Thursday, July 28, 2005

The AFL-CIO split: is it a bad thing or good thing and for whom? Yes, this is time for big questions asked idiotically.

I've worked with the AFL-CIO of North Carolina and spent most of grad school (and almost none of my working life) thining about labor issues, so I feel that I have the necessary gravitas to answer my own dumb question ambiguously. Thus: I'm inclined to say both or neither. The talk about SEIU courting Republicans chills me to my core. However, it seems fairly obvious that the AFL-CIO is a dying giant bereft of new ideas. It seems even more obvious to me that the only way the US labor movement can survive is by reaching out across borders and into white-collar jobs and contract-labor jobs. How it's supposed to do this, I have no idea. But the way that people work has changed over the last 20 years, making connection with other workers on the economic issues that bind us a far more difficult prospect.

Here, as with so many social changes, I'm hoping for the best and doing jack.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Book No. 21: Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

Sophie's World

This book was recommended - and, in fact, practically forced upon me - by a friend who found the first few chapters somewhat dull and wanted to know whether it's worth reading all the way through. I say yes, but with caveats.

I also grew tired of the weak writing and flat characters in the first part of the book. Well, ok, let me back up. To my friend, who only read a couple of chapters, this is a book about a rather boring teenage girl, the eponymous Sophie, who suddenly starts to receive philosophy lessons in the mail from a mysterious, yet benign stranger. The philosophy lessons, I should mention, continue throughout the book, and provide clever high-level summaries of most of the major schools of Western thought throughout history. It's fair to say that I like philosophy. I majored in it in college, and was lucky enough to take several classes that focused on the history rather than practice, and, well, most of this summary was not new to me. However, if I were completely unfamiliar with it (like, say, most of the people I know), I'd probably find quite a bit of enlightenment in these summaries. To my mind, they're the most appealing part of the book.

But back to the plot, and I'm afraid that I have to mention some key spoiler plot points.

So, the first half of the book is all about this girl and her philosophy lessons and her attempts to keep them secret from her mother, who will almost certainly (and rightfully from her point of view) see something inappropriate in a 15 year old girl spending so much time with a strange older man. The other major element of the first half are the postcards Sophie suddenly starts receiving from a major in Norway's UN battalion (did I mention that Sophie's Norwegian? No? Well, she is) which are addressed to his daughter Hilde, who Sophie doesn't know, and which contain messages that she doesn't understand.

The novel turned out slightly differently than I expected. As I mentioned, the first half of the book is rather flat, as the characters don't seem to have much of an inner life (or much of an interesting inner life, at least), and the writing is amateurish. About halfway through the book, it turns out (and you may figure this out before I did) that Sophie and her philosophy teacher are characters in a book written by the major to his daughter Hilde, and the postcards are little asides directly from him to her. Sophie and her philosophy teacher figure this out right when she learns about Berkeley, which is appropriate.

Perhaps because the book is a translation from the Norwegian and ostensibly written for teenagers, I'd been lulled into thinking that the bad writing was unintentional. Once we step out of Sophie's story for Hilde's, however, the writing improves, and the relief between the "real" world of Hilde and her father the major and the "story" world of Sophie and her philosophy teacher is fairly well defined, even without the font changes. Gaarder can't help but out-meta himself with the suggestion that Hilde and the major are also characters in a book, which, of course, they are, but his suggestion is just an aside, so, as far as we're concerned, Hilde and the major are at the top level of reality in the book. So the primary story turns into a story-within-a-story, although once Sophie and her philosophy teacher figure out that they only exist in the major's imagination, they long to escape (and the Hilde part of the story is mostly about Hilde reading the book and waiting for her father to return from Lebanon).

Gaarder piles irony upon irony at this point, although the philosophy lessons continue, going from Kant up to Sartre. It's not quite clever enough to truly mess with the reader's mind (such as in, say, the multiple levels of reality in Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler), but it's probably about right for precocious young adult readers. If they can get through the somewhat treacly first part, that is.

So the plot is so-so, but the philosophy lessons are an interesting introduction. Although I didn't love this book (and, as I said, found major portions of it annoying), I still want to recommend it for the effort and the high mental nutrition factor.

