Thursday, February 24, 2011


In this book, Steven Ozment has attempted a new look at the history of the very earliest phase of the Reformation, running from 1517, the date of Luther's famed 95 theses, up to about 1520-21, when reforms started to be instituted in the German towns. His concern is to find out the why Luther's ideas were so appealing to city dwellers of Germany, and his answer is that it appealed for positive worldly and "urban" reasons. In doing this, Ozment paints a particular picture of Protestantism, making it free of its later religious excesses, its Calvinist strictness, its occasional Messianism, its later concrete forms with their organized rituals too reminiscent of Catholicism. He is sometimes overly eager to separate this undeveloped, early phase from the later developments within the churches.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kazuo Ishiguro: THE UNCONSOLED

I went into The Unconsoled having read The Remains of the Day a number of years ago and enjoying it immensely. I obviously wasn't the only one who enjoyed it, as it won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Having read that book, I was prepared for the extremely dry, unsentimental style that is uniquely Ishiguro's. His prose verges on the pedantic, yet it is kept alive by humor and originality, by a certain silliness that pervades his work. The book, as well as the film Never Let Me Go of a couple years ago (made from his book of the same name), also attuned me to his thematic concerns: the way that polite gentility, especially of the British sort, can hide sadness and even horror, even from oneself; the feeling of being lost in a culture obsessed with such gentility; and attention to the subtleties of the class system. In Remains, with its aging butler struggling to understand the decline of the ritualized formalities that he has lived by his whole life, these ideas are used to comic effect, and one only very slowly realizes the serious issues and serious emotions being conveyed. In Never Let Me Go, the comedy is mostly gone, changed into absurdity but conveying much the same feelings, this time through a class of people raised entirely to be organ-donors, who barely realize the horror of their own lives because they stick so closely to the rules that have been laid out for them. All of this, I imagine, has roots somewhere in Ishiguro's confusion at an England that he wasn't born into and that he finds at the same time funny, sad and weird.

So, I was prepared for The Unconsoled, and I was even ready to like it a ton, especially since it promised to be about a musician. But there's no other way to say this: I hated this book.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

William Styron: THE LONG MARCH

The march at the center of this book is 36 miles long, a truly horrendous length. It is probably even more horrendous in the imagining than in the walking, though, and it is the imagination of the march that the book focuses on. The walking itself takes up only the last third of the book, which is only about thirty or so pages of this very short book.

The book is set in Georgia in a marine training camp, where Colonel Templeton has ordered that his soldiers, who are primarily reservists, must make a 36 mile march, which will start in the night and go for some thirteen-plus hours, in order to toughen them up, since, he says they have been acting like reservists, when in fact they need to remember that they are, first and foremost, Marines. The Long March is narrated by Lieutenant Culver, a former Marine, who got married and had a child back before being called back into the service for the Korean War. He struggles with his return, but not nearly as much as his friend Captain Mannix, whose struggle we watch throughout the book. Culver has difficulty complaining about anything, even in directing any ill will towards Templeton, or hating the idea of the march, since he can make sense out of both of them. Templeton, with his perfect Marine simplicity, is perhaps too simple to hate. Mannix, however, has no end of complaining. He hates that he's been called back, complains about the silly forced recreational times he has to suffer through as an officer, and complains especially about Templeton and this long, long march.

For Culver, and one imagines for Styron as well, what makes this struggle so awful is the inability to connect it to any meaning, or the difficulty in figuring out how to meaningfully protest.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Heinrich Böll: THE CLOWN

I confess that I didn't pick up The Clown for any literary reason at all. I was interested in this book entirely because the book promised to be about a mime. It was only after that I learned anything about Heinrich Böll. The essentials on Böll are that he is a German novelist, Nobel Prize 1972, grew up in a respectable Catholic pacifist family in World War II. From this book, it seems that he has inherited his parents' distaste for war, though they also seem to have turned him against certain aspects of Catholicism and respectability.

The Clown, in spite of its title, is a rather dreary book, punctuated only rarely by moments of comedy, which sometimes come simply from the dreariness reaching such heights as to be comical.