Monday, December 31, 2018

Gabriella Goliger's Girl Unwrapped (#CanBookChallenge)

We see Toni Goldblatt, the hero of Gabriella Goliger's Girl Unwrapped, at eight, at thirteen, at eighteen, at twenty, and finally at twenty-one, living in her own apartment in Montreal, and having acknowledged, both internally and externally to her mother, that she's a lesbian. It took some doing to get there.

That outline clearly marks it as a Bildungsroman and it's a well-done example of the form.

Toni is the only child of Jewish parents in Montreal; her Austrian parents survived the Holocaust; her father, barely, in a camp and her mother hiding in a remote Italian village. Neither much wants to talk about what happened, but they will (especially her mother) use their tragedy to emotionally blackmail their daughter. Toni is born in the late 1940s, and the events of her life are correlated to world events, though she's not an especially political person

At eight, she's a tomboy living in an apartment on the far side of Montreal's namesake mountain. She goes and plays with the rough boys in the woods. Then her parents buy a place in the suburbs.

At thirteen, she goes to a Jewish camp near Montreal and falls in love with the camp music instructor Janet. She steals and drinks a bottle of alcohol, makes a declaration of love for her camp counsellor, which we're not sure anybody understands, and gets kicked out.

At eighteen, she's studying in Jerusalem. Is she a Zionist? Well, Janet is there, but she's in an unhappy relationship with David, a druggy spiritualist. She loses her virginity to an Arab boy. She's called back to Montreal by the death of her father.

At twenty she discovers a lesbian bar. But neither the working class butch/femme couples nor the newly arrived feminist University girls are quite her. But this scene is closer to who she is than anything yet. And it's there she meets Robin, the first real love of her life.

Well, first loves often don't work out. But she's now on the road to who she is.

Goliger is a sharp observer and Toni's life is convincingly portrayed. This is her debut novel after a book of short stories; her new novel (from 2018) is Eva Solomon's War and is historical fiction set in the late 30s. I haven't read either of her other books, but might!

Girl Unwrapped came out in 2010 with Arsenal Pulp Press. It's good.

-- o --

Ahem, completely off-topic. I find I was completely unable to write the words 'lesbian bar' without going off to listen to the Jonathan Richman song. Just in case you have the same sensation:

Read for the Canadian Books Challenge.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018 European Reading Challenge Wrapup

Well, it's time to accept I won't be reading any more books this year for Gilion's European Reading Challenge at her blog Rose City Reader. I completed this one at five books a while back, but I was having so much fun I just kept going, ending up with a total of 16 books. And I kept thinking I'd read just one more. There's Iceland (Laxness), Denmark (Nors), and Serbia or Montenegro (Pekič) piled up by my reading chair. And I can't believe I missed Ireland. But I guess those all remain for next year.

Here's my final list:

1.) The Odyssey. (tr. by Emily Wilson) Greece
2.) Arthur Schnitzler's Casanova's Return To Venice. Austria
3.) Jorge Carrión's Bookshops: A Reader's History. Spain
4.) Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees. Italy
5.) Amélie Nothomb's Pétronille. Belgium
6.) George Eliot's Silas Marner. UK
7.) Duc de la Rochefoucauld's Maxims. France
8.) Olga Tokarczuk's Flights. Poland
9.) Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. Russia
10.) Herta Müller's The Land Of Green Plums. Romania
11.) Ismail Kadare's Broken April. Albania
12.) Dubravka Ugresic' Fox. Croatia
13.) Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe. Switzerland
14.) Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Monaco
15.) Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone. Germany
16.) Antonio Tabucchi's Time Ages In A Hurry. Hungary

For me, the best book on that list was probably the least exotic: George Eliot's Silas Marner. Maxims and The Baron In The Trees were rereads (so I must like them.) But there wasn't a bad book on it, and Ugresic' latest novel Fox was a real revelation, as was Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey. Hint: it's not too late to sign up for the new year.

Thanks to Gilion for hosting!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad

"Now, the true charm of pedestrianism does not lie in the walking, or in the scenery, but in the talking. The walking is good to time the movement of the tongue by, and to keep the blood and the brain stirred up and active; the scenery and the woodsy smells are good to bear in upon a man an unconscious and unobtrusive charm and solace to eye and soul and sense; but the supreme pleasure comes from the talk. It is no matter whether one talks wisdom or nonsense, the case is the same..."
And I'll bet that's doubly true--whether wisdom or nonsense--if you're walking around with Mark Twain.

A Tramp Abroad (1880) is Twain's travelogue of a walking trip along the German side of the Rhine, through the Swiss Alps, and down to northern Italy, Turin and Milan. He walks with his 'agent,' Mr. Harris, loosely based on the Congregationalist minister Joseph Twichell.

Except it's a ongoing joke in the book how little walking they do. They're going to walk up the Neckar valley to see a castle, but then take the train; they're going to walk up to their hotel in Switzerland, a pleasant three hour stroll, except it takes them two days and still they cadge a ride for part of it; finally they get to the top of Mont Blanc--by telescope.

There is a lot of wonderfully jokey travelogue, but that's not Twain's only mode. Twain shows a sociologist's interest in the custom of student duelling at Heidelberg, goes to watch matches and interviews participants; he's also seriously interested in Alpine ascents, even if he only makes his own by telescope. He quotes from various accounts, including Whymple's first summiting of the Matterhorn only fifteen years earlier.

