Posts Tagged ‘Katie K.’s Picks’

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

November 19, 2010

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.  “The rose of old stands in name; we hold mere names.” Little is known about the twelfth century Cluniac monk who wrote this, except that he penned a lengthy invective on pride and the subsequent misery that comes from it.  Said invective is entitled De contemptu mundi (On Contempt for the World) and the monk is named Bernard of Cluny or Bernard of Morlay (he’s called both names by different scholars); unless you’re a Medievalist or a super nerd, it’s unlikely that you’ll have heard of him or his long, grumpy poem.  Yet, it’s from this line that Eco’s novel derives its name.  If you’ve seen the Sean Connery flick based on this book, you’ve been lied to: the “rose” has nothing to do with a naked witch lady or a besotted babyfaced monk.  No: sic transit gloria mundi, friends! Nothing lasts, the world is horrible, and humans are wretched; so monked the medieval monks in all their monkishness.

But!  Even though it’s all about the impermanence of everything, this novel really isn’t depressing.  In fact, it’s a riveting mystery featuring the Sherlock Holmes of monks, Franciscan Brother William of Baskerville, and his young Watson, Adso of Melk (also the narrator).

Picture it: Northern Italy, 1327. The mutilated body of Brother Adelmo of Otranto, an attractive and good-humored manuscript illuminator, has been found at the foot of an abbey tower directly below a closed window.  Soon, other monks turn up gruesomely murdered, leading most of the monks to speculate that the Devil or Antichrist might be involved.  Brother William, who is an amalgam of Sherlock, Roger Bacon, and William of Ockham, is asked to investigate.  But, he remains skeptical about all this Devil business– the murdered monks have various ties to the abbey’s enormous labyrinthine library and its ancient blind keeper, Jorge of Burgos.

Jorge is a wonderfully sinister character.  He creeps around the abbey alternately raving about the Apocalypse or uttering things like “Verba vana aut risui apta non loqui” (i.e. no chitchat and no joking).  He hates everything, and loves talking about how much he hates everything.  He’s great!

So William and Adso ignore all this hubbub about the Antichrist and start prying into the abbey’s affairs, which of course reveals all sorts of medieval monk scandal, salacious and otherwise.  And then the Inquisition shows up, led by Dominican Bernard Gui, who is sort of like a monk version of the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.

If I tell you much more I will spoil all of the fun.  And what more could you want?  It’s a medieval monk murder mystery!  Just go read it already.

Everything and More: a Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace

November 18, 2010

W.W. Norton has a nice series, “Great Discoveries.”  This is one of the titles.

The conceptual history of infinity begins with the Greeks, specifically with Anaximander (610-540 BCE, approx.).  He was the first of the pre-Socratics to use the term to aperion in his metaphysics, defined as “the unlimited substratum from which the world derived.”   This upset Pythagoras and his Divine Brotherhood, who believed that the world is entirely describable in natural numbers…until they also discovered that the square of 2 is irrational, i.e. “no matter how small a unit of measure is used, the side of a Unit Square is incommensurable with the diagonal.”

Adding to the peculiarity of the infinite: Zeno chimed in with his paradoxes, all of which are arguments for Parmenidean metaphysics (named after his teacher, Parmenides).  Perhaps the most famous is his argument regarding motion, or the “Achilles and Tortoise” problem (see also the wonderful book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter).  Relying on something called the Vicious Infinite Regress (regressus in infinitum) he proves that it’s impossible to cross the street.

Aristotle tried to put a stop to all this by distinguishing between “potential” and “actual” infinity, which was eventually used by Archimedes when he developed a technique– based on Eudoxus’ Exhaustion Property– for calculating the area of curved figures (i.e. integral calculus).  Wallace then points out how strange it is that, despite this, differential geometry and calculus are still 19 centuries away.  He then supposes that, because Rome murdered Archimedes and eventually appropriated Aristotle’s philosophy into Church dogma, the idea of the infinite was defined as an “abstract fiction and sower of confusion,” and stayed defined as such until Decartes fused algebra and geometry in the 17th century.

This is only the beginning, and of course only scratches the surface– Wallace’s history leads up to Georg Cantor’s development of set theory, which brings the infinite back into mathematics.

Here it is.  Alternatively, if you’d like to know more about calculus, Martin  Gardner and Silvanus P. Thompson  have written a very lucid book on the subject.

