§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: January 2007

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Calligrapher by Edward Docx

It took me awhile to get into this book and no blurb or review adequately prepared the way. The intro about the Titivillus, the Devil of Calligraphy, was clever but a bit silly, and only in the most backhanded way provided an introduction to the book--though when I think about it it may signal the reader not too take this story of love and revenge too literally.

I’ve been thinking of who to recommend this book too—because I really liked it—and concluded that mostly likely someone who’s read Donne’s love poetry, maybe even someone who actually likes to read 17th century poetry and understands the “conceit” (noun meaning a fanciful idea” or “an elaborate or strained metaphor”). That’s a purposefully strained metaphor, one so outrageous as to seem laughable had not the author proven its validity—and then both appropriate and comic. The most famous conceit—the one used in textbooks to illustrate the tradition—comes from Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” (one of many love poems quoted in Docx’ text):

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

What could be more unlike than two lovers and the little metal compass you put in your school box in about the third grade? And yet Donne works it out beautifully. The lovers are like the two sides of the compass that move together and when far apart stretch to keep the one point of contact. Donne intends the sexual overtones too, with words like “stiff” and “erect”. And the fact that a compass was an important tool of navigation must not escape us.

The book is, in a way, about Donne’s love poetry: each chapter begins with a quotation and interspersed is serious analysis of several of the poems. The protagonist, Jasper Jackson (sounds like Jasper Johns, doesn’t it? who is also known for making lettters) is a calligrapher working on a job to copy 20 Donne love poems for a NY media mogul who plans them as a gift. More important though, the plot is not unlike a Donne love poem: playful, sexy, witty, clever, ambiguous, above all, artificial. Wit and humor hiding truths difficult to articulate without sentimentality.

The surface story must been seen as an artifice, itself a conceit, not be be confused with realism. It’s a clever book and I enjoyed it. I can imagine readers going on to read more Donne and other 17th century poetry as a result. Not a bad outcome. I'll look for Docx' next novel.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I seem to be reading a lot of books about the negative effect of religion these days. I’ve started out with no intention to read any of them, but first tackled Sam Harris’ The End of Faith because the book group discussion was just too interesting not to participate. I found Harris’s book an eye opener. The number one idea I took away from it was that it doesn’t make sense to exempt religious ideas from any sort of logical argument. Our culture tacitly agrees that anyone can believe anything they want and the result is often that once someone interjects a religious sentiment into the argument or discussion, the debaters silently slink off, whether they agree or not, on the theory that the person is “entitled to his belief”. Believe it or not it had not occurred to me that that practice was not exactly correct. It was tolerant and humane. Harris convinced me it was also dangerous. I think he also convinced me that religion was dangerous when it was “moderate”. Then I read Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy which was notable primarily for the statistics on the numbers of Americans who believe literally in the Bible and the growth of fundamentalist believers and churches—at the expense of the mainline protestant denominations like the one I was raised in. In the interim I read several articles and speeches such as the one by Bill Moyers on why Christians in thrall to The Rapture don’t care about conservation because they expect the world to end soon anyway. (I see he’s even published a short book on the subject called Welcome to Doomsday). The God Delusion is my third read on this topic in less than a year, despite the fact that I would not say that religion is one of my priority topics.

I must say to start off with that while my response to Dawkins’ book was a series of "but"s, in all honesty I must stay that he had anticipated my responses and gave answers that satisfied me. Which is not the same thing as saying I loved the book. I do not belong to any church, I don’t believe in a personal God, but I was influenced by religion as I was growing up and thought of The Sermon on the Mount, for example, as a moral model worth following. I am interested now, if not in religion, certainly in spirituality.

He too says, with Harris, that it’s illogical and dangerous to refuse to argue with religious ideas. In an interview he answered the question about why he sounded so angry with the following: “People have gotten so used to the idea that religion must be immune to criticism that even a very mild and gentle criticism of religion comes across as angry and intolerant.” And he replied to the accusation of arrogance and condescension similarly: “Once again, the accusation of arrogance comes about because religion has acquired this weird protection that you're not allowed to criticize.”

