Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Something completely different ...

Now here's a thoroughly and comprehensively contrarian view: Czech President Vaclav Klaus speech at the Regional Meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Rekjavik (thanks to Glenn Reynolds). For those unfamiliar with the work of Nobel Prize-winner Friedrich Hayek, a good place to start familiarizing yourself is The Road to Serfdom.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Worth considering ....

Allen Thorpe has some interesting thoughts about science and intelligent design.

Back to blogging ...

I am finally able to resume blogging. Since photographer Eric Mencher and I headed upstate to do some reporting, my time has had to be budgeted carefully. Eric and I put in two 15-hour days on the road. And when you’re reporting on the road, the only time you really aren’t working is when you finally get to sleep.
When we got back I had to do everything that was left undone while I was away — move reviews to the copy desk, pitch in to do some of the things vacationing colleagues would have done, go through stacks of books that had arrived, check email and snail mail, as well as start figuring out how to write up what Eric and I had been reporting on.
It is my view that punditry has lately assumed a greater importance in journalism than it deserves. I prefer reporting, which is a lot harder to do than people think. In a wonderful book called The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Albert Jay Nock tells of a college president who had devised an interesting test for his incoming freshman: He would give them a paragraph of standard English prose. He would ask them to read it to themselves, then read it aloud, and finally study it carefully for a few moments. Then he would ask them to write down in their own words what it said. Nine out of 10 would fail. They would write what they thought it meant, or what it reminded them of, or whatever. But they would not or could not simply repeat the gist of it in their own words. In Nock’s view this meant that they were literate, but could not read.
I mention this because, when I was in college and thought that one of the things I would like to do after I graduated was literary journalism, I often pondered how one could do that creatively — because, like probably every young person, I wanted to be creative, to place my distinctive stamp on whatever it was I did. I have since come to realize that one of the most difficult things to do when it comes to reviewing a book is to accurately report what the book is about.
I had, for all practical purposes, a double major in college. I went to a Jesuit school, which at the time was still adhering to the educational guidelines established in 1599 by Claudio Aquaviva, the fifth general of the order. This meant two years of scholastic philosophy — logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and rational psychology. I was interested in philosophy and took extra courses: the history of philosophy, a course in existentialism and another in aesthetics. One of my teachers, Edward Gannon, S.J., had got his Ph.D. at the University of Louvain in Belgium, back when everything there was done in Latin (for all I know, it still is). Father Gannon was a brilliant teacher, the most important teacher in my life. He taught the courses in logic, epistemology and metaphysics (he also taught the existentialism and aesthetics courses). His textbook for the epistemology course was William Luipen’s Existential Phenomenology. And that is what I ended up being schooled in: a Thomistically grounded existential phenomenology.
Among other things, I learned a most important lesson: If one accurately and precisely describes what one experiences, how one feels about that experience will become perfectly clear. You don’t have to go on and on making evaluative pronouncements, raising or lowering one’s critical thumbs for all to see.
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Michael Rozansky and I were chatting about book reviews. Michael said that he was often led to read a book even if a review of it wasn’t entirely positive. I pointed out that a good reviewer always provides sufficient information for the reader of the review to place the reviewer’s opinion in context. Another colleague of mine, Karen Heller, wrote a rave review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections that absolutely convinced me I would never want to read it. I’m sure the book has many merits. I just don’t think it’s a book for me.
Smart reviewers are above all informative. Smart readers of reviews focus on the information, not the evaluation.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Vacation Days (Conclusion)

I probably won't be blogging again until Thursday. Tomorrow morning, photographer Eric Mencher and I will be taking off for Tunkhannock to do some reporting on the art scene I've blogged about. One stop I haven't mentioned is the Springville Shoolhouse Art Studios in Springville, which is in Susquehanna County, the one immediately north of Wyoming, where Tunkhannock is. The Springville Schoolhouse Art Studios is a work in progress. For 31 years, from 1925 to 1956, the building housed the Springville village schoolhouse (grades one through 12). It's now owned by painter James Penedos and sculptor Charles Welles, and James and his brother Carlos -- especially his brother Carlos -- are renovating and restoring the building, turning it into art studios. The first and second floors already have a variety of live-in studio workshop spaces, ranging from 300 to 900 square feet with 12-foot ceilings. Each studio has a private bathroom, kitchen and sleeping loft. Each also has a high-speed Internet connection. A perfect vacation spot for the artistically inclined. You can read more about it here.

Carlos Penedos and my wife, Debbie, stand outside Springville Schoolhouse Art Studios (from 1925 until 1956 the Springville Schoolhouse) in Springville, Susquehanna County. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 21, 2005

A mine of information ...

