Books and Book Reviews: June 2006 Archives

Descent into Hell

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As a theological argument, Descent into Hell may make for good fiction, but as a novel, it leaves much to be desired. While many proclaim this the finest of Williams's works, that proclamation probably needs some scrutiny and qualification to make any sense. Perhaps the acclaim is for the interesting concept and final delivery of the book; if so, the acclaim may be justified, as the novel presents one of the more interesting climaxes in the Williams oeuvre, and the most explicit and consistent spelling out of Williams's pet doctrine of substituted love.

However well or poorly it may function as speculative or practical theology, it does not function well as a novel, not even as a novel of ideas. There are several reasons for this. The prose is tortured to the extreme, taking a long time (even for Williams) to get to the point.

The dead man had stood in what was now Wentworth's bedroom, and listened in fear lest he should hear the footsteps of his kind. That past existed still in its own place, since all the past is in the web of life nothing else than a part, of which we are not sensationally conscious. It was drawing closer now to the present; it approached the senses of the present. But between them still there went---patter,patter--the hurrying footsteps which Margaret Anstruther had heard in the first circle of the Hill. The dead man had hardly heard them; his passion had carried him through that circle into death. But on the hither side were the footsteps, and the echo and memory of the footsteps, of this world. It was these for which Wentworth listened. . .

And on, and on, and on, and on. "But between them still there went. . ." Between whom? Between the past and the present, between Wentworth and the dead man, between the people of the Hill. The writing is murky, unclear, imprecise, unfinished. There are few pages in the book that do not display at least one hefty lump of prose to match the above. There is about the writing nothing clear and precise, but a seemingly endless grinding of the same grain. Had there been somewhat less, the novel would have occupied perhaps two-thirds of its present length and come to a much stronger and more powerful conclusion for being more direct concerning what it was about. Williams plays too coy with his theme for too long.

In addition, there are few real characters in the book. Mrs. Anstruther and the Poet Stanhope speak in cryptic, labyrinthine sentences that suggest more the Oracles at Delphi than any reasonable character. Wentworth, driven by his own selfishness and ego becomes a mockery of himself (although this is the end of utter selfishness) and Pauline isn't quite firmly enough drawn to bear the weight laid upon her shoulders by the plot line.

The story about which these theological speculations are clustered, the presentation of a play by a group of performers at the Hill, is so trivial as to be at points painful. Doppelgangers, Lamias, ghosts or revenants, and personified elementals all loom large, or rather small as Williams isn't the least interested in any of these, and thus cannot cause the reader to evince interest. Williams is interested in his idea which, while fascinating, hardly makes for compelling reading as a piece of fiction.

In truth, nearly every other book of Williams is superior as fiction. No other approaches it (except perhaps All Hallows Eve) in the courage and strength of its initial ideation, nor in the pervasiveness of the coherent center of the book. Nevertheless, ideas rarely make for compelling fiction. And in this case, the idea, glorious in itself needs a better vehicle than a novel for it to achieve effect. And as the idea cannot be in the ascendant here, neither can the novel based entirely upon the effect of the idea succeed.

If one is inclined to read Williams, it may be better to start with nearly any other work and to find one's way slowly back to this. An appreciation of Williams's prose effects and system of writing may sustain one through the reading of this book, but perhaps only barely.

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Diary of a City Priest

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This is one of those "independent films" that early on I thought I was going to have to hate. Quotations from Thomas Merton--city priest in North Philly--mentions of the Berrigans--all ingredients for a possible disaster.

But I'm pleased to say, not so. Respectful and low key, not exalting, nor degrading, not romanticizing either positively or negatively, thoughtful and quiet and gentle. How realistic? How can I judge, I've never been there. But realistic or not it carries with it its own realism and it is an integral film, holding together and moving forward and ending as gently as it begins.

David Morse wrote and plays the key role in the drama and I have to say that I was very pleased with the way everything played out. No plot, not a lot of suspense, but a picture of a life, lonely and full of friends. Really quite beautiful.


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For a change, a Korean horror film, recommended by a friend and an interesting study in contrasts with some of the more recent Japanese horror films. The Koreans, as their history would suggest, are a more adaptable people than the Japanese tend to be. The film is disconcertingly western. The decor of the houses, the look of the streets, everything about it suggests a western influence and pervasiveness. Indeed, in the sheer comprehensibility of the threat embodied by the phone and in the labyrinthine details of the plot twists, this Korean film shows Korea as very, very western indeed.

