Anne Bronte is of course the younger sister of Charlotte and Emily, and while I like her, she is obviously not as good as they are. Nowadays The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is widely considered to be Anne's best and most important book. It has not turned up on any of my lists however, so I have not read it. Still, she had more talent as a writer than at least 96.4% of the people who have ever tried their hand at it, and despite the smallness of the world she inhabits, the by our standards excruciating pace of life and paucity of incident in it, there is enough of interest in the characterization and enough that is familiar and almost comforting, at least to people who have read a lot of Victorian novels, in this pared down and rather unadorned account of that vanished world, to hold the interest and propel one through its brief chapters and story. Her youth and callowness are more noticeable than they are in most novels by people in their 20s that have survived. It was probably fortuitous on her part to stick to a narrow subject with a singular first person point of view. She has a lot of what today would be called snark, and it is her most noticeable shortcoming as a writer, since it is not particularly funny or clever snark. It is quite easy to imagine her as one of those legions of unlikeable young people on the internet taking ugly swipes at people they mistakenly consider to be of a quality far inferior to themselves. Jane Austen of course was pretty snarky--Pride and Prejudice especially is at least in some part of its core a snarkfest from nearly one end of it to the other, which I suspect is why it has remained so popular in our own time. Jane Austen's snark of course is a lot more sophisticated than Anne Bronte's. Bronte/Agnes is not so fastidious about setting her targets up so as to get the optimum effect before she launches into attack, which in nearly every instance is merely the narrator venting to the reader, rather than the much higher incidence of interactive snark, frequently witty and humorous between characters that animates the work and Jane Austen and other more developed writers.
However as I said I am rather fond of Anne, in my person of a sentimental reader of old literature who has been completely exposed by modern life, which is probably not a good advertisement for her book. One thing that happened to Agnes that apparently did not happen to the real-life Anne was the romance (and eventual marriage) to the upright clergyman. The character of Weston who provides Anne's love interest was supposedly modeled on a gentleman who had worked under her father and with whom it was speculated she was in love, though apparently there is no concrete proof of this, and the feminist scholar who edited my edition and wrote the preface at least did not, apart from the one footnote alluding to the source of the Weston character, evidently did not consider the question otherwise worthy of interest. Anne's writing indicates that at some point she had agreeably sentimental feelings for someone, as her descriptions of Agnes's emotional state at various junctures in her relations with Weston have the ring of unvarnished honesty about them. But Anne died at age 29 without ever having married (As an aside, I have read it plausibly suggested somewhere, perhaps by Somerset Maugham(?), that Emily Bronte was likely a lesbian. I have not read her book since I was very young however, so I wonder whether this would strike me if I should take it up again).
The challenge this time once again turned up very few competitors, resulting in a runaway victory for a book I have never heard of.
1. Still Alice--Lisa Genova..................................................................................................1,628
2. It: How Churches and Leaders Can Get It and Keep It--Craig Groeschel..........................97
3. Gertude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations--Georgina Howell..........................80
4. The God Who Sees You--Tammy Maltby.............................................................................39
5. Murder & Mayhem: 32 Crimes That Shook Early California--Michael Thomas Barry........2
6. Priestess: Life & Death of Dion Fortune--Alan Richardson..................................................1
The non-scorers this time were a couple of the kind of books that I usually love, but that apparently other people do not read, or at least review, in great numbers: Keymer & Mee's Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1740-1830 & Howitt & Hewitt's Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent English Poets Volume I.
Even though I said in the last challenge that I was not going to read the winner, God's Problem, by Bart Ehrman, the desire to adhere to the vagaries of the system I had created got the better of me, and I took the book out of the library. There are a few ideas in it regarding the historically/scholarly correct way to read the Bible that I not been exposed to before (such as understanding the figure of Jesus Christ as belonging to the tradition of Jewish apocalypticism), though much of the book seems repetitive and the author, perhaps because he is a college professor (of Religious Studies), often writes as if he anticipates his readership to have the simplistic worldviews and knowledge of eighteen year olds. He was an evangelical Christian, and apparently a strident one, for what appears to be well into his adulthood, when his graduate studies persuaded him that there probably was no God, and if there was, that It certainly had nothing to do with the character referenced as God in the Jewish and Christian Bible. Being by nature a strident fellow, he is now strident in advocating his new discoveries and insights about the nature of the Bible. God's problem, by the way, is that inexplicable suffering, particularly with regard to children and completely innocent people killed by wars and natural disasters, exists, and cannot be adequately explained by Christian theology at least. Being largely incapable of religious feeling myself, I don't really have a dog in this fight, other than the sense I have that the phenomenon of Christianity in Western civilization is so enormous and informs so much of our worldview in such serious matters as most people ever have contact with, that even the most cogent demonstrations of its inconsistencies and the provincial reality, as it were, of its sacred texts, cannot really counterbalance the void in the collective mind and spirit that complete abandonment of Christian wisdom and sensibility would leave, even if reason suggests that such abandonment ought to be executed. The idea of God and what is represented in this idea is, I think, the great invention of the human mind, insofar as it has been across time the bond of civilizations more even than language or blood/racial relations. So it is difficult to put that aside in spite of the obvious scientific or logical objections to it.
Bart Ehrman delivering the about the Bible.
One reason that I bother with reading these kinds of books at all is because I am fascinated with the authentic contemporary professional educated class--the people who who succeeded where I failed. Having spent a substantial part of his life as an evangelical Christian from the midwest, Bart Ehrman is not a perfect specimen of the type, but he has been adapting well enough to have cultivated a suitably annoying authorial personality. He is a made professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is a place I have always thought of as attractive (in contrast with nearby Duke, which I have always been equal parts terrified of and repelled by). I even sent off an application there when I was high school--at that time it might even have been free to do so, or was $10 at the most, though I had no idea of actually going there unless I did not get in anywhere else. Of course I didn't get in there either. Everybody loves to write about how devastating it is not to get into Harvard and be deprived of an easy route to world influence and a summer house on the Cape, but it isn't exactly light medicine to be told by a good but not terribly exclusive state school that 10,000 people who were better and more desirable than you applied that year alone, but that they are sure you will find an educational option somewhere that suits your requirements (*cough* loser *cough*). In truth I had completely forgotten about this episode in my biography until this Bart Ehrman guy came up; anyway the juxtaposition of the regard the two of us are held in by the University of North Caroline should give some idea of the intellectual gulf that exists between myself and people of this ilk. Yet for most of his book I could not help wondering what was the quality that enabled him to end up at a full professor at one of the nicest colleges in America, while I can barely imagine myself functioning in any kind of contemporary college level class at this point. While his struggles with angst about whether he deserved the steaks and microbrewed beer and Chateneuf-du Pape with which his refrigerator was bursting while 1.2 billion people in the world lacked clean drinking water made for mildly entertaining reading, it did not impress upon me the presence of an intellect of that degree of superiority. He counts many 'brilliant' people, almost all of them academic colleagues, among his friends. His wife is also a 'brilliant intellectual'. (I don't know if I know a single person whom I would feel comfortable referring to as 'brilliant'--if they really were brilliant, I don't think I would have the qualifications to detect wherein their brilliance lay--but I have known a few people whom even I could see were undoubtedly 'bright). ' Outside of these brilliant professional thinkers, however, his society is mostly a wasteland. Most people he meets either have nothing to say when he tells them what his field is or that he is grappling with the subject of suffering, or they offer some trite observation that he quickly pounces on and fires back with some studied rebuttal or follow up question to which they cannot respond (evidently once people are determined to be stupid beyond hope, trying to set them at ease in conversation and drawing out their thoughts is a waste of one's precious time). When he comes to believe something, he believes in it with great certainty and becomes zealous-perhaps a vestige of his evangelical background--that others should be disabused of their own wrong opinions. Past experience of error does not make him shy to assert himself, as might be the case with others. But I am going to stop here.
Still Alice looks to be an even more intense peek into the exalted world of the lives of the cognitive elite in my generation. The author, Lisa Genova, was born in the same year as I was and graduated from Bates College in Maine (where she may have known some old high school classmates/friends of mine, as at least three of them went to school there), before getting a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard. The book is about a brilliant Harvard professor of cognitive pscyhology who gets afflicted with early onset Alzheimer's disease. Unlike in The Plague or The Magic Mountain I don't think the illness is supposed to be a metaphor for the state of contemporary society or Western Civilization. In the acknowledgements the author names 67 people, including 13 doctors, at least eight of whom appear to medical doctors, most affliated with Harvard, who were instrumental in helping the book to get written. One especially curious (to me) acknowledgement was to a couple of doctors "for role-playing as Alice's general practice physician". Really? You can't just make up the dialogue for a doctor's appointment in a novel? I suppose it's possible Camus interviewed a few doctors to avoid egregious blunders ("so you really do lance the boils, right?"), but his doctor characters speak the way he wants them to speak, that is, like philosophers. I was reminded also of Kurt Vonnegut's line about his recurrent Kilgore Trout character ("Like most science fiction writers, Trout knew almost nothing about science"). Our new creative class really likes to get the details right, however.
I don't know how far I am going to make it in this book--these people are hard core meritocrats and they are very proud of themselves. At the beginning at least there is not much in the way of whimsy or humor, or doubt or dubiousness about anything, with the exception of lesser people's abilities. Here are a few quotes by way of example:
"They used to walk together over to Harvard Yard every morning...She savored the relaxed initmacy of these morning walks with him, before the daily demands of their jobs and ambitions rendered them each stressed and exhausted."
"She also loved the adrenaline rush. The bigger the stakes, the more sophisticated or hostile the audience, the more the whole experience thrilled her."
"Her contributions mattered and propelled future discovery."
"One of the big memory burdens for anyone with a serious career in the sciences was knowing the years of published studies, the details of the experiments, and who did them...Most of the senior faculty in her department had this skill at their fingertips. In fact, there existed an unspoken competition among them to see who possessed the most complete, readily accessible mental catalog of their discipline's library."
Lisa Genova is kind of something, though in the battle of Harvard Phds/Professional degree holders and Challenge winners who are about my age I think I like Susan Cain by a hair. I'm not really loving either as a writer. Their resumes are both so awe-inspiring as to be far beyond my capacity to judge them.
"They both wore impressive blue suits, his accessorized with a solid gold tie and hers with a single strand of pearls. They'd been working for a couple of years at the third biggest corporate law firm in Massachusetts, Anna practicing in the area of intellectual property and Charlie working in litigation...She'd been trying without success or secrecy to conceive for six months now. Like everything with Anna, the harder it was to obtain, the more she wanted it...she'd just married Charlie last year, and she worked eighty to ninety hours a week. But Anna countered with the point that every professional woman considering children realized eventually: There's never going to be a good time to do this."
"He was smart, intense, the spitting image of his father, in his third year at Harvard Medical School, and planning on a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon."
"Alice watched her husband and son, both biologists, absorbed in analytical conversation, each trying to impress the other with what he knew."
I'm not sure for what purpose my own family can possibly exist going forward.
The Challenge also produced one video and one musical entry, both seemingly worthy. The search engines rooted out from one set of my Challenge keywords the Bronte connection and apt out the 1967 BBC adaptation of Wuthering Heights. I suspect there will be an overemphasis on certain 60s obsessions (such as the repressed sexuality of women and various forms of hysteria), but I can generally deal with those better than the 21st century obsessions (incense/abuse, homosexuality, outrage at archaic attitudes even when fairly mild in the context of the original source, and so on).
The music was a record album of Bach's Cantatas conducted by Karl Richter, which seems to be available only on vinyl. Needless to say, we should listen to more of this.