Thursday, December 31, 2020

Back To The Classics 2020 Challenge Wrapup


Time for a wrapup post for the 2020 edition of Karen's Back To The Classics Challenge. This is the first year I managed to read a book for all twelve categories; I only managed to write blog posts for ten of them, though. Here are this year's categories and what I matched up against them: (Matched up in the end. Not in the beginning...)

19th Century Classic

--Henry James' The American

20th Century Classic

--Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar

Classic by a Woman Author

--Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Classic in Translation

--Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt

Classic By A Person of Color

--James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

A Genre Classic

--Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea

Classic With A Person's Name in the Tile

--Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

Classic With A Place in the Title

--Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra

Classic With Nature in the Title

--Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country

Classic About A Family

--John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga

Abandoned Classic

--Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History

Classic With An Adaptation

--Charles Dickens' David Copperfield

I thought they were all really very good--no lemons in the bunch--well, they're classics, ya know? David Copperfield and Peer Gynt were rereads for me. I was a little surprised how much I enjoyed Tales of the Alhambra.

Reading a book for all twelve categories is the best I've ever done at this challenge, so, even though I didn't write about two of them--I'm still counting that very much as a success. I finished Carlyle only a couple of days ago; I'm likely to write about it soon and have half a post finished. I finished Giovanni's Room a couple of months ago now; I'll probably need to reread it before I do write about it. That only counts as ten books though for the draw. Should it be necessary I can be reached at reese (chiocciola) reesewarner (punto) com.

Thanks to Karen for hosting! Looking forward to the new version (for which I need to write a signup post...)

This is the third year I've done the challenge and I find I piled up all the books on the dining room table and took a picture with the Christmas tree in the background the first two times. Since one must keep up traditions...

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Bell Jar

"It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick,..."

It's a fairly famous opening, and it has a darkly ironic suitability to the events of the novel. We see it's a loaded statement, but just how is it loaded? Now all its subtlety is gone. We find the book with the name Sylvia Plath on the cover, and we all know all about her...but in 1963 it came out under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas and while that first edition cover was a bit ominous, you simply couldn't know, not like we think we do now.

It can still surprise, though, and the big surprise for me was that it's funny. It's funny for quite a while, until it isn't, and then it's horrifying. I was expecting the horrifying. I wasn't expecting the funny.

Esther Greenwood is a poor girl from the provinces (in this case the provinces are suburban Boston--so, not all that provincial) who goes to New York. She's bright, she's accomplished, she's observant. She's one of twelve girls who've won an internship given by a fashion magazine, in Esther's case for an essay. This background allows for funny bits as she comes into contact with a richer level of society:
"That was where I saw my first fingerbowl. 
The water had a few cherry blossoms floating in it, and I thought it must be some clear sort of Japanese after-dinner soup and ate every bit of it, including the crisp little blossoms. Mrs. Guinea never said anything, and it was only much later, when I told a debutante I knew at college about the dinner, that I learned what I had done."

There are hints of the depression that's going to descend upon her (like a 'bell jar') and cover her over, but again it's hard to read those as Plath probably meant them to be read. About her state when the depression descends, the novel is utterly convincing--and frightening. Treatment for depression is not all one could want now. It was genuinely horrifying in the 1950s.

I'm a little less certain about the transition between the one state and the other, and while Plath does foreshadow the event, it still felt very sudden. Likely this is deliberate on her part: if it could happen to the nice, normal-seeming Esther Greenwood, it could happen to anyone.

Very good and very gripping. I do think Plath is a better poet than novelist, though, since I think she's a very good poet indeed, that still leaves a lot of room for goodness here. I also don't imagine Plath would mind that characterization. 

This was one of my Back to the Classics books (for the category 20th Century Classic). I've read all twelve for the challenge, but I have two still to review. Am I going to write up two books in the next 36 hours? Probably not! Especially since I read Baldwin's Giovanni's Room a while ago now. Oh, well...

Also I recently read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye (another book I didn't write about...) but it got me wondering about entomologist fathers. Both books have an autobiographical component, and both authors (and both lead characters) have entomologist fathers. Just what is it about a dad who's gone a little buggy?

Monday, December 28, 2020

European Reading Challenge 2020 Wrapup


Gilion at Rose City Reader hosts a challenge to visit European countries by reading books set in them; this is one of the funnest challenges going as far as I'm concerned. My evidence this is true? It's the one I go the most over the top with and this year has been no different. And it was the only form of travel possible for most of this year.

The Deluxe tour is five countries. I visited a few more than that...

1.) Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. (UK)
2.) Henry James' The American. (France)
3.) Joan B. Flood's Left Unsaid. (Ireland)
4.) Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra. (Spain)
5.) Arthur Schnitzler's Late Fame. (Austria)
6.) Nino Haratischvili's The Eighth Life (For Brilka). (Georgia)
7.) Karel Čapek's R.U.R. (Czech Republic)
8.) Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. (Norway)
9.) I. B. Singer's In My Father's Court. (Poland)
10.) Henrik Pontoppidan's Lucky Per. (Denmark)
11.) Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. (Russia)
12.) Anna Seghers' Transit. (Germany)
13.) Amelie Nothomb's Life Form. (Belgium)
14.) Matei Calinescu's Zacharias Lichter. (Romania)
15.) Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover. (Italy)

My favorite countries this year were Russia, Denmark, and France.

This was my third year taking part. No surprise, I guess, that I visited the UK, France, Germany, and Italy all three years. A little more surprising was that I got to Poland and Austria each year. (Well, Austria is not that surprising. I'm a big Vienna-ophile...) The real surprise was I've been to Romania all three years. Maybe it's a sign I need to go in person? 

Thanks to Gilion for hosting! The signup for the new year is available. I need to do it!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


Benjamin Moser's biography of Susan Sontag won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography earlier this year. If you're interested in Sontag and read literary biographies, you're going to want to read it.

It's the first full-dress biography as well. It was authorized by David Rieff, Sontag's son, and Moser had access and cooperation. It wasn't the first biography, but it easily supersedes the others. 

Sontag was born in 1933 in southern California, grew up mostly in Arizona, lived in New York, Paris, elsewhere, and died in 2004 of the cancer that had been haunting her for years. She was bisexual, probably mostly Lesbian. She wrote, you know, a bunch of pretty good books. 

The book got mostly rave reviews, but it did generate two controversies. I'm 70% sure Moser was perfectly happy with the controversy. (Sells more books, amirite?) The first, the bigger one, was around the book Freud: The Mind of a Moralist. The second was about Sontag's failure to come out in the 80s. 

