Eve's Hollywood, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. is a series of seemingly biographical essays with an admixture of fiction. Where the first book talked about Eve's teeny-bopper years in the 1960s, in her second she becomes the lovely, knowing score girl that everyone wants to meet ... and bed. She hung out with the likes of Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, artist Ed Ruscha, and gallery owner Walter Hopps.
What she writes about in Slow Days, Fast Company is about her friendships and relationships with people who are usually not identified with their last names; and even their first names could have been modified. In the end, it doesn't matter a bit. Eve knows success, and how it twists people so they becoming boring "celebrities" who rely on drugs and booze to get through the day. She writes;
But everyone knows that it would have been much better to have been popular in high school when your blood was clean, and pure lust and kisses lasted forever, Chocolate Cokes in high school are better than caviar on a yacht when you're forty-five. It's common knowledge.
Eve Babitz knew herself far better than most people, and she had a wicked sense of humor, as in this exchange:
The very next night I was having dinner with this fashionable young rich man who looked at me as I smoothed some paté over some toast and said, "You better watch out with that stuff. It'll make you fat."
"Well, gee," I said to him, "there are so many perfect women, it's just horrible you have to spend time sitting here with me."
Horrible indeed! No use being morose about it, however. Even if I never found an Eve Babitz, I can appreciate her discriminating mind even at this distant remove. This is a girl who did not believe in the viability of most relationships: "The real truth is that I've never known any man-woman thing to pan out (it may pan out to them, of course, but couples in middle age who don't speak to each other are not my idea of a good movie.)"
Eve Babitz in her time and place -- Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s -- was as good as they come. She is in many ways the best that Los Angeles has to offer. If you read her books, I think you will understand why. ...more
This essay by Henry David Thoreau is about the author's joy in living in nature and in the present. Walking is a short read and nicely encapsulates maThis essay by Henry David Thoreau is about the author's joy in living in nature and in the present. Walking is a short read and nicely encapsulates many of Thoreau's themes from Walden Pond and his other works.
Nowadays almost all man's improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.
I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road—follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth's surface where a man does not stand from one year's end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.
I live in an urban world in which I would have to drive at top sped for an hour and a half to get to the wildness of the desert, which Thoreau never knew. Most of my life is spent hemmed in by people, buildings, roads--and very little nature. Reading Thoreau, for me, is like nature porn. It excites me and makes me want to re-think my life....more
This is essentially an article that Norman Mailer wrote for Esquire Magazine around 1963. It is one of the two best sports pieces I've ever read -- thThis is essentially an article that Norman Mailer wrote for Esquire Magazine around 1963. It is one of the two best sports pieces I've ever read -- the other being William Hazlitt's description of a boxing match in England in the early 19th century.
Ten Thousand Words a Minute is ostensibly about the September 1962 bout between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. The fight turned out to be so short that there are few photographic records of the event and not too much clarity about how many punches were thrown or connected. Because of the first round KO of Patterson, Mailer wrote an interesting essay on boxing in the US in the early 1960s.
Probably the highlight was his description of the fatal Emile Griffith-Benny Paret fight in March 1962:
In the twelfth, Griffith caught him. Paret got trapped in a corner. Trying to duck away, his left arm and his head became tangled on the wrong side of the top rope. Griffith was in like a cat ready to rip the life out of a huge boxed rat. He hit him eighteen right hands in a row, an act which took perhaps three or four seconds, Griffith making a pent-up whimpering sound all the while he attacked, the right hand whipping like a piston rod which has broken through the crankcase, or like a baseball bat demolishing a pumpkin….
And Paret? Paret died on his feet. As he took those eighteen punches something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. One felt it hover in the air. He was still standing in the ropes, trapped as he had been before, he gave some little half-smile of regret, as if he were saying, “I didn’t know I was going to die just yet,” and then, his head leaning back but still erect, his death came to breathe about him. He began to pass away. As he passed, so his limbs descended beneath him, and he sank slowly to the floor. He went down more slowly than any fighter had ever gone down, he went down like a large ship which turns on end and slides second by second into its grave. As he went down, the sound of Griffith’s punches echoed in the mind like a heavy ax in the distance chopping into a wet log.
