Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Nonfiction November: My year (so far) in Nonfiction

While it's still October by my calendar...but it's the first week of Nonfiction in November, and I've decided to almost, but not quite, belatedly join in. Each week has a different host, and this week's host is Sophisticated Dorkiness (what an awesome title for a book blog) who offers the following prompt questions:

1.) Take a look back at your year of nonfiction:

Well, I find I've read 20 books of nonfiction, eight of which got a post. They can be found here. It feels like a somewhat slighter year for nonfiction for me, and comparing to this time in 2017 that seems true.

2.) What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

Has to be Frederick Douglass' first version of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life. The other really great book of nonfiction I read was Brian Dillon's Essayism, which I didn't write a post for. Maybe I'll revisit that.

3.) Do you have a particular topic you've been attracted to this year?

The last couple of years I've been interested in the origins of World War I. Why (in heck) did they do it? Why did they seem so enthused? That lead to my reading Romain Rolland, one of the great opponents of the war. That meant his novel Jean-Christophe, but I also read his book of essays about the war that came out in 1915 (and made him persona non grata in France) and Stefan Zweig's biography of Rolland. I'm still contemplating a post about those books. Earlier books I read on the theme were Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August and Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers.

4.) What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

I've mostly touted Brian Dillon's Essayism, which is brand new and not as well known as it should be.

5.) What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

More books to read! Not that I need more books to read...ah, who am I kidding...of course I want (though maybe not need) more books to read.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Ewan Whyte's Desire Lines: Essays on Art, Poetry, & Culture

Ewan Whyte's Desire Lines is a gathering of occasional essays by Guernica Editions that came out in 2017. According to the afterword, the essays were previously published in the Globe and Mail, or various magazines. A number of the pieces on art were written to accompany exhibitions in galleries.

Whyte's plain style is informative and a pleasure to read. Photographs accompany the essays on artists who, with the exception of Ai Weiwei, were all new to me. Guernica is to be commended for including photographs, not a given these days.

As a words person, though, the essays on poetry meant more to me. Whyte's previous books are a volume of poetry Entrainment, and a volume of translations from Catullus. Essays on poetry included as topics Catullus and Homer, Anne Carson and Leonard Cohen, as well as others.

The final essay was a painful and powerful meditation on his mother, now succumbing to Alzheimer's, who had joined a cult in the 70s and left the ten-year-old Ewan in the hands of other cult members, until at the age of sixteen he managed to run away.

Friday, October 26, 2018

#RIPXIII: Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca

Hubert the book prop and Rebecca
Well, I was probably the last person this side of Aldebaran who had neither read the book nor seen the movie. I've fixed that now.

What took me so long? It's clear I should have read this a long time ago.

My defense is: it is a great work of suspense, so suspenseful that I had to read it slowly, pausing at times in dread, particularly the first half. (Up to the scene of the dress. You know what I mean.) It was very nearly painful. It is so very easy to imagine yourself (at least I thought so) into the position of the young narrator arriving at this mysterious, voluptuous house, full of people who understand all the social rules that you do not, uncertain and alone. Haunted and haunting.

Shiver. And du Maurier does it all without ghosts, with just the words, Je reviens

The second half was a little easier in a way. While the first half was psychological suspense, the second half was driven more by the suspense of events; it is much faster moving, but for that less emotionally moving. In the immediate aftermath of that scene with the dress, I was on the edge of being exasperated with our narrator, and so events needed to move more rapidly; otherwise the narrator will seem too weak-willed. But events overtake her.

And it moves to a tremendous ending. That final twist? Impressive and sly.
"I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. This was what I had done."
Read because it was on my Classics Club list and I was double-dared to for #ccdare:

And for RIP XIII:

And those opening scenes where the narrator first falls in love Maxim de Winter occur in Monaco. How many other Monaco books even are there?

Book Beginning: Cora Siré's Behold Things Beautiful

Delmira Agustini leaves her parents' house at dusk. She walks down her street to the plaza Internacional, where the drenched tips of cypress trees loom above the buildings, then turns onto Calle Andes, catching the singsong cries, ¡Diario! Diario!, of boys peddling El Día's evening edition. The street is congested with buggies and motor cars. As she steps over gutters and murky streams to avoid the jostling horses, her umbrella tips crape the stone facades of houses.
Delmira Agustini is a real Uruguayan poet from the early 1900s. I'd never heard of her. But the main events of the novel take place when Alma Alvarez goes to the fictional country of Luscano, in South America, to give a lecture on Agustini in the present day. I'm not very far in, but it looks like there will be political and romantic complications.

