TPR Challenge #12 - T. S. Eliot

“The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”  

This quote, taken from Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," reflects so much of what Eliot grappled with in his life and his writing, especially Four Quartets (see here for my thoughts on this work).  The ideas of influences, novelty, and individual poetic voice play well with what later became a focus on the intersection of the temporal with the eternal.  The Paris Review interview was conducted by poet Donald Hall in 1959, a mere six years prior to Eliot's death.  By this time, Eliot had completed the bulk of his life's work and was aware of his age and cautious about his potential irrelevance.  The interview was not among my favorites so far, but it did provide a few interesting points, including Hall's opening statement: "Perhaps I can begin at the beginning."  Hall is, of course, referring to Eliot's youth in St. Louis, but it seems to me such a loaded statement to put to a man who once wrote:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning. ("Little Gidding" 214-215)

Actually, throughout the interview, I got the impression that Hall was not much of an interviewer.  He alternately asks loaded questions (essentially answering them himself, which Eliot calls him on at one point) and facile questions such as "How does the writing of a play differ from the writing of poems?" or "I wonder if you could give advice to a young poet about what disciplines or attitudes he might cultivate to improve his art."   Both are legitimate concepts, but Hall didn't ask the questions in such a way as to garner a strong response.

A few of Eliot's comments struck me as thought-provoking or inspiring: "I don't think that one can be a bilingual poet. . . . I think one language must be the one you express yourself in, in poetry, and you've got to give up the other for that purpose" (72). Regular Rumination's post today was from poet Rhina P. Espaillat, a bilingual poet who uses both languages in the poem Lu posted.  Despite this lovely example, I think I tend to agree with Eliot, but I'm not sure.  Your thoughts?

I also loved Eliot's reflections on his early work:
 In The Waste Land, I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying. (79)
and in response to whether the Four Quartets was his best work:
Yes, and I'd like to feel that they get better as they go on.  The second is better than the first, the third is better than the second, and the fourth is the best of all.  At any rate, that's the way I flatter myself. (79)
and finally, on considering his work part of the tradition of American literature:
Yes, but I couldn't put it any more definitely than that, you see.  It wouldn't be what it is, and I imagine it wouldn't be so good; putting it as modestly as I can, it wouldn't be what it is if I'd been born in England, and it wouldn't be what it is if I'd stayed in America.  It's a combination of things.  But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America. (85)
Like the Munro interview, which I didn't prefer because it came later in a practiced career, tinged somehow by the reality of celebrity, this interview seems guarded.  There are undeniably funny moments and some moments of honest reflection, but overall, it felt like a Thing To Do as a famous poet rather than a legitimate and intimate conversation.


The Lost Generation Classics Circuit: T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets

I am excited to be participating in my first Classics Circuit Tour, this one focusing on the Lost Generation of American Literature.  Go here to see the full schedule of posts and to get your fill of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Cummings, and Stein (among others). 

I had considered two works for this tour: Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot and True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway.  I decided on the Eliot, mostly in the interest of time, but I plan to get to the Hemingway soon as part of my ongoing TPR Challenge.  The Eliot is also part of that Challenge, so I will post a companion piece tomorrow to tie in the TPR bits.  But today, I will focus only on the gorgeous, mellifluous, discordant, confounding, and inspiring Four Quartets.

Eliot is, of course, most widely known for his long poem "The Waste Land," and on my list of Things I Must Do Soon is to reread it and try to wrap my head around it more than I did in college.  My faithful Norton Anthology (well, one of them) tells me that Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but his work is collected in the English Literature volume as well as the American.  He lived most of his life in England, and his writing was born of this life and place, but he is still an American, born of "New England stock" (a phrase found in my English Norton but not in the American). My Norton (the American this time) also informs me that the Greek epigraphs at the opening of the piece are from Heraclitus, possibly translated:
But although the Word is common to all, the majority of people live as though they had each an understanding peculiarly his own.
The way up and the way down are one and the same.
You may be aware that Four Quartets was composed after Eliot's conversion to Christianity, and these poems appear to be Eliot working with his new (or newly-considered) understanding of the intersection between the temporal world and the eternal.  In fact, the phrase "the intersection of the timeless moment" occurs in varying fashions in several spots throughout the series.  Death, life, past, future, time, eternity, memory, movement, degeneration, and renewal are thematic territory Eliot traverses here, and there are so many transcendent moments that I can't come close to recounting them all.  Here's one, the reason I first wanted to read this work, actually:

