by Mark Middlebrook
...y así, del poco dormir y del mucho leer, se le secó el celebro, de manera que vino a perder el juicio. -- El Quixote, I.1.
Good booksThe following are mini-reviews of a few favorite books. I originally wrote them (the reviews, that is) for the "Ex Libris Alumnorum" column in the St. John's College Reporter.
[Moral exhortation and confession: I've included a link to amazon.com for each book, primarily so that you can find out more about the title. If you're fortunate enough to live near an independent bookstore, then you should support it whenever possible by buying your books there (or support your local library by borrowing books from there). If you ignore my exhortation and buy from amazon.com after arriving there from a link on this page, I'll receive a modest commission on your purchase, and both of us will go to hell.]
Calvinist monk Jacques le Balleur is captured in 1560 by Brazilian cannibals, who mistake the ten pages of Rabelais in his possession (Book 3, chapters 26-28) for the Bible they had been promised. Le Balleur is anointed patriarch of the tribe and, rather than reveal the true nature of his "scriptures", attempts to use them to convert the natives. A royal harem, Rabelaisian Parliament, and orgiastic Passion Play are a few of the unorthodox detours along the way to fulfilling God's purpose. This little book is a delightful, learned romp for those of us who couldn't get enough of Rabelais.
I cannot claim to have swallowed this entire tome, but I can at least recommend it for sipping. Barnes covers Thales down to Diogenes in a less scholarly and more personal style than Kirk & Raven use in their book of the same name. Barnes is less concerned with philological and historical interpretations than with "whether the Presocratics spoke truly, (and) whether their sayings rested on sound arguments." He also is an entertaining writer. For instance, in pooh-poohing the currently fashionable tendency to stress the irrational side of Presocratic thinking, Barnes writes: "...that even the Greeks had their moments of unreason is not to be denied.... (Nonetheless) the Greeks stand to the irrational as the French to bad cuisine."
This sculpted story positively radiates through its simple but shapely prose. A village of stoneworkers labors smugly as their way of life begins to crumble from the intrusion of the Bronze Age. One among them sees and tells the truth, a man who lacks one lower arm. Unable to work stone, he takes on the craft of storytelling and feeds it with wanderlust. His tales create laughter but also foreboding in the villagers, who, like us, are made to confront love and work and "the slavery of skill".
This tuneful novel traces the adventures of Tom Clay through the waning days of The Gorbals, a slum in Glasgow that is yielding slowly to the wrecking ball of urban renewal. But the story is slight compared with the voice, which is by turns musical, poetic, punny, and amateur-philosophical. Torrington, like his protagonist, isn't afraid to careen between the high and the low, from Pascal's "Pong-sees" (as railway driver, Wee Tulley, calls them) to decrepit domino players ("those rowdy spot-mortems") drinking stout in equally decrepit pubs. Throughout the book, it was the working-class Glaswegian cadences, whether lilting or gutteral, that kept me charmed.
What do you call someone who speaks three languages? "Trilingual." What do you call someone who speaks two languages? "Bilingual." What do you call someone who speaks one language? "An American."
Years of grade school Spanish and some college French did little to make me any less the butt of this quip. But thanks to a tip from a language-loving friend, I now can aspire at least to being 1.5lingual. Assimil publishes book/tape (or CD) language packages for dozens of languages, including French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Arabic ("Arabic with Ease?!") -- all with the title [Language] with Ease. I worked through the Spanish with Ease book/tape set, and have dabbled with the French with Ease set. Both are well thought-out and inviting, without descending into the simplistic phrase-book pap that characterizes many language learning tools. The Assimil method is conversational, but they aren't afraid to teach you grammar along the way. The lessons introduce idioms early on, the later lessons have you reading real poems, and there's a pretty good grammatical appendix of verbs. An added bonus is that the books, though compact and lightweight, have a sewn binding and a sturdy cover -- unlike most modern paperbacks, they should hold up to repeated use and the rigors of the rucksack.
[Note to travelers: The speakers on the Spanish with Ease tapes use a Castillian accent of the sort you'll encounter in most of Spain, but not in Latin America. Your Latin-American-Spanish-speaking friends may find the accent either amusing, quaint, annoying, or unintelligible.]
Return to the Team Rioja home page.