Tuesday, October 6, 2015

October Update

A List: Thomas Hardy--Far From the Madding Crowd........136/353
B List: Burton--Anatomy of Melancholy.............................758/1,132
C List: Gillian Flynn--Gone Girl...........................................418/419

This is the last of the three Hardy books on the A-List, and the only one that I really heard of previously. I suspect it is probably going to end up as the best of the three. The characters seem to more vitally represent the ideas they are meant to represent, and the depiction of the rural life also seems more intense and detailed, in the character of his most celebrated books. I say seemed because I know I am influenced by prevailing opinion and find it difficult to trust my own judgment in these matters anymore, though I hope I have read enough that if something strikes me as better than it is supposed to be that I can recognize the sense in myself--indeed I believe I did something of this sort with Dreiser, which played against the expectations I had going into it. These Hardy books are generally playing to form in that regard.

One of Hardy's great themes in this and other of his books is the way that the rhythms of rural life remain largely the same as they had been for centuries, though in London and other cities thirty years past is ancient history. Masterful shepherds and others skilled in the timeless knowledge of the village, malting, cider-making, and so on, are indispensable men, and the books (Far From the Madding Crowd was published in 1874) are written as if they always will be, though Hardy himself would live well past the time when this was true.

The sheep in this book are constantly at threat of dying from disease or bloating or stampeding off cliffs of otherwise being killed by one means or another, and it is no minor skill in itself to keep them alive long enough to even be able to exploit or slaughter them. I  always like to be cognizant of the reasons why our forefathers were so much less romantic about animals than we seem to be.

The Anatomy has grown by one page since last month. That is because my copy of the book is divided into 3 volumes, each of which begins on page 1, and I made an error in adding them the last time. While there are parts of it that I do like, on the whole I have to admit it really is a slog, and it could be considerably shortened. I pride myself on being able to still concentrate on blocks of dense 17th century prose with sentences that go on for half a page when I need to, but this book I find does test me. When Burton is making a list of the twenty-seven different varieties of lust, with accompanying examples and quotations from ancient and medieval authors, most of which are in Latin, there are times where I am overcome by the sense that, all right, the point has been made. But people--granted, mostly unmarried or at least childless men well into middle age--love this book. This is my second time reading it, and it is obvious that I am never going to be able to appreciate it at any very high or satisfying level.

I am almost done Gone Girl, obviously. Didn't care for the ending. Certainly didn't care for the main character, who was awful. There was a lot of emphasis on how brilliant she was, and how superior mentally to her husband and basically all of the men of her generation, but she certainly did not put this genius to any productive or admirable means. It was not clear to me how much the author sympathized with her plight, and the neurotic, endlessly dissatisfied type of intelligent woman whose ranks in our society seem to be ever growing, at least in the most socially competitive areas of it. People mistake male revulsion against this type of character as a revulsion against, or fear of feminine intelligence. I think it is more a revulsion against neuroticism, which in many instances seems to be a product of....

The update posts are subject to a strict time limit and I must stop now. Hence the (even more than usually) rough nature of the thoughts.

I did manage to read out on the porch today (66 degrees!). However it is getting cooler by the day, and I doubt I will make it to the end of the month, though that remains my goal.       

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Mestember Update

I am a little late with the update this month, because I was celebrating the holiday the past two days.

A List--Thomas Hardy--The Woodlanders 247/379
B--Robert Burton--The Anatomy of Melancholy 320/1,131
C--Gillian Flynn--Gone Girl 139/419
*D*--Paolo Ruiz--The Fault Line: Traveling the Other Europe From Finland to Ukraine 170/253

This current group is a bit too much, mainly because of "B". Even keeping up a very modest pace of 15-20 pages per day in it is wearing me out, given everything else I have to squeeze in in the course of a day.

The A list is in the midst of a run of three Hardy books right now, the first two of which I assume to be considered minor as I had not heard of them before. The Woodlanders, after an intriguing start, is looking like it is going to live up to this designation. It is still not bad, but it is very similar in character with all of the Hardy books as well as many other 19th century English novels. It calls to mind Adam Bede in particular. There is more of a sense in Adam Bede of there being an ultimate purpose in life of what might be considered a spiritual nature that is worth being mindful of that makes it the more successful book, I think. The Eliot characters run into difficulties because they deny or lose sight of this purpose, while the Hardy characters' problems stem from the circumstance that they have no comparable sense of purpose or who they even are in the first place. The professorial editor of the relatively recent Penguin edition I am reading, with the usual pedantic overkill* characteristic of modern authorities on literature, notes that Hardy was influenced by Darwinism and related developments in scientific understanding at the time he was writing this book, and the psychological break of the most sophisticated characters with any spiritual relation to existence stands out.

Burton, whom I have read before but who has come up on this other list I have started late in life and am determined to read all the way through as far as possible, I will deal with in a big posting when I finish him, which probably won't be until November.

Gone Girl was the winner of one of my goofy contests and while I felt obligated to start it I am not sure I am going to read it all the way through. I will give it credit that it is mildly more intelligent than the run of genre books or best sellers, and I suspect that the characters, while shallow and completely uninteresting in themselves as literary creations, are in some way representative of people in my generation, whom I am fascinated by, as stupid and sensually stunted and existentially confused as they are, because I have been judged by most of them to be even less adequate in these areas relative to what an acceptable human being would be than they are, and more or less rejected by them. There are also a number of mildly evil and probably repressed thirty-something MILF characters I am interested in, to see if they will do anything sexual. All of the characters in this are supposed to be well above average in looks, and to have been active and capable participants in the sexual arena during their single youth; the female protagonist is recorded as having had twelve sex partners, and it is implied that if her husband has not had this many, he easily could have. However, as in most instances where my generation is involved, all of this is completely unsexy, all of these experiences add up to little more than so many statistics and detached, almost robotic connections made with people displaying adequate desirability. None even of the married couples evince the slightest hint of feeling actual love for anyone, or even the kind of real respect that in the absence of torrid passion still indicates the presence of some affection.