Two quick quibbles with the philosophy lessons: 1) Other than a brief aside about John Rawls, American philosophy is mostly ignored, which seems especially a mistake, given the major's repeated pro-UN stance; and 2) No Heidegger? I mean, sure, he was a Nazi, but it seems wrong that Sartre was the only 20th century philosopher discussed at length (not that I don't love old Sartre like crazy) and 20th century Continental thought belonged to Heidegger (ok, maybe I'll give you Wittgenstein).

Friday, July 15, 2005

From Ron Rosenbaum's recent column in the New York Observer (because I love Pale Fire almost as much as I love you, dear reader):

2 A new conjecture about Nabokov's Pale Fire.
Last winter, I received an e-mail from David Glenn, a writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, who said he'd been traveling through Oberlin, Ohio, and had seen a flyer for a forthcoming Oberlin College lecture on Nabokov's debt to Robert Frost in Pale Fire.

I believe Mr. Glenn thought I'd be interested because of past columns I'd devoted to Pale Fire—either that or my more recent essay on the “cryptomnesia” controversy (The Observer, April 19, 2004): the claim, last year, by a German academic, Michael Maar, that Nabokov derived the title and theme of Lolita from a little-known 1916 German short story about a young girl named Lolita and her affair with an older man. Mr. Maar argued that Nabokov might have read the 1916 “Lolita” when he lived in Berlin in the 20's. Mr. Maar believed it wasn't plagiarism (although some misinterpreted it as that), but rather a case of a submerged memory (“cryptomnesia”)—one that Nabokov wasn't aware of when he wrote his nymphet novel in the 1950's.

But the controversy raised issues about the creative process of perhaps the greatest writer of the modern age and the secondhand description of the forthcoming Oberlin lecture on Pale Fire seemed to promise to raise similar questions.

I immediately got in touch with the Oberlin lecturer, Abraham Socher, a professor of intellectual history, who told me that his talk would focus on the famous opening lines—“I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”—of the poem in Nabokov's Pale Fire. The poem, composed by Nabokov's fictional John Shade and entitled “Pale Fire,” is a 999-line work in rhyming couplets that is the subject of the fantastical commentary by the now-iconic Charles Kinbote, whose half-crazed footnotes form the bulk of this amazing novel. The poem is, I believe—even embedded in a novel—perhaps the greatest American verse work of the 20th century.

Professor Socher wasn't claiming plagiarism or cryptomnesia, or anything quite so scandalous, but an influence that gave us an insight into the way Nabokov conceals and reveals his sources. To me, in the literary realm it was a headline-making assertion.

I'm sure I don't have to explain this for most Observer readers, a literate bunch. But just to remind those who haven't reread Pale Fire recently, here is that opening quatrain:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

The reason that the origin of these four lines is worthy of attention and investigation is that they capture, in compressed form, the preoccupation of Pale Fire with the question of art and life, art and afterlife, of artistic “originality,” with fiction as the “reflected sky,” the distinction between primary experiences and their afterlife in aesthetic reflections of it.

Indeed, it is often forgotten that the mystery of the afterlife itself is at the heart of the poem whose ostensible subject is the suicide of the poet's daughter and his subsequent meditation on the possibility of finding her in the afterlife.

That waxwing—a bird deceived by an image, by a reflection (the “false azure in the windowpane”)—smashed into the window and died, but “lived on” after death, “flew on” in the afterlife of art, the “reflected sky.”

While Robert Frost is a figure in the poem, (John Shade, Nabokov's fictional author, ruefully characterizes himself as “one oozy footstep” behind Frost in poetic reputation) no one has heretofore suggested that Frost himself was a source of the “waxwing” image.

In the past, the passage from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens that gave Nabokov his title (“The moon's an arrant thief / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun”) has been considered the most salient thematic source for Pale Fire.

Professor Socher wasn't alleging theft from Frost on Nabokov's part—far from it. But when I asked him to send me a draft of his Oberlin lecture, it turned out that he believes he's found what you might call the sun to the “waxwing” quatrain's moon: a little-known Robert Frost poem that could well be the origin of the waxwing/window image.

