Books and Book Reviews: June 2007 Archives

I've heard the name, I've never read a book by her until now, and I'm struck with the impression that that is probably a real shame.

Reading Like a Writer subtitled A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them is every bit the splendid guide that the one might think.

The first, most impressive thing Ms. Prose does is to encourage the reader to slow down and to read carefully and deeply--to savor the book that they are reading. Problem is, as good as that advice is, it's terribly difficult to follow in a book as fine as this. I've tried, believe me, I've tried, and I've succeeded to the point where I haven't devoured the whole thing in a day. Nevertheless, I've failed.

Ms. Prose offers some pointers and some pointed advice contradictory to much you may have heard about the writing life. In addition, she provides observations on the academic life that are wonderful. For example:

fromReading Like a Writer
Francine Prose

Alternately, I would conduct a reading seminar for MFA students who wanted to be writers rather than scholars, which meant that it was all right for us to fritter away our time talking about books rather than politics or ideas.


You can assume that if a writer's work has survived for centuries, there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resuscitate a zombie arm of dead white males.


Part of a reader's job is to find out why certain writers endure.

Ms. Prose goes on to inform us that contrary to what we were often taught in school, our job as readers is not so much to form an opinion about a book as to thoroughly explore it and enjoy it. Sometimes these two things come together, but more often than not, we allow the inner critic to rob us of some of the joy that can come from sitting back and letting the writer lead us where he or she will. Throughout the book there are references to writing as music or art; the writer as a conductor who orchestrates all the pieces of a work to result in the grand finale, a coda that encourages a slowing of pace and a gradual dimenuendo.

I haven't finished the book yet. But its advice is helping me enjoy the enforced slow pace of reading Georgette Heyer. I am far better able to appreciate some of the subtleties of prose, plot, and character even if in a frothy, light-hearted romp.

If you are interested in writing or reading, this book is an important must-have for your collection.

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Another Amusing Moment


Please forgive me, I have so little time of my own of recent date that I snatch a second here and there to regale you with what amuses me.

A conversation regarding a duel from

Powder and Patch
Georgette Heyer

"I shall write an ode!" threatened Philip direfully.

"Ah no, that is too much!" cried De Vangrisse.

"And I shall read it to you before I engage. Well?"

"It is a heavy price to pay," answered Paul, "but not too heavy for the entertainment."

And having been "graced" with a sampling of Philip's poetry earlier in the novel, I must confess to sharing de Vangrisse's sentiments. Although my reaction might ahve been more, "L'horreur!"

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Unfortunately with my present obligations reading goes very slowly, so I'm still maundering through Georgette Heyer's delightfully literate Regency Romance Powder and Patch. However, I've stumbled on something that I can't seem to google my way out of and so I ask for my reader's help.

What, pray tell, does it mean when one has "gold-clocked stockings." For the longest time I thought it meant stocking with gold pocket-watches embroidered on them. But that doesn't seem to make sense because they come in all varieties-pink gold-clocked stockings, red gold-clocked stockings. Have I misinterpreted the meaning?

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Opus Dei


In a word, this book by John Allen Jr.--superb. Out in hardcover last year, this year's paperbound version has a bonus that makes it worth looking into--an introduction in which John Allen proposes, and largely proves the following controversial proposition: With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Opus Dei never had a better friend than Dan Brown.

The central notion there is that the calumnious inventions of Mr. Brown forced Opus Dei into a more open stance and posture than had hitherto been the case. Up until Mr. Brown's Opus, Opus Dei had largely ignored the world, its seductions and trappings. As a result a cloud of misunderstanding, misapprehension, and downright horror and disgust had built up around the group. Mr. Brown simply portrayed Opus Dei as the next in a long line of caricatures extending from Henry VIII down through Matthew "Monk" Lewis and others of more recent vintage.

Setting aside the content of the preface, with which I was duly impressed, the book itself is a masterpiece of even-handed journalism. There is no muck-raking, no dwelling on the macabre and fascinating world of mortifications, in short, as I've come to expect from Mr. Allen's works--no agenda. What is here seems to be a fairly equitable and veracious recounting of the facts of Opus Dei--its found, practices, and mission. He helps to untangle such knotty threads as exactly what is a "personal prefecture," and why is it such an innovative and useful approach for this group.

Truth to tell, there is much in Opus Dei with is very appealing. None of it unique to Opus Dei, nor much of it particularly new. The sanctification of life through ordinary work well done, the emphasis on the family as the unit of religious life, and other such points have been made by other groups through time. Even the idea of bringing the contemplative life to ordinary people and making them part of the greater mission of the Church is as old as the Church itself. But what is new is the approach, the charisms, and the institutions of this group within the Church.

If you do not know enough, but have heard the rumors and the detractors, it's a good time to get the facts. That some are discontent with the group and its practices comes as no surprise. That some abuse some of the disciplines prescribed by the group, is simply part and parcel of a human institution. However, knowing the facts, the good and the bad, makes it possible to decide whether Opus Dei holds any appeal, any attraction, any possibility of strengthening one's attachment to God.

High recommended.

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The following excerpt from her relatively early novel--a version of Pygmalion:

from Powder and Patch
Georgette Heyer

He even refused to buy a wig, but wore his own brown hair brushed back from his face and tied loosely at his neck with a piece of black ribbon. No powder, no curls, unpolished nails, and an unpainted face--guiltless, too, of even the smallest patch--it was, thought Cleone, enough to make one weep. Nevertheless, she did not weep, because, for one thing , it would have made her eyes red, and another, it would be of very little use. Philip must be reformed. since she--well, since she did not dislike him.

Gentle irony and subtle humor in prose that is not uncomely and sometimes rises to Austenian heights--Georgette Heyer a much underrated, underread master of the historical romance. It's a shame because there is much fun to be had with Ms. Heyer's magnificent novels.

Interestingly, the roles are reversed here and Philip wants to be loved for Philip

"Little Miss Cleone will have non of you an you fail to men your ways, my son. Do you not know it? What has that dainty piece to do with a raw clod-hopper like yourself?"

Philip answered low.

"If Mistress Cleone give me her love, it will be for me as I am. She is worthy a man, not a powdered, ruffled beau. "

I guess, as the saying goes, we shall see.

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On Chesil Beach


It has taken me a while to decide how I feel about Ian McEwan's most recent book. I finished it some days ago in a flurry of distaste, or perhaps better disgruntlement. Reflecting on it since then, I have changed my mind and decided that my reaction was shaded by how I wanted the book to be and the possibilities I saw in the characters. Unfortunately, I did not write the book.

And I say unfortunately advisedly because it is very much a book I would have like to have written. It is beautifully understated and very controlled. The action takes place essentially in one evening--the wedding evening of a young couple who have gone to the beach for their honeymoon. The subject is the anxiety that is brought to a moment when two inexperienced young people are about to become experienced.

Interestingly, as I started to read the book, I was under the impression that it dealt with a couple in Edwardian times. As I continued, I discovered that it actually begins in 1962. Now, I haven't any basis to reflect on the attitudes of 1962; however, this portrayed quite a different picture than I had conceived of for the time. There are phrases in it like "before it was a virtue to be young" and other such attitudes that I wouldn't have placed so late in time. And yet, perhaps it was so.

The ending. . . ah, the problematic ending, where everything comes together and flies apart--as I said at the start, it isn't what I would have had the book be, and yet there is a post-modern logic and a pre-modern sensibility that informs it and dissects it in a way that is subtle and pointed. I don't know whether I like it yet; however, it is clear from the beginning, foreshadowed throughout, and the obvious capstone on the tale. One cannot fault the story for being consistent.

If you want to read a beautiful, sensitive, incisive, study and deconstruction of the post-modern attitude, you could hardly do better than On Chesil Beach. Obviously, given the theme, recommended for adults only.

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Google Books


Google books provides a search that doesn't merely give you key word associations, but allows you to search the entire text for a phrase or word. In addition, you can use the advanced search to carefully limit how the search is conducted and how it is displayed. If you set the parameters accordingly, the results of the search can be a downloadable PDF.

Bill White has been touting this for some time and rightly so. You do have to become fairly expert at searching if you want to avoid a frustrating experience; however, the resources that become available to you as a result are enormous. And given the partnerships that Google is forging, those resources are likely only to become larger.

Yes, I know we love our books, but welcome to the digital age--PDFs are not the most comfortable volumes in the world, and yet the vast universe of things they make available to us may well be worth a little trouble. And in a proper time there will be some clever maker of PDAs who will do the Sony E-Book thing, producing a paperback sized eInk readable screen--who knows what other wonders await?

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The Children of Húrin

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I have been a long-time admirer of the ability of J.R.R. Tolkien to weave a story. I loved both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings despite some misgivings about both the implicit theology of the works and of much of the writing (most particularly the poetry.) The same problems hold true for this book, only more so.

The Children of Húrin is a long narrative cobbled together from the bits and pieces of a variety of writings--many of them previously published. Christopher Tolkien took upon himself the task to creating a coherent narrative of the whole story and he has done a very fine job.

The problem I have with this book is that it is as though Tolkien were thumbing through the Index of Folklore and Mythology and pulled out some random threads that he then inserted and interpreted with a ruthlessness that may have served the first age of Middle Earth, but doesn't leave the reader satisfied. The net effect is to create a lay, book, story, or what have you in which evil unequivocally triumphs over good. Perhaps only temporarily, but resoundingly, thoroughly, and disastrously. And this is a strain in Tolkien I don't quite trust. He seems to have greater confidence in evil than in good.

At the end of Lord of the Rings the triumph of good leads to the destruction of nearly everything good. Lothlorien is abandoned, the Shire is overrun with foulness, and the elves all leave Middle Earth.

It is naive to assume that the triumph of good means good results for all; however, it is equally naive to assume that evil consistently betters good.

Okay, my quibbles aside, how is The Children of Húrin. For a cobbled-together story it is quite readable and very entertaining. The tale is a bit disjointed, and perhaps because of its origin has bits and pieces that seem extraneous to the main point--but even these extraneous moments are of high interest and so perhaps extraneous only in the sense that we do not have the fuller story that might have resulted had Tolkien ever been led to finish it himself.

The story is told in a convoluted difficult diction that is orotund and epic but doesn't approach the turgidity of some sections of The Simarillion. Overall, once one gets used to the effects of the language, it flows smoothly in its course and helps to create the atmosphere.

So, net recommendation--certainly for Tolkien completists, and perhaps for those who want some insight into the Earlier ages of Tolkien's mythos without the investment of a huge amount of time and energy. But for those who have not found Tolkien easy going, this certainly will not change their minds

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from June 2007.

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