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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Book Thirty-Six

The thirty-sixth book we read this year is The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. The book originally came out in 1998, but received a recent surge in popularity after mention by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. We, of course, obtained our copy through BookMooch.

As we have already seen in The Jesus Mysteries, Christianity is but paganism reshaped. J.M. Robertson declared in 1903:
There is not a conception associated with Christ that is not common to some or all of the Savior cults of antiquity.
But The Templar Revelation ventures beyond that premise, finding a strong current of Egyptian religion and myth in the actions of Jesus. They cite the Jewish Talmud, which states that Jesus came not from Nazareth or Galilee, but from Egypt. They believe Mary Magdalene functioned as a high priestess who christened Jesus by her anointing (the words messiah and christ meaning "the anointed one"), thereby bestowing upon him the attributes of the god-king, just as Isis had done for Osiris. We found it most interesting that the gospel of Mark has Jesus comment on this:
Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.
To us, this statement carries the same weight as Jesus command at the Last Supper to "do this in remembrance of me," yet when does Christianity offer a memorial to Mary Magdalene? In addition to her anointing, she also served not as the wife of Jesus, but as his consort in the practices of sacred sexuality.

The authors investigate Leonardo's works and find numerous references to John the Baptist. (One of their previous books showed that Leonardo was the creator of the Shroud of Turin.) They follow the reverence for John and Mary Magdalene throughout southern France. They trace the history of the shadow groups--Templars, Rosicrucians, Priory of Sion--that Leonardo was connected with. Secrets and hidden knowledge abound.

The strength of the book comes in the minute analysis of the canonical gospels, not so much what the evangelists say as why they say it. The authors present a persuasive case, although it is admittedly easy to fall under the spell of any argument when surrounded by it, and there have been countless theories about the real Jesus:
... [he] was a divorced father of three, a Freemason, a Buddhist, a conjurer, a hypnotist, the progenitor of a line of French kings, a Cynic philosopher, an hallucinogenic mushroom--and even a woman!
The authors set out to question every piece of accepted knowledge and view Jesus without preconceptions.

The authors suggest the raising of Lazarus was an initiatory rite, a symbolic death and rebirth into a new living that preceded the final revelation of secret knowledge to the adept. This also is probably what was recorded in the gospels as the resurrection of Jesus.

The authors find that Jesus' cry from the cross in Mark and Matthew has been misinterpreted. What was recorded as "eloi" and "eli" and thought to be "Elias" by some bystanders was not "My God," which should have been "ilahi" in Jesus' native Aramaic. As a follower of Egyptian mysteries, Jesus' cry was actually to the sun god Helios.

Finally, the authors state what they have been hinting at all along, and what they believe is the secret that the Templars and others have kept: Christianity's true message as preached by John the Baptist was hijacked and perverted by Jesus. John the Baptist was revered as the King of Light, while according to the gospel written by John the Beloved Disciple, Jesus was handed over to Pilate as "a doer of evil" which in Roman law defined a sorcerer. The two were rivals, until John was killed and Jesus assumed his leadership. What began as a mission of repentance and baptism was turned into a cult of personality.

What bothered us most was the tendency of the authors to declare certain conclusions based on weak evidence, often highlighted by their narrative assertion, "as we have already seen," and then build on those conclusions. At times it even felt like they would cast doubt on a clue, and then immediately use that clue as if beyond doubt to support their argument. But to complain that the authors make leaps to reach the conclusions they desire misses the point of the facts they reveal. What those facts mean may be open to interpretation, but what they are they are. To explain away anomalies in the gospels as the mysterious works of God is at best to deny the truth, and at worst to bury it.

We are certainly not experts in Gnosticism or even Christianity, but for the last ten years we have made a hobby of exploring the beginnings of the organised church--this is the first time we have heard the rivals theory. This book is stunning in what it reveals, and overfull with information. Our brief review does not begin to suggest the wealth of details presented by the authors. The material they cover ranges far beyond what the book title hints at, though it's all related. What we wished the authors had done was tie it all together much more tightly and neatly. We were left rather unsure of how everything fit together. Perhaps they were overcome by the depth and breadth of their material and became similarly lost. However, the completed puzzle is not what makes The Templar Revelation interesting, it is the unraveling of dogma and the formation of theories.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Book Thirty-Five

We read our thirty-fifth book this year, The Woman Who Waited, by Andrei Makine, for the Slaves of Golconda, and were quite pleased.

Life, the narrator tells us, is a constant mixture of genres. He is writing an anti-Soviet satire while simultaneously recording legends and myths of village life, and this novel is an autobiographical product of it all. From the first page of this book, we were reminded of the fiction of Milan Kundera, whose novels are less about characters and events than they are about the author writing the novel about those characters and events. The Woman Who Waited purports to be about a woman who's been waiting thirty years for the man she loves to return from the war; it is more about the narrator who writes about her.

Vera waits for the man she loves because she is convinced he will return; otherwise, love will mean nothing more than the satisfaction of a carnal instinct. She sits at the end of a bench in her house where she can look out the window across the fields to the crossroads where she could see anyone approaching. She waits for the man she loves, and she watches for him too, and at times a dark figure appears and then disappears again. She waits for him and sees him in her mind the way Heathcliff did Cathy.

Here is what Makine does best, writing what the narrator calls "luminous moments rescued from time," something very similar to Proust's privileged moment:
A very thin layer of ice had formed at the bottom of the well. (I had just caught up with Vera, who was drawing water.) As the ice broke, it sounded like a harpsichord. We looked at one another. We were each about to remark on the beauty of this tinkling sound, then thought better of it. The resonance of the harpsichord had faded into the radiance of the air, it blended with the wistfully repeated notes of an oriole, with the scent of a wood fire coming from the nearby izba. The beauty of that moment was quite simply becoming our life.

The narrator and Vera are drawn to one another by the sharing of these moments. She finally gives herself to him, and their encounter ends abruptly at the sound of a door or window. She rushes to the window to watch outside for the man she loves, perhaps fearful that she has waited for thirty years and now, when she finally allows herself the embrace of another, the man she loves returns to find she has stopped waiting for him.

First the narrator feels pride at being able to seduce this woman so intent on waiting for another. Then he feels shame. Finally, he fears that he will now be the center of Vera's life, that she will cling to him, and that he will owe it to her. And then she shows him the way out of town. He has not taken the place of the man she loves, and he has not released her from waiting. Instead, Vera has learned that the emotion between them was an illusion of love, and that the ghostly figure she sees outside, the dream she waits for, is the reality of love. The narrator has renewed her ability to wait once more, forever more, for the man she loves.

There is great emphasis in this novel on time. In the village of Mirnoe, the narrator discovers a floating, suspended time. There is a collective forgetting of the past. Vera, however, remembers the past exclusively--it is the present and the future that she forgets. And each evening the narrator prepares to leave the village, but each morning he stays, as if replaying the same day over and over. He finds time is completely absent from the village, history has been eradicated, and all that remains is the essence of things.

The only thing more historically founded than Soviet life is Christianity. The ten days that shook the world, the rise of the proletariat, the dissolution of the state all happen, or were meant to happen, in historical time. Vera lives, physically and emotionally, in a place beyond time. And even though thirty years pass while she waits, the essence of life remains. The Woman Who Waited is the narrator's satire, ridiculing the historical failure that is Soviet life.

This was our first experience reading Makine, and it was enjoyable. To the comparisons with Kundera and Proust, we can add Nabokov and Kadare. Indeed, there seems to be an impressive strain running through eastern European fiction of illuminating a privileged moment, of uncovering the essence of life that most American fiction lacks. We would certainly recommend The Woman Who Waited. It doesn't matter if you already know the plot, the enjoyment comes in sharing the experience of the luminous moments.

...cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Thirty-Four

The thirty-fourth book we read this year is To Renew America, by Newt Gingrich. This book is now twelve years old, but much of what Mr. Gingrich has to say is still valid. We are not really politically conscious, so we chose this book mostly because we wanted to expand our understanding of Mr. Gingrich, and because it was available on Bookmooch and we have lots of extra points.

Mr. Gingrich had a high profile in 1994 and 1995, when he and the Republican party took control of Congress and in the first one hundred days passed the ten-point Contract With America. That is already more than we knew about him at the time. However, there was an inconspicuous program on public television, called "Ethics in America", that had captured us as a devoted viewer. In each episode a panel of noteworthy people from all disciplines would debate an ethical issue. Mr. Gingrich appeared on the panel in at least one of those episodes, and he impressed us as an intelligent, moral representative of the people. This impression holds up in his book.

The book is divided in three major parts. To begin, Mr. Gingrich explains in detail what he believes to be the six major challenges that America faces. Next he presents the story behind the Contract With America, and how it was accomplished. Finally, he addresses numerous critical issues that have a direct impact on his vision of a renewed, recommitted American future.

