I’ve had a great month on the reading front. Below are impressionistic, highly opinionated, reviews and/or responses to what I’ve read.
White Nights (1848) in The Best Short Stories of Fydor Dostoevsky (2001), translated by David Magarshack
“It was a lovely night, one of those nights, dear reader, which can only happen when you are young.”
In White Nights a “dreamer” narrator is lonely in the city until he, by chance one night, meets a girl. He sees in the girl some hope of defeating his loneliness but she has a warning: not to fall in love with her. She is promised to another, though things are “complicated”. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, though written early in Dostoevsky’s career, it is recognisably his work, incisive as ever is. I don’t doubt the other stories are of a similarly high standard, but can’t formally vouch for them. Recommended.
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin A. Abbott
“I call our world Flatland, not because we call it so, but to make its nature clearer to you, my happy readers, who are privileged to live in Space.”
An imaginative novella I’ve also discussed before. A. Square introduces the reader, in “Space”, to his two dimensional world populated by shapes. A book of two halves: the first a detailed analysis of Flatland and Flatlanders – Abbott uses geometry to guide the leader in imagining how things would look from that other perspective, it’s easy to follow, satisfying and fun. The Flatlanders, however, being a take on Victorian society, operate on the basis of rigid hierarchy. Among those at the bottom of Flatland society are women who, being straight lines, have sharp ends at each end – potentially deadly, then, they are severely imposed upon by the laws of Flatland. In the second, less expository, half, A. Square encounters worlds of one and three-dimensions and the story heads towards an ultimate message of open-mindedness. Quick and fun, and funny, so naturally Recommended.
Crow Road (1992) by Iain Banks
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Perhaps the best opening line ever is followed by a novel not easy to categorise. Fundamentally a coming-of-age story, as the central character comes to terms with the existence of death and what that means for living. There is way more going on than that, but I also don’t want to spoil it. Bank’s is playful with language and that’s a quality I’m always drawn to. This is definitely a character-driven book and the cast of characters is wonderful, with many of them explored in considerable depth. Probably the funniest book I read this month. Definitely Recommended.
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1980) by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.”
So, you’re about to begin a book that I found enjoyable and thought provoking, but never quite captivating. The story presents “you”, a reader, with a serious problem: the books “you” keeps buying are unreadable (for a variety of reasons) after the first chapter – ten different first chapters are presented, breaking up the true “you”-based narrative. The novel reads as a sort of Calvino-course in literature, as his characters reflect on what it means to be a good reader, and, reciprocally, to be a good writer. Not a masterwork of story but perhaps masterful study of story. Recommended.
Vox (2018) by Christina Dalcher
“If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them.”
I can save you a few hours: vox, voice, use it or lose it. By no means a terrible book but one that is explicitly, and one might say solely, a vehicle for that message. By no means terrible but with an utter flop of an ending. The ending is not the only thing preventing Vox being a great example of its genre but neither is it an insubstantial factor. The message is repeated and rephrased and reiterated throughout, from page one to the last. Not that it’s a bad message in itself and I’m not unsympathetic to the ever present threat of state power being directed against one or more societal groupings, but it’s been done better and why settle for mediocrity? Choose The Handmaid’s Tale, of which this is a fanfiction; choose 1984 which ends with conviction; Flatland, above, would be a fair substitute too. Not Recommended.
The Blue Tower (1996) by Thorarinn Eldjarn, translated by Bernard Scudder
“I am here for the most part alone with my thoughts, because my guards say little to me that I can understand, apart from what concerns my most basic needs.”
This may be the hidden gem of the month. Icelandic historical fiction, taking place over roughly the first half of the seventeenth century. Hero Gudmundur, an intellectual and onetime minor member of the clergy, is imprisoned in Copenhagen’s Blue Tower. From his cell at the top of the tower he relates how he came to be there. The Great Edict, a puritanical code, imposed on Iceland by the Protestant king of occupying power, Denmark. The Edict forbids adultery, but is only rigorously enforced when an illegitimate child is sprung. Gudmundur, father of an illegitimate child, writes a tract against the Edict, and it does not help that Gudmundur has uneasy relations with the men of power in his own land. The Blue Tower is brilliantly written (and translated) and a compelling argument in favour of a sort of common sense ethics. Recommended.
** Also obscure (I think), also recommended (I know) and also translated from Icelandic by Scudder (I’m led to believe) is Justice Undone by Thor Vilhjamsson. That touches on similar themes, and others not so similar, in a radically different style best compared (in my opinion) to Cormac McCarthy. **
Plagues and Pencils: A Year of Pandemic Sketches (2021) by Edward Carey
“I blame the pencil.”
