Friday, July 21, 2017

Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Gerald Middleton is a sixty-year-old retired medievalist. He considers himself a failure: he's estranged from his wife and three kids; his rejected mistress (and the true love of his life) has become a drunk; he was peripherally connected with a fraud perpetrated on Anglo-Saxon archaeology forty years earlier, and it's turned his whole attitude toward the profession despairing and cynical. Maybe it ruined his life.

The complex plot centers around that fraud. In 1913, the tomb of a bishop was excavated, and a priapic pagan statue was found buried with the bishop. Or was it? A year or so later, Middleton's best friend at the time, Gilbert Stokesay, tells Middleton that he had found the statue at a different dig, and just slipped it in to the bishop's tomb. Stokesay's father was the leader of the excavation of the bishop's tomb.

Middleton believes Gilbert Stokesay was telling him the truth, but doesn't know that for sure, and the possibility that history is not truth poisons his whole relationship with the field. Gilbert dies in WWI, and the secret is lost, or at least, becomes more obscure.

Did I say complex? I did. There's a list of 45 characters before the book starts, and that's only the major ones. But it's swift moving, too: their fates will be sorted out in less than 350 pages, and that includes the appendix, a few made up reports about the archaeological investigation, taking up ten pages at the end.

And what this description doesn't so far indicate is, it's funny. It really is.

Very enjoyable.

It came into my library last year, so it counts for My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.

G. V. Desani's All About H. Haterr

All About H. Haterr is the only novel by G. V. Desani. Desani was born in 1909 in Kenya, but was of Indian ancestry. Over the course of his long life (he died in 2000) he lived in India and England as well, before pitching up in Austin, Texas, where he died.

The novel has a structure, and it's important, but it's really the language, the crazy, extravagant language, that makes it memorable. The story is this: H. Haterr is a Eurasian, the son of an European merchant seaman and a Malaysian mother.  He's taken by his father to India at one year old, his father dies shortly, and he's raised in India by a do-gooder Scotch Presbyterian. We get all that information, and more, in the first three pages. But H. Haterr ends up rejecting his Christian, European heritage and seeks out Indian wisdom.

In fact he apprentices himself to seven Indian sages, and each of the seven chapters has Instruction from the sage, with each sage in a different city, a Presumption, which characterizes the wisdom of the sage, and a Life-Encounter, which is an event that follows from Haterr's meeting the sage, generally involving his friend Banerrji.

The sages that Haterr encounters are all frauds in one way or another, but that doesn't stop him from seeking out the wisdom of another--and another--and another.

From the Instruction of the last sage, the Sage of All-India:

Satiated, said the Sage to the disciple, "Ask what thou wilt, my son. My heart is exceeding glad  upon thy humility, thy selfless service. Know, thou hast served me for two years this Thursday. Thou hast served me well, dear one. The auspicious moment for rewarding thee has come."
"O mightiest of all the Sages," said the disciple, going down on his knees. "I am ignorant. I have no learning. I beg of thee a boon, liege! Give me, Sire, one instruction, one mighty aphorism, which thou knowest to be the best, the wisest of all the lore which befalls from gods on unworthy humans."
"Verily, my son, the aphorism of all the aphorisms, the doctrine of all the doctrines, the rune of all the runes, the Hinduism of all the Hinduisms, the mantra-supreme, and the reward for thy two years' labour is now uttered as follows: Abscond from charlatans and deceivers as thou wouldst from venomous snakes!"
This is advice that H. Haterr needs to hear, but the messenger is perhaps not the one who should be delivering it.

But that quote may give the wrong impression, though. There are definitely other passages of mock-theological, but then there are also things like this:
Maybe, I am judging good and bad from my own sweet experience; by the standard how pro or anti myself an experience, a country, or a feller has been.
You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours--you first! Not give and take strictly; but take first, then give.
Maybe, I am a victim of the pleasure principle
But a feller has got to measure things by the scale of pleasantness and unpleasantness...
This is much more like the way H. Haterr discusses philosophy.

Despite the weirdness of the language, it's easy reading; the adventures are extravagant; and H. Haterr's quest for wisdom is engaging in its comic way. Is it a masterpiece? Despite the blurbs, probably not. But there's nothing else quite like it, and it's fun.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


It's halfway through 2017 and time for some reflection, I suppose.

I created this blog in 2009, but didn't do much with it for years. The archive at the side indicates I've written more posts this year than in the entire previous history of the blog. Writing more this year was the plan: I signed up for a couple of challenges as a motivation to write posts. I suppose my not entirely expressed New Years' resolutions were: to revive the blog and to read more books. I suspected (as turned out the case) that I was going into semi-retirement this year and my plan was to write more and read more with my newly available time. The challenges I signed up for called for mystery novels (which I read anyway, 20-30 a year) and reading books I already own (which I should do more of.) I'm on target for the TBR books, and ahead for the mysteries. I didn't find a challenge to motivate me, but I also decided to go from my usual around a 100 books a year to 120. I've read 64 so far. And I wrote a bunch of posts. So my semi-secret goals, as well as my subscribed challenges, are proceeding according to plan.

I was going to write something analytical about the nature of writing book posts for me, but...nah. Not yet. I haven't really figured it out. If writing a post is a way of organizing my thoughts about a subject, such as a book, then I haven't yet figured out what I think about writing posts.