The one challenge that resonated most with us was Balancing the Budget and Saving Social Security and Medicare. He describes the runaway national debt as "an extremely regressive form of income redistribution." The taxes the average American pays are ultimately going to the wealthy bondholders. When viewed in this way, it seems obvious to us that liberals enrage the public over tax cuts and loopholes for the wealthy, while it is the very big government they endorse that is doing the most to make the wealthy wealthier. In addition, the extensive borrowing of the government drives up the interest rates for other borrowers, namely us. The importance of the debt is evident when we think what could be done without it. If we are paying thirteen percent interest on the national debt, or even on our own credit cards, that is money spent on absolutely nothing. What could you afford with thirteen percent more buying power? If the money the government spends on interest alone could be spent on something else, how many more schools, or police, or energy research grants could there be?

One of Mr. Gingrich's basic beliefs is that less government is best government:
... what we really want to do is to devolve power all the way out of government and back to working American families. We want to leave choices and resources in the hands of individuals and let them decide if they prefer government, the profit-making sector, the nonprofit sector, or even no solution at all to their problems. It is important to remember that freedom ultimately includes the right to say no. If you must say yes to something--or everything--then you are not free.
In his reflections on national defense, Mr. Gingrich examined the responsibility that America had accepted in opposing the Soviet Union and communism in the Cold War. He noted that once the Soviet Union collapsed, and victory could be claimed, America's responsibility actually increased. We see the same situation today in Iraq where America took on the responsibility of bringing about a change in the government, and now is faced with even greater responsibilities in more places requiring firmer resolve and larger resources.

This book covers a wide range of issues, from education to immigration, from taxes to drugs, from language to health care. It is clear and concise, a quick read, although we did become mildly confused at the profusion of numbers in the chapter about the budget. In the chapter concerning Violent Crime, Freedom from Fear, and the Right to Bear Arms, Mr. Gingrich says the key to making America safer and free from fear is not to ban guns, but
... to focus our attention on violent people and not be drawn off into emotionally satisfying detours that harass the honest citizen but have no impact on crime.
Somehow people seem to have forgotten that freedom must be protected, and though we hire others, like police, to protect us, it is still ultimately our own responsibility. We assume a right to bear arms means not only guns, but swords or knives or other weapons by which we are able to defend our life, liberty, and happiness against the next King George, be he a Hanover or a Bush.

While reading we noticed how one-sided most public officials are portrayed by the media. Mr. Gingrich reveals that good qualities exist in many people, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans. No one in the government wants to bring about the ruin of American society. However, we need to take a hard look at certain of our experiments, such as welfare, and realise the results are not what we had intended. When, in 1994, Speaker of the House Tom Foley filed a lawsuit against a successful referendum in favor of term limits in his home state, it was clear that some politicians had become so drunk on their power that they had forgotten they are elected by the people to represent the people, not to sue them. America needs critical thinking and an eye on the future. We need people like Mr. Gingrich who are willing to take risks, to question everything, and to engage people in level-headed debate of the issues.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Book Thirty-Three

The thirty-third book we read this year is New York: Then and Now, by Annette Witheridge. This is one in a series of photography books that compares city views of the past with the present.

We chose this book because we enjoy viewing old photographs, and because it was available on Bookmooch. There actually wasn't much to read, only the captions to about 150 photographs. Although the book does tell a very interesting story.

In over 100 years the city of New York has changed most notably in scale. Buildings have risen to the clouds, and streets have spread into a huge metropolitan area. This has changed the appearance of the city from afar, as well as from within. In many of the old photographs, the East River or the Hudson River can be seen in the background. Any such panoramic views in the modern photographs are completely blocked by skyscrapers. In some of the photographs one can see the same buildings still standing. But they are identifiable almost exclusively by their exterior features, because in most cases their use has changed, as well as their surroundings. Shanties along the river have been replaced by ritzy mansions. Railroads have been pushed underground. Swampland is now park. Saint Patrick's Cathedral was built on the outskirts of town, and is now nearly lost amid towering neighbors. The change of scale makes some buildings difficult to recognise at first. Church towers that once soared above all other buildings are now dwarfed by giants.

The turn of the last century was a grand time for architecture. Every building was resplendent, decorative, distinctive, classical. Modern buildings in comparison are dull and unimaginative: the cell-block look of the United Nations, great walls of glass lining Times Square, the utilitarian design of the World Trade Towers. This record of New York's progress is less triumphant than sad. Much of the city's most beautiful works of architecture have been demolished and replaced by buildings. All the old photographs are in black and white, but they have a certain warmth and comfort; the modern color photographs show a cold, sterile, impoverished urbanization.

For us, the climax of the book is an episode of shame. Pennsylvania Station was a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts, and a sparkling jewel of New York. It was the largest building ever erected for rail travel.

The Main Waiting Room:

The Concourse:

The jewel was replaced by this slab:

This was necessary because the second Madison Square Garden had been demolished for the headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company. The new train station was forced completely underground:

No wonder travelers are weary. No wonder the modern station is kept hidden underground. No wonder a New York Times editorial lamented, "And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

This book was enjoyable, despite the lesson we learned from it, that progress can sometimes be a step backward.


If you haven't already done so, go read the September issue.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book Thirty-Two

The thirty-second book we read this year is The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God?, by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

This is an intriguing book that explores the beginnings of Christianity. Since the publication of the Nag Hammadi texts, there has been a wealth of new theories concerning Jesus and the religion he is said to have founded. In the Information Age it has become impossible for any organization to suppress knowledge and opinion and dissent. Writings that had for centuries been denied, hidden, and destroyed by the Church present quite a different view of the Christian religion and its tradition.

The major thrust of the authors' premise is that of a Gnostic foundation of Christianity. The Catholic and Protestant religions are offshoots of Christianity that have been most successful in appealing to the masses. Though they have been forced nearly out of existence, the Gnostics comprised a majority of believers at the time the religion was being formed. They did, and still do, understand that the New Testament was simply a rewriting of ancient pagan myths. The Jesus Mysteries Thesis is that Christianity is not a new and unique revelation, but a Jewish adaptation of the perennial Pagan mystery religion. Each tradition consisted of Outer Mysteries, which were myths and rituals of common knowledge, and Inner Mysteries, which were sacred secrets known only to initiates. At the heart of the Mysteries has always been a dying and resurrecting godman, variously known as Osiris, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Bacchus, Mithras, and, of course, Jesus.

The first chapter makes explicit the commonality of each of these myths. The composite Osiris-Dionysus was regarded as God made flesh, the savior, and the Son of God. His father was God and his mother was a mortal virgin. He was born in a cave on December 25 before three shepherds. He offered his followers the chance to be born again through the rites of baptism. He turned water into wine at a marriage ceremony. He rode into town on a donkey as people honored him with palm leaves. He died at Eastertime as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. After his death, he descended to hell, and three days later rose from the dead to ascend to heaven. His followers awaited his return as the judge during the Last Days. His death and resurrection were celebrated by a ritual meal of bread and wine, which symbolized his body and blood. The historical biblical accounts of Jesus sound strikingly similar to the myths of Osiris-Dionysus.

The authors rely heavily on various texts that were never canonized by the fledgling Church such as alternative gospels, ancient Greek and Roman works, Egyptian and Jewish texts. They follow each point back in time, examining the ancient classics, the formative Gnostics, the early Church fathers, and early Church philosophers and critics who were on the scene as the religion was being born. They rearrange the books of the New Testament in the order they were written and demonstrate that it is not so much a history of actual events as a history of the evolution of Christian mythology. The four canonical gospels contain so many contradictions and inconsistencies that we are hard pressed to believe they are each historical accounts of actual events, or that they are the Divine Word, for what God would be so confused and confusing?

What, one might wonder, is the Inner Mystery? If one is looking for a concrete explanation, it will not be found in this book. Perhaps one of the best places for an answer to this question is the Apocryphon Iohannis, the preeminent Gnostic Gospel. In general terms, the mysteries lead one to the revelation of an eternal light indwelling life, a divine image of the soul, a salvific experience of transcendence. Though it is universal, it is also highly personal, and therefore has always been a threat to organized religion.

This book has changed our outlook on western religion. We had always felt that the Bible, and in particular the New Testament, was filled with stories that, though not eye-witness accounts meant to be taken literally, had a basis in historical events. Any number of books offer a convincing picture of the historical Jesus, stripping the gospels down to their most basic units of truth. Now we see that it is more likely the Bible is pure myth in the tradition of the beliefs of man since belief began. Instead of a divine experience that begins in history with the life of one man, we can now experience the divine presence that has been known to man since before history. And, somewhat surprisingly, the myth of Jesus makes belief easier than the literal truth of Jesus.

We would highly recommend this book to anyone with an open mind about religion, anyone who is a believer of critical thinking, anyone who has ever felt at all uncomfortable with a top-down religion. This book contains copious notes, so one may examine for oneself the evidence for the authors' claims. A loving God desires us to know and experience divinity on our own, not simply accept what we are told. Only a despotic God would demand us to accept Him on faith alone.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Book Thirty-One

Can a play show the very truth and nature of love?

