Sun, 15 Jul 2007

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

— SjG @ 8:53 pm

Laurence Sterne, 1759-1769. Read as a Gutenberg Project e-book, downloaded via

I once had a co-worker (hi, Bob!), for whom completing an anecdote or telling a full story was an impossible task. Each new detail necessitated a digression, from which several tangents emerged, and so on, ad infinitum. We used to torment him by interrupting with nerdy / computer-science cries of “Pop the stack, Bob! Heap overflow!”

This is also the main thematic joke of Tristram Shandy, where, in telling us his life story, Tristram fills up three volumes getting up to his own birth, and then never really gets back to his own story with the exception of a mixed-up journey across France much later in his life. Life and Opinions is light on the life, and heavy on the opinions. We learn about his theories of many things, we overhear many conversations about religious, political, and military philosophy, and witness events reminiscent of Rabelais, but we’re too busy with these diversions to get much of his personal story.

Tristram has more to offer, though, than its (sometimes tiresome) tangents. Tristram’s amusing comments to the critics stand out, as do his grandiose opinions of his own literary prowess and techniques. However, overall, it’s the characters of Uncle Toby and his interactions with Tristram’s father Walter that make the work. Both men are peculiar, outrageous, and yet oddly believable, and their interactions can be surprisingly touching.

As with many of the older works I’ve read, Tristram suffers somewhat from what I call
Shakespeare/Bible Copycat Syndrome (in which a work so widely imitated and quoted that the original seems clichéd).

In what should give hope to those of us who are getting older and accomplishing less than we’d hoped, Sterne started writing this humorous, meandering tale when he was 45. Nine volumes and ten years later, he’d completed one of the great works of English humor. So there’s still hope for us.

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Sat, 16 Jun 2007

You Can’t Win

— SjG @ 6:16 pm

You Can’t Win, by Jack Black, 1926, reprinted by Nabat Press, 2000.

This is an interesting, conflicted, tripartite book. It’s an autobiography of a hobo and burglar, a jailbird, and a reform activist. The book starts as a good-natured telling of how Black left home, and became a hobo. We follow him as he gets caught up in the seamier side of life away from home, and how, ostensibly, through misunderstandings, he came to fall fully on the wrong side of the law. The arc continues through opium addiction, prison, abuse, and ends in reform and moral outrage.

The first part of the telling is a light, almost romantic adventure. The young man goes off, has adventures in the city, then starts to ride the rails. Sure, there’s danger, there’s police and railyard bulls to avoid, there’s even sudden death from shifting cargo, but the telling is almost with the exuberance of youth. Black encounters other hobos, who welcome him into the family, teach him the argot, and start showing him the ropes.

From here, the tale darkens. Black apprentices himself out to be a burglar, and the situations get more perilous. Friends get killed; Black gets into and out of prison. Still, the tale is rip-roaring adventure: now a member of the brotherhood of thieves, Black introduces us to a cast of wild characters. He describes to us the great hobo gatherings, with their camaraderie and drunken abandon. He details many hair-raising exploits of burglary and safe breaking.

The latter part of the book involves a lot more prison, betrayal, and drug addiction. It still has elaborate capers of theft and jailbreak, but now Black has suffered under the system. Authority is now beating him down, and he responds with wantonness and violence. In the end, there is kindness and reform.

The book is particularly intriguing in the shift of tone throughout the book. There is definite pride in the exploits, even if the words condemn his actions. The latter parts of the book are quite bitter, and the emotions are contradictory — Black blames the cruel neglect and abuse of society for making him into a monster, yet he also happily admits that he never had any interest in becoming part of society or behaving in a way that society would accept. This is what makes the book more than just a personal journey or a thriller; we experience the world from Black’s perspective, seeing hypocrisies in both the society with which he’s in conflict, and in his antisocial lifestyle.

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Thu, 3 May 2007

McCarthy’s Bar

— SjG @ 8:16 pm

McCarthy’s Bar, Pete McCarthy, 2000, Hodder and Stoughton.

Like Red Haired Girl from the Bog, McCarthy’s Bar starts with an author of Irish descent undertaking a search for identity in Ireland. McCarthy, however, has a much more down-to-earth approach, which begins with the rule that you should never pass up a bar with your name on it (sage advice for someone traveling in Ireland with the name of McCarthy, no doubt, but for us Goldsteins it should be understood that we might have to assume an alias to avoid serious sobriety and/or dehydration).

McCarthy’s writing is reminiscent of Bill Bryson — self-deprecating, incisive, descriptive, and howlingly funny in places. The humor shouldn’t suggest that he’s not very serious about his quest, nor does it soften the keen edge to his observations.

Monaghan’s writing makes it seem that she was relatively comfortable in accepting the mantle of identity. She is in many ways more distant from her heritage, and is able to project certain things on them (being poets and sennachie). McCarthy dwells more, perhaps, on what identity means to him. He meets more relatives on his trail, is accepted as a relative to people who may or may not be blood relations, and ruminates on non-Irish who are working at becoming Irish.

