Friday, July 12, 2019

(Belated) Poem For A Thursday: Lindsay

The Eagle That Is Forgotten
(John P. Altgeld. Born December 30, 1847; died March 12, 1902)

Sleep softly...eagle forgotten...under the stone.
Time has its way with you there, and the clay has its own. 
"We have buried him now," thought your foes, and in secret rejoiced.
They made a brave show of their mourning, their hatred unvoiced. 
They had snarled at you, barked at you, foamed at you day after day.
Now you were ended. They praised you,...and laid you away. 
The others that mourned you in silence and terror and truth.
The widow bereft of her crust, and the boy without youth,
The mocked and the scorned and the wounded, the lame and the poor
That should have remembered forever,...remember no more. 
Where are those lovers of yours, on what name do they call
The lost, that in armies wept over your funeral pall?
They call on the names of a hundred high-valiant ones,
A hundred white eagles have risen the sons of your sons,
The zeal in their wings is a zeal that your dreaming began
The valor that wore out your soul in the service of man.
Sleep softly,...eagle forgotten...under the stone
Time has its way with you there and the clay has its own. 
Sleep on, O brave-hearted, O wise man, that kindled the flame--
To live in mankind is far more than to live in a name,
To live in mankind, far, far more...than to live in a name.

-Vachel Lindsay

John Peter Altgeld was elected governor of Illinois in 1892. He resisted the use of federal troops to combat the Pullman strike and pardoned the (surviving) Haymarket rioters. He was one of the first progressive politicians elected to office.

Vachel Lindsay was an American poet who died in 1931.

Jennifer has a great Robert Frost poem this week.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won the 2013 Booker prize. So, you know, you probably don't need me to say nice things about it. But I will anyway... 😉

It's set in 1866, the time of the gold rush in Hokitika, New Zealand, with some flashbacks to a year or so earlier. A dozen men, mostly white, but with one Maori and two Chinese, discover events that seem to implicate them in crimes or diminish their public reputation; it looks like a malign conspiracy, but could any conspiracy be so far-reaching? They decide to meet quietly to discuss, pool their knowledge, and see if they can determine what happened. A thirteenth man, Walter Moody, a young lawyer, happens upon their assembly by accident, and then leads the investigation.

The prose is extravagant, but the pacing is still superb: it's clear to me that Catton is a devoted reader of mysteries: twelve men determining the actions of a villain (if there is one) suggests a jury as well as a certain Agatha Christie novel you may have heard of...; at one point Walter Moody suggests what better place to hide a body than in a coffin (paging Ellery Queen!); and a mention of one red herring (Oh, Ms. Sayers!) made me check to see if that was an anachronism in 1866. (It's not.)

But at the same time Catton writes with the personable omniscient voice of a Victorian like Thackeray:
"Let the man speak for himself!" Nilssen snapped. "What's going on?" 
We shall omit Mannering's answer to this question, which was both inaccurate and inflammatory; we shall omit, also, the ensuing discussion, during which Mannering and Nilssen discovered that their purpose in journeying to Chinatown was one and the same, and Frost, who could intuit quite plainly that the commission merchant was holding him in some suspicion over the sale of the Wells estate, maintained a rather sullen silence. The clarifications took some time,...
I found it an engaging voice and a compelling read, and funny as well. But it also has real darkness to it, too: Catton does not soft-pedal the casual sexism and especially racism that would have been all too common at that time; nor, unlike say in Dickens, does she particularly fix things up at the end. Racist acts in particular have no repercussions, alas, a thing all too true to the time and place, I'm sure.

It begins with an astrological chart, and the plot, according to Catton's afterword, is actually partly determined by the horoscopes she cast. Now that part is very un-Victorian, and rather pomo-ish, something like Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies. I'm afraid all that went over my head, though I didn't really mind. I read most of it while off the grid, with no internet access. I'm an Aries, and that's about the extent of my astrological knowledge.

I did find the second half, the unwinding and explaining of what the 'conspiracy' was a bit slower than the first half; there weren't quite enough revelations there, but it didn't matter: I was already completely hooked...

One of my #20booksofsummer, and here's the summer-y location where I was when I read it...

