Monday, July 26, 2021

Summerbooks: Death by knitting needle

We had some friends over last night for drinks and snacks--and mosquitoes. A couple of them were knitters. I couldn't contribute much to that part of the conversation except to say that, in the last two mysteries I read, the murder weapon was a knitting needle...

Patricia Moyes/Night Ferry To Death (1985)

Chief Inspector Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard and his wife Emmy are able to slip away for a quick vacation to the Netherlands. They see the tulips, visit friends, have a nice dinner out. The last day of their vacation, there's a robbery at one of the major diamond dealers in Amsterdam.

But that's not Henry's concern, right?

Ha. On the ferry back one of the passengers is stabbed in a sleeping cabin with a knitting needle. The body is only discovered as the ship is docking in Harwich. The sleeping cabin requires a special ticket to enter and the purser said no one went in or out all night. So there's a limited number of suspects, though that includes Henry and Emmy.

But where is the knitting needle? And where are the diamonds? (Because of course they're involved.) 

There's a few more bodies along the way before Henry solves this one, and it includes another trip to the Netherlands to meet with the diamond merchant.

Pretty fun. But if I was Emmy Tibbett, I'd be terrified to go on vacation. A bunch of Patricia Moyes' mysteries begin when Henry and Emmy are traveling. 

Ngaio Marsh/Swing, Brother, Swing (1949)

This one starts with an amusing epistolary section to give us the exposition: Félicité has fallen in love with Carlos, an Argentine accordion player in a swing band. Her mother disapproves. Her stepfather, the eccentric Lord Pastern and Baggott is indifferent to the potential marriage; he just wants to sit in with the band. So Félicité's cousin Carlisle is summoned in an attempt to talk some sense into her. Another cousin Edward Manx, plus various swing band members are on the scene as well. Various romance possibilities are in the offing.

Lord P&B's musical debut occurs in a club. They've planned some stage business where our lordship will shoot Carlos in the middle of his hot solo. The gun is supposed to be loaded with blanks...but you know how that goes.

Or maybe you don't, because instead of an actual bullet replacing one of the blanks, the murderer has rigged up a projectile involving a knitting needle. Lord P&B duly kills Carlos, but did he mean to? Or did some other murderer tamper with the gun?

And, as it turned out, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard and his wife Troy had hoped to slip away for a simple night out at a jazz club...

Alleyn, after the usual banter with Br'er Fox, his assistant, solves this. Of course. Still not sure why the gun was stuffed with a knitting needle rather than just putting a bullet back into it. 

Marsh is knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward performers, and is again here, though her life was more involved with theater than music. But her attitude toward the upper classes sometimes brings out the Marxist in me, and halfway through I was half-hoping one of the aristos had done it. But you can't always get what you want...

One of the last night's knitters asked, so were the murderers women? Now that would be telling...

Sunday, July 18, 2021

#ccspin: And the winner is...


That's Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis for me. A good choice. I'd been half-following along the readalong earlier this year and had it in mind. Maybe I'll reread Petronius to get in the proper space. Hubert already is:

Because when life hands you a bowl of (local!) pie cherries... 😉

Did you get something good?

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Classics Club Spin #27

Squeezing in just under the wire...

It's time for another Classics Club spin. I was off-grid for a few days there, and now I need to hurry up and figure out some spin possibilities. It's also a relatively quick turn-around spin, so I'm concentrating on short to medium-length books.

From my original Classics Club list:

I'm nearing the end of my first list and I won't pick the super long ones, but here are a few from my first Classics Club list:

1.) Willa Cather/The Lost Lady

2.) Willa Cather/One of Ours

3.) W. Somerset Maugham/The Razor's Edge

4.) Sir Walter Scott/Count Robert of Paris

5.) Honoré de Balzac/Cousin Bette

6.) Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis

7.) George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara

Numbers 5, 6, 7 are already on my twenty books of summer list, so I'm expecting to read them soon anyway.

From a potential new Classics Club list:

I haven't made up a new list yet in earnest, but I've been thinking about things I might put on it. And anyway I'm tired of putting the same books THAT NEVER GET PICKED on spin lists. (I'm looking at you, Willa Cather.) So here are some new choices I've been considering. Some of these come from the list that Deb assembled after a discussion of classic non-fiction at the home blog a few months ago.

8.) John Ruskin/Unto This Last

9.) Thomas de Quincey/Recollections of the Lake Poets

10.) Dee Brown/Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

11.) Robert Pirsig/Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

12.) Konstantin Stanislavsky/My Life in Art

13.) Barbara Tuchman/A Distant Mirror

14.) Ernest Hemingway/A Moveable Feast

Some Other Oddballs...

Is Austen in August happening? A couple for that. (The Austen I most want to reread is Persuasion.) Since reading Alex Ross' Wagnerism, I've also been wanting to reread Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark. Mudpuddle lately has made want to read some classic American sea tales.

15.) J. E. Austen-Leigh/A Memoir of Jane Austen

16.) Jane Austen/Persuasion

17.) Willa Cather/The Song of the Lark

18.) Sholom Aleichem/In The Storm

19.) James Fenimore Cooper/Red Rover

20.) James Fenimore Cooper/The Pilot

Which look good to you? Which should I be sure not to miss?

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić


"...this is not a building like any other, but one of those erected by God's will and for God's love; a certain time and certain men built it, and another time and other men will destroy it." [208]

The Bridge on the Drina is a novel about the Mehmed Pasha Sokolović bridge in Višegrad, Bosnia. The novel begins with the bridge's construction, starting in 1571, and relates its history from then until 1914, at the start of the first World War. The introduction, by William H. McNeill, says that there are over 200 characters in the novel (in just over 300 pages) but suggests, and I agree, that the real protagonist of the novel is the bridge itself. 

Mehmed Pasha Sokolovič, who funded the bridge, was born in the area, but was abducted as a child and forcibly converted to Islam for service under Ottoman Sultans. But he was good at it, eventually rising to become the Grand Vizier of the empire. He remembered his homeland, funded the building of the bridge, and left estates to pay for its upkeep. In the middle of the bridge there's a wide place, the kapia, with an engraved dedication, which you can sort of make out in the picture.

It's the novel that, more or less, won Andrić the Nobel Prize of 1961; they declared it an epic, but Andrić himself demurred; he said it was instead a chronicle, which is a pretty good description. But not one line per year as in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, but one with stories. Families and roles recur: the local Orthodox priest, the town rabbi, the administrator of the bridge's trust fund. 