Edward Carey is an author and illustrator, though not one I’d previously heard of. I am sitting here in admiration of that opening sentence – I had thought to write that the main draw and lasting impression of Plagues and Pencils is the visuals. I have written them actually and they are true, but I can’t deny that’s a fine line, and reminds me that the read itself was pleasant enough. What is written is mainly Carey’s reflections on the drawing process – at the beginning of lockdown he decides to post a pencil drawing to Twitter every day – insights into creativity are always welcome as far as I’m concerned. Part of the appeal of Plagues and Pencils comes simply from admiring Carey’s Nike-certified spirit. Carey’s subjects are diverse-ish – famous people from all eras, fictional beings, animals and very few places – and all are captured well in what must be Carey’s trademark style. The pandemic itself is naturally mentioned but, like I said, the words left less of an impression than the images, and the words that did leave an impression were craft-oriented. A category of subjects is “RIP”, so Plagues and Pencils sometimes functions as a chronological and selective in memoriam – a peculiar sort of memory lane but not without its appeal. Recommended.
How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Writers (2021) by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Clare Cavanagh
“You accuse us of stamping out young literary talents.”
A clear contender with Crow Road for funniest book of the month, is this compilation of honest but affectionate editorial responses to budding writers. A Polish poet and Nobel winner, Szymborska, offers some genuinely good advice to writers but it’s the expertly worded rejections, and sometimes outright rebukes, that make How to Start really special. My favourite among other favourites:
“To Anonymous, from Krakow Our mundane mailbox rarely yields such sensations. We kept turning pages; you’ve got a flair for narration, a transparent style, and a gift for the vivid, if superficial description. We were just about to suggest your next project, an adventure tale for children, when you suddenly revealed your true ambition: a new theory of psychological prose. After many weeks of sailing, Columbus, your story’s hero, doubts that he’ll ever reach land. He considers abandoning his route, but a heavenly being descends to proclaim, “Sail on!” Columbus does as he is told, and eventually reaches his goal. Those poor psychologists who waste time analyzing our behavior! It’s all so simple: we’re moved by divine intervention. We may seem to make light of your serious effort. Dear Mr. Anonymous, please don’t take it amiss. A spirit said our words might do you good.”
A book I do intend to return to consider Szymborska’s theory of writing more, I was enjoying it far too much to think about it closely. A sure smile-inducer. Recommended.
As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner
“Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file.”
If, as I lay dying, I were reading this book I would not be unsatisfied. Book of the month and maybe book of the year. I’ll talk about As I Lay Dying in some detail later. Recommended, obviously.
The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by Albert Camus, translated by Justin O’Brien
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”
Which leads to no and “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” More manifesto than treatise and far from conventional in style. It considers how a meaning-seeking entity like us should live, if at all, in a meaningless world. He recommends embracing the “absurdity” of it all through a constant awareness, continually re-reminding ourselves that now is all there is for us, so we’d best make the most of it. After resolving the suicide question, Camus considers some exemplary absurd men, considers the possibility of absurd fiction and confirms its existence in an appendix on the works of Kafka. Another one I’ll cover in more detail at a later date, probably. Recommended.
How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse (2018) by Thomas C. Foster
“One of the problems that newcomers – and sometimes not-so-new-comers – to poetry have is that they believe that they don’t know how to read a poem.”
Which is a problem no comer of any kind will have if they read Foster’s book. It’s a lighthearted, conversational guide to all the fundamentals of poetry. It includes diverse examples, though of mainly English poetry because, as Foster says, nothing loses so much in translation as poetry (those may or may not be his actual words) – this gives a nice tour, helpful for identifying poets or types of poem to pursue further. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of poetry, some topics necessarily are more interesting than others, none are painfully dull. I feel better equipped to read poetry than before I read the book, so can fairly call it a success. Recommended.
Why Birds Sing (2005) by David Rothenberg
“It is March 2000 and I am in Pittsburgh to jam with the birds of the National Aviary, the finest public collection of caged birds in the United States.”
Could be reviewed succinctly: a passionate mess. Its conclusions can be summarised: no one knows why birds sing, but I make music for the joy of it, therefore that’s what birds must do. This is from a professor of philosophy, mind you. At one point Rothenberg that his book is more “philosophical” because he prefers questions to answers – naturally, this reminded me of my own experience with philosophy: when in The Moral Law Kant asks is there a maxim to govern ethical behaviour? In On Liberty, Mill boldly aks, as no philosopher had before, where does the balance lie between individual freedom and state interference? And in the Myth of Sisyphus of course Camus asks, “should I kill myself?” and leaves the matter there. Rothenberg gives a roughly chronological account of human responses to bird song, from poetry to music to philosophy to neuroscience. The details of the history are, in fact, really interesting – bird song really is fascinating it turns out – there are lots of “fun facts” to be extracted like: did you know America now has European starlings due to the mad ambitions of a Shakespeare fanatic? But whenever Rothenberg editorialises it tends to be repetitive: either “this person was correct because they anthropomorphised the birds” or “no, no, this person has completely neglected to anthromorphise, they’ll never learn “why the bird sings” that way!”