Monday, July 8, 2019

The A to Z of TBR

Jean and Brona have both recently done an A to Z listing of books on the TBR pile and likewise I thought I'd browse through as an incentive to look at some half-forgotten choices. The idea is to pick titles that begin with the letter in question. I had to cheat a little for X, but was able to make all the other letters...

A: Axel's Castle, by Edmund Wilson
B: Bible and Sword, by Barbara Tuchman
C: C, by Tom McCarthy
D: Diaries: 1899-1941, by Robert Musil
E: East Lynne, by Mrs. Henry (Ellen) Wood
F: Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh
G: Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
H: Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, by J. K. Rowling
I: Incident at Badamya, by Dorothy Gilman
J: Jacques the Fatalist, by Denis Diderot
K: Kalevala, assembled by Elias Lonnrot
L: Life Form, by Amelie Nothomb
M: Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar
N: Near to the Wild Heart, by Clarice Lispector
O: Obasan, by Joy Kogawa
P: Present at the Creation, by Dean Acheson
Q: Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkewicz
R: Rates of Exchange, by Malcolm Bradbury
S: Save Me The Waltz, by Zelda Fitzgerald
T: Tigers Are Better Looking, by Jean Rhys
U: Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy
V: Vathek, by William Beckford
W: War and the Iliad, by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff
X: The Anabasis with Vocabulary, by Xenophon
Y: You've Had Your Time, by Anthony Burgess
Z: Zibaldone, by Giacomo Leopardi

Since I had to cheat on the X, and go with the author's name rather than the book title, I can offer up titles beginning with a symbol:

$1000 A Week, and other stories, by James T. Farrell

and a number:

10:04, by Ben Lerner

Which have you read? Which look good to you?

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Lazarus

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-Emma Lazarus

Browsing for something to post for Poem For A Thursday, I reminded myself of this. You likely know it, especially the famous lines from the sestet, but it is a pretty great poem. And a good one to remember, especially today.

And Emma Lazarus herself was the descendent of Jewish refugees to the United States.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Two from Two Dollar Radio

Earlier this year I discovered the small press Two Dollar Radio, out of Columbus, OH; I saw a copy of The Deeper The Water, The Uglier The Fish by Katya Apekina at Type bookstore here in Toronto. I read that and liked it, and then I read Found Audio by N. J. Campbell from them. I didn't blog about either of them, but I thought it looks like they've put together an interesting list, and I decided to try some more. The Toronto Public Library kindly sent a pair of them to my local branch.

The Glacier by Jeff Wood

The first thing to note about The Glacier is it's written in the form of a film script. It jump cuts back and forth between several groups of characters whose connections gradually develop over the course of the novel.

In each group there's a figure who's troubled in some way, for whom there are demons externalized in horrific form. So, for Robert, who lives in a suburban subdivision, there's MUD MAN, a being of mud who appears in a neighboring house, follows Robert before killing himself in front of Robert saying that their is no ghost in the machine. Other externalized demons are a drug pusher and the nuclear holocaust.

The ending brings our alienated individuals together; the meaning of the ritual at the end is deliberately ambiguous.

I did feel this would be better as a film. But as an experimental, somewhat surreal film with a big cast, elaborate effects, and correspondingly large budget requirements, I expect that's unlikely to happen.

Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney

While I liked The Glacier, of these two I much preferred Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney.

Iris works as the receptionist for Larmax, Inc. She doesn't really know what the business does, and she sees very few of her fellow employees. One of them, an elderly man from Vienna, tells her she should travel, but then is never seen again in the office; her boss is increasingly away traveling, or so he says, but then once she sees him in town. We might guess the business is going bankrupt, and the boss is hiding it, but Iris doesn't think that: she's dreamy and alienated from the whole corporate world.

We also see her brother Neil, who works in sales, equally alienated from his job, but in a boy's way, given to anger and irritation. There's a tragic accident in the siblings' past; we're given several versions, not completely compatible. Neil went through some therapy for it when he was a child; Iris was presumed to be too young to be affected by the event, but was she?