The thirty-first book we read this year is the screenplay Shakespeare in Love, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. We chose this book because we have seen the film, which moves so fast, and we wanted the opportunity to take more time with the lines, to understand and appreciate them better.

For those who do not know the story, it purports to tell how William Shakespeare came to write Romeo and Juliet. It is full of Shakespearean references, wit, and wordplay that can be more fully appreciated for themselves by a leisured reading. And those who have studied Shakespeare closely and know all his work will probably find even more delight than do we who are merely acquainted with Shakespeare. The film is fantastic, so we read this screenplay not so much for the story as to understand how the story was constructed. Our purpose was perhaps a writer's, or screen-writer's, but a reader will not be disappointed. A quote on the rear wrapper of the book summarizes Shakespeare in Love perfectly: "One of the ... funniest, most enchanting, most romantic ... and best written tales ever spun from the vast legend of Shakespeare."

Young Will is fighting writers' block in order to produce his newest comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. He claims the play is all in his head, and he needs only to find his muse for it all to pour out on paper.

The story is filled with rivalries. There are two competing theatres, the Curtain and the Rose. A Puritan preacher rails against them both, saying, "And the Rose smells thusly rank by any name! I say a plague on both their houses!" In one scene Will meets his most serious competitor, Christopher Marlowe, and they discuss their work. Marlowe has a new play already written, and has a better title than Will has for his. Marlowe helps Will brainstorm the story, suggesting Romeo is Italian, always in and out of love, meets the daughter of his enemy, whose brother kills Romeo's friend in a duel. Marlowe becomes confused about who Will's play is meant for, and says "I thought your play was for Burbage." Will replies, "This is a different one." To which Marlowe asks, "A different one you haven't written?"

When Will finally feels inspired to write the first scene of his play, he is thinking about a woman named Rosaline with whom he is having a serious affair. He would immortalize her in words, but he catches her with another man. When he delivers the scene, the theatre owner is confused because it involves Romeo and Rosaline instead of Ethel. When Will writes about his play in a letter, he describes it thus:
A comedy of quarrelling families reconciled in the discovery of Romeo to be the very same Capulet cousin stolen from the cradle and fostered to manhood by his Montague mother that was robbed of her own child by the Pirate King!
Will disguises himself among a troupe of musicians in order to gain entrance to a posh gathering. During a changing-partners dance (the very same one you get in every Romeo and Juliet), he sees for the first time Viola, and falls madly in love. Viola is a well-born lady thrilled by the theatre and who dreams of being in a company of players. Her favorite playwright is William Shakespeare, and she knows all his works by heart. While disguised as a young man auditioning for the part of Romeo, she has already met Will. Now they are attracted to one another, Will visits below her balcony, where their conversation is regularly interrupted by Viola's nurse. Will is immediately inspired to write another scene, in which the character of the Pirate King is transformed into a lady's nurse.

At one rehearsal, Will berates Viola as Romeo for using too much emotion at the beginning of the play. During this conversation, he conceives of Juliet, which again confuses the owner of the theatre, who is still expecting Ethel. Will asks Viola as Romeo what she will do in the second act when Romeo meets the love of his life. "I am very sorry, sir," she replies, "I have not seen Act Two." "Of course you have not!" he replies. "I have not written it!" Will leaves this encounter inspired again. When he announces his need to write a sonnet, the theatre owner is confused again, for he is expecting a play.

Will is heartbroken to learn that Viola has been given to another man to wed. But the love of Will and Viola is ungovernable and overthrows their lives. After they spend the night together, they debate whether Will should stay or go, whether it is day or night. He has found his muse, and he continues to pour out his play, basing his scenes on everything that happens between him and Viola. Lovemaking follows Viola's private rehearsal of Will's newest scene, which follows the actual recital of the play at the theatre, which follows Will's inspired writing following another night of lovemaking--until we no longer can be sure if what is happening is real or acted, spontaneous or scripted. It has all become the same.

The Queen enters the story. She has a discussion with Viola about theatre, and proclaims, "But playwrights teach nothing about love, they make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust. They cannot make it true." To which Viola haughtily replies, "Oh, but they can!" So the Queen suggests a wager to see whether a play can show the very truth and nature of love.

Marlowe is killed offstage in a bar fight. Viola's husband-to-be has mistaken Will for Marlowe, so the news he brings to Viola is only that a great playwright she knew has been killed. She believes it was Will. When the truth is revealed, Will finds the inspiration for the final twists to his play, conceived as a comedy and completed as a tragedy. Though ostensibly written for the theatre, what Will has really produced is an erotic gift meant for one. This is symbolized by Will presenting to Viola a complete hand-written copy.

Viola is inevitably married, and on the same day the first performance of Romeo and Juliet is scheduled. Viola escapes her new husband and goes to the theatre. The law of the land has forbidden her, as a woman, to perform on stage, so she is banned from acting the role of Romeo for which she had been rehearsing. Will takes on the role himself. And on this fateful day the young man who plays the role of Juliet has had his voice change. Viola knows the play by heart and accepts the risk of the role of Juliet, despite the law. The play that was based on their real love becomes reality played, and a show of the very truth and nature of love. And this marvelous screenplay does the same.

There are probably few facts in this play which concern the conception and creation of Romeo and Juliet. But this is a wonderful story, and perfectly plausible. We want to believe it. And that is, in part, because this screenplay has also shown the very truth and nature of artistic creation. So read the book and see the film, both will charm and delight.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Book Thirty

Why do we choose a certain book to read?

We wanted to find out about a gentleman from the sixteenth century called Chastelard. His most noteworthy achievement was that he paid for an unsuccessful amorous adventure with his own death. Before his untimely demise, he was among the retinue that accompanied Mary Stuart from France to Scotland. We found some information about her and the voyage that referenced another of her retinue, Brantome. Brantome was a major chronicler of the courts of France, and the account in his memoirs of Mary's adventures would have interested us if we had found it. We didn't, but another of his books, Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, we found at BookMooch, and as soon as it arrived it became our thirtieth read of the year.

Brantome's real name was Pierre de Bourdeille. The historical accuracy of his writing is often suspect. His knowledge of the personal lives of royalty, particularly among the Valois, was great. Most of his writing fell under just two subject headings: men and women. It is these intimacies of women which he records in this book.

In what I say of women, I do speak of some, not of all; and of these, I do use only false names and garbled descriptions. I do keep their identity so carefully hid, none may discover it, and never a breath of scandal can come on them but by mere conjecture and vague suspicion, never by certain inference.
Brantome makes this type of assertion in a few places. Yet are there thirty-one pages of notes included in this book which give the identities of those Brantome mentions. He was correct that his writing could never bring scandal upon any of his subjects, for none of his work was ever published during his lifetime, or the lifetime of most of his contemporaries.

This book is divided into seven discourses: Of Ladies Which Do Make Love, and Their Husbands Cuckolds; On the Question Which Doth Give the More Content in Love, Whether Touching, Seeing, or Speaking; Concerning the Beauty of a Fine Leg, and the Virtue the Same Doth Possess; Concerning Old Dames as Fond to Practise Love as Ever the Young Ones Be; Telling How Fair and Honourable Ladies Do Love Brave and Valiant Men, and Brave Men Courageous Women; Of How We Should Never Speak Ill of Ladies, and of the Consequences of So Doing; and Concerning Married Women, Widows and Maids: to Wit, Which of These Same Be Better Than the Other to Love. Each discourse is comprised mostly of anecdotes strung together without much purpose other than to illustrate the general theme.

A Spanish dame, escorted one day by a gallant cavalier through the rooms of the King's Palace and happening to pass by a particular dark and secret recess, the gentleman, piquing himself on his respect for women and his Spanish discretion, saith to her: "A good place, my lady, if it were another than your ladyship." To this the lady merely answered the very same words back again, "Yes, Sir, a good place, if it were another than your lordship." Thus did she imply his cowardliness, and rebuke the same, for that he had not taken of her in so good a place what she did wish and desire to lose, as another and a bolder man would have done in like case.
We found such anecdotes of the First Discourse to be highly entertaining. As the book proceded, the discourses became less interesting. At times Brantome seemed to stray from his theme and merely recount the machinations of royalty and succession. The final discourse begins with an interesting theory, but the particulars which follow don't really expand or prove it.

The biographical and historical essays included in the book all suggest that Brantome wrote with a highly moral tone. This is not something we caught on to. Often his tone is playful, conveyed with a wry sense of humor. No matter what the subjects of his anecdotes do, he has high regard for them so long as they are highborn. He also seemed to have great respect for all the ladies he wrote about. Indeed, in his first discourse, nearly every single one of the ladies who has cuckolded her husband is described by Brantome as "fair and honourable." Perhaps times were different then.