That, of course, is how you must understand Rothenberg’s question. He doesn’t want a mechanistic answer, the bird sings because the bird evolved to sing. He wants to know why the bird think it sings – ultimately “arriving” at the conclusion I mentioned above, joy. There’s nothing particularly wrong with his question, least of all in philosophy. The problem is Rothenberg, for some reason, needs an enemy and spends the length of the book pretending that science, only being interested in the mechanistic answers, has forbidden anthropomorphism. He’ll do this so much that when, late in the book, a scientist tells him: your question is univestigatable, or, scientifically inept. You, Mr. Rothenberg and everyone is free to anthropomorhise, but consciousness in others might be inferred but it can never be experienced. He knows that, though, he explicitly refers to Nagel’s famous bat paper – he doesn’t go into depth on it and that’s because he doesn’t have a single thing to add, not even a faulty argument, he opts simply to ignore it.
A book with too many flaws. Billed as “one man’s quest to solve an everyday” you’re expecting something along the lines of Jon Ronson, I call the genre ‘journey-alism‘, the format: journalist has a question or a bias, journalist investigates taking the reader with them, journalist learns along with the reader. In March 2000 at the beginning of the book Rothenberg did think mechanistically (so he claims). But Rothenberg doesn’t have the good sense to write from that perspective: immediately we’re told, “I thought that and I was wrong!”. Rather than walk the reader through the development of his thinking on the subject, Rothenberg just spits out facts (interesting, as mentioned) that’s he learned and condescension.
You probably think the book is terrible. It’s not, the facts, the historical responses, to bird song are the bulk – why he didn’t just write a history of responses to bird song is beyond me – and those are truly fascinating and likely will, if – like me – you’re not already a keen bird observer, cause you to think about and notice them a little more than you currently do. Rothenberg, a flawed writer, clearly loves his subject. Too flawed though to recommend. Not Recommended.
How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (2011) by Stanley Fish
“In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” ”
Another ‘how to’. Like Foster’s this is light, conversational and eschews terminology (though with decidedly less complaining that terminology exists at all) in favour of practical thought indeed going so far as to say:
“Technical knowledge, divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.”
A good example of this popped up on a blog to which I made a lengthy reply. It’ll be useful here to see how Fish goes about “teaching” (plus I like my argument). Consider the sentence:
“You can have it for free.” What might you say about the sentence?
The proverbial “strict grammarian” will apply their technical knowledge, their “rules” and their rule will be phrased along the lines of: “a preposition must be followed by a noun or pronoun”. Their dictionary will not recognise “free” as either noun or pronoun (they will not be deterred, though, by the dictionary’s recognition of “for free” as a ‘for’ phrase). They’ll inevitably conclude that “You can have it for free” is not a grammatical sentence, i.e. not a sentence.
They’ve divorced technical knowledge from what it’s knowledge of and have only an illusion of understanding. They think their rules have concluded the matter, when in fact they’ve only demonstrated their rules – properly their application of the rules – can’t accommodate the language. They treat grammatical “rules” like Ikea instructions; but the “rules” are just a model for analysis, like music theory is. Strictly speaking, a strict grammarian who follows the above course actually shows little interest in grammar.
If they follow along with Fish – and sensible grammarians – they will use grammar for its purpose, not instructional but instructive. “You can have it for free”, is a sentence, so analyse it – though for the reader’s patience we’ll stick to “for free”. Fish explains that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships. We already know the relationship here, in the grammarian’s terms: “a preposition must be followed by a noun or pronoun”, in simpler terms: “for is always followed by a thing”. I’m convinced the misunderstandings of grammar have something to do with how the “rules” are emphasised. Let me draw a short scene to show how this rule really works.
Younger Scribe: I say, I’ve come across this word “free” and can’t figure out what it is, a noun, a pronoun, a verb, an adjective?
Elder Scribe: Hmm, well how is it used in a sentence?
Younger: You can have it for free.
Elder: A-ha simplicity itself. Don’t you see? It follows for, and for is a preposition. Since it follows a preposition (and is intelligible) ‘free’ must be a noun, in that instance.
So, you see, there’s really nothing wrong with the rules or “technical knowledge”, it’s incredibly useful, when properly utilised. It’s too often been a tool of those who’ve mistaken the map for the territory and now rage at the coastline for being jaggy in the wrong places.
Fish’s breakdown of the language is very interesting, if that is the sort of thing that interests you. He provides some exercises for practicing sentences, more importantly, for those who are going to practice, he gives readers the tools to develop their own exercises to suit their needs. Fish and fishing come to mind. Naturally, he uses many examples, many of which are great sentences. It’s obviously not exhaustive, but covers a few styles of writing. If you wondered, I write in what Fish calls an additive style, with free flowing associations, without a plan, I’m sorry if the revelation shocks you. Though Fish might also question whether it isn’t the case that my plan is to be spontaneous. Food for thought. Recommended.
P.S. This book also inspired all the first sentences you’ve been getting here.
That’s what I read in September, any thoughts? Any experiences with these books?