Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1386), Introduction by Nevill Coghill (1951)

If you were to do a simple search for “great books,” or “most famous books,” or “best books” online, each individual category would yield all manner of material. “One Hundred Best Novels,” “Fifty Books You Should Read Before You Die,” and so on, is subject to the whims of those who compile them. Yet I’ve never spotted a list based exclusively on the celebration of a superb prose style. Guess I’ll have to put together that list myself one of these days.  

Over the course of my own reading career, I’ve discovered that the best books are comparable to good medicine – perhaps difficult for some to get through but beneficial to the mind or the soul. Others are literary cheap thrills, not particularly great but guaranteed to amuse, what Bertie Wooster’s valet Jeeves would term “light but attractive reading.” (I was recently informed that employing the parlance of today would render this sort of book ‘a beach read.’)

Everyone is partial. I’m no exception. As a starting point, as I’ve said elsewhere, even tons of mediocre paperbacks beat some of the best television and film. Of course, my love affair with words in general influences my views on the matter. I’m more likely to read garbage if only for the purposes of learning what not to do when I write. I’m also drawn to the forbidden stuff, books that were once banned or are still regarded as either taboo or perverse or both. This is partly due to what books can achieve – challenging our assumptions, exposing us to issues or ideas none of us would consider otherwise, or, as Sol Stein wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here, dealing with subjects we’d never see entertained in any other media, important things, controversial things, things that require more exploration than a mere sound bite can do justice.

Curiously, I’ll read nearly all manner of material, in any genre. Yet when it comes to film, because I don’t fancy gore, I avoid horror. I don’t mind reading horror, but I wouldn’t watch the stuff if you paid me. You’ll never find me watching a romantic comedy, either. Yet I read romance. I’ve avoided most films in the fantasy and science fiction genre as well, primarily because such subject matter is treated so poorly. Yet I read more than my fair share of same.

I say all that to prepare you for this. Some books rub me the wrong way. I immediately dismiss any list that includes Hemingway, for example. His writing has always bored me. Not the subject matter but rather the unfolding of it. Those who hail William Faulkner’s travesty of a novel The Sound and the Fury might as well sell snake oil as far as I’m concerned. I hated that novel. An absolute mess. The same could be said for Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. That story nauseated me. And while I finished it (you can read my review of it here), I couldn’t get past ten pages of Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because the writing style reminded me of grade school. See Spot run. See Jill swing. See Jack drown himself in the sea. I couldn’t stomach Plaith’s The Bell Jar for the same reason. Call me a jerk, a snob, an ass, I don’t care. Though I’ll usually read and finish it, I prefer prose a bit more sophisticated. 

In short, I’m not easily fooled by book lists. I know what I like and why. That said, I still depend on book lists as a guide. One reason is that such lists, for all their faults and bias, have exposed me to certain authors I never would’ve discovered otherwise, subject matter and genres to which I might not have been introduced.

Suppose you’re a fan of film. Further suppose you’re a film critic who watches anything and everything because it’s your job. Now consider how this might make you, over time, more discriminate, more particular about what qualifies as quality filmmaking. Isn’t it safe to say you’d become a bit more analytical, slightly harsher in your criticism, more demanding?

The same holds true for avid readers. Expose yourself to enough high-quality prose, storytelling chops, and skillful wordsmiths and it’ll take more than mere mediocrity to impress you. (There are exceptions. One particular film critic who shall remain nameless evidently loves film so much that once he has pointed out all the film’s flaws and I’m ready to give it an F based on his own critique, I’m bewildered when he concludes by giving the film in question a B- or a C.)

With that in mind, when I saw The Canterbury Tales on a few of these lists, I decided to set aside my high school memories (portions of the book were required reading) and give the book an honest try. I’m glad I did. Not only is The Canterbury Tales the best book of verse I’ve read; it’s one of the best books of both verse and prose.

