Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Story of Philosophy

Almost done with Durant's Story of Philosophy.  It's a lucid, if idiosyncratic, take on the history of philosophy from Plato to ~1920.  He covered some philosophers whom I know pretty well, which gives me confidence in his views on the others.  On the whole, it's a good intro to the philosophers he covers, and Durant is pretty forthright about what's his own opinion.

I think that he spends a lot of time on epistemic issues, considering how much he claims to dislike epistemology.  But my biggest complaint is probably with the structure of the book.  Durant dives deeply into 9 philosophers, while leaving the others at the edges, and some of them seem pretty important.  I'd quibble with his choice of, say, Spenser over Mill or Bentham, for example.  He also assumes, to some extent, that we know something of the philosophers whom he skimps on -- he contrasts a few of them to Hobbes, but never really covers Hobbes at all.

On the plus side, his discussions of Kant and Spinoza are incredibly good, and I can now see some of the attractions of Nietzsche's philosophy, though I still consider it pretty repellant.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Short takes: Oto x Maho, Light in August, The Coming of Bill, The Story of Philosophy, Dogs of Riga

In the middle of a bunch of books, don't know how many I'm going to bother finishing...  Good thing I'm not a professional reviewer, so I don't have to.

Oto x Maho is a fun magical girl story.  I can't imagine how it was stretched out to 13 books and counting, but I'm only 1/3 of the way through.

I'm very disappointed with Faulkner's A Light in August.  I love Cormac McCarthy's writing, and he supposedly has a large Faulkner influence, so I thought I would love Faulkner as well, but Light in August does nothing for me.  It feels too obviously symbolic right from the get-go, not like a living story.  (The problem may be in the narration; Faulkner may be a writer who should be read, not listened to, so I may give a different book a try some time).

Also disappointed in The Coming of Bill.  Wodehouse is one of my favorite authors, but I can't imagine giving this one to friends.  I think the problem is that the main characters are very bland, and so the situations are boring.

Dogs of Riga is not grabbing my interest, but I'm not sure why.  I'll give it another shot this weekend.

Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy is OK, and I'll probably finish it.  It's strengths are definitely the flip side of its weaknesses.  Durant is very good at contextualizing the philosophers and picking out salient points, but we also end up with a lot of Durant's opinions.  He feels, for example, that no-one gets excited by logic, and so gives Aristotle's logic short shrift; he skips from Aristotle to Bacon because he considers stoicism a bloodless philosophy.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I recently finished George Elliot's Middlemarch, and it completely blew me away.  So I find myself in the occasional position of loving something that's already been written about to death -- I would imagine that there isn't anything new to be said about Middlemarch at this point.  So a random scattering of random thoughts:

  • In a way, Elliot pulls an anti-Dickens.  Ladislaw has, not one, but two claims for vast wealth show up suddenly and coincidentally.  This, of course, is the sort of thing Dickens is infamously fond of pulling out of a hat to resolve things at the last minute.  But Elliot has Ladislaw end up ineligible for one source of money and he refuses to take the second, defying the easy resolution.
  • She (Elliot) also defied my expectation when Rosamund's brief epiphany doesn't end up leading her to become a better person.
  • It's a very middle class novel, espousing the values of hard work at every turn; the most admirable characters are clearly Caleb, with his love of "business", and Dorothea, who wants to give away all of her inherited money.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Winter of Frankie Machine,

Unlike When Will There be Good News? , Don Winslow's The Winter of Frankie Machine has no literary pretensions.  It's a straight thriller, and a pitch-perfect one.

It starts very slowly, as we spend 30 pages following the eponymous Frankie around his day; he starts in his bait shop, then checks in on the two other businesses he runs, has lunch with his daughter, and so on with a quotidian day. These pages are important because they introduce us to Frank; he's persnickety, it's easy to push his buttons by referring to past obligations, and he's obsessive about preparedness.

In the next 10 pages, Frank is contacted by old mafia associates and then nearly assassinated. From there, the tension stays at that high point while frank tries to determine who might want him dead. Now those first 30 pages bear fruit, as Frank's actions all grow organically out of the personality we were introduced to at the beginning.

The result is not great literature, surely, but it's a thriller with no false steps along the way, and that's not an easy achievement.  The most similar book I've read recently was Point of Impact, also a novel about a man being pursued by a large conspiracy, needing all his wits to escape.  I liked Point of Impact a lot, but Frankie Machine really points up the weaknesses of the former book and makes me downgrade a bit in retrospect; it makes me realize that Point of Impact hits its target, but Frankie Machine is a dead center bulls-eye.  Although it turns out that Frank is not the well-oiled machine that his name suggests (and the book would be less interesting if he were), this book certainly is.

Friday, June 17, 2011

When Will There be Good News?