Freud: The Mind of a Moralist

Sontag married Philip Rieff, one of her professors at the University of Chicago, when she was 17, after a week-long courtship. As the older (but not that old!) of the two parties, Rieff should probably take most of the blame, but both of them should have known better. The marriage was a success for a very short while and then it wasn't.

But while the marriage was still at least functional that book about Freud came out. Moser makes it out as entirely written by Susan Sontag, sort of like Glenn Close in The Wife, with Jonathan Pryce doing Philip Rieff in the next room, making breakfast and wondering what his new book is going to be about. The Scottish juror in me has to say, not proven. Now if you look up Freud: The Mind of a Moralist on Amazon (it's still in print) the only author credit is Philip Rieff. I have no doubt that's wrong. Early editions of the book listed them both, Sontag under the name of Susan Rieff. But just because while the divorce was happening, Sontag said things like, I wrote that whole damn book by myself, well, that doesn't exactly count as evidence. Rieff was the one doing work on Freud when they met.

Worse, Moser seemed to feel the need to blacken Rieff's own achievements, the better to highlight Sontag's. There's no doubt Sontag will have the greater afterlife. There was no need. For example, Moser writes:

 "'Yeah, your husband's crazy,' the family court judge said. 'You get the kid.'" 

I thought, a family court judge says anything anywhere near that? Not likely. Now Moser's honest enough to properly footnote; that quote comes from Sigrid Nunez in an interview. Nunez (author of a wonderful memoir of Sontag) was a typist for Sontag years later and then David Rieff's girlfriend for a while. However, she may not even have been born when this family court judge made that purported comment; that quote is definitely second or third-hand. But you have to read the footnotes to know that.

Moser also says that Rieff grew up in the slum of Rogers Park (a neighborhood in Chicago.) That hurt. I grew up in Rogers Park (and Edgewater, the area immediately south) and I didn't know I was a slum kid. But take it from me, no matter how poor Rieff was as a child or where exactly he grew up in Rogers Park, it was not the Lower East Side.

Anyway, I know an underdog when I see one, and Philip Rieff is the underdog in this. On this controversy Moser doesn't come off very well.

On the other hand Moser was quite interesting on the intellectual hothouse atmosphere of the University of Chicago at the time. My father went there for a year--I think it would have been the year before Sontag started--didn't much like it and transferred to Northwestern. But Moser's description certainly gibed with some of my dad's stories.

Coming Out

Susan Sontag certainly did not come out of the closet in the 80s. She slunk out in her final years, but would have preferred not to discuss it. 

There was a very strong argument to be made that coming out in the 80s would have made the lives of less well-known homosexuals easier. There was even the argument (one aspect of Silence=Death) it would save lives: a good chunk of the reason AIDS was ignored was because only *those* people got it. Would Sontag's coming out have had had a substantial impact? Hmm. Maybe. Though not like Rock Hudson's death.

And there would have been repercussions. Moser quotes Edmund White as saying if Sontag had come out then she would have lost two-thirds her sales. Her public reputation would have suffered. She might have lost publishers, friends. 

Still she could have.

Benjamin Moser gave a talk at the Appel Salon at the Toronto Public Library a bit over a year ago and we went. Back when you could do that sort of thing. I knew I was likely to want to read the book. During the question period, in person he was pretty forgiving of her decision, and understanding of the psychological difficulty someone of Sontag's generation might have in coming out. The book does come across as more condemnatory. One can always hope for and celebrate heroism. For myself I'm not particularly inclined to judge if it doesn't appear. 

I do remember some reviews beat up the book because of that condemnatory attitude, but maybe not entirely deservedly.


I do think it was pretty good. Lots of fascinating stuff about Sontag. It's neither hagiography nor hack job, though I'd probably have gone for a little more hagiography myself. Literary biographers can concentrate either on the life or on the works. Moser spent more time on the life, but not drastically so. You may or may not prefer that. On the works, I thought he was solid about On Photography, that impossible but fascinating work. It was amusing to read that Leni Riefenstahl knew exactly what Sontag had done to her in 'Fascinating Fascism' and hated her for it.

But by talking himself into thinking Sontag was solely responsible for the Freud book, I think he's skewed his sense of her intellectual direction. I've read pretty much all of Sontag at least once. (Not the first novel, the filmscripts, the play, and, of the diaries, only what's been published.) Moser, I'm sure, has read more. Still. It would be impossible for an American who comes of intellectual age when Sontag does to be free of considering Freud, but I don't think Freud is anywhere near as important to her thought as Moser does. She underwent analysis at one point. Well, was there a New York intellectual who didn't? 

Sontag's important writers are the a- or anti-Freudians. Canetti, Benjamin, Artaud. Mann. The nouveau roman doesn't have much brief with Freud. She doesn't write about Nabokov directly, but he's clearly important to her; he famously disdains Freud.  Illness as Metaphor seems very anti-Freudian to me. Sontag is much more politically engaged than a pure Freudian would be. Camp is a way around Freud; Freud was notoriously dismissive of homosexuality. Why would she be particularly engaged with Freud?

This is a question of interpretation of course, and your mileage may vary. In rereading Under The Sign of Saturn, Sontag's best book for my money, she does cite Freud in discussing Canetti, a citation I doubt Canetti approved of. 

One note: Moser says Canetti's first language was Spanish. This is either a weird political statement (Is Ladino just a dialect of Spanish?*) or more likely a simple error.

Mere Sontagisme!

*"a sprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot" - A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. A classic bit of Yiddishkeit.


Monday, December 14, 2020

The Volcano Lover

 "Nothing can match the elation of the chronically melancholy when joy arrives."

I've been on a bit of a Susan Sontag kick lately; after I'd been waiting a while, my library coughed up Benjamin Moser's recent biography. When I saw it was 'in transit' I read some of Sontag's essays; before I got to Moser's description of that period in her life, I decided to read The Volcano Lover. It first came out in 1992. Sontag was 59.

The story is set in the Napoleonic era; its basis is the love triangle of Sir William Hamilton, English ambassador to the kingdom of Naples, Emma Hamilton, the most famous beauty of the day, and Lord Nelson. Sontag gives herself a good story and good characters to start with.

Moser tends to read all of Sontag's books as if they were disguised autobiography (post on his biography coming soon?) and, while I didn't mean it to, that colored my reading of this. That quote above is Sir William Hamilton in the novel, but it might very well have been about Sontag herself when this, her third novel, was a critical and commercial success. 

