Friday, March 11, 2011

Cause He Was In The Great Divorce

This is a picture of George MacDonald, which I find sheerly delightful.

The Day Boy and the Night GirlThe Day Boy and the Night Girl by George MacDonald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now this was just plain fun. An evil witch, good king (with a bit part), "orphaned" children, beautiful girl with giant eyes and strong, naive twit of a boy. After reading the first chapter, you know the plot of every other one, but it is such a delight to simply allow yourself to get whisked away and lost in MacDonald's mellifluous voice.

Simple plot overview: a wicked(ish) witch, about whom MacDonald has some delightful opinions, manages to acquire a boy to be raised only in light, never seeing the night, and a girl to be raised only in the darkness (underground), never seeing day. Obviously, they each are everything lovely and pure, meet and fall in love, et cetera res bonus, minus a prophecy, but then it's a short book: when I was three quarters of the way through, I was convinced that it must be a part of a series. So, read and enjoy it; very good for family readings, especially for groups of kids under the age of ninety.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Manlius Man That Ever Was Seen

The Consolation of Philosophy: Revised Edition (Penguin Classics)The Consolation of Philosophy: Revised Edition by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How absolutely delightful: an honest use for Philosophy. Never again will I agree with Edward de Vere that there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently: here is a man who endured a dungeon and finally an unjust death. Here is yet another example of the proof that "Wisdom infinite must form the best" world; if it took the torment of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius to create his magnum opus, which of us would deny that, if he must die, as he must, this method of his death was by far the best? If it took such a fire to create so pure a gold, who could judge the suffering as needless? Who among us could have known that a penalty that must be paid could be put to such an use as this?

Lightly drifting from poetry into prose, carrying on a dialogue with Madame Philosophy, who appeared, as Dante's Virgil, to lead him through the darkened paths of his mind and reveal to him the causes of his torment, beginning with two: he had forgotten the end aim of all things, and he had forgotten what man truly is. The journey is well worth taking, and I would venture to say that it's essential. As a delightful aside: one of the earliest English translations of this book (which has been translated into every European tongue), if not the earliest, was a paraphrase by none other than Chesterton's White Horse King, King Alfred the Great.

I have read Philosophers, and have often thought little of them. I like Hume, as he manages to cut off not only everyone else's feet but his own also. I feel badly for Nietschze, who, proclaiming loudly that pity was a vice, that the weak should be allowed to perish so as to improve the overall quality of life for all men, ended his own life as a madman confined to a wheelchair, being fed soup from another's hand. I have read Philosophers as a man pores through an abandoned mine shaft for the treasure so often found, but I have rarely enjoyed the search, and often feel as Eustace or Pole emerging from the underworld, as I emerge to once again breathe the free air of Donne, Tolkien or Chesterton. This is the first time that I have found so great a quantity of wealth so beautifully arranged under a moonlit sky, and I am basking in the glory of it all. Philosophy is truly a gift from God, and one of His greatest.

This book is magnificent, and truly worth any price. Which is good, as Boethius paid a great one for it.

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Before He Killed the Turk

Don JuanDon Juan by George Gordon Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well, this feels like a guilty pleasure. Nothing too serious, nothing too deep, wry, British, inappropriate humour that's always enjoyable in a Monty Python's "Castle Anthrax" sort of way. If you know what I'm talking about, you just earned another hundred years in Purgatory. Find an Anglican (Catholic Light: a third less ritual with half the guilt) to bless you and try not to think the phrase "You're probably gay."

Anyway, it was fun, but nothing to spend much more than a couple hours on. Lots and lots of commonplaces, but I still prefer Alexander Pope.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father--

an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.
--Opening Sentence of An Imperfect Conflagration, The Parenticide Club.

The Parenticide ClubThe Parenticide Club by Ambrose Bierce

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ambrose Bierce once gave a review which I would here apply to his The Parenticide Club: "The covers of this book are entirely too far apart." Yet, in a way, I loved it. It is truly horrific and appalling. The title says all you need to know: it's a collection of stories in which children murder their parents; Bierce's dry, lightly whimsical, journalistic prose starkly outlined against the backdrop of a gruesome, vicious celebration of murder after murder. Never, ever read it. But, in a way, I did love it.

To understand my four star review of a book that I shelved as appalling, a book in which half of my half-hour reading was spent rereading sentences in appalled disbelief, a bit of background may be necessary. I read a good bit, and have for some time. When I was in high school, my class was assigned Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge in which Bierce describes in his always exquisite, deeply gothic prose, dry as the only sherry I'll drink, the botched hanging of a Civil War spy and his subsequent escape. Then, when he is almost safely in the home he is longing to reach, he feels a tremendous pressure on his neck and sees a blinding flash of light. The hanging hadn't failed, and he never escaped: the entire episode was in his head.

I had read stories where the protagonist dies, but I had never before encountered one in which the protagonist was nonexistent, or a real story arc in which there was no real conflict--I hadn't known it was allowed. Bierce gave us a hero, then revealed that while we were rooting for him, dodging bullets with him, feeling the exhaustion he was feeling, this entire time our hero was falling off a bridge with a noose under his left ear. Well, I loved his prose, and was fascinated with his ability to take nihilism to an entirely new level, so I got his Devil's Dictionary (he wanted to title it the Cynic's Word Book), and he now holds a special place in my heart as one of the most quotable authors on the planet (Chesterton is obviously greater than the rest, in several senses).

So, this book, this collection of short stories was what I expected. I was braced, and I bookended him with Bach to avoid the "slit carotid artery and do push-ups in the bathtub" impulse that he inevitably seems able to inspire. The most astonishing achievement is his ability to make such horrific villains, such truly amoral bastards as the main characters of these stories seem almost sympathetic.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Even His Name Is Forgettable

The Innocence of Father BrownThe Innocence of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have, at this point, gone through the first nine of this collection of twelve stories, and I am now fully convinced that Chesterton was not only a man of a brilliant mind, but of a very singular mind. His paradox is well known, his way of looking at things in an entirely novel light, his self-deprecation, his humor and wit and sheer genius are all legendary, but these stories are a glimpse into the workings of his mind when he decided to amuse himself with a train of thought, and are fascinating.

They are mysteries, a la Sherlock Holmes, but the protagonist is a small, unremarkable priest with a tremendous knowledge of the depths of human nature and an almost obtuse optimism that, combined with the sacred and private nature of confession, allows him not only to solve the crime but to save the criminal. As character studies, they are astonishing. I once commented of a Cormac McCarthy novel that I had met half of his characters. The same and often more is true of these: not only have I met these characters, these lovable cynics, tunnel-visioned atheists and abstruse agnostics, but I have been and am them more often than I would care to admit.

And the crimes? The crimes committed are fantastic, impossible; crimes that defy every imagination's attempts to reconcile them with reality save that singular mind of Chesterton's which can see in reality nothing but the fantastic and impossible, and thusly marries the two with uncanny ease. This has several times caused me to utter ejaculations with a sound, as Wodehouse puts it, of Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin, due to the incurably shy simplicity that would reveal itself to none but the silent, forgotten Priest who courts truth as a lover.

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Wodehousian Fun