Friday, April 21, 2017

Sinclair Lewis--Arrowmith (1925)

Forgot to put a picture of the Author in here anywhere

Here is another swell book from pre-World War II, and more specifically 1920s America, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 1926. For some reason I never realized that the Pulitzer Prizes for a given year were awarded for works that were published or produced the previous year.1925 of course was one of the great years of American literary history, with at least The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy coming out in addition to Arrowsmith. While I probably like both of those other books a little more, Arrowsmith is a worthy competitor to them. Its literary style is not as charming as Gatsby's, but it is in certain ways a more serious and mature and interesting book. In our time Lewis  has faded, among people who are influential in these matters anyway, as a significant writer, his books largely dead and unread apart from some odd hobbyists and nostalgists such as myself. When he is mentioned by these influential people, they usually don't have anything very complimentary or gracious to say about him, though the primary targets of this disdain seem to be Babbitt and Main Street, which I have not really read (though both are on the IWE list!). I did read Main Street in high school, but I don't count anything I read in either high school or college as far as making a critical assessment of it relevant to my life now, though developing the habit and being exposed to the general thought and conversational patterns of people possessed of literary intelligence even without much in the way of understanding was of greater value to my subsequent life, such as it is, than the slightly more informed readings I am doing now. Arrowsmith at least I found to be a lively, interesting book about a perfectly ordinary and obvious subject, the career of a doctor and researcher, that even talented novelists do not usually handle so skillfully. The general mindsets of its more serious characters do not strike me as far different from those in similar positions today, and the parts that are more dated are mostly so in a good way, in that they recall the flavor of this lost America, which a lot of people I guess wish would get even more lost than it already is, but I love it.  

Whether or not Lewis's decline in stature is due to his being so American in the particular Midwestern way that he was, that cannot help him. Ironically, his career was substantially built on critiquing and trying to distance himself from the type of people that society was producing. However when you grow up on the prairie in the 1890s and 1900s, a long way from anywhere, with the type of education that that entails, it is probably impossible that cosmopolitanism of either the breezy or deeply intellectual variety can ever become second nature to you; and Lewis clearly struggled with this in his writing, not, in my opinion, without some substantial success.

As has been my wont lately, I didn't make any notes for this review until I was at about page 190 (after which point I made a lot), and my first one was surprisingly critical, though not wholly inaccurate--"He telegraphs his distance and betrays his distance/sense of superiority to his characters a little too insistently"--adding then--"But the story is good and the evocation of this old America, Midwest, etc, is priceless."  

For example the part where Arrowsmith leaves Wheatsylvania (the godforsaken town in North Dakota where his wife was from and where they lived for a while at the beginning of his career) and everyone who has been antagonizing him the whole time he's been there is upset that he's going is great.

Description (p.204): "She must have been a veritable girl of the late eighties and the early nineties (1880s an 90s, obviously--ed.), the na├»ve and idyllic age of Howells, when young men were pure, when they played croquet and sang Swanee River; a girl who sat on a front porch enchanted by the sweetness of lilacs, and hoped that when Almus and she were married they would have a nickel-plated baseburner stove and a son who would become a missionary or a millionaire."

The introduction of Orchid, the highly appealing nineteen year old daughter of Arrowsmith's boss in Iowa (the aforementioned Almus), who was fond of languishing around his office in the afternoons and distracting his thoughts from both his career and his marriage, is great too. Nothing but trouble, I guess, yet I'm sure almost any man who doesn't have, or never has had, an Orchid in his life longs for one.  

1910s and 20s era civic boosterism--the idea that the members of a town's professional class had an obligation to be cheerleaders for their city--is one of those things I'd always vaguely heard about, but did not have a good picture of what it was before this book. It's hilarious. I especially love the flying of pennants bearing the town's name from one's car in jaunts across the county and further afield (which Arrowsmith pointedly resists doing).

p. 233 On anxiety caused by Orchid: "'I've won her,' he gloated...Probably never has gloating been so shakily and badly done."

p 234-5 More on this subject that is so fascinating to me: "'I can go as far as I like with her to-night...But she's a brainless man-chaser...All the better. I'm tired of being a punk philosopher...I wonder if these other lucky lovers that you read about in all this fiction and poetry feel as glum as I do?...I will not be middle-aged and cautious and monogamic and moral! It's against my religion. I demand the right to be free--" He doesn't end up going too far with Orchid though he "masterfully seized her wrists, and kissed her as she deserved to be kissed." Unfortunately he then "immediately ceased to be masterful." (And no, I don't think kissed here is a euphemism for anything more explicit).


p.352 The dynamic Swedish doctor and Martin's whilom mentor Sondelius during preparations for a journey to the West Indies island on St Hubert (which does not appear to be the name of an actual West Indian island?) where they are headed during a bubonic plague outbreak to combat the disease and hopefully do some substantive research on the phage injections they are using in this cause: "You shall not inject me till you will inject all my negro friends down there too." Wow, somebody in a novel at this time who is not completely and obliviously racist in all situations. (There was to be a control group among the local black population that did not receive the injections so that the effectiveness of the phage could be demonstrated and established, bringing scientific glory and prestige to Arrowsmith and the Institute where he worked).

