Friday, July 12, 2019

(Belated) Poem For A Thursday: Lindsay

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

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

-Vachel Lindsay

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

Vachel Lindsay was an American poet who died in 1931.

Jennifer has a great Robert Frost poem this week.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Luminaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 8, 2019

The A to Z of TBR

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

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

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

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

and a number:

10:04, by Ben Lerner

Which have you read? Which look good to you?

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Lazarus

The New Colossus

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

-Emma Lazarus

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

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

Monday, July 1, 2019

Two from Two Dollar Radio

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

The Glacier by Jeff Wood

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

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

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

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

Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney

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

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

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

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

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

Two of the books from my #20booksofsummer list:

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Poem(s) For a Thursday: Philosophical Limericks

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

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

-Ronald A. Knox

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

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

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

-Maurice E. Hare

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

Sunday, June 23, 2019

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

How about those book covers? No serious books here!

Dirty Story

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

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

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

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

The Light of Day

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

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

Here Lies

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

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

Now I want to see the movie again.

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

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

Friday, June 21, 2019

Russell's A History of Western Philosophy

"Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one more to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life: not as the isolated speculations of remarkable individuals, but as both an effect and a cause of the character of the various communities in which different systems flourished. This purpose demands more account of general history than is usually given by historians of philosophy."
-from the Preface
"Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge--so I should contend--belongs to science;..."
-from the Introductory [Yes, that's what he calls it.]

Some years ago I was beginning to collect the individual volumes of A History of Philosophy by Frederick Copleston, S. J., and a friend remarked, "Why would you read that? Aren't you worried about bias?" and suggested Russell's A History of Philosophy. I sputtered an incoherent argument, but the basis of it was meant to be there's always bias, and we'll need to read critically, though I doubt I actually managed that very well in conversation...But I did get a copy of Russell, too, when I saw it in some used bookstore, though for a long time it lingered unread or just browsed in, as have for that matter most of the volumes of Copleston. But no longer!

As for the bias of Frederick Copleston, S.J., I'm partly educated by the Jesuits, so I am presumed able to see through their wiles, or have experience of them at any rate, or, possibly, am so compromised by them, it's hopeless anyway. You can decide.

So: I've had this longstanding, but at best occasional, desire to have a working overview of philosophy in my head, and have even been known sometimes to do something about it. Russell's book turns out to have been a good addition.

A History of Philosophy is based on lectures Russell gave at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in 1942 and 1943. The book first came out in 1945, and is cited as one of the books that led to his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1950.

A recent review I read of Witcraft by Jonathan Rée said of that book: "Rather than whisking us from one prominent philosophical peak to another, it spends a lot of time wandering the fertile valleys in between them." Russell's is very definitely a work of the peaks. There are a number of philosophers whose names I know (a sign they must have some importance, right?) who don't get mentioned at all.

On those he does mention, he's generally quite lucid, and often witty. For instance, what he says about Kant was intelligible to me, which feels like a major accomplishment. I doubt it's a full picture of Kant, but that he can say something, anything, about das Ding-an-sich, and have it make sense to me, is a very good start, and likewise about a number of other quite esoteric authors, such as Hobbes, Spinoza, Plotinus, Locke. However, I'm not going to summarize Russell's summaries; you'll just have to take my word for it, or try it yourself. Which I do recommend.

There are flaws. Some of these are due to its date, 1945. He says at one point, we can't know that Mycenae and Tiryns were actually Greek; well, yes we can. But he sent me off to Wikipedia to remind myself that Michael Ventris didn't actually solve Linear B until the 1950s, so it is true that Russell could not know that Mycenae was actually Greek. I'm a lapsed classicist, so I'm more attuned to this period, but even in the field of classical studies we do learn things yet. Russell's instincts were relatively sound, I thought. While he couldn't have known about E. R. Dodd's book The Greeks and the Irrational, he would not have been shocked to discover that the Greeks were not paragons of reason, as so often thought.

