October Selection

In my post for last month's selection, you may recall, I noted that I would be choosing only one book from the back burner for October; well, here it is:

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman.

Congratulations to May for your recommendation having been selected!


John 6.51-58

I was asked to put a recent sermon I preached online. As I have written about sermons before here on The Marginal Virtues, I decided to post it here.

As I generally follow the guidelines for writing sermons set out by Wilson in The Four Pages of the Sermon (about which I wrote a series of posts), you may be able to notice when I change 'pages', although I don't think that this sermon features distinct theme sentences for each 'page'.

The occasion of the sermon was a service of Holy Eucharist in the basement of St Paul's Eastern United Church, in Ottawa, on Sunday, August 19. The parish at which I am presently serving as a pastoral intern, St Albans, has been undergoing renovations for quite some time, and we were not allowed to hold our service there because an inspector from the city determined that we do not have two accessible exits - which is true. St Paul's Eastern graciously hosted us.

The text on which I preached that day was from the gospel of John; namely, John 6.51-58. It is the gospel for the day according to the lectionary - the propers for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.


Gollum's Personal Hell

The Lord of the Rings has many great passages, one of which, early on, concerns Gollum. Gandalf paints a dark portrait of the tormented Halfling (FRI, p. 68):
'All the "great secrets" under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched. He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.'
In Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Rosebury somewhere writes (in effect) that, when it comes to evil characters, Tolkien is adept at creating 'states of personality, or unpersonality, that no sane reader would envy.' Put another way, Tolkien's devils (so to speak) are actually diabolical. No one would want to be like them, whereas even a greater author than he, Milton, made his Satan a more attractive, if pridefully rebellious, figure than God, although C. S. Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost helps us see through the glamour given Satan by Romantic critics such as William Blake, who famously wrote that Milton was of Satan's party without knowing it. (Rosebury mentions Milton, and gives another example, that of the wicked Count Fosco in The Woman in White, who is genial, wealthy, and amusing, in contrast with the bland and unsympathetic would-be heroes of the work.)
Gollum's motives are not much different than those of Milton's Satan. Pride and greed are the source of his downfall, as they are with Milton's Satan, although he is, of course, an altogether meaner creature. As the chilling description of his life by Gandalf shows, Gollum's lust for uncovering secrets led to the realisation that no such 'great secrets' are there to be found: Gollum forsook joy, and light, and life, and the mystery inherent in community and companionship, for nothing more than 'empty night' and for 'nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering.' This has the taste of hellishness to it.

Job 39.25

In The Guns of August, a book for which I am writing a marginal commentary, Barbara Tuchman, in true Biblical style, conflates Job 39.25, ant. loc., in order to describe Winston Churchill, then not quite forty years old and First Lord of the Admiralty. She writes (on p. 111):
When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but "paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha."
This sentence is a dense conflation of bits from Job 39, vv. 21, 22, & 25. As the verbal forms demonstrate, she has in mind, and in part directly quotes, the Authorised (or King James) Version.

This allusion, it should be noted, would not work at all with other English translations: if taken from the text of the NRSV the part written only as a direct quotation would read, 'paws violently and when the trumpet sounds, says, "Aha!" ' If taken from the Revised English Bible, it would read, 'shows his mettle as he paws and prances and at the trumpet-call he cries "Aha!"'; if from the NIV, 'paws fiercely and at the blast of the trumpet snorts, "Aha!"'; if from the Jerusalem Bible, 'paws the soil of the valley and at each trumpet blast shouts "Hurrah!"'.

The which just goes to show that the Authorised Version is certainly the fertile source of much literary allusion and creativity. It also shows that you never know where you're going to find a Biblical allusion.


September Selections and Update

Beginning in September I am starting a second unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at the Ottawa Hospital - Civic campus.

Between this programme, work, and my other commitments, greater limits shall be set upon my time to read and write for The Marginal Virtues.

For the next three months, then, I will be choosing only one book from the 'back burner' to read and write a marginal commentary for. In December I'll choose two more books from the 'back burner', and, starting in the new year, shall once again ask for new recommendations.

So, without further ado, here is the selection for September!

Dune, by Frank Herbert.

Congratulations to Matt for his recommendation having been selected. I'm looking forward to reading Dune, which is widely regarded as a classic of the science-fiction genre.



I am reading Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson, for a marginal commentary, and I have to share what is perhaps the funniest example of typical English understatement in the work (p. 464).

It comes at the end of a series of strange adventures and mishaps that befall one of the protagonists, a ne'er-do-well by the name of Jack Shaftoe, and no summary can do them justice: you will have to read the chapter (pp. 450-64) for yourself.

The passage goes:
"We've missed you Jack," [Eliza] said, "where've you been?"
"Running an errand—meeting some locals—partaking of their rich traditions," Jack said. "Can we get out of Germany now, please?"


Update: Change in Format

Based on feedback from one of my readers, I am going to be revising the format of my marginal commentaries.

The new look will be established upon the posting of my next marginal commentary. It should make the marginal commentaries easier to read.

The changes will be retroactively applied to my older posts as time allows.


The Dark Valley

A favourite book of mine, that I have re-read many times, is The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, by historian Piers Brendon. My copy is an edition published in 2002 by Vintage Books; it was originally published by Jonathan Cape (London) and Alfred A. Knopf (New York), in 2000.

As the name and subtitle of the book suggest, it is not a cheery work. It is a panoramic view of one of the darkest periods of human history, the 'dirty thirties', the decade of Depression and of the apogee of the great dictatorships.

This is not to say that it does not sparkle with imagination and wit. In addition to being an accomplished stylist himself, Brendon frequently quotes brilliant, or lapidary, or epigrammatic quips.

One of the best passages, for example, consists of a series of quotes that Brendon strings together about Chamberlain's Cabinet:
Chamberlain drew around himself an inner circle of subservient mediocrities, most of them knights remote from the practice of chivalry. Sir John Simon, a serpentine lawyer described as a snake in snake's clothing, was singularly lacking in resolution at the Treasury: he had sat on the fence so long, Lloyd George famously remarked, that the iron had entered into his soul. Sir Samuel Hoare, now at the Home Office, had learned no lessons from the dictators: he was later said to have "passed from experience to experience, like Boccaccio's virgin, without discernible effect upon his condition." Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for Coordination of Defence, had little ability, less power, and no perceptiveness: "He could look with frank and fearless gaze at any prospect, however appalling—and fail to see it." Other acolytes, such as Sir Horace Wilson, with his "temporising, 'play for safety,' formula-evolving mind," and Sir Kingsley Wood, who on the outbreak of war opposed the bombing of munition works in Germany because they were private property, were equally unable or unwilling to stand up to Chamberlain. [p. 611]
Another example serves to introduce what I would like to comment upon: writing about the whole book would be impossible, of course, but focussing on one aspect will help give a sense of the whole.

In his chapter on the Soviet Purges (pp. 465-93), Brendon looks at the terrific (in the sense of 'having the quality of inspiring terror') paradox that the Great Purge, and the means by which it was at once concealed and revealed, begat a kind of double mind in people. It certainly begat one of the vastest networks of snitches in history [p. 490]:
According to one (probably exaggerated) estimate, every fifth citizen was an NKVD nark. Russians joked about the man looking at himself in the mirror who says, "One of us must be an informer."
The unreality of the Great Purge and the corrupting effect that this unreality had on the hapless citizens of the Soviet Union, then, is what I wish to look at in greater detail.


August Selections

I am once again selecting three books from the list of books 'on the back burner' recommended to me by readers to read and write marginal commentaries for. I'll try to get my hands on these books to read and comment upon them for August.

The books selected are:
The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson.
An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison.

My congratulations and thanks to those whose previous selections were chosen this time: Sarah, Graham, and Deborah!

I'm looking forward to reading them.


There and Back Again

In light of the fact that, in December 2012, Warner Bros., in co-operation with New Line Cinema and MGM, is releasing the first of the two movies (directed and produced by Peter Jackson, who made the wildly successful films in the early noughts based on The Lord of the Rings) based on The Hobbit, I think it is time for a marginal commentary on that book, one of J. R. R. Tolkien's early works.

The Hobbit, of course, is not of the same calibre as The Lord of the Rings, whose relationship to it is complicated. It would be more accurate to view The Hobbit as a precursor of the larger work, than to view the latter as its sequel, for it took Tolkien many years to write The Lord of the Rings, and into it he poured all of his literary power. However, both The Hobbit (albeit peripherally) and The Lord of the Rings are related to Tolkien's legendarium, his mythopoeic vision.

Except for those two works, Tolkien did not publish anything directly connected to his legendarium (the corpus of which may be found in his posthumous works The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, and in the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth, all of which were edited by Christopher Tolkien) , but we know that he began crafting the stories and languages that would shape and form it (actually, that should be the other way around) while recuperating from trench fever during World War I. An excellent book that traces the development of Tolkien's literary work from its infancy during the Great War is John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War.

My purpose in this marginal commentary will be to explore some of the literary strengths of The Hobbit. As I shall show, much of its excellence stems from passages which are of the same kind of writing at which Tolkien excelled in The Lord of the Rings (about which see my marginal commentary on Brian Rosebury's book Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon). I shall also explore whether The Hobbit's only excellences are those it has in common with The Lord of the Rings, or whether it possesses any peculiar to itself. Given some of its flaws, it is easy to dismiss The Hobbit as a 'kid's book' (even though it, and many other works of children's literature besides, is better than many a 'grown-up' book), so it is worth asking what, if anything, it has of itself that makes it a worthwhile read.

On we go.


On Learning Literary Criticism

The following passage, from Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (Brian Rosebury; 2nd Ed.; Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; pp. 198-9) is an apt description of how we are taught to do literary criticism in school. I remember doing something like this kind of work in my English classes in high school, and it would appear to be quite common across the pond, too:
Among reputable academic literary critics... [t]he damaging assimilation [of The Lord of the Rings to something else in order to show it is a bad book] has, in general, to be to other books, and to be based on some demonstrable resemblance, however fleeting. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the training provided by academic literary criticism is, in part, a training in making a great deal of fleeting details, inculcating as it does from high school onwards a routine in which large assertions are supported by small quotations. In practice this is hard to avoid. The examination candidate writes that Shakespeare in Othello makes extensive thematic use of animal images; and quotes — as she has been coached to do — a couple of lines from Act 3 to prove it. (This is called 'supporting your ideas with evidence'.) No one could possibly ask her to prove that these lines are in fact representative of a pattern visible across the play as a whole. The credibility of the proof by brief quotation depends on a prior consensus about the meaning of the play, to which the candidate is required to conform, as well as an essentially formalist poetics which views literary works as highly-wrought unities in which every detail may be assumed to subserve some thematic purpose of the whole. Once this routine has been inculcated, however, it can be exploited later in the student's career for a kind of glib dismissiveness. John Carey, for example, claims that The Lord of the Rings is 'a children's book', much of it in the style of Enid Blyton, and singles out as illustrations a few sentences from an early chapter, including the phrase: 'and of course his special friends, Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck' (FR, 76). It is true that something like this passage could occur in Blyton, that Pippin and Merry are juvenile names, and that 'special friends' in many contexts could seem sentimental or arch. Colin Wislon says that The Lord of the Rings 'at its worst ... has touches of Enid Blyton', which is fair enough because it claims nothing beyond local resemblances. I have myself noted some 'incongruous lapses' in the style of these early chapters. The problem with Carey's assimilation [of the style of The Lord of the Rings to the style of Enid Blyton] is the unfounded claim of typicality. There is, after all, nothing exclusively [italics original] Blytonian about the phrase 'special friends' itself; what makes it reminiscent of her, especially if we pluck it out of its context and hold it up for inspection, is that Blyton rarely strays outside such cosy bourgeois-domestic intimacies as the phrase might capture. Readers turn to Blyton, as to other genre writers, because they know what they will get: lots and lots of the same. An attentive reading of the episode will show that Tolkien's style modulates into, and out of, the admittedly insipid passage to which Carey objects.
Enid Blyton authored numerous books, short stories, and other writings, among the most famous being her children's books about 'The Famous Five'. I have not read any of Blyton's works, but suffice it to say it would appear her reputation among literary critics of 'serious' literature is poor, and to such an extent that when assimilated to Blyton, The Lord of the Rings suffers as a result. The gem of this passage is the parenthetical comment by Rosebury about the example he gives on a student writing about Othello: 'This is called "supporting your ideas with evidence".' Burn.

Earlier in Tolkien, on p. 196, Rosebury defines assimilation thus:
In assimilation, the distinctive features of the original work, instead of forming the basis of an application to some new context, tend rather to be erased or eroded, in order to locate the work within some more familiar category. Assimilation, then, is the enemy of critical analysis or scholarly inquiry.
Take that, John Carey. Take that.


Planet Narnia

Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward, is one of my recent favourites. I recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.

I came across Planet Narnia in the library at Huron University College while searching for books to read on another book by C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces. (If I may digress, Till We Have Faces, in my view, is Lewis's best novel; indeed, I would go so far to say that, excepting some of his better academic works, it is his masterpiece). I read it voraciously, and so thoroughly enjoyed it that I wrote a review of it which I posted on my defunct LiveJournal, and even went so far as to post a portion of that review on a site dedicated to reader reviews of Planet Narnia; you can see my humble contribution here.

In my view, Planet Narnia is to the Chronicles of Narnia as Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon is to The Lord of the Rings; that is, it is a work of literary criticism the insight of which is so brilliant it outshines other works. Put another way, I view Planet Narnia as a sun with respect to the Chronicles of Narnia, brightly illuminating every place. Other works of literary criticism on the Chronicles are like the stars, providing a dim and feeble light but often pretty to look at in their own right, or else like the moon, capable of brightening some aspect of the Chronicles but not as strongly as the sun can.

But what is it about Planet Narnia that makes it such an insightful and penetrating work? To discover that is the purpose of this marginal commentary, by peering closely at Planet Narnia and seeing by what means Dr Ward appears to so accurately delve into the Chronicles of Narnia.


The China Study vs. The Food and Nutrition Board

Just wanted to share this bit (pp. 306-7) from The China Study, in which Campbell criticises the nutriet recommendations in a 2002 report by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB).
A few quotes from the news release announcing this massive 900+ page report says it all. Here is the first sentence in the news release:
To meet the body's daily energy and nutritional needs while minimizing risk for chronic disease, adults should get 45% to 65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 20% to 35% from fat and to 10% to 35% from protein....
Further, we find:
...added sugars should comprise no more than 25% of total calories consumed....added sugars are those incorporated into foods and beverages during production [and] major sources include candy, soft drinks, fruit drinks, pastries and other sweets.
... Forget any words of caution you may find in this report—with such a range of possibilities, virtually any diet can be advocated as minimizing disease risk.
You may have trouble getting your mind around what these figures mean in everyday terms, so I have prepared the following menu plan that supplies nutrients in accordance with these guidelines... .
The menu plan comes in the form of a chart, and Campbell's 'recommended' menu plan based on the FNB's guidelines include:
  • For breakfast: 1 cup Froot Loops, 1 cup skim milk, 1 package M&Ms, fibre & vitamin supplements (Flintstones vitamins, anyone?)
  • For lunch: a grilled cheddar cheeseburger.
  • For dinner: 3 slices of pepperoni pizza, and a medium (16 oz) pop, and for dessert a serving of sugar cookies.


The China Study

First, my thanks to May for recommending this book!

The China Study is the second book that I have read and commented upon on The Marginal Virtues that was written by more than one author. The first was The Rebel Sell, the authors of which were Canadian philosophers. The China Study is probably the most technically complex work which I have read for the blog, and the credentials of its authors the most professional, although, as the example of The Rebel Sell shows, they are hardly the only professionals whose work I have written about. (By 'professional' I mean someone with an accredited profession, not whether the authors were paid for their work, which would be true with respect to very nearly every book I have written about.) Ernest Becker wrote The Denial of Death in relation to his profession; and so with Robert Farrar Capon, Rob Brendle, Brian Rosebury, and Paul Scott Wilson.

The edition from which I shall be quoting was published by BenBella Books in 2006. My copy is of the paperback edition, in case the pagination of this edition differs from that of the hardcover.


Isaiah 33.14

Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?
Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnination?
This is a version of Isaiah 33.14 that I found at the end of a YouTube video featuring the 'Trogdor song'. I was amused. (Insert jibe about being easily amused here.)

I'm certain no English translation of the verse actually says 'burnination'; undoubtedly the maker of the image into which this gobbet of Scripture was put modified the text. The Authorised Version gives 'everlasting burnings', the NRSV and Jerusalem Bible give 'everlasting flames'; the REB gives 'perpetual flames'; the NIV 'everlasting burning'. Of course, perhaps the fact that 'burnination' is not actually a word has something to do with that.


Update: Spring Hiatus

I'm sure blogs are like academia - it's publish or perish!

Well, The Marginal Virtues has been on life support, so to speak, for a while; or at least that's how it's felt.

Not being a well-organised person, it is difficult, when I fall behind on managing other things, to continue writing for this blog.

I intend to continue.

In light of the changes Google has made to the format of the blog, I may follow suit and change its look; we'll see.

To make my life a little easier, I'm not going to follow through with the recommendations made for April. Sorry, folks. Thank you very much, sorry to disappoint!

Starting in August, I'll start selecting books from the back burner to read, and go through October from those for books recommended by readers. Next month, I'm going to catch up on a couple of books I've been working through, including the final book outstanding among reader recommendations.

I'm also going to publish blog posts much more frequently that will consist of much smaller content.

Keep your eyes peeled for new stuff, and thanks for your patience!


Reader Recommendations: April

March is going to be a busy month for me in terms of reading (I am reading about one hundred pages a day of a number of different books as part of my Lenten discipline), and I still have The China Study to work on, so I have decided to forego taking recommendations for this month.

Another problem is the issue of availability. Sometimes the books I select end up - through no one's fault, of course - being very popular at the OPL, and so I have to wait to get my hands on them. It was something like four, or maybe even as many as six, months before I got my hands on Ender's Game, for example.

With that lengthy preamble out of the way, let me say that I am opening the floor to your recommendations for the month of April. I'll collect recommendations for about a week, and then post the selections early in March.

As always, the suggested guidelines for making recommendations are here, and the list of books I have already read for The Marginal Virtues is here. Of course, you can also find the links at the top of the sidebar on the right-hand side.

For April, I am looking for recommendations about choice. This is a bit of a broad category: strictly speaking every book has to do with choice, somehow. What I am looking for, for lack of a better way to put it, are books that you've read that had an impression on you with respect to making choices, decisions, or changes in your life. Such books need not have Changed Your Life; but if they did, so much the better. Feel free to recommend works of fiction or non-fiction. Maybe the book changed your convictions about something, or caused you take up a new activity or way of life, or made you reflect philosophically on the nature of choice, or else brought you into a world in which the choices of the characters were made to matter to you.

As always, I look forward to receiving your recommendations!


The Glass Castle

First, my thanks to Kathy for recommending this book!

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, is only the third autobiographical book I have read for The Marginal Virtues, the others being Hitman (by Bret Hart) and The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen (by Jacques Pépin). The subtitle indicates that The Glass Castle is a memoir; and, if its overall style is any indication of the genre, The Apprentice, which possesses a similar style, is also more of a memoir than an autobiography. (This is assuming that there is any real distinction between the genres, which there may not be.) Whatever the question of genre, like both of those other books, The Glass Castle is written in the first person, from Jeannette Walls's perspective.

The edition from which I shall quote passages was published in 2005 by Scribner.

The dust jacket begins thus:
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation.
Reading The Glass Castle immediately following The Rebel Sell was certainly an interesting contrast. The Wallses - the parents of the author - certainly come across as textbook countercultural 'rebels'.

As an editorial note, I have given this post the label 'profanity' because the Walls's frequently curse, and it is both tedious to omit their profane language, and it is necessary to include it to give you a sense of what they are like. (Not that their use of 'cussing' is necessarily bad, just that it expresses something characteristic about them.)


February Update

I am working away on the marginal commentaries for The Glass Castle and The China Study, so keep your eyes peeled.

I have a few other posts on the go, and between that and the fact that it is now February, I won't be canvassing for recommendations for this month, because it won't be 'til the end of February that I'd be likely to get my hands on the books selected, let alone read them and write commentaries on them. I have trouble enough finishing the commentaries for the books selected for any given month as it is (e.g., it is now February and I haven't yet finished two commentaries for books I meant to publish posts on in December).

By mid-month I will be looking for recommendations for March, but I very likely will be changing, at least for the time being, how many reader recommendations I call for.


She Buys More, More, More

The title of my marginal commentary, on The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can't be Jammed, goes to show that two can play the game of tying a book on (what the authors posit to be) the failure of the 'counter-culture' to a song by Billy Idol. My thanks goes to Christopher for making this recommendation!

The Rebel Sell was written by two Canadian academics, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, which makes it only the fourth Canadian work for which I have written a marginal commentary on The Marginal Virtues, and the first book written by more than one author. With respect to 'Cancon' (Canadian content), the first was for A Strange Manuscript Written on a Copper Cylinder, by another Canadian academic, James De Mille. The second was for Hitman, by Bret Hart. The third was for Room, by Emma Donoghue (who happens to be an Irish emigré, to boot).

These trivial details aside, the edition which I am using in my marginal commentary, a trade paperback edition, was published in 2005 by Harper Perennial.

To begin my marginal commentary, I will provide a brief introduction, and then dive into some of points of the book that most interested me, given that it would be impossible in a post of reasonable length to parse Potter's and Heath's argument fully.


First, my thanks to Deborah for recommending Room! Room was one of my selections for a marginal commentary back in October, but was wildly popular at the library, so I didn't get my hands on a copy until now.

Emma Donoghue, the book's author, lives in London, Ontario, which makes Room another Canadian work for which I have written a marginal commentary on The Marginal Virtues.

This edition was published by HarperCollins in 2010. On the cover of the copy I have, there is an illustration with a note stating that Room was shortlisted (why that is a verb I don't know) for the Man Booker Prize 2010. It did not win, but you have to think that Donoghue must have been pretty thrilled. I don't know how well known a literary figure she was before publishing Room, but I dare say that it is her breakthrough work. It may well even be her masterwork.