Wednesday, March 28, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different.....

(The following is a very short and extremely apocolyptic story I uncovered in my parents' house. According to a handwritten note by my mother, it was written by me in the Spring of 1979, when I would have been eight years old. Note the conclusion which would make Roger Waters proud!!! The story is presented here unedited. - M. P.)


It was a sunny day in New York. An explorer found 5 huge eggs! He gasped. Soon it was in the paper, "Five Huge Eggs Sighted". One day severel people were taking pics of the huge eggs. Suddenly, the eggs hatched! The people could not believe their eyes! Giant flying Gargoyles came flying out! Thier planet sent them down, already grown in five huge eggs! One of the gargoyles wrecked apart a factory with it's claws. Everything started blowing up in the factory. Machine guns fired. Suddenly, a roar rung out. They tore apart the city. They smashed the people. Soon the city got desserted.

The End.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Great Writers? or, Further Thoughts on the Mountain That Crush'd Duke

Poor Duke Altum. He got veritably crushed under the weight of a massive, purportedly classic novel. In his case it was death by bludgeoning, for it sure sounds like Mann's The Magic Mountain has pummelled him repeatedly over the head over a period of weeks - months!? - without him having a whole lot to show for it. Mann is a Nobel Prize winner, and that's usually a safe bet, we find - but evidently, not in this case. Duke's shared literary experience - indeed, the essence of The Secret Thread - got me thinking about the times that I had had the experience of taking on a writer of high reputation, only to be flattened by the weight of dashed expectations and disappointment.

I can't say it's a long list, but every once in a while I do find that one of the 'great' writers in the history of literature leaves me wanting more (or less) from the experience. Thus, inspired by Duke's post, here's my short list of famous writers whose work I have not enjoyed, and a few words about why. There may be others, but these are the ones who come to mind for me:

Philip Roth. I've only read one of Roth's books, so I'm really not one to judge, but the problem is the one book I read left me totally uninterested in reading anything else. The novel I read was awarded the Pulitzer Prize that year, somehow. It was called American Pastoral. Somehow, Roth's combination of melancholy, cynicism, and obsession with sex doesn't trip my trigger, sorry to say. Also his books are very much about the Jewish American experience, more about secular Jews than religious ones, and that tradition is very foreign to me. I'd be interested in it if a writer made it interesting: Isaac Bishevis Singer is a writer who has made the Jewish experience fascinating: but Roth is not the guy to do it, in my view.

Gertrude Stein. I was assigned Stein's novel The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in grad school around 1999. At least I think it was a novel. Although maybe Alice B. Toklas was Stein's name for herself. Or she was the fictional writer but the book was really about Gertrude Stein. So maybe it was biography-cum-auto-biography. All I know is any way you slice it, this is one of the most boring books I've ever read. Side note: Stein was kind of a mentor to that whole Paris crowd in the 1920s, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the like. The teacher who assigned it also recommended another book of hers called Tender Buttons. No thanks.

James Joyce. It is probably not even accurate to put Joyce on here because I like the stories in Dubliners - 'The Dead' is a masterpiece - and I think Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is pretty good too. But Ulysses ain't much fun to read and it's nearly impossible to understand, and the follow-up, Finnegan's Wake, IS impossible to understand. I'll probably read Ulysses again, but I don't know if it will be that enjoyable. That's a long haul, that book.......

Any Greek Classic. This list is getting more and more damning, but I can't say I really like reading the ancient Greek writers very much and never have. I know it's canonical reading, but I have never much cared for it. I have The Iliad and The Odyssey ready for me to read but I haven't mustered up the courage for such a long slog through narrative poetry yet, no matter how influential it is. I also have some plays by Sophocles that I should read too. I haven't read very much of it and probably would appreciate it more if I would just dive in, but I must admit to being not all that pumped to do so.

Ernest Hemingway. Not a big fan. Particularly of his novels. His short stories are very impressive especially from a craft point of view and their wide-reaching influence has been felt by writers of literally all nations. Many of the stories I find very powerful and memorable. But, I don't respond all that much to his hyper-minimalistic, journalistic style and his depressing outlook on the world, especially on romantic matters, is burdensome to me. This especially rings true for me when I read his novels. I read The Sun Also Rises not too long ago and didn't particularly enjoy it.

