Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Gladys Hasty Carroll--As the Earth Turns (1933)

One last American novel from the era between the World Wars before we leave this particular turf for a while.

Somewhat forgotten today--I can only find one other blog post about it on an internet search--As the Earth Turns depicts a year (1932, to be precise) in the life of a Maine farming family. It was a great success in its time, finishing as the #2 best-selling novel in the United States for its year (behind only the previously-written-about-here Anthony Adverse!) and inspiring a film adaptation in the next one. It is of especial interest to me perhaps because it is set about 40 miles from where I live now (the author was born in Rochester, N.H. and lived most of her life just across the river in South Berwick, Maine, on which the town of Derwich in the book is presumably based) as well as a similar distance in the other direction from where I lived in Maine as a teenager. As with most of these IWE books, I liked it better than almost anything else I read, if not quite as enthusiastically as my encyclopedia's editors did. These extolled it as "very fine", said that it "richly deserves its great success" and that its "central character, Jen, is an admirable creation." It is a quiet book about ordinary things in particular lives, but it does evoke well the (somewhat incredibly)lost people and way of life that predominated in much of this part of the world eighty years ago--the childhood of my grandparents--and had not entirely disappeared even thirty years ago. But the reader who cares will get a sense of my thoughts and feelings about this book through the many notes I have taken on it which I must get to now.

p. 61 (keeping up my habit on holding off on note-taking until I start to get a feel for the book): "It was the spell the male on the farm had the power of casting over his women when occasion demanded it. The rooster swelled up, stretched his neck, and crowed, when he had done it. The bull threw back his head and roared." What exactly has been done to the men in our time? The absoluteness of the decline on all fronts cannot be explained as easily or contentedly as people seem to want it to be.

p.86 On a farmhouse restored for a soon-to-be-married couple: "Margaret would go inside the house and keep it, while Ed worked for her in the fields." Strict gender roles and the proper carrying out of them are taken very seriously in this book. Carroll is sympathetic towards those weaker or flightier souls who cannot maintain the necessary focus and energy or who are inclined towards a different kind of life. However those who live most in accordance with the ideal are the most exalted characters.

p.115 "Most people nowadays had no time to search the woods and nobody knew the herbs, which to use or where to find them, but went to drug stores, and likely paid a dollar for nothing half so good to clear the blood as thoroughwort." While accurately, and from Carroll's point of view probably lovingly drawn, I admit I find these unwaveringly hard-working and frugal old Yankees kind of tiresome and humorless.
No connection with the book, but this picture kept coming up so why not

p.195 "They interest me. I haven't had much chance to get used to people of another race. Come to think of it, until now there's never been anybody but Yankees around here, except the woodchoppers. That's unusual...You know, Jen, I've never even yet seen a negro in my life! Nor a Chinaman nor a Jap!" This is spoken by Olly. He is the educated one, who is in college. This extreme racial (or non-racial) dynamic was still the case here until very recently. Certainly it was that way when I lived in Maine in the 80s and even in the late 90s in New Hampshire seeing a nonwhite person more than once a week was still a rarity. The nonwhite population of these states even now are only around 5%, but that is a substantial increase from 0.2, which is what they were up to about twenty years ago.

p.196 More on this topic of non-Yankee people, referencing an exotic family of Poles that has settled in the neighborhood, the consideration of whom brought up the subject in the first place: "They plowed and planted and drove past the edge of the lane every day. Their baby had the croup and their children went to school with George's and the Forrests and the rest. There was nothing in that to make anybody think of Chinamen and negroes and give himself the shivers."

p. 219. On the patriarch and master Maine farmer of the story: "For Mark Shaw the country outside of Derwich was shut off by hills he could never see over, and the language there was one he could not use; unless the children were at home they were 'away', and more than that, switchboards, airports, colleges, bosses, salaries, courses, he could not grasp; thinking of it bewildered him."

p. 242 Romance, Yankee style: "He liked the sound of her voice. He liked the way her hair shone and her hands moved. He sat watching her. 'One man alone can't get ahead fast, though, on a place like mine that needs so much done to it.' 'Not fast,' Jen agreed."

