Friday, March 30, 2007

Lion's Honey by David Grossman

[ just a review -- not for any challenge ]

Title: Lion's Honey

Author: David Grossman

Copyright: 2005 for the original publication in Hebrew, 2006 for the English translation, published by Canongate U.S., ISBN:1-841-95742-9

Length: 176 pages (including notes and bibliography)

Genre: Essay

Summary: Grossman allows us to participate in his thinking out loud about the myth of Samson, "Samson the Hero" as children in Israel are taught. The hero is one most widely known for his strength which is taken away from him by the wickedly seductive Delilah. Samson foolishly entrusts Delilah with the knowledge that his strength is tied to his unshorn hair and she betrays that trust by shaving his head while he sleeps. She then turns him over to the Philistines when he has no capacity to resist capture. The weakened Samson is taken and chained but, even after the hideous, physical abuse by his captors, he triumphs by pulling down the pillars of the building in which he is imprisoned -- killing himself and many Philistines in the process.

Grossman doesn't shrink from the essential barbarity of Samson's story, additional elements of which do not appear in the preceding paragraph (see Judges 13-16 for the full narrative). Samson is destined to be a hero to his people, but the loneliness presented by Grossman as a key aspect of this hero represents his vulnerability. Samson is different, set apart from birth by the singular fashion in which his mother learns of his ultimate destiny and the instructions given for his fostering. Grossman focuses on Samson's inner sense of "other-ness" on the grounds of his uncanny strength and his moments of poetic expression. Samson's frustration and unhappiness fuel his actions and there is no alternate ending to the way those play out, given the nature of his emotional pain.

Grossman sees the myth of Samson as reflective of his country's policies. A noted peace activist in Israel, Grossman's modern rendering of this myth takes into account both the individual and the corporate experience of those perpetually at odds with the world surrounding them. You can get a glimpse of his current views on the Israeli conflict based on his comments at the memorial for Yitzhak Rabin last year.

Also relevant: You can read this as a parable of the creative temperament at odds with social norms. It is possible to read it as well in the vein of a political statement. Grossman fleshes out the tale with a certain realism and understanding. His thought processes work through the brusque biblical narrative in the same way that a man with a flashlight might work his way along a narrow and dark hallway, stepping rather than striding. It's still a fast read; I finished the book in a single sitting.

Grossman presents a sympathetic portrait of a frustrated, sensitive personality trapped by internal and external conflicting forces. Somehow it works.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Where I Spent the Past Few Days

The Sonoran Desert, specifically at the Camelback Inn. This photo was taken by Mark Goldstein of International Research Edge at the Buying & Selling E-Content event. The collection of photos he took is on Flickr (search on the tag BSEC07) and I'm in there somewhere.

When I wasn't in sessions, I was out in the sun, like a lizard baking on a hot rock. The flowers were wonderful, the staff was incredible, and I wish the conference had been another five days in length...

Wonderful experience!

Burnett's The Shuttle

[just an ordinary review; not for any challenge]

Title: The Shuttle

Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Copyright: 1907 (this work is in the public domain); I read from an older edition published by Grosset & Dunlap. A full text version is available from Project Gutenberg, but a print edition is being launched by Persephone Books in the UK in April 2007.

Genre: Fiction/Romance

Length: 512 pages

Summary: Following her marriage to Nigel Anstruthers and the subsequent relocation to his estate in England, the naively sweet and loving Rosalie Vanderpoel, now Lady Anstruthers, gradually loses touch with her family. After some twelve years of increasing silence and detachment, her younger sister, Betty Vanderpoel travels to England to learn the reason. Betty, operating from a fine sense of practicality and confidence, is shocked by the changes in her sister when she arrives at Stornham Court. The Shuttle centers around the actions that Betty takes to restore her sister to herself and set things right. There is a meeting with a neighboring nobleman, Mount Dunstan, who lacks money to restore his own estate but whose pride prevents him from sinking to the behaviors of Nigel Anstruthers' ilk. Ultimately, of course, we see Betty and Mount Dunstan fall in love but the romance is not the paramount story here. Burnett was making a point about the marital alliances between American heiresses and the British titled aristocracy. A theme of restoration runs throughout the novel, based on the respective strengths of each country and culture and it makes for a most satisfying read.

