The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Posted on: November 14, 2007

What does a student do when she has several journal articles and two ethics books to read (and that’s only assigned)? She reads completely unrelated periodicals and then blogs about it. A little bit anyway, as in true pooter fashion I shall only leave with minor fragmentary, unimportant titbits on what I’ve been up to.

I participated in a round-table on litblogging with litlove, Emily and Smithereens, held by Cammy Cam Cam. It was done by e-mail and after Cam has edited it should be up by next week.

I finally dipped into Bookforum. It’s a litblogger’s favourite but I remember trying a fiction article and being intellectually obliterated. For some reason it was hopelessly opaque to me and I left with the impression that Bookforum was too high blown for this lowly dame. Repetition ( and idleness) does have some power though, so when I desired a little somethin’ somethin’ to occupy my time along with the Nov. 1st LRB, I checked to see if the campus library subscribed to Bookforum. It did, though all of the 2007 issues are suspiciously absent, so I flipped through some back issues and grabbed the one with Banville’s name on the cover.

It was the Spring 2003 issue; it was fabulous. The thing I treasure with print over internet with literary magazines is that the mere act of flipping through the pages forces me — though perhaps that’s too harsh a word — to meet and consider articles I would glance over on a website because a) no pretty pictures, b) the book/person covered was unfamiliar, or c) the title looks boring. It’s far too easy to ignore content that I may unexpectedly like.

Another is that while I faithfully block ads online I actually enjoy them (to a degree) in lit mags because I often come away with a book list. (It’s NYRB‘s saving grace — all those delicious university and indie press ads — although sometimes it approaches the New Yorker saturation point at which the difference between content and ad is negligible, not because they look alike but because there’s so many goddamn ads it might as well be a frickin’ catalogue.) This time I came away with a yen for The Raft of the Medusa: Gericault, Art and Race by Albert Alhadeff.

In this dramatic reexamination of one of the most influential paintings of the Romantic era, Albert Alhadeff shows how Géricault’s seminal canvas was a reflection of early abolitionist sentiment, as well as one of the first uses, in European art, of a black figure to symbolize the hopes of all humanity.

Sounds pretty awesome, no? Besides the expected great coverage of book, Bookforum gives a lot of space to art as well; it appears to be regular coverage, more frequent that in the TLS (which tends to pre-20th century art and primarily covers it when there’s a notable gallery showing somewhere) and in style and subject matter less elevated, more brash than LRB. They don’t do the really really long journal-type articles either, but give moderate, even space to a lot of different kinds of books, as much fiction as non-fiction, and not a lot of politics, bless their hearts, but more focused on various cultural figures and movements, artists, musicians. Do you know how rare it is to find great, smart magazines that don’t feel they have to stuff their pages with a bunch of stuff on Iraq and Abraham Lincoln to be taken seriously? This is love!

The problem is, how am I going to afford it? It’s cheap though: $33 for two years. That’s sweet. So sweet it’s getting harder to justify my Paris Review subscription. But I still like it! And I’m temporarily obsessed with trying to save single handedly all my favourite lit mags because they all seem to be on the edge of bankruptcy. For the first time this year I think I may just put a bunch of magazine subscriptions on my wishlist, and every year just tell them to renew ’em. Ha!

Another good read was The Walrus. I tried it once or two before and remember enjoying it, but somehow the memory didn’t stick that time around. It’s more or less a Canadian version of Harper’s Magazine, with articles often written in a style that reminds me of The Economist — it even published a short story and gave a brief review to a graphic novel. The interspersing of some stupid hipster shirts (with designer’s name carefully noted) throughout the Dec. issue was annoying but I’m willing to assume that they’ll never do that again.

The latest NYRB issue isn’t half-bad. Harold Bloom wrote a somewhat rambling review of The Book of Psalms by Robert Alter, a new translation that seeks to reclaim the Old Testament books for the Jews. I wasn’t so much interested in that as Bloom’s thoughts on the William Tyndale translations. Apparently he is as influential over the English language as Shakespeare and Bloom makes a good case for it. I’ve always had a soft spot for the poetry of the King James 1611 version. When Bloom quoted part of a psalm (I forget which one) to compare with Alter’s, both he and I could not help but be impressed with Tyndale’s Calvinesque God coming on clouds, storms and wings to blast away the waters from the foundations of the earth and save the psalmist from drowning. I keep on forgetting that Milton’s craaaaazy imagery and personification in Paradise Lost has a source. The Bible been there and done that.

I was also intrigued by Bloom’s assertion about specifically Protestant translations of the Bible and how that has affected Christian theology, which is an obvious point really, but one to which I never gave much thought. Now I need to get a KJV 1611 so I can read the Psalms.

I’ve started the introduction to Mercè Rodoreda’s My Christina & Other Stories, published by Graywolf Press. Only three of her works have been translated in English, as far as I know, and all three are published by Graywolf and translated by David Rosenthal. She’s on the Outmoded Authors list, although I cheated with her (as I said I would do for translated authors) because she’s pretty big in Spain. I’m expecting big things here because the other two Graywolf books I read this year retain their top spots.

