The Crawdad Hole

March 7, 2011

We Are All Free

For a little under a decade at the turn of the nineteenth century, there was one republic in the world where blacks, whites, and people of mixed race lived together as free citizens with representatives in the legislature and equal rights under the law. Even the newborn United States of America, land of the free and the brave, did not harbor such universal freedom at that time. But the situation was short-lived. Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), formerly one of the most brutal and oppressive slave colonies in the world, survived eight years of this unprecedented emancipation before Napoleon invaded the colony. Sadly, even after Napoleon lost control of Saint-Domingue, the genocide carried out by the victorious rebel leaders destroyed the hope of a peaceful multiracial future.

We Are All Free is a historical work built around the events of June 20, 1793—the day when the representatives of the French government declared the abolition of slavery in Saint-Domingue. The author, Jeremy Popkin, engagingly describes what led to that surprising decision and the effects along both sides of the Atlantic.

The Haitian revolution was incredibly complex, as Popkin notes:

For understandable and entirely justified reasons, historians have been urged to give full credit to the role of Saint-Domingue’s black population in challenging slavery, but this has sometimes resulted in a reductionist account of these events. The events of the 1790s are often read through the lens of a binary opposition between whites and blacks, a way of looking at race and slavery that comes easily to historians from the United States but that profoundly distorts the nature of Saint-Dominguan society, whose tri-racial system created a radically different set of conflicts and possible alliances.

Popkin gives careful attention to the political movements that were in play during that time and concludes that the unprecedented emancipation proclamation of June 1793 was due more to the interactions of a few key characters under extreme pressure than to some systematic revolutionary progress of history. He writes,

It is misleading even to speak of an abolitionist movement in revolutionary France or in Saint-Domingue, on the model of those that existed in Britain or the northern United States, during those years. The abolition decrees of 1793 and 1794 … resulted from the unplanned and uncoordinated actions of individuals who were often motivated less by dedication to principles than by the pressure of unforeseen circumstances, particularly those created by the unanticipated crisis of June 20, 1793 in Cap Français.

For a work on a specialized topic, with footnotes on every page, I found this book highly readable, indeed gripping. The author takes for granted a certain familiarity with the features of colonial Saint-Domingue and with contemporary historical events in France. This book has appeal not only for aficionados of Haitian history but also for those interested in the history of slavery or in the nature of abolitionist thought during the French Revolution. There is even a chapter that deals with the events in the United States after the June 20 crisis—a time of significant diplomatic intrigue for our fledgling nation.

For an introduction to the Haitian revolution, I recommend (to anyone who has a strong stomach) Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy of historical novels that begins with All Souls’ Rising. He does an admirable job of walking you through the events of that tumultuous period from the perspective of characters who represent the different social groups in the colony. Once you have finished those three books, Popkin’s book could be, as it was for me, a helpful amplification of the global perspective on the same events and a clarification of some of the popular myths surrounding the Haitian Revolution.

As a Toussaint Louverture fan, I was slightly disappointed that he played such a minor role in Popkin’s book. Popkin is dealing with events that happened before Toussaint became really important, so it wouldn’t make sense to focus on him, but you also get the sense from Popkin that Toussaint was more of a normal kind of guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time than the purposeful, heroic freedom-fighter you grow to admire in Bell’s books.

That is not to say Popkin’s book is dry or grim. I loved encountering the fully fleshed-out Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, whose name you can’t help admiring but who remains a shadowy figure in Bell’s books. Governor Galbaud is deliciously ridiculous. Also ridiculous are the communication difficulties that made the French colony of Saint-Domingue practically impossible to govern from afar. The political landscape in France was upheaving rapidly at the same time Saint-Domingue was undergoing fast and furious disasters, and messages became constantly crossed due to the six-month travel time across the Atlantic. This created quite a few ironic and sometimes tragic situations.

I enjoyed this book very much and would gladly read more of Popkin’s writing if I come across it.


February 7, 2011

Shop Class as Soulcraft

raised bed

“The modern personality is being reorganized on a predicate of passive consumption, and it starts early in life,” says Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft.

The insidious creep of consumption over ground that could be occupied by creation is something that has bothered me for a long time. A simple example is the Lego company’s trend towards making specialized preassembled structures rather than the basic building blocks you could use and reuse to suit your imagination. My brothers and I, dissatisfied with this situation in our youth, wrote letters to the company and were informed that the specialized toys were what people wanted to buy. And things have gotten even worse with Legos in two decades. Why call them Legos at all anymore?