A bit more problematic is his attitude toward German philosophers. Well, he was writing in the first half of the 1940s, with all that implies. He doesn't entirely accept Kant, but he likes Kant. On Hegel, he's much more condemnatory. I have never managed even a page of Hegel, but was Hegel personally responsible for Naziism? Hmm, I have my doubts. As for Nietzsche, Russell is still under the influence of the idea of Nietzsche of the first half of the 1900s. Whatever one might make of Nietzsche, he is not the same person as his avowedly Nazi sister.

Russell also tries to be fair to the great Catholic philosophers, such as Augustine and Aquinas, but, I'm afraid, can't quite manage it.

And, while I definitely appreciate his intention to place the philosophers into their historical and social context, it does lead to some rather potted recounting of history. His treatment of the dark ages and early middle ages is particularly unsubtle.

Existentialism, which was underway when Russell was writing this, though perhaps not yet in full flower, is completely ignored by him. No Kierkegaard, no Heidegger, no Sartre.

But that's now over-emphasizing the negative. What really struck me about this was how readable it was, and that's why I would particularly suggest it if you're interested in a history of philosophy. Sure, there are flaws. That's inevitable in any work with such a large remit. But this is the book you might actually finish, and, in a history of philosophy, there's a whole lot to be said for that.

Some things that amused me and got copied to my commonplace book:
"The typical romantic removes the bars and enjoys the magnificent leaps when the tiger annihilates the sheep. He exhorts men to imagine themselves tigers, and when he succeeds the results are not wholly pleasant."
"There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue. This a very invalid line of argument."
"Aristotle's metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense. He is difficult because Plato and common sense do not mix easily."
"There is, in fact, an element of sour grapes in Stoicism. We can't be happy, but we can be good; therefore let us pretend that, so long as we are good, it doesn't matter being unhappy. This doctrine is heroic, and in a bad world, useful, but it is neither quite true, nor, in a fundamental sense, quite sincere."
"Part II [of Hobbes' Leviathan] ends with the hope that some sovereign will read the book and make himself absolute--a less chimerical hope than Plato's, that some king would turn philosopher."
"No one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of self-consistency. Most of the great philosophers have done the opposite. A philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false."
"The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others."
Highly recommended, if it's a thing you're looking for.

And there goes one of the larger books on my Classics Club list.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Hass

Meditation at Lagunitas

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

-Robert Hass

Robert Hass is an American poet born in 1941, and this, from his second book of poetry, is undoubtedly his most famous poem. 

When I was an undergraduate, I heard him give a reading, and the introducer compared him to Wordsworth (I think it was) and imagined undergraduates going around the quad, chanting, 'blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.' 

Despite all that I still like it...😄

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness has one of the great Auden poems this week.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

13th Annual Canadian Book Challenge Signup

I'm signing up again this year for the Canadian Book Challenge. Full details are here at the blog of new host Shonna of Canadian Bookworm, but basically it's a challenge to read thirteen Canadian books from one Canada Day (July 1st) to the next. The thirteenth year of the challenge, thirteen provinces and territories in Canada, thirteen books. What could be luckier?

Once again I have no idea what thirteen books I will read for the challenge, and the next Canadian book I'm likely to read will still be credited to the currently running challenge, but here are their placeholders:


Thanks to Melwyk who was hosting and to Shonna, our new host!