On this date in 1920 Christopher Robin Milne, the model for his father A.A. Milne's tales of Winnie the Pooh, was born. And yesterday was the date in 1667 when John Milton's Paradise Lost was entered in the Stationers' Register. I know all this because I subscribe to Today in Literature. It only costs $20 a year and is a wonderful way of putting the world of literature into temporal perspective. Check it out.

Gonzo farewell ...

Fans of the late Hunter S. Thompson will find this item, from the Aspen Daily News, of interest. (Thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to faulty link.)

Choosing a book for review ...

I gave myself a break from blogging for a few days in order to clear my brain. The past week was pretty hectic, what with several colleagues on vacation and the rest of us having to take up the slack to make sure stories moved more or less on time. I also spent a good bit of time finally restoring to the book room and my desk. Next come the emails, which have again climeed to more than 500.
One main point of this blog is to give readers some idea of how one goes about being a book review editor. So I thought I'd tell how I came to be reading the book I'm planning to review on Sept. 18.
(I won't have a review on Sept. 4, because it's due this week, and I'm going to be on assignment for a couple of days this week. Good reason to give myself a week off. Which becomes two weeks, actually, because Sept. 11 is the fall preview issue. As for Aug. 28, that review moved last week.)
I had been reading, and planning to review, Missing Person by Patrick Modiano. This actually won the Prix Goncourt after it was first published in 1978. It's only 168 pages long, but I found it slow going. Not because there was anything difficult about it. It just wasn't very engaging. It reminded me of something Mark Twain said about a Henry James novel: Once you put this book down, you just can't pick it up again.
The missing person of Modiano's title is the narrator, "Guy Roland." I put the name in quotes because he's an amnesiac and doesn't know his real name. Guy Roland is the name on the papers his former employer, a private detective named Hutte, has acquired for him.
He has worked for Hutte for 10 years, but Hutte has just retired. So Guy decides to find out who he really is. That a person would wait 10 years while working for a private eye to search out his missing identity struck me as more than a little implausible. I also found it odd that everybody Guy goes to inquire of isn't the least suspicious or reticent. They invite him into their apartments, give him documents and photos. I got to about 40 pages from the end and he still hadn't found out who he was, but it was looking like he might be from South America (no word on whether he speaks French with an accent).
Then I got an email from physician John Cohn. Dr. Cohn told me that on a recent flight he found himself talking to a local business man named Thomas Quinn who it turned out had just published a novel called The Lion of St. Mark. Dr. Cohn had just finished reading it and said (Dr. Cohn has graciously allowed me to quote his email) that "his story of a democratic republic (Venice) built on sea trade and protected both by oceans and the voluntary service of its citizen soldiers, threatened by a brutal Islamic leader determined to conquer the Christian world, contained striking parallels to our own time. Covering the period surrounding the fall of Constantinople and subsequent decades, the book is, at a minimum, not afraid to challenge political correctness and identify just who it thinks the enemy really is."
This intrigued me for a couple of reasons, one of which is that, since becoming book editor, I seem to have reviewed an unusual number of books set in Venice (though actually, only four). Another, of course, is that The Lion of St. Mark sounded potentially more interesting than Missing Person. So I looked on the shelves of the book room, found Thomas Quinn's book and gave it a look. It was definitely more interesting than Modiano's. Interestingly, this is Quinn's first novel and it is the first installment of a trilogy. Which means that Quinn has managed to land a three-book deal with Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. That itself is impressive.
I won't say any more about the book now, since I haven't finished it, and I need the material for my review. But that is how one book has come to be reviewed. Thank you, Dr. Cohn

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

On bad poetry ...

Tomorrow (Aug.18) is, I gather, Bad Poetry Day. Seamus Cooney has even compiled an index of Bad Poetry.
Edgar Guest has his defenders and Cooney let's the reader decide about Wordsworth's "The Thorn." (Wordsworth's genuinely great poetry comprises a relatively slender selection of his vast production.) But The Great McGonagall surely has a strong claim to the title of worst poet ever.
Cooney. however, fails to mention at all the incomparable J. Gordon Coogler, immortalized by H.L. Mencken in The Sahara of the Bozart.
A lot of people would class Robert W. Service as a bad poet. But in 1918, Service's Rhymes of a Red Cross Man topped the general nonfiction best-seller list. That's right. It was No. 1.
Service and Guest were popular poets. They put into rhyme and meter ordinary sentiments and experiences. I suspect they are undeserving of the scorn so frequently heaped upon them.
We could use some genuinely popular poets. Probably the last was Stephen Vincent Benet. Imagine: A poet delivering radio broadcasts, writing screenplays and radio shows. And a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner to boot. His books sold well, too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Check these folks out ...

