Monday, May 30, 2005

Chaucer in the Senate ...

Over at Power Line, Sen. Robert Byrd’s recent disquisition on Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” draws some pointed commentary. Read the whole thing. But then consider what George Lyman Kittredge had to say about the Pardoner in Chaucer and His Poetry. The Pardoner, Kittredge notes, “cynically reminds his fellow-travellers of what he told them at the outset, — that he is merely giving them a specimen of his pulpit oratory: “And lo, sires, thus I preche!”
But something happens:
Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, without an instant’s warning, his cynicism falls away, and he utters the solemn words: “May Christ, the physician of our souls, grant you His pardon, for that is better than mine! I will not deceive you, though I get my living by fraud!” … The Pardoner has not always been an assassin of souls. … Once he preached for Christ’s sake; and now, under the spell of the wonderful story he has told and of recollections that stir within him, he suffers a very paroxysm of agonized sincerity. It can last but a moment. The crisis passes.… He takes refuge from himself in a wild orgy of reckless jesting … nobody but Geoffrey Chaucer divined the tragic face behind the satyr’s mask.
Would that windbag from West Virginia might have such a moment of authenticity!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Internet buzz ...

Back in March, in a post titled Original works at Project Gutenberg, I mentioned some works by Steven Sills that had been published online. I also linked to reviews of one of those works, American Papyrus. Now I have learned of a review of Sills’s Corpus of a Siam Mosquito. This one is by Janet Darbey, who lives and writes on the Greek island of Corfu. In my post yesterday I suggested that Internet buzz might be the way that alternatively published works may come to the attention of readers, commercial publishers, and reviewers. Sills, it seems, is getting some buzz.

A must read ...

Today in Literature has the fascinating story of Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

A note on self-publishing ...

Last month, in a post titled The blogging saga … I discussed, in connection with the reported decline in reading, the obvious increase in writing. I mentioned Blogit, which hosts some 25,000 bloggers.
That post got quite a response. Dirk Lenaerts of Brugge, in Belgium, who joined Blogit in March, wrote to say he found it a lot of fun but cautioned against doing it “for the money, as you put in a lot more than you ever can earn. … No, your only motive must be the joy of writing and reading, otherwise you become depressed pretty soon.”
Dirk’s post reminded me that the word amateur means “lover” and we might all do well to remind ourselves of those many amateurs, especially among the British, who pursue an interest not for fame or fortune, but for the sheer love of the subject or activity.
I, of course, do write for money — which is to say I have a job that involves writing. It also involves publishing what I write, so I have a lot to be happy about. True, what I write is largely of an ephemeral nature, but much of life is ephemeral.
Still, what about all those other people who are writing away? They’d like be to read, too. Which explains why the self-publishing business is booming, as Sarah Glazer demonstrated in The New York Times Book Review last month. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss this phenomenon. Suppose someone starts a blog and it catches on. Readers like what the blogger writes and like the way the blog is written. I imagine if that blogger put together a book and advertised on it on the blog, fans would likely want to read it.
For a book review editor, the growing number of self-published books poses a particular problem. As it is, not even many commercially published books get reviewed. But it seems dumb to completely ignore the self-published ones. Recently, I ran a review of one — James A. Freeman’s Parade of Days. Inquirer staffer Marc Schogol voiced one reservation, but otherwise rather liked the book, saying that characters’ “stories stay with you.”
Freeman may have published this book with Xlibris, but he’s published quite a few books the old-fashioned way and is a tenured professor of English — in other words, he’s really a pro who just happened to choose this time to do the publishing on his own.
I put another self-published book out for review also, but the results were less encouraging. I had read the first 50 or 60 pages of the book and found it intriguing and thought it had possibilities. So did my reviewer — after reading the first 50 or 60 pages. But ultimately, he didn’t think the book worked and thought it wouldn’t serve any purpose to review it.
The problem, obviously, is figuring out which self-published books are worth reviewing. The self-publishing houses themselves could help, by differentiating between books aimed at a specialty audience and those aimed at the average reader. After all, Random House doesn’t go out of its way to promote every book it publishes. It focuses on the ones it thinks have the best chance to sell.
I think in the long run it will be buzz in the blogging community that will bring certain self-published books to wider attention. Another reason for people like me to pay attention to what is going on in the blogosphere.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Revise and dissent ...

Rocket Man over at Power Line helps refresh Frank Rich’s memory of Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. Makes you want to read the book again.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Ritual language ...

Last week, I ended my Editor’s Choice review of Neil Olson’s The Icon by quoting a passage in which the main character comes to an understanding of the value of ritual language. He is praying in Greek, and “the Greek served him as he imagined Latin did others, giving the words mystery and power, and creating a sense of ritual that removed the individual from the process.” I then suggested that that those who advocate the Roman Catholic Church’s “numbingly banal vernacular Mass” take note.
This elicited only two email responses, one puzzled, the other approving.
My dim view of the English version of what is officially known as the Novus Ordo Populi is reinforced every Sunday at Mass. It reaches maximum intensity during the responsorial psalm. In the missal used at my parish church, the music for all of these has been composed by someone named Owen Alstott, who is my candidate for the worst composer who has ever lived. His psalm settings are so bland and devoid of character that it’s hard to believe they were actually composed by a human being. And today — on what used to be Pentecost Sunday but is now called the “solemnity” of Pentecost (how is that an improvement?) — I noticed that Alstott is also the fellow responsible for appropriating Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” tune for use as a hymn in the Catholic Church. May God forgive him. I certainly can't.
But my point isn’t about music. It’s about language. Anyone who has read the Book of Common Prayer knows that English can be quite serviceable as a ritual language. But the English translation of the Novus Ordo is simply awful — inaccurate and tin-eared. Credo continues to mean I believe, not we believe. Et cum spiritu tuo still means and with your spirit, not and also with you. And take that phrase alone — "and also with you." Can you get more banal than that? The entire Mass has been translated into the worst journalese — because “liturgists” think that’s the way to get things across to the poor “common people” in the pews.
I have news for them. The King James Bible has been read by countless numbers of relatively unschooled people for centuries. They didn’t have any problem with it or its formal language, which I rather suspect they regarded as appropriate under the circumstances. Plenty of noted authors have understood this as well. Which is why we have titles like The Sun Also Rises, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. Which is also the real reason why the Bible should be taught in public schools: because it’s well-nigh impossible to understand large chunks of English literature without being acquainted with the Authorized Version.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Ruby Range in northeastern Nevada in January. Posted by Hello