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Sill

The Fool's Prayer

The royal feast was done; the King
  Sought some new sport to banish care,
And to his jester cried: "Sir Fool,
  Kneel now, and make for us a prayer!" 
The jester doffed his cap and bells,
  And stood the mocking court before;
They could not see the bitter smile
  Behind the painted grin he wore. 
He bowed his head, and bent his knee
  Upon the monarch's silken stool;
His pleading voice arose: "O Lord,
  Be merciful to me, a fool! 
"No pity, Lord, could change the heart
  From red with wrong to white as wool;
The rod must heal the sin: but, Lord,
  Be merciful to me, a fool! 
"'T is not by guilt the onward sweep
  Of truth and right, O Lord, we stay;
'T is by our follies that so long
  We hold the earth from heaven away. 
"These clumsy feet, still in the mire,
  Go crushing blossoms without end;
These hard, well-meaning hands we thrust
  Among the heart-strings of a friend. 
"The ill-timed truth we might have kept--
  Who knows how sharp it pierced and stung?
The word we had not sense to say--
  Who knows how grandly it had rung? 
"Our faults no tenderness should ask,
  The chastening stripes must cleanse them all;
But for our blunders--oh, in shame
  Before the eyes of heaven we fall. 
"Earth bears no balsam for mistakes;
  Men crown the knave, and scourge the tool
That did his will; but Thou, O Lord,
  Be merciful to me, a fool!" 
The room was hushed; in silence rose
  The King, and sought his gardens cool,
And walked apart, and murmured low,
  "Be merciful to me, a fool!"

-Edward Rowland Sill

Edward Rowland Sill was born in Connecticut, lived most of his adult life in California, where he was professor of English at the nascent University of California, Berkeley, and died young in 1887.

Sill is, perhaps, a bit more optimistic than I am at the moment: the court is hushed and the king affected by the prayer. Ah, well. We all live in hope.

This was one of my father's favorite poems, along with the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and Poe's Eldorado.

Jennifer is featuring a lovely Judith Viorst poem this week.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Jason Lutes' Berlin

I'm not really sure how to say anything about graphic novels, so I'm mostly just going to "quote" from Jason Lutes' wonderful Berlin, a graphic novel about the last years of the Weimar Republic, before Hitler's rise to power. He completed it last year after starting in 1996, and it consists of 24 issues, gathered subsequently into three books, before being released in a single volume last year. I came across it in this review by Jeet Heer from earlier this year.

The two main characters are Kurt Severing, a reporter whose editor is the historical figure Carl von Ossietzky. Here Severing is being berated by a communist friend for his hope that a non-violent solution can still be found:

The other major character is Marthe Müller, who comes from Köln to Berlin to be an art student, but also to experience the life of the city:

It was easier for me to get the three individual volumes than the one omnibus from my library, and though I was interested from that first review, I only put the hold on the first one initially, and I've had to return it. But I was convinced by the series from a moment in the first volume when Severing walks into his editor's office: there's a desk with a full ashtray on it, and then a number of smaller panels where we see full ashtrays also on his bookcase, the window sill, etc. That was a man under stress. But I can't show you the picture anymore.

There are numerous other characters as well, representing both the political right and the left, Jews, Lesbians and gays, the spectrum of what we think of as Weimar period Berlin.

I know a little but not a lot about the period, but it fits with one's sense from things like Goodbye to Berlin. I was chuffed to see this panel:

because I knew that song from the Ute Lemper album of twenty years ago:

Highly recommended. Interesting, fun, and in these times, just a little bit scary.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Saul Bellow's The Dangling Man

"I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I know I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying "Boom!" but always prematurely."
Dangling Man (1944) is Saul Bellow's first novel.  It's in the form of Joseph's diary, from December of 1942 to March of 1943. Joseph, like Bellow himself, is a Canadian citizen who has lived in Chicago since he was a child. Joseph tries to join the U.S. Army, but since he's technically a Canadian, bureaucracy intervenes, and he's not accepted. He's 'dangling.'

Joseph had quit his job on the assumption he would soon be in the army; his work was for a travel agency, not a bustling business in war time, and when he tries to get his old job back, there's nothing doing. He still expects to be in the army soon, but now it's a year since Pearl Harbor and the army still hasn't sorted out his status. Joseph is supported by his wife Iva; he's a budding intellectual, and hopes to spend the time usefully, reading and writing; instead, he does little and becomes irritable.