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

November 17, 2010

The most recent edition of this book is illustrated by Ralph Steadman.  So that’s one reason why you should just go ahead grab yourself a copy.  But maybe you can’t get your hands on that one — maybe instead you have the unillustrated and economical-in-every-way Dover Thrift Edition.  Fear not: it’s the same book, just without the kinky illustration of “Belladonna” (n. In Italian a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison.  A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues).

Bierce began this “dictionary” in 1881 as a serial in a newspaper, and continued “in a desultory way and at long intervals until 1906.”  He has been compared to Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift, at least in terms of his wit.  However, not always: he was a Union soldier at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Kenesaw Mountain, and many other bloody and horrible Civil War battles, though at the latter he sustained a serious head injury, despite which he reenlisted as soon as he was able.  Thus, if you pick up any of his Civil War writing, you will find scant hilarity.

But none of that here.  The Devil’s Dictionary is grouchy and hilarious or cynical and mean-spirited, depending on your mood (and his, maybe).  It’s meant for opening at random and reading aloud.  Bring it to Thanksgiving and amuse your family!  Here’s one to read while you pass around the ham:

“Trichinosis, n. The pig’s reply to proponents of porcophagy.”

Or when that Irritating Aunt/Sister/Lady Etc. starts prattling on about late parties, loud music, miniskirts, and how Kids these days don’t know Things:  “Prude, n. A bawd hiding behind the back of her demeanor.”

Or maybe Your Cousin the Insufferable Harry Potter fan temporarily takes his spoon from his mouth (or doesn’t) and starts to ramble on about the new HP movie:  “Hippogriff, n.  An animal (now extinct) which was half horse and half griffin.  The griffin was itself a compound creature, half lion and half eagle.  The hippogriff was actually, therefore, only one-quarter eagle, which is two dollars and fifty cents in gold.  The study of zoology is full of surprises.”

Or perhaps your family declares that they’ve had quite enough of you reading aloud from your stupid book, thank you very much, this is even worse than last year when you harassed Poor Father with an endless recitation of Gertrude Stein: “Erudition, n. Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull.”  Alternatively: “November, n.  The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.”

Check it out.

The Headless Bust: a Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium by Edward Gorey

November 16, 2010

To the memory of Lancelot Brown.”

Why is this wee book of weirdness dedicated to an 18th Century landscape architect?  Lancelot Brown was responsible for at least 150 different English landscapes (probably a lot more), and was given the nickname “Capability” Brown because he was known to see capability for improvement in every garden, landscape, and park he laid eyes on.

But this book has nothing to do with landscapes.  Or England (even though Edward Gorey fools everyone into thinking that he’s from England.  Probably because he draws in a British accent.  But he’s from Chicago!).

No:  this little book is the sequel to The Haunted Tea Cosy: a Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas.  Alas, the Library owns but one copy of that, so here’s my secret-and-brief review of that book (don’t tell anyone!).  Edmund Gravel sits down to have some tea and ten-year-old fruitcake, when from under his tea cosy springs a giant beetle creature.  “I am the Bahhumbug,” it declared; “I am here to diffuse the interests of didacticism.”  Then Edmund is visited by 3 spirits, who each do stupid things.  The End.

The Headless Bust— in which there is neither bust nor disembodied bust head — features Edmund and the Bahhumbug together again at Holidaytime, but this go-round their adventures are regaled in verse.  They are visited by a wingèd Whatsit who guides them to a “provincial town” where the various inhabitants are all distressed for some reason or another.  Eventually they return home, bewildered.  So, they send fruitcake to the indigent and get ready for The False Millennium.

What does this have to do with The Holidays?  Well, there’s fruitcake.  Or, maybe the secret is in the second-to-last verse, which references the French hymn, “Quel Grand Mystère,” that begins like this:

Ah! Quel grand mystère! / Dieu se fait enfant. / Il descend sur terre, / Lui, le tout-puissant!

It’s all about what a great mystery it is that an omnipotent deity descended to Earth in the form of a baby.    And, there’s a baby in The Headless Bust, too: it appears on top of a Summer Solstice cake (says the mother; the father vehemently disagrees).

Other possible yuletide parallels: a giant aubergine carrying a mystic lettered message floats above everyone’s head (Q code for “are you ready,” or perhaps eggplant for “Hail, y’all!”).  A man appears bearing a giant box of loose teeth, which might be useful to someone (supposes a person named Q—-).

