Friday, December 30, 2022

Back to the Classics Challenge 2022 Wrapup


This is not the first year I read books for all the prompts, but it is the first year I managed to blog about a book for all the prompts. Woo-hoo! Here's the list:

19th Century Classic

Sir Walter Scott's Count Robert of Paris

20th Century Classic

Thomas Pynchon's V

A Classic by a Woman Author

Willa Cather's A Lost Lady

A Classic in Translation

Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's Memoirs

A Classic by a BIPOC Author

James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain

Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic

S. S. Van Dine's The Garden Murder Case

A Short Story Collection

Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales

Pre-1800 Classic

Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield

Non-Fiction Classic

Edmund Wilson's The Shores of Light

Classic on your TBR the longest

Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle

Classic Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit

Kate O'Brien's Farewell Spain

Wild Card

William Faulkner's Light in August

Chuck displays The Stack (minus the Van Dine, which I also read on the Kobo): 

As for that original set of predictions of what I might read for each category, I got three (!) correct, plus one by the same author I originally planned (James Baldwin) and one that I planned but switched categories (Willa Cather's A Lost Lady). Predicting three in advance is pretty standard for my abilities as a prognosticator...

Thanks to Karen for hosting this challenge again! I'm reachable at reese (at) reesewarner (dot) com.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain

"But don't you think that the Lord can change a person's heart?" [174]

That's kind of the question in this, James Baldwin's debut novel of 1953. 

The novel starts on John Grimes' fourteenth birthday, a Saturday in March, 1935, and ends the next day. John is the oldest of four children of Gabriel and Elizabeth Grimes. They're a poor family in Harlem; Gabriel works as a day labourer, but he's a deacon and occasionally preaches at a revivalist church, Temple of the Fire Baptized. 

The novel is divided into three sections: 'The Seventh Day', 'The Prayers of the Saints', and 'The Threshing Floor'. The first ('The Seventh Day') shows us the family as a not very functional unit. John is the good boy, well, pretty good, but Roy, his younger brother, is his father's favourite. This may be because Gabriel is only John's step-father; he was born out of wedlock to Elizabeth and another man, dead by the start of the novel. But it may also be because Gabriel and Roy are similar, angry and intolerant. That same day, John's birthday, that he wanders around with a little money given him by his mother and then into a movie, Roy crosses town with friends to get into a gang fight with white boys and comes home cut with a knife. Florence, Gabriel's older sister, tells Gabriel it's his own fault Roy is who he is; Gabriel somehow casts blame on John for this, and then strikes Elizabeth; Roy curses his father. 

'The Prayers of the Saints': That night John goes to the church, to help clean the building. Neither his father, nor John's older friend Elisha, consider John saved, nor is John himself quite sure what he thinks about religion. After cleaning the church, with a few members arriving for service, he falls to the floor in a frenzy:     

    "'Rise up, rise up, Brother Johnny, and talk about the Lord's deliverance.'
    It was Elisha who had spoken; he stood just above John, smiling; and behind him were the saints...
    He tried to speak, and could not, for the joy that rang in him this morning." [199]

John spends the night on the floor, managing only a few words. The saints are the members of the church in good standing; they stand around John, praying, in honour of this new manifestation of the Lord's power. Three of those saints are his step-father Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence, and we hear each of their prayers. 

None of them are entirely concentrating on prayer, though, and while they're meditating we learn the backstory that brought them to this point. Florence's resentment that Gabriel, the boy, received her mother's love even though Florence was the good one, and Gabriel showed no signs of spirituality as a twenty-year-old, catting and fighting as Roy does in the present. We learn about Gabriel's conversion, which does nothing for his anger and lack of love. We also learn about his own hypocrisy. Last of the praying saints is Elizabeth, still guilt-ridden over the episode that produced John, and how her subsequent hopes in Gabriel's faith were shattered.

We knew from the first chapter, none of them were saints in the usual sense of the word. Does our understanding make any of them more saintly? I don't really think so, but do learn they are more sinned against than sinning. (Though Gabriel is the hardest to forgive.)