One of Dawkins’ more interesting ideas is that children should not be labeled with their religion because they’re too young to know their own minds. He cringes if a child is called “a Muslim child” or “a Christian child”. He called it “child abuse” to terrify a young child with threats of hellfire and damnation. (I was simultaneously rereading Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where I personally cringed at the sermons young Stephen heard in school.)

Still, I can’t imagine anyone reading this book without getting angry at something he says. He is angry and he is arrogant. He’s also militant for atheism, something which strikes me as potentially as scary as religion. For me he was most convincing when he argued that morality could indeed exist in the absence of religion—though he went rather overboard in convincing readers that if the Bible were interpreted literally some very unacceptable moral positions emerged. Most of his examples were from the Old Testament (there were far more than were necessary to make his point—he seemed to enjoy the particularly gruesome ones) but he targeted the New Testament too, saying that the moral rules were intended for the in-group only, that no one was ever expected to love anyone outside. Needless to say, he didn’t deal with Jesus’ compassion for tax collectors, sinners, enemies and prostitutes. Still he was quite convincing when he talked about what's generally seen today as moral versus even what was seen as moral a generation of two ago. Not so long ago anti-semitism, racism, and the inferiority of women were relatively acceptable moral positions.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Devil That Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna

This book has been compared to Wild Swans (for the childhood memories) and to The House of the Spirits (for the dissident political stuff). Quite apart from my personal interest in the subject (I was a Peace Corps teacher in Freetown a few years before the events in this book), I found it a sensitive memoir in which the writer is superb at rendering childhood memories of her parents' two cultures as well as an amazing personal journey during which she uses her investigative journalistism skills to uncover the truth she had never really knew before about her father.

Aminatta Forna was born in Scotland in 1964—Scottish mother and father, a medical student from Sierra Leone. She was the youngest of 3 children born to the couple before they went back to Sierra Leone where Mohamed Forna wanted to use his skills to help his fledgling country. In the first part of the book, Forna tells her story, using primarily her memory—and especially her descriptive language which evokes the child’s level of understanding—as well as bits of information gleaned as an adult—which becomes a device of suspense. She describes her life in a series of homes—9 in her first 6 years, with the continuity that her child’s brain imposed on what might seem damaging chaos. When the family goes back to Sierra Leone her father first works for the main hospital in Freetown, then for the Army and then establishes a clinic in Koindu, an upcountry town in the diamond-mining area. It is there that he gets involved in politics and that the tensions between her parents first becomes apparent. They separate and the children go back to Scotland with their mother, where they live in a caravan while the mother goes to school. The mother later marries a New Zealand diplomat and takes the children to Nigeria where he is stationed. There the children are advised not to mingle with “African children”—racism rearing its ugly head right in their family. Their father takes them back to Freetown to live with him and his new wife in a compound with extended family. She resents the “new mother”, but only at first.

In the meantime, Dr. Forna wins an election but is not allowed to take his seat until one military coup blocks an earlier military coup and returns civilian rule to the winning party. He becomes Minister of Finance, boning up on economics and impressing leaders at IMF and the World Bank. But he’s disillusioned with the prime minister and eventually resigns because of corruption and power-grabbing. He’s involved in the founding of a new opposition party and is quickly jailed as a dissident. The children escape to Britain with the stepmother and go back to Sierra Leone when he’s released and comes to their school to get them. He’s been advised not to return as long as the current prime minister, clearly his enemy, is in power. He ignores that.

In the second part of the book, Aminatta Forna, married and comfortably settled in London, returns to Sierra Leone, in 1999 still in the grip of the revolution that plunged it to last place on the UN register of livable countries with more double amputees than anywhere else in the world. She uses her kills as a journalist to investigate what really happened to her father in 1974, the truth of which is much more difficult to assimilate personally than she expected, but which paints a more complex picture of the relationship between politics and violence in Africa than even an account of the recent revolution. Violence didn’t just start when it spilled over from Liberia. Sierra Leone wasn’t the one ex-British African colony with a real democracy as it seemed when I first arrived in 1964.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Gladstone: A Biography by Roy Jenkins

I started this book a year ago and finally finished it when a group I belong to chose it as a monthly selection. I was surprised how little I knew about 19th century politics considering how widely I’ve read in 19th century British fiction. Roy Jenkins was a British Labour and Social Democrat politician and minister (Minister of the Exchequer and President of the European Commission). Like some of his political forbearers (not the least Gladstone himself—and Churchill whose biography he also wrote), Jenkins was a serious author. The Publisher’s Weekly review says this biography “will often be impenetrable” for American readers—so I don’t feel so bad about the length of time it took me to read and my frequent confusion about the political issues of the time.

