Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reflections on the Year Gone By, and a Question for You, Dear Reader: How Can We Be Better?

The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald
With the coming of 2011, it is inevitable (and healthy, I would argue) that we all reflect for a time on the year gone by.  I began TLM in March with my very first blog post on The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, with the help of Aaron and Greg, we proceeded to genarate another 50 posts (including this one) in the following 9 months.  I have my personal favorites, of course:  our Declaration of War on All Things Twilight is a poor (but honest) man's literary manifesto; Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, which continues both to haunt me and to climb the ranks of my top ten novels of all time (it's currently number seven); and Ulysses, which represents a hard-won personal battle over the forces of literary intimidation and general laziness.    

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the WestObjectively speaking, I think that we've been modestly successful in 2010.  This past November, we received more than a thousand page views in a single month, which I consider a real achievement.  And, in December, we briefly achieved 100 followers before someone dropped off the face of Google Earth and reduced us to 99 once again.  Of course, many, many book blogs carry several hundred or even several thousand followers as a matter of course (and we applaud them for it).  But our focus is a little different--we've tried to stay true to our mission: promoting the reading of literary fiction (and the occassional work of non-fiction) among male readers, an endangered species if ever there was one. 

UlyssesWhich leads me to the point of this reflective post--we here at TLM appreciate the support of each and every one of you, and we recognize the strides that we have made in 2010--but we want to refocus and redouble our efforts on promoting the reading of fiction among men in 2011, and for that we need your help. 

Based upon the comments that we received in 2010, there are a few promises that we are making to you in 2011:

1.  Keep the post titles and tone light and playful--it seems clear that a playful sense of humor or at least a dry wit generates interest, drives readership, and creates loyalty.  Relatedly, I vow not to use the first-person plural unless I am actually talking about "us" as a group; 

2.  Bring insight to bear and focus on unique aspects of each work that we review--there are literally thousands upon thousands of dry, uninteresting, and very opinionated book reviews out there (I'm looking at you, Amazon).  But we strive to create discussion, which requires a novel approach, or at least an interesting topic.  

3.  Be more specific about how each work is of specific interest to men--we've never been nor will we ever be a He-Man Woman-Hater's Club (that's a Little Rascals reference for you youngsters out there), but the point here is to make reading relevant to the lives of our male readers (which we hope may also be of interest to our female readers); and

4.  (Related to number three above) Incorporate more references to our favorite alcoholic beverages--we've received almost as much comment on our passing references to microbrews, scotches, and rums as we've received on the books themselves.  And they seem to go hand in hand--a good book and a nice warm tumbler of single-malt scotch.  It's always after five o'clock somewhere.

And now it's your turn.  What else would you have us do?  What do you love about your favorite book blogs?  What do you hate?  How can we improve the quality of our posts here at TLM?  How can we generate/maintain more interest among our target demographic--men and the women that love them will push them to read again?  Please do comment, and do so with brutal honesty, for we are committed to improvements in 2011.

Happy New Year to all!     

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Holiday Interlude: Immoveable Feast, A Paris Christmas by John Baxter

Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas (P.S.)Cookies, anyone?  They're fresh out of the oven.  How about some egg nog?  We're flavoring it with Ron Zacapa, which our wife assures us is the finest rum in the world.  When you're settled in, please pull a chair up to the fire.  All set?  Good.  

We bring you a bit of a holiday treat today, that being our brief review of Immoveable Feast, A Paris Christmas by John Baxter.  Now, we here at TLM love Christmas--and we love Paris--and we would love to spend Christmas in Paris.  But to say that we love Immoveable Feast is probably going a bit too far.  Not that it's an unenjoyable work--in fact, we quite enjoyed it--but we found it difficult to find substance in a series of essays about yet another foreigner bumbling his way through the field of French haute cuisine after reading Joyce and Melville for the last two months.  And now we can't believe that we just wrote that--seriously, have you ever read a more pretentious statement?  And at Christmas too.  Shame on us.  If anyone deserves coal this Christmas, it's us.  Maybe we should stop writing in the third person ...  

