Thursday, January 23, 2020

Poem for a Thursday: Dickinson


Our lives are Swiss,--
So still, so cool,
 Till, some odd afternoon,
The Alps neglect their curtains,
 And we look further on. 
Italy stands the other side,
 While, like a guard between,
The solemn Alps
The siren Alps,
 Forever intervene!

-Emily Dickinson

In picking an Emily Dickinson, I wanted to pick one that wasn't one of the better known ones, but was still particularly a favorite of mine. So here it is!

Jennifer has a stirring Robert Service poem, and not the one you know. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Steele

Jardin des Tuileries
The boy stood weeping in dismay,
Duffle-coated against the cold,
Watching his sailboat bob away
On a pool vast and granite-bowled.
No aid was asked, but seeing him,
I rolled my trousers to my knees
And waded from the basin's rim
To where the boat had sought the breeze 
And, like a giant, lifted her
Up by the mast and centerboard.
Still sniffling, with "Merci, monsieur,"
The boy walked off, his loss restored. 
This happened thirty years ago.
The trees were pollarded and bare,
The benches empty, and light snow
Fell to the powerless parterre. 
For several weeks, I'd launched campaigns
To all the tourist sites I could.
Most I've forgotten. What remains
Is how the boy drew up his hood, 
Cradling his boat in winter light,
While I sat down and bowed to muse
Upon the gravel and draw tight
And tie the laces of my shoes.

-Timothy Steele

Timothy Steele is a contemporary American poet (born 1948) generally given to more formal verse, and associated with the New Formalist movement. This is from his book of 2006 Toward the Winter Solstice.

He is also the dedicatee of Vikram Seth's first novel (in verse) The Golden Gate.

Jennifer is featuring a poem by Willa Cather this week.

I typed this up in advance, but I'm in California currently and should have picked a California poem. However here's a picture of the Jardin des Tuileries from when we were there ten years ago or so. (No
boat-sailing pool, though.)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himalaya

Phillip Ernest's The Far Himālaya came out last year from Linda Leith Éditions. It's the story of Ben Doheny, living on the streets in the late 90s near the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.

The novel starts with scenes where Ben, sleeping on campus, is violently harassed by campus police, then later at the Scott Mission, where he is further harassed by his fellow homeless. (The Scott Mission is an actual shelter near to the main University of Toronto campus.) These scenes are painful and, alas, utterly convincing: the author bio tells us that Phillip Ernest lived on the streets of Toronto himself for thirteen years from the age of fifteen.

But it's not (just) a grim and realistic novel of homelessness. Ben is sustained by his love of the Sanskrit language, which gives both him and the novel a view into a larger world. Part of the reason he's drawn to the campus area is the library and the books. He claims to be a graduate student of Sanskrit when he's not, though later he manages to gain some cover from an emeritus professor in the department. He also becomes romantically entangled with Aditi, who is legitimately earning an advanced degree in Sanskrit. Her adviser, Professor Boylan, is the only active member of the department, and he's an utter monster, an abusive drunk, but he does provide the elements of the plot.

Boylan demands Aditi translate the works of classical Sanskrit which Boylan will then publish under his own name; he's so lost to alcohol and drugs he can't manage sustained work any more. Only under these circumstances will he ever--and even then there's uncertainty--approve her thesis. Ben, with his fellow street-dweller Moksha Das, does the translations for Boylan, thus leaving Aditi the time to work on her own thesis. Aditi also has a dark secret in her past that Boylan knows of, and he can, should he wish to, ruin her academic career at any time.

Will Aditi be allowed to finish her thesis and then move on to a career? Will Ben, homeless and still troubled, be able to keep the love of Aditi? The plot moves along with considerable tension to its final resolution.

It was a fascinating novel, set where I live with landmarks I see every day, and full of a cross-section of life I know nothing about. (And, yes, that also means Sanskrit scholars.) I do feel the ending relied overmuch on a deus ex machina character not previously introduced. And, while I have to imagine being homeless implies bodily functions loom much larger than they might otherwise, a little of that goes a long way for me, and there was more than a little here. Still, a very good read.

The Far Himālaya is Ernest's second novel; his first The Vetala (an Indian vampire novel!) appeared earlier, also from Linda Leith Éditions. I'll definitely read others from both the press and the author.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Wilbur

Sunset from our house on New Year's Day


Treetops are not so high
Nor I so low
That I don't instinctively know
How it would be to fly
Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again. 
Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie: 
My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.

-Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur was an American poet who died in 2017. This comes from fairly late in his career.

The Other Reader refers to him as that poet who loved his wife, and it's true there are several wonderful poems he wrote for his wife. But he was also one of the lyricists for Leonard Bernstein's musical Candide and is capable of quite funny poems.

