Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius

The Analects is not at all a long book.  It consists of twenty short books, each containing about twenty-five sayings attributed to Master K'ung, or Confucius.  Some take the form of short conversations with particular disciples, or anecdotes, others are plain statements, and much of it has been changed or added to by legend.  Since most of it is abstract statements, often involving men of rank in various ancient Chinese states, it is interesting, but not something you can read for long stretches.  I found it best to try to read one book a day.

Confucius's sayings are mostly about how to behave, and they are entirely focused on the life of a gentleman.  He isn't particularly worried about the common people, because they will behave well if their rulers do.  He isn't worried about women at all.  He is only concerned with how a gentleman of wealth and rank should behave.  These men should ideally pursue the Good (as it is translated in my edition).  Very few people will ever achieve perfect Goodness, but all should try.

The Good consists of, firstly, doing all things in accordance with ritual.  What "ritual" consists of is not defined, because they all knew already, but it definitely involves doing religious ceremonies properly and honoring one's elders--including mourning a father for three years and making no changes in the household for that time.  A Good man would also rule wisely and well, keep promises, be respectful, and generally do as he would be done by.

My translation is a little elderly, but it's very informative and I liked it fine.  Here are some excerpts:
Fan Ch'ih asked about Goodness.  The Master said, In private life, courteous, in public life, diligent, in relationships, loyal.  This is a maxim that no matter where you may be, even amid the barbarians of the east or north, may never be set aside.  (XIII.19)
Tzu-kung was always criticizing other people.  The Master said, It is fortunate for Ssu that he is so perfect himself as to have time to spare for this.  I myself have none. (XIV.31)

This last week or so has been pretty nuts.  I feel a little bit like roadkill on the street of my own life.  I have been reading some interesting stuff, including two Diana Wynne Jones books, and I have lots to say about them, but blogging time is in short supply just now.

Friday, February 27, 2015

No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald

A couple of years ago, a successful NSA contractor in his late 20s, Edward Snowden, collected a whole lot of top secret NSA files and revealed to the world that the super-paranoid, tin-foil hat wearing people who were convinced that the US government was keeping tabs on everyone...were not anywhere near paranoid enough.

Because the NSA is keeping tabs on all of us.  In fact, its explicit goal--ironically, an inefficient and ineffective one, if the stated mission is to fight terrorism--is for no phone call, email, chat message, or internet session in the US to go unmonitored.  They store billions of exchanges per day, quite unconstitutionally.  None of this has ever caught a terrorist attack in the planning stages.  But it does ensure that we feel surveilled.

Greenwald tells the story of how Snowden contacted him and how they broke the story in a series of news stories at the Guardian.  He then breaks off to tell the story itself, covering the basics of the NSA's goals and methods.  In the third section, he talks about the aftermath and how he and Snowden were targeted.  Greenwald has a lot to say about journalism and how it too often serves the interests of those in power rather than all citizens.

This is one of those books that is important to read, but is hugely depressing. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Book, by Robert Grudin

Back in the mid-90s, I had a copy of this novel and enjoyed it a lot, but at some point it disappeared.  Happily, I found a library copy (pro tip: do not name your novel Book, for it will give library software fits if you can't remember the author's name) and took it home to enjoy once more.  This is possibly the first academic satirical comedy I read, unless David Lodge came first.

Adam Snell, professor of literature and failed novelist, has disappeared just two days before his post-tenure review--at which half the English department was planning to savage his reputation and get rid of him.  They're just as happy to think he'll turn up dead soon so they can get a really cutting-edge literary theorist in.  But where is Snell?  Why are copies of his novel disappearing?

Grudin, an English professor himself (and fellow graduate of Berkeley's comparative literature program, albeit 25 years earlier than I), just has a fun little romp through literary theory and textual conventions.  Collected documents and transcripts tell the story--part of the time, anyway.  Footnotes and marginalia stage a revolt in disgust.  A good time is had by all.

I wish I still had my copy of Book.  I like re-reading it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Henry V

Henry V, by William Shakespeare

 I've been wanting to read Henry V for a long time; I never have before, so I wanted to fill in that gap.  Everybody knows what happens--I don't like writing posts about Shakespeare plays because I feel like whatever I say, it's kind of pointless.  However, just in case, this is a "historical" play about the young Henry V, his claim to own all of France, and his campaign to win it.  In a surprise fluke, the English actually defeated the numerically superior French at the battle of Agincourt, for God, Harry and St. George.

