The Booklog

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

I've read a bunch of stuff (The Souls of Black Folk: Awesome!!! Too bad about the Stalinist stuff later on...; And the Band Played On: Highly recommended; Cane: Bleargh--pretentious, sentimental, boring; Philoctetes: Stark, cool; Meno: interesting; Murder on the Links: I love Agatha Christie), but I'm mostly just publishing this post in order to get my page working again. Grunt.
posted by Eve 7:55 AM

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. A classic, crisp, ferocious look at American slavery and the social and religious beliefs that supported it. A quick but powerful read. Excerpts: "Those [slave] songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds. If any one wants to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul.... I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by tears."

"I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. ...We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls! ...The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. ...They love the heathen on the other side of the globe."

The Norton Critical Edition (linked above) also includes contemporary reviews and a few other speeches by Douglass.
posted by Eve 1:09 PM

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. A novel of theology and Stalinism. It swings from farce to meditation, with unsettling suppressed hints of Communist political repression. I found it hard to get a footing in this novel--it only came together for me toward the very end. But the musical structure of the book (recurring motifs and allusions), the moving distinction between those who attain light and those who only attain peace, and the vivid characterization of Margarita were compelling. And the "seventh proof of God" (the Devil exists, therefore God must exist) resonates with books like Walker Percy's terrific Lancelot, which is a film-noir quest for a sin.
posted by Eve 1:23 PM

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions. I finally read this. The last few books, in which Augustine wrestles with various conundrums inspired by the Book of Genesis, left me cold. But there's so much insight here. Augustine's descriptions of childhood are unsentimental and accurate--you get the impression that he really remembers what it was like. A great antidote to the cult of carefree childhood. His reaction to the death of his friend is justly famous. And it's startling to imagine what it must have been like to be a Christian in the age of the gladiator games. The games recur throughout the Confessions; I saw some parallels to modern-day porn. Augustine comes off as a man well-acquainted with the way the darkest passions can seep into even everyday events, tainting memories, edging life with regrets. But he is also a deeply hopeful and loving writer. Peter Brown's biography is fascinating. There's a movie here, but who could make it?
posted by Eve 1:17 PM

Friday, February 01, 2002

1/8/02: Andre Gide, Corydon. Supposedly a defense of homosexuality, actually (albeit unintentionally) a defense of male domination and slavery. (Animals do it! The Greeks did it! It must be good!) A good reminder of how hideous the terms of moral debate were in the pre-WWI era. "Natural law" is taken to mean "what animals do" or "what people want to do."

1/2/02: William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, and Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. These two hellacious books both concern journeys across a blasted American landscape; both use shuddering, perfect prose to describe blood and filth. Both feature buzzards. The King Lear-like AILD is far superior. The ferocious matriarch's monologue is consistently and terrifyingly Gnostic--a rejection of the world, language, and the possibility of love. McCarthy's book is worth reading, but his attempts at philosophy seemed confused (unlike Faulkner's difficult but rigorous thinking), and his language overblown.
Both books also shared two themes, or obsessions, that may distinguish American literature from other national literatures: murder, and the Christian God. (Nobody's actually murdered in AILD, but if you read it I think you'll see my point.) Emily Dickinson, Nathanael West, etc., are Dostoyevskyan in their concerns. I'd be interested in comments on other American authors, and comparisons to other literary traditions--as far as I know, France and England don't have comparable murder-and-Jesus canons, and Dostoyevsky is an anomaly among Russians. But I really can't speak with authority on this.

Rebecca Brown, The Terrible Girls. A lush, resentful little book full of linked parables about love and betrayal between women. Brown sometimes uses class as a metaphor for the power differences brought on by love--the one who loves more is a pawn of the one who loves less. It's not clear whether, in her stories of furious self-sacrifice, she acknowledges that even a self-sacrificing lover can be selfish, enthralled by the image of herself as martyr rather than concerned for her beloved's well-being. Nonetheless, this book is well worth your time.

Pat Cadigan, Mindplayers. A hard-boiled, episodic sci-fi novel about the future of identity. In a world where people buy and sell memories, personalities, even neuroses, how can we tell who we really are? Cadigan roams into Walker Percy territory: Why do we want to be other people? Why do we desperately seek out an identity? And Mindplayers' presentation of marriage and divorce had startling echoes of Maggie Gallagher's excellent The Abolition of Marriage. The plot demonstrates, I suspect unwittingly, that marriage reinforces our sense of self while divorce disrupts it. The many references to the narrator's divorce build up to a very "pro-marriage" plot twist. This is a tough, compassionate book, with a lot of insight into human nature, identity, and relationships.
posted by Eve 2:09 PM

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