Obviously, it is still Korea. And from the film one gets the impression of a Korea that, while very Western, is very socially conservative. While the decoration in the houses is very sleek, stylish, and modern, the feel of the people and the attitudes seems to hearken back to the 1950s in the U.S. In short, it is refreshing.

Phone has a seemingly hokey premise that plays very well. A journalist who has exposed an underground pedophilia ring among very influential businessmen must go into hiding. She is offered the unused residence of a very affluent friend. Going to this remote location, the journalist applies for a new cell-phone number and discovers that only one number is available. And here is the most intriguing part of the premise--the cell-phone number is haunted. The cell-phone rings and terrible noises come out. The computer goes matrix haywire and spells out only the last four digits of the telephone number. A young girl listens to whatever is at the other end of the line and becomes possessed. Suddenly everything is careening out of control toward a perfectly comprehensible ending.

And that is another place where the Korean movie differs from the Japanese. Much of what transpires makes perfect sense to a western mind. The vengeful ghost has its reason and its reason is clear and its vengeance, while intersecting the lives of some innocent people, is confined to one end.

One other refreshing aspect to the film is the relative strength of the Korean heroine. In most Japanese films the women are too passive to do anything other than scream and go insane or scream and die. Where the woman is strong, she is either a vengeful spirit (as in some of the Ringu movies) or a demented case (as in Audition). To see a strong and independent woman who is still respectful and observant of society's traditions and mores and capable of doing something other than screaming and collapsing is, once again as much in this film, refreshing.

The movie was well made, well-acted, and overall beautifully done. It is creepy, eerie, and disconcerting. It may not be as uncanny and utterly disorienting as similar Japanese films, but it is still all its own. It is neither western nor Japanese, just as it should not be because it is distinctively Korean.

For fans of horror films, highly recommended. For others, a good film, but not for children, nor really for younger teens.

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The Agenbite of Inwit and Ulysses


(by way of an elliptical apologia)

Most compellingly interesting to me in a work of fiction isn't so much event, although that can keep one reading right through, but the interior struggle of character--the growth of character. Who really cares whether or not Emma is married at the end of her eponymous novel, so much as whether she has been transformed in the ordeal? Yes, marriage is a very satisfying symbol for what has happened and it rounds out the novel most beautifully elliptically--a story which begins with the loss of a dear companion to the depths of marriage.

Folks who approach Joyce's Ulysses or even the much more approachable The Dead looking for story are only going to be sadly disappointed. The same is true of Flannery O'Connor. Sure, things happen to propel characters along an arc of self-destruction or self revelation; but, that is the "story" of "The River"? Is it even worth recounting? What about "Good Country People?" Heck, for that matter, where does Wise Blood ever really go? Or for that matter The Violent Bear it Away? And yet, these are solid works of fiction that reward reading and rereading. Many are daunted by the difficulties of Joyce and fail to see why anyone would think if one of the great novels. And if approached with the idea that one will leave with a nicely packaged story, it will only be disappointed. But if approached with the idea that you will learn of the "agenbite of inwit" of three different and highly interesting characters, the story takes on a different and wholly other significance.

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Joyce Carol Oates

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In the course of my (overly) long and extinguished literary career I've had the opportunity to chat with, take seminars from, take full courses from, have dinner with, and otherwise associate with any number of American Men and Women of letters. The first of these I'd like to share impressions of is Joyce Carol Oates--possibly because our interaction was only of the briefest duration and yet made the most lasting impression.

I first encountered the works of Ms Oates in a Freshman lit course reading the perhaps overly anthologized short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" This was set side by side with John Updike's "At the A&P." At that time I had no inkling of the larger opus that was the work of Ms. Oates. One day I stumbled upon the gothic overrichness of the Mysteries of Winterthurn which, if memory serves, includes abduction by balloon, among other gothicky treats. I was only later to learn that Ms. Oates usually reserves the most gothic touches for her shorter works. For example, Black Water is about the last thirty seconds (or so) in the life of a woman mysteriously similar to Mary Jo Kopeckney. Zombie, which makes me shudder even to think about, is the intensely disorienting and deeply disturbing story of a psychopath who seeks to control people. . . well, let's leave the description at that lest someone wish to discover its arcane horrors on their own. Ms. Oates has a plethora of stories that cover the gamut from the macabre and gothic to the outright ghastly and outré.