Kate Atkinson is a Whitebread award winner who decided to branch into suspense fiction with Case Histories.  Although I normally like to start a series at the beginning, I jumped into When Will There be Good News because I happened to hear good things about it and amazon had a 99 cent sale on it.  It then sat on my kindle for such a long time that by the time I got round to it, I had totally forgotten everything about it, so I started reading with a totally blank slate, which was an interesting experience.

Somehow I forgot about the suspense part, but remembered she was a Whitbread winner.  The novel starts out on a high pitch, with a brutal slaying, but then immediately moves to thirty years later and much lower tempo, so for a long while I thought it was actually not a suspense novel at all. Atkinson raises the tempo at a steady rate through the book, until she reaches a high point about 4/5 of the way in.

I think I preferred the first half of the novel over the second half.  Atkinson has a good eye for character interactions, as well as a nice turn of phrase.  Once she gets into the heavy suspense part, she also gets into heavy coincidence territory, and the climax really pushed into unbelievable territory for me.  I think I'd enjoy her literary work, and am looking to read more by her.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Woman in the Dunes

I finally finished Abe's Woman in the Dunes.  I cheated a bit by reading the ending in an English translation, which leads me to my first thought...  this isn't a novel that loses much in translation.  Japanese has a bunch of features that can make it difficult to translate, especially those that show social stratification or dialect, but none of them have much place in this novel.  It's certainly the most direct translation of any major Japanese novel I've read, and more than some of the light novels as well.

Ultimately, I think the novel really dragged.  As I've mentioned before, I don't think the book is a simple dramatization of a philosophical concept; it should be looked at as a novel as well.  Unfortunately, I don't think that it totally works.  Part of the problem is that we know pretty much from the beginning that the man's never going to escape, and so the various attempts he makes don't really drive anything forward.  On the one hand, I understand that you have to have that feeling, because the whole point of the novel is about the struggle in the face of implacable fate, but it feels like it drags on two attempts too many.

The closest analog to the book that I can think of is Kafka's The Trial (I believe that The Castle may be closer, but I haven't read it yet).  But The Trial works better, I think, because Kafka keeps things fresh by throwing in more characters and changing up.  Oddly enough, I was about to write that The Trial is shorter, but I just looked on amazon, and it's at least comparable, if not longer.  But it felt shorter, because of the humor, the way Kafka changes things up, and so on.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Nabokov's Lectures on Literature, Middlemarch

Over the Memorial Day weekend, the place we were staying at had a copy of Nabokov's Lectures on Literature.  I didn't have the time to read the whole thing, but I read his takes on Mansfield Park and Ulysses, as well as the more general introduction.

Nabokov is a very perceptive reader, as you'd expect, and it's a pleasure to read his lecture notes.  But this collection is also indirectly a guide to reading Nabokov.  We learn that he thinks social concerns are irrelevant to great literature, that all great novels create an imaginary world rather than being purely mimetic, that form is inseparable from content, and so on.

One big surprise for me is that he feels that Joyce's stylistic choices in the second half of Ulysses aren't relevant to an analysis.  That is, he spends all his time analyzing the events, with the occasional note about verbal effects, without addressing the fact that one chapter is catechistic, while another is in the form of a play, and so on.  I think that form and content here are intimately related, and it seems that Nabokov, who's so caught up in stylistic choices, would dismiss these choices with one sentence.

I've started listening to Middlemarch, which is in a way an inverse of War and Peace.  Whereas the latter is a long kaleidoscopic novel covering a number of Russian areas over 10 years, Middlemarch is a minutely observed view of the small town of Middlemarch.  Not much else to say about it, yet.

Faithful Place

In my comments on Tana French's novel The Likeness, I said that the core psychological exploration in the novel were sound, but the mystery itself was very contrived, and French didn't seem that interested in the actual plot of the novel; Faithful Place is much more successful at integrating the psychological themes with the plot.

Detective Frank Mackie left home 20+ years ago, and hasn't spoken to anyone in his family except one sister in all that time.  But he returns when a suitcase belonging to his girlfriend, who disappeared 20 years ago, is discovered.  Frank is torn between wanting to find out what happened to her and trying to stay away from his abusive parents.  As one expects in this sort of novel, there are family secrets long buried which come to the surface.

I think French does a great job of working her theme of family secrets through the various threads of the novel.  Frank has been hiding his background from his ex-wife, she has been hiding the fact that she's introduced their daughter to Frank's family, and so on.

Since French's theme is the exposure of these secrets and the effect they have, it makes sense that she solves the mystery of what happened to Frank's girlfriend long before the end of the book.  The point of the novel is about the aftermath when the secrets are exposed; by getting there "early", she gives herself time to explore the results in the detail they need.  (This is another improvement over The Likeness, where the resolution is placed more traditionally close to the end, and so the ending feels rushed).

As a side note, this seemed to me to be French's most optimistic book, and I enjoyed that as well.