In 'The Threshing Floor' we return to the present. On the threshing floor, Jesus separates the saved wheat from the damned chaff. Did John's conversion experience change anything? In some ways clearly not, but I don't think we're meant to have a clear answer. The question I started with up above is asked by Elizabeth, of Gabriel, to her sister-in-law, Florence. Florence's answer:

"I done heard it said often enough, but I got yet to see it." [174]

Though Florence gives that answer before John's conversion experience, and maybe hers is not a reliable voice anyway.

Poking around at what critical commentary I could easily find, it seems that readers are divided as well. The novel is clearly autobiographical (well, it is Baldwin's first) and Baldwin later lost his own faith. But I don't think it's quite fair to read back from Baldwin's subsequent story to divine what this one means, and I do think John's conversion is meant to be read as sincere. To be sure, there are psychological considerations--John wants to win over his step-father; he hadn't known his birth father, who died before he was born--but the language (very biblical) feels sincere to me:

"Then John saw the Lord--for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with a light he could not bear. Then, in a moment, he was set free;..." [197]

Will that moment last? For the real James Baldwin it didn't, but for John Grimes, at least as long as the novel runs, it's a different story. 

I like the cover I've shown above, but that's the first edition, and alas I don't have that. I read it in James Baldwin's Early Novels and Stories, edited by Toni Morrison, from the Library of America, and the page numbers refer to that edition.

I found it a pretty great novel, it's on that Modern Library list of 20th Century novels, I'd put it on my Classics Club list, and it finishes off the Back to the Classics challenge for me for the year.


Saturday, December 24, 2022

Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales

Wessex Tales is a collection of seven short stories by Thomas Hardy published as a volume in 1888. I like Hardy, but I think of him as somebody you need to be in a certain mood for. But this collection of stories was quite varied. Taking them in order:

'The Three Strangers' - Shepherd Fennel and his wife are celebrating the christening of their second child, a daughter. It's a dark, wet night and three strangers come to knock at their door. Shepherd Fennel thinks because it's a party, he can't turn anyone away, though his wife is a little peeved when one of the strangers starts guzzling all the good mead. The three are strangers to Shepherd Fennel, but not to each other. It looks dodgy for a bit there, but this story started off the book on a very un-Hardy note.

'A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four' - Think about that year. You might guess Napoleon is involved, "his bullet head, his short neck, his round yaller cheeks and chin, his gloomy face, and his great, glowing eyes." And so he is! One of two stories set on the south coast of Wessex.

'The Melancholy Hussar' - Phyllis has an understanding (a little less than an engagement) with Humphrey Gould, "neither good-looking nor positively plain," "an approximately fashionable man of a mild type." Then a regiment of German hussars, in the service of the King, show up.

'The Withered Arm' - a tale of magic. The well-to-do dairy farmer Lodge brings home his new wife Gertrude. But he has a child in the neighbourhood by one of his milkers, Rhoda Brook. Almost at once Gertrude's arm develops a mark and begins to wither. What could be causing it? She's willing to try folk-magic to heal it and keep her husband.

'Fellow-Townsmen' - Downe and Barnet are acquaintances. Downe is a lawyer, poor at first but coming up; Barnet is a rich farmer who inherited. Barnet made a 'good' marriage, but wishes he'd married the poor girl Lucy he loved before. Downe is blissfully happy in his marriage, with his two children. But accidents occur.

'Interlopers at the Knap' - The wealthy farmer Darton is off to propose to Sally Hall, but gets a little lost in the rain and the dark. Darton had been in love before, but had been refused; a marriage with Sally seems like it would be good for everybody. He arrives eventually, but not before Sally's brother Philip, with his wife and children, arrives at the Knap, the Hall home. Philip has been in Australia where he was not a success. His health was ruined and he dies that very evening. Of course the engagement and the wedding must be put off. But for how long?

