Friday, November 16, 2018

Milan Kundera


I in the middle of Edgar Allan Poe -- and I have to say, it's getting a bit heavy. So I've taken recourse to an old favorite: Milan Kundera.

At this point, I've read most of Kundera's work, but his most recent novel -- The Festival of Insignificance -- is not one I'd had a chance to enjoy. That is, until this week.  

As always with Kundera, I was not disappointed. Festival is a fast, easy read, and while it's not as complex, perhaps, as the novels before it, there's a glimmer of magic here, certainly. 

Two themes emerge: absurdity and individuality. These are topics, of course, that Kundera has explored in the past, but here, they're crystalized: as if the characters, finally, are meant as nothing more than vehicles to expound philosophical concepts. 

And when it comes with Kundera, that doesn't bother me. Reading Kundera has never, really, been about his characters: it's been, instead, about understanding how their actions represent larger ideas. The same holds true in Festival: characters laugh not because it makes them whole or three dimensional, but because the thing that makes them laugh is worthy of evaluation. 

The Festival of Insignificance is meant to be read in an afternoon: it's a reminder of the absurdity of it all; of the role of humor amidst sorrow; and of the process by which ideas transform into action. This isn't Kundera at his heights necessarily, but it's a reminder of the style and concepts that made him famous.  

R.I.P. …

… William Goldman, writer of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ dies at 87 | Page Six.

Wait a minute …

… Nasa: Mini ice age on the way due to lack of sunspots and it'll get very cold | Metro News.

Birthday …

… “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” — Chinua Achebe – Beyond Eastrod.

In case you wondered …

… What Does It Mean To Be a Libertarian? - Reason.com. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Libertarians are commonly atheists. Probably that is because the independent-minded teenager who denies both left and right politically is also likely to have rebelled against all the silly stuff his parents told him about God at an even younger age. My preachment to my libertarian friends is not to rest at any arguments, commitments, or ways of life just because they seemed cool to a 14-year-old boy. (The girls, I find, are less dogmatic.) When I beg them to read a serious book about religion at age 30 or 50 they echo the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris: "No, why would I do that? I already know it's rubbish. I decided it was at 14." Please, read and reflect as grown-ups.

Ballard and Bosch …

 BOOK REVIEW: 'Dark Sacred Night' by Michael Connelly - Washington Times.

In my review of “The Late Show” here, I noted that although I found Renee Ballard to be engaging and interesting, I missed his other, better known character, Harry Bosch.
So I was pleased that in his following crime novel, “Two Kinds of Truth,” Harry Bosch was once again front and center. Now, in Mr. Connelly’s current and 32nd crime novel, “Dark Sacred Night,” we see Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard team up.

Differentiae …

… Maverick Philosopher: Of 'Shit' and 'S**t,' Type and Token.

Take a tour with Nige …

… Amazing interiors: Apsley House, London.

The house is one of a tiny handful of its kind in London that are open to the public, and it contains some of London’s most spectacularly palatial interiors – and yet visitors and Londoners alike tend to overlook it. They don’t know what they’re missing. Not only is this a fine late Georgian town house, it is also an art gallery of national importance, with several paintings that would be worth the trip even if they weren’t hanging in such glorious surroundings.

Remembering …

… Nigeness: Moore's Years.

The call of the Poverello …

… Songs of simplicity: a poetic portrait of St Francis. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

His voice also began to haunt me, especially in Umbria’s woods, where the spirit poured through him in French troubadour songs, and where he prayed in incessant mantras, like the song of a bird. Birds, and music, are everywhere in his story. Even his exclamations, so often repeated (“What’s all this? What’s all this?”) sound like bird-calls.

