Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

Next up!
--Chiron, 8/27/07

I am up to the letter "F" -- hard to spend much time on this since school started, but I devote every spare minute to it. More later!
--Chiron, 9/12/07

"R" hang on! Almost finished!
--Chiron, 9/23/2007

Finally! Teaching full time takes up huge chunks of time that I could otherwise spend reading. Those few precious moments must not be wasted. Clive James' newest book is definitely worth the investment of lots of small pieces of reading time.
Cultural Amnesia consists of 106 essays of figures, from the last 100 years or so, who have had a significant impact on culture. James includes a disparate selection of individuals from Beatrix Potter to Adolf Hitler, Louis Armstrong to Franz Kafka, and Charlie Chaplin to Albert Einstein.
Sometimes James examines the writings of his subjects directly, and sometimes he spreads a wider net to include those around the subject of a particular essay. I found the essay on Louis Armstrong to be one of my favorites. I know who he is, and I like his music, but I was not aware of the profound influence he had on jazz and American pop culture.
James has forced me to the bookstore, Amazon, and ABEBooks, or other vendors, dozens of times to fill in gaps in my library. I bought a complete set of the tales of Beatrix Potter, Keats' poetry, and I am going to take another look at F. Scott Fitzgerald. James spends a lot of ink and paper on the French left between the wars, and I skipped some of those essays (so many books, so little time). And he does drop an occasional crazy comment: "[Kafka] has influenced almost everything written since [his death]: not even James Joyce had such an impact" (343). Sorry, have to disagree here. Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man killed the 19th century as T.S. Eliot said. Most stream of consciousness traces itself to Joyce.
On the whole, however, it was a more than worthwhile read. I encountered many interesting people I had never heard of, and a few I wish I still had not heard of. But this buffet has more than enough to satisfy even the most discriminating tastes.
--Chiron, 9/25/07

The Maytrees and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

I really love Annie Dillard’s prose. Lyrical, poetic, and sensuous are too weak to fully describe her style. Her new novel, The Maytrees is one of those stories that drops the reader right onto Cape Cod, into Provincetown, and on the beach in a “clam shack.” I imagine the “shack” as the characters call it, to be like the clam shacks that dot the Jersey shore on the mainland and the bay side of the barrier islands. I spent many years down there, and I still hanker to be nearer the ocean, or at least the Gulf of Mexico. There is something about the sounds, the smell of salt spray, the sun, the breeze off the ocean that is mystical and magical. Dillard takes me right back to those childhood days on the boardwalks and beaches of South Jersey.
I must admit, however, that some (a few, not too many) sentences seemed tortured and forced me to re-read to parse out the meaning. Those were like sudden waves that came crashing down without warning, few enough to be only a minor distraction.
This book also inspired me to re-read Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I read this many years ago, but recently discovered I had lost my copy. I am glad I replaced so I had it within easy reach. I find this the best part of buying and keeping, lots of books, right?
If you don’t know Dillard, start with Pilgrim, go onto to A Writer’s Life, then dive into Maytrees. You won’t be disappointed, and I think you will find a new favorite author.
--Chiron, 9/29/07

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens

A saint? Give me a break! This woman was a hypocrite, a conniver, a shameless panderer from the wealthy, corrupt, and tyrannical, among whom are included Baby Doc Duvalier, Enver Hoxha of Albania, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, and Charles Keating. This last “donated” $125 million to Mother Theresa from funds he looted from Lincoln Savings and Loan. The majority of shareholders in this scandal were the working poor and middle class families. Prior to his sentencing, Mother Theresa wrote a letter to the judge asking for mercy for Keating, “as Jesus would do.” When one of the prosecutors pointed out the source of the donation, and turned the tables and asked her “would Jesus keep a gift stolen from the poor?” he received no reply and no refund. A former employee of Mother Theresa reported that one checking account for the convent in Brooklyn contained over $50 million. The money was not to be used for the poor. MT frequently said poverty was a gift and to be born cheerfully. Instead of using the untold hundreds of millions of dollars to alleviate the suffering of the poor and dying, MT used the money to build and outfit convents to attract more members to her order. Most of these buildings boast gold ornaments, gold altar implements, and expensive vestments. When her order was offered an empty building to house the poor, she refused it, because regulations required the installation of an elevator to accommodate the handicapped. MT said that no such convenience should not be available to those that bore a gift from God. The city offered to pay for all renovation, including the elevator, but she refused and the project was abandoned.
Christopher Hitchens testified before the Vatican commission to determine whether or not MT should be moved along toward sainthood with beatification. The purported miracle was debunked by the photographer who shot some footage in a darkened room. He explained that some new, ultra-sensitive film was used.
Her establishments are nothing more than houses of death. They contain the barest of furnishings and rarely provide any pain medication, even aspirin, for those dying of cancer, plague, AIDS, leprosy, and other dreadful illnesses. Suffering, after all, is a gift from God and not to be shortened or alleviated. Interestingly enough, when MT was suffering from heart problems, she checked herself into the finest clinics in the world.
--Chiron, 9/23/07

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I thought it would be appropriate to add a comment about On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s counter-culture classic of the beat generation of the late 50s and 60s, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication.
I first read it as a rebellious college freshman in 1966. It was considered hip and dangerous. Of course, I didn't really "get" it then – we all snickered at the casual pot references. Most of us (some truthfully) claimed to have tried weed, but, as the saying went, "it did nothing for me."
Reading it again, about two years ago, I had a totally different perspective. I saw the angst and the searching in the 60s for something besides the "Ozzie and Harriet, two kids, a dog, and white picket fence" that was everyone's ideal in the 50s. I also saw, for the first time, a person's life laid out as a literal and figurative journey. This second read was much more serious than the first, and I think it is a metaphor for the searching that all of us do -- some with pot, some with religion, some with alcohol. Is it a great book? Nah, but it is a great book about the 60s. I am glad I read it, but it won't go on my "desert island shelf."
--Chiron, 09/12/07