Those two stories, while perhaps not Tess of the D'Urbervilles tragic, are more what one thinks of as typically Hardy.

'The Distracted Preacher' - The Other Reader said, surely you're not still reading Hardy? And it's true: I was laughing out loud while reading this story. Stockdale, a newly-minted Methodist preacher, is assigned the chapel at Nether-Moynton until the town's permanent Methodist minister can arrive. He's told Mrs. Lizzy Newberry, a widow, is the only person in town who rents rooms, and when Stockdale arrives at the house and meets an older woman, he assumes that's who he's met. When a young woman comes into the room, he inquires, "Miss Newberry?" But no, she's Mrs. Newberry; it was her mother, Mrs. Simpkins he'd met earlier.

He's good-looking and so is she. But Nether-Moynton is on the south coast of Wessex, convenient for smuggling brandy from France. The whole town's in on it, and the church makes a convenient place to stash the goods.

Hardy says he based this on a real story he'd heard, and it ended differently from what he wrote in real life. He would have followed the actual events more closely, but what the market wanted at the time (the story is from 1879, the earliest in the book) was something different. And "the stories are but dreams, and not records."

Anyway quite entertaining, and much more varied than I was expecting. One off my classics club list, and good for this years Back to the Classics challenge.

Happy Holidays to all!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Patricia Wentworth's The Blind Side (#DeanStreetDecember)

"Oh, I wish Ross was dead!" - Chapter 2

"I won't let Ross so much as cross the threshold. If he tries...There'll be murder done." - Chapter 3

"Mr. Ross, he'll go too far one of these days." - Chapter 4

"Shooting's too good for him--that's what I say!" - Chapter 5

Guess who ends up dead? Shot, in fact?

Ross Craddock has just inherited a block of London flats as well as some other property, so he's well-to-do. He inhabits one of those flats; Lucy, a maiden aunt another. A second maiden aunt recently dead inhabited a third flat. There are a dozen altogether, some unoccupied at the time of Ross Craddock's murder.

Ross is just about to evict Lucy; has just tried to seduce Mavis, a distant cousin; has feuded with Rush, the concierge, accusing him of blackmail. (Rush is important in determining just who can have gotten in and out of this locked-building mystery.) 

Chapter 1 gives a family history, which is important, but so complicated as to be incomprehensible; fortunately Wentworth gives us a table later on. Should you like a romance in your Golden Age mystery (as I do!) there's one on between Lee Stratton and Peter Renshaw (also distant cousins).


The mystery came out in 1939. World War I is important, but it's before World War II and no sign of it yet. The economy has begun to recover after the depression.

This is the first of the Chief Inspect Ernest Lamb mysteries; Frank Abbott is his public-school-educated assistant. Wentworth wrote three mysteries with Lamb as the main detective before he was absorbed into her most famous series, which has Miss Silver, former governess, as a professional detective. Two Miss Silver mysteries had appeared before this, but without Lamb or Abbott. I find the Miss Silver series pretty wonderful.

Lamb is much the same as he is in the Miss Silver stories, curmudgeonly, and a bit sexist: "Difficult to stop girls doing it nowadays, but if he found one of his [own daughters] with her mouth made up to look like an orange peel..." Dum, dum, de dum. Abbott is more modern, amenable to women in roles they didn't use to have and admires Miss Silver as a P.I. But Lamb isn't a fool in this or in other books; he recognizes Miss Silver gets results when they're paired together; and he finds the murderer in this one, mostly on his own. (Though with a little help.) Very entertaining.

And that romance? Well, if you've read any Patricia Wentworth, you'll know what happens.

All the non-Miss Silver mysteries were reissued be Dean Street Press a few years ago. And since Liz is hosting a Dean Street Press event at the moment...