p.381 Sondelius kept his word and did not take the phage as, initially, the experiment went forward. I found his deathbed wishes to be worth noting: "...yoost once more I would like to see Stockholm and Fifth Avenue on the day the first snow falls, and Holy Week at Sevilla. And one good last drunk!"
p. 384-5 "It's that renovated old part of Brooklyn where writers and economists and all those people, some of them almost as good as the very best, consort with people who are almost as smart as the very smartest." Some things are, if not eternal, at least recurrent.

p. 369 "Like most white Americans, Martin had talked a great deal about the inferiority of negroes and had learned nothing whatever about them." More progressivism. Martin was taken aback momentarily upon meeting a black doctor (M.D. from Howard) on the island, but he recovered pretty quickly.

p. 402 Despite the eventual failure of the mission from the research/science point of view (nothing could be decisively proved due to the chaos/breakdown of scientific discipline that overwhelmed the project, the Institute was able to spin the relative humanitarian success of it in containing the outbreak and saving more lives than otherwise would have been the case. "...the papers were able to announce that America, which was always rescuing the world from something or other, had gone and done it again."

p. 414 "Aware only of Madeline Fox and Orchid Pickerbaugh, who were Nice American Girls...and of Leora...Martin knew nothing whatever about Women." Needless to say, I am very partial to Nice American Girls. I wish there were many more of them. Are they still even considered to be a distinct species?
Dust jacket of the Modern Library Edition, which was not the edition I read, actually, though I do like this cover a lot. I used the Nobel Prize Edition, which has a striking blue cover with an embossed imprint of the Nobel Prize medal on the front beneath which Lewis's signature is imprinted in gold lettering. I bought this book at a library sale in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1986 for 35 cents, at which time I bought cheap used copies of many of the books on the IWE list that I have been toting around for thirty years and am finally getting around to reading now. This Nobel Prize set must have sold well, as there are numerous copies available at Amazon and elsewhere, starting at $4 without shipping and handling. 


The 1931 film directed by John Ford and starring Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes is still held in pretty high regard today though it requires a little effort and/or expense to track down a copy of it. I've got it on my list of things to see when I get the chance. 
The Challenge

A combination of medical terminology and place and character names specific to this book constituting such a large portion of the magic words has resulted in a considerably reduced field.

1. Anthony Marra--A Constellation of Vital Phenomena......................... .........1.040
2. Roland Merullo--Breakfast With Buddha..........................................................813
3. L'Auberge Espagnole (movie)...........................................................................160
4. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.........95
5. Arrowsmith (movie)........................................................................................... 26
6. William Carlos Williams--Doctor Stories..........................................................23
7. Christopher Golden, ed.--Seize the Night...........................................................18
8. Elliott & Nelson--The Curious Mr Catesby.........................................................6
9. Abby H. P. Werlock--Companion to the American Novel, Vol. 1.......................0

8-9 Game

#8 Elliott and Nelson over #9 Werlock

Both books actually are available in a New Hampshire library, though not one of the ones at which I have privileges.
The young Myrna Loy was also in the 1931 movie, as Arrowsmith's aristocratic second wife.

Quarterfinals

#1 Marra over #8 Elliott & Nelson

I had never heard of this Murra book (2013) but it is apparently very popular, and all the libraries have it.

#2 Merullo over #7 Golden

Same for the Merullo (2007). We could be headed for a 1 vs 2 final.

#6 Williams over #3 L'Auberge Espagnole

#5 Arrowsmith over #4 How Learning Works, etc

I'm sort of breaking a rule by having a movie beat a book, but I really don't want to read that book.

Semifinals

#1 Marra over #6 Williams

Williams normally would have triumphed here, but Marra was primed for an upset. He's only 32 or 33, a native of Washington, D.C., product of the Landon School, USC(!) and the U Iowa writer's program.

#2 Merullo over #5 Arrowsmith

Championship

#1 Marra over #2 Merullo

In the dream matchup, the books are fairly evenly matched in time (6 years) and length (50 pages) Merullo (born 1953 in Boston; Phillips Exeter, Brown, Suffolk Law School) has the catchier title for his spiritual novel, and he has had a pretty distinguished career, though I had never heard of him. However, I have decided to go with the Marra, which is a product of the very different genius of the younger generation and is probably farther from where I ever conceived of literature going, which as it was the closest thing to a consuming adult interest I ever had, is something I should look into.