I picked up the Ruiz book at the library because I was feeling a little uninspired by the combination of things I was reading otherwise, and weighed down by the Burton (though that has begun to pick up in the last few days. For a while there I was finding myself unable to read more than a couple of pages without nodding off in my chair), and I had not read a travel book in a while. Ruiz is a journalist born in 1947, Italian by nationality, though he likes to emphasize that as a native of Trieste, which is famously located at the point where the Slavic, Latin and Germanic cultures of Europe meet, and belonged to the Hapsburg Empire prior to 1918, he is most comfortable in places where multiple peoples and traditions co-exist more or less side by side. He hates nationalism, though his real antagonism is directed towards the EU, which he sees as standardizing and sucking the soul out of the Europe he loves and obscenely fixated on money-making, even more. He undertook this trip in 2007, Starting above the Arctic Circle on the border between Norway and Russia, and progressing south, loosely along the border between the EU and that part of Europe that remains outside, which thus far means Russia (he is in Vilnius, Lithuania, at the point of the book that I have reached). While I am interested in the reasons for his sourness towards the new Europe, I think it overly colors his reactions to everything he sees. It is refreshing to experience the kinds of old-fashioned hospitality and cooking and handicrafts and habits and so on that he finds in Russia--I felt something of this when I was in the Czech Republic back before they joined the EU--but whenever this is counteracted by anything he associates with a western influence, such as cell phones, tourism, "androgynous Western women", fast food, and the like, his reaction is uniformly negative, and there is nothing that might be associated with the modern west, other than possibly some aspects of its tendency towards cleanliness, for which he can express any approval. At one point while in an Eastern train station he sees some Polish children reading books and laments that 'one never sees this in the west anymore.' I mostly agree with these sentiments, though I find him a little sententious in his negativity--he has more than a little of the "I am the only Westerner who still possesses a working mind and an identifiably human soul" about him, and I suspect his views of the comparative soulfulness and vitality of people outside of the west are probably a little too rosy, so while I will certainly finish the book, it has already been established for me what kinds of impressions the rest of the trip will likely bring.      

There was a golden quote I forgot to insert in my post about Dreiser, regarding Clyde's early love interest, Hortense Briggs, who played him for the chump that he was:

"As Hortense well knew Clyde was pressing more and more hungrily toward that ultimate condescension on her part, which, though she would never have admitted it to him, was the privilege of two others."

I guess this reads as one of those clunky, unliterary Dreiserian sentences, but the universal truth embodied in the content carries the day, as it often does with him.

*Have I ever told you how much I hate the scholarly footnotes in modern editions of classics? First of all, of course, they have to make on note on every historical or literary factoid that presents itself, the assumption apparently being that the average reader nowadays is a complete moron. Hence we have footnotes for the likes of the writing on the wall, the apple of discord, Baden, and other references. We also get the obligatory explanation that phrenology is a pseudo-science, with the implication that if our literature professor-guide had been alive in 1886, she would have seen right through its idiocy. She also implies that Hardy thought of it in 1886 in exactly the same way that she is thinking of it in 2010 or whatever, which I doubt. There is also a reading of why Hardy has his rustic characters mangle biblical passages that owes too much, I fear, to contemporary academic loathing both of the rural poor and the Christian religion. But I have to end this post.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Plautus--Amphitryon (c. 186 B.C.)

A brief interlude in the midst of a series of mostly huge books, Amphitryon is the first, and, I am sad to say, because I rather enjoyed this, the only Roman play on the IWE lifetime reading plan. No Seneca, no Terence, and after this, no more Plautus either. Of course there is the expected portion of Greek plays to look forward to, twelve or thirteen of them, so we will be back again to the ancient theater, but I would have welcomed a few more Roman selections, especially as they are not only brief, but appear to have that rare quality of being briefer than one would like them to be. Naturally I could go ahead and just read them anytime I wanted to, but I find from experience that I read better, have more concentration, retention, enthusiasm and so on when I am following some kind of system. As this site bears evidence, I am not averse to tweaking my various systems from time to time to try to generate more of a certain type of book that I want to read more of, though the results of this tweaking usually turns out mixed at best. There are besides a lot of types of books I am trying to increase my exposure to other than Roman plays, plus I have to figure that they are not very prominent or seen as necessary on most mid-20th century become-intelligent-and-cultured-through-reading programs that appeal to me for some reason that I would probably accept as reasonable; so for the present I am going to continue to stay and work with the systems I have.   

Not having read much specifically about the Roman theater in the course of my life, I needed to be reminded, via the notes and introductions in my book, that, like the sculptures of that people, nearly all of their plays were adaptations from Greek originals, though, especially with the comedies, not from the Greek plays that are most famous now, but the later Greek theater of the late 4th and early 3rd centuries B.C., Menander and those people. Almost none of these Greek works survive except in fragments, and the original of Amphitryon was not known at the time my edition was published (1942) and does not seem to have been discovered in the interval since. To recap the plot, Amphitryon was a Theban general (the Roman versions of these plays generally kept the Greek characters and settings) whose wife, Alcmena, while he was away fighting in a war, was visited by Jupiter (they do use the Roman god-names though) who had taken on the form of Amphitryon. Jupiter was accompanied in this adventure by Mercury, who took on the form of Amphitryon's slave and main attendant Sosia to complete the deception and cause more confusion among the real Amphitryon and Sosia when they return home to find everyone believing they had just been there, Alcmena thinking herself freshly ravished by her legal husband, and so on. This is the source of the comedy. Jupiter's rendezvous with Alcmena resulted in the birth of Hercules, along with a twin brother who was the natural and less godlike son of Amphitryon, and who one imagines must have grown up with the inferiority complex to end all inferiority complexes. The episode in which the baby Hercules strangles the two snakes in his cradle, always a crowd pleaser, is also included in the play.  

