Saturday, September 26, 2020

Books #36-43 of 2020

I fell behind a little bit. The start of teaching is always overwhelming, and the commencement of a school year online was moreso. Finding time to be online for pleasure or personal musings is difficult when you end the work day with achy half-blind eyes from staring at a screen 12 hours. But, I am catching up here on some recent reads.


I discovered Renault by reading a collection of essays by Daniel Mendolsohn, an editor and contributer to the NYRB who corresponded with Renault as a teen. This is the 3rd of her wonderful novels about ancient Greece I've had the pleasure to read this year as a result. She had a remarkable gift for inhabiting and re-imagining this past and its characters. I'd rank her with Graves, Williams, and Vidal easily, and she might best them all. What she can't learn via astute scholarship she infers and weaves seamlessly into the known. 

Alexander as a youth had to navigate between the machinations of his mother Olympias--a princess from Epirus, regarded by the Macedonians as a backward and feral tribe much the way the Macedonians were regarded as such by Athenians--and Philip, his scheming and systematically ambitious father. Olympias consults oracles and sacrifices in her role as a cultist of Dionysus, while Philip conquers just about everyone and bit by bit advances toward his dream of bringing all of Greece under his empire and then moving East. Olympias and Philip are in constant struggle with each other, often to Alexander's dismay, but also to his benefit later in life. What he learns about power and influence in this household makes him the commander and gifted politician he later became. Renault's gift is showing it all, rather than telling.

The writing is beautiful, the characters are alive, and Macedon at the approach of its apex is fascinating. But the most lovely thing about the novel is Alexander's relationship to Hephaestion. From childhood pals to teenage lovers and into adulthood, there are few relationships drawn with so much tenderness and sympathy out of the hundreds I've read. We also get to meet Peritas and Bucephalus along the way.


The second volume of Renault's novels about Alexander is told from the viewpoint of his Persian eunuch and lover Bagoas. The first chunk of the narrative is Bagoas's own, and we witness the sad fate of his family and his capture. His decline from prince in an aristocratic Persian house to eunuch in another's is rendered with nigh unbearable sympathy by Renault. One can't help but root for Bagoas as he rises through the ranks of eunuchs kept for pleasure by wealthy men until at last he winds up as the favorite of Darius, King of Persia.

Of course along the way there are rumors about the barbarian Alexander, who has taken charge of armies following the assasintation of Philip, and is marching eastward. Bagoas is rightfully terrified about what awaits him if Darius is defeated and Persian conquered, and in this finely wrought and delicious novel we see indeed what occurs. After the fall of Darius Bagoas ends up in Alexander's service, and then in his bed. Renault deftly re-imagines the perspective of a Persian in the barbarian culture, and his surprise at Alexander's humanity and compassion and erudition. Bagoas as a long-time keen observer of intrigues at Persian courts becomes an invaluable advisor to Alexander, competing with Hephaestion for his love and attention, and through Bagoas's point of view we see many of Alexander's substantial victories, his illnesses and injuries, his close calls, and eventually his demise. A fantastic historical novel, easily one of the best I've read, and it surpasses even its glorious predecessor.

Not nearly as interesting nor as entertaining as the first volume (The Shadow of the Wind). Kind of a rehash of the same plot elements but the execution and the characters are a bit less engaging. But had just enough momentum to pull me through to the end and to interest me in continuing the tetralogy. 

These stories are top-notch Borgesian journeys into the outer reaches of creativity and imagination. Delightful and disturbing by even measure, I expect her to out-do Kafka and Calvino. This is truly a young author to marvel over. I want to learn more Spanish and read her novels in the original. 


And speaking of learning more Spanish in order to read the original--this is another young writer with tremendous gifts. Mexican Gothic is a Lovecraftian tour-de-force. An isolated European family inhabits a grim manse deep in the Mexican wilderness. The residents of a nearby town whisper about the manse and its inhabitants, and with good reason. They have created a monstrous fungi cult and are transforming their patriarch into an unspeakable horror from beyond time and space. Though Lovecraft seeps through this work (I see that Sylvia Morena-Garcia has edited a Cthulu-themed collection of mythos in the HPL universe), her main influence in English is likely Shirley Jackson, whose Hill House also permeates this creepy book. You can, and likely will, polish it off in an afternoon.

Sergio Argones has a mad and unrestrained imagination both as scribbler and as story-teller. I used to get MAD Magazine as a kid and the first thing I would do was look at all the marginal scribbles Argones had doodled in and around the panels of others' work. Groo was funny to my middle-school self, and still gives me chortles as that middle-school self fades more and more into the deep recesses of time.

Learn the language of these symbols. Dig their resonance with the subconscious. Let them awaken the eternal within you. Hand over the reins to the Universal and escape the cycle of samsara. And confront about 1,000 typos, mis-spelled words, and sentence fragments along the way.