But even without Moser's help you might be inclined to read this as disguised autobiography. Sontag deliberately flirts with that sort of reading. Like Proust writing his book where the narrator is Marcel. The opening:
"It is the entrance to a flea market. No charge. Admittance free."

Sounds like now. It is:

"But I would be entering it here. In my jeans and silk blouse and tennis shoes: Manhattan, spring of 1992."

Call this narrator 'Susan' if you like. She portrays herself as a collector, at least potentially: postcards of movie stars, Navajo rings, World War II bomber jackets, knives, model cars, cut-glass dishes, Roman coins. The things one might find at a flea market. But notice how our collectibles are moving back in time. We then drop some space and switch to the collector that is the main character of the novel, Sir William Hamilton:

"It is the end of a picture auction. London, autumn of 1772."

And we're off. 

Most of the novel takes place in Naples; Hamilton in addition to collecting pictures and statuary, studies Vesuvius, the volcano outside of Naples. He's the volcano lover. (Ignoring metaphorical readings.) He thinks of himself at times as a new Pliny the Elder, though he doesn't plan on dying in an eruption.

Sontag never refers to Hamilton as Hamilton; he's always the Cavaliere. Emma Hamilton is the Wife, and Nelson is the Hero. Other characters from the historical record are given their actual names, but the center of the drama is shifted a bit into an archetypal space.

It's Hamilton who's Sontag's historical alter ego, and it's Hamilton who's given the most space, and who's the best portrayed character in the novel. The first section, a hundred pages or so, shows him with his first wife, unwell and eventually dying. They were in love, she more than he, but his grief is genuine.

Then Emma comes into his life. Except for small items such as her beauty and her intelligence, Emma is not exactly marriageable in 1791. She'd been the painter Romney's model, known to be the mistress of various men, born way over on the very wrong side of whatever tracks there might have been. Hamilton is independent enough to not care. He accepts he will never be able to present her at court in London, though he does eventually in Naples. Emma comes to love him. 

Then Nelson comes to Naples. And here's the hole at the center of the novel. It's a romantic triangle. Sontag has emphasized the archetypal nature of the triangle. But the three of them all get along. It's very annoying. I also wasn't really convinced. 

I've never read anything about the real persons who appear in the novel. Maybe they did all get along. But there's not much subtlety here. The Cavaliere is convincing as a character. The Wife, less so; and the Hero, not at all. There's drama and tension in the novel, real human relations: the Cavaliere and his first wife; Emma and her mother. Sontag writes fiercely about the atrocities perpetrated at the fall of the Parthenopean Republic, with Nelson taking a good chunk of the blame. But the main romance I just found dull, which seems wrong. 

Ah, well. The beginning was good. The end was good, too: it ends with retrospectives written by dead characters, including the Cavaliere's first wife, whom I was happy to see more of:

"I cannot speak of myself without speaking of him. Even when I do not mention him, he is present by omission. But I will speak of myself, too.

I was his first wife.

I was plain. I was often unwell. I was devout. I loved music. He married me for my money. I fell in love with him after we were married. My God, how I loved him! He grew to love me, more than he had expected."

Overall I quite liked it, but curiously more for what happened at the margins than at the center.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter

"One way or another, all philosophical insight derives from an awareness of the mendacious nature of language. In fact, in language, truth is always relative, partial, circumscribed--a fragment of a fragment, an echo of an echo, a mere shadow." [p.126]


That's not an unrepresentative sample from Matei Calinescu's The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter. (1969, tr. Andrea Calinescu and Breon Mitchell, 2018.) It is labeled a novel, were warned.

I tend to be OK with that sort of thing. And while the talk may be philosophical, and the plot near to non-existent, it does have characters. The 'Biographer' who is telling us about Lichter, Lichter himself, and several figures in Lichter's circle: the drunk and silent philosopher Leopold Nacht,  Adrian Leonescu, a specialist in English phonetics, and Doctor S., a psychotherapist, the villain of the piece, if that's not too exalted a term. (He keeps wanting to explain Lichter, to explain Lichter to himself.) A few others. Zacharias Lichter is culturally Jewish, but not practicing.

The book is divided into short chapters, many of which are philosophical treatises in miniature. The quote above, for example, comes from a chapter 'On Lying.' Others include 'Regarding the Devil,' 'Responsibility and Freedom,' and 'On Mathematical Language.' At points it suggested Wittgenstein, if you leave out the math.

Lichter is also a poet, and we see his poems, though Lichter treats his own poetry dismissively. One poem presented in the text, the 'Biographer' tells us he had to rescue from the trash. They're typically held together with a sort of Biblical anaphora. Here's the opening to 'Mouth Full of Flowers': [p.56]

Beggars, lunatics, old friends,
It's been raining so long we have no shelter,
It rains of winter, of spring, and of other seasons,
It rains of thought and death, and without a purpose, it rains
Of fright and of cold words, of words, words.

But mostly, in addition to being a philosopher and a poet, Lichter is a sort of secular saint. He takes up an almost Buddhist begging rather than accumulate possessions. He's kind to the downtrodden and concerned with the aetherial. Lichter, himself, though denies this, saying that the silent (stille? und so heilige? 'Tis the season...) Nacht is the embodiment of love in the world. 

Norman Manea in the introduction says that 1969 was a period of relative liberalization in Romania; the book came out then. Also maybe the censors were too stupid to see. The novel takes place in a no-time, possibly the 1930s, but not very explicitly so, so how could Calinescu be complaining about Ceausescu? Nevertheless Calinescu was not allowed to publish afterwards, and got out of Romania, ultimately taking a position at Indiana University. He died in 2009. 

Life and Opinions suggests to English readers Tristram Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and apparently it does to a Romanian, too. Cioran said of the novel, it's the story of the Baal Shem Tov as told by Sterne. It's not a bad comparison. Lichter is more analytic and less purely genial than the Baal Shem Tov, at least as the latter is presented in Buber and I. B. Singer. But like the Baal Shem Tov, and Socrates for that matter, Lichter doesn't write much:

"The fiery truth can only be transmitted orally." [p.80]

When he does write, he considers it shameful. (Hence, the poem in the trashcan.) 

While it's as plotless as Tristram Shandy, it is plotless in a different way and its prose is quite different. It reminded me of George Gissing's The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, though I wonder if Calinescu could even have seen that work. But Gissing's short book has a biographer, G. G. as character, and a series of texts on philosophical or spiritual issues. Ryecroft is more of a nature writer than the urban Lichter. Anyway, Zacharias Lichter is its own thing, and I liked that thing. But it may have been wise on Calinescu's part to keep it short... (145 pages in translation).

