Sunday, April 28, 2019

Agatha Christie's At Bertram's Hotel (#1965Club)

Well, the #1965Club is over in the homeland of its originators, but I've got a couple of hours here, so I'm going to squeeze this last one in...

In the 60s, Bertram's looks like an old-fashioned hotel in London, but we're clued in pretty quickly that there's something else going on. Even the rather unnoticing Colonel Luscombe recognizes that it's impossible for the place to make money run the way it is, and when Miss Marple shows up at the hotel for a fortnight's visit to London she sees through it all pretty quickly.

Christie's novels sometimes used real cases she'd read in the news. One of my favorite of the Miss Marple novels, The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side, is based on an actual case with an actress and a fan, though the real event didn't involve homicide. This one uses the Great Train Robbery of 1963, though it is transferred to the Irish Mail, and it, too, adds a homicide not present in the actual case.

We're also introduced pretty early to a task force at Scotland Yard investigating a series of robberies by some gang organized by a particularly brilliant criminal mastermind. Who is it? And where are they operating from? Chief-Inspector Davy, called 'Father' by his colleagues because he's close to retirement, is Miss Marple's match in seeming sleepy and at the same time noticing all. One of the things he notices is a series of odd coincidences around Bertram's Hotel. Ah, ha! The game's afoot!

Well, too much more would begin to get spoiler-y. I found it quite enjoyable. Christie is famous for her obfuscations. Now maybe I've read too many mysteries (and possibly I've read this one before, too, though I don't think so) but I didn't find this one too puzzling. But she's not usually praised for her charm--you might go to Ellis Peters, say, for that--but I found this one charming. Miss Marple and Chief-Inspector Davy compete in a sort of knowing and noticing irony. Quite amusing.

Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting the #1965Club!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Ngugi wa Thiong'o/The River Between (#1965Club)

"The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life."
 Waiyaki, the son of Chege, is of a line of tribal leaders and prophets, though their prophecy has largely been treated as Cassandra's: "There shall come a people with clothes like butterflies," said his ancestor Mugo, and though this was unheeded like all their line's prophecy, the white men came to Kenya and to the land of the two ridges.

The River Between (1965) is the second novel of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who originally published under the anglicized version of his name James Ngugi. His early novels were written in English; later he turned to writing his novels in his native Kikuyu and translating himself into English.

The novel exists in an almost timeless zone of fable, but the whites have arrived in this remote region of Kenya not long before, in the form of missionaries and teachers; shortly after the start of the novel, white settlers and government agents start to arrive. Society has broken up into those who follow the new religion and those who practice the traditional ways. Chege tells Waiyaki, his only son, he must learn the ways of the white man, take advantage of his offer of education, and at the same time remain loyal to his own people. Can Waiyaki meet this challenge? One ridge becomes associated with the Christians; the other with traditional practices.

The first thing that strikes about this novel is the declarative spareness of the prose. The quote above is the very beginning. Here's another representative passage:
"Njahi was the season of the long rain. It was the favourite season with all the people. For then, everyone would be sure of a good harvest. The peas and beans, bursting into life, gave colour and youth to the land. On sunny days the greens leaves and the virgin gaiety of the flowers made your heart swell with expectation."
At this particular moment Waiyaki is waiting for Nyambura, the girl of his dreams, to show up.

Educated at the white missionary school, Waiyaki tries to see to his people's education, and to create peace and harmony between the Christians and the traditional faction, so that his people as a whole can best resist the encroachment of white colonialists. Waiyaki, associated both by family and temperament, with the traditionalist faction, is in love with Nyambura, the elder (and only surviving) daughter of the leader of the Christian faction.

