Thursday, June 1, 2017

Books in Brief 2

A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf.  While I may quibble here & there over such things as Woolf's claim that Charlotte Bronte's supposed angry misandry betrayed her in Jane Eyre (too much New Critic in me to see such personal conjecture as meaningful) or the validity of gender- indicative characteristics inherent in writing styles (too much like Jungian mysticism for my tastes), Woolf's scornful analysis of male academics' domination in the literary world pretty much nails it.  Besides, Woolf may very well be my favorite novelist, so I'll leave it at "She's brilliant!"

Fear of Physics, Laurence M. Krauss.  Like many people, I enjoy mind-blowing theoretical concepts, such as string theory, even if I don't understand the science itself.  Krauss, despite his zealous reverence for all science & the almighty Nobel Prize (hallelujah & amen), does little to bridge this gap.  In fact, he loses a great deal of credibility when he repeats the ridiculous myth that Columbus proved the world was a sphere.  I suppose Aristotle--since Krauss calls philosophy a waste of time--doesn't count.  Krauss also apparently missed, while whacking off to "She Blinded Me with Science," I must assume, the episode of Myth America on TLC--which, to be fair, has been eerily purged from existence since it aired in the 90s--that pointed out that ancient Greeks depicted Atlas holding a sphere, not an enormous pancake.  To make matters worse, he also insinuates the heinous lie that the atomic bomb saved thousands of lives--in the same way that giving small pox to Native Americans did, I guess.  Krauss should read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.  As a matter of fact, everyone should. 

The Witness of Poetry, Czeslaw Milosz.  Milosz ruminates off-topic a bit, but from what I can gather, he doesn't like surrealism (although his poetry occasionally makes use of surrealistic imagery) & holds nothing but contempt for the Soviets.  While Krauss in Fear of Physics (see above) seems to consider everything outside of science as trivial, Milosz scorns such views as all too prevalent.  He links the emphasis on the sciences off-handedly, though accurately, to militarism; meanwhile, the humanities are mostly ignored.  Thus, as the title suggests, the poet needs to serve as a witness to history.  To understand Milosz & his poetics better, my advice is to read his poems. 

The Iron Heel, Jack London.  I really like the narrative frame of this story: a scholar from several centuries in the utopian socialist future annotates the memoirs of Avis Everhard, an early 20th century revolutionist.  However, while I share many of London's political views, scenes in which the leader of the revolutionists, Ernest Everhard, eviscerates various members of the oligarchy in impromptu debates read as incredibly cheesy.  (Note: Ernest Everhard is my new porn name, replacing my previous nom de porn, Johnny Longbow.)  The Iron Heel is often called a dystopian novel, but London's depiction of class struggle is no more exaggerated than, say, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  The narrative frame lends a sci-fi feel, which makes it difficult to categorize as natural realism, a term used to denote much of London's fiction, yet to call The Iron Heel a dystopian novel suggests that a capitalistic society is in itself dystopia, which, yeah, I guess I can see that.

Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy & Pop Culture, William Irwin, ed.  Probably the best essay in this collection is Mark D. White's "Why Doesn't Batman Kill the Joker?"  White examines the question from both utilitarian & deontologist perspectives, introducing variants to the classic trolley dilemma.  I also enjoyed White's "Captain America & the Virtue of Modesty" & Jacob Held's "Can We Steer This Rudderless World? Kant, Rorschach, Retributivism, & Honor."  It was a free book, so I'm not complaining, but if I were to suggest some of the essays fall short of super or heroic, you may want to factor in that I read a substantial chunk of this book while waiting more than two hours at the DMV, which may have colored my opinion negatively.

Shakespeare's Sonnets; Narrative Poems, William Shakespeare.  My most recent reading of these two volumes served to confirm my opinion that, as a poet, Shakespeare's a better playwright, but as a playwright, he's a better poet than most.

Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy, John Crowe Ransom, ed.  At times, Hardy is deceptively simple; at other times, he's just plain simple.  An example of the former is Hardy's much anthologized "The Man He Killed," which insinuates that governments at war enlist the powerless members of society, the marginalized poor & working class, who fight one another--not because of substantive differences between them, but because of financial need--under the banner of nationalism, if not imperialism (though that's not quite the way my high school teacher explained the poem).  Hardy's "Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?" is an example of the latter, of which the less said the better. 

Mythologies, Roland Barthes.  This highly varied collection of essays shows that philosophy doesn't have to be one abstraction heaped atop other abstractions in a great tire fire of abstract thought.  As entertaining as he is thought-provoking, Barthes interprets common images, icons, trends & attitudes of mid 20th century life as symbols of the cultural consciousness--but not in those words.

The Woman Who Discovered Math, Michael Cadnum.  If you do the math, these six poems come to--by my calculations, subtracting the introductory material & bio note at the back--only ten of the total sixteen pages.  The bottom line, factoring in the cover price of ten dollars, is that it doesn't add up to a book (& seems a bit skimpy for a chapbook, too, in my book).  Those of you with a head for numbers may extrapolate that this isn't meant to take anything away from the poet, for I liked what was there well enough, but I wanted to see more. 

Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork, Richard Brautigan.  As a teenager, I read Brautigan often, though the years & mild dementia have left me with but vague impressions of his books.  Generally speaking, I see Brautigan's novels--Trout Fishing in America, for example, which I recently reread--as collections of prose poems & his lineated verse as ideas for poems that need fleshing out, such as "A Moth in Tucson, Arizona" or "Robot."  However, Brautigan is enjoyable, if not, at times, hilarious.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury.  Once upon a time, TV stations used to show the movie adaptation of Bradbury's book with great frequency.  Back then, I think I enjoyed the movie, but I never read the book--until now, at which point I can't really remember the movie. As for the novel, Bradbury is skillful enough in his use of metaphoric language, but he seemed to be embarrassingly out of touch with race & gender issues in regard to literature, even for the 1950s.  Nevertheless, its brevity makes it a worthwhile read, though fairly insignificant to burn.  Maybe I'll watch the movie again sometime if I can find it.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, George Gordon, Lord Byron.  It's not nearly as entertaining as Don Juan, yet Bryon seemingly has the ability to versify the stuff inside his head seamlessly.  Even when he's working in Spenserian stanzas, he comes across as somewhat conversational. Childe Harold's upper tier where travelogue poetry's concerned, if a bit dull, & if nothing else, I'm glad I finally finished it.

A Room with a View, E.M. Forster.  The plot may be predictable, if not downright formulaic, but Forster's easy prose & keen understanding of his characters' inner workings make this turn of the 20th century romance enjoyable, though the 80s movie adaptation kind of sucks.
The Performer, Michael Cantor.  Although this chapbook reads too much like a look-at-me-I'm-so-worldly travelogue, Cantor still shows his skills with a goodly selection of poems, including "For Trudy, in New York for Business," which appeals to my prurient tastes.

Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut.  While it pales in comparison to such Vonnegut classics as Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle or, one of my personal favorites, God Bless You, Mr. Goldwater, Breakfast of Champions is a smugly humorous social satire, illustrated with enough of the author's crude doodles to amuse almost any Vonnegut fan.  However, the rather gratuitous racial epithets & ethnic stereotypes are troubling, even for satire. 

Tristessa,  Jack Kerouac.  Perhaps the best thing about this incredibly horrible, thinly veiled semi-autobiographical, pockmarked schlock about junkies in love & Mexico, told by a moron with half a hard-on & a regrettable typewriter fetish that unswervingly serves as both an emetic & an example of what not to do as a writer--or as a human being, for whatever that's worth--is that it's short, so maybe there's a holy fucking god after all.  Classic Kerouac!

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