I'm a total sucker for romance and politics set in fictional countries, whether it be Graustark and Ruritania or Orsinia and Costaguana.

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

#1944Club: Karl Shapiro's V-Letter

The fact that I already had on my shelves the 1944 books that went on to win the Pulitzer for both poetry and fiction when #1944club started is the sign of something, I suppose...

Likely what it is a sign of is my insane addiction to buying books,... though I do doubt there's any other year to which that would apply. (But I was afraid to check.)

Karl Shapiro was born in Baltimore in 1913; dropped out of college; was drafted into the US Army in 1942 and assigned to the Medical Corp, eventually stationed in Australia and New Guinea. V-Letter is his third book, not counting a privately printed volume of juvenilia. The second was printed in Australia in 1942.

I've known Shapiro for pretty much as long as I've been reading poetry, though for a long time only through the widely anthologized 'Scyros' from his first volume: "The doctor punched my vein/The captain called me Cain/Upon my belly sat the sow of fear..." A couple of years ago I read the Shapiro volume in the American Poets Project from the Library of America. (Any actual facts in this come from Updike's introduction to that volume; misstatements and ill-informed opinion are naturally my own.)

This is one of the best poems, I thought, in V-Letter; it's also anthologized in the American Poets Project volume:

'Full Moon: New Guinea'

These nights we fear the aspects of the moon,
Sleep lightly in the radiance falling clear
On palms and ferns and hills and us; for soon
The small burr of the bombers in our ear
Tickles our rest; we rise as from a nap
And take our helmets absently and meet,
Prepared for any spectacle or mishap,
At trenches fresh and narrow at our feet.

Look up, look  up, and wait and breathe. These nights
We fear Orion and the Cross. The crowd
Of deadly insects caught in our long lights
Glitter and seek to burrow in the a cloud
Soft-mined with high explosive. Breathe and wait,
The bombs are falling darkly for our fate.

Shapiro says in his one-page introduction to the volume that he's reluctant to be a war poet, but clearly he is, at least for now; even in a poem on the sound of the piano, he compares it to 'the burst of monstrous guns.' The war provides his subjects and his metaphors. Though not entirely: a number of poems are about Judaism, his religion from birth; a surprising number also include Christian imagery, though Updike's introduction says he was thinking of converting to Catholicism at this time. A couple, among them poems on Jefferson and Franklin, are about Americanness.

The poems are almost all formal, with a number of sonnets and a fondness for the terza rima sonnet in particular, as in Shelley's 'Ode To The West Wind' or Frost's 'Acquainted With The Night.' He also likes anapaests, e. g., (chosen for any Australians who might read this...)

'Sydney Bridge'

Though I see you, O rainbow of iron and rivetted lace
As a dancer who leaps to the music of music and light,
And poised on the pin of the moment of marvellous grace
Holds her breath in the downfall and curve of her motionless flight;

Though you walk like a queen with the stays of your womanly steel
And the pearls of your bodice are heavy with sensual pride,
And the million come under your notice and graciously kneel,
As the navies of nations come slowly to moor at your side;

Yet your pace is the pace of a man's, and your arms are outspread
In a trick of endurance to charm the demand of the bays,
And your tendons are common--the cables are coarse on your head,

You are marxist and sweaty! You grind for the labor of days;
And O sphinx of our harbor of beauty, your banner is red
And outflung on the street of the world like a silvery phrase!

Not a bad description of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I think, and if the bridge is masculine in the end, it gets the two extra lines of the octet to be feminine.

Anyway, a strong volume of poetry, though I was pretty sure I'd like it going in.

Friday, October 19, 2018

#1944Club: Rex Stout's Not Quite Dead Enough

Archie's in the Army!

Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe have been solving crimes in New York City for ten years (by the dates of the books) and have got a reputation for it. So when Archie, who serves as Nero Wolfe's right-hand man, volunteers for the Army, he's not sent overseas, but is assigned to Army Intelligence, where his main task is to prod Nero Wolfe into working.

Well, if you know the series, that's generally the first task in any book.

Not Quite Dead Enough contains two novellas, the title novella and 'Booby Trap.' The first finds the normally (and still) corpulent Wolfe, dining on prunes and lettuce, forswearing beer, and exercising, until he can get in shape to join the Army as an enlisted man and go overseas. But that's not what the Army wants him for: they need him for some unspecified mission, and they need him in his role as the thinking detective. Archie gets him back to working, and that's the majority (and especially fun part) of the story.

