from October, 2008
It is not an easy matter, reading books and running for president simultaneously. Nor is it a simple thing to read a book and, at the same time, be president. Nor, for that matter, is it a trivial affair, the act of reading books. This is not to say that running for president is a romp through the park, though the degree of difficulty differs from case to case, and I am thinking here of the difference between the candidacy of a robust 60-year-old man and that of a dead man who is urn-bound, supported only by a robotic apparatus and provided with audio equipment and a pair of ocular implants and nourished by an occasional teaspoon of a wannabe Jack Daniels.
[Editor’s note: Mr. Ennis neglects to mention that his “robotic apparatus” is clothed with a shirt, a tie, a suit, and shoes and socks, all of which were donated to his campaign by the local Sears store from their holdings in the Children’s Clothing Department. The American flag he displays on his lapel was donated by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in preparation for a speech he presented before them at their recent national convention while standing on an impressive lectern festooned with a red, white, and blue banner.]
All this is by way of explaining that this author’s present column will diverge from his common practice of warning his growing band of readers of poorly-written books. Instead of a book, today I will review a recent short piece from BBC News, “Parrot’s oratory stuns scientists.”
This article, by Alex Kirby, the BBC News Online environment correspondent, bears the startling news that a captive African grey parrot named N’kisi possesses a vocabulary of 950 words, has a sense of humor, invents his own words and phrases, is able to keep his tenses straight, and can even read the mind of his keeper, whose name is not mentioned but on further investigation turns out to be somebody sporting the upmarket name, Ms. Aimee Morgana. That same investigation reveals that the African grey has the life expectancy of an average American.
Examples of this four-year-old prodigy’s sayings:
To Dr. Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee expert: “Got a chimp?”
On seeing a fellow parrot hanging upside down: “You got to put this bird on the camera.”
On seeing a picture of a man with a telephone: “What ya doing on the phone?”
On seeing a picture of a couple embracing: “Can I give you a hug?”
This astounding work on the verbal SAT scores of parrots raises, of course, the question of animal rights. Taken to its logical end, it leads us to conclude that parrots should be granted the right to vote. Or, to put the matter more carefully, it leads this candidate for President of the United States to promise that if elected, he will do everything in his power to see that a Constitutional Amendment be passed to enable American parrots over the age of 18 to exercise their rights to charge the ballot box.
If dead American citizens can vote, why not extend that right to living, adult American parrots? After all, most of them have the potential vocabulary of their average human counterparts. More, a species blessed with the capacity to read the minds of others would be invaluable as CIA agents.
I have taken to the ski slopes to read, relax, replenish my ashen self with an après-ski concoction of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels (I’ve come up in the world), and plan my strategy for the months ahead.
On my bookshelf is a copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the 1992 edition.
This massive volume is a veritable treasury of wit and wisdom. Put differently, it’s a big book with a lot of laughs and bright observations. It contains a high percentage of Shakespeare’s greatest lines: Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle!” speech, delivered on his receiving the news of his wife’s death, gets the full treatment, as does Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide, “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” though the editors unaccountably neglect to include Horatio’s excellent meteorological observation, “It is a nipping and an eager air.”
Lovers of Horace will enjoy his incisive advice: “Si possis recte, si non, quocumque modo rem.” (“If possible honestly, if not, somehow, make money.”) And “Misce stultiiam consiliis brevem: Dulce est desipere loco.” (“Mix a little foolishness with your prudence: it’s good to be silly at the right moment.”)
For those for whom Latin is not the native tongue, there are gems like this, from Oscar Wilde: “The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations.” And this, most appropriate for the season of electoral politics: “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.”
American sages are represented, but not well. John Updike has just six quotations deemed wise by the deeming editors. Among them: “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy.”
A fine remark. If, in the next edition, the Oxford elite select for inclusion one of my campaign slogans—“Dead of America arise! You have nothing to lose but your bones and ashes!”—buy it.
The Mind & the Brain, co-written by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley, is subtitled Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Dr. Schwartz, unlike your average Ph.D., is one of those doctors who can do you some good, especially if you happen to suffer from OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is a research professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine. Ms. Begley, unlike your average person whose last name begins with a B, writes fancy prose and knows where to put commas and semi-colons. She is the award-winning science columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
In a mere 375 pages, Dr. Schwartz proves that people and laboratory monkeys have minds, not just three pounds of grey gelatin called a brain. Apparently philosophers and neurologists have long been skeptical on this point. It is important that we, and presumably our pets, have minds, says Schwartz with the help of his award-winning co-author. Otherwise we would be automatons and life would be an illusion. We would not have free will, with the result that we couldn’t achieve our goals. I, to use a ready example, could not thing of running for president. My wife, who in her pre-coffin days suffered from OCD, could not have been cured of her habit of making me take out the trash every hour on the hour.