I'm a long-time fan of Lewis Lapham. I used to lap up Lapham's intros to Harper's Mag, and when he stepped down from that post and moved over to Lapham's Quarterly I eagerly followed along. I bought this book from a recent list of books Lapham regarded as most influential. Reading Durant I can see stylistically and philosophically his influence on Lapham. This collection of essays on major themes in the study of history provided many useful gems for further discovery, and each topic could serve as provocation pieces for inquiry units in Humanities courses. Humane, erudite, and with an unparalleled grasp of world history, Durant might indeed take a large chunk of my remaining reading time here on Earth.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Book #35 of 2020: The Aryan Christ by Richard Noll

Does nothing to diminish Jung's work or his contributions as a major 20th century intellectual. Most of what Noll decries about Jung, such as his focus on myth and spirituality,  is pretty obvious to anyone who reads Jung or knows about Jungian analysis, and is hardly 'the secret life' of Jung.

Yes, Jung found science and medicine to be only part of the picture (like most literary and philosophical thinkers and mystics of all ages), and thought there was more at work which was inexplicable. Yes, he dabbled in the occult and spirituality and religion and astrology. He wrote openly about these things in his own works. So using a focus on myth or spiritualism or pseudo-science in an attempt to tarnish Jung simply backfires. And the fact that Jung's estate kept unsavory things about his affairs out of published works does not indicate Jung was a sinister monster--this is pretty standard practice and is true of most literary estates.

Noll attempts to paint Jung's obsession and interest in hauntings and spirits as evidence he was founding a new religion and not a method of analysis. But Jung was open his entire career about his interest in hauntings and spirits, and the much-publicized break with Freud was partly a result of this. This is not "the secret life" of Jung at all. And sure, maybe there is a New Age-y air to Jungian analysis and to the Joe Campbell school of Lit Crit which sprung from Jung's influence on academe. But does any of that diminish Jung's work? Throughout this book Noll routinely praises Jung's accomplishments in the field and mentions how they are still in use or relevant to the field of psychology. I recently read a dialogue about the release of Jung's Red Book which focused anew on this debate in the light of Jung's illuminated manuscript and what it portends for the future of analytical psychology as a science.

Maybe the point, Mr. Noll, is that anyone who regards psychology as a science is wrong. Perhaps that's what bugs you? Psychology is like economics--it gives you some outlines and some ability to explain, but it's mostly a system of belief. So what?

There is a lot of "ooh, here's a sentence in a letter about Jung with the word cult in it. See Jung WAS the leader of a cult!" But the worst most egregious thing about this book is the final chapter which attempts to paint Jung as a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite. Throughout the entire book is a continual building of this case, that Jung's ideas about polygamy and German myth and sun-worship and paganism were the same soil out of which Nazism sprung, so therefore Jung is a Nazi and a terrible human as well. The entire last chapter can be summed up in these short passage:

Gene Nameche, to his credit, specifically asked almost all of his interviewees who knew Jung in the 1930s and 1940s about his attitude toward Jews and National Socialism and his possible involvement with the Nazis. The vast majority of [Jung's] disciples absolve him of this. Others equivocate. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between.

Notice the 'logic' of this sequence. Almost everyone said Jung was not Anti-Semitic or Nazi, some don't come out and say the truth is between. What nonsense! The next paragraph goes on to talk about Jung's interest in solar worship and myths associated with the sun, and the swastika was a solar symbol so JUNG MUST BE A NAZI.

Followed by this: "there is no evidence that he was ever a Nazi. This is not to say he opposed the Nazis, either."

Much of the book is sloppy and flip-floppy guilt by association of this nature. BUT--I enjoyed the portraits of some of Jung's 'disciples' and the critique of his cynical use of a niece as a spiritual medium was interesting. Particularly interesting and sensitive are the portraits of Fanny Katz, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, and Constance Long. Noll intends the stories of these women to damn Jung and his 'cult,' but on the contrary they show that Jung was a major part of the intellectual scene at the time, and some drifted in and out of his circle much as is the case with any artist or intellectual of note in a vibrant culture of ideas.

I think this book is worth a read. As an admirer of Jung as a scientist turned mystic and what he attempted I have my biases. The book was insufficiently well-argued to overcome them and I am not convinced by Noll's arguments or evidence. I imagine for someone with anti-Jung biases that the opposite might be the case.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Book #34 of 2020: Fifth Sun by Camilla Townsend

I learned a lot about Mexico City and the Aztecs and the era stretching from immediately before the arrival of Cortes until a couple generations after his death. The book relies heavily on the histories of Aztecs/Nahuas/Mexica people, rather than solely on European sources. As a result, one gets a fuller picture of the religion, myths, and complex politics of the region before and after colonization.

I found it tremendously readable and though it was a challenge to keep track of the various lines of royal clans the characters of each leader and the cultures in competition were vividly portrayed. The book seeks to address centuries of one-sided and blinkered history, but is not judgmental. The Spaniards and their motives are put into context just as are the competing factions in the Mexican basin and their wants and needs, and the complex alignments and treaties and navigations before and after Moctezuma/Cortes are truly interesting.