Bosnia is of course a country with a dark and troubled history, and Andrić doesn't let you forget that, but he does allow for the possibility of good, and the bridge is its symbol:

"Even the least of the townsmen felt as if his powers were suddenly multiplied, as if some wonderful, superhuman exploit was brought within the measure of his powers and with the limits of everyday life, as if besides the well-known elements of earth, water, and sky, one more were open to him, as if by some beneficent effort each one of them could suddenly realize one of his dearest desires, that ancient dream of man--to go over the water and to be master of space." [66]

This is at the completion of the bridge, in 1577. But even to get there, a symbolic three lives were lost: Radisav, a Serbian Orthodox, tries to sabotage the construction, is caught, tortured and executed. The master mason's assistant, an Arab, dies in an industrial accident. And an unnamed gypsy child dies from eating too much halva at the party for the opening of the bridge. 

The life of the town centers around the bridge and in particular, that kapia, where hawkers sell food, where the townsfolk gather to talk, where boys meet girls.  One of the best stories is of Fata Avdagina:

"It has always been the case with us that at least one girl in every generation passes into legend and song because of her beauty, her qualities and her nobility." [104]

The story is alluded to in the summary on the back, though I don't think the summarist got it quite right. 😉  But according to the back cover she died from an unhappy marriage.

"For some time the townspeople talked about the incident and then began to forget it. All that remained was a song about a girl whose beauty and wisdom shone above the world as if it were immortal." [112]

The song of Fata Avdagina is sung on later occasions in the book. 

Wars and floods challenge the bridge. The bridge laughs off the floods, despite the occasional dire prediction. The town doesn't always. 

Wars are more problematic. The estates whose income funded the bridge maintenance were in Hungary, and when the Ottomans are forced to retreat from Hungary, that money dries up. The bridge was built with an associated caravanserai; with no money to maintain it, the caravanserai falls apart. 

Višegrad is near the Serbian border, and the various rebellions and wars that led to Serbian independence in 1878 trouble Višegrad as well and the bridge, a chokepoint, is used for the control of people's movement. The kapia is converted into a bunkhouse or a customs check.

That same Treaty of Berlin that formalized Serbian independence resulted in the transfer of Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarians. Financially this marks a major step up for Višegrad, and immigrants from elsewhere in Austria-Hungary start to arrive, Ashkenazi Jews (the town's Jews before were Sephardic), Croats, Italians. New businesses are established, though this includes a whorehouse.

But the frontier with Serbia remains just as troubled. The renowned Serbian rebel Jakov crosses the bridge while Fedun, an Austro-Hungarian soldier from the Ukraine is on duty. He's detained pending his court martial, but Fedun commits suicide before that happens. "Thus the young man who had made his mistake on the kapia remained for ever in the town." [169]

The years leading up to World War I are particularly poignant and interesting. These are times of Andrić's own youth, and he captures well the discussions that must have been taking place at the time.
"It is now 1914, the last year in the chronicle of the bridge on the Drina." [265]

Serb artillery is able to shell the town, and the bridge is partly blown up to prevent Serb armies from advancing. Another time and other men destroyed it. The bridge was restored after World War I (and after the novel ends), but was damaged even more in World War II, only to be restored again.

Ivo Andrić himself was an interesting figure. A Catholic, which to current thinking would make him a Croat, he saw himself as a Yugoslav and, at least in his later years, disliked the divisions between the various ethnic strands in Yugoslavia and refused to identify as a Croat. Certainly the happiest moments in the novel are when the various ethnic and religious groups in the city are able to live together in peace:

"'They are as close as the priest and the hodja'; and this saying became a proverb with them." [129]

And the priest and the hodja (a Muslim cleric) were especially close at that time. I was also amused when the town rabbi was given the title Hajji (one who has performed the haj or the pilgrimage to Mecca) as a title of respect. 

Ivo Andrić was born in 1892 in Sarajevo. His father died when he was two; his mother was impoverished and felt unable to raise him by herself, so he was given over to his mother's sister and her husband in Višegrad. Andrić felt these were his happiest years. He returned to Sarajevo when he got a scholarship for his studies. He was a friend of Gavrilo Princip, Franz Ferdinand's assassin, and a member of the same secret society as Princip; he seems to have known nothing about the assassination in advance, nevertheless he was arrested by the Austro-Hungarians, imprisoned first in a prison and then later house arrest before being granted clemency in 1917. After the war he earned a Ph.D. (at Graz) and joined the new kingdom of Yugoslavia's diplomatic service, serving in various posts before ending up as the ambassador to Nazi Germany just as Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany. In occupied Yugoslavia he lived in retirement, wrote three novels (including this one) which were only published at the end of the war. He held a few ceremonial posts in Tito's Yugoslavia, but mostly wrote. 

And in 1961 he won the Nobel prize. 

Very highly recommended. Maybe he was one of those who actually deserved the Nobel prize...

Since I was just reading about guslars recently in Kanigel's biography of Milman Parry, I was amused to see this:

"From the deep pocket of his cloak the Montenegrin drew out a gusle, a tiny primitive fiddle, clumsy and small as the palm of a man's hand, and a short bow." [33]

A second guslar shows up later as well.

I was intending a different Andrić novel for my twenty books of summer list, but this one crept in first. I might still read Omar Pasha Latas, though. It also covers Bosnia for my European reading tour this year.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Microbe (#Poem)


The Microbe

The Microbe is so very small
You cannot make him out at all,
But many sanguine people hope
To see him through a microscope.
His jointed tongue that lies beneath
A hundred curious rows of teeth;
His seven tufted tails with lots
Of lovely pink and purple spots,
On each of which a pattern stands,
Composed of forty separate bands;
His eyebrows of a tender green;
All these have never yet been seen--
But Scientists, who ought to know
Assure us that they must be so...
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!

-Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc was an English Catholic writer (though born in France) who died  in 1953.

Just back from a most of a week in the wilds...

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Ogden Nash (#PoemForAThursday)


Medusa and the Mot Juste

Once there was a Greek divinity of the sea named Ceto and she married a man named Phorcus,
And the marriage must have been pretty raucous;
Their remarks about which child took after which parent must have been full of asperities,
Because they were the parents of the Gorgons, and the Graeae, and Scylla, and the dragon which guarded the Hesperides.
Bad blood somewhere.
Today the Gorgons are our topic, and as all schoolboys including you and me know,
They were three horrid sisters named Medusa and Euryale and Stheno,
But what most schoolboys don't know because they never get beyond their Silas Marners and their Hiawathas,
The Gorgons were not only monsters, they were also highly talented authors.
Medusa began it;
She wrote Forever Granite.
But soon Stheno and Euryale were writing, too, and they addressed her in daily choruses,
Saying we are three literary sisters just like the Brontës so instead of the Gorgons why can't we be the brontësauruses?
Well, Medea may have been mythical but she wasn't mystical,
She was selfish and egotistical,
She saw wider vistas
Than simply being the sister of her sisters.
She replied, tossing away a petrified Argonaut on whom she had chipped a molar,
You two can be what you like, but since I am the big fromage in this family, I prefer to think of myself as the Gorgon Zola.

