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Three Books I've Read Recently

Elle gave me the The Miracle Of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points Of History for Christmas. It's a description of 7 historic events that helped determine the  kind of society we live in today. Among these are The Battle Of Thermopylae, the Battle Of Britain, and the Constantine's conversion to Christianity. All of the accounts are well-written and informative. I should also add that I usually  have a lot of trouble digesting military history, but found their accounts of famous battles to be quite accessible and understandable.

The author's thesis is that we would not have the freedom and prosperity we enjoy today if these events had gone another way. That's necessarily speculative of course. Their larger point that "freedom runs counter to what seems to be the natural order of men and...an incredibly small percentage of human beings have had the blessing of living free" so that  "the widespread existence of freedom in our day does indeed seem to be a miraculous event."

A lot of people  see the flaws in western civilization (flaws which the authors of this book freely concede)  and assume that any change would be a change for the better. Hopefully this book will serve as a corrective to that kind of thinking.

How I Became A Famous Novelist  by Steve Hely is a mostly funny send-up of the literary business. The protagonist, Peter Tarslaw, who lives in bachelor's squalor (even by my standards, which are considerably low) and works for a company that writes college entrance essays for wealthy students, decides to show up his ex-girlfriend at her wedding by becoming a best selling novel. His approach is to pattern his novel after those of an author named Preston Brooks, who writes books with titles like Kindness To Birds and The Widows Breakfast that  are full of moments of grace and epiphanies.

The novel takes a cynical approach towards Brooks, as does Tarslaw. Rightly so, in my opinion. I've got nothing against moments of grace or epiphanies, but they really should have been retired after the death of Walker Percy, like a great athletes jersey number.

The book is full of hilarious literary parodies of best-selling books, as well as some wicked satire about the publishing industry, and is for the most part an entertaining read. It's slightly marred by a change in tone near the end, where there are softenings of heart and lessons learned. Even something that looks suspiciously like an epiphany. I don't mind stories that teach moral lessons, but they didn't belong in this novel. It blunted the edge of the satire.

Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled is pretty much an instructional manual about how to write poetry. He covers meter, rhyme, and poetic forms, and gives exercises. It sounds frightfully dull, but Fry's wit and eloquence makes the whole thing quite enjoyable. He is also a poet himself. He declines to show many of his poems, but he does write some amusing poems that both use and describe the techniques he tries to teach. (i.e. a sonnet about writing sonnets, a villanelle about villanelles, etc.).

The chapter on forms uses  my favorite poem, GK Chesterton's A Ballade Of Suicide, as an example of a ballade. I didn't know the ballade was a specific form. I thought Chesterton just picked the word "ballade" because it sounded right.

The appendix also contains a mathematical proof that if the pattern  of word order in a sestina is repeated for another stanza, that stanza will have the same word order as the first. It was a bit hard to follow, because Fry didn't use group theory. I'll admit this is a bit of a carp because Fry doesn't claim to be a mathematician. I might make a later post establishing the result using group theory.