Monday, September 22, 2014

Author List Volume VI

Charles Reade (1814-1884) The Cloister and the Hearth (1861) Born: Ipsden House, Oxfordshire, England. Buried: St Mary Churchyard, Willesden, London, England. Castel Sant Angelo, Rome, Lazio, Italy. College: Magdalen (Oxford).

Erasmus (1466-1536) Born: Wijde Kerstraat, Rotterdam, Netherlands. Buried: Basel Minster, Basel, Switzerland. Erasmus House, Rue du Chapitre 31, Brussels, Belgium. Erasmus Bridge, Rotterdam, Netherlands. College: Paris.

Izaak Walton (1593-1683) The Compleat Angler (1653) Born: Stafford, Staffordshire, England. Buried: Winchester Cathedral, Winchester, Hampshire, England. Izaak Walton Cottage, Shallowford, Staffordshire, England. Izaak Walton Inn, Essex, Montana. Izaak Walton Inn Hotel, Embu, Kenya.

Charles Cotton (1630-1687) Born: Beresford Hall, Alstonefield, Staffordshire, England. Buried: St James's Church, Piccadilly, London, England. Charles Cotton Hotel, Hartington, Derbyshire, England.

 
 
Thomas DeQuincey (1785-1859) Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821-2) Born: 86 Cross Street, Manchester, Lancashire, England. Buried: St Cuthbert's Churchyard, Princes Street, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland. College: Worcester (Oxford). Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria, England.
 
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430) The Confessions of St Augustine (399) Born: Souk Ahras, Algeria. Buried: Chiesa San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro, Pavia, Lombardy, Italy. Parish Church of St Augustine, Bacong, Phillipines. St. Augustine, Florida.
 
St Monica (331-387) Born: Souk Ahras, Algeria. Buried: Basilica di Sant' Agostino, Rome, Lazio, Italy. Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, California. Santa Monica History Museum, Santa Monica, California.
 
Mark Twain (1835-1910) A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (1889) Born: Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site, 37352 Shrine Road, Florida, Missouri. (*****5-5-03*****). Buried: Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, Chemung, New York. Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, Connecticut (*****8-12-10*****). Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, 120 N Main Street, Hannibal, Missouri (*****5-3-03*****). Mark Twain Museum, Nevada 341, Virginia City, Nevada. Mark Twain Cave, Hannibal, Missouri. Study, Elmira College, Elmira, Chemung, New York.
 
Isabella (1451-1504) Born: Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Avila, Spain. Buried: Capilla Real, Granada, Andalusia, Spain.
 
Ferdinand (1452-1516) Born: Sos del Rey, Catolico, Spain. Buried: Capilla Real, Granada, Andalusia, Spain. Alcazar de Segovia, Segovia, Spain.
 
Margaret Kennedy (1896-1967) The Constant Nymph (1924) Born: 14 Hyde Park Gate, Kensington, London, England. College: Somerville (Oxford). 
 
Coriolanus (400s B.C.) Born: Rome, Lazio, Italy.
 
Plutarch (46-120) Born: Chaeronea, Greece.
 
Andre Gide (1869-1951) The Counterfeiters (1925) Born: 19 Rue de Medicis, 6eme, Paris, France. Buried: Cemetery, Cuverville, Haute-Normandie, France. College: Lycee Henri IV.
 
Alexandre Dumas pere (1803-1870) The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) Born: 46 Rue Alexandre Dumas, Villers-Cotterets, Picardie, France. Buried: Pantheon, 5eme, Paris, France. Chateau de Monte-Cristo, Le Port-Marly, Yvelines, Ile-de-France, France. Musee Alexandre Dumas, 24 Rue Demoustier, Villers-Cotterets, Picardie, France. Alexandre Dumas Metro Station, 11eme & 20eme, Paris, France. Chateau d'If, Marseilles, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France. Ateshgah Fire Temple, Abseron Peninsula, Azerbaijan
 
 
Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)  Born: Sarah Orne Jewett House, 5 Portland Street, South Berwick, Maine. Buried: Portland Street Cemetery, South Berwick, Maine.
 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) Born: corner of Fore & Hancock Streets, Portland, Maine. Buried: Mt Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Longfellow House Washington Headquarters, 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Wadsworth-Longfellow House, 489 Congress Street, Portland, Maine. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Monument, Congress & State Streets, Portland, Maine. Replica of House, Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, Minnesota. College: Bowdoin.
 