This was an interesting book to read, though we probably would not have read much of it at all if it didn't fall within the scope of our research. For some light enjoyment, we would highly recommend the first discourse. If one avoids the remainder of the book, not much will be missed, unless one has some specialised interests.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Check out this amazing house created by Livio de Marchi. That's my retirement home! (Or at least I'd like to have the roof for my retirement.) There's even more inside. For a tour, visit his website.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Book Twenty-Nine

The twenty-ninth book we read this year is The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. This book was selected for our Literary Salon book club. We have also had several people who have asked for it in the shop. And Doppelganger seemed to have enjoyed it.

In our reading we employed a free sample of the new Dog-Ear© Pagemark, a product of Magenta Enterprises. This is a small square piece of colored plastic similar to the flap on a pocket protector. This slides over the corner of the page you want to mark. A small sliver is left sticking up over the top and out beyond the side of the book. The benefits over a bookmark are that they do not weaken the binding. The benefits over a dart is that it is bigger and therefore easier not to lose, as well as soft, so if one does lose it while reading in bed, one does not get poked in the middle of the night by a metal point.

We can't say what exactly we were expecting of this novel, but it was not a story about a fat woman in Botswana who decides to open a detective agency. Precious Ramotswe is characterized as a traditional African woman possessing all the best qualities, which includes her size. She is practical and good-natured and a person one would enjoy having for a friend. Though some have labeled the book a mystery, it is not one in the sense of uncovering clues and figuring out whodunit. This is really a book about a woman whom the blurb calls "delightfully cunning and enormously engaging" and who spends her days as a private investigator as a way to help others.

Mma Ramotswe has several cases which she solves quickly and sensibly. The thread that seems to run through the whole book is her attractive qualities. She has been married before, and swears she does not need a husband now, yet nearly every man she encounters finds her to be the perfect candidate for a wife. The book closes with her facing another proposal, from a man who has already been rejected and will not give up. We will not reveal the outcome, but it is true to Mma Ramotswe's nature.

The cases she accepts are all intersting and engaging, and for the most part they are tame compared with those faced by Kay Scarpetta or the Woman's Murder Club. The book is refreshing in this way. There are also descriptions and details which convey the sense of place and some of its history, but no travelogues or political dissertations. The one thing that bothered us about the writing (which should come as no surprise to those who have read several of our reviews) was the shifts in point-of-view. Though this is Mma Ramotswe's story, there often suddenly appear paragraphs that are from the viewpoint of another character. Without even a scene break, such shifts serve more to interrupt the spell of the story than to shine new light on a character or plot development.

We would probably not pick up any other books in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency widely acclaimed and highly popular series. The characters of this book often serve bush tea, and this is just not our cup of tea. There really is nothing wrong with the book, though. If one is looking for some light reading, something free of sex and slaughter, this book should serve well. It makes the perfect familiar summer reading.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Book Twenty-Eight

The twenty-eighth book we read this year is The Lost Constitution, by William Martin. This part-historical, part-detective novel follows a rare book hunter on his search through the past and present to find an original draft of the Constitution. You can read our review of the book at Estella's Revenge.

Be sure to also check out our column, this month about book donations.

The July theme for Estella's Revenge is Young At Heart, and this issue is bulging with interesting writing. Don't miss it!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Book Twenty-Seven

The twenty-seventh book we read this year is Bram Stoker's Dracula: The Film and the Legend, by Francis Ford Coppola and James V. Hart. It is what the publisher calls a Pictorial Moviebook, and contains the complete shooting script of the 1992 film, excerpts from the original novel, and more than 160 photographs of the film production. And it was another book we acquired free through BookMooch!

Stoker's book is one of our favorite novels; Mr. Coppola's adaptation is one of our favorite films. It is the version most faithful to the original novel, and incorporates styles and techniques from previous film versions, notably F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), itself a classic. Our interest in this book was not so much for the script as for the literary and historical essays. Also included are revealing excerpts from Mr. Coppola's journal as he worked on the film, as well as behind-the-scenes details about the production.

The script closely follows the plot of the novel and adds a firm historical background. Some of the dialogue is new, anchored by direct passages from the novel done predominantly in voice-over. The script by itself doesn't make a successful story. A good script is the foundation upon which all films are built, but it makes little sense alone. The director becomes a sort of visual chef, envisioning a final product, gathering the necessary ingredients, and then mixing them just right. This book contains information about Mr. Coppola's methods as a director, the costumes, the film-making techniques, the casting, the editing process, and the importance, though subtle in its effects, of thematic cohesion. What we found most interesting is the extent to which verisimilitude is pursued. Every detail necessary--from coins, to letters, to actual sets--is mocked up and then produced, so they are no longer mere props, but assume a reality of their own. Seeing is believing, and film has become a far more effective medium for suspending the disbelief of an audience.

Though there are literary tidbits throughout, this book is geared toward film fans. The wonderful images from the film by themselves are worth a look. It is also easy to read, and if you have never sunk your teeth into the novel, this book will give you a thorough overview of the story and its history.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Book Twenty-Six

The twenty-sixth book we read this year is Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and with a biographical chronicle by M.D. Herter Norton. We picked this up at a sale on a whim, because once upon a dark and yearning time we had read and enjoyed some of Rilke's poetry and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

This is a collection of ten letters written by Rilke in response to a young aspiring poet who had sent him a letter and a poem for critique. We are shown only this side of the correspondence, though there is a brief introduction written by the aspiring poet. Rilke carefully and justifiably avoids any criticism of the poem, and instead goes on to explain why he does it, and how the poet should live and work.

There is little of a personal nature in his letters. The second half of the book consists of a chronicle that explains some of the things that were happening in Rilke's life during the time he wrote the letters, as well as gives some biographical background. This is a brief book, and easily could be read in one sitting.

We would recommend this book to writers, or anyone with creative intent. It provides a good outline of Rilke's theories on, among other things, poetry, life, God, and, with particular emphasis, the importance of solitude. Rilke did not have an easy life. Though faced often with difficulties, and intent on maintaining his principles, he does not seem to have pitied himself, or stopped pushing toward his goal of artistic creation. He appreciated both sides of everything.
And in fact artistic experience lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.
Though the subject is not addressed in these letters, Rilke even made a conscious effort to embrace death.

In these letters, as in his poetry, Rilke wrote in a manner that Norton describes as
uncompromising and courageous and truthful, charming and kind....
Rilke strikes us as one of the most honest writers, and one who is wholly original in his observations. His description in later life of his experience writing prose in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge provides a nice example of his style:
In writing poetry, one is always aided and even carried away by the rhythm of exterior things; for the lyric cadence is that of nature: of the waters, the wind, the night. But to write rhythmic prose one must go deep into oneself and find the anonymous and multiple rhythm of the blood. Prose needs to be built like a cathedral; there one is truly without a name, without ambition, without help: on scaffoldings, alone with one's consciousness.
We believe there is a place in art for criticism; Rilke did not. He shares the most basic part of his reasoning in this quote, which we read more significantly as the reason art transcends all:
With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: ... most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious experiences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Book Twenty-Five

The twenty-fifth book we read this year is The Footnote: A Curious History, by Anthony Grafton. We picked it up because it sounded like an interesting subject, what the publisher describes as the weapon of pedants and the scourge of undergraduates.

Mr. Grafton places the origin, and current standard, of the modern footnote with Pierre Bayle in his Historical and Critical Dictionary of 1696. Mr. Grafton finds the form of citation expanded by Leopold von Ranke, and then polished by Edward Gibbon. The narrative of this book follows these authors, and a handful of others, through their classic works to highlight the development in style and purpose of footnotes.

Mr. Grafton likens footnotes to anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity. Their purpose, he says, is to offer the empirical support for stories told and arguments presented. A text persuades, and the footnotes prove. As would be expected, this curious history stands upon a firm foundation of footnotes. Unfortunately, most of the footnotes in this book are dry, and Mr. Grafton's prose is usually abstruse, as in this sample:
But the glacial history of practice challenges the dramatic tale of seismic disciplinary changes traditionally proclaimed in prefaces and manifestos and later retold in many histories of historiography.
Can anyone dispute that? Such sentences make it clear this book grew out of a dissertation, and would be better appreciated in an ivory tower than in our comfy chair. Noel Coward spoke for many an average reader who feels like footnotes are an interruption of the narrative when he said,
having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.
Other critics contend that a text with extensive footnotes does not offer the reader the results of research so much as the paraphernalia of learning, producing a display meant to make the scholar appear learned. Voltaire, in particular, often expressed a strong distaste for scholarly details. In 1743, Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener published a book which consisted entirely of footnotes, because he admittedly sought only fame and fortune:
one wins these not by writing one's own text but by commenting on those of others.
While footnotes force scholars to dig deep into primary sources, there is no guarantee of the veracity of those sources. The history of a king written by a contemporary was as likely to contain myriad inaccuracies, since the author probably lacked insight into the motives of the king. Evidence, particularly in the history of the church, was regularly manipulated, as when Roman scholars, to meet the popular demand for the bones of martyrs, assembled skeletons from the remains in the catacombs, assigned them identities, and produced official documents to verify them. Often, as with the Donation of Constantine or the Letter of Aristeas, footnotes and the direct insertion of source material were put in the service of outright fraud. The most valuable research always includes a comparison of a variety of sources.

