Read in 2008 (More catching up)

An ongoing list of my 2008 reading (the new entries are #s 9-12):

  1. The Miserable Mill (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the Fourth) by Lemony Snicket
    • The endless, near-blind stupidity of the adults in the lives of the Baudelaire orphans (chased from home to home, guardian to guardian by the unscrupulous, Baudelaire-fortune-hungering Count Olaf) is becoming somewhat exhausting. The tone and design of the books is delightful; if only their narratives were less formulaic. [Tuesday, January 1, 2008 ***]
  2. Midnight Days by Neil Gaiman, et al.
    • Alas, I don't know enough about the background mythologies of these various comics worlds to appreciate fully this collection of short pieces Neil Gaiman penned for various more-and-less mainstream series. Still, like a lot of Gaiman's work (and I always enjoy him more as a comics writer than as a novelist) it was very pleasant reading. [Friday, January 4, 2008 ***1/2]
  3. The Odyssey: the Fitzgerald Translation by Homer
    • Homer is pure delight, the purest of pure delights - the kind that gets richer and richer the more time you spend with it. The only thing that keeps The Odyssey from the kleos of a full five stars is that it never quite achieved (for me) the sustained and consistent richness and density of structure that characterized The Iliad. Maybe it will ripen into my mind into a five-star, however. Or maybe the difference is that I expected to love The Odyssey as much as I did, but I was surprised by delight in my reading of the grim old Iliad. [Thursday, January 10, 2008 ****1/2]
  4. Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
    • I took this along to the MLA (the national conference where I rushed madly from one job interview to another for several days in the Chicago slush) with the idea of having reading that would instantly distract me from my frenzied professional thoughts when it was time to make an attempt at sleep. It served its purpose very, very well. Unfortunately, although the language was always a delight, the plotting was not as ingenious as I expected. (I think this may be the only Jeeves book I have read, and I had read it before, so that may account for a certain... lack of freshness that hung like a miasma about the plot. On the other hand, my last reading appears to have been 15 years ago, so surely the miasma had had time to disperse since then.) [Sunday, January 13 ***1/2]
  5. The Odyssey: the Fitzgerald Translation by Homer
    • A second reading! That's right. I'm teaching it, so it paid to be thorough. [Monday, January 28 ****1/2]
  6. Homer's Odyssey: A Companion to the Translation of Richmond Lattimore by Peter V. Jones
    • And I also plead pedagogical thoroughness here. I have to say, however, that it is rare that I read classic works with a line-by-line critical companion, and I have gotten a little bit addicted to it (particularly when I don't have access to the linguistic nuances of the text's original language). [Monday, January 28 ****]
  7. Sacred Cows by Karen Olsen
    • I live in the town that Sacred Cows takes as its setting, a town that does not often inspire any literary interest, much less enthusiasm. Sadly, Olsen's incredibly detailed mania for the town isn't very well integrated into the plot or thematics (are there even thematics at work here?) of the novel. Often, a plot point would evoke a long digression about a restaurant that the heroine loves on a nearby corner, a restaurant which could only exist in this town, oh and by the way let me tell you in mundane detail about what items make an appearance on the menu of this place.... This happens not once, but numerous times over the course of the novel, and not once does the digression prove to have any relevance to the events of the novel. And bear in mind, I was a reader EAGER to have this town portrayed for me - positively elated by the prospect of living in the same literary world that I move through every day - and even I found it tedious. I can't imagine how people who don't live here got through it. [Monday, January 28 *1/2]
  8. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
    • This is my first John Green novel, although he and quirky sibling Hank have delighted me for months with their 2007 video blog project (Brotherhood 2.0). It was indeed an ambrosial whirlwind of a read amidst the madness of teaching prep, the job market, and dissertation-finishing. This YA (but not too Y) novel centers on a washed up prodigy as a painful dumping by his 19th girlfriend named Katherine prompts him to flee with his best friend on the iconic post-high school road trip. [Wednesday, January 30 ****]
  9. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
    • The less said about this most classic of Christie mysteries the better, I think. It is the most famous and lauded (for its ingenuity of plot) of the Hercule Poirot mysteries, but (sadly for me) I had heard this ingenuity described in vague but still too informative terms before I started the book. Thus I was able to anticipate the novel's outcome from almost the first chapter, which really dulled its appeal. I hope that my description is acrobatically equivocal enough to spare any of you who have yet to read it a similar fate. [February 5, 2008 ***]
  10. The Aeneid by Virgil
    • This one was for the speedily-paced "Epic and Novel" course I am teaching this semester, and it was a ... bombastic successor to The Odyssey. Aeneas' defining characteristic is, famously, pietas (or adherence to duty), and it seems to me that his epic requires the same qualities from its readers. Nonetheless, there is much to admire in the intricacies of Virgil's narrative structures and strategies, even if they are more insistent and less, hm, multifariously ingenious than Homer's. [February 10, 2008]
  11. Set in Stone by Linda Newbery
    • Newbery's young adult novel, which won what was then called the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2006, was a real pleasure to read. It fools the adult reader (or the adult reader who also reads classic country house fiction) into assuming that it is a derivative YA variation on its generic intertexts, Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw, setting us up with a prim and almost homely governess (whose name is Charlotte, no less) and a back story that includes a sexually charged pair of dismissed servants. But while it is playing you off between these two famous influences, it is weaving quite a different tale.... Come to think of it, it is also rather like Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, both in its complex structure that relies on multiple narrative voices (although nowhere near as complex as Collins's devices) and in its main characters (an art tutor and a self-effacing older sister figure). Hmm. [February 13, 2008 ****]
  12. The Inferno by Dante
    • The next in line on my course syllabus for epic. I have to say that each work we have read has mapped itself on to my life in some way, and we read The Inferno while I was in the midst of the mad final stages of completing my full, penultimate dissertation draft. It was truly infernal. Dante's world is a grim and punishing one, with scenes of graphic intensity that can't be matched by any modern horror film, and of scatological imagery that a thirteen year old boy would find it hard to rival. It is also, more fascinatingly, a work that is obsessed with the seductive, absorptive power of literature, most famously in the episode of Paolo and Francesca, two lovers who were drawn into romance by reading about Lancelot and Guinevere (word has it that Rodin's The Kiss depicts Dante's famous lovers). [February 19, 2008 ***1/2]
  13. What will be next? Weight? Don Quixote? Who knows!

