Thursday, January 31, 2019

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon

At 3:00PM on Wednesday the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all.
Suicide note? Delusions of a madman? Or echo of a true story passed down in a song? Robert Smith, the author of that note, hangs off the cupola of Mercy Hospital with wings attached to his arms, and in the crowd a woman sings, "O Sugarman done fly away/Sugarman done gone."

Smith doesn't fly, but imbalances, and failing to grab on, falls to a splatty death. The town's firemen are still only donning their greatcoats. The singing woman tells another woman in the crown, visibly pregnant, that her child will be born the next day, and it turns out true. That child is Macon Dead, the third of that name, nicknamed Milkman, and he's the main character of the novel.

Wikipedia tells me that the 18th of February, 1931, is also the day that Toni Morrison herself was born.

The novel covers maybe the first thirty-five years of Milkman's life. Historical events are obliquely referenced--the integration of the military, Malcolm Little becoming Malcolm X, most importantly the 16th Street Church bombing of 1963--but mostly it exists in a familial, almost mythical space. Milkman's conflicts are with his parents, who don't get along, although they continue to live together. They each tell unflattering stories about the other, and as a child, Milkman veers from attachment to one, then the other, as the stories they tell, and he can't really sort, rock his worldview.

His best friend is Guitar, a couple of years older, who is his connection to growing Black Power politics (not ever called such). Milkman and Guitar have squabbles when they're young, as boys would, but mostly Guitar looks out for Milkman in the role of an older brother. Later their relationship becomes more problematic, as Guitar gets more political.

Milkman also gets involved with his cousin (first, once removed) Hagar; at first he's more interested in her than she in him; later that reverses.

Milkman drifts a bit in his 20s and I found that the slowest part of the book; I think he would have matured a bit faster, but maybe not: though he's black, he's upper middle class by black standards, and in his way he lives a pretty protected life.

The end finds Milkman searching first for a hoard of gold, but then for his family history in the South; the symbolism here is almost too heavy-handed, but nevertheless I found it far and away the most affecting part of the novel. The ending is deliberately dark and ambiguous, but not without the possibility of light.

I do think that Morrison uses her own birthday as the start of events is a strong clue; Morrison can hardly be said to have drifted in her 20s--Wikipedia tells me she raised two children and was integral in the increasing exposure of African-American literature--but it is in 1970 (when she's 39) that Morrison's first novel comes out, and only after she begins her own investigation of black history and her own Southern familial roots.

This was my Classics Club Spin #19 book. Which was supposed to be the chunkster spin, but after the mighty random number generator picked the shortest book on my list, I drifted a bit myself and left it to the last minute. But likely the random number generator knew better than I did, because this was a very good choice.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Falstaff: "My honest lads, I will tell you what I am about."
Pistol: "Two yards, and more."
Falstaff: "No quips now, Pistol! Indeed, I am in the waist two yards about; but I am now about no waste; I am in thrift."
A 72" waist! Even the large (and admirable) Ambrogio Maestri above on the far right probably doesn't have that for his belt size.

It's been a long time since I read this, which is a little odd, since Falstaff has been in my life lately. I'm not much of an opera person--I would like to be better, but it tends to put me to sleep, while the Other Reader stays awake--but I really enjoyed watching a simulcast of the Met production of Verdi's Falstaff. That's the final scene of the production I saw in the video. I actually walked out whistling "Everyone is Fooled." I hadn't really realized until I just reread the play how closely Verdi followed Shakespeare.

And not too long ago I saw Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, which includes a bit of Merry Wives, thought not too much, but is basically the tragedy of Falstaff. (Which Merry Wives of Windsor is not. A tragedy, that is.)

Anywho, I'm not an expert. I enjoyed rereading it. A couple of things I noticed: I was pretty surprised how much of the play was prose, especially in the early part. Once the scene changes to elves and fairies (even pretend fairies and elves) in the fifth act, there's more verse.

Also I was a little shocked how difficult the language was, especially in the first act. I mean it's Shakespeare, it's 1600, it's never easy. Still, I've read enough and seen enough plays at this point, I can generally get by. I don't know about you, but I find Shakespeare's quipping much more difficult to follow than his tragic-monologuing, and despite Falstaff's admonition above, there's plenty of quipping in the play. A good actor can make that easier, but I'm quite sure half the first act went right past me. There's a Welsh accent and a French accent, too, just to complicate things.