Something to think on …

Waking up to who you are requires letting go of who you imagine yourself to be.
— Alan Watts, who died on this date in 1973

Lots of recommendations …

… The best books of 2018(Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The collision of sound and sense …

… In Defense of Puns(Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Despite its bad reputation, punning is, in fact, among the highest displays of wit. Indeed, puns point to the essence of all true wit—the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time. And the pun’s primacy is demonstrated by its strategic use in the oldest sacred stories, texts, and myths.

Sentiments we can all share …

… Tom Stoppard to Oleg Sentsov – TheTLS. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Advice from abroad …

… An open letter to my American friends, re: your shambolic election process.

Sounds good to me.

Anniversary …

… Military conscription in 1940 (and one callow fellow’s enlistment in the U.S. Navy a generation later in 1966) – Beyond Eastrod.


Interior geography …

… How Writers Map Their Imaginary Worlds - Atlas Obscura. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

… there are more private treasures here, too: J.R.R. Tolkien’s own sketch of Mordor, on graph paper; C.S. Lewis’s sketches; unpublished maps from the notebooks of David Mitchell, who uses them to help imagine the worlds of his books, such as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; Jack Kerouac’s own route in On the Road (a fantasy of a different kind, no less obsessed over).

Hard times and good times …

 Natasha Trethewey’s Poems Take Wing on Intimate Details - The New York Times. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

The poems are replete with animal pleasures, from neck bones simmering in a pot and buckets of peas ready for shelling to ecstatic dancing and brassy songs on car radios.

Sound advice …

 7 Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction | Open Culture. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)



See also: Writing Tips by Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell.

Artists dismayed …

… Excited for Amazon’s Arrival in Long Island City? The Results for New York’s Art Community Won’t Be Pretty | artnet News. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

Bon voyage …

 Download Digitized Copies of The Negro Travelers' Green Book, the Pre-Civil Rights Guide to Traveling Safely in the U.S. (1936-66) | Open Culture. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden)

A nation in song …

… A Map of the U.S. Created Out of 1,000 Song Titles That Reference Cities, States, Landmarks & More | Open Culture. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

Perhaps …

… The 5 best poetry collections of 2018(Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

Bad move …

… Abraham Lincoln makes a military mistake with General Ambrose Burnside – Beyond Eastrod.

November Poetry at North of Oxford …

… A Poem by Kristina Krumova.

… 2 Poems by Seneca Basoalto.

… Ebb Tide by Ian C Smith.

… You were but I was by Michael Smith.

Kindred spiritis …

… The Epistolary Friendship of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Though the form itself is vanishing, the pleasures afforded by reading literary correspondence have, if anything, intensified. Given the brittleness of the text message and the anxious sterility of email, there is a luxury to the epistolary rhythm: write—and wait. The fecundity of such a record has obvious appeal for scholars, who set out like lepidopterists, netting scandals, idées fixes, house guests, marital strife, disease, inspiration, signs of madness. The publication of a collection of letters pays the writer the compliment of such scrutiny. Questioning Minds, a gem of the form, was published this October by Counterpoint Press. It collects the voluminous correspondence—more than one thousand letters—between Hugh Kenner, modernist advocate and critic-savant, and Guy Davenport, literary collagist, essayist, and uncanny illustrator. It amounts to something like an intellectual love affair, replete with moments of courtship, seduction, devotion, and, eventually, betrayal. Given the polymathic depth of the correspondents, their associative flair and plasticity, and the sheer duration of their passionate exchange—nearly five decades, all told—we are unlikely to find a document of its like again.

And the winners are …

… National Book Awards 2018 - National Book Foundation. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Something to think on …

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
— J. G. Ballard, born on this date in 1930

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Perhaps …

… Best books of 2018 - Washington Post.

I notice that the book that alleges voter suppression seems to suggest that voter ID laws are one cause of this. I believe that most countries insist that you must prove who you are before you can vote. And if you are who you claim to be, why would  you object?

Hmm …

 Don't Make Me One with Everything - Scientific American Blog Network. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

… psychologists Kate Diebels and Mark Leary … define oneness, among other ways, as the idea that “beneath surface appearances, everything is one,” and “the separation among individual things is an illusion.” Diebels and Leary found that 20 percent of their respondents have thought about oneness “often or many times,” and many report having spiritual experiences related to oneness.
My takeaway from the mystics is not that one becomes absorbed in all, but rather that each of us may come to experience how each participates in all that is. The notion that we are made in the image of God makes sense only if it is understood as accounting for the uniqueness of each of us, and that our uniqueness does not isolate us from the rest of being, but unites us to all of being.

Appreciation …

… To Make a World of Words: ‘The William H. Gass Reader’ - The Millions. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Oops …

 Climate contrarian uncovers scientific error, upends major ocean warming study - The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Co-author Ralph Keeling, climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, took full blame and thanked Lewis for alerting him to the mistake.
“When we were confronted with his insight it became immediately clear there was an issue there,” he said. “We’re grateful to have it be pointed out quickly so that we could correct it quickly.”
That's pretty classy, actually, to say nothing of scientifically sound.

Who knew?

 T. S. Eliot, Populist by Robert C. Koons | Articles | First Things. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

… Eliot drew a fruitful distinction between the upper class and the elite. Class is inherited from one’s ancestors and is thus tied to family and to a place. Membership in the elite, in contrast, is acquired through the mastery of certain subjects and techniques, typically in selective cosmopolitan universities. As Eliot argues, class is inherently conservative and provides a rich soil for literary and artistic creativity, while a society dominated by elites loses the continuity of inherited tradition and suffers from a sterile obsession with artistic novelty.

Anniversary …

… Moby-Dick by Herman Melville published on 14 November 1851 – Beyond Eastrod.

Something to think on …

Everything great that ever happened in this world happened first in somebody’s imagination.
— Astrid Lindgren, born on this date in 1907

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Good to know …

… Under pressure, Pa. prisons repeal restrictive book policy. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I am still the guy who arranges book donations from The Inquirer to the prison system.

Anniversary …

… Robert Louis Stevenson — lessons he taught me in the university classroom – Beyond Eastrod.

Listen in …

 Episode 295 – Angela Himsel – The Virtual Memories Show.

“In the end, sometimes, your writing becomes what it wants to be, despite yourself.”

Her own woman …

 Camille Paglia Is Still Provoking | Trending. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

An anecdote: her first book, the magisterial Sexual Personae (1990)came out when I was on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I immediately recognized it as the most consequential new work of criticism in years; but when I tried to convince my fellow directors that it deserved an award, several of them took turns opening the giant tome to this or that page, reading a politically incorrect (but incisive) sentence aloud, and then sputtering in outrage that “we can't give an award to a book with that in it!” Which tells you all you need to know about awards.

Lightness of touch, depth of heart …

 Francis of Assisi’s life in poetry will stay in the mind forever | The Spectator. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Parenthood …

 A Father's Prayer | Bill Peschel.

Appreciation …

… Remembering Shiva Naipaul - The Millions. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

A dozen years younger than his celebrated sibling, Shiva Naipaul travelled a remarkably similar route, progressing from childhood in Trinidad to a scholarship at Oxford and eventually, pursuit of the writer’s life in London. Adding to the confusion, the subject matter of his books is, at first glance, remarkably similar to his brother’s, even patently Naipaulian.

Something to think on …

To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.
— Augustine of Hippo, born on this date in 354

Karl Ove Knausgaard...

...Looking back on My Struggle 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Well, maybe …

… Pauline Kael Gets the Last Word in 'What She Said'.  (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I think that Kael, like most reviewers, is right sometimes and wrong other times. I walked out of Nashville and thought Carrie was ridiculous. On the other hand, Blow-Up was the first Antonioni movie I liked. All of which proves nothing except that my taste and Kael’s were not always in sync. Reviewing is not a science.

Blogging note …

I must be at The Inquirer for a few days putting together the holiday book roundup. Blogging will be spotty,

Paul of Tarsus, proto-American …

… Why Does This Historian Say He Got Christianity Wrong? – HillFaith: Good News for Congressional Staff.

“Compacted into this very, very small amount of writing was almost everything that explains the modern world … Concepts like international law, for instance, concepts of human rights, all these kind of things—ultimately, they don’t go back to Greek philosophers; they don’t go back to Roman imperialism; they go back to Paul,” Holland claims in an Unbelievable? interview.

A healthy skepticism is always good …

… Why We Need More Climate Change Skeptics - Foundation for Economic Education. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Those who blame climate change for every storm or forest fire are silly. Equally silly are those who claim that a particularly cold day proves that climate change is a farce.
Faith is best reserved for God.

Anniversary …

… Happy Birthday and thanks for all those articles, Mr. Wallace – Beyond Eastrod.

The personal and the cultural …

… Review | After her son and husband died, Elaine Pagels wondered why religion survives. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)
Feeling confused and overwhelmed, she turned to the New Testament, the Gnostic gospels of the Nag Hammadi library and Buddhism. In theory and practice, her life demonstrates the freedom that comes from breaching the boundaries of orthodoxy and accepting insight wherever it might be hiding.
I don't think it is necessary to "breach the boundaries of orthodoxy" to accept insight wherever it may be found.

Listen in …

… The Biblio File hosted by Nigel Beale: Michael Torosian on his Lumiere Press.

A most worthy cause …

… Rescuing a neglected literary masterpiece from obscurity by Rick Schober — Kickstarter. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)


Something to think on …

A little credulity helps one on through life very smoothly.
— Elizabeth Gaskell, who died on this date in 1865

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Grief and guilt …

 "Our fathers lied": Rudyard Kipling as a war poet | OUPblog(Hat tip, Virginia Kerr.)

Spring flower in autumn …

… The Bluet by James Schuyler | Poetry Foundation. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

A kind of romance

… Buick by Karl Shapiro | Poetry Foundation. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)



Karl Shapiro would have been 105 yesterday.

Sad song …

… The Owl by Edward Thomas | Poetry Foundation. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Q&A …

… The Best Books on The Odyssey | Five Books Expert Recommendations. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I didn’t look at other translations while working on mine, because I wanted to try my very best to do some fresh wrestling with interpretative and translatorly problems. Since I’ve published my own, I’ve looked more at little bits from different translations, and actually, it’s been a bit disappointing to realize how many similarities there are between them. For instance, if you compare the poem’s opening in Lombardo, Fagles and Fitzgerald, you’ll notice a lot of verbal echoing from one to the other that isn’t necessary. As in, if you looked at the Greek without looking at earlier translations, you wouldn’t replicate verbal echoing to such an extent as this. The echoing effect isn’t merely about gender. It’s not that a man necessarily reads differently from a woman. It’s just that once you’ve looked at other translations, you might end up reproducing them—even if you didn’t want to do that.

Inquirer reviews …

… Daniel Torday’s ‘Boomer1’: Funny, well-observed, dark, and chillingly topical.

… ‘The Fifth Risk’ by Michael Lewis: The dangers of ignoring science, experts.

… Amy Barone’s ‘We Became Summer’: Italy, New York, clear-eyed realism. (This one's by me.)

Hmm …

… Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work ... better? Why we need difficult books | Books | The Guardian. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)



Well, I agree that a book can be difficult and still worth reading. But it doesn't follow from that difficulty makes a book worth reading. Since this piece doesn't provide any detailed information about about Burns's, it is impossible to say whether the difficulty of her novel works or not.

Q&A …

… Camille Paglia: It’s Time for a New Map of the Gender World - Quillette.

I was disgusted at the rapid spread of deconstruction and post-structuralism throughout elite U.S. universities in the 1970s, when I was teaching at my first job at Bennington College. The reason it happened is really quite prosaic: a recession hit in the 1970s, and the job market in academe collapsed. Fancy-pants post-structuralism was the ticket to ride for ambitious, beady-eyed young careerists on the make. Its coy, showy gestures and clotted lingo were insiders’ badges of claimed intellectual superiority. But the whole lot of them were mediocrities from the start. It is doubtful that much if any of their work will have long-term traction.

Remembering …

… Happy Birthday, Mr. Vonnegut – Beyond Eastrod.

Someting to think on …

If everything on earth were rational, nothing would happen.
— Fyodor Dostoevsky, born on this date in 1821

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A golden age …

Neglected automata ...

… The ancient Greeks would have loved Alexa | Spectator USA. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

This is an excellent source book for confronting political and technological hubris then and now, the earliest arguable traces of modern fears. Minos, she notes, was a peculiarly brutal autocrat, belonging to a class of men that she claims is especially associated with biotechnology and its abuse. He did not trust his queen, the witch Pasiphae, who made him ejaculate scorpions and snakes if he advanced on another woman. Pasiphae herself preferred sex with a bull, and engaged Cretan high-tech to provide a cow-shaped cage in which to crouch on her hands and knees, plus the farmyard smells for romantic atmosphere and the obstetrics necessary for the birth of a Minotaur.

Refreshing the mind …

… ‘Wit’s End’ Review: You’ve Got to Be Kidding - WSJ. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)



Although Mr. Geary keeps returning to the subject of puns and their capacity to fold “a double knowledge into words,” he ranges wide. One moment he’s explaining the neuroplasticity required by London cab drivers who from memory navigate the city’s convolutions, the next he’s referencing a Buster Keaton sketch, illuminating the concept of Witzelsucht (a pathological urge to crack jokes) or citing Aristotle’s belief that wit is educated insolence.

Love and war …

 Zealotry of Guerin: Battle of Actium (Laureys a Castro), Sonnet #430.

Something to think on …

It is difficult to discriminate the voice of truth from amid the clamor raised by heated partisans.
— Friedrich Schiller, born on this date in 1759

Friday, November 09, 2018

Blogging note …

I must be away from my desk most of today, starting now. Blogging will resume when I have the opportunity.

Something to think on …

To desire and expect nothing for oneself and to have profound sympathy for others is genuine holiness.
— Ivan Turgenev, born on this date in 1818

Let us hope not …

 Forgetting Turgenev? - Logic MattersLogic Matters. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)



Fathers and Sons is a wonderful book.

Much in what he says …

… Enlightenment without end. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Our lives are daily transformed by technological spin-offs from the accelerating advance of scientific knowledge. But this has not meant the end of myth-making or magical thinking. Quite the contrary: science has itself become a vehicle for myth and magic. The belief that science can abolish immemorial evils is plainly magical thinking, and yet it continues to be widely accepted. How often have we been told that science can banish famines? No doubt new technologies can make physical shortage of food a thing of the past but science cannot prevent catastrophic famines of the kind that is now engulfing Yemen, for example. The causes of such famines are not in physical scarcity but human behaviour. If millions starve to death in that unfortunate country, it will be because of a reckless war. The growth of scientific knowledge does not make human beings more reasonable. It merely gives some of them more power to do what they want. Rather than irrational behaviour being eliminated, science has magnified the scale and consequences of human crime and folly.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

A wonder-filled mind …

… Poetry Daily Prose Feature- Jena Schmitt: Like Armour(Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

Moore has a way of talking to the world while not talking to the world, of talking back, of withholding just enough (‘omissions are not accidents’, she famously wrote) so that the reader must put the pieces – mosaic- or collage-like – back together. These are the glass-sharp moments that easily prick the skin. If words could do such a thing.



The bastards …

 Academic Study Clames Men Who Play Video Games Perpetuates the Sexism of ‘Technomasculinity'.



The academy seems hell-bent on be-clowning itself.

Silencing views …

… The ignorant hounding of Roger Scruton | Spectator USA. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

 It appears that Scruton’s detractors will continue to mine the columns Scruton has secretly published in all the national papers in order to expose his wrong-think. They will continue to ‘unearth’ his public lectures. And they will continue to pretend that none of the complex things in life – including the complexity of human relations – should ever be opened up or explored by anyone. 

Interior states …

… Threepenny: O'Gieblyn, Flyover Country. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

The whole scene seemed to me like a Bruegel painting, a sweeping portrait of community life already distilled by time. I imagined scholars examining it many years in the future, trying to decipher its rituals and iconography. There was something beautiful in how the pastor laid his hands over each congregant’s face, covering her hand with his own, something beautiful in the bewildered look on the congregant’s face when she emerged from the water. Although I no longer espouse this faith, it’s hard to deny the mark it has left on me. It is a conviction that lies beneath the doctrine and theology, a kind of bone-marrow knowledge that the Lord is coming; that he has always been coming, which is the same as saying that he will never come; that each of us must find a way to live with this absence and our own, earthly limitations.
An odd bit of reasoning, that the Lord is never coming because he has been so long expected to come. My own feeling is that he passes through incognito all the time.

A fresh take on Chaucer …

… Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales (2005) – Beyond Eastrod.

Personal choices …

… Book review: A Gathering - A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems, edited by Alexander McCall Smith - The Scotsman. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

Listen in …

 Elizabeth Gilbert Reads “The Early Hours” by Adam Zagajewski – Brain Pickings. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

Author debut …

… Check out 11-yr-old Aslan Tudor’s Standing Rock book: 'Young Water Protectors' - IndianCountryToday.com. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

In case you wondered …

… What Are the Most Influential Books Written by Scholars in the Last 20 Years?: Leading Academics Pick "The New Canon" | Open Culture. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)



The choice of Pinker's book makes one wonder. Worse, just because a book is influential doesn't mean it's any good.

A book that ought to be influential is E. Kirsten Peters's The Whole Story of ClimateHere's a HuffPost review of it. And here's something I wrote about it.

FYI …

… Executive Director of Poetry Society of America to Step Down - The New York Times. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)

Hmm …

… It's Worse than You Suspect: We Can't Think our Way Out of Decline - Public Discourse. (Hat tip, Rich Lloret.)

The rationalist mind … continues to judge that if you identify a problem, and if that problem ought to be solved, then it is resolvable in principle; we just need the right solution. In part, this is behind the insipid Progressivism infecting so much of the electorate, as well as the simmering frustration and rage of the body politic. Stage One: there is a problem, we ought to fix it, that we ought to fix it implies that we can fix it, all we need to do is get busy fixing it—ergo, hope for change. Stage Two: the problem has not been fixed, but it ought to have been fixed, our hopes are dashed, but this is clearly someone’s fault because it could have been fixed if they simply got busy fixing it—ergo, simmering frustration and resentment at whoever should have fixed it but didn’t.
Reason is certainly an important tool for arriving at the truth. But it is not the only tool. And it is of use only if one has first accurately and precisely described the problem in and of and by itself. We do not think merely because we reason. It is the whole person who thinks. Memory, imagination, experience, and emotion all play a part in it. That is why the soundest thinkers are those who keep their minds open regarding their conclusions.

Something to think on …

The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.
— Julian of Norwich, born on this date in 1342

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Keeping the character going …

… Paul Davis On Crime: Anthony Horowitz: James Bond and Me – Reading and Writing in 007’s Shoes.

Literary fragrances …

… The Scent of a Novel.