Even though I knew what to expect in the plot of Henry V, I had a really hard time getting into it.  My daughter and I got out the DVD of the movie--the 1989 one with Kenneth Branagh as Henry--and watched it together, and that really helped a lot (I got it for schooly purposes but we hadn't watched it yet).  What I mostly noticed about the film, which is beautifully produced with lots of setting and costuming, was that they cut about 90% of the dialogue from the play.  Even the most famous speeches lost a few lines.  Instead, there was much more emphasis on the visuals, with lots of time on landscapes and people doing things, and of course plenty of fighting.  To explain some background, they also added in that final scene from Henry IV Part 2 where the new king throws Falstaff off like an old pair of shoes. The film of Henry V is over two hours long; the play performed as written must be even longer.  It would be neat to see it performed like that, and I wonder if anyone produces it whole these days.

Much of this play is historical propaganda, really.  English people looked back on Henry V as a wonderful king.  The glory of Agincourt!  France right where it belonged, under an English king! Never mind the fact that ruling both France and England together was just not possible.  It was a ridiculous idea that consumed lives and years and treasure and never paid off.  Then, the Tudors descended from Katherine of Valois, Henry's French wife.  Henry left her a widow after only two years, during which he was mostly still fighting in France.  She was young and pretty, and the government was worried sick that she would remarry, so they passed a law that she could not marry until her son reached his majority (he was six at the time) and approved a marriage.  Katherine then proceeded to live with Owen Tudor and produced six children, almost certainly without getting married at all, though the Tudors claimed she did.  Henry VII was their grandson.

I don't quite know how to count this for the Reading England challenge; it mostly takes place in France, but I think it should count.  I shall put it down as belonging to Southampton, where at least one act takes place, and that is in Hampshire.

King Lear

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

 For the Literary Movement Challenge, Fanda asked readers to focus on drama.  Before I figured that out, I was considering reading Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man and worrying that I would never be able to read it in the time.  I still plan to read Tyndale but it was somewhat easier to read a couple of Shakespeare plays for February. 

Cordelia in the court of King Lear, by Ford Madox Brown
King Lear is a fairy tale cast as a historical event and tragedy.  Lear was a legendary pre-Roman king in Britain; he appears (spelled Leir) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, and in Holinshed, where Shakespeare got the story.   Lear, a rather silly king, decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters based on how fervently they declare their love for him.  The two older sisters walk off with the swag, and youngest Cordelia, who honestly loves her father but refuses to flatter him, is disinherited.  Lear soon finds that his older daughters have little respect for a father without power, and he runs off into the wilderness and goes mad.  Meanwhile, Edmund the schemer is plotting to get his legitimate brother disinherited so that he can have all the power.  In fact, why shouldn't he kill off his father too, and marry one of the new queens?

Bonus: Dwight at Common Reader just posted some great Lear material.  Click on over to his post for a handy cartoon guide to the characters and plot, and a highly entertaining rating of Falling Gloucesters.

Fanda asks us to discuss whether the writers we read for this challenge fit into the literary movement we chose.  Well, I played it pretty safe with this month, because Shakespeare is the epitome of the English Renaissance, right?   I probably should have shaken it up a bit and read Dekker or Marlowe, but I'd been wanting to read King Lear anyway.  And I really can't stand Dekker.

The majority of the action takes place at the castle of the Earl of Gloucester, though it does move to Dover in the later part of the play.  I am going to count it for Gloucestershire.

The Story of My Experiments With Truth

The Story of My Experiments With Truth (Gandhi's Autobiography), by Mohandas Gandhi

Experience has taught me that civility is the most difficult part of Satyagraha.  Civility does not here mean the mere outward gentleness of speech cultivated for the occasion, but an inborn gentleness and desire to do the opponent good.
I read Gandhi's autobiography for the first time when I was about 18, and I loved it.  I whipped through it in three days (which is unbelievable to me now).  So when I made up my Classics Club list, I put it on as a re-read, thinking it would be nice to re-visit a book I don't really remember too much about.

