Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Whole Five Feet

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everthing ElseI recently discovered Christopher Beha's marvelous The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everthing Else.  His book is a beautiful example of personal memoir informed by the reading of classic books.  Beha does not set out to guide us in our own reading of specific texts (as do such authors as Fadiman and Murnighan).  He does not even talk in great detail about many of the books he reads.  But he gives us a gentle and moving story of the way great literature can help us grow and confront the real circumstances of our lives.

Beha challenges himself to read his way through all of the Harvard Classics in the course of one year.  Throughout his life, Beha had looked at the matching books on his family's shelves, occasionally reading the introductory material or skimming through a book here or there.   Originally published in 1909, the books were published to allow working class people who could not afford to attend college an opportunity to receive a comprehensive liberal education.  Although Beha attended elite private schools and an Ivy League university, he had not actually read many of the texts that lay before him.  And so he sets out to work his way through the volumes, in order with no skimming.  (Interestingly, the books do not seem to be arranged in any logical order--beginning with Benjamin Franklin, moving through Plato and Milton to Emerson then back to Aeschylus and Sophocles, etc.)

As Beha writes near the end of his book, The Whole Five Feet is not the story he was intending to write when he first set out.  "The book I intended to write was essentially a comedy, about a feckless, somewhat lost young man who shuts himself away from the modern world and its cultural white noise," he writes, "in order to immerse himself in classic literature."  He had imagined that "the young man might learn a few easy lessons, and we could all share some laughs along the way."

Fortunately, "the story line [of his life] didn't cooperate."  Instead, Beha found himself living through "a loss that couldn't be assimilated into a comedy" (discussed in thoughtful detail throughout the book) as well as a minor event in his own life that echoed a previous serious one.  The experiences of his year were not easy ones for him, but they led to a much deeper book which resonates with wisdom.  There is not an ounce of petty or snarky thinking in this book.

What I like best about this book is Beha's absolute refusal to draw simplistic answers from the books he read.  Instead of pat answers to the dilemmas he was facing, the author is led to complex and thoughtful questions.  The literature comes alive, rather than being stuffed into little moralistic doses to be administered only as necessary.  The classic books are no cure--in fact, “all the knowledge in the world is small recompense for the things we can’t possibly know.”  But wonderful books open our minds to new worlds, new possibilities, new perspectives, and new ways of understanding.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer Book

Since my son was born a dozen years ago, I've loved sharing books with him.  Together we've read beautiful picture books, classic children's fiction, exciting adventure books, and most recently some adult classics (like The Great Gatsby, which we reviewed together).  One of our favorite reads for years was Tove Jansson's classic Finn Family Moomintroll series, with all its gentle zaniness.

The Summer Book (New York Review Books Classics)
I only recently learned that Jansson also wrote for adults.  The marvelous New York Review of Books Classics series has released a few of her novels, including one I've been reading about on a lot of book blogs: The Summer Book.  What a quiet, lovely book!  It is a book without an intense plot--just a series of lyrical meditations that follow a young girl and her grandmother across their transformative summer on a remote island.  What informs the vignettes is a fact just barely mentioned: that the six-year-old girl's mother has just died.

The two people struggle to learn how to live together and love one another.  The grandmother is "a little cranky" (as it says on the back cover) as she gives up some of her solitude to care for her granddaughter.  Young Sophia is a whirlwind of childhood desires and concerns--and readiness to take care of those around her.  These are two amazingly well-drawn characters who see intimately real and alive.

The introduction the the NYRB edition--a text by Kathryn Davis which is almost as lyrical and gentle as Jansson's own--points out that The Summer Book was written when Jannson was sixty years old, one year after her own mother had died.  The author inhabits both characters, the grandmother and grieving daughter, allowing the book to have a depth of empathy even as it describes simple, everyday events without a drop of sentimentality.

The plot of this book is all but nonexistent.  If you're in the mood for a rollicking adventure, don't expect to find it here.  But if you are a reader who is moved more by characters, language, and emotion than by plot, you must go read this book.   Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Shaken--and Stirred

        "A true literary work, no matter with its genre, is one that makes us see the world or ourselves in a new way.  Most writers accomplish this through an imaginative and original use of language, which is why literature has been defined as writing that needs to be read (at least) twice.  Great books tend to feel strange.  They leave us uncomfortable.  They make us turn their pages slowly.  We are left shaken and stirred."