New year, new commitment to #PoemForAThursday? We'll see.

Jennifer (reliably, unlike me...) has a poem each week at Holds Upon Happiness. This week she's featuring Philip Booth. Brona also a poem this week by Dorothy Hewitt.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Cambridge Introduction to Melville

"I shall have a fine book of travels, I feel sure; and will tell you more of the South Seas than any writer has done--except Herman Melville, perhaps, who is a howling cheese."
-R. L. Stevenson, in a letter to Charles Baxter

 I came across that quote (via Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania) and it sent me down a Google rabbit hole in order to decide what the heck Stevenson really thought of Melville. (A howling cheese? If somebody called me a howling cheese, I think my first instinct would be to slug them.) But it seems Stevenson only meant good things about Stevenson by that quote.

At least that's what Kevin Hayes says in The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville. ("It means something similar to the proverbial phrase, 'to take the cake.'") Also Stevenson compares the Master of Ballantrae in that novel to Captain Ahab--The Master of Ballantrae comes out in 1889, when Melville's reputation is probably at its lowest, yet Stevenson knows his works well.

Overall I can't say I particularly found the Hayes book helpful, though; on Moby-Dick itself Hayes seemed too taken with the idea of the double or Doppelgänger. Old Ishmael telling the story of course has a relation to young Ishmael living the story, but it doesn't strike me as useful to refer to them as doubles. When Hayes calls Ahab and the whale doubles he has a better, though still not entirely convincing to me, argument. Your mileage may vary. 

Still there were a few fun things. One of the contemporary reviews said this of the chapter 'The Whiteness of the Whale':
It 'should be read at midnight, alone, with nothing heard but the sounds of the wind moaning without, and the embers falling into the grate within.'
I'm sure I didn't succeed in doing that, but it sounds good. The next time I read the book. Also 'The Whiteness of the Whale' was Sergei Eisenstein's favorite chapter in the book.

I also learned about Giorgio Federico Ghedini, an Italian composer who died in 1965. His best-known work is the Concerto dell'Albatro, which includes spoken text from Moby-Dick. For classical music fans, here it is from Youtube: (the spoken word part is in the third movement beginning around the 17th minute.)

I previously shared elsewhere in a slightly abbreviated form, this quote from Hayes:
"Moby-Dick demands readers who are unafraid to confront the strange and the unusual, those willing to use their minds, if not their palates, to face the mysteries of existence as reflected through an epic whaling quest."
Aw, shucks. You shouldn't have. You really think so?

And Hayes' final words on Moby-Dick?
"Moby-Dick is the greatest book in the history of the English language."
So now you know.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2020 Challenge HQ

I've decided to do an omnibus post for challenges in 2020. I was originally thinking this would be a mini-omnibus, but it's gotten a bit larger as I think about it. Oh, well...

For full descriptions of each challenge, follow the link to the original post. I include brief descriptions here.

Erica has devised a new challenge to get us to read some classics. Half the fun of these is thinking of a list of classics in advance to match the prompts, so I've included tentative choices. She invites us (and I intend to!) double up with Classics Club books. Her prompts are as follows:

A Classic Over 500 Pages
 -Bocaccio's The Decameron
A Classic By a POC Author and/or with a POC main character
 -James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain
A Classic That Takes Place in a Country Other Than Where You Live
 -Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country
A Classic In Translation
 -Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
A Classic By A New To You Author
 -John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga
A Classic Book of Poetry
 -Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
A Classic Written Between 1800 and 1860
 -Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris
A Classic By An LGBT Author or With an LGBT Main Character
 -Willa Cather's One of Ours
A Classic Written By A Woman
 -Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
A Classic Novella
 -James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
Classic Non-fiction
 -Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own
A Banned or Censored Classic
 -(Not certain yet. I'll have to do a little homework.)

I'm sure I'll be switching them around. In particular I've put Goethe and Bocaccio on similar lists in the past, and yet they're still here...

Erica allows us to use one book for up to two prompts, but I'm going to try to avoid that. The Virginia Woolf is my winter spin book, so it should get read first.

Well, I'd assembled a list for Erica's challenge and then I saw Karen was doing hers again, so now I'm doing them both! Though there will be some overlap in books. Here's Karen's list of prompts, together with the books I've tentatively matched against them:

Nineteenth Century Classic
 -Henry James' The American
Twentieth Century Classic
 -Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
Classic by a Woman Author
 -Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own
Classic in Translation
 -Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Classic by a Person of Color
 -James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain
A Genre Classic
 -Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Classic With A Person's Name In The Title
 -James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
Classic With A Place in the Title
 -Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris
Classic With Nature in the Title
 -Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country
Classic About A Family
 -John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga
Abandoned Classic
 -Bocaccio's Decameron (Yes, it's true. I tried once before...)
Classic With an Adaptation
 -Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge

Which of these look good to you?