"And now, may I ask what moved you to write my biography? Don't you see that my 'biography' is the last thing that could possibly be written? If I knew, at least that you meant to write a fictional life of Zacharias Lichter, so be it!...I predict that the biography you write will be serious and boring, cold, perhaps awkwardly ironic; something fitting only for yourself." [p.144]

Maybe, maybe not...

Nearing the end of the year, but one more for Gillion's European Reading Challenge!

Monday, November 23, 2020

Eduardo Mendoza's The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt (#NovNov)

 'In this shite-house of a country even the lunatics are fascist.'

Eduardo Mendoza's The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt (1979, translated by Nick Caistor, 2008) is narrated by a lunatic. Well, at the start of the novel, he's an inmate in a lunatic asylum. That comment is made by one of the staff doctors. But Dr. Sugrañes, the head of the asylum, tells our narrator he's recovered. (We might have some doubts.) It's only a bureaucratic snafu that's keeping him inside. And if only he'll perform a small service, just a very small service, for Inspector Flores, he can win his freedom.

The narrator was a police informer before he fell foul of the police, and was locked up in the asylum. (Exactly why an asylum and not prison is not made particularly clear.) He's presumed to know the streets and have sources of information.

The case Flores wants solved is the disappearance of a fourteen-year-old girl from a convent school. Six years before there was a similar disappearance, but the case was dropped and the mystery never explained when the girl returned a few days later. Flores wants to know what happened, make sure this girl returns, too, but wants deniability if he needs it. Hence our narrator is put on the case.

The 1979 date is important. The novel is set in the immediate post-Franco era in Barcelona. Flores was a policeman in the Franco era; he remains in his position after the death of Franco. The narrator was locked up in the Franco years. Was his case political as well? Probably.

It's funny, or I thought so, though some of the jokes are a bit insider-y:
'...all she ever bought were the Planeta prizewinners, and you know what they're like.' [109]
I immediately looked up to see if Mendoza had won the Planeta prize. He had not. But they didn't hold it against him (or maybe they did?) because he won it later.
'I hailed a taxi I had spotted, jumped in and told the driver, 
    "Follow those two cars. I'm from the secret police."
    "So am I," he said. "Which branch?"
    "Drugs," I improvised. "How is the wage bargaining going?"
    "Badly, as usual," grumbled the bogus taxi driver. "We'll see what happens at these elections. I'm going to vote Felipe González: what about you?"
    "Whoever my bosses tell me to." [143]
González is a socialist. Perhaps not whom the secret police should be voting for. And:
'Seeing a dentist weep so despairingly was strangely moving.' [151]
Which made me laugh out loud, though maybe that's just me... 

There's also a running joke about how our narrator can't get a shower; he was in the middle of a soccer game at the insane asylum when he was first put on the case and never gets a wash until the end.

It's also got the shape of a P.I. novel and the solution isn't bad.

Politics, humor, plotting. Pretty good all-in-all. This is the first in a series by Mendoza with his mad detective.

Mendoza is a contemporary Spanish novelist (b. 1943) and celebrated--he won the Premio Cervantes in 2016--but only some of his works have made it into English. This is the first thing by him I've read, but I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for others. Wikipedia says his works are divided, like Graham Greene's sometimes were, into 'novels' and 'entertainments'. If so, this was an entertainment--and indeed it was--but substantial enough, too. 

I'm not really sure where I heard about him, probably someone in the bloggy world, though. If it was you, it's OK, you can now raise your hand...

At 192 pages, and not particularly dense ones, I'm guessing it's 50000 words, maybe a little long for the category, but I say it's a Novella in November!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

And the winner is... (Classics Club Spin #25)


...John Stuart Mill's Autobiography. Now I get to discover why starting Latin at age 13 was too late, too late! But I am looking forward to it.

Nowadays I probably would have just read this from Project Gutenberg, especially since this Kessinger reprint doesn't have any notes or anything, but since I have this print copy...

Time to put all those other books back on the shelf so I can find them in the future:

Did you get something good?

Friday, November 20, 2020

Classics Club Spin #25

It's time for a Classics Club spin again, number 25. I decided I didn't want to shuffle around those remaining books from my first Classics Club list one more time. In a moment of idleness a while back, I started assembling some categories of books that I might put on a second Classics Club list, and I made my list mostly from that.

After being unable to find Mary Wollstonecraft for the last spin, I decided I'd better have all the books in hand:

The Categories and the Books

Women Authors from the Library of America

I've read parts of all these books, but there's still good reading in them!

1.) Dawn Powell/Turn, Magic Wheel
2.) Eudora Welty/Delta Wedding
3.) Katharine Anne Porter/Pale Horse, Pale Rider
4.) Nella Larsen/Quicksand
5.) Willa Cather/One of Ours

One of Ours is actually from my current Classics Club list.

Chicago Classics

My home town has produced some classic literature. Most of the good Toronto books are perhaps not quite old enough to be considered classics yet.

6.) James T. Farrell/A World I Never Made
7.) Theodore Dreiser/Sister Carrie
8.) Richard Wright/Native Son
9.) Harry Mark Petrakis/A Dream of Kings
10.) Nelson Algren/The Man With The Golden Arm

James T. Farrell is better known for Studs Lonigan, which got the Library of America treatment, but that's grim and I didn't feel like rereading it just now. A World I Never Made is the first of the Danny O'Neill series. In my first list, I didn't allow rereads, but I've decided this time I will. If I haven't read a book since my 20s, well, it's like it's new all over again...Except for the Petrakis, these are all rereads.

Nineteenth Century Non-Fiction

11.) John Ruskin/Unto This Last
12.) Thomas Carlyle/Heroes and Hero-Worship
13.) Thomas de Quincey/The Lake Poets
14.) J. S. Mill/Autobiography
15.) James Austin-Leigh/A Memoir of Jane Austen

Non-Fiction from Deb's List

Clearly I was already thinking of adding some non-fiction to the new list, but then Deb assembled a list of non-fiction classics with help from the community. Why, I have some of those!

16.) Dee Brown/Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
17.) Truman Capote/In Cold Blood
18.) Rene Descartes/Meditations and Discourse on Method
19.) R. L. Stevenson/Travels With A Donkey
20.) Barbara Tuchman/A Distant Mirror

Other potential categories that didn't show up this time were Russians, plays, and Trollope. Yet to come!