--from Michael Dirda's Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education

Friday, July 15, 2011

Aesop: The Moral of the Story

The Complete Fables (Penguin Classics)I don't know how I missed it growing up, but Aesop's Fables are some of the earliest literature we have.  In the early fifth or sixth century BC, Aesop was--at least according to the limited sources we have--a slave in ancient Greece.   He was also a fabulous storyteller.  There is some debate about how much Aesop actually wrote, partly because of internal discrepancies in the fables and partly because of their similarities to fables in Sumerian and Akkadian tradition.

Many of us grew up with versions of Aesop sitting on our nightstands.  But as the introduction to my Penguin edition says, "The animal stories which parents still buy in quantities for their children's birthdays bear little resemblance to the real Aesop fables."  Instead, his animal tales were used to negotiate with his contemporaries and win points in arguments--not teach ethical standards or moral actions.  Many of his best known works were one-liners used at drinking parties!

Reading through the complete Aesop, I was overwhelmed by the oddity of some of the tales and the morals drawn from them.  Some are shocking and appalling.  Others are just random.  Many are quite dark and brutal--not at all the light and humorous tales I was expecting.  Sanitized versions of Aesop's fables are so often used to teach morality that the idea that these tales expound something so intensely opposite of morality is hard to accept.  Is it possible that our ideas about kindness to the weak is all historically constructed?

Here's one fable that I find quite powerful, given that the traditional interpretation is that Aesop was a slave:

A pigeon, kept in a dovecote, boasted loudly of her fertility.  Hearing this, a crow said to her: "Hey, friend!  Stop boasting like that.  For the more children you have, the more you should lament slavery."

*  *  *

Aesop's Fables: A Classic Illustrated EditionIf you explore your library's collection of illustrated Aesop's Fables, you'll find a great variety of incredible editions.  In fact, the artist whose name is most associated with children's illustrations, Randolph Caldecott, created pictures for one version back in 1883.  So did artists known for very different kinds of art, such as you will find in an edition with drawings by Alexander Calder.

One magical edition is Aesop's Fables: A Classic Illustrated Edition which compiles illustrations from almost 30 different artists--all pictures used to accompany editions over the course of more than one hundred and twenty years.

Aesop's FablesMy favorite illustrations of the fables are Jacob Lawrence's pen-and-ink illustrations.  One of my favorite artists, Lawrence was a twentieth century African American artist whose work is often colorful and playful while also deeply rooted in politics and history.  Reflecting the intensity of some of the fables rarely included in children's versions, Lawrence's Aesop illustrations use bold, severe, and tangled drawings to accompany the stories.  (Although the artist reflects the darkness of some of Aesop, both the stories and illustrations in this version are all completely appropriate for young children.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sappho...and Beyond

Thank you for your patience and your kind thoughts during my extended break.  Now: back to Ancient Greece!

Greek Lyric Poetry: A New TranslationSherod Santos recently published Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, a fabulous collection of poems by a variety of ancient Greek poets.

Early in Santos' book is a selection of Sappho poems.  His translations are lyrical and ornate compared to some of the plain, direct versions of her work.  Sometimes I find that more ornamented style to be effective with those little fragments that have survived from Sappho's originals.  When we have very little remaining, it feels fairly comfortable to add a bit of decoration.  But often--especially with the longer fragments--I'm put off and wish for the plainness, the directness of Sappho's speech really holds it on.  Santos' poetry, while beautiful, seems to compete with that other kind of beauty the Lesbian poet offers us.

Here is the start of his version of that famous poem I talked about recently:

     He must feel blooded with the spirit of a god
     to sit opposite you and listen, and reply,
     to your talk, your laughter, your touching,
     breath-held silences.

There are a few phrases in his translation that leave me breathless: "when you return from Crete, meet me at the apple grove, our little temple, its leafy alter incensed with the mineral scent of your soapy hair."  The specificity of the line makes it seem intensely real and immediate, and the use of senses other than sight and hearing makes the image lush.

Even Santos' brief but thoughtful introduction is written in this lush style.  One of my favorite sections explains how Sappho is the heir to what comes before:

To read Sappho is to gaze across the every-widening gulf of history into the flickering lucidities of an interior life, a scattered dialogue of self and soul that seems to begin where Penelope [from the Odyssey] left off, in a brooding meditation on love and loss--the anguish of separation, the intense carnality of the loved one's presence, the rattled, nerve end wait for love's return--all the keen desiderata of a heart ensconced dead center in the sway of any given moment.