The demand for footnotes produces a paradox: one must write an original sentence and at the same time prove it has a source. Though detailed citations may be of extreme value in academic writing, we believe bibliographical references would serve in a work meant for public consumption. We can even appreciate the footnote that
retains obdurate nuggets of source material that refuse to be refined down.
We prefer above all footnotes that are fun and broaden the main text, as those in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Mr. Grafton's best footnote comes on the last page of his book. It is a quote from Harry Belafonte's story of self-education, and leaves us with a laugh. He discovers footnotes while reading W.E.B. Du Bois, and wants to pursue the references.
I went to a library with a long list of books. The librarian said, 'That's too many, young man. You're going to have to cut it down.' I said, 'I can make it very easy. Just give me everything you got by Ibid.'

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Book Twenty-Four

The twenty-fourth book we read this year is Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad, by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern.

The dust jacket calls these two formidable women the "Holmes and Watson" of antiquarian books. Ms. Rostenberg's experience began with an interest in history, and included a five-year apprenticeship in New York with a knowledgeable European dealer. In 1944 she entered the rare book business under her own name. Ms. Stern's experience began with an interest in literature. In 1945, she joined her friend as partner and protege.

Ms. Rostenberg's knowledge was gained mainly in apprenticeship, and she passed this on to Ms. Stern in the same way. This was the traditional method of learning and becoming expert in the business.
We observed too that many French firms were family affairs. ... When we first ventured overseas for books, we dealt, for example, with Clavreuil Pere and with Chamonal Pere. As the years passed, the sons took over. And now, alas, we find that many of the sons have gone, replaced in France by their sons--the grandsons of those who started us on our way.
It is a tradition that is slowly fading away. Peter B. Howard, owner of Serendipity Books and proud father of two nurses who are uninterested in antiquarian books, says that bookstores today are fragile things, and are almost always one-generational.

After the war, Europe offered many treasures to the intrepid book dealer.
The Old World might have been low on food and minus many of the comforts of life, but during the decade of 1947 to 1957 early printed books were available en masse.
Their focus began on the sixteenth century, and as years passed, and such books became harder to find, their focused shifted forward into the seventeenth century, and eventually into the eighteenth century. They were one of the few firms that traveled overseas right after the end of the war, and they became quite well known. Though they still venture abroad, they used diaries and correspondence on their trips during that first decade only. After that, travel and family had changed, and they were no longer alone among book dealers crossing the ocean in search of treasures.

The book is full of the characters of those European bookstores. The women record their impressions of the cities, and their excitement over their acquisitions. They did not record many specifics about the books, but this book includes retrospective narratives that embellish and detail their original writings. One of their diary entries offers a wonderful description of hunting through a bookshop:
The bated breath with which one glances at the shelves--the expectancy of taking down a vellum- or English calfback, the thrill of opening to a Renaissance titlepage with a charming woodcut or floral border--these are so inherent a part of the booktrade & such a pleasant concomitant of it that it is really a pity to buy just from catalogues.
Or, today, just from the internet.

Though they enjoyed the actual hunt, many of their own sales have been done by catalogue. And what they sell they first examine, absorb, and add to their wealth of knowledge, so they know much more than just books. Most sales of such antiquarian items are to institutions, not private collectors, and so with each sale the market becomes thinner and thinner. Many of the best books are now in permanent holdings. Though a thriving antiquarian market still exists, no longer is there the huge opportunity that Ms. Rostenberg and Ms. Stern enjoyed.

This book leaves us with the impression that these women were far more interested in the knowledge they could gain from old books than they profit they could make, though they were certainly able to earn a living at the business. They used that knowledge to write several other historical, biographical, and critical books on a variety of subjects that grew out of their original interests in history and literature. Just as importantly, they valued the knowledge and the friendliness of the dealers they visited, many of them year after year. An excursion to a single shop often lasted for two days and included exclusive access to special books, a guided tour of the bookshop, the owner's residence, the city, or all of them, and the sharing of a meal. The importance of these experiences are emphasized in the final sentence of this book:
The need and the love of books implies the need and the love of booksellers. They were--and, we add gratefully, they still are--inextricably bound one with the other.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Second Anniversary

Today begins the week-long celebration of the second anniversary of Mad About Books in its present incarnation. This has not been a profitable experience, but we are still open for business, and plans are to continue.

Bookselling is a lesson in patience. Some days sales are good, some not so good at all. What is interesting is when a book that has been languishing on the shelf for so many years, passed over by so many readers, can, at any time, become the one book for which someone has been searching for years. There is no way to tell when that time will come. Nor is there any way to induce that time. And one can prepare for that moment as best as possible, read up on all the popular books, know the market, probe the patrons for their preferences, and there will be absolutely no way to tell which will be the next book to be happily discovered.

There is continual discovery when surrounded by 20,000 books. At times someone will ask for a certain title, and we will look for it on the shelf, and to our surprise it will be there. Some titles, 1984 for instance, we have sold several times. We have specially ordered books for special patrons. We have donated hundreds of books to numerous places throughout the community. We have met interesting people and listened to hours of personal stories. We have known success and failure. We have considered relocating the business, selling the business, and expanding the business.

Our hope for the third year is that not only our own patrons but everyone incorporate books more fully into life. That doesn't even have to mean reading more: A. Edward Newton wrote,
I know no greater pleasure than to light a good cigar, throw myself in an easy chair, and let my eyes range over a wall covered with books.
Some people will spend three dollars a day on a cafe latte yet complain they can't afford the price of a new book. We say, skip a day and spend that three dollars on a used book that can be enjoyed longer than fifteen minutes--and in our shop get that coffee for free! Keep your old shoes for a while longer and buy a new book instead. Turn off the television and read. Make a habit of buying one book a week. Simply visit a bookshop and marvel at the world at your fingertips. Practise more often the necessary acts of devotion.

We look forward to our third anniversary. Nothing makes owning or visiting a bookshop more worth while than the excuse to go out and hunt for more books.

Friday, June 1, 2007


The June issue is now online, and it's BIGGER than ever. Go read up, and don't forget to check out our column From the Bookshop.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book Twenty-Three

The twenty-third book we read (along with the other Slaves of Golconda) was The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford.

This book reminded us of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the way it shifts back and forth in time to tell the story. At several points in the book the narrator Mr. Dowell remarks that he has brought his story up to a point that he has already referenced. In the introduction, Mark Schorer likens the style to a hall of mirrors. The beginning of Part Four makes this explicit:
I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find his path through what may be a sort of maze. I cannot help it. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair--a long, sad affair--one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression.
We don't quite know what to make of this book. It was certainly not as smashing as we had expected. The story concerns two conventional, mostly sterile, marriages, and an affair between one of the women and the other man. Dowell does not find out his wife has been involved with his friend until after she dies. Through it all Dowell takes pains to assure his silent listener that the other man, Mr. Ashburnham, is a fine gentleman, a good soldier. Mrs. Dowell, however, is only one in a line of women with whom Ashburnham dallies.

The four major characters all seem as if they are wandering without moral compass. All that seems to matter is the pretence of happiness. Perhaps today, with the rampant popularity of divorce, we look back at such marriages differently. In order to find Ashburnham "the model of humanity," Dowell must have suspended certain standards. In spite of everything, he says,
It is impossible for me to think of Edward Ashburnham as anything but straight, upright, and honourable.
Yet we must take Dowell's word for it, because he never describes any of the innumerable wonderful deeds Ashburnham performs.

Dowell idolizes Ashburnham, wants to be like him, and indeed, he even comes to mimic Ashburnham's desire for a young lady. Perhaps he harbors a secret love for Ashburnham. His unwavering esteem for Ashburnham makes his judgement suspect. And he certainly relates many details about his wife's affair for having been oblivious to it until her death. These things make him seem an unreliable narrator. This begs the question: What is the point of an unreliable narrator? Without the balance of another point-of-view, how is the reader to understand the degree of the narrator's delusions? Or the reason?

Mr. Ford thought this his best work. We have not read anything else by him, so we cannot offer any comparison. This book is certainly well-written, with correct grammar and sentence structure and punctuation. This book also presents us with another narrator who feels nothing, and so the reader feels nothing as well.

Since the book began at the time of the ending, the ending seemed to come all at once. The characters lived on, but there was simply no more story to tell. All the change and lessons learned had come along the way, and all that remained was anticlimax. We have a decided preference for stories that end dramatically, with a conclusion that we suddenly realise has been pointed to from the very beginning. Though this novel is subtitled "A Tale of Passion," it could be better described as reserved. And though the narrator calls it the saddest story he has ever heard, there is more consolation than sadness.