I say all of this by way of introduction because to meet the woman in person she is the most unlikely perpetrator of these literary and literate horrors. Reading her books, one begins to question Ms. Oates's grasp on sanity and reality. But to hear her speak in person is to hear the voice of sweet and angelic reason. Her obsessions are deeply disturbing, but her personality lively and charged with an energy that I couldn't account for. Just being in the same room with her was a charge that I couldn't explain. I couldn't explain it at the time because I didn't care for her works all that much, so I wasn't suffering from groupyism. In retrospect, I still can't explain it. Perhaps it is the impression she gives, with her wide, unclouded eyes set in a plain but somehow lovely face, framed with hair that might be "pixyish" if you didn't know that this woman wrote books about boxing and recreated horrifying nightmares as a matter of course. She wasn't an imposing person, but she had real presence (not that kind of Real Presence). You were inclined to look for the transparent staircase or the stray floating barge that would accompany this refugee from a pre-Raphaelite painting. And to accompany this presence there was a strong, distinctive, incisive intelligence--the kind of person with whom to share a few moments talking about nearly anything is simply pleasure. Her nonfiction works spill over with it--she has a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach to critique and criticism that is a wonder and a joy to read. (I've been indulging in some more during this evening.) Over all, a brilliant woman who left an indelible impression in my mind and who in the course of a simple lecture taught me more than I ever knew I could know about writing and writers, although she said so little.

The literary world of Joyce Carol Oates is as violent as that of Flannery O'Connor, but one gets the impression that no God overlooks the lives of these characters. Ms. Oates gives one the impression that she would have made a very very good Knoxian Calvinist. Mysterious and horrible fates are visited upon her characters as if rejected by God, if there were one lurking about these dark pages. Ms. Oates's themes are violence--sudden, uncanny, unreasoning, frightening, and disorienting violence.

And yet her lecture, her keynote speech is as smooth as honey as invigorating as you can imagine for a group of youngish writers all fidgeting with their pens. And after Ms. Oates spoke, fidgeting even more.

I don't recall much about my conversation with her after the lecture. It was one of those rare occasions when I was too much in awe of the person to pay much attention to what was happening. Fortunately I was there with two people with the indefatigable gift of gab and the conversation lasted for some time, as I recall. We all left ready to write our hearts out--a metaphor that I'm certain would please Ms. Oates.

Okay, so there isn't much to this--but of the other figures, more: James Dickey, Robert Bausch (or was it his brother Richard--honestly I forget, Mary Lee Settle, John Irving, John Gardner, Katherine Patterson, Czeslaw Milosz and a host of others--Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, and others who came to the school or to nearby venues where we flocked out in droves to catch some of that ethereal vapor that comes from a published writer. Perhaps some of these stories I will share in more detail. I have lived a privleged life--too bad I don't recall it far more often.

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In a word--breadth. This is a man who finds much to enjoy in the literary world. Listed in his "sources" in the back of the small volume Book by Book we find reference to: Charles Addams, Mortimer Adler, Italo Calvino, John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton, Collette, John Collier, Robertson Davies, Lord Dunsany, Umberto Eco, Ford Madox Ford, Michel Foucault, Northrop Frye, Henry Green, Georgette Heyer, Diana Wynne Jones, Sheridan Le Fanu, Vernon Lee, China Miéville, Thomas Love Peacock, Mervyn Peake, Rex Stout, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Mary Wollstonecraft, Gottfried von Strassburg, P.G. Wodehouse and others. This doesn't include the authors within the body of the work.

What this reach says is that it is not necessary to denigrate the lesser luminaries to enjoy the works of the great. There is as much pleasure to be derived from the real enjoyment of Georgette Heyer in her capacity as a Regency Romance novelist as there is to be garnered from braving the wilds of Rabelais. There is as much delight in the light fantasy of Dunsany as there is in the more robust measure of Stendahl. Gossamer webs do not preclude iron bars. The appreciation of literature comes from the appreciation first of what it is and second of how well it fulfills the mission of being. In Dirda's world Lovecraft can be as much a way of exposing the human as Céline or Lowry. Rex Stout has as much to offer the reader (albeit in a very different sense and way) as Dickens. I'm sure even Mr. Dirda has limits he will not transgress, but I have to revel in a list that sets side by side Michel Foucault and Georgette Heyer; Umberto Eco and Lord Dunsany;P.G Wodehouse and Mary Wollstonecraft; John Dickson Carr and Gottfried von Strassburg. There is something to admire in a person who can embrace all of these things and find within them something embraceable.

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A Footnote to the Previous


Because I'm trying desperately to avoid the Faulkner effect and to remain somewhat coherent with all of the stuff that is tumbling through my head, this is a footnote to the previous--an afterthought, or duringthought that is a digression to the original point.