If writing posts is just a way of marking what's happened, well, then this is good enough, innit?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Mount TBR Checkin Post #2

It's halfway through the year, and I'm exactly halfway up my particular mountain. Woo-hoo! I've read 18 (list here) out of the 36 TBR books I pledged myself to read. It doesn't take any fancy math at all to discover that I'm 2406m up my particular mountain. A quick trip to Wikipedia to look up the height and division by two did the job...

Now that I'm on target is the moment that my boss would start talking about stretch goals. Ha!

Definitely the longest on my TBR list is Boss by Mike Royko. It was sometime in the late 90s I started recording when I bought books, and this was there before that. But the story gets even worse: There was a bookstore in Chicago near where I lived, and the owner would write the date he acquired the book and its initial price. If it didn't sell after some period of time, he marked a second date, cut the price to a quarter, and moved it to the back room. A second demotion was possible; he sometimes cut the price to a dime. My copy of Boss got moved to the back room in September of 1986 (7/86) and was priced at a quarter after being 50 cents for eleven years. I suspect it entered my library not too long after that. My copy of the book has done some traveling, from Chicago to San Francisco, and now here to Toronto, where it finally got read.

Boss is the story of Mayor Richard J. Daley (the first Mayor Daley) of Chicago, the epitome of Machine politicians. It came out in 1971, while Daley was still alive, and while Royko can occasionally admire Daley's hubris and ability to wield power, that's about as far as it goes. It's an attack.

And I kind of knew all that. After carrying it around for probably 30 years, there really weren't any surprises for me, even though I hadn't read it. My dad read it; he must have read it close to when it came out, and there was a copy around the house when I was growing up, identical to the one I bought later. My dad thoroughly endorsed Royko's attack on da Mayor (as everyone called him) and was known to point to the book when needed. In Chicago when I was a kid, you were either a Machine Democrat or a non-Machine Democrat. We lived in one of the so-called Lakefront liberal wards, and we were the latter. Republicans lived in the suburbs.

I read Royko's columns as they came out: my parents switched their regular daily newspaper from the Chicago Daily News to the Chicago Sun Times to the Chicago Tribune as Royko switched from newspaper to newspaper. Not exactly because of Royko, but for the same reasons that Royko switched: the Daily News, the non-Machine, liberal paper, folded, and we moved to the Sun Times. Then the Sun Times was bought by Rupert Murdoch and became very right wing, and so it was time to forgive Colonel McCormick's right-wing imbecilities, and try the Tribune. (McCormick had been dead for 30 years by then. Forgiveness can be slow.)

Even though I read his daily column in the paper, I bought all the collections as they came out and read them, too. A few years ago, after Royko died, both my dad and I read Ciccone's biography of Mike Royko. Ciccone was a fan, but was at least capable of noting Royko's family difficulties and self-destructive drinking. Those things didn't matter in the end to Ciccone and didn't matter to us either.

Anyway, all that's to say why I was unsurprised by the book. But I was reading some other Chicago books recently and thought the time was ripe, or more than ripe, to finally read Boss. As I said in the initial post, I wouldn't actually read this book to learn about Mayor Daley, and I wouldn't select the book as the best introduction to Mike Royko either, even though it's his most famous. But if you're a fan, or it's been on your shelf for 30 years and you're involved in a TBR challenge, well, then, it's a pretty good read.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Alice Munro's Open Secrets

Open Secrets consists of eight stories, all but one of which first appeared in The New Yorker; the other one was in The Paris Review. By the time of this volume, Alice Munro was clearly a success, though, of course, the honors just kept coming.

Deservedly so, I'd say.

Before I'd moved to Canada, I hadn't read any Alice Munro; I would have said short stories about small-town life wasn't my sort of thing; I had a poor sense of New Yorker fiction from the 80s, when I subscribed for a bit and (you may have heard this story...) they piled up, largely unread. Once I was here, I thought, well, I should brush up on my CanLit. I thought I'll read Alice Munro and I'll start at the beginning.

I got to her second book, Lives of Girls and Women when I realized I hadn't known what I was talking about. It is distinctly a masterpiece.

But reading volume after volume of short stories by the same author is a way for them all to blend together and make less of an impression, so after that initial burst, I began to space them out a little more. The books, though, had entered the house.

This volume didn't disappoint. If you want to start with a single volume of Alice Munro, I would still recommend Lives of Girls and Women, but if you wanted to read just one story to see what you thought, the story "The Albanian Virgin" from this volume Open Secrets, has got to be one of her very best. The story opens with a Canadian woman Lottar captured by a band of Albanian bandits in the 1920s; she'd set off for an adventure from the port city of Bar (now in Montenegro) and her guide was shot in a feud. Her horse spooked and ran off, and Lottar was injured, and now she's the captive of this band that doesn't really want her, but is unwilling to help her return to civilization.

Then it's the 1950s, and Charlotte is telling this story to her friend, the owner of a bookshop, pitching it as a plot for a movie maybe. There are several more swift changes of place and time (Alice Munro is famous for these) and a surprising ending. Is Lottar Charlotte? Did the adventures actually happen? In the 1950s, Lottar is married to a Moroccan (or is he?) The story also serves as object lesson (or does it?) for the narrator. The story is 59 pages in my Penguin edition and it has enough event and complexity for a novel. It's just amazing.

Oh, and Happy Canada Day!

Read for My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.