Which look good to you?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

David Copperfield

 "I will never desert Mr. Micawber!"

I decided to reread David Copperfield because--well, does one really need a reason to reread David Copperfield? But I've been thinking about rereading it recently because of the new movie version directed by Armando Ianucci, The Personal History of David Copperfield:

It's possible to have seen the movie by now, but it is challenging these days and I haven't. Dev Patel should be a good Copperfield; Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep seems pretty inspired; Peter Capaldi looks promising as Micawber in the clip, though maybe a little Whovian to me. Anyway not Malcolm-Tucker-ish. Capaldi does have to compete with W. C. Fields to be the definitive Micawber. Nevertheless what I'm really looking forward to is Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood, David's aunt. Some day, hopefully soon, I'll manage to see it.

We'll keep the plot summary simple: young David Copperfield is orphaned, he's sent off to be a child laborer, he runs away from that to his Aunt, he makes good, he marries the wrong girl, and finally he gets married to the right girl. You probably knew all that. It's a pretty good read...

A couple of things occurred to me. Maybe it's just because I have Vindication of The Rights of Women in my head, but just as I wondered if Austen knew that book, now I'm wondering if Dickens did, too. Not unlikely, though in googling I didn't find any particular indication. But Dora is educated to pre-Wollstonecraft specifications, with the expected results; Agnes, according to post-Wollstonecraft ideas. It's not that Dora is a bad person, just that she acts as she's been brought up to do.

Marriage, and marrying the right person, is the theme in this. Well, Dickens always has a bit of a message in his novels. Mrs. Strong says she nearly gave way to the 'first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.' The words register with David who, at the time he hears them, is married to Dora. Dickens wants it to become a bit an ear-worm for us, but it doesn't, not entirely. Instead we remember, "I will never desert Mr. Micawber." Which fits the theme, of course. Emma Micawber's heart's first impulse was equally undisciplined, I guess, certainly her family thought so, but she disciplined her heart to follow Mr. Micawber. She gets rewarded for it in the end. And she's not the only undisciplined heart in the novel. (David, of course, Emily Peggotty, even Betsey Trotwood.) David, through the magic of the omnipotent Victorian novelist, gets to fix that initial error. Dora may be more lamented, but she goes the way of Bertha Rochester and Edward Casaubon. 

My edition includes the introduction G. K. Chesterton wrote for the Everyman's Library. Like all of the Chesterton introductions, it's contrary, but written with verve. He writes:

"The reader does still feel that David's marriage to Dora was a real marriage; and that his marriage to Agnes was nothing, a middle-aged compromise, a taking of the second-best, a sort of spiritualized and sublimated marriage of convenience."

I suspect no actual reader of Copperfield other than Chesterton ever thought anything like this. And Dickens doesn't want you to think this. If David's marriage to Dora feels more real than his marriage to Agnes that's because Dora comes across as a real person, and Agnes is the usual, too-good-to-be-true, Dickensian heroine. But David and Agnes are the ideal Dickensian couple, and we're meant to feel warm and fuzzy when they do get married. (And I did...)

I had some other thoughts but I'll stop for now.

David Copperfield was a late sub onto the field for a couple of other books (Decameron, Razor's Edge) but definitely qualifies for a couple of my challenges.

Did somebody just say it was supposed to be Novellas in November? Oy! Now you tell me!

Have you seen the movie? If you've read it, what did you think?

And...I will never desert Mr. Micawber!

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Les Murray's Dog Fox Field (#AusReadingMonth2020)


Dog Fox Field is a collection of poems by Les Murray that came out in 1990. Murray was born in 1938 and was by then a well-established poet. He died in April of last year, and was, until then, often named as a possible Nobel prize laureate. 

His poems are mostly in a rough-hewn formal verse; he likes, for instance, ballad meter:
So it's back to window shopping
on Aphrodite Street
for the apples are stacked and juicy
but some are death to eat.  [From 'The Fall of Aphrodite Street']

You can decide what that metaphor is about on your own.  

Sometimes his use of sound is quite over the top: [From 'On Removing Spiderweb']

Like summer silk its denier
but stickily, o ickilier
miffed bunny-blinder, silver tar,
crepe when cobbed,  crap when rubbed,...

There's more, but maybe that's enough about icky spiderwebs... 😉

As those quotes maybe show, he has a sense of humor; anyway, he does for me. He says the nicest thing about accordions I've ever heard anyone say: ['Accordion Music'] "it can conjure Paris up, or home, or unclench a chinstrap jaw/but it never sang for a nob's baton, or lured the boys to war." Though I just Googled accordion sonata, and naturally there are a few. So some nob somewhere once tried to tell an accordion what to do.

I think he's better at longer length; this volume has a number of quite good narrative poems. And, in fact, my favorite volume of his (I've not read that much) is Fredy Neptune, a novel in verse of 250 pages. Fredy (Friedrich) is the child of German immigrants to Australia and he manages to become involved in practically every major event in the first half of the 20th Century. He fights on both sides in WWI, witnesses the Armenian genocide, joins Lawrence of Arabia, meets Banjo Paterson in Egypt, goes to Hollywood, outwits the Nazis, etc., etc.

Historical events show up in this as well. One is in the voice of a shako-wearing soldier of Austria-Hungary: ['The Lieutenant of Horse Artillery'] "...the length of a desperate ride/for my Emperor and King, as our Empire died/with its dream of happy cultures dancing in a ring." I don't think anybody at the time quite thought Austria-Hungary was a multicultural paradise, but maybe in retrospect? Another was based on the story/legend of Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry, which was new to me, but fascinating, and made a good poem.

There are also rural, agricultural poems. Murray's background was rural--he lived much of his life in small town New South Wales--and a number of his poems reflect that. These kind of went past me. Well, I'm not much of a farmer. Still there was one in the voice of an older heifer whose milk has dried up, and is about to be killed, that was very poignant. ['The Cows on Killing Day'] It starts:
All me are standing on feed. The sky is shining.

All me have just been milked. Teats all tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.

I had a thought about a certain generation of male poets that like formal structures but avoid mellifluousness, using harder consonants (g, k, t) and word-pairings that imply a glottal stop, as if the euphony of Tennyson or Swinburne were somehow suspicious. Les Murray fits in here. I'm also thinking of Ted Hughes (b. 1930) or Seamus Heaney (b. 1939). Paul Fussell in his Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (1965) bad mouths Tennyson for his euphoniousness and not his Victorian sentimentality, which kind of shocked me when I first read it. (As it turns out I'm mostly OK with both euphony and Victorian sentimentality.) But this is an AusReadingMonth post, and I don't feel like pulling a bunch of other books off the shelf, so you'll have to imagine the examples I might use...