Underground, Dangling, Invisible. Bellow's Man is alienated from society and undergoes an existential crisis like those of Dostoevsky's or Ellison's Men, (or Turgenev's Superfluous Man, but I haven't read that one.) This novel is the least of those: well, nobody, I believe, thinks this a major Bellow novel.

Still I found it interesting. My sense, I can't tell you offhand where it comes from, is that the prose in this is considered different in kind from what would be Bellow's mature style, and certainly nothing in it has the panache of the opening of Augie March, "I am an American, Chicago-born,..." But it's not as different as all that, and Bellow sets out his program to reform American novelistic prose right from the start in these, the first words of his first novel:
"There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom...Most serious matters are closed to the hardboiled. They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring."
Pow. Take that, Hemingway. Right between the eyes, Hammett. It's a programmatic statement of the sort of prose that not only Joseph, but also Bellow, intends to write, and did write. I approve. Now Bellow got better at it going forward.

Rather the difference between this and the later novels is it's not Jewish. Joseph attends church, celebrates Christmas. It's understandable: anti-Semitism is still strong in English departments. Lionel Trilling only got his assistant professorship in 1939, and that, after having been told it would never happen. But it's a real loss in Bellow's case. The characters in Dangling Man feel like Jews in WASP-face, and that's not a good thing. When he decided to write honestly out of his Jewish experience, it liberated Bellow. The change between this and the later Bellows doesn't seem to me to be in the prose, but in the nature of the characters.

So it's a clear promise of what Bellow was going to become, even if he's not there yet. It's interesting for that.

But that also includes problems, like Bellow's handling of female characters. Now in general, men write better about male characters than female, and women write better about female characters than male. There are exceptions--George Eliot, possibly Tolstoy, though only in Anna Karenina, I would say--but in even great authors this can be true. Does anybody think Darcy or Knightley as real as Elizabeth or Emma? And male authors, I think, are generally worse in this regard than female authors. In Dangling Man, the female characters are all given physical descriptions, often unflattering or grotesque, while the men are described by the characteristics of their mind or actions. Here's Joseph describing his mother-in-law:
"She is a short, fair, rather maidenish woman. Her natural color, when visible, is healthy. Her eyes are large, and they wear a knowing look, but since there is nothing to be knowing about they only convey her foolishness. She powders herself thickly, and her lips are painted in the shape that has become the universal device of sensuality for all woemen, from the barely mature to the very old. Mrs. Almstadt, nearing fifty, is already quite wrinkled, much to her concern, and she is forever on the watch for new packs and face lotions."
A single example might be justifiable, but repeatedly? And in this novel, I found it less alarming than in others I've read, because Joseph is more ironized, more distant from Bellow himself, than Augie March, or Henderson, or (especially) Dean Corde of The Dean's December. It's a world where all we know about Hillary is her pantsuits. Maybe that's not entirely different from the world we live in now, but I keep hoping.

I read my first Bellow in high school (Herzog.) I went through a bit of a Bellow phase in my 20s, which ended with The Dean's December, and I decided I couldn't take it anymore. I came back to him, for a bit, with Ravelstein, and read or reread some more. I'm from Chicago, and Bellow is probably the most important Chicago writer, more even than Dreiser, than Brooks, than Farrell, than Algren, than Hecht, than Mamet, than Bodenheim. (Though James T. Farrell is sadly underrated.)

Anyhoo, this post is in serious danger of becoming longer than the book itself... ;-) so I'll close off. If you're a Bellow fan, it's well worth reading, and not so different, I'd say, from his major works. But, even though it's short, don't start here. If you were looking for a short one to start with, I'd say Ravelstein, but the best for my money are Augie March, Henderson The Rain King, or Humboldt's Gift.

This qualifies for Classic From a Place You Lived for Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge, but really, embarrassingly enough, I pulled it for last fall's #1944Club, didn't read it until now, but never got around to putting it back on the shelf...