There are also embedded tales, both contemporary and retellings of fairytales, such as you might expect from the author of 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.'

Nothing gives such weight and dignity to a blog post as an Appendix. 


The most famous part of the book is Appendix D, "The Awful German Language," which is just hilarious. It's the only part of the book I'd read before. I first read it in high school, when I hadn't had any German, but was taking Latin, so jokes about the Dative case worked for me. My German teacher had us read it when I took German and Twain's sixth rule for reform--that we drop 'those useless "haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden seins"' from the ends of sentences--now suddenly made sense. And now I've seen him as he actually tried to use that German in the field. The more German you know the funnier this essay gets.


The Art of Mark Twain

Or really, the drawing of Mark Twain, because The Art of Mark Twain was probably already written by some professor at Columbia in 1935 ("We see from Twain's treatment of the oppressed chambermaid on p. 109-110 of volume 13 of the so-called National edition, his incipient critique of the late-stage capitalist economy...") and is hardly going to appear in my blog post. But consider:

Did James Thurber study this book or what?

Yet another entry for the:

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Roof Beam Reader 2019 TBR Challenge Signup

Adam at Roof Beam Reader hosts a TBR challenge. I'm signing up this year for the first time. It's a dozen books (plus two alternates) and requires you to specify in advance the books you're going to read. Tricky! At least for me. My reading habits usually amount to "Ooh...shiny!" and off I go in some new direction. Head off to his announcement post for full details.

There are lots of books around here to choose from; it's the choosing that's hard. To help out I decided on some categories before I even started. Here's the list:

Contemporary fiction. I see a review of something and think that sounds fun! Now is the time to find out if I was right:

1.) Eleanor Catton/The Luminaries
2.) Marisha Pessl/Special Topics in Calamity Physics
3.) Xialou Guo/A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Poetry. Poetry volumes are often slim and those get read right away. But if they aren't and they don't...

4.) John Hollander/Spectral Emanations: New and Selected Poems
5.) Brad Leithauser/Darlington's Fall
6.) Anne Sexton/The Complete Poems

New York Review Book reissues. I've had such ridiculous good luck with their reissues, I can't resist something new and unknown when it shows up at my remaindered book store. But sometimes they slip into the pile. Time to catch up on those!

7.) Eileen Chang/Love In A Fallen City
8.) Dorothy Baker/Young Man With A Horn
9.) Christopher Priest/Inverted World

Detective Stories. How is it I even have crime novels aged for over a year on my TBR pile? I'm not sure, but not for much longer...

10.) Michael Bond/Monsieur Pamplemousse Omnibus, Vol. 1
11.) Sparkle Hayter/The Last Manly Man
12.) Ngaio Marsh/Overture to Death

And for my two alternates. Two readable choices from my Classics Club list.

1.) George Bernard Shaw/Pygmalion
2.) Jules Verne/Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea

Thanks to Adam for hosting!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party

Well, nobody would call this Graham Greene's greatest novel, I imagine, or even particularly recommend it as a place to start. But I'm running out of Greene novels I haven't read and this one finally floated to the top of the stack.

But Greene can certainly be great and I liked this one. Doctor Fischer is a toothpaste gazillionaire and a powerful man in Geneva. He's widowed and has a daughter that he's mostly estranged from. He also has a circle of Toads, that is toadies who put up with his cruel practical jokes in exchange for his (valuable) gifts. It sounds a bit like it might be The Magic Christian, but it's much darker (and less funny) than that.

The narrator is Alfred Jones, also a widower, who lost his hand in the London Blitz, and now ekes out a small living from his disability pension and work as a commercial translator. Jones and the daughter Anne-Luise fall in love and marry.

The novel is told in retrospect by Jones and we know that something bad has happened; he refers to both Fischer and Anne-Luise in the past tense. It's not particularly a mystery, but I also don't feel I should spoil it; there's a carefully constructed atmosphere of dread and discovering the nature of the dread provides the drive of the story. Doctor Fischer is a monster, but why and how, and is he justified? Well, those are the questions of the novel.

I think of Greene as a writer concerned with faith and religion and that colored my impression of Doctor Fischer: an all-powerful man with a circle of figures dependent on his every whim. Is that a possible interpretation of the novel? Hmm. Maybe.

Now having read a bunch of Greene novels, I think I'd like to read his biography. Does anybody have a sense of good one? Any particular favorite books by or about Greene?

That completes my list for the My Reader's Block Mount TBR challenge. Probably get one more book in this year, and then I'll need to write a wrapup post.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Star

The Star 

O'er a war torn world the Star of Peace is slowly rising. 
It is the same Star that for nearly two thousand years has been a beacon of Hope -- a sign of Peace and Love. 
The Star has never failed us and today its spirit travels around the earth -- carrying, despite the destruction of war, its old-age message of Hope. 
May the coming year bring to all of us the Joy of Peace throughout the world.
 This is the holiday card my grandfather, who was a commercial artist, sent out in 1944.

The Joy of Peace (and Books! peaking out from behind the card) to you and yours this holiday season and in the coming year!


