Thursday, February 20, 2003

Despite the fact that I've been reading a lot lately (quitting a third job tends to give one some extra time), somehow I haven't been able to come up with much to review. I realized last night that this may have something to do with the towering stack of books on my nightstand--I've been reading but I haven't been finishing. So here's a little run-down of my current perusals...

*One book that I did actually finish was Mortimer J. Adler's Reforming Education, but a review is going to take more time and thought than I have now; I'll give it its due sometime later. However, it did inspire me to read more about education, so three of the books I'm working through at the moment are tied to this one. Much of Adler's moral code is based on Aristotle, specifically the Nicomachean Ethics. I'd been thinking about re-reading this anyway, and am enjoying the challenge of digging into it again. So far I've only read two books, and the first one left me struggling a little (his style is difficult to get used to), but I really liked the main point of the second book--that virtue is a mean between two vices. For instance, there are the two extremes of stinginess and extravagance (both, beyond a doubt, vices), and the mean between them is generosity (a virtue).

*Another very inspiring educational book is one about the Little Earth School, which provides a liberal education for children in Santa Fe, NM. It's full of creative ideas for teaching, but more than that it emphasizes the necessity of learning along with those one teaches. In order to be a good teacher, one must enjoy learning (thus providing an example for the students), and also be willing to be flexible, to change plans for the day or week or semester if a more intriguing opportunity appears. Being open to students' suggestions and direction keeps things fresh and interesting as well.

*Then there's The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis, who I believe to be one of the smartest people ever to have lived, as well as one of the most persuasive. Like many of his theological works, this one takes common arguments against Christianity (here, specifically, moral education) and shows how they consistently fall apart upon logical examination. Again and again he proves the existence of an underlying moral code in human nature--a reason why we know right from wrong and choose, in general, to uphold the former. He finishes with an appendix of quotations from ancient writings of different cultures and religions that support this, to show that while he may be expounding Christian beliefs, they are in fact universal beliefs.

*As I keep going, I'm realizing that this selection of books is much more weighty and impressive than my usual fare, so I'll quickly say that in between I have been reading the odd fantasy novel--I just finish them much more quickly, so they don't spend much time on the nightstand. I'm also planning, after writing this, to get back into Kate Elliot's very intriguing Crown of Stars series, since the fifth one just came out and I need to reacquaint myself. That said, I'll return to my intellectual tomes.

*The other day I picked up a new translation of Heraclitus, with commentary by T.M. Robinson, expecting to breeze through it in time to return it to the library (their threatening overdue notices are starting to unnerve me), but ended up getting immersed in (wow, really stepping up the nerdiness here) the ancient Greek. I remember very little of my two years spent with this language, but I was amazed at how much came back as I looked back and forth between the original and the translation. Heraclitus is an interesting fellow, especially since all of his fragments are gleaned from the writings of others, so no one's precisely sure how to put it all together. Some of the fragments stand alone easily as aphorisms, but others seem, well, fragmented, and also often contradictory. So far my favorite is (though I don't much care for the translation) "...lovers of wisdom ought very much to be enquirers into many things."

*I started re-reading Homer's Iliad quite some time ago, but getting back to some other ancients put me in the mood for more poetically gory details. I don't actually have much to say about the Iliad, except that it's really appalling how much power the Greeks gave their gods. Humans do very little on their own in Homer's world--the gods get blamed or praised for almost everything, and yet they're much more petty and nasty than the mortals they orchestrate.

*Another book that's been on my nightstand for a long time is Independent People, by Halldor Laxness. A twentieth-century Icelandic saga, it's been highly recommended to me by several people, but I'm having a hard time with it. It's one of those books like Wuthering Heights where there just aren't any characters with whom to sympathize, or really even like. Besides, life on a farm in Iceland is not exactly the most fun-filled experience, and the story gets a little grim for my taste.

*I've only gotten a little way into Margaret Mead's autiobiography of her early years, Blackberry Winter, but the descriptions of her childhood are an anthropological account of their own. I want to call the way in which she was raised "hippie", but that doesn't quite fit in the Victorian era; suffice it to say that her parents were progressive.