What other holiday mysteries lurk in the lurid illustrations of Mr. Gorey?  C’est quelque chose d’un grand mystère.

Read it.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa

November 15, 2010

Two different book reviewers in The New York Times have compared this novel to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  I’m not going to disagree with them– Vargas Llosa has written about and quoted Flaubert often in essays and interviews, and he penned a work of nonfiction all about Madame Bovary, so, well, there you go (and the latter is titled The Perpetual Orgy, by the by).

I guess The Bad Girl is like Madame Bovary if, oh, –reductively speaking– Flaubert’s novel is about an overly sentimental person who spiritually wastes away while pining for unattainable fjords.  Or, alternatively, if it’s about an unhappy lady who treats her dull life companion cruelly while wasting her time on men who she thinks will give her freedom but never do (and then she dies, disfigured).  Either of these descriptions fits The Bad Girl; a man suffers from unrequited passion while the object of his affection is morally blind and perpetually disappointed.

Anyway: the similarities are most certainly there, but this is far from a point-by-point or word-for-word “retelling” of Madame Bovary.  I feel at pains to point this out because since I first read about this book in the Times, I spent the first two chapters looking for “A-HA!” moments where I could smugly accuse either the Peruvian protagonist or his lady love of being just like poor Emma Bovary.  Please don’t do that.

It hardly matters whether you see similarities to Flaubert or not (or don’t care either way).  The Bad Girl is a great book, full of sex, violence, love, humiliation, misery, and obsession.   In fact it’s so good that it feels stupid to try to characterize it with a handful of pithy book review phrases.  For example, the Bad Girl of the title: she’s a shapeshifter (in terms of identity, not any kind of supernatural weirdness).  Despite this, Vargas Llosa has no trouble whatsoever making you “see” her, even though it is entirely through the language of a sentimental and thoroughly obsessed first-person narrator.

Perhaps, for me, that’s the true similarity to Flaubert: Vargas Llosa’s ability with language.  Flaubert was so particular that he was known to spend 2 weeks writing just one sentence, yet he never comes across as overwrought or overly crafty.  It’s the same with Vargas Llosa.

For example, here is his description of an old breakwater builder:  “I saw Arquimedes in the posture Alberto had described to me: sitting like a Buddha, motionless, staring at the sea.  He was so still that a flock of white gulls walked around him, indifferent to his presence, pecking between the rocks, looking for something to eat.  The noise of the tide was stronger.  Periodically, the gulls screeched together: a sound between hoarse and shrill, at times strident.”

For me this was the beginning of a significant moment in the novel, where different thematic threads entwined.  Yet, it was written without histrionics or a lot of authorial pointing.  The whole book, despite all the man/lady hullabaloo, is without melodrama.

Read it or reserve it.

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

August 27, 2010

For some reason this was published in Britain under the title The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which sounds like a mild-mannered BBC drama that takes place in the Cotswolds or something.  But no!  This is in part the true tale of Dr. William Chester Minor, an astonishingly well-read Civil War surgeon, contributor of over 10,000 citations to the Oxford English Dictionary…and criminally insane murderer! He cut off his own penis!  It’s true!

During The Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, 5,371 Union soldiers deserted. In an effort to prevent additional desertion and avoid mass executions (the normal punishment for being AWOL), doctors were ordered to brand a 1.5 inch ‘D’ on the face of convicted deserters. Dr. Minor branded the face of an Irishman, and went mad– thoughts of retribution haunted him for the rest of his life.  It was this imagined retaliation that drove him to murder an innocent factory worker on the streets of London in 1872, after which he was imprisoned in the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.  From there he found out about the OED, and sent submissions to the editor (a self-educated Scotsman named Murray).

So half of the Oxford English Dictionary was penned by a lunatic, and that’s part of what makes Winchester’s book so exciting to read; Dr. Minor helped create one of the most important works in the English language, and he was wackadoo crazy.  BUT, the OED isn’t an English language usage guide– it’s a comprehensive  history of word etymology, and the sheer idea that a complete inventory of the English language could be compiled, alphabetically, with representative quotations is amazing.  That it was done long before computers and primarily by two people–one of them completely out of his mind–is utterly astonishing.

Read all about it.

The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh

August 26, 2010

There are certain people who insist that they hate short stories (but they just loooove reading novels!).  That sounds to me like saying that you love cake but hate cupcakes.  Whatever, weirdos.

