Monday, June 19, 2006

Harald Weinrich, Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting

Since so much of a typical school year for me is devoted to reading (or re-reading) works of fiction, I like to immerse myself in some good non-fiction over the summer months, whether it be for pure entertainment or the enhancement of my classes. Here is a book that falls into the latter category. Literary works that offer depictions of an "underworld" or "hell" are staples of the A.P. English course I teach, and as one of the five rivers of the ancient Greek underworld, Lethe (translated in the Greek as "forgetfulness") is perhaps the most "literary" of the rivers (cropping up again and again in poetry and fiction as a metaphor for intoxication, for sleepiness, even for truth, etc.), and Weinrich's book traces the various ways in which memory and forgetting function throughout works ancient thru modern.

Admittedly, this book addresses a number of authors I've either never read (e.g., Simonides, Rousseau, Saul Bellow) or never even heard of (Themistocles? Chamisso? Kleist?), but the premise of tracing the notions of why memory is significant to, say, society's morals is a fascinating topic when Weinrich examines how memory (and, in turn, forgetting) functions within the works of Homer, Dante, Kant, Proust, Pirandello, and Weisel. Several years back, I read Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge, which similarly traces a common theme through the whole history of Western literature (starting with the Genesis myth and concluding with a reading of the works of the Marquis de Sade), and while I found Shattuck a much more engaging read, I thought Weinrich more focused in his analysis. Some of Weinrich's strongest points were perhaps reserved for addressing why memory is important to cultural literacy, what constitutes an event worthy of memory, and why forgetting serves social significance (beyond the society and time period in which its event occurred).

Make no mistake: this is hardly "beachside" reading for the average high school student. But it was something I found interesting and useful for classroom use, taken all in all.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Happy Bloomsday!

"Bloomsday is a holiday observed annually on June 16 to celebrate the life of Irish writer James Joyce and commemorate the events in his novel Ulysses, all of which took place on the same day in Dublin in 1904. The day is also a secular holiday in Ireland. The name derives from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist in Ulysses, and June 16 was the date of Joyce's first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle, when they walked to the Dublin village of Ringsend." [...]

Read more about it here.

Check out The Brazen Head, an excellent James Joyce-related website at The Modern Word.

And here's The Onion 's take on it! : )


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Adam Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

Over the past seventeen years of teaching I've been on countless commttees -- none having ever gone smoothly, mind you -- and it is the mere fact that a committee of fifty-four well-educated but religiously biased and politically savvy individuals can somehow reach consensus on one definitive translation of the Holy Bible that makes the whole idea of consensus within a committee all the more astounding!

Nicolson offers plenty of good stuff here. He provides an interesting portrait of King James I, a walking paradox whose desire to prompt this all-inclusive translation project stems from his own religious biases and immense ego; he details the meticulous and ingenious methods used by the translators to arrive at a text that is at once readable and literary, yet ambiguous and accessible; he weaves within the narrative the "dirty laundry" of many of the key translators, continually reminding the reader of how such a majestic text derived from very human readers; and he affords an abundance of details about the Jacobean era to give one a solid sense of the zeitgeist in which the King James Version was created.

(For me, this book works well with the teaching of Shakespeare and Milton, as well as the early Puritans.)

This was recommended to me by one of the students in my summer Newberry seminar on Milton's Paradise Lost, and is a good book for anyone who wants to see just what goes into the translation of text, especially one rife with religious and political significance. Although I've read numerous books on the writing and translating of the Christian Old and New Testaments (and I'll list a few good recommendations below), God's Secretaries reminded me of just how much political importance was associated with a particular bible translation ... something which I suppose I'd forgotten about.

Rather than its dogma, I prefer the study of biblical text from a literary standpoint -- the stories, the mythologies, and the meanings we, as readers, have historically granted these stories. A few books I've read on the subject, which are quite good (some of which are Pultizer nominees), include:

Charles Panati, Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World's Religions

Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism

I also enjoy the works of Elaine Pagels, especially Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, The Origin of Satan, and The Gnostic Gospels

If you (like me) are intrigued by why many human beings seek religion and a belief in a deity of their choice, you may wish to check these out.


* BTW: I received as a Father's Day present a copy of Karen Armstrong's A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I'll let you know how it is. (6/19/06)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Calvin Trillin, Tepper Isn't Going Out

It's simple:

After a hard day at the office, Murray Tepper likes to park his car (always legally) along the streets of Manhattan and read the newspaper quietly. At first, no one other than drivers looking for parking spots (and who are much dismayed by the notion of anyone sitting in a parked car, reading) are bothered by this, but gradually Tepper garners the unsolicited attention of pedestrians who, inspired by this simple act of civil obedience, now crowd the streets in hopes of sitting on his passenger side, seeking advice and enlightenment from Tepper. Eventually the news media, a book agent, and City Hall itself become swept along in what turns into a hilarious legal battle for this Everyman and his right to park and read. And when questioned why he's sitting in his car reading, Tepper's answer is always simple: "There's seven minutes left on the meter."

