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The Prudence of the Flesh

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Prudence of the FleshThe Prudence of the Flesh by Ralph McInerny (St. Martin’s Minotaur 2006)

I have a confession. I enjoy mystery or detective stories even more than
science fiction. As such, I remember watching one (and only one) episode of
the Father Dowling Mysteries on television. All that I recall of the episode that I saw was that it seemed an even paler example of the genre that even Murder, She Wrote. As such, when approaching Prudence, I was not at all sure that would finish, let alone enjoy the book. Fortunately, Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling has little in common with that of the television series.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the story involves a laicized priest who is accused of having fathered a child before he was allowed to give up his vocation. As one might guess, this theme gives McInerny reason to muse over the recent sex scandals that have so torn at the Roman Catholic Church of late. And muse he does with virtually every character whether they be priests, lawyers, police officers, or even librarians. One might—at first—see these rambles as distractions; they are, however, the commentary behind what unfolds. I haven given you enough to entice you? I am so sorry, but McInerny does such a fine job of letting the story unfold that anything I might say about what happens and who is involved would be distraction. Suffice it to say that Prudence will entice both those that enjoy attempting to solve a mystery ahead of time and those that simple enjoy how human beings move into and through the less savory aspects of their condition.

I am not even going to tell you whether Prudence even includes a murder because (a) McInerny follows Christie’s Observation and (b) I had so much fun waiting before I knew whether or not the mystery would include one. The delight in McInerny’s approach to the detective story is that he follows Agatha Christie’s observation (rarely employed by Christie herself) that the crime—including murder—is the end-point of the story. It is what comes before that leads to the crime that is of real interest. Father Dowling is interested not primarily is solving a crime (indeed most of the events in the Prudence are outside his immediate view) but in understanding the stories behind the lives of those with whom he comes in contact and to find in those stories something that leads to redemption and reclamation. Father Dowling is thus a very atypical detective, and those who want a sleuth to track down clues and race on to some dramatic confrontation had best look elsewhere. Father Dowling is about letting the intersecting stories of very different lives play out.

McInerny is a breezy writer. This is not to say that he is not above a little elitism. Casual references to classical literature abound and Latin (not surprisingly) gets thrown in for good measure. Still, it was fun—and easy—to learn what phrases such as “Even Homer nods,” mean and there is little lost for those who don’t wish to make the effort. Prudence is an enjoyable read. There is no dense text here, no underlying meanings to ponder. The imponderables come from the events themselves told plainly with relish and care for all the characters.

Jimm Wetherbee

The Prudence of the Flesh is no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.


Pontoon

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

PontoonPontoon: A Lake Wobegon Novel, by Garrison Keillor (Viking 2007)

For fans of Fox News, there may be only two programs on NPR worth listening to. One of them is A Prairie Home Companion (PHC). Why PHC? Certainly not because Keillor is a closet Republican—the man all but wears a red “L” on his lapel. No, the reason for PHC’s staying power is that Keillor is a humorist at heart and a humorist invites an audience in to share in life’s absurdities rather than to stun would-be participants into laughter. The elevation of A Prairie Home Companion is the segment “The News from Lake Wobegon.” Those of you who were fortunate enough to see Keillor’s show last April will find a fair bit the “The News” (including the end of the sketch worthy of the Forth of July movement of Ive’s New England Holidays Symphony). The book is worth picking just to reminisce.

Fortunately, although Keillor still has a penchant of bringing things together by letting them fly apart, Pontoon distinguishes itself from some of Keillor’s other Lake Wobegon books by telling a full story rather than stitching monologues together. One gets far more from Pontoon than a series of  vignettes, one gets a slice of life and folks you would want to invite to visit, or at least drop in for a while.

Jimm Wetherbee

Pontoon is no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.


Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . . : Understanding Philosophy
through Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. (Abrams Image
2007)

Outside a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside it’s too dark to read.

–Groucho Marx

I hear timing is everything. Some philosophers are just plain funny (John Scotus Eriugena1 our own Professor Bagley comes to mind). Then there’s me. Okay, I’m a librarian, but follow me here. Anyone who as worked with me for any time, knows that I cannot tell a joke well to save my neck, but that love to share them. Don’t take my word for it, check out my office door (it’s the one next to the elevator in the library). So just let my hair grow out and put it a bun, okay. Then again, I also love puns–so maybe timing isn’t quite everything.