This is probably one of the best things I have read by Mailer....more
Sometimes nothing is better than a great book of essays. One could go for the classics and pick up Montaigne or De Quincey or Hazlitt ... but there arSometimes nothing is better than a great book of essays. One could go for the classics and pick up Montaigne or De Quincey or Hazlitt ... but there are also many excellent works written in the last hundred years or so by authors such as Chesterton or Belloc or Virginia Woolf, whose The Death of the Moth and Other Essays I have just finished reading.
The essays in the first 60-75% of the book are mostly sheer genius. Even some of the back matter, especially the final essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid,” written not long before the author's suicide, are well worth reading.
Woolf has a way of bringing the literature of the past alive. Her writings about Edward Gibbon, Coleridge, the Rev. William Cole, and Mme de Sevigné are so memorable that, no sooner will I return the book to the library than I will find a way of adding a copy to my library.
I highly recommend Woolf's essays, particularly to those who think than women writers are not "good enough" to contribute to the fund of world literature....more
If this book were more about Marcel Proust, whom I revere, and less about Jacques Riviere, about whom I know next to nothing, I would have given it fiIf this book were more about Marcel Proust, whom I revere, and less about Jacques Riviere, about whom I know next to nothing, I would have given it five stars. François Mauriac was one of the greatest French writers of the 20th Century. Therefore, it is fascinating to see what he thought of Marcel Proust.
As a devout Catholic, Mauriac criticized Proust when he describes the bad influence he had on Jacques Riviere as "literarywork in its most dangerous form, Marcel Proust's, which has no other object than itself, and whose analysis pulverizes and destroys the human personality."
And yet Mauriac is profoundly fascinated and moved by Proust's great novel:
The integral history of a young life, of its loves, its friendships, its weaknesses, its intellectual or religious crises, offers the vast proportions of the history of the ideas and customs at a certain epoch as they are reflected in a single spirit. And a long old age would not be enough to complete the account or to exhaust its drama.
Proust's Way is well worth reading until it switches to Riviere. Unless you know the man, you might well be excused for putting the book down at this point....more
Little did I think when the read the first few pages of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes that, before long, I would be immersed in an essay about the gLittle did I think when the read the first few pages of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes that, before long, I would be immersed in an essay about the grief of losing one's wife. I can quote the paragraph where the book, quite suddenly, more than halfway through, changes gears:
Early in life, the world divides crudely into those who have had sex and those who haven't. Later, into those who have known love, and those who haven't. Later still -- at least if we are lucky (or, on the other hand, unlucky) -- it divides into those who have endured grief, and those who haven't. These divisions are absolute; they are tropics we cross.
The book began as a kind of essay on lighter-than-air ballooning, with an interesting sidelight on photography. Then, in he second section, we meet Captain Fred Burnaby, an avid balloonist, who falls in love with Sarah Bernhardt. But it is not to be, she rejects him by simply switching partners, and he goes on to marry a young woman who becomes ill and must spend the rest of her life in a sanatorium in the Alps for consumptives. He fights with Gordon in Khartoum, and dies of a spear thrust at the Battle of Abu Klea.
Early in the third and last section, Barnes tells us what the book is really about -- namely, what happens to his life when his wife of thirty years, Pat Kavanagh, dies of cancer, leaving her husband to realize that there is no simple and sure-fire way of dealing with protracted grief:
Love may not lead where we think or hope, but regardless of outcome it should be a call to seriousness and truth. If it is not that -- if it is not moral in its effect -- then love is no more than an exaggerated form of pleasure. Whereas grief, love's opposite, does not seem to occupy a moral space. The defensive, curled position it forces us into if we are to survive makes us more selfish. It is not a place of upper air; there are no views. You can no longer hear yourself living.