Jen, who is nineteen and more or less has not stopped working and cooking and keeping the house in perfect order since her mother died when she was ten, is the heroine of the story. She came off to me in the reading as a grim, humorless, judgmental person giving off something of a lesbian vibe, though I really don't think homosexuality among these types of characters would have been on Carroll's radar in the early 1930s. I think we are supposed to think that she cooks and works endlessly out of love or effusive self-expression, but she seems to be more of an inflexible adherent to duty, for whom pleasure independent of that fulfillment does not even exist.

p. 246 Regarding the Polish boy who is determined to stay and make the farm work even when his parents have given it up (and who is in love with Jen): (Mark) "As I see it, it'll show what he is. What he does." (Jen) "Yes. It's a matter for judgment."

Obviously this sort of judgment is still cast now in other forms, but the severity here seems a bit much.

As with Margaret Landon, whom I wrote about around this time last year, when Gladys Hasty Carroll died in York, Maine on April 1, 1999 at the age of 94, I was probably in the vicinity, as that is only about 55 miles or so from here and we go to the beach there at least 3-4 times every summer. I don't know what I did that day, as it was a Thursday, and I was off on Thursdays in those days, but my wife would have had to work, so I was probably home, and I probably spent most of the day writing, as that was before my children were born and that was when I making whatever push I could be said to have made in that area. It is sad, other than the children very little has changed in my personal life since 1999. I was already married then, I lived in the same house and already had the same job that I have now. I have become smarter about some things I am sure but so has everyone else. My expression is not much more incisive or arresting than it was then, and my writing at least has declined a lot.

p. 278 "Jen and her father stood by with pleasant faces, non-committal. They had neither time nor money for a fair, nor wish to mix themselves with crowds and noise and skin-games going on." Continuing the theme that work is the only way to get/earn anything in this life. George, the brother who is inept at running his farm and is forever in debt and various financial distresses who blew off a day of work to spend money he didn't have at the fair, is the forerunner of the helpless modern man so familiar to us.

p.312-313 George again. "As a boy he had once shot a deer and this one triumph teased his memory in the fall until he left everything to try again, though deer were few and his aim not of the best." Times have changed. With regard to the deer population I mean.

The writing gets a bit mawkish at the end.

With all of the emphasis in the book on making sure young people hit their teenage years ready to work and otherwise pull their weight I realized that aside from the setting of the book taking place in a farm community the overall demographic situation, which was that that prevailed in most times and places, required young people to be ready to assume mature roles at young ages with an urgency that simply does not exist today, where most people in their twenties are superfluous to the economy and the organization of society. There are very few people in this book who are much over sixty. Mark Shaw, who is the patriarch and village elder of the book, is identified as being fifty-two.  In any event they are outnumbered by a factor of five or six by the under-thirties, as was generally the case in reality, whereas with us there are actually more people alive in the 50-70 age cohorts than in those from 30-50, and about equal to those currently in their 20s. The point being that all the lamenting about young people failing to take on the markers and responsibilities of full blown adults is tied in with there not being any real necessity, and less room, for them to seriously do this given the current distribution of population and economic resources/power among various age groups.

As noted above, this will be our last old American book for at least a little while, as none of the next five items on the list fit this description, though they all look to be pretty short (2 plays and 3 poems), so maybe I'll be back in this genre before the end of the summer. I haven't looked beyond these next five for now.

Last year at this time I was very emotional and probably mildly depressed. For some reason my oldest child's graduating from 8th grade and my oldest daughter's finishing preschool were a very great deal to me. My second son, who has also gone to the school for 8 years, is graduating from it next week, and it does not seem to be arousing the same cathartic emotion in anyone, including me, though I still think of it as a big deal, and it has been as huge a part of his life as it was for his brother. For whatever reason I seem to be calmer and in a better overall frame of mind this year, despite the election and the impending decline/collapse of everything that is supposed to be following upon it.

The Challenge

Once again a very small field despite what I thought was a strong group of keywords. I begin to suspect that the Internets have figured out my scheme.