I thought Professor Socher's lecture made a persuasive case; I suggested that he try to get it published in the U. K. Times Literary Supplement, which had published Mr. Maar's “cryptomnesia” essay. And, in fact, he did—you can read a 4,000-word version of it in the July 1 TLS. (I hope he puts it online as well.)

Now for the Frost poem itself, a short work that first appeared in a 1958 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature (Pale Fire was published in 1962) under the title “Of a Winter Evening.” Professor Socher quotes these lines:

The winter owl banked just in time
to pass
And save herself from breaking
window glass.
And her wings straining suddenly
Caught color from the last of
evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed-in children at the
window sill.

Professor Socher carefully builds his case for the owl being the source of the waxwing by adducing some surprising (to me) connections between Nabokov and Frost (the Nabokovs rented a house that had once been occupied by Frost; the two did a couple of readings together; Frost lost a child to suicide, the ostensible subject of “Pale Fire.” Also, Nabokov once said that he knew only “one short poem” by Frost, never identified.) And Professor Socher notes that the issue of The Saturday Review with Frost's owl poem featured a commentary by John Ciardi on Frost's “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—more reason to suspect that Nabokov, who knew Ciardi, might have read that issue.

The most convincing evidence (which Professor Socher expanded on in an e-mail to me after the TLS piece came out), was that Kinbote, Nabokov's unreliable fictional narrator, “seems to have profited from [Ciardi's Saturday Review commentary]”—in other words, Kinbote's creator, Nabokov, seems to have read Ciardi, which would place that issue of The Saturday Review in Nabokov's hands, with only a few pages between the Ciardi piece and the owl poem.

I'm persuaded by Professor Socher's scrupulous essay that this could be a major discovery, the source or inspiration for the signature image in one of the great works of literature of our time, and a further clue to Nabokov's creative method: the way he invokes Frost overtly while making use of him covertly. (Professor Socher told me that Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd had e-mailed him to say that he'd also found his conjecture convincing.)

I asked Professor Socher how he'd made the connection, and he told me that while the book he was writing was on the 18th-century Jewish heretic Solomon Maimon, he'd been reading both Nabokov and Frost since his youth, and that he'd come across the owl poem in Frost's last collection of poems. That he'd traced it (under a different title) to the original issue of The Saturday Review he'd found in a university library, where the presence of the Ciardi commentary allowed him to solidify his conjecture that Nabokov had read the owl poem further on in the issue.

I would only add something that Professor Socher and I politely disagree upon. It seems to me that the owl poem demonstrates something I've always felt: that Robert Frost is a vastly overrated poet and that “Pale Fire,” the poem itself, is one of the most underrated American poems of the past century.

That owl poem—so crude, so poshlust, as Nabokov would say: “Oooh, look at Nature, so red in tooth and claw!” So scary and all—the thin pane of glass demonstrates how little separates us from predatory death, etc., etc. Snooze.

Meanwhile, the poem called “Pale Fire,” perhaps because of its peculiar place within a novel, has often been denied its due as a poem. Some have mistakenly called it a parody; some have shown that it demonstrates the justness of Shade's self-deprecatory characterization of himself as an “oozy footstep” behind Frost. In fact, taken on its own, it surpasses in every respect anything that Frost has ever done. Deal with it, Frostians.

One thing people sometimes forget when thinking about Pale Fire is just how funny it is (another contrast with Frost, who is, to my mind, utterly humorless). And, in fact, it was Pale Fire that led me to the discovery of—what should I call it?—a new genre, the hilarious comic novels in progress being written in the form of Amazon “Customer Reviews.” I'm speaking of …

3 The ongoing work of the pseudonymous Mister Quickly (and certain others). This work came to my notice, actually, from a peculiar posting on the Nabokov discussion listserv. Someone wrote in to the list asking about a strange-sounding “review” of Pale Fire that had appeared in the Amazon “Customer Reviews” section for the book.

Here is the review in full:

“HHH Beyond the Pale Fire
Reviewer: Mister Quickly “Amazon epicurean” (Victoria, BC Canada)
"Fire—a timeless subject. Perhaps rivalling the wheel in terms of its importance in human development, fire has been an important companion in our teleological quest towards perfection. This book didn't really directly tackle the subject of fire as poignantly as would suit my tastes. If you're interested in furthering your knowledge of fire I recommend the movie ‘Quest for Fire,' or the song ‘Fire' by Arthur Brown, and ‘Backdraft.'”

