Thursday, August 9, 2018

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, written by himself

Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds--faithfully relying on the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts--and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause,--I subscribe myself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS. Lynn, Mass, April 28, 1847.
I think we may say he succeeded.

I was expecting the book to be important, and damning, and even at this late date to be both shocking and painful, and it was all of those things.

What I wasn't expecting was how good a read it is. The quote above, the very end of the book, while affecting, is not really representative of the prose style, which is much more straightforward and powerful. Douglass is judicious in his use of detail, his pacing is superb. The Other Reader asked, wasn't Douglass' prose flowery and Victorian, and the answer is no. (The prose of William Lloyd Garrison, who wrote the contemporaneous introduction, very much is, and is larded with exclamation marks.) Douglass names names, and provides places and dates (except that of his own birth, which he doesn't know) and those people he names and those places he sees are seen and known by us as well. It is short, at 150 pages, and swift-moving.

His sentiments are occasionally Victorian. Overseers are condemned nearly as much for their cursing as for their whips. Reading this, I imagine Douglass was sympathetic to the temperance cause.

This edition comes with a useful introduction by the historian Benjamin Quarles. This is the first of three biographies Douglass wrote; this one was a best-seller by the standards of the time; he wrote a second, longer one on the eve of the Civil War, which also sold well; his third, written after the war was over, met indifference; his publishers told him nobody cared anymore. Alas, they were probably right.

I took an undergraduate class on African-American literature with Ntozake Shange (Rice University, class '83) and this has been on my TBR pile since then. Houston to Chicago to California to Toronto--it's traveled a bit. It was one of the supplemental books for the course. (Really!) At the time I read most of the supplemental books as well as all the required ones, but this one escaped. Paul Laurence Dunbar's Poetry, Jean Toomer's Cane, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Arna Bontemps' Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright's Native Son, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Clarence Major's Reflex and Bone Structure, maybe a couple of others, all good as I remember. And it's clear I should have read this one, too.

But thanks to the mighty (though possibly puerile) power of the Classics Club spin, I now have.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Carol Shields' Jane Austen

"I write only for fame and without any view of pecuniary emolument."
Jane Austen wrote that in a letter to her sister at the age of twenty, years before any of her novels were published, and Carol Shields assumes she was being ironic. Knowing Jane Austen as we do, Carol Shields is likely right. But sometimes things work out, and deserved merit turns ironic self-deprecation into truth.

Except she got a little emolument, too.

Certainly there is fame. Carol Shields cites a half dozen studies she consulted plus a half dozen earlier biographies in a brief bibliographic afterword. She also read the complete letters, plus all the surviving scraps of Jane Austen's juvenilia, aborted and/or uncompleted projects. All that was available. And that's just the briefest measure of Jane Austen's fame.

I haven't read any other biographies of Jane Austen, just an introduction or three. So I can't compare.  I think the large one by Claire Tomalin is recommended. This is short (under 200 pages) but I thought it was good. Certainly it told me a number of fascinating things about Jane Austen's life I hadn't known.

But I think the interesting thing about this is the interaction between two great writers, the idea of a writing life, and how that reflects back on Carol Shields. I don't think of Shields as particularly an Austenian writer; The Stone Diaries, for example, is brilliant, but more capacious than an Austen novel, and almost unbearably sad. (Though that said, Carol Shields thinks Austen more capacious, more involved with the world, than she's usually given credit for.) But it seems Shields was an Austen fan from the get-go; well, that shows good taste, doesn't it? It makes me want to read/reread Carol Shields with Jane Austen in mind.

The book is also very interesting on the elements of a writing life. For example:
The ability to sustain long works of fiction is at least partially dependent on establishing a delicate balance between solitude and interaction. Too much human noise during the writing of a novel distracts from the cleanliness of its overarching plan. Too little social interruption, on the other hand, distracts a writer's sense of reality and allows feeling to 'prey' on the consciousness...
     For every writer the degree of required social involvement or distance must be differently gauged, but novelists who take refuge in isolated log cabins tend to be a romantic minority, or perhaps a myth. Most novelists, knowing that ongoing work is fed by ongoing life, prize their telephones, their correspondence, and their daily rubbing up against family and friends.
Now, it's true, Carol Shields was writing before Twitter.

There is also a sadder reflection back on Carol Shields' life. Shields is quite sure that it was breast cancer Jane Austen died of, a diagnosis that's possible but remains uncertain. This is late in Shields' career, and I don't know if she had yet received the diagnosis of the breast cancer that was to kill her, or only feared it, because it occurred in her family as it seemed to do in Jane Austen's. But it was coming and Shields could easily be alive and writing today, but, sadly, is not.

Read for, as if one really needed another reason to read something so good:

AustenInAugust, now at Brona's Books.

And the 12th Annual Canadian Book challenge. Carol Shields was born in Chicago (well, Oak Park) but lived her adult life in Canada. Now who do I know like that?

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Michael Innes' The New Sonia Wayward

Oh, what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
Michael Innes' The New Sonia Wayward (1960) could be read as demonstrating that old saw as being completely true.

Colonel Ffoliot Petticate (what a handle!) is sailing off the coast of England with his wife who is generally not known as Mrs. Ffoliot Petticate. No, she's Sonia Wayward, author of intellectually unsatisfying (at least to Petticate) but lucrative romances. And then she dies.

Her death is innocent enough. Colonel Petticate is an ex-Army doctor, and while he's no longer practicing, he's quite sure she's dead. An aneurysm or an embolism, he doesn't have the instruments and he's not sure about the cause. Oh, well. Their marriage was no longer anything more than friendly, and he hadn't really forgiven her for referring to him as 'quaint' when talking to one of her girlfriends.

