Francine Prose's Blue Angel -- Narcissism Run Amok

 Francine Prose's Blue Angel

When a professor in this novel quotes the first line of a Philip Larkin poem, "Your mum and dad, they fuck you up," I had a viscerally negative reaction, only magnified when looking up the work in which the poet slanders his parents and grandparents, enjoins humanity against having children which they are bound to torture and ruin, and invites the entire wretched lot to commit suicide. "Your mum and dad fucked you up, Phil", I screamed, "that's clear enough". I've found that screaming at the written word is generally a sign that you do indeed have art in your hands, a thought applying doubly to Francine Prose's Blue Angel.

High School English

 Jesuit High Dallas - 1943

I always laugh when people deprecate Catholicism as mindless superstition, because I know better from direct experience as a product of four years of Catholic high school. I started out at Jesuit High in Dallas in 1961. Mr. Joubert was my home room, religion, and English teacher. A lot of French names - it was the New Orleans Province after all, not missionaries from Chicago (like my grade school, St. Luke's in Irving). So a tip of the hat to Mr. Vavasseur, my sophomore geometry teacher, a tall, skinny, kind and intelligent man who knew and valued his subject and also knew how to transmit intellectual excitement. He was an important milestone in my mathematical education, especially considering that geometry is where students first encounter the axiomatic method and proofs, the cornerstones of modern mathematics. Between proofs, Mr Vavasseur regaled us with stories of how geometry had been the canonical science for two thousand years, even people like Spinoza modeling their philosophical speculations on Euclid. He quite rightly mentioned Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri, S. J., who foreshadowed non-Euclidean geometry. He was hell on wheels when crossed though; I remember him thundering more than once, "I'll be in Room 214 after school, Jones, be there" (emphasis on the last two words).

J. D. Salinger

This unusual book may shock you, will make you laugh, and may break your heart – but you will never forget it

 Catcher in the Rye So says the front of my copy of The Catcher in the Rye (24th printing of the Signet paperback, December 1962), a wrenching picture of Holden in flight on the cover. J. D. Salinger, Rest in Peace, dead at 91 on January 27, 2010. Like my friend Dan says, a moment of note for boys of a certain age.

The Catcher in the Rye was my first hint that a book can hit the mark, a gentle introduction to the power of literature at the age of fifteen.

Unusual Books

Oddly enough, I wouldn't include most science fiction of my acquaintance in this category. Take that wonderful Philip K. Dick story where an itinerant handyman from around 1900 is transported together with horse and wagon to far in the future and interferes in major ways with the society of that time due to his preternatural mechanical ability and instinctive understanding of their advanced technology. It's a trick premise, but once granted, the changed physical and social environment depicted is well within reach. The people and their motivations, the political machinations, and so on -- all are similar to what you'd find in Jane Austen, given the different context.

Novels of Academe

Taking yourself too seriously is an occupational hazard of teaching. That's not surprising -- teachers have near absolute authority in the classroom, often with little oversight or supervision, especially at the higher levels; and an effective classroom presence requires projecting confidence, knowledge, and authority. The situation lends itself to dramatic and comic possibilities. Many good academic novels are written by professors, English professors in particular, and abound in allusion. Jane Austen specialist Morris Zapp in David Lodge's Changing Places, for example, names his children Elizabeth and Darcy. I missed that one until Lodge hit me over the head, but then was ready for Janet Dempster, heroine of George Eliot's Janet's Repentance. One uptight genius in the story talks himself out of a promotion by admitting he's never read Hamlet, because he thought it bought him some points at a dinner party.

The Russians and Me

Patrick Hunter S.J. introduced me to the Russians one day in 1962 by way of a little Chekhov story called Gooseberries. If you can even call it a story, direct and artless as it was. There was little plot and less drama, a first person story within a story about a retired government clerk who had realized his fondest lifelong dream of retiring in the country, only to be consumed by an empty all-consuming greed and without the spiritual resources to recognize or even admit to himself his utter failure. "You must never forget there are people in pain", summed up the narrator as I remember it, "We all need someone in the wall to knock on occasion to remind us." Mr. Hunter was a sly one, my religion and home room as well as English teacher. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam -- he lived it (still does, God willing).

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

 Jeremy Brett As Sherlock Holmes The great mathematician Niels Abel encouraged all to study the masters rather than their pupils, good advice in the case of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Inspired by the Jeremy Brett adaptations from British TV, excellent in their own right and meticulously faithful it seems, I took up the hardcover Castle edition, complete with the original Sidney Paget illustrations ($8.00!). Conan Doyle released the first twenty-four stories between July 1891 and November 1893, and finished Holmes off in the last one (The Adventure of the Final Problem). The hero returned in The Hound of the Baskervilles and thirteen more stories (The Return of Sherlock Holmes) from 1901 through 1905. All were serialized in The Strand magazine and are about fifteen pages long in my edition, excepting the novella length Hound.

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