...cross-posted at Slaves of Golconda.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Book Twenty-Two

The twenty-second book we read this year was The World According to Garp, by John Irving, for the Literary Salon at the bookshop. Mr. Irving had published three previous novels, and this was the one that made him a best-selling author. It was first published in select parts, and then complete, between 1976 and 1979. We were first made aware of it some summers later by an enticing young neighbor, and we were enticed into reading it. This is one of those books that is good enough to read again, whether enticed a second time or not.

The story begins with Garp's mother, who will continue to play a major role in the plot. One of our old literature professors allowed her class to choose a modern book to read, and this was the book chosen. However, after reading the first chapter, she disallowed it. Why? We can only speculate that she took offense to Mr. Irving's serious but humorous treatment of sexuality and women's rights. Perhaps the character didn't espouse the professor's particular brand of feminism. It was her loss, and to her discredit: who can teach literature that refuses to read certain, well, literature?

The book starts with a jolt and carries that intensely serious humor right through to the finish. We follow the entire life of Garp, from conception to after death, from an omniscient viewpoint that allows Mr. Irving to flash-back as well as flash-forward to present his protagonist in full. Everything makes sense, and there is nothing that is not somehow connected to something else in the novel. Garp is a fiction writer, so we are also privy to many of his autobiographical comments. The close of the first scene, which introduces his mother, establishes the manner of citation which will punctuate the book:
"My mother," Garp wrote, "was a lone wolf."
We get to read Garp's first novella in its entirety, from which some of the ideas Mr. Irving will use in his next book, The Hotel New Hampshire. A good example of the omniscient style concerns this story:
Helen would later say that it is in the conclusion of "The Pension Grillparzer" that
we can glimpse what the world according to Garp would be like.
In this way the storyline follows a thematic thread rather than a chronological one. This facilitates the flash-forward technique, as when we are shown a rejection letter Garp receives from a publisher, after which:
Almost fifteen years later, when Garp published his third novel, that same editor at Tinch's favorite magazine would write Garp a letter. The letter would be very flattering to Garp, and to his work, and it would ask Garp to submit anything new he might have written to Tinch's favorite magazine. But T.S. Garp had a tenacious memory and the indignation of a badger. He found the old rejection note that had called his Grillparzer story "only mildly interesting"; the note was crusty with coffee stains and had been folded so many times that it was torn at the creases, but Garp enclosed it with a letter to the editor at Tinch's favorite magazine. Garp's letter said:
I am only mildly interested in your magazine, and I am still doing nothing new with language or with form. Thanks for asking me, though.
Garp responds with exactly the same wording as in his rejection letter, and Mr. Irving wins the appreciation of every writer who has ever received a rejection letter.

We also get a synopsis of Garp's second novel, and see some of the correspondence between Garp and his editor, as well as Garp and his readers. Then later we get to read the first chapter of his third novel, which is followed immediately by:
"What do you mean, 'This is Chapter One'?" Garp's editor, John Wolf, wrote him. "How can there be any more of this? There is entirely too much as it stands! How can you possibly go on?"
The book is characterized by the editor as an X-rated soap opera, with the hope that the visceral reality of the language and the intensity of the characters justifies it. And, of course, this is the book that makes Garp a best-selling author. One of those intense characters is a husband and father who is overprotective of his family, and especially his children, just as Garp is. Garp makes a practise of chasing down drivers who speed through his neighborhood and then asking them, if they must speed, to do it somewhere else. It was this that made a young man realise that breaking the speed limit in anyone's neighborhood is not only against the law, it is also disrespectful to the people who live there. Along with his joy for living, it is this overprotectiveness that goes the furthest in making Garp a sympathetic character.

Mr. Irving's plot borders on being over the top, yet, much like Garp's third novel, it is redeemed by his style and characterisation. The World According to Garp is at once absurd and brutally real. There is a film adaptation of the novel which, having seen it, makes difficult reading the book without imagining Robin Williams. All the major events in the novel stuck with us from that first reading, though they seemed somehow bigger. The novel is sizeable, at 609 pages in paperback, yet the incidents pass quickly. And though they pass quickly, they are never meaningless or forgotten, for they accumulate until they reach a critical mass. And the point, though not the details, of the climax has already been alluded to and foreshadowed, so what happens may be a surprise, but we are not surprised that something happens. But this novel is not about building up to a climax, it is about creating an entire world, and showing that world through the eyes of one character, and forming an incredible fiction which makes one close the book and sigh, and marvel at such a life as Garp's.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book Twenty-One

The twenty-first book we have read this year is Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, Culture, by James Burke.

We were first introduced to Mr. Burke in 1979 on his television documentary Connections. In each episode of the show, the scientific historian began with a modern object and then reached back in time to show how it came to be: one discovery would lead to a new invention that would provoke a theory that would inspire an experiment that would produce an unforeseen byproduct that would become the essential ingredient for the modern object. An amazing journey.

Circles offers a slight variation on this formula. The dust jacket says each essay follows
a chain of consequential events that ends precisely where it began.
We find this statement to be somewhat misleading, because the events are rarely consequential, one resulting from another. Rather the essays follow the connections that take place in Mr. Burke's knowledgeable mind. A good example of this is the connection between an ancient Indian language and identification of the elements: Baron Jon Jacob Berzelius, who established modern chemical symbology, was a "fan" of Karl Gauss, whose method of least squares could accurately predict a planetary orbit, and who had been "affected" by the German enthusiasm for Sanskrit. Another example is the path that leads from Copernicus' De Revolutionibus to Andreas Vesalius' On the Structure of the Body: the editor of Copernicus' book was also the editor of a book by Girolamo Cardano who once cast Vesalius' horoscope. The underlying scheme seems more like "six degrees of separation" than "one thing leads to another."

At times Mr. Burke does shows us how one breakthrough or scientific advance results only from so many previous discoveries: Karl Landsteiner discovered the four blood groups in 1909; in the same year Alexis Carrel developed a new suturing technique; a few years later Charles Lindburgh developed a perfusion pump for Carrel's use in maintaining a body's circulation during a heart operation--all of which helped make possible, and without any one would make impossible, advanced modern surgery. Mr. Burke also makes the point again and again that the first person reputed to have discovered or invented something was usually not, that it had been previously done and forgotten, or the idea was appropriated. The best example of this: Einstein's theory of relativity followed Ernst Mach's, then known as Positivism. And
Mach got Positivism from Comte who got it from St. Simon who got it from Condillac who got it from Locke, who....
The book is bursting with interesting facts in nearly every sentence, among them: Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" to the tune of Londoner John Smith's song "Anacreon in Heaven;" weather forecasting was generally unscientific and based on myth and magic until French emperor Napoleon III called for the establishment of forecasting services in 1854 (though it sometimes seems forecasts are still no more accurate); in 1946 John Mauchly used vacuum valves to automate calculations in a machine called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator), the world's first electronic computer; there are now eighteen holes on a golf course because in the 1850s the sport became so popular that Royal St. Andrew's split their fairways lengthwise to allow simultaneous play in both directions.

Mr. Burke's style is full of humor and wordplay, making the reading lively. Each essay is only a few pages in length, so the accumulation of facts never becomes tedious. Many times, as in the case of Robert Owen, a person or discovery shows up in several different essays. Of another such person, author Prosper Merimee, Mr. Burke says,
you can't cross the French nineteenth century without bumping into him, since he made it his business to know everybody who was anybody.
In this way this book is similar to The Knowledge Web, in which Mr. Burke created a sort of hypertext in print, so that every reference of a person or subject points to the others, allowing the reader to follow his own path through the book.

In his 1985 book The Day the Universe Changed, Mr. Burke presents the theory that when man's views of reality are changed by knowledge, reality itself changes.
Since the structure of reality changes over time, science can only answer contemporary questions about a reality defined in contemporary terms and investigated with contemporary tools. ... There is no metaphysical, super-ordinary, final, absolute reality. There is no special direction to events. The universe is what we say it is.
He suggests such a relativist view
might well use the new electronic data systems to provide a structure unlike any which has gone before.
Mr. Burke closed his book with this prophetic sentence:
It is time that knowledge became more accessible to those to whom it properly belongs.
At the time of his writing, the only TCP/IP network was little more than a university network. The internet did not offer a truly public gateway until 1991. And today, the James Burke Institute for Innovation in Education makes use of this new structure to map the landscape of historical and scientific knowledge. The Institute's Knowledge Web provides an online portal for the exploration of information that allows for an almost infinite number of paths among people, places, things, and events.

