Friday, June 29, 2012

Midterm Book Report


One loses one’s classics. Oh not all. A part. A part remains. That is what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day.

--Samuel Beckett, Happy Days

April

Sylvester, Georgette Heyer. In regard to the confession made in March about Heyer, I'd like to add that since I don't actually own any of her novels, I borrow them from my sister. I'm not sure if this helps my case or worsens it. If that revelation doesn't shock you, then perhap it may to learn that, more than a few years ago, I wrote a couple of Regency romance novels with asaid sister. In fact, one publisher showed great interest initially, but the whole deal ended on such a sour note that I can't make myself look at the manuscripts. As for Sylvester, meh.

Rimbaud Complete, Wyatt Mason, trans.  Much to my regret, given my interest in French poets, the surrealists in particular, I know little French, outside a few words & phrases, usually uttered during heated moments in basketball, of which I'm constantly asking others to pardon.  My point is, given my condition (I've been diagnosed as monolinguistic), I'm unqualified to assess the quality of the translation.  As I say in "Black Rain," which first appeared in Wind, though surely even the gods have forgotten it:  "When I'm alone, I pretend / that I'm Moliere!  Isn't that sad?"  However, as a reader of poetry, I like that Mason hasn't endeavored to sanitize Rimbaud, as is so often the case, but has imbued the poetry with a contemporary sense of bawdiness--at times it's wonderfully raunchy--befitting Rimbaud's reputation.  Of the many translations of Rimbaud, I like this one best.

View with a Grain of Sand, Wislawa Szymborska, trans. Stanislaw Baranczak & Clare Cavanagh.  I'm kind of on the fence with this book as my pant leg got caught in barbed wire as I took a shortcut home.  In the book's favor is its accessibility--you don't have to be Harold Bloom (see below) to understand Szymborska, merely literate. I also like many of her ideas; however, the execution of those ideas come up short at times (or is it the translation--I can't say) much as I did when trying to vault the aforementioned fence. I'm not adverse to reading Szymborska again, not because she won the Nobel Prize--don't get me started on those guys--but because first impressions can often deceive.  For example, returning to the fence, when sizing it up, I thought for sure I could jump it.  As for now, I give this collection a half-hearted thumbs up.

Heroides, Ovid, trans. Harold Isbell.  Why don't more people read Heroides? This collection of letters in verse, written by lovers from Greco-Roman mythology, doesn't retell the stories, but reveals the personages involved from the inside out. If you've ever wondered how Penelope felt during her husband's long absence, ruminated on what made Medea snap, or wanted the scoop on Helen of Troy & Paris, Ovid provides the pertinent poop poetically. Storytellers running on empty would be well advised to visit these pages for a veritable warehouse of ideas free for the taking.  Stir & flavor to taste--I like mine extra spicy!

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith. For reasons unknown, though I suspect it has to do with page count, Grahame-Smith felt it a good idea to incorporate the whole of Pride & Prejudice, not merely the parts he peppered with zombies & all that implies.  Sometimes for paragraphs on end, if not pages, there's no deviation from the original story or the variation is so slight that the effect, if intended as humor, fails. As a parodist, I would have advised the author to delete those unfunny sections--well, in that case, there'd be no book at all, so by "unfunny" sections, I mean unaltered passages. A parody need not retell the story, which the reader, one assumes, knows, so it's unnecessary to stay true to the original manuscript, though, to be fair, Austen is funnier than this effort.

May

Siddhartha, Herman Hesse.  Hesse enjoyed (for not even death could stop his pleasure) a bit of a resurgence in popularity during my high school days. While I liked reading Hesse back then, I feel I have a more profound understanding of Siddhartha now that I'm, albeit sadly, older.

The Great Enigma, Tomas Transtromer.  Pretend that instead of my making a lame joke about Michael Bay basing the next barfo Transformers movie on this book, I begin by saying I picked up Transtromer's collected poems shortly after he won the Nobel Prize last year.  Thing is, as you may have inferred earlier, I'm not a big fan of the Nobel committee, a grudge harkening back to Kissinger & Milton Friedman, but I'm usually glad when a poet receives an award historically dominated by novelists. Given the difficulty of his poetry, Transtromer's collection is aptly named. While I hold a generally positive impression of the book--there are some very beautiful poems--I can't say anything with certainty after one reading, but Transtromer's definitely worth reading.

Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems, ed. Robert Bly. This book is a kind of a cheat where my continuing alphabetical perusal of poetry is concerned, as I used it for my V selection. But it isn't really cheating--it actually is a book, isn't it? A pretty good book too. Of course, it includes Vallejo's oft imitated "Black Stone on White Stone." Morever, there's a goodly selection of Neruda's work, including Bly's interview of Neruda. Among my favorite poems are Neruda's odes, of which this book includes a few translations by Bly & others. My favorite translations, however, are those by my son. Kudos, Aaron!