If you haven't become acquainted with Rus Bowden's Poetry and Poets in Rags column, featured on the Interboard Poetry Community, you should.

The past revisited (again) ...

My post last week, In search of literary thrills past, generated some interesting comments. BradyDale suggested that books that thrilled us once "often don't stand up to the test of time." But Meg said that "books read in your youth shouldn't stand the test of time. If they do, you haven't grown."
I have been thinking about this and I wonder if it's just that certain experiences, including reading experiences, are so uniquely intense, due to time, place, and circumstance, that you just can't hope to repeat them. No kiss, however passionate, is ever like the first kiss.Yet we have a tendency to want to experience things again, to have a thrill long past once more, if only for a moment. And it can't be done. We must move on.
I still intend to reread Alain-Fournier'sThe Wanderer during the week I plan to take off in October -- the week of my next birthday. That's what journalists are for.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Exploring the mind ...

Michel de Montaigne is generally regarded as the inventor of the personal essay. But it has always seemed to me that few essays written since Montaigne have actually been modeled on the kind he wrote.
Montaigne wrote essays in order to examine the contents of his consciousness by following his trains of thought to wherever they led. Sometimes, they didn’t lead anywhere — which is often the case with trains of thought.
But the essay almost immediately became a vehicle of style, the substance of what was said increasingly subordinate to the manner in which it was said.
Not that Montaigne lacked style. His prose is as natural and unaffected as good plain talk. But his style was simply a reflection of his method: a plain and simple examination of what he thought about whatever.
He started out modestly enough by ruminating over favorite quotes from favorite authors. Two favorite quotes of mine I am sure would have met with his approval. The first is what Hamlet tells Horatio, that “there are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And the other is attributed to Thomas Aquinas, that “all things run into mystery.”
I think these would have met with Montaigne’s approval because I think they pretty much sum up his outlook.
Much has been made of Montaigne’s skepticism, but I think the point of that skepticism is often missed or overlooked. Montaigne was profoundly doubtful that human reason was capable of figuring it all out. Montaigne’s Catholic piety was not feigned. I am sure he found the excesses of belief on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide in his time deplorable. But, like Erasmus, he was unwilling to take apart a structure of faith it had taken centuries to build simply because some individuals had come up with some new ideas and arguments.
Montaigne’s skepticism was deeply conservative. He would have agreed with Lord Falkland, that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

California, here you are ...

Check out the California Literary Review, which now originates in Phoenixville. Lots of interesting stuff.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Panning for gold ...

Sam Jones at The Litblog Co-op has some interesting and useful thoughts on how to ferret out lesser known worthwhile authors.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

In search of literary thrills past ...

Henry Miller writes somewhere -- I think it may in The Books in My Life -- that when, as a young man, he read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, he was enthralled, but that, when he tried to read it again years later, he couldn't get into it and wondered what about it had ever appealed to him.
Re-reading a book that had an especially strong impact at a particular time in one's life may be a dangerous proposition. I'll find out in October, when I'm taking a week off, and plan on re-reading Alain-Fournier's The Wanderer (Le grand Meaulnes). It's a book that has for years occupied a magical spot in my memory, but my wife read it while we were on vacation recently and was, shall we say, underwhelmed. She found it charming, but too vague and misty for her tastes.
I think it's a book likely to appeal to a man rather than a woman -- and a youth rather than an adult -- and a romantic, dreamy youth at that.
At any rate, I am going to from time to time revisit books that meant much to me in times past and report in my column on the results. Perhaps I will simply rid myself of the few illusions I have left.

Monday, August 08, 2005

In search of lost authors ...

It has been estimated that 99 percent of all the books ever published are out of print. Certainly, enough people want to read out-of-print books to make for a thriving second-hand book business.
A couple of Sundays ago I wrote about a book that's out of print: John O'Hara's Sermons and Soda-Water. I was surprised at how many people sent me emails about O'Hara and what I had to say about him.
It had occurred to me, while I was reading O'Hara during my vacation, that it would be interesting to read just the Gibbsville stories, to see how they relate to one another -- and whether they form a cohesive whole. Well, Matthew Bruccoli has put together a collection of the Gibbsville stories called Gibbsville, Pa. I just got a copy from Amazon, along with a copy of BUtterfield 8. I plan on reading them and maybe a couple of the novels and writing about O'Hara again.
The response to my column about O'Hara encourages me to continue writing from time to time about books no longer in print, and about neglected authors. Aficionados of used-book stores are just the sort of people to have favorite neglected writers. So if any of you read this, let me know about them.
Again, I am convinced that the literary blogosphere can bring about a seismic change in critical outlook. We just have to get the conversation going.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

A liitle bit of fact-checking ...