The second novella does involve war issues, though it still takes place in New York; Captain Cross is dead under suspicious circumstances; threatening letters appear; then Colonel Ryder is killed by an experimental grenade. Murders? Well, yes and yes. And Inspector Cramer of New York Homicide can't (as usual) solve them, but this time because the relevant information is classified.

I thought the first novella better than the second, though if I were recommending a place to start with the Nero Wolfe series this book as a whole would not be it. If you like Wolfe, though, you won't be disappointed. I wasn't.

Rex Stout was 55 when the US entered the war, and according to the introduction, spent the war years chairing a variety of committees, hosting radio programs, and otherwise engaged in war work. But still found time for a couple of novellas.

Another entry by me in the 1944 Club hosted by Simon and Karen. Thanks!

Gold. Who. Retired From or In The Armed Services.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

John Hersey's A Bell For Adano

Thank you, #1944Club, for getting me to finally read John Hersey's A Bell For Adano, which has been loitering on my TBR pile for who knows how long. What fun!

A Bell For Adano is the story of Major Joppolo, an Italian-American who's put in charge of Adano, an imaginary town in Sicily, from the first days of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. 

You can imagine the sort of problems Joppolo faces in trying to sort out a town in the immediate aftermath of its liberation, but there are two in particular that bedevil Joppolo. The first is the bell of the city hall that rang until just weeks before the invasion; it was the spirit of the city; the Fascists sent it off to be melted down for munitions. It needs to be recovered, or something needs to replace it. The other is the American General Marvin, the villain of the novel, who, in a fit of anger at a traffic jam, shoots a mule and orders all carts off the streets of Adano. But Adano is a poor town, with no well; it depends on carts to bring in water as well as its other supplies. Joppolo will need to fix this. These two tasks drive the plot and come together for its resolution.

This is Hersey's first novel, though he had been a reporter for Time magazine and written two books of World War 2 reportage before this. He was embedded with American troops as they came into Sicily. He's got a pleasant spare style, both humorous and touching:
     Father Pensovecchio could not remember when so many people had come to the Church of San Angelo. 
     Perhaps he had not been without guile when he had mentioned to ten or twelve people, quite casually, that the American Major would be in Church in the morning, and that he himself had something to say about the Americans. What priest does not like to have many listeners?
Well, Joppolo is a good man in a difficult situation, fighting American ignorance and disdain, bureaucratic disregard and logrolling, not to mention the occasional actual leftover Fascist. His tale is engaging, sweet, but not too sweet. Recommended.

And if it's just a little self-congratulatory, well, that helped it to go on and win the Pulitzer for fiction in 1945, and it may also be the U. S., in comparison to every other war fought since then, could be allowed a little self-congratulation. Especially in the matter of the government they provided for occupation.

I didn't read the handsome reissue shown above, but the rather beat-up copy shown in my pile o' 1944 books:

But it does seem to actually date from the period (not sure anymore where I found the book). But this is on the inside cover:

Thanks to Karen and Simon for hosting!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe

"...as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings."
That's the dedication for Romain Rolland's Nobel Prize in Literature of 1915. It was largely a prize for his novel Jean-Christophe, serialized in the French magazine Cahiers de la Quinzaine from February of 1902 to October of 1912, and subsequently issued as ten short-ish novels.

Jean-Christophe Krafft, generally referred to as just Christophe, was a musician born in Rhineland Germany around 1870. He flees to Paris when he's young, wanted for taking part in a riot against soldiers stationed in his home town. Later he flees to Switzerland after taking part in a May Day riot in Paris. He also lives for a while in Italy. He has deep friendships and loves, but mostly he composes music and conducts, eventually achieving success and renown. The novel is Christophe's story, but it is also the story of art and culture in Western Europe from 1870 or so to 1912. The handsome, dynamic, heroic figure on the Pocket Book cover is the image Rolland wants to convey. But at the same time Christophe can be short or haughty with people, has a temper, is complicated.

Imagine Beethoven born in 1870.

Rolland conceived the novel as a scholarship student in Rome in 1889 and began it not long after during a trip in Switzerland. After his scholarship was done, he came back to Paris and taught music history at various schools, ending up at the Sorbonne. He wrote plays that went nowhere, and biographies (of Beethoven and Michelangelo among others) that did little better. It wasn't until Jean-Christophe was in progress that he had any reputation; but then...

