The Magic Mountain (Mann)

About 15 years ago, a student asked me, “Why don’t we read books that matter?” I had to admit that he had a point. He gave me some Ayn Rand titles to read, and I started thinking about what books there are that have really changed the way people think. The Stranger came to mind. As did Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which I still have to read). More recently, I was reading The Prisoner of Heaven, and the character there kept mentioning The Magic Mountain. So I looked into it and decided that it, too, merited inclusion in this category.

Each summer, I  try to read one BIG book, so I decided to make The Magic Mountain this summer’s book. I’m glad I read it, though I suspect it would help to know more about pre-World War I Germany. (Like others, I suspect, I know more about post-WW2 Germany.)

I do take exception with this notion of a “novel of ideas.” As with Life of Pi, the best parts of this were the story. When Mann gets bogged down too much in these epic conversations between these two intellectuals, the piece just bogs down. At times, I was interested in their debates, but mostly, I just wanted to get through those sections.

Thematically, I was interested in what Mann had to say about time, especially as it pertained to Castorp’s experience of it at the top of the mountain. And I liked how Mann self-consciously adjusted the length of his chapters to reflect Castorp’s changing perceptions and used the fickle weather to develop his ideas.

But I do wish he’d done more to let the story speak instead of Settembrini and Naphta.  I was interested, for example, in certain characters, some of whom arrived late on the scene. In short, I wanted more plot.

If I could sit with the book for a half hour or so at a time, I tended to find it more compelling. The chapter, “Snow,” is, itself, a masterpiece.

I found John E. Woods’ translation quite fluid. For me, the test of a good translation is the smoothness of the dialogue, and I found it sounded natural.

So, should you read it? More, perhaps, an experience than in the hope that you will come out of it having changed the way you see the world.

Blockade Billy and “Morality” (King)

I needed a book on CD for a 2+ hour drive, and there weren’t many choices. I selected this Stephen King novella and story because I figured that if I wasn’t paying full attention to the plot of each, I’d still be able to track the action. Also, the first one appealed to me because of its baseball plot.

In his book On Writing, King and another writer (Amy Tan?), are complaining that no one ever asks them about their craft. This motivates King to produce this book (which I liked and recommend).

Here he seems to have forgotten his own lessons. There’s little craft here. Both stories are essentially monologues. Both plots are essentially about secrets. The characters are generally cardboard. I just wanted the proverbial yarn to while away the time while I drove; instead, I got King-lite, a kind of paint by numbers affair – a Thomas Kincaide factory model.

Craig Wasson, the narrator of the first story, overdoes it at first, but eventually finds a useful register. Mare Winningham (reduced to this?) does a fine job with the predictable ‘bonus’ story, “Morality.’

The Ruby in Her Navel (Unsworth)

I am not normally drawn to historical fiction. (And I’m never sure I understand the genre. Isn’t everything a kind of historical fiction?) But Unsworth got my attention years ago with the stunning Morality Play and the remarkable Sacred Hunger. With the exception of Losing Nelson, I’ve loved all of his work. Like  J.J. Norwich says on the cover of my edition, “I plunged in and was instantly. . . transported.” Unsworth has clearly done his homework here (as he always does), but he always makes sure the historical details serve the story. He’s created a remarkable character here in Thurstan. While I can’t say that I could give you an accurate recounting of all of the palace politics, I got the main points – that Thurstan has a kind of naive idealism that, in the end, causes him to suffer. But I liked his idealism and his vision of his King, so I kept hoping he was right. I only figured out the problem a few pages before he did, so I was clearly with him.

Interestingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how authors use coincidences in their work, particularly when they have characters run into each other in sometimes unlikely places. Unsworth does something new with that here which I enjoyed at the same time as I said to myself, “I should have seen that coming.”

Try an Unsworth – this one or one of the others I mentioned. I wish he got more attention.

The Newlyweds (Freudenberger)

What struck me right away about this book is how well-drawn the two main characters are. Amina is our protagonist, and she’s this remarkable mix of naiveté and insight. George, her husband, is also complex. Just when I thought it would be easy to dislike him, he shows his remarkable human-ness. Kim is probably the best (and most important) supporting character. Freudenberger makes her condescension a by-product of her sadness rather than arrogance. Nasir, back home in Bangladesh, is also a subtle creation. I felt like I knew these people – their strengths and their flaws. No one is pure or blameless here; nor is anyone (even Amina’s father, who comes as close to a stock character as anyone we meet). Freudenberger makes it difficult to judge and does not seem to judge herself. She just – deliberately and subtly – presents a situation that entangles these four (and others) and lets it unravel slowly.

I only had two moments where I would have advised Freudenberger to take things more slowly. The first comes when Amina finds (too quickly and easily, I think) George’s secret in the United States. The second is Amina’s effort to discover Nasir’s secret in Bangladesh.

And Bangladesh is, itself, a character. Though Freudenberger does not seem inclined to gloss over what goes on there, she made me want to travel there, not like Kim, but with Amina.

A wonderful novel.

Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking (Hofstadter / Sander)

Though I didn’t get to the very last page, I’m giving myself credit for this one. After a long slog through the first 502 pages, I was looking forward to what the authors called the “Epidialogue.” But instead of an original, authentic conversation between two genuine people about the topics just presented in exhausting thoroughness, this is just Hofstadter and Sander being clever, inventing two characters, whose stilted and artificial dialogue matches the tone of much of the book.

Right at the beginning of the Prologue, the authors, to their credit, state their thesis explicitly (3):

In this book about thinking, analogies and concepts will play the starring tole, for without concepts there can be no thought, and without analogies there can be no concepts. This is the thesis that we will develop and support throughout the book.

Right away, I had a problem. When I teach students to write thesis statements, I, like English teachers everywhere, push them to write something that someone else might disagree with, something controversial. Otherwise, I tell my students, why would the reader continue? But the authors do little to present an alternative viewpoint. A few are offered, briefly, and readily dismissed as either wrong, or, upon further (often smug) reflection, really just examples that support the thesis of this book.

The other piece we teachers of writing push for is a “so what?” In other words, if I am persuaded by your thesis, why does it matter? How does it change the way I think about things in any meaningful way? At least the authors try to do this. In Chapter 8, some 437 often mind-numbing pages into this doorstop of a book, they offer a chapter called “Analogies that Shook the World.” This immediately seemed problematic to me. For if the underlying notion of their thesis is that thinking, an everyday act, is governed by analogies, then why use an example of thought that’s just about the direct opposite of everyday thought, namely the theory of relativity? As they acknowledge, it is time consuming to explain, and it is only erratically that the authors seem to remember the subject of their argument and point out how Einstein’s insights were based on analogies.

In the end, I didn’t find myself disagreeing with the thesis. We use analogies. We use categories and create new ones. Language is slippery and imprecise. But it’s what we have. I don’t need 5 pages on the connotations of ‘pig’ complete with subscripts to convince me.

For me, this would have been an interesting magazine article. Instead, it’s 530 pages. I admit, I only read 513. The pages were just getting too heavy after that. (See, there’s an analogy.)

I’ve heard Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is pretty amazing. It may take me a while to try it.