I've not read much of Nietzsche. Or I have read it and not cared for it because I have not come to it with anything like an open mind. And yet I discover time and again things that he said that resonate and open up new worlds of thought. While he systematically attempted to dismantle Christianity, I wonder if that isn't my misconstruction of his true intent. Perhaps he was dismantling the mythic structure around Christianity that keeps so many people from being good Christians. Dour Soren Kierkegaard did the same starting with his dictum that those who are comfortable with Christ do not know Him.

Honestly, I can't say, but I must say that Dirda quoted at least two or three things from Nietzsche that have given me much cause to rethink.

But honestly, since I'm not inclined to read philosophy anyway, and were I to do so, Plato and Aristotle would be the point at which I would start, Nietzsche, I fear is far down the list and may visit me only in these aphorisms. Nevertheless, he does me a great service even in these short thoughts--because not having them in context, I can take them to mean whatever seems most useful for the time and use them as appropriate, so long as I don't stretch the point and try to explain them to everyone else.

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Just Remind Me


I have so much to write tonight and so much to say, that I haven't time for all of it. But just remind me to tell you about some of the literary figures with whom I've had classes/acquaintance. Remind me to start with Joyce Carol Oates--one of the most profoundly interesting and disturbing people/writers around.

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Current Listening


In preparation for my next reading spree, I'm listening to Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. I intend to read The Bride of Lammermoor as the first of several Scott novels (Rob Roy, Waverly and Old Mortality spring to mind as additional possibilities.) This will probably be AFTER I finish Bleak House and a few books of criticism I have laying about.

What is interesting about Donizetti as a composer of opera is that he seems to be the bridge from the classical tradition of Mozart, Haydn, and even to some extent Beethoven (who borrowed many of their operatic tricks from the likes of Monteverdi and later Italian composers) and the lush romanticism that was to be the hallmark of Verdi and Puccini (amongst others). In Donizetti, there are still the traces of recitative or in German sprechstimme (forgive the spelling, I've only ever heard it pronounced, never seen it written), in which a performer sort of half-sings, half-talks over a harpsichord or other minor level accompaniment. This technique was quite pronounced in L'elisir D'amore, not quite so much in Lucia; by the time one arrives at Verdi and Puccini, it is practically nonexistent. And I must admit, that it is one of my least favorite operatic effects and did much to detract from my enjoyment of Così fan Tutte.

Anyway, what better way to weather a summer when family is staying with Grandparents far away that a tale of the wilds of Scotland and forbidden love and its concomitant disaster?

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Charles Kingsley

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The Online Books Page: What's New

Probably to celebrate the forthcoming proposal for the Canonization of Thurgood Marshall (see TSO's blog) The On-Line Books page offers us a plethora of Kingsley, sermons, scientific works, Poetry and lectures on Literature. All but Westward Ho! and my personal favorite (I own a first edition) The Water Babies Looks at the entries for June 12, 13.

And here's a link to the Charles Kingsley Author Page, in case you wanted to pursue the novel and other works.

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Karen Joy Fowler, who has produced some remarkable works of fiction, did not entertain me with this one. I don't like to think of myself as a prude, but I finally got to the point in the book where the scattered but gratuitous foul language so tarnished what meager enjoyment I had from the characters that the better part of valor seemed to abandon th effort. It isn't as though there aren't millions of other books just waiting to be read.

There is no discernable story here. The Book Club is an excuse to tell us about the lives of six characters, and this is a perfectly acceptable set up--it can work quite well when the characters are interesting and the back-story worth telling. In this case neither is particularly try. Fowler's selection of details is such that one ends up saying, "So?" Her delineation of character seems to be centered on the surprise expletive here and there.

The six characters of the novel are, I suppose, meant to have some oblique relationship with the six Austen books of the full canon of that great writer.

My only reaction is, what a shame that such a great writer received so poor a tribute from another very capable writer. Unless you are a die-hard Austenite dead-set on reading every book by and about her, give this one a miss--you'll be glad you did.

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Closing the book on the lousiest story ever sold : Mail & Guardian Online

The past 10 years of his life had savaged the dilapidated novelist. His cheeks, once chubby and flushed, were flaking onion-skin drawn tight over a mangrove swamp of burst blood vessels; and his eyes -- little round beads that had blinked quizzically from the back covers of 500-million paperbacks -- were useless egg-whites swimming in two oily pans. He sank deeper into his chair, and listened to the indistinct shrieks coming from outside, where his great-grandchildren -- Mary Magdalene, John-Judas Junior, Phil the Baptist and little Gomorrah-Sue -- were sticking knitting needles into a wax effigy of Dostoyevsky.