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
only through time time is conquered. ("Burnt Norton" 82-89)

This bit comes at the close of the second section in the first poem, and it represents a constant occupation of the series, this idea of time and timelessness both negating and requiring each other.  I have to admit to liking "Burnt Norton" the best still, but all four (also "East Coker," The Dry Salvages," and "Little Gidding") are stunning examples of word play and image craft.  For example, the first line of "East Coker" is "In my beginning is my end."  The last words of that section?  "In my beginning."  Such wit somehow married beautifully with a weighty consideration of supernatural things.  Or the first lines of "The Dry Salvages": "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river / Is a strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable."  I love the strong, declarative statement and the humanizing/deification of the river. 

Each of the poems follows a similar pattern, each contains five sections, and each moves through different elements of faith and searching and identity.  The five sections thing threw me off at first because I assumed the "Quartets" title meant there would be four sections in each of the four poems.  Instead, I found that the use of quartet refers to the bringing together of multiple voices or ideas (as in the four instruments of a string quartet) to create a unified whole.  The poetic sections would resemble, then, the movements of a musical composition and should not be considered the instrumentation.  Thus, we should presume that Eliot had a specific four elements in mind to be brought together in these poems.  My list above reflects a good many more than four, so obviously, the application of this idea is not overt.  It did occur to me that Eliot's use of or reflection upon the four seasons of the year might contribute to this designation, but I am merely speculating at this point.  I don't feel comfortable insisting upon a rigid interpretation of the four elements that make up the quartets.

What I do feel comfortable with, however, is continuing to appreciate these poems.  I am so glad the Classics Circuit Tour brought this great work to the forefront of my attention, and I will look forward to hearing these words resonate with me for a long time.  I leave you with a chunk from the last section of the last poem, "Little Gidding":

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.  And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. (lines 214-225)

Would that I could ever reach such a "complete consort" as that described and demonstrated in Four Quartets.


Frederick Buechner's Listening to Your Life

I've written before about Buechner and how much I love his work.  See here and here for some thoughts on his Godric, which rocked my world.

I also love this book of daily meditations, pieces and excerpts from his life of writing (compiled by George Connor, who has significant ties to my university).  If you are a Christian (or perhaps even if you're not), you should get to know Buechner, and this book is a great introduction to him.  Today's piece (entitled "The Theologian and the Poet") was so thought-provoking that I felt compelled to post it here.  Enjoy!
At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography.  Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own languages, are all telling us the stories of their lives, and if you press them far enough, even at their most cerebral and forbidding, you find an experience of flesh and blood, a human face smiling or frowning or weeping or covering its eyes before something that happened once.  What happened once may be no more than a child falling sick, a thunderstorm, a dream, and yet it made for the face and inside the face a difference which no theology can ever entirely convey or entirely conceal.  But for the theologian, it would seem, what happened once, the experience of flesh and blood that may lie at the root of the idea, never appears substantial enough to verify the idea, or at least by his nature the theologian chooses to set forth the idea in another language and to argue for its validity on another basis, and thus between the idea and the experience a great deal intervenes.  But there is another class of men - at their best they are poets, at their worst artful dodgers - for whom the idea and the experience, the idea and the image, remain inseparable, and it is somewhere in this class that I belong.  That is to say, I cannot talk about God or sin or grace, for example, without at the same time talking about those parts of my own experience where these ideas became compelling and real.
So true, I think.  For me at least.  What do you think?  Can the idea be separated from the experience?  Do these connections that Buechner refers to strengthen the theology or weaken it, in your opinion?