-Ogden Nash 

Since I was just looking at the outside of my Ogden Nash books, it naturally followed I started looking at the inside, too. And even though those outsides are by Maurice Sendak as it turns out, the inside is the real deal here. I thought about posting some old favorite: 'The Termite', say, or 'Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man', but then this one caught my eye. An elaborate set-up for what is, in the end--ahem, wait for it!--a cheesy pun...simply couldn't resist. This poem comes from The Private Dining Room and other verses, of 1953, and is part of a series on 'Fables Bulfinch Forgot'.

Poem For a Thursday is a meme founded by Jennifer of Holds Upon Happiness. 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Housekeeping/Blog Update

The blog now has a new, slightly different, though equally boring, look...

I switched a few months ago to following other blogs on Feedly rather than using the updating bloglist gadget from Blogger. The gadget was limited: there were a couple of blogs that didn't update properly at all, and any blog that updated more than once before I looked at it, the earlier update was invisible. Feedly seems to be fine for me at the moment. So I changed the blogroll to the static version, which takes up less space, and demoted it, since it was less useful. (Though a blogroll fits my retro design so I didn't get rid of it entirely.) But that meant I had some new prime real estate on the blog.

I've always liked the recent comments feature on blogs. I'm not sure that it's exactly useful these days since most blogs have a comment feed which you can follow using your favorite tool, but it shows the conversation, so I tweaked some version I found online and there it is, for now. We'll see if it stays.

But the big change is the 'From the Commonplace Book:' feature. I've been hacking at the code for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, in a project of great idleness, during my pandemic I've been reading through old journals, typing quotes I'd once copied out by hand into a file to make an electronic commonplace book. And now I make them available to you! I've always been a fan of commonplace books and aphorists. Auden and J. D. McClatchy produced wonderful commonplace books, and I have freely stolen from them. The major aphorists have lent their wares as well: La Rochefoucauld, Lichtenberg, Nietzsche. Antonio Porchia. Don Paterson. Sarah Mancuso. Anyway, the point is, some of these quotes come from books I've actually read; some (many, most?) come from collections I've plundered. I make no claims to be as well read as these might make me look. 

If you hover over the quote (the tooltip) you can see where I found it. Which may or may not be where it originally appeared, and may not even be all that accurate...I did some checking, but I can barely read my handwriting in old journals, much less rely on them to be accurate as to attribution. Right now there's a library of something over two hundred quotes, one of which is selected every time you refresh the page, but I've got the wherewithal to expand it. Enough so that (I hope) you shouldn't see the same quote every time you look at my blog. Should you poke around in the source I'm sure you can find my list of quotes and RUIN YOUR SURPRISE AND SPOIL CHRISTMAS FOR EVERYONE. So don't do it.

I also got rid of the feed button, which linked to a couple of applications that likely don't even work anymore. The feeds remain public of course. I'm curious: is there any other feature of that sort you like and would use? (Follow by email, etc.) If you're reading this, you've probably already found some way to follow my blog, but if you have a favorite missing feature, put it in comments. Thanks!

Also anything that seems buggy or weird, please do let me know. When I was still a professional programmer, they said of browser-based applications that they were: Write Once, Debug Everywhere. I've tested on a few platforms, but much less than everywhere.

What hasn't changed is my utter lack of capability in the graphic design department. I had some hopes, alas they've once again been dashed...but I might still try to do something with the cool and obscurely bookish images (they come from the covers of two Ogden Nash books) included in this post...One of these days!

Please do let me know how it all works for you.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

No Other Life (#BrianMooreAt100)

 "'There is no other life,' my mother said."

Fr. Paul Michel is a priest, an Albanesian, who has spent his career teaching at an elite school in Ganae, an island in the Caribbean. He's about to retire and return to his country of birth, Canada, where he no longer has any particular connection. The novel is a reminiscence about the one important event, the one important person, in his life. 

Early in his teaching career the school established, reluctantly, a few scholarships for the impoverished, who are generally blacker than the elite, and one of the students they took in, on Fr. Michel's recommendation, was the orphaned Jean-Paul Cantave. Cantave becomes Fr. Michel's boy, his Petit. Cantave is a brilliant student, who goes on to become a priest and join the Albanesian order, studying in Europe, and finally returning to Ganae to help his native land. 

And become its president. 

It's still the era of liberation theology, though just barely. John Paul II is pope, and the future Benedict XVI is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and they have little brief for left-wing priests in politics. 

There are no Albanesians, there is no Ganae, and--it is a novel--there is no Jean-Paul Cantave. But the Albanesians are more or the less the Salesians, Ganae is more or less Haiti, and Cantave is more or less, though probably less, Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Well. Aristide's own story is not yet ended. No Other Life came out in 1993, so Moore couldn't know its complexities, but he clearly has some understanding what they might be like. Aristide had been elected president of Haiti in March of 1991 and turfed in a coup later that year. Cantave faces a coup as well. Is Cantave a good man? What does it mean for a priest to be a good man in a dire political world? Dedicated to this world or the next? Fr. Michel's mother had encouraged him to become a priest, but on her deathbed has a crisis of faith, and declares to her priest/son there is no other life. But does Fr. Michel believe that? His own faith doesn't seem to be rock-solid. The ending gives a hint of the conclusion Fr. Michel came to, but remains ambiguous.

I thought this was very good. Like The Colour of Blood that I read earlier this year, it's a novel of a man of faith facing a difficult political situation and wondering what to do.

It just so happened that I was reading about the Plain Style in an entirely different book (Timothy Steele's introduction to The Poems of J. V. Cunningham). Moore is the absolute master of a spare, pared-down style. Steele quotes Cicero (from Orator):

"He follows the ordinary usage, really differing more than is supposed from those who are not eloquent at all. Consequently the audience, even if they are no speakers themselves, are sure they can speak in that fashion. For that plainness of style (orationis subtilitas) seems easy to imitate at first thought, but when attempted nothing is more difficult."

This could equally have applied to Moore. But it makes him difficult to quote, because it all looks so danged ordinary.

I admit to having found Moore uneven in the past, and until this year I thought his best books were about terribly sad lives of poverty and limited scope (Judith Hearne, Ginger Coffey) and so difficult to read for their subject. But The Colour of Blood and No Other Life make it clear he's got another very sharp arrow in his quiver.

It would be Brian Moore's 100th birthday this year. Cathy at 746books is hosting a readalong.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Betrothed

 "This is not just a book, it offers consolation to the whole of humanity."

It's not every novel that gets that as its blurb, and then to have it written by Verdi...but such is Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed.

It's 1628, and Renzo and Lucia think it's their wedding day. But their parish priest tells them he can't, he won't, marry them that day, with patently thin excuses, finally claiming he's too sick to do it. But it's Don Rodrigo, the local grandee, that's threatened our pastor, on the pain of death, against solemnifying the marriage.