That Gomorrah-Sue is the real kicker!

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Bad Judgments

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This quotation helps me to feel better about my own lack of appreciation of certain well-respected, admired, and beloved authors. It shows that we all have blind spots--some quite, quite large.

from Ralph Waldo Emerson in
The Jane Austen Book Club
Karen Joy Fowler

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. . . . All that interests in any character [is]: has he (or she) the money to marry with?. . . Suicide is more respectable.

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Reading List


After the key-lime intensity of The Essence of the Thing, it seemed good to have another break. As the books mentioned in comments to another post have not yet had time to arrive, it became necessary to scour the shelves and pluck off the jewel here and there that has been waiting for a lull in the list.

Obviously, Throne of Jade beckoned; however, as there are only three in the series thus far and who knows how long until the next one, it seemed better to direct attentions elsewhere. On some shelves that are too hidden for the purpose they are used (to store unread books) there were a number of gems that have been too long neglected. From these four were chosen and from the four, finally one arrived at.

The perfect counterbalance to the straight-line intensity of Madeleine St. John seemed to be the quirkiness of Karen Joy Fowler. There amidst the treasure of months gone-by book browsing lay The Jane Austen Book Club. It appears to be a novel structured around the reading of Jane Austen's novels with six members, each one with their own story--probably highlighted and corresponding to one each of the novels.

Karen Joy Fowler has produced such oddities as Artificial Things an early book of short stories that would suggest affinities with Science Fiction and fantasy; however, such a suggestion might be a little misplaced, and Sarah Canary, which, if memory serves was about the northwest territories toward the end of the 19th century and a mysterious woman who shows up in them. This too lay upon the "when the mood strikes shelves."

Also, the continued reading of Descent into Hell . . . well. . . continues. The book is strangely intense, and it really is interesting, but it isn't arresting and completely involving. Much of Charles Williams is this way--interesting and well worth-while once read, but rather difficult going to get into it.

The Japanese writers are getting attention again. Because of Jane Smiley's list at the end of 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanazaki is once again on the radar, although a reread of Some Prefer Nettles might be in order. Also under consideration is a reread from too long ago--Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji, probably the first major full-length novel--with a rather unusual structure and set of conventions for Western readers, but a beautiful etched portrait of Imperial Japan of the Heian period. Perhaps because of the reminder of An Instance of the Fingerpost, a book of short stories by Akutagawa springs easily into the hand. And finally on the perusal of the Japanese classics shelves, two titles stand out: The Crazy Iris, a collection of short stories about the dropping of the atomic bombs and featuring a story by Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, whose severely handicapped child is the inspiration for A Personal Matter (said son is also known as the composer of two volumes of short piano pieces--see Hikari Oe; one should hope that this would give even the most hardened bioethicists pause in the consideration of who is worthy to live); and, coming now back to the two titles that stood out, The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo--the story of a man reflecting on his experiences during World War II in Shanghai, where, as a medical doctor he was ordered to perform medical experiments on prisoners of war.

There are so many, many things that appeal and each will have its turn . But for the nonce there is The Jane Austen Book Club giving time for pause and reflection to consider what be next on the list.

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Beautifully written. Told largely in dialogue and without a lot of "plot" the novel recounts the life of Nicola once her boyfriend of six years suddenly reveals that he doesn't love her and that "It's no good."

Unlike many modern novels, it turns out that Nicola does love Jonathan--sincerely, completely, desperately, and unreservedly. She regards his revelation and request to her as the beginning of a descent into Hell. (A descent that is stemmed in part by the arrival of Easter.)

What I love so much about the book is the way that St. John weaves her themes so carefully and seamlessly into the book. Almost no reviewer has mentioned the incredibly strong Catholic tide that drives this book along. For example the transformation from mourning and despair to something approaching a life takes place as Nicola is left alone over a weekend.

[Warning: some minor "spoilers" below--I don't think they'll spoil your enjoyment of the story--but they do reveal some turns in the tail]

But the thing alluded to and which is very cleverly embedded into the fabric of the story is the real threat of sterility in marriage or a relationship. Everything in the story seems to turn on the pin of Nicola telling Jonathan that she will have to go off the pill for a length of time during a "resting" phase. This seems to be the "event" that causes Jonathan to think their relationship through. This incident is mentioned several times and is interestingly reflected in the dialogue of another couple for whom the man wishes to have another "sprog" and whose wife turns him down. St. John seems to say that this deliberate barrenness dictates the barrenness of real life-scapes. An amazing feat for a woman trying to write a book that will appeal to a wide variety of readers in the secular world today.

