July 2009 Archives

2666: The Part About Fate (Book 3)


With the third section of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, I started to feel a movement and symmetry in the novel as a whole. Moving away from the semi-insider Amalfitano's interior landscape, The Part About Fate returns to an outsider's perspective: this time, we see the crimes' fallout from the perspective of an African-American political reporter for the Harlem magazine Black Dawn. This sandwiching of Amalfitano's story of madness between two more exterior narratives made me feel like the middle story was a kind of tunnel through which I squeezed, emerging into a transformed reality on the other side.

The world of Oscar Fate, protagonist of the section, is certainly different from the jet-setting milieu of the four academics in The Part About the Critics. Before his editor sends him to Mexico to cover a boxing match (after the unexpected death of the magazine's regular sports correspondent), we see Fate's late mother's apartment in Harlem, and his travels to a run-down section of Detroit to cover a speech by Barry Seaman, a fictionalized version of Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale. As a US reader, the mental atmosphere of this section was noticeably closer to home for me: racial identity politics were front and center in a way that wasn't true for the European intellectuals or for the Chilean professor working in Mexico. Suddenly, the familiar landscape of black versus white was in evidence. Fate is always conscious of certain people as black people: he goes to a film, for example, and notices how many black people and how many white people are acting in each scene. He thinks of his employer as "a magazine for brothers," and in one scene, where he unthinkingly identifies himself to a Mexican person as "an American," he later grills himself about why he hadn't said he was "African American":

Why didn't I say I was African American? Because I'm in a foreign country? But can I really consider myself to be in a foreign country when I could go walking back to my own country right now if I wanted, and it wouldn't even take very long? Does this mean that in some places I'm American and in some places I'm African American and in other places, by logical extension, I'm nobody?

I hadn't thought about identity politics in quite this way before, but it's an interesting point: it's obviously disorienting to feel that one's identity could be stripped away, or is more fluid than one anticipated. In Fate's particular case, that of an African American in Mexico, there is also a subtle layering of privilege going on. From the scenes in Detroit and Harlem, it's obvious that Fate is acutely aware of the racist structure of US society, and of what it means to be black within that structure. But south of the border, he finds himself transformed from an oppressed insider minority (African American) to a privileged outsider symbol of power (American). Not only does he suddenly find the economic and political might of the US behind him - just his ability to walk across the border whenever he chooses distinguishes him from most people he meets in Santa Teresa - but his press credentials open doors for him, despite his lack of experience as a sports correspondent and his inability to speak Spanish. Yet when he tries to exercise that power, by asking his editor for an extension so that he can stay in Santa Teresa and do some investigative reporting on the crimes being committed there, he again comes up against the racial politics of the United States: the editor refuses him the extension, arguing that none of the murdered women have been black. Fate, like Amalfitano with his madness-inducing geometry book, is caught in a double-bind, which spirals horribly toward the murders.

The style of this section was also different: whereas the first book feels to me, more than anything, like an homage to the novels of Vladimir Nabokov with a bit of David Lynch thrown in, the second two books describe a gradual slide into a more and more thoroughly Lynchian aesthetic. By halfway through The Part About Fate, this vibe was so strong that I was actually flashing to specific scenes from Inland Empire. (Indeed, the Lynch references are explicitly acknowledged a little farther along, in a postmodern assertion by a hotel clerk.) Take this passage:

The staircase ended in a green-carpeted hallway. At the end of the hallway there was an open door. Music was playing. The light that came from the room was green, too. Standing in the middle of the hallway was a skinny kid, who looked at him and then moved toward him. Fate thought he was going to be attacked and he prepared himself mentally to take the first punch. But the kid let him pass and then went down the stairs. His face was very serious, Fate remembered. Then he kept walking until he came to a room where he saw Chucho Flores talking on a cell phone. Next to him, sitting at a desk, was aman in his forties, dressed in a checkered suit and a bolo tie, who stared at Fate and gestured inquiringly. Chucho Flores caught the gesture and glanced toward the door.
    "Come on in, Fate," he said.
    The lamp hanging from the ceiling was green. Next to a window, sitting in an armchair, was Rosa Amalfitano. She had her legs crossed and she was smoking. When Fate came through the door she lifted her eyes and looked at him.
    "We're doing some business here," said Chucho Flores.
    Fate leaned against the wall, feeling short of breath. It's the green color, he thought.
    "I see," he said.
    Rosa Amalfitano seemed to be high.