What an Honor

I have begun my quest to read this year's Newbery and Caldecott winners (see here for full list), and I will start with two that received the honor designation, rather than the winners.

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm received the silver Newbery Honor medal, the third such designation for Holm.  She was previously honored for Our Only May Amelia (2000) and Penny from Heaven (2007).  Set in Depression-era Key West, Florida, Turtle in Paradise is the story of a girl who has been brought to live (unannounced) with her mother's sister and family.  Her mother works as a live-in housekeeper, and her current position did not allow children.  So, Turtle is shipped off and deposited amongst a steaming pile of boy cousins in sunny Key West.  There are the usual adjustments and resentments and reconciliations and adventures that accompany such a change.  And there are the usual "mysteries" about the identity of Turtle's father and her mama's future with her boyfriend, Archie.  In fact, with the exception of the setting (time and place), this novel offers little new under the sun.  I do think it is a good addition as most of our Depression stories for children center around the Dust Bowl and the Okies.  It's good to remind ourselves that the Depression affected every place, and every place was affected a bit differently.  In Key West, the lack of money wasn't felt as harshly as in other places because of their proximity to food.  As Turtle puts it, "That's the one good thing about Key West: there's food everywhere - hanging from trees, in the ocean - and it's all free" (109).  Beyond this broadening of the historical story, though, Turtle in Paradise did not impress me.  It certainly was not bad, and I would not mind any child I know to encounter it.  It was just average because it was so predictable.  And to compare it to some prior Honor books (Pictures of Hollis Woods or The Cricket in Times Square or Charlotte's Web) is to see that averageness writ large.  I'll look forward to seeing how it stacks up against the other Honor designees and especially against the Medal Winner, Moon over Manifest.

On the picture book side of things, we see a bit more innovation in Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.  According to the notes at the back, the author saw a presentation on African American art which included an image of a pot with a poem written on it.  That pot (and that poem) were made by a slave named Dave.  With that, the author was captivated by this potter and built a book around him.  There was more to learn about this person, and the author did a good job of doing the research without letting the facts overwhelm the book.  The text is nice: a sparse poetic cadence that tells the story gently.  It opens

To us
it is just dirt,
the ground we walk on.
Scoop up a handful.
The gritty grains slip
between your fingers.

On wet days,
heavy with rainwater,
it is cool and squishy, 
mud pie heaven.

But to Dave
it was clay,
the plain and basic stuff
upon which he learned to
form a life
as a slave nearly
two hundred years ago.

The text continues to play with this "To us" and "to Dave" motif, and the accompanying illustrations are quite impressive, especially when you realize they are a combination of watercolor and collage.  The collage part is what is so remarkable.  Unless you look closely, you don't notice the collage aspect at all.  It is so skillfully done that it almost disappears . . . but not quite.  The not quite part is not a failing, though, for the collage is what lifts these illustrations beyond the ordinary. Honestly, for all their loveliness, the pictures don't blow me away - certainly not more than many other amazing artist/illustrators are creating these days; however, Dave the Potter is an interesting little history and a lovely book.  A good choice by the committee.


Home by Marilynne Robinson

When I am in an antique store and see something I am certain I will like, I will often circle widely and insist upon looking carefully at the things intervening, even though there is a quiet voice insisting that none of these things are as good as that other.  I do not make beelines and squeal.  Instead, I feel I must pay the other goods the courtesy of checking them out as well, even as my mind grows curious about the just-out-of-reach item.  It could also be merely my effort not to miss something in my haste, but the prolonged anticipation must bring its own joy somehow.

