03 January, 2009

Couple of Reviews

It's been so long, perhaps i ought to simply give up; but, maybe while i think about that, here are a pair of reviews of fairly recently read books.

Sophie’s World
Jostein Gaarder
This is the first book i have read knowing that it was on the list out of 501Must-Read Books ~ in fact, i read it because it was on that list: It wasn't long after i had finished and written the review for the list that Lynne came home with a second-hand copy of Sophie's World, and i decided that at some point fairly soon i would have to read it. So i have. The question, then, for me is, Is it a must-read book? Regretfully, i have to answer, No, it is not. Clearly, for me, anyway, it is not a wish-i-hadn't book, either. No, i'm glad i've now read it; i'm just not certain i'd recommend it completely to most people. Certainly not, considering the age of the protagonists (they're just coming up to their fifteenth birthdays), to the probably target audience. What are my problems with it?

Well, it starts out very abruptly (an odd thing to say, because in some sense all books obviously do) with an almost immediate plunge into the purpose of philosophy and the thoughts of the pre-Socratics. We are really given no time to get to know, let alone to begin to like, the first of two protagonists, Sophie, a Norwegian teenager; and that is, maybe, best, because she is actually not very likeable at all, i found, functioning at first, and indeed most of the way through the book, merely as a peg to hang the philosophy lessons on ~ she is drawn into philosophy by a mysterious, unknown at first, teacher who would run the risk in today's society of being labelled (unfairly, i hasten to add) a possible pædophile. Sophie is disobedient, not especially kind, but like the proverbial sponge soaks up everything she is offered, and is able to remember and review all the philosophers and philosophies she has run across at a moment's notice, making surprising correlations as she does so ~ quite unlike most teenagers i have run into.

The story develops somewhat, as Sophie starts getting messages for a girl she doesn't know, and the mystery is apparently solved as we learn that Sophie and her teacher are characters in a book, written by her father for this unknown Hilde, the other protagonist. At this point the book starts playing the standard games of what is real and what is not that authors like to be clever about, and the whole primary story (Sophie's) degenerates into a party which reminds me of nothing so much as Petronius' Satyricon, as Sophie and her teacher attempt to escape from their book. The other story also turns absurd, and i have to confess that i lost a certain amount of interest ~ never overly strong. The strength of the book is that part which will be most uninteresting to the audience, the philosophy lessons given to Sophie; they are interesting, and clearly Gaarder put a great deal of effort into them; i wish he had also worked that much on the surrounding stories.

James Joyce's “Ulysses”; A Study
Stuart Gilbert
In a curious twist i bought my copy of this book at the same time and place as a copy of The Odyssey which i am now reading aloud with Chenowyth. I can’t remember now if the one purchase was influenced by the other or if, which is more likely, i saw both and wanted both. At any rate, whatever the cause, i bought this and read it over the next couple of weeks.

The problem, of course, is that i have not read Ulysses completely for twentyfive years, about, and none of it for three years, since it’s that long since i saw our copy, currently still boxed in the USA. Clearly, i will one day have to reread Joyce with this book sitting nearby, since it is painfully obvious just how much i either have forgotten or never understood in the first place ~ probably the former, since i did read it in a literature class during which, one would hope, the latter would not happen. I wonder, incidentally, how much Joycean scholarship has travelled on past Gilbert in the past seventy years (this is a 1960 reprint by Faber and Faber of a 1952 reissue of the 1930 edition); perhaps a long way but, then again, perhaps not, as Gilbert did have the benefit of Joyce himself in writing his Study.

So much is packed in here that it is hard to focus my memory on any one part and “review” it, recall it in writing, my reaction to it, as i try to do in these little snippets; one of the benefits, the points i enjoyed, about it is that that Gilbert does quote quite extensively from Joyce, so although i haven’t read it for so long, i am reminded of various parts of Ulysses, which is a definite plus. On the opposite side, however, Gilbert has the habit i know i have mentioned in other authors too of assuming that my Latin, Greek, French, and German are the equal of his; yes, it is a compliment, but not accurate now, if it ever was, and it causes a certain amount of loss to his argument, as one of his primary sources is a French examination of the Odyssey as an Hellenic interpretation of Phœnecian geography and stories. Bother.

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