Flotsam and Jetsam

Links for your enjoyment:

Living with a Big Poem: Reflections on The Waste Land by Daniel Taylor.

The Waste Land, in my estimation, has aged well. It’s true that we don’t feel the frisson of its apocalyptic manner the way early audiences did—as Frank Kermode has pointed out, we have been having “apocalypse for breakfast” for many decades now—but The Waste Land still speaks to us, because we still live in its wasted world.

More precisely, The Waste Land does not speak to us—as Tennyson or Wordsworth or Milton do, directly and authoritatively—so much as it invites us to participate in the making of meaning, allowing us to hear our own voice speaking along with Eliot’s, both of them tentative and searching.

Spinning a Tale: The unobtrusive perfection of Charlotte’s Web By Lauren F. Winner.

Writing is typically regarded as the most solitary of activities. (Take me, right now: I am typing these words alone in my house, wearing my pajamas and earplugs. A solitary undertaking if ever there was one.) And Charlotte, of course, does the actual weaving herself. She must focus her whole being on the mechanics of writing the words in her web. White devotes an entire paragraph to her creation of an “R” in “TERRIFIC”: “Now for the R! Up we go! Attach! Descend! Pay out line!” Children—at least those who, in this computer era, are still schooled in cursive writing—will relate to Charlotte’s focus: Learning how to make an R is no small thing. And grown-up writers will relate, too, thinking not so much about the struggle to shape a letter but rather about the struggle to shape a text. The words literally come out of Charlotte’s body—a jarring and apt summary of how it feels, sometimes, to write.

Bookless in America by Charles R. Kesler:

Nonetheless, the danger of taking our precepts for granted—of forgetting the thinkers and arguments that made possible the epic confrontation with liberalism—grows greater as American conservatism moves farther away from its own founding age. We need to recur to first principles if we are not to lose sight of our purposes.

But then one of the spiritual advantages of conservatism is the confidence that all is never completely lost…or won. There is no such thing as saving civilization, once and for all. It is a never-ending challenge. Though the finest books may fade and be forgotten, truth endures, awaiting rediscovery. Most liberals, by contrast, believe fervently in mankind’s evolution, in every sense of the term. Once shake their faith that history is necessarily on their side, and they are left unmanned—and bookless.

National Lampoon: George Saunder’s Fable Skewers Great and Small Powers Alike by Sam Lipsyte.

The message of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, delivered with great wit, isn’t overtly political. One could spend hours debating whether Saunders means to illuminate a particular horror show, be it Iraq, Israel and Palestine, the Balkans, or Rwanda, but probably Saunders is excavating the deep grammar that underlies all these conflicts: “Sir, the nation is tense,” announces an adviser to the president of the third national entity in this story, Greater Keller, an enlightened country deliberating a possible rescue of Inner Horner. “It is asking itself how it can possibly stand idly by drinking gourmet coffee when an entire race is about to be disassembled.”

Unlike Animal Farm, to which this book will be compared, Saunders isn’t taking a recognizable stand against a specific ideology; maybe the post–Cold War era is too fluid and unrecognizable for such conviction. Though progressive political fury informs a good deal of his writing, Saunders’s prescription here is more an offshoot of the golden rule than anything grounded in an official talking point


In ‘Indecision’ Kunkel makes a decidedly indifferent debut By Jay Atkinson

Appearing on “The Tonight Show” back when Steve Allen was host, a young Jack Kerouac remarked that his work was “sympathetic.” In a lot of what passes for literary fiction these days, Kerouac’s sympathy — for the world, for the human condition, for his characters — has been replaced by cynicism and sarcasm, wry indifference, and self-pity. Even a comic novel must have a “serious” purpose if it is to stake claims on the reader’s time and affection. By making his protagonist an obsessive, incestuous, navel-gazing crybaby, Kunkel has created an insurmountable obstacle for himself and his novel. Dwight B. Wilmerding’s ontological crisis is quite tiresome because even Mr. Wilmerding doesn’t really care how it all turns out.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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