I took pages of notes as I was reading this, copied out passages, read a biography by Stefan Zweig from 1921. I don't mean to burden you with all of this; I only mention it to suggest that it is a novel that I thought well worth reading; its current obscurity is undeserved. It was both affecting and thought-provoking.

Romain Rolland

That's not to say that it's perfect. Rolland doesn't write well about women, and the female characters too often rely on clichés. If you imagine a continuum between writing too specifically and too generally, Rolland is way over on the side of generalities. (Put Tom Wolfe--or Gary Shteyngart in his newest, Lake Success--with the endless use of brand names, on the side of too specific.) But still Rolland creates characters you care about, and the ending, with the death of Christophe, is powerful.

The novel also needs to be retranslated. The only translation into English, the one I read, is by Gilbert Cannan, and was done as the novel was coming out in the early 1900s. At every translation to burgess for what was bourgeois in the original I cringed. Even where it's not bad, it's out-of-date.

So I would not want to tell you it's a Drop-Everything, Read-Now novel; it's not Anna Karenina or War and Peace by Rolland's master Tolstoy; it's not the equal of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, though it's hard to imagine Doctor Faustus without Jean-Christophe. I only want to suggest that you leave space for it, don't forget it's there, if you're looking for a long novel with characters you care about and insight into its time's art and culture. Something challenging but engaging. A novel about an artist.

Though I find the cover above cool, that's not the edition I read. I bought that for a dollar yesterday (with a bunch of other books...) at the University of Toronto University College book sale pretty much so I could take a picture of it. (Still going on through Sunday for those of you in the Toronto area!) I read the much more boring-looking edition shown. (No abridgements around here! The full 1600 pages for us!)

I discussed the first parts in two earlier instalments. The first three novels (Dawn, Morning, Youth) are looked at here. The next four (Revolt, The Market Place, Antoinette, and The House) are here. I may write a post on Zweig's biography; I'm also reading Rolland's collection of articles against the militarism of World War I, Above the Battle, which may get posted on as well. Everything Rolland-related at the blog should be available here. I found this at the Nobel Prize site informative.

And that's the third-longest book on my Classics Club list done! Woo-hoo!

Thursday, October 11, 2018


I'm going to try to read something for the 1944 Club; it will be my first time joining in on the year club project. In my usual way for any reading project, I've pulled far more books off the shelf than I will conceivably read:

All the mysteries (to the left, next to the Hubert the Harris Bank lion) I've already read; all the serious books to the right would be first-time reads. (Oops. Should I have admitted that?)

Karl Shapiro's volume of war poetry V-Letter feels like it would be a great fit, or I've had Hersey's A Bell For Adano on a shelf for years; it's set in Sicily as the allied armies are retaking it, and went on to win the Pulitzer.

But maybe the most interesting one would be Quentin Reynolds' The Curtain Rises:

It was around my family's house forever. My dad might have bought it at the time, though he would have been fifteen or sixteen; or it's possible my grandfather or grandmother bought it. I hung on to it, thinking I'll read that someday. And maybe that day comes next week!

I also recognized that corner of Borges in the picture at KaggsysBookishRamblings, but I am not pulling Ficciones off the shelf...really...

Of course, it's possible I'll just reread Rex Stout's Not Quite Dead Enough, which, it just so happens, is the next volume in my slow occasional project to reread all the Nero Wolfe mysteries in order.

Co-hosted at Stuck In A Book and KaggsysBookishRamblings. Thanks!

1944 books read:

1.) John Hersey's A Bell For Adano
2.) Rex Stout's Not Quite Dead Enough
3.) Karl Shapiro's V-Letter

Monday, October 8, 2018

Myrl Coulter's The Left-Handed Dinner Party and other stories

"Secrets aren't good for families."

That's printed on the back cover of Myrl Coulter's book The Left-Handed Dinner Party and other stories and it's well-chosen as a summary.

It's nice when they make it easy for you.

Not that there aren't secrets in these families. The stories take place on the western Canadian plains; Myrl Coulter herself lives in Edmonton, but these are set in a smaller town. The ten short stories--two stretch to something closer to novella length--often circle around three generations of a family with the middle generation missing or dead. When the secrets are revealed, and they aren't always, even to us, the resolution is generally bittersweet and not definitive.

But that's the way life is, isn't it?

I thought the stories were mostly very good, with one or two weaker. The best was the last and longest, which also resolved an earlier story that it was linked with. Coulter has a nice understated prose style that works. Here's the end of that last story; it doesn't really give anything away to quote it:
The red sports car was parked on the street. Sitting in the passenger seat, an old photo album resting on her lap, Jean Andrews waited to meet her grandson.
Or the end of the title story:
The day after school was out, Dina backed out of her driveway, a small U-Haul trailer attached to her car. She paused a moment beside the SOLD sign, then drove up the hill. Oldest and Youngest sat sulking in the back. Dog rode shotgun in the passenger seat. At the intersection where the main road ran through the city, Dina looked right toward downtown. And then turned left.
As you could guess, those are small epiphanies to domestic stories. The spare presentation is quite effective in context. This is Coulter's third book; it came out last year from the University of Alberta press. Her first two are memoirs, it seems. I might go read them, even though memoirs are not my thing. But it made me hope she's working on a novel, and that I definitely would read.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Georgette Heyer's Footsteps In The Dark

"The sweat stood out on Duval's forehead. 'Truly? Yes, yes. I see. Yet for a moment there I could have sworn I saw something."
In Georgette Heyer's Footsteps In The Dark (1932) three siblings--Margaret, Peter, and Celia--inherit the abandoned priory of Framley. Together with Celia's husband Charles, they go to visit, with the thought that the priory will make a nice country estate getaway, even if it's a little lacking in all the mod cons. But as soon as they arrive in the local village, they're warned: the priory is haunted. By the Monk!

Well, our new owners pay no attention to the superstitions and attribute everything to rats behind the wainscotting. But it's not long before they hear groans from the cellar, a skeleton tumbles out of a priest's hole, and then Margaret sees the Monk in belted robe and with burning eyes beneath his cowl. It's getting a little harder to accept a purely rational explanation, especially for the superstitious Celia.

Harder, but never really impossible, though they do resort to a planchette at one point to discover what's needed to lay the ghost. But there's never much doubt this is more Arthur Conan Doyle (think The Hound of the Baskervilles) than Matthew Lewis, and a rational explanation is found in the end. But there's Gothic scenery and plenty of suspense. Throw in the book's romance and humor and you've got what I found a very successful mix.

This is the first Georgette Heyer I've read. Her mysteries often get a bad rap. She's distinctly not one of the four Golden Age queens of crime, and seems to be considered an also-ran. My 80s paperback reprint had never been read, or if it had, somebody had skipped pages 134 and 135, because I had to cut them. But I thought it was fun and I'd certainly read another.

Its weakness I suppose was lacking the usual Golden Age misdirection. There are plenty of odd ducks running around the priory grounds at night, useful as suspects: a fisherman (named Strange!) on vacation, a vacuum-cleaner salesman, an ex-India Colonel, a moth-hunting entomologist, the drunken French painter Duval, and the bumbling local constable. Presumably one of them is the Monk, but which? Well, it was pretty clear, and pretty early. But if you don't mind a weaker puzzle, it was very enjoyable.

Good for a couple of challenges:

Just the Facts, Ma'am Vintage Mystery Challenge. Golden Age. How. Death by strangulation.


Readers Imbibing Peril XIII

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Mount TBR 2018 Checkpoint #3 (Mt. Ararat)

I've currently read 39 out of the 48 books that are the Mt. Ararat challenge. That puts me a little ahead of the pace I need to be on, though I should be aiming at a much higher mountain, especially as it is now book-buying season in Toronto with two of the four big charity sales on the University of Toronto campus just recently past (and two more to come). But we'll ignore any new volcanic mountain-building activity for now, and just celebrate the nearly 13,700 feet I've gotten up the mountain I'm attacking.

I'm going to go with (A) as a suggested topic: my favorite character so far has to be Don Fabrizio of The Leopard. Sure, it's partly because he's played by Burt Lancaster in the movie. But he's a worldly Italian aristocrat, if, perhaps, a little less rich than he needs to be, with serious scientific interests, and at the same time a sardonic wit. "His family is an old one, I am told, or soon will be." I'd have him to dinner, though look out for your daughters.

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2018


"There is but one heroism on earth--to know life and yet to love it."
This is apparently Romain Rolland from somewhere in his oeuvre, but I have no clue where. I picked it up from Stefan Zweig's biography, Romain Rolland, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.