Ever since I read Gilead, I've been taking my time getting to the companion book (same characters and timeframe, different perspectives) Home.  I have been so confident in the pleasure it will bring that I've held it at arms-length, giving other books a chance in the meanwhile.  While this odd technique usually works for me, at least in shopping, this time it did not pay off.  Home is still a well-crafted and beautiful book, but it did not leave me breathless as Gilead did, insisting that I press it into the hands of all the readers I know and love.  I blame, on the one hand, the distance.  I kept feeling a nagging disconnect, as if the characters that should have been familiar were changed in some unknowable way.  I couldn't call to mind the specific details of Boughton in Gilead (other than his faithful friendship with Ames), so I was bothered by feeling this version wasn't true.

On the other hand, the book itself is not as complete and masterful as Gilead.  Ames' voice is a triumph, and there is nothing in Home to approach it.  There was no character so central, other than perhaps the house, and the intimacy we felt in Gilead is notably absent here.  Here also, I saw Robinson's tendency toward erudition occasionally overwhelm her narrative.  In Gilead, when we felt Robinson working something out, it fit within Ames' scholarly character.  In Home, we don't get the same fluid movement - we go from Glory asking herself "Why would anyone stay here?" at the bottom of 281 to the following passage at the top of 282:
In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world.  They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable.  And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted.  Home.  What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?  Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape!  Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne's lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father's hopes, God bless him.
It's not that this passage demonstrates bad writing; far from it.  But it doesn't fit with the narrative thrust of the moment.  It feels like Robinson's ideological workings forced into a moment.  It doesn't fit with Glory's thinking, or her voice, somehow.

Finally, I have trouble with the character of Jack.  I know.  Shoot me.  Like Stephenie Meyer insisting upon Edward Cullen's perfection (with no narrative proof of it), Robinson offers only Jack's insistence (and his father's, his sister's, Ames', and the townspeople's) that he is "bad," but all we see is a gentle, broken man.  Even his sins (debts, drunkenness, petty theft, callous regard for responsibilities) are meek somehow.  I don't believe his evil nature, and the whole philosophical searching of the book hinges upon this assertion.  I know it is not crucial that we believe he is evil; rather, we must only believe that he believes it.  I guess I just don't understand how the man we meet in this story could believe he is all bad or even why his family felt it.  Because he didn't hang around the house much?  Because he played pranks as a kid?  Because he was late to church?  Because he didn't know how to deal with being a teenage father, so he ran away?  I just don't see the evil.  There is too much thoughtfulness in his actions, too much consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others.

There is a piece of me that wants to reread Gilead - or at least skim for overlapping elements - now, but I probably won't.  I will say, though, that I believe these books would be better read in succession.  Though they do stand alone capably, the reader will get the most complete picture by reading them together.


The Zero by Jess Walter

**my copy was from the library with an unremarkable, but chillingly appropriate, black library binding**

It always amuses me when I seem to have missed entirely some notable voice in contemporary literature.  And then I reflect on the hubris it must take to presume - even for a moment - that I should be keeping up with all the developments in American publishing (not to mention the amazing output of the global community!), and I forgive myself both the oversight and the unintentional pomposity (isn't that a pompous word in itself?  It cracks me up).  Still, when a friend asked if I'd read any Jess Walter, and I had to admit to having never heard of the author, I felt the need to address such a lack.  After a quick glance in the University library catalog, I found and brought home The Zero, and I am really, really glad the hubris won out here.

The Zero recounts the surreal experience of Remy, a former police officer - one of the first responders - during the weeks immediately following the events of 9/11.  In the book, Remy is trying to make sense of his life in the aftermath, where everything has changed, and he doesn't even know who he is anymore.  Lest you think this is a sentimental slog into "life after the attacks," allow me to offer a few more bits of information.