But the other thing that strikes is the sense of doom. It's not a long book, and it is also a very good one; nevertheless I read it slowly, almost unwillingly, because I was afraid what might happen. And, though in the end, we do not see the bodies expiring on stage, it has all the inexorability of classic tragedy. Had Romeo and Juliet ended with Act IV would you have expected them to still be alive after another act? The end (not actually much of a spoiler) of The River Between:
"Waiyaki and Nyambura would be placed in the hands of the Kiama, who would judge them and decide what to do. It was the best thing and the crowd roared back 'Yes' as if the burden of judging their Teacher [Waiyaki] were removed from them. They went away quickly, glad that he was hidden by the darkness. For they did not want to look at the Teacher and they did not want to read their guilt in one another's faces. Neither did they want to speak to one another, for they knew full well what they had done to Waiyaki and they did not want to know.
     The land was now silent. The two ridges lay side by side, hidden in the darkness. And Honia river went on flowing between them, down through the valley of life, its beat rising above the dark stillness, reaching into the heart of the people of Makuyu and Kameno."
It seems to me to be a very interesting 1965 novel; an unflinching look back by a Kenyan at the process of colonization in his newly de-colonized country. It was, as the cover of my edition shows, the 17th novel in the African Writers Series, a publishing effort to bring to greater recognition African writers, founded in 1963, and led by its advisory editor Chinua Achebe. Ngugi's first novel, Weep Not, Child, was the first novel by an East African in that series.

This is the second novel of Ngugi wa Thiong'o I've read; earlier (pre-blogging) I read his novel of 2004, Wizard of the Crow. It's very different, but also very good, I thought. Ngugi is one of those writers who gets mentioned when Nobel Prize season comes around, and he's one whom I would be quite happy to see win it.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Poem for a Thursday: Bishop

For a Child of 1918

My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
"Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet." 
We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather's whip tapped his hat.
"Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day."
And I said it and bowed where I sat. 
Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
"Always offer everyone a ride;
don't forget that when you get older," 
my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a "Caw!" and flew off. I was worried.
How would he know where to go? 
But he flew a little way at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled, he answered.
"A fine bird," my grandfather said, 
"and he's well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he's spoken to.
Man or beast, that's good manners.
Be sure that you both always do." 
When automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people's faces,
but we shouted, "Good day! Good day!
Fine day!" at the top of our voices. 
When we came to Hustler Hill,
he said that the mare was tired,
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required.
-Elizabeth Bishop

Though the poem is set in 1918, (when Elizabeth Bishop would have been seven) it appears in her book of 1965 Questions of Travel.

Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness, the originator of the Poem for a Thursday idea, is featuring Jane Kenyon this week.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

John Fowles' The Magus (#1965Club)

" every way except that of mere publishing date, it is a first novel."
What a strange thing this novel is. I really wanted to dislike it more than I did. The blurb on the cover, from the New York Review of Books, says, "Brilliant and colossal...Impossible to stop reading." Brilliant and colossal? Hmm. I have my doubts. Impossible to stop reading? I did rather find that to be true.

I actually read the second edition, that of 1977, but Fowles in his introduction says it was not substantially changed in either theme or narrative from the 1965 version. He expresses doubts about its merits: "The Magus remained essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels..." Still, it is the one Fowles novel that shows up on the Random House/Modern Library greatest novels of the 20th Century in English. Go figure.

Here's the story: Nicholas Urfe has recently graduated from Oxford and is knocking about a bit in England, needing a job, wishing to go abroad. He's orphaned and has literary ambitions. He takes a job as English master at a school on the (imaginary) Greek island Phraxos, leaving behind one girl, Alison, and finding there another girl, Lily. But most importantly he finds the Greek/English gazillionaire, Maurice Conchis, who invites him to stay weekends at his villa. And he goes, even after he'd been explicitly warned not to.

Maurice Conchis is the titular magus.

Mysterious things start happening to Urfe. Dead puritans and Edwardian girls appear. Pan-figures and Nazis. Are they ghosts? Are they actors? Are they illusions, post-hypnotic suggestions? Conchis is a hypnotist and a Jungian. For a while he claims he's running an experiment in psychology. Who of these exactly are under Conchis' control and to what extent? Maybe that Edwardian girl likes Urfe or maybe she's acting. Or maybe both.

Conchis tells Urfe at one point he prefers his name pronounced with an un-Greek soft 'ch' so he's actually Conscious? A character de Deukans appears in an embedded story; he may be Conchis in disguise. De Deukans = Latin deducens, meaning leading out? And Urfe, we're told in the introduction, is Fowles' childhood mispronunciation of the word Earth. It's that sort of book.
"I have cordially detested allegory ever since I was old enough to detect its presence."
-J. R. R. Tolkien (though I didn't look it up to get the quote right)

And while it's not exactly Everyman, episodes of Nazi retributions and interracial sex are there largely to make philosophical points. This risks becoming merely an emotional bludgeon. And yet, and yet. It is pretty readable stuff.