Almost every element of this scene could be straight out of Twin Peaks: the dark hallway with the faint light at the end, the sinister green light, the checkered suit of the forty-something stranger, the stares of the room's inhabitants as Fate approaches, the beautiful woman with her legs crossed, smoking, who seems to be somehow impaired. It's a great atmosphere, and also, perhaps, reinforces the American-ness of 2666's third part, evoking a particular kind of bizarro LA noir that originates squarely north of the border. This Americanized lens eventually brings up the question of just how the hulking presence to the north of Santa Teresa is related to the crimes being committed there. Someone - or multiple people - are treating the lower-class women of Santa Teresa as disposable sub-human matter, murdering them and throwing their bodies in empty lots. But if the feminists of Santa Teresa are protesting corruption outside the police station, and Fate's Harlem editor doesn't view these women as worthy of notice because of the color of their skin, it starts to look like the killer isn't the only one whose ability to value human life is skewed. Amalfitano tells Fate toward the end of this section that "they're all mixed up in" the killings, and it's unclear whether he is referring to his daughter's group of friends, or to a more general "they."

Equally disturbing, on the Amalfitano front, is that as Fate is walking away from the house with Rosa, we see Amalfitano leaning against the sinister black Peregrino, chatting amicably with its driver after having just denied ever having seen him before. Is the owner of the Peregrino Marco Antonio Guerra? If it is, why does Amalfitano deny knowing him? And does this familiarity with the car's owner imply that Amalfitano himself is a member of the "they" who are "all mixed up in" the murders"? Sitting in a coffee shop just north of the border, Fate overhears a conversation fragment that reminded me strongly of Amalfitano's mental refusal to address the murders:

That said, words back then were mostly used in the art of avoidance, not of revelation. Maybe they revealed something all the same. I couldn't tell you.

What is revealed by Amalfitano's avoidance of the crimes? And does this scene shed new light on Guerra's strange declaration in Part 2 that "You have nothing to fear from me, Professor?"

I found The Part About Fate somewhat less funny than the first two books, but just as engaging. The sense of sinister foreboding builds in intensity throughout, delivering the reader to the threshold of The Part About the Crimes with an unnerving gasp. I keep waiting for the point at which I'll feel like taking a break from 2666, but it certainly hasn't happened yet.

Thoughts on Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano
Thoughts on Part 1: The Part About The Critics

Lorem Ipsum: Memory and Architecture


The prompt for Weekly Geeks this time is so cool that I just had to join in! Basically, you get some online random word- and sentence-generators to generate three words and a sentence for you, and then use those words and sentence in order to write one of the following:

  • A review of an actual book in your collection, with the title either replaced or not (if you don't think people will recognize it);
  • A review of a fake book, from your imagination;
  • A scene from a real book, with some of the words and one sentence replaced with the randomly-generated ones;
  • OR
  • A scene from a fake book, which you make up from scratch.

Then we all try to guess which reviews/scenes are from real books, and which are made up - and, for extra points, which were the randomly-generated words and sentence. And no fair Googling! It's like this task was custom-made for me; David and I actually have a favorite board game that operates on exactly the same principle. So, here's my contribution; happy guessing! ("Lorem Ipsum" obviously replaces the name of the artist in question, if they are indeed a real person.)

In a long career conducting experiments with the detritus of memory, Lorem Ipsum has developed an intriguing visual language of nostalgia. The compelling power of Ipsum's work comes, for me, from an uneasy tension between the tender and the sinister, the way in which it evokes the magnified, insightful yet skewed quality of childhood perceptions recalled in adulthood.