1. A Douglas Stone--Einstein and the Quantum......................................................78
2. Lisa Miller--The Spiritual Child...........................................................................63
3. John A. Farrell--Richard Nixon: The Life............................................................47
4. Ryan Berg--No House to Call My Home..............................................................20
5. Ben Jonson--Bartholomew Fair.............................................................................5
6. Mrs Beeton's Everyday Cookery............................................................................4
7. A Violin's Life: Music For the Lipinski Stradivari (record)...................................3
8. Kelsey Neilson--Coolibah Creek...........................................................................2
9. Dario Castello--Sonate: Concertate in Stil Moderno, Libra Primo (record).........2
10. Craig Morrison, PhD--American Popular Music: Rock n' Roll...........................1

Qualifying Round

#10 Morrison over #7 A Violin's Life

A mild upset in that I didn't expect any libraries to carry a copy of the Morrison book. But one did.

#9 Castello over #8 Neilson.

The Castello appears to be a distinguished record.


#1 Stone over #10 Morrison
#2 Miller over #9 Castello

#3 Farrell over #6 Mrs Beaton
#5 Jonson over #4 Berg

The surprise here was that Berg couldn't break into any libraries.


#1 Stone over #5 Jonson

Two reasons for this choice, despite the Jonson being much shorter and probably the greater work of literature: In the first place I have already read a lot of things like Jonson, including several works by Johnson himself for this list. Second, one of the main purposes of the creation of the Challenge was to get more popular non-fiction into my routine, and I seem to have been getting away from that as late. In short the Stone is the sort of book I invented this game for.

#2 Miller over #3 Farrell

It came down to 374 pages versus 737.


#1 Stone over #2 Miller

Stone seems a more likely candidate to hold my interest. A pretty clean tournament this time. The two books in the final were evenly matched in terms of size and publication dates. It is probably a bland generalist of book but I am kind of in the mood for something like that. (addendum--as noted in the monthly update, I am already well into this book, which is not bland nor especially generalist, unless the knowledge of math and physics somewhat above the usual high school level is more widespread than we have been led to believe. I have enjoyed it, though it requires a lot of effort (for me) to try to keep up with the scientific concepts as best as I can, and I am kind of exhausted by it.

The author discusses the book. I should watch it myself.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

June Update

A List--The Arabian Nights............................................473/823
B List--Between books
C List--A Douglas Stone, Einstein and the Quantum....215/294

It's taking me a long time to get my report on As the Earth Turns up, which has caused a stall in the B-list. The Arabian Nights continues to be what thought of it in the previous update. Many of the stories are charming enough, others don't hold my interest so much. I usually know by the end of the first page whether it is a story I am going to take to or not. These tales are not such as can overcome a sluggish beginning. I have just gotten through all seven of the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

Perhaps surprisingly I am enjoying the Einstein book even though about half of the writing is devoted to the problems of quantum physics. I generally neglected my science studies during my youth, which I regret somewhat, not that I could ever have pursued any kind of professional career in that area, but because I think I could have learned more about it than I did. I won't claim that I am following the matters under discussion here with any very competent understanding--I have a general idea of the concepts that Einstein sought to elucidate. Most of the equations make some sense to me when they are written out and I am staring at them on the page, but I could not begin at this point of my life to remember them or keep them straight without dedicating the greater part of my mental energies to the task. Of course these are not easy ideas even for very brilliant people. We studied some Einstein at school, mainly the relativity theory I think--my efforts at that time were poor--and I remember somehow having the idea that when all of this was first rolled out, all of the truly intelligent people, such as the faculty at my college would have been if they had lived 100 years earlier, recognized and appreciated its brilliance and correctness right away, and if Einstein himself were to wander into the classroom they would have to able to question him as near intellectual equals. In truth it took some time, as in many years, even for many top scientists, Nobel Prize winners in some instances, to grasp Einstein's work on relativity and quantum/atomic physics. The heads of physics departments at prestigious universities in Europe returned the relativity papers submitted by the position seeking Einstein declaring without any idea of having shame that they couldn't understand a word of what he was trying to say. The point is, it is difficult and decidedly non-intuitive stuff for most people, even those of some respectable level of education.

A. Douglas Stone is a professor of Physics at Princeton, by the way.

No time for a picture gallery this month.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Author List Volume XII

Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) The Invisible Man (1897) Born: 47 High Street, Bromley, London, England. Remains: Old Harry Rocks, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, England. College: Imperial College, London.