All because Don Rodrigo saw the beautiful Lucia in the village, and made a bet with his cousin, he would have that girl.

It's not giving much away to say that, after a whole heap of troubles, and a chunkster's worth of pages, Renzo and Lucia are, in fact, married, and look to live happily ever after.

But, oh, those troubles. Don Rodrigo's enmity is only the start. Renzo and Lucia live in a village close to Milan, which, at that time, is under the sway of Spain. Don Rodrigo's goons lead a night-time raid on Lucia's house in order to kidnap her; she escapes by luck. But Renzo and Lucia have to flee their village and so get caught up in the general troubles of the era. Which include war and the plague, both by-blows of the Thirty Years' War.

The first edition of Manzoni's novel comes out in 1827; he revised it and the fuller second edition came out in 1842. So it's a historical novel, and Manzoni, like everyone else, has been reading Sir Walter Scott: he's got Scott's antiquarian interests, and his mock scholarship.

But he's also interested in the Catholic church, the religious life, and in redemption; the novel's main historical figure is Federico Borromeo, the cardinal of Milan, and younger cousin of Saint Carlo Borromeo. The Cardinal is a genuinely good man, who leads others to goodness. But it's also made clear that not everyone is meant for the religious life, and one extended episode involves Gertrude, of a wealthy family, and educated by nuns. But her parents railroad her into a nunnery afterwards, because they're too cheap to provide a proper dowry.

Manzoni has clearly done a bunch of research on the plague and I wrote out a bunch of parallels with our current situation--lockdowns that come too late, denial that anything is happening, contact tracing, and socializing only in the open air. But perhaps we're all tired of thinking about pandemics...

All in all, a pretty fun story. Sometimes the good were a little too good, and the evil a little too evil, though. There's a recent review at Mudpuddlesoup as well.

"There's justice in this world, in the long run."

A Note on Translations

The novel has been translated twice in recent-ish times, by Archibald Colquhon in 1951, and by Bruce Penman in 1972. The Penman is what Penguin has on offer and is easy enough to come by; the Colquhon was last reprinted in Everyman's Library in 2013, and seems to have gone out of print since. I started with the Penman--and the Other Reader read the Penman all the way through without complaints--but, while I was enjoying the story, I got annoyed with the translation and decided to switch. Here's an example. The situation (from Chapter 9) has our future nun Gertrude stuck at home; with her parents deliberately ignoring her. Here's the sentence from Penman that did me in: 😉

"But she could not help noticing that one of the pages, very different from the rest of them, showed a respect and sympathy that had something special about them."

Argh! 'Them' twice in the sentence, both (of them!) not really necessary, and with different referents. After I finally parsed it and realized the second use of 'them' didn't mean the pages, I started Googling other translations. There's an anonymous 1845 translation available at Internet Archive, but unfortunately it's not at Gutenberg:

"She could not, however, but observe that one of the servants, a page, appeared to bear her a respect very different to the others, and to feel a peculiar kind of compassion for her."

Much clearer, though maybe a little old-fashioned. Here's what Colquhon does:

"She could not fail to notice, however, that a page, in striking contrast to the rest, treated her with respect, and showed a particular compassion towards her."

Not brilliant, but better. The Italian (from Gutenberg):

"Dovette però accorgersi che un paggio, ben diverso da coloro, le portava un rispetto, e sentiva per lei una compassione d'un genere particolare."

The Italian is the most compact and strikes me as the best (unsurprisingly, I suppose). I have some Italian but if I read a seven-hundred page book in Italian, it would have been the one book of summer instead of the twenty, I'm afraid...

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Hearing Homer's Song

"In 1934 and 1935, [Milman] Parry spent fifteen months in Yugoslavia, driving his black Ford sedan from town to town with his young assistant Albert Lord. They stopped at village coffeehouses, spread word they were looking for local singers, recorded the songs they sang while strumming their rude, raspy one-string gusles."

That field work upended Homeric studies and indeed the study of pretty much all traditional epic poetry: The Song of Roland, The Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. I'd earlier read Robert Kanigel's biography of the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity, and quite enjoyed it, and when I saw his new biography was of Milman Parry, I knew I would want to read it. 

Parry was born in 1902 to a not especially successful druggist in Oakland, California, the youngest of five children. He did well in his Oakland high school, and went to the University of California, Berkeley, just a couple of miles up the street from where he grew up, where he majored in Classics, but also studied under Alfred Kroeber, the important Native American cultural anthropologist. (And father of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin.) 

From there he went on to get his doctorate at the Sorbonne, but as a Berkeley undergraduate he'd impregnated his girlfriend, Marian Thanhauser, also a student. The two married, and the young family went off to Paris and three years later he was Dr. Parry. He taught a year in Des Moines, Iowa, but then got an appointment at Harvard, taught there, and cadged up enough grant money to spend a total of eighteen months, over two trips, with a team that included Albert Lord and Nikola Vujnović, recording traditional singers in the kingdom of Yugoslavia.

And in 1935, he died, from a bullet to the heart, in a Los Angeles hotel.

There's your basic facts. Why do we care? I cared because of that upending of Classical scholarship, and Kanigel is pretty good on its importance and the history of how it came about. Parry started his investigation with the use of epithets in Homer--rosy-fingered dawn, fleet-footed Achilles, Poseidon the earth-shaker--and what that might tell us about the methods of composition. At Parry's thesis defense, one of the outside readers, a professor of Slavic literature, told him he should go listen to traditional singers in Yugoslavia and so he did, recording hundreds of hours of traditional song, until he was able to demonstrate that a Homer could compose a poem of many thousands of lines, using the technique of oral composition, on the spot, as it were. (As long as you think of that spot as a week or two's worth of recitation.) 

The standard exposition of the Parry-Lord thesis (as it's called in the Classics biz) is Albert Lord's The Singer of Tales, which is readable by a general reader. Well, pretty readable. That is, just now glancing over my copy, if you don't mind texts in Greek, both archaic and Byzantine, and Serbo-Croatian. And charts. And musical notation. And footnotes. And appendices in small print. And uh, oh well, Kanigel does actually do a nice job, possibly as good a job as can be done, explaining the Parry-Lord thesis if you're going to eschew all that. (But if you do want to read Lord, it seems you can read the 3rd edition, Harvard University Press, on-line for free. It really is quite good, and important, too.)  

The other reason, though, we're supposed to care is that rather noir-ish bullet to the heart. Was it accident (as the police determined) or was it suicide? Or was it murder! Mrs. Parry was the only other person in the hotel room at the time. There's no evidence any longer as to the death. Kanigel spends a lot of time speculating about the state of the Parry marriage; there's not a lot of evidence about that either. Was Marian Parry bored and unhappy as the wife of an impoverished grad student stuck with a child in a Paris suburb? As the neglected, frequently slighted, faculty wife in Harvard? (She was Jewish, though not practicing, and Harvard was rife with anti-Semitism in the early 30s.) Or later, raising two kids, isolated in Dubrovnik, while her husband was off on week-long collecting jaunts in that Ford through the Yugoslavian countryside? I have no doubt she was unhappy. Was she murderously unhappy? Enh. We'll never know.