*I started re-reading Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling a few months ago, and discovered that my previous reading, in college, had only included the first part of the book--there's still a whole second part as yet untapped by me. Fortunately that fact overshadowed the hideous marginalia in the first part--I swear I must not have actually read it. So before I go on to new territory, I have to go through the first part again and atone for my neglect. However, this will take concentration and actual study, which requires sitting down during the day with a pencil ready in hand; I think of this, of course, as I am going to bed and looking for something not too challenging to read before sleep.

And there you are--the bottom of the stack. Look for further reviews of some of these in the future!

Thursday, February 13, 2003

It's raining. It's also February. These two facts do not, in my opinion, combine gracefully. On the other hand, a dreary day is always something of an incentive for me to be cosily productive. Hence I am still in my pajamas, drinking tea in front of the computer and listening to Loreena McKennitt. But I do have high hopes for the rest of the day!

I just discovered A Common Reader's amusing column, Book Case; today's column has some interesting views on the state of the book world.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

I've been waiting to post about the great movie "The Hours" until I re-read the book by Michael Cunningham as well as Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham draws on Woolf's concept of portraying one day in the life of a woman and that woman's life in one day, with a novel that moves among three women in three different times, but upon second reading I'm afraid that he misrepresents Mrs. Dalloway. In Woolf's novel, Clarissa Dalloway is a woman perhaps too concerned with trivial matters, but nevertheless she is respected and loved. She also possesses the strength to live despite knowing what others think of her and seeing herself as they do. While Cunningham imbues his Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughan, with these same qualities, it bothers me that he sneers slightly at Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and her quiet conservativism. Clarissa Vaughan struggles with the same troubles as Clarissa Dalloway, but Cunningham gives her a "modern" flair as a lesbian editor whose family (a lover and a sperm-donor daughter) seems to be a flaunting gesture to the more traditional roles of Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown, and Mrs. Dalloway. But maybe that's just me.

That said, I must confess that I'm having trouble deciding if I like the movie or the book better. When I went to see the movie, two friends who were unfamiliar with the story accompanied me, and I was a little worried that the movie would consequently be less accessible to them. After watching it, however, I was not surprised to hear that they too loved it. It is inarguably intense--not a simply entertaining film--with each woman's struggles with identity, suicide, and societal roles; yet, in the end, they all deal with their hours, their moments, their lives, in the best way they can. I was particularly struck by the question raised: Who is stronger, the woman who hides her emotions under a smile, or the woman who admits defeat and lets her insanity be known? Though Cunningham may disagree with me (and while I do greatly admire Virginia Woolf), I lean more towards sympathizing with the former. We all struggle with life, burying our doubts in trivial matters like seating arrangements at a party, and it is not denying the truth to accept this and move on. It seems to me that Cunningham tries to glorify the physical suicides of Woolf and Richard the poet, and the emotional suicide of Laura Brown, but to the reader (and the viewer) there is still the tang of giving up.

Nevertheless, both books are highly recommended, and the movie is just beautiful--sumptuously filmed, with fabulous acting and houses into which I would move in a second.

"...What she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab. Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking towards Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself." --Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Endnote: I'm linking to the above review of "The Hours" partly because I think it's a decent description, but also because I want to argue a little with the critic's comments. I agree with her complaint that Hollywood is a little too excited about portraying lesbian relationships, but I must say that in this case it is an accurate representation of the book. In other words, it's not just Hollywood. As to her question about Clarissa Vaughan's 'true' lesbianism, she does say in the movie that she never met her daughter's father, which suggests sperm donor to me (leaving aside all inconsistencies between homosexuality's lack of procreation and homosexuals' desire for offspring). Also, Laura Brown did not leave her family because she kissed a woman--though this may or may not be a more legitimate reason, she felt trapped in her role as a wife and mother, and incapable of performing as she was expected to.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

During a pleasant ramble through Borders yesterday, I was delighted to find a new book by one of my favorite authors, Charles de Lint. Waifs and Strays is a collection of short stories about teenagers, some of them characters that appear in other works and some of them completely new, all of them interesting. Though I've always loved fantasy, having read Tolkien and E. Nesbit since before I knew there was such a genre, I didn't stumble into the wonderful world of de Lint (or many of the other authors that I now consider among my favorites--see Thumping Good Reads above) until I met my dear boy five years ago. He introduced me to de Lint, despite not being a great fan (he has this bad habit of paying attention to the philosophy underlying the stories), and I was hooked after reading the first story in Moonlight and Vines.