Consider also the world of Facebook, where it seems that one of the main ways you can choose to express yourself is by “liking” various consumer namebrands. Many of our status updates are merely commercials for whatever thing has briefly made our life better (or worse). What has become of us?

Matthew Crawford has an interesting background as a highly educated person who chose to leave the company of world-renowned scholars at a Washington, DC, think tank and open his own motorcycle repair shop. His book explores the value of craftsmanship (“the desire to do something well, for its own sake”) and critiques some of the assumptions of our society about work and education.

Early in his book, Crawford bewails our “loss of agency” as consumers, giving the example of the  bathroom user confronted with a malfunctioning infrared faucet in the public restroom. There is no handle to mess with, no physical feature to manipulate. The bathroom user is left to fruitlessly perform inane dance moves for a blind audience. I have felt similarly frustrated at times with the paper towel machine. Perhaps you have seen the video skit of the two Scotsmen on the voice-activated elevator. Crawford’s treatment of dilemmas such as these is cathartic in its illumination of our frustration and dismaying in its portent.

I enjoyed reading his discussion of “the cognitive richness of manual work.” I have always valued fine craftsmanship, but I’m not sure I have read such a thorough exposition of how and why manual labor builds character. Speaking of the apprentice to a trade, Crawford writes, “His will is being educated—both chastened and focused—so it no longer resembles that of a raging baby who knows only that he wants.” Technical education thus contributes to moral education. Learning to play a musical instrument or speak a foreign language are similarly beneficial tasks. “The example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency,” he says, “namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making.”

Crawford’s summary of the history of industrialism was eye-opening. I was not aware of the intentional shift of the thinking and judgment required for manual labor from the laborers to the management in order to allow masses of unskilled laborers to be hired for significantly less money. Crawford reveals how this has hurt our society in many ways.

In his praise of individual craftsmanship, I sometimes felt that he went too far in devaluing the teamwork that has become so highly valued in today’s corporate workplace. It seems that it too has character-building properties. Some critics have pointed out that his values are masculine ones, and this is true, but I find that he also favors the values of an introvert, whether male or female. However, he addresses the fact that his book is written from a certain limited viewpoint, the experience of a particular craft and personality. We should not expect him to write a different book that he did not intend to, and could not, write. The book is valuable as an exploration of particular ideas in a particular context that encourages us to reexamine our society’s values and structure.

November 21, 2010

Acquiring books

Filed under: book report,Chicago,childhood,Dany Laferrière,Haiti,small towns — by Studio Byrd @ 9:42 pm

So many books, so little time. How do you choose which book to read next?

For so long I had books chosen for me—I read the books that my parents owned, and then the ones in the public library, and then what my teachers assigned, my professors, and my book groups. Even now I am very insecure about choosing books. I like to believe that choosing a book by recommendation or review is never as romantic—and rarely as successful—as finding one by chance encounter.

Inside a large bookstore I am paralyzed, but a cart outside in the street is irresistible. I know I may only find a gem or two and will be able to weed out all the rest. For example, I bought Smilla’s Sense of Snow from the small for sale cart in the library, perceiving about it only that it was set in Denmark and Greenland. What a fine purchase it turned out to be.

So there I was in Strasbourg this summer, in the Place Gutenberg, riffling through crates of used books. We were traveling light, so I could only choose one book. I had been in the Librairie Kléber, one of the best bookstores in the world, and emerged bookless because of indecision. Even this outdoor bookstall had a large selection of high quality books. The pressure was mounting. I could have chosen one of many classics and been quite happy, but nothing was singing to me, as the French expression goes.

I didn’t want just any old ugly mass market paperback that would pain me when I gazed upon the bookshelves at home. So I picked up a small, solid book with a bright turquoise spine. The front cover was even better, a bold bright painting of a cabin in the tropics. When I read the back cover, the decision was made. This was a book I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of, but it was based on his childhood in Haiti. Two years or so ago I went on an enjoyable Haitian literature binge, and it had been a while since I had read anything of that nature.

Le Charme des après-midi sans fin (The Charm of Endless Afternoons) by Dany Laferrière was pure delight. It is simply written, befitting the viewpoint of a not-quite-adolescent boy raised by his grandmother in a small Haitian village. It is not sentimental, lush, or introspective. Instead, the writer gives you brief, pithy scenes where you see, hear, and smell exactly enough to know what you need to know.

