Thursday, August 30, 2001

The Voyage Of the Dawn Treader

by C.S. Lewis

In the third of the series, the elder children are gone, and in fact, it’s to be the younger children’s last voyage as well.  We are introduced to Eustace, a blister who is relieved of his sin (allegorically speaking, his dragon’s skin) by Aslan’s terrible, but gentle, claws.  The character of Reepicheep is fleshed out, and emphasis is put on honor and adventure.

Lewis’ economy of language is amazing; he writes simply, but says what needs saying.  And he straddles the fine line between adventure (addressing topics such as slavery, killing, feasting and even romance) and writing for children with Christian allegory in mind.  One has to admire his skill and precision in his prose and subject matter. 

[read twice]

four stars

Monday, July 9, 2001

Without Feathers

by Woody Allen

A collection of Allen’s comedic writings. This is for the most part solid, laugh-out-loud Allen parodies and absurdity. Allen is at his best when parodying, say, the great Russian writers (“Should I marry W.? Not if she won’t tell me the other letters in her last name.”) or Ibsen, as in “Lovborg’s Women Considered,” or just being plain absurd, as in the superbly useless “Slang Origins.”

Throughout, the neurotic Allen themes resonate – fear of death and intimacy, etc. There are a couple of low points, like “God (A Play),” which is somewhat flat compared to the true absurdity of the meta-textual pioneers whom it parodies, like Pirandello and Ionesco. But in all, this is prime, vintage Allen, and at his best, he’s note-perfect.

four stars

Saturday, April 28, 2001

Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses

by Bruce Feiler

As the subtitle suggests, the author retraces the Pentateuch as best he can, Bible in hand and affable expert in tow.  Mostly a disappointing book, I’m afraid.  First, Feiler is a rather laborious writer – the 424 pages are packed with rather stilted purple prose at times (his imagery is wild and uninformative: mountains resemble pies, “a drip castle,” “sweet potatoes,” “rancid hamburger meat,” or bizarrely, “melting dinosaurs” [!]).  Second, Feiler is one of those travel writers who feels the need to make every single thing an epiphany: this is okay for places like Mount Ararat, or the possible site of the burning bush; but I counted at least ten places where Feiler recorded a soul-shaking discovery (Egypt isn’t the bad guy in the Bible!, The actual spot where things happened doesn’t matter! “The desert was part of my own geography”! The desert gives you confidence by showing you how small you are! Etc etc).  By the way, he feels fear of that inner geography ebbing away not once, but twice.  Third, Feiler is a rather naive scholar.  He tries to get at the “truth” of the Bible by asking stupid questions about the context of the stories: yes, they really had birthrights that could be sold, for example.  Well of course: the stories don’t take place in a fictional universe, they’re products of their time!  It’s like approaching the “truth” of Dickens by triumphantly showing that people really did talk like his characters in 19th century London.

His naivete is deeper than that: “I basically believed there was a unified notion of God,” he writes.  What?!  He never considered that God differs in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, even within the Bible itself?!  Is he really the best person to write this book?  Obviously not.  There’s a lot that’s very informative and interesting in this tome – ruminations on and possible explanations for manna, Moses’ name, the location of the Sea of Reeds, even the abundance of quail during the exodus.  But there’s too few gems to justify slogging through this mountain of banality, really. 

two stars

Sunday, March 11, 2001

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat And Other Clinical Tales

by Oliver Sacks

Twenty-four case studies, grouped under four rubrics: Losses (amnesia, total loss of proprioception, etc); Excesses (Tourette’s, a Korsakov’s patient in a state of constant, frantic confabulation as a defense against amnesia, etc); Transports (cases of involuntary reminiscence and heightened senses); and The World of the Simple (autistic and retarded patients, mostly with eidetic powers).

Though it’s much more clinical in style than An Anthropologist on Mars, this is still an interesting collection.  Sacks makes a good case that a mind-set which is entirely abstract (the most fascinating titular patient) is even more alien than one which grasps only concretes, like the autistic.  He also critiques the “working vs. deficient” model of neurology, depicting phenomena and mental breakthroughs that can only come into being outside of the laboratory and traditional testing.  Aside from his arguments, as a collection of anecdotes, this book is enthralling and terrifying, an amazing look into just a few of the wondrous, bizarre ways mind can malfunction. 

four stars