Burnett's writing style is certainly in keeping with the style of her time. This is from a period where it was understood that one had the leisure to properly immerse oneself in the written word. The excerpt below is taken from Mount Dunstan's view of the gap between the two cultures; he is seated in something approximating the "cheap seats" when he catches sight of Betty in one of the expensive boxes above him. This is how Burnett reveals her theme.

Extract: The necessity of seeing his solicitors, who happened to be Messrs. Townlinson & Sheppard, had brought Lord Mount Dunstan to town. After a day devoted to business affairs, he had been attracted by the idea of going to the theatre to see again a play he had already seen in New York. It would interest him to observe its exact effect upon a London audience. While he had been in New York, he had gone with something of the same feeling to see a great English actor play to a crowded house. The great actor had been one who had returned to the country for a third or fourth time, and, in the enthusiasm he had felt in the atmosphere about him, Mount Dunstan had seen not only pleasure and appreciation of the man's perfect art, but - at certain tumultuous outbursts - an almost emotional welcome. The Americans, he had said to himself, were creatures of warmer blood than the English. The audience on that occasion had been, in mass, American. The audience he made one of now, was made up of both nationalities, and, in glancing over it, he realised how large was the number of Americans who came yearly to London. As Lady Anstruthers had done, he found himself selecting from the assemblage the types which were manifestly American, and those obviously English. In the seat next to himself sat a man of a type he felt he had learned by heart in the days of his life as Jem Salter. At a short distance fluttered brilliantly an English professional beauty, with her male and female court about her. In the stage box, made sumptuous with flowers, was a royal party.

As this party had entered, "God save the Queen" had been played, and, in rising with the audience during the entry, he had recalled that the tune was identical with that of an American national air. How unconsciously inseparable - in spite of the lightness with which they regarded the curious tie between them - the two countries were. The people upon the stage were acting as if they knew their public, their bearing suggesting no sense of any barrier beyond the footlights. It was the unconsciousness and lightness of the mutual attitude which had struck him of late. Punch had long jested about "Fair Americans," who, in their first introduction to its pages, used exotic and cryptic language, beginning every sentence either with "I guess," or "Say, Stranger"; its male American had been of the Uncle Sam order and had invariably worn a "goatee." American witticisms had represented the Englishman in plaid trousers, opening his remarks with "Chawley, deah fellah," and unfailingly missing the point of any joke. Each country had cherished its type and good-naturedly derided it. In time this had modified itself and the joke had changed in kind. Many other things had changed, but the lightness of treatment still remained. And yet their blood was mingling itself with that of England's noblest and oldest of name, their wealth was making solid again towers and halls which had threatened to crumble. Ancient family jewels glittered on slender, young American necks, and above - sometimes somewhat careless - young American brows. And yet, so far, one was casual in one's thought of it all, still. On his own part he was obstinate Briton enough to rebel against and resent it. They were intruders. He resented them as he had resented in his boyhood the historical fact that, after all, an Englishman was a German - a savage who, five hundred years after the birth of Christ, had swooped upon Early Briton from his Engleland and Jutland, and ravaging with fire and sword, had conquered and made the land his possession, ravishing its very name from it and giving it his own. These people did not come with fire and sword, but with cable and telephone, and bribes of gold and fair women, but they were encroaching like the sea, which, in certain parts of the coast, gained a few inches or so each year.