Monday, December 19, 2022

Shirley Hazzard in Italy

Humpty and Shirley and Italy

I read a couple of Shirley Hazzard books I got from the library recently. I started with:

Greene on Capri

This is a memoir of her and her husband's (Francis Steegmuller) friendship with Graham Greene which came out in 2000. She met Greene on Capri in the late 60s. If you've read any Shirley Hazzard, you will be unsurprised by how she met him.  She and Graham Greene were sitting at nearby tables in a café on Capri. She knew who Greene was by sight, but didn't introduce herself. Greene was discussing a poem of Robert Browning's with a friend, but neither Greene nor his friend could remember the last line, until she supplied it as she was walking out the door. Later that evening she and her husband were dining at the same restaurant as Graham Greene--Capri is a small place--and Greene introduced himself.  It was the beginning of a twenty-years' friendship that lasted until Greene died.

They mostly met on Capri--Greene had a house on the island and shortly afterwards the Steegmullers rented a place (for $70 a month! I learned here. Not anymore, I'm afraid.) where they spent six months of the year.

The memoir is a delight. It doesn't whitewash Greene, who could, it seems, be difficult, and whose best writing was mostly behind him by that point. She was pleased, she writes, that she could genuinely tell Greene she liked The Honorary Counsel, (which is one of the better late Greene books) and is sensible on the strengths and weaknesses in Greene's writing. Greene was helpful in getting one of Steegmuller's Flaubert translations published by The Bodley Head.

The memoir is also a reminiscence of the Capri of that era. Capri has long been a bit glamorous, popular with foreigners, but not yet what it was to become. One amusing story, though, involves Steegmuller trading Russian phrases with an aged woman whom Lenin had tried to teach Russian when she was a girl; her father had been the gardener at the villa where Lenin stayed with Gorky in 1908. The Steegmullers, Greene, and Greene's partner at the time, Yvonne Cloetta, walk up to the Villa Jovis, the fortress from which Tiberius ruled the Roman empire in his later years. (I've been there!)

Both Greene himself and her husband Francis Steegmuller are dead by the time she writes this. It has a melancholic tinge. But she remembers those times fondly and well.

And it ends, as it began, with that missing bit of Robert Browning: 'Or so very little longer.' (from The Lost Mistress.)

The Bay of Noon

Then I read her short novel of 1970. The main events take place a few years after the end of World War II. Jenny, running away from her family, takes a job as a secretary for a commission studying the NATO base in Naples. (Primarily, then as now, the home of the US Sixth Fleet.) She knows no one there, but comes with a letter of recommendation to Gioconda. Gioconda is the author of a novel Del Tempo Felice, that was made into an Italian neo-realist movie. (It gets compared to Open City and The Bicycle Thieves.) Gioconda's lover is Gianni, the director of Del Tempo Felice. Various people around the office feature, her boss, the Colonel, but most particularly Justin Tulloch, a Scottish marine biologist to whom she's detailed for a while. She and Justin trade lines from Sir Walter Scott's Lochinvar at one point.

The novel mostly takes place in Naples, though, of course, they do make it to Capri. It's very good on place:
"An open-air nightclub, wedged into the tufa near my building, lay in wait for its season; and a bedraggled restaurant or two commanded, from scruffy terraces, the incomparable, lake-like prospect of the bay."

I won't say much about the plot. There is a twist, although I have to say I felt like I saw it coming. Still, a good read, even if it's not The Transit of Venus

And are my trip to Italy this year for the Rose City Reader European Reading Challenge.

There would have been several good reasons to have read these books last month, but I didn't... I'm reading them now because I just got my copy of the new Shirley Hazzard biography from the library on Friday.

I knew I would want to read it in any case, but I was pleased to see that Steve Donoghue listed it as his best biography of the year. His are really the only end-of-year lists I read, funny, cantankerous, and with (for me at least) more hits than misses.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

#ccspin: And tonight's number is...

That means Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, probably the most challenging choice on my spin list. I have to admit I admire, but do not necessarily love, the late Henry James novels. (While early to middle Henry James is a different, happier story...) But I've had this volume on my shelf for years and clearly now's the time!

Hubert looks maybe just a bit daunted?