One of my favorite Ipsum pieces features, like so many do, a large cage, its antique metal links and hinges distressed to a mellow rustiness. The door is open just far enough for a visitor to pass, inviting us to imagine uneasily the creak and clang that would result if it were suddenly shut behind us. The cage closes on a lighted landscape - lighted by candle and floodlight, and evocatively riddled with shadow. Heavy drapery hangs from the top of the cage, creating a kind of labyrinth in which one can only see a short distance ahead. Fragments of ancient-looking tapestry are pinned and patched into the draperies, and other kinds of fragments appear in unexpected places - an old mirror here, a pair of silver scissors in another corner. Ipsum's eye for gritty, suggestive detail is superb. On a pedestal in one draperied alcove, a pair of disembodied marble hands tenderly cradles another, smaller pair, while in the opposite corner a large metal spider advances toward the cage's ceiling. The contrast between the exquisitely smooth sculpting of the hands and the deliberately rough casting and welding on the spider is one more delicious tension among many others. The piece becomes that much more thought-provoking when one learns that, in Ipsum's personal mythology, the spider is not intended as sinister but as the constructive maternal force, the master-weaver whose craft mirrors the one practiced by Ipsum's own mother in their native village.

Of course no art book can do full justice to Ipsum's work - it is, above all, interactive. A depiction on paper, minus the spatial experience of walking through the mazes of antiqued metal, frayed tapestry and distressed wood, is necessarily less. Nevertheless, Lorem Ipsum: Memory and Architecture is beautifully photographed, and gives a good overview of the primary movements in Ipsum's work. Perhaps more important, leafing through it brings back my own memories of experiencing these incredible installations first-hand.

The Magic Mountain


Lately I've been reveling in Claire's and Frances's thoughts on In Search of Lost Time; they're bringing back to me the lovely, leisurely quality of Proust's prose, and sorely tempting me to re-read. But if, for the moment, I'm going to resist venturing again into the adolescent misadventures of Marcel and Albertine, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain makes an interesting companion study. Never since Proust, for one thing, have I come across a novel so delightfully obsessed with the human perception of time. But whereas In Search of Lost Time concerns itself largely with memory - with the schematic memories that become dulled and unreal through the machinations of habit, and with the unexpected details that bring true memory back to us in all its vividness and life - The Magic Mountain is preoccupied with our fluid perceptions of current time. In his narrative of one Hans Castorp's unexpectedly prolonged stay at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, Mann pays careful attention to the supple, subtle ways in which time flexes and compresses under our feet:

A great many false ideas have been spread about the nature of boredom. It is generally believed that by filling time with things new and interesting, we can make it "pass," by which we mean "shorten" it; monotony and emptiness, however, are said to weigh down and hinder its passage. This is not true under all conditions. Emptiness and monotony may stretch a moment or even an hour and make it "boring," but they can likewise abbreviate and dissolve large, indeed the largest units of time, until they seem nothing at all. Conversely, rich and interesting events are capable of filling time, until hours, even days, are shortened and speed past on wings; whereas on a larger scale, interest lends the passage of time breadth, solidity, and weight, so that years rich in events pass much more slowly than do paltry, bare, featherweight years that are blown before the wind and are gone. What people call boredom is actually an abnormal compression of time caused by monotony - uninterrupted uniformity can shrink large spaces of time until the heart falters, terrified to death.

As Hans Castorp abandons himself to the uniformity of life at the Sanatorium Berghof, where time is never measured in units smaller than the month and a casual three-week visit can easily stretch into a life-altering sojourn of seven years, he experiences both this compression of time, and the fluid lack of certainty that comes with the unobserved passage of years. In this comfortable, cosmopolitan, yet hermetically sealed mountain environment, far above the bustle of the "flatlands," breathing in air that "had neither odor nor moisture nor content, that evoked no memories," he loses track of how long his stay has become. He even takes to saying "yesterday" when he means "a year ago," and "tomorrow" for "next year." Each time he sits down to one of the Sanatorium's lavish meals (and there are five of them every day), he has the eerie sensation that no time has passed at all since the last one: "once he sat down it would be as if he had never stood up." He finds himself in a state of mental suspended animation, despite the fact that he continues to move around, conduct conversations and love affairs, and despite the gathering world conflicts whose effects can be felt even at the cloistered sanatorium.