The American edition of the Churchill biography gave an excellent overview of the British parliamentary system. That was helpful for this one too except that the system was even more arcane in the 19th century and the biography often assumed a fairly sophisticated background on the issues of the time. In addition, the vast cast of characters in Gladstone’s life were mostly unfamiliar to me, and—I had this problem with the Churchill biography too—their names changed frequently as they became peers for service to the country or moved up in their own family (say from earl to duke) with the death of elders. Additionally, most of Jenkins' comparisons also came from British politics. There I wasn’t completely in the dark if the example was during the political career of Churchill as it often was.

My initial reaction was to be surprised, even dismayed, at the extent to which there was no separation of church and state in 19th century Britain and the extent to which Gladstone insisted on restrictions imposed on anyone non-Anglican. I ended up liking Gladstone quite a lot, however. He moderated his stance on church and state quite soon, while still remaining religious himself—far more than his contemporaries—in words and deeds. He seemed, for a politician, unusually honest and not particularly self-interested.

I must admit I was less interested in the political issues than in the man himself, though I looked up information on the various election reform laws that Gladstone sponsored, on the various church disestablishment issues, and on the Irish home rule bill which was his reason for remaining active in politics—prime minister—until he was almost 85.

But Gladstone was an odd bird, possibly one it’s hard from this distance in time to really understand. His religious fervor extended to self flagellation at one point in his life. His penchant for walking the streets at night and attempting to reform prostitutes is legend—and recalled in The Crimson Petal and the White a couple of years ago. He had great physical energy—walked constantly and climbed mountains, even into very old age. His “hobby”—I guess you’d call it that now—was felling trees on his property and that he did until he was 80; it was often a “family sport” with his sons. He made a regular habit during his public life of being a guest for weeks at a time at various fine houses, occasionally hosted by Conservatives even. He seemed to take for granted that the householders wanted to entertain him. Queen Victoria disliked him—even though Albert had liked him a lot—and preferred Disraeli who patronized her to Gladstone’s detailed explanations of every issue. (She comes off badly in this book—with decisions like not giving her speech in person at the beginning of parliament because she hated to ride backwards in the carriage.)

Gladstone was a lifelong diarist which provided the biographer with the minutia of his life. During his 61 years as a public servant, 12 as Prime Minister, he wrote all his own speeches, though he was also skillful extemporaneously—and was known for his sonorous voice and by today’s standard and possibly even his own time’s flowery rhetoric. (Jenkins says there are existing recordings of Gladstone in his old age.) He also published political articles, wrote religious books and papers, and translated classical poetry for publication. He was obviously a man of tremendous energy—energy that was psychic as well as physical and which lasted until shortly before his death. Jenkins says in terms of words written for publication, he was second only to Churchill among British prime ministers. He died in his 90th year—an age far more unusual in his time than it would be now. Unlike virtually all of his contemporaries who were successful politicians, he had always refused a peerage.

One more comment on Jenkins. He's an excellent writer and the book reads beautifully even with long and sophisticated sentences. His vocabulary is formidable—I was often too lazy to look up words. One of his favorites was "eleemosynary", meaning "supported by charity".

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

For some reason this book reminded me of The Bonfire of the Vanities, the plot of which I enjoyed at the time, but felt was written about a fairly alien world. By the time the next one, A Man in Full, came around and people were saying it wasn’t so good, I didn’t bother. I probably won't I will bother with this author again either. then again....

The three main characters, Danielle, Marina and Julius, meet in college at Brown—all English majors—and go to New York immediately thereafter seeking—and expecting—fame and fortune. They don’t doubt that they are among the beautiful and intelligent people. But as they reach 30, Danielle struggles in documentary film, Julius is barely surviving in a Pitt Street one-room dump on free lance reviews, and Marina, the daughter of noted liberal journalist Murray Thwaite, cannot finish her book about the social meaning of changing clothing styles for children and moves back in with her parents.