There's a certain sort of book these days--I think of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City as the ur-example--that thinks the best way to palliate some quite fascinating intellectual history is to throw in a murder, or three thousand. These books clearly sell, and most readers probably do enjoy the true crime part. But as for me, I wanted more about the Burnham plan for Chicago in Larson and less about the psychopath, and here I wanted more about guslars and recording equipment and, even, more about the hephthemimeral caesura, and less idle speculation about things unknowable. Sure I read about plenty of murders, but I prefer them decorous, not too bloody, with six well-differentiated suspects, preferably isolated in a country house, with a clear resolution by the end of the book. True crime? Bleah. But I suspect I'm in the minority.

Anyway, I liked the book, but I wanted more of some things and less of others...

Hubert groovin' to some tunes

That's Avdo Međedović with a gusle on the cover of The Singer of Tales. We meet him in Kanigel's book; he'd been a butcher and a soldier and in 1935 was a farmer in the Montenegrin village of Bijelo Polje; he'd been shot in his soldiering days and was unable to raise his right arm above his shoulder; and he's the climax of that part of the book I was most interested in: he recites, composes really, at the rate of four hours a day for over a week, the thirteen-thousand-line epic Osmanbey and Pavičević, published subsequently in a translation by Albert Lord, roughly the length of the Odyssey, and thus was the key to demonstrating what Milman Parry went to Yugoslavia to demonstrate. 

And is my visit to Montenegro for 2021... 😉

Thursday, June 3, 2021

To Any Reader (#PoemForAThursday)


To Any Reader

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there. 

-R. L. Stevenson

Since it seems to be Stevenson week around here...

This is the final poem, after several other dedications, in A Child's Garden of Verses. Even if you've read it before, it's probably been a while. 😉

Poem for a Thursday is a meme originated by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Brona also has a poem this week. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Black Arrow

I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the griefs that I have felt,
Four for the number of ill menne
That have oppressid me now and then.

It seems to be Stevenson week here at Typings.

The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses is a boys' adventure set during the War of the Roses. It was serialized in Young Folks in 1883, after Stevenson's Treasure Island and before Kidnapped, a good period for Stevenson. This one was a great success as a serial, but since then has never been as popular. Is it less good than those? Hmm, maybe, but still it's an awful lot of fun.

Young Dick Shelton is the ward of Sir Daniel Brackley. Henry VI is king--for now--just recovered from one of his periodic fits of madness. A black arrow fells Dick Appleyard, an archer in the service of Sir Daniel and the threatening poem I quoted above is attached. Sir Daniel is named as another of the oppressors; one of the griefs is the death of Henry Shelton, Dick's father. What does all this mean for young Shelton?

At first he's loyal enough to Sir Daniel, who does look after him. Sir Daniel's a competent military leader, good with his troops and decisive in battle, but he's also intemperate--well, who isn't in 1460?--greedy and more attentive to his own interests than those of England.

A battle is brewing between Lancastrians and Yorkists. The partisans of the Black Arrow are stalking the countryside. Sir Daniel has captured John Matcham--well, we quickly learn that John is really Joanna, a rich heiress. She escapes, runs into young Shelton traveling cross-country with a message. He still sees her as John. They fight, become friends; he saves her; she saves him (he can't swim). It's not giving much away to say you know how this one goes.

That's all in the first fifty pages. But I think I'll stop there with plot summary. To carry on would be put me in competition with Stevenson in telling a story, not a good place to be. It is a rollicking good yarn, with lots of adventure.

Historical fiction requires a few famous individuals to show up: this one has Richard Crookback, that is, Richard of Gloucester, Richard III to be. Stevenson admits to fudging his dates; Richard should be about eight when the novel takes place, but here he's a young, but effective, soldier-captain. It's a good portrait, and well, dates, shmates. Catesby also makes an appearance. I know him less from the actual historical record than from his turn in Shakespeare. I suspect that's probably true of Stevenson, too, though Wikipedia says Stevenson did read the Paston Letters for background.

Anyway, like I said, rollicking. Perhaps the occasional archaizing in the language has put people off? 
"Ye be mortal small made, master," said Hugh, with a wide grin; "something o' the wrong model, belike."

Hugh is talking to John/Joanna. He clearly sees through her disguise, even if young Shelton doesn't. Anyway, there are passages like that. This sort of thing doesn't bother me, maybe even sets the mood. But this was the first book in my complete Stevenson--which I have read about half of--that I had to cut the pages.

The novel is dedicated to his wife, which they both thought a great joke, since it was the one she wouldn't read. She had no tolerance, it seems, for tales of knights in armor.

The Other Reader's knight is a bit grizzled for young Shelton, but since Shelton fights with a crossbow for half the novel, there he is on top of the volume. 

The first of my books of summer, and one actually from the list! 

Monday, May 31, 2021

Travels With A Donkey in the Cévennes (#CCSpin)

 "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go."

These days: if only!

R. L. Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is about a twelve-day trip he took through the mountains of southern France in September and October of 1878. 

That's already late in the year for the mountains, and Stevenson is told to expect cold weather, if not wolves and bandits. He takes a revolver. He designs a sleeping bag that will double as a sack to carry what he needs. And he acquires a donkey, Modestine, "a diminutive she-ass, not much bigger than a dog, the color of a mouse, with a kindly eye and a determined under-jaw."

The book is early in Stevenson's career, but not his first; he had previously written a book of travels The Inland Voyage and he identifies himself as a writer to people he meets. But he's more generally assumed to be a pedlar, though maybe of the higher sort: at one point he's taken for a dealer in brandy.

"In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. Monastier is notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension." The four factions of French politics in the 1800s are Bourbonists, Orleanists, partisans of the Napoleons, and Republicans. Le Monastier had them all. This is the start of his trip, where he commissions the sleeping bag of his own design and purchases Modestine. "At length she passed into my service for sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy."

Stevenson is raised a Scots Presbyterian of a moderately severe stripe, but has by this time lost his faith. He's discreet but honest about this loss with the people he meets and even with us readers in the text, but clear enough. Still religion interests him. Though he camps out as needed, he doesn't every night. One of his stops (the 26th of September) is the Trappist monastery Lady of the Snows: "I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror than the monastery of our Lady of the Snows. This it is to have a Protestant education." Nevertheless he quickly makes friends. "I was troubled besides in my mind as to etiquette. Durst I address a person who was under a vow of silence? Clearly not. But drawing near, I doffed my cap to him with a faraway superstitious reverence. He nodded back, and cheerfully addressed me. Was I going to the monastery?" An Irish deacon living at the monastery is thrilled to be delegated as Stevenson's guide: he's released from his vow of silence to play host and had had no occasion to speak English. (Though it would seem Stevenson's French is quite good.) 