Gandhi wrote this in installments for a weekly publication, and all the chapters are quite short.  It must have taken several years.  He starts with his childhood, especially his struggles with dietary and religious questions, and goes through to cover the development of his satyagraha philosophy and its application in several early instances.  Salt came up, and the beginnings of spinning and weaving, but he does not get all the way to the independence movement or anywhere close to it.

I was surprised to see how very much there is about diet.  I got quite bogged down about two-thirds of the way through in a seemingly endless series of chapters on diet, which got more and more ascetic until he was giving up salt (a bad idea, I think!) and living solely on fruits and nuts.  He also extolled an ideal of complete abstinence in marriage.  Gandhi was also interested in experiments with communal living and farming, so there was quite a bit about various endeavors with that. 

The political and historical stuff was great, though.  Just fascinating, and I wished he had written more on those topics and the development of the independence movement.

I still enjoyed this book a lot, but now, of course, I'm more engaged with what it all meant at the time, so I understand it much better.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Street of Crocodiles

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, by Bruno Schulz

I asked my daughters' violin teacher for recommendations.  He said this was his very favorite book, so I tried it.  And it is something else, man.  Whoa.

Bruno Schulz was a Polish Jew, shot by a Gestapo officer in about 1944, pretty much out of pique.  He had already stashed his pre-war writing and art with Gentile friends, and all of it disappeared, so that all that is left are these two collections of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.  That is a literary tragedy, folks, because Bruno Schulz was a genius of bizarre writing.

These pieces are really strange, surreal, weird things. They are often dream-like, and always very very descriptive--positively lush with description--more like a painting than a story.  They are mostly domestic stories, about parents, relatives, or the neighborhood--his father most of all.   Insects feature largely, especially cockroaches and bedbugs.  People transform all the time--into scary birds, or strange animals, or inanimate objects, and then they magically reappear as normal...or not.

Here are some sample quotations for you:
In flats of that kind, wallpapers must be very weary and bored with the incessant changes in all the cadenzas of rhythm; no wonder that they are susceptible to distant, dangerous dreams. The essence of furniture is unstable, degenerate, and receptive to abnormal temptations: it is then that on this sick, tired, and wasted soil colorful and exuberant mildew can flourish in a fantastic growth, like a beautiful rash.

"Am I to conceal from you," he said in a low tone, "that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion..."

The salesgirls now walked up and down between the rows of books, their faces, like gray parchment, marked with the dark greasy pigment spots of brunettes, their shiny dark eyes shooting out sudden zigzag cockroachy looks.

It is, as usual in that district, a gray day, and the whole scene seems at times like a photograph in an illustrated magazine, so gray, so one-dimensional are the houses, the people, and the vehicles. Reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character.

My father was the first to explain the secondary, derivative character of that late season, which is nothing other than the result of our climate having been poisoned by the miasmas exuded by degenerate specimens of baroque art crowded in our museums. 
The second collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, is also illustrated by Schulz, who was an artist as well as a writer.  They're little pen illustrations, and reminded me somewhat of Maurice Sendak when he drew people (sketchy things, rather than illustrations).

If you are in the least interested in weird or surreal modern literature, Bruno Schulz is a must-read.  Kids who like Vonnegut would totally go for this guy, but he's a little bit more difficult.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

DWJ March is coming up!

Kristen at We Be Reading has posted the information for DWJ March, woohoo!

This is going to be the fourth DWJ March and Kristen is thinking we ought to have a focus to talk about, which I think is a good idea.  So, there's a theme: The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ.  I think this is a great topic to focus on, because DWJ did in fact have some issues in writing about girls and women.  Early in her writing career, she tended to avoid writing female protagonists and always made them boys.  I remember she said that in some interview, and why she did it, but now I'm not sure where the quotation is.  It was a while before she really was able to write girl protagonists.  And then there are DWJ's mothers and older women characters, an awful lot of whom are....hungry.  Controlling, yet neglectful.  Malevolent in some way.  And did I mention hungry?  Yes, we can write a lot of posts about the ladies and lasses of DWJ.  I have no doubt that somebody could write a book.

Cool image, don't you think?

But that's not all!  Kristen has already got giveaways of three books going, which she hopes to be able to send out before DWJ March begins.  Head on over and enter.