I did anticipate the twist at the end, though, which made the final part feel a bit draggy.

I do think it's a book best read young. From Fowles' introduction:
"I now know the generation whose mind it most attracts, and that it must always substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent."
Ouch! Fowles is a little harsh on himself, but I can't say he's fundamentally wrong. However, to Fowles' credit, there is some of that same sardonic humor in the novel itself.

Anyway, I guess the book was a hit when it came out in 1965. I feel like it was of its time. If it had come out in the fifties, corresponding to when Fowles wrote it, it would have had to wait until that moment its natural peers, Steppenwolf and The Doors of Perception, also became popular. I feel like there ought to have been a band called Magus.

And for another view Ruthiella also read it for this week.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Poem For A Thursday: Cornford

Heart of the heartless world,
Dear heart, the thought of you
Is the pain at my side,
The shadow that chills my view. 
The wind rises in the evening,
Reminds that autumn is near.
I am afraid to lose you,
I am afraid of my fear. 
On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side. 
And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don't forget my love.
-John Cornford

John Cornford was an English volunteer for the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He was twenty when he wrote this, and bad luck did come by to lay him into the shallow grave, not at the battle of Huesca, but not long after. 

I first found this at The Guardian's Poem of the Week some years ago. The poet Carol Rumens who writes that column has more information, plus some analysis of the poem when she featured it.

Jennifer is featuring Wendell Berry this week.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Valeria Luiselli's Sidewalks

"When the trip was over and I reread my notes, I swore I'd never write anything about Venice, simply because there's nothing more vulgar and futile than encouraging the production of even one more page about the city,...Writing about Venice is like emptying a glass of water into the sea."

From the second of two essays at least peripherally about Venice in Valeria Luiselli's book of essays Sidewalks. Ahem. She may be capable of irony.

In the opening essay, Luiselli visits Brodsky's grave in the cemetery of San Michele in Venice. After some searching, she finds it, giving her the opportunity to ponder dead Venetians and encounter living ones.

Most of the essays are at least partly concerned with place. I don't really know her biography, but from this she was born in Mexico City, lived for a while in Central America as a young girl, and in India as a teenager, and now in Manhattan. In one of the best essays she bicycles around a neighborhood in Mexico City while pondering the meaning of the Portuguese word saudade. (Meaning roughly melancholy? Or maybe not.)

They touch on longing and loss, though are also often funny. Why is it the young are so given to, and often so good at, melancholy? They can still afford it, I guess. I spent much of my late teens moping myself, listening to Townes van Zandt.

Authors mentioned by Luiselli: Joseph Brodsky, W. H. Auden, Cyril Connolly, Fernando Pessoa, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin, W. G. Sebald, Wittgenstein, Lichtenberg, Borges, Cervantes. If that list of authors sounds good to you, you're going to like this. It does for me and I did.

It was published by Coffee House Press in 2014. It seems ably translated by Christina MacSweeney.

I'd heard of her before, no longer sure where, but I decided to read this now because she was coming to Toronto for an #AppelSalon event. In the end the event was cancelled. Now I'm regretting that. Her novel Faces in the Crowd is on its way to my local library.


The 1965 Club (hosted by Simon and Kaggsy) starts next week and I've pulled a few candidates off the shelf:

(Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling has quietly returned to the shelf...I would have had to start it already.)

I'm particularly keen to read the James Ngugi (now known by the more authentically Gikuyu version of his name, Ngugi wa Thiong'o.) I read his Wizard of the Crow a couple of years ago and quite liked it.

The bottom volume (a little hard to make out) is The Far Side of the Dollar, a Lew Archer mystery by Ross MacDonald. I think of early to mid 60s as the strongest period of Archer mysteries, and it's one I haven't read in a while.

John Fowles' The Magus is the largest volume in that pile. But it's still much smaller than Marguerite Young!

Christie's At Bertram's Hotel, Lem's The Cyberiad, and Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby round off the pile.

Via Brona's I also realized that Fox in Socks was a 1965 book. Oh, if only I hadn't given away my childhood books...

Or I could (re-)read this:

Thanks to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting!

Links to what I actually did read will (in time) appear here:

Plus I featured an Elizabeth Bishop poem from her book of 1965, 'Manners, for a child of 1918.'

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Classics Club Spin #20

It's the Classics Club spin time again! Pick twenty books from your Classics Club list and by the power vested in the mighty random number generator one of them leaps to the top of the TBR pile.

