Friday, July 22, 2005

1. Just so you know, Wednesday's the big day. I'm driving out with my dad from here to the Bay Area. We'll stop in Salt Lake to stay with my Uncle John and Aunt Shan, then arrive on Saturday (I think) in Newark, California. I'll be staying in the guest room at St. Edwards, very generously offered by Father Keyes, while I'm looking for an apartment in Berkeley.

2. I have opened a LiveJournal account for the purpose of seeing my friends' non-public posts. Now I've thought of a use for it. Quizzes and memes. I feel weird posting the "What Element Are You?" test on the same page as my theological musings, so I shall use the other site. Hmmm. This does make more of a hassle for you guys out there, though. Do you have a problem with it?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Book Reports

Though it's been a short summer, I've had the opportunity to read a bit. For one thing, with my house interior being painted last week ("malted milk", but honestly pink), that was all I could do at home. Anyhow:

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, Flannery O'Connor

The Flannery O'Connor bug finally bit me, and I checked out this short story collection. For me, it varied quite a bit in impact. Perhaps her best-known, the title story, didn't leave me with much, but I was really moved by "A Temple of the Holy Ghost". I just don't have much to say, as the format of short story is less one of intellectual concepts than what St. Ignatius would call "movements". Anyhow, I give the collection seven out of ten.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

I started this one, then put it down about 150 pages in. Cnytr's review gets it pretty much right. With all his expertise on the Middle Ages and impressive imitation of medieval style, Eco misses a great chance to write a truly medieval novel (which was, I think, his aim). He just keeps everything at arm's length, far enough to scoff at ancient superstition with modern irony. This distance made it impossible for me to truly enter the story. That, and his characters barely rise to the level of stereotypes (good and bad ones). It's like reading an Isaac Asimov novel: the ideas (science-fiction speculation or Middle Ages knowledge) are great, but if those particular subjects aren't your thing, it's just not a great read for any other reason. Those who love medieval history and culture have every right to love this book, but I just lost interest. (Ditto with Baudolino, though Foucault's Pendulum is still one of my favorite novels; it's a far different book in setting and scope than the other two, though.) Two out of ten.

The Riemann Hypothesis, Karl Sabbagh

A pretty good report on the history of the problem, with a lot of good stories and amusing mathematician anecdotes, and an intriguing portrayal of a clever but flawed professor who has presented several mistaken proofs to the conjecture. It's obvious that Sabbagh knows quite little about mathematics (it's particularly funny for me to watch him throw his hands up in the air at taking complex powers), but he does well at observing the culture of mathematicians. I liked it. Six out of ten.

The Advent of the Algorithm, David Berlinski

Oh man, we come to the worst of all the books I read. Nonfiction books on the history of mathematics most emphatically do not need postmodern gimmicks sprinkled throughout. You can't tell what facts actually happened, and what Berlinski just made up, except that the latter aren't very interesting at all. I put it down in disgust at about the point where Berlinski's cats were attacking Liebnitz's wig. A big fat zero.

Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

Wow. My friend James introduced me to Eliot by having me read "Little Giddy", but I hadn't revisited the Quartets since until the last eve of the retreat. Simply staggering. It's probably useless for me to try writing about poetry (it's been compared to "dancing about architecture"), and for once I won't try. Ten out of ten.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Ah, now The Brothers K has some real competition for best novel of my life. Really, the English and Americans need to do some catching up to the Russian novelists. Even in translation, this book is absolutely profound, authentic, rapturous, and even funny (and this particular translation, by Constance Garnett, was superb). Even if the most famous particular of the ending has been spoiled for you in advance (as it was for me), the book is suspenseful and more engrossing than books a third its length.

One thing that I loved about it was that Tolstoy gets the tiniest details of human interaction precisely right. Dostoyevsky, for all of his greatness, has the habit of abandoning the form of real conversations so as to get the concepts presented just right. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy never loses track of his characters' limitations, habits and views, and he takes note of the difference between how they appear to themselves and how they appear to others. Characters do the little human things, like convincing themselves that they "always knew" something that they just discovered, or getting caught up in one grand Idea after another because they abandon each one at the first failure, or letting the decisions that mark their lives be altered by simple embarrassment in conversation. His characters are real human beings with lives of their own: no major character can be "summed up" in a paragraph. And what questions they struggle with! I can't imagine a novel more ambitious (though I haven't read War and Peace), and this book delivers on it.