Richard I, Coeur de Lion (1157-1999) Born: Beaumont Palace, Beaumont Street, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England. Buried: Fontevraud Abbey, near Chinon, Anjou, France. Chateau Gaillard, Les Andeleys, Normandie, France. Trifels Castle, Annweiler am Trifels, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany.

Mazo de la Roche (1879-1961) Jalna (1927) Born: (Plaque Water Street on Fairy Lake), Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. Buried: St George's Anglican Church, Sibbald Point, Sutton, Ontario, Canada.

Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) Jane Eyre (1847) Born: 74 High Street, Thornton, Yorkshire, England. (currently a tea shop) Buried: St Michael and All Angels' Church, Haworth, Yorkshire, England. Bronte Parsonage Museum, Church Street, Haworth, Yorkshire, England. Sir John Soane's Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields, (Holborn?), London, England.

This was a picture of a pretty girl, but somehow during the course of writing this post it got changed to this.

Romain Rolland (1866-1944) Jean-Christophe (1904-12) Born: Musee d'Art et d'Histoire Romain Rolland, Avenue de la Republique, Clamecy, Burgundy, France. Buried: Cimitiere de Breves, Breves, Burgundy, France. Musee Zervos--Maison Romain Rolland, 14 Rue St Etienne, Vezelay, Burgundy, France. Romain Rolland Library, Main City, Pondicherry, India. Rhine River Boat. College: Ecole Normale Superieure (Paris). 

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975) The Inimitable Jeeves (orig. published as Jeeves) (1923) Born: 7 Vale Place, 50 Epsom Road, Guildford, Surrey, England. Buried: Remsenburg Cemetery, Remsenburg, Southampton, Suffolk, New York.  

Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943) John Brown's Body (1927) Born: Ostrom and Bishopthorpe Streets, Fountain Hill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Buried: Evergreen Cemetery, Stonington, Connecticut. Stephen Vincent Benet House, 2500 Walton Way, Augusta State University, Augusta, Georgia. College: Yale

John Brown (1800-1859) Born: John Brown Road, Torrington, Connecticut. Buried: John Brown Farm State Historic Site, 115 John Brown Road, North Elba, Lake Placid, Essex, New York. John Brown Museum, Main and 10th Streets, Osawatomie, Kansas. John Brown Wax Museum, 168 High Street, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Joseph (biblical figure) Born: Canaan, Israel. Buried: Joseph's Tomb, near Nablus, Israel (West Bank).

Potiphar's Wife:
William De Morgan (1839-1917) Joseph Vance (1906) Born: Gower Street, London, England. Buried: Brookwood Cemetery, Brookwood, Surrey, England. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham, Warwickshire, England. College: Royal Academy of Arts (London)

The De Morgan Centre, a museum housing a collection of De Morgan's ceramic work (his primary career before taking up novel writing at the age of 65) in Wandsworth, London, unfortunately closed in 2014. The collection is still seeking a permanent home at the present time.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) Jude the Obscure (1894) Born: Hardy's Cottage, Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, England. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England (*****9-3-96*****). Heart in St Michael's Churchyard, Stinsford, Dorset, England. Dorset County Museum, West High Street, Dorchester, Dorset, England. Max Gate, Alington Avenue, Dorchester, Dorset, England. College: Kings (London) 

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) The Jungle (1906) Born: Baltimore, Maryland. Buried: Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. College: CCNY.

Sean O'Casey (1880-1964) Juno and the Paycock (1924) Born: 85 Upper Dorset Street, Dublin, Ireland. Buried: Golders Green Crematorium, Golders Green, London, England. Sean O'Casey Bridge, Dublin, Ireland. Sean O'Casey Theatre, St Mary's Road, East Wall, Dublin, Ireland.

Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964) Born: 419 Pine Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Buried: Chelten Hills Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. National Theatre, South Bank, Waterloo, London, England. College: Curtis Institute of Music.

According to his Wikipedia page, Blitzstein was an "unrepentant artistic snob, who firmly believed that true art was only for the intellectual elite." Having consumed a substantial part of my life in various attempts at becoming a cultivated person without any noticeable success, I suspect that this way of understanding the matter is probably correct.  