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Sunday Salon

Where I Was

The Other Reader & I took a trip to Chicago last week, my home town and where we met. It was my first time back in a few years. We visited friends, and wandered around and were tourists.

The Glessner House. The neighbors didn't like it, I wonder why...

A more typical Prairie Avenue mansion
The Baha'i Temple. This was the limit of my bike rides when I was a kid.
The Hippos and Rhinos Bridge! The Hippos and Rhinos Bridge! As my friend excitedly shouted...
Bridge detail. Note hippo, rhino.
The South Shore Cultural Center, where Barack and Michelle held their wedding reception. But not before a certain other couple...

The CTA stop near a friend's. Not my neighborhood, but much more like where I grew up than all those other pictures. One of only three CTA stops at grade level, announced my friend, an engineer.

Earlier Reading

I did some Chicago reading and posts in preparation for the trip!


I signed up for #20BooksOfSummer at 746Books. Will I read twenty books this summer? Oh, probably. Will they be exactly those twenty books? Hmm... But they're all such good books!

And how about you?

Check out other Sunday Salon posts (and add yours!) at Readerbuzz.

Saturday, June 8, 2019


Following Mark@Maphead's fine example, I took my summer books outside into summer for their photo op.

Cathy @ 746Books hosts a challenge/invitation to read twenty (or fifteen or ten) books over the three months of summer vacation, June, July, and August. I've been admiring from afar for while, but decided to this year take the plunge.

It's not that twenty books is especially scary, and, in any case, Cathy's challenge is available at different levels and is very forgiving. That's why I called it half an invitation. But thinking about what I might be reading in August, and sticking to any kind of list is scary, at least for me; one of the (many) reasons I was a bad graduate student was the feeling that I should be reading books only on this subject, only from this list, for four (or more) years. The horror!

Some library books I have checked out, some recent acquisitions, and some unread venerables...

So without further ado:

(Tall stack from top)

School for Love by Olivia Manning - I read her Balkan trilogy and the Levant trilogy a couple of years ago and loved them. This one is set in Jerusalem, as was part of the Levant trilogy.

The Road to Lichfield by Penelope Lively - Her first novel and a finalist for the Booker prize.

The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot by Angus Wilson - I read Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and then bought this one soon after.

The Glacier by Jeff Wood - Apocalyptic fiction set in Ohio. The first of two books from Two Dollar Radio, a small press operating out of Columbus, Ohio.

Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney - An office novel with a socially awkward dreamer, the blurb tells me. Also from Two Dollar Radio. I've read two other novels from that press (N. J. Campbell's Found Audio and Katya Apekina's The Deeper The Water, The Uglier The Fish) and I've decided they have good taste.

Scenes From A Clerical Life by George Eliot - Finishing up my Eliot binge of last year.

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch - Hmm, modernist, German. The one most likely to be punted on? But I intend to read it!

The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell - A bit of a ringer because I'm 2/3rds through already.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - The Booker of a couple of years ago. A historical novel set in New Zealand's gold rush of the 1800s.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry - A book about objectionable people who drink too much? How can that not be a masterpiece? Hmm...

Berlin, City of Light, Volume 3 by Jason Lutes - A graphic novel about Berlin in the late 20s and early 30s. I've recently read the first two volumes, and quite liked them. I was notified of it by a review by Jeet Heer, in The New Republic, I think.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Corinne May Botz - Photos and essays about Frances Glessner Lee's dioramas of death scenes. (Yes, those are a lot like morbid dollhouses.) Lee is pretty much the founder of forensic studies, and she created these to train policeman how to examine a scene where a death, possibly a murder, has occurred. I just brought back this book from Chicago, where I saw the Glessner House Museum.

(Small stack from top)

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow - A second ringer. I've actually finished this, but I did read it entirely in June. Post coming soon!

Deadlock by Sara Paretsky - Before going to Chicago, I read Double Indemnity, which reminded me I really liked the Warshawsky mysteries. The one reread on this list.