The face of a successful modern author

Thursday, April 6, 2017

April Update

A List--Mencken--American Language....................652/697


B List--Sinclair Lewis--Arrowsmith.........................337/448


C List--Ray Bradbury--Golden Apples of the Sun....234/338


I hit a negative trifecta of sorts this month with all of the three authors being dead white American males. They were even all alive at the same time from 1920-1951. I am joking of course to some extent, I am not riled up by the idea of this on political grounds, however if I am reading multiple books at the same time, I like the contrast between them to be a little stronger. One might not think Lewis and Bradbury would be especially similar, but they are both Midwesterners with a pretty plain style, only about a generation apart, and with Arrowsmith largely being set in labs and medical settings, and Bradbury's stories employing a lot of scientific language as well, the literary effect is that of two authors whose familial relation is something akin to first cousins, unconscious though that may be. This aside, I am fond of books. I think a lot of Bradbury's ideas are clever, and he displays, in his early work at least, a sentimental streak that I was not expecting--I thought he would be more like Heinlein, who seemed to have more of a strictly rational and computer-like mind. The story of "The Big Black and White Game" which is not a science fiction story and was published in 1945 I thought was quite good. I also liked "The Rocket Man", "A Sound of Thunder" (time travel), "The Long Rain" (travel to Venus), "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl". There is at least one other one I especially liked that I am missing, but I don't have the book in front of me to see what it was.


I am essentially done with the Mencken book. I am in the Appendixes now. There was a lot of interesting stuff in it, though naturally much of the information is dated and perhaps not terribly fascinating to the non-specialist to begin with. Even in 1936 Mencken made the observation that "English forges ahead of all its competitors...simply because it is already spoken by more than half of all the people in the world who may be said, with any plausibility, to be worth knowing." Earlier he made the observation that "I" was the subject in about half of all sentences spoken by morons. Naturally I scurried to make a record of my percentage on my Twitter account (229 tweets at last count) and found I was at 46.7%.


I am going to start recording my weight here every month as well, for a while, to see what it tells me. I am not going on a diet or anything (yet), though I sense I will need to make some adjustments in my habits going forward. There is finally some light emerging at the end of what has been a long tunnel of having very small children. It's still like 3 years before the littlest one will be in school but the time is at least in sight. Anyway, this morning I weighed 229 pounds. I am 6 foot 3 so I am not morbidly obese, but that is a little too much for me. I suppose I might look all right at 205 or 210. I usually get down to 220 during the summer. I really just need to eat better. If I could integrate that healthier diet into an enhanced social or intellectual life I think I would have less of a problem doing it. But for those of us who are not really part of the educated classes socially speaking it seems to be more difficult to care enough. Because I don't want to look good just for me, I already am in love with myself; I would totally be doing it for the world to notice.


Pictures






Modern Library copy of Arrowsmith (which I am not using, btw! though I do like this cover)


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jules Verne--Around the World in Eighty Days (1872)

So, three and a half years after undertaking this program, I finally come to the first book on the IWE list that was written in French, which is the most heavily represented foreign language literature on it by a decent margin. This particular book ironically is very little concerned with anything to do with France, featuring mainly British characters moving through English-speaking countries and territories under the aegis of the British Empire. The only nominally French character is the protagonist Phileas Fogg's manservant Passepartout, who acts more like an American in a popular magazine story of the period than a literary Frenchman. All this aside, I found the book to be good fun, and a respite--which I seem to be needing more and more of lately--not from more serious works, which works themselves I generally like, but from the weight of not really being able either to intelligently commiserate about them with other people, and of the questions and accusations which they tend to pose about my own life and engagement with, or as it were disengagement from, the active and interesting sectors of the world, which cannot help but be a little discomfiting at times.







Many stills from the 1956 film show Fogg in a balloon. He did not undertake any part of the journey in the book in a


Given all of the anguish that so many would be authors and other storytellers across time have had in trying to think up any kind of plot, the simplicity of the concept here, the structure of which practically comes ready-made, and the ease with which the author can dive right into it, would be humorous if it were not depressing to think about all of the inept plot-seekers. And for all the simplicity and general predictability of the story, many of the various twists and difficulties added to fill out/adorn it I thought were either quite interesting or ingenious, including that at the end, which, being unfamiliar with the story beforehand and not taking things like the rotation of the earth into account like a genuinely clever person would have, I had not anticipated, assuming a more strained and implausibly heroic finish. I was very satisfied with this aspect of the book. I was also quite taken by the part where Fogg purchases the ship carrying him across the Atlantic when it is running low on coal and proceeds to chop up and burn the top half of it--masts, deck, etc--mid-ocean for fuel. The whole tone is high-spirited and occasionally humorous, albeit in what I guess is a specifically Eurocentric way that at this point can only appeal to dinosaurs like me. The book is not so racist that it is any more impossible to read than most famous 19th century novels that brush up in any way with the non-European world. The offense, if there is any, would mainly be that the various non-European peoples that appear are one-dimensional and serve mainly as background. They collide at times with the European mainstream of the book but do not for the most mesh with it, nor is any attempt made to do so. Having Fogg marry the Indian lady he rescued from suttee, a peculiarly alien horror which made a strong impression on the European imagination when it first was made known there, as it makes an appearance in almost every story of the period with an Indian connection, was I thought a nice French touch, the intelligentsia of that nation being in this era more fascinated by and open to the idea of mixed-race marriage than the English-speaking peoples were, or at least would have been comfortable promoting publicly. The character of Mrs Aouda is not especially distinct however.