Well, with Mr. Waugh you can get both.  But today, friends, we’re going to talk about his short stories, which are the epitome of hilarity.  Satiric, mean, witty, British hilarity.  They are also perfect for torturing your mother, if, say, she only reads cookbooks and you’re seated next to her on an airplane, drunk on gin.  Read them aloud to her in a high-pitched British accent while lightly caressing your Bichon Frise, Mr. Pettibone.  When mother asks you to please keep your voice down, shriek “but Mr. Pettibone loves LITERATURE!”  Then stand up and deliver a brief speech about the delight of Anglo-Saxon manhood.  Write the whole episode down later, and title it “Voyage of Profusion.”

So that’s Waugh, in a nutshell. And this is a whole volume of Waugh nutshells!  39 of them!  Rich people doing stupid things, mostly.  Or horrible things happening to the privileged.  Or just the privileged getting swindled. He likes to make fun of pompous people, and he’s both good at it and funny while doing it.  I suppose he’s the literary equivalent of a person who can tell jokes with a straight face–his chaotic, often absurd stories are told with utter detachment.  This changes a bit with his later writing (Brideshead Revisited, etc.), but for now he’s all satire, all the time.  Life is stupid and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Incidentally, there’s a publication called Evelyn Waugh Newsletter & Studies.  I opened up an issue at random, and read the following: “Iceberg Slim, Colette, and Martin Heidegger all confront being through their writings in their own ways, and I for one would have to think very carefully before I chose which one of them I would like to be my guide to its mysteries.”

Imagine a slim debutante saying that in earnest at a cocktail party, and you’ve got the beginning of another Waugh tale.

Read them all!

Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch

August 25, 2010

You know, I am really, really tired of lazy book blurbs lounging around on the back of my novels.  For example, the word “Faulkneresque” often shows up in review snippets pertaining to Clinch’s latest novel.  But, to me it seems as though any time a writer strays from a standard linear plot progression and/or invokes regional dialect/stream-of-consciousness/monologue-of-the-mentally-ill in lieu of omniscient narration he or she is automatically compared to William Faulkner.


I find it annoying when reviewers do this, because often the comparison is only marginal and has almost nothing to do with the actual style of a writer.  It would be like saying, “habanero peppers are like carrots: they are both crunchy and orange!”  I question whether the reviewer has even bothered to do more than skim the book.  “An unflinching, deceptively simple tour-de-force written in Faulkneresque prose.”


But, okay.  This novel really does bear some similarities to Faulkner, both superficial ones (each chapter is narrated by a different person, one of those persons is mentally retarded) and stylistic ones (visceral descriptions of rural life and a narrative tone that engenders a kind of detachment in the reader).  It’s also very, very good, and if you are of a certain writerly disposition you will feel intense jealousy at the ease with which Clinch switches narrators and conjures the dairyfarm landscape of upstate New York.

This novel is loosely based on actual events, and as was the case with Let the Great World Spin, you can view a documentary (Brother’s Keeper) if you want the true story.  I watched the film after I read the novel, so I can say with certainty that it doesn’t matter if you watch the film at all; the novel stands firm on its own.

Three brothers live and work on a dilapidated dairy farm in Madison County, New York.  One morning, two wake up to discover that the third has died in the night.  This hardly seems unusual, as the brothers are senescent and deeply weathered from a lifetime of farming.  Neighbors, family, and paramedics are notified; but, surprisingly, the coroner’s report indicates the possibility of murder.  This is especially strange, as the brothers have lived, worked, and slept (literally) side-by-side since childhood.  An investigation ensues, and the brothers’ story unfolds.

The epigraph is a quote from a Tom Waits tune (“Murder in the Red Barn”). So, not surprisingly, this book reads like a very long Waits song.++ Gritty boots, a grimy barn, old buckets, a boarded-up jakes.  A yard guarded by whittled windmills carved by a grizzled simpleton.  A rusted bus full of turkeys, an old red rooster, a skittish mule.  That sort of thing.

Read it!

++Speaking of this novel’s musical qualities, this book even has a playlist, as made by the author.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

August 24, 2010

“I have a thing to tell you. I know all souls are one and all souls lonely.”

If you are a fan of McCarthy but have yet to read Suttree, don’t even bother to finish reading this.  Just go get the book.  But if you’ve stayed away from McCarthy altogether for one reason or another (violence, despair, apocalypse), you may be surprised by this often comic, generally optimistic novel.