Chaucer is a master. His knowledge of meter, subject matter, varying diction based on the specific narrator (each character offers a tale), lyricism, not to mention his staggering versatility in approach and mood, is stellar. Setting aside the mechanics, the themes, plots, events, and characters comprising his poems (which are varied and at times hypnotic), the author’s accomplishment in delivery is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Here you’ll find content ranging from the reverential and glorious to the scatological and perverse. The stories are told with both unflinching and engrossing mastery.

Yes. It’s that good. Five out of five stars. Rated R.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Lies We Tell Ourselves, Sir Mosy Prank

With the Christmas holidays fast approaching, I’ve been particularly busy at work, and the additional hours have cut into my writing time. I reached out to a friend and fellow avid reader who teaches psychology at a local university. He and his wife follow my blog and, with the downtime afforded professors during this season, he agreed to submit a review of his own, a wonderful review, I might add, of a tragic memoir he recently discovered. His reviews tend to be more thorough than mine. I post it unabridged with his permission and for your entertainment.

Loafing on Laundry Day

It’s a familiar phrase with me now: “rummaging through my local used bookstore’s bargain bin …” I’ll refrain from my tendency to invoke the overblown similes I'm prone to employ, in this case comparing bins and books to aquariums and fish or baskets or barrels of apples and instead provide the essentials. High dollar moccasins insulating me from the bookstore’s dusty linoleum, under the cold illume of fluorescent lights, peering into a crate full of paperbacks like a dumpster diver, or, better yet, like a husband peering over a jeweler’s glass display searching for the perfect accessory with crested diamonds for his wife as a surprise, I tucked my tie into my button down, rolled up my long sleeves, and ravaged stacks of obscure orphans abandoned, each with a corner of its cover clipped like a pup’s ears, hoping to relive one of those exquisite moments when a musician in a pawnshop finds a vintage instrument worth a fistful of Franklins selling for a few measly Hamiltons.  

This memoir called to me, Mark. Perhaps the honorific preceding the author’s name, like that of Dr. Wilberforce or Prof. Found or Sirs Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle or Lords Dunsany and Byron, added a certain nobility, a charm appealing albeit somewhat antiquated, which lured me much like when my wife selects an Italian operatic aria from Spotify and prances about the house wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair and nothing else save a welcoming smile. (I apologize if this image torments you, Mark. I realize you’re practically celibate. My condolences.)

The memoir, Lies We Tell Ourselves, by one Sir Mosy Prank (admittedly a dubious, though playful, patronym), is a grave confessional rife with what I must assume is sheer hyperbole, by which I mean that by the third draft the minnow takes on the weight of a whale.     

Because the title hinted at the very things I dealt with as a clinical psychologist, and because Mr. Prank’s patronym (either a non de plume or, as my wife insists, an anagram), and the fact that his memoir was published in 1965, the year I was born, I was impelled to spend the requisite nickel and bring the book home.

“My mother was still a teen when she tried to commit suicide. She drove her Impala off a bridge. She would sport a horseshoe shaped scar on the underside of her wrist the size of a baby’s heel print for the rest of her life as a testament to the attempt. This was years before I was conceived. Years later, at the age of eight, I ate this up. She followed up the story by telling me that my brother and I were the only reasons she hadn’t tried to kill herself again. This puts a strain on a child to make whatever obstacles one’s mother faced in life more bearable. Only I hadn’t a clue about how to achieve that. This was my first lesson in impotence.”

Thus begins an author’s tragic life beset by insecurities and doubt. Prank was the victim of feuding parents who appeared to hate each other. This strife trickled down to him and his younger brother “like that ancient Chinese torture technique of tying down the victim and setting the faucet on drip over his forehead every second until the drops take on the intensity of a hammer.”  

Unlike his brother who bottled up his emotional frustrations, Prank constantly got into fights with the boys in his elementary school, often “beating up a boy for cutting in line at the cafeteria or taking my seat in class.” Before the fall season of his fourth year had ended, he’d been sent to the principal’s office so many times that “the index card the office kept on me resembled a miniature blueprint of Dante’s nine circles of hell,” and the school was forced to call in his parents for a conference.