*  *  *

The best thing about Santos' book are all the poems by Greek lyricists unknown to me.

Many of the male poets seem to accept that the proper topic for writing is war.  But unlike Homer who believes a man should come home carrying his shield or on it (that is, fighting bravely instead of running away from battle, even if one was to die), here we see poets challenging that idea:

     The Shield

     Some half-cocked Thracian swaggers about 
     raising up before his men my blazoned shield,
     the one I abandoned near a blackthorn tree.
     So?  It's not my head he's ragging them with,
     and any old shield can replace that one.


Like Sappho, Archilochus seems to be talking about a very specific person, talking about the real experiences confronting him, rather than the almost mythological heroes of Homer's epics.  This is definitely the first text I have read in my lifetime reading plan that seems to directly confront the politics and culture of the state.  And this, perhaps, is a major step toward the modern.  Much of ancient literature (ie, Homer) exists to justify national power.  Other ancients, such as Sappho, discuss a very separate private world.  But here with Archilochus, we have the roots of the subversive.  A huge step.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Good Hard Look

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."
--Flannery O'Connor 

Recently a new kind of genre has begun to develop where authors use real historical actors as their central characters and real historical settings as their backdrops.  These books are not traditional historical fiction.  Instead, authors try to reanimate these historical actors in new stories and situations as a way to explore underlying motivations and personalities.  In other words, these books use fiction to search for the deepest truths about history and people.

Some of the novels that come out of this genre are consciously playful.  Although I doubt I'll ever actually read the actual book, just the title of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter makes me howl with laughter.  Clearly the author was trying to amuse readers.  But at the same time, this book seems like a serious engagement with deep themes in history and literature.  By creatively twining Lincoln's real experiences in the fight over slavery with a fictional modern zombie fantasy, Seth Grahame-Smith turns one kind of political leadership into another and therefore has the freedom to explore the larger truth of Lincoln's commitments.

Some of my favorite examples of this new genre--or is it not new?--are the reanimations of literary authors.  Whether it is Emily Dickinson or Earnest Hemingway or Louisa May Alcott, I'm fascinated by the possibility that fiction may be able to give us special insight into fiction writers.

A Good Hard Look: A NovelWhen I found out that Ann Napolitano was trying to do exactly this kind of analysis of one of my very favorite writers, I started counting down the days to publication of her novel about Flannery O'Connor.  And finally the day has arrived!.

Although I loved Flannery O'Connor's stories the very first time in late high school, I had no idea where they came from.  They were funny and bitter and grotesque.  I'm afraid I did not see "the heart laid bare" then at all.

Later, when I found a marvelous collection of her letters, it fundamentally transformed what I thought about O'Connor.  I began to see that she struggled with issues of the right way to live--and the importance of moral courage--more than any other writer I'd read (including Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre).  What I had originally taken almost as sarcasm and cruelty on her part was in fact a deep attempt to understand what she might have called the action of grace in the world, the sword of truth that pierces us until we are fully open to change.  She was showing that what hurts us the most is the only thing that can forge us into the people we need to be.

Napolitano has written a stunning tribute to O'Connor.  I love the balance in this book between O'Connor's style and Napolitano's own voice.  She never tries to appropriate the original author's style, but she remains committed to the same explorations that O'Connor makes.  A Good Hard Look is full of the same kind of flawed and quirky characters that populate O'Connor's writing.  Perhaps most importantly, deep humor combines with a very serious engagement with the issues of honesty and moral courage.

Napolitano tells us that O'Connor's perception of the world was sometimes "like a magnifying glass burning a hole through a sheet of paper."  It is that perception that makes O'Connor feel so dangerous and so uncompromising.  She burns those around her--and us her readers--as she points out that we are (and that she is) as fragile, deluded, and self-righteous as her crazy characters.  Napolitano is far gentler and less confrontational a writer than Flannery O'Connor is.  But by the end of A Good Hard Look, we are stripped bare and left with the same sorts of questions that O'Connor asks: how can accept the truth without flinching or denying it? What are the gifts that pain gives? How can we let go of our defenses and live honestly, vulnerably, fully?

Napolitano's A Good Hard Look a book to come back to again and again as we spend our lifetimes trying to answer those questions.

Thank you so much to Trish and the team at TLC Book Tours who shared this wonderful book with me.
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