End of “review.” Brilliant! A kind of pitch-perfect higher cluelessness that really says more than it seems to, Kinbote style.

If you want to read the whole thing, do it now. According to my top-secret source (check out his top-secret wedding pics!), they only leave 'em up for a week or so.

Book No. 20: McSweeney's Quarterly Concern No. 13, edited by Chris Ware

This one's all about indie comics, from Chris Ware's funny and bitter foldout cover to the wealth of material inside, including (and this is a small sample) comics by Los Bros Hernandez, Crumb, the ever-awesome Jim Woodring, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco, George Herriman's last, unfinished Krazy Kat cartoons, a print of Obadiah Oldbuck, which is the first comic printed in America (albeit one blatantly stolen from Rodolphe Topffer, the Swiss inventor of comics as a medium), some thrown-away scrawls of Peanuts characters by Charles Schultz, and written essays Ira Glass, Michael Chabon, and John Updike (including some fairly impressive cartoons from Updike). Basically amounting to a hodge-podge anthology of short stories and essays around the central theme of comics, this edition of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern is enormous fun for those who enjoy this sort of thing, and would probably be enlightening even to those (and I'm thinking specifically of snotty John Leonard here) who think of themselves as being above the topic. Or perhaps Leonard only hates Marvel comics; I'm unsure.

Pointless critic-bashing aside, I don't have much too add about this collection. The topics are too varied to draw together a cogent point, other than, maybe, "Comics have widely-varied topics, somewhat like literature." For instance, the dream-logic in Woodring's Frank stories have absolutely nothing in common with Sacco's journalistic accounts of post-war Sarajevo, besides that both were drawn by Americans with technical skill and their own sense of story. Ware seems particularly defensive about his chosen profession, and perhaps he has good reason to feel that way. Or maybe not. The praise for Ware and his work, including this very anthology, appears to be universal, even from highfalutin' intellectuals.

In short: even smarties like the picture-books. And this here picture-book is a good 'un.

Beautiful column by Paul Krugman in today's NY Times (if the registration bugs you, always keep Bugmenot near and dear to your heart).

>John Gibson of Fox News says that Karl Rove should be given a medal. I agree: Mr. Rove should receive a medal from the American Political Science Association for his pioneering discoveries about modern American politics. The medal can, if necessary, be delivered to his prison cell.

>What Mr. Rove understood, long before the rest of us, is that we're not living in the America of the past, where even partisans sometimes changed their views when faced with the facts. Instead, we're living in a country in which there is no longer such a thing as nonpolitical truth. In particular, there are now few, if any, limits to what conservative politicians can get away with: the faithful will follow the twists and turns of the party line with a loyalty that would have pleased the Comintern.

Thanks to Amie for the link.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Salon's got it absolutely right about the Judith Miller situation. As much disdain as I feel towards her for her role in bolstering this corrupt administration's bogus war claims and as much schadenfreude as I feel at the news that she's going to jail, it is a miscarraige of justice and a disturbing precedent to lock up a journalist for refusing to reveal her sources. Heck, I could think of a dozen better reasons to put her behind bars without even really thinking about it.

And while we're at it: why not Bob Novak? That guy needs to see some bars clanking shut in his face at least once in his life. He might even start to grow a soul. We could call it a service to the community.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Watch Scott McClellan squirm. It's fun!

Q Does the President continue to have confidence in Mr. Rove?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, these are all questions coming up in the context of an ongoing criminal investigation. And you've heard my response on this.

Q So you're not going to respond as to whether or not the President has confidence in his Deputy Chief of Staff?

MR. McCLELLAN: Carl, you're asking this question in the context of an ongoing investigation. And I would not read anything into it other than I'm simply not going to comment on an ongoing --

Q Has there been -- has there been any change --

MR. McCLELLAN: -- investigation.

Q Has there been any change or is there a plan for Mr. Rove's portfolio to be altered in any way?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, you have my response to these questions.