Monday, December 24, 2018

'Tis the season #2

I believe these are called Drömmar, and are a Swedish Christmas cookie. Anyway, they've been a Christmas cookie in my family since I was six and our next door neighbors were Swedish immigrants. My mom was a fan of coconut and adopted them immediately.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Back To The Classics 2018 Wrapup

Well, I'm 2/3rd of the way through Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad and I'm likely to finish it before the new year, but that isn't really going to change the overall picture. I will have read nine (and maybe ten) of the dozen classics for my first try at the Back To The Classics challenge. Since six was the minimum, I guess that's OK...

Here's the list of categories and the books matched against them:

19th Century Classic

Silas Marner by George Eliot

20th Century Classic

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

A Classic by A Woman Author

Adam Bede by George Eliot

A Classic in Translation

Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland

A Crime Classic

Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley

A Classic With a Single Word Title

Romola by George Eliot

A Classic by an Author New To Me

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

A Classic that Scares Me

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Reread a Favorite Classic

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

and (maybe) A Travel Classic

A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

The categories I definitely missed were a children's classic, and a classic with a color in the title.

The new to me favorites were The Leopard and Silas Marner, both completely amazing.

Thanks to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Randy Boyagoda's Original Prin

The Toronto Public Library offers the Appel Salon program where authors come to the main library to talk about their most recent book; Randy Boyagoda came this fall to talk about his Original Prin. I thought the book sounded interesting and I must not have been the only one because, though I put it on the hold list the next day, the library only now delivered to me.

Original Prin is the comic story of Princely St. John Umbiligoda, (yes, really) a Sri Lankan immigrant and now a professor at a small--and getting smaller--Toronto-area Catholic university. He's married to Molly and has four daughters; at the start of the novel he has just had surgery for prostate cancer. He's in his 40s.

Also that getting smaller university is about to disappear entirely. The university president has hired a consulting firm to try to save something of the university, and the primary consultant is Prin's ex-girlfriend from graduate school, Wende. Does Prin still have feelings for Wende? How does that comport with his Catholic beliefs? Could he even do anything about it anyway, after his surgery? Well, of such stuff are novels made on.

At the Appel Salon talk, Boyagoda said he'd come to his editor (John Metcalf at Biblioasis) with a 600-page page manuscript. Metcalf told him inside that there was a 200-page novel seeking to get out. (Inside every fat man...) Metcalf put him on a diet of short comic novels and told him to cut and Boyagoda did: this was 223 pages in my edition. At the talk Boyagoda particularly mentioned Evelyn Waugh, which alarmed me: I'm not very fond of the what they tell me are the funny novels of Waugh, like Scoop or Vile Bodies. But something else that was said suggested to me Morte d'Urban, which I very much do like. The story is the idea of a good person trying to do good in a fallen (and bureaucratic) world.

Well, it was neither Waugh nor Powers. Not nearly so unedifying as Waugh, and, for my money, funnier than Waugh, but not as funny and warming as Powers. The humour is more of the nature of Prin's silly name than the situational humour of Fr. Urban in Morte d'Urban. There's a lot of guilt-ridden agonizing on the part of Prin, which is funny, but I do feel like I've read that before, though not in a Sri Lankan immigrant. The best moment I thought came early when Prin is in confessional with Fr. Tom.

Anyway, good, if not everything I had hoped. It's apparently the first of a planned trilogy. I don't know if that explains it, but the ending was both over the top and a bit unsatisfying, and not in the, I, the author, don't mean to satisfy you way.

Another entry for the Canadian Book Challenge:

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Back to the Classics Signup 2019

Back to the Classics is a challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate to get us to finally read those classics. I'm signing up again, since this was one of the funnest challenges for me of the previous year. Full details of the challenge are here, but this is the list of categories for the new year and the books I've tentatively matched against them. It's an interesting new set of categories.

It's possible--even likely--I pull a switcheroo or two, but for now...

19th Century Classic

Henry James/The American

20th Century Classic

Hermann Broch/The Death of Virgil
-I had this on my list for this same category last year, but it got switched out

Classic by a female author

George Eliot/Scenes of Clerical Life

Classic in translation

Goethe/Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. My translation is by Thomas Carlyle. Doubly classic!

Classic comedy

Henry Fielding/Tom Jones
-This was on my list for a reread last year, but that category got pre-empted by The Mystery of Edwin Drood. So it's back!

Classic tragedy

Edith Wharton/House of Mirth

Very Long Classic

Giovanni Boccaccio/The Decameron

Classic Novella

An early James Baldwin like Giovanni's Room is short enough, or maybe Djuna Barnes' Nightwood. But I do think 250 pages is a novella only if you're a Russian. For the rest of us, that's a full length novel...

Classic from the Americas (including Caribbean)

Malcolm Lowry/Under The Volcano
-Written in the US, Canada, and Mexico, I believe. With some final editing in the Caribbean according to Wikipedia.

Classic from Asia, Africa, or Oceania

I'm thinking Naguib Mahfouz here, though I've also got a couple of early Ngugi wa Thiong'o novels from when he was still James Ngugi.

Classic from a Place You've Lived

Chicago or Toronto? Probably Chicago. The better Toronto novels are mostly too new. I've been wanting to reread James Farrell's Studs Lonigan (which could also count as tragedy...) or maybe I'll be bold and read his even longer Danny O'Neill series, which I own and haven't read.

Classic Play

George Bernard Shaw/Pygmalion

Thanks to Karen for hosting!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

European Reading Challenge 2019 Signup

Gilion at Rose City Reader is again hosting her European Reading Challenge. Since this is the challenge I most went over the top for in 2018, of course I'm going to be doing it again in 2019.