p.87 Sailing past Grand Andaman Island near Burma: "The savage inhabitants of the island were nowhere to be seen. They stand at the very bottom of the human scale, but it is wrong to call them cannibals." No doubt the accounts of these people brought back to Europe lacked a proper understanding of their culture. An honest mistake. Of course I know nothing about them, either, but I would know to approach any analysis of them much more sensitively.




p. 172 With the last few books, I haven't begun to mark any passages for the postings until I have been well into them. I have a lot from the American section of the trip, because I find them humorous and interesting in their impressions of our (perhaps) more vigorous forbears in this country. Regarding a railroad bridge that appeared to be well on the way to collapsing: "Several cables had given way and it was impossible to risk going across it...Besides, given the generally carefree attitudes of the Americans, you can be sure that when they start getting cautious, then there really is cause for concern." Needless to say, they went across the bridge.




pp. 177-8 Exchange with a typical western American on the train. Riotous. "And for a moment it looked as if he was going to grab the card that had been played, adding, 'You haven't a clue about this game.' 'Perhaps I'll be better at another sort of game,' said Phileas Fogg, getting to his feet. 'It's just up to you if you want to try, you bloody Englishman,' the vulgar character replied." I wonder what it says in the original though. An American of this time, or any time, probably would not have said "bloody".




p. 179 More. "'It's the next station. The train will be there in an hour's time. It stops for ten minutes. Ten minutes is enough time to exchange a few shots with a revolver.' 'Fine,' replied Mr Fogg. 'I'll get off at Plum Creek.' 'And I reckon you won't be getting back on again!' added the American, with breath-taking insolence."




p. 180 As the train was running behind schedule it did not stop for ten minutes at Plum Creek. However the conductor suggested that the combatants could hold the duel in an empty car in the rear of the train, leading Passepartout to observe that "Well, this really is America for you...and this train conductor is a real gentleman."








The image of America as a country full of gun toting maniacs goes back a long way. Passepartout purchased a small arsenal of firearms for the train ride anticipating they might be necessary, and when the band of Sioux attack the train in Nebraska all of the passengers are of course armed and give every appearance of loving the ensuing action.


pp. 209-10 More humorous American stuff: "'Burn my ship!' exclaimed Captain Speedy, who had difficulty getting the words out of his mouth anymore. 'A ship worth $50,000.' 'Here's $60,000,' replied Phileas Fogg, handing the captain a wad of banknotes. The effect on Andrew Speedy was spectacular. No true American can fail to be moved by the sight of $60,000."


I am not always sure how I will like these kinds of books that are famous but used to be mainly recommended for adolescents--some of them read poorly now--but I do like this one. Verne is an intelligent enough writer to be worthwhile for somebody at my level at least to engage with.


Since most of the older editions of the book I could find were aimed for the child market, and it does not seem to have been included in the old Modern Library or any other of the sets I collect, I got a brand new Penguin version. Perhaps because the book is not deadly serious or the source of contention among intellectuals or rival cultural communities I could stand the editing and the notes more than is often the case with me with modern editions of classic books. I probably could have read this in the original easily enough, though I might have had some difficulty with the technical vocabulary of ships and trains. However, I never got to read well enough even in English to get what I would have wanted out of reading in the original, and as with so many of the goals of youth, once youth is past and the opportunity to win such status and rewards as are best enjoyed in that period of life is largely lost, the motivation for continuing to pursue such goals dissipates.


I did learn from the notes that the Irish city of Cork was called "Queenstown" by the British during the period when they were the ruling power in that country. I mention this because I had never seen this, or at least noticed it before, and I have even been to this city, where any reference to this former name apparently has been thoroughly erased. Since it is the kind of thing I usually know to the point of boredom, I found I was actually excited to discover a new fact in this line, much as I was several years back to learn that Rhodes and several other Greek Islands had been Italian possessions from 1912 to 1943.










The Challenge


In contrast to the last Challenge, this one produced a collection of authors with decidedly unexotic names.




1. Daniel James Brown--The Boys in the Boat............................................................19,739


This book, about a group of American rowers in the 1936 Olympics, was apparently a best seller. That is a whopping point total in the annals of this game.




2. Jane Austen--Persuasion...........................................................................................1,616


Books already on the IWE list are ineligible for the Challenge, but Persuasion, which I have the impression was somewhat overlooked at the time the list was made in the 1960s, did not make it, and hence is able to compete here.




