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.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Edith Wharton--The Age of Innocence (1920)

Despite the constant high level of renown and critical acclaim that has attended this book in both the high and middling levels of literary society almost since the day it came out, and even though I purchased my own edition of it (Modern Library, ed 1950, green cloth cover with black title box) in 1986, I had never gotten around to reading it until now. While I had never dreaded its coming up eventually, I had never gazed upon it with any very lustful anticipation either. My expectation was that it was going to be like weaker Henry James, perhaps slightly less dense, but similarly dry, with the action driven by arch insinuations and subtle cuts that require a great deal of sophistication on the part of the reader to feel the full force of. Also I had read Ethan Frome a few years back for my "A" reading list, and while that book had enough, with its repressive New England setting, to engage my interest and not put me off of Edith Wharton altogether, it was grim enough that I was not running to the library even in my imagination to get at the rest of her ouevre. But while The Age of Innocence is a little like Henry James, and somewhat less like the repressed rural New Englanders of Ethan Frome, I had no trouble staying awake for my nightly fifteen to twenty pages as I have been having with some other recent books on the list, and I even found much of it to be entertaining, though I was not wholly sold on the intensity of the supposed passion between the Countess Olenska and the decidedly room temperature-blooded Archer, especially on her end. That said, my nightly readings of this book provided me the satisfactions and consolations of nostalgia, and the charms of the better parts of the old literature and the old world, bad as we all know that these things for the most part were, that I was looking for when I began to follow this "B" list.         
My favorite thing about this book are the descriptions of 'Old New York'. Not so much the society of the best ancient Anglo-Dutch families, though even that was more tolerable than I thought it was going to be, but the geography and topographical references to streets, districts, parks, brownstones, etc, with which we are all familiar, in the particular ways in which they are described here. Even given the extreme wealth of the milieu here, I think the depiction of the scenes and rooms here as I imagine them in reading is more romanticized and more modern that probably even Edith Wharton could have visualized. The majority of the book is set in 1875, with at the end a brief denoument thirty years forward, when the city was considerably more crowded, ethnically diverse, technological, etc, than it had been in the earlier year, and the old elite were having to adapt to the new circumstances, though adapt in this case seems to mean acknowledging their existence, as Archer and his circle continue to hold political and cultural influence, such as serving on the board of the Metropolitan Museum, in 1905, though the forms in which they carried out these offices were somewhat altered. Anyway, as I read the book I imagine the city as an old Hollywood set would depicted 1870s-1890s New York (or London or Paris of the same period), floodlit, clean, and less incidentally occupied by people or refuse of any kind than it possibly could have been. I think of those houses and streets and squares that have proven, on the whole, so elusive to me to spend any time in at all, and how wide open and easy it always seems to penetrate and live one's whole life in in books. And the same goes of course for London and Paris too.   



The Challenge

A very good challenge this time:

1. In Cold Blood--Truman Capote.................................................954
2. A Hero of Our Time--Mikhail Lermontov...................................91
3. Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood
    He Left Behind--Gavin Edwards..................................................68
4. Quidditch Through the Ages--Kennilworthy Whisp....................40
5. Stanford Wong Fails Big Time--Lisa Yee....................................24
6. Under These Restless Skies--Lissa Bryan....................................10
7. Iola Leroy: or, Shadows Uplifted--Frances Ellen Watkins...........6
8. The Voice of the People--Ellen Glasgow.......................................2
9. No Laughing Matter--Angus Wilson.............................................1

Those titles getting the goose egg include The Problem of Cultural Transformation and Individual Integrity in Edith Wharton's Novels by Ihsan Durdu, The War by Christabel Pinkhurst, The Ancient Law by Ellen Glasgow, Female Warriors Volume 1 by Ellen Clayton, & Henrietta Temple by Benjamin Disraeli.

When that quidditch book turned up on the list I figured it was impossible it would not win, so I was pleasantly surprised there. I've always been interested in reading Lermontov, several of Ellen Glasgow's novels (though neither of the two listed here) are actually on this B-list, and I am sure I would like the Angus Wilson book, which "chronicles the end of the bourgeois way of life as seen through the lives of the six M-- children and their dysfunctional middle class family". Wilson was born in Bexhill-on Sea in Sussex in 1913, went to Winchester College and Merton College Oxford, worked as a librarian at the British Museum and as a code-breaker during World War II, wrote satirical novels with a liberal humanistic outlook, and seems to be quite well known in England. I can't believe only one reader has reviewed his book.

However, as the Capote book was the big winner, and as it is famous, and I had never read it, and as Capote, though I have never read anything by him, seems like he would be a kind of writer that I would like, I thought I would give it a look. I was apprehensive about the fact that it was about a real murder and trial and execution, and not only this, but that I thought it was nearly 1,000 pages on the subject. I evidently had gotten it confused with Norman Mailer's book on a similar theme (real-life murderers) which actually is over 1,000 pages. In Cold Blood however is only 343 pages, and my library had it in the hardcover Modern Library edition, with its handsome size and typeface, and I was sold on giving it a go. So far I am on around page 58 and I like it. Of course the graphic stuff has not happened yet. It's been mostly background, the prosperous farmer and his family in 1950s Kansas, with a little bit on the criminals. But the style and tone remind me of the books I liked when I was an adolescent. So the challenge does work sometimes.

Our findings this time produced a pretty good movie challenge as well. Truman Capote swept both events in this competition, pulling off the impressive feat of defeating the movie version of the host book in that contest:

1. Capote...............................612
2. The Age of Innocence........239
3. Baby Face.............................0

I ended up putting all three of these movies in my queue. Even though no one on Amazon has deigned to review Baby Face, it's quite famous among those in the know, a pre-code Barbara Stanwyck picture from 1933. True film connoisseurs love Barbara Stanwyck--I have seen several claim that she is the greatest movie actress of all time--and they also love the (extremely short-lived) pre-code era, which particular designation seems to be restricted to certain daring early talkies from about 1930-33. I have not ventured much into this period, nor into the work of Barbara Stanwyck, other than Double Indemnity, which is a great movie, though I have never have the sense that Barbara Stanwyck's fans consider it an especially great Barbara Stanwyck movie, perhaps because it is fairly well known among the mediocre general public. But anyway, I am going to, hopefully, begin to become initiated in this knowledge and whatever values it possesses.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

New York (State)

1. New York....................8



2. Westchester.................6
3. Bronx..........................3
    Queens........................3
5. Rockland.....................2
6. Albany.........................1
    Kings...........................1
    Suffolk.........................1
    Ulster...........................1

Paris

1. 1st Arrondissement.....9

  

2. 20th...........................6
3. 2nd............................2
    8th.............................2
    18th...........................2
    Unkown....................2
7. 4th.............................1
    5th.............................1
    6th.............................1
    7th.............................1
    9th.............................1
    16th............................1

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ile-de-France

1. Paris..............................29
2. Yvelines..........................1