The idea is take a trip around Europe visiting different countries, a book a country. For full details see her challenge post. I'm signing up for the Five Star (Deluxe Entourage) level, which means five books, the same as last year, though, as I said, I got a bit carried away the last time...

I may get to one more book yet for this year's challenge, but if not, I've got Iceland, Montenegro, Sweden, and Denmark all piled up by my reading chair already.

Thanks to Gilion once again for hosting!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Antonio Tabucchi's Time Ages In A Hurry

Antonio Tabucchi was an Italian professor of Portuguese who taught at the University of Siena. Probably his most famous novel is Pereira Declares (also translated as Pereira Maintains) which is set in Portugal in the early years of the Fascist dictator Salazar. In it the detached and literary Pereira gradually begins to resist the Fascist regime. It is a great novel.

Tabucchi died in 2012 and until then I used to see his name on shortlists for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Time Ages In A Hurry is a book of nine short stories that came out in Italian in 2009 and was translated into English, by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani, in 2015. The stories relate, as you might guess from that brief synopsis of Pereira Declares, at the intersection of the personal and the political.

For example, "Clouds," my favorite of the stories, is a dialog between tired Italian ex-soldier in his 40s and a precocious young girl. We gradually learn that she's an orphan, from Peru and adopted by an Italian family, and he served as a peacekeeper on that very beach where there is now the resort where they're staying. Presumably this is Croatia, though it's never specified.
-Don't you like going in the water? she asked. I think it's special.
-Special? the man repeated.
-My teacher told us we can't use awesome for everything, that sometimes we might say special, I was about to say awesome, for me going in the water at this beach is special.
In another, an elderly Jewish father in a Tel Aviv nursing home is visited by his son; the son is on a research sabbatical in Rome; the father is only intermittently aware he's no longer in Bucharest.

A public defender of political cases in Communist Poland is pained at the ironic joke of his career, but still manages to do good.

A Stasi agent looks up his own file and discovers his wife had been sleeping with his boss.

László, a Hungarian officer from a military family, manages to hold off the Russians for three days in 1956, even though everyone knows it pointless. That military action is the defining moment of his life.

Very good.

European Reading Challenge. Hungary is the one of those I still need.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Quentin Reynolds' The Curtain Rises

The Curtain Rises is a collection of the war dispatches Quentin Reynolds filed for Collier's Weekly in 1943. He goes to Moscow via North Africa and Iran and is in Moscow from April through June of that year. Then he heads back to North Africa again transiting through Iran; by the end of July he's in Palermo, on Sicily, now controlled by the allied armies. He's on General Mark Clark's command ship for the invasion of the Italian mainland in September; it's here he gets closest to the fighting of any of his stops along the way. With the allied armies on the Italian mainland, Collier's calls him back to the U.S. and by the end of the year he's home in New York.

It's an interesting book. Reynolds is not an analyst and doesn't pretend to be one; he's more a high-class merchant of gossip. His best stories, I thought, are the ones taking place just behind the lines: he meets (and drinks with) Ernie Pyle, John Steinbeck, FDR, Jr., Bob Hope along the way. He drinks lemonade with Monty--Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery--who was a teetotaller. Who knew? One of the best pieces describes Easter of 1943 in Moscow; the Soviet Union has captured the German 6th Army at Stalingrad not that long before.

I pulled this off the shelf for the 1944 Club, and started it at the end of that week, but didn't finish it in time. But it's a fascinating look at the period and it's interesting to see what they didn't see. It also makes a great pairing with John Hersey's A Bell For Adano, because one of the better pieces is about the allied military government in Sicily.

But he doesn't see, and part of the reason I slowed down in reading it once I'd missed finishing it for the 1944 club was precisely his political blindness. Reynolds seems to have been left-wing, but not Communist; Wikipedia tells me he got into a legal squabble after the war with the conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, a fight which Reynolds seems to have won. Maybe he felt he needed to say nice things about Stalin so long as Stalin was our ally. But one of the pieces is about the recently (in 1943) discovered Katyn Forest massacre, and Reynolds is so miserably wrong-headed about it, I couldn't bear the book for a while. In 1943, he couldn't know that the Polish officers had been murdered by the Soviets; he couldn't know about the secret codicil to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; he couldn't know about the funk that Stalin fell into after the surprise of Operation Barbarossa. But he could have known there were things he didn't know, and he didn't.

Anyway, interesting enough for its view of the time, and for its gossipy look at war as a boy's own adventure.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone

"Where can a person go when he doesn't know where to go?"
The protagonist of Jenny Erpenbeck's novel Go, Went, Gone is Richard, a retired professor of classics who spent most of his professional career at a university in East Berlin. He's a lonely man. Widowed and childless, he has friends, but at first even they seem to be drifting away. He had a mistress, which made the marriage not an entire success, but now she's gone, too. At the beginning of the novel he's just wrapped up all the rituals of retirement.

He passes, without at first noticing, a protest in a Berlin plaza; a group of African refugees are living in the plaza, Occupy Wall Street-style, trying to draw attention to their plight, and maybe acquire residency and work permits. Richard sees the events on television he'd scarcely noticed in person, but decides to draw up a plan for a sociological inquiry, and uses his emeritus status to get the authority to pursue it. Does he mean to do actual research? Not really. It's just to satisfy his curiosity and give him something to do.