He describes the frumpy secretary with her perennial scowl, which, he says, reminded him of his mother, the forlorn principal with the plaque sporting his engraved name he proudly situated along the ledge of his desk, and so on, all done in a style harkening to those dime store thrillers in which the protagonist’s psychosis blurs the first person narrative.

His parents were nonplussed as to how this could’ve happened. To their credit, so was Mosy. But this behavior continued until the school sent in a psychologist who managed to draw out enough answers from him to diagnose his mental anguish.

“At the close of the third session, she told me I knew I couldn’t stop my parents from screaming at each other, and I saw no other way to deal with the frustration this generated apart from taking it out on my classmates. The revelation triggered something deep within me, and against my better judgement, in front of this professional stranger, my hard exterior fractured and my palms and cheeks were wet from weeping.”

Alliteration aside, Mosy’s mother, one Mrs. Noisy Park, Park, I initially assumed, being her maiden name (though my wife by way of a shuffling of letters demonstrated Mrs. Noisy Park was an anagram of our author Sir Mosy Prank), claimed her own mother hated her, treated her cruelly, and on one occasion, when Mrs. Park had attempted to explain the benefits of church for their children’s religious instruction to her indifferent husband, Mosy’s father got on the phone to her mother and told her he’d had enough.

Mosy’s grandmother, a hardened woman of the south, growing up picking cotton from dawn till dusk, living on a diet of beans and cornbread throughout her impoverished childhood, told his father he needed to “knock some sense into her.” Mosy’s mother, given her circumstances and thus prone to paranoia, had listened in on the conversation on a hardline in another part of the house.

The revelation, rather than inspiring bitter thoughts and a sense of hopelessness, instead served to reinforce Mrs. Park's belief that the Devil was thwarting her efforts. This view further encouraged her to press her directive even harder. As a result, Mosy and his younger brother were required to memorize various chapters in the Bible weekly. Anything in life not germane to religious faith was forbidden, right down to the toys they played with. Ignorant of the value of childhood escapism, oblivious to the symbolic associations of fairy tale magic, and instead regarding these imaginative exercises as idolatry and moral turpitude, his mother purged their household forthwith. Comic books and super hero action figures were consequently confiscated and thrown away. According to the mother, such powers weren’t of our Lord and were thus demonic in origin.

The boys subsequently were forced to pretend pious lives comparable to that of practicing priests. They were tugged by the ear to every church service and tent revival, often getting home at one in the morning on school days, sitting in classrooms half-asleep, and all round miserable.

This effort on Mrs. Park’s part, which went on for years, had the opposite effect on Mosy and his brother, who grew to resent religion and religious people. Had this instruction been carried out by a more rational parent, Mosy would later speculate, he might’ve taken to it. But throughout his teens, every Sunday, running late, his mother would speed to church, resting her hand on the dashboard, pleading the blood of Jesus over the car, noticing the gas tank registering empty, gritting her teeth and telling the devil, “Satan! I rebuke you in the name of Jesus. Release my car! You will not prevent us from getting to church.”

Imagine! Even as a thirteen-year old, Mosy knew his mother’s behavior was unhealthy and woefully irresponsible. But she was the matriarch of the family and by extension roleplayed the god of the Old Testament, prone to anger, sometimes brutal, and always beyond reproach. Her catchphrase was “Doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong; I’m the parent!”

One event I found particularly malevolent. Mrs. Park accused Mosy of something he hadn’t done. He denied the charge. His brother, usually silent or absent during such confrontations, insisted Mosy was telling the truth. Mrs. Park then accused Mosy of having manipulated his brother to side with him. Mosy, as surprised by his brother’s alliance as his mother had been, told his mother she was unaware of her cruelty. Whereby Mosy’s mother told him to pack his things and get out of their house.

Horrified, Mosy asked, “You’re kicking me out?”