I'm sure there are other subtle strains, that were there enough time I could tease out; however, what I can say is that there are moments that are laugh-out-loud funny in a book that is among the saddest (not most depressing, merely sad) that I have ever read. The perfect pitch capture of the psychology of the relationship leads to a denouement that is heart-breaking and exactly perfect for the book.

St. John stands much closer, much more lovingly near her characters, but her style and prose does seem to suggest that of Muriel Spark. I have to say though, that this book moved me far more than any of Spark's and I find it not a little annoying that the author has, so far as I can tell, only four books to her name. (And one of those may belong to another Madeleine St. John, I can't say for certain.)

In sum--most highly recommended--but be prepared for the desolate sadness that pervades much of the story, even when there are some amusing passages.

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I have many gems to share with you, but this is the most recent and really delightful. It's passages like this that seem to completely befuddle reviewers of the book--and completely to elude them. Most interesting.

from The Essence of the Thing
Madeleine St. John

'Still: salvation. Not such a bad deal, is it?'

'I don't know--perhaps it isn't. It's just--'

'I know what you mean.'

'I mean, the whole thing's simply preposterous.'

'Yes, it is, absolutely.'

But that, she sudddenly suspected, might be its cheifest recommendation. 'You wouldn't think anyone could ever believe that stuff, would you?' she said, marvelling. 'Let alone in these days.'

'Even quite intelligent people. Otherwise intelligent, anyway.'

'It's an utter mystery.'

'Yes, it is. An utter mystery.'

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Ossa upon Pelion


What can one say about an author who actually uses the phrase "piling Pelion on Ossa" (even if they are reversed). I think I have a new author to love.

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Humor and Sorrow


Two glimpses into a book that I am enjoying despite the shared heartache.

from The Essence of the Thing
Madeleine St. John

At lunch-time she sent out for a sandwich and worked in while the office slowly emptied around her. At last they were all gone. She carried on valiantly for a few minutes but then abandoned the machine, and pushing aside the half-eaten sandwich and the half-drunk coffee, and leaning her elbows on the desk, she buried her face in her hands, and sat thus, immobile, abandoned for a time to the unveiled acknowledgement of white-hot relentless pain. It will get better, she told herself at last, it must get better; I have only to live through this. She did not see that it would get better in some ways, and worse in others, would change its shape and colour through the days and weeks to come so as at all times to possess her mind and ensure her suffering until at last it was pleased to retreat. I must, she thought, just concentrate on what comes next, and try to live through this a decently as I can. She was not British for nothing.

Susannah replaced the receiver and stared at the telephone. So it really had happened. Nicola had lost her lover and her home, just like that, kaput. What vile cruelty. It was like an Act of God in its suddenness, its comprehensiveness, its magnitude; it left one gasping. It was almost enough to make a person start smoking again: one really might as well, considering how many much worse ills awaited one. For several minutes the world looked to Susannah unutterably dreadful. The she went on with her work. She was a picture researcher and at the moment she was attempting to collect together colour transparencies of all the painting of J.-B. Chardin. She picked up one which had arrived in that morning's post and looked at it again through the viewer. The world was unutterably dreadful, but. There might be almost nothing one could do about it, but there was after all something one could do in spite of it. Hallelujah, she said to herself, hallelujah. Whatever that may mean. And so she consoled herself.

The story is told in large chunks of dialogue and somewhat out of chronological sequence. And I think many who have read it have missed a central point in St. John's narrative and reasoning. I'll see if my supposition is borne out as I read, but I have a distinct sense of why this impasse has come, and the reasoning and end is very, very Catholic indeed--if there is enough evidence to support it. Following the important rule of three, I have two references, I'll let you know my hypothesis if the third shows up.

Later: Reading during lunch, I'm gratified to find, quite quickly the third critical reference. I'll share in my review of the book.

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Reading Blues

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I'm having one of those episodes today that comes from reading through something much too fast and not preparing myself for the vacuum that will left when the book is put down. Devoured The Rule of Four (although I do have to agree with Steve and Banshee's assessment of it overall) and then, wham! I hit the wall. Spent the better part of yesterday evening flitting from book to book to book, looking in vain for somewhere to settle.