This new collection is, in my opinion, better than another recent one, Tapping the Dream Tree, even though most of the stories are not set in Newford (a city that I intend to find someday!). Unlike his other collections, I enjoyed every story, reading through the whole book before I realized it this morning. De Lint does have some questionable philosophies, but his knack for creating worlds and characters is amazing. He is a great champion of the "invisible ones" of our world--bag ladies, abused children, drug addicts, the homeless--and reminds his readers that we may see wonderful things just by looking at these people that we prefer to ignore, illustrating this by placing many of his fantastical characters on the streets and in the slums.

I especially liked the connected stories "There's No Such Thing" and "Sisters", about a young vampire and her sister, in part because of the allusions to the TV show nearest and dearest to de Lint's heart as well as my own--"Buffy the Vampire Slayer". Another excellent story is "But for the Grace Go I", a typical de Lint tale about a street waif who appears strong and independent yet is hiding tragedies that keep her from the rest of the world. The element of fantasy is minor in this one, but present in the atmosphere as always. I also enjoyed "Somewhere In My Mind There Is A Painting Box", a prequel to the lovely novella Seven Wild Sisters.

"He knew their kind too well. They liked to pretend that the world followed their rules, that the wilderness beyond the confines of their villages and towns could be tamed, laid out in as tidy an order as the shelves of goods in their shops, of books in their libraries. But they also knew that under the facade of their order, the wilderness came stealing on paws that echoed with the click of claw on cobblestone. It crept into their streets and their dreams and would take up lodging in their souls if they didn't eradicate it in time." --Charles de Lint, "The Graceless Child", Waifs and Strays (Viking, 2002)

Saturday, February 01, 2003

The last time I tried to read Gertrude Stein, I got bogged down in the ramblingness of her writing style. I've never been very good at adjusting to non-traditional styles, and I found it too difficult to follow How To Write for the effort to be worthwhile. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, however, is much more accessible and lucid, like sitting down to have a conversation with Stein. The concept of the book is interesting as well, since Stein refused to write her own autobiography despite the requests of those who felt that the details of her unusual life would perhaps give readers a better understanding of her writing. But the idea of filling in the gaps of her numerous "portraits" of the famous people she had known as friends intrigued her enough that she began urging Toklas, her companion of 25 years, to write her autobiography and tell the stories. Toklas's response was, in a paraphrase of Ford Madox Ford, that she was already "a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs", leaving her simply no time to be a pretty good author.

At last Stein decided to undertake the project herself, like Defoe writing the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe, and indeed one could say that most writers who choose first-person narrators are writing the autobiographies of their characters. At the same time this is a very sly way for the authors themselves to write their own autobiographies. Stein is able to relate the exciting events of her life and describe her own actions from a technically objective point of view. Of course Toklas would paint Stein in glowing colors, as her lifelong friend, and Stein takes careful advantage of this. It is also a boon to her that she need not become introspective or give reasons for any of her actions. Toklas, as the subject, is given thoughts and emotions, but Stein is free from explaining herself.

I must say this is rather refreshing, especially considering our modern tendency to examine every detail of the lives of others and speculate on their motives and feelings. Surely Stein had doubts and troubles, but why should she display these for our pleasure? Everyone saw her as a rather impulsive, opinionated woman who did as she liked and said what she thought, and it must have been enjoyable for her to look at herself through someone else's eyes. In fact, this seems to me to be a monumental achievement; I certainly could not rise above self-criticism to paint myself as a friend might. I admire Stein's courage and audacity.

"I write for myself and strangers." --Gertrude Stein