The Master & the Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (trans. Michael Glenny). I strongly recommend you leave this book in your car so that you can read it instead of skimming through stacks of Life, Popular Electronics, Saturday Evening Post & Colliers while waiting at the doctor's office. (Nothing serious, I hope.) Or what if you have to pick your kids up after school & they're late? (What the hell are they doing? You're double parked!) Or maybe you have to take your car to the shop--they'd better honor the damn warranty--or you get stood up & have to eat lunch alone. (Maybe there's a good reason.) What if some unexpected delay leaves you stranded in the middle of Bumfuckingnowhere with nothing to do? Whatever the scenario, you'll be glad you have Bulgakov's company. Yes, it may take years to complete, but experience teaches that a prolonged reading won't diminish your enjoyment of this splendidly bizarre novel in the least.

The Art of Reading Poetry, Harold Bloom. I have a bit of a problem with Bloom's approach: he's not reading poetry--he's analyzing it. That's what critics such as Bloom do. However, I wonder if it's this approach that has helped to leave poetry penniless & dying by the literary curb. Most people don't want to bone up on the history of art, literature & civilization before they feel they're ready to read a few pages of poetry so that they can truly appreciate it. Readers of, say, Dickinson's "A Bird Came Down the Walk," need but understand it's about somebody watching a bird that, upon seeing it's being observed, flies away. Afterward, they may, if so desired, delve into its inner workings, but if not, if they enjoy the artistry on some level, so be it. Perhaps Bloom has skipped the first step, assuming that anyone reading him is beyond such an elementary stage. Who am I to criticize the critic? In any event, both Bloom & I agree that Poe is a terrible poet.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie. Maybe it's because I'm a more than a few years late to the table, which at my house is usually piled up with books & magazines, before I got around to reading it, or maybe it's because my general opinion of religion can be politely summed up as bleh, but I don't understand the hubbub surrounding this book. Don't misunderstand me: it's a good read--perhaps a bit too long, but certainly worth the effort. All I'm saying is I don't get the controversy. Of course, maybe it was all a PR scam like the Beatles burying clues, if you're pardon the pun, that Paul was dead. If so, good job, I guess.

Sunshine Sketch 1, Ume Aoki.  Anime fans probably know the popular series Hidamari Sketch  ("hidamari," I'm told, means "sunshine") is based on this manga, which consists of mostly four-panels strips (much like daily comics in America). It follows the lives of four high school art students (Yuno, Miyako, Hiro, & Sae) who live at the Hidamari Apartments. As the title may suggest, there's nothing dark here; Ume Aoki likes to keep things light. Okay, it's not great literature, but it's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon or evening.

June

First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde. When I started this series about the mildly genre-bending adventures of Thursday Next, a sci-fi detective of sorts who jumps between the fictional world & the real one, whatever that means, I thought its numerous literary allusions & jokes quite amusing. Sadly, the series has gone the way of Trent Reznor with each sequel. One problem, as so often is the case with assembly-line novels, is shoddy craftsmanship, as when Thursday's internal monologue is replayed in dialogue with the first available character. I also tire of the contrived turns the stories take that have no effect on plot other than to perhaps make you forget it, which, I suppose, in its way, is an asset. Fforde relies on far too many cliches--not so much hackneyed phrases, but wornout ideas, such as the depiction of poetry as some sort of hyper-emotional literary form. Personally, I know of few poems, outside those composed by novices, that would rival the sappy, shmaltzy manner in which Fforde's characters express love. But I've made it sound worse than it is. There's one book left in the series, which, if I survive falling through the gaping holes in the social safety net, I plan to get to someday.

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett. One of my all-time favs, I've even played the title role in a local community theater production. Given that the play puts forth precepts of existentialism, which had come into vogue in the early fifties when it was written, it might be interesting to compare Godot with Sartre's No Exit--I have it a copy on hand, so that's possible, though not forthcoming.

Modern Man in Search of a Soul, C.G. Jung.  Watching Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth again during the latest PBS begathon sparked my interest in reading Jung, his book having set on my shelf since my days as an undergraduate. Well, not the same shelf; honestly, I don't know what happened to all my old milk crates. It would seem a comic understatement to say Jung has interesting ideas, though some border on the fanciful. Jung doesn't like the mystic label, but so strongly does he feel dreams serve as prophesy that he recounts, with the vehemence of a chain letter purveyor, the tragedgies that befell those who didn't heed the warnings of their dreams--as interpreted, of course, by Jung. Also, he holds religion--again, bleh--in one form or another--he isn't particularly particular--is essential to a well-oiled society.  Occasionally racist, but if you can overlook that, as I said, it's interesting.

Endgame, Samuel Beckett.  I've always liked Waiting for Godot (see above) better, but Endgame has definitely grown upon me.  Is it possible that Endgame is even darker?

The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud.  Although I'd dreamed of becoming a writer since I was maybe six years old, when I first entered college, I majored in psychology. I figured being a psychologist would provide a good income to support myself if my writing didn't. However, after several years of study, I discovered that, while I'd completed maybe twenty hours in psychology, I'd taken over fifty hours in literature & writing courses. I lacked but a couple of classes to fulfill the requirements to major in English, which is, long story short, what I decided to do. Clearly, my wish to pursue a career in literature had caused me to continue to do so subconsciously, even though my conscious mind--& my parents--believed I was studying for a degree in psychology. Quite an awakening. Of course, Freud believes dreams are wish fulfillment, but interpreting them is not always straightforward. The symbolic nature of dreams often requires much examination, reflection & free association. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," Freud famously said, though he not so famously added, "But other times it's a dick or something, so be careful what you put in your mouth." That's good advice, whatever your opinion of Freud.

Beyond Freedom & Dignity, B.F. Skinner.  People tend to find Skinner intimidating. As an outspoken advocate of behavior modification--a term which elicits visions of a futuristic laboratory where a faceless, soulless labcoat sends megavolts of electricity through our systems whenever we do anything deemed wrong--Skinner's broad brow reminds us of the nefarious aliens posing as scientists in the cheesy sci-fi classic, This Island Earth, but we would do well to keep our imaginations in check. Have we already forgotten that Exeter sacrificed himself to help Drs. Adams & Meacham escape Metaluna? Also, Skinner wasn't a shock doc. He advocated rewards (positive reinforcement) & withholding rewards (negative reinforcement) as the primary ways of molding behavior. As opposed to Milgram's experiments, which remain controversial today, Skinner trained a pigeon to play ping pong. If you're like me, you may question why not a money sport, but we must be thankful that he chose an innocuous demonstration of his methodology rather than, I don't know, teaching rhesus monkeys to assemble nuclear weapons. The very title of this book, in which he refutes tradionally held concepts about freedom & dignity, certainly does little to quell misconceptions about Skinner, but the hip reader knows to take it in the same vein as he would the expression "beyond cool." I'm glad I finally read it--I bought the paperback as a college freshman--but for the uninitiated wishing to learn more about Skinner's theories, I'd recommend his novel, Walden Two.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman. Whitman may not be the best--he's not even my favorite--but he's probably the greatest American poet, living or dead. By rejecting the European tradition, he fathered free verse & by extension, countless poets, though the 19th century lacked the technology & Maury Povich to validate this claim. Even if he was but an influential uncle, if nothing else, he put America on the literary map. Sure, the surrealists removed it later, but for a while, the USA appeared in plain sight. No other poet has come close to exhibiting the depth & diversity of thought that Whitman displays in "Song of Myself." To be fair, its final version (1876) more resembles a collection of fifty-two somewhat sequential shorter poems than a quasi epic, but I'm good with that. In fact, has anyone thought to publish the poem as a book, with each numbered section appearing on its own page?  Often wordy & repetitive, if not downright obsessive, Whitman nevertheless remains an enlightened thinker (once you look past his naively optimsitic nationalism) who not only was ahead of his time, but (consider the tenor of today's inane political debates) also ours.

Beyond Good & Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche.   As a bit of free spirit myself, I understand Nietzsche's rage against the stupidity of blindly following trends, accepting the status quo, never questioning traditional beliefs, etc., but many of the issues that enrage me are among those which he berates. He derides the growing popularity of humanistic concerns in Europe, mocking pity & railing like a Fox analyst against the mollycoddling of the rabble. For Nietzsche, anything of worth is born of suffering. The truth-- of which he, no doubt, would question the meaning & value--is that, more often, little or nothing comes from suffering other than more suffering. I dislike too the way he characterizes people, endowing them with certain innate qualities according to religion, gender & nationality, as if a lame comedy act that employs wornout stereotypes. For instance, he believes women, whom he portrays as laughably incapable of philosophic thought, must be subservient, not merely for the betterment of society--he points to what he sees as historical evidence for support--but because it is their nature. This is the philosophy of the future, the mantra of the new philosopher? Walt Whitman (whose name I invoke because Nietzsche, after spending quite some time criticizing philosophers & artists, concludes with the crappy poem, "Aftersong") was a more enlightened thinker & obviously a far better poet.

Previously:  First Quarter Book Report

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Can You Help?

It may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning that if you enjoy reading this blog, it stands to reason you'll enjoy reading my books. If you don't already have copies of Nearing Narcoma, Here's How, or Greatest Hits, I can help you rectify this oversight easily-peasily-lemon-squeezily.  You can purchase these books wherever these fine books are sold, but I personally recommend visiting my website where you can buy directly from me with a single click. Or a series of clicks probably. I'm not sure how many clicks it takes, to be honest, so do it & find out. That's what I suggest.