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Patricia Wentworth's Dead or Alive

Liz at Adventures in Reading is hosting a Dean Street December event. The idea is to read books from Dean Street Press, who republish vintage mysteries. They have a few other categories of books, notably their Furrowed Middlebrow line, but it's going to be the mysteries I will read. (I'm pretty sure.) 

I'm a huge fan of Patricia Wentworth's mysteries: her best-known detective is Miss Silver, a former governess who hung out her shingle as a private detective after she retired. But that's not all Wentworth (1877-1961) wrote, and Dean Street has published all her non-Miss Silver mysteries. I've read a few of those, but this challenge was a good excuse to read another.

Dead or Alive (1936) is the first of two Colonel Frank Garrett mysteries. The Colonel is head of Intelligence for the Foreign Affairs office, but his main function in this is to snark at the people who are actually involved in the case and then in the end to appear (he actually tells us) as the 'deus ex machina.' Except even then he doesn't make a very good deus... (but no spoilers!)

The main characters are Meg O'Hara and Bill Coverdale. Bill was interested in Meg even when they were teenagers, but then Meg married Robin O'Hara, dashing, but not, as it turned out, good husband material. Bill has just returned from several years working abroad in Chile, where he went after Meg married Robin. Robin also worked in Intelligence and had discovered something damning about the Vulture's gang. The Vulture ends up in jail, but Robin ends up dead, or so the report is at the start of the novel. 

But! Somebody keeps hinting Robin's alive. Meg gets a letter saying Robin's alive. Somebody slips into her apartment--only she and Robin had keys--and leaves a message suggesting he's alive. So is Robin 'Dead or Alive'? A body was found, but it had been rolling around in the water for a while, and the identification is likely, but not certain. What to do? Meg always liked Bill, but if her husband's still alive...

This is more thriller than mystery (a thing Patricia Wentworth sometimes does) and the outlines of the solution were pretty clear from early on. For a while I was rather annoyed with Meg, who seemed a bit dither-y. There's nothing worse than a character who makes unnecessary mistakes and then using that as the source of tension. Later it got better, and Bill and Meg's escape from the bad guys at the end was pretty thrilling, and I enjoyed it well enough. Still, while I highly recommend Patricia Wentworth, this is definitely not the one to start with. I don't usually do stars, but this would be 2 out of 5 for me.

In general I've had good luck with Dean Street Press and some others made it on to the blog:

Patricia Wentworth:

Touch and Go - again more thriller than mystery, but I quite enjoyed this one. Non-series.

E. R. Punshon's Bobby Owen mysteries:

Diabolic Candelabra - set early in WWII. I liked this one a lot.
Music Tells All - early post-war. I liked this, but not as well as Diabolic Candelabra.

Winifred Peck (Penelope Fitzgerald's aunt! Ronald Knox's brother!):

The Warrielaw Jewel - (1933) a wacky family murder mystery.

I've got a couple of other unread Dean Street Press eBooks. I'll try to read another one this month.

Thanks to Liz for organizing this.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Classics Club Spin #32


I've been a little slack about spins lately, but I'm getting organized for this one.

You likely know the drill: a list of twenty books, a random number generator, and a book to read by the 29th of January, 2023. So...straight to the list:

1.) James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son
2.) James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain
3.) Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales
4.) Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh
5.) Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
6.) Henry James' Wings of the Dove
7.) W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge
8.) Virginia Woolf's The Waves
9.) Balzac's Cousin Bette
10.) Boccaccio's The Decameron
11.) Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog
12.) Andrei Bely's Petersburg
13.) William Sherman's Memoirs
14.) Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica
15.) Harry Mark Petrakis' A Dream of Kings
16.) Dawn Powell's Turn, Magic Wheel
17.) Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding
18.) Nella Larsen's Quicksand
19.) Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters
20.) George Gissing's New Grub Street

I'm fairly determined to read Wessex Tales in the near future as well as Notes of a Native Son. I'm currently halfway through Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Are you doing the spin this time? Which look good to you? Which should I be sure not to miss?