Let's start this again.  Immoveable Feast is the year-long story of Australian author John Baxter as he scours the French countryside to prove his culinary self-worth to his French wife's traditional family by cooking them a traditional French Christmas feast.  I enjoyed the book at a very superficial level, which is where it deserves to be examined.  Like my grandmother's sprinkled, tree-shaped Christmas cookies, Immoveable Feast is light and sugary and completely devoid of nutritious substance.  And just like a nice round Christmas fruit cake, Immoveable Feast is the type of book that, if you don't pick it up during the holiday season, is destined to sit--increasingly brick-like and forgotten--in the back of your cupboards until it sparks to life and consumes you you get around to throwing it out. 

But if you do pick up Immoveable Feast during the holidays, like that cute family that makes the rounds singing Christmas carols every year, you will very likely enjoy it for at least an hour or two before it begins to grate on you.  Seriously, though, the prose is light and easy, the humor plentiful, and the book is strewn with illustrations that give it an added Christmas appeal.  And the descriptions of the touch, taste, and smell of traditional French Christmas dishes, as well as their ingredients, are genuinely mouth-watering.  All kidding aside, I did enjoy it and I do recommend it.

So, what are your Christmas (or holiday) favorites?  An extra cookie for anyone that comments without mentioning Dickens.  

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Literary Blog Hop, Wherein I Sing the Song of Myself

Literary Blog HopIt's Thursday again, and our friends over at The Blue Bookcase are once again hosting the Literary Blog Hop--a capital idea if ever there was one.  This week, I must admit, they've unsettled me.  This week's discussion topic (from the very well-read and articulate Parrish Lantern) is "Who is your favorite poet and why?"  And like a boot to the head, I suddenly came to the realization that The Literate Man has entirely ignored the topic of poetry for nearly nine months now.  That said, there is plenty of poetry (or at least dirty limerick) in Ulysses, and it is based on Homer's Odyssey, and Joyce's prose is nothing if not poetic, so I give myself a half point for our two reviews of that book (here and here).  But that does little to ameliorate this deplorable situation, which really deserves some serious attention.  

So, there's no time like the present.

Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 EditionMy favorite poet, hands down, is Walt Whitman.  The why of my choice has everything to do with Whitman's poem, Song of Myself, included in Leaves of Grass.  I grew up in a very small, one stop light town in Western New York, where I had a vague notion that the world somewhere out there was large and busy and exciting, with limiteless possibilities for those that were willing to dive into it, but it wasn't until I read Song of Myself that I knew it for a certainty.  Song is nothing short of a celebration of the great variety of human existence and endeavor, admittedly focused on a post-frontier America, but also universally applicable.  In Song and elsewhere, Whitman captures the harsh reality of human existence--the blood and sweat and decay--and places it in the larger context of the wonder of physical existence and the endless cycles of birth and death that bring us all together, both physically and emotionally.  If I'm honest with myself, I think that Whitman still provides at least one of the pillars of my own individual world view. 

And so, we owe a debt of gratitude to Parrish Lantern and The Blue Bookcase for bringing this glaring omission to our attention.  It shall be rectified.  In the meantime, what do you think of Whitman?  Is there a particular poet that reaches your heart or tickles your fancy more directly?  And to whom do you owe your own particular world view?    


Monday, November 29, 2010

Ulysses, a Masterpiece, and My New Sixth Favorite Novel for Men

UlyssesSo, I've done it. I've read Ulysses from beginning to end, finding parallels between the characters in Joyce's portrait of Dublin and Homer's epic of Ulysses' return to Ithaca after the Trojan War; slogging through the difficult chapters told in stream of consciousness; jumping from character to character as Leopold Bloom makes his way across Dublin at midday; patiently wading through Joyce's mockery of various affected styles of English prose; enduring the staccato-like catechism (which was apparently Joyce's favorite part of the novel); and winding up with Molly Bloom's internal soliloquy, which is without punctuation and so full of bodily functions and sexual fantasies that it would make even a sailor blush. I didn't do it alone, mind you--I had a Princeton professor to guide me--but it's done. And at the end of the day, I've emerged exhausted, but with a profound respect for Joyce as an artist, as a visionary, but most of all as a humanist.