The Wikipedia article was pretty insistent this is one of Shakespeare's worst plays. Yowch! And the story I'd always heard, that Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the play because she thought Falstaff was such a great character, may not actually be true.

Doesn't matter. I still thought it was pretty funny.
Slender: "...for though I cannot remember what I did when you made me drunk, yet I am not altogether an ass."
Oh, yes you are, Slender! But that's OK, you didn't get the girl. (Or more importantly, the girl didn't have to put up with you.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (#TBR2019RBR)

"Immigration officer holding my passport behind his accounter, my heart hanging on high sky. Finally he stamping on my visa. My heart touching down like air plane. Ah. Wo. Ho. Ha. Picking up my luggage, now I a legal foreigner."
Yes, that is Winter in the background.
Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers came out in 2007 and was shortlisted for what that year was called the Orange Broadband Prize for Women's Fiction. The narrator, Zhuang or 'Z' after she decides to make it easier on Westerners, is the only child, a daughter, of a couple who has just made the leap from peasant to small factory owners. She comes to London for a year to learn English.

Zhuang's story is a girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, something happens (Spoilers!) kind of story. Let me assure you that one of the outcomes you have already thought of is what happens.

It's also the story of a naive girl from the provinces who learns by traveling.

Those are good story types, but it's the language that makes this interesting. Most of the book is in Zhuang's voice, given above. The growth of her ability in English is nicely graded over the year she spends in Europe, but as you might expect she's not yet fluent at the end of her year-long course. Not to go all Russian Formalist on you, but Guo makes good use of her narrator's language and naiveté to defamiliarize us from things we are used to seeing and make us see them anew. She is also able, at least for me, to get both humor and poetry out of that brokenness.

Still, it's very nearly an entire novel of that kind of pidgin English. Would you read it? It was just as well it wasn't any longer than it was, and even at just 280 pages with lots of white space, I was occasionally annoyed. But mostly amused and impressed.

I no longer recall what got me to pick it up in the bookstore; maybe I saw it mentioned in some article on the Orange Prize. It's just as likely it was the title; I'm a bit of a sucker for a pomo-ish structure. Dictionary of the Khazars, anyone?

One down! And not (quite) the shortest. Roof Beam Reader TBR challenge.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday

I have never attached so much importance to my own person that I would have been tempted to tell others the story of my life.

Stefan Zweig was a well-known author when he penned that opening line to his autobiography and he acts on it. It's the least personally revealing autobiography I can think of. His first wife shows up only as an element in the occasional 'we'. If you didn't know she was there, you might think he was being royal. His second wife features in an anecdote about his life as a refugee from Hitler, but she herself is little more present than his first.

We get a little more information about his Jewish parents: his father made money in textiles; he made the transition from shtetl to industrialist. His mother's family was an old banking family. Thus Zweig himself was the second son of a haute bourgeois family. (Though we don't learn anything about that older brother.)

None of that much matters, though; that's not what he's interested in. He's a young man interested in the arts:
"I had not read La Bohéme for nothing, without wishing at twenty, to live a similar life."
I find it interesting he says 'read.' The opera I see dates from 1896 and would have pretty brand new when he was twenty; the book is 1851.

Zweig emphasizes his interest as a collector: he searches out manuscripts of Goethe, Beethoven, and Mozart, and particularly those that show the moment of creation, and that's what interests him in his personal life, too. There are various reasons I was interested in this book, but one of them is Zweig's interest in Romain Rolland; Zweig wrote a biography of Rolland in 1921 which I read last fall. He also wrote biographies of Emile Verhaeren, Paul Verlaine, and Sigmund Freud, among people of his own time, as well as various historical figures. He meets James Joyce and offers to translate Portrait of an Artist into German; André Gide visits him at his flat in Paris, and tells him only a foreigner could find so lovely a spot; Zweig helps save Rilke's library, stranded in Paris during World War I; Richard Strauss uses Zweig as his librettist and has to defend the resulting opera against the Nazis; Zweig visits Freud in London and introduces him to Salvador Dalí. Zweig happily puts himself in the middle of the cultural world.

Zweig is endearingly modest about his role; though he knows he's a success, he's not impressed with that part, and what he wants you to think about, and hope for, and work for, is the cultural unity of Europe.
All peoples feel only that a strange shadow hangs broad and heavy over their lives. But we, who once knew a world of individual freedom, know and can give testimony that Europe once, without a care, enjoyed the kaleidoscopic play of color. And we shudder when we think how overcast, overshadowed, enslaved and enchained our world has become because of our suicidal fury.
Sadly all too relevant today. He quotes, with approval, a letter from Rolland, written during the first world war:
Je ne quitterai jamais mes amis.
and one feels that would be true of Zweig.