Malintzin--what an amazing and evocative figure! Why is she ignored? Her story and impact are quite important in the establishment of modern Latin American cultures and politics. And Paquiquino--Don Luis de Velasco? An amazing and interesting character, taken from the Chesapeake as a hostage to Spain and thence to Mexico City, a relative of Powhatan. And the sons of Cortes--all very interesting characters. As much as I loved the initial section of the book for its portrait of the indigenous American cultures before Cortes, I think the most interesting stuff came a generation after Cortes, with the blending of Spanish and Nahuas and Mexica peoples and the arrival of enslaved workers from Africa and Asia and the indigenous historians working hard to ensure their stories were not lost by recording them in codices. Brilliant and innovative history which shatters conventional understandings based in propaganda and deepens one's understanding of this important time.

Book #33 of 2020: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A pure delight. A book about books and loving books obsessively, to the point where you track down a mysterious author of a novel and enter into an awful Gordian knot of conspiracies and vendettas but you still keep going because you need to know and then at the end you know and you don't want it be over. But it's not, because: TETRALOGY!

The setting for this marvel is Civil War era Barcelona. Everything about it is delicious. Wish I had know about these novels while Zafon was still alive, but I found about his Cemetery of Books books too late for that, alas. I shall read them all!

Friday, July 10, 2020

Book #32 of 2020: Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti

An entertaining collection of horror stories by a modern master--well, actually 2 collections combined. The first half are straight-edged horror with the veneer of mid-twentieth century realism. Many of the stories in the 2nd half of the volume share a Lovecraftian tinge: an ancient evil or some mysterious force intrudes into dreams, or is awakened by someone carelessly plodding around old antique shops or leafing through an incomprehensible grimoire, or a city academic visits a rural area and finds out the locals have ignorantly stumbled upon ancient rites and reinvited some previously expelled or entrapped cosmic entity. In lesser hands, these tropes and plots could be stale, but Ligotti infuses them with a Borgesian sublimity, blending in a hint of Kafka now and again. And there is also a demonic scarecrow.

The Frolic, which opens the collection, is a true banger and absolutely merciless. You know what is going to happen early on and yet the ending is not spoiled because Ligotti masterfully yanks your tension strings to satiety. The Last Feast of Harlequin is an updated "The Lottery" spun through Lovecraft and back again via Umberto Eco. There are a few tales which rely heavily on Poe, where a rather unreliable narrator brings us along as he sets about trapping his next victim a la "The Cask of Amontillado." There's a nice fantasy story set in Renaissance Venice to boot, and an excellent little vampire story.

If you like slasher stuff, or monster tales, or overt supernatural stuff with clear-cut hauntings--these stories are likely not for you. They are typically more elegant and subtle than visceral and shocking. But if you are a student of the genre and like to think while being creeped out, if you value mood and tone as much or perhaps more than plot and character, and if you like a writer who can churn out exceptional sentences--give these tales a try!

Book #31 of 2020: A History of Ancient Rome by Frances Titchener

I listened to these lectures as part of an online course I'm taking to earn credits toward maintaining my teaching certification. Also, I'm teaching ancient Rome next year to 8th graders, so a little refresher won't hurt?

And that's basically what these lectures were: a refresher. I've read several histories of Rome and several novels based in Rome and featuring Roman characters over the decades. So--not much new here. BUT, getting everything back in chronological order and revisiting salient points and significant themes was quite helpful.

Professor Titchener is engaging and funny and a bit dirty-minded, which helps with the material. She moves briskly from the two founding myths of Rome up through the 7 kings and thence to the Republic. Major eras and figures are covered. The Punic Wars get strong coverage, the Gracchi Bros and their significance are dealt with substantially. There are delicious and gossipy tales about Emperors from Julius up to the very end. If you are an audio learner or if you dig breezy podcasts, this might be your intro to Roman history. Otherwise, I'd recommend reading Gibbon or Mary Beard over these lectures...or even Stoner's Augustus or Graves's novels about Claudius.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Book # 28 of 2020: How to Meditate by Pema Chodron

We are entering month five of lock-down in Panama. The first 3 months were spent teaching online. Then, we started summer break from school and have been in the apartment for 3 weeks on "vacation." It looks like we will remain on lock-down for the next month and then resume teaching online from home in August. Travel is barred domestically and internationally. I can only leave the apartment for short shopping windows 3 times a week, and we are supposed to shop within 1km of our residence.

The only way I maintain my sanity under these conditions is to regard this all as a mindfulness retreat. Every morning: yoga, Tai Chi, mindfulness, and then an online class followed by Rosetta Stone practice. Then, it's reading in the bed for a while, reading on the chair for a while, and reading in the hammock for a while.

Pema's book helped me with some simple self-discipline techniques as I try to maintain daily practice. She gives really strong advice about dealing with the emotions during mindful practice. Clear, elegant, charming, and often funny. Recommended!