There are too many dimensions to Ulysses to try to capture more than a handful in any reasonable review, so I won't even try. Joyce himself famously said that, with respect to Ulysses, he had "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." I'm focused here on the three aspects of the novel that impressed me most. In no particular order, they are as follows:

1. Recognizing the epic in the everyday. Ulysses takes place over the course of one day--June 16, 1904--in which Joyce follows first Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter-ego and the protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) and then Leopold Bloom (the protagonist of Ulysses) as they make their way separately from their respective homes, through the streets of Dublin on a variety of errands, toward an unanticipated reunion in the wee hours of the night. The story relies for its structure on Homer's epic, The Odyssey, which first follows Telemachus (Ulysses' son) as he leaves home to search for his absent father, and then Ulysses as he returns to his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. Numerous episodes recounted in The Odyssey have their corollaries in Ulysses, including (among many others) a humorous take on Homer's sirens and an encounter with a (then) modern-day cyclops, myopic in his view of Irish identity and his own racial superiority.  Part of Joyce's genius is in showing that, viewed from the proper perspective, every life is an epic every bit as adventuresome as that of Ulysses.

2. Innovation in style. Though the original story was serialized and then published as a whole in only three parts, Joyce himself later accepted the addition of 18 Odyssey-derived episode headings. Nearly every episode exhibits a different literary style or character perspective, from stream of consciousness to newspaper headlines to mock Olde English to mythological description to question and answer (the catechism), from the head of Stephen Dedalus to Leopold Bloom to various characters in the Dublin street to an unnamed observer in a Dublin bar to young Gerty on the beach to Molly Bloom's final soliloquy. To anyone that has not read the work, this would appear to be an impossible, chaotic jumble of storytelling techniques and perspectives, sure to derail the main story. But Joyce makes it work, partly because the story that he tells is so simple and straightforward and human (see below) that the reader can easily follow along with a little patience and, if necessary (as in my case), some study. The mix of technique is shocking to modern readers--I can only imagine what it must have seemed to readers in the 1920's--but once you get the hang of it, Joyce's genius really shines through.

3. Daring to tell a story that is human in every respect. As mentioned briefly above, there are more references to bodily functions and sexual fantasy in Ulysses than perhaps in any other book that I have ever read. And while I generally view the overuse of sex or potty humor as a cheap device designed to pander to a lower readership, I think just the opposite is true in Ulysses.  Joyce used the embarrassments and oddities and fetishes of every day to create not only believeable characters, but characters that you would swear that you know personally, even thought they are removed from modern life by an ocean and a century.  The same is true of the misunderstandings, petty jealousies, lethargy, and persecutions that sap their and our strength day after day--theirs are yours and vice versa.  This is Joyce's greatest trick in my opinion: allowing the reader to see him or herself in not only a single character, but in all the main characters of the work, male and female alike.

As a modern reader of what has been often deemed the greatest novel ever written in the English language, the only criticism that I have of Ulysses is that it is too historically tied to the issue of Irish nationalism.  The references to English oppression and the roots of Sinn Fein make the work somewhat less relevant to the modern reader than it might otherwise be.  At the same time, given that one of Ulysses' main themes is usurpation, I am not sure that it could have been written any other way.  And it is for this reason alone that I place it sixth among my personal recommendations of novels for men--those that sit above it (and many that sit below it) are more enduring as expressions of universal human experience not tied to a particular time or place.  This takes nothing away from the work itself, of course--it is undeniably a masterpiece--but reflects only my own personal view.  I hope that in these lines I've persuaded more people to give Ulysses the old college try.  In any case, let me know what you think of Ulysses, whether you've read it or not.

As a result of my experience with Ulysses, I have ordered an old, well-thumbed library copy of Finnegans Wake, which I am resolved to pick up (and review) at some point in the near future.  If anyone has a recommendation for a critical review, please pass it along--I know that I'm going to need it.  In the meantime, I need a little break.           

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Literary Blog Hop (We'll Be Having Scotch and Cigars in the Library)

Someone among our friends over at The Blue Bookcase has been taking her ginko biloba (I'm betting on Christina).  This weekend marks the first ever Literary Blog Hop wherein we snooty literary types look disapprovingly through our wire-rimmed glasses, over the rims of our scotch tumblers, and through the haze of cigar smoke in our grand libraries at all those lesser genres, which so murk the crystal clear waters of the beautiful River of Literature, which flows unbroken down the valley of time from its origins among the forests of late-medieval England and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.

