December 15th, 2007


Still skipping ahead ...

Again, apologies to those (assuming that there might be some) who expect these reviews to follow along with my "collection order" from LibraryThing ... I still haven't gotten around to doing a review of a book I finished a couple of weeks back, but hope to get to it this weekend!

The current read is an odd little book ... I picked it up at the famed Newberry Library Book Fair a year or so back, and for some reason it wanted to get read this month. Delhi and its Neighbourhood is a publication of the Archaeological Survey of India, authored by a Y.D. Sharma back in 1964. The copy I have is a 1982 re-print of the 1974 second edition (which, judging from page count, was a significant expansion on the initial publication).

Although this went to press in 1982, it has that "antique" feel of many books coming out of South Asia ... as the pages are "hand set" (you can see where blocks of type had been swapped out for edits) and the photos are that particular high-contrast B&W which recalls thick metal plates set in wood frames.

It's an odd feeling reading a book like this, both from the noted physical aspects, and the fact that it is, essentially, a tourist guide of various historical and archaeological sites in and around Delhi. The book consists of about 1/3 brief historical over-view of the region, and 2/3 descriptions of locations and features of various sites. Since I am not in Delhi (although I did visit a number of place listed in here when I was in India back in the early 80's), I am left to having the book "paint word pictures for me" mostly, as there are only about 30 photos to cover 150 or so mentioned places. This, of course, would be far less likely were they to do a Third edition on modern computer equipment, where the cost of adding photos is simply that of sending somebody out to shoot the images!

As I mentioned, I have a passing familiarity with a dozen or so of the things described here, so it was a bit of a "trip down memory lane" for me in reading it, enough so that I wasn't totally frustrated with entries like: "About 400m south-east of the Flagstaff Tower lies the Chauburji-Masjid, a double-storeyed structure with a central chamber surrounded by a small chamber on each side." followed by suggestions of what might have been there if the whole thing wasn't all in ruins. Needless to say, pictures of each site would have helped a whole lot!

This is not to say that there aren't fascinating bits and pieces through the book (such as archaeological traces of cultures in the Delhi area going back to at least 1,000bce, and pretty good indications that Indraprastha, capital of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, was a historical place in the Delhi region. Of course, "archaeological traces" are what you get a lot of in India as the Muslims did a pretty bang-up job of destroying everything that they could of the previous Hindu culture, something that I certainly saw in India (mosques built on the foundations of ancient temples), and that is repeatedly referred to in the descriptions here (where materials looted from Hindu structures were re-used in Islamic architecture). Another notable "theme" is that in a lot of cases there are tombs, but no clear idea (aside from fanciful local namings) of whose tombs these were. I guess the Islamic culture's phobias for "representations" must have extended into "iffy" record keeping (or inscriptions ... needless to say, the ancient Egyptians, death cultists extraordinares, would be mystified at building a tomb that didn't preserve the deceased's name for all eternity!). Despite this, familiar names do crop up (to those with some background in Indian history), lending a bit of familiarity with some of the text.

The book also comes with two fold-out maps, one being an over-view of the region with the various "cities" (each new conqueror seemed to start their own in the area), and one a detailed plan of the famed Red Fort.

Obviously, I think that Delhi and its Neighbourhood would be greatly improved by having a new edition with lots of pictures ... that would be an interesting "armchair traveler" read for anybody. As it currently stands, however, I think it would be somewhat impenetrable for somebody without at least a moderate knowledge of the area. Not that getting a copy is a high likelihood at this point, with only two copies in play with the Amazon new/used vendors (I guess I was lucky to stumble over one). It is, however, out there if this sounds like something that you need to add to your library!

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"The earth is all conceivable pain compacted into a single point."

This was, at least, a fast read. I had really wanted to like this book, being as it is the first of the "Early Reviewers" program releases from LibraryThing that I've managed to snag. But, frankly, my #1 take-away from reading Christopher Spranger's The Comedy of Agony: A Book of Poisonous Contemplations was wondering how it managed to get published at all! I at first went to check to see if Leaping Dog Press was a "vanity press" through which Spranger had put out this book, but it appears that this is not the case ... they define themselves, however, thusly: "Leaping Dog Press and Asylum Arts Press publish accessible, edgy, witty, and challenging contemporary poetry, fiction, and works in translation, with Asylum Arts Press having an additional focus on surrealism and the avant garde." ... now, back when I was in the small publishing biz, I was certainly guilty of putting out works that perhaps appealed more to me, personally, than to any particular audience (and our sales showed this), so it is possible that Spranger is a friend of the editors, or a "favorite flavor" that they decided to go to press with that I, at least, do not find appealing at all.