Also Relevant: There are many reasons why Persephone may see the value in bringing this novel back to the attention of the modern public. There is the story of the abused wife, the culture gap with its tensions, there is a remarkably self-sufficient heroine who "gets things done" effectively as well as graciously. Burnett was in fact a successful writer for adults as well as for children and Persephone's list is largely oriented to the work of women writers whose works are neglected or in danger of being marginalized. How better to marginalize a woman writer than by dismissing her as a writer for children, a field that may be casually perceived as being of lesser status than adult fiction? One might legitimately raise the complaint that Betty is a little too perfect to be borne with; a flaw to her overall make-up might have been welcome. But by and large, this book entertains as well as makes a point. Readers of today may find it to be as worthwhile now as when it was initially published one hundred years ago.

Elaine of Random Jottings had this to say about The Shuttle earlier this month.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Couple of Quick Points

As I indicated below, blogging will be light this next week to ten days *but* I don't want to leave you without sharing the following tidbits of information:

  1. Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Shuttle was just as good as I remembered it being. When Persephone Books launches the book in April, I promise you that you'll want to order it as soon as possible. Right now, I've paid my ticket and hope to be in New York for the special tea. Do let me know if you'll be there!
  2. Carl hasn't yet posted his fantasy challenge, but as someone who has read fantasy for years, I just wanted to point to one or two really good titles. If you love Trollope, you owe it to yourself to read Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw. I believe it won a World Fantasy Award in its year of publication and it is something of a take-off on Framley Parsonage. I loved it, was charmed by it, and heartily recommend it.
  3. Anything by Robin McKinley is good, but if you haven't read Beauty, it too is charming and amazingly well done. Deerskin is a much rougher story in terms of content, but it demonstrates that fantasy can be used for difficult subjects.
  4. I thoroughly enjoyed the BBC series called A Most Mysterious Murder. Julian Fellowes, the award-winning screenwriter of Gosford Park, narrates the five episodes which dramatize five unsolved murders between 1876 and 1941. One of you must watch it so we can talk about whether the show got the various murderers' identities right....Engrossing television on DVD!
  5. JenClair did such an outstanding job in reviewing Winterson's Weight in the Canongate Myth Series that I was intrigued and got that title along with Lion's Honey. The latter by the way is not a fictional re-telling as I had thought; it's a commentary on the story of Samson.
  6. It's five hours on the flight out to Arizona so I shall have to read *something* while I'm en route. Haven't figured out what it will be as yet; my whole sense of calm and well-being is disrupted at just the thought of five hours on a plane (with two hours for security at the crack of dawn). Really, whose idea was this?
I'll have to come back at some point and stick in all the appropriate links.


Just a quick note for those of you who are kind enough to check up on my postings, I have been swamped with work concerns (including arrangements for an unforeseen business trip). I've read little of significant interest to post on and what I've enjoyed, I've not had time to write up. Blogging will be light for the next week to ten days.

In the words of Monty Python's Holy Grail, "I'm not dead yet."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Thinking Bloggers Award

Historical/Present was kind enough to nominate me for this particular award-meme (see theThinking Blogger's original post for established rules).

Let's see -- I'll nominate Indextrious Reader, Redeeming Qualities, and Minute Marginalia, and Letters from a Hill Farm. I really do like their contributions and check to see what's new.

But, in particular, you might want to be made aware of the Internet Monk; it takes a strong man to recognize an unpleasant fact of life and subsequently write, "Fear of Women and Their Cute, Pink Books"

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Persephone, Frances, and Emily

I summoned up the wherewithal this past week and ordered two of the Persephone (UK) titles, specifically Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Making of a Marchioness. It's true I ordered them from Amazon so I won't get the nifty matching bookmarks, but...

I have to wait a little while before I'll see the books as Miss Pettigrew is currently being re-printed. I hadn't known this prior to ordering, but it would seem that both of the books I chose are quite popular (see the Feb 15 newsletter from Persephone Books). Included in that newsletter is an announcement that there's a tea in April in New York City for which I am now hoping to reserve a spot (assuming they are not all taken yet). With a Miss Pettigrew movie currently in development with Frances MacDormand in the title role, it's apt to continue to sell well.