Circles and his other books are not to be missed.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Folly in Don Quixote

We just finished reading the Praise of Folly by Erasmus. We chose the book because the author was quoted from it in Carlos Fuentes' introduction to our edition of Don Quixote:
The reality of things depends solely on opinion. Everything in life is so diverse, so opposed, so obscure, that we cannot be assured of any truth.
The first sentence of the quote is what intrigued us, because we have spent a good deal of time exploring the dichotomies between reality and fantasy, or truth and fiction. And it turns out that much of what Erasmus has to say about Folly speaks directly to Don Quixote.
To start with, everyone accepts the truth of the well-known saying "Where fact is lacking, fiction is best", and so children are properly taught from the start the line "To play the fool in season is the height of wisdom". You can see now for yourselves what a great blessing Folly is....
We have read the first four chapters of the classic Tobias Smollett translation. We must ask ourselves, Is Don Quixote truly mad?
So eager and intangled was our Hidalgo in this kind of history, that he would often read from morning to night, and from night to morning again, without interruption; till at last, the moisture of his brain being quite exhausted with indefatigable watching and study, he fairly lost his wits: all that he had read of quarrels, enchantments, battles, challenges, wounds, tortures, amorous complaints, and other improbable conceits, took full possession of his fancy; and he believed all those romantic exploits so implicitly, that in his opinion, the holy scripture was not more true.
Granting the assumption that the holy scripture is true, we see Don Quixote interpreting his world precisely as Erasmus described. Early on there is a perfect example of how this works: Don Quixote approaches an inn, which he fancies a castle, expecting his arrival to be announced by a trumpet. Just then a local swine-herd
chanced to blow his horn, in order to collect his scattered subjects: immediately the knight's expectation was fulfilled, and concluding that now the dwarf had given the signal of his approach, he rode towards the inn with infinite satisfaction.
Wonderful! Pure folly, which Erasmus tells us is the key to happiness. How much brighter would be the life of Aldonza Lorenco if she imagined herself, as does Don Quixote, the princess Dulcinea del Toboso? Who is mad, those who fail to find beauty at every turn, or the man who adorns himself and his concerns with music, romance, and expression? Folly is Don Quixote's salvation. Indeed, when we imagine things to be what we want them to be, we can live with nothing less than infinite satisfaction.

Join in the reading and discussion of Don Quixote at Tilting at Windmills.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Book Twenty

The twentieth book we have read this year is Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, by Philip Steadman. Taking The Music Lesson as the foundation of his theory, Mr. Steadman presents a convincing argument that the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer employed a camera obscura in his work.

Almost all Vermeer has left to explain his style and himself are the paintings. This book goes a long way to logically filling in the gaps in our knowledge of the painter. The tiled floors Vermeer rendered in many of his scenes provided Mr. Steadman with a guide to physically reconstruct eleven paintings. In six of these eleven, when a camera obscura is placed at the point of view, the image produced is the exact same size as the actual painting.

A contemporary of Vermeer noted in his diary that "the most extraordinary and curious aspect" of Vermeer's works was the perspective. It is this mathematically precise perspective that causes our modern eye to find in Vermeer's paintings such a likeness to photography. That many areas of Vermeer's paintings appear to the eye as if out of focus also points to the use of the camera obscura. The reconstructions show remarkably similar effects.

Mr. Steadman tries to discover where Vermeer's room might have been, who might have taught the painter about optics, and the history of the camera obscura. He also addresses the possibilities of other methods for such precise painting, as well as those theories which argue against the use of the camera obscura. The book is full of diagrams, photographic reproductions of some paintings, as well as the paintings themselves. The mathematical results of his research are gathered in charts at the end of the book.

The Music Lesson is unique in that Vermeer revealed his working method, if not himself, in the painting. Above the head of the woman is a mirror which shows us the reflection of the painter's stool, easel, and the bottom of the wall to Vermeer's back. The arrangement of stool and easel is just as the artist in The Art of Painting has arranged his. From the appearance of the rear wall, Mr. Steadman is able to figure the precise measurements of the room. From there the approximate measurements of the props are deduced. All of these calculations verify the accuracy of Vermeer's perspective.

Before someone suggests the use of such an instrument makes Vermeer little more than a painter-by-number, or who merely traces his scenes, x-rays reveal no line drawings or sketches beneath the paint. A camera obscura would be an aid to capturing the precise ratios found in the paintings, but need not dictate the subject or the arrangement of the paintings. There are also many variations, such as several styles of floor tiles in what is apparently the same room, which shows Vermeer did not paint everything precisely as he saw it. In those eleven paintings shines his skill in choosing and arranging a subject, and then rendering it in a special style.

In the end Mr. Steadman reveals what he finds to be that special style: Vermeer was not so much a painter of a scene, like many of his Dutch contemporaries, as he was a painter of light. He exercizes great control over the lighting of his paintings through windows and shutters and curtains. He also has a tendency to leave the outlines of an object undefined, which the mind accounts for. The most obvious example is the nose of the Girl With a Pearl Earring (displayed and further examined with our seventeenth book), which is rendered in the same tone as the cheek, leaving the nose, upon close inspection, without form. Mr. Steadman explains,
Vermeer starts to paint patches of light and colour, not fingers or bodices or violas.
There is an excellent website that is a companion to the book, called Vermeer's Camera. There one will find a detailed synopsis of the book, many of the drawings and reconstructions, including some that are not in the book. Mr. Steadman also offers an additional essay similar in style and tone as the rest of the book on The Little Street. Whether or not you believe Mr. Steadman's hypothesis, the book and website provide an astounding wealth of surrounding information and detail concerning Vermeer and his works that anyone interested in the painter or the art would be well advised to read.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book Nineteen

We had a good old-fashioned small town garage sale this weekend, featuring 10,000 books, during which we read our nineteenth book this year, the Praise of Folly, by Erasmus.

Moriae Encomium was written with Thomas More as the intended audience. Folly, a woman, addresses a crowded assembly with a eulogy in praise of herself. The first half of the book celebrates in a bantering tone drunkeness, ignorance, self-love, flattery, forgetfulness, idleness, pleasure, madness, sensuality, revelry, and sound sleep. Folly says
I am the one--and indeed, the only one--whose divine powers can gladden the hearts of gods and men.
Erasmus then turns to satire in Folly's criticism of the politics of the time:
Picture the prince, such as some of them are today: a man ignorant of the law, well nigh an enemy to his people's advantage while intent on his personal convenience, a dedicated voluptuary, a hater of learning, freedom, and truth, without a thought for the interests of his country, and measuring everything in terms of his own profit and desires. Then give him a gold chain, symbol of the concord between all the virtues, a crown studded with precious stones to remind him that he must exceed all others in every heroic quality. Add a sceptre to symbolize justice and a wholly uncorrupted heart, and finally, the purple as an emblem of his overwhelming devotion to his people. If the prince were to compare these insignia with his way of life, I'm sure he would blush to be thus adorned, and fear that some satirist would turn all these trappings into a subject for mockery and derision.
Most of the remainder of the second half of the book is devoted to a fierce critique of organized religion. Folly's attack reaches monks, popes, and commoners, and she reveals what she believes to be the genuine message and mission of Jesus, offering proofs of Jesus' own folly. Her most pointed admonishments are aimed at religious officials, and she frequently reminds us that ecclesiastical titles denote a function in the church, not power or status.

Perhaps the guise of Folly served as a shield behind which Erasmus could hide from authorities while he launched his attacks. Though the first part of the book is (certainly from Folly's point of view) just as serious as the rest, the light-hearted tone makes one question the sincerity of all the praises. It is in the satire and criticism that Erasmus makes arguments most convincing, and most threatening to those in power. There Folly proves to be unexpectedly earnest. Indeed, at the end she notes
I've long been forgetting who I am, and I've 'overshot the mark'.
But then isn't that one of the best aspects of Folly?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Local Man in Despair Over Present State of Journalism

In "Why Don’t Journalists Get Religion? A Tenuous Bridge to Believers," Gal Beckerman writes
“Religious issues, issues of faith, issues of moral choice, those burdens and struggles that all human beings undergo — those issues deeply interest me,” {New York Times reporter Chris] Hedges says. “Death, birth, love, alienation, sin. This is the real news of people’s lives.”

Yet those are the stories we almost never see.
Later in the same essay, Steve Waldman, co-founder of Beliefnet, says, “In the life of an individual, the big news event is not who came in second in the Iowa caucus. It’s the death of their parents, the birth of their child.”

This afternoon, the local television news opened with a shooting, a fire, a car crash, a missing person, a trial concerning a recent homicide, and a trial concerning a murder over ten years old. None of it has any bearing on us.

What news did the travelers of medieval times bear? Probably such news was meant to convey information, expand knowledge and understanding of the world, and so covered political and economic issues, and inventions or other changes. Events like a gallop-by slaying, the burning of someone's hut, a nightsoil cart crash, a disappeared magician, and a witch-trial, meant to captivate, titilate, and entertain an audience, probably fell to the troubadour to relate. Though they might have been true, they were correctly presented as stories. So the tease on television today goes, "These and other stories coming up at ten." Such is the state of modern local news, feeding us stories.