I found myself laughing out loud time after time as the boy, Vieux Os (Old Bones), gave his honest accounting of various situations. It is from this tender, innocent point of view that the reader encounters the heavy topics that a Haitian setting must invariably include. The events are interesting and the characters are superb.

Here is one of my favorite sections, titled “The Photo.”

Nothing has changed in my grandfather’s room. His hat, his cane still hung on the wall, near the bed, next to the photo of an immense yellow tractor in a field of wheat. I have spent hours in front of this photo. A man is driving the tractor. His two sons (the younger must be about my age) are nearby. You can see them above their waists. The rest of their bodies disappears in the high grass. I notice that they aren’t wearing hats. My grandfather would never have tolerated such a thing—to work bareheaded in the fields is to risk certain sunstroke. All three of them wear the same plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up to their elbows. The man and his sons are as blond as ears of corn. I look at them for a long time, especially the younger son, wondering what would happen if he and I switched places. He would come and live in this house, in Petit-Goâve, and I would go to Chicago. Every time I say it, this word makes me feel funny all over, as impressive as the largest tractor: Chicago. Chicago. Chicago. Three syllables that clatter in the wind. Chicago. It feels good in my mouth. Petit-Goâve also sounds good. I can’t really tell. I was born here. I don’t know when I heard Chicago named for the first time. That little boy from Chicago might die without ever hearing of Petit-Goâve. I feel sad thinking about that. Sad for him, for me, and for Petit-Goâve. Everyone in the world has heard of Chicago because of its yellow tractors. And Petit-Goâve, what will it be known for in the world one day?

I’m not sure if this book has been published in English, but The Aroma of Coffee is the English translation of another book by the same author about the same little kid, Old Bones. I really need to get my hands on it.

November 7, 2010

Cowtown blues

I read the Constance Garnett translation of the oft-recommended Brothers Karamazov after college and was underwhelmed. However, after recently reading the delightful translation of Anna Karenina by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, I decided I wanted to see what they did with The Brothers Karamazov.

Although the translation is a vast improvement, I still enjoyed Dostoyevsky less than I enjoyed Tolstoy. I can see why he appeals to philosophers and theologians, but for me the endless kneading of ideas gets boring, just like car chases and fight scenes put me to sleep in movies. I also dislike the neverending drama of Dmitri’s life. The book had the attraction of a detective novel, intriguing you to keep reading and see who is really telling the truth. Although many critics seem to think Alyosha is a weak character in the book, he inspired me; his presence gave a sense of peace that was missing from the other parts of the book. I also enjoyed the Father Zosima parts.

One of the funniest parts was that you don’t find out the name of the town (Skotoprigonyevsk) until page 573, when the narrator inserts in parentheses “alas, that is the name of our town; I have been concealing it all this time,” and a note says the name loosely translates as “Cattle-roundup-ville.” To enjoy the novel fully you have to notice the narrator’s sense of humor.

I have to agree with Vladimir Nabokov’s comment about this book that “the natural background and all things relevant to the perception of the senses hardly exist.” This is a damning statement from a man who believes that “literature belongs not to the department of general ideas but to the department of specific words and images.” Nabokov likes Dmitri but says that “the moment we come to Alyosha, we are immersed in a different, entirely lifeless element. Dusky paths lead the reader away into a murky world of cold reasoning abandoned by the spirit of art.” Of course I disagree about Alyosha, and as I said, I find Dmitri ghastly.

Nabokov accuses Dostoyevsky, along with Richardson and Rousseau, of being a “sentimentalist” author, one who engages in “the nonartistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.” What a great description of a flaw you find in so many poorer authors’ work! However, I think Nabokov goes too far in condemning Dostoyevsky, whose idea of conflict, he says, was “placing virtuous people in pathetic situations and then extracting from those situations the last ounce of pathos.”

Another interesting critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, concurs that Dostoevsky is an author of ideas, but he admires that these ideas are integral to the characters’ essence and are not just spouted by the author along the way as disembodied aphorisms.

“Actually, the ideas of Dostoevsky the thinker change the very form of their existence when they become part of his polyphonic novel; they are turned into artistic images of ideas: they become indissoluably combined with the images of people… they are freed from their monological isolation and finalization, becoming completely dialogized and entering into the great dialog of the novel on completely equal terms with other idea-images…. Dostoevsky the artist always wins out over Dostoevsky the publicist.”