There will be three readalongs! And one will be a co-op read with another group!  Kristen lists:
Aunt Maria (a.k.a. Black Maria), discussion post up here on 3/9, Twitter chat on 3/13 The Islands of Chaldea, discussion post up here on 3/17, Twitter chat on 3/21 The Spellcoats, discussion post up at Here There Be Books on 3/25, Twitter chat on 3/29
I've been saving Islands of Chaldea (my second read) for this event, and I've been wanting to re-read Black Maria too.  The Spellcoats has long been a favorite of mine, so I'm all set to participate in all three.

Well I don't know about you, but I can't wait!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

S. / Ship of Theseus

S. / Ship of Theseus, by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams

I did not know WHAT to think when I ran across this book...thing.  What I noticed first was that it was stuffed full of ephemera, kind of like Griffin and Sabine on steroids.  I thought it must be a big gimmick.  And I got curious, so I read it.

The idea is that it's a nested story.  You have a book that looks like a novel printed in the late 1940s, complete with library sticker* and stamps.  The book is a real, complete novel.  Then, two people have written notes all over the margins of the novel, and those notes tell a story too.  As you read, you find another novel and at least one other story of two people who communicated more through books than they did directly.  AND there are codes.  And shadowy bad guys, maybe.  And a secret symbol, and a jerk of a professor, and a mystery about the author's identity.

I read the novel--Ship of Theseus--first.  It purports to have been written in the late 40s, in Czech, by one V. M. Straka--a mysterious recluse of an author.  It tells the bizarre tale of S., who has lost his memory and gets hijacked onto a derelict ship with mystery freaky sailors, when he really wants to go searching for a girl whose name might be Sola.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the novel is readable and interesting.  Since I've been actually reading the writings of weird post-WWII Eastern European authors, I can tell you that while it's decent and weird, it's not as good and weird as the real thing.

After that you go through and read the notes, of which there are FOUR iterations, each color-coded so you have some chance of understanding what's going on.  They're still really confusing.  The novel has been left out at the university library, and Jen (a senior and a library clerk) starts writing notes to the owner, Eric (an expunged grad student and Straka scholar).  As they get to know each other through the notes they write, they try to solve the codes hidden in footnotes and figure out who Straka really was.  Somebody might be after them, though.

If you work really hard, you can figure out a lot about the mystery.  There are large websites devoted to this.  I gather that J. J. Abrams came up with the idea, Doug Dorst wrote it, and a team was required to design and sort out the details.  Abrams directed LOST, which I never watched, but I think I understand part of how fans felt about it.  There is no satisfying final resolution here.  You will have to work really hard to figure out more than the surface information.  And, for myself, I can't be bothered to work that hard.  The effort required is not worth the solution, for me.  I'm not even prepared to work quite that hard for Thomas Pynchon, and I'm a lot more willing to work for him.  It feels too designed.

It's very, very pretty.  It's reasonably fun to read.  But don't expect to just be able to finish it and feel satisfied; you might be bugged that there's this whole elaborate online THING you have to do if you want to understand anything.  It's also extremely ill-suited to libraries--there's so much stuff in the pages--so don't be surprised if your friendly neighborhood public library doesn't have it.

* The call number is 813.54, which is really American literature after 1945.  Right date, wrong country.  Czech literature after 1945 is 891.8685409, and yes, I looked it up (Slavic lit really gets the short end of the stick in Dewey).  And then there's the mystery about Straka's identity and citizenship, but I think a cataloging librarian would go with the original language of the book.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Black Spider

The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

The NYRB Classics list is very dangerous.  I'm tempted by just about every title.  Such as The Black Spider, an early horror novel written by a Swiss German in 1842.  Also the cover is freaky scary, right?  It's an allegorical wax sculpture of Vanity.

In an idyllic and fertile Swiss valley, a family is preparing for a christening.  During the party, a guest notices an old and blackened post which has been built into the neat and well-tended window frame.  The grandfather tells the story of the post, which goes back centuries and is a cautionary tale of demonic horror, warning against the sins of pride, vanity, and ingratitude to God.

I hadn't realized when I started the story that it is a devout tale which takes demonic power quite seriously.  It's also a really Swiss German tale; you can just see all these prosperous, careful farmers with their incredibly neat houses and fields and their concern with making sure everything is just so.

An older collection, with Gorey cover!
I enjoyed the tale a lot.  It's short, just over 100 pages, and I read it quickly.  It's quite scary, but not gory, and a great example of 19th century horror.