But I should also mention that the novel’s comedy and optimism is peppered with death and despondency and general nastiness.  So if, say, Escape from Bridezilla is your idea of literary fun, be forewarned: there’s a junkyard hangover, watermelon rape, and at least one soiled prophylactic fished out of the Tennessee with the intent of reuse. Et cetera.

The novel is named for protagonist Cornelius Suttree, who has rejected his family’s middle-class values and has chosen instead an unseemly life on a houseboat near the underground world of Knoxville’s McAnally Flats—urban Tennessee home of drunks, derelicts, gamblers, prostitutes, murderers, street preachers, and thieves. From autumn of 1950 to the spring of 1955 we follow Sutree around and beyond the dilapidated river district while he carouses with J-Bone, Oceanfrog, Ab Jones, Blind Richard, Trippin Through the Dew, and (my favorite) Gene Harrogate, infamous violator of watermelons. There’s also a ragpicker, a black sorceress, an Indian fisherman, a family of mussel hunters, and a drunken whore.

But Suttree remains intensely lonely, despite this motley (and often hilarious) company.  He has neither a place among the moneyed middle-class nor among the outcasts; it’s as though he’s in limbo, a social ghost with a biblical inner monologue.++ Despite this, he can’t seem to leave: regardless of where or how far he wanders, he continuously returns to his lonely river houseboat and regular carnival of Knoxville weirdos; that is, until the Flats are threatened by demolition to make room for a freeway. But it’s with the threat destruction and “progress” that McCarthy offers Suttree –and us– a release from self-abnegation and abjection, redemption from nihilism.

Check out or reserve a copy.

++Some critics like to point out similarities between McCarthy and Suttree:  McCarthy’s father was a Knoxville lawyer, and Cormac McCarthy is Cormac McCarthy, etc. etc.  After publishing Suttree, McCarthy moved to El Paso and published Blood Meridian, physically and artistically moving Westward (Suttree’s conclusion is a literary egress from the East).  Though, as interesting as these details are, it doesn’t strike me as particularly revelatory that Cormac McCarthy would feel alienated among businessmen and more at home among bleaching bones and lizards.

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

August 23, 2010

I first read this novel (E una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore) many years ago while sitting under the skeletal remains of a giraffe.  It’s a novel about the intimate relationship between reading and living, so while this decision wasn’t deliberate, I’m glad for it after the fact.

In an introduction to a completely different book, Calvino wrote the following (as translated by Teresa de Lauretis): “Readings and lived experiences are not two universes, but one. To be interpreted, every experience of life recalls certain readings and becomes fused with them. That books are always born of other books is a truth only seemingly contradictory to this other truth: that books are born of practical day-to-day life, and of the relationships among men.”

If you aren’t a student of Structural Linguistics, then this is probably a pretty weird thing for you to think about.  Very, very briefly (and please elaborate in the comments, if you like), Structural Linguists are interested in how individual words or parts of words are used to form larger structures (e.g., face, faces; I am, am I?).  Their research into linguistic behavior has shed light on how language is both acquired and used to communicate meaning.

Now, extrapolate this to a novel: an author uses structured language to communicate meaning to readers.  As in, say, a conversation, there are established conventions in novels that both authors and readers are aware of (character development, plot progression).  But, consider the potential tension between your expectations as a reader and the author’s desire to be distinct and original. That is to say, as an author, if you conform completely then you may be dull and repetitive; if you defy all expectations to the utmost you may be unintelligible. As a reader, if you allow yourself to be utterly absorbed in the “reality” of the novel then you are possibly delusional; if you are completely detached, well, then you won’t enjoy a thing.

So now this novel. Calvino has written a book entirely about reading–and you are the main character!  A Reader –you– begins a book: an exciting political thriller, full of trains and smoke and subterfuge.  But, after the first chapter, the rest of the book is blank.  You head back to the bookstore to get a different, hopefully complete copy, and encounter an Other Reader (Ludmilla), who has had the same thing happen to her!  You each acquire new copies of your books and exchange phone numbers.  After you return home, you learn that what you thought was a new copy of the political thriller is actually a completely different novel altogether –just as engrossing, though– but it also breaks off after the first chapter.  You call Ludmilla: it’s happened to her, too!

Together, you and Ludmilla investigate and encounter a possible book fraud conspiracy, authoritarian regimes, an odd author and translator, and ten different unfinished novels.  Your attitude toward beginnings and endings is questioned, and your readerly expectations are subverted.

Find out how it ends.

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