If you read one novel this lifetime, Anna Karenina would not be a bad choice. Eleven out of ten.

The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace

From the sublime, we finally descend to the strange and fascinating. This is less a novel than a game (the game being, unquestionably, Chutes and Ladders), but it's an intriguing and disturbing game of fiction and metafiction. (I caught hold of one of the ladders in Chapter 8a. Yes, 8a.) Neurosis is what David Foster Wallace does best, and he portrays/exhibits a lot of it here. All things considered, I liked his essay collection (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) better than this, but it still makes me want to read his Infinite Jest. Seven out of ten.

Boy, I think I like doing criticism a bit too much for my own good.
I've come back from an incredible retreat at the White House, the Jesuit retreat center in St. Louis. The retreat was entirely silent except for prayers (rosary, Mass, etc.) and conferences with the spiritual directors. About 60 men (they do women's retreats separately) came to participate in a series of meditations based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The retreat starts with God's blessings and our gratitude, then sin and a decimated world, then follows the life of Christ through the Passion and Resurrection.

As powerful as those meditations were, my own retreat was really based around the book I checked out from their library for my spare moments: Story of a Soul, by St. Therese of Lisieux. It is odd how great an affinity I felt for this 19th-Century Carmelite nun, but I saw in her distractions and doubts an image of my own troubles, and in her "little way" the inspiration to rid myself of the doubleness, or duplicity, that gives me problems. I can't really explain that well, but I have hope that God will work with me in a way I haven't let Him before; that I can turn distraction, or failure, or sin, right back to the love of God and not let myself stray further. Really, for so long I've been trying to do it all on my own, and my character just won't suffice to act the way I want to.

And the reason I came on the retreat- a particular discernment- just emerged from that grace of God, and I have been rejoicing.

Forgive me if I don't make much sense.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Going on an Ignatian silent retreat. Pray for me.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

I Fought the Pod, and the Pod Won

Stupid technology. My brand new iPod isn't on speaking terms with my trusty (somewhat dusty) iMac. So much for bringing my music to Michigan.

Oh, did I mention I'm doing the family reunion thing again? Remember what happened two summers ago? Well, I'm not falling for it this time.

No blogging till next week.

UPDATE: iPod works, huzzah! Apparently, the folks at Apple are disappointed in me for not upgrading my Mac OS for the last four years. I had to use a different connection to make the white silhouette communicate with my translucent friend.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Hiatus over.

Hawaii was a great and salutary chance to unwind, but as a consequence, the entire vacation has stuck together in my mind like the pages of a paperback in a coffee spill. Snorkeling was fantastic, in particular. After studying a reef ecosystem, we turned to the lairs of the sea turtles.

We were told to look for them surfacing occasionally, and that we should not get too close because approaching figures keep them from coming up to breathe. I noticed occasional bubbles rising from a cave, and took up a nearby position. After about five minutes of inactivity, I turned to the surface to check that my group was still out there, adjusted my goggles, and went back to the water. While I had been doing all this, the turtle had surfaced ten feet from my oblivious body. It must have been five feet across, and its shell bore the scars of a lunar landscape. I held still as the ancient reptile filled its lungs, drifted to an arm's length of me, then plunged back to its spot in the rock.

As I mentioned before, I returned to Saint Charles just a few days before Alice arrived for her visit. Ours was a low-stress itinerary (modulo two unavoidable parties): walking through Old Saint Charles, reading, cross-stitching, watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, meeting Kelsey and Scott, going to a Cardinals game with Katie and her visiting boyfriend Danny (whom I met for the first time, and of whom I now approve). Then Alice and I were off to visit her grandparents in Iowa. They were great, the country was pleasant, and Alice is indeed wonderful.

I fear that I have been dragged into the digital age, much as I resisted. My parents gave me for graduation an iPod and a cell phone (the latter of which I'm still somewhat embarrassed to carry). E-mail me if you desire the phone number.

Speaking of e-mail, my Uchicago account will be changing to an alumni account. So my e-mail begins with the same handle as before, but ends with "@alumni.uchicago.edu" rather than "@uchicago.edu". Just telling you.

Go and see Mad Hot Ballroom, the documentary about 5th graders in New York public schools and their citywide competition. It's the funniest, most joyful movie- documentary or not- that I've seen in a long time.

If I'm good, you'll see immediately subsequent posts on my summer reading thus far, and on more of my philosophical thoughts. If I'm lazy, I'll be sitting in front of the TV cheering for the Cardinals.