Although I tend to be a more Nabokov-like reader, wanting to sense the same light on my face and breathe the very air the characters breathe, I appreciate what Bakhtin appreciates about Dostoevsky. I must admit that my initial loathing of Dmitri drained away until I began even rooting for him towards the end. This is proof of the power of Dostoyevsky’s writing to celebrate the glorious spectrum of human personality.

November 6, 2010

Bedframes and Bayern

Here is a snapshot of our new raised garden bed. Earlier this week I planted fava beans and Austrian winter peas for ground cover. As I write, the frame of the bed is being leveled—probably not the ideal order of things. We will see what occurs next.

Let me now proceed with the first of a long backlog of book reviews.

Not much of one to pay full price for books, I salvaged Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl out of my parents’ garage and was charmed enough to check the next book out of the library, and the next, and the next. I expected the books to get worse as the series continued, but I actually really enjoyed the third and fourth books.

The Goose Girl draws its inspiration from one of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. While the two stories share many events and characters, they are not nearly close enough for it to qualify as a retelling. One striking difference is that the main character in the original tale is completely passive, while Hale’s heroine takes decisive action throughout the book. Princess Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee is of course beautiful and blonde, but still plenty admirable, and I found myself captivated by the story. Don’t let her ridiculous name turn you off; the whole book is teasing conventions all the while that it profits from the power of a good old fairy tale.

The original editions of the Books of Bayern came dressed in playful illustrations with a medieval Italian feel, but they seem to have been later repackaged as teen romances with front cover photos of mysterious, full-bosomed young girls peering out at ruined castles from the shadows of the forest. It occurred to me to be embarrassed as I checked them out of the young adult section of the library, but obviously that didn’t stop me.

The second book features one of the princess’s friends, and it deals skillfully with her maturing through a period of self-deception and alienation from her friends. The third book is about another of their crowd, a boy this time. I really enjoyed it because it made me laugh a lot and it showed convincing character development. In the fourth book, the main character harbors serious confusion about her identity. I found this story deeper than many young adult novels. It is not her image that troubles her, as it does so many of these type of fictional characters, but her very soul. It is a unique, poignant story.

These summaries sound rather psychological, but the stories are full-fleshed and concrete with entertaining plots. My main disappointment with the books is the use of a real place name, Bayern, when all the other place names are made up. I also disapprove of the lack of suffixes for demonyms and for adjectival forms of place names. But these are minor beefs.

If you’re looking for some good clean escapist young adult fantasy fiction with interesting characters, and written with a great sense of humor, I recommend these books.

April 11, 2010

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Filed under: Copenhagen,Denmark,Greenland,mystery,Peter Hoeg,thrillers — by Studio Byrd @ 8:30 pm

snowy trees

I enjoyed this book more than any book in a long time. It is hard to describe. Sort of a murder mystery, sort of a technothriller. Definitely not boring enough to be literary, and not believable enough, in my opinion, to be a fully satisfying mystery—but intensely thoughtful and well-written.

Part of the fun of reading this book is unraveling the narrator herself. There is no paragraph on page two summarizing Smilla Jaspersen’s background. You gather immediately that she is a defiant, razor-sharp Greenlander living in Copenhagen, but it takes longer to understand the events of her life that have brought her to her present condition. Once you gain some illumination, she is already so real that the explanations seem almost pale. She is not strictly likeable, but I loved reading about her.

The writing is terse, and the simple sentence structure becomes a little too predictable. But this lends itself to some surprising moments of goofy, deadpan humor, where you’re not quite sure at first that it’s supposed to be funny, and then you realize there is no way it’s not supposed to be funny. I kept laughing out loud.

I liked the beginning of the book best, when you are trying to figure out who Smilla is and what is going on. There is a romance element that I found quite charming. About halfway through events got so complex and unbelievable to me that I stopped trying to figure it all out, but it was still hard to stop reading. I think there were some things that weren’t satisfyingly explained or developed.

One of the interesting things about this book for me was how it dealt with the idea of cultural identity. How people see themselves is endlessly complicated, and I was curious, upon discovering this book for sale at the library, to find out how a fictional Greenlander living in Denmark saw the world. In real life, there are people who seem to oversimplify their cultural identity. Then there are people who are never quite sure where they fit in. You can decide for yourself how to describe Smilla.

I’ll leave you with a longish excerpt that shows you how blunt and opinionated she is, with a touch of bittersweetness.