3. Around the World in Eighty Days (movie--2004)........................................................302


Another surprise here that the more famous 1956 Oscar-winning version of the story does not appear as a qualifier for the game, but this curious remake starring Jackie Chan shows up instead.




4. Wally Lamb--I'll Take You There..................................................................................106
5. Tom Zoellner--Train........................................................................................................81
6. Jeff Smith--Mr Smith Goes to Prison..............................................................................79
7. Kate Kelly--The Secret Club That Runs the World.........................................................56
8. Rebecca Ryman--Olivia and Jai......................................................................................45
9. Philip Jose Farmer--The Other Log of Phileas Fogg.......................................................27
10. Joseph F. Nelson--So You Want to Build a Steam Locomotive......................................14
11. I Love Toy Trains: The Mighty Steamers (video)...........................................................10
12. Coomaraswamy and Nivedita--Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists................................3
13. Mabel Potter Daggett--Women Wanted............................................................................0
14. Barrie Penrose--Stalin's Gold............................................................................................0
15. Richard Dean--How to Set Up a Family Budget...............................................................0




Round of 15


With only fifteen works qualifying for this Challenge, Daniel James Brown gets a bye straight to the Elite Eight.




#2 Austen over #15 Dean




I think Dean may not be a legitimate book. I don't think he would have won anyway.




#14 Penrose over #3 Around the World in Eighty Days


Penrose is in the State Library database, though there do not seem to be any copies of his book in circulation. That is enough to beat the 2004 film, which evidently flopped on its initial release. I had never heard of it.






#4 Lamb over #13 Potter-Daggett




The State Library actually has a copy of Potter-Daggett's collection of World War I letters. If I want to check it out this is the year to do so, as the book's publication date is 1918 and books cease to circulate from this library once they are a hundred years old. However the popular Lamb's latest offering is 130 pages shorter, a significant enough difference for him to carry home the prize.




#5 Zoellner over #12 Coomaraswamy/Nivedita




These books were pretty evenly matched. The Zoellner book is more conveniently available as well as, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, having a more appealing subject, as it is looks to be a travel book (the authors rides on a variety of famous railroads).




#6 Smith over #11 I Love Toy Trains
#7 Kelly over #10 Nelson




It isn't available in any event, but I have to be honest, I don't really want to build a steam locomotive.




#9 Farmer over #8 Ryman




Farmer is much shorter. I've never heard of Ryman, whose 1990 book clocks in at 644 pages.




Round of 8


#14 Penrose over #1 Brown




Books that are shorter by 100+ pages have huge built-in advantages under my system before the Final Four. Brown was doomed.




#2 Austen over #9 Farmer


#4 Lamb over #7 Kelly




These two were almost perfectly matched as far as length, year of publication, etc. Lamb gets the nod for availability.




#5 Zoellner over #6 Smith




Smith was slightly shorter, but I don't exactly feel like reading an elite-educated white collar criminal's account of his time in prison.




Final Four


#2 Austen over #14 Penrose
#4 Lamb over #5 Zoellner




The availability factor, as well as some curiosity about Lamb, who has managed to carve out something of a commercial career while remaining at least upon the fringes of the true literati.




Championship


#2 Austen over #4 Lamb




Not a cop-out. I have never read Persuasion, I have a copy of it at home, and it comes in at anywhere between 180-230 pages. It's a no-brainer, really.















Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Rest of the Arms and the Man Post

I haven't been able to get to it until now. As I noted before in the earlier posting, I like Shaw. He seems harmless enough to me in 2017, but that obviously cannot be true, since all authors worth reading must be dangerous in some way. Arms and the Man spoofs romanticism, or the romantic mindset, but in a fun rather than seething or contemptuous way, I think. Here is a note I wrote about it in 2001, Lincoln's birthday to be precise, which was a later reading after my initial one, dated March 5, 1999:


--Much more impressed with the play the second time around, the conflict between ideality and "reality" is quite clear really, I'm not sure why I wasn't "struck" by it before. I think it seems apparent that Shaw is skeptical of the idealists, though I think he understands the need for these feelings--in his society I believe he felt their aims--and people's energies--were often misplaced.--






That doesn't say much. One ought to be able to say something intelligent about a work one likes--the point of the exercise is otherwise lost. I like that all of the characters in this, as well as in other Shaw plays, are willful and individualized protagonists whose personas impose upon each other (with the possible exception of the servile Nicola, who is however so aggressively dedicated to his servility that it achieves a kind of force in itself).


My edition is a Penguin paperback proclaiming itself "the Definitive Text". It contains just the single play though it seems to belong to a broader set of "The Penguin Shaw". The last copyright date is 1958, but it looks to be of a much later date than that, 80s or even possibly early 90s. The publisher's price was $3.50. Probably not the 90s then. I noted that I bought it in Concord. The used book store we used to have in town must still have been open then, though it did not last much longer.