Friday, July 08, 2005

There's an excerpt of Kim Cooper's upcoming 33 1/3 book about Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea on the 33 1/3 blog. If you're familiar with this album, you probably love it. If you're not familiar with it, well, what are you waiting for? It's the best album of the 90s -- better than My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, better than Pavement's Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, better than any of the great albums by Guided By Voices, Palace, Stereolab, Yo La Tengo or Flaming Lips from that decade -- and it's one of the best albums of all time. I'm excited about this book, which should be both enlightening and touching.

One album I don't compare to In the Aeroplane is Cardinal's 1994 s/t album, which was re-released in May on Empyrean Records with extra tracks, including the long-out-of-print Toy Bell EP. Cardinal was the collaboration between two unfairly obscure geniuses: the psych-folk-art-rock singer-songwriter Richard Davies and the chamberpop-indie-rock singer-songwriter-arranger Eric Matthews. Davies has an aesthetic that's somewhere between Syd Barrett, the early Bee Gees, and the Velvet Underground (but this isn't really right; he's a hard one to pin down), and Matthews has a darker take on Brian Wilson-Burt Bacharach-Left Banke-Lee Hazlewood-Scott Walker chamber pop. When solo, they're stunning; together, as on this album, they've created something unique and uniquely beautiful.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Well, I'm back at work. The squirt's gone to daycare, which he loves, and apparently the world continues turning.

I should mention that William Ham is funny as hell.

I finished on the Foer book during my month off of work, but I'm reading three others, so it's only a matter of time before I have more to review. Thanks to the kindness of one Scott Von Doviak, I'm almost finished with the second season of Deadwood, and it's been a doozy.

The last month also allowed me to catch Spoon live with Sally Crewe and The Clientele. The Austin American-Statesman's Joe Gross covered the show with elegance and grace. All I can add is that I felt like a senior citizen when surrounded by the teeming hoards of fans of The O.C. who apparently have embraced Spoon as one of their own.

Finally, the other night I had the great fortune to see The Wild Bunch on the big screen. I've seen it 8 or 9 times in my life, and it's never looked better or been more engrossing. Strangely, the family of four sitting in front of us inexplicably got up and left about 1.75 hours in, right during the train robbery. Were they shocked? Bored? Unaware that the movie's 2 1/2 hours long? Odd.

OK, enough rambling.

Book #19: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

As I posted before, I found this book annoying and unfocused for the first half. Emlyn Lewis advised continuance and promised that it would get better. I'm happy to report that he was correct: the end of the book was quite affecting. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it great or even among the best I've read this year, but I'm glad that Foer managed to find a real destination to his narrative.

Much has been made over its "postmodern" structure in various media. Eh. The novelty of having an author create a character with the same name as himself wore off the first time I encountered it (which was, I think, in the far weirder Arc D'X by Steve Erickson, which I read sometime in the early 90s, but was I really in my 20s before I encountered that? Doesn't seem right), and the wacky foreigner tries to write/speak English trope was old when Yakov Smirnov was doing it. Fortunately for the reader, the wacky foreigner turned out to have more going for him, and the story for "Jonathan Safran Foer"'s past was actually quiet resonant. The historical wacky-small-town-historical-Ukrainian-Jew sections never really came to much, except as an sort of negative space in the climax of the story, which was strangely both brutal and sudden and altogether too easy on the main characters. Perhaps that was the point. Brutality does suddenly snap out of nowhere to paint history with blood, but many of the Westernized younger adults of today have been carefully sheltered from it and can approach it now only from a distance.

I was hard on Bee Season, which was also a first novel, and I feel like I'm being more than generous with this one. If this were the work of a more accomplished writer, I would have found the muddled thinking more egregious. As is, this is not bad. I've heard several people tell me that Foer's second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is about the WTC bombing, is awful, and I suspect that Foer probably makes the same mistake as his namesake in Everything Is Illuminated in thinking that he finally understands something about brutality, when in fact he is simply taking a vacation in someone else's misery.

My photo
Cary, NC, United States
reachable at firstname lastname (all run together) at gmail dot com

About This Blog

From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

  © Blogger templates Brooklyn by 2008

Back to TOP