My vague sense is that Les Murray became more crotchety and conservative as he got older. Not much sign of it in this. He thanks Paul Keating in a brief acknowledgements section. I thought this quite a good volume, and Les Murray is a poet worth knowing better.

Two short ones to close. A wise, but not very Japanese, haiku:

Politics and Art

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

And one of:  

Three Last Stanzas

Absolutely anything
is absolute to those
who see the poem in it.
Relegation is prose.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Susanna Clarke's Piranesi


I don't know about you, but I've been waiting for this book for what feels like a very long time. Well, it was 2004 when Susanna Clarke's previous (and first) novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell came out.

Piranesi is a name for the main character of the novel; the novel is told in the form of his diaries. It's clear something is going on that we as readers don't understand:


When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years."

That's the opening of the novel, after a couple of epigraphs. The drama in the book comes from understanding why Piranesi writes in this odd voice, where he is, what this odd world is like, even who he is. It's nearly impossible to say anything without being spoiler-ish. So, first, the important question: if you loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as I did, will you want to read Piranesi? I say, very definitely, yes. The two novels are quite different stylistically: Strange & Norrell was pretty maximalist, and this is nearly minimalist, but I thought Piranesi very good, and pleasingly different.

I'll try to be good, but after this, there may be spoilers...

We learn pretty quickly there may be only one other living person in this world. Piranesi refers to him as the Other. There are a number of skeletons, thirteen to be precise, and Piranesi refers to the person who might be reading his diaries as Sixteen. Where do the skeletons come from? Does Sixteen even exist and who might Sixteen be?

Piranesi sees the Other twice a week for no more than an hour at a time. The Other uses a diction much more contemporary than the odd formality of Piranesi. It's the Other who gave Piranesi his nickname; Piranesi doesn't really have a name for himself. (The Other makes up the name from Giovanni Piranesi, creator of the Carceri d'Invenzione, which are something like the halls our Piranesi inhabits.) The Other is another mystery in the novel, since he's so clearly not of the same world as Piranesi. When Piranesi needs a flashlight or new shoes, the Other provides them. But in the world that Piranesi inhabits, he's helpless. 

Piranesi finds bits of another diary, quite different from his own; it seems to refer to a different world with different events. Eventually two 'Sixteens' show up. The Other warns Piranesi to avoid them. One is a man, and eventually the Other doesn't seem particularly interested in him; the other is a woman, this is the one the Other is particularly concerned about.  Who are these two Sixteens? What is their relationship to the Other? Such are the questions.

[More spoiler-ish, but hopefully not completely spoiler-ish...]

Gradually we learn that the mention of eight years in the opening line is pretty horrific.

One of the things that's interesting about the novel is how it returns to the themes of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In her earlier novel, the two magicians are investigating a world they only half understand; in Piranesi, there are likewise two individuals investigating something they don't understand. The two magicians/investigators have a complicated relationship in both novels. Piranesi's halls may be something like John Uskglass' faery domain, except there is no John Uskglass in this. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is historical, while this is set in the present, but there are otherwise definite parallels.

One of the two epigraphs to this novel was by C. S. Lewis, and there are other allusions to Lewis, most of which went past me, I admit. It's been a long time since I read The Chronicles of Narnia. On the other hand, I was totally up on the allusions to Doctor Who. But the other epigraph was by Laurence Arne-Sayles, who, as it turns out, is a character in the novel:

"People call me a philosopher or a scientist or an anthropologist. I am none of those things. I am an anamnesiologist. I study what has been forgotten. I divine what has disappeared utterly. I work with absences, with silences, with curious gaps between things. I am really more of a magician than anything else."

Except for a slight modernity to its tone--the use of the word anthropologist, say--this could easily have been written by Mr. Norrell. 

And I don't think I'll say anything else except, I liked it very much.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

#NonFicNov - My year in Non-Fiction


The opening week prompt is:

Your year in nonfiction: take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions - What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you've been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in nonfiction November?

Definitely the two best nonfiction reads for me were books I reread: (so I must like them, right?)

Brian Dillon's Essayism

Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael

Both of those are works of literary criticism, though Essayism has some memoir blended in. Without intending it, this does seem to have been a year reading literary criticism. Part of that was because of the Moby-Dick readalong. I blogged about The Cambridge Introduction to Melville which was also in that category. I read Delbanco's biography of Herman Melville at the very end of last year.

Two other works of literary criticism I didn't blog about but I do recommend: 

James Huneker's Egoists: A Book of Supermen. Huneker was a newspaperman, first in Philadelphia and then in New York, who died in 1921. He covered cultural issues: music, theater, literature. This volume is about writers of the time. The essay about Stendhal, whose diaries were just being published, I thought especially good. He also looks at Baudelaire, Huysmans, Ibsen, others. And, as the title might suggest, Nietzsche.

Vivian Gornick's The End of The Novel of Love. A collection of essays that had previously appeared, I assume, but I hadn't read any of them before. Good on individuals as different as Clover Adams and Grace Paley. She closes her essay on Willa Cather, "Today Jean Rhys seems dated, Virginia Woolf important, and Willa Cather wise." Which, though I'm not sure about Jean Rhys, otherwise struck me. The title essay was also very good.

A related, but not identical, category: author's memoirs. I read and blogged about Isaac Bashevis Singer's book on his early years in Poland, In My Father's Court. I thought it was very good. I also read his memoir of his first years in New York City, Love and Exile. I liked it, but I didn't find it quite as interesting.

I also read Huneker's autobiography, Steeplejack. Definitely read his criticism first. 

Two classic works on women's issues:

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Not much history this year, which surprised me. I read Daisy Dunn's joint biography of the two Plinys, Shadow of Vesuvius. It was good, but I didn't blog about it. Some other classical history, as well.

I mostly avoided contemporary issues at book length--I couldn't much bear it. I did read Zadie Smith's short book of Covid essays, Intimations because I read pretty much everything of hers, but my favorite essay in the collection was the one that had the least to do with what's going on now. I also read Sarah Burns' book The Central Park Five. Not a brilliant book, but a good introduction to the facts. What a miscarriage of justice. Though the man in the White House (as of today, but hopefully not much longer) still doesn't acknowledge it, or his part in it.