Coincidentally, Elaine at Random Jottings wrote of the news that Persephone has announced that they'll be issuing a new edition of Frances Hodgeson Burnett's novel, The Shuttle, this spring. (It's mentioned in the newsletter as well). It's a wonderful book that I had picked up once in a Canadian antique bookseller's shop while on a business trip; it kept me occupied for the whole of a five-hour cross-country flight. It might have been the first time I realized that Frances Hodgeson Burnett did more than children's books. Clearly Persephone has a wonderful eye for good properties to bring back into vogue. I'm so looking forward to this!

Whoops, an explanation of the title for the post! Persephone and Frances is obvious from the text above, but Emily is Emily Fox-Seton, the heroine of The Making of a Marchioness. She's such a good down-to-earth creature that you can't help but like her. The following is a quote from the opening pages of the text that describes Emily's character:

Emily Fox-Seton, however, was far from making any professions of grandeur. As time went on, she had become fond enough of the Cupps to be quite frank with them about her connections with these grand people. The countess had heard from a friend that Miss Fox-Seton had once found her an excellent governess, and she had commissioned her to find for her a reliable young ladies' serving maid. She had done some secretarial work for a charity of which the duchess was patroness. In fact, these people knew her only as a well-bred woman who for a modest remuneration would make herself extremely useful in numberless practical ways.

She is such a lovely character. Now I think I'll further indulge myself by leaving the computer alone and re-reading my old copy of The Shuttle.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

[A lengthy and belated review for the 2007 Classics Challenge]

Title: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Author: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain): Bio

: Published originally in 1885, this text is in the public domain and the University of Virginia offers an outstanding etext edition. I was reading from the Everyman's Library combined edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (It's interesting to note how some would prefer that the two texts be kept separate...)

Genre: Fiction

Length: 320 pages

Summary: Summarizing this landmark work is an absurd concept. On the one hand, it's an adventure story of two marginalized individuals floating down the Mississippi just prior to the Civil War. Neither Huck Finn nor Jim have any legal standing in the courts that govern their daily existence; Huck is a minor and Jim is not considered to be an adult, but rather property belonging to Miss Watson. The two of them make the attempt to escape and find freedom. Huck wants to break away from both the well-meaning "..sivilized folk" and from his abusive father; Jim, as a black slave fearful of being sold down the river, is trying to work his way north to the free state of Ohio. They get turned around in a night of fog and end up going in the wrong direction. The book tells of both humorous and horrifying adventures that expose Huck to some of the grimmer realities of human nature. Mark Twain is an honest and clear-sighted writer in that regard. You could say that the book is just a coming-of-age story for America in the nineteenth century, acknowledge Twain's literary feat and craft in creating an authentic voice for Huck, and leave it at that.

On the other hand, you can indeed find far more in this text. If Huck and Jim set off to find freedom, what is it exactly that they are looking for? Is it life amongst their fellow citizens? Why would anyone want to live among those citizens? Twain offers some violent vignettes of American behavior (on-going family feuds, murders, mob violence, etc.) and Huck, an essentially pragmatic soul, is wisely wary of staying too long with any who offer him shelter. He has enough strength of character to shamefacedly apologize to Jim after an instance where he treats the man badly (although he'll behave badly yet again before the book's end). Jim is the only character in the book, aside from Tom Sawyer, who freely accepts Huck as he is without trying to change or exploit him. Isn't that the best definition of freedom -- an environment that allows you to be who you are without being cramped into conformity or exploited unfairly? Jim tries to protect Huck almost from the very beginning and and over time, Huck protects Jim. There's an emotional tie between the white juvenile and the black slave that deepens throughout the book. As a counterpoint, the book delivers a cultural portrait of racism and violence that really cannot be denied. Depending upon who you're talking to, Twain's intent may have been exactly that delivery. Only while floating down the river are these two "non-persons" really free; the communities on either side of the Mississippi river severely restrict the freedoms of those in their reach. Out on the river, as Twain's prose makes clear, Huck and Jim can find the necessary emotional space to connect with life's real beauty.