At the university they had a lot of funny ethnological clichés. One of them was about how much European mathematics was indebted to ancient folk culture; just look at the pyramids, whose geometry commands respect and admiration.
This, of course, is idiocy disguised as a pat on the back. Technological culture is superior in the very reality it defines. The seven to eight rules of thumb of the Egyptian surveyors is abacus mathematics compared to integral calculus.

Any race of people that allows itself to be graded on a scale designed by European science will appear to be a culture of higher primates.
Any grading system is meaningless. Every attempt to compare cultures with the intention of determining which is the most developed will never be anything other than one more bullshit projection of Western culture’s hatred of its own shadows.
There is one way to understand another culture. Living it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point understanding may come. It will always be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lose the urge to explain it. To explain a phenomenon is to distance yourself from it. When I start talking about Qaanaaq, to myself or to others, I again start to lose what has never been truly mine.

January 16, 2010

The old has gone

Filed under: genres,parrots — by Studio Byrd @ 5:15 pm

I have decided to change the focus of my blog. There are sites such as Visual Bookshelf and Goodreads that are much more appropriate for book reviews, and in fact I have been pasting the reviews from this blog into those sites for quite some time (I started out with Living Social’s Visual Bookshelf, got frustrated with it, and have now switched to the much superior Goodreads).

I can still talk about books here, but in a more integrated sense. For example, I realized while writing a letter last week that stories involving parrots have an inordinately strong effect on me. Since writing that letter, I have, without even seeking it out, read yet another short story involving parrots. So here on this blog I could do what I could not do on Goodreads: offer an essay about parrots in literature.

Other topics I am considering include the name of the year in different languages and my favorite blogs of 2009.

I’m not sure how often I’ll post. Don’t expect brilliantly crafted pieces but essays in the simplest sense: organically formed gropings for meaning based on personal observations.

January 9, 2010

Lectures on Russian Literature

Filed under: book report,Leo Tolstoy,reading,Russia,Vladimir Nabokov — by Studio Byrd @ 10:52 am

This is a compilation of Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures given when he was
a professor at Wellesley and Cornell in the 1940s and 1950s. I would
highly recommend it if you have read any of the authors he covers
(Chekhov, Dostoevski, Gogol, Gorki, Tolstoy, and Turgenev). The
treatment of Anna Karenina is especially thorough and delightful.

These are not lectures in the academic sense that you will be exposed
to critical trends and philosophical arguments raised by the texts in
question. They are extremely accessible (and typeset in a comfortably
large size). Nabokov offers some interesting biographical details
about the authors, but he does not even mess with their philosophies
or beliefs or their sociocultural milieu. Nabokov’s basic approach to
literature is as a passionate reader. His recurring theme is that
“literature belongs not to the department of general ideas but to the
department of specific words and images,” and this is what his
lectures focus on. He offers floor plans of railway cars and pictures
of the characters’ clothing. He carefully sets forth the chronology of
the characters’ actions. He analyzes the way the authors write, often
reading sizeable excerpts from their books. And he lavishes his own
dramatic opinions upon his hearers.

Nabokov is a matchless guide through Russian literature. Not only does
he know the country and the language as a native Russian, but he is a
virtuoso writer in English. Here is one example of the sprightly
wordplay that appears in his lectures:

One peculiar feature of Tolstoy’s style is what I shall term the “groping purist.” In describing a meditation, emotion, or tangible object, Tolstoy follows the contours of the thought, the emotion, or the object until he is perfectly satisfied with his re-creation, his rendering. This involves what we might call creative repetitions, a compact series of repetitive statements, coming one immediately after the other, each more expressive, each closer to Tolstoy’s meaning. He gropes, he unwraps the verbal parcel for its inner sense, he peels the apple of the phrase, he tries to say it one way, then a better way, he gropes, he stalls, he toys, he Tolstoys with words.”

The best professors are the ones who clearly love what they are
teaching. You can check this out from the library and enjoy one of the
best literature courses in history for free.

By the way, Nabokov’s lectures on non-Russian literature are published
in a separate volume, which I will be reporting on soon (and probably
saying many of the same things). If you haven’t read any Russian
literature in recent memory, I would recommend that volume equally

November 23, 2009

A skilled first-century Palestinian poet

Suppose the apostle Luke, momentarily transported from biblical Palestine, were to listen in as I told a joke about George W. Bush, Oprah, and a used-car salesman fighting over the last parachute in a plummeting airplane. He would be pretty much guaranteed to miss the unexpected humor of the punchline. I am similarly disadvantaged when I read the parables of Jesus. I don’t know all the things the listeners assumed when Jesus introduced the situation, I don’t know how each character was expected to act and speak, and I am not the slightest bit shocked by the things that shocked his audience.

Kenneth Bailey’s two books Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, published in the 1970s, were written to help contemporary Western readers overcome these deficiencies. He lived and taught in the Middle East for much of his life, including decades of residence in rural villages. He appears to have written the books in consultation with a large network of Middle Eastern friends and scholars, as well as with his own considerable knowledge and research of ancient Middle Eastern languages and literature.

These books were scholarly, but not at all in an abstract way. Bailey approached the parables of Luke a passage at a time, systematically and thoroughly, teasing out the literary form, the cultural presumptions of the audience, and the response Jesus might have meant to provoke from them.

Because the gospels were not written in the same language that Jesus spoke, and because the existing manuscripts were edited after the evangelists wrote them down, analyzing the original speech of Jesus often involves a fascinating detective quest. Bailey deduces much about the history of the manuscripts simply by analyzing the literary form. Often he includes his own guesses about Aramaic wordplay in the original parable, based on his research of regional languages and cultures. As a literature major and a language aficionado, I found these explorations delightful.

Reading Bailey’s analysis of each parable is intellectually satisfying, but a greater reward is a clearer understanding of Jesus as a person. I was struck when I read the following conclusion to Bailey’s treatment of Luke 16:1–13, in which he rejects textual criticism that would disunite the parable of the unjust steward from the ensuing poem about God and mammon:

Theories that suggest the second block of material to be a gradual collection of early Church comments on the parable prove to be inadequate to the structural and theological nature of the material. The poem is the work of a skilled Palestinian poet in the first century. There remains no reason to doubt that the author was Jesus of Nazareth.

Now maybe I had heard Jesus referred to as a skilled poet before, but if I did I had always gotten the sense that people were repeating things they had always been told were true about Jesus—the party line, so to say—without any supporting evidence. Because he was divine, of course he would be great at everything. Also, these kind of people generally seemed not to know anything about poetry. But with Bailey’s guidance through each passage, with his painstakingly-supplied evidence, I came to a much greater respect for its artistry, and I love the idea that Jesus enjoyed literary wordplay.

What is great about this book is that helps you see for yourself all those well-rehearsed attributes of Jesus: brilliant theologian, quick-witted, subtle, perceptive, compassionate, defender of women and the oppressed, bold, and fascinating. A committed Christian is meant to invest substantial time in getting to know Jesus better, and in fact the main goal of a Christian’s life is to become more like Jesus. But I have always found Jesus very hard to get to know.

Bailey takes the limited, cryptic biblical information we are given and vividly describes the dynamics of each situation. Time after time he brings out Jesus’s criticism of self-righteousness and his teaching of humble reliance on God’s righteousness and mercy. It is one thing to be told that these concepts generate from Jesus’s teaching in a vague, theoretical way. It is another thing to see for yourself how consistent the good news of grace was, and just how boldly and beautifully and surprisingly Jesus proclaimed it.

November 19, 2009

Paris Out of Hand

This isn’t a book you read from cover to cover. I picked it up from time to time over a few years. And what a pleasure to pick up it was—its deep red cloth cover, its heavy pages with rounded corners, its ornate endpapers, its lovely typography and period illustrations throughout in antique ink colors. The target market is the utterly impractical tourist, anyone fascinated by obscure symbols, absurd ideas, strange quotations, and clever wordplay. Amusement, not significance, was foremost in the production of this book.

My only beef is that such an arch-literate misguidebook, deriving most of its humor from scintillating jeux de mots, should stoop so low as to translate nearly every French phrase. Presumably anyone reading this book would have enough basic knowledge of France (not to mention common sense) to know that artisans means “craftspeople” and that the entrée in France is the first course. Humor is destroyed when it is explained, and the reader finds herself unnecessarily patronized.

Still, this annoyance can be overlooked in the mischievous romp through a Paris of fantasy, where the Hôtel Hélas hands out handkerchiefs with the room key and provides waterproof pens, and where you can choose between the Métro Marquis de Sade with its spiked seats or the Auto da Fée taxi service to convey you from the Folies Berbères nightclub to the Parc les Chênes Andalous.

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