We're just kidding, of course.  I myself occasionally read a Clive Cussler (adventure) or Orson Scott Card (sci-fi), and I even made it through the first 50 pages of Twilight before I was forced to quit and dedicate my life to its eradication from the planet (see our Declaration of War on All Things Twilight here).  Which is to say that our tastes here at The Literate Man are not entirely or exclusively "literary," but we do generally find that we obtain the most enjoyment from works that tell an essentially human story, demonstrate growth or at least change in their characterization, endure the tests of time (exhibiting a consistent social relevance), and evidence an expert, innovative, or at least playful use of structure and language.  We also prefer beer over scotch, but that is the subject of a different post.

One of our favorites (I say speaking for myself and Aaron, but perhaps not Greg) is Sometimes A Great Notion by Ken Kesey (see our review of it here).  Kesey is much better known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--which is a good book, don't get me wrong--than for Sometimes A Great Notion, which was his masterpiece and (arguably) the best book ever written about life in the great American Northwest.  Sometimes is a novel of freedom and independence set in a world that tends toward conformity, which is perhaps the most relevant story of our age.  Each of its many characters develop throughout the course of the novel, but none more so than the bookish and rebellious Leland Stamper, who finally comes to stand with his family against the forces arrayed against them.  The novel is as relevant today as the day that it was written and its relevance should continue as long as workers' unions continue to exist.  But perhaps the most impressive and "literary" feature of the work is Kesey's technique of multiple perspectives, whereby the thoughts and actions of several characters are presented on the same page and sometimes in the same line.  It sounds confusing, I'll admit, but somehow Kesey makes it work.  The truth is that I've never read anything like it except, perhaps, James Joyce's Ulysses, which I am convinced must have directly influenced Kesey's work.

So that's our contribution to the first Literary Blog Hop discussion.  If you're here from there, please feel free to look around.  Thanks again to The Blue Bookcase for putting an obviously great idea into practice.  We sincerely intend to participate as frequently as possible.

Literary Blog Hop

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Review of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, or How Vladimir Nabokov Is Like a Paranoid, Junkyard Dog

Doctor ZhivagoDoctor Zhivago is a tale of love set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1921, as well as the institution of the Soviet Union, which followed it.  The novel is, in essence, a criticism of the Soviet system, which destroyed both culture and humanism in its single-minded pursuit of an ideology that was progressively twisted by those in power.  More grandly, it is the story of the inability of the individual to control even his own destiny among the strong currents of time, ideology, and power.  Publication was refused Pasternak in the Soviet Union in 1956.  A copy of the manuscript was then smuggled out of the country in 1957 and appeared in English the next year.  Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, which he was forced to refuse in order to forego a scandal in the USSR.  Unfortunately, he died only two years later.          

I've read a few reviews of Doctor Zhivago out there on the interwebs, and it's impossible not to notice a fairly uniform dislike for it.  Most reviews find it long and stale, with relatively cardboard characters that are thrown together in odd and contrived places and situations simply to move the story along or make a particular point about politics or ideology.  And it's not simply a case of cultural differences or a misunderstanding of the artist--the dislike runs wide and deep. Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov once said, "Doctor Zhivago is a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelieveable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences."  Ouch!  So much for mutual support among Russian novelists. 

I personally disagree with Nabokov's overall negative assessment of the work, which is to say that I like Doctor Zhivago immensely.  I find it a fascinating account of life in the Soviet Union and an honest portrayal of mostly apolitical citizens whose primary concern is simply to survive the buffeting winds of change and idealism.  The writing is depressingly beautiful.  While Pasternak is not as fluid and artistic in his writing as John Steinbeck, Doctor Zhivago flavors strongly to me of East of Eden--an epic tale of love set against the backdrop of forces (natural or political) that are beyond the characters' control and which ultimately end up determining their lives.  At the same time, Doctor Zhivago is periodically disjointed and contrived, characteristics which (I like to think) Pasternak himself attributed to the Soviet state that had swallowed his people and his culture. 