But for reasons that are not particularly justified, he tips her body into the ocean and proceeds to try to appear as if his wife has just gone away. It will be convenient: he can write the next Sonia Wayward novel (the 'new Sonia Wayward') and keep cashing the checks.

Umm. Complications ensue...

Did his wife abandon him? (Embarrassing.) Did he kill his wife? (Criminal.) Who wrote the new Sonia Wayward? (Fraudulent.) There are some funny bits and Innes can be a successful farceur.

However, I just don't like it when, in a novel, suspense is generated because an otherwise smart person does something stupid, and this one is full of it. We're meant to like Petticate and think him of above average intelligence. Except he keeps failing to show it.

This one is helped along at the end with a couple of amusing, if improbable, coincidences, but the final solution was visible a mile away, I'm afraid. So, for me at least, not one of the better Michael Innes mysteries.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Silver. Who. In/Retired From The Armed Services.

Which completes the Silver Age part of my challenge. I've got a couple to go on the Gold Age card.

The old saw, which I thought of when I'd barely started the novel, is actually Sir Walter Scott. I didn't know that...

Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Beginning: Joshua Ferris' To Rise Again At A Decent Hour

The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate--where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up. 
I encouraged my patients to floss.

...is the beginning of Joshua Ferris' To Rise Again At A Decent Hour. A couple of years ago I read Ferris' And Then We Came To The End, a Chicago novel, and liked it, so I had this one in mind when it came out and got good reviews. It was longlisted for the Man Booker and won the Dylan Thomas prize.

Sneaking in 'where the heart is broken' gives me a clue there's more going on here!

The blurb tells me that the narrator gets into some sort of identity theft trouble which causes him to rethink his life. I've only just started so I don't know much more. The only other dentist novel I know is Frank Norris' McTeague, which I read a long time ago, and is a terribly grim story. I'm hoping this is nothing like that. In any case our dentist narrator seems rather amusingly philosophical, which was not the case with McTeague the dentist.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. And be sure to remember to floss!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Michael Innes' Operation Pax

Stayed up a little too late to finish this, which is always a good sign in a book...

Operation Pax (1951) is definitely more adventure than murder mystery. This a suspense thriller that definitely does involve car chases. Without too much violence to the concept it could have served as a James Bond plot. Though there are some amusing bits of  Oxford parody.

It starts with Albert Routh, a small-time con man, funking on his current con and then stumbling into something that's much bigger than anything he's seen before. It both frightens him and gives him dreams of grandeur. The really bad guys are now out to kill him, but by bluffing and with a bit of luck, he escapes, and with a crucial piece of paper. But the baddies are close behind. Routh gets to Oxford before they catch up with him.

Sir John Appleby is in Oxford, investigating the disappearance of his sister's fiancé. He comes across the terrified Routh and has him for twelve hours before losing him again. But Appleby has learned something and suspects that the two cases are connected.

And, well, of course they are.

So Appleby is now on the hunt for Routh and the really bad guys. But so are a whole bunch of other people, including his sister Jane Appleby, Lord (?) Roger Remnant, an Oxford dropout and taxi driver, and the Tigers, a children's club. (The children's club would have been dropped for the James Bond version.)

Anywho, it kept me turning the pages. The plot depends a little too much on coinkydinks, and don't think for more than thirty seconds--you're not really invited to--about the science. The reveal of who the biggest bad guy at the end was a surprise, but not an especially convincing one. Doesn't matter. It was fun.
     "When this possibility came to me I made inquiries about Milton Manor. It is not for children but for adults--a large, private Kurort or Klinikum. I do not know the word--"
     "We used to say nursing-home or sanatorium. But we have started saying clinic too."

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Gold.  Where. Set in a hospital/nursing home.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Quote + Link + New Book To Read!

"My experience of my twenties was, in one word, confusion. It was a state of not quite knowing what I wanted, but wanting it very badly."
I laughed with recognition when I read that in an interview at Five Books with Hermione Hoby. Though she thought more highly of De Lillo's Underworld than I did, I do now want to read her debut novel Neon In Daylight. I put it on my library hold list.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mount TBR 2018 Checkpoint #2 (Mt. Ararat)


As of today, I've read 26 of my 48 books toward the top of Mt. Ararat, my stated goal in the 2018 Mount TBR Reading Challenge. That's slightly over half my mountain and probably slightly under where I should be at the moment. I could figure it out but it's Sunday afternoon, I'm doing laundry, and I'm just not feeling that mathematical...

And I should be aiming for Mt. Everest (100) or Mt. Olympus on Mars (150) to get the problem here under control. Oh, well.

The most interestingly new-to-me book I read was Matt Cohen's The Bookseller which I read for a read locally challenge as well as for this. He's a new author to me, and while I've read a few other Toronto books, I haven't read anything quite so local as this. The narrator lives in a place clearly identifiable as about six blocks from my house, and I pass by there quite regularly in my usual round of gym and grocery store. I could someday read Katherine Govier's Fables of Brunswick Avenue which would be even closer; Brunswick Avenue is about two blocks from my house. She's a pretty well-known Canadian writer and I've heard good things about it. But even that might not feel as local, because Brunswick Avenue is a residential street and I don't go down it as often. Quite curious to read something so identifiably local.

There were five books on that TBR list that I've owned since before I started recording when I bought a book: The Group, El Cid, Tragic Sense Of Life, The Leopard, and Morte D'Urban. I don't know which I've had the longest, but I suspect it was The Group. Any one of them I could have quite happily read long ago, and were worth toting around all these years. Morte D'Urban and The Leopard I thought were the best.

Thanks again to Bev at My Reader's Block for hosting!