But let us hope, especially today, with the chaos of the English vote and the assassination of the Europhile mayor of Danzig, that his nearly final words won't apply: most cherished aim to which I had devoted all the power of my conviction for forty years, the peaceful union of Europe, had been defiled. What I had now feared more than my own death, the war of all against all, now had become unleashed for the second time.
I read it in the seemingly anonymous, first English translation of 1943, reprinted in the 70s with a useful introduction by the translator and scholar Harry Zohn. That's what the Toronto Public Library has, but it has been retranslated by the late, great Anthea Bell, which I assume should be preferred.

The other reason this crossed my radar was that Wes Anderson said it was an influence for The Grand Budapest Hotel; who knows what enables Wes Anderson to do the (amazing, IMHO) things he does, but the connection between the two seems a bit tenuous frankly.

Zweig is the great pan-Europeanist so the book could qualify for a number of different countries, but since he was born in Austria, and came later he says to feel a certain Austrian patriotism, I'll count it for Austria for this year's European Reading Challenge:

And at 454 pages, plus a separately numbered preface, it qualifies, although just, as large enough for my Chunkster Reading Challenge:

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

TTT: Top Ten New-to-me authors I read in 2018

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl at her blog. Today's topic is top ten new-to-me authors I read in 2018.

It's always great to find some new author whose books you have to go read. So here's mine:

Jenny Erpenbeck

I read Go, Went, Gone near the end of the year and have been deciding on the next one. I think it will be the End Of Days, but serendipity might pick a different one. There will be another.

Dubravka Ugresic

Fox was one of my best reads last year; I also read her Thank You For Not Reading. I'll be reading others.

Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca. 'nuff said. Really, why did it take me so long, you might ask?

Amelie Nothomb

I immediately went out and bought another after reading her Pétronille.

Raymond Geuss

Changing the Subject is an idiosyncratic history of philosophy for the general reader. I'm a bit worried that the rest of his books will be unreadable for mere mortals such as myself, but I'm still likely to try.

Ann Patchett

I read Bel Canto because I was thinking about seeing the movie, but then I didn't see the movie. However, as for her books...

Brian Dillon

Essayism is an incredible mix of biography with a look at the great essayists. Now I want to read his entire back catalog.

Zachary Mason

The Lost Books of the Odyssey might has well have had, "Reese, read this" written on the cover. A computer programmer who also reads Greek? His other books are perhaps a little less me-directed, but I'm now likely to read them.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

What? The Leopard is the only novel he wrote? Nooooo.........tell me it isn't so......

And one book other that worked the other way:

Martin Amis

Reading Money convinced me I don't need to read any other Martin Amis books. That's a good thing to know, too! I'm sure he'll do fine without me.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Read It Again, Sam 2018 Wrapup

The third challenge from Bev's smorgasbord of reading challenges was the Read It Again, Sam challenge. I went all-in for this one at 16+ and got there and one more.

The complete list is here. A couple of the rereads near the end of the year didn't get posts.

Needless to say, I liked all of them, but particularly fun for me were Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees, which I actually reread twice last year, once in the new translation by Ann Goldstein and once (the proper reread) in the original Archibald Colquhon translation, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. I also reminded myself how great Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery was.

Longest since I first read it? That had to be The Portrait of Dorian Gray, which I hadn't read since high school. Still pretty good, though, boy, was I hard on books in high school.

And again, thanks to Bev for hosting!

Just The Facts, Ma'am 2018 Wrapup

Here's my wrapup post for Bev's Just The Facts, Ma'am challenge of 2018. I'm a Detective Sergeant in the Gold era, but a mere Constable in the Silver. Well, I did expect to do better in the Gold era. Here's the list of books:



1.) E. R. Punshon's Music Tells All. 1948. Crime-solving duo.
2.) Rex Stout's Not Quite Dead Enough. 1944. In the Armed Services


1.) Michael Innes' The Secret Vanguard. 1940. Pseudonymous author.
2.) Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of The Haunted Husband. 1941. Alliterative title.


1.) Michael Innes' Lament For A Maker. 1938. During a recognized holiday.
2.) Nicholas Blake's The Corpse In The Snowman. 1941During a weather event.