Of the two books, McCarthy’s Bar is probably a better travelogue. Reading it meshed more closely with our experiences, and sometimes this added to the humor (e.g., the derelict Titanic themed bar we passed in Cobh, which he describes as being planned but observes that the local predictions for it are not promising).

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The Red Haired Girl from the Bog

— SjG @ 7:49 pm

The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit,
Patricia Monaghan, 2004, New World Library.

I recently returned from three weeks traveling through Ireland with The Right Reverend Oakes. It was something of a whirlwind tour; we visited a lot of different places both on and off of the standard tourist track. Along the way, I finished up reading The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog, which is an interesting blend of Irish history, Irish mythology, and philosophy, along with a fair amount of rumination on the meaning of place, thoughts on personal relations, and observations on poetry, all wrapped loosely in a collection of personal anecdotes structured by regions in Ireland.

The book is not really a travelogue, per se, as it’s more concerned with mythology as it pertains to place, but it does provide counterpoint and commentary to someone traveling through the places described.

Monaghan starts the book with a not-very-mystical quest involving identity — what does Ireland tell a person about herself as a member of the Irish diaspora. It quickly goes beyond that, and shows the complex intertwining of the mythological layers in Ireland, from Pagan to early-Christian to Roman Catholic to neo-pagan. Monaghan also talks about how those beliefs may mesh and coexist in a way that is fairly alien to us Americans. The bulk of the book uses personal experiences as segues into mythology, and vice versa, in a very readable way.

Monaghan is clearly extremely well read, which allows her to bring together a broad perspective on topics, but also results in an overuse of descriptions of the form “what writer X has called ‘Y‘.” I appreciate the need for attribution, but personally find footnotes less disruptive. As someone who is at best marginally familiar with Celtic, Irish, and Christian mythology (or history, for that matter), I also found the flurry of names and references somewhat dizzying. Fortunately, if you’re as undisciplined as I, you can let the references wash over you without needing to absorb them all — Monaghan’s overall narrative is good enough that you don’t need all the specifics.

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Sun, 25 Feb 2007

Anarchism and Other Essays

— SjG @ 7:24 pm

Emma Goldman, with an introduction by Hippolyte Havel, 1911, a Gutenberg Project e-book, downloaded via

I started reading this over lunch. I was sitting in an In ‘n’ Out Burger outlet that’s located in the vast parking lot of a CostCo warehouse. The guy to my right at the counter was wearing a suit, and was studiously reading The Wall Street Journal. I’d be hard pressed to describe a more commonplace scene of overwhelming American capitalism.

In this environment, I started reading Havel’s introduction, which would be better described as a fawning hagiography written in full-on Socialist jargon. If written today, it would read as parody. But this sets the scene, which is important while reading all of the essays: when Emma wrote these, it would be nearly ten years before women gained the vote in the US; penicillin was twenty years away from being used as an antibiotic; no nation had yet bombed another from the air; no nation had yet been ruled under a formally Fascist, Socialist, or Communist philosophy; Ford’s Model T was a brand new product; nations measured their military might by their navies and their cavalries; the bloody and profound transformations of Europe that characterized much of the the 20th century had yet to unfold. Emma’s unbounded optimism of 1911 was inspired, inspiring, and based on a world full of the promise of great changes, however ill-placed and tragic it may appear in retrospect.

It was a very different time, and yet, for all these differences, it was very much like today. If I were to remove the names from one of Emma’s contemptuous dismissals of McKinley, I could easily pass it off as being contemporary. Her critique of what we today call the “prison industrial complex” reads like it’s straight from the papers, citing the dramatic growth in prison population and showing that the US had (has) the highest incarceration percentage of any industrial nation. She dove headlong into the nature versus nurture debate, arguing that children (even of impoverished, “lazy” people) could be raised in a wholesome environment and turn out enthusiastic and intelligent.

Where Emma surprised me was her dismissal of women’s suffrage, which reminded me of the bumper sticker that says “don’t vote — it only encourages them!” She believed that anything that could be voted upon would need be so entrenched in the system as to be meaningless. Change could only come from dismantling the system entirely. That Emma was against marriage was not surprising. That she was against the military and particularly the draft was also not surprising, although the intensity of her argument that barracks led to unacceptable “perversions” was.

Interestingly, the core of her belief in anarchy resided in a very Germanic attitude towards work. She believed that all the ills of the world lay in the inability for people to do the work they loved, unmolested. Work was the way to fulfillment, and if people were only allowed to do good, satisfying work, the anarchist utopia would arrive.

And, actually, her essay on the problems of feminism was perhaps the most poignant — she talks of the burden of being an intelligent woman in a society that holds women as second-class citizens. By living up to her intellectual potential, the woman is alienated from society, and thereby prevented from having meaningful relationships. Evidently, even progressive men are sufficiently trapped in convention that they can’t love a woman as an equal.

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