Because another thing that connects In Search of Lost Time and The Magic Mountain is the First World War, which interrupted the composition of both works, and looms large in the retrospective vision of the second. Mann's novel was begun in 1912, radically expanded and revised after 1918, and published in 1924, although it's set during the escalating hostilities that led to World War I. Whereas the War seems like little more than a footnote in Proust, it casts a sinister allegorical light over the whole of The Magic Mountain. The impression of a narcissistic Europe, detached from the catastrophic reality toward which it is careening, blissfully taking its collective temperature and gazing at its collective navel, is brilliantly communicated via the antics of the Berghof guests. The civilians are ignorant and self-absorbed, easy prey for any passing fad, and the soldiers (like Hans Castorp's cousin Joachim Zeimssen) just want to do battle, with no regard for the justice or injustice of any particular war. The intellectuals, represented by the self-proclaimed humanist Settembrini and the medievalist totalitarian Naphta, are hopelessly confused in their labyrinthine arguments: the humanist seems to believe in eugenics in the name of progress and war with Austria in the name of a united world, whereas the religious man advocates communistic terrorism in the service of God. The sanatorium director seems by turns melancholic and crass, concerned mainly with "puffing" the reputation of the place and retaining his bevy of pan-European guests (one hardly ever hears of a patient released from the place as cured). Mann's cuttingly ironic narrative voice, which I found hilarious as well as sobering, takes careful aim at the ridiculous in everyone, whether it be Hans Castorp's unthinking bourgeois triviality,

"I don't understand," Hans Castorp said. "I don't understand how someone can not be a smoker - why it's like robbing oneself of the best part of life, so to speak, or at least of an absolutely first-rate pleasure. When I wake up I look forward to being able to smoke all day, and when I eat, I look forward to it again, in fact I can honestly say that I actually only eat so that I can smoke, although that's an exaggeration, of course. But a day without tobacco - that would be absolutely insipid, a dull, totally wasted day. And if some morning I had to tell myself, there's nothing left to smoke today, why I don't think I'd find courage to get up, I swear I'd stay in bed."

or Settembrini's bizarrely tainted idealism:

As technology brought nature increasingly under its control, he said, by creating new lines of communication - developing networks of roads and telegraph lines - and by triumphing over climatic conditions, it was also proving to be the most dependable means by which to bring nations closer together, furthering their knowledge of one another, paving the way for people-to-people exchanges, destroying prejudices, and leading at last to the universal brotherhood of nations. The human race had come out of darkness, fear, and hate, but now it was moving forward and upward along a shining road toward a final state of understanding, inner illumination, goodness, and happiness - and technology was the most useful vehicle for traveling that road...But to achieve this goal, it was necessary above all to strike at the Asiatic principle of bondage and obduracy at its vital center point, at the very nerve of resistance - in Vienna. One must deal a fatal blow to Austria and crush her, first to avenge past wrongs and second to open the way for the rule of justice and happiness on earth.

I think the last two quotes give a good idea of the humor and elegance of Mann's prose, which made this novel a delicious reading experience for me and helped me through some of the denser philosophical passages. And despite the ridiculousness of the characters, there is also much in them that's likable. They are almost deliriously irrational, but Mann makes it clear that they live in an irrational world - how else can they react? How is one to "choose life," to be life-affirming and constructive, in a Europe veering wildly yet nonchalantly toward meaningless destruction? Settembrini repeatedly argues that Hans Castorp ought to leave the sanatorium, to return to "real life" down below, and that choosing to stay in the artificial protection of the sanatorium is choosing to glorify death and illness. And yet is Castorp's final departure, heading for trenches as the war finally erupts, a choice of life? Mann leaves us to decide for ourselves. The final battlefield scene may evoke more life and more death, more strong feeling and more ambiguity, than any other part of the novel. Which is perhaps only appropriate.

There were moments when, as you "played king," you saw the intimation of a dream of love rising up out of death and this carnal body. And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round - will love someday rise up out of this, too?

(The Magic Mountain was my fifth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing Germany.)