And there are other (convincing) reasons for Nabokov's harsh opinion than the honest critique of a fellow writer.  In fact, Doctor Zhivago was released in the West at around the same time that Nabokov released Lolita, and his criticism smacks strongly of territoriality--a junkyard dog running off the stray that has wandered too close to his fence.  Moreover, Nabokov was convinced that Doctor Zhivago--despite its criticism of the Soviet system and the Soviets' refusal to publish the work--was a public relations plot by the Soviets to raise Soviet literature to new heights (i.e., above Nabokov himself) in the eyes of the world. 

At the same time, looking behind the (seemingly paranoid) green monster, I think Nabokov is on to something.  Doctor Zhivago has gained a fairly sizeable acceptance in its numerous film adaptations.  Even today, the story seems to run fairly consistently on the various classic movie channels.  In short, because Doctor Zhivago is sweeping in its setting, both historically and geographically, and because it attempts to construct a romantic relationship that is buffeted by the winds of history, it appears to tap into those notions of romanticism that we have deemed appropriate to the screen, but not the page.

Is there anyone out there, besides me, that likes Doctor Zhivago more than its film adaptations?  Is this unusual?  Are there other examples of works of literature that have received only a middling popular acceptance as literature, but have blossomed in film?        

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pride and Prejudice at The Jersey Shore (and, Oh Yeah, The Daily Beast Calls Fiction Readers Stupid)

We try to stay above the fray here at TLM.  Really.  We rarely comment on headlines, except when they relate directly to the literary scene, which (it seems to us) happens less and less frequently.  And when I refer to the literary scene, I generally mean well-recognized prizes for established literary genius (see our recycled review of Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa's work, Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras here).  See how I did that?  I just recycled Vargas Llosa for the third time.  Priceless.

Pride And PrejudiceAs for the would-be literary trolls, we try not to feed them.  I mean, have you heard so much as a peep from us about toddler Justin Bieber's upcoming memoir?  Not a one.  How about Snooki's pending contribution to the world's literary heritage?  Nada.  Though, I do fully expect that it will have all the girlish intrigue of Emma and the social commentary of a modern-day Pride and Prejudice.  Oh, I shouldn't have written that ... temptation too great ... but no ... I can't ... I shouldn't ... I can't help it .. oh what the hell? 

"All round chicks?" interjected Mr. The Situation laying aside his teacup.  "Yeah, I know a few.  But those bitties gots ta have skills in tequila slammin, booty bumpin and grindin, Jersey hairspray art, ID'n muscle cars, patchin up old wife beaters, mixin' protein shakes, and they gotta have a nose to avoid that gold-plating that leaves your neck green to be tagged all round in The Situation's book."

"Right on, brotha" agreed his faithful companion, Mr. Pauly D, most enthusiastically "And she gotta have a sweet booty to be tagged at all ... that goes without sayin'."

"Get lost," said Ms. Snooki, gently disagreeing with her companions, as she picked at a ribbon on her dress that had come unraveled.  "You two losers ain't know no chicks like that."     

Oh, I think I've got a best seller on my hands ... Pride and Prejudice at the Jersey Shore.  It would be like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but a little less believable. 

Anyhow ... before I was so rudely taken on that Jersey Shore tangent, I sat down to tell our faithful readers that The Daily Beast (my favorite news aggregator and my home page) thinks that we and they are stoo-pid.  How so, you ask?  Well, in compiling its annual list of America's Smartest (and Dumbest) Cities, the editors at The Daily Beast took four factors into account as follows:

1.  The ratio of those holding undergraduate and advanced degrees to overall population (over 25);

2.  The ratio of institutions of higher education to overall population;

3.  The ratio of public libraries to overall population; and

4.  Population-adjusted figures for the purchase of non-fiction book titles.

Now, I have no real problem with the first three factors, though I have to say that public library figures seem outdated in the Digital Age.  But I have to seriously question the wisdom of focusing on non-fiction book sales at a time when many (if not most) of those titles are being put out by political pundits and (I kid you not) two of the top ten non-fiction best sellers this past week were "A**holes Finish First" by Tucker Max (if you do not know who this is, be thankful and let it go) and "Sh** My Dad Says" by Justin Halpern.