The complete collection of my nonfiction posts for this year can be found here.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Sunday Salon: November Challenges

Why are all the fun book challenges in November?! It's not fair!

Of course, this isn't really true, but there are a lot of them. In alphabetical order, there's:



Margaret Atwood Reading Month

Non-Fiction in November

Novellas in November

And we're already in the middle of Witch Week

Now if Margaret Atwood would move to Australia, write a short non-fiction book in German about warlocks and have it translated, and do it by the end of the week, I would be all set!

Short of that...I've got two books that I read in October and should write posts for soon. James Baldwin's novella about homosexual life in Paris, Giovanni's Room, and John Szwed's biography of Sun Ra, Space Is The Place.

Other things I'm thinking about that fit one or more categories:

Susanna Clarke's Piranesi
Les Murray's Dog Fox Field
Ingeborg Bachman's Malina
Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days
Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye
Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus

This post is mostly to help organize myself, but maybe it helps you, too...

Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft is a polemical work; it tries to convince. Nowadays if you have a non-zero chance of reading the book, you will already agree with the argument it's trying to make: that women should be given a good education, the equivalent of anything given to men; that both the women themselves and society at large will be better off for women having a good education; and that anyone educated to be silly and manipulative, well, will be silly and manipulative.

"Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple premise, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice."

Maybe in 1792 there were people who might read this book and learn from it. It's not that there aren't people now who could to stand to learn these things--I could name a few--but they won't be reading this book. Alas.

I enjoyed it. It's always flattering to be told things you already believed are in fact true. 😉 

Wollstonecraft has a few targets in writing this. There's a couple of Scottish moralists that I had to look up to find out who they were: Dr. John Gregory, James Fordyce. I suspect nobody would read them now except for Mary Wollstonecraft. The big target--and the one she spends most of her firepower on--is Rousseau. Well, Rousseau's idea of female education, given at the end of Émile is pretty awful, and Rousseau is a bit weird about women in general--cf. The Confessions, fascinating though that work may be--or in his relationship with Thérèse Levasseur. Wollstonecraft gets the better of this argument by far. 

I learned that the first English translation of Émile is titled Emilius, and it's the version Wollstonecraft quotes. Sophie becomes Sophia. 

At several points I thought Jane Austen knows this book well. Wikipedia tells me Austen doesn't ever mention Wollstonecraft, but it seems I'm not the only person to have decided Austen liked the book.

A few quotes:

"I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour."

"Happy is it when people have the cares of life to struggle with; for these struggles prevent their becoming a prey to enervating vices, merely from idleness."

"Strength of body, and that character of countenance, which the French term a physionomie, women do not acquire before thirty, any more than men."

"From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind."

"I know not what is wanted to render this the happiest as well as the most respectable situation in the world, but a taste for literature, to throw a little variety and interest into social converse, and some superfluous money to give to the needy, and to buy books."

This post has been in draft mode for a very long time now. (It was the last spin book & I finished the book on time.) There's a print copy (a Penguin) somewhere in the house, but I couldn't find it when I was about to start reading the book, so I grabbed a copy from Project Gutenberg. I finished it on the eReader. I started writing this post, but then thought I should read the introduction before posting.

I still haven't found the Penguin so I'm just publishing this post anyway. I'm sorry to report this is the sort of house where books can get lost among their brethren and then are impossible to find... 


Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Suitable Boy

"'You too will marry a boy that I choose,' said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter." 

A Suitable Boy is Vikram Seth's massive novel (1474 pages in my edition) about life in India in the early 1950s. It first came out in 1993. 

With that many pages there are, of course, a couple of interlocking plots. They're spread out across four interrelated families. 

The one that gives the novel its title is Lata Mehra's search--or maybe more her mother's search on Lata's behalf--for a husband. Lata's family is Hindu, of the Khatri (a merchant) caste, middle-class, but after the death of her father, a bit impoverished. Lata herself is a college student majoring in English. There are three main candidates. In order of appearance: Kabir Durrani, a fellow student of Lata's who's a Muslim; Lata's brother-in-law, Amit Chatterji, a well-known poet in English, and a Brahmin of a well-to-do family; and Haresh Khanna, an up-and-coming manager in the shoe industry, of the right caste. This has the fun of a rom-com plot, with various parties scheming for and against, while Lata tries to decide. It ends in a marriage, and probably even the right one. (Though, if you've read it, did you think so?)

Another plot is political: Lata's older sister married Pran Kapoor. Pran's father Mahesh is a member of the Congress party and at the start, the Minister of Revenue for the (imaginary) state of Purva Pradesh. Mahesh Kapoor is the author of an important land reform bill that has only just been passed, but is still under legal challenge when the first national election since Partition and the independence of India is taking place. There are machinations between wings of the Congress party that catch up Minister Kapoor.

The third (the last major, but not entirely the last) subplot involves Maan Kapoor, Minister Kapoor's other son, who is living a dissipated life and has fallen in love with an older (Muslim) singer of ghazals, Saeed Bai. Maan's best friends are the twins Firoz and Imtiaz Khan; Saeed Bai has other connections to the Khans, a Muslim family.

The Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans. Whew. Got all that?

At fifteen hundred pages with a marriage plot, it's a clear nod to Victorian triple-deckers; and, of the various attempts to recreate a Victorian novel in modern times, I think it's a pretty good one, better than, say, The Bonfire of the Vanities or Palliser's The Quincunx. By setting it in the 50s, in India, Seth has got more opportunities for drama in his marriage plot than a contemporary North American story. (Which might run--"Should we get married?"/"Yes, let's."--and our story is done.)

The space allows Seth to go full Dickens on us, looking at classes from the well-to-do urban sophisticates, like the Chatterjis, to poor, rural peasants, though I did think he was more convincing with the former. Politics are important. For the most part he gives all the good lines to the partisans he likes: secular, liberal. Hindu nationalists, in particular, come across as villains. Well, we knew what Dickens' party line was, too. 

It's pretty enjoyable. Is it a masterpiece? Mmm, possibly not. 

Seth is pretty good about not telling us what to think most of the way through. That breaks down a bit at the end, though. There are more authorial intrusions like:

'The events involved Maan; and as a result of them the family was never the same again.' [1262]

'...the poor ignorant grieving fool...' [1332]

I don't think this added. 

