Friday, October 03, 2008

Roth's American Pastoral

I just finished reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth. It one a Pulitzer in 1998 and several other prizes since then, so evidently someone likes it. I had to read this one for a class (which actually doesn't start until next Monday, but we were advised to do as much of the reading as possible before hand). If it were just me, if I had picked this up at a bookstore I would have put this right back on the shelf after the first page.

In the third chapter, the narrator attends his 45th high school reunion and the main character's brother tells the entire story (and the most important facts are also on the back cover) but the book goes on for another 300 pages. During that time, a few additional questions are answered, but not the ones I wanted to have answered. OK one I wanted answered: how did Merry die?

The writing itself was very stream-of consciousness: the narrator goes off on wild tangents, and then jumps back to the point he was making 10 pages before, says one more line on the subject and then goes off on another tangent. I found the whole thing very frustrating, not so much because of the rambling (I do that all the time) but because there were no surprises in the story itself and because I genuinely did not care about any of the characters. 423 pages of rambling about characters and a story that I don't care about is 423 pages too many for me.

The blurbs on the back cover seem to have been written about a different book. For example, this bit from the "Financial Times", "Full of insight, full of sharp ironic twists, full of wisdom about American idealism, and full of terrific fun...a profound and personal meditation on the changes in the American psyche over the last fifty years." I don't remember any insight, sharp ironic twists (there were no twists of any kind), wisdom, fun (terrific or otherwise), or anything profound.

2 stars out of 10


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Le tour du monde en 80 jours

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, is one of my favorite reads, especially when I'm on the road.

The plot is dead simple: a guy bets some other guys that he can travel all the way around the world quickly, then he travels all the way around the world quickly. There is very little in the way of character development. At the end of the book, the reader knows the little more about the characters than he did at the beginning. Phileas Fogg is rich and English. Passepartout is French and gullible. Inspector Fix is set in his ways. Aouda is pretty. Nor is there much of the tour guide about the book; the characters don't stop to admire their surroundings or see the sights. They just move from one place to another, staying only as long as it takes them to walk from the port to the train station.

In spite of all that, I keep coming back to this story. I've read it half a dozen times in various English editions, and I'm currently struggling through it in the original French. I think the thing that endears it to me, and keeps me coming back to it, is the way that Fogg never lets any of his adventures bother him. His little group misses boats, get attacked by thugs, buy an elephant, rescue a damsel in distress, go through storms at sea, and are harassed by Inspector Fix but nothing ever shakes his cool. That unflappable 'nothing can stop me: I'm British' attitude is what makes the book. When delays on the Metro turn my half an hour commute into an hour long ordeal or when I spend a transatlantic flight stuck in the second to last row between two fat guys, Phileas Fogg is a good friend to have along.

10 out of 10

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Camus's Stranger

I'm taking a class over Albert Camus's life and works. I won't torment you all with a review of every single thing the man wrote as far more qualified people than myself have already done so and given him a Nobel Prize for it. What I will torment you with is the first paragraph of the essay I wrote over l'√Čtranger which is called the Stranger in English.

The plot of l’√Čtranger is simple. Meursault kills a man at the end of part one, and he ends part two awaiting execution, the rest is just maneuvering him into position for those events to transpire. What makes the maneuvering interesting is the way in which he learns to think about the world around him. The question remains: what exactly does he learn, that the reader is compelled to return to l’√Čtranger again and again? One might say it is the brutal honesty with which Meursault address the world and himself. While that is compelling, I answer that honesty is a trait which he has had since the very beginning of the book, when he admits that the telegram informing him of his mother’s death “doesn’t mean anything” . What Meursault learns is that only the man who knows the exact time and manner of his death can really live.

I'll give it 9 out of 10. The last star taken a way because the reader spends most of the book trying to tell the protagonist that he's an idiot.

-Yami, who promises that next time she'll review a book she read for fun.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Aquinas on Being and Essence

One more book down for Philosophy, and I have one more review.

I love Thomas Aquinas. I admire his philosophy. I love the clear, rational, and above all precise way in which he lays out his arguments. I especially like the way he adapts Aristotelian thought for the Christian world. This little treatise, On Being and Essence, is about the metaphysical make up of all things. The short form of the argument is this:

In a simple substance (i.e. God) being = essence. The simple substance is not limited in any way.

In a separate substance (i.e. angels, the human soul) , simple substance = being + essence, where essence is equal to form alone. That is, while separate substances are limited from above because they depend on God for their existence, they are not limited from below because they have no physical matter.

In a composite substance (i.e. everything else), composite substance = being + essence, where essence = form + matter. In a human being, being comes ultimately from God (and in the more immediate sense, from one's parents), form is rational animal and matter is the body. In a table, being comes ultimately from God (and more immediately from the carpenter who assembled it), form is thing with a flat surface for putting things on and the matter is the wood, glue, nails, and etc that make up the particular table.

Thomas is more nuanced then that, and takes the time to address questions tangential to that argument, but that is the main point of the treatise.

That said, I would like to say one thing:

Rating: 8 out of 10,
For the reason in the caps above, and because it is very difficult for the student to recapitulate. One must be able to quote his arguments all most verbatim, because if one uses the wrong words or clips the wrong corner one descends very quickly away from Orthodoxy and into heresies that were thought wiped out in the 6th century.

-Yami, who has been having to much fun with caps lock lately

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Aristotle's Metaphysics

I wanted to start my reviews with something a little highbrow, so I've chosen Aristotle's Metaphysics, specifically Book Lambda, in the translation by Hippocrates G. Apostle. This is required reading for the Philosophy of Being class I'm taking at the moment, which is why I read it.

Book Lambda is a summery of Aristotle's Metaphysics, in which he explains the main points of his cosmology. He explains the relationship between matter and form, his theory of change, and the importance of the mover. From there, he posits the existence of an Unmoved Mover (a being a pure actuality, who exists eternally, and whose action is to contemplate himself) which causes the fixed stars to move, which in turn give movement to everything else.

There is some debate, of course, about whether there are 55 unmoved movers or 47, or maybe even just one.

While his explanation of cosmology does not hold up to modern physics (he assumes a geocentric universe) his logical arguments display the sort of tight, sound, well ordered reasoning that one expects from Aristotle. For better or for worst, Aristotle's understandings of being, essence, causality, et cetera, have been a major influence on Western philosophy.

Rating: 7 out of 10
I love Aristotle, but the text can be both frustratingly vague and dense as marble, often at the same time. This is, I think, a side effect of the text being a compilation of his student's notes. Aristotle himself did not write any of the texts that bear his name. Both his organized style, and the arguments he makes are, however, essential for understanding later philosophers.


Friday, August 26, 2005

Hello World

This is the daughter-figure, attempting to drag Mrs. S kicking and screaming (you notice how no one ever comes willingly) into the 21st century.

If this works, she'll be able to keep a log of her reading online for her students to see, hopefully to set a good example. :P