 
 
Miles Standish (1584-1656) Born: Likely Lancashire, England. Buried: Miles Standish Cemetery, Duxbury, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Myles Standish Monument, Crescent Street, Duxbury, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Myles Standish State Forest, Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Legs of Myles Standish, Route 58, Halifax, Plymouth, Massachusetts.
 
John Alden (1599-1687) Born: Harwich, Essex, England. Buried: Myles Standish Burial Ground, Duxbury, Plymouth, Massachusetts. John Alden's House, 105 Alden Street, Duxbury, Plymouth, Massachusetts. John Alden Gift Shop, 74 Water Street, Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts. John Alden Apartments, Seattle, Washington. Plymouth Rock, Plymouth, Plymouth, Massachusetts. The John Alden Sandwich, Waterside Market, 76 Main Street, Vineyard Haven, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
 
Priscilla Mullins (1602-1685) Born: Dorking, Surrey, England. Buried: Miles Standish Burial Ground, Duxbury, Plymouth, Massachusetts. John Alden's House, 105 Alden Street, Duxbury, Massachusetts.
 
 
Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) Cousin Bette (1847) Born: 25 Rue de l'armee d'Italie, Tours, Centre, France. Buried: Cimitier du Pere Lachaise, 20eme, Paris, Maison de Balzac, 47 Rue Raynouard, 16eme, Paris, France. Statue, Rue du Faubourg St Honore, 8eme, Paris, France. Monument to Honore de Balzac (Rodin), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. College: University of Paris (Sorbonne)
 
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-1865) Cranford (1853) Born: 93 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, England. Buried: Brook Street Unitarian Chapel, Knutsford, Cheshire, England. Gaskell House, 84 Plymouth Grove, Manchester, Lancashire, England.  Knutsford Heritage Centre, 90A King Street, Knutsford, Cheshire, England.
 
 
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) The Crescent Moon (1913) Born: Jorasanko Thakur Bari, 6/4 Dwarakanath Tagore Lane, Calcutta, India. Ashes: Ganges River, India. Shelaidaha Kuthibari, Bangladesh. Shantiniketan, India (several sights).
 
Anatole France (1844-1924) The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881) Born: Quais Malaquais 19, 6eme, Paris, France. Buried: Cimitiere Ancien, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, Ile-de-France, France. Hotel Anatole France, 104 Rue Anatole France, Le Havre, Upper Normandy, France.
 
Winston Churchill (1871-1947) The Crisis (1901) Born: St Louis, Missouri. Buried: Plainfield Cemetery, Plainfield, New Hampshire. College: Navy.
 
Of note to me as a New Hampshire resident, there is a historic marker on the west side of Route 12A about 200 yards south of the Cornish-Plainfield town line commemorating this author. The only references to his burial site I have found are from 1953, which gives the name of a cemetery that does not seem to exist, and the town report from 1967 in which it is recorded that his descendants wanted to give the land where he was buried to the town. It did not specify where the land was, nor can I discover whether the town accepted the offer. I have now found a 3rd reference, which cites that he was buried on his property, which appears to have been on Freeman Road (The Windfield House).
 
I'm not having any luck finding the address of his birthplace in St Louis, though having been to that city I am pretty confident that wherever it was, there is probably a vacant lot or a highway there now.
 
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) Born: Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, England. Buried: St Martin's Church, Bladon, Oxfordshire, England. National Churchill Museum, 501 Westminster Avenue, Fulton, Missouri. Churchill War Rooms, King Charles Street, Westminster, London, England. "The Allies" (statue), Bond Street, Mayfair, London, England. Chartwell, Mapleton Road, Westerham, Kent, England. College: Royal Military College, Sandhurst.
 
Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) The Critic (1779) Born: 12 Dorset Street, Dublin, Ireland (or maybe not, but this has traditionally been thought the birthplace, & there is a plaque commemorating it. On the other hand, the commission to ferret out the truth was financed by 'a private client' and there is a real estate developer eager to demolish the decrepit house and put up an apartment complex, so I am not sure how far I would trust the motivations of those findings either.) Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. Portrait (by Hoppner), Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.
 