A Good Man is Hard to Find


Maybe it makes me a snob, but I have a strong visceral aversion to evaluating novels based on their topicality. With certain reservations, and the knowledge that, of course, every piece of art is informed by and mired in historical context, I'm more or less with Ben Jonson: a truly fine piece of literature should be not for an age, but for all time. To me, a discussion of (for example) Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go will generally be so much more interesting and worthwhile if it focuses on issues of human mortality, the role of art in life, and the effects of socialization and nostalgia, than if it becomes a discussion about the current moral debate around human cloning - especially one claiming that Ishiguro's main point is that we shouldn't clone humans. Very silly, in my opinion. Similar to the rationale that "You should read Halldor Laxness because Iceland's economy is collapsing" or "Mrs. Dalloway is more relevant than ever as the debate over gay marriage rages on." Dude. You should read Laxness and Woolf because they are masters of their genre, because their prose makes your heart sing, because their characters will stick with you through all the years of your life. Not because world events make them a hot accessory this summer. Jeesh.

I know I can be a little shrill on this issue (after all, people really should read for whatever reason they want, regardless of my opinion), so I was intrigued when My Friend Amy pointed out Newsweek's 50 Books of Our Times list. Here was a chance to meet the topicality demon on its own turf, and see if allowing myself to think in terms of topicality could add something to my own analysis of fiction. I intentionally chose a book for which Newsweek's own explanation is vague: all it says is "Stories of the New South, Christ-haunted and out of control, are as scary as they were when published in 1955. 'Shut up, Bobby Lee, it's no real pleasure in life.'" Why does Newsweek think we need such stories at this particular juncture? They don't go into it.

But my bet? It's on the list because of American Christianity, and the culture wars. And luckily, religion is one of the most fascinating - and consternating - aspects of these stories anyway.

O'Connor was a devout Catholic who claimed to be writing to "reveal the mystery of God's grace in everyday life"...and at first this seems totally bizarre. In fact, when I was discussing this book with my mom (herself a Catholic, although a liberal, west-coast one), and brought up the "reveal God's grace" quote, she stated bluntly that she doesn't think O'Connor saw any. Which is a totally understandable opinion. Because these stories, while exquisitely crafted with a taut, brutal beauty, are extremely dark. To me, they at first seemed nihilistic. The characters are drawn vividly, with a few unflinching strokes of a scalpel-like brush; their guts and follies are exposed to the reader unapologetically, and by the end of any given story their hopes are efficiently and systematically crushed. They are lucky to make it out alive - or perhaps, as O'Connor implies in the titular story, the ones who don't make it out are the lucky ones: "'She would of been a good woman," the fugitive says after shooting an elderly woman twice in the head, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'"

As untutored as I am in theology of any stripe, this idea of grace through pain and violence, that pain, whether physical or mental, is a sign of progress along God's path, seems to me one of the only ways to reconcile O'Connor's stories with her stated religious purpose. Sometimes this interpretation is fairly obvious; in the story "Good Country People," for example, the atheist daughter Hulga is humiliated for believing herself superior to an ostensibly simple Bible salesman, when he turns out to be even more of a nihilist than she. In perhaps the most uncomfortable story to many modern readers, a poor white grandfather and his grandson, estranged through an act of treachery on the grandfather's part, find forgiveness for each other while gazing together at a lawn ornament caricature of a black boy. (This was, to me, the most compelling example of O'Connor's point that grace, suffering, and oppression are inextricably interwoven.) In "The River," a young boy being raised by neglectful parents is exposed to Christianity for the first time by his baby-sitter, and later ends up running away from home and drowning in the river where he was baptized:

He plunged under once and this time, the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise; then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and his fear left him.

Mr. Paradise's head appeared from time to time on the surface of the water. Finally, far downstream, the old man rose like some ancient water monster and stood empty-handed, staring with his dull eyes as far down the river line as he could see.

The idea that this four-year-old boy is closer to God while drowning in the river than back at home with his drunk parents is a harsh one. And frankly, the whole "grace comes through pain" philosophy isn't one that I find particularly compelling. Sometimes wisdom and peace do come through the process of suffering, but I believe that crucible usually has to take place on a foundation of love and support in order for a person to gain from the experience. In other words, I don't believe that having a literal or figurative gun pointed at one's head throughout one's entire life is generally conducive to becoming a good person. I think this is just an area in which O'Connor and I profoundly differ, and I have to enjoy her writing (if I can) despite the lack of a shared philosophy.