Material might count for something, of which Plato and a Platypus has in a super-abundance. The thesis behind the remarkably short tome is quite simple: humor sticks. More than that, humor and philosophy often have shared traits. This is most pronounced in Cathcart and Klein’s most successful section that of logic. Who knew? Far from being the dry abstracted subject undergrads tremble and sleep before (except in Professor Bagley’s class), logic is a laugh-riot. This is mostly because both logic and logical fallacies (on one end) and jokes on the other depend on structure and bringing out unexpected meanings in language. Cathcart and Klein illustrate these principles perfectly. Read the rest of this entry »


Olympos

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

OlymposOlympos, by Dan Simmons (EOS 2005)

I first became acquainted with Dan Simmons at the suggestion of  a colleague. After some prodding I was finally persuaded to pick up Ilium, the predecessor to Olympos. Ilium is itself an example of science fiction writing at its best. That is to say, it is a wonderful piece of writing. The science is good but does not intrude, and can be safely ignored. One must imagine a distant future that includes a Homeric scholar’s first hand account of the events of the Iliad (as he shuttles between what he takes to be Troy of the ancient past and the gods of Olympos Mons) a narrative from the perspective of two deep-space cybernetic creatures (called “morvacs,” who also have a great deal of interest in Shakespeare and Proust) and a wider ranging narrative of the humans of this future. Normally such shifts in narratives can be confusing, but Simmons actually employs the narrative shifts to make it more obvious where the story is going. So much so that one isn’t even conscious of the devise until the three narratives start to join.  And, while the cybernetic creatures that converse in great depth over Shakespeare (and Proust), characters from the Tempest take residence on an Earth whose denizens have forgotten who the Bard is. After reading Ilium, I simply had to pick up Olympos. I was not disappointed.

Ilium ends with the events in Troy—which had been following Homer very closely—running off the rails and with two of the three narratives starting to merge. Olympos picks up a few weeks after Ilium closes. A far more attentive reader than I will quickly pick up that snatches of non-Homeric stories of the heroes of Trojan war start cropping up. Fortunately, Simmons clues in the classically ignorant. Simmons is not showing off here nor trying to join tales that have not business together.  This small detail actually fits into the engine that drives the larger plot and Olympos is filled with such details.  (Hint: that force is a not uncommon devise of science fiction writers to link quantum uncertainty with consciousness.).

Back on the the present-day earth (“present” being relative to the movacs time) what at first seemed to have been a triumph has degenerated into what might be the extinction of the the human species. One’s expectation—that the three story lines would start to merge—is dashed as the stories start to fragment even as events disintegrate. Yet in all of this there are clues that assure the reader that everything will start to come together, will start to makes sense, that we are one the cutting edge between hopeful resolution and complete and utter disaster. Simmons artfully steers the reader on this knife edge through some of the fastest six-hundred pages one is likely to encounter.

Jimm Wetherbee

Olympos is no longer held, but if it looks good, you can still get it on InterLibrary Loan.


New Brain

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

New BrainThe New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewriting Your Brain, by Richard Restak (Rodale, 2003) QP355.2.R47 2004

If readers take nothing more from this book than the hope and awareness that the human brain is more capable of growing, developing and changing than thought possible, then they will have gained valuable understanding of  his most powerful human characteristic. However, readers are also likely to come to understand the power of modern forces on the restructuring of the brain, which may sometimes not be to the best advantage. Describing the work of neuroscientists and technology now available to view the workings of the brain may not sound like light reading, but Richard Restak, a eurologist, neuropsychiatrist and author of Mozart’s Brain, has placed the scientific jargon and explanations in real-life examples using an engaging writing style. The information he provides is not meant as a self-help book but readers will quickly identify with their own circumstances or those of  people they know (such as students), and find themselves thinking of  practical ways to apply what Restak offers.

For example, Restak describes how the brain works in those who have been described as having extraordinary talents or abilities and asks the reader to consider the role of nurture and nature in a new way. He notes that with imaging technology, neuroscientists have gained insight into the fact that a great deal of the work of star athletes and others who perform at high levels can be attributed to the way they cognitively perform and to the concentration and mental routines they develop. Read the rest of this entry »


Mission Song

February 19th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Mission SongThe Mission Song by John le Carré (Little, Brown and Company 2006)

There were some who wondered whether John le Carré would still have a career after the fall of the Berlin Wall and disintegration of the Eastern Bloc. The quintessential master of the spy novel, who presented that most rare of creatures (the idealist espionage agent), might have seemed out of step where the great idealist war between communism and capitalism collapsed and spies seemed to betray their countries for little more personal gain. Fortunately for us, le Carré continues to entertain and probe while the mere espionage thriller casts about for a shelf-life beyond the first read or multiplex screening. The Mission Song is the latest in a long line stories that will prove to endure better following the Cold War than some foreign policies.

The story is told in the first person by one Bruno Salvador (known throughout the book as “Salvo”). As with most such accounts, the events related are in the past sometimes racing toward the present sometimes concluding in a more recent past as if a memoir. Often this it is fairly easy to see where in time such accounts end, but le Carré (or Salvador) will not let us off so easily. Salvador speaks with a vaguely confessional tone leaving us until the very end wondering to who he is writing—certainly not any of us unless we are indeed very clever and place ourselves into that almost unspoken character. This particular twist is quite necessary because even if one has never read le Carré, the first few pages are enough to tell the reader that this story will end in tears. Indeed, Salvo assumes his reader knows this already. One is then almost impelled with rereading The Mission Song in light of what has been gained from that last crucial bit of knowledge. Read the rest of this entry »


Serena

February 11th, 2009 by Amee Odom in Reading EKScursions

SerenaSerena, by Ron Rash (Ecco 2008) [B&T Books] PS3568.A698 S47 2008

My literary memory is filled with the haunting conclusions of different texts. Ron Rash’s Serena will undoubtedly be with me and many other readers for some time. Within his latest work, Rash cultivates characters, an aching for a lost landscape, and he develops powerful archetypes which hover in a cloud of Shakespearean irony. From the moment Serena arrives in the Carolina mountains with her new husband, Pemberton, to begin their logging empire, Rash’s characters leap from the pages, grab you by the lapels and drag you kicking and screaming into the text. If you can finish the first chapter and not quickly devour the remainder, you are not a reader!