Now, those who know me, or have read much of my own writing, would rather expect that I would connect with Spranger's brand of nihilism. This book is, if nothing else, unredeemed negativity cover-to-cover, and I've certainly "been there" myself. However, my reaction to the prose here is somewhat akin to being harangued by a smelly bum (oddly enough, the very subject of one of his stories) ranting on about some paranoid theory that just happens to come close to some secretly-held political view of one's own. You recognize the congruent theme, but do wish it wasn't in such a crazy and malodorous package!

As to the package ... the book is mercifully brief at 140 pages, with the first half being three sections of assorted "aphorisms" and the second a couple of dozen "commentaries" running from a half to five pages. There are some high points, some arch barbs that strike their targets dead on, but also material that seems "unedited" and somewhat flat, passages which could have been easily made better with some basic effort. I believe the author has the skills necessary for this (as there were many quite well-crafted phrases through the book), but not the intent.

These thoughts led me to my second "Hmmmmm..." moment of the book, as the failings, both literary and philosophical, were so blatant that it made me wonder if the entire exercise wasn't some "Discordian working". After all, there is a rather detailed bit of text (appearing on the back cover, as well in the promotional materials for the book) which pretty much sets up the book's original intents with some lofty goal of re-visioning Dante yet admitting going nowhere close to where that would have been. Thus this being the book which isn't the book that would have been the book had this book been the book that was initially intended to be the book ... sounds mighty Erisian to me!

As far as what's on the pages, it's all about pain, and horror, and fear, and loss, and sadness, and God and the Devil, and the Reality of Being ... none of which is pretty. I'll share some choicer bits with you here, these from the first part of the book:

"There is no scream of horror that could not be mistaken for an exact description of the universe."

"Only in our most violent fits of self-loathing do we get a glimpse of what it must feel like to be God."

"History is a catastrophe in progress."

"Life is a question of intensity, not of time. A tortured poet lives more in twenty seconds than the rest of us do in twenty years."

"Supposing this life to be some kind of undisclosed intelligence test, I doubt any but suicides are getting passing grades."
And these from the later section:

(from Stoicism's Mistake) " ... Aware that man does not desire to escape pain but to stuff himself full of it, the Christians took a more sensible approach. ... Going to any lengths to gratify our weakness for the Worst, they made masochism into a virtue and martyrdom into a goal. And for the grand finale, they decided to represent their god as crucified: a brilliant marketing strategy ..."

(from The Unconquerable?) "... A manmade catastrophe could wipe out every creature on the face of the earth, effectively putting an end to the scourge of reproduction, but it doubtful if even then life would admit defeat. In fact she'd probably scarcely take notice. Who cannot envision her, one hundred years after this supreme devastation, creeping through some crack and comporting herself as if nothing at all had occurred?"
As you can see, there is a wry tone operating here which, combined with the stated (and notably unapproached) aims of the book, place the entire project into a realm more in the Discordian or Sub-Genius type than the Hell that Spranger nominally sees all existence being.

If there were any one thing to recommend this book, it would be the piece entitled The Unenlightened which should be required reading for anybody who has ever studied Eastern religion/philosophy/metaphysics! Positing that those of us still extant are simply the dullest of the dull, relating to the author's own bothersome embodiment, it would be well worth quoting in its entirety here, but I won't for length, as well as to give you a reason to at least pick up a copy to page through (91) when you're next at a bookstore.

Being that this is a new book, it will likely be at the bigger brick-and-mortar stores. If you feel like thrashing about in some oddly-framed nihilist goo, you could get this on-line as well, it's 22% off cover via Amazon, and is already available at a considerable discount from their new/used vendors. I really can't recommend this, but if being stuck in a car with a bitter, suicidal, yet still-funny friend sounds like a swell way of spending a couple of hours, this might be something you'd enjoy.

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