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Jacques the Fatalist and his Master

I can see with a little bit of imagination and style, nothing is easier to rattle off than a novel.

And so, Diderot rattled off a novel. But what imagination! And, especially, what style!

Jacques is the servant to his unnamed master; in some ways, though not entirely, they're more friends and equals than master and servant. Jacques is a fatalist because 'everything that happens to us on this earth, both good and bad, is written up above.' But is it? That's kind of the question. And if so, who does the writing?

That sort of thinking meant that Diderot's novel, though likely finished by 1778, didn't appear until 1796, after the French Revolution got under way and after Diderot's death in 1784.

The master and Jacques are traveling:
Where were they coming from? From the nearest place. Where were they going to? Does anyone really know where they are going to?

But as travellers do, they tell stories to pass the time, with Jacques doing most, but not all, of the storytelling. He's going to tell the story of his loves:

MASTER: Has the moment come for hearing about those loves?
JACQUES: Who knows?
MASTER: Well, on the off chance, begin anyway...

But there are interruptions:

MASTER: Do you know what you are doing there? It is very common and very impertinent.
JACQUES: I'm certainly capable of it.
MASTER: You complain of being interrupted and yet you interrupt me.

Some of those interruptions are by the narrator. The interrupting stories are mostly love stories, and there's a reason for that:

It is also a fact that since I am writing for you I must either go without your applause or follow your taste, and you have shown a decided preference for love stories.

But not always! Don't get your heart set entirely on those love stories. Sometimes Jacques' horse bolts and deposits him at the foot of a nearby gallows. Is it 'written up above' that Jacques will end up with a halter round his neck? I can't tell you that!

There was not a single time that he [the master] took a pinch of snuff, nor a single time that he looked to see what time it was, that he didn't say with a sigh: "What has become of my poor Jacques?"

It even comes with literary criticism. But don't think that's just a way to interrupt love stories, because I'm sure it's not.

MASTER: Italian poet called Dante who wrote a work called The Comedy of Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.
JACQUES: That is a strange subject for a comedy.
MASTER: By God, there's some good things in it, though... 

Hmm. But the more pertinent criticism relates to Laurence Sterne, and The Adventures of Tristram Shandy, 'because of the particular esteem in which I hold Mr. Sterne.' I think we could guess that, Denis.


And what is this, Reader? One love story after another! That makes one, two, three, four love stories I've told you and three or four more still to come. That is a lot of love stories.

One of those love stories, probably the most famous, is that of Marquis des Arcis and Madame de la Pommeraye. It's told by the hostess at an inn where Jacques and his master are trapped for several days due to flooding. Marquis and Madame are in a love affair, an affair they'd pledged each other would last forever. Madame senses the Marquis' growing coldness and tests him by telling him that unfortunately she seems to be falling out of love with him. He replies, oh, good, let us be civilized about this, and we can be just friends.

But she was lying: she hasn't fallen out of love. Instead she plots revenge. Does she get it? I could tell you that, but I won't!

It's also the reason I took the book off the shelf recently. Robert Bresson's film of the story Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne was playing here as part of a series last weekend.

Robert Bresson did less well on this year's Sight and Sound poll of all-time great movies, and this isn't one of his absolute best anyway. Still it was interesting. It made me realize I'd seen another film version a couple of years ago, Mademoiselle de Joncquières:

It had its merits, too, but neither of them are quite what appears in Diderot. But then I'm not sure they entirely intended to.
MASTER: Madame, you tell a story quite well, but you are not yet skilled enough in dramatic art. [He gives some specific criticisms, but to tell you them would be spoiler-y.] You have sinned against against the rules of Aristotle, Horace, de Vida, and Le Bossu.
But our film directors did listen to the master's criticism. Were they right to do so? I can't tell you that!

Is it 'written up above' we learn the story of Jacques' loves? Have you read it? Then you know...otherwise, I'm not going to tell you!

Pretty fun.

I read the Penguin, shown above, translated by Michael Henry.