It was only relatively recently that I realized, to my enormous delight, that many books have been transformed into purchasable perfumes. Could these expensive vials contain the perfume equivalent of a tone poem? Could they transcend homage and become the synesthetic translation of the reading experience? As I am deeply dedicated to arguing for the deeply subjective, I realized I had a quest before me. I truffled up four perfumes to try. There were quite a few tempting perfumes I did not review, because I had not already read and loved the book in a way that would allow me to evaluate the scent. In every case, I made notes about what I thought the book should smell like before I smelled its tribute.

Frederick Douglass

An essay by my former professor, David Blight, about voting rights and political change

And a review of his most recent book

Oral tradition …

… Tales That Echo Through My Bloodline: Telling Family Stories | BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

Professional advice …

… Mental-health experts who believe that they should have the authority to remove President Trump from office are off their heads. | City Journal.

For an American to compare contemporary life in America, no doubt unsatisfactory as it is in many respects, with life in a fascist or Nazi dictatorship is self-dramatizing, self-pitying, and an implicit insult to those millions who suffered or died under totalitarian dictatorships. It is perfectly legitimate to oppose the government and to despise the person of the president; it is another thing entirely to claim jurisdiction over whether he should be entitled to be president and whether he ought to be removed by committal to a mental institution. In the Soviet Union, psychiatrists occupied the kind of commissarship that Gartner is appealing for now. So who is the real fascist here?
Theodore Dalrymple is himself a psychoatrist.

Birthday …

… Stephen Greenblatt and William Shakespeare – Beyond Eastrod.

Discovery …

… Priceless trove of poems by English writer Gerard Manley Hopkins is discovered | Daily Mail Online. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

The librarian who showed me the treasure said that merely to open it made her go weak at the knees. It had the same effect on me. Indeed, when I opened it and turned its pages, I found tears coursing down my cheeks. All these poems were written in obscurity, and without any hope of being published. Yet they are among the most magnificent things written in English.

Hmm …

 Poem: VI. Penelope’s Lament - The New York Times. (Hat tip, Rus Bowden.)



This seems to me to reimagine things to such an extent as to obliterate the source.

The poetry of the everyday …

… The Mystical Vision of Father Brown — FORMA JOURNAL. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

 For Chesterton it is ordinary circumstances, not extraordinary ones, that conceal the greatest mysteries—it is ordinary circumstances that are the most extraordinary. In his detective fiction this often means that characters who fixate on the sensational evidence will miss the truth of the case, while those who attend to the ordinary prove to be the most successful detectives.

Something to think on …

I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't and to die to find out that there is.
— Albert Camus, born on this date in 1913

Philip Roth


Philip Roth's death earlier this year motivated me to read American Pastoral, the last of his great novels on my list. As always with Roth, I was not disappointed. 

This is a big hulking novel, one overflowing with detail and introspection. But it's also one that reaches beyond itself, and that explores a range of American themes. Roth is best on the urban experience in Newark, and the violence plaguing the city. But he's also great when it comes to the suburbs and the countryside. It's there that he really gets to work, developing characters with unexpected histories and intersecting interests. 

American Pastoral is about more, though, than characters. This is a book about expertise. Roth writes as a novelist should -- about the things he knows: glove making, for instance, plays a dominant role in the book, and Roth does not fake it: all of the details are there, and the novel is better, and more believable, as a result. The arcane suddenly becomes imperative. 

If I had a critique of American Pastoral it might be the sense I had that some of the themes -- particularly about Jewish America -- felt recycled, or replayed. There are other Roth novels where this topic is better addressed. Which is not to say that it fell flat in American Pastoral; it's instead to suggest that the central conflict in the novel might have been navigated without recourse to this thematic staple. 

In the end, American Pastoral accomplishes much of what Roth set out to do: to evaluate the roots of disorder and violence, and to chip away at the facade that is the American pastoral. No characters here are immune from Roth's exploration: "supposedly robust things," he writes, are defined by their frailty. 

Power is a function of personality in American Pastoral. Materialism and inheritance, meanwhile, are subject to an inevitable limitation. They are a cloak that must ultimately be exposed.