This is my edition, but not my book. Someday soon I hope to have the technological capacity to take and post my own photos again.


A few favorite quotes to mark the occasion:


RAINA: ...But they don't know that it was in this house you took refuge. If Sergius knew, he would challenge you and kill you in a duel.
BLUNTSCHLI: Bless me! then don't tell him.


SERGIUS: You have deceived me. You are my rival. I brook no rivals. At six o'clock I shall be in the drilling-ground on the Klissoura Road, alone, on horseback, with my sabre. Do you understand?
BLUNTSCHLI: ...Oh, thank you: that's a cavalry man's proposal. I'm in the artillery; and I have the choice of weapons. If I go, I shall take a machine gun.


PETKOFF: We should be most happy, Bluntschli, if it were only a question of your position; but hang it, you know, Raina is accustomed to a very comfortable establishment. Sergius keeps twenty horses.
BLUNTSCHLI: But who wants twenty horses? We're not going to keep a circus.


Bluntschli is obviously, like Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, the Shavian alter ego in this play.





Monday, March 6, 2017

March Update

A short month + a week in Florida equals less progress on some of these books than might be expected.


"A" List--H. L. Mencken-- The American Language.....................273/697

"B" List--Jules Verne--Around the World in Eighty Days.............194/230


"C" List--Knausgaard, Vol.2..........................................................408/592


I am picking my way through the Mencken pretty slowly. It has its usefulness, I guess, although most of the various approaches to the subject of language which are described in the book are probably outdated, haphazard and imprecise by the standards of modern scholarship. There are a lot of illustrative anecdotes and tidbits about American life from colonial times up to the 1930s which serve the purpose of filling out further one's perception of what the country has been through time. For example, I had not known that the American custom of giving policemen and even railroad conductors military titles (captain, sergeant, etc) is not done in England and was considered strange in that country. Mencken's famed ability for lacerating the pretensions and ill-conceived ideas of the weaker-minded is not on full display here though one occasionally comes across a mildly amusing sentence:


"Nor is the title (Dr.) frequent among pedagogues, for the Ph.D is an uncommon degree in England, and it is seldom if ever given to persons trained in the congeries of quackeries which passes, in the American universities, under the name of 'education'."


If you are wondering where Phileas Fogg and Passepartout are in Around the World in Eighty Days, they are in Nebraska after the attack on the train by the band of Sioux warriors, being carried by sledge from Fort Kearney to Omaha, where they hope to catch a train that will get them back to New York in time to catch the steamer back to England that is the last leg of the trip. I assume Fogg is going to make it within the eighty days and win the bet, but as I am not familiar with any version of the story I am not absolutely certain.


For the most part I think the second Knausgaard book is better than the first, although most of the material in the first volume is more interesting to me, the second volume mainly being concerned with his domestic life as a thirty-something man with children living in an apartment in Stockholm, which does not come off as a particularly thrilling or vital city to live in, though I'm sure I would like it there. Perhaps I am more used to him now. Also I suspect he must have more control over his style and the effect he wants to have, since fairly banal recitations of changing diapers or the preparation of yuppie meals will often be a set up for some more interesting part. However I still haven't figured out whether the banal descriptions of everyday life are really necessary from the literary point of view. He does refer a lot to an idea which I sometimes touch on as well, that at least some people in future times will want to know what life in this time period was really like, and there will not be near enough books (there never are) that will convey that sense, which does have a power of its own when done well.


Picture Gallery









Thursday, February 23, 2017

George Bernard Shaw--Arms and the Man (1894)

This is going to be a hurried report, as I want to post before I leave on a trip so I can take my next book with me. If, unlikely though it is, I have some time with the computer one evening while I am on that trip, I may write a supplement to this post.


The first appearance of Shaw in the program. He will appear many more times, five by my reckoning, which is not as many as Eugene O'Neill will have, but I think it safely puts him ahead of every other playwright besides Shakespeare.


As I grow older I find Shaw more amusing. His plays tend to follow similar patterns, mostly arranged around puncturing bourgeois pieties and other aspects of the collective mentality of those classes, but he is quite funny and his writing is clear and fairly unique, to me, I don't think anyone else really writes like him (maybe Wilde has some similarities) or they would be just as celebrated.


I read this back in March, 1999, both before I had children and when I was a very earnest note-taker and marker up of books in the full expectation of developing into a literary man myself. I am not going to claim that my notes revealed any accurate insights, but I am astounded by how much I noticed, or tried to notice and how attentive I was to word choices and trying to articulate the intent of gestures and actions...


OK, I am not going to be able to finish this tonight. There will be a supplement forthcoming with the rest of the post. This is kind of cheating on my self-imposed rules, but I don't want to put off starting the next book for almost two weeks....