David Crockett (1786-1836) Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834) Born: Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park, Greene County, Tennessee. Buried: San Fernando Cathedral, 115 Main Plaza, San Antonio, Texas. David Crockett State Park, Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. David Crockett Cabin Museum, Rutherford, Tennessee. Crockett Tavern Museum, Morrisville, Tennessee. Rifle. Museum of East Tennessee History, Knoxville, Tennesee.
 
John Wesley Crockett (1807-1852) Born: East Tennessee. Buried: Old City Cemetery, Paris, Tennessee (Historic marker also).
 
 
James Stephens (1882-1950) Crock of Gold (1912) Born: Dublin, Ireland (site not documented. Usually reported as being "a poor part of town.") Buried: d. London, England. (I cannot find any information on this as yet. Even my great reference, The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles, has not recorded this).
 
Cymbeline (fl 10's B.C.-40) No specific information. Cymbeline House, 24 Evesham Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.
 
Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) Born: 14 Rue Edmond Rostand, Marseilles, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France. Buried: Cimitiere Sainte Pierre, Marseilles, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France. La Villa Arnaga, Route du Docteur Camino, Cambo-le-Bains, Aquitaine, France. Hotel Edmond Rostand Logis de France, 31 Rue Dragon, Marseilles, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, France. 
 
Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) Born: Rue des Prouvaires, 1ere, Paris, France. Buried: Church, Sannois, Val d'Oise, Ile-de-France, France. (The actual site appears to be gone/unknown now). Statue, Place de la Myrpe, Bergerac, Dordogne, France. Cyrano de Bergerac Restaurant, Slawkowska 26, Krakow, Poland.
 
Theodore de Banville (1823-1891) Born: Moulins, Auvergne, France. Buried: Cimitiere du Montparnasse, 14eme, Paris, France. Hotel de Banville, 166 Boulevard Berthier, 17eme, Paris, France.
 


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Willa Cather--Alexander's Bridge (1912)

This is Willa Cather's first, very short novel (128 sparely filled pages). There are not a lot of copies of it currently in circulation. Vintage put out a paperback edition in 2010, which is what I got, and I presume it is available in the Library of America, but I was hoping to find a cheap older (pre-1960s) copy for my collection, and I couldn't find anything, even an expensive one.


As I have written on the parent blog, I think My Antonia is one of the great American novels. Up until now it had been the only Willa Cather I had read. Alexander's Bridge, in contrast to the western pioneer settings with which she had her great later success, takes place mainly among the wealthy, well-dressed, theater and dinner party-going segment of society in Boston and London. The crowd is not unlike an Edith Wharton crowd, though more active in terms of industry. I suppose it could be said that Alexander, who is a great engineer who builds mighty bridges, is something of a pioneer, although that aspect of his character is not really predominant in the story. He is presented as a man of force, blond, blue eyed, strongly built, with a powerful neck and bursting with energy to claim the wealth and status that is rightfully theirs--such men obviously made a great impression, as they appear frequently in the American literature of this period (Wharton's Elmer Moffatt character is another hard-charger of this type). This is not, however, the Alexander that appears in most of the actual story; the one that is given the reader seems to be in the throes of a midlife crisis unbecoming a mighty builder of the most modern railway bridges, increasingly diffident about his work and pining for his youth and his lost love. The IWE describes the book thus:

"The writing is quiet, restrained--no surprises, no suspense. There is no contrived plot. The characters are conventional or at least self-controlled. Yet without evident effort she makes them real--a quality of her writing that within a few years was to win Willa Cather recognition as a major novelist."



Yes, I would disagree with that. The great shortcoming of Al's Bridge for me is that the characters never become wholly real, or acquire any sort of depth in my mind. I don't understand why Alexander was seemingly losing interest in the life he had, or what he was expecting to attain by giving it up to have his Irish actress. The book is not bad--the writing is good, and the atmosphere of that general time period in the great cities, New York, London, Boston, is captured well enough to hold the reader's interest, and it is short enough to read in a couple days, probably a couple of hours if you are not a ditherer like I am. So I am glad I read it, even though I would not consider it on the whole as satisfying or successful as some of the other books I have read for the IWE list recently.