But a couple of retreatants at the monastery try to convert him until he's finally forced to say they're being impolite, a little too pushy, when they immediately back off. 

Stevenson has done some reading in preparation for traveling the area. There's a legendary wolf of the area whose stories he's learned; of even more interest to him, the second half of his journey is in an area that's quite Protestant, and he's studied up on the history. The Camisards were French Huguenots whom Louis the XIVth tried to suppress in the early 1700s, and who took up armed rebellion with some success. Stevenson is full of their stories. (One of them involved a group of Protestants all stabbing a murderous Catholic Inquisitor, such that no one of them was responsible for the death, which reminded me of a certain Agatha Christie novel.) 

Phylloxera is destroying the grapevines of southern France at this time:
    "I could not at first make out what they were after, and asked one of the fellows to explain.
    'Making cider,' he said. 'Oui, c'est comme ça. Comme dans le nord!'"
The book has considerable charm; he's mildly ironic but forgiving about the people he meets. (Except for one man in Fouzilhac, who won't even give him directions; but that's OK, because these bad manners appal the people he meets in Fouzilhic. These would appear to be actual village names, now spelled slightly differently.) He's mildly ironic but forgiving as well about himself, about his inability to manage a donkey, or to load Modestine with the sleeping sack he commissioned.

I should say, I suppose, that while he's not cruel to Modestine by the standards of the time, he's certainly not enlightened by ours. In the end he sells her for thirty-five francs: "The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain." And even though he remembers her liking to eat out of his hand, Modestine's fate is no further to be thought of.
"The journey which this little book is to describe was very agreeable and fortunate for me. After an uncouth beginning, I had the best of luck to the end. But we are all travellers in what John Bunyan calls the wilderness of the world,--all, too, travellers with a donkey;..."
A French hiking club now maintains the route for walkers. 

The book is also available from Gutenberg.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The House

The House

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow's walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

-Richard Wilbur

I Googled a while looking for a picture of an appropriate house, but didn't have any luck. The picture is from Wilbur's book of poems for children Opposites.  

Richard Wilbur wrote this for his late wife Charlotte. It first appeared in The New Yorker in August of 2009, then was collected in his final volume, Anterooms, of 2010. He himself passed away in 2017.

Poem for a Thursday was originated by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Her poem for today is here. Brona sometimes joins in and did today

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Alex Ross' Wagnerism

 "The philosopher is not free to dispense with Wagner."

-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner 

Wagnerism is the history of the reception of Richard Wagner and his music, and of the uses made of Wagner's music after his death. And, well, some of those uses weren't very nice. 

When the book was good, I thought it was very good, but it wasn't at all times. It's more encyclopedic than analytic, at times even gossipy. Did you know that Virginia Woolf went to a benefit costume ball as a Valkyrie in 1909? Me neither. Not sure that tells me much about Woolf, though it might say something about how ubiquitous Wagner was.

Years ago I read Ross' The Rest Is Noise, his history of twentieth century classical music, around when it came out in paperback. I really liked it, even though most of it went over my head. (And I'm pretty tall.) I don't know that much about serious music. A diminished seventh, you say--is that music, baseball, or planetary science? I wouldn't know one if it bit me on the ear. Still, sometimes I like a book that's too hard for me, it leaves me wanting to know more.

Because Wagnerism addresses Wagner's presence in literature and film--and politics--more than in music, this book worked differently for me. 

Ross' organization is a mix of chronological and by topic. The first figure Ross covers is Nietzsche, an early Wagner disciple, at least until he wasn't, and the most prominent. Ross gives himself 60 or so pages on Nietzsche, and is lucid and helpful. Nietzsche and Wagner is a topic on which books could be written--and have, with more than one of them by Nietzsche himself. Subsequent chapters are on French Wagnerians (Baudelaire was an early booster), British, American, Austrian, Russian, black (W.E.B. DuBois was a fan), gay, Jewish, feminist. Right-wing, but also left-wing. Well, everyone actually was listening to Wagner for a while.

When Ross gives himself space he's at his best. This includes his writing about Nietzsche and Baudelaire. There was interesting stuff on Joyce. Wagner is important to Thomas Mann, (less so to Heinrich) and Thomas Mann's attitude toward Wagner changes over the years. I was particularly interested in Ross' take on Mann's Joseph saga, which he reads as a direct challenge to Wagner's Ring Cycle: both tetralogies, both investigations of myth, but Mann dealt with Old Testament--that is, Jewish--subjects, which Wagner himself wouldn't touch. There was some good stuff there.

On the other hand Ross speculates that Wagner is behind Adrian Leverkühn, the hero of Mann's Doctor Faustus. But how can that be when *everyone* knows that Leverkühn is Nietzsche + Schönberg? 😉  There needed to be either more or less to that argument.

Ross is at his tip-top best on Willa Cather. He devotes an entire chapter to her, largely on The Song of the Lark, and she shows up in some of those other categories listed above as well. Very well worth reading if you care about Cather.

Wagner in World War II is the emotional heart of the book. Ross is at some pains to remind us that lots of people who did not like Naziism, were never going to like it, still liked Wagner. 

Wagner's politics were complicated and probably not well-thought-out. He got himself in serious trouble supporting the anti-monarchical revolutions of 1848 and it took him years to get out of that trouble. He was pretty seriously pacifist. He meant his anti-Semitism though, publishing a vile article first anonymously, and later doubling down by re-publishing it under his own name. One of main reasons Nietzsche, not exactly known for his compassion, broke with Wagner was his abhorrence of Wagner's anti-Semitism.

Hitler's Wagner--and Hitler really did love Wagner--was not all of Wagner. But how big a chunk of the total Wagner was Hitler's Wagner? The jury's still out on that, even I would say, in Ross' mind.

There was trivia and some of the trivia was fun. I did not know that Laughing Cow cheese (La Vache Qui Rit) is actually a pun on the Valkyries of Wagner; some Frenchman in World War I making fun of the German propensity for Wagnerian code names. (The Siegfried Line, anyone?) Thomas Mann and Willa Cather played records and drank champagne at the Knopf's in 1943. What's Opera, Doc? makes an appearance, as well as other cartoons of the era. Though, for that matter, I read Broom Hilda at GoComics this morning; and Now I'm Very Angry Broom Hilda did not get a mention...are the cartoonist Russell Myers' backdrops influenced by Wagnerian set design? Think of those remote, fantastical geological outposts. (Though, of course, they have more to do with the Coconino County backdrops of Herriman's Krazy Kat.) Some of Ross' arguments/speculations are about on that level...
"Perhaps [George Bernard] Shaw hung back from direct engagement with Wagner because he wished to avoid placing himself in competition with the Meister." [439]
Is this that same Shaw who cheerfully bashed on Shakespeare?
"Cy Twombly listened intermittently to Wagner while working on his ten-painting cycle Fifty Days at Iliam..." [631]
I listen to Wagner intermittently, too, though in my case, the inters are pretty danged mittent. Are my posts therefore Wagnerian? Well, maybe they go on too long...

Ross ends with a brief history of his own listening to Wagner. He was not initially a fan, it seems, but then in his twenties got excited about Wagner. But wondered, should he?

Anyway, good when it was good, and very good when it was very good, as we say in the Department of Tautology. If anything in the subject interests you, it's quite readable and often astute. It didn't blow me away like his first book, though.

It's one of those pan-European books that might do for a lot of countries, but I'll stick to the basics and count it for Germany:

Sunday, May 16, 2021



It's time for Cathy's 20 Books of Summer challenge, where I pile up a bunch of books and then proceed to read something completely different...

Traditionally the candidate books get taken out into the backyard for their photo op:


Will these be the mysteries I read? We'll see! That's:

Ngaio Marsh/Swing, Brother, Swing
Ngaio Marsh/Dead Water
Patricia Moyes/Angel Death
Patricia Moyes/Night Ferry To Death

You've got to have some fluffy reading in summer, right?

The Other Reader

Alessandro Manzoni/The Betrothed

The Other Reader just finished this and is raving about it.

Classics Club

Honoré Balzac/Cousin Bette
R. L. Stevenson/The Black Arrow
George Bernard Shaw/Major Barbara
Henryk Sienkewicz/Quo Vadis

Four books off my Classics Club list. Will these be the ones? Right now I think so...


Halldór Laxness/Independent People
Ivo Andrić/Omar Pasha Latas
Sholom Aleichem/In The Storm

Cleo was recently reading Aleichem, which reminded me I owned one Aleichem I've never read.

That shades off into:

Women In Translation

I'm assuming August will be Women in Translation month again, so:

Dorthe Nors/Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
Ludmila Ulitskaya/Jacob's Ladder
Amélie Nothomb/Tokyo Fiancée


Ethan Michaeli/The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America

Other Candidates

Wait, that's only sixteen books! Well, I probably won't stick to even this list, but will there be Austen in August? I could be there. I've got a couple of other Chicago titles in mind. I recently read a review of the new translations (2!) of Machado de Assis' Bras Cubas and I have the old translation. (But couldn't find it for the picture.) My library doesn't have a circulating copy of this month's book for the Brian Moore read-along, but it does have the book for the next three months. Maybe those.

In any case, planning is such sweet sorrow. I'm sure I'll read something. It's blogging about twenty books in three months will be the real challenge. Will these be the books? Which look good to you? Which of these should I be sure not to miss? 

Thanks to Cathy for hosting again this year!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Letters written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

 "...I adhere to my determination of giving you my observations, as I travel through new scenes, whilst warmed with the impression they have made on me."

In the summer of 1795, Mary Wollstonecraft sailed from Hull, England for Scandinavia, making her first stop Gothenberg (Göteberg) in Sweden. 

By 1795 Wollstonecraft is an established author, with several important and popular books in her past, including Vindication of the Rights of Men (a response to Burke's attack on the French Revolution) and Vindication of the Rights of Women.

She travels with her older daughter, Fanny, and a French nurse. She mentions she has business reasons, though the text doesn't offer details. But it's also clear that it's an opportunity for a new book and while the 'you' of the letters, the 'you' of the quote above, is an actual person, it is also you, the reader.

But the original you is Gilbert Imlay, Fanny's father, who was capable of claiming to be married to Wollstonecraft without having done so, and had just left her for another woman. He was engaged in some dodgy commerce, likely trading confiscated Bourbon wealth for food, and the ship on which his goods were traveling had gone missing somewhere in Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft volunteers to go look, hoping to win Imlay back.

I liked this even better than Vindication of the Rights of Women. Vindication is, whether we've read it or not, a book we know--it's been that influential. And by and large (though, alas, not entirely) the grounds for debate have moved beyond it. This was more of a surprise. 
"Talk not of bastilles! To be born here, was to be bastilled by nature..." [of Sweden]

"...the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces." 

Of the three countries Norway is her clear favorite. Since the Other Reader is a quarter Norwegian, I was pleased to be able to report this. 

But it's not all snark--much as I enjoy a good snark. There's some fine nature writing, which leads her to meditate on our relative need for nature and civilization. 

"...the line of beauty requires some curves..."

She compares government and society in the three countries: at this time Sweden is going through a conservative, anti-Jacobin phase, and its finances are problematic because of a recent war against Russia and Denmark; Denmark is led by a Crown Prince who's an enlightened despot, which is (marginally) better than a plain despot; and Norway, nominally under Danish suzerainty, is suffering benign neglect, and its sturdy yeomanry little troubled by aristocrats. Anyway, that's what she says...

A map of her travels:

I read the book in the Oxford edition shown above, which has some nice additions: an introduction, the map, contemporary reviews, and several of the Wollstonecraft's original letters to Imlay. And notes. Glad to have them, though the description of England as 'impatient at the neutrality of Denmark' struck me as rather an odd phrasing. Not how the Danes thought of English actions when I was there. The book is also available from Gutenberg.

Then I read Sylvana Tomaselli's overview of Wollstonecraft, which came out from Princeton earlier this year. I think I would have preferred a more biographical approach, though this was quite good. Tomaselli organizes Wollstonecraft's thought by subject. Wollstonecraft is an important thinker, and one of the nice things about Letters is watching her think; still, for better or worse, she's a (successfully) practicing journalist, not an academic philosopher, and I'm not sure there's entirely a system there to be found. I'm suspicious of systems anyway. 

But it was fun to discover that Letters was Wollstonecraft's most successful book, rapidly translated into the Scandinavian languages. Coleridge was inspired by the book to plan a trip to Scandinavia, but like a lot of Coleridge's projects, it didn't come off. Likely he got no further than Porlock

The book works for a couple of my challenges this year:

"Adieu! I must trip up the rocks..."

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Gwendolyn Brooks (#NationalPoetryMonth)


a song in the front yard

I've stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it's rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it's fine
How they don't have to go in at a quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George'll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate.)

But I say it's fine. Honest, I do.
And I'd like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

'a song in the front yard' is from Gwendolyn Brooks' first book of poems A Street in Bronzeville. Brooks was the Poet Laureate of Illinois from early in my childhood until her death in 2000 at 83. Bronzeville is a Black neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago. 

She's always been a favorite of mine.