The issue always seems to pertain to what various critics, reviewers and readers think the book teaches. Almost immediately upon its publication, one major community library refused to buy the book because officials claimed it encouraged delinquency and disrespect in virtuous youth. (As, in a sense, it does.) In the late twentieth century, the book has frequently been banned from school systems as racist, seeing the characterization of Jim as both exaggerated and demeaning. (And again, in a sense, it is.). There is also the issue with specific vocabulary as countless others have pointed out. Clearly, this book evokes discomfort in a lot of different souls. There are so many facets of Truth in its pages.

Indeed, one of the fun elements of reading this book for me as an adult was toying with ideas for term papers that I might have been able to write in college had I been exposed to this book back in the day. Intriguing topics such as:

  • Images of the Female in Twain's Huck Finn
  • Dismissing God: Superstition and Religion in Huck Finn
  • What Was Your Name Again? Disguise and Identity in Huck Finn
  • Coping: Strategies for Living in The Adventures of Huck Finn
  • The Mythical Children of 19th Century America: Tom and Huck
  • The Voice of Youth in Huck Finn
  • The Wickedness of the Widow Douglas
I know I could squeeze out three to five pages on every one of those. Not a problem. (Well, maybe, five pages on the wickedness of the Widow Douglas would be pushing it. That might end up only two to three pages; she's hardly a constant presence, just the briefest suggestion of human frailty.) And that doesn't even begin to discuss the thin veneer of culture represented by the Duke and Dauphin, two of the sleaziest con men to be found in literature. Throughout this book, reading the stories of hi-jinks and criminal fraud, you can't decide whether to whoop with laughter or rear back in serious horror.

Ultimately the question of whether you should assign this book to high school students depends on how much you think the students can handle. Given the wide swath of discussion possibilities, this book can take you in many different directions. That goes a good distance in establishing why it is, in fact, considered to be a classic or primary text. Because, in its unvarnished form, it exposes a variety of hypocrisies, none of which have vanished from the face of this earth. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an uncomfortable work for that reason and the deeper one digs into it, the less ground cover there is in which to hide. If we can't work through the reasons for that, is that the fault of the work or a fault in ourselves?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Last Blast

The North Wind doth blow
And we will have snow
What will poor Robin do then? Poor thing!

He will sit in the barn
And to keep himself warm
Will hide his head under his wing. Poor thing!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Three Things Meme

Posted just for curiosity's sake,

  1. Three things that scare me: icy sidewalks, roller coasters, and snakes.
  2. Three people who make me laugh: Offspring #1 and #2 and Robin Williams
  3. Three things I love: books, time off, and *relaxed* travel
  4. Three things I hate: Feeling rushed, a sense of boredom, and any conference speaker too lazy to fill out a single page form.
  5. Three things I don't understand: Our society's constant need for speed, any lurid interest in celebrity, and the need to constantly market things.
  6. Three things on my desk: computer, phone, stacks and stacks and stacks of paper.
  7. Three things I'm doing right now: typing, listening to a old Sherlock Holmes television episode on A&E, and worrying whether I have adequately trained my sons for success in the long-run.
  8. Three things I want to do before I die: tour the UK without being stressed by either time or money, turn a spare bedroom into a formal library, beat into people's heads the idea that Google is not the answer to their information difficulties.
  9. Three things I *can* do: bake, write and talk to total strangers
  10. Three things you should listen to: bubble gum music from the 'sixties (for fun), gregorian chant (for concentration) and Rossini's William Tell Overture
  11. Three things you should never listen to: flattery from business acquaintances, heavy metal music, and weathermen who predict the "Storm of the Century" without being able to deliver a day off.
  12. Three things I'd like to learn: Ballroom dancing, line dancing and...something else
  13. Three favourite foods: Perfectly cooked roast beast, hot buttered crumpets, and tiramisu
  14. Three beverages I drink regularly: Starbucks lattes, 2% milk, and bottled water.
  15. Three TV shows/books I watched/read as a kid: Roman People by Olivia Coolidge, An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott, and Daphne's Cartoon Castle (local TV kids programming in Wash. DC)
(Originally written about a month ago and never posted...)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong

[just an ordinary review; not for any challenge]

Title: A Short History of Myth

Author: Karen Armstrong

Copyright: 2005, Canongate Publishers, New York

Genre: Non-fiction

Pages: 160 pp. (includes 10 pages of footnotes).

