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--The Whys of A Philosophical Scrivener, Martin Gardner.

Read this one from Davis Library at UNC back in the mid-nineties & just got a copy of my own. This is an intellectual autobiography, structured by 'whys' - well, actually, by 'why nots': Why I Am Not A Solipsist/Pragmatist/Paranormalist/Aesthetic Relativist/etc., etc., etc. Though he covers almost all of the major issues at least in passing, more than half of the book is devoted to religion. I've discovered from various conversations that a lot of people don't know that Gardner, noted for his skepticism, is actually a fideist - that is, he believes in a minimal model of God. No divine revelation, no supernatural interventions into history, no sacred scripture, no triune division, but he posits an afterlife as a necessary concomitant to the belief itself (but no hell!). He justifies his leap of faith in this area by appeal to William James and Miguel de Unamuno: this 'overbelief' validates life and prevents despair. I found his arguments on that score provocative but nowhere in the vicinity of being convincing. Overall, an excellent if idiosyncratic overview of a multitude of philosophical, theological, aesthetic, economic, political and scientific ideas. Over ten years later I'm still working my way through the list of books I gathered from the bibliography and footnotes.

--The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt.

The long-awaited follow-up to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is, unfortunately, a disappointment. Sort of surprising at first - Venice would seem to be as atmospheric a locale as his last milieu, Savannah, if not more so. But now he lacks an adequate analogue to Garden's central Mephistolean figure of Jim Williams. Instead he tries to use the burning down of the Fenice Opera House as his narrative hook - was it arson or not? - and he's unable, despite immense straining, to work up any sense of drama about it. The absolute nadir comes when he tries to build a da-dum moment out of his (supposedly) recognizing the handwriting in a store sign as being the same as that of a piece of hate-mail threatening said store. Yawn. His side-plots are (mostly) equally uninspiring; in one, he yammers on about a schism in a Venice restoration charity. Who cares if a bunch of rich fatcats are on the outs with one another? The one interesting section recounts the attempts of a couple of con-artists to gain control of the Ezra Pound literary estate by manipulating the poet's mistress (she lived to be nearly a hundred!). But mostly it's just an overly elaborated and pretentious travelogue. Not recommended.

--Psmith in the City, P.G. Wodehouse.

I read a fair amount of Wodehouse back in Junior High but I haven't touched his stuff since then. I saw this paperback over at Nice Price last month and decided it was time to give him another go. This current sample is relatively minor and early Wodehouse. It's midpoint in the Psmith saga (pronunced 'Smith'; the 'P' is silent). I did a little research and found that the sequence began as school stories with one Mike Jackson as protagonist and Psmith as a supporting player; Psmith proved so charismatic that he took over, and by the last volume, Leave It To Psmith, Mike had been kicked to the curb and it was Psmith all the way. However in this novel, we're still in transition and the bland Mike is still nominally our central figure. It's the sunny Edwardian epoch, and both boys are graduating public school. Mike's pater, alas!, lacks sufficient funds in the old exchequer for Mike to attend University, so it's straight into a career - a position at a large bank in London's financial district. A melancholy prospect for the outdoorsy Mike, who longs to play cricket more than anything. Surprisingly, former classmate Psmith has just gotten employed there too, but as a lark rather than as an economic necessity. Psmith drags the staid Mike along on a series of ridiculous escapades in and out of the Bank, and at the end enables Mike to live the life of his dreams. There's the plot summarized for you, and of course it hardly matters - half the plots of his later novels are identical, after all. Wodehouse is all about style and wit, and this has plenty. Good fun, and totally, sublimely trivial; but nowhere near the top-drawer Wodehouse of later years.

One last more or less irrelevant comment: This setting is autobiographical, because early in life Wodehouse was employed at a similiar bank under similar circumstances to Mike's. Apparently he absolutely loathed working there. But in City the bank is depicted (in atypically realistic details) as being supercush: they're overstaffed and there's nothing to do half the day but plot an endless succession of pranks. Ah, to be in the ruling class in an empire at its height and exploiting a quarter of the globe! Lots of room for economic inefficiency and slackitude there.


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