Summer Reading List

I’ve been counting down the days until I can sit down with a few good books. Sometime I want to try reading all the books on some list or coming up with a clever list of my own where all of the books are related, but for now I just really really want to read these. If you’ve read some of these or have any more suggestions, I’d love to know. This summer I am definitely not above vegetative entertainment.

Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong (Sold several million copies in China a few years ago.)

Fathers and Children – Turgenev

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Confederacy of Dunces – Kennedy Toole

Metamorphosis – Kafka

Red China Blues – Jan Wong

Wild Grass – Ian Johnson

Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky (The best political novel ever written?)

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The Seriousness of Novelists

I was reading an interview of Cormac McCarthy the other day, and in usual fashion he came across as quite the serious dude. Among other things, he had this to say:

“I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.”

I am not sure how I feel about this. It is at once ridiculous; yet I do have some sympathy for the concept as it relates to writing novels. After reading The White Tiger and loving it, I decided to try some short stories by Aravind Adiga. But they were a bunch of snoozers–it was almost like he wrote it hoping people would buy it on the strength of his first novel. Can great art (and especially great literature) be produced flippantly? Whatever the case, I do think it true that it is very difficult to produce in a classroom setting–for nothing stifles creativity like a creative writing class.

 

National Service Program

Last week David Brooks had this to say: “We need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe [class] and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.” I like this idea–a lot. ‘Tis unfortunate that the political winds keep asinine ideas on the table and exclude useful ones.

Marriage

Hey all,

I have never felt entirely comfortable blogging here about personal things–my latest doings and what not. Yet I know that is what Mormondom and family crave; so to compensate, Adella and I have a blog called State of Confucian. We will update it shortly.

In the meantime, I will continue to use this blog to discuss news, politics, religion, literature, and what not.

Angry God vs. Fun God

G.K. Chesterton said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” I like that. It’s always around the holidays that everybody seems so serious: Bill O’Reilly telling Jon Stewart that he is headed for hell. Fox News’s blatant blowing “attacks on Christmas” entirely out of proportion. (Melville writes in Moby Dick, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Probably some truth to that.)

As Eric Weiner wrote in the New York Times this Sunday, “God is not a lot of fun these days. . . All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers.” When it comes down to it, our society isn’t really that good at talking about things like God and religion. This failure is probably symptomatic of a broader one: a book that came out earlier this year contained the research of two sociologists interviewing thousands of college-aged Americans to find out their views on morality. They found that we are quite horrible at it; in fact, we lacked even the vocabulary with which to meaningfully discuss moral topics.

Given such a dire situation, how can we hope to raise the public discourse about religion? Weiner thinks he has at least one solution:

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones [those who do not affiliate themselves with a religious denomination, yet still believe in God] among us. And for all of us.”

Although I appreciate the cultural reference, I am not at all sure that going to church should be like using my Mac. Don’t get me wrong—I love my Mac. Just not in the same way that I love religion. Religion fascinates me because it at times is the least intuitive endeavor one can undertake. It is at once messy and complicated, riddled with metaphysical questions. To believe—to really believe, and to consistently believe—and to grow and improve is a constant struggle. I am not sure how comfortable I would be with a populist religious uprising of the kind described.  It could be a good thing, but I don’t see how it could ever escape being a fad. A religion that never requires you to look into its history and ask hard questions doesn’t seem to be much of a religion at all. At least, it wouldn’t be a religion that did much for people–anymore than the thrill of attending a Super Bowl would do for them.

Additionally, I am not sure what a religion would look like that celebrated doubt. Doubt (no doubt) can play a crucial role in acquiring belief—I have always loved Dostoevsky’s line: “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”—but is doubt something to be desired in and of itself? Telling people that it is okay to question and to doubt is different than celebrating that doubt. To place doubt on a pedestal as an object of desire is to ignore the greater issues behind belief.

We can still laugh about our religion while at the same time taking its claims very seriously. Interestingly enough, I actually think that the Mormon.org campaign is an effort to make religion more unencumbered and straightforward. The whole message is—“Look at my life. This is what I am. This is why I worship. It is normal. Anyone can do it.” I think that is a great introduction to our Church. But if you don’t think you are going to face tough issues in any religion, you are dreaming.