James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) Jurgen (1919) Born: 101 East Franklin Street (Now Home of Richmond City Library), Richmond, Virginia. Buried: Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. James Branch Cabell Library, 901 Park Avenue, Richmond, Virginia. College: William & Mary.

Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907) Justice (1878) Born: 34 Rue du Faubourg Poissoniere, 10eme, Paris, France. Buried: Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise, 20eme, Paris, Ile, France.

Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) Born: Greenwich Palace (now Royal Naval College), Greenwich, London, England. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588) Born: London, England. Buried: Collegiate Church of St Mary, Warwick, Warwickshire, England. Kenilworth Castle, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England.

Amy Robsart (1532-1560) Born: Stanfield Hall, near Wymondham, Norfolk, England. Buried: St Mary's Church, Oxford, Oxfordshire, England.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) The King of the Golden River (1851) Born: 54 Hunter Street, Holborn, London, England. Buried: St Andrew's Church, Coniston, Cumbria, England. Ruskin Museum, Lake District National Park, Coniston, Cumbria, England. Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, Lancaster, Lancashire, England. Brantwood, Coniston, Cumbria, England. College: Christ Church (Oxford).

Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950) The King's Henchman (1927) Born: 198-200 Broadway, Rockland, Maine. Buried: Millay Colony For the Arts, Austerlitz, Columbia, New York. Edna St Vincent Millay Society, 440 East Hill Road, Austerlitz, Columbia, New York. College: Vassar.
Deems Taylor (1885-1966) Born: 152 West 17th Street, New York, New York. Buried: Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, Westchester, New York. College: New York University.

H Rider Haggard (1856-1925) King Solomon's Mines (1886) Born: Wood Farm, West Bradenham, Norfolk, England. Buried: St Mary Churchyard, Ditchingham, Norfolk, England.

King Solomon (1010-931 B.C.) Born: Jerusalem, Israel.

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) Kristin Lavransdatter (The Bridal Wreath, 1922, The Mistress of Husaby. 1923, The Cross, 1927) Born: Market Square, Kalundborg, Denmark. Buried: Kirke, Mesnali, Norway. Sigrid Undsets Hjem Bjerkebaek, Sigrid Undsets veg 16, Lillehammer, Norway.
I love Scandinavian tourist attractions.

Monday, May 8, 2017

May Update

A List--The Arabian Nights (Burton Translation)................................................143/823
B List--Gladys Hasty Carroll--As the Earth Turns...............................................263/339
C List--Jane Austen--Persuasion..........................................................................228/252

This is the first time I have ever read the Arabian Nights. Most of the stories I am finding to hold my interest so far, I have not yet been struck with a grand conception of the whole. Wife-murdering for the crime, or in some instances suspected crime, of infidelity, is a common theme. It's happened at least three times already. I am reading the Modern Library edition, which is a selection, as the complete Burton translation runs to 16 volumes, and I am not sure if the various sources that recommend these stories really intend that everyone should read all of it. When I was younger I was much more of an absolutist and wanted to read everything whole so as to be sure of not missing anything that might be of value, but I have become less so, at least in cases where it is generally agreed that the high esteem which a work enjoys is concentrated in specific parts of it that can be easily detached from the rest.

Persuasion was the only Jane Austen book I had never read, and now I sit 24 pages from having completed her entire oeuvre. I don't who else I can say that about, other than people who only wrote one or two distinct works, Homer, Proust. Even Emily Bronte wrote poems, and Henry Fielding wrote 30-something plays. I like the story in this one, though the characters are not as well-developed as in her better books and her snark is looser and more undisciplined throughout this one, which is also a detraction. I would rank it fourth among her books, after the two obvious ones and Mansfield Park, which I like a lot. I think I like this one better than Sense and Sensibility, which I remember as kind of lackluster compared to the other ones.

I was going to write something about a contemporary book of poetry I read, Look by Solmaz Sharif, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2016. But given the time constraints I think I will try to do that in a separate post.

I had no idea there was a film of this book.

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 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.


#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.


#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


#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.


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.


#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.