20 April, 2017

The List: Reading January through March 2017


Alicia Martin, from the artist's Biographies series

By the generosity of Veronica S., John A., Kristin S., and, as always, my extraordinary, incomparable Mum, I swam, delighted, in the flood of books that poured in at the start of the year. And what a selection! Many came off my Amazon wish list and were guaranteed to please, but more than a few surprises ensured that my reading went in unusual directions. (A confession: I put my best into reading that volume of history and the little book on spelling oddities, and failed miserably. Even my wide-ranging tastes have limits.) Finishing with each of the books listed below, I got such a thrill from sliding a finger along the spines of those yet unread, musing over which would most satisfy the particular literary craving felt in that moment, and finally selecting the exact right one. I don't get that luxury often. When I do, I savor it like something I may never get again.

* * * * *

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
No philosophy seems to come about except in response to, or building off of, a preexisting one, and Mill's utilitarianism is no exception. His mentor, the English jurist Jeremy Bentham, is best remembered (by someone, I assume) for his Introduction to the Principles and Morals of Legislation, probably a real page-turner in its day. Bentham developed utilitarianism, but Mill refined it. Originally published serially in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, Mill's Utilitarianism is densely written, even for its era, the 1860s. We can probably blame this as much on its high-minded subject matter as on Mill's intellectualism, itself attributable to his father, who raised him in the strictest homeschool environment, isolated from other children, spoken to exclusively in Greek, and taught the principles of logic as life guides.

In a nutshell, utilitarianism, the "Greatest Happiness Principle," holds that what is moral comes from that which is determined to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Because it demands situational morality, not hard rules carved into stone tablets, Christians in particular took issue with utilitarianism. Mill countered their assaults by writing that even Christians' objective sense of wrong and right can only be as firmly adhered to as their belief demands: "The question, Need I obey my conscious? is quite as often put to themselves by persons who never heard of the principle of utility, as by its adherents. Those whose conscientious feelings are so weak as to allow of their asking this question, if they answer it affirmatively, will not do so because they believe in the transcendental theory, but because of the external sanctions." Amen.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Course curricula at Autodidact University (student body: me) are intellectually rigorous, with a strong a priori bent — meaning that the reading lists are killer. Nowhere are these lists more voluminous than in AU's English Department. Poets, from Kazim Ali to Dean Young, make up a good twenty-five percent of the names in them, and Thomas Stearnes Eliot loomed well above most. The man's work is canonical.

Wonky meter and erratic rhyme abound in this selection (a Signet Classic edition) of early poems. Even after multiple readings of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the simple profundity of lines like "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" moves me. The title work, Eliot's ostensible masterpiece, however, is too fussy. His 1922 publication of "The Waste Land" featured no addenda, yet when he published it in book form, pages on pages of end notes appeared, clueing readers in on every biblical and operatic allusion, translating its French, German, and Latin lines, and generally presenting the work as pedantry rather than poetry. I'm not against poems that resist immediate comprehension — far, far from it! — but give me Eliot's straightforward ''Do I dare / Disturb the universe?" any day, over the closing lines of "The Waste Land":
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiarn uti chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

Dylan Thomas, Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Stories
The poet renowned for "Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night" also had a way with prose. He might've finished the wry, wild picaresque novel that he intended ''Adventures in the Skin Trade" to be, but for his 1953 death — as good a reason as any to quit writing. The other stories on offer in this collection of gems are polished beauties. I told friends, in the midst of my reading, that you could frame almost any sentence from the book, hang it on your wall, and appreciate it as a work of art unto itself. This was no exaggeration. Thomas was known for agonizing over his word choices. At the level of the story, his religiosity is present but unobtrusive. Most obvious is his consummate humanity, the dovetailing of his mythology and mystery with lots of depravity and "the terrors of the flesh."

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
In the early 1900s, first-generation immigrants from Japan — Issei — joined the American laborer class, picking the produce that Mexicans, Filipinos, Hindus, Koreans, Blacks, Okies, and Arkies, en masse, couldn't. Prosperous prewar appetites were hard to sate. Japanese "picture brides" left home on ships, lured stateside by misleading letters and photos from prospective husbands whose promises of luxury and prestige, opportunity and abundance, proved false as soon as the mail-order brides stepped onto land and met their new mates — not captains of industry but migrant workers. And you thought the liars on MTV's Catfish were cruel! The Buddha in the Attic fictionalizes these truths and, in doing so, makes them real. In my ignorance of history I'd assumed that only American men wooed Asian brides to the US. The chorus of voices in Otsuka's novel reveals another story altogether, an overwhelmingly cruel, sad one, then tells of what happened next, as World War Two erupted and these hard-working, long-suffering women were wronged yet again. This book offers the kind of history lesson that I find most effective: no arbitrary dates, no names of faceless so-called heroes, just human stories, raw and relentless.