Having gotten off lightly with the chunkster spin, I am not going to put either of the two remaining monsters on this spin list. This will be my fourth spin. The random number generator has been good to me so far, but why tempt fate, amirite?

1.) James Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
2.) Willa Cather/A Lost Lady
3.) Boccaccio/The Decameron (The Decameron slot)
4.) John Galsworthy/The Forsyte Saga
5.) Oliver Goldsmith/The Vicar of Wakefield
6.) Henry James/The American
7.) Malcolm Lowry/Under the Volcano
8.) Virginia Woolf/The Waves  (The Virginia Woolf slot 1 2 )
9.) Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris
10.) Edith Wharton/The Custom of the Country
11.) Bertrand Russell/The History of Western Philosophy
12.) Sylvia Plath/The Bell Jar
13.) James Baldwin/Notes of a Native Son
14.) Willa Cather/One of Ours
15.) Hermann Broch/The Death of Virgil
16.) Plutarch/Lives
17.) Edith Wharton/House of Mirth (The Edith Wharton slot)
18.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
19.) Richard Brinsley Sheridan/The School For Scandal
20.) Edmund Spenser/The Faerie Queene

May should actually be a pretty good reading month, so one of the longer ones might be nice: Boccaccio, Plutarch, Russell, Spenser. But we'll see...

Following Brona's example I put books that were related in the same slot as other spinners. If anybody else sees any matches, it would be fun to match up.

And the winner is...#19. Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School For Scandal

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sunday Salon

Briefly Noted

The late poet J. D. McClatchy published a selection of his commonplace book under the title Sweet Theft in 2016. I read it slowly, but it was quite a lot of fun. "People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading," is a quote by Logan Pearsall Smith. I'm sure there are many places I could have found that, but for me, I found it in McClatchy's Sweet Theft. And there are a bunch of other good ones in it.

I've got Auden's commonplace book here. It's sorted by topic and I see by the bookmark I punked out when I got to Calvin. Hmmm. I may have to try again.

Where I was

Well, I didn't get much reading done because the Other Reader and I were in Washington, DC. The weather was lovely, which it isn't yet here.
Georgetown street scene
From the Heurich House museum.
This is the sort of thing you commission when you're a rich brewer.

The reflecting pool doing its thing.
Was the Monument leaning right or am I left-leaning?

Sunset from the top of the Watergate.
There may have been some jokes about unindicted co-conspirators.

Saturday Baking

We did get back in time for me to make cookies before having friends over last night.

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

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Poem For A Thursday


Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake.
I woke. What beasthood skin she made me take? 
Leathery toad that ruts for days on end,
Or cringing dribbling dog, man's servile friend, 
Or cat that prettily pounces on its meat,
Tortures it hours, then does not care to eat: 
Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea.
What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me. 
    These seem like bristles, and the hide is tough.
No claw or web here: each foot ends in hoof. 
Into what bulk has method disappeared?
Like ham, streaked. I am gross--gray, gross, flap-eared. 
The pale-lashed eyes my only human feature.
My teeth tear, tear. I am the snouted creature 
That bites through anything, root, wire, or can.
If I was not afraid I'd eat a man. 
Oh a man's flesh already is in mine.
Hand and foot poised for risk. Buried in swine. 
    I root and root, you think that it is greed,
It is, but I seek out a plant I need. 
Direct me, gods, whose changes are all holy,
To where it flickers deep in grass, the moly: 
Cool flesh of magic in each leaf and shoot,
From milky flower to the black forked root. 
From this fat dungeon I could rise to skin
And human title, putting pig within. 
I push my big gray wet snout through the green,
Dreaming the flower I have never seen.
Thom Gunn was a British poet who emigrated to the U.S., to San Francisco, in 1954. He died in 2004.

I'm scheduling this post for publication in advance. I tried once before and failed utterly. This time for sure?