The translation I read was by a gentleman named Sir Robert Allison in the Modern Library volume of Roman Comedies (containing four plays by Plautus and three by Terence), bound in matte, which was, as they say, a thing with the Modern Library for a while from the 40s through the early 60s, though this is the first of their matte editions I have acquired. The translation appears to date from around 1910. I don't know whether it is supposed to be a good translation or not, but as is often the case, I like the tone that comes across in this older version. It is fresh, hopeful, brisk, vigorous, and reminds the desiccated modern reader that literature, and life itself even, can be intelligent and serious and a source for deep understanding, while also being enjoyable and lively and not dependent for its pleasures on achieving a oneness with contemporary culture and technology. Did I learn anything or come to any insights with regard to the actual content of this play? Can I even say what it is *about* at the most superficial and obvious level? No; no, I can't seem to. The pleasure is all in the associations, of antiquity, of a certain kind of school, of Europe, of fabulous myths, of having command of language, of ideas, of the possession of significant abilities, of everything that the present workaday world of jobs and money and anomie, for me at least, is not. Sadly, that is all I can say about Amphitryon however.  

The Challenge

1. Gillian Flynn--Gone Girl.......................................................................41,153
2. Transcendence (movie)............................................................................1,589
3. Office Space (movie)................................................................................1,578
4. Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (movie)...........................................1,059
5. Legend of Hercules (movie)........................................................................856
6. Knocked Up (movie)...................................................................................538
7. Sabotage (movie)........................................................................................286
8. Willow Creek (movie).................................................................................249
9. Human Target (TV show)...........................................................................204
10. Harper's Island (TV show).......................................................................189
11. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (movie)..............................................................157
12. Beauty & the Beast Broadway Soundtrack (record).................................130
13. Googoo Dolls Greatest Hits Volume 1 (record)........................................129
14. Hawthorne: Season 1 (TV show)..............................................................118
15. Malachi Martin--Windswept House...........................................................117
16. Dream For an Insomniac (movie)............................................................110

The movies really took over this one. That said, my magic words did not generate much that was exciting in terms of books. There was maybe one book that failed to qualify for the tournament that I would have been interested in reading, but it had only seven points and none of the libraries had it. 

Round of 16

#1 Flynn over #16 Dream For an Insomniac

Following the formula.

#15 Martin over #2 Transcendence
#3 Office Space over #14 Hawthorne

Same here, movies generally get the automatic win over TV shows, unless I have a real animosity towards the movie. 

#13 Googoo Dolls over #4 Final Fantasy VII

Music over violent movies aimed at people with two-digit IQs. 

#12 Beauty & the Beast Broadway Album over #5 Legend of Hercules
#6 Knocked Up over #11 Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

I thought I might enjoy a somewhat contemporary relationship movie over guns and tough guys. There is something wrong with me though.

#7 Sabotage over #10 Harper's Island
#8 Willow Creek over #9 Human Target

Round of 8 

#1 Flynn over #15 Martin

The only two books in the Challenge meet in the second round. The Martin book looks like pure formula, which it did not take long for me to weary of and feel that I never needed go back to. The Flynn book was a phenomenal seller, transcending mere genre almost, and the 41,000+ points in qualifying for the tournament is by far the record in my game (The Da Vinci Code, the previous record holder, had only around 5,000+).
There seems to be an attempt in Flynn to create characters who are in some way relevant to/the creatures of the current zeitgeist, which is why I might have the slightest interest in peeking into it. This now leaves Flynn as the only book remaining in the Challenge and pretty much guaranteed to win...unless one of the remaining competitors turns out to be entitled to an upset somewhere... 

#3 Office Space over #13 Googoo Dolls

Any movie I am vaguely interested in seeing will defeat any musical record. I honor my eliminated records though by playing a song from them as they go:

#6 Knocked Up over #12 Beauty & Beast Broadway

Same here:

#8 Willow Creek over #7 Sabotage

I don't know anything about either of these, but the one sounds like it might be about small town life or a vacation, and the other like there might be a lot of gratuitous gunplay and pointless homicide in it. I kind of down on the latter type of movie at the moment.

Final Four

#1 Flynn over #8 Willow Creek
#3 Office Space over #6 Knocked Up

Office Space sounds like it might be slightly more intelligent than Knocked Up (needless to say, I have not seen either one),


#1 Flynn over # 3 Office Space

Office Space was entitled to no upsets. Flynn rolls to an easy title. I guess I will have to give the book a try. I was going to write here about how I might yet learn something about how to write a book that will sell, that seeing as it is increasingly unlikely that at age 45 and given my completely hopelessness and indifference with regard to computer technology I am ever going to develop the kind of job skills that will allow me to make an upper-middle class salary in the 21st century, writing seems like it might still be my most realistic chance of finding a source of income that is worth the effort needed to obtain it. But I though better of it.  

Perhaps I have been living in the North too long, but she looks pretty cute to me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Theodore Dreiser--An American Tragedy (1925)

The serious modern reader does not have much use for Dreiser. Even people who waste hours every day on social media and other internet writing of dubious quality find his famously plodding style to be beyond endurance. In addition, these say, his books are far longer than they need to be, his characters are unsympathetic and frankly stupid, and he is not subtle enough for refined contemporary sensibilities. That anyone nowadays even bothers to read An American Tragedy, a book whose story, at least, held a fascination for some part of the American artistic and literary imagination for a half-century after its publication, seems to be mainly due to its being ranked #16 on the Modern Library top 100 of the 20th century list, which a fair number of people on the internet are making a project of reading through. A majority of these readers seem to detest the book with exceeding relish, and consider its ranking on this particular list a travesty (though there was one guy who did like Dreiser and reserved his vitriol for Anthony Powell, whose book came in at #43). Personally, I thought An American Tragedy was very, very good, for numerous reasons, some of which hopefully will become apparent as this posting works itself out.