The goal is five different European countries, but let's think about the maximum, which is fifty! Unless the Scots get independence before the end of the year, then I can aim for fifty-one.


Bev challenges us to read books we already own. I've done this challenge a few times now, increasing the number each year until I flopped on it last year. (I believe this is called Test To Failure.) So this year I'm dialling it back, and going for Mt. Vancouver (36 books) which is what I would have successfully done this year. (Meaning it's not really a challenge, right? Oh, well...)

3.) etc.

Keely at A Common Reader is hosting a Russian literature challenge for the year. No particular number of books, just a chance to share thoughts about Russian literature. I'm likely to try to read The Master and Margarita at the very least and hopefully a couple more.


Here's a list of the books I've read this year from my multi-year Classics Club list.


Canadian Book Challenge

The Canadian Book Challenge now hosted by Shonna at Canadian Bookworm runs from Canada Day to Canada Day, but here's a list of the books I've read for this challenge in 2020:


Am I overdoing it again? Probably I am!

A link to last year's challenge omnibus post.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 Reading Year In Review

You know I can never write these posts until the 1st of the new year because I'm probably reading something at eight o'clock on New Year's Eve, and it might still be great...well, hello, Tom Jones!

Best of Year

We'll start out with the books that were new to me. Two of them were relatively recent releases. That's pretty good for me! (In the order I read them.)

Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (tr. David Slavitt)

I'd read Ariosto's Orlando Furioso before in a prose translation by Guido Waldman, and I'd liked it, but this was really a revelation. Rollicking and funny and done in the actual ottava rima that Ariosto used. If this is the only version you ever read, I did worry a bit about the liberties Slavitt took in his translation, plus the fact that it's only a little over half of the work, but if you want to read one of the lesser-known great classics and have a great time, this is a great choice!

(The remainder of Slavitt's translation of Ariosto was printed by a smaller press, and has been on my notional TBR since then, but I haven't read it...yet.)

Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney

I really liked this novel when I read it in June, and I find it's particularly stuck to me since. It's a funny, almost Kafkaesque, novel about a woman (Iris) working in an office. Maybe the company is going bankrupt, but maybe it's a bit more surreal than that. We mostly see things through Iris' eyes, and she's quirky, somehow damaged, a bit affectless, but still engaging and engaged.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

I had sort of been thinking of this as a year of Edith Wharton in any case, but the fall Classics Club spin brought this one to the fore. Undine Spragg, a girl from the provinces, claws her way up to something like success, leaving bodies metaphorical and actual along the way. Except when she gets there, she's not satisfied after all.

Oh, Undine Spragg, you are a villain.

Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

I didn't get a chance to blog about this one. I'd put this on my library hold list earlier in the year, but it only got to me the week she won the Nobel Prize. I knew I wasn't going to be able to renew it. It's a shorter and easier read than Flights, which I read last year & liked, but I didn't want to race through it.

It's a mystery plot, ahem, suggestive of a certain well-known Agatha Christie novel. (No spoilers!) It's also engaged with environmental and animal-rights issues, as well as contemporary Polish politics.

Still, it's the plot and the voice of the narrator that make this so much fun.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

This was the Edith Wharton book I'd been intending to read all along--I'd put it down for my Back To The Classics challenge. And I was going to start it immediately after I finished the first, but then Cleo (thanks Cleo!) decided to hold a readalong and I waited. It was better to wait; the readalong was a lot of fun.

They make a good pair. Both Lily Bart, the heroine of this, and Undine Spragg are girls born to some wealth, but who want a lot more. But in every other way, they're different.

Two others I could equally have included are:

Claudio Magris' Snapshots


Olivia Manning's School For Love

Also some really great rereads:

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Gate of Angels
Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (blog post *probably* coming soon)


Oh, dear. Not a good year for challenges.

Let's concentrate on the successful ones, shall we? I went well over the top again this year with Gilion's European Reading Challenge. I successfully completed Bev's Read It Again, Sam Challenge. And I did respectably with Karen's Back to the Classics and Becky's Chunkster Challenge. And were there any other challenges? I'm sure I don't remember any other challenges...

Well, except for the perennial problem that my eyes were too big for my stomach, it was a good reading year. I continue to blog around half the books I read, which seems about where I've settled in.

I've signed up for a couple of challenges for the new year, and may do one or two more, though I'm feeling ever so slightly chastened.

Coming pretty soon...a best of the decade post.

Happy New Year to all, and thanks for reading!