Does reading non-fiction make you smarter than reading fiction?  I ask not only because I think the answer is obvious, but because I fear that this is the decided point of view of most male readers ... and we're a small group as it is.  Why this bias against fiction, which at least at the higher echelons seems to be much more widely recognized, appreciated, and enduring than non-fiction?  Is it just another symptom of a global culture with ADD (seeking the sound bytes that non-fiction titles seem to provide) or is it something more deep-seated and sinister?

Please discuss.  Meanwhile, I'm going to get started on Pride and Prejudice at the Jersey Shore.

N.B. The Daily Beast's faux pas is compounded by the fact that its very name comes from the fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh's novel, Scoop.  Assuming that someone at The Daily Beast has actually read the novel and that the founders did not simply pick the name off of a Wikipedia entry, they too would appear to be among the stupid.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ulysses at the Halfway Point, or Who's Buying the Next Round of Guinness? (No Seriously, Who?)

UlyssesI suspect that my prior view of the work of James Joyce was very similar to most people's conception.  I remember picking up a copy of Finnegan's Wake from the public library in Dubuque, Iowa, where I was studying for the LSATs at the time, thinking that it was the perfect opportunity to delve into a literary classic and, perhaps, to learn a bit about my own Irish heritage beyond the holy and hereditary trinity that is the love of the drink, the written word, and all things green.  I remember just as clearly returning that volume only a week later, confused, dejected, and certain that its "classic" status depended entirely upon its impenetrability, coupled with the very human tendency to judge as genius anything that we feel that we cannot fully understand.  In short, I judged it as a complete fraud somewhat-lyrical, stream of consciousness relic of an age long past that had little to no applicability to my life.  I viewed anything written by Joyce with the same colored lens.

Then, earlier this year, my wife and I planned a trip to Ireland (my first, though I dare say not my last).  I generally endeavor to read some classic piece of literature from or about the region while I'm there, if only to pass myself off as intelligent while I'm getting sauced at the bar get a flavor for the local literary history.  And so, I decided to take another crack at Joyce.  But I hedged my bet by choosing Dubliners, a series of completely non-stream-of-consciousness short stories that depict the lives of ordinary people in and around Dublin at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  While I generally do not enjoy reading short story collections, I loved Dubliners and reviewed it in glowing terms here.  More importantly, I felt like I understood every word.  And, though I stepped away from Joyce for a bit, I vowed to return to his more complex works and give them another shot.

And so, about two months ago, I began reading Ulysses, Joyce's classic tale of everyday life in Dublin as superimposed on the wandering plot of Homer's epic, The Odyssey, which Joyce himself held in the highest esteem.  I tried hard to focus on the lyrical value of Joyce's prose, though I was often lost in its meaning, and I managed to follow the action through several chapters before I began to feel the old frustration starting to build.  It was at that point that I began to drink heavily and it all made sense began looking for outside help.  Now, I really do not like to make a habit of this.  Like many of you, I suspect, I like a classic work of literature to stand on its own.  If I have to go searching for meaning and enjoyment, then I begin to suspect that neither are truly there to begin with.  But I also hate to put down a classic once I've begun, and Google is just so damned convenient, and so I began to look a bit further afield.  The Internet alone sustained me through several more chapters, and I felt like I had an understanding of the structure of the work and its characters, if nothing else; but it still was not enjoyable.

Then I stumbled on a downloadable, college-level course on Ulysses by Princeton Professor James A.W. Heffernan.  I have listened to a few of these courses now on topics as diverse as classical music to Buddhism to anthropological study of the modern Maya, all of which have been produced and distributed by The Teaching Company.  To be perfectly honest, I find them somewhat hit and miss (though, to be fair, they are more than hit than miss).  If you are truly interested in a particular subject matter, they can be, not only worthwhile, but very entertaining.  Be forewarned, however: there is no getting around the dork factor, and you have to be willing to be labeled as such if and when you are caught listening by your friends and family.