Luckily for me, there's plenty to recommend these stories besides a grimly Catholic worldview. O'Connor's ear for cadence is truly breathtaking:

He asked a lot of questions that she didn't answer. He told her that he was twenty-eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he had come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land, and that everywhere he had seen people that didn't care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn't been raised thataway.

A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens. He said that a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.

The melancholy and foreboding that steal into the atmosphere whenever anyone in these stories opens his or her mouth (and often even when they don't) is masterfully evoked and controlled. And it's a credit to O'Connor that although nearly all of her characters are deeply flawed to the point of being unsympathetic, I could usually still relate to them on some level, and doing so forced a little bit of honesty from me about times I've acted in similarly shabby ways.

Is A Good Man is Hard to Find a "book for our times"? It's an extremely well-written and thought-provoking collection of harsh yet beautiful stories, and such things are to be treasured regardless of era. More topically, it raises interesting questions about the role of religion in daily life, and could spark conversations among Americans from different regions and backgrounds.

(A Good Man is Hard to Find was my second book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1950s.)



Here we go with another meta-post; I swear an actual review is coming soon!

A few weeks ago one of the weekly round-ups involved checking in on annual reading challenges now that the year is halfway over (HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?). This is the first year I ventured into the realm of dedicated book blogging and group reading challenges, and it's been such a rewarding experience so far. I've learned a lot about what kinds of challenges I'd like to continue doing, which elements really make a challenge worthwhile for me, and what I'd like to get out of writing about books.

The Bolaño read-along hosted by Steph and Claire is turning out to be a highlight of the year, not only because I loved the novel with an unholy passion, but because it's fascinating to see what different people take away from it. It's got me thinking about what spurs my own reactions to literature, and it's also challenged me to analyze and articulate those reactions more clearly than I might have done otherwise. I'm done with the book, but still have three more installments of discussion to look forward to, so it's a win/win!

9 for 2009 Challenge
(9 out of 9 completed)
I wrapped up the 9 for 2009 Challenge a few weeks ago, and it was highly enjoyable. I liked the idea of a flexible challenge that focuses on diminishing (or at least refreshing) one's to-be-read shelf while also incorporating the fun of categories (who doesn't love categories?). I especially liked that there were a few slots that tended to push people out of their comfort zones. Thanks, Isabel! My final list was as follows:

What's in a Name
(5 out of 6 completed)
I'm narrowing in on finishing the What's in a Name Challenge, with only one book left. This is the project that alerted me to the fact that reading challenges are a "thing," so I feel very warmly toward it. It's fun, but hasn't really pushed me much. I'm planning on wrapping it up with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: or the Evening Redness in the West in the next month or so.

Dewey Decimal
(6 out of 10 completed)
I'm loving the uniqueness of the Dewey Decimal Challenge! It's really encouraging me to stretch beyond my normal reading habits: more nonfiction on more different subjects can only be a good thing. I've learned a ton from the books I've read as part of this challenge. I can pretty much guarantee that without it, I would never have picked up volumes on the early Shaker movement or the history of the bookshelf, and I'm glad I did! Next year I'm thinking of tweaking it so that instead of one book from each Dewey century, I'll read one book from each decade of a single century. I'm keeping pace pretty predictably with this challenge, reading in order by century. My 600-century book, Anne Mendelson's Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, is already waiting on my to-be-read shelf.

Orbis Terrarum
(5 out of 10 completed)
I'm loving the Orbis Terrarum Challenge so much! The best thing about it is how proactive everyone is about visiting other peoples' reviews and commenting on them. I've met some great folks through this challenge, and it's also made me conscious of national diversity in my reading list. Awesome props to Bethany for putting it all together. I'm currently in the midst of Thomas Mann's epic The Magic Mountain as my Germanic addition to this list, which is why I haven't been posting as often as usual. This challenge only started in March, so I feel good about my progress thus far, and I have lots of possibilities for the next six months. The list thus far:

(1 out of 9 completed)
I joined the Decades '09 Challenge six months late, so I've only read my first book for it thus far: Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, representing the 1890s. I'm still not sure whether I'll finish this one by the deadline, especially since several of the books on my list are epic tomes. But we'll see what happens! With a few of the earlier challenges completed, I may just swing it. And even if I don't, the journey will be lots of fun.