Albert Camus (Justin O'Brien, translator), The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
In an absurd universe without what Camus called "eternal values," can meaning be found, or are we all just what the nihilist say: pointless nothings, deluded that we actually exist? (I pick some cheery stuff, don't I?) Camus was attuned to the questions of existential futility; his every work of fiction drips with ennui. The long-form philosophical essay lending this collection its title asks why conscious people in this incomprehensible universe, being aware of our human limits, exist without hope but nevertheless go on existing rather than commit suicide. What is the role of hope? Of the supernatural balms of gods and prayers? Of aesthetics? After concluding with those heaviest of concerns, Camus turns tour guide. Sensory-rich essays about his hometown of Algiers, the country of Oman, the city of Tipasa, are philosophical ruminations in disguise — the best kind. I'd willingly play Theseus to his Ariadne any way, following the labyrinthine passageways along which he lays his thread, whether they be the stone-and-mortar variety or the kind that's as intangible as thought. Either makes for worthy adventure.

Ellison Rooke, Once-a Ponce-a Time… and Other Bean-isms
How many six-year-olds have collections of their quotes published? My friend's daughter, Bean, is the only one that I know of. Considering that she's the source of nuggets like "pretty please, with pepper on top," "how's your meatball doin' in that oven," and (one of the world's best-ever exclamatory phrases) "bust my brains," you can understand why.

Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea: Stories
This man writes characters the way that Rolls-Royce makes cars — meticulously, in a spirit of polished ostentation, with what can only be called sumptuous interiors. A few of these stories were originally published in The New Yorker, where I recognized Marcus's amazing skill for rendering third-person narratives as intimate mental excursions. His protagonists are deeply flawed; they're often out-and-out failures. Many of them you can't possibly like. Still, thanks to how Marcus ensconces the reader inside his characters' fucked-up minds, you find yourself won over, a party to their struggles, with a vested interest in their well-being, time and time again. Reading Leaving the Sea is like a crash course in empathetic responses: afterward you feel sore and fatigued, but the bruises are totally worth it, considering the ride.

William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Nostalgia is what drives some to revisit fondly recalled books. Others want to re-experience the mood those books evoked the first time through. Still others, experimentalists, are curious about which aspects of the books they'll perceive differently after so many years. My freshman year in high school, over two decades ago, I read only about half of Lord of the Flies. What stopped me from finishing is now a mystery. Until February of 2017, I never went back to that isolated island with its imaginary beastie, its intermittent fire, its near-feral tweens running amok. What I found was Golding's lush prose, and that the beast in man is still very much at large. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic
Certain essays (the best ones) have a power. They transform their subject, like a magic trick, from something recognizable, into a fascinating never-before-seen abstraction that you suddenly want to turn every which way, inspecting for other angles that might reveal its secrets. A Muse ana a Maze performs this sleight-of-hand with the craft of writing, particularly literary fiction-writing, by inviting readers to play at puzzles, riddles, and thought experiments that, as Turchi reveals with a flourish, share vast common ground with the creation and appreciation of fiction. Erudite yet accessible, with eye-pleasing art throughout, this is an endlessly recommendable book, perfect for lit lovers at both ends of the process, who relish fresh perspectives.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Without resorting to sensationalism, like a lesser writer might, Eugenides tells a tale — a family history, really — from the perspective of a middle-aged man with 5-alpha-reductase pseudohermaphroditism, born to second-generation American immigrants a girl. Like its narrator, Cal/Calliope, the novel manages to be both one thing and another, conversational and complex, epic and intimate, funny and tragic. This really is a stunning work of fiction, and it makes me intensely curious to see whether his debut, The Virgin Suicides, approaches a similar level of excellence.

Wilkie Collins, The Dead Alive
Legal thrillers aren't my thing. Precedent-setting works of fiction, on the other hand…. Published in 1874, The Dead Alive is among the first in the genre that would achieve ubiquity in airport bookstores and on suburban nightstands, in addition to being based on the United States' earliest recorded case of wrongful conviction. Collins was a popular mystery writer. In other words, The Dead Alive is no great literary achievement. Evidently the last 143 years haven't seen the genre evolve beyond an idle diversion. As a historical tidbit, though, this brisk little novel holds up well enough and brings to readers' attentions the dire flaws in Western jurisprudence — flaws that also, discouragingly, remain much unchanged by time. The modern-day reader will be forgiven if she comes away from Collins's book impacted less by its plot than by the persistence of injustice in our system of criminal law.

Curt Vonnegut Jr., Player Piano
Peeking through the cracks in this bland tale of one man's ennui in a retro-futurist dystopia of boredom, the satirical specialist Vonnegut would become (Player Piano is his first novel) was the only thing holding my interest to the end. The punch-card machines he envisioned conquering the American job economy, although not far from the realm of prophecy, now seem like quaint speculations from the era of Formica and malt shops. The real bar to enjoyment here is the heavy-handed praise, weighing down every other page, for "the two greatest wonders of the world, the human mind and heart." Ten years later, in the 1960s, Vonnegut gave us Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, so at least there's that to be grateful for.