Tepper Isn't Going Out is an entertaining and quick read. Aside from some mild satire involving city politics, media celebrity, and literary tastes, this is not a book to read for deep meanings ... and that's fine, too. In some respects, the novel does with/for New York City what A Confederacy of Dunces does with/for New Orleans (structurally, both novels are similar), and it made me notice something, albeit hard to describe, about a New York "style" of writing that is reminiscent of authors like J.D. Salinger and E.B. White -- an easy, crisp, and lightly witty prose style that, except for references to laptops and the internet, could have just as easily come from a 1956 issue of The New Yorker.

I'm not crazy about the cover of the book, for whatever that's worth. The pastel colors and Crayola-like drawing perhaps "work" with the prose style I just mentioned, but I don't know. Sometimes when I like a book but dislike its cover, I'll play a game with myself and try to "re-invent" the cover, and in this case a quirky Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post-like scene might work better. But again, for whatever that's worth.

This is yet another fun book with which I had the pleasure of starting the summer. I'm on a roll!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Frank Portman, King Dork

Every so often a book comes around that's just a fun read, and Portman's debut novel was just the ticket to kick off my summer reading. Recommended to me by a friend and colleague, the novel is, as its basis, young Tom Henderson's contemporary rant against what he calls the "Catcher Cult," the mindless belief amongst all Baby Boomers that somehow The Catcher in the Rye is the greatest book ever written. This he contends until one day discovering a stack of heavily annotated paperbacks once belonging to his father (who was a suicide when Tom was eight), and throughout the novel -- in between confrontations with his mom and stepdad, second-base hook-ups with girls, visits to a psychologist, and reveries about being in a band (and its hysterical revolving door of names and personnel) with his friend Sam -- "Chi Mo" (i.e., Tom) reads the various books in his father's collection in an attempt to learn more about the man he little knew (the stack includes, among others, Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, Graham Greene's Brighton Park, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, etc.).

From a literary standpoint, this is a fun book. We get to hear Tom's reactions to each of the books from his father's collection, and whether he's giving each book an accurate reading or not becomes part of the fun of his character development. Also, he returns to The Catcher in the Rye periodically to denounce its dated language (the Holdenisms) and irrelevance to contemporary youth culture, but watching Tom's experiences in the first semester of his sophomore year parallel those of Holden over his weekend (the girl obssessions, the fights, the contemplations on religion, the conflicts with authority figures; at times, Tom even unknowingly lapsing into a few Holdenisms of his own) adds to the book's charm.

But for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like inside the hormone-addled brain of a sixteen-year-old boy, this is pretty much on the mark. Some things never change, regardless of your generation. And if you want a book that rocks (the author is the lead singer of the Mr. T. Experience), Chi Mo's observations on various genres of rock, not to mention the band name fixation, are absolutely hysterical. If you've ever been in a band, this is a must-read!

Looking for a fun summer read? Here it is!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Much-Needed Update!

Well, needless to say it's been a few months since I actually took the time to list anything I've read. The entire Spring got away from me, I must admit, and while I did a good amount of reading, I simply didn't have the time, patience, or inclination to log-on and write about it.

Here are a few of the books I have read since ... well, January 16th:

Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories -- I'd never read any Kipling before, and this was the first 2006 selection for our Saturday book group. I was impressed not only with how entertaining the stories were (despite their being quite politically dated), and how much they seemed ahead of their time in terms of style. (January)

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman at the Charge -- Hilarious stuff! Flashman is a recurring Fraser character who finds himself in various historical events and periods. Here he is involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Flashman is hailed as a hero in all his escapades, but he's a liar, a bawd, a coward, and it makes his adventures that much funnier! This is laugh-out-loud reading! (February)

Franz Kafka, The Trial -- Creepy and relevant! (March)

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son -- This was the next novel in my ongoing attempt to read all of Charles Dickens's novels. I began it on Wednesday, April 46th and finished it on Wednesday, May 31st. My goal was to finish its 948 pages before June 1st. This novel marks the start of Dickens's "Middle Period," wherein he tries to balance the humor and fun of his earlier novels with the socially conscious works of his later period. It was good. (April/May)

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair -- A cool little book that was recommended to me by one of the students in my spring Newberry Library seminar. For bibliophiles it is a must ... especially if you've read Jane Eyre recently! Tuesday Next is the protagonist: a time-travelling literary detective! Simple, fun reading! (May)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (as published in installments in Stanford University's monthly facsimile of The Strand Magazine) -- Each year, Stanford's Discovering Dickens project publishes a Dickens novel in facsimile installments. This year, they gave Boz a rest and selected Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories from The Strand Magazine (circa 1891), and the stories are compellingly fun! (January thru April)

Gregory Maguire, Son of a Witch -- Never finished it. I'd read Wicked last year and loved it. This book just didn't grab me . . .

I'll get back in the update groove, dearest Reader. Just you wait. : )