December Selections

Here are the three books I have chosen at random to read and comment upon in December. Congratulations to those of you whose books I selected!

You may recall that I asked for recommendations of non-fiction books that you had read within the last five years which you found inspiring, or thought-provoking, or otherwise interesting. Hopefully my commentary on the selected books will contribute to their inspirational or thought-provoking quality.

I am still (still!) waiting for Room to become available at the library, so my marginal commentary on it will be postponed until whenever I get my hands on it. I am going to honour having selected it in order to write a marginal commentary on it, but it looks like I will have to think of an ad hoc rule to apply in situations in which I cannot hope to reasonably acquire a book in the timeframe in which I hope to write for it.

The books chosen are:
The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell & Thomas M. Campbell.

The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls.

The Rebel Sell, by Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter.
My thanks to all of you who made recommendations for December: Alison, Christopher, Deborah, Jen, Kathy, and May!

The books recommended that weren't selected have been put on the back burner, and at some point I'll be choosing books from that list, so if your recommendation wasn't selected this time, never fear! It will have at least one more opportunity to be chosen.



Weighing in at over 1100 pages, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is now the longest book I have read for The Marginal Virtues to date, outpacing Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind and Gregory David Roberts's Shantaram.

My thanks to Graham for recommending this book!

Cryptonomicon is effectively four stories in one book, although the stories are closely linked, as you might imagine. As it is hard to look in-depth at any particular subject in a book of this length, I will mainly show one of the excellences of Stephenson's style, which is his ability to write distinctly when narrating for each of the main protagonists. In this regard Stephenson outdoes Terry Pratchett (himself no slouch when it comes to style), whose writing I find Stephenson's most resembles, for Pratchett tends toward stylistic uniformity, although unlike some of the other authors whose books I have written commentaries for here on The Marginal Virtues, Pratchett's singular style is excellent.

But back to Cryptonomicon. The edition I am using for this commentary was published in 1999 by Avon Books (an imprint of HarperCollins). It is impossible for me to treat the book's plot with the kind of consideration it deserves, so I will generally try to choose passages which are representative of the distinct styles in which Stephenson writes with respect to the protagonists, but which are not necessarily crucial to the movement of the plot. If time and space permit, I would also like to briefly compare Cryptonomicon to, of all things, The Lord of the Rings. Such a comparison is not inapt; indeed, one of the protagonists, Randy Waterhouse, occasionally interprets what is going on around him in Tolkienian imagery, and there is one passage (which I hope to quote at length) which displays a striking coherence to an idea much more briefly elucidated in Tolkien's work. I won't go into any more detail here, nor do I promise that such a comparison will, in fact, take place. If you like, it's something for you to think about, should you get your hands on a copy of Cryptonomicon.

Finally, Cryptonomicon is true to life, and about two-thirds of it, on the whole, is set during the Second World War. I have included the labels 'profanity' and 'sex' because there is a fair amount of swearing, and not only sex, but also moments where characters are thinking about sex (or about people with whom they would like to have sex) and have, shall we say, appropriate physiological reactions to these thoughts. Actually, the distinction between Stephenson's various 'narrative dialects' (you might call them) is nowhere more evident than in the various sexual encounters in which three of the four protagonists engage. All that said, Cryptonomicon is not a smutty book, simply realistic, in that people in the book swear (some more than others), and either have or think about having sex with other people. In terms of what I will be citing, I won't be quoting anything from sex scenes (unless it is suitably suggestive, rather than explicit), but I won't be able to help quoting profane utterances, as there are, after all, quite a few of those in Cryptonomicon. You have been warned.

Well, enough of all that rigomarole. Let's get on with Cryptonomicon.


Reader Recommendations: December

With my marginal commentary on Cryptonomicon in progress, and waiting for Room to become available, I am ready to receive recommendations for books to read in December!

The guidelines for recommending books may be found here. The list of books I have completed for The Marginal Virtues may be found here; you can also see both pages listed on the sidebar on the right-hand side of the page.

As always, I'll open the floor for suggestions for about a week, and then choose three recommended books at random to read for December - or, if my experience with trying to get my hands on some of the books is any indication, whenever I have the chance to finish them. Oh, well.

For December, please recommend a non-fiction book you've read in the past five years, or so, that affected you. Perhaps it was inspiring, informative, or funny. Perhaps it was disturbing, calling into question things you thought were true. In any case, I want to have the chance to read it.

I am, as always, looking forward to receiving your recommendations!



Another long book, this one courtesy of Martha & May, both of whom recommended it. Thank you both!

Shantaram reminded me of Rudyard Kipling's classic, Kim, although obviously it has little in common with that twentieth-century masterpiece, other than being set in the Indian sub-continent. Another point of contact between the two works is that the protagonists of both take part in a spiritual quest.

The edition of Shantaram from which I am quoting was published by St. Martin's Press in 2003. Its author is Gregory David Roberts, the first Australian whose work I have written a commentary for on The Marginal Virtues. If you haven't read the book, you might want to turn to it first before reading this commentary, as I will reveal details about the plot and the like as I deem it necessary.

I think it could be fairly said that Shantaram does for Bombay, to a certain extent, what The Lord of the Rings did for Middle-earth, which is provide an aesthetic structure in which the 'world' in which the novel takes place takes on a life and character of its own. We shall see whether this is the case. Meanwhile I found that because the entirety of the work is written from the perspective of the first-person, semi-authobiographical narrator, Lin, it lacked a distinct prose style. On the other hand, I feel that Roberts does do a good job of writing distinct styles of dialogue, as we shall see.

'He was never free.'

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being the final book of the Potter septet, is perhaps Rowling's finest work, written at the peak of her literary power.

In this post, my aim will be to contrast what I see as the dramatic success of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows as a book, and the dramatic failure of the film adaptation. Chiefly I shall focus on what I should like to call the 'quiet climaxes' of The Deathly Hallows; three moments in the book the importance of which to the plot are pivotal, but which are not spectacular, so to speak.

Of course The Deathly Hallows is a book the pacing of which is excellent, and which is also tense, exciting, and literally spectacular; the menace of Voldemort and of death leavens the whole work. Critics who disparage the part of the book in which Harry, Ron and Hermione travel fruitlessly across Britain seem to forget that it consists of but two chapters and just over thirty pages, just over one-twentieth of the book; this suggests that, far from the pace flagging, Rowling's use of pacing is masterly given that she is able to create such an impression with so small a segment of the work.

To return to the 'quiet climaxes', there are, I believe, three such moments in the book; I shall describe them in greater detail below. As I said above, these three moments are pivotal to the plot of the book, and, what is more, are immensely important in terms of developing or representing the character of the agents. They are also, in addition, aesthetically excellent. The film version, on the whole, does not adapt all of them uniformly well, and it is my contention that the films suffer dramatically as a result. I should note that I will be providing any details I deem necessary to explicate my point, so you may wish to avoid reading this post if you have not read The Deathly Hallows in its entirety.

On we go! Or, as Dumbledore said in The Half-Blood Prince (HBP3, 59), 'let us... pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.'


November Update

This update is just to let you know that I am still working on the reader recommendations for October. I am still waiting for a copy of Room to become available. Both Shantaram and Cryptonomicon were each about as long as, say, three books I might normally have read for The Marginal Virtues, and I had to wait until October to get my hands on a copy of Lamb (a book I had selected for September) in any event. There were other circumstances in late September and early October which made it difficult to write or read consistently, so I fell behind. In any case, having recently finished the marginal commentary on Lamb, I am working on marginal commentaries for the other two works.

Obviously I have foregone requesting books for November, but I am planning on calling for books for December. Look for a request for books in a week or so.



First, my thanks to Chris for recommending this book!

Lamb, by Christopher Moore, is a popular book - at least at the Ottawa Public Library. Its subtitle is The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. As you probably know, it is a comic look at the 'lost years' between Jesus' nativity and the beginning of his ministry in Galillee.

The edition from which I shall be citing passages was published in 2007 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book was originally published in 2002. The edition I got a hold of was a special edition with that faux-leather cover that you find on Bibles, a red ribbon to mark your page, and gold (or gold-coloured) edging. Its appearance was droll.

I found it hard to find a common theme to focus on in this marginal commentary. Indeed, from my perspective, what was most consistent about Lamb was its theological 'offness' (on coining or using such a term, may I say faute de mieux). This 'offness' is odd, particularly considering, as Moore writes in his afterword (written for the new edition of the book), that he 'made certain assumptions about who Jesus was, mainly that he was who the Gospels say he was'. But I don't intend to write a dissertation about Moore's 'Christology' (so to speak). Rather, better to focus on the kind of 'important question[s]' Moore 'felt needed to be addressed,' such as '"What if Jesus had known kung fu?"' [p. 405]

For the most part Moore's take on Jesus' 'missing years' is witty, with a dose of charm, some juvenile hijinks, a bit of 'buddy movie' and a little Pratchett. It ends, as all good stories about Jesus outside the Gospels do, with tragedy, of course. (There is, I find, something about the Resurrection which is impossible to communicate effectively in accounts of Jesus' life other than the Gospels.)

So let's look at some of Moore's good stuff, and maybe take in an oddity or two.


The Denial of Death: What is the Heroic Individual?

We come at last to the final chapter of Ernest Becker's work, The Denial of Death. I have found that each successive marginal commentary of mine has become longer and longer, as his argument became more and more complex.

For the sake of reference, here are the links to the other posts in the series, each of which focussed on one chapter of The Denial of Death. I did not see fit to comment on every chapter of the work, but I think I have got enough of Becker's own argument in for anyone reading the posts in order to be able to follow along; of course the best thing to do, if his thesis interests you, is to read the book for yourself.

  1. Styx in Denial
  2. The Terror of Death 
  3. Existential Dualism and You
  4. Human Character as a Vital Lie
  5. The Nexus of Unfreedom
  6. Becker's Heroes
  7. Rank Neurosis

Now we'll proceed straight to the commentary. This post will be much more like the first of the series, for I think, at this point, that not many more of Becker's own conclusions need to be cited at length.

October Selections

Here are the three books I have chosen at random to read and comment upon in October. Congratulations to those of you whose recommendations were selected!

The books chosen are:
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.

Room, by Emma Donoghue.

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts.

My thanks to those of you who made recommendations for October: Dan, Deborah, Flo, Graham, Martha, Matt, May, and Sarah!

Sadly, Dan's recommendation, a Choose Your Own Adventure book, was not available at the library, so I wasn't able to select it at random in any case. Incidentally, I don't remember any of the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks, save one in which you (as the protagonist) are shrunk so that you can explore a sandcastle in which a pair of magical children have been trapped.

As is customary, the books which weren't picked for October are being put on the back burner for future reference. I am looking forward to having the opportunity to read and comment upon at least some of those books, too.

Meanwhile, I am still waiting for the last book I selected for September, Lamb, to become available from the library, so it is likely to be late getting out. I should also mention that two of the books selected, Cryptonomicon and Shantaram, are over 900 pages apiece, so any commentary on them will be of necessity incomplete and, to a certain extent, superficial.


The Denial of Death: Rank Neurosis

When last we left Ernest Becker and The Denial of Death, he had just finished going through the various 'solutions' we humans have arrived at to cope with what I think Becker would accept as being called the 'dualistic dilemma', or, to use one of his more colorful metaphors, the problem that we are 'gods with anuses'. Ironically, his chronicle of solutions begins with the fact that in the modern era we had rejected the 'religious solution', and ends with the insight - reached, apparently, much earlier by the psychoanalyst and former disciple of Freud, Otto Rank - that, all of the other 'solutions' having been tried and found wanting, we are back to the religious one.

Reader Recommendations: October

Now that I've completed a summer of choosing books from the back burner (as of writing this post with one book left for September), it's time to get back to getting fresh recommendations from you! I've cleared the list of books that were on the back burner, as I mentioned which I listed the books chosen from it for September, but feel free to recommend them again.

It's been a while since I last asked for recommendations, so just to refresh your memory and mine, I'll be asking for recommendations for books to read and comment upon in October as of the publication of this post. After about a week, I'll close recommendations for October and then select at random from the recommendations three books for the month.

Please check out the page listing the books I've already read, so that you don't choose something from there, and the guidelines on recommending books.

I am looking forward to receiving your recommendations!


Genesis: The Movie

First, my thanks to Elizabeth for recommending this book!

Second, before I begin my marginal commentary in earnest, I should tell you how I came to possess a copy of it. It was in the sale bin at the entrance to the bookstore in St. Paul University in Ottawa some years ago, and the title, not to mention the image on the front cover, caught my eye. Naturally, I had to pick it up. (Back then I was also ready to buy a book at the drop of a hat.)

The edition of Genesis: The Movie (whose author, Robert Farrar Capon, is an Episcopal priest) which I will be using for this marginal commentary was published by William B. Eerdmans in 2003. Eerdmans, by the way, is a Christian publishing company which can claim to be truly ecumenical, and I have found pretty much every book I have read published by Eerdmans to be thought-provoking, intelligent, and helpful.

Finally, before we begin in earnest, allow me to make two editorial notes. First, in all of the passages from Genesis: The Movie which I subsequently quote, any words or passages in italics or all capitals are original, unless otherwise noted. I find that Capon so often uses unusual editing which under normal circumstances would need to be commented upon that remarking 'italics original' and the like just cluttered the quotation. Second, I have been writing 'Genesis: The Movie' as the title of the book throughout, but the punctuation is actually Genesis, the Movie. However, I'm too lazy to go through my post, long as it is, to change how I've written it, so you will have to live with that particular recurrent typographical error. Mea culpa.

Urban Meltdown

Urban Meltdown is written by Clive Doucet, a former city councillor of Ottawa. He is the second Canadian whose work I will have written a marginal commentary for (not counting Kate Pullinger, who was born in Canada but moved to the United Kingdom thirty years ago), the first, of course, being James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. The full name of the book is Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual (the sub-title, incidentally, also being the title of one of the chapters of the book). According to the 'About the Author' blurb at the back of the book, Doucet has roots in the Maritimes, which is another (admittedly incidental) connection he has with De Mille. Well, the Canadian literary scene is, in many respects, a small world.

My thanks to Emily for suggesting this book!

The edition from which I quote passages was published in 2007 by New Society Publishers. Incidentally, one of the blurbs on the back of the book (obscured, as was the case with a blurb on the back of The Mistress of Nothing, by an OPL bar code) is by none other than James Howard Kunstler, whose book World Made by Hand I also wrote a marginal commentary for - and which was also recommended to me by Emily.


The Apprentice

I should reassure you straightaway that this has nothing to do with Donald Trump's show. This is a marginal commentary on The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pépin.

My thanks to Lauren for recommending this book!

The Apprentice is the second autobiography I will have commented on for The Marginal Virtues, and its author, Jacques Pépin, is a French emigré to the United States who, along with Julia Child and others, introduced French cookery to America. (One wonders what they and others of their school thought of the American backlash against the French in the noughts.) Oddly, there seems to be no popular name for this group (whose work will, I presume, be featured in Pépin's book), so I will dub it 'the French School'.

The edition I am using was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003.


The Mistress of Nothing

First, my thanks to dee for recommending this book! She recommended it all the way back in December, but, thanks to the vicissitudes of random selection and being placed on the back burner, I didn't select it to read until July, when I picked it for this month.

Anyhow, The Mistress of Nothing is written from the perspective (and, indeed, using her as a first-person narrator) of Sally Naldrett, the lady's maid of Lady Duff Gordon, when the two women travel to Egypt for Lady Duff Gordon's health. It tells the story of Sally's gradual self-discovery ('awakening', one blurb on the back cover puts it) and the consequences thereof.

I would have liked to address one of the blurbs which praises The Mistress of Nothing for not being 'an Orientalist fantasy' while yet 'bringing 1860s Egypt to life' (at least I think that is what it says), but because my copy of the book, which is from the Ottawa Public Library, has a library bar code obscuring the blurb, I can't make out what it says to comment upon it. Not having read Edward Said's famous book Orientalism, I cannot comment on why I felt somewhat irritated by the blurb's reference to 'Orientalist fantasy' and its relation to the notion of 'Orientalism', but suffice it to say that I am, as a rule, suspicious of terms or words whose only function, it seems to me, are to serve as components in an ad hominem, or else a straw man, in argument or debate. But that is a matter for another time.

The edition of the book from which I quote was published in 2009 by McArthur & Company, a publishing house based in Toronto. I should mention that I will be going into quite a bit of detail about the plot of the book, so if you are keen to read it for yourself, I suggest you do that before turning to this marginal commentary. I believe, however, that this will be intelligible even if you do not read the book.


August Update

This is to let folks know that I am changing the order in which I write and post marginal commentaries for a few of the books I have selected to read for August and September, and to mention a milestone on The Marginal Virtues.

I am going to be waiting for a while for one of the books I selected for August, Lamb, to become available at the library, almost certainly until well into September. Therefore, I am moving The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen to the list of books I will be reading and commenting upon for August, and Lamb to the list for September. Thanks for your patience and understanding!

Also, because I forgot to mention it in the post itself, my marginal commentary on Hitman was the fiftieth post published on The Marginal Virtues. It feels a little unreal that I have already written that many posts (some of which, of course, are updates and the like), but I'm happy to have accomplished that feat (unspectacular though it may be). In particular, I'm glad that so many of the posts are on books that I would have never read were it not for your recommendations, so thank you all very much!


September Selections

You may not remember, but as I noted in my post when I announced the books selected from reader recommendations for August, I chose at random three books from the list of books 'on the back burner' for September, which is why I didn't canvass for recommendations this month.

So, without more ado, the books selected for September:

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pepin.

Genesis: The Movie, by Robert Farrar Capon.

Urban Meltdown, by Clive Doucet.

My congratulations and thanks to those whose previous recommendations were selected: Elizabeth, Emily, & Lauren!

Following this selection of books from the back burner, I will be back to requesting recommendations starting in October. I will be shortly clearing the list of books from the back burner, so thank you to everyone who recommended books, and I am sorry if your recommendation wasn't chosen! Just keep recommending books and, with any luck, one of your recommendations will be selected sooner or later.


Dumbledore's Man Through and Through

In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the theme of loyalty is an important one, and, sadly, it is omitted in the film, for Rufus Scrimgeour does not appear in it, nor do many scenes between Harry and Dumbledore, nor does much of his questioning of Snape's loyalty, nor his disagreement with Ron and Hermione about where Draco Malfoy's loyalties now lie (with respect to the latter the film pretty much tells us flat out what he is doing; a dramatic necessity, perhaps, given restrictions of length, but again, omitting much of Rowling's genius in plotting and in leaving subtle clues and hints for the reader to enjoy and savour).

It is my intention in this post, then, to explore what I believe to be one of the chief themes of The Half-Blood Prince; namely, the theme of loyalty. If anything, of course, Harry's loyalty to Dumbledore is sorely tried more in The Deathly Hallows than in The Half-Blood Prince, but, if loyalty be a virtue, it is one which Harry had to learn as a habit in The Half-Blood Prince (not that he hadn't already demonstrated loyalty to Dumbledore; see The Chamber of Secrets) in order to remain loyal to the Headmaster and carry on the struggle under the most trying and difficult of circumstances in the last volume of the series.

The edition from which I will be quoting is the Raincoast/Bloomsbury edition of 2005. For those of you who wish to read the passages I quote for yourselves but have a different edition of the book, I will include the chapter from which the quotation was taken, using the abbreviation HBP (indicating Half-Blood Prince), followed by the number of the chapter; thus, for example, the first quotation is from the first chapter, and so is noted as 'HBP1'. This form of noting the chapter I am taking from the Harry Potter Lexicon, which is an excellent reference and resource. Needless to say, I will freely discuss what happens in the book, so if you haven't read it, proceed no further.



The first book I am writing a marginal commentary for in August is Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, by Bret 'Hitman' Hart. My thanks to Peter for recommending this book!

I must admit, I approached the book with much trepidation. I was never more than vaguely interested in professional wrestling as a boy, although I picked up a smattering of knowledge about it (as boys pick up a smattering of knowledge about everything), and my interest in it diminished as I grew older. What I heard and saw of it, moreover, led me to care for it less and less.

What is more, the book was an autobiography, written by a professional wrestler. I can count on one hand the autobiographies I have read, and the two that I remember I didn't care all that much for, despite the fact that one was written by William Shatner and the other by Robert Schuller (he of Crystal Cathedral fame), both of whom I at least have superficial reasons to admire. How would Bret Hart's tome fare?


One Simple Act

First, my thanks to Nanci for recommending this book!

Second, the name of the book, which is One Simple Act (with the subtitle Discovering the Power of Generosity), reminds me of the since-cancelled series No Ordinary Family, probably because the structure of the title is the same. Actually they have nothing in common, but every once in a while it's nice to associate freely.

The edition from which I will be quoting passages was published by Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.) in 2009. Not that I have read any of Debbie Macomber's fiction, but she strikes me as the evangelical Protestant Jan Karon (Jan Karon is the author of the Mitford series of books, some of which are about an Episcopal priest) - not that I've read any of Jan Karon's books, either.

As the book's subtitle indicates, its subject is generosity, and as Macomber is an (evangelical) Christian, she addresses her subject from that perspective - so, for example, she cites Scripture in support of being generous and notes that one important means of being generous is to tithe to the church. One of the things I like about the book is its deepening structure. We all struggle to be generous sometimes (or, what is worse, believe ourselves to be generous when in fact we are not), and Macomber does not set out to overwhelm us from the get-go; rather, her focus is on, as she puts it, 'simple' ways of practicing generosity, not all of which (in fact, very few) involve giving money to organisations or causes.

Being a relative novice at true generosity, I would like to focus on the earlier chapters of Macomber's work, as I think I will have the most fruitful commentary there. I don't know how generous any of you readers are, but if you have ever felt you would like to be more generous, perhaps some of what Macomber has to say will be of help to you.


Dark Night of the Soul

First, my thanks to my friend Matt for recommending this book!

Dark Night of the Soul is a treatise on a phenomenon which occurs during the course of Christian spiritual devotion. I should point out that the 'dark night' to which John of the Cross, the author of the treatise, refers has nothing to do with what is commonly thought to be the 'dark night of the soul', which is a profound experience of depression. While the image of a 'long dark night of the soul' is apt as a metaphor for depression (it is almost as good as Winston Churchill's 'black dog'), that is not to what John of the Cross refers in his treatise on the 'dark night of the soul'. Part of what I will be doing, then, is clarifying what John of the Cross means when he talks about the 'dark night'.

In addition, Dark Night of the Soul is a companion of another of John's treatises on spirituality, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. I will have little to no recourse to that work in this marginal commentary, however.

The edition of Dark Night of the Soul in my possession and from which I shall quote passages is part of a collection of John's works, published in 1979 by the Institute of Carmelite Studies, and translated and edited by a pair of Carmelites (of the Order of Discalced Carmelites), Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (I should mention that in this collection, the work is entitled The Dark Night) John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, is considered one of the founders of the Discalced Carmelites. Incidentally, John of the Cross, along with Teresa of Avila, is commemorated in the Anglican Church of Canada on October 15.

And now, on to discover what is the dark night of the soul.


The Golden Compass

First, my thanks once again to dee for recommending this book!

Not having read The Golden Compass, or any of the other books in the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, I am not quite sure what to expect. I saw the film version with members of my extended family back in the day, but the other titles were never produced as films, for what reason (or reasons) I don't know. I have heard that the book is very well written.

The edition from which I quote passages was published by Dell Laurel-Leaf, an imprint of Random House. Although the copyright notice is for 1995 (I had no idea the books had been around for so long), I expect that this edition was printed much later. Interestingly, according to the page on the back of the title, The Golden Compass was originally published in Britain under the title His Dark Materials 1: Northern Lights. I should point out that I will be making reference to various events and personages in the work, and if you haven't read the book, you might want to do so before you read this marginal commentary.


August Selections

For the month of August, I have chosen at random three books from among those listed as 'On the Back Burner'. I have not forgotten my selections for July; they are in progress.

First, my congratulations to those whose previous recommendations were selected for the month of August!

The books selected are:

Hitman, by Bret Hart.

Lamb, by Christopher Moore.

The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger.

A big thank-you to Chris, dee (two months in a row! lucky), and Peter, whose recommendations on previous occasions were selected for August.

I will select three books at random from the list of those 'on the back burner' for September; those will be the last I choose from that list for 2011. Beginning in October I will once again be canvassing for recommendations!


The Denial of Death: Becker's Heroes

In my series on The Denial of Death, I did not comment on those chapters of the book which focussed on Becker's analysis of individual writers (namely, Søren Kierkegaard or Freud), because they constituted supporting arguments for Becker's thesis, rather than continuing his analysis of human motivation and behaviour.

In this latest post on The Denial of Death, however, I am going to look at Becker's treatment of psychoanalyst Otto Rank, a disciple of Freud, whom Becker lionised in the introduction to the work. In this chapter (entitled 'Otto Rank and the Closure of Psychoanalysis on Kierkegaard'), Becker appropriates Rank's work with respect to his own project of discovering how (he says) we try to fulfill our most basic desires. This chapter has a lot to say about what kind of loci Becker argues are appropriate for transference in order to secure the kind of 'creative projection' and 'life-enhancing illusion' which, as we saw at the end of the last chapter, were, Becker claimed, necessary for human flourishing. I am, therefore, going to comment upon it. It also has a lot to say about what aren't suitable objects of transference. I should mention that Becker refers frequently to Kierkegaard in this chapter, but since he doesn't cite his work, I don't have much to say about Becker's use of him. In any case Becker doesn't really have much to say about Kierkegaard, as we shall see.

On we go.


The Denial of Death: The Nexus of Unfreedom

This is the next post in my series of marginal commentaries on The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker.

If this is the first time you have seen a post on The Denial of Death, here are the links to the previous posts in the series:

The first; the second; the third; the fourth.

Also, in summary, Becker's primary assertion is that the knowledge that we are creatures whose fate is to die is too much for us to bear; therefore, we do one of two things: either we attempt to be causa sui, as it were self-caused - that is, we try to make our own immortality project - or, either when the former project fails or from the start because of our lack of courage, we allow ourselves to be swallowed up in the cultural norms for heroism and immortality. For Becker the problem of the knowledge of existence and of death is a problem of heroism.

Before I begin the marginal commentary, let it be said that Becker has come up with some impressive chapter headings: that for this chapter (the seventh) is 'The Spell Cast by Persons - The Nexus of Unfreedom'; another good one is that for the fourth chapter, 'Human Character as a Vital Lie'. I guess those are really the only two that stand out on their own, but 'The Psychoanalyst Kierkegaard' stands out, too.


In the Meantime

I have decided to write a marginal commentary on a book the subject of which is of considerable personal interest to me. As some of my readers may know, I am undergoing the process of formation and preparation to be ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church of Canada.

This process has involved a great deal of thought, discussion, debate, and questioning about my vocation. The question of vocation, of, that is, being called to a particular form of ministry by God, is an important one with respect to ordained ministry, although not to ordained ministry alone. All Christians, of course, have a vocation by virtue of their baptism.

At any rate, I think it would be helpful for me, and, perhaps, enlightening for others, if I ruminated on the question of vocation in general and on my vocation in particular. In light of the purpose of this blog, I will do so by examining books I have read on the subject of vocation.

I will begin with a book called In the Meantime, written by Rob Brendle, who is the associate pastor of a large American church; so large, in fact, that it has its own publishing imprint. The edition from which I quote passages was published in 2006 by WaterBrook Press. (As an aside, it is fashionable for evangelical Protestant denominations to entitle all of their organisations, products and services using allusions to the Bible, something which I suppose should be encouraged in theory but which in practice looks a bit pretentious.)



It is about high time I gave the work of a philosopher so eminent as Aristotle its due by writing a marginal commentary about it. I employed Aristotle's Poetics in my post on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, as you may recall, in which I compared Barty Crouch, Sr., to a tragic protagonist, as defined by Aristotle in Poetics.

Since drama and theatre have long been interests of mine (although it has been too long since I pursued them in any active role), I have had some experience with the Poetics, and of course I read it through last year - for the first time, mind you - and used it (skilfully, I hope) in my literary criticism of The Goblet of Fire.

Thus I would like to write a marginal commentary on one of Aristotle's most famous, not to mention one of his shortest, works, the Poetics, in which he writes about the nature and purpose of drama, and of the elements of tragedy.

The edition I am using is the translation made for Penguin Classics by Malcolm Heath, published in 1996. The references for citation will be page number (from the Penguin Classics edition) and the convention of referring to the Bekker numbers. Here we go:


The Wednesday Letters

The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright, is the second novel I will have read for The Marginal Virtues which features letters as a crucial plot device; the first, of course, being The Letter (Richard Paul Evans).

This is not the only similarity between the two works. Both are written by Americans, who are authors of other popular works. It remains to be seen whether Wright can treat the subject of The Wednesday Letters (forgiveness, according to the blurb on the dust jacket) with greater skill than Evans did the subject of The Letter.

After lengthy discussions on the abuse of power in Shades of Grey and on satire in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, I am going to take it easy and focus on the style of The Wednesday Letters, what I enjoyed and what I didn't care for.

The edition of The Wednesday Letters to which I shall refer in this post is the hardcover publication by Shadow Mountain in 2007. Since this book was recommended me by Jen (thanks, Jen!) from a list of books that her book club is reading, I hope that what I have to say about it comes in handy, and I should note that the book includes a link to the author's website where questions for book club discussions may be found.


A Long Title

First, an announcement: I unaccountably forgot to credit Chris for recommending Shades of Grey in my marginal commentary on that book, so consider this the official erratum. Before I forget, then, my thanks to Graham for recommending the book on which I am commenting in this post.

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is a book with a long name. I don't know much about James De Mille, but if his other books have titles such as this one, then he needs to work on imaginatively shortening them. But, to be fair, the title describes what gets the story going. On account of the length of the book's title, I will be referring to the book as A Strange Manuscript throughout.

De Mille is, I think, the first Canadian author I have written a post for on The Marginal Virtues, and the second (after Aristotle; for whom, it must be said, I have not yet written a commentary proper) whose work was written before the twentieth century to be featured on this blog.

The edition I read for this blog is the New Canadian Library edition, published originally by McClelland and Stewart in 1969 (reprinted in 1985). It is the 68th in the series, so it would be worth a look to see what other titles preceded and followed it.

It has frequently been my practice to read the scholarly introduction to works such as this, and then to neglect or only haphazardly read the works themselves; for this commentary I have foregone reading the introduction (I will wait, as with Ender's Game, until after I have finished the book itself).


July Selections

As I noted in my recent update, the selections for July would be from the books listed 'on the back burner', so to speak.

And here they are: the three books I have selected at random to read and comment upon in July. I was lazy and chose from only those books which I happen to have immediate access to, but that still gave me a fair number of books to choose from.

Congratulations to those of you whose recommendations were selected this time!

Dark Night of the Soul, by John of the Cross.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman.

One Simple Act, by Debbie Macomber.

Thanks to Matt, dee, and Nanci for your recommendations on previous occasions which have finally been selected.

For those of you whose recommendations are still on the waiting list, don't worry; I will be choosing from a wider selection in August.


Update: On the Back Burner

The marginal commentaries on A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder and The Wednesday Letters are in progress, and will be finished before the end of the month, which will mark the second, or possibly just the first, time I have completed all of the books I selected to read for a month in the month I meant to read and write about them.

Within a day or two I will be choosing books to read for July. For next month, I will select three books from the list of books I have dubbed as being 'on the back burner', which are books which were recommended, but not selected. You can see what books there are for me to choose from on the page listing books read for this blog.

I haven't made up my mind to do so yet, but I am considering picking at random from the books on the list which I happen to already have in my possession, because I am feeling pretty lazy this month. I am sometimes on a tight schedule writing the commentaries when a book I am commenting upon is due back at the library in a few days.

Doing so would give me the chance, I hope, to finish writing about the Harry Potter books, as I am trying to post at least one essay on each of the books in the series before the final movie comes out in theatres. Hopefully I will also be able to complete one or two other posts of my choice, as well, such as the as yet incomplete series on Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death.

Stay tuned for the selections recommended by readers for July!


Roy G Biv

'Shades of Gray' is the name of a god-awful episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the finale of the second season, and consisted, more or less, of crewmembers watching Commander Riker lie on a bed in sickbay interspersed with clips from older episodes, which were passed off as his 'memories'.

I want to spend some time roundly abusing this episode, which may well be the worst hour of Star Trek ever. And that's including Star Trek: Nemesis... wait, what?

Oh, right! I'm actually writing about Shades of Grey, a futuristic fantastic novel by one Jasper Fforde (whose last name, being Welsh, is probably pronounced nothing like what it looks). Shades of Grey happens, by coincidence, to remind me of the short film Rainbow War from the nineteen-eighties.

One of the things that struck me about Shades of Grey was the easy, clever style in which it was written, a style which I have noticed that just about every British author, at least of the twentieth century, whom I have read possesses. As disparate a crew as C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and Mr Fforde (among others) here all seem, at times, to write with elegance and wit unmatched by writers of English of other lands (most notably America, nearly all of whose popular writers - the Dan Browns, the Richard Paul Evanses, et al. - have a stylistic reach that exceeds their grasp). Fforde, as we shall see, may be said to resemble Pratchett or Adams, both of whose names are invoked on the back cover of Shades of Grey in a blurb from the L. A. Times Book Review.

I was initially thinking I would comment upon passages in which Fforde displays his effortless, breezy style, but the clever throwaway lines and oddball comments diminish as Shades of Grey continues; it turns out with good reason. Not to give too much away (not that this has stopped me in other marginal commentaries), but it transpires that Shades of Grey is the first of a series of books (of which at least three have been planned; the second, according to Mr Fforde's website, is to be published sometime in 2013). It bears a subtitle: The Road to High Saffron. While I will comment upon such witticisms as come up (the first few chapters, especially, are full of them), part of what I will comment upon is the use and abuse of power.

Here we go:


The Wizarding World in The Order of the Phoenix

In my last post about a Harry Potter book, I wrote that:
[o]ne of the most enjoyable aspects of The Goblet of Fire... is the discovery of the wider wizarding world, to which Harry has been (despite his importance as the Boy Who Lived) a peripheral figure, and which has a life and energy of its own apart from Harry and Hogwarts.
The unfolding of the broader wizarding world, especially the Ministry for Magic, is likewise a source of enjoyment of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Whereas in my post on The Goblet of Fire changed focus to look at Barty Crouch, Sr., as a tragic or semi-tragic figure, in this post my focus will be on the use of virtue in the wizarding world. As we shall see, virtue is not in every case good, or agreed-upon. Much of the conflict between Dumbledore and his Order and Fudge and the Ministry has to do with what virtues are most important, what constitutes virtuous behaviour, and to whom one owes the duty of being virtuous.

First, I need to set the stage briefly by looking back at the events of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.


Imagining Middle-earth

I referred to this book in my post on World Made by Hand, but I feel that it deserves its own marginal commentary.

The book of which I write is Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, written by English literary critic Brian Rosebury. The book is the second edition (published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2003), much revised, of a version which Rosebury published in 1992. The title of this post refers to that of the first chapter of Tolkien.

My focus will be on the first two chapters of the work, which themselves focus on The Lord of the Rings. As Rosebury (rightly, in my view) says, 'I will say straight away that [Tolkien's] reputation must... very largely rest on The Lord of the Rings [p. 8]'. As I wrote in my post on World Made by Hand about Rosebury's discussion of Tolkien:
One major thrust of Rosebury's work was to argue that, in many respects, Middle-earth is itself a 'character' in The Lord of the Rings, and that one strength of Tolkien's writing is his deft use of the landscape to elucidate the 'character' of the land and to bring to life, as it were, the vision of life which he communicates in the work.
So my plan here is to comment in greater depth on Rosebury's accomplishment, for I believe that, in many respects, Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon achieves the kind of breakthrough with The Lord of the Rings with respect to literary criticism, that Planet Narnia (by Michael Ward) does with C. S. Lewis's Narniad. (Although, with regard to Planet Narnia, see here.)

A final note: the formatting of this post seems to have been messed up ever since there was a problem that caused blogger to have been inaccessible for a couple of days, so pardon the look.


June Selections

Here are the three books I have selected at random to read and comment upon in June. Congratulations to those of you whose recommendations were selected!

The books chosen are:

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille.

The Wednesday Letters by Jason F. Wright.

A big thank those of you who made recommendations for June: Chris, Graham, Jen, Lauren, & Nanci!

Keep your fingers crossed that, this time, I will in fact be able to read and comment upon these books in the month for which they were selected.


Ender's Game

First, my thanks to Paul for this recommendation!

On with the book. I found that I have been enjoying it more than I thought I would. It rather reminds me, at least tangentially, of two other science fiction books about a young man's initiation into the military (Ender being exceedingly young, of course, but so also those with whom he is in training), Starship Troopers (Robert A. Heinlein) and The Forever War (Joe Haldeman), although it differs quite a bit from both and they from each other. Both of those I read for a science fiction literature course I took years ago in my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa.

In brief, Ender's Game is about a six year-old boy by the name of Andrew Wiggins, who always goes by the nickname 'Ender' bestowed upon him by his older sister Valentine. Ender is a supremely gifted boy who is being cultivated by the military to be the commanding officer they need to save them from a potentially destructive enemy, a race of insect-like beings referred to throughout the book as 'buggers'. Ender 'saves' humanity in the process of enduring what he believes to be simulated tests, but which are in fact him, and his cohorts, actually commanding or controlling Earth's fleets as they attack and defeat the enemy fleets and destroy the 'bugger' homeworld. Ender then goes off with his sister to colonise a 'bugger' world, and it transpires that the 'buggers' were attempting to communicate with him. Ender eventually becomes what he calls a 'Speaker for the Dead', which inspires a new religion.

I would have to re-read the two books I just mentioned, but, I found that I enjoyed this book more than I remember enjoying them. I might go so far as to say that Ender's Game is a better book than they, but since it has been so long since I read them, it would be best just to say that I enjoyed it.


Book Written by Hand?

A big thank-you to Emily, who recommended this book for me to read!

World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, is the tale of the citizens of a small town in New York state some indeterminate time in the future after oil has become unavailable, and calamity, in the form of terrorism, political upheaval, and lethal epidemics, has overtaken the United States.

Since I found writing what amounted to a synopsis of Bringing Down the House tiresome - and dare I wonder whether a similar feeling overtook those who read that post - I will focus my attention on one aspect of World Made by Hand, which is the aesthetic quality of the landscape. This is one aspect of the book which I believe provides much of its charm. I would have liked to have discussed Kunstler's use of the religious (and supernatural), but it, along with Kunstler's overarching theme - the contrast between our present and that of the characters - provide innumerable examples and do them justice would require more time and effort than I am willing to put in. It may be said that looking at Kunstler's use of the landscape involves reference to his 'new dispensation', and to the extent that it does, I will thus be treating with that larger theme.

Citations are taken from the 2008 publication by Atlantic Monthly Press. The book is written from the perspective of its protagonist, Robert Earle, a carpenter in a small town in New York State by the name of Union Grove; in the direct citations, then, any reference to the first person ('I,' 'me,' and so on) refers to him.


Reader Recommendations: June

It's that time of month, for you out there to recommend books for me to read and comment upon for next month. I've enjoyed the recommended books for January, which, thanks to CPE and other delays, waited until May for completion. In my last update, I stated that I thought I would select only two books, but having finished all of the posts for books previously recommended to me, I will be choosing three after all.

Before making a recommendation, I suggest you read the guidelines on the page, 'How to Recommend Books'. Just select the hyperlink here, or you can click on the link of the same name on the right-hand side under the heading 'Pages'.

Don't forget to make your recommendations in the comments section of this post!

For June, it can be any sort of books you have in mind. The three books will be randomly chosen (I shall draw them from out of a hat) from the list of recommendations. I will be selecting the books on Sunday, May 15.

I'm looking forward to seeing your recommendations!


Bringing Down the House

One of the blurbs on the back of the copy of Bringing Down the House which I am reading calls it a 'truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale', and, indeed, the summary of what author Ben Mezrich is recounting in the dust jacket seems implausible. A brief snippet should show what I mean:
In the midst of the go-go eighties and nineties, a group of overachieving, anarchistic MIT students joined a decades-old underground blackjack club dedicated to counting cards and beating the system at major casinos around the world. While their classmates were working long hours in labs and libraries, the blackjack team traveled weekly to Las Vegas and other glamourous gambling locales, with hundreds of thousands of dollars duct-taped to their bodies. Underwritten by shady investors they would never meet, these kids bet fifty thousand dollars a hand, enjoyed VIP suites and other upscale treats, and partied with showgirls and celebrities.
Handpicked by an eccentric mastermind - a former MIT professor and an obsessive player who had developed a unique system of verbal cues, body signals, and role-playing - this one ring of card savants earned more than three million dollars from corporate Vegas, making them the object of the casino's wrath and eventually targets of revenge. Here is their inside story, revealing their secrets for the first time.
If I didn't know that this was what actually happened, I wouldn't believe it to be true. It looks more like the script for a Hollywood movie than something that could occur in reality; but, then again, to paraphrase the blurb on the back cover, truth can often be stranger than fiction.

The edition from which I will be quoting was published by the Free Press; no publication date was given, but the notice of copyright to the author is for 2002. I should note that Mezrich includes the occasional profanity, which I do not always take the trouble to excise when I quote from the book, so I have labelled this post accordingly. Let it also be noted that we're talking about Vegas here, so I might need to refer to unseemly activity from time to time.


May Update

A couple of announcements:

1) I will be asking for reader recommendations in mid-May. I will probably be only asking for two this time, as I will still be working on a book recommended from January (yes, January); namely, Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, which has only just become available at the library.

2) On that note, I am nearly finished my marginal commentaries on the other two books I selected for January: World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler, and Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich. Look for them to come out in the next week or so.


The Denial of Death: Human Character as a Vital Lie

First, here are the links to the previous posts on The Denial of Death:

Styx in Denial
The Terror of Death
Existential Dualism and You

Second, note the label on this post of 'profanity'.

Third, this post, which will cover the fourth chapter of the book (the title of which being whence I got the title of my post: 'Human Character as a Vital Lie'), will be the last I write on The Denial of Death for a while. It is a lot of work to comment upon a book of this nature, and the posts have been getting longer and longer as I have been going along. We could all use a break from so heavy a subject; on the other hand, it is quite appropriate for Holy Week.


The Denial of Death: Existential Dualism and You

First, some housekeeping: the links to my previous posts on Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death are here and here. You do not have to read these in order, of course; but you may find it helpful. Also note the 'profanity' label; Becker uses some straightforward words from time to time, and as his use of them often illustrates what he is trying to say, I'll be quoting him.

The third chapter of The Denial of Death (entitled 'The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas') focusses on key psychoanalytic concepts, some of which you may be familiar with, including the Oedipus complex and anality. Becker re-casts these concepts, moving them from out of the Freudian framework of sexuality (since for Becker sexuality is not the basic anxiety) and, following Norman O. Brown (from whose work Becker draws upon heavily in this chapter), putting them in a more existential framework.

In case you are wondering, I have been more or less commenting upon the book marginally as I read it. So after two chapters of Becker arguing about the importance of the fear (or terror) of death, it came as a bit of surprise to me when he seems to change course in the third chapter and argue, or so it seems to me, for something behind even the terror of death. Perhaps he returns to it later in the book.

A summary of Becker's argument in this chapter follows after the break; for now, suffice it to say that I find what he has to say here less convincing than what he had to say in the first two chapters.


The Denial of Death: The Terror of Death

As I wrote at the end of my last post on The Denial of Death:
Becker is going to explore the relationship between the idea of heroism, which he considers to be the driving force of human activity and social life, and the fact of death.
In the second chapter of the book, Becker's first step is to try to show that one of the motive forces of heroism is humankind's fear of death:

[O]f all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death. ... [H]eroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death. We admire most the courage to face death[.] [p. 11]


The Denial of Death: Styx in Denial

Is the title of this post a clever riverine pun with regard to the book I will be commenting upon? And am I allowed to use 'riverine' in this fashion? You decide!

This is going to be a post of marginal commentary on a book which is, apparently, one of the most influential of the twentieth century, at least in terms of psychology. Since I want to be able to comment in depth, I will be looking at this book over the course of a number of posts, rather than try to get everything in all in one go.

The book in question is The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. The book won the Pullitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1974, which, as it happens, is the year Dr. Becker died: he won the award for the book posthumously. What a coincidence, eh? And my 'Canadianism' leads me to another interesting fact: Dr. Becker taught at Simon Fraser University (in Burnaby, B.C.; the school's diminutive is, happily, 'SFU').

Why did I choose this book? It was recommended to me to read during CPE, as I came to acknowledge that I have a certain amount of anxiety about death. Who doesn't? I think it will help me get through the book if I have a forum to write about it as I go along. I'm not sure what I am going to learn from it, but it should be an interesting read.

I probably won't write posts about every part of the book; we shall see. The edition I shall be quoting from or referring to is the paperback edition published by the Free Press in 1973.


Update: Back in the Habit

Now that my CPE unit at the Civic has finished, I will be getting back to marginal commentary and looking at books. I have some reader recommendations to finish, and I've read a few books during CPE which, if I can get my hands on them, will make for some interesting commenting.


Update: Singing the Marginal Blues

Early in January I suddenly became busy taking an intensive pastoral care course at the Civic Hospital (one campus of the amalgamated Ottawa Hospital).

Such is the nature of this course that I have had little time to write for this blog. It would be more accurate to say, rather, that I have not made the time to write for this blog. As I am beginning to work on the management of time, an aspect of the practice of virtue, I will find more time to write here as I waste less of time doing other things. Since, however, CPE cannot be categorised as a 'waste of time', I probably won't be on here frequently.

Like James Bond or the Termintator, I will be back.