I’m reading The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. It seems to be a favourite among his fans but I am not similarly impressed. (What’s up with me and adult F/SF lately?) I avoided this book for a long time because it was often described as “historical”. I did try The Last Light of the Sun because it was a fairly new release so there wasn’t enough time for me to be discouraged by all the labelling. He set it during medieval times, more or less, with Vikings and Celtics, and he did have elves so the fantastical elements and associations were prominent enough. In Lions of Al-Rassan I’m at page 234 and still waiting for it. (Not elves, you can’t just stick them in anywhere, but something that’s just not political maneuverings and shit.)

Right now it’s working as a conventional “epic” historical novel, with three thinly disguised versions of the Jews, Arabs and Christian Spaniards. There’s the predictable annoying market scene (several of them, actually) where some character has to walk through it so we can smell spices, see colourful stalls and clothes, hear the bustle and blah blah de fucking blah. Look at the king building the city! See here the culture’s politics and in-jokes. Where’s the fantasy, I ask you? Meagre references to worshipping two moons and whatnot is just not going to cut it. It is, at best, an alternate history. Is that why it’s shelved in the fantasy section? The only character worth reading for is the”poet, diplomat, soldier” Ammar ibn Khairan, which means that Kay will probably kill him at the 3/4 mark. The question is whether I’ll even get that far.

9 Responses to "Procrastination"

Oddly enough, I’ve been unable to find paper copies of Bookforum since it became free online. I enjoy the new website for their hourly updated plethora of culturally-related links, but I’d much rather have a paper copy of the journal just for the reasons you described.

I need to become a regular reader of Walrus as well. You know, I’d never heard of this magazine until about three months ago. I just happened to come across it a magazine store and bought it because it looked pretty interesting. I’d love to become a subscriber but I am literally drowing in unread magazines. Every time I think about how far behind I am in my magazine reading I start to hyperventilate.

I love Bookforum! I’ve had a subscription for going on three years now. it’s a smart little magazine and cheap and has an excellent variety of books. I find myself adding at least a dozen books to my TBR list with every edition.

And I understand the procrastination. I need to be working on a big project for school but instead I would rather read The Odyssey or listen to the next podcast of Alberto Manguel’s Massey lectures.

I am interested in reading the Alter translation. There was a brief review in The New Yorker a few months ago about Alter’s translation. I find it interesting that Bloom focused on the influence of the KJV on Protestantism while Alter is trying to, as you write, ‘reclaim for the Jews’ the original Psalms. I would have assummed that they would always read in Hebrew in worship, but I am ignorant whether that is always the case. If not, how dissimilar are English translations from the KVJ? Perhaps Alter’s intent is to capture the language of the original Jewish culture not for the Jews, but for Christians who have distorted that in previous translations, regardless of how poetical the language might have been?

I relate to your wish to subscribe to all the lit mags just to keep them afloat. Actually, asking for subscriptions for Xmas isn’t a bad idea…. 🙂

As for Lions of Al-Rassan, I found that the least interesting of Kay’s books, for the same reasons you mention. Too much political manoeuvering etc. — I think you’re correct in characterizing it more as alternate history. I prefer his earlier work.

Speaking of Protestant translations of the Bible, that could be applied to all vernacular translations until very recently. It’s only now in the last few decades that we have Catholic and ecumenical/interfaith translations available. There’s never been a better time to read the Bible.

And thanks so much for tantalizing us with a link to a subscription-only review. {grumble}

J.S. Peyton The Walrus is pretty knew, no more than 3 years old I think. I knew about it since early last year though, since I was in Poli Sci and needed to know about such things. (Also, I direly wanted just this sort of Canadian mag and could not find one since I find Macleans pretty dumb and LRC pretty bland.)

I did not know that Bookforum had hourly updated links though. Thanks for that.

Stefanie, yeah, it’s weird that I resisted Bookforum so long — and it is really cheap considering the price of similar publications.

I bought The Odyssey this week, the Richmond Lattimore translation, since it got a nifty new cover and everything.

Cam I am not 100% certain of this but I’ve gotten the impression over time that the written Biblical Hebrew of the Torah is remarkably different from its modern version, so it’s not as widely understood as one would assume. This would be particularly pertinent for Jewish-Americans too, since I doubt that they’re generally pretty fluent in Hebrew at all. (But I could be wrong! I’ve had very little contact with Jews of any nationality.) Bloom certainly took a decidedly Jewish-American approach, and did not seem to be reviewing the book in light of what Anglo-Christian audiences would think.

At my boarding school we just the New International Version of the Bible and it’s radically different from the KJV simply for it’s use of pretty contemporary English. But it seems to be used by only certain Protestant denominations, primarily the ones influenced by the American grown version. My Anglican church used a different one (the name of which I can’t recall) and, like Sylvia said, the Catholics have their own as well. Lots of them floating around!

Melanie yay! someone who felt similarly about that Kay book. I prefer his earlier stuff as well, even Fionavar, although I thought The Last Light of the Sun was excellent. I did not take to Ysabel at all. Did you read that one, and if so, what did you think about it?

Sylvia , you’re welcome. 😀 And I do too think that Austen is all that, missy. (Thanks so much for the bookmark, I love it.)

If I weren’t REALLY short of money right now, I’d go subscribe to Bookforum this instant, but I guess I’d better wait … but payday will come soon enough …

[…] it’s no use pretending otherwise. Didn’t I praise you guys for not resorting to this two months ago? They don’t do the really really long journal-type articles either, but give moderate, even space […]

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