I started with Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which has made many lists as one of the best novels in the last several years. I went to Judith Merkle Riley's The Master of all Desires (this was one of three I picked up because I had seen one in a bookstore that I thought looked really interesting, but I wanted to check it out before I bought it. It was the story of a Medieval woman who receives the gift of healing and I couldn't quite detect whether or not it was carrying a big anti-RC chip on its shoulder. If so, I wasn't remotely interested. And the library, darn them, didn't have A Vision of Light in.) Put that back in the book bag and pulled out three other library possibilities. Shuffled them around for a while and then picked up Toni Morrison's Beloved, which given all its acclaim, I promised myself I would try to read again. Read about four pages and decided that it was WAAAAAAAAAAY too depressing to start in an evening or even to deal with in the spring. Picked up Madeleine St. John's The Essence of the Thing again (started it a while back). Thought about Torgny Lindgren's Light, but Swedish weirdness just wasn't in the cards.(This consideration was spawned by a reminder in a list found at Claw of the Conciliator and my own recollections of Lindgren's work.) Went to the new James Rollins Map of Bones but wasn't prepared to deal with another Da Vinci Code should it turn out to be so (although given Rollins's past work, it seems unlikely.) Picked up Randy Wayne White's Tampa Burn and decided that it was too heavy for the season as well. Thought about Throne of Jade so I could read Black Powder War, but wasn't in that space either. Definitely could not touch what I must finish soon Descent into Hell--too ponderous for words. Basically was looking for light, entertaining fluff.

Afraid I didn't find it. So for lunch break today, I have an array of four books: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, Madeleine St. John's The Essence of the Thing, Naomi Novik's Throne of Jade and Charles Williams's Descent into Hell. Whatever I read will probably take a week or so and thus give me time to let my mood gel and make a reasonable list for what comes next. Unfortunately, I feel a hankering for Preston and Cloud's Dance of Death, I know that like Brimstone and Book of the Dead, I'm only likely to be disappointed. But perhaps I'll get a Utopia, The Codex, or Tyrannosaur Canyon out of the deal. Always hard to tell with those two.

Anyway, wish me luck and send me your suggestions. I know I need to look up Q.

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The Rule of Four

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Okay, I'm a sucker for this kind of "intellectual" mystery--in which some document or artifact or object or person from the past is gradually revealed in a series of unfolding puzzles to show a great surprise. The Club Dumas did this whole thing to perfection. The much reviled Da Vinci Code did it with great success in the puzzles, perhaps less in the prose, and none whatsoever with the dimwits who piloted their way through the see-through puzzles. This book, much like The Club Dumas makes no pretense of playing fair. There is a mystery, but you are just the witness watching it unfold. In that sense, Da Vinci Code was more amusing. However, the puzzle here centers around a real and quite arcane little book the Hypnerotomachia Poliphli (an abbreviated Jacobean/Elizabethan translation of which is available here.

There are just two points I wanted to make about the book. The first is the remarkably even-handed and even laudatory approach taken toward Savonarola, who was not dismissed as a madman or a lunatic by the characters, although the author of the Hypnertomachia has a somewhat different perspective. No axe to grind, Savonarola is important to the impetus of the story, but very fairly (more fairly, than in all honesty I could treat him) treated.

The second point that really struck me is how "young" the book seems. I wonder if I was ever as young as this book struck me. There is massive intellect, but absolutely no wisdom or gravitas or any sign of maturity amongst these college seniors. Now I know that college seniors are young--but the lack of substance of the people in this book was stunning, most particularly because the authors tried so hard to create a sense of substance, character arc, and change. There are attempts at philosophy that betray time and again the lack of any experience in the world of the authors. Clever but not sage, intelligent but not wise--there is a hollowness to the characters and to the whole world portrayed in the book. Ultimately it is a hollowness that has a truthful ring. If I could see myself in that time period I would probably be too embarrassed to speak of it. However, it struck me time and again as I was reading how very little depth there was here. The lack of substance was stunning, but on the other hand, entirely unnecessary to the book as a whole anyway, and perhaps that is why it made such an impression. This is a "farewell to college" bildungsroman that winds up being a trifle embarrassing.

However, if you want an interesting, intriguing, and fun beach-or-mountain getaway romp, this is a wonderful book for the cause. Another reader had mentioned that it is a cut-rate Secret History, and that is probably so, but The Secret History and The Little Friend are both much more potent than mere entertainment reading. The Club Dumas manages to tread the fine line in the middle making it a very high-brow beach read. But then, someday I'll write more about Perez-Reverte--his successes (many) and his dismal failure (Queen of the South.)

Overall--recommended as a light and mildly engaging read. Light fodder, probably a day-time toss-off for the dedicated readership of St. Blogs.