I have often wondered what would happen to me if I would lose Martine. I see myself on a long journey, taking interminable bus rides in Patagonia perhaps, where the desolation would mirror my own insides. Or else, I would not. It is possible I would live the rest of my life as an unfinished conversation with my departed little French girl that continues despite strange looks from my friends. Who knows?
In the meantime, I will try to live while I can. It's a mistake not to. ...more
What I Saw in America is less about what G.K. Chesterton saw in America than what the idea of America meant to him as an Englishman. Not a word is saiWhat I Saw in America is less about what G.K. Chesterton saw in America than what the idea of America meant to him as an Englishman. Not a word is said about whether GKC took the train or any Mississippi River steamboats, what he ate, whether he visited anyone at home, whether he saw any of the country's vaunted beauty spots, or anything of the sort that would appear in a Lonely Planet guidebook.
What we have in this book are a series of essays on the subject of America. Chesterton was here on a lecture tour, so he really did not act the part of a tourist.
One thing I found interesting is that the author thinks (from his vantage point during the Harding Administration) that lip service was paid to democracy, but that many Americans are being ground into wage slavery if not actual slavery:
So far as democracy becomes or remains Catholic and Christian, that democracy will remain democratic. In so far as it does not, it will become wildly and wickedly undemocratic. Its rich will riot with a brutal indifference far beyond the feeble feudalism which retains some shadow of responsibility or at least of patronage. Its wage-slaves will either sink into heathen slavery, or seek relief in theories that are destructive not merely in method but in aim; since they are but the negation of the human appetites of property and personality.
Given the 2016 Presidential Race now in progress, these seem prophetic words.
One thing on which we can always rely on Chesterton for is his very genuine sense of democracy. It is possible to read on for page after page, only to be stopped dead in one's tracks with some truism expressed with style and verve. ...more
Albert Camus is one of the great consciences of the 20th century, along with Adam Michnik of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, and Aleksander SoAlbert Camus is one of the great consciences of the 20th century, along with Adam Michnik of Poland, Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn of Russia. The essays in Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays come from the 1940s and 1950s. The subjects dealt with include Nazism, Hungary (1956), capital punishment, Algeria, and the moral responsibility of the writer.
The more I read of Camus, the more I admire him -- as a writer, as a philosopher, and as a political thinker. When he died in that 1960 car crash, we lost someone we badly needed in this era of moral ambiguity....more
I have begun reading the Complete Essays of Aldous Huxley, an endeavor which I expect will take a number of years. I have always admired Huxley and amI have begun reading the Complete Essays of Aldous Huxley, an endeavor which I expect will take a number of years. I have always admired Huxley and am now interested in both re-reading his fiction and exploring his essays and non-fiction.
Complete Essays 1, 1920-1925 covers the postwar years, during which Huxley wrote two books of essays -- Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist and On the Margin: Notes and Essays. To these have been added his music criticism from The Weekly Westminster Gazette as well as various pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair and other publications.
So early in his career, Huxley wrote with the measured taste and maturity of a much older man. Even in his music criticism, he makes me want to re-evaluate many composers with whom I am insufficiently familiar. (Granted that he did not appreciate the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, but then no one's perfect.)
There are pieces in this collection that are astounding. In an essay on Holland, I found the following:
Personally, I balance my affections. For I love the inner world as much as the outer. When the outer vexes me, I retire to the rational simplicities of the inner—to the polders of the spirit. And when, in their turn, the polders seem unduly flat, the roads too straight, and the laws of perspective too tyrannous, I emerge again into the pleasing confusion of untempered reality.
I feel the same way, but damn if I could have expressed it one tenth as well.