Ira Levin, Rosemary's Baby
Around Halloween, Roman Polanski's film version of Rosemary's Raby usually airs as part of some cable network's seasonal lineup. I watch it every year, if I can. Never had I felt compelled to check out the novel on which it's based, though. Having read so many stilted, inartfully written horror novels I'm basically wary of the whole damn genre. (And genre fiction in general, truth be told.) What surprised me, when the novel happened to fall into my hands, was how faithful the film version is to its source material. Whole paragraphs of dialog made it onscreen. The unspoken elements found their way there, too — a cinematic rarity. It's nearly word-for-word. Only the novel's final scene, in which Rosemary discovers the shocking truth about little Andy, runs a smidgen longer, with just a daub of additional color, than the one in the movie. In it you can almost see Levin's grin as he toes that finest of lines between horror and hilarity.

01 April, 2017

Before Breakfast, at the Old-Man Table

Another morning in 3B. Three plastic mugs of coffee steam on the table in front of us, still too hot to swig from. Jim is filling little squares with letters. Opposite him, Chris's glasses perch at the tip of his nose as he studies the latest New York Review of Books. I'm focused on blinking, following six and a half hours of having my eyes closed. Our usual fourth is unusually absent from the table. Larry's usual laundry day is Friday, tomorrow, yet I spot him (fuzzily) wringing out a T-shirt in the utility closet. He'll be along shortly.

"Okay," Jim pipes up, pausing to ensure that we're paying attention. "The clue is 'Tesla CEO Musk.' Four letters. I think the third one's — "

"Elon," I tell him. "E-L-O-N."

"Sounds like a cologne. Who the hell is Elon Musk, and why should anybody know?"

"The CEO of Tesla," says Chris. "Pay attention."

"As in Nikola Tesla, the electricity guy? I think I went to school with him." Jim's absurd exaggerations might mitigate his unease about getting older; he turned sixty-seven last month.

Chris says, "I have no fucking idea what Tesla is." His face reveals evidence of appreciating ten thousand bygone jokes.

"Well then how do you know who's its CEO?" Jim demands, setting down his Bic in exasperation.

"Because Byron just said."

"Oh, fine. Fine. Let's ask the nerd a question about something not computer-related and see how he does."

"Tesla makes electric cars," I say, and both of them suddenly register total recall. Typical. "Jim, why don't you just give up crosswords and take up a more age-appropriate hobby — like cave-painting or inventing the wheel?"

"Or getting your affairs in order," Chris adds.

One of Jim's most amusing characteristics is a willingness to let his sarcasm unspool gradually. "I'm pretty sure my affairs are about as ordered as they're gonna get, in this place. My legacy will be you guys squabbling over my newspaper clippings and half-eaten bag of pretzels. And that's only if you're lucky enough for me to die before I can eat them. Granted, that's looking pretty likely."

"Pretzels? Woo-hoo!" It's Larry, joining us at last, his Droopy Dog features perennially at odds with his six-shots-of-espresso enthusiasm.

Jim flails his arms like a windblown scarecrow. "Oh, great, now Larry's here. Can my day get any worse?"

Larry ignores the slight. "You know, I did two years in the service — airborne division — and never once jumped out of an airplane…"

"Oh, here it comes." Chris covers his eyes.

"…they had to push me every time."

Groans all around. Jim says, "God damn it, Larry, nobody laughed at that last week. What, did you think it'd be funnier a second time, or are you getting too senile to remember who you tell your shitty jokes to?"

"I told you, but Chris and Byron weren't around to hear it."

"And our lives," I say, "were measurably better for that fact."

"No doubt," says Chris, ruffling his paper like a man shaking off an unpleasant memory.

Jim invokes his usual archaic stereotypes, calling Chris on his failure to side with a compatriot. "Or is it only when there's whiskey involved that you Irishmen ride together? Bunch of potato-eating hypocrites."

"Sour old Kraut."

"Sour, yes," Jim concedes, "but at least we Germans aren't lazy bottle-suckers."

"No, of course not. Whoever would associate the inventors of beer halls with drinking?"

"Well, we're industrious and efficient, anyway."

"Then why," I ask him, "aren't you finished with that crossword? It's almost time for breakfast."

"I'm taking it slow, letting you help, because I want you guys to feel like you're actually useful."

It's Chris who puts the brakes on this frivolity, asking Jim if he watched last night's episode of Nova. An earnest back-and-forth about science ensues, by a couple of blue-collar sexagenarians. Since Larry and I had no PBS in our Wednesday-night lineup, we're treated to a muddled (but amusing) recap before the table returns to silence — Jim to his crossword puzzle, Chris to his reviews, Larry to a new issue of Smithsonian, me to my janky eyesight. It's quiet enough that I hear someone's stomach rumble for food.

"Okay," says Jim, after a bit. "Here's one: 'Sailor, e.g.' Three letters."

All those nineteenth-century naval novels he reads, and yet… "Tar," I answer.

"Ohhhhhh, of course."

"See, this nerd knows all kinds of stuff, not just computers."

He squints. "What d'ya know about sailing, ye cack-handed lubber?"

"All kinds of stuff," I repeat. "I've even got jokes: which is a pirate's favorite letter of the alphabet?"

Rolling his eyes, Larry takes the bait. He growls "Arrrrrr!" with aplomb.

"You might think it'd be R," I tell him, "but it's actually the C!"

More groans. I go for a sip of my coffee and think, This is why I fit in so well at the old-man table.