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This may be the last of my explorations of Dame Spark for a while--it is time to cleanse the palate to receive other delights. (The palate cleanser shall be either The Rule of Four or Throne of Jade. I'm inclined to the former as a new e-book translation of the Hypnertomachia Polyphili has recently become available on the web.

A Far Cry from Kensington joins The Girls of Slender Means and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as one of the top works in Ms. Sparks repertoire so far as I have read it. It is unusual in that it is written from a first person point of view--Ms. Spark being a rather distant mother even to these fictional offspring, doesn't often indulge in a first person presence.

The story centers around Nancy Hawkins, an editor at a small publishing firm that is going out of business. When she insults the lover of a famous and reputable author, she is dismissed from the position and sets in motion activities that result in the death of an acquaintance.

One thing that did leave rather a bad taste in my mouth is the final section , indeed nearly the last lines of the book, in which the heroine reclaims some of her own. The problem is that there is entirely too much relish of the revenge taken and it upsets the mood and tone of the rest. Perhaps this is deliberate. Perhaps not so. Either way, it was disturbing, in part because I was all too sympathetic to the action.

The prose is polished, smooth, remarkable in its pristine clarity. The book was indeed a joy to read.

Despite what I said above, I now have to move on to Descent into Hell for a book club. However, I may take a brief diversion into The Rule of Four which I have heard described as a literate The DaVinci Code.

As to Ms. Spark's book: high recommended.

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Amusing Bits


Approaching the end of A Far Cry from Kensington and there's this, which amused me:

from A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark

Fred said many other good things about William, for Fred talked like the sea, in ebbs and flows each ending in a big wave which washed up the main idea. So that you didn't have to listen much at all, just wait for the big splash. And so, from his long, rippling eulogy I was able to report to William that his musical criticism was lucid and expert.

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Adela Rogers St John


As I said yesterday, google any of the authors on the list of 1966 bestsellers and you'll find something eye-opening.

Turns out that the one book that I knew neither by reputation nor by author should be on my reading list according to the various reviews and bits and pieces written about it. Seems that Tell No Man is about an Episcopalian Priest's struggle to come to terms with what living the faith means. In his book Angels Billy Graham actually quotes an incident recounted in the book which is drawn from real life. Most interesting. Google for yourself and find out.

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I found this remarkably moving and unfortunately too true.

from A Far Cry from Kensington
Muriel Spark

She was operated on next day, poor young woman, but nothing could have saved her from the galloping malignant disease that she died of within a week. I visited her twice in the hospital. S?he recognized me, but was glazed and doped. I went to her cremation at Golders Green and seeing her coffin slide away, I regretted I had ever thought ill of Mabel, or treated her like the nuisance she had been. Oh Mabel, come back; come back, Mabel, and persecute me again.

Perhaps something to remember when I'm inclined to treat people less well than they deserve.

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Gnooks - Welcome to the World of Literature

This is one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Use the "Map of Literature" Feature--type in a fairly prominent person's name and you get a really cool map of what people who read that author are likely to read. It was spot on for both Helen MacInnes and Mary Stewart and most interesting in the admittedly distant association of Flannery O'Connor with both Philip Roth and Jim Thompson. However the proximity of C.S. Lewis to both Frank Peretti and Sun Tzu is frightening. But, given that I have read all three, at least anecdoatally verifiable. And the proximity of Charles Williams to Joe Lansdale is both interesting and highly disturbing.


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The Bestsellers of 1966

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Given the top two entries on this list, we have a great deal to be thankful for:

1. Valley of the Dolls Jacqueline Susann
2. The Adventurers Harold Robbins
3. The Secret of Santa Vittoria Robert Crichton
4. Capable of Honor Allen Drury
5. The Double Image Helen MacInnes
6. The Fixer Bernard Malamud
7. Tell No Man Adela Rogers St. Johns
8. Tai-Pan James Clavell
9. The Embezzler Louis Auchincloss
10. All in the Family Edwin O'Connor

I note this list because of the eclectic mix of things. I don't know that I ever realized that Helen MacInnes had at one time been a best-selling author. And Bernard Malamud! Who'd have thought such a book would make it onto a list of things read by many. Tai-Pan is among my favorite of the works of James Clavell. I like it a good deal more than Shogun, in part because it is a good deal shorter and packs a greater punch.

What is remarkable is that while Susann's and Robbins's names live on, most of the rest of these authors are more-or-less forgotten. Nevertheless, it is my guess that were one to google each of them, one would be likely to find a large number of entries dedicated to each. This is one thing that the internet has done for us (or perhaps to us). Fewer authors sink into obscurity (well deserved or otherwise).

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from June 2006.

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