Mosy’s mother took the opportunity to quote from the film The Odd Couple, in which Walter Matthau’s character tells Jack Lemmon’s character, “Not in other words; those are the perfect ones,” after which she offered a wicked smile. This pronouncement was all the more devastating to Mosy because only weeks before, his mother had introduced him to the film on television. Watching that film had been one of the few treasured memories he had of his mother. Here she’d demonstrated a facetious flair, mocking him, amused by his bewilderment, and indifferent to his subsequent fate.

After a week of sleeping on the floor of a recording studio friends had provided, Mosy’s parents found out about his living arrangements and told him he could return home. Shortly thereafter, when Mosy, miserable about his own circumstances, contemplated suicide, his mother found out and sat him down to tell him his life belonged to God and that therefore he had no right to end it. He reminded her of her own suicide attempt. Whereby she denied it, told him he was mistaken, that the scar along her wrist was the result of a freak auto accident rather than a premeditated event.

Mosy no longer knew which tale to believe. “This is probably where my negative view of women began,” he writes. “They couldn’t be trusted. Their stories were calibrated to suit their audience.”

This distrust informed his subsequent failed relationships and strained romances. Mosy refers to that less popular song by the 80s band The Police and the lyric, “Why does every girl I go out with become my mother in the end?”  

One fetish he shares with the reader, though he doesn’t attribute it to his mother, has to do, I suspect, with his mother’s habit of caking her face with makeup “to the point at which she resembled a carnival clown, sans the foam nose. Lipstick as red as arterial blood, rouge insinuating the rigors of sex, and hair coiffed to qualify as museum art put me off my feed even as a teen with raging hormones.” His fetish made him particularly vulnerable to the wiles of women “who either wore no makeup or wore so little as to appear honest.” He attributes this preference, wrongly I suspect, to “finding an unassuming woman whose passions and pursuits left no room for pretense.”

Mosy insists that while he assumes responsibility for his life, he can’t help but wonder whether the example his mother set, that early role model representing all things feminine, was the reason he and his brother remained bachelors up to the publishing of this memoir and (I presume) beyond.

According to Mosy, his brother was much like his father – aloof and cowardly. Whereas Mosy was, to his chagrin, much like his mom – overly sensitive and scatterbrained. Discovering this early on propelled him to change:

“Because my mother routinely, daily, misplaced her keys, her driver’s license, her checkbook and her credit cards, and with the introduction of the cell phone, that too, she’d send her sons on treasure hunts that to this day I’m convinced is the reason I always place my own keys and cards and phone in the same spot after coming home from work every day so as to never mislay them and have to interrupt my life to retrace my steps.”

While his father made good money as a licensed pipefitter for a major auto plant, Mosy’s mother spent at least half those earnings on jewelry, dresses, and her ever increasing shoe collection, meanwhile writing hot checks to cover the hot checks she wrote the day before and shopping for her two growing boys at hand-me-downs shops and Goodwill stores. As a result, Mosy and his brother always wore clothes too small for their growing size. Invoking the principle of big lakes producing big fish, Mosy insists this led to his development of a “penis the size of a wine cork.”

I can only sympathize with such men whose manhood fails to impress, myself endowed with what my wife China ironically refers to as both her “Scylla and Charybdis.” I’ve never dared to ask her, but I suspect this allusion stems from the irreverent twig and berries euphemism, since it’s China’s long-standing practice to supplement supernatural occurrences (ancient tales of monsters) with natural explanations (undertows, riptides, deadly whirlpools), something she insists Ulysses and his crew most likely experienced, should the classic tome bear any authentic fruit.

“I don’t blame my mother any more than I blame a bird for eating worms. Sure. We’re responsible for our behavior. But when my mother pressed her palm to my forehead and yelled, ‘Satan! Release my son!’ I’ve no doubt she meant well. In her world, spiritual warfare, the battle between angels and demons contending for our souls, were the powers and principalities influencing our fate. Prayer, not planning, religion, not reason, would lead to a good life. Only if this defined the good life, I was shaping into a villain. That was one path she hadn’t anticipated. Yet in keeping with children following by example it shouldn’t have surprised her.”

Understandably, considering Mosy’s experiences, I, too, would have grown suspicious of religion and those who represented it.