Also Seth's pretty easy on his characters, probably too much so. Some bad things happen: Muslim-Hindu riots, people crushed by crowding at a religious ceremony. But the main characters are snatched from danger by the authorial hand. Now Tolstoy likes his characters; Dickens likes his characters. Still Prince Andrei dies, Anna dies, Little Nell dies, Sydney Carton is actually guillotined. If you're writing a vast social novel larger than a romantic comedy, something bad probably needs to happen to at least one character. In A Suitable Boy, the fairly minor character Rasheed, Maan's Urdu teacher dies, but 1.) he is minor, 2.) the moment of his death is avoided, and 3.) the madness that leads to his suicide didn't really convince. 

Still, I don't want to leave you with bad thoughts about the book. It entertains. It's funny, informative, engaging, serious where it needs to be. This is the second time I've read it. The first time was twenty-five years ago when it was fairly new. It's interesting the things I remembered: I had pretty good recall of the rom-com plot, and I remembered the hilarious banter of the Chatterjis, who are always spouting off in couplets. Though the best (😉 ) bit of poetry is this triolet from Mr. Nowrojee, the founder of the Brahmpur Literary Society:

Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
   At the soft age of twenty-two.
The casuarina tree was cut.
Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
No bulbuls haunt its branches but
   Her poems still haunt me and you.
Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
   At the soft age of twenty-two.

This gives Twain's 'Ode To Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd' a run for its money.

Also I wondered, how did we read things like this back in the day? It was 1995 when I first read this, and when I looked back, I see it I read it on an airplane or in a hotel room in Dubai (where I was working.) So I was particularly unable to look anything up. But Seth has really done his homework, though he wears his learning lightly. But it's only now I can plunder Wikipedia and learn about the Khatri caste, co-respondent shoes, A. L. A Schechter Poultry Corp vs United States, or, indeed, that Toru Dutt was an actual poet who died at, well, twenty-one, in fact. (The latter in particular was a surprise. With a name like that, I assumed she was made up.) Did I need to know these things to enjoy the novel the first time? Clearly not. Do you read books with a tablet in reach to look things up? I'm not 100% sure that's actually an advantage but I do now. And it's interesting to discover things.

I reread it because there's a new mini-series version, directed by Mira Nair. It's already been shown on the BBC, and it was the closing night film at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Well, the film festival was challenging this year. We had thoughts about seeing it, but I hadn't finished rereading the novel and we would have had to stream six hours of video in a twelve-hour window, which is a little too much binging for us. But I do hope to see it soon. It looks like fun:

This is now a ridiculously long post, but well, it's a long book, too...

Monday, October 19, 2020

Stevie Smith


I'm suffering the usual difficulty with saying much about poetry...well, umm, among many, I liked this one:

Sunt Leones

The lions who ate the Christians on the sands of the arena
By indulging native appetites played what has now been seen a
Not entirely negligible part
In consolidating at the very start
The position of the Early Christian Church.
Initiatory rites are always bloody
And the lions, it appears
From contemporary art, made a study
Of dyeing Coliseum sands a ruddy
Liturgically sacrificial hue
And if the Christians felt a little blue --
Well people being eaten often do.
Theirs was the death, and theirs the crown undying
A state of things which must be satisfying.
My point which up to this has been obscured
Is that it was the lions who procured
By chewing up blood gristle flesh and bone
The martyrdoms on which the church had grown.
I only write this poem because I thought it rather looked
As if the part the lions played was being overlooked.
By lions' jaws great benefits and blessings were begotten
And so our debt to Lionhood must never be forgotten.

That opening rhyme would have made Ogden Nash happy, and I read where Nash wrote an introduction for one of Stevie Smith's later books. That probably implies at the time Ogden Nash was more famous and Stevie Smith less; now I suspect that's reversed. Anyway, there's some similarities, but Stevie Smith is way darker.

The introduction to my edition, by James MacGibbon, suggests that Stevie Smith was a believer, though not a very orthodox one. You might guess that from this poem...

I'd read a few Stevie Smith poems before this, but not many, and this was a nice and generous selection. (280 pages). She died in 1971. I haven't read the biography, nor seen the play made from it. This edition includes some of Stevie Smith's drawings. 

The one on the cover is by her as well.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ed McBain's Cop Hater (#1956Club)


Cop Hater is the first of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. Somebody is killing cops: first Detective Mike Reardon is shot outside his house on his way to the precinct; then his partner David Foster is killed. The fact that the two were partners results in the investigation pursuing their previous arrests, particularly any recently out of jail, but when a third detective Hank Bush is killed and he doesn't have any particular connection to the first two, maybe there's just somebody out there who hates cops.

I thought this was nicely setup. We see just enough of Mike Reardon to humanize him before he's killed; Steve Carella and Bush are beat detectives who catch the case; they crack wise with the homicide detectives on the scene before they turn the body over and realize it's their colleague who's been killed. McBain's a pro with a crisp prose style. All that's in the first fourteen pages.

My edition is a reprint with an introduction by McBain from 1989. McBain, under his legal, though not birth name, of Evan Hunter, was already a successful author: he'd written Blackboard Jungle, the basis of the 1955 movie. The introduction is fun. McBain touts himself as the originator of the police procedural. Perhaps that's not perfectly true--John Creasey/J. J. Marric's first Gideon novel came out the year before--but it's close to true in any case, and McBain envisioned from the start a sort of collective hero, with different detectives of the 87th Precinct taking the lead in different cases, in different novels, which is pretty unique. He talks about the research he did to start the series, pestering actual New York City cops before deciding--with delight--he would just make up the city of Isola where the series takes place. 

McBain's grittier than the cozies and even most of the PI novels that preceded him; still it's not giving much away to say that the culprit is neither some recent release from the state pen, nor (though Savage the newspaperman promotes this theory) some cop-hating gang member. Those are both red herrings and the solution is more mystery-novel-ish than either of those possibilities. I've read 8 or 10 out of the 55 in the series and I'd say that's generally true of McBain.

But no spoilers. I wish I could say the same of Wikipedia, though. I might have expected (and didn't read until I finished the novel) that the article on the book would include spoilers; I was a little dismayed though that the general article on the 87th Precinct series, which I did look at halfway through, gave away the solution. Grr. Still it was fun, even if I did know--before I was supposed to--whodunnit. 

It was also fun to see the series at the start. Cotton Hawes and Meyer Meyer don't feature in this one but Steve Carella does; he goes on to appear in a number of them. We see him courting Teddy and the marriage is planned, but hasn't yet taken place, before the end of the book. 

It's the week of #1956Club! Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting.