23 Jul 2006

L'oeuvre au noir

L'oeuvre au noir, Marguerite Yourcenar

A bitch to get into, and a pain throughout, unread it would have left me in shame.

Its redeeming quality is Yourcenar's apparent superpower. I cannot imagine how or why a being would take on such projects. It's because I admire this book that I enjoy it. It has an insistently bleak aesthetic, and its structure, as far as I can tell, is at best elusive. How can anyone consistently write this? Yet she writes perfectly.

Those are my thoughts on the form. My thoughts on the theme are as follows: one of the things that I find alternatively annoying and reassuring about Yourcenar is that she takes on some of the worst human fears, and poetically renders them natural and befitting our cycles of existence. Any horror you can think of, on a scale from personal to worldwide, Yourcenar can balance against other human traits until she convinces you that it is nothing but a barely existing neutrality. Her resigned way of writing about carnal pleasure in the same vein as about genocide is simple comforting.

My thoughts on the content? I don't think much of it. I don't get the feeling that the story is the most important part of this narrative.

9 Jul 2006

Harold Pinter: Complete works vol. 1

Complete works, vol.1, Harold Pinter

Each violent, familiar story is a metamorphosis. Subtle, but grating when read in sequence. Makes me curious about Ovid.

This volume includes The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, A Night Out, and stories "The Black and White, and "The Examination".

I am certain that The Dumb Waiter, which I have read before, is the basis for most of Tarantino's films, especially Reservoir Dogs.

17 Jun 2006

Our Man in Havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene

Pretty good. Tells a crazy story in a low-key style. I'd read more Greene.

24 May 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

Very easy to read, very rewarding, very enlightening.

I really can't fit Bryson's argument into any popular topics that abound today. He seems to go beyond many of them, though never arrogantly; just out of pure curiosity. And because of this curiosity, he manages to ask a much more pertinent question of humanity than any media, government or international organisation is currently screaming about.

I'm also impressed at the amount of work Bryson did to write this, all the more impressive in that he doesn't come across as hard-working.

9 May 2006

Age of Reason

Age of Reason, Thomas Payne

For a work titled "Age of Reason", I was somewhat disappointed at how much spleen it showed. Payne's tone made me expect one of those rock-solid philosophical treatises that edifies an impenetrable structure out of pure logic. I'm not sure if I can remember the books I am talking about, but they turn up every once in a while in philosophy, or math, or in a newspaper column, and we all recognise them by their comforting foundation and incontrovertible attention to detail. While Payne starts out this way, he does not follow up, and it's too bad, because his topic merits the care.

I will give one example of a disappointing premise. Near the end of the work, Payne declares that "[The religion of Deism] must have been the first, and will probably be the last, that man believes." By Deism, Payne means the belief in a single god, whose only manifestation to human beings is the world in which we live: no scripture, no apparitions, no communion, or so on. It certainly sounds reasonable to state that this type of religion "must have been the first" that man believed, but the point is very debatable. Personally, I doubt it, and I doubt it because of the excellent and precise survey of religions published by James Fraser in The Golden Bough, which establishes that all humans throughout evolution have tended to supernatural beliefs before settling on the natural. Besides which, Fraser found that humans more naturally believed in a multiplicity of anthropomorphic gods than in a single superhuman entity. Isn't it easier to think that "people like us" are causing thunderstorms than in thinking that simple physical principles guide the particles that produce all phenomena we experience?

Whatever the truth, I find Payne's failure to treat certain such obvious questions as a weakness considering the argument he put forth.

Nevertheless, there is a good deal of the edifying in here. For example, and for this I am truly grateful, this is the first time I have ever seen anyone clearly question and examine what the Bible really is. Never before have I heard anyone trace the claims about the Bible to their logical sources. Payne defines the boundary we have if we want to consider the Bible logically. Besides which, he is the first I've ever read to show that "revelation", that is, the communication of god to man, is entirely unremarkable, because as soon as it is written down, or spoken out loud, it becomes hearsay.

Needless to say, the argument bodes poorly for the Bible. I am very curious how the churches have responded to these observations.

So in the end, I like this text for the very basic, fundamental questions it poses, questions so fundamental that I'm ashamed not to have thought of them. I also like the fun literary exercise that it goes through of undermining the Bible's authority by using only the Bible text. On that note, I think my recommendation is pretty obvious: don't read, unless you're into secular Bible theory.

11 Feb 2006

Interpretation of Dreams

Interpretation of Dreams, Freud, tr. James Strachey

This is good. I read it very slowly over a year, and I started to pay more attention to my dreams because of it.

As a scientific work, it's pretty rigorous. Although there are numerous parts where I felt that Freud was not addressing some obvious objections, most of his theory is a hundred times more solid than people seem to give him credit for. I get the feeling that people generally expect Freud's dream theory to explain up front the content of any possible dream. But it's not that: instead, he meticulously examines what the limits of our knowledge of dream, given of course that we can never record them nor ever really be sure what anyone actually dreamt. He establishes the limits of what we can know, and then without trespassing these limits he argues his hypothesis.

While it remains a theory, and one that demonstrates a few faults, it's still the only theory I've ever heard about dreams that reaches this level of completeness. So, until I find a better theory, this one has a lot of potential.

Is this a good read? The first chapter is super boring. Then, it gets much, much better. I would almost recommend skipping section one, or just skimming through it, or maybe reading it last if you feel interested.

22 Jan 2006

The Endurance

The Endurance, Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, Caroline Alexander

Although it is somewhat immoral to read a book the title of which is subtly intended to inspire my wife to stay extra unpaid hours at work, I enjoyed this.

It traces the voyage of the British explorer Ernest Shackleton, in his failure to complete his most famous expedition, and the miraculous endurance that he and his crew had to suffer as a result of that failure. The conditions of navigation and trekking in the antarctic are spectacular, and while the word "chilling" is appropriate literally, here it is its figurative sense that is the more haunting.

The book has two main parts: in the first, the narrative of life on the ice is slow, and the categoric descriptions of all the men involved often ponderous, but it is rescued by the mountains of stunning photographs of Frank Hurley, taken with the professional aim of paying for the expedition; in the second part, with camera equipment no longer available, the story itself, which describes why the camera equipment is no longer available, is incredible. Which, in sum, means that this is a good book.

The Endurance was a year-end gift to all employees in my wife's company, and I am seriously convinced that its point was to alleviate the guilt of the management for keeping everyone late hours at work.

7 Jan 2006

Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz, tr. Jeremiah Curtin

First of all, I didn't want to start this book at all. It looked boring.

My first impression reminded me of War and Peace. It begins with a discussion that all of a sudden, with one sentence, launches an epic story. But as the first few chapters unfolded, I saw that the epicness was not quite as big as Tolstoy's.

And then, the appearance of pious Christian characters professing their faith bade even more boringness.

But later on, I realised there was a great deal of audacity in setting a historical novel in the midst of a history that is covered by the Bible. Unlike a "life of Jesus" book, or movie, Quo Vadis is an imagination of what the characters surrounding Jesus were doing, and especially what they did after he died. So it must stick to facts that are covered by the Bible, but it must fill in the parts that are not covered. I think that's an admirable risk for a writer. I suppose an historical novelist always takes this risk--the fact that he or she must meet "checkpoints" that are verifiable in textbooks--but with all the cultural weight that the Bible carries, basing a history on it is just that little bit harder.

Finally, I appreciated that, although Christianity is unoriginally presented as triumphant in the end, the book allows very blunt debate between Christians and atheists. The principal atheist who converts to Christianity for example, backslides several times, even forgetting himself and killing a bunch of random people just to save a favourite. Doubts about the priopriety and potential of Christianity are carried through until the very end.

And finally, the story turns out very rich, the details original, and the read attractive.