I think there might be others, but this is enough to get my point across I guess. Sometimes writers that the world or the critical establishment think are great just don't work for you personally as a reader. It's unfortunate that Duke had to spend so much effort to read Thomas Mann and get so little out of it. Then again it's the pioneering literary spirit, which leads one to try out these major (and minor) writers of the world, that we aspire to maintain here on this blog, and although there are risks involved, it helps us continue to grow into deeper appreciation of our own tastes and of the extraordinary gift of literature.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Crashing into The Magic Mountain

Well folks, it's been a long time. I'm aware of that. As I explained before, circumstances in my "real life" (the one outside of this virtual one, with deadlines and payments and responsibilities and heartaches and obligations and all that) have been so hectic that it's been hard to get a chance to post anything. My job has been busy basically since 2007 began (with no end in sight), and my wife took on a part-time job in February, which means I've been hanging out with our three sons on my own several nights a week, which certainly cuts into both my time and my energy (but it's been great "bonding" with them -- sorry, but I'll take the bonding any day of the week over this!).

Anyway, blah blah blah... who really cares, right? It's not like I'm singing a unique tune or anything here. I can hear the violins crying in the background even now.

There's another reason, though, why I haven't been posting lately. It's because I've been bogged down, reading-wise, in one of the most difficult (admittedly self-imposed) reading challenges I've had in years -- slogging through Thomas Mann's lumbering behemoth of a novel The Magic Mountain. As my subject line indicates, I almost feel like I haven't been reading it, I actually crashed into it, and I'm the sole survivor of the wreck, and I'm marooned at the top and no one seems to realize I'm there, and I haven't seen a soul for months... well, obviously I'm exaggerating, but I am really struggling to get through this novel, and it got me thinking, "Have I ever had this much trouble getting through a work of fiction?" And I'm being quite serious when I say that next to the experience of reading this, reading Moby Dick felt like reading a Jack Higgins thriller or something. I'm not kidding. Melville's magnum opus is a long read requiring diligence and concentration, to be sure -- but it fascinated me on almost every page, the language is almost Shakespearean, and it raises all kinds of heavy and important theological and philosphical questions. And while Mann is a Nobel Prize winner and viewed as one of the most important novelists in modern times, I can't quite understand what it is about this novel that gave it its high reputation.

I've never read Marcel Proust before (I know Mutt has, but I am no Mutt Ploughman), but I suspect that reading In Search of Lost Time feels a bit like reading this -- except, perhaps, Proust's language may be more poetic and flowery than Mann's is. That's just a guess, I obviously don't know for sure. But in both cases, the "action," if you want to call it that, seems to take place all internally, that is, in the rambling thoughts and inner experiences of their protagonists. Mann is not (at least in this work) so much a surveyor of the mind and its meanderings as, say, Virginia Woolf is, but this novel is certainly about a specific young man's experiences in a specific milieu, and not much else. Not that I require a lot of adventure and intrigue to enjoy a novel, but it is, I am finding, pretty difficult to get through a 715-page novel consisting entirely of philsophical (and sometimes political/theological) conversations between people in one setting. Hilariously, there is only one "event" to speak of in the entire book, that Mann builds up to for hundreds of pages -- all we're talking about is the young protagonist's getting up the courage to declare his feelings for a young woman and fellow patient there -- and when you finally get to it, midway through the book, the entire conversation, which goes on for pages, is conducted in French, without translation, so I had absolutely no idea what transpired in the entire critical scene. How's that for a literary letdown? Then, of course, Mann keeps referring back throughout the rest of the book to those shared moments -- and unless you know French, these references sail over your head and get lost forever into the great wide open, like John Rickman's "Aerobie" frisbee.