The Challenge

Another crazy challenge with a shocking (to me) winner. I guess not as many people read the famous books as you would think (or those who do fell less moved or compelled to review it on the internet). It was also notable that women authors were dominant. I should not be surprised that the magic words generated by a Willa Cather novel tilt the power of the search engine heavily towards the feminine. Those things are too clever.

1. Ann Patchett--Bel Canto........................................................................1,034
2. Barbara Kingsolver--Prodgial Summer.....................................................711
3. Lucy Maud Montgomery--Anne of Avonlea..............................................594
4. Salman Rushdie--Satanic Verses...............................................................341
5. A.S. Byatt--Possession...............................................................................315
6. Irene Hunt--Across Five Aprils..................................................................282
7. Paolo Pacigalupi--The Drowned Cities......................................................143
8. Mary E. Braddon--Lady Audley's Secret......................................................72
9. Winifred Watson--Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day.....................................66
10. Virginia Woolf--The Waves........................................................................61
11. Salman Rushdie--East, West.......................................................................31
12. Alexandra Nouri--So You're in Love With a Narcissist..............................28
13. Larsen & Hodge--The Art of Argument......................................................19
14. Margaret Atwood--Good Bones..................................................................17
(tie) Diane Stanley--Bard of Avon: The Story of William Shakespeare............17
16. Winifred Holtby--Anderby Wold..................................................................4
17. Barbara Greenwood--A Pioneer Story..........................................................1

Working With Words: Grade 6, Applications of Grammar 4: Principles of Effective Communication, and Applications of Grammar 6: Mastering Communication Skills tied for last place with the obvious score of zero.



I was certain that the Anne of Green Gables or the A.S. Byatt would win. The relatively low score on the Byatt was especially surprising. Hasn't there been one of the most hyped books of the new century? Ann Patchett appears to be one of these attractive, hyper-focused, morally strident, successfully/triumphantly educated modern people towards whom I am emotionally ambivalent and distant but am conflicted about in my modest forages into mental life. Her book, which is set in South America and involves terrorists and music and substantial people who either undoubtedly have brilliant standardized test scores or are so culturally authentic as to be extremely sexy, is supposedly good. I guess I will have to try it.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Eugene O'Neill--Ah Wilderness! (1933)

Famous for being the happy Eugene O'Neill play--the only one, apparently, that can be thus described. As I noted in my last posting, I am in a stretch of shorter readings for this list, and Ah Wilderness! clocks in at a breezy 141 pages. From the IWE introduction:

"Among O'Neill's most popular plays, Ah Wilderness! deserves a special place as the easiest for any amateur group to produce. Its characters and sets are conventional and it is over at a convenient hour. It has a happy ending."



My 1960s-era Modern Library copy (cast off from the Trenton (Michigan) High School library), was marked up with an actress's notes for the role of Essie, the mother of the family. The aroma of decades old cigarette smoke still emanates deliciously from the pages, which is entirely suitable and welcome to me, given the nature of this list and my motivations for taking it up in midlife, The play itself has a nostalgic aspect, being set on July 4th and 5th, 1906, and featuring young love as one of its main themes. The central family in the drama are a middle-aged husband and wife with six children (though only the younger four still live at home and feature in the play), who live in a spacious Victorian house in Connecticut (New London, most likely). Other than the circumstances that both the parents and children are about ten years further along than we are in age, and the father, who runs the local newspaper, is a man of substance and influence in the town, the situation bears a remarkable resemblance to my own family--indeed, they even share their surname with us. When I was sitting on my porch reading it in the languid last days of August I could almost feel as if I were in the scene, or that it was all taking place in the dining room just behind me. Doubtless all of this influenced my mood and opinion with regard to the play, which were positive.



One of the reasons I was eager to embark on this particular list was all of the American literature that is on it between the Civil War and World War II that was once famous and alive in the general culture (or at least the literate parts of it) that has been forgotten or ceased to be as important. I find that I like a lot of that stuff, and always have. If you subscribe at all to generational theory, Eugene O'Neill's place in the saeculum lines up almost identical to mine (in the theory, generations last approximately 20 years, and there are four generational archetypes; Eugene O'Neill was born 82 years before I was, into the Lost Generation, the last 'nomad' cohort). Generally I don't think of myself as having much in common with Eugene O'Neill, but he was about the same age as I am now when he wrote this, and it was similarly in the midst of a period of difficult economic times and major transitions in the social and economic bases of life. That is about the extent of my insight as to why he suddenly broke from form and wrote a mildly nostalgic comedy--the only such effort of his career--in his mid-40s.

Being Eugene O'Neill even in his light play there is an alcoholic character whose behavior and issues are extreme and disturbing by our standards, and there is a whole long scene set in a dive bar among tarts and tough talking Mickeys. He can never get away from that world entirely.


George M Cohan as Nat Miller in the original production of Ah Wilderness!

The Bourgeois Surrender Challenge

The magic words from this book brought up a deluge of recent best-sellers, which produced a high-scoring and competitive challenge with a (to me) surpise winner.

1. John Sandford--Field of Prey.......................................................................2,972
2. Harlen Coben--Six Years..............................................................................2,798
3. Dale Carnegie--How to Win Friends and Influence People.........................2,306
4. J.R. Ward--Lover at Last..............................................................................2,138
5. Cassandra Clare--Clockwork Princess.........................................................1,919
6. Rick Riordan--The Lost Hero.......................................................................1,833
7. John Grisham--The Confession....................................................................1,665
8. Joel C. Rosenberg--Damascus Countdown.................................................1,568
9. Garcia & Stohl--Beautiful Darkness............................................................1,334
10. James Dashnel--The Scorch Trials............................................................1,326
11. Keith Richards--Life.....................................................................................991
12. Michael Connolly--Reversal........................................................................863
13. David Nicholls--One Day............................................................................622
14. Michael Crichton & Richard Preston--Micro..............................................592
15. Clive Cussler--The Striker...........................................................................591
16. C.J. Box--Breaking Point............................................................................556
17. Becca Fitzpatrick--Crescendo.....................................................................468
18. Bella Andre--Always on my Mind...............................................................341
19. J.R. Ward--Crave........................................................................................249
20. James Rollins--The Sixth Extinction..........................................................169
21. Tracie Peterson--A Sensible Arrangement.................................................140
22. Nicole Krauss--Great House......................................................................137
23. Peggy Hesketh--Telling the Bees................................................................106
24. Chris D'Lacey--Icefire................................................................................102
25. Snyder/Albuquerque/King--American Vampire, Vol. 1...............................88
26. Raymond Khoury--The Templar Salvation..................................................81
27. Wanda Brunstetter--The Healing Quilt........................................................76
28. Ned Beauman--The Teleportation Accident.................................................68
29. Kermit Lynch--Adventures on the Wine Route.............................................44
30. Rae Mariz--Unidentified...............................................................................43
31. Canfield & Hendricks--You've Got to Read This Book................................39
32. George Gissing--The Odd Women................................................................29
33. Sara Yogev--Couples' Guide to Happy Retirement......................................25
34. Emily Eden--The Semi-Detached Couple & The Semi-Detached House.......4
(tie) Elizabeth Taylor--At Mrs Lippincott's..........................................................4
36. Enid Bagnold--The Squire..............................................................................3
37. Rose Macaulay--Non-Combatants & Others..................................................1
38. Erle Stanley Gardner--Case of the Curious Spinster......................................0
(tie) A.E.W. Mason--Dilemmas............................................................................0
(tie) Patricia Lee McComber--Love Lost..............................................................0

The winner is a thriller, another murder book set in the midwest. I don't want to read it. All these murder books strike me as being the same after a while. Maybe it has literary qualities: the author was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner as a journalist before becoming an author of thrillers. If nothing else, I suppose I could learn more about professionalism and the qualities it takes to ascend to that class by reading him. But then again, if I haven't grasped the tenets of professionalism in work by this point of my life, it seems unlikely I will ever be able to do so. My library owns three copies of Field of Prey, but they are all currently checked out, so I might be able to skirt it.

There are a number of books I would have read on this list if they had won. I would have read the Dale Carnegie, probably the Keith Richards. I definitely would have read the Nicole Krauss book (isn't she one of those contemporary with-it Brooklyn literary people?), the old writers at the bottom, Gissing and Bagnold and Eden and Taylor and Gardner. But they didn't win, and I must move on with the master list.




Friday, August 22, 2014

Agnes Grey--Anne Bronte (1847)

I am in the midst of a stretch of short books for the IWE list. Though it comes under the category of a Victorian novel, Agnes Grey is only 194 pages long (in the recent Modern Library paperback edition) and it feels shorter than that. There is not much to the plot, which is a barely disguised memoir written by a 27 year old about her experiences as a governess in two different houses, and reads at times more like a journal or a record of impressions over time than an unified work of art that is an imitation and embellishment of actual life. In spite of this, and certain other characteristics of the book that I will comment on later, I enjoyed it very much during the few calm moments of the day when I had a chance to read it, as I find I am enjoying most of these older books, whether their reputations have carried down to our own time or not.



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

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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Thomas Paine-The Age of Reason (1795)

I love reading Thomas Paine.
 
This is a very short work, around fifty pages. Actually, when I came to the end of it in my edition (the 1940s Modern Library selected works of Paine) there was a note explaining that there was a part II,  which 'adds little to the searching moral inquiry of the first part, and his (Paine's) dissection of the Bible has only an antique interest today'. I am satisfied enough with this assessment that I am not going to seek out the second part at this time. 
 
 
 
Even as someone who has read over the years plenty of arguments more or less of the sort that Paine makes here, the book struck me forcefully in a way that other writers addressing the same subject somehow failed to. Thomas Paine was sui generis as an author. I don't think the word genius as we have come to use it gives the sense of his peculiar talent, because he was not an otherworldly intellect, but his thoughts were so vivid and direct and certain--he is reminiscent of Blake in that regard--as to achieve a reality and a life that few writers are able to attain. I generally shy away from saying that people 'should' read this or that author: however I did think while I was reading this that Americans who have any identification with the founding of their country and interest in the revolutionary mindset that animated its early years should read Thomas Paine. First, because I think they will enjoy him, but also because I think reading the works of a genuine revolutionary spirit who never backed down an inch from the inevitable blowback and attacks that the powerful and comfortably ensconced continously fired his way, who wrote in their own language and general literary tradition, may serve to invigorate some of them, for nothing could be more certain than that we need some Paine-like minds and spirits to emerge in our own time to help us focus our minds on the real nature of our problems and the real solutions for them. Paine of course is not about reconciling opposing viewpoints or understanding and empathizing with the mindset of his enemies. I suppose that when the times come in which major historical shifts take place total belief in and commitment to one's ideas are required.
 
 
 
When I say that The Age of Reason acted with more force on my mind than similarly themed books and essays I do not mean to say that I was a committed and devout believer in the Christian religion as it is derived in the Bible whose whole mental system has been shattered. I am sure that I never really believed in the literal truth of miracles or that Jesus Christ was a divine being in a way fundamentally different from other humans. However I have always had a certain amount of fondness for the Western Christian tradition, for the art and music it has inspired, the Bible as literature, the order and aesthetic influence it interjected, or, if you will, imposed, on daily life in the West for so many centuries, and tended not to take its more fantastic elements all that seriously. Paine did not let anything wash over him, however, and the weaker aspects of the Christian faith with regard to reason--of which there were many--obviously stood out to him so starkly as absurd that in the writing it seems as if it was little work for him to line them up and shoot them down. I am sure it was not that easy, but the thought and the writing is very organized and clear and focused squarely on the truth or untruth of the subject and not the brilliant mental sophistication and acrobatics of the author. Such of these as there are comes out as a by-product. 
 
 
 
The Challenge:
 
1. Bart D Ehrman--God's Problem.............222
2. John Marco--The Eyes of God..................86
3. John Marco--The Sword of Angels...........22
4. John Marco--The Devil's Armor...............16
 
Four books received zero reviews in this weak challenge: Brian Chambers's The Bible's Healing Code Revealed, Thomas Churton's Aleister Crowley: The Beast of Berlin, Victor Hugo's Odes et Ballades/Les Orientales, and the Wordsworth Poetry Library Edition of the Complete Poems of Keats.
 