Weiner is right that most of what gets said comes from opposite ends of the spectrum: It is a Muslim fundamentalist. Then it’s a Republican Fundamentalist who hates Muslims. Then it’s a Koran burning cretin, followed by the Westboro bigots. Then it’s Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher and their caustic, naïve, and deleterious comments.  There is this huge gap in the middle, between avid believers and rabid atheists, and it seems mostly to be filled with apathy, that great master of our day. To raise our level of discourse would do many a service, indeed.

Moby Dick of the West


From one of the best authors of the day. This is taken from The Crossing; the scene is following the death of a wolf a boy had been hunting:

“He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.”
–Cormac McCarthy

Daily Universe Opinion & Issues Editor

The DU has been called heretical, wonderful, mundane, imaginative, mind-expanding, racist, mind-expandingly racist, overly conservative, sacrilegious, and a host of other adj., but most would agree that the DU is mostly just a mediocre student paper with (and I think the Student Review is right here) a limited voice.

On occasion, though, the DU runs one of those awful pieces that warrant a firing, and today was one such occasion. The lead Issues & Opinions Editor Allie McCoy has never been very good; she has in fact been consistently and categorically bad.  It is just that today she was exceptionally bad. She is a bad writer, a poor thinker, and a dreadful columnist. And we students just have to take it, because there really is no way to get heard, at least through the DU. They give us a little space at the bottom in which we can write articles but limit us to 250 words. 250 words! There isn’t any combination of 250 words in the English language to portray the horridness of this piece.

One need not be very familiar with Allie McCoy to know the type (now so prevalent at BYU)—pretty (okay, down-right gorgeous), wealthy, married, etc., and a wonderful sense of fashion to top it all off. But the Issues & Ideas Editor? As in, the Issues & Ideas Editor? The head honcha?

Some will inevitably claim that McCoy had no chance from the beginning—that with a face like that the only thing one could ever be able to do a decent job at would be in the modeling world.[1] Probably warranted, but beside the point, which is this: What is this lady doing at the DU?

The piece that spawned this reaction happened because McCoy ventured out of her comfort zone—writing trite and forgettable phrases—to write about something of substance: the Occupy Wall Street movement. Or rather, Fox News’s version of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.[2] McCoy: “I admit, sometimes, [sic] all anyone needs is a friendly hand and a little boost and they’ll be on their way to success and prosperity.” This makes Gretcha Carlson look like she has half a brain and raises the question of whether or not Ms. McCoy has actually ever worked with any type of humanitarian organization.

McCoy undoubtedly thinks of her prose as crisp and always tries to throw a zinger (does anybody still use that word?) in at the end. For example, after an averagely awful piece on the football team, she writes:

“That’s just how it works, we work together to make each other better.”

The awfulness here extends beyond just being a poorly written sentence.[3] This sentence hurts. And it makes me feel sorry for the poor sap who thinks her work is good enough to keep her on at the DU. She closed her epically putrid piece today by writing this:

“We’d remember what it means to work, what it means to truly earn the things we have. Maybe we won’t have as much. Maybe it will take us longer to get the flashy car or the big house.

But when we do, we’ll have earned it.

It will be ours.”

This is so dumb it practically drools.[4] It is dumb because she had just quoted Elder Oaks regarding greed showing its face in the “assertion of entitlement”; because the bottom of the page has a quote from Elder Maxwell about there being no place in society today for a sense of entitlement; because it displays a stunning ignorance of Church history and of scripture; [5] and because it reeks of Ayn Rand like devil-spew. One must presume that the “assertion of entitlement” that Elder Oaks mentioned was too big a term for McCoy to wrap her mind around and that she doesn’t really much care for either history or canonized works.

It is entirely likely that Allie McCoy will one day have her flashy car and big house and that I will not (which, incidentally, is fine with me: there is more to college education than the pursuit of property). But it will not be because she has earned it or even because she has deserved it. Perhaps somewhere in the Brimhall sits some relation to McCoy that is the sole reason for her continued employment there: if so it is McCoy who, ironically, is getting something through no merits of her own. Until she moves on, the DU will continue to be a mediocre paper with occasionally horrible pieces written by this misguided soul.