I would like to have been Aldous Huxley, though I would not relish living out the rest of my life without the sense of sight, as he did. ...more
This is an odd, half-hearted sort of book which purports to be one thing and shades into another. At first, we are presented with Guy de Maupassant asThis is an odd, half-hearted sort of book which purports to be one thing and shades into another. At first, we are presented with Guy de Maupassant as amateur captain of a sailboat named the Bel-Ami, after his most popular novel. He complains about being forced to be a sociable human being, yet for all his pretensions, he is sailing only a few nautical miles between St Tropez and Antibes with frequent overnight stops at inns along the way.
Afloat has one little authorial tic that is almost unique: Virtually every series ends in an anticlimax. It is as if Maupassant was eager to embark on a line of thought but, somewhere along the way, loses steam.
Still, there are some nice essayistic passages, such as his condemnation of war and of "table-chat" (to which he is nonetheless addicted). There are spurious paragraphs such as this one:
Oh, how I sometimes wish not to be able to think or feel, to live like an animal in some light, sunny country, a yellow country where there's no coarse, grass greenery, in one of those Oriental countries where you drop off peacefully to sleep and wake up cheerfully, go about your business without worry, where you can love without feeling distress, where you're barely aware of existing.
Is there such a place? I think not. If it speaks of anything, it speaks of Maupassant's overweening restlessness.
Still, Afloat is not a bad read, and it tells us a lot more about its author than of the places along the Riviera he visits....more
Van Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate iVan Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate it. His The World of Washington Irving was a pageant in which the literary figures of the United States between 1800 and 1840 pass in review.
The emphasis is on Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe; but he looks forward to the New England greats he was to explore in The Flowering of New England. At the same time, he reminds us of minor writers such as William Bartram, Audubon, N. P. Willis and John Lloyd Stephens, as well as painters such as Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.
I can think of few books I have read that have so many footnotes that I loved to read. If Brooks is a slow read, it is because he wants to share with us more information than he can fit in the main body of the text.
Brooks was a popular writer of my parents' generation, so fortunately one can frequently find good copies of his work in used book stores. I feel that if this were not such a conflicted time in our own history as a nation, that Brooks would be rediscovered and reprinted. ...more
This is a book of essays by John McPhee published in 1997, but which originally appeared in The New Yorker, where I probably read all of them at one tThis is a book of essays by John McPhee published in 1997, but which originally appeared in The New Yorker, where I probably read all of them at one time or another during the last twenty years. Irons in the Fire is clearly a part of the author's geology period. The pieces admired the most were "The Gravel Page" about identifying the source of gravels and soils that were involved in murder cases investigated by FBI geologists and "Travels of the Rock," which could easily have been called "Travails of the Rock," about Plymouth Rock and its deterioration over the centuries -- as well as speculations about where the rock originated. (Was it really Africa?)
Other pieces were the long title essay about cattle rustling in present-day Nevada; "In Virgin Forest," about a small stand of virgin timber in New Jersey; "Release," about computer tools (way back when) for the blind; "Rinard at Manheim," about rare car auctions; and "Duty of Care," a beguiling essay on what to do with all those millions of discarded tires.
McPhee is always fun to read, whether as short essays or long ones. Too bad there aren't more writers like him around today. Who else do you know that can make rocks fascinating? ...more
Sometimes nothing can kill a book deader than a too rigid adherence to a concept. I can imagine Slavenka Drakulić first reading George Orwell's AnimalSometimes nothing can kill a book deader than a too rigid adherence to a concept. I can imagine Slavenka Drakulić first reading George Orwell's Animal Farm, and saying to herself: "How cute! I can adapt this to my experience of Communism through the different Eastern European countries!"
Except it just wasn't a dynamic enough idea to carry the whole book. A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism started out well with a mouse guiding us through Czech Communism. But then, toward the end, there was a pig introducing you to Kadar's Hungary, a dog to Ceausescu's Rumania, and a raven to Hoxha's Albania. As a Hungarian, I do not care to be represented by a pig, however much I like to eat them.
This is one of those books which it is best to sample, preferably with one or more of the opening chapters, rather than to read straight through. It's a pity because Drakulic in Cafe Europa showed herself to be an excellent essayist....more
I have been so impressed by Geoff Dyer's The Search and Zona that I -- somewhat prematurely -- came to the conclusion that here was a writer whose worI have been so impressed by Geoff Dyer's The Search and Zona that I -- somewhat prematurely -- came to the conclusion that here was a writer whose work was golden. Well, with Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It I saw that I mistook for gold was perhaps brass. Each of the eleven essays in this book is about a man suffering a mid-life crisis trying to find some solution by travel. In fact, there is no essay about Mr. Dyer at home, because Mr. Dyer does not appear to ever be home.
There are two unfortunate traits he seems to display:
First, he is so uncomfortable in his own skin that he frequently needs chemical stimulation to ease the pain of being Geoff Dyer.
Second, he is lonely a good part of the time. In some of these essays, he is with a girlfriend in a highly temporary relationship in which he does not appear to have any real sense of emotional commitment invested. Neither does the girlfriend. So naturally, Poof! They're gone!
Still, I enjoyed reading the essays; I did, however, congratulate myself that I am not so complicated as their author.
As a Hungarian-American, I have always thought the the American/Western European notion of literature, art, and history to be culturally biased. InsteAs a Hungarian-American, I have always thought the the American/Western European notion of literature, art, and history to be culturally biased. Instead, I seek out essays by people like Csezlaw Milosz, Vaclav Havel, Slavenka Drakulic, and Milan Kundera for a reasonable alternative. Encounter: Essays is a brief collection by Kundera, mostly about music and literature. As usually happens when I read a book like this, I shall be looking for new music to hear (Leos Janacek), poems to read (Aime Cesaire), and novels (Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt).
Collections such as this one have their weak essays, and Encounter is no exception, but there is enough here to send me off in new directions for the next few years. ...more
This collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and thThis collection of essays on literary, biographical, and historical subjects runs the gamut between the brilliant (his takedown of John Updike) and the pedestrian (some of his political pieces). In general, the period covered is the Clinton Presidency, though there are echoes going all the way back to Herbert Hoover and FDR.
Gore Vidal is a unique figure in our recent history: Because of his family connections, he has met with (and even befriended) many of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. He has no great love for FDR, whom he accuses of orchestrating the whole Pearl Harbor attack, and John F. Kennedy, who -- well we all pretty much know what he did. He has even fewer good things to say about Truman, Nixon, the two Bushes, Carter, and William Jefferson Clinton.
Reading The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 made me feel that I needed to read more of Mr. Vidal, even though his Mephistophelean knowingness is in itself suspicious. But then, I can't really believe what anyone who ever been part of the political scene says. At least, not without a nearby grain of salt....more
It is intriguing to think that Brave New World Revisited was written some twenty-seven years after Brave New World, which in turn was written almost sIt is intriguing to think that Brave New World Revisited was written some twenty-seven years after Brave New World, which in turn was written almost sixty years ago. With BNWR, we are solidly in the 1950s, the world of B. F. Skinner, C. Wright Mills, Vance Packard of The Hidden Persuaders, and -- not least -- the George Orwell of 1984. In fact BNWR comes across at times as an answer to Orwell and Aldous Huxley's reaffirmation that, in 1931's Brave New World, he had it right all along.
At the beginning, Huxley writes:
In the light of what we have recently learned about animal behavior in general, and human behavior in particular, it has become clear that control through the punishment of undesirable behavior is less effective, in the long run, than control through the reinforcement of desirable behavior by rewards, and that government through terror works on the whole less well than government through the non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women, and children. Punishment temporarily puts a stop to undesirable behavior, but does not permanently reduce the victim's tendency to indulge in it.
If this is true, and it may very well be, then many organizations such as ISIS (or whatever it is calling itself this week) or Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda have yet to come on board....more
Years ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- ConfessioYears ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater -- is infinitely worth reading through to the end, and even returning to its glories at a later date.