I think I will skip this one and move on to my next encyclopedia classic. I am not that enamored of modern academic theological or anti-theological writing, and it has been so hot that I have not had the energy to find all of the overdue library items that my children have out that are now lost somewhere in the house, without returning which I won't be able to take anything out anyway.
 
    

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Few Brief Notes on In Cold Blood

I finished it about three weeks ago, but then I was getting ready to go on vacation, on vacation, getting semi-re-organized upon coming back from vacation--in short, I have not been able to get to a computer to do any serious blogging or social media use for some time. While I found the book well-written--its hyper-polished and professional New Yorker sheen is the most satisfying thing about it--I am a little confused by all of the claims for its being a 'masterpiece'. I am not wholly convinced that it even qualifies as 'literature'. There are small matters of interest in it, digressions and details, that I liked, but they do not come together to make anything grand. This is at bottom a small book dressed up as something bigger than it is. The murderers, when they are not in the act of committing crimes, have nothing particularly compelling about them, and most of the other people featured in the book, apart from a few persons like the postmistress and her mother, are not especially vivid either. This includes the victims.

As I said, I enjoyed the book (insofar as one can enjoy reading about four people being shot to death in their homes), but then I am unusually interested in things having to do with the United States of the 1950s and 60s, the New Yorker magazine of that era, and so forth. Is this a book that people without the emotional connection to the time and place in which it takes place are going to be interested in a hundred years from now? I can't see that. I have to think Truman Capote's personal popularity with influential literary and social sets of his time must have colored their judgements of his writings.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Edith Wharton and the Pulitzer Prize

In my haste to publish my last article, I forgot that I had wanted to mention some things about the Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded in 1920 to The Age of Innocence. As with other artistic awards, the Pulitzer Prize in the non-journalism categories has almost always been played down by the better writers themselves, and, taking the cue from them, in our days this damping of enthusiasm has spread to much of the reading public. In prestige it is my sense that it has been surpassed by the National Book Award, which looks over time to have a better track record, at least for picking things that have been favored by later critics and writers have favored; still, the advantage is slight, and it is not something that serious people allow themselves to get overexcited about. The Pulitzer still carried some middlebrow cache in the 60s however--my encyclopedia list duly notes when one of its selections was thus honored, and they did choose 13 fiction winners and 9 drama winners from the 1920-1955 era for inclusion. In 1920 the fiction prize was being given for just the 3rd time, but evidently it was a big enough deal that many of the big writers of the time were aware of it and considered it worth noticing--Pulitzer himself of course had been a titan in the business of the printed word, which meant nothing to purer literary spirits like Ezra Pound, but any kind of prize bearing his name would likely have piqued a certain amount of interest in anyone who wrote at least in part with an eye towards getting or maintaining an upper middle class income.

The point of all this being that according to the chronology of Edith Wharton's life given in the Library of America, the Pulitzer committee actually chose Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (which also appears on this reading list later on--1920 was an exciting years for books in America) as the winner, but the trustees of Columbia University, to which Pulitzer had left the money for and administration of the prizes (and which still administers them, by the way), rejected that selection as too controversial and awarded the prize to Wharton, who, it is said, was appalled by this cowardice and began a correspondence with Lewis which continued for many years afterwards. Wharton was evidently not so appalled that she refused the prize, as Lewis himself would do in 1925 after winning for Arrowsmith (he appears to be the only one who has done so however, for fiction anyway; I had thought it was a more regular occurrence. On the other hand there have been three posthumous winners). Perhaps she was not aware she could do so.

All this information is really nothing to the point, but I had wanted to mention it. It tells us nothing about the meaning of the book. I usually know nothing about the meanings of books, though in this particular instance I think I have slightly more of a grasp on it than usual, because its main themes resemble impulses and feelings that most people living in any kind of conventionally structured society will have. But I would have trouble disconnecting what I think is going on in the book from my personal feelings and experience, and I don't want to go into that on a blog at this time.