Anyway, I'm certainly not going to go on and on about the plot, themes, and ideas of this novel, because a.) there is no plot to speak of; b.) the themes essentially boil down to human mortality and our experience of time; c.) and as for ideas, they are all over the map in this novel and would be impossible to sum up. As I've been telling Mutt, there are indeed many things that are impressive about Mann and this novel -- his erudition, his way of expressing things verbally, his poetic descriptions of the Swiss mountains, his talent for creating a huge cast of different personalities and philosophies. But in the end, it's been very difficult for me to filter this reading experience into much that is meaningful for me. And that's what I tend to look for, mostly unconsciously, when reading novels -- what life lessons and insights can I take away from this experience, along with the obvious pleasure of a good story that's been well-told (that's a given)?

I understand that this a very highly-regarded novel that includes among its many, many admirers some of the world's greatest writers -- that is, of course, part of the reason I was interested in reading it in the first place. (For example, one of my personal favorite writers, Walker Percy, was a huge fan of the book.) And the funny thing is, unlike many readers, I tend to enjoy and even search out "philosophical" fiction. And this is all part of why I am coming away from the experience of The Magic Mountain perplexed (as well as exhausted!). I can appreciate, to butcher Hopkins, "the achieve of" the thing... but as for its "mastery," I can only leave that to the literary pundits. It's hard to admit it, but -- it's beyond me.

Mann's talents certainly aren't lost on me, but perhaps his insights are. More than likely I am missing much about the book that I should be catching and appreciating. But it's hard to fully appreciate a novel when it keeps falling face-down into your lap, due to the loosening of your sleep-softened grip.

Monday, March 19, 2007

This Is Lame

Mutt here, it's ridiculous how lousy we're doing on the postings these days. I am not really helping matters much either, but there is a lot going on in my world these days as Duke alluded to. One thing is for sure, Duke ain't updated the "What We're Reading" thing in a while. Since reading God's Grandeur and Other Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, I've read the following as part of my Lenten spiritual reading program:

Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Echoing Silence, Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing
and currently I am in the middle of a superb book, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? by Timothy Radcliffe, OP

I also hope to some time soon post again in my Journal of a 'Novel', since I have been making stilted but nonetheless period progress in that effort as well.

Tell you what, if Duke doesn't post a POTW soon, I'm gonna do it myself.......

Monday, March 05, 2007


Our thousands of readers have likely noticed by now the scarcity of posts and updates on The Secret Thread recently. Well, all I can do is sum it up in this simple, two-word phrase: life intervenes! Personally, I’ve been mired down in a number of major projects at my work that have prevented me from ringing in lately… and with Mutt, forget about it! He’s attempting to do what I stumbled through in the summer of 2005: switch jobs, buy a house and relocate an entire family with children, all at the same time! (And just to make it even more fun, when I was doing it we decided to throw in the delivery of a brand new baby and the selling of our old house in there as well.) That right there is enough to drive any man insane. It brings to mind this famous passage (famous at least to the founders of this blog anyway) from Stephen Wright’s tour de force novel Going Native – a description we’ve always thought was gut-bustingly hilarious of a man (owner of a small-time motel) trying to juggle too many competing responsibilities and thoughts at one time:

The basic problem, as ever, was holding it all together in his head -- the guests, the employees, the paperwork, the family -- as if he were this ludicrous white-faced buffoon balancing on a bulbous red nose a towering superstructure of tables and chairs while being pelted by gaily colored tennis balls and rich cream pies as a barking seal attempted to scale the teetering for the set of bicycle horns at its peak to peck out with glistening mammalian snout, for the edification and entertainment of the adoring upturned mob, a recognizable rendition of "Pop Goes the Weasel."

Whoo boy… cracks me up every time! Anyway, we’ve basically both been totally snowballed with work and family responsibilities and have had trouble keeping up… but soon I will be posting again and kick-starting the engines. The reading and film-viewing has continued on unabated of course (as the side column has shown), and to paraphrase Dylan Thomas paraphrasing an Irish folk tale, “we’d be damned fools if it didn’t.”

We shall return soon… never fear! Can anyone else hear the collective sigh of relief of thousands of blog readers across the country??