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler - Master spy novelist. This one is set in Africa, it seems. Also he's the author of the all-time best title for an novelist's autobiography: Here Lies... Eric Ambler.

Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh - Will Roderick Alleyn solve the murder? Will he and Br'er Fox have ironic comments about it? You know they will!

The Last Manly Man by Sparkle Hayter - Canadian content! Paige Turner solves the case and does her nails. You've got to have some summer reading in summer, I figure.

Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu - Contemporary Romanian novelist. This is from 1996 and promises to be a mystical trip. The second likeliest to be substituted for?

Darlington's Fall by Brad Leithauser - A novel in verse. I'm a bit of a sucker for these.

The Footsteps at the Lock by Ronald Knox - Reverend Knox is most famous for his decalogue of rules for mystery writers. This will be the first mystery of his I've read. He's also Penelope Fitzgerald's uncle, and that's very much a mark in his favor. I read her collective biography of her father and uncles a few years ago, The Knox Brothers.

There it is. I'm sure there will be substitutions along the way.

I also realized I received a couple of weeks ago an ARC of David Elias' Elizabeth of Bohemia from ECW Press, which will also likely get read pretty soon, but missed having its picture taken.

What have you read? What looks good to you? Which ones should I be especially sure to read? I know I'm looking forward to seeing what everybody reads.

Thanks to Cathy for hosting!

Plus some books that weren't on the list...

Friday, June 7, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: du Bellay/Wilbur

Hubert contemplating a great journey
Happy the Man

Happy the man who, journeying far and wide
As Jason or Ulysses did, can then
Turn homeward, seasoned in the ways of men,
And claim his own, and there in peace abide! 
When shall I see the chimney-smoke divide
The sky above my little town: ah, when
Stroll the small gardens of that house again
Which is my realm and crown, and more beside? 
Better I love the plain, secluded home
My fathers built, than bold façades of Rome;
Slate pleases me as marble cannot do; 
Better than Tiber's flood my quiet Loire,
Those little hills than these, and dearer far
Than great sea winds the zephyrs of Anjou.

-Joachim du Bellay (tr. Richard Wilbur)

Joachim du Bellay was a French poet of the 1500s, one of the so-called Pleiades, seven French poets of that era. He was in Rome when this poem was written, serving as a secretary to his cousin, the cardinal Jean du Bellay.

Richard Wilbur was a wonderful American poet who passed away in 2017.

Here's the French text for those for whom it's useful... 😉

Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage

Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage
Ou comme cestuy-là qui conquit la toison
Et puis est retourné, plein de usage et raison,
Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge!
Quand reverrai-je, hélas, de mon petit village
Fumer le cheminée, et en quelle saison
Reverrai-je le clos de mon pauvre maison
Qui m'est une provence, et beaucoup davantage? 
Plus me plâit le séjour qu'ont bâti mes aïeux,
Que des palais romains le front audacieux
Plus que le marbre dur me plâit l'ardoise fine:
Plus mon Loire gaulois, que le Tibre latin,
Plus mon petit Liré, que le mont Palatin,
Et plus que l'air marin la douceur angevine.
-Joachim du Bellay

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness has a wonderful poem by Elinor Wylie this week. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Sandburg


I asked professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.
-Carl Sandburg

"Happiness" is from Carl Sandburg's volume of 1916, Chicago Poems. Since I'm in Chicago as this post appears, and possibly recovering from a poetry reading and beer bash celebrating the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman's birth this seemed altogether too appropriate.

Oh, and a proper Chicagoan pronounces that the Dess Plains river. Don't even ask what we do with Goethe Street.