Rash’s title character, Serena, embodies an early twentieth century Lady Macbeth with a greed lust and sense of entitlement like no other. She typifies the all-consuming femme fatale in juxtaposition with Rachel Harmon, the mother of Pemberton’s child. Rash’s keen naming of the characters signifies his attention to detail and clarity as Rachel quickly becomes the novel’s earth mother; the one who lives in “harmony” with the land, the center of Serena’s devastation and greed; suggesting only one of the many layers of this text and underscoring Rash’s grasp of literary technique like none of his contemporaries. Rash pairs his technique with powerful story seed and the pages spark with the tension of all great thematic statement. Themes that withstand the test of time are all a part of Serena: disparity of social castes, the environment, poverty, hubris, and desire. Read the rest of this entry »


Bloodshot

February 10th, 2009 by Isaac Meadows in Reading EKScursions

Bloodshot, by Stuart MacBride (St. Martin’s Minotaur 2007)

I spent a semester abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland, during my undergraduate years, so anything set in this locale will pique my interest. I checked out Stuart MacBride’s second novel, Dying Light, and when I saw Bloodshot, the third installment featuring Detective Sergeant Logan MacRae of the Grampian Police, on the Baker & Taylor shelves I grabbed it.

Set in the Granite City, MacBride’s novels are no cozy trip down memory lane; their subject matter is as hard and unforgiving as the rock that gave Aberdeen its nickname. After starting with a serial rapist, the prime suspect being none other than the star player on Aberdeen’s soccer team with all the attendant media frenzy, Bloodshot adds two more cases to the investigative mix: a body dumped at the Emergency Room that is either the accidental victim of bondage sex gone wrong or the intended victim of sadomasochistic sex used to kill; and an eight-year-old boy whose crimes have escalated from theft to murder. Read the rest of this entry »


Blackest Bird

February 10th, 2009 by Isaac Meadows in Reading EKScursions

The Blackest Bird: A Novel of Murder in Nineteenth-Century New York, by Joel Rose (W. W. Norton & Company 2007)

As a fan of mysteries and of Edgar Allan Poe, The Blackest Bird seemed a good choice for my next read. An appropriately atmospheric cover with gaslights, a cobblestone street, and a lone female figure; a suitably portentous title; and the mention of a town in my home state of New Jersey on the front flap clinched the deal.

After a brisk start the story starts to drag, but perseverance is rewarded with a climactic and unexpected ending. Upon reflection, however, the pacing of the story reflects the investigative techniques of the time. Forensics, if it can even be called that at this stage, had yet to reach its infancy in 1841, and watchers of C.S.I. will shudder at the treatment of the body and the crime scene in Rose’s novel. Bureaucratic squabbling over jurisdiction between New York and New Jersey adds to the delay, and one wonders what will be left for High Constable Jacobs Hays, New York City’s first detective, to investigate. Read the rest of this entry »


Basilica

February 10th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s, by R. A. Scotti (Viking 2006)

I have never been to Europe, let alone Vatican City. The closest I have come to St. Peter’s (sometimes simply called the Vatican) would be a very nicely crafted coffee table book, so one might wonder whether I have any business reviewing a book on one of the great architectural achievements of the Renaissance. Although there is something to such criticism, if I were to stick to only what I really knew (a) I would not learn as much, (b) there would be fewer book reviews, and (c) the few books left to be reviewed could not hold a candle to pleasure one receives from R. A. Scotti’s Basilica. Besides, Basilica does wander into Church History, consequently, so I am not completely out of my element.

Looking at the sheer solidity and audacity of St. Peter’s, one is almost tempted to think it has been there forever (and why not, Rome is the Eternal City). What must be remembered, however, is that the basilica that preceded it had been revered for almost 1200 years. The audacity of razing that ancient center of pilgrimage by itself scandalized the faithful. This new St. Peter’s was perhaps the crowning effort to transform Rome from a has-been backwater to the center of European culture and assert for all time Rome’s place in Christendom. Urban renewal does not even begin to plumb meaning of what was going from the early 16th to the mid 17th centuries, nor the depth of feeling toward the brazenness of those who set forth this enterprise. Yet this new St. Peter’s almost had to be of unparalleled magnificence, if only to justify the destruction of the old. Read the rest of this entry »


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