The proof of this strange theory that people have minds is that the theory of quantum mechanics is true. The devil is in the details.
If you have half a mind, you will want to read this book.
Sunday afternoon last, the Cherokee Orchestra and Chorus launched the recently-refurbished Cherokee Concert Hall on its second maiden voyage with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphonie Nr. 9 in d-Moll (Op. 125).
According to the glossy program, designers and workmen had cooperated to knock out the asbestos-laced ceiling, the better to show off the overhead plumbing and increase the reverberations one hundred percent. Arturo Unknown, director and conductor, wisely chose Beethoven’s tribute to all that is wunderbar in life as the inaugural opus to take advantage of this improvement. Unfortunately, the wonderful harmonies elicited from the second violinists and the front-row cellists by his magic wand were offset somewhat by the misbegotten noises spewn out now and again by a pair of sleepy oboeists, not to speak of a nervous cymbalist and a slight young drummer who did not always perform on cue. On those admittedly rare occasions, the advertised reverberations would better have been held in check by the ancient asbestos.
The mezzo wore a loose-fitting purple tent, the better to hide her excessive poundage. The soprano displayed to good effect a tight red dress, disguising her age with the aid of a carefully-selected Clairol shade and several Revlon products. The Menschsänger were attired for the occasion in penguin garb, the better to belt out the dramatic notes that were called for in the score. The glee club sat above and behind the orchestra proper, patiently awaiting their turn to give lusty voice to the joy for which the piece is noted, resisting the temptation to blow their noses.
The adagio molto e cantabile—the third movement of this magnificent but ageing warhorse—is much too long and repetitive. Mr. Unknown could have cut it in half with no ill effect and for the benefit of those who do not hold their water well. The bass, much like a prizefighter, imbibed bottled water before each of his allotted turns. The results were breathtaking. Not since the late Martti Talvela has this critic heard a male voice able to strike a low F at a decibel level the equal of an overextended lyric soprano.
Afterwards, all soloists received bouquets from designated music lovers who deluged them as if on cue. At the last curtain call, the soprano graciously deposited hers on the conductor’s stand, signifying thereby her appreciation of the musical background provided by the little people in her life—at least one would wish to think so. She may also have been allergic to the daisies. Another and more garish explanation might be that she wished to signify her undying devotion to a secret lover. Mr. Unknown, distant relative of our editor, comes to mind.
By general agreement, James Joyce’s Ulysses is the greatest literary accomplishment of the twentieth century.
One wonders how many of those general agree-ers have ever made it through this 768-page book, seven years in the making and probably seven years in the reading. I myself scanned it in one summer. I slowed down for the famous soliloquy by Molly Bloom, the kind of a woman no healthy man would kick out of bed.
A guess would be that thousands of our literary lights have actually read Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, thought it more or less wonderful, and assumed that Ulysses would be even better, because of the time it took to compose.
My question: if Ulysses is Number One, but A Portrait is better, how would one rank At Swim-Two-Birds, a parody of A Portrait that is enthusiastically supported by its small band of readers as superior to the novel it is lampooning? Before answering, check out Aristotle’s writings on logic; or, if they are not at hand, use your God-given brain.
My own brain, God-given or devil-driven, tells me that At Swim-Two-Brains, written by Flann O’Brien, a.k.a. Brian O’Nolan, a.k.a. Myles na Gopaleen, illegitimate grandfather of my colleague who bears that name but punctuates it with a Jr., is the best of the trio. My advice: avoid everything except the ending of Ulysses, speed-read A Portrait, but spend a year or so with Flann O’s masterpiece.
Flann O’Brien wrote the piece when he was in his twenties. It took him a while, but he got the job done. He had to correct the mistakes he found in A Portrait. Joyce’s artist is an earnest snob—the kind of a young man who puts out precious, high-flown language that appeals to the Ivy League boys and girls but describes a world your common reader knows nothing about. “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.” Is it any wonder that after speeches like this, a stout student standing below this budding writer would fart briefly, eliciting the question asked by another member of the audience, “Did an angel speak?”
But our man is believable. No less a writer than Dylan Thomas judged it “just the book to give your sister if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” Flann O’s artist is a university student who spends his time either in pubs where “strong country boys [are] planking down cards and coins and roaring out the name of God” or hung over in his uncle’s attic, lying atop a bed still dressed in the beer-stained clothes of the previous night, thinking about the novel he’s planning to write.
His theory of the novel is explained at the outset: “One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with.” Parts of his novel get written and are included in the text. Finn MacCool, a hero of old Ireland, gets to tell stories in something akin to Gaelic. Irish cowboys are created and are given prominent roles and funny things to say and do (Item: “He collapsed on his back on the rich grass, shrieking aloud in his amusement. He moved his feet in the air as if operating a pedal cycle.”). There are stories within stories. The plot consists of much jumping about. It would take ten years to diagram this novel to the satisfaction of a full professor of Irish Literature, who would of course not have read it but would have voted for Ulysses as novel of the previous century, a book with which he or she would have only a nodding acquaintance.