To be read


On Booking Through Thursday this week, readers are encouraged to show off their to-be-read piles. I've had fun paging through all of the responses and checking out how different people store and display their books. But the level of stress and sheepishness about even having a to-be-read stack is a little dismaying to me. In the knitting world we have the same debate about "stashes" (yarn accumulations waiting to be worked up into garments): should a person feel guilty about the number of books (or skeins) waiting to be enjoyed? I feel strongly that we shouldn't, as long as we ourselves have a healthy and creativity-enhancing relationship with the pile or stash. The moment the number of books or skeins starts to seem overwhelming rather than stimulating, I'd say a purchasing moratorium is in order - I mean, who wants to be stressed out by their raw creative material? Nobody likes to feel out of control, like their source of pleasure is becoming a source of worry or strain. But until then, I see no reason for guilt about one's personal library or yarn collection. Personally, I keep a relatively small amount of yarn on hand (emphasis on relative), but I love to have a decent-sized pile of books waiting for me. In that spirit, here's my to-be-read shelf. Isn't it cute? It sits right below a window, and I spend time every day enjoying its pleasing contours and all the rewarding reads it holds in store for me. The actual piece of furniture belonged to my mother before me, which makes it that much more special. I believe my folks painted it white as part of my nursery, and it's been with me ever since.


My to-be-read collection usually vacillates between thirty and forty-five volumes; right now it's at thirty-eight. This piece of furniture provides a self-limiting feature: the perfect number of to-be-read books, for me, is however many fit on the top and bottom shelves. Right now there are a few tucked behind the books on the top shelf, which is fine. Sometimes I start tucking them behind the volumes on the bottom shelf as well, but if I need to start piling them on the middle shelf, or horizontally on top of the top-shelf books, I know it's time to curtail my book-buying for a while. Nothing goes onto my main shelves until it's read, which is very satisfying to me; it means my main wall of books are a collection of old friends, and my little to-be-read shelf is an alluring, undiscovered country. I try to read evenly from the top and bottom shelves, and to keep a fresh rotation through the shelves so that no particular volume stagnates for years and years. I love the ritual of choosing a new book: meandering over to this little shelf, pulling a volume out and perusing it, putting it back and choosing another one, and making my eventual selection. After I've chosen my next read, I fill its vacant spot on the shelf either with one of the books previously tucked behind the front row, or, if there aren't any, by moving a book from the bottom shelf to the top. It's immeasurably satisfying.


If I have ever read a book that struck such an elegant balance between philosophical inquiry and sordid fascination with the grotesque as Stephen Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, I certainly don't remember it. Asma's exploration of the evolution of modern-day natural history museums, from their primitive ancestors the medieval bestiaries, through Renaissance curiosity cabinets and the private, Enlightenment-era collections of proto-scientists, is perceptive and thought-provoking at every turn. It points out the moral and philosophical implications of curatorial decisions: things that are normally invisible to museum visitors, but which subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) communicate the agendas of their designers. It examines a selection of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century curated collections, analyzing their presentation and, in the process, taking the reader on a fascinating journey through the history of collecting, classifying, and presenting widely differing versions of Nature in the West. But Asma's book also admits and even honors the darker instincts behind peoples' love of museums: our attraction to the unusual, bizarre, and just plain gross. And I think that's only right. There's no denying the pivotal role played by a prurient fascination with monstrosities, mutations, and myths on the road to science as we know it today. As Asma points out, "Oddities force us to attend. ... Museums figured this out a long time ago."

The jar that first drew my attention was about the size of an industrial stew pot and contained a curdled mass of flesh. This menacing basketball-sized blob was a tumor that John Hunter surgically removed from a man's neck in 1785 (fig. 2.8). Next to the jar was a small card quoting Hunter's notes: "The operation was performed on Monday, October the 24th, 1785; it lasted twenty-five minutes, and the man did not cry out during the whole of the operation." This poor patient had a tumor, roughly the size of his own head, sprouting out of his neck, and Hunter cut it out of him sixty-odd years before anesthesia was discovered - with nothing to numb the pain except some swigs of whiskey. As I pondered many of the pathology jars, I wanted to get on my knees and thank the gods of experimental medicine for letting me be born in the twentieth century.

