The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The literary journals

Posted on: December 21, 2006

Last week’s TLS issue was a bit light in terms of article length—Commentary was split between two articles and the word length for the major reviews I read, save one, read shorter. The upside to this was that every reviewer focused more sharply on the book as opposed to the book’s subject and his/her take on it. This was a pleasure. Mind you I like the “wider scope” style too.

Richard Wilson covered two books that dealt with Thatcher’s legacy which Blair and Brown have extended (so the author claimed), and a collection of Brown’s political speeches respectively. I am not versed in England’s politics so I liked learning about England’s move under Thatcher to centralized government, transforming the role of localised government into a mere arm stretching out of London. I had a grand time with Alistair Sooke’s assessment of various books about Satan’s changing role in Christianity through the centuries. Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil, a treaties he wrote in support of ol’ Beelzebub, intrigued me more than most of the ones Sooke actually critiqued. (I may have to read Paradise Lost, at least parts of it, before I tackle it, bother and balderdash.) It sounded so arch and clever and I’ve never read anything by Defoe before. David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk does sound pretty wicked: it gives account on how monks came about and their spiritual battles with the dark side.

Palladius records meeting a monk called Pachon, who was attacked by a demon that visited him in the form of a sexy Ethiopian maiden (a forerunner, perhaps, of Coleridge’s dulcimer-playing Abyssinian damsel). After trying to resist the demon’s lap dance for twelve years, Pachon became so despondent that he attempted suicide by wandering naked into a hyenas’ den. When the hyenas refused to kill him, but rather licked him all over, Pachon returned to his cell, only to be attacked by the demon “even more harshly than before”. In despair, Pachon stumbled into the desert, where he picked up an asp and placed it on his genitals, hoping to die from the snakebite. Although the asp refused to strike, the action seemed to do the job, for soon afterwards the demon stopped troubling him.

Way, way, way better than Mortal Combat. Sooke writes that the much of the book is for the ‘specialist’ being quite ‘abstract’, so that’s a bit discouraging.

I read one of the two Commentary articles, decidedly not the one written by John Sutherland, but I cannot remember what it was about. This irks me like you wouldn’t believe, TLS does not put their table of contents online and I don’t have my copy here with me. Argh! Anyway it was splendid, read it.

The Fiction section was equally splendid because it featured a bevy of translated fiction, a few of which were from the Middle-East. Cheers! I do not read any mystery beside Hammett but Carte Blanche by Carlo Lucarelli sounded like it was worth a go. Fascism, religion, murder—what’s not to like? The Calligrapher’s Night by Yosmine Ghata intrigued as well, despite the reviewer’s qualified recommendation. My Name is Red has influenced my interest in book art. The issue ended with Jon Hart’s amusing review of David Standish’s Hollow Earth, an overview of how people’s and individuals held and fostered belief in wondrous underground civilizations. The best one highlighted was an explanation of plate tectonics—the conclusion was that ‘giants of fire lived beneath the earth’s crust’. I found the image so wondrous I caught my breath.

Oh yes and Claire Tomalin responded in Letters to the view asserted by some fellow in the previous issue that Emma Hardy may have had syphilis. She is not convinced based on her own research. And I think people are still going on about that bibliography-by-novelists non-issue.

I finished up the NYRB holiday issue yesterday. John Demos reviewed Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany, a book that had previously been covered quite a bit by British papers (TLS & Guardian) and the Salon ages ago. Many may say that NYRB is behind but I think it great that it isn’t only giving newly released books attention. (Yale Press published it in 2004.) Witch Craze covers the peak of witch-hunting with Roper using psycho-analysis to help explain the reasons behind it. You know, I find the catalogue of university press so great and often so quirky (to my conservative bourgeois eyes) and not nearly as daunting as many imagine. Back on topic, Roper has written a few books on witch craft from different perspectives. Oedipus and the Devil seems to be another good one.

Orlando Figes comments on two books that deal with Russia’s history with Islam in the past and the present. It was great to get a wider perspective on, say, Russia’s well-known conflicts with Chechnya and before with Afghanistan; and in light of the present tensions regarding immigrants in Russia, like the Chinese. Jeffrey Sachs responded to an article on foreign aid published in an earlier issue.

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