1.) Patricia Wentworth's Eternity Ring. 1948. In a small village.
2.) Michael Innes' Operation Pax. 1951. In a hospital/nursing home.


1.) Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Velvet Claws. 1933. Death by shooting.
2.) Georgette Heyer's Footsteps In The Dark. 1932Death by strangulation.


1.) E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case. 1913. 'Best of' list.
2.) Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood. 1870. Favorite author.



1.) Michael Innes' The New Sonia Wayward. 1960. In the Armed Services.


1.) Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings. 1978. Means of murder in the title.


1.) Ellis Peters' Black Is The Colour of My True Love's Heart. 1967. Special event (folk festival).


1.) Peter Robinson's The Hanging Valley. 1989. In a small village.


1.) Ross Macdonald's The Blue Hammer. 1976. At least two deaths by different means.
2.) L. R. Wright's The Suspect. 1985. Death by blunt instrument.


1.) Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Curious Spinster. 1961TBR list.

Here's my filled out cards:

Thanks, Bev, for hosting!

Mount TBR 2018 Wrapup

I opted for Mount Ararat for the 2018 Mount TBR challenge, which is 48 books from off those TBR shelves. I am pleased to announce...(drum roll!)...that I read 49 TBR books in 2018 so I got to the top of Mount Ararat and then did a little victory dance that involved some leaping once I got there. But that's a long ways from Mt. Kilimanjaro, which I'm aiming for in 2019 (and is still probably a lower mountain than I should be aiming at...)

The complete list is here.

Some of the proverbial wisdom I gathered this last year...

A penny saved is...Money.
All that glitters is not...Dracula.
Two wrongs don't make...The Group.
Hope for the best, but prepare for...If The War Goes On.
When the going gets tough, the tough get...The Leopard.

Those all come from proper TBR books, but a couple of the best proverbs come from other things I read last year:

Don't count your chickens before...The Fox. (library book)
When in Rome...Behold Things Beautiful. (library book)
The squeaky wheel gets...The Blue Hammer. (reread)

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

Friday, January 4, 2019

Cora Siré's The Other Oscar (#CanBookChallenge)

Oscar of The Other Oscar is in Iquique, a town in northern Chile, to play the cello in a film. He's a Canadian, though he's been living in Buenos Aires for a few years, long enough to get married, have a daughter, and get divorced. Now unattached, not the primary caregiver for his daughter, and without a regular job, he's at loose ends.

The pianist is the main character of the film, an investigation into the relation between madness and art; it's a subject that matters to Oscar: his father was also a musician, subject to manic-depression, now lost to Alzheimer's. Oscar's only moment in the film is to play cello in Beethoven's Fifth Sonata for Cello and Piano, on a raft floating in the Pacific. The filming goes well, but when it's done a wave comes along, rocks the raft, and tips Oscar's chair into the ocean. He has to be rescued.

He's befriended by the main actor, falls in love with the chambermaid at the hotel, and sleeps with somebody at the cast party, he's not really sure who, though he hopes it was the chambermaid. It must have been a good party.

Two years later and the film comes out, an arthouse success, and Oscar is teaching music full-time at the university at Iquique, and searching for that chambermaid. Oscar's a good person, but only a bit more settled. Does he resolve the occasional fuddledness he sometimes mistakes for madness? Does he find love? Does he do good? Such are the questions.

The Other Oscar is a novella that came out in 2016 from Quattro Books. I liked it, though not quite as much as I liked Siré's Behold Things Beautiful which I read in the fall. (Siré also has a book of poetry, Signs of Subversive Innocents, which I haven't read.)

It ends well, I thought, with an ambiguous possibility of promise. (We learn who he slept with. Does he? Maybe.) It's good.

It brings to mind a question I've had about other authors as well, and to which I don't know the answer. Let's call The Other Oscar literary fiction. It's humanist, and it leads us to empathy with a character outside ourselves, and as a story, it's well-done. You believe in Oscar. The story leads to a small, suitably-sized epiphany that matches the nature of Oscar's problems, and his capabilities. All those things are turf of literary fiction, and Siré handles them well.

But it's also considered the turf of literary fiction to have prose that dazzles, and this doesn't. The prose is not bad, but it strikes me as no more than functional. Is that good enough? Dreiser's prose is considered poor, say, but we still read Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy, and mostly we think that's fine. Alternatively there's Updike (I'm talking about you, "penis with a thesaurus") whose prose does dazzle, or tries to, but whose stories, for me at least, mostly don't work.