Cowboy poetry revisited ...

You can get an idea of what the National Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., is like on Saturday night at 10 EST by visiting the Western Folklife Center, which will be hostng a live cybercast of music, poetry and stories inspired by the Grand Canyon. In January, I covered this year’s Gathering for The Inquirer and found it an unforgettable experience, not least because of all the wonderful people I met, especially Steve and Thayla Walden, who very generously had me over for Sunday dinner — so I didn’t have to spend the entire day at the Elko airport waiting to start the first leg of my flight home. They live not far from Elko, in Spring Creek, and the photo above is a shot of the Ruby Range taken from the front of their home. Pretty nice view, eh?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Challenging literature ... and Saturday

Andrew Ervin raises an interesting point in a post attached to my previous one: Why do "so many critics (and reviewers) feel the need to apologize for so-called "difficult" literature. I've certainly been guilty of it in the past. 'This is a brilliant novel but a challenging one.' When did difficulty become a problem? Shouldn't we be advocating some literature because it challenges us?"
I don't think we should apologize. But we shouldn't think of difficulty as aliterary value in itself.There has to be some reward for facing up to the challenge. Ulysses is challenging, but well worth whatever effort it takes to read it. Tatiana Tolstoya's The Slynx, on the other hand, poses no particular challenge other than having slog through the gloom.
But let's consider the most problematic novel I've reviewed recently, Ian McEwan's Saturday. The more time that elapses since my reading it, the less I like it. There's nothing difficult about it, but it is problematic. One problem is the clinically detached style, which has the effect of telling you -- and showing -- that the protagonist is an admirable man, but somehow manages not to let you actually feelthat he is.
I said in my review that any objection one can raise to the book can be easily countered as fitting in perfectly with its design. That the protagonist should just happen to be a neurosurgeon who just happens to be accosted by a tough who he happens to notice shows symptoms of Huntington's disease is all pretty coincidental. But one of the themes of the book is that life is grounded in randomness. Yet another implication throughout the book is that everything is governed by iron-clad natural laws that determine what's going to happen. This mix of randomness and determinism is seriously flawed logically.
Then there are the kids. There's the daughter who seems to have gathered material for her first collection of poems by sleeping around. But who has genuinely fallen in love with the guy who has made her pregnant. Again, it all fits if everything is grounded in randomness.
As for the son, he has dropped out of school and wants to be a bluesman. But his grandfather happens to know Jack Bruce (formerly of Cream) who listens to the kid's playing and encourages him. Then there's the master class with Eric Clapton that someone gets him into, and the gig in Manhattan that someone arranges. We're a long way from the Mississippi mud. An overprivileged twit with connections singing the blues. But the blues are grounded in the grittiest of human suffering. We're not talking about learning to write fugues.
It's all perfectly plausible, but it's also missing something, and has a certain smugness to it that, for me at least, spoils everything.
Nevertheless, it is, as I said in my review, fascinating, and worth reading for that reason alone. It's one of those books each and every reader will have to make up his or her own mind about.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

My column ...

I have been asked from time to time why, in my "Editor's Choice" column, I only review books that I like. Well, there are a number of reasons.
I started writing the column because budget cuts made it likely that I would have to run a wire review to fill the space on the page on Sunday. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to run only original reviews, written specifically for The Iquirer. So I decided to write one review a week myself.
One of the first I chose to read was The Slynx, by Tatiana Tolstoya. It is a very gloomy book, hard to pick up once you've put it down. I wasn't looking forward to spending a weekend in its company. Whereupon the thought occurred to me that I didn't have to. Why not spend my time looking for books I enjoyed and telling other readers about them? Space is at a premium in newspapers these days. Why waste it telling people how much I didn't like something?
Bear in mind it's easy to write a negative review. They practically write themselves. It's much harder to explain why you think a book is good.
Moreover, not everything I review is recommended without qualification. I had definite reservations about Chet Raymo's Climbing Brandon. But Raymo is such an engaging writer and so much that he has to say is informative that I felt the good far outweighed the bad. More problematic was Ian McEwan's Saturday.
But I'll have more to say about that in my next post.

Monday, May 09, 2005

My absence ...

The Green Berets placed great emphasis on what they termed PPP — Proper Prior Planning. The hiatus in my blogging was a consequence of improper planning on my part. I was trying to fit the blogging in somewhere amid my other responsibilities. Problem was things were starting to get neglected — my home office was getting cluttered, my desk at work was beginning to pile up with unattended notes and news releases and, of course, books. So I decided to step back, put things in order, then get back on a strict blogging schedule. I even took Friday off to facilitate this. But I also had to prepare for a TV interview Friday evening, so Friday wasn’t quite as productive as it might have been. And I am posting this later than I would have liked. But, that all said, progress is being made.