I am but a Silhouette in my own Masterpiece Theatre

I am just toodling along, preparing for class, continuing to grapple with the job market (I am staving off worry about the tenure-track jobs I haven’t heard back from by applying for a bevy of post-doc and visiting positions), and generally trying to catch up on all the wee life issues I let slide while I was manically working on that full length draft I submitted to my advisor a week ago. Meanwhile, my advisor is a man of superhuman ability and kindness and he has already read the whole monstrously long thing and returned it to me with his notes. So it is time to leap back into the dissertation fray once more.

Meanwhile, since I haven’t finished reading or watching anything of late (although I think I might owe you some reviews from a while back), a few notes on things I have found interesting as I have dipped my toe in the waters of internet goodness after many months away:

Michael Billington (all too briefly) enters into an age-old debate about whether fiction (and specifically the novel) is better than drama. (The battle that emerged in the comments section is also particularly engaging.) Must we rank our pleasures, people??

This is my favorite Carolina moment of recent memory, sent to me by D to cheer me up amidst my work woes: our star player, Tyler Hansbrough, had leapt acrobatically into our own bench after a loose ball, twisting in midair to fling it back onto the court before it was officially out of bounds. In the process, he managed to sit his enormous form directly on Coach Roy Williams’ lap. The looks on every single face in this shot are so highly characterized that they recall Kabuki makeup. Really, even if you think you aren't interested in basketball, take a look. It is like a Hogarth print (Hogarthian sample - from "The Rake's Progress" - conveniently provided at the right).

Last, but certainly not least: Silhouette Masterpiece Theatre (courtesy of 50 Books). It combines the sensibility of LOLCats with the macabre archness of Edward Gorey. Flock ye to it most speedily!

The most poetic thing I read today...

...came from a wonderful article in The Washington Post on a blind high school wrestler at one of the area's schools. Asked whether he would describe what he "sees" as absolute darkness, he replies:

It's like a mirror without a reflection.

A rather grisly tale for my return to blogging

So… after so long an absence, what news from Sycorax Pine? First, the reason I in fact have time to write is this: I turned in a complete draft of my dissertation to my adviser on Monday. It runs about 250 pages – a length unbelievable to me even given my extreme self-consciousness about my own, shall we say, verbosity. At any rate, my adviser will almost certainly have excellent and terrifying changes to propose when he has made his way through my longwindedness, and then my terrible enslavement to work will begin again, but until that point, I have a little more time available to read, blog, sleep, watch the Netflix I have had out since December (!!!!), spend time with the people I love and, you know, actually concentrate on my teaching work.

I am now speeding my way homeward on the train to visit with my family, and this yields the other strange event I have to report, more immediate in time and troubling to the conscience. In truth, it is by far the oddest and most disturbing travel tale in my experience. I was on the train, talking on my cell phone and telling D how tired I was, how much the uncertainty of the job market (still no news on that front) was unsettling me, and skimming over other such delightful topics of exhausted narcissism, when suddenly I heard (or perhaps felt is the more appropriate word) a harsh and sustained series of thumps beneath our car of the train. “Um,” I said to D, “We just hit something.” “Like a branch or like a person?” he asked. “Oh no, it definitely didn’t sound like a body,” I instantly replied (based on what knowledge, I now wonder, of how the human form sounds hitting a fast-moving train?). The train slowed and then stopped, and as we sat on the track for the next two hours, it became increasingly clear from the expanding crowds of police investigators and arrival of television crews that we had, in fact, hit someone.