Anywho, I don't have an answer, but The Other Oscar made me wonder once again about the question. I obviously structured my examples with my thumb on one side of the scale, but I'm still not sure. Any thoughts? Should it be story over style, even in literary fiction? To what extent do you think style should matter?

But story-wise, I think Siré is good, in The Other Oscar and even more in Behold Things Beautiful.

Read because I liked the other book of hers I read, but also for the Canadian Book Challenge:

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Reading Year In Review

For the first of January it's sunny and not too ferociously cold here in Toronto. I'm going to take what I can get and be thankful...and that, of course, includes books...

Best of Year

My Classics Club list proved to be shockingly fruitful in terms of good reading this year. Four of the top five were things I'd already suspected were going to be good:

Silas Marner by George Eliot

Well, you may have heard it's a great novel. I had, too, but somehow it still escaped me until 2018. It's not unknown that I cry at books or movies, mostly when things are sad but happy, too, when people who don't entirely deserve it get redeemed. This goes on that list.

Morte d'Urban by J. F. Powers

A lot of people seem to see this book as more savage in its satire than I do. It's funny about bureaucracy in the church, but I thought it was also touching. Fr. Urban is a good man in the midst of a bureaucratic tangle. I thought it was wonderful.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Well, I didn't love it for the cover of my edition, that's for sure. So it must have been the writing and the story. "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

Narrative of the Life by Frederick Douglass

There were a lot of things about this book that didn't surprise me, especially now. What did surprise me was how direct, how punchy the prose was. A great read in more ways than one, at least one of which I didn't expect.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

Teenagers in love. Except they weren't entirely sure of it. Who meet twenty years later. Nothing really happens and that's kind of the point.

OK. That list is looking a little antique-y. My favorite new releases were:

The Odyssey tr. by Emily Wilson
Fox by Dubravka Ugresic
Essayism by Brian Dillon
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
Changing the Subject by Raymond Geuss


Because who doesn't like some statistics? Well. You can skip this if you like...

Percentage of books from the Toronto Public Library... 30%

Percentage of books by women authors... 30%
-plus two anonymous authors. I'm an adherent of Samuel Butler and was half-tempted to say The Odyssey is by a female author, but didn't...
Percentage of books that I posted about... 60%

Percentage of books released in the last three years (including new translations)... 17%

Percentage of books in translation... 27%
-source languages covered: Greek (ancient and modern), Latin, French, German, Croatian, Italian, Polish, Albanian, Russian 
Percentage of books written in a language other than English... 0%
-this one I intend to do something about in the new year. I'm supposed to know some other languages, but they aren't getting any better like this...
There's probably enough information should you care, but to save you the algebra...that's 135 books in 2018.


I added a few challenges to my list for 2018. In addition to my ongoing Classics Club list, for which I read twelve last year, I signed up for and completed My Reader's Block challenges Just The Facts, Ma'am, Read It Again, Sam, and Mount TBR; Girlxoxo's Monthly Motif challenge; the European Reading Challenge at Rose City Reader; and did ten out of twelve books for the Back To The Classics challenge at Books and Chocolate. That last one irks me a little bit, but since six was counted as success, I guess I will, too.

I also participated in RIPXIII, Nonfiction November, and the 1944 Club.

The Canadian Book Challenge hosted by Melwyk at Indextrious Reader runs from Canada Day to Canada Day; I read eleven books for that this year.

Thanks hosts and moderators! Some wrap-up posts yet to come.


Other than read books and have fun? Isn't that enough? A bunch of new challenges should keep me in line, and as noted above I would like to read more in a language other than English. We'll see.

I've got two enormous books on my Classics Club list: Gibbon's complete Decline and Fall and Burton's translation of the complete Arabian Nights. I figure I'd better read one this year.

Best Wishes to all and hope your past reading year was great and your new one is even better!

Chunkster Challenge 2019

Becky at Becky's Book Reviews has devised a new challenge to read chunkster books, that is, books over 450 pages. A good goal! There are various ways to earn extra credit points, but the basic count is five points for a book of over 450 pages. She challenges us to score 100 points for an A+. Head over to her challenge post for full details.

A quick scan of what I read this year and I think I got 61 points without particularly trying. But that would clearly be a failing grade... I'm going to aim for that A+, but I will call a B- (80) an acceptable grade.