A regular feature of this news is the bad thing that someone did because they read it in a book, or saw it in a movie. The news is usually purported to be the uproar after, when angry book-hating parents demand that Setting Free the Bears be banned before another child decides to let all the animals out of the zoo; or Interview With a Vampire be removed from the shelves because it has glamorized the sucking of blood and the sleeping in coffins, and there is an epidemic of troubled Goth teens. The blame on books is nothing new, though, as even in the 1830s a defendant claimed he never would have comitted murder if he had not read about the crime in William Harrison Ainsworth's novel Jack Sheppard. Surely this can't be the only news there ever is? Why don't we ever hear about someone inspired by a book to do something good?

The Bible is said to contain the Good News. Though one can easily argue the cons of religious tomes such as the Bible or the Koran, these books have certainly inspired millions of people to be good and do good, especially in charity. How many people have been charmed by Walden into becoming a naturalist? How many people would ever fall in love if they had not read of it in books? How different would the American Revolution have progressed if the colonials had not been inspired by the writing of Thomas Paine? Not everyone wants to rule the universe; some, if not more, want to save it.

Though The Onion is meant as parody, often they feature wonderful stories about simple good things, like "Local Homemaker Fights To Overcome Rubbermaid™ Addiction." Isn't this something we all must face at some time in our life? What has happened that the presentation of some good act or useful information is found merely humorous?

Novelist Gena Showalter encourages her readers to share their news. Never is it my husband left me, or my son failed his algebra test, or my boyfriend just ran over my cat.

Local news could stand being turned on its head. Fill up the first ten minutes or so with those feel-good stories that are usually relegated to the end, and save the murder story for the closing seconds (if the weatherbabe doesn't go long).

The Great Space Coaster had a character that was a talking gnu. Gary Gnu hosted a segment that was called The No Gnews Is Good Gnews Show. We think Gary had the right idea.

Friday, May 4, 2007

On Apprenticeships

Callie bristles at the bold assertion that all bloggers are in it for the money. She doesn't make money blogging. We don't make money blogging. I suspect few bloggers make any money at blogging. So why do it?

The question assumes that money is the reason for everything. We would not be surprised if 90% of all writers don't make money writing, or have to supplement their writing income in order to pay the rent. Before Vermeer's time, artists lived the high life on their art, having wealthy patrons for their support. Beginning in Vermeer's time, artists produced art for themselves, and if they wanted to make money at it, they had to find a way to sell their art to the public. Today, patrons of the arts primarily build museums, or make donations to charitable funds, or throw lavish champagne parties for other wealthy patrons to coincide with the opening of an exhibition. No longer do they pay artists to live and produce art.

So, taking the assumption that money is the reason for everything, and tweaking it, one wonders what is the payoff in blogging for nothing. Again, the reward has been lost in history. Knowledge is something which fewer and fewer people have today. More and more people have specialized skills--that is not the same as knowledge. The old way of gaining knowledge, or learning a subject, and probably the best way, was apprenticeships.

Often beginning in youth, people became apprentices to a master in a guild. In the guild, one learned far more than just how to cobble a shoe, or fire a brick, or paint a portrait. Apprentices worked their way from the ground up, doing all the menial tasks for the master, and thereby learning every detail of the craft, including the work involved. More importantly, apprentices learned critical thinking, how to analyze, accept, reject, improve, and codify knowledge. They made no money, but they acquired intellectual capital.

Following this period of apprenticeship, which typically lasted for seven years, one attained the level of a journeyman. Journeymen were day laborers in possession of documents from their master or guild which certified them and entitled them to travel in practise of their craft or art. When they finally produced and presented to their master what was deemed a Great Work, they attained the level of master, at which time they became members of the guild. And so the process would be repeated.

Stefanie tangentially laments the things taught in today's schools. What is offered to prospective students these days is not so much knowledge--intellectual capital--but image. Too many students aren't interested in the best teaching, they are interested in the best college. Commercials don't entice one with the reality of learning, they lure with the final goal, upward social mobility, the making of money, the high-paying cushy job (though your results may vary). Schools do not teach critical thinking, they teach capitalist skills, such as balancing a checkbook, or producing a spreadsheet. Details and context are left out of education. The goal of all this is not to produce individuals in possession of intellectual capital, but to produce good consumers.

Once again, when we look back to previous centuries, the finishing touch to any good education was a grand tour of Europe. This was equivalent to the work of the journeyman, traveling, learning, acquiring additional intellectual capital, and honing one's ability to think critically. Once this was achieved, the person was ready to produce a Great Work. Today, four years of partying in college is seen as the final inevitable step in an education. Students learn what they are told, see what they are shown, and more often than not feel they are entitled to whatever they want, because they are paying for it--they don't learn, they purchase an education. Only the few who move on to a doctorate fully follow the path of apprenticeship, a thesis being the equivalent of a Great Work.

Some bloggers aren't trying to make money at blogging. Some recognise their efforts as an honing of their critical thinking abilities, an accumulation of intellectual capital, or an apprenticeship to a career in writing. Knowledge is its own reward. Critical thinking exposes the fallacy that money is the reason for everything.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Book Eighteen

Daniel J. Boorstin wrote the eighteenth book we have read this year, The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination. This is billed as a companion to his previous work The Discoverers. We chose to read the second title first, because it is creativity that interests us more than discovery. This order also allowed us to know we enjoyed Mr. Boorstin's writing enough to read another of his books.

Mr. Boorstin calls this book a kind of biography, in that it is filled with essays concerning the lives and works of many great artists and other pioneers of creativity. Through over 700 pages of text, we are taken on a roughly chronological survey of man's cultural history, beginning with the world's various stories of Creation itself, and ending with modern film. The text is grouped in Books, which are divided by Parts, which are further divided by Chapters which treat individuals or small groups of a particular type of creation. This structure gives an interesting view of the progression of culture, and especially the arts, through the ages. We always had the feeling that pioneering works happened quite randomly. In the author's personal note, Mr. Boorstin says, "We must find order in the random flexings of the imagination." And so his book strongly suggests that different types of creativity occur in clumps, or, better, in great leaps of advancement, and lead to other types.

Broadly speaking, this book covers both eastern and western cultures, treating religion, philosophy, ancient and modern architecture, all forms of images, music and dance, and a good amount of literature. There are interesting profiles on Isadora Duncan, Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Edward Gibbon. We never knew what a prolific artist Pablo Picasso was: the assessors of his estate inventoried over 50,000 works in a variety of media, and there is no telling how many works he sold, gave away, and destroyed while alive. There were chapters on things that little interested us, like the Japanese use of wood in building, or the philosophy of Boethius. In every essay Mr. Boorstin stays true to his theme and explains the background of the creative leap and its importance. Our two favorite chapters explored the genius of Proust and Goethe.

This is a long book but each chapter is easily read in short sittings. There is a wealth of information, and at times it seemed as if certain facts were repeated within the same essay, as if Mr. Boorstin ocassionally lost track of what he included and where. The book is fleshed out with many notes, and the whole is indexed. Though Mr. Boorstin doesn't seem to make any spectacular revelations or provocative assertions, the writing is simple, clear, and digestable. We enjoyed our reading, and will most likely pick up The Discoverers, too.

We give it three (out of five) pipefuls.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"I've never heard of that."

One thing we have been surprised to learn from the bookshop and from litblogs is that so many people are blissfully unaware of so many great books. Undoubtedly, we are, too.

Tiresias has joined our Literary Salon book club. To his disappointment, the first book he read with us was The Road. Among the members it was not universally disliked. Without knowing what the author has to say about his own book, it is impossible to know if it is a success or not. Some things are clear, though: The Road is a superbly successful product, and it is plainly unliterate. Tiresias was actually turned away from reading for a couple weeks by this book.

As the group set to select the next book, someone pulled from the shelf The World According to Garp, by John Irving. We were the only one to have read it, and we praised it highly. It was not nominated, but when the votes were cast, it won. And now Tiresias has had his faith in books renewed.

Today he wondered how he had never heard of the book, or the author. Did the book win any awards, and if not, why, because clearly it is more well-written than The Road? The way Irving puts the novel together is masterful. And then, to his surprise, Tiresias learned something about the structure of a novel, the in medias res beginning, the heightening conflicts, the black moment, the climax, and the denouement. He has been a voracious reader, but never noticed in the books he read these elements for what they were.

Throughout the blogosphere we find ourselves repeating in disbelief: never read Midnight's Children? is Jude the Obscure sad? Alice in Wonderland for children? who is Garcia Marquez? is Dracula as good as Interview With a Vampire? wasn't The Tin Drum a movie? How we always thought we had read so few of the essential books, and come to find that so many others have read fewer than we have.

The greatest thing is that we haven't read all the great literature yet either. We are always looking for someone to turn us on to new books, truly great works, as opposed to simply an entertaining story. Just today we had an interest in Erasmus kindled. There is always something new to be learned, and it is all out there, in books.