“While I’d like to say once I left the nest, I never looked back, instead I made the mistake, again and again, of returning to that environment. Whether I considered myself capable of curing my mother’s mental illness or merely found solace in the familiar, albeit dysfunctional, familial unit, I don’t know to this day.”

Grim reflections, to be sure.

“I suppose I still wanted to believe these anecdotes were merely a series of isolated events in an otherwise normal family. Perhaps, I often told myself, we forget the euphoria of unwrapping the gifts on Christmas morning and remember only the drudgery of cleaning up afterwards. But these weren’t isolated events or sparse tragedies peppering an otherwise average childhood. They were variations on a recurring theme, a life of unpredictable, frightening scenes shaping boys into jaded, self-conscious neurotics.” 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to employ my many years of experience as a clinical psychologist. Given such an upbringing, Mosy probably didn’t realize the best method for dealing with such a history is to first forgive and then to never look back.

As you know, we psychologists unanimously advise patients who suffer these relationships to weigh their options. The options are always the same: first recognize that you can’t change anyone, no matter how hard you try, particularly if those people neither want nor see the value in changing. Hence, you must either accept such people as they are or you must avoid them.

Second, associating with such people benefits no one. In fact, such associations tend to arrest the progress of those who wish to become something more. And no matter how you word it, explaining this to those who’ve wronged you does nothing to resolve the issue.  

I can only sympathize with Mosy, having led a perfect childhood with adoring parents. I’m sure my folks disagreed on occasion, but the pervading harmony would’ve made many of the Austrian composers of the classical era fawn. My healthy relationships with my doting parents fostered an outlook conducive to social interaction with peers and ultimately marriage to a woman whose inner and outer beauty inspires envy among her book club friends and lusts among mine.  

Mosy goes on to chronicle the divorce between his parents, his father moving to a distant state, his mother remarrying a man who’d cheated on his previous two wives and whose unchecked philandering led to the dissolution of his marriage to Mosy’s mother as well, the step-siblings who, while amusing in their youth, would disregard Mosy’s earlier efforts to act as mediator on their behalf to lessen the brutality of his mother’s parenting during their formative years and later treat Mosy as a pariah, their “low brow trailer trash” mentality, Mosy’s words, “both rudderless and promiscuous,” invoking the voodoo of failed marriages and financial foundering.   

Again, unlike Mosy and his fate, my own father was a role model who taught me the value of honesty, who gave me a leash long enough with which to entangle myself but encouraged me throughout my growing pains until I could see the value of independence. My mother, who shaped the course of my more tender side, instilled the notions associated with class, etiquette, propriety, and discernment. By way of her example as a lady, I would adopt the tenets by which she lived – wisdom, compassion, charity.

As we’ve discussed on numerous occasions over scotch and cigars, Mark, my own parents practiced these virtues and insisted I do the same until I eventually recognized and appreciated these same virtues for the balm they would prove in more difficult times. It pains me to know philistines such as those comprising Mosy’s family, with their reckless disregard for responsibility as parents beyond providing diapers and shelter, molds their progeny into the kinds of people the parents themselves no longer like and, in some cases, resent. Telling parenting to be sure. For all I know, Mosy resides in a psych ward and diligently takes his prescribed meds.

Now if you’ll excuse me, China ascends the staircase as I write this, providing me with the allusion of what I can best describe as a swaying cello, her hips taking on the swing of a hypnotist’s pocket watch, scattering laurels along the carpeted tiers in her wake. Oh! Now she insists I join her for a bit of bedroom roleplay in which she dons the garb of Penelope and I Ulysses after a decade long deployment overseas. I’ve just assured her I haven’t slain her suitors this time but have only redirected them to the banquet out back. I’ll give her a few minutes to refresh herself. If it’s anything like our last exertions, I’ll find my love reclining across the comforter as if posing for a sketch artist, draped in a chlamys she bought at a costume boutique, smelling of bath oils, and batting her lashes. Scylla and Charybdis indeed.   

A Fish Dinner in Memison, by E.R. Eddison (1941)

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