[1] To be fair to the modeling world, though, there is this statement from a recent New Republic post about modeling as a career: “You need to show ambition, clearly, while never exuding unbecoming eagerness. For the right kind of exposure, you may have to work for free—even go into debt. You need to be calculating with your acquaintances, but avoid close connections with possible competitors. Above all, you need to stay beholden to the unlikely dream of success and the rare moments of magic, building calluses and erecting blinders to the unpleasant and grueling realities.” Sounds like a pretty cut-throat world. The point, though, is that brains are not an integral part of whatever these sick people do.

[2] Now, I realize that there are a lot of bums that belong to this movement and its goals aren’t very clear and blah blah blah. But really—what is to like about the way Wall Street screwed the financial world, lied about it, and got off scot-free because they lobbied the current politicians? Occupy WS may not be the most noble movement in history, but doesn’t something about WS just stink?

[3] I realize that no one likes a snoot (and I do not consider myself to be one), but the DU is a newspaper and McCoy is a (professed) journalist.

[4] I stole this phrase from the late David Foster Wallace because it made me laugh. That is, the phrase made me laugh, not the stealing of it.

[5] See, for example, D&C 49:20. “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin.”

Because I Can’t Help It: More DFW on FDM

“What seems most important is that Dostoevsky’s near-death experience [as a young writer, FMD was thrown in jail for conspiracy and sentenced to be executed. His executioners blindfolded him and tied him to a stake and waited until the executioners yelled, “Aim!” before having a messenger ride in on a horse to grant reprieve. Such was, apparently, a very common method of scaring the daylights out of people in a way that only Russians could do.] changed a typically vain and trendy young writer—a very talented writer, true, but still one whose basic concerns were for his own literary glory—into a person who believed deeply in moral/spiritual values…more, into someone who believed that a life lived without moral/spiritual values was not just incomplete but depraved.

The big thing that makes Dostoevsky invaluable for American readers and writers is that he appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction, and engagement with deep moral issues that we – here today – cannot or do not permit ourselves. . . … Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some[thing]. . .So he—we, fiction writers—won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance ideologies. People would either laugh or be embarrassed for us. Given this (and it is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionately moral fiction  was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make that? How—for a writer today, even a talented writer today—to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees. There are, however, models.”

[Consider the Lobster; pgs 270-2]

The Sorrows of Young Werther

This passage is wonderful, and unfortunately still true for genius in art and other fields. Werther, who is narrating, has just painted a piece that he was very proud of.

[Written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]

“This confirmed me in my resolution of adhering, for the future, entirely to nature. She alone is inexhaustible, and capable of forming the greatest masters. Much may be alleged in favour of rules, as much may be likewise advanced in favour of the laws of society: an artist formed upon them will never produce anything absolutely bad or disgusting; as a man who observes the laws, and obeys decorum, can never be an absolutely intolerable neighbour, nor a decided villain: but yet, say what you will of rules, they destroy the genuine feeling of nature, as well as its true expression. Do not tell me ‘that this is too hard, that they only restrain and prune superfluous branches, etc.’ My good friend, I will illustrate this by an analogy. These things resemble love. A warmhearted youth becomes strongly attached to a maiden: he spends every hour of the day in her company, wears out his health, and lavishes his fortune, to afford continual proof that he is wholly devoted to her. Then comes a man of the world, a man of place and respectability, and addresses him thus: ‘My good young friend, love is natural; but you must love within bounds. Divide your time: devote a portion to business, and give the hours of recreation to your mistress. Calculate your fortune; and out of the superfluity you may make her a present, only not too often, — on her birthday, and such occasions.’ Pursuing this advice, he may become a useful member of society, and I should advise every prince to give him an appointment; but it is all up with his love, and with his genius if he be an artist. O my friend! why is it that the torrent of genius so seldom bursts forth, so seldom rolls in full-flowing stream, overwhelming your astounded soul? Because, on either side of this stream, cold and respectable persons have taken up their abodes, and, forsooth, their summer-houses and tulip-beds would suffer from the torrent; wherefore they dig trenches, and raise embankments betimes, in order to avert the impending danger.”