Read it for yourself. I place my reputation as a critic on this counsel.
A book to avoid at your peril.
from October 5, 2003
In an effort to persuade girls between the age of 12 and 17 to read the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville have put the Good Book in a new format: the fashion magazine, which they market under the title Revolve. The New Testament can now be purchased and read alongside quizzes, celebrity birthdays, and pictures of beautiful, smiling young Christian women.
Say the girls who use it, it’s like awesome.
Say I, wait till they put the Old Testament in the same format. A picture of Adam and Eve eating apples in the nude would be, well, you know, like truly awesome. Of course to preserve the fashionableness, they would not be eating apples; they would be smoking marijuana and singing that old children’s favorite, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” And of course there would have to be a CD in the package with Peter, Paul, and Mary of New Testament fame belting it out, as well as a quiz on the best way to obtain this illegal substance.
Say I, the same goes for a picture of Sarah and Hagar battling it out over the rights to Abraham. Thomas Nelson Publishers could include a discussion question: If these two had been fortunate enough to have been born into Christian families, would they be acting like this? Or, What does this teach us about the evils of polygamy and adultery? Or, more boldly, If this situation applies to your nuclear family, how would you peacefully resolve the problem in such a way that everyone goes home happy and with their self-esteem intact?
The idea for a spiced-up version of the New Testament came to the researchers at Thomas Nelson Publishers when they discovered, to their chagrin, that teenagers don’t read the Bible anymore.
Apparently their research has not been extensive enough for them to discover that teenagers don’t read much of anything anymore. But TNP is in the Bible business, so they would have to discover that truth in their own spare time, which they undoubtedly spend channel surfing in quest of the best of the new sitcoms.
Am I advising the reader not to purchase a copy of Revolve? Not at all. I’m suggesting that they purchase a dozen or so and distribute them to the adults on their Christmas list. This book will make a wonderful, even awesome, gag gift.
My chief interest is fiction. I’m aware, however, that the reading public shows a distinct preference for nonfiction. Thus I feel duty-bound to warn readers of a few of the dreadful nonfiction books being foisted on the unsuspecting.
Recently I received, as a gift from my colleagues, a book entitled The Doctors Book of Home Remedies, authored by the 28 editors of Prevention Magazine, with contributions by Bob Diddlebock. The book is published by Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Their charge, as stated on the copyright page, is to “publish books that empower people’s lives.” Adjacent to this mission statement one of my gifted colleagues—I suspect it was Arthur Unknown—had written: “To Ab—In commemoration of the forty-fifth anniversary of your unfortunate demise.”
Now, I can enjoy a prank from a piqued pack of partners as well as the next dead Russian literary critic. But the joke is on them. This gift has empowered me to write a lighthearted, scathing review of this 676-page book.
Home Remedies is arranged alphabetically, by diseases, beginning with acne and ending with yeast infections. Reading it can empower one’s life in myriads of ways. There are 2,343 methods of fending off such diseases as bad breath, bed-wetting, belching, body odor, chapped hands, constipation, dandruff, diarrhea, earwax, flatulence, foot odor, forgetfulness, hangover, hemorrhoids, hiccups, incontinence, jet lag, morning sickness, oily hair, oily skin, poor posture (it lists “20 Ways to Stand Tall”), pet problems, restless legs, snoring, stained teeth, and wrinkles. Included in this catalogue of ills are the problems of colic, diaper rash, and teething (written, no doubt, for the child prodigy).
This is an informative book. I discovered that there is an ailment called bruxism (teeth-grinding), and that there are ten ways to deal with it: (1) keep your mouth in the healthy, resting position; (2) crunch an apple; (3) apply heat to your jaws; (4) use a mouth guard at night; and (5) calm down. I will not list the other five, mainly because the authors neglected to.
The 28 editors and Mr. Diddlebock do, however, include the expert advice of a Tulsa, Oklahoma dentist, who advises his patients to break the habit of bruxism by (1) identifying the problem, (2) stating why the problem is bad, (3) stating what your course of action will be, and (4) describing how this new action will be beneficial. Our expert goes on to suggest that you use your own words to describe this habit, write them down on a piece of paper, carry that piece of paper with you until you memorize every last word, then repeat them seven times, seven times a day. If you adhere to these Four Noble Truths, vows the good dentist, success is guaranteed.
Wisely, the 29 authors of this $27.95 bargain advise that in the event of an actual illness, you see a real doctor.