I trust another poem suitable to our happiness theme can be found at Holds Upon Happiness.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Sheridan's The School For Scandal

"His [Sheridan's] comic muse does not go about prying into obscure corners, or collecting idle curiosities, but shows her laughing face and points to her rich treasure--the follies of mankind...The 'School for Scandal' is, if not the most original, perhaps the most finished and faultless comedy which we have."
-William Hazlitt, The English Comic Writers

Rowlandson's print based on The School for Scandal

In Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School For Scandal (1777) we first see Lady Sneerwell and her hangers-on retailing and even manufacturing gossip for public consumption. Their report: Miss Prim was about to run off with her dancing master, Miss Nicely was married to her own footman, and Miss Piper had twins. But most importantly, Charles Surface, a spendthrift young man, has gone beyond being broke and deep into debt; and Charles has also seduced Lady Teazle, the unhappy much younger wife of Sir Peter Teazle. It's none of it true.

Well, mostly none of it. Charles is spendthrift, Lady Teazle is unhappy, and one of the Surface brothers is trying to seduce Lady Teazle; only it's the hypocritical Joseph who's trying, and he hasn't yet succeeded.

This will all need to be made right, of course: fortunately Charles and Joseph have a rich, wise, and tolerant uncle in the background, just now returning from the Orient; Charles has a beloved in the foreground, Maria; and Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are still really in love. It's helped along by the clever servant, Rowley, straight out of Plautus.

I found the opening acts a little broad in their comedy, though I imagine it would work on stage, particularly Mrs. Candour, who kept saying that sure it was terrible about all that gossip, though somebody (who knows who?) would be repeating it, so she might as well. But then when it got to the fourth act, first with Charles selling off the family portraits unknowingly to his rich uncle, and then in Joseph's drawing room, with multiple people hidden in various corners, I was laughing out loud even reading it on the page, and I have to imagine it would be a great hoot on stage. I've seen productions of Sheridan's The Rivals (perhaps better known as The One With Mrs. Malaprop) twice on stage, and now I'm going to hope for a production of this one.

In the meantime I made do with this silent version, with Basil Rathbone (!) as the hypocritical Joseph. It's only ten minutes, and by no means all the play, nor it seems all the movie either, though maybe all that survives. I'm not quite sure it would work if you hadn't just read the play, but I enjoyed it:

This is my entry for the Classics Club Spin #20.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Sara Paretsky's Indemnity Only

Sara Paretsky's Indemnity Only (1982) is the first V. I. (Victoria or Vic) Warshawsky mystery. It, together with Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series, were the beginning of the modern female P.I. mystery movement. The series takes place in Chicago, and since I'm going to Chicago in a few days...

The setup is this: Warshawsky is hired to find somebody's daughter, except her client doesn't give his real name, and doesn't tell her the daughter's real name either. When she goes to follow the one lead she's given, she finds a dead body, clearly murdered by a pro. She figures she's been had. But not for long.

She ends up in the middle of an insurance fraud scheme, an unholy alliance of labor bosses, insurance executives, bankers, and the mob. (Well, it is Chicago we're talking about...we're only missing a politician or three...) Vic sorts out the mystery--its outlines are never much in doubt--its real and considerable suspense is in how she sorts the goons and gets the goods.

She compares herself twice to Lord Peter Wimsey, but the final scene is straight out of The Maltese Falcon.

Quite a lot of fun.

I usually think of Vic as a Southsider, and the backstory has her raised there, but she lives near Belmont and Halstead in Chicago on the north side--where I lived for two years in my twenties. And she's not much of a Southsider, because she's a Cubs fan.

Another entry for My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Challenge.

Silver. Why: Author from your country. (Your state, your city, even your major intersection.)

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Brooks

Sadie and Maud

Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-toothed comb. 
She didn't leave a tangle in.
Her comb found every strand.
Sadie was one of the livingest chits
In all the land. 
Sadie bore two babies
Under her maiden name.
Maud and Ma and Papa
Nearly died of shame.
Every one but Sadie
Nearly died of shame. 
When Sadie said her last so-long
Her girls struck out from home.
(Sadie had left as heritage
Her fine-tooth comb.) 
Maud, who went to college
Is a thin brown mouse.
She is living all alone
In this old house.
-Gwendolyn Brooks

My spellchecker doesn't like "livingest," but I love that word.