This was upsetting, clearly, but more upsetting was how, um, un-upset everyone seemed to be. The frisson of gossip (really more characterized by excitement than horror) traveled up and down the many baffled cars of the train; the conductors were unable to tell us anything besides “We are a part of an in-progress police investigation and can’t give you any further information, but it will not affect your safety.” The next reaction, however, was almost universally one of annoyance: “I’ve got places to be,” one of my fellow passengers said, “I don’t understand why we can’t just go on. I mean, if the guy’s dead, he’s already dead, right?” What kind of people were we, I began to wonder, we who were on this train? Such is the blessedly and perhaps unnaturally insulated nature of my existence that I am rarely separated from the end of a life by a matter of about a foot of carpet and metal casing, and I felt myself, like my fellow passengers, instantly deflecting this knowledge and focusing on the accident’s effect on my immediate life. Suddenly I felt mired – no, completely walled in, by the boundaries of my own consciousness and of self-interest.

So that is the jolly news of my day. Better (or at least less morbid) news to come, I hope!

Watched (on screen) in 2008 (The Silence)

An ongoing list of films and DVDs I watched this year (the new entry is #3):

  1. Winter Light [The Communicants] (1962, directed by Ingmar Bergman)
    • As my life has gotten steadily busier and more distressing I have found Ingmar Bergman a perplexing source of solace. This is the fifth or sixth I have watched recently, and I must admit that I have developed a quite a crush on Gunnar Björnstrand. So... this film, in which he plays a existentially despairing pastor incapable of giving comfort to his flock or returning the love of his mistress, was an all-too-real piece of heartbreak. It opens with a long, impressive scene lifted uninterruptedly from a Lutheran service, and as Björnstrand's minister moves anxiously about the church painted demons leer, mourning, over his shoulder from the hallowed walls. [January 3, 2008 ****]
  2. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
    • The short play by Tennessee Williams that lurks behind this film is a well nigh perfectly crafted piece of claustrophobic storytelling, in which the tales crafted by a dead man's domineering mother and possibly-mad cousin are simultaneously deeply convincing and lushly, impossibly heightened in their affect. Mankiewicz's film opens well, but as it progresses much of this narrative intensity and literary vividness (a vividness which, like the bright, precise colors of a high definition tv, seems more real than real) is dispersed by changing scenes (unity of place served Williams *very* well in the original, if I remember correctly) or displaced by melodrama, a poor substitute. In part the film declines in strength because Katherine Hepburn (in one of her best performances - the unnerving power of the severe Violet Venable suits her talents better than any screwball role ever did), who dominates the film's opening, increasingly takes a back seat to the therapeutic relationship between her careworn niece and the doctor Mrs. Venable has called in to lobotomize the girl. This is also the case in the play (and to great effect), but unfortunately for the film both the doctor (Montgomery Clift, still shattered from his traumatizing car accident) and the questionably sane Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor, who demonstrates an enraging lack of control over her voice) turn in really poor performances. If I remember the play properly, the chilling ending is also thrown over in the film for a more maudlin choice. Ah well - it is all almost redeemed by the sight of Katherine Hepburn descending slowly like a god composed entirely of cheekbones into her living room in a contraption that more closely resembles a wrought-iron throne than an elevator. [Saturday, January 5, 2008 ***]
  3. The Silence (1963, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
    • Bergman does Antonioni, with all the revisions to that bleak and glossy worldview (a rather allegorical outlook, for instance) that one might expect. Two sisters (one cerebral, put-upon, and dying and one fleshly, spontaneous and vicious) and their wide-eyed innocent of a child (it is hard to say that one or the other is more maternal to him) prowl desperately about a desolate hotel in a country that in the midst of some unspoken civil unrest. The "silence" is famously a spiritual one, but what is fascinating is how little actual silence there is in the film, at first on the level of lack of noise (the world of The Silence is filled to brimming with the claustrophobic pressures of diegetic noise - clocks ticking lives away, crowds shuffling oppressedly, radios playing tinny Bach), and then later on the level of lack of conversation. The sisters delight in their linguistic isolation from the people of the hotel and town: without the local language their central characteristics are played up through interpersonal contact - intellectual attempts at connection through music or the acquisition of individual words in the new language for one sister, and a more bodily form of communication for the other. This is by far the bleakest Bergman film I have seen, and although it was interesting and beautiful, it was also the least enjoyable and most schematic. [Sunday, February 3, 2008 ***1/2]
  4. What will be next? Who can say?