De Quincey's opium habit led to his heterodox approach to life, which alternated between manic passages of glory to massive funereal threnodies, of which the following sentence from "The English Mail Coach" is but a sample: "I sate, and wept in secret the tears that men have ever given to the memory of those that died before the dawn, and by the treachery of earth, our mother."
Of the three essays in this volume, by far the best is the first, the eponymic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second, Suspiria de Profundis, is also tinged by its author's drug habit, particularly in its most depressive phase. The shorter "The English Mail Coach," begins with youthful exultation and ends with a long meditation on an night collision with a gig when the one-eyed coachman drove while asleep. In that collision, De Quincey speculates that a young woman was killed, though we never know for sure.
There is a scholarly elegance to De Quincey's writing:
Oh, burthen of solitude, thou cleavest to man through every stage of his being -- in his birth, which has been -- in his life, which is -- in his death, which shall be -- mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; -- thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom.
De Quincey had an awesome background in the Greek and Latin classics, and his prose is mightily influenced by those two dead languages, but only in the best sense of the word.
Loren Eiseley represents a nexus, where the worlds of science and the imagination meet. His poems and essays are meditations about who we are, where wLoren Eiseley represents a nexus, where the worlds of science and the imagination meet. His poems and essays are meditations about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going as a species, in conjunction with all the other species with whom we share this world. Star Thrower is his last book, a selection of essays on nature and science, joined with a handful of early poems that show him to be at ease in both worlds.
It is unfortunate for all of us that Eiseley is not around any more, because no one has, as yet, replaced him. No one asks those deep questions that resonate through our very being. In his essay "The Lethal Factor," he writes:
In one of those profound morality plays which C. S. Lewis is capable of tossing off lightly in the guise of science fiction,one of his characters remarks that in the modern era the good appears to be getting better and the evil more terrifying. It as as though two antipathetic elements in the universe were slowly widening the gap between them. Man, in some manner, stands at the heart of this growing rift. Perhaps he contains it within himself. Perhaps he feels the crack slowly widening in his mind and his institutions. He sees the finest intellects, which in the previous century concerned themselves with electric light and telephonic communication, devote themselves wholeheartedly to missiles and supersonic bombers.
Although he was a noted anthropologist and academic, Eiseley's sympathies were with the downtrodden forms of life. In answer to the Biblical injunction to love not the world neither the things that are in the world, Eiseley responds:
"But I do love the world.... I love its small ones, the things beaten in the strangling surf, the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again." I choked and said, with the torn eye still upon me, "I love the lost ones, the failures of the world." It was like the renunciation of my scientific heritage. The torn eye surveyed me sadly and was gone.
There is a gentility here in Eiseley's writing that seems to have gone out of the world....more
I started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by theI started reading J. M. Coetzee's Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 thinking, "Well, I'll just give it a try." I found myself being enthralled by the author's South African perspective of both the West and his own native land. Then, too, most of the essays were about writers with whom I wasn't familiar, largely from the Netherlands, Germany, Israel and the Middle East, and finally South Africa.
Years ago, I had read two or three of Coetzee's novels and found them interesting, particularly Waiting for the Barbarians. I am delighted to find a contemporary essayist whose work I can use to send me off in some new directions. I have already purchased Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and am looking for a good edition of Breyten Breytenbach's Dog Heart.
It is too easy for a reader such as myself to get into a rut: I think Coetzee's Stranger Shores may be an antidote.
As much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just doesAs much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just does not do well on more lengthy, sustained polemics. It is only when he can break his work down into individual essays, such as in Orthodoxy and Heretics that he shines.