And not a lot happens. He interviews refugees. He becomes more involved, maybe does some good, assuages his own loneliness a bit. The novel ends with the refugees no better off than they were 250 pages earlier, but at least not sent back to Italy, where there is poco lavoro, nor to their various home countries in Africa, where they would be at risk of their lives. They've fought the German bureaucracy and didn't win, but at least weren't utterly routed.

Why do we read novels? There's no one answer to that question, of course. There are different answers for different people and even different moods. I read Mrs. Pollifax on Safari a couple of days ago, and today this--very different, and enjoyed both. Sometimes I read for story, or for escape. But then one of the reasons I read novels is to experience and understand the problems of societies, both of others and of mine own. This novel is as close to purely political, even didactic as almost anything I've read, and yet it's still powerful and affecting; part of that comes from the deep, lonely sadness of Richard as he claws his way back into something like life.

Go, Went, Gone came out in German in 2015 and the translation by Susan Bernofsky came out in English last year. Germany is one of the better European countries on accepting immigrants, or at least Angela Merkel made it so, pledging to take in a million asylum-seekers, quite possibly it seems at the cost of her political career and the rise of the party Alternativ für Deutschland. And yet, at least according to Erpenbeck, maybe not all that welcoming. I don't quite know the timeline of all this because I believe it was also 2015 when Merkel made her pledge, so it's likely Erpenbeck was looking at Germany before Merkel's action. In any case the novel shows plenty of institutional resistance to admitting refugees.

Canada patted itself on the back for taking in just 25,000 Syrian refugees (and I entirely approved of that). As for the U.S., well...

A fascinating book.

She's German and it's very caught up with contemporary Germany, so it definitely fits...

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Nicholas Blake's The Corpse In The Snowman

A cheesy cover for a cheesy mystery.

The Corpse in the Snowman (1941) takes place at a country house during the winter of the phoney war. There are a few references to blackouts and gas rationing, but the war hasn't really impacted anything, including the plot of the mystery, which feels like the thirties or even the twenties.

Now Nicholas Blake is the pen name for Cecil Day-Lewis, who went on to become the Poet Laureate of the UK, so it is to be presumed he can write. He was a friend of Auden at Oxford, and maybe had some connection with sophisticated bohemian circles. But he knows nothing about drugs, and that's a problem.

Because his plot is structured around assumptions he must have garnered from repeated viewings of Reefer Madness and titillating articles in the yellow press. The first victim, Elizabeth, has had her life ruined after she was offered a marihuana (sic) cigarette in high school and was thereby turned into a sex maniac. And now it's about to happen to the next generation of children, her niece and nephew. Oh, noetry!

She (and the suspects) are gathered at her older brother's country estate. Did he murder her because of the scandal? Or his wife, because her inheritance would revert to her older brother? Did her younger brother do the deed because he was obsessed with her fall? Or is her demonic drug dealer to be found among the houseguests? Oh, dear. I have the feeling I gave something away.

It's not quite as obvious as that, but still Day-Lewis is not as clever as he thinks he's being, and regular mystery readers will foresee the last reversals without too much trouble.

And Nigel Strangeways, the genius detective, is just not that interesting here. I first became interested in the series because Strangeways was supposed to be based on W. H. Auden. This is the fourth I've read (out of fourteen). The connection between Auden and Strangeways grew less after the first novel and it's hard to see at all in this one, the seventh. Instead Strangeways is just another eccentric, but without any particularly interesting eccentricities and little skill at dialog.

Other mysteries in the series have been better, I thought. This one was a weak entry.

But it is definitely a December sort of read. And it's the last category I need for the My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Gold challenge:

Gold. When. During a weather event. There's a convenient snowstorm which both isolates the country house so that we know no outsider could have committed the murder, and provides an oversized snowman as a convenient place to hide a dead body...

Read it again, Sam 2019 Challenge Signup

And one more challenge signup from the smorgasbord of reader's challenges hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block: it's the Read It Again, Sam challenge.

Part of the reason I keep all these books around here is because I say I'm going to read them again. And sometimes I even do! But just to make sure...

Bev offers several levels for this one. I'm taking 16+, Living In The Past, the highest level. That's what I did this year, and while I've got one more book to go, I'm quite sure I'll finish the challenge this year.

Mount TBR 2019 challenge signup

The Mount TBR Reading Challenge is hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block and it challenges the reader to knock off those unread books that are piling up at home. The full rules are found here.

It's a challenge I need. Somehow new books continue to arrive. (How do these things happen?) I signed up for the Mt. Ararat (48 book) level this year and since I'm going to make that, it's time (in the words of Emeril Lagasse) to kick it up a notch. This year I'm going for Mt. Kilimanjaro, the 60-book level.

I have occasional thoughts about what books I might read in advance, but I never really know. The list will be determined in real time...

Thanks, Bev, for hosting!

Just the Facts, Ma'am 2019 Signup

Since I've just read the last book for my 2018 Just The Facts, Ma'am Challenge I figure nows the time to sign up for the new year. This is a challenge to read vintage mysteries of either the golden age or the silver age (or both!) hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block. Full details are given here.

I'm going to sign up at the constable level for both the gold and silver eras, though given my usual reading habits I suspect I'll do better than that.

Thanks, Bev, for hosting!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

Well, I don't think I need to say what the world of The Handmaid's Tale looks like. Is there a more famous literary novel by a living author at the moment? Harry Potter is probably still better known than Offred, but not many other characters.

I came to this fresh, or as fresh as is possible these days. This is my first read of the book. I haven't seen the television show or the movie. Or the opera for that matter. (There is one, it seems.) But twenty years ago or so, I did see a play at Toronto's Fringe Festival, and I thought, hey, that's The Handmaid's Tale, even though they weren't advertising as it as such, or even as an adaptation. I wondered if they'd gotten the proper rights. (Well, it was the Fringe Festival, so probably not.)

And the play was closely related to The Handmaid's Tale. I can say that now for sure. But I can't tell you why I knew what was the world of the novel even back then, but I did and I was right.

You don't have to have read Doyle, or seen a movie or a television show, or even a mouse in a deerstalker, to know who Sherlock Holmes is. The Handmaid's Tale is getting up to that level of mythic presence.

That all may explain a bit why, though it's been on the shelves here for a while, I haven't read it, but that was a mistake. I felt I knew the book, but there's still a lot there even if you know about the dystopia.

It's also a well (and interestingly) told story. The prose is impressive. The way information is doled out is very well-handled. There's tension and suspense; this world is terrifying, and bad possibilities could occur with any action. But still Offred has to act, and try, as best she can, to live.

And the politics are a little subtler than I suspected. In the end, though some people benefit, nobody really likes this world they've constructed. Not the Commanders, not the Wives, not the Handmaids, not the Marthas, not the Jezebels or the Econowives. But some of them meant well to begin with. The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions.

Anyway, you probably don't need me to tell you, but read it. Do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Nonfiction November - What I learned (or Yikes! More books to read...)

The prompt for the last week of Nonfiction November comes from Katie at Doing Dewey and asks what new books have we added to our TBR list. This is the funnest prompt yet, and I've been so much enjoying going through all the lists that people have assembled.

So here's what particularly caught my eye:

Brona's Books

Bill Bryson/Notes From A Small Island -

I've been interested in Bryson for a while, but didn't know which one to read. Now I do! 
Buried In Print

Michael Dirda/Browsings -
I'd heard of this but I'd forgotten to write it down. It sounds very cool. Though actually I came across it at Words and Peace
Doing Dewey

Robertson Davies/A Voice From The Attic -
I read a different collection of Davies' essays once & really liked it. I'd never heard of this and it sounds great.
Emerald City Book Review

Marie-Louise von Franz/Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales -
I'd never heard of her. This sounds fascinating. 
Head Full Of Books

Albert Marrin/Very, Very, Very Dreadful: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 -
This fits in with my other WWI reading. And that title!
Anna Crowley Redding/Google It: A History of Google -
I saw Anne had this on her list and it looked good, so I immediately ordered it from my library. Then in the end she didn't like it much, but I've got it here now anyway...
Howling Frog

Simon Winder/Danubia
the Hapsburgs! For me, that's enough said.
Christopher de Hamel/Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts -
about medieval manuscripts. The Other Reader is the medievalist in the house, but I'm the one interested in manuscripts. 
Nancy LN:

Imani Perry/Looking for Lorraine -
about Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright
J. Blank/James Wright: A Life in Poetry -
but her post made me want to read more James Wright, too, and probably first...
The Lusiads -
Classic about Portuguese explorers
Carlo Levi/Christ Stopped at Eboli -
I knew of this and even own a copy, but it moved up about a million places on my TBR. (And yes, my TBR list probably is that long...)
Quaint and Curious Volumes

Virginia Woolf/The Common Reader -
I read the first series years ago. This reminded I need to reread it and read the second series as well. I really don't know why I've waited so long.
Quentin Bell/Virginia Woolf, A Biography
Michael Witworth/Authors in Context: Virginia Woolf -
Actually all of her Virginia Woolf selections look great.  

Lawrence Wright/God Save Texas -
addressing the increasingly remote Texan in me.
Isabel Wilkerson/The Warmth of Other Suns -
I knew of this but needed reminding. Migration from the South to Chicago, for instance
And a whole list of great-looking books for writers on writing. The ones I've read (Zinsser, Dillard, Rilke) made me want to read the ones I hadn't. And made me reread Rollo May's The Courage to Create.

Thanks to all our hosts and particularly Doing Dewey for this week. And thanks to all participants for giving me all these new books to read!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Classics Club Spin #19. And the winner is...

That means it's Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison for me. That was the shortest on my chunkster spin list so I'm either disappointed or relieved or both.

It'll be my second Toni Morrison. I read Beloved some years ago, which I thought great, but the prose is a bit challenging.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Rollo May's The Courage To Create

"This brings us to the most important courage of all. Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built."
Rollo May is one of a group of psychologists and psychotherapists writing in the post-WWII period who are usually called humanist or existentialist. Mostly they worked in the U.S. Victor Frankl, Erich Fromm, Irving Yalom, Abraham Maslow.

May in this book (1975) says the usual psychotherapeutic observations on creativity are inadequate and often plain wrong. He's particularly hard on the "compensatory theory of creativity," that we create art to compensate for our inadequacies.

Instead he wants to inaugurate a new approach to the subject; he emphasizes the challenge of the process, the (at least occasional) joy in the result, and what's involved in getting there, particularly the alternation of productive and fallow periods.
"It is necessary that the artist have this sense of timing, that he or she respect these periods of receptivity as part of the mystery of creativity and creation."
May himself was an amateur painter, and many of his examples are drawn from painting and sculpture, Picasso, Mondrian and Giacometti; but others are from literature: Joyce, Auden, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Beckett, Camus and Stanley Kunitz are all cited. I found it fascinating, and a much more positive view of creativity than is usual in psychology. Maybe Maslow is as good, but he's less specific to the work of artists.

It is a book of its era, however, and not just that crazy 1970s cover on my edition. The Maharishi, TM, Gestalt all get their nod in one section. He talks about rebels, as not just someone who "takes over the dean's office."

He's also operating in the Freudian tradition. His main influences seem to be Adler and Rank; he also cites Jung. He is a bit subject to the casual misogyny in that tradition, or maybe it's still the era, though by 1975 he could have been a bit more woke. He casually cites a study of "artists and their wives;" there are a few other examples. Though to his credit he does use "he or she" on occasion, as above.

It's based on various lectures he gave; it more peters out than ends.

But with all that said, I still think the core of the book is fascinating and helpful on the subject and I've read it now a couple of times. I picked it up again after reading Deb Nance's list of books on writing here. (I tried to comment on her website, but my comment went AWOL...) I'd recommend it.

And now I learn from Wikipedia his middle name is Reese! I approve!

D. Reese Warner

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Classics Club Spin #19

It's spin time again at the Classics Club, but this spin is especially twisty...we've got two months and a bit to read the book, and the challenge is to put those chunksters on the spin list. Dangerous! So here they are, starting with the relatively slim and graduating to the truly monumental books out of what remains on my classics club list.

1.) Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon
2.) Willa Cather's One of Ours
3.) Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano
4.) Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country
5.) Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil
6.) Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh
7.) Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
8.) William Faulkner's Light In August
9.) Honoré de Balzac's Cousin Bette
10.) Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris
11.) Henryk Sienkewicz' Quo Vadis
12.) Henry James' The Wings of the Dove
13.) Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore
14.) Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron
15.) John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga
16.) Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy
17.) Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene
18.) Plutarch's Lives
19.) Edmund Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
20.) The 1001 Nights

That goes from a mere 350 pages to a three volume monster at almost 4000 pages. Yikes. I don't know. Am I rooting for a low number or a high number? Should I get those Arabian Nights out of the way? What number would you pick for me?

And the winner is...#1. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Nonfiction November - Reads like fiction

For the fourth week of Nonfiction November, Rennie at What's Nonfiction? asks about nonfiction that reads like fiction:
Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?
I'd say for me it's great if a volume of nonfiction reads like fiction when it's a topic area where it works. I'd say the best work of nonfiction I've read this year is Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life, the first version of his autobiography, and quite a lot of that did read like fiction and fiction of the best sort. The story quite naturally has narrative drive: it goes from his birth and earliest memories, from one owner to another, bad and worse, how he learns the forbidden activities of reading and writing, and ends with the climax of his escape to freedom. The prose is quite punchy, rather surprisingly so for something that came out in 1845.

But the best other nonfiction works I read this year definitely do not read like fiction, and that's OK, too. Earlier in the year I read Brian Dillon's volume Essayism, which is a series of essays about his favorite essayists intermixed with biographical elements. I wouldn't want this to read like fiction, and it has no need to. And just this month I read Raymond Geuss' Changing The Subject, Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno, which was an idiosyncratic history of philosophy with footnotes and a reasonably full academic apparatus, but I still found it a great read. (I may have skipped some of the footnotes, though.)

So I guess my answer is, it depends!

But in thinking about the subject I got to browsing and reminded myself about these two travel books, which definitely read like great adventure novels, traveling in Arabia in the 30s and 40s:

Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands
Freya Starks' The Southern Gates of Arabia

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Ronald Bates' The Wandering World (#CanBookChallenge)

Something slim and serious. And then there's Humpty.
The snow was flustered in the air,
Clinging to its inescapable fall,
Descending with a finality of care,
Limning the trees and house-fronts. All
Whiteness is soft and warm:
There is no sharp harm.

That's the opening from Ronald Bates' "The Fall of Seasons" in his volume of poetry The Wandering World. Maybe only a Canadian poet would begin a four-sectioned poem on the seasons with praise of winter. If I had taken a picture of the book on Friday it could have matched the poem, but our Toronto snowfall from then is pretty much melted now, at least where I'm located. But that very nicely describes my sense of a first snow.

The book was Bates' first volume of poetry and came out in 1959 with MacMillan of Canada when he was 35. At that point he had taught at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, but had returned to Canada and was teaching at the University of Western Ontario. A second volume of poetry came out in 1968 with a privately printed volume between the two. His academic writing covered authors from James Joyce to Northrop Frye. (Details from a brief biography here.)

Without being rigorously formal, the poetry is fairly traditional for 1959, I'd say; the above lines are representative, with a distinct iambic beat. The line length varies here and elsewhere, but this is unusual in the patterned use of rhyme; other poems also use it, but most don't.

The book is sixty pages, divided into sections: Histories, Myths, Interiors, Landscapes, and Constructions. I was most taken with Myths and Landscapes. Here's the opening of 'Dedalus' from Myths (the only satirical poem in the collection):

The point is, he did not fly at all.
All those rumours about a fall
Were spread to bring me into disrepute.