Anyhow, the Ulysses course has changed my perspective on the work entirely.  I now recognize that without a working knowledge of either Anglo-Irish history or Homer's Odyssey and preferably both, no one is likely to take much away from the work other than its quirky characters and its lyrical prose, which is truly only scratching the surface.  I won't bore you with what I've learned--suffice it to say that the characters and the story have come alive on both a human and a mythic level.  Only approximately a third of the way through the course materials, I now not only look forward to reading the balance of Ulysses, but I want to return to the beginning to reread the tremendous amount of material that passed through my mind wholly unappreciated.

My question for all of you is this: is this a legitimate practice in the appreciation of works of literature?  Does the fact that a particular work requires explication make it more or less of a great work in your eyes?  And, finally, who's buying that next round?  Seriously, I'm all tapped out ...   

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Shameless (but Timely) Recycling: Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras by Mario Vargas Llosa

Pantaleon Y Las Visitadoras (Narrativa (Punto de Lectura)) (Spanish Edition)Mario Vargas Llosa is, hands down, my favorite Latin American author, and I'm not just saying that because he won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.  We here at TLM roundly praised his work earlier this year in a review of Pantaleon y Las Visitadoras--a tale of the efficient introduction of prostitution services into the Peruvian army.  He tells a good story, so I'm certain that his books may be appreciated in translation, but there is something about the rhythm and beautiful formalism of the language that makes him an especially enjoyable read in the original Spanish.  Both La Ciudad y Los Perros and La Fiesta del Chivo stand out in my memory as fantastic reads.  Congratulations to a true master and to all our Peruvian friends.  Pisco para todos! 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Literate Man Is the New Haight-Ashbury, and (correspondingly) a Review of the Doors of Perception (Aldous Huxley)

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (P.S.)Today is a day for rebellion and counterculture at The Literate Man, a day for disavowing the conformist decisions of the past and opening one’s mind to the essential “Is-ness” of all things and the limitless possibilities that the world has to offer to those that surrender to it. And it is in this spirit that I have decided to throw caution to the wind and abandon The Literate Man’s tried and true ten-point rating system. Ok, so maybe it’s not a rebellion per se, and maybe it has nothing at all to do with 60’s counterculture, but I have been paying attention to those voices that I most respect in the book blogosphere (you know who you are) and I can see the wisdom of moving off of a subjective rating system in favor of a more participatory conversation about the book or literary concept under discussion.

And how could I judge The Doors of Perception anyway when its basic message is that, in judging, in focusing our minds on the individual and particular aspects of a thing, we fail to see its essential, holistic nature. I really shouldn’t even be describing it as a book for, in doing so, I fail to appreciate the artistry of its cover design, the symmetry of the representational symbols within, the interwoven pulp of the page, and the elements, both natural and artificial, that have combined to make it what it is. Or in Huxley’s words:

I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

“Is it agreeable?” somebody asked. (During this part of the experiment, all conversations were recorded on a dictating machine, and it has been possible for me to refresh my memory of what was said.)

“Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” I answered. “It just is.”

Istigkeit—wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The Being of Platonic philosophy—except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were—a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.

Far out ... I know.

The Doors is not so much a book as an extended essay, which was coupled in my edition with Heaven and Hell, another extended essay, both of which treat the subject of the expanded psychological states that may be induced by the taking of mescaline. Mescaline, for the uninitiated, is the active ingredient in peyote and several other species of other hallucinogenic cacti. The Doors is essentially a chronology of events as understood and recorded by Huxley after having ingested mescaline at his home in West Hollywood in 1952. Heaven and Hell explores the cultural development of views of the afterlife as potentially influenced by drug-induced visions around the world.

Actually, the essays are surprisingly enjoyable and not just in the hippie burnout way that I’ve presented them here. As anyone who has read Brave New World will attest, Huxley is uber-intelligent, and he makes a very compelling case for taking a fresh new look at the world in which we live by removing the biological blinders that evolution and the survival instinct have saddled us with in order to ensure our continuance as a species. That he removes those blinders by means of the ingestion of a psychoactive agent (and spends much of the essay contemplating the folds of a skirt) is almost secondary. His real message is that we need to slow down, look around us, bond with the expressions of existence that we rush past every day, and come to a broader understanding of our own place within the universe.

Now who can argue with that?