Perhaps this work is best titled Some Thoughts on British Social History and Religion. He skips from Richard II to the 18th century Whigs, then zig-zags back to the Middle Ages until one's head begins to spin. I would have enjoyed this book much more if it were presented as a book of loosely connected essays....more
I have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientisI have not read such an eye-opening book by a scientist since I used to read Loren Eiseley's work years ago. This short book of essays by MIT scientist Alan Lightman looks at the universe from several points of view, first from the point of view of its origin, its evanescence, the spiritual dimension, symmetry, size, the laws of nature, and ending up with our strange disembodied universe in which we use electronic tools that somehow mirror the discombobulation associated with quantum mechanics. At one point, he writes:
Evidently, our impression that solid matter can be localized, that it occupies only one position at a time, is erroneous. The reason that we have not noticed the "wavy" behavior of matter is because such behavior is pronounced only at the small size of atoms. At the relatively large sizes of our bodies and other objects that we can see and touch, the wavy behavior of particles is only a tiny effect. But if we were subatomic in size, we would realize that we and all other objects do not exist at one place at a time but instead are spread out in a haze of simultanous existences at many places at once.
This reminds me of Einstein's own problems with quantum entanglement, which he called "spooky action at a distance."
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew is full of insights like these. What is more, it puts them together is a neat package that does not require mathematical formulas and complicated graphs and charts. Lightman deals with his subject matter using easily understood concepts and plain, simple language.
There are some things that draw me to Chatwin, and others that repel me. On the one hand, he had this mania for travel that has been part of my life after since I broke free of my parents; and, as a former art auction expert for Sotheby's, he has a distrust for people who keep score in life by accumulating "things."
On the other hand, Chatwin's restlessness also pertained his relationships with people. He was bisexual and somewhat treacherous (in effect) with those people who were drawn to him. Even in his best books, The Songlines and In Patagonia, he partook of the same mythomania that he criticizes in others. The story took precedence over the data provided by informants. Many of those who acted in that capacity felt seduced and betrayed by him. Read Nicholas Shakespeare's Bruce Chatwin: A Biography for particular instances of his "treacherous" side.
And yet, the stories he tells are frequently -- but not always -- wonderful. I feel I have the same yearnings toward travel, the same horreur du domicile and distrust of "accumulators" of stuff. I wish I could write like the man, but I will just have to content myself by reading him. Particularly good are the opening essay, "I Always Wanted to Go to Patagonia" and the two closing essays, "Among the Ruins" and "The Morality o Things."
The only disappointing part of this collection is Chatwin's failed attempt to provide a philosophical basis for his rootlessness, his so called "Nomadic Alternative." It is always a danger to take one's own psychological traits and write them large as a theory of life.
Chatwin tried to live his "Nomadic Alternative," but sadly died all too young of AIDS in 1989....more
As the millennium approached, a number of creative writers were dragooned into predicting the next thousand years based on past trends. I remember reaAs the millennium approached, a number of creative writers were dragooned into predicting the next thousand years based on past trends. I remember reading one such book by Italo Calvino. Now I have also read the Czech novelist Ivan Klíma's short book, Between Security and Insecurity.
I rather liked the idea that this set of essays was written by a Czech who had spent time in concentration camps under both the Nazis and the Communists. Most of the writers he quotes are likewise Czech. I have always thought that subjects like this are most interesting when dealt with by a writer having a different world view, and Klíma certainly qualifies.
When asked by the editor of the "Prospects for Tomorrow" series not to be too pessimistic, Klima quoted from his own novel entitled Love and Garbage:
I still believe that literature has something in common with hope, with a free life outside the fortress walls which, often unnoticed by us, surround us, with which moreover we surround ourselves. I am not greatly attracted to books whose authors merely portray the helplessness of our existence, despairing of man, of our conditions, despairing over poverty and riches, over the finiteness of life and the transience of feelings. A writer who doesn't know anything else had better keep silent.
Excellent words, these, and Klíma follows them.
The major enemies to human society, according to Klíma, are the mass media and their cult of entertainment; the odd combination of apathy and aggressiveness; the abdication of art, which has become divorced from all understanding; and the decline of the family. Where he sees hope are recent movements to enfranchise women, promote ecological good sense, and rein in the all-powerful effects of mass media on our culture.
There is indeed hope, but there are also the inevitable slippages when segments of our society have no compunctions about poisoning the ground we walk on, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. ...more