Summary: This essay runs approximately 34,000 words long; given the subject matter, that short length would seem to suggest a shallow treatment. But A Short History of Myth is provocative in the best sense. Armstrong draws the reader into thinking about how mythology "works" in communicating the fundamentals of human experience. Myth is supposed to transmit across time the commonality that exists in how we and previous generations experience the forces that shape us and the physical world around us. I'll quote Armstrong here:

A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence...An experience of transcendence...

But the best summation of her book is in this quote:

There is never a single, orthodox version of a myth. As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth. In this short history of mythology, we shall see that every time men and women took a major step forward they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions. But we shall also see that human nature does not change much, and that many of these myths, devised in societies that could not be more different than our own, still address our most essential fears and desires.

That paragraph explains why the publishers of the Canongate Myth Series felt that they needed to publish Armstrong's non-fiction volume in advance of the various fictional renditions by modern authors that make up the rest of the series. It provides the platform of thought for the creative work of others such as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, etc which are to follow after. It's almost as if the creative works are to be the laboratory in which we work out the proof of Armstrong's theory. Every time we achieve advancement in scientific knowledge or technological expertise, Armstrong shows that human beings seek out a new understanding of the operation of the sacred in our lives. That aspect is *most* important and not to be trifled with or set aside as irrelevant. Armstrong worries that we are doing exactly that in our present day, having never fully mastered the ways available to us for infusing the ordinary with the mystical sense of transcendence.

Also Relevant:

I've read this book, but I'm still digesting it. I'm worried about the larger Anglican Communion these days and, perhaps somewhat fuzzily, I think Armstrong's book in some sense explains why it is so disturbing to me. Peter Akinola is seeking to preserve the myth as it best accords with and infuses his social environment (Nigeria) just as Katherine Jefferts-Schori is trying to do in our environment (the United States). How can those two very different environments share a sustainable sense of the same life-giving story? Because that's the strength of our Christianity; note that Grandmere Mimi has a wonderful story today that exemplifies how we need to be able to span the gap.

Pages Turned read the first three titles in the Canongate series and gives us her views on those titles. JenClair has read one of the books in the series -- Jeannette Winterson's Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles --and offered her thoughts on it. (Update: She also read and reviewed the Atwood title, The Penelopiad. Thanks for letting me know, JenClair!) Based on what they've said and based on browsing in my local Borders, I think the next volume in this series that I will choose will be the David Grossman title, Lion's Honey. It's based on the story of Samson, a story with which I'm quite familiar, and I'll be curious to see how he plays it out. The alternative choice is Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur - a labyrinthine story told in an Internet chat room. The various threads of discussion offer the way out...or do they?

Friday, March 02, 2007



Just what we needed, right? More choices...

Update: I wasn't very clear on what I was thinking here. It's the time thing that I think is getting to me. I chose very short books to read in the past two months so that I could feel like I was actually getting through something in the very stressed, time-crunched period before my Annual Conference. But even working through those was sometimes problematic. And that's why I end up watching DVDs of old BBC productions sometimes, rather than reading through The Odyssey or Middlemarch. Less effort put in, but still some sense of having gotten through something (non-work-related) that was still stimulating and/or worthwhile.

So I'm grateful for the various choices available to me (which is what the linked Wired story is about), but I wish I wasn't having to make those choices in the first place. Can't everyone just slow down a bit?