I hated the book at first, not being particularly interested in the ins and out of the Manhattan words-and-pictures scene or in the entitlement of Ivy-league graduates who are not yet glitterati, even the ones from Michigan (Julius) and Ohio (Danielle). Other characters are as problematical: Murray Thwaite is rich and famous and known for tough-talking, truthful journalism over 3 or 4 decades, but he’s pampered by the women in his life and clearly believes his own press. His wife, a social worker, is perhaps the most admirable character; she agonizes over the pains of her underdog clients and resists playing traditional wife who bends to all of Murray’s needs (as a token perhaps, she rarely accompanies him to professional social events—Marina does that).

Then several newcomers arrive to upset the applecart which is already rolling away unchecked. First is Ludovic Seely. Danielle meets him in Australia, is attracted to him and introduces him to Marina when he arrives in New York as editor of a startup weekly magazine focused on his radical views about culture. Then Fred “Bootie” Tubb, Murray’s nephew from upstate NY, who dropped out of college because it seemed dumb, arrives to cement relations with his famous uncle—and hero—and is hired as Murray’s amanuensis, probably because Murray’s ego is flattered. And Julius, temping to pay the rent, meets a high flying lawyer with whom he falls in love, and quickly moves in with him.

I might have started out hating it but by the time I was about a third of the way through, I was thoroughly hooked. The plot works as so many plots in novels these days don't. This blogger’s comment pretty much sums up my attitude: “It's an absorbing read that achieves the near-impossible: making us care about the existences of a circle of New York City movers and wannabes in the months bracketing the events of 9/11” (Shane Barry‘s blog, The Monkey’s Typewriter). I forgot to say 9/11 plays, but doesn't overplay, its role.
Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble

I read all of Drabble's books during the 70ies when she was one of the new female authors writing books about independent women. They were not blatantly feminist like Fear of Flying and The Woman’s Room, but had characters my graduate student friends and I identified with. Then she didn’t write novels for a long time and this is the first one of hers I’ve picked up in 30 years.

The structure of the novel is interesting. There are no chapters but diary entries with a characterizing sentence or phrase introducing each, almost like the comments to the reader in an 18th century novel. The character is Candida Wilton. She’s newly divorced from a handsome and charming headmaster who left her for another woman, and she decides to move to London rather than continue as the wronged wife in Suffolk. She chooses a small place in Central London, in the Ladbrooke Grove area—nearer to the motorway, the canal and the gas works than to fashionable Notting Hill, very different from the upper middle class, all-white area where she’s lived most of her married life. She’s more alone than many divorcees; she’s estranged from her 3 daughter, at least two of whom have taken their father’s side quite militantly and her only other relative is a senile mother in a nursing home in the Midlands.

The novel begins slowly with Candida's decision to begin writing on the laptop computer with which she is not entirely familiar. She starts by telling about the Virgil class she attended until the education center was demolished and replaced with a health club—and about her experiences at the health club. The Virgil class participants are her friends: Mrs. Jerrold, the instructor, is the widow of a BBC personality who supplements a pension by teaching the Classics—not too popular these days, Anaïs is outgoing, colorful, exotic, a bit mysterious, and Mrs. Barclay has a posh house in the better end of the neighborhood and a strange marriage—evidently to a gay art dealer. Candida introduces her old school friend, Julia, a writer of sexy novels who visits from Paris. There’s also Sally, from Suffolk, a gossip and complainer whom Candida calls her friend but doesn’t really like. One at a time Candida talks with them about a trip to the sites of Carthage and the Cumian Sibyl, about how nice it would be to see where Aeneas’s story played out. And then an unexpected legacy allows Candida to travel and she, along with the other 5, plan a trip.

The second part of the novel is written in the third person and is about the trip of the seven sisters—Valeria their driver turns out to be the seventh sister. The third part is totally unexpected and the conclusion, part first and part third person narration, focuses on the life Candida gradually re-builds for herself.

It all sounds banal, doesn't it? But Drabble's prose is worth the journey as are her insights into marriage and parenting and life and death and friends and literature. The first part is by far the best, though, as she doles out information about past and future with just enough suspense to keep a reader interested.
Posted by Picasa