The Challenge


1. Iron Man 3 (movie)...........................................................................................................3,663
2. Kate Andersen Brower--The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House...1,955
3. Kelly Link--Get in Trouble..................................................................................................125
4. Sarah Morgan Dawson--A Confederate Girl's Diary............................................................80
5. Ocean Vuong--Night Sky With Exit Wounds.........................................................................51
6. Sarah Bradford--Lucretia Borgia..........................................................................................50
7. Natalie Diaz--When My Brother Was an Aztec.....................................................................37
8. Flash Fiction Forward (eds. Thomas and Shepard)..............................................................28
9. Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebleed Wristlet (eds. Link and Grant)........................................4
10. Camille Rankine--Incorrect Merciful Impulses.....................................................................3
11. Salil Tripathi--The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its..............3
12. Danez Smith--Insert Boy........................................................................................................2
13. Ron Davis--Forbidden Fruit: Indecent Relations..................................................................1
14. Xao Seffcheque--Ja-Nein-Viellicht Kommt Sehr Gut (record)...............................................0
15. Solmaz Sharif--Look...............................................................................................................0
16. Juan Martinez--Best Worst American.....................................................................................0




Round of 16


#1 Iron Man 3 over #16 Martinez




No library recognition for Martinez's book which did just come out a month ago.




#15 Sharif over #2 Brower




A somewhat stunning upset. Sharif's short poetry book is actually at my library. Incredible.




#3 Link over #14 Seffcheque




Seffcheque is undoubtedly an obscure figure, especially in the English-speaking world, but what was he all about?










According to 3 of the 11 comments on this video, this song was big in Montreal in the early 80s.


#4 Dawson over #13 Davis


#5 Vuong over #12 Smith


#6 Bradford over #11 Tripathi


#7 Diaz over #10 Rankine


#8 Flash Fiction, etc over #9 Lady Churchill's, etc


In all of these instances the winning book had received the imprimatur of having been acquired by a library--in numerous instances just one--while the loser had not.


Round of 8


#15 Sharif over #2 Iron Man 3


#8 Flash Fiction over #3 Link


#7 Diaz over #4 Dawson


#5 Vuong over #6 Bradford


I had really wanted to have a battle of the Sarahs, but it wasn't meant to be.


Final Four


#15 Sharif over #4 Vuong


Vuong's poetry offering is even shorter than Sharif's, but he is only available in Dover, while Sharif
has been embraced by four libraries, including my own public one.


#7 Diaz over #8 Flash Fiction


Championship


#15 Sharif over #7 Diaz


Diaz's book was a shorty too, but was only available in one college library in-state (Southern New Hampshire University).


This Challenge was notable for the number of diverse authors and modern books, what everyone is counting on to be the future of literature. I suspect that if Shaw were around today, he would be something of a multiculturalist champion, at the snooty upper end of the scale anyway. It seems to me that if someone (the new person rising from a traditional outgroup) had the stuff to pierce urbanely through conventionalities and other nonsense, he (Shaw) respected them well enough, though not everyone saw him in such an enlightened light.


(The italicized notes I have added to the post because the last sentence made no sense to me for several minutes when I read over it again. Also the real Shaw in his time probably would have been no more of a multiculturalist than the general run of his kind, though if raised in ours he might have been adaptable. I do believe he had had to have some respect for (other) iconoclasts, provided they were clever.) 











Thursday, February 16, 2017

Don Marquis--archy and mehitabel (1927-34)

This may be the closest thing to a comic book on the IWE list. archy was a cockroach who in a previous life had been a free verse human poet. He banged out poems, all in lower case letters due to his not being able to reach the shift key, at night on a typewriter in what I took to be a newspaper office in New York City, though evidently it was in an apartment. mehitabel was a street cat of shockingly loose morals by the standard of literary anthropomorphized animals who appeared to live in the apartment in the earlier poems though after the beginning she was out living the hardscrabble city life most of the time. The poems originally appeared in The New York Sun newspaper, often famously accompanied by illustrations by Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman. These stories were immensely popular in their day. The himself once much more famous writer Christopher Morley, as recounted on the dust jacket of my edition, called the stories "the wisest collection of American irreverence written in our time" and that "the grandest of all times to have been young and excitable...about 1916 when Don Marquis invented his Vermin Voltaire, archy the roach". Three books were made out of this material, archy and mehitabel, archy's life of mehitabel, and archy does his part, which in turn were collected into the one volume the lives and times of archy and mehitabel in 1934. This was the book that I read, though looking over the summary in the IWE, it stopped at the first volume, which was by far the best, and in truth, I found the second and third books to be disappointments that added little to the first. It became a little repetitious after a while. The first book, however, I did like. Its charms lie in its mixture of absurdity and matter of fact, even blunt concerns about eating and scrapping and other facets of the life of a small urban animal who possesses the instincts of said animal along with a humanlike consciousness and language. archy offers more direct social commentary in the later poems, some of which hits its mark as far as it goes, but it tends to lack the playful anarchic quality of the earlier stories.


I was very lazy about making notes for this book, so I do not have many examples to comment on.