A personal note. The thing I would have liked to have found in this virtual encyclopedia of medical advice is a tip on restoring my ashes to their former condition. I am not looking for 20, or even ten, ways to handle this pressing problem. I would settle for one.
I hate long novels.
I am aware that this dislike is enough to place me outside the pale of distinguished critics and in the company of the dolts who buy, borrow, or steal copies of Cliff’s Notes. But I can’t help it. Sitting down for a month of evenings to read halfway through an acclaimed 1000-page “classic” such as The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), then to abandon it with the sudden realization that your aesthetic pocket has been picked, will do that for a reader.
There are exceptions. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina comes to mind. I’m also told that his War and Peace is a fair read, an opinion I take as an opinion about which I have none.
Life is short. It is not meant to be wasted by toiling through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the third time. I leave that to the professors who attain the blessed land of a named professorship by writing ten 2500-word articles on one or another of the great philosopher’s longest paragraphs. (Studies have shown that the average professorial article is read by .37 persons, not including the editor—often as not a close friend—who accepts it for publication.)
As the renowned but otherwise unknown wit Steven Wright put it, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.”
Michelangelo would have saved a lot of time if he wouldn’t have signed that contract to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while looking up at the ceiling. He also would have lived longer.
But I digress. Back to the book to avoid at all costs. It has a cast of thousands, though no one who has ever read it at least halfway through can remember the names of more than five: the old man Karamazov, his three sons—Dmitri (a lecher), Ivan (a philosopher), and Alyosha (a saint)—and Grushenka (a woman of charm). According to the relevant Cliff’s Notes, papa bear gets killed by one of his cubs. The philosophical cub comes up with the banality that “if there is no God, everything is allowed.” The saintly cub probably agrees but gives the thought an opposing interpretation. Guess who the murderer is.
I was pleased to learn, forty years after digging through half the muck of this bad “classic,” that Vladimir Nabokov, as great a critic as he was a novelist, would have approved of my use of Cliff’s Notes in lieu of the novel itself. “Dostoevski is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one—with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.”
Read the relevant portions of his Lectures on Russian Literature for examples.
Life is short, and I am done.
This story, courtesy of Jakob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) Grimm, has many traits to commend it. It is short, has a protagonist (Red Riding Hood, sometimes prefixed by the qualifier “Little”) and an antagonist (a wicked wolf) as well as a hero (the brave, quick-thinking hunter), and delivers a moral for the benefit of the children to whom it is read.
Yet it is flawed. I have nothing against fairy tales. I don’t fault it for giving a speaking part to a wolf. Nor do I condemn the practice of drawing the world as a battle between goodness and innocence, on the one hand, and cunning and evil, on the other.
So how does this beloved story fail? There is, of course, the minor matter of the dietary theory that lies behind the tale. Recall the reason Red Riding Hood is sent by the mother to the grandmother’s house: the latter is weak and ill, and a cake and a bottle of wine will be just the ticket for restoring the old woman to full health. (This in the original version; later editors, spotting this flaw, sent the girl with a picnic basketful of what we would assume would be a more congenial collection of foodstuffs.)
Cake and wine? To restore a sickly woman to health? What were those Grimm boys thinking! I won’t quibble by saying that the mother should have included the grandmother’s medications in the package; that would be a historical anomaly. But even in that day, it was well-known, even to the peasant population, that steak beats cake in the daily diet department, and that brandy’s restorative properties are clearly superior to those of wine.
The mother is also blameworthy in another respect. She sends a small girl to do the work that should have been hers. Why? We are not told. Certainly there is a touching bond between Red Riding Hood and the grandmother, as the authors explain early in the story. It was, after all, the old woman who made the cloak whose properties provided the name of the girl. But what’s the relation between the old woman and the mother? One wonders. Why does she allow a frail, elderly woman to live alone, half an hour from the village in which her beloved granddaughter resides? In the modern world, of course, sending an aging parent to an assisted living facility is socially acceptable. In the time of the brothers Grimm, however, the sandwich generation solved the problem by keeping their ill parents in their own home. To do otherwise would incur the wrath of the community.
One also wonders why the mother gives specific instructions to the daughter of the red cloak to avoid either loitering or running on the way to grandmother’s house. Doesn’t she know that any kid with a healthy imagination will do exactly the opposite of what she’s told?
The moral of the story, as it stands in the first edition, is that the young listener should obey the orders of the parent. This, at least, is how the story ends: Red Riding Hood learns the lesson that if she dallies in the woods picking flowers when she ought to be skipping off to grandmother’s house, she’ll be eaten by a wolf.
One further wonders whether our little Girl Scout wouldn’t have better concluded that the only mistake she made was not knowing that wolves are a dangerous species.
In spite of these faults, one must applaud these authors for avoiding the cliché ending in which the young woman runs off with the brave, handsome prince who was wandering the woods disguised as a hunter.