Another company is next door to the Larmax office, but there only seems to be one young man there, living in the office or possibly in a van in the parking lot. Iris becomes obsessed with him, leaving notes (is he returning her notes?) and drilling a peephole between the offices. They do eventually meet. Is he the answer? Or is it something else?

I thought this was very good. Funny, mysterious and affecting.

Two of the books from my #20booksofsummer list:

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Poem(s) For a Thursday: Philosophical Limericks

And he writes mysteries, too! And his niece is Penelope Fitzgerald!

There once was a man who said: "God,
Must think it exceedingly odd
  If he finds that this tree
  Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad." 
Dear Sir,
  Your astonishment's odd:
I am always about in the Quad
  And that's why the tree
  Will continue to be
Since observed by
  Yours Faithfully,

-Ronald A. Knox

A variant on the old saying: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there, does it make a sound? Bishop George Berkeley, whom I recently read about in Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, had the answer to that. This is Reverend Knox's summary of Berkeley's argument, quoted in Russell.

And that reminded me of this other philosophical limerick on pre-destination:

There was a young man who said, "Damn!
I perceive with regret that I am
  But a creature that moves
  In predestinate grooves;
I'm not even a bus, I'm a tram.

-Maurice E. Hare

Be sure to go see the originator of Poem For A Thursday at Jennifer's Holds Upon Happiness. I'm posting this in advance but I will checking her poem out as soon as possible!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The story of Arthur Abdel Simpson, or that lying Eric Ambler

How about those book covers? No serious books here!

Dirty Story

I picked up Eric Ambler's Dirty Story (1967) at a charity sale last fall. It's one of the few of Ambler's spy novels I haven't read, and I was happy to find it. It starts in Athens where Arthur Abdel Simpson is a chauffeur, tour guide, and small-time crook. He's got passport trouble, with neither a valid Egyptian passport (his mother's country) nor an English passport (his father's.) The clerk at the English embassy is perfectly well aware of Simpson's criminal record in various countries, and simply refuses to renew his now out of date English passport, claiming his parents were never married. Simpson is left with no choice but to try to buy a fake passport on the docks at Piraeus. For which he doesn't have the money.

His attempt to scheme his way out of this results in various complications that lead to his taking a job as a mercenary in a war between small (fake) African countries over mineral rights.

The exposition was amusing, but took up too much of the novel; the adventure part was compelling and fun, but came a little late in the book, only the last 60 pages.

But it was early in the exposition I realized this was the same protagonist/narrator as in Ambler's The Light of Day, so I pulled that off the shelf.

The Light of Day

The Light of Day (1962) is the much better novel; here Simpson breaks into the hotel room of his client Harper after dropping Harper off at a house of prostitution, and sets himself up to be blackmailed into assisting in some illegal scheme. What is it? Simpson figures it's drugs; the Turkish policeman, Colonel Haki, who detects it almost right away, assumes it's political. The alternate title of the book, Topkapi (also the title of the movie, with Peter Ustinov as Simpson) half gives it away, but I won't say more. Much more thriller, less exposition, with Ambler's signature humor.

I'd read The Light of Day before, a while ago now, and so I didn't realize until I reread it, that Simpson's explanation of his checkered career is almost the same in Dirty Story as it is in The Light of Day. Pretty slack on Ambler's part. It's amusing, but reading them one right after the other is a bit disappointing, but it's the second novel that's the lazy one, of course, not this one.

Here Lies

I've long loved the title of Ambler's autobiography, and when I saw I could get it from the library, I thought, well, now's the time. It dates from 1985, when Ambler was 76, and comes after all of his novels, though he lived on for another thirteen years. It's pretty entertaining.

His parents were puppeteers and performers of musical theater, before his father decided he needed a more stable job during the Depression years. It covers his school years (decent public school education,) his first jobs (manufacturing of electrical equipment--this was full of technical information and often incomprehensible--,) and his war years (mostly with a film unit, writing for Carol Reed or John Huston.) It stops about 1950, but then author biographies often get dull once they're solidly established so maybe that's just as well.

Now I want to see the movie again.

Can't get much more fluffy/summer-y in one's reading than that!

and while I have an unread Orhan Pamuk novel around here, The Light of Day is definitely a Turkey book, so...