I'm sure there's something new and lovely (and chances are good not so grim--I can't explain it, I just like this poem. Maybe it's the classical allusions...) at Holds Upon Happiness.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Young Man With A Horn (#TBR2019RBR)

"Sensitive students of music go one of two ways when they hear a really great performance; young violinists, specifically, come away from a Yehudi concert feeling either that they'd better take up tennis or else get more time somehow to practice. Rick was with the last class..."
Young Man With A Horn (1938) is Dorothy Baker's debut novel about Rick Martin, a budding jazz trumpeter in the 1920s. The novel starts with him as a young orphan in L.A., raised with no oversight by an aunt and uncle. Rick stumbles on a piano in a Salvation Army hall and teaches himself to play, until the Army realizes he has no real business there. At the age of fifteen or so, working as a pin-setter in a bowling alley, he meets Smoke Jordan, a black drummer five years his senior, doing the janitorial work:
"When he pushed a broom nothing much came of it; he had developed a style of sweeping that was good to listen to from start to finish. It had its drawbacks, however, from a utilitarian standpoint; it raised an awful dust and it didn't get anywhere."
It's Smoke who's his entrance into a more committed world of jazz. Rick learns piano from Jeff Williams, a young black leader of a small combo; Smoke eventually takes over the drums for Williams' combo when the first drummer dies of appendicitis. Rick, though, decides he wants to play trumpet, mostly for its portability, and he studies under Art Hazard, the combo's trumpeter. He gets good. After the Jeff Williams combo moves to New York, Rick plays with a couple of other groups, moving his way up the food chain. Eventually, with a white band, he gets to New York himself.

Baker says, in a headnote, her novel about Rick Martin is based on the 'music, but not the life' of the jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, but it does follow the life of Bix in one important detail: it ends all too soon.

I think Baker writes well about the interaction between blacks and whites. Rick is raised to be casually racist; it wouldn't have been uncommon then, of course, leaving aside just how common it is now. But it didn't sink deep in Rick, and when he meets actual black people, who are nice and know things he values and wants to know, he's a bit puzzled by his reactions, but with some struggle is able to overcome them. It's pretty clear to me Baker had been reading Huck Finn.

The narrator is a person in the story, unnamed, and taking no part in the action, but still close to it. The narrator opens:
"What I'm going to do is write off the story of Rick Martin's life, now that it's all over, now that Rick is washed up and gone, as they say, to his rest."
Baker also writes well about jazz, informed without being didactic. Early on, the distinction between New Orleans-style and Memphis-style is a point, made clearly in the narrator's voice; musicians discuss technical points in a style authentic, but still lucid.

Rick's final words:
"This is sad; but so is everything, and in the end there is another thing to say about it. The good thing, finally, is to lead a devoted life, even if it swings around and strikes you in the face."
Anyhoo, another successful reissue from New York Review Books. Very good. Reading back over, my description fails to note it can be quite funny so I'm squeezing that in, too. Really my only complaint is the naming of the characters. Rick Martin? Jeff Williams? Might as well have been John Smith. I'm not really convinced by the aggressive Everyman-ish quality of the names. The ability to name characters interestingly is a useful skill and one Baker either didn't have or decided to forgo.

There was a movie made in 1950 with Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin, Dorothy Day as a singer, and Lauren Bacall as Rick's sometime love interest. I haven't seen it, though I'd now like to. The movie gets whitewashed, unsurprisingly I guess; none of the major characters in the movie are black, though they certainly are in the book. There's a hint, though little more than that, that the Lauren Bacall character in the book is bisexual. Apparently that does survive into the movie, though well within the framework of the Hays Code.

Another entry for the TBR challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Poem For A Thursday

Earl Cassilis's Lady
Meeting her on the heath at the day's end,
After the one look and the one sigh, he said,
Did a spine prick you from the goosefeather bed?
Were the rings too heavy on your hand?
Were you unhappy, that you had to go?
Was it the music called you down the stair,
Or the hot ginger that they gave you then?
Was it for pleasure that you followed them
Putting off your slippers at the door
To dance barefoot and blood-foot in the snow?
What then? What glamoured you? No glamour at all;
Only that I remembered I was young
And had to put myself into a song.
How could time bear witness that I was tall,
Silken, and made for love, if I did not so?
I do not know.
-Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (no relation that I know of...) is better known as a novelist, but her poems are good, too.

Earl Cassilis (pronounced Castle) is a hereditary Scottish lordship; Jean Hamilton, the wife of the 6th Earl (born 1668) somehow got herself connected with a Child ballad about being abducted by gypsies, and then from there made it into this poem. But, except maybe for the pronunciation of Cassilis, you don't really need to know any of that...

Jennifer has a poem about Pooh that definitely got copied into my commonplace book.