Thanks to President Bush, evolution is back in the news. The President is being widely portrayed as the living embodiment of Matthew Harrison Brady, the caricature of William Jennings Bryan in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play Inherit the Wind, which is about the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. Thanks to the Information Age we are blessed to be living in, it is possible to get a quick, factual overview of what actually took place in a Dayton, Tenn., courtroom in July 1925. Included are links to H.L. Mencken's columns and to much else besides. I thought it particularly interesting to learn that Bryan offered to pay the fine that court imposed on John Scopes.

Friday, August 05, 2005

A favorite poet ...

Poet Conrad Aiken, one of my all-time favorites, was born on Aug. 5, 1889. A selection of his poems can be found here. I particularly commend to your attention "Morning Song of Senlin." But there's a special place in my heart for this one.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Sic transit gloria mundi ...

That is oratory, the professor said uncontradicted.
Gone with the wind. Hosts at Mullaghmast and Tara of the kings. Miles of ears of porches. The tribune's words, howled and scattered to the four winds. A people sheltered within his voice. Dead noise. Akasic records of all that ever anywhere wherever was. Love and laud him: me no more.

This is from Chapter 7 of Joyce's Ulysses. I quote it because of the phrase "Gone with the wind." Joyce obviously wasn't thinking of Margaret Mitchell's novel, which hadn't been written yet, and probably wouldn't have even it had been. And Margaret Mitchell certainly did not take her title from Joyce. Joyce got the phrase, I am sure, from the same place Mitchell got it: Ernest Dowson's poem ">"Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae":
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng ...

Dowson was a cutting-edge poet when Joyce was growing up. He was probably one of Joyce's early favorites. His poetry lives today in two titles. Mitchell's novel is one.
The other is taken from another poem, "Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam" -- "They are not long, the days of wine and roses."
Such are the vagaries of literary celebrity.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Colini's "Remembrance of Places Past VIII" Posted by Picasa

Colini's "Still Life No. 3" Posted by Picasa

Vacation Days (Part III)

A few days after our visit to Christopher Ries , Betsy Green of Lizza Studios arranged for us to visit an artist in Scranton, which is only about a half-hour drive from Tunkhannock.
In the Renaissance, artists tended to identify themselves by reference to their place of birth (Leonardo, for example, was born in Vinci). Which is why Vojen Cech (pronounced Voyen Check), who was born in 1924 in Kolin, a town in the Czech Republic where his father was the municipal architect, signs his paintings as Colini.
That isn't the only thing Colini's paintings have in common with Renaissance art. The medium he works in is the same demanding one used during the Renaissance: Egg Tempera. Even Colini's imagery bears a certain resemblance to what you might see in a Renaissance painting. Sometimes, that's because he's painting his home town, which still resembles a medieval city. But usually it's because some essential part of Colini's soul resides in the Renaissance. He's been called a magic surrealist, but his surrealism is grounded, not in dreams, but in memory -- and whimsy.
How did an artist born 81 years ago in what was then Czechoslovakia end up in Scranton? Well, he got there by a very circuitous route. By the time the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 Colini was already in Switzerland. From there he went to -- where else? -- Paris. But he couldn't stay in France, because he didn't have papers. So he went to Venezuela and became a Venezuelan citizen. Eventually he moved to Canada and had his first show in Toronto. He left Canada for New York and divided his time between there and visits to Europe to show his paintings. Then, for a few years he and his wife, Megan, lived in Clark Summit, just outside Scranton. But two years ago they moved into a combination studio/apartment/gallery on the fourth floor of what used to be a big laundry.
Colini is the gentlest artist I have ever met. Talking about his paintings he is like a child telling you a story. Megan, by contrast, is as delightfully down-to-earth as you can get. Born in Brooklyn, she spent a good part of her life in Michigan and Texas. Debbie and I stopped by expecting to spend maybe an hour. We didn't leave until after 6 in the evening. The paintings, the couple, the stories all made the time fly by. The day felt like it was over too soon, in fact.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Time out for a factoid ...

In 1957, Pottsville native John O'Hara won the National Book Award for Ten North Frederick. Four years later, the National Book Award was given to Conrad Richter for The Waters of Kronos (an excellent book, by the way). Richter grew up about a 20-minute drive from Pottsville, in Pine Grove.