From "quote and only man is vile quote":


"humanitys culture consists
in sitting down in circles
and passing the word around
about how darned smart humanity is
i wish you would tell
the furnace man at your house
to put out some new brand
of roach paste I do not get
any kick any more out of the brand
he has been using the last year"


An 'archygram' about living in a museum


"but it is dull associating
with mummies no
matter how royal their
blood used to be when
they had blood
it is like living in
philadelphia"


From "archy visits washington"


"it is so hot that you can
fry fish on the
sidewalk in any part of
town and many people
are here with fish to fry"


From "the league"--archy seems to have been in the main a liberal, and supportive of the idea at least of organizations dedicated to the promotion of peace, though he was doubtful about their effectiveness.




"incidentally I wonder why europe of today
is always referred to by highbrow writers
as post war europe
they seem to think that the war
which started in nineteen fourteen
is over with whereas there have been
merely a few brief truces"


From 'statesmanship"


"why in the world
says this
insect do you not
go to the country and become
grasshoppers if
living in town and being
cockroaches is getting
too difficult for you...
how i asked him are
cockroaches to become
grasshoppers
that is a mere
detail he said which i
leave to you for
solution i have outlined
the general scheme for your
salvation so do not ask
me to settle the mere
details i trust to you for
that you must do
something for yourself
we philosophers cannot do it all
for you unaided you
must learn self help
but alas i fear that
your inherent stupidity will
balk all efforts
to improve your condition"




Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing made a recording of the 'archy' material, subtitled "a back-alley opera" in 1954.


From "what the ants are saying"


"what man calls civilization
always results in deserts
man is never on the square
he uses up the fat and greenery of the earth
each generation wastes a little more
of the future with greed and lust for riches"


He was quite prescient as far as anticipating some of the attitudes of modern progressives and other cynics of the American system in particular.


mehitabel the cat was a well-conceived and very lively creation, who plays well off of archy's somewhat more constrained and frustrated persona.






The Challenge


1. Ben-Hur (movie).........................................................................................1,918
2. Emma Cline--The Girls...............................................................................1,466
3. Ben Mezrich--Bringing Down the House.......................................................571
4. Mark Helprin--A Soldier of the Great War.....................................................448
5. Thomas Pynchon--Against the Day................................................................111
6. Ray Bradbury--Golden Apples of the Sun.........................................................47
7. Randy Olson--Houston, We Have a Narrative.................................................46
8. Lake/Simmons--Bazaar Style...........................................................................22
9. Lisa Leavitt-Smith--Paris Interiors...................................................................15
10. Rico Austin--In the Shadow of Elvis...............................................................14
11. Mark Thomas--Belching Out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola..7
12. Jen George--The Babysitter at Rest...................................................................7
13. Conan/Sorrell--At Home With Pattern..............................................................3
14. Nathalie Leger--Suite For Barbara Loden........................................................2
15. Annette Messager--Word For Word..................................................................1
16. Raymond Carroll--Only Raising Dust on the Road, Part 1...............................0
17. A Series of Unfortunate Events (TV).................................................................0


Play-In Round


#16 Carroll over #17 Unfortunate Events


This version of the Lemony Snicket stories is a streaming-only TV series.


The Sweet Sixteen


#1 Ben-Hur over #16 Carroll


I break my rule of never allowing a book to beat a film when no library has a copy of the book.


#2 Cline over #15 Messager


Cline is shorter and more readily available, and looks as if it might be a real book.


#3 Mezrich over #14 Leger
#4 Helprin over #13 Conan/Sorrell


These two are walkovers.


#5 Pynchon over #12 George


I'm not really ready at this time to read a 1,085 page Pynchon novel (though I know I should be), however I have to retain some integrity for the Challenge and I can't let him be beaten by a babysitter book.








#6 Bradbury over #11 Thomas


I was actually interested in the Coca-Cola book, but it drew a tough matchup here.


#7 Olson over #10 Austin


Despite a combined 60 Amazon reviews for their books, neither author has had a work make its way into a library in the state of New Hampshire.


#8 Lake/Simmons over #9 Leavitt-Smith


Same story here. I believe this is the first time we have ever had chalk in the round of 16.


Elite Eight


#1 Ben-Hur over #8 Lake/Simmons


Ben-Hur will fall when he runs up against a vetted book.


#2 Cline over #7 Olson
#6 Bradbury over #3 Mezrich


Finally, the first lower seed to win.


#4 Helprin over #5 Pynchon


Titanic matchup, obviously. Helprin's book, at 792 pages, is the short one by far here.


Final Four


#6 Bradbury over #1 Ben-Hur
#2 Cline over #4 Helprin


The Cline book is not obviously unserious enough to lose here.


Championship


#6 Bradbury over #2 Cline


Bradbury, along with Thomas, his first opponent, were designated for upsets, but Bradbury never really needed to rely on one as he cruised to the title.