This is from Gwendolyn Brooks' first book, A Street In Bronzeville, of 1945. Bronzeville is a neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago, historically black and, by the standards allowed for African-Americans, middle-class. There's not much of it left any more, I think, what with various urban renewal projects.

I was a kid when Gwendolyn Brooks was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois, and so I guess I've always known of her, but I'm quite sure the poem we were generally given at the time was "We Real Cool" about the dangers of skipping school...

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness is featuring Maggie Smith this week.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ellis Peters' Fallen Into The Pit (Not Brother Cadfael)

Ellis Peters wrote another mystery series before the Brother Cadfael ones started; it's set in contemporary England and features Inspector George Felse, often assisted by his son Dominic, his wife Bunty, and not infrequently by Dominic's current girlfriend. It's a family affair.

This is the fourth of the Felse mysteries I've read and it's the first in the series, from 1951.

The war hasn't been over long when this takes place, and a German P.O.W. named Helmut Schauffler, is still in England, working on farms and waiting to be repatriated. Helmut insists he was just an innocent soldier, and all that Nazi stuff never meant anything to him, but we quickly learn that's not true, and he's slyly hiding his real white supremacist/anti-Semitic feelings. Well, everybody in the town knows, too, and when he's discovered murdered, there are plenty of suspects. High on the list is Chad Wedderburn, now the Latin master, but recently a ruthless Army commando.

It's Dominic and his not-quite girlfriend Pussy (they're both thirteen in this one) who stumble on the body, and from that moment Dominic thinks of it as his murder, even though his father tells him quite forcefully to stay away. A second murder complicates things--Dominic is the last person to see the victim alive except for the murderer--and it ends with a trap sprung on the perpetrator and some nice suspense.

I started reading the Felse mysteries when I was nearly out of Cadfaels, and they are a pretty good substitute. They're perhaps not quite as charming as her better-known series, but still a lot of fun. You will know, if you're at all a reader of Peters, that since Chad Wedderburn is in love with Io the barmaid, and she loves him back, there is no way Wedderburn will turn out to be the murderer.

That said, this is the first of the series. Peters was no tyro when she wrote this, but she would get better. This would be stronger if it were fifty pages shorter, and the identity of the murderer was signalled much earlier than it needed to be. Wikipedia tells me that it was ten years until the next Felse came out, and her style had changed substantially between the two, and I think, for the better. No need to read them in order.

Another book I read from Ellis Peters' Felse mysteries.

An entry for the Gold card in the My Readers' Block vintage mystery challenge:
Where. Set in a small village.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Disch

Ballade of the New God

I have decided I'm divine
Caligula and Nero knew
A godliness akin to mine,
But they are strictly hitherto.
They're dead, and what can dead gods do?
I'm here and now. I'm dynamite.
I'd worship me if I were you.
A new religion starts tonight! 
No booze, no pot, no sex, no swine:
I have decreed them all taboo.
My words will be your only wine,
The thought of me your honeydew.
All other thoughts you will eschew.
You'll call yourself a Thomasite
And hymn my praise with loud yahoo.
A new religion starts tonight. 
But (you might think) that's asinine!
I'm just as much a god as you.
You may have built yourself a shrine,
But I won't bend my knee. Who
Asked you to be my god? I do,
Who am, as god, divinely right.
Now you must join my retinue:
A new religion starts tonight. 
All that I have said is true.
I'm god and you're my acolyte.
Surrender's bliss. I envy you.
A new religion starts tonight.

-Tom Disch

Tom Disch is better known as a science fiction writer, but he was also a bravura formal poet. He died, alas, a suicide, in New York in 2008.

That's two ballades in three weeks. It's not always a comic verse form--"Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear?"--but somehow it seems to be one now.

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness has Robert Graves this week.