A fatal accident's poor advertising
So it's not at all surprising
To find my trade's fallen off to some extent.

Bates seems mostly lost at this point, I'm afraid. I bought the book on a flyer when my local used bookstore was having a sale recently. I thought it looked interesting enough to read, and I did read it. Googling I found a contemporaneous review in the first issue of the journal Canadian Literature that mostly praised Irving Layton and dismissed Bates in a few lines. Unfairly, I'd say. There's things in the book worth reading.

My volume had this written on the flyleaf: " the meantime, poetry."

An entry in the Canadian Book Challenge:

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Raymond Geuss' Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno (#NonFicNov)

I'd like to be a better reader of philosophy than I am, but it's a hard subject. One of the ways I think I might improve is by reading histories of the subject, and the very title of Raymond Geuss' new book Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno suggested it might fit the bill.

The review I read of the book did mention that the volume was idiosyncratic in its approach and would better reflect Raymond Geuss than all of philosophy and that's true. So I'm still looking for that good history of philosophy to ground my readings. (Suggestions in the comments greatly appreciated!)

But I thought this was very good. Geuss writes in the introduction to his book:
...its ideal reader would be the intelligent person with no special training in academic philosophy who thinks that philosophers have sometimes raised some interesting questions and who wishes to try to get clear about whether this is the case and what some of these questions might have been, in the interest  of thinking about them further.
I thought, hey that's me! And he really does write successfully for such a person.

The philosophers he discusses are Socrates, Plato, Lucretius, Augustine, Montaigne, Hobbes, Hegel, Nietzsche, Lukács, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Adorno. He generally picks one work from each author and addresses the question that work covers. He's good at it. While there may be more to Heidegger than is covered in fifteen pages, that he can say anything about about Being and Time and have it sound correct and make sense impressed the heck out of me. And he's equally good on most of the authors.

The works Geuss chooses revolve around a theme, which I would describe as, the question of how to live as an individual in society. He's an emeritus professor at Cambridge; I've read nothing else by him, but that's a big enough theme to have occupied an entire career, and may have done so for him.

And he can be funny! in a philosophical kind of way...
Socratic irony and the Socratic mode of questioning were monumentally inventive ways of being irritating.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Nonfiction November - (Be)come(ing) the Expert: WWI anti-militarism

It's the third week of Nonfiction November and the prompt from JulzReads (thanks for hosting!) challenges us to be or become or ask an expert on a topic of interest.

Well, I'm pretty much incapable of thinking that I could be an expert on anything, but maybe I could become one? By asking? Seems like expertise is always a process of becoming.

Anywho, I've been curious about the opening of World War I. The centennial of that event wasn't so long ago, and there have been a number of books on the subject in the last couple of years. There was considerable enthusiasm at the start of the war, and if the so-called 'August Madness', the moment where everyone wanted war, is sometimes overstated, it was a significant phenomenon. How could anybody have wanted it? To us now, it seems like such a bad idea. But even odd, intellectual ducks, like Hesse, Wittgenstein, Kafka (thanks @magistrabeck!) were desperate to go fight.

Mass enthusiasm for bad ideas in public policy is just a thing that worries me these days. I don't know why...

But some intellectuals and thought leaders resisted the enthusiasm, or at least wanted the war to be prosecuted without demonizing the enemy. Romain Rolland, Lytton Strachey, George Bernard Shaw, Hermann Hesse (after a little bit).

Some books on the topic:

Hermann Hesse's If The War Goes On...
Romain Rolland's Above The Battle (Project Gutenberg has it here)
George Bernard Shaw's Common Sense About The War (here)

Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey: The New Biography. The Other Reader gave me this after we saw the movie years ago.

I also really liked the Teaching Company course on WWI. The August Madness lecture early on addresses these issues.

And another way to resist the militarism of the war...

Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk.

Any other books on the resistance to World War I in the early days? Let me know!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Christopher Hibbert's The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall (#NonficNov)

I thought I'd read up on the history of the Medici and Florence after reading George Eliot's Romola a couple months ago; I put in a hold request at the library; it arrived only recently. It could have been a fiction/nonfiction pairing; that was my idea even before the pairing idea showed up as a theme for #NonficNov, but in fact it wasn't as strong an entry as I had hoped.

That's not the fault of the book, which was good.

But Romola mostly takes place during the years when the Dominican priest Savonarola was guiding the restored Florentine republic, and the Medici were in exile. It's glossed over pretty quickly in Hibbert.

I find the history of Italy pre-unification hard: too many city states, too many aristocratic families vying for power in those city states, and then when some aristocrat becomes pope, there's a new name, but it matters very much that Julius II, for example, was of the della Rovere family.

Hibbert, not an academic, but a professional popular historian with a deep interest in Italy, tells his story well and readably. I'll probably have forgotten most of the details six months from now, but that says more about me than the book. After a brief bit of prehistory, it runs from the birth of the first famous Medici, Cosimo, in 1389 to the death of the last, Anna Maria, in 1743. The greatest emphasis on the years of Cosimo, Lorenzo the Magnificent and the first Medici pope, Leo X.

One thing I can tell you I will remember is that a surprising number of the Medicis were fat. All that rich living, I guess.

I'd recommend the book if you're interested in the topic, and especially if you're traveling to Florence; it's very strong on associating the sites where the events occurred with what's actually on the ground in Florence today.