To begin with the obvious, this is yet another great American book from the 1920s, which I am pretty sure is my favorite decade ever for American literature, and one that ranks at or near the top in most of the other areas I care about as well. Many commentators note that it came out the same year as The Great Gatsby, a factoid that I find interesting and mildly exciting but not significant in terms of connection, though I suppose both take a great interest in the privileges of the overclass, Dreiser more from the viewpoint of how cruel and unjust it all is, Fitzgerald from that of how to make oneself such a person (in case you were wondering who won the Pulitzer Prize that year, it was Edna Ferber for So Big. There is actually an Edna Ferber book on my list, but not that one). Dreiser was part of the older generation by 1925, his other book that has remained famous down to our day, Sister Carrie, having been published in 1900, and having spent close to a decade working on Tragedy, in terms of style and literary sensibility, it is decidedly a throwback to the pre-World War I era, and my sense in reading the book and trying to place it in time was that it felt more like the world of 1915 than the world of the 1920s as evoked by Fitzgerald and other of the younger writers and popular media of the time. On the other hand, I was impressed by how evolved and similar to our own police procedures and the practices and organization of the legal system seemed to be even by that early date. Or perhaps it is simply that earlier authors did not bother to depict these systems in such extensive and matter of fact detail, so that their literary incarnations did not give a wholly accurate picture of how they really operated. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I do not usually find much interest in movies and books about lawyers and court cases but, as with much of this book, I found the long section dedicated to the trial and the myriad lawyers and district attorneys and judges to be extremely vivid and absorbing. I also realize that I do not have a great sense of exactly when things like cars and the road system, the tourism industry, telephones, all of which play large roles in this book, for the better off people anyway--the identifiably poor, still the overwhelming majority of the population at this time, do not as yet have these things--developed to the point that they are used and experience in something very like their contemporary forms, which they are in this book. Indeed, a good deal of the interest in the story is that while it very much belongs to an older America, it is an America whose institutions and habits are already in many respects surprisingly recognizable. 

The badness of Dreiser's style has been remarked upon so often by literary people and teachers that it has the effect at this point almost of a disclaimer, that the critic or speaker bringing up the subject of this author feels compelled to assure his audience he is only too well aware of. Perhaps in my old age I am losing my ability to be discriminating in these matters, but I found this wretchedness of the prose to be overstated. Yes, once in a while I would run into an awkward mess of a sentence, and think, yes, this is the sort of thing everybody must be referring to, but this did not happen very often, and on a page by page basis I hardly found the style to be a hindrance, and indeed, as mentioned earlier, it has actually been a long time since I found myself so absorbed in a book of this length and type, which could hardly have been the case if the writing were as unskillful as everyone seems to think it is.

One oddity about this book that I do not recall ever happening with me before was that, especially at the beginning, I had a hard time getting used to the weirdness of the names that most of the characters had. The weirdness did not consist in their being absurd as in Dickens or Thomas Pynchon books, but in there being so many names that were fairly normal for young and active people at the time but that no one currently alive seems to have, like Clyde, Hortense, Titus, Orville, and the like. It was strange for a while, and then this wore off. 

The extensive description of how Clyde and Roberta, neither of whom was in the broad sense wildly successful socially, came to be drawn to one another, their particular loneliness, the inevitability of nature taking its course in this particular instance at least, was one of the best parts of the book, very convincing and real, much more so than the interest that Sondra Finchley supposedly develops for Clyde later on in the story, as well as his general acceptance by the smart society in which she moves, in neither of which instances there being any evidence of his having done or uttered anything that would have earned him that esteem.  

The character of Gilbert Griffiths should have appeared more often in the story, even though I winced and shriveled in terror myself every time he came on the scene, even though he was a fictional character in a story set a hundred years ago. This probably indicates that he was a well-drawn character in the sense of hitting a nerve, however, and it would have done me good to have had to endure more of him. He is obviously representative of a type of person with whom I have never learned how to cope, the completely vicious and disdainful rich guy who is visibly disgusted at the sight of you and pissed off that you presume the right to occupy the same physical space with him unless employed in a servile position.  

It is always my aim to go as light as possible on quotations/excerpts, but there were a few that hit so close to home for me that I had to include them.

The second chapter of the whole book, an introduction to Clyde, the famously weak, foolish, pleasure-loving and easily overwhelmed main character, is basically a description of me even now, and certainly as a youth: 

"For Clyde was as vain as he was poor. He was one of those interesting individuals who looked upon himself as a thing apart--never quite wholly and indissolubly merged with the family of which he was a member...he was never quite able...to formulate any policy in regard to himself, and then only in a rather fumbling and tentative way...What a wretched thing it was to be born poor and not to have any one to do anything for you and not to be able to do so very much for yourself!"

Moving on to Book Two, and Clyde's momentary insight while working as a bellboy at the Union League Club in Chicago--a haunt of the 'mentally and socially worldly elect'--that control over one's sensualism was the key to rising in the world:

"Here also, a fact which impressed and even startled his sense of curiosity and awe, even--there was no faintest trace of that sex element which had characterized most of the phases of life...he had thus far contacted...Probably one could not attain to or retain one's place in so remarkable a world as this unless one were indifferent to sex, a disgraceful passion, of course...to say the truth, Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement."

Maybe my favorite paragraph in the entire book, a summation of the successful Griffithses' social theories, though I probably find the overly explicit contempt and hauteur towards the lower rungs of society that are expressed in them too comforting for them to be an accurate picture. There must necessarily be a sharper sting to be that:

"As both saw it, there had to be higher and higher social orders to which the lower social classes could aspire. One had to have castes. One was foolishly interfering with and disrupting necessary and unavoidable social standards when one tried to unduly favor any one...It was necessary when dealing with the classes and intelligences below one, commercially or financially, to handle them according to the standards to which they were accustomed. And the best of these standards were those which held these lower individuals to a clear realization of how difficult it was to come by money..."

More descriptions of me, now in the person of the doomed Roberta's hapless father:

"...they were excellent examples of that native type of Americanism which resists facts and reveres illusion. Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight. They appear, blunder, and end in a fog."

The psychological impact on Clyde of finally getting some sexual release is nothing we haven't read or seen a thousand times, but Dreiser's description of it came off to me at least as humorous, which is a rare effect in him:

"'Behold, I am no longer the inexperienced, neglected simpleton of but a few weeks ago, but an individual of import now--someone who knows something about life.'"

"This college chatter relating to Cornell and shared by Harriet, Cranston and others, Clyde could not understand. He had scarcely heard of the various colleges with which this group was all too familiar." I thought this almost total ignorance of colleges--later on in this section he recalls having vaguely heard of three during his youth in the midwest, the state universities of Kansas and Missouri, and the University of Chicago, and wonders whether he should claim to have attended one of these if anyone asks him about it--was kind of fascinating, since the psychological idea of College, especially if one is of a sensitive disposition with the kinds of social longings that usually accompanies that state, has so thoroughly penetrated the common experience of anyone who consumes even the middling-intelligent mass media. College-themed movies, for example, have been quite popular going all the way back to the silent era, when less than 5% of the U.S. population would ever have been enrolled on any college campus.   

The thoughts of Clyde's uncle upon receiving the news of his arrest: 

"The wretchedness of such a mind as that--the ungoverned and carnal desires."

The only reason my teachers (and I always say my teachers because they are the socially highest people who had to bother to evaluate me in any kind of depth) never said this about me was that by our era mental deficiency of this sort had come to be regarded more as a consequence of a lack of innate general intelligence than a lack of proper moral and behavioral upbringing. 

One of the most devastating passages of the book, noted by several other commentators on the internet, is the one in which Clyde's lawyer is introduced (that in itself was also good by the way: "For Belknap was inclined to carry himself with an air which all were inclined to respect. He was a college graduate, and in his youth because of his looks, his means, and his local social position...he had seen so much of what might be called near-city life that all those gaucheries as well as sex-inhibitions and sex-longings which still so greatly troubled and motivated and even marked a man like Mason [ed--the district attorney and prosecutor in the case] had long since been covered with an easy manner and social understanding..." etc) and it is revealed that in his youth he had once played with a girl for a time whom he had no intention of doing the right thing by, and had found himself in a situation similar to that Clyde had been in. However, in his case, "...laying the matter before his father, by whom he was advised to take a vacation, during which time the services of the family doctor were engaged with the result that for a thousand dollars and expenses necessary to house the pregnant girl in Utica, the father had finally extricated his son..." Clyde had most pointedly not been able, due to his lack both of savvy & funds, to find any doctor willing to "help" him in his distress.

I have some troubling gauging exactly how much sympathy Dreiser expects his ideal reader to feel for Clyde. At times I think probably more than most contemporary readers, trained in the mores of our time, will be capable of giving him--he is even kind of a hard sell for me, and I am temperamentally and intellectually practically his twin. But the ludicrously blatant injustice and hypocrisy that is seemingly endemic to American society, and that of at least all Western countries for that matter, is still effectively impressed upon the reader in spite of the questionable appeal of his main character.   

"Mental and moral cowardice...had affected his 'perhaps too pliable and sensual and impractical and dreamy mind'". This is from Clyde's lawyer during the closing statements. Now just me, but probably a sizable mass of the modern male population could be described in such terms if anyone cared enough to bother calling them out.

Last excerpt, from the prison, the point of view of the priest who attends to Clyde. This pretty much sums up my mental and moral state when I was in college, and should have been devoting care to learning and study: 

"In those dark days...he was little more than a compound of selfishness and unhallowed desire and fornication against the evil of which Paul had thundered."

I got to read much of this on my porch, which, being old-fashioned and evocative of the period from roughly 1895-1945, is a great place to get into the spirit of books from the America of that time, as I also found last summer with Ah Wilderness!. Due to the climate, the porch is however only really usable from May to around October 20. Most years I put the sweaters on and try to tough it out until Halloween, but by the last week of October it is inevitably quite chilly and the leaves are long gone, and once it rains and puts a three day cold wet on everything, I have to put my chairs away and pack it in for the winter. But it was 93 degrees today and that sad moment is still a couple of months off. There won't be any more old American books coming up before that happens though.

I took this to the beach as well, though I can never get much reading done on the beach in my current situation. My wife thought it looked pretentious but this is actually quite wrong if you know the book, it is an excellent book for the beach, the length and pace of the episodes, combined with the relative ease of following the language and story make it rather ideal almost.  
There have been at least two major film versions of the book, the most famous being the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, in which the basic story was updated to the then present time and the names of the characters changed. I saw this a few years ago and wrote about it on the parent blog. It is a very well-done movie and over the years since seeing it images and other things about it often come back to me, much more so than with other movies, which doubtless says something about what a powerful impression the story makes on certain people, though as an adaptation of the book the casting is not great. Elizabeth Taylor I guess is the least problematic of the three main characters, because Sondra in the book is kind of cipher for Clyde to project his desires onto, and Elizabeth Taylor at this point in her career did not emote or give off very much personality on screen, which I suppose gave her an elusive quality. Montgomery Clift was not very good in this role--I would have said until recently that he was never very good in any role, but I liked him in The Search--as Clyde, who as a character strikes me as about the least amenable to a 50s Method interpretation as can be imagined. He is a passive guy who is overwhelmed by what is presented in the book as an infantile, embarrassing, and even unmanly romantic interest in girls and wealth and leisure that he has done nothing to merit. That said, his full energies are misdirected with a kind of intensity on these subjects of his interest, which Clift--who was also of course famously gay--does not succeed in conveying. Shelley Winters as the Roberta character was even worse. Roberta as depicted in the book was rather sweet, but with a straightforward intelligence and moral depth that I recognize in some of the real dyed-in-the-wool Yankee girls and women I know even today. Partly no doubt her character was written that way for the movie, but Shelley Winters played her as a bitter harpy more interested in ruining Clyde's life out of spite and dragging him down into a life of domestic hell than trying to make him happy, which was not what the Roberta in the book was like at all (though that may have been the 1950s interpretation of what she was like). There was also a 1931 adaptation directed by Josef Von Sternberg, who is a well-regarded director of the silent and early sound era, which I had never heard of, though I notice the entire movie has been put up on Youtube. I haven't had time to watch yet, though it looks like the kind of thing that I will like.     

Scene from the 1931 movie. The episode where the identical boat from the murder scene was brought into the courtroom and Clyde was made to get into it must have captured the imagination of the visual artists of the time. It is depicted in one of the illustrations in the edition I saw referenced below.

I got an old Modern Library edition of the book, since I like to collect those anyway (it was one of the 'giants'). It came with a simple but elegant dust jacket, black with the title in bright red capital letters. I was in used book store a couple of weeks ago when I was in Maine and there was essentially an identical, though non-Modern Library edition from the 40s or early 50s there, the same number of pages and all, but with illustrations, which I kind of wish I had bought now, because I liked the illustrations, which were pen and ink drawings, straightforward depictions of the episodes in the book, but they had some whimsy about them and evoked the period. And the drawings of Clyde in his prison cell and garb and with his head shaved at the end I actually found quite startling and powerful, because that was the one part of the book I had pictured in my mind entirely differently from what the illustrations were. I cannot find any examples of these illustrations online, or I would put one up.

To go back to the Modern Library top 100 list that I referred to earlier, I do not attach a lot of reference to the particular order or even the particular books that happened to make the list, but I think it is interesting that they put it out, especially in light of American Tragedy's being #16 on it. The committee that made the list has been endlessly called out for being too old, too male, and too white, but looking at the composition of the list the 'old' is what really stands out--the books chosen are heavily skewed towards the types of things that would have been considered good literature by a generally well-educated person in 1950. The post-modern geniuses, who are the whitest and malest writers of them all--Pynchon, Gass/Gaddis, David Foster Wallace, et al, didn't even make the list. All that said, and for all my enjoyment of the book, I am not sure I believe American Tragedy was the 16th best English language novel of the 20th century. Top 100 I would not consider controversial, and I am even comfortable with the idea of its being top 50, on my personal list maybe even top 30, at least that I have read. One thing I think worth noting is that Invisible Man (Ellison's, not H. G. Wells's) was #19 on the list, yet if you tried to go into any kind of self-consciously literary crowd today that I am aware of and argue that Dreiser's was the better book, your intellect and literary acumen, and probably your character would be shredded into morsels and you be would contemptuously and unceremoniously dismissed from that particularly company henceforward. Even the old white guys on the committee would probably explain away Dreiser's higher ranking by claiming they had inexplicably forgotten about Ellison. While I experienced American Tragedy as a more successfully and thoroughly accomplished and complete work than I did Invisible Man, I do believe this must be due to some flaw in me, that I really am missing the vital thing in Invisible Man that elevates it to that rank occupied by only the very highest books. Other people, vital, mentally potent people have felt, have sensed it, so I don't believe my impression can be the correct one. In fact I know it cannot be.    

This is not only the last of the series of books with "American" in the title, but it is the last literary work featured in the supplement of Volume 1 of the encyclopedia. As I began doing this list in September 2013 we see it has taken slightly less than two years to read through the books (and plays, etc--20 in all, I think) featured in the first volume. Given that there are twenty volumes altogether, I am looking at needing 38 or 39 years to get through this entire project, which will take me to when I am 81 or 82 years old. That will be pushing it, to say the least. I assume that once my children get somewhat older I will be able to pick up the pace a little, but at the same time it is my impression that Volume 1 had an above average number of very short books to get through, and a below average number of long books, American Tragedy being about the only one approaching monster status. But as we proceed to the later volumes, there starts to be massive book after massive book after massive book, and most of them long forgotten too. It is not that I won't enjoy reading them, I am just worried that I am going to die before I can finish the list.

The Challenge

This one was heavily taken over by movies. However, as only eleven reviews were required to qualify for the tournament any of the books edged out would have been pretty obscure and difficult to find anyway.

1. Side Effects (movie).........................................................................746
2. The Butterfly Effect (movie).............................................................614
3. The Lazarus Effect (movie)..............................................................490
4. Miss Congeniality 2 (movie)............................................................207
5. Year One (movie).............................................................................197
6. The Athena Effect--Derrolyn Anderson............................................120
7. Showboat (movie--1936)..................................................................113
8. Brandon Flowers--The Desired Effect (record)................................105
9. The Impatient Lord--Michelle M. Pillow...........................................92
10. I Think I am in Friend Love With You--Yumi Sakugawa.................45
11. Lost Ancient Technology of Peru & Bolivia--Brien Foerster...........38
12. Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves--P. G. Wodehouse.......................................32
13. Exit Speed (movie)............................................................................22
14. The Right Side of Wrong--Reavis C.Wortham..................................19
15. The Shiva Syndrome--Alan Joshua...................................................19
16. Employees' Entrance (movie)...........................................................11
17. Up Ghost River--Metatawabin & Shimo..........................................11

Play-in round

#17 Metatawabin over #16 Employees' Entrance

Sweet 16

#17 Metatawabin over #1 Side Effects
#15 Joshua over #2 Butterfly Effect
#14 Wortham over #3 Lazarus Effect
#4 Miss Congeniality 2 over #13 Exit Speed

I have less interest in generic guns and explosions movies than I do in generic/bad romantic comedy sequels.

#12 Wodehouse over #5 Year One
#11 Foerster over #6 Anderson

The Anderson books appears to belong to a genre aimed at the lower end of the reading public

#10 Sakugawa over #7 Showboat
#9 Pillow over #8 Flowers

Given that so few records qualify for the tournaments (hardly anyone reviews even well-known records anymore), I feel like I should play a sample from it.

Elite 8

#17 Metatawabin over #4 Miss Congeniality 2
#15 Joshua over #9 Pillow

Pulp take on eastern religion gets the edge over another book about lords having their way with girls who only thought they were boring and nice when they were stuck surrounded by boring and nice men.

#10 Sakugawa over #14 Wortham

The Sakugawa book is of the moment I guess, foreign, not about white people, and part of a trend considered important enough to translate and intrude upon a publishing world that is famously not any of those things.

#12 Wodehouse over #11 Foerster

It seems like Wodehouse kind of has to win here, though I feel shaky about him. He is a celebrated name, though right in the vein of what I read too much of already. The Foerster book did not really excite me too much, however, and it was not available in any libraries anyway, making the point moot.

Final Four

#17 Metatawabin over #10 Sakuwaga

Metatawabin has coasted into the Final Four by beating up on movies. He is a Native American, or First Nations person as the expression is in Canada, and his book is a memoir of the terrible and presumably deliberate and racially motivated abuses that were inflicted on him as a boy in the 1960s in what I presume to be a school administered by the Canadian government. The book has not received much attention in the United States, but the (white) Canadian intelligentsia has lapped it right up, and it was a finalist for "The Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction", though how big of a deal that is I don't know. In any case it sounds like exactly the kind of book that half of the serious people would agree I definitely need to read more of (the other half would argue that I need to read more in the direction of economics, serious history and political theory, and any reasonable science as I might be capable of following). So it gets the slight nod over the intriguingly equally non-white and foreign (not to mention less grim-sounding) but ultimately too juvenile Sakugawa.

#12 Wodehouse over #15 Joshua

This was a more comfortable win for Wodehouse. I am distrustful of books about eastern philosophy marketed in a genre format.


This was by far the most controversial and ultimately unsatisfying championship match the Challenge has yet produced. I determined, based on literary reputation, availability, length, age, and a few other factors, that Wodehouse was the nominal winner. However, as Metawatabin's book had turned up twice during the qualifying process he was entitled to one upset during the tournament, and as he had not had that upset yet, it was tentatively awarded to him in this final round. However, his book had not made it into any of the libraries in my network, and as it is a relatively new book there were no very cheap used copies to be found and I did not feel like spending $15 or so to read it I fudged my rules and ended up reading the Wodehouse instead. Mass outrage ensued (in my imagination). Even I know that I need to read more books about non-European people's sufferings under direct white domination, and less outdated piffle about a fantasy English ruling class whose way of life is deader than my palate when presented with a morsel of food containing actual flavor. But I needed to read some book to satisfy the demands of my system and the Wodehouse happened to be the most convenient to hand. But I read it with a heavy, guilty heart and in a most languid fashion.

Metatawatabin is not amused by my excuses, though he expected little better from me. 

Wodehouse got the last laugh, as was usually the case with him. 

Stiff Upper Lip is the second Jeeves book I have read, and while occasionally amusing and comfortable (but isn't too much comfort in one's reading the greatest of literary evils?), I have yet to grasp what is the cause of the almost insane devotion these books have among their generally very highly sophisticated and well-read legions of fans. This particular one was rather late in the series, being published in 1963 when the author was 82 years old, and the formula feels a little canned and stale to me. Certainly there was nothing in it that would cause me to think I had stumbled upon a high point of 20th century English literature.

This qualifies as cheesecake for me--I can easily block out the children.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Author List Volume VIII

Elizabeth von Armin (Mary, Countess Russell) (1886-1941) Elizabeth and Her German Garden (1898) Born: Kirribilli Point, Australia. (family's holiday home) Buried: St Margaret's Churchyard, Tyler's Green, Penn, Buckinghamshire, England.

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) Born: Katherine Mansfield Birthplace, 25 Tinakori Road, Thorndon, New Zealand. Buried: Cemetery, Avon, Ile-de-France, France.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) Born: Ravenscroft, Trellech, Monmouthshire, Wales. Buried: Ashes scattered over Welsh mountains. Memorial, Trinity College, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England. College: Trinity (Cambridge)

Jane Austen (1775-1817) Emma (1816) Born: Steventon, Hampshire, England.  Buried: Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, Hampshire, England. Chawton, Alton, Hampshire, England. Jane Austen Centre, 40 Gay Street, Bath, Somerset, England.

John Keats (1795-1821) Endymion (1818) Born: 85 Moorgate, London, England (*****9-4-96*****) Buried: Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Lazio, Italy (*****2-28-01*****) Keats House, 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead, London, England. Keats-Shelley House, Piazza di Spagna 26, Rome, Lazio, Italy (*****2-28-01*****)

Endymion: Mt Latmos, Turkey

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) Enoch Arden (1864) Born: Somersby House, Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England (*****9-3-96*****) Farringford, Bedbury Lane, Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, England. College: Trinity (Cambridge)

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) The Enormous Room (1922) Born: 104 Irving Street, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Buried: Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts. College: Harvard

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) Erewhon (1872) Born: Rectory, Langar, Nottinghamshire, England. Buried: Woking Crematorium, Woking, Surrey, England. College: St John's (Cambridge)

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) Essays of Elia (1824) Born: Crown Office Row, Inner Temple, City, London, England. Buried: All Saints' Churchyard, Edmonton, Enfield, London, England. Charles Lamb Pub & Kitchen, 16 Elia Street, Islington (?), London, England. Lamb & Flag, 33 Rose Street, Covent Garden, London, England.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Emerson's Essays (First Series 1841;Second Series 1844) Born: 27 Summer Street, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts (*****8-25-07?*****). Buried: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Ralph Waldo Emerson House, 28 Cambridge Turnpike, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Emerson Study, Concord Museum, Concord, Middlesex, The Old Manse, 269 Monument Street, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Massachusetts. College: Harvard

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) Essay on Man (1732-4) Born: Plough Court, Lombard Street, London, England (*****6/99 or 01*****) Buried: Church of St Mary the Virgin, Twickenham, London, England.  Alexander Pope Hotel, Cross Deep, Twickenham, London, England.

Henry St John, Lord Bolingbroke (1678-1751) Born: Lydiard House, Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire, England. Buried: St Mary's Churchyard, Battersea, London, England.

George Moore (1852-1933) Esther Waters (1894) Born: Moore Hall, Carra, Mayo, Ireland. Buried: Castle Island (Lough Carra), Mayo, Ireland. College: Royal College of Art (London)\

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) Born: Museum-Estate of P.I. Tchaikovsky, Votkinsk, Udmurt Rep, Russia. Buried: Tikhvin Cemetery, Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St Petersburg, Russia. Tchaikovsky House-Museum, ul Chaykovskogo 48, Klin, Moscow obl, Russia. College: St Petersburg Conservatory.

John Lyly (1554-1606) Euphues (1578-9) Born: Canterbury, Kent, England. Buried: St Bartholomew the Less, City, London, England. College: Magdalen (Oxford)

Fanny Burney (1752-1840) Evelina (1778) Born: 84 High Street, King's Lynn, Norfolk, England. Buried: Churchyard, St Swithin's, Bath, Somerset, England.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) The Faerie Queen (1590 & '96) Born: East Smithfield, London, England. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. College: Pembroke (Cambridge).

Bliss Perry (1860-1954) Born: Williamstown, Berkshire, Massachusetts. Buried: Eventually Cemetery, Williamstown, Berkshire, Massachusetts College: Williams

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) Born: Hayes Barton Manor, Hayes Lane, East Rudleigh, Devonshire, England. Buried: St Margaret's Church, Westminster, London, England. North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, North Carolina. Raleigh's Cell, Tower of London, City, London, England. Walter Raleigh Hotel, Youghal, Cork, Ireland. College: Oriel (Oxford)

King Arthur: Born: Tintagel Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall, England. Buried: Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset, England. King Arthur's Hall, Tintagel, Cornwall, England. King Arthur's Labyrinth, Corris, Wales.

Ernest Hemingway (1898-1961) A Farewell to Arms (1929) Born:Hemingway Birthplace Home, 339 N. Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois (*****5-6-03*****) Buried: Ketchum Cemetery, Ketchum, Idaho. Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead Street, Key West, Florida. Hemingway Museum, 200 N Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois (*****5-6-03*****) Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, 1021 West Cherry Street, Piggott, Arkansas. Finca la Vigia, San Francisco de Paula, Cuba.

August Strindberg (1849-1912) The Father (1887) Born: Stockholm, Sweden. Buried: Norra Begravningsplatsen, Stockholm, Sweden. Strindberg Museum, Drottninggatan 85, Stockholm, Sweden. Strindbergmuseum Saxen, Saxen 7, Saxen, Austria. Hotell August Strindberg, Tegnergatan 38, Stockholm, Sweden. College: Uppsala.

Ed Streeter (1891-1976) Father of the Bride (1949) Born: Buffalo, Erie, New York. Buried: Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, Erie, New York. College: Harvard.

There is a surprising paucity of biographical information about Ed Streeter on the web, to the extent that it is not immediately evident to the lazy researcher whether he was born in Buffalo or New York City. As a social note, Ed Streeter's great grand-daughter recently graced the New York Times Wedding Pages, her picture being attractive enough to me to pique my interest in her story before I realized her literary lineage. She is keeping up the Ivy League tradition in the family (Dartmouth; Edward Streeter was Harvard Class of 1914). I noted as well that she was in medical school, which I took to be also in keeping with the family tradition, as I had had the notion that Ed Streeter had been a doctor as well; however I was mistaken, he was a banker (and the young Sarah Streeter's father appears to have been in the financial line as well. I liked that all of the wedding guests received a copy of great-grandfather's famous (but not overly familiar) book.

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) Fathers and Sons (1862) Born: State Turgenev Museum, Ul. Turgeneva 11, Orel, Oryol Obl, Russia. Buried: Volkoff Cemetery, St Petersburg, Russia. Musee Tourgueniev, 16 Rue Ivan Tourgueniev, Bougival, Ile-de-France, France. Museum, Spasskoye-Lutovivino, Oryol Obl, Russia. Turgenev Museum, Ul. Ostozhenka 37, Moscow, Russia. College: Humboldt U. of Berlin; St Petersburg State U.

Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) Born: Moscow, Russia. Buried: Novedevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia. College: St Petersburg State U.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) Faust (1808) Born: Goethe-Haus, 23 Grosser Hirschgraben, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. Buried: Historical Cemetery, Weimar, Germany. Goethe Museum, Schloss Jagerhof, Jacobistrasse 2, Dusseldorf, Germany. Goethes Wohnhaus, Frauenplan 1, Weimar, Germany. College: Leipzig.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) Doctor Faustus (1588) Born: St George's Street, Canterbury, Kent, England. Buried: St Nicholas Churchyard, Deptford, London, England. College: Corpus Christi (Cambridge)

Helen of Troy: Born: Sparta, Greece. Troy, Turkey

Ossian (200s) Fingal Born: Glencoe, Highlands, Scotland. Buried: Ossian's Grave, Sma' Glen, Perth & Kinross, Scotland. Ossian's Hall, Dunkeld, Perth & Kinross, Scotland.

James MacPherson (1736-1796) Fingal (1762) Born: Ruthven, Inverness-shire, Scotland. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. College: Aberdeen.

Fingal Buried: Killin, Perthshire, Scotland. Fingal's Cave, Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) Born: Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site, 246 Old Walt Whitman Road, Huntington Station, Suffolk, New York. Buried: Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey. Walt Whitman House, 30 Mickle Boulevard, Camden, New Jersey.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

August Update

A List: Hardy, A Laodicean--445/481

B List: In between books currently.

C List: Wodehouse, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves--31/330

Almost done A Laodicean. I still retain some interest in it, though the plot/character development stall considerably in the second half of the book. Then again, it is minor Hardy for a reason.

How the Wodehouse got on here I have some misgivings about, which I will explain in more detail when my next long article appears.

Monday, July 6, 2015

July Update

A List--Thomas Hardy, A Laodicean 125/481
B List--Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy 411/874
C List--Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling 244/428

A good trio of books--I am finding Dreiser especially to be unexpectedly absorbing--though not delivering great variety in terms of genre, year of publication, fame/status solidly established in the old Anglo-American tradition. At least I have one woman author, and her book, while old and celebrated, is a departure from the kinds of books I normally read, though not in a politically challenging sort of way. The Yearling in fact takes place in the old, now almost unimaginable America where rural people truly lived pretty much on their own, with scant contact with government institutions and laws, including schools. Even I thought it was slow-going at first, and I still think it would be difficult for any young person without an unusually well-developed discipline for reading long books to make it beyond the first couple of chapters, but the story gathers a accumulative weight as it moves forward, though perhaps this is characteristic of all successful books that are primarily concerned with the natural (or the purely spiritual) over the human world.

I will do a long write-up about the Dreiser book here when I finish it, which will probably be around the time the next update is due.