Poem For A Thursday is a meme created by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Robert Hass (#NationalPoetryMonth)



Amateurs, we gathered mushrooms
near shaggy eucalyptus groves
which smelled of camphor and the fog-soaked earth.
Chanterelles, puffballs, chicken-of-the-woods,
we cooked in wine or butter
beaten eggs or sour cream,
half expecting to be
killed by a mistake. "Intense perspiration,"
you said late at night,
quoting the terrifying field guide
while we lay tangled in our sheets and heavy limbs,
"is the first symptom of attack."

Friends called our aromatic fungi
"liebestoads" and only ate the ones
that we most certainly survived.
Death shook us more than once
those days and floating back
it felt like life. Earth-wet, slithery,
we drifted toward the names of things.
Spore prints littered our table
like nervous stars. Rotting caps
gave off a musky smell of loam.
'Fall' is from Robert Hass' first book of poetry Field Guide (1973). It won the Yale Younger Poets prize that year. One could cook from it for weeks, eating well the whole time. The younger Robert Hass from the back of the book:

He looks like he just came back from mushrooming. Or maybe it was something else that 'late at night' messed up his hair.

Poem for a Thursday is a meme started by Jennifer at Holds Upon Happiness. Brona has a poem by H.D. this week.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

March Wrapup

My reading month in March:

Koren Shadmi's Graphical Biographies

The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television

I saw this reviewed in the New York Review of Books--yes, yes, I'm running behind--and ordered it from the library. I was never particularly a fan of The Twilight Zone--too black and white for me at the age I would have watched the show in reruns--but I liked the graphical style of the clips in the review and the book looked interesting. It was. In fact, really quite good--it got me interested and I might try to see some Twilight Zone episodes. It recapitulates Serling's life story in a narrative frame you might find in a Twilight Zone plot.

Gary Gygax and the Creation of D&D (text by David Kushner)

Looking up Shadmi in my library's catalog, I also came across this. I was a fan of Dungeons and Dragons and so I got this one, too. Though it's Gary Gygax in the title, don't worry: Dave Arneson gets equal time. It was enjoyable, and even though it spoke to me more, I do think it was a less successful work than The Twilight Zone volume. The text is written as if by a dungeon master, or even more, as if it were from that early computer game Colossal Cave/Adventure. (That game's author Will Crowther gets a couple of pages.) "You are in a maze of twisty passages all alike." "You are likely to be eaten by a grue."

The Mystery Department

Michael Innes' Hare Sitting Up

An Inspector Appleby story from 1959. Take identical twin brothers, one a schoolmaster, the other a biowarfare scientist, add a rural lord half(?)-crazed with bird-watching, throw in a blackmailer and a pretty girl with a Ph.D., and you've got a story. It's mostly Innes in his silly mode, which I actually prefer, though Innes does want to say one or two serious things about the morality of WMDs. Not his best by any means, but fun.

Julie Campbell's The Gatehouse Mystery

Trixie and Honey find a diamond in the old gate house on the Wheeler property. Are they going to turn it into the proper authorities? Of course not!

This book has the first appearance of Trixie's older brothers, Brian--and Mart, the snarky one with a propensity toward Brobdingnagian vocables. Always my favorite character. I'm sure I don't know why.

The next in the series is waiting at the library for me to pick it up.

Chester Himes' Blind Man With A Pistol

The last of the Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones mysteries Himes completed, from 1969. This is a very ambitious book, bursting the bounds of Himes' already capacious sense of what a mystery can be. All in 191 pages. Several plots; several time frames. Pretty great & at some risk of sending me down a Himes rabbit hole--I've ordered up the recent biography of Himes from the library. But if you're interested in Himes as a mystery writer, you should probably start with something earlier in the series.

"'There ain't going to be any facts,' Grave Digger informed Anderson."


Cathy at 746Books has organized a year long read of Brian Moore's books in honor of what would have been his hundredth birthday. 

Brian Moore's The Color of Blood

Political tensions in an unnamed East European country just before the fall of the Iron Curtain. I thought it was very good. More here.

Brian Moore's Fergus

That I enjoyed The Color of Blood so much led me on to read Fergus. Not as good, I said, though still good.

This month's Brian Moore is the great, but grim, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Will I reread it? Maybe, but I haven't yet.

The Poetry Section

George Bradley's Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

This collection came out with Knopf in 1991. A living American poet (b. 1953). The first volume of his I've read--though a couple of these poems appeared in The New Republic in the 80s, so it's possible I read those before. I thought it was very good. Expect something to appear in a poem post in the future. Bradley's poem 'The Lives of the Chinese Poets' begins 'About suffering they were reticent,...' O my Auden

Georgi Gospodinov

Natural Novel, And Other Stories, The Physics of Sorrow

Contemporary Bulgarian novelist, poet, story writer. That's most of what of his is available in English. I think he's pretty good. More thoughts here, mostly on The Physics of Sorrow.

Hilary Mantel's Cromwell

Wolf Hall

I reread this for Brona's readalong, but I'm *still* organizing my thoughts on this one. Not very organized thoughts, eh? I should have finished rereading Bring Up The Bodies to be on schedule, but I haven't...

Shakespeare's Henry VIII

That sent me off to this. Not necessarily one of the better plays, but there are some great speeches--Buckingham's (Act II, Sc 1) on his sentence of death:

The law I bear no malice for my death
'T has done upon the premises but justice
But those that sought it I could wish more Christians

or Wolsey's farewell to greatness.

Andre Alexis

Contemporary Canadian writer. He's four books into a series of five he's termed a quincunx. I read the first, Pastoral (2014). I thought it was very good. A newly minted priest takes up a parish in a small town near Sarnia, Ontario. The second one in the series--Fifteen Dogs--is the celebrated one; it won the Giller, one of Canada's two major novel prizes, as well as various other prizes. I might have more to say when I finish the sequence, at least as it stands now. I have the others on hand.


Rex Warner (no relation?--though that first name could so easily slip into...) translated three Euripidean plays with strong female characters in the 40s & 50s: Medea, Hippolytus, Helen. I was interested in the Helen, but then I carried on. Medea, Phaedra, & Helen are all women who do bad or tricksy things and suffer at the hands of men. These are quite often read now as feminist or proto-feminist; would an Athenian of the time have thought so? Mmm. Certainly as Aristophanes presents it (Women at the Thesmophoria) Euripides wasn't popular with the ladies...but then, that's Aristophanes.

No longer the standard translations, but I thought they were quite good. I especially liked Warner's handling of the choruses. He's an interesting novelist (The Aerodrome) and poet, but best known now, I'm guessing, as the translator of Thucydides.

The books that were still around the house (at least when I took the picture):

I wrote most of this post a while ago. It was long past time to either delete it or publish it. Yet another month of much, but muddled, reading--I sometimes get embarrassed by the desultoriness of my reading. Oh, well. Any of these strike thoughts in you?