Remy is suffering from what he calls "gaps" - breaks in his consciousness where he doesn't know what he has been doing or where he has been.  He is also losing his eyesight and has been discharged from police service on a trumped up back injury.  He is doing some sort of important work (national security?  espionage?), but he can't figure out what because of the gaps.  He will "wake up" just as he approaches a man in a trench coat in the park, for instance, and have no idea where he is or why he is there.  The dialogue between Remy and these characters who know more about his life and intentions than he does is fascinating and terribly well-done.  The way they would assume whatever they wanted to assume from his questions was hilarious.  In fact, there were several very funny moments in the book.  It wasn't unusual for me to actually laugh or at least grimace a bit at the satirical pokes Walter would make and the skill with which he would make them.  But it is not just funny.  The Zero has the intrigue of a psychological thriller and the intellect of literary fiction, which is exactly what it is.  I highly encourage you to check it out (or perhaps Walter's latest, The Financial Lives of the Poets, which is now high on my TBR list).

After complaining about Diaz's fragmented writing style (see here for more), my friend warned me that I probably wouldn't like the fragmented world Walter creates here, but what Diaz breaks apart at the sentence level, Walter cracks open conceptually, and for me, the distinction is paramount.  The former annoys me and makes me too aware of my inner editor; the latter intrigues and captivates me.  Walter maintains his focus on art and craft within a fragmented reality.  For example:
This is a life, he thought, smooth skipping stones bounding across the surfaces of time, with brief moments of deepened consciousness as you hit the water before going airborne again, flying across the carpool lane, over weeks at a desk, enjoying yourself when the skipping stopped, and spending the rest of your life in a kind of drifting contentment, slipped consciousness, lost weekends, the glow from television sets warming placid faces, smile lines growing in the glare of the screen.  He drained his wine. (163)
I love the contrast of the long, fluid, connected sentence with the terse declarative one at the end.  Such good writing.  And of course the politics fed my peculiar hunger for such things.  See here:
That's what happens when a nation becomes a public relations firm.  You forget the truth.  Everything is the Alamo.  You claim victory in every loss, life in every death.  Declare war when there is no war, and when you are at war, pretend you aren't.  The rest of the world wails and vows revenge and buries its dead and you turn on the television.  Go to the cinema. (222)
That excerpt is so difficult to swallow because so true.  When I teach my students about consumerism and inform them that our national response to 9/11 included urgings to go shopping, to Disneyworld, and to the movies, they don't fully believe me.  But they are absorbed by that machinery all the same.  Walter does not focus primarily on the political issues or the national security issues or even the psychological issues; he somehow manages to handle them all skillfully and artfully, and he has written a 9/11 novel that both helps us to understand and complicates things at the same time.  It is the complication that is most real, and I'm glad for this muddying of the waters.  Glad to have read it, to have been challenged by it, and glad to recommend that challenge to others.

If you've read The Zero, please let me know, and I'll be glad to post a link to your thoughts here.

Fragments and Other Errors of Judgment

I'm playing catch up this week, so today I offer 2 commentaries that are somewhat related.  I also encourage you to go over to Savvy Verse &Wit to read my guest review there.  Serena's blog has been celebrating small and independent publishers all month, and it has been a fascinating set of interviews, reviews, and other tasty morsels.  Do go check it out.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

My friends have lived in Barcelona for almost three years, and in that time, they have achieved a passable fluency, peppering their Castilian Spanish with the regional lisp - grathias - and the ever-present vale (pronounced ball-ay) of the natives.  Though my french can get me by, I speak no spanish, and I marvel at my friends' ability to maneuver through this foreign land and language.  To not speak the language marks one as an outsider, as a non-participant, an inferior dependent upon the kindness and knowledge of others.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao made me feel a similar outsidedness - I could not speak any of Diaz's languages - neither the urban NY Dominican slang nor the nerd-speak of comic books, anime, and fantasy role-playing games.  I was a stranger in Oscar's strange land, and there was no kind friend to help me through.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of Oscar through the eyes of his "friend" Junior - sort of.  It also provides a good bit of DR history and lore, for which I was appreciative.  Oscar is the consummate geek - overweight, awkward, socially inept, grasping, and intelligent.  He is also the reason many readers love this book: whether by sympathy or empathy, they grow to care deeply for Oscar.  I admit I did not much care for Oscar, but my detachment is due to Diaz's writing rather than any character trait(s) he bestowed upon his hapless hero.

First, Junior's narrative is wildly inconsistent.  On one page, he will be all curses and ghetto slang; on the next, he demonstrates a too-polished, writerly tone - almost omniscient narration,but it's still supposed to be Junior.  Second, Diaz offers very limited and sporadic narrative sections to Oscar's sister (and his mother?  or grandmother? I forget.), which was too widely scattered to achieve a positive effect.  Finally, though, I return to the language.  I recognize the effort and skill it takes to capture an authentic voice - especially one of slang or dialect.  I am not saying Diaz didn't succeed at this task; instead, I must admit to not preferring this kind of "realism" in writing.  Let me be clear: I am not talking about the profanity - I can and will read worse and enjoy the overall experience.  I'm referring here to the conversational style that flows throughout the book. 

My problem with Diaz is that the language he uses to tell Oscar's story - the fragments, the lazy diction, the real-life speech of these characters - is like the train ride we took to Figueres where the elderly gentleman behind me insisted upon smoking (which was prohibited) and hacking and even spitting on the floor of the train repeatedly.  It may be "true," but it did not add anything to my experience.  My analogy is wearing thin here because in life, it is often the ugly and the broken and the painful that instruct, inform, and even enlighten us most.  But for those experiences to have that effect, there has to be some transformative power, something that was - for me - missing in this book.

I left Spain wishing I knew more languages, more about the food and culture and people of that place and so many others.  A good book does the same thing: presents a foreignness that creates a desire to know more. But in the case of Diaz's broken words, I did not finish the book wishing I spoke his language; I merely felt excluded and frustrated with a writer who made no effort to help his reader understand the world he was chronicling. 

So many others liked this book tremendously, so feel free to disagree wholeheartedly.  And if you have reviewed this book (positively or negatively), please comment below, and I'll add a link to your post here.

Since this post is already quite long, I am going to end here and add the companion piece later today.


A Bit of Catching Up

Aaahh.  So good to go and so good to be home.  I ended up taking these books on my trip: Home by Marilynne Robinson, A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor, Against Happiness by Eric Wilson, and Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan.  I got the first three read (and half of one my friend gave me while I was there), so I feel oh-so-accomplished, especially because all of these were on my TBR shelves.  I also had a few books still waiting to be commented on, so this week will be all about catching up on unfinished business.  I'll start with a few brief reviews.

A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor

I took this little book on the train to Figueres thinking it would be the perfect length for the short trip outside Barcelona.  Turns out, it was perfect - but only for the outbound trip.  Taylor here introduces us to Quint, a boy whose mother died giving birth to him and who has been raised by his father.  We know of their early poverty from their boarding house rooms and other social cues, and just as quietly, we gather that Quint's father has worked his way up from a traveling hardware salesman to an executive in the company.  Along the way, he meets and marries the extremely wealthy Mrs. Lauterbach, who becomes the mother Quint has never had.  Ultimately, this story is about the love between Quint and his mother and the ways in which she is able to give him an identity and watch him rise into adulthood as she experiences a rapid and disorienting decline into madness.  I've already used the word quiet to describe this book, but I must repeat it.  This book whispers of urgencies - class, money, family, health, love, and power.  Seriously - it is all present in these 140 simple pages.  Reflecting on it, I'm actually more impressed with it than I was during my quick read of it.  This book was good, quietly so, but unmistakably good.

Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson

Eric Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University (a named professorship!!), and this book is utterly terrible.  What can I do with that information?  I just don't know.  The premise here is that there are two types of people in America: the empty-headed majority that exists in a drug-induced cloud, fearful of sadness, and focused only on maintaining an unnatural happiness AND the utterly morose, depressed, and melancholy thinkers, writers, and creative geniuses.  Not surprisingly, Wilson counts himself among the latter group and argues that we should all strive to be more like him.  I'm not kidding.  That is actually the whole point of this book.  To make matters worse, he writes worse than some of my first-years.  Really disgustingly verbose and florid prose covered with a sneering condescension.  Sounds good, right?  Here's an example:
Initially, we probably fear that this hunger for happiness at the expense of sadness is somehow unnatural, a violation of how the cosmos conducts itself.  Again, what is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms? (22)
Frustrated worms?  These two sentences make me weep.  Here's another example:
But some people strain all the time to break through their mental manacles, to cleanse the portals of their perceptions, and to see the universe as an ungraspable riddle, gorgeous and gross.  Happy types, those Americans bent only on happiness and afraid of sadness, tend to forgo this labor.  They sit safe in their cages.  The sad ones, dissatisfied with the status quo, are more likely to beat against the bars. (24)
There's no place in Wilson's world for someone who is capable of grasping the gorgeous mystery of the world while maintaining a fairly contented sense of self.  There's no place for someone who is happy while also seeking to change the injustices in the world.  This us-against-them standpoint is offensive in its immaturity, but it could have been forgiven if he'd just been a better writer.  Unfortunately, he does not demonstrate any such writing talent.  This lack is a notable argument against his thesis that melancholics are the only ones capable of creative masterpieces. He refers to such minds as Keats, Blake, Melville, Hawthorne, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Beethoven, and Virginia Woolf as melancholics (like himself!) who found a "gloomy disposition" to be "especially well suited to the philosophical mood, perhaps even to intellectual brilliance" (72-73).  I had already lost all respect for this work, but at this point, I almost heaved the book across the plane.  I contented myself with a mere Ha! in the margin.

This book is really screamingly bad.  Poorly argued, poorly reasoned, poorly written.  If you are a melancholic genius, trust that you already agree with Wilson and move on.  If you are one of the "happy types" wandering aimlessly around the mall in a vapid cloud of perfume samples and gap ads, you can't read anyway, so you're in no danger.  For the rest of you . . . oh no, wait . . . there is no rest of you.  Oh well. 


I'll Fly Away

On Thursday, I'll be flying to Barcelona, Spain to visit some friends and see a city/country I've never encountered before.  I'm no world traveler, but I'm excited to experience a new place for a week or so, and then I'm sure I'll be excited to return to my family and home.

As all readers know, one of the hardest things about travel is deciding which books to pack, how many, paperback or hardback, long or short.  I am at that stage of my preparation, so here's my stack up for consideration.

Those are (from bottom to top)
The Magician's Nephew by C. S. Lewis (reread from ages ago)
Home by Marilynne Robinson (I LOVED Gilead, so . . .)
This Rock by Robert Morgan
A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor
Against Happiness by Eric Wilson
Trailerpark by Russell Banks
True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway (1 of 2 I'm considering for The Classics Circuit Lost Generation Event and a TPR Challenge entry)
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (also a reread from ages ago)
Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

What do you think?  Should I go with several short books to have selection or a few choice long ones?  What will keep me focused if it's 3 AM, and I can't sleep on the plane?  Also, as I don't have an e-reader (although I could probably borrow one from the library), I was thinking of downloading something to my ipod's kindle app.  Would it be worth it?  Or would the tiny screen bother me over time?  If I did so, what piece of e-fluff should I pick up?

Let me also take this moment to announce that troutking has won the draw for the signed copy of Erin Tocknell's new book.  Congratulations, troutking!  Confederate Streets is on its way to you!


Tuesday First Drafts

The Play's the Thing

I didn't read a single page
Last night, Mama
I turned on my booklight only
To count and make sure all
The diamond beads were
Still there
I don't want to practice
My line for you, I say it
Every night before I sleep
But not loud like I will today
Just quiet for me and
Mary Beth to hear
My teacher said we can
Wear green (tortoises are green!)
Or brown or black or
Any dark color instead of
Just brown like the note says
I can't wear white socks
They will think I'm on the hare's team
They are wearing all white
I don't stand up
To say my line because
I'm one of the smaller ones
I just sit on the ground
Like this
You will be so proud
When you hear me say
My line.