In the first half of the nineteenth century England's intelligentsia was dominated by the "argument from design." Natural theologians were arguing that the natural world was perfectly adapted - each animal organ and appendage perfectly suited the peculiarities of different habitats and activities. Such perfect design, the argument concluded, proves the existence of a benevolent designer God. One of the overriding impressions that Hunter's pathology collection leaves on the observer, however, is that nature is sloppy. The notion of the perfect adaptation or fit of each animal to its environment and the elegantly coordinated physiological adaptation of each individual to itself (organs arranged and functioning in harmony) is dramatically challenged by Hunter's pathology jars.

As this passage illustrates, Asma moves from grotesque example to illuminating analytical observation, and the whole is delivered in a lively, readable prose. His book is structured, not in strict chronological order, but as a series of related investigative essays covering subjects from the development of taxidermy and embalming, to the history of taxonomy, to the national differences among modern presentations of evolutionary biology. His approach reminded me of an updated take on the 18th-century conversational essay - a form I very much enjoy, and one uniquely suited to Asma's subject matter, given the space he devotes to the Enlightenment-era collections of John Hunter and Georges Cuvier. His approachable prose is a real plus, since the reader is trying to wrap her head around radically different world-views throughout the book. At one point, while discussing a half-digested human stomach, Asma points out that in order to appreciate the specimen from an 18th-century point of view, we must imaginatively think ourselves back to an era when a purely mechanical mode of digestion was a possibility. This is actually quite difficult, since the role of stomach acid is so firmly entrenched in our minds. Similar thought experiments are necessary to grasp many of the pre-Darwinian stops along the track of natural philosophy, but Asma proves a capable conductor, endearingly enthusiastic about the human and scientific oddities he discovers along the way.

In his opening chapter, he observes that

Educational and entertainment institutions meet in the common-ground territory of the spectacular. But some spectacles lead to something cognitive or reflective, and the hope of the educator is to facilitate that trajectory. There is a place in that trajectory for the odd, the wonderful, and the grotesque. But some spectacles, using the same spectacular launching pads of human curiosity, only lead back to themselves. The thrill-ride spectacle can be "managed" in such a way that it leads to more of the same, not contemplation and reflection. The spectacle itself becomes the commodity.

In addition to being an accurate description of his own book, this strikes me as a sane and reasonable take on the "edutainment" debate vis-a-vis museums, which Asma tackles at greater length in his final chapter. While justly concerned about the effect on museums of alliances with corporate sponsors (i.e., how can a museum maintain objectivity in an exhibit about petroleum, if the primary source of funding is an oil company?), he lauds curatorial attempts to lighten the mood of exhibits, to teach with humor and not take themselves and their subject matter in deadly earnest. I think there is a tendency among people who stand up against "edutainment" (understood as entertainment without content), to look down on any exhibit that encourages people to laugh, or connect a scientific concept with some element of popular culture. But, as Asma rightly points out, studies show that laughter improves peoples' willingness and ability to remember information. It therefore seems backward to get sniffy about humorous exhibits, since there's a high likelihood they're doing a better job of teaching than their unfunny analogs, while simultaneously showing museum patrons a good time. Of course entertainment shouldn't be the only experience one finds in a museum, but Asma makes a strong point for it being one effective curatorial tool, and one that, perhaps, ought to be used more often, especially given the modern distrust of authority figures. When a museum can laugh at itself for a moment, he points out, it lets down its guard and becomes more relatable and sympathetic to patrons, and they in turn become more receptive to new ideas.

If used thoughtfully, spectacle and laughter can lead to contemplation; when used exploitatively, they only lead back to themselves. The spectacle in Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads was uniformly linked to fascinating ideas and information, and I'll be contemplating much of it for a long time to come.

(Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums was my sixth and 500-century book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography