Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sinclair Lewis--Babbitt (1922)

It seems to have just gotten harder to steal pictures.

From the IWE's introductory comments:

"Main Street was Sinclair Lewis's first and biggest success on the subject of small-town quasi-culture, but Babbitt, which came two years later, was a better book on the same subject. If it is not Lewis's best novel (a rank that is usually accorded to Arrowsmith or Dodsworth), it is not far from it."

I haven't read Main Street (which is also on this program) since I was in high school and I haven't any sense at this point how it compares to Babbitt (or whether it even matters anymore), but I did just read Arrowsmith and wrote about it here within the last year, and while that did strike me as the more accomplished book from the literary standpoint, there was, somewhat to my surprise, much in Babbitt that I found poignant--the trip to Maine with Paul, especially the poker, and then the return trip the next year without him got to me the most, but there were numerous episodes that struck deeper than I would have expected them to throughout the book. While Babbitt's personality and business-oriented outlook on life are decidedly unlike mine, he is in the book the same age that I am or have recently been--46, 47, 48--and a lot of the impulses and disaffections he has upon reaching this stage of life ring true to me (Lewis, interestingly, was only 36-37 when this was published). I didn't make as many notes as I wish I had now, in part because I was quite engaged by it, in other part because I have been really more than usually depressed this winter, and while these old books are often a great comfort to me in such times, I still didn't have much energy for writing thoughts down. While certainly Lewis would never have intended his novel to induce nostalgia, it ends up having something of that effect, to me at least, because the world of 1920s America still retains some vividness for me. I suspect even such sense as I have for it must be increasingly lost to younger people though.

I'm tempted to write more about my depression, but I might do something that alludes to it on the other blog after I finish this.

I made my first note on page 164, a sentence about a civic convention that I found funny:

"The pastor of the First Christian Church of Monarch...informed God that the real-estate men were here now."

This was set in, if not the absolute heyday of train travel, still a dynamic period for it. The description of the brand new station at Zenith is clearly intended to be satirical, but from the vantage point of our own era of transportation it sounds rather nice:

"It was a new and enormous waiting-room, with marble pilasters, and frescoes depicting the exploration of the Chaloosa River Valley by Pere Emile Fauthoux in 1740. The benches were shelves of ponderous mahogany; the news-stand a marble kiosk with a brass grill."

There is as well a suggestive undertone throughout the book as well that electricity, plumbing, appliances are perhaps not appropriate for the masses, as of course most middle-aged people at least in 1922 would have grown up without them. When this novel first came out and for the fifty-sixty years afterwards when it enjoyed some fame, it was primary noted for its satire, but that is now the most dated heavy-handed aspect of it. It has other, much more subtle, redeeming qualities though.

Prohibition made forty-five year olds have to act surreptitiously like teenagers. This is at the hotel at the realtors' convention:

"At half-past seven they sat in their room, with Elbert Wing and two up-state delegates. Their coats were off, their vests open, their faces red, their voices emphatic. They were finishing a bottle of corrosive bootlegged whisky and imploring the bell-boy, 'Say, son, can you get us some more of this embalming fluid?'"

The quest for illicit booze did make some of the forty-something women more festive though than perhaps they would otherwise have been inclined to be.

I didn't note what page I was on, but at one point I wrote, 'Still interesting, but hard to see where book is going between Paul (spoiler alert--Paul goes to jail for shooting his wife, non-fatally), Babbitt's midlife crisis, return to Maine, etc. Never clear why Babbitt loves Paul so much, more seemingly even than his own family.'

p. 339 "Their life was dominated by suburban bacchanalia of alcohol, nicotine, gasoline, and kisses."
I liked this sentence.

p. 391 I'm not really in the right frame of mind to make political pronouncements, but I thought this sentence about The Good Citizens' League, accepting a membership in which marks the end of Babbitt's identity crisis and his firm return to sound business principles and all the rest of it, was too obviously pertinent to the present not to recognize it:

"All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary."

Absolute equality of wealth will obviously always be problematic given the different natures of people, especially in large societies, though perhaps there could be somewhat more of it than there is at present. And there doesn't seem to be much danger nowadays of the working classes forming any kind of a threat to the established order, so that keeping them in their place is not as much of a labor-intensive-task as it may once have been, but the gist is familiar.  

I have not elaborated much on what I think it is that this book gets right that makes it as affecting to me as it was, but I think it is the way that one's life (often) feels as it is becoming stalled in the 40s, especially the late 40s, when I think it really hits you that if you aren't declining already, or at least not too much, that that might start accelerating noticeably at any time. In some ways of course I stopped going forward a long time ago, but the continuous adding of children over the years kind of masked that and gave me a sense, certainly that I was still relatively young and had a long future ahead of me, but that my experience, life force, or whatever, was still expanding. But all of a sudden I feel disturbingly old and vulnerable, and I'm wondering what I was thinking having another baby at age 45, as beautiful and delightful an addition to the human community as she is. I feel like I'll be lucky to see her get her through high school and college, and making it to her 30th birthday seems like a longshot. For that matter I could really go at almost any time. I know that was always the case but up until two months I had no real consciousness of that, it was not real to me. Anyway, a lot of the better part of this book is about this creeping sense of the genuine futility of one's existence and how to keep moving forward. Paul of course was pointedly unable to do this.

No uploadable pictures of the book anywhere. I'll have to get my own camera working again.

For a relatively famous book there aren't a lot of attractive editions of it available on the market. There was an evidently limited run Modern Library edition in the 50s but I couldn't find any copies of this online. There was one advertised that I tried to order but I was sent a 1960s era Signet paperback or something like it instead. I ended getting a bland gray Harcourt Brace edition from the 50s which matches my copy of Main Street.
The Challenge

1. Rebecca Skloot--The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks..............................5,819
2. Kate Turabian--A Manual For Writers of Research Papers, Theses, etc.......752
3. Ruth Rendell--The Girl Next Door.................................................................423
4. Gloria Steinem--Marilyn................................................................................231
5. The Reverend William J. Barber II--The Third Reconstruction.....................110
6. Praxis II Middle Scholl English Language Arts...............................................44
7. Natalie Babbitt--The Eyes of the Amaryllis......................................................33
8. The Wise Owl Guide to...(DSST): Here's to Our Health..................................12
9. DSST Principles of Statistics Exam....................................................................9
10. Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats (eds. McIntyre & Nette)............3
11. Victor Hugo--William Shakespeare..................................................................0
12. Isabel Burton--The Life of Captain Sir Richard Burton....................................0

Once again a complete field of 16 eludes us. The top four seeds--all women, incidentally--receive first round byes.

1st Round

#5 Barber over #12 Burton

While Sir Richard Burton is an interesting subject, the 1893 biography of him by his wife doesn't seem to have earned a reprint anytime in the last 100 years and no one carries a copy of it.

#11 Hugo over #6 Praxis

#7 Babbitt over #10 Girl Gangs, etc

The Girl Gangs book, the subtitle of which is Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture 1950-1980 looks somewhat interesting, but no one has it.

#8 Wise Owl Guide over #9 DSST Principles

Round of 8

#11 Hugo over #1 Skloot

The Hugo book is only available in a couple of academic libraries, but they do have it. As I am currently weary of the kinds of contemporary writers that my game keeps turning up, the 19th century European giant had a decided psychological advantage.

#2 Turabian over #8 Wise Owl Guide

#7 Babbitt over #3 Rendell

Rendell is a straight genre book. I'm not exactly sure what this Babbitt is, but it looks like it might be more soulful. It's also older, dating I believe from 1977.

#4 Steinem over #5 Barber

Kind of a toss-up that the higher seed wins by a hair.

Final Four

#11 Hugo over #2 Turabian

#4 Steinem over #7 Babbitt

The Steinem would probably be something different and more interesting. A ho-hum final four.


#4 Steinem over #11 Hugo

The Steinem book is in my library, and it's also pretty short. I might have been inclined to go with Hugo anyway because my intellect is in such decay, but I will give this a try.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Author List Volume XIII

Eric Knight (1897-1943) Lassie Come-Home (1940) Born: Menston, Yorkshire, England (plaque at village library). Buried: Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, Lemay, Missouri.

John C. Winston (1856-1920) Born: Darlington, Indiana. Buried: d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1920. College: Haverford.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) Born: 31 Baker Street, Marylebone, London, England. Pompeii, Campania, Italy. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. College: Trinity Hall (Cambridge)

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) The Last of the Mohicans (1826) Born: 457 High Street, Burlington, New Jersey. (*****(7-16-02)***** Buried: Christ Episcopal Churchyard, Cooperstown, Otsego, New York.  Fenimore Art Museum, 5798 NY-80, Cooperstown, Otsego, New York. Farmer's Museum, Lake Road, Cooperstown, Otsego, New York. College: Yale

John Phillips Marquand (1893-1960) The Late George Apley (1937) Born: Wilmington, Delaware. Buried: Sawyer Hill Burying Ground, Newburyport, Essex, Massachusetts. College: Harvard

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) Les Miserables (1862) Born: Besancon, Franche-Comte, France. Buried: Pantheon, 5eme, Paris, France. Maison de Victor Hugo, 6 Place des Vosges, 4eme, Paris, France. Hautville House, 38 Rue Hautville, St Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands, England. Musee Litteraire Victor Hugo, 37 Rue de la Gare, Vianden, Luxembourg.

Napoleon III (1808-1873) Born: 17 Rue Lafitte, 9eme, Paris, France Buried: St Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, Hampshire, England. Napoleon III Apartment, Musee du Louvre, 1ere, Paris, France. Chateau de Pierrefonds, Pierrefonds, Picardie, France.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) Leviathan (1651) Born: Westport, Malmesbury, Wiltshire, England.  Buried: St John the Baptist's Church, Ault Hucknall, Derbyshire, England. College: Magdalen Hall (now Hertford) (Oxford).

Clarence Day, Jr (1874-1935) Life With Father (1935) Born: New York, New York. Buried: Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. College: Yale.

Clarence Day, Sr (1844-1927) Born: New York, New York. Buried: Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

Russel Crouse (1893-1966) Born: Findlay, Ohio. d. New York, New York. ashes scattered (?)

Howard Lindsay (1889-1968) Born: Waterford, Saratoga, New York. College: Harvard

Ferenc Molnar (1878-1952) Liliom (1909) Born: Jozsef Boulevard 83 (?), Budapest, Hungary. Buried: Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery, Ridgewood, Queens, New York. Paul Street Boys Monument, Prater Utca 11, Budapest, Hungary.

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) Born: 141 York Street, Cheetham, Manchester, Lancashire, England. Buried: Roslyn Cemetery, Greenvale, Nassau, New York.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) Little Women (1868) Born: 5427 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Buried: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Orchard House, 399 Lexington Road, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts.

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) Look Homeward, Angel (1929) Born: 92 Woodfin Street, Asheville, North Carolina. Buried: Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina. Thomas Wolfe Memorial, 52 N Market Street, Asheville, North Carolina. College: North Carolina

Max Perkins (1884-1947) Born: New York, New York. Buried: Lakeview Cemetery, New Canaan, Connecticut. Snapdragon Inn, 26 Main Street, Windsor, Vermont. College: Harvard

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) Looking Backward (1888) Born: Chicopee, Hampden, Massachusetts. Buried: Fairview Cemetery, Chicopee, Hampden, Massachusetts. Edward Bellamy House, 91-93 Church Street, Chicopee, Hampden, Massachusetts. The Bradbury Building, 304 South Broadway, Los Angeles, California. College: Union.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) Lord Jim (1900) Born: Berdychiv, Ukraine. Buried: Canterbury Cemetery, Canterbury, Kent, England. Museum of Joseph Conrad, Voikova Street, Berdychiv, Ukraine. "Joseph Conrad" (ship), Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut.

R. D. Blackmore (1825-1900) Lorna Doone (1869) Born: Old Rectory, Longworth, Oxfordshire, England. Buried: Teddington Cemetery, Teddington, Middlesex (London), England. Doone Valley, Exmoor National Park, Somerset, England. College: Exeter (Oxford)
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) Born and Buried: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, Dutchess, New York. (This is quite a complex, including 3 houses, the library, grounds, etc.  Franklin Roosevelt Memorial, 1850 West Basin Drive SW, Washington, District of Columbia. Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, New York, New York. Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk and Beach, Staten Island, Richmond, New York. College: Harvard.

Macbeth (1005-1057) Buried: St Oran's Cemetery, Iona, Argyll and Bute, Scotland.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) Madame Bovary (1857) Born: Musee Flaubert et d'Histoire de la Medecine, 51 Rue de Lecat, Rouen, Normandie, France (*****6-26-99*****) Buried: Rouen Cemetery, Rouen, Normandie, France (*****6-26-99*****) Pont Gustave Flaubert, Rouen, Normandie, France.

Charlotte Underwood (1914-1978)

Theophile Gautier (1811-1872) Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) Born: Rue Brauhauban, Tarbes, Guyenne & Gascony, France. Buried: Cimitiere de Montmarte, 18eme, Paris, Ile, France.

Frans Sillanpaa (1888-1964) The Maid Silja (1931) Born: Hameenkyro, Finland. Buried: Hameenkyro Vanha Hautausmaa, Hameenkyro, Finland. College: Helsinki. 

Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) The Maid's Tragedy (1610) Born: Manor House, Grace-Dieu, Thringstone, Leicestershire, England. Buried: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London, England. College: Pembroke (Oxford)

John Fletcher (1579-1625) The Maid's Tragedy (1610) Born: Ancient Rectory, Rye, Sussex, England. Buried: Southwark Cathedral, Southwark, London, England. College: Corpus Christi (Cambridge)

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) Born: Baltimore, Maryland. Buried: Loudon Park Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. H. L. Mencken House, 1524 Rollins Street, Baltimore, Maryland (not currently open).

Charles Laughton (1899-1962) Born: The Victoria Hotel, Westborough, Scarborough, Yorkshire, England. Buried: Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, California.

Agnes Moorehead (1900-1974) Born: Clinton, Worcester, Massachusetts. Buried: Dayton Memorial Park, Dayton, Ohio. College: Muskingum.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke (1893-1964) Born: Lye, Worcestershire, England. Buried: Golders Green Crematorium, Golders Green, London, England. College: Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Charles Boyer (1899-1978) Born: Figeac, Lot, Quercy, France. Buried: Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City, Los Angeles, California. Kasbah des Oudaias, Rabat, Morocco. College: Sorbonne

Tyrone Power (1914-1958) Born: Cincinnati, Ohio. Buried: Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

February 2018

A List: Dickens--Martin Chuzzlewit.................................420/841
B List: Between books
C List: Harry Dolan--Very Bad Men.................................178/412

Going kind of leisurely through Martin Chuzzlewit. Parts of it I like, they are more or less characteristic Dickens in their humor, romance, high-spiritedness and so on, but then there are other parts--namely those with the undertaker and Mrs Gamp and that scene--that aren't making much of an impression on me. This is also on the IWE list, albeit probably 20 years away. Not so clear anymore that I'm going to make it that long. Nonetheless I expect to read it again and more closely, so I am getting what I can out of this reading and not sweating over it too much.

Harry Dolan is a writer in the crime genre. His books are praised, but I don't know if I'm going to finish this one. This kind of writing is too lacking in any sort of distinct or interesting voice for me. There's no kick to it, no poignancy, no absorption in the story. I don't think there will be too many more books of this kind anyway.

It's been a tough winter. After going through a period last year where I feel like I was happy, I have had a lot of anxiety because of that stupid kidney stone. I'm embarrassed to say that even though I am over it and feel fine, I am convinced that now that something has happened to me, the floodgates must be open and I am going to be imminently overwhelmed with medical problems that will prevent me from ever living my old normal life again. I am avoiding any further medical attention now that the immediate crisis has passed, because if you let them look hard enough they will convince you there is something wrong with you. I imagine now that I was impossibly happy my whole life before all of this happened (which obviously is not true) and that I will never be able to be happy again (which may be true). If I can hang on for 2 and a half weeks I am going to go to Florida, which is a trip I need desperately, as I haven't even been farther than Massachusetts since this time last year, and I've never gone this long without taking some road trip since I moved up here. I am counting a lot on this trip to restore me somewhat to feeling like my old self again, which probably is unrealistic, but maybe it will once I get there. There are still people older than me who are very active and travel and do all kinds of things. There should be hope.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Henry James--The Awkward Age (1899)

The literary editors of the Illustrated World Encyclopedia write in their introduction to this book that "To the student of the novel almost no novel can be more important than The Awkward Age." This book is widely considered to belong to the transitional phase of James's later career that culminated in the three final masterpieces of the first half-decade of the twentieth century, The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. It seems to me after reading it that it can be characterized pretty safely with this group, all of which I have at least read through, with varying degrees of success, The Golden Bowl being the one I would consider to have been the most satisfactory experience, in that it is the one I found the least wearying to get through. Given my longtime aspirations to be acceptably well-versed in literature above any other area of study, these great late Henry James novels have always been something of an obstacle to my satisfaction on this point. I have been convinced by enough of those Who Really Know of the importance, masterful construction, and, perhaps rarest of all, the highly satisfying mature intelligence at work in them, that to not be fully immersed in the experience of all of these qualities in the course of one's reading is to be dogged by a persistent sense of failure that one is ultimately unable to overcome. It is like keeping up in a difficult course at school. The determination may be there at the beginning and the persistence may not flag entirely, but once you lose the thread in any part there is no keeping up and it is impossible to fully rejoin the pursuit with any degree of mastery because everything significant in the story is dependent on and follows precisely from the various difficult and opaque scenes that have accumulated before it.

Keeping in mind that James's high seriousness and maturity are the qualities his fans admire above all, I nonetheless fell compelled to make a note that this was an actual paragraph in the book (p.91):

"The old man had got up to take his cup from Vanderbank, whose hand, however, dealt with him on the question of sitting down again. Mr Longdon, resisting, kept erect with a low gasp that his host only was near enough to catch. This suddenly appeared to confirm an impression gathered by Vanderbank in their contact, a strange sense that his visitor was so agitated as to be trembling in every limb. It brought to his lips a kind of ejaculation--'I say!'"

p. 96 Another classic Henry James sentence:

"Poor Mitchy's face hereupon would have been interesting, would have been distinctly touching to other eyes; but Nanda's were not heedful of it."

The prominent blogger Tyler Cowen once opined that Dostoevsky had become tiresome to read in our time because his concerns were not our concerns (though I don't think I personally qualify as part of the collective "our" referenced here). I often find myself having to ask "Are Henry James's?"

p. 173 On the salon-like atmosphere Mrs Brookenham's:

"The men, the young and the clever ones, find it a house--and heaven knows they're right--with intellectual elbow-room, with freedom of talk. Most English talk is like a quadrille in a sentry box. You'll tell me we go further in Italy, and I won't deny it, but in Italy we have the common-sense not to have little girls in the room."

It certainly seems as if our time is suffering for a lack of "intellectual elbow-room".

p. 281 "The pause she thus momentarily produced was so intense as to give a sharpness that was almost vulgar to the little "Oh!" by which it was presently broken and the source of which neither of her three companions could afterwards in the least have named. Neither would have endeavoured to fix an indecency of which each doubtless had been but too capable."

My comment on the above passage: "Subtle, oh yes, but at some point you wouldn't mind seeing a neutron bomb detonated in the middle of these people."

p. 309 "Edward's gloom on this was not yet blankness, yet it was dense."

I am groaning at this point.

As I have mentioned somewhere in these blogs, I was afflicted by a kidney stone around the middle of this book, and the accompanying abdominal pain made it impossible to read for several days until I was put on some opioid pain medicine, which I actually found to be a great aid to concentration on the book during the days I was on it leading up to my operation. I don't what it says for Henry James however that the optimal conditions for enjoying his later work in the 21st century may be to be hopped up on painkillers and largely confined to bed for the better part of a week.

I have not generally found editions of most Henry James novels from my preferred 1920-1970 period to be especially thrilling, so I opted to go with a fairly recent (1993) reprint from the Everyman series. This included a 25 page introduction by Cynthia Ozick which I read about a page of before determining that I was not going to find it helpful to understanding the book any more than I actually did.

By completing this I have now come to the end of the literary classics selection for volume 2 of the encyclopedia, as well as finally coming to the end of the "A" titles. It took slightly more than four years to accomplish this, though the "As" do represent about 10% of the entire list. I am still on pace to not finish the entire list until I am 83 however, so eventually I am going to have to pick it up a little. I believe once my children are older--I still have a two year old at the moment--that I will be able to do that.

The Challenge

1. Joe Hill--Twentieth Century Ghosts...........................................................474
2. Father Jonathan Morris--The Promise........................................................146
3. Michelle Paige Holmes--Yesterday's Promise...........................................116
4. Arthur Conan Doyle--The Return of Sherlock Holmes................................88
5. Petra ten-doesschate Chu--Nineteenth Century European Art....................28
6. Steven Levingston--Kennedy and King.......................................................26
7. Elizabeth Bowen--The Hotel.........................................................................7
8. Henry C Dethloff & John A. Adams--Texas Aggies Go to War...................1
9. Genderuwo (movie).......................................................................................0
10. Eric Harrison & Kendall Johnson--Critical Companion to Henry James...0
11. Henry James's Europe: Heritage and Transfer (ed. Harding).....................0
12. Miss Desirable--A Little Bit of Taani...........................................................0

1st Round

#5 Chu over #12 Desirable

I'm not sure if Desirable is an actual book or not.

#6 Levingston over #11 Henry James's Europe
#7 Bowen over #10 Harrison and Johnson

It's tough to earn a win coming in with 0 points against any kind of remotely serious book.

#9 Genderuwo over #8 Dethloff and Adams

Genderuwo is a 2007 Indonesian film that is all accounts quite dismal, but it has an upset on reserve in its account for this tournament.

Final 8

#1 Hill over #9 Genderuwo
#7 Bowen over #2 Morris

Father Morris is a regular contributor to Fox News, mainly as an authority on religious matters. He is also a campus minister at Columbia University, for what it's worth. Bowen's book, though not exceptionally well known, at least in this country, seems to be considered to have literary value. A handsome edition of it was published by the University of Chicago press in 2012.

#3 Holmes over #6 Levingston

None of Holmes's books are carried by any libraries, presumably because she is a romance novelist. But she had an upset coming in the tournament.

#4 Doyle over #5 Chu

The literary blue blood Doyle prevails over the game art expert in a well-played match.

Final Four

#1 Hill over #7 Bowen

The 45 year old author Joe Hill, a native of Bangor, Maine, seems to be the relatively incognito son of mega best-selling author Stephen King. My inclination would have been to favor Bowen's neglected-but-in-some-quarters-respected novel here but those designated upsets come into play.

#4 Doyle over #3 Holmes

Amusing coincidence in the name of Doyle's opponent.


#1 Hill over #4 Doyle

In overtime. Doyle does have at least two books on the official list, The Hound of the Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet, so he will not be neglected. The main purpose of the whole "C" list being to expose myself to more contemporary or neglected literature and authors where plausible, Hill seems plausible enough to get the victory here.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

January 2018

A List: Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit.............................157/841
B List: Between books at present
C List: Knausgaard, Volume 4..................................................464/502

Still trying to finish a report for the B list.

This is a new Dickens for me, and so far it seems to me a worthy enough addition to his oeuvre. The humor and the ingenious hyperbolic sentences and descriptions are as prominent and entertaining as ever. I don't know whether it is because I am too distracted when I read these A-list books or not but I am having a little trouble getting immersed enough to keep the thread of the plot and the various relationships and romantic interests straight. This may also be the reason however why this particular book is not usually considered with the top rank of Dickens's novels, as it otherwise shares what I usually find to be their best characteristics.

When I was reading the Henry James that absorbed so much of my mental energy that I largely put Knausgaard aside for several weeks. However on picking him up again in the interval between B books I have been able to come near to finishing it pretty quickly. My opinion on him is consistent with what I have written elsewhere. He is interesting enough and smart enough that I keep reading him, obviously, though the action is really quite commonplace and doesn't lead to anything Important or mind-changing, which I suppose is what he are supposed to be looking for. This volume centers on Knausgaard's teenage years, and at 18 he has still not successfully completed coitus with a woman, but he has been in bed naked with a lot of women, five or six at least, and made out with several more. He was definitely part of the sensual world with opportunities bursting upon him at seemingly every turn. (I was not. I was not. I was not. I was not. I was not. I wa.........)

I probably won't be getting to volume 5 for a while now, as I have 3 C-list books waiting in the queue, plus I got a modern book for Christmas that I intend to try to read in the Knausgaard spot, i.e., when I come to a point where I have finished a C-list book without the next one lined up.



Out of time this month.

Friday, December 8, 2017

December 2017

I am a couple of days late with this month's check-in. The 6th was my 20th anniversary, and yesterday I was very tired. My reading has also slowed a bit due to the nature of some of the works, but you still make some progress even doing a minimal amount every day.

A List: George Eliot--Silas Marner............................................................106/134
B List: Hank James--The Awkward Age.....................................................130/393
C List: Knausgaard, Volume 4...................................................................164/502

It is my first time for all of these. Silas Marner is different from what I was expecting, and I am not entirely sure what I make of it yet. It is well-plotted and is a fairly good read to this point, except for the parts when she has rustics speaking in dialect. I still do not foresee the conclusions of the various threads of the plot. It is a moral work, and one that thus far seems to me to adhere pretty closely to standard 19th century Protestant attitudes, coming down against dishonesty, especially in one's dealings with the community, and profligacy, though the other extreme of profligacy, miserliness, is contrasted with as something of an overreaction, if not quite as utterly wicked.

I write a lot here about my need increasingly to be well-rested and fairly when reading certain authors, most of whom seem to be Victorians of one kind or another, though whether this is due to age, a continuous lack of good sleep, or the effects of the internet and other developments of modern life rotting my brain, I don't know. Henry James of course, especially in his later period (and while in the Awkward Age he has not fully arrived there, it is perhaps the key novel in the transition to it), is the king of writers who require a clear mind and an hour or two with no serious distractions to read with any comprehension. After the first couple of days I had to give up reading him at the end of the day entirely, because it was impossible. I have read a lot of Henry James over the years--eight or nine of the longer novels, a couple of stories, two novelettes (I'm counting Aspern Papers and Turn of the Screw in this category), The Art of Fiction--and I have developed a certain affection for him, though he can be very precious, especially in his much-loved (by very serious and mentally sophisticated people) later books. So far the entire novel of The Awkward Age consists of people sitting in drawing rooms testing each other with conversations and expressions refined to a microscopically fine subtlety. It doesn't look like any other setting or kind of action is going to be introduced any time soon, though the scene does shift every thirty pages or so to a different day and a different drawing room and different combinations of people. I want to like it, and depending on how receptive my mind is on a given day I generally do like it, but the truth, or more to the point, the higher truth and necessity of the later James continues to ultimately elude me I fear.

I started the Knausgaard in the interval between the B-List books while doing the Oliver Wendell Holmes write-up, but I've largely put it down for the past week in order to devote my limited energy to wrestling with the James. Thus far I feel largely the same about him as I have noted here in other postings, I like the books, the writing is personable and intelligent and it really does take me back to my own teen-age years, which, while I admit my prejudice, definitely strike me as a freer and more fun time to be a teenager than now, as well as more conducive to extended concentration and thinking, however unfavorably that period compared to epochs that had come before it. How much time did we used to spend listening to the same ten record albums over and over? This is certainly something people don't do any more.

I was going to put up an old picture commemorating my 20th anniversary, which would not be horribly out of place among these other pictures of beautiful young people, but I didn't get around to it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Oliver Wendell Holmes--The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)

While I liked it, I have to say this is an odd book to take up in 2017. I'm not sure that I will remember anything about it a week from now other than such things as have a direct resonance with me--in this instance the importance of breeding and the need in a young man to have a tireless ambition and drive. Much of the other incidental stuff was not terribly vivid to my mind. Writing in the 1960s, the IWE editor says of the book that it "is generally considered Holmes's masterpiece (which suggests the presence of other contenders. I have actually read his equally florid novel Elsie Venner, if that is one of the contenders the writer has in mind). The introduction goes on to say that "The humor, urbanity, iconoclasm and scholarship of the essays are almost unique for their times and are timeless, being as good reading today as then." As a indicator of how much times have changed, it is almost impossible for me to imagine anyone with credibility saying anything like this today. Once again one is reminded of the question I have often had occasion to ask here, where have all the old Yankee/WASPs gone, even in New England? There were still some around in my youth in the 80s, and in books and articles about the region even from that time the character is still highly prominent compared to now. Have those that are left gone way underground (or over-ground, as the case may be)?

The copy of the book that I bought (online) was a special boxed edition published in 1955 by the Heritage Press of Norwalk, Connecticut, with an introduction by Holmes' fellow super-Brahmin Van Wyck Brooks and nostalgia-inducing pen and ink illustrations by R. J. Holden. It is noted in the introduction that no less a figure than Henry James, Sr (father of the famous philosopher and novelist brothers) called Holmes "the most intellectually alive man I ever knew". Indeed, Holmes's mind was by all accounts the type which the higher sort of formal education once sought to cultivate, yet it is hard to imagine him being broadly admired in this way today, mainly because of his race/gender/caste/ethnicity combination, since his primary sins (social and intellectual snobbery, ethnic chauvinism) are not exactly absent among the classes correspondent to his today, though it seems to be a more intolerable trait when found in a person like Holmes. There is also the problem that however impressive his mind was to his contemporaries, it led him to hold a lot of social views that are not currently held to possess much intelligence, let alone any other value, which naturally throws the quality of the other facets of his mind under suspicion.

It is noted that the takedown of Holmes and the other old Yankee writers began at least as far back as Mencken and the rise of ethnic America, which I guess would include my people, a period now a century in the past.

After the Brooks introduction there are three prefaces written by Holmes himself for each of the three editions that came out in his lifetime, the original in 1858, the later ones in 1882 and 1891, at which latter dates Holmes was 82 years old. These prefaces are consistent in their emphases on technological and scientific progress, which were of course immense over the course of his career (1831-91, roughly, as well as social progress, which he hinted in 1891 of having expectations of great changes in that area in the 20th century, though he did not speculate on the specific forms they might take). He was progressive and elitist at the same time, his progressivism taking the form of believing in the possibility of uplifting the unenlightened peoples of the world to the Anglo-Saxon level, or some facsimile of it. I wrote "we'll see if he lists his views on the potential/proper role for women in the book proper." I don't recall anything worth noting on this matter coming on, but that is why I take notes, because I remember very little of what I read.

p. 1 "We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead of figures." Of course I want to believe this. Whatever it is, something is missing from the data driven understanding of existence as concerns achieving some sense of wholeness as a human being
p. 4 On the virtue of mutual admiration societies of high achieving males: "Foolish people hate and dread and envy such an association of men of varied power and influence, because it is lofty, serene, impregnable, and, by the necessity of the case, exclusive." Do foolish people have a choice in the matter, so far as their essential foolishness can be effected?

I am already noting at this early stage that the book looks to be extremely quotable throughout. Then I wrote that the thinking people (illegible) who have (illegible) lost their taste for this sort of writing seem to think/live after a similar manner.
It's hard to get a cute girl picture to come up in a search for OWH Autocrat, etc, but this Boston duck boat driver will do.

I write my illegible notes in the book in pencil, in which I am hindered by the circumstance that my pencil sharpener does not evenly sharpen the pencils and makes them difficult to write with. I know that there are myriad easy ways to correct this situation, but nothing is really easy with me when it comes to trying to carry out some semblance of the life of the mind. I will never quite permanently solve my pencil problem, or my note taking problem, or my slow writing problem, or any other minor and irritating problem that besets me.

I forgot about when Holmes by way of establishing the mental climate out of which the book arose, introduced it as a world where most people listened to a hundred sermons a year.

Holmes likes a man of family. This hurts for me, since a lot of the more intelligent modern people seem to like that too, and the family that I came out of at least doesn't seem to excite anybody very much. He reverts to this theme several times in the course of the book, lamenting m├ęsalliances in marriage between people whose backgrounds and breeding are not well matched. "No. my friends, I go (always, other things being equal) for the man who inherits family traditions and the cumulative humanities of at least four or five generations."

p. 43 "The woman who calc'lates is lost...Put not your trust in money, but put your money in trust." On matrimony. My poor wife trusted...So much so that she has said that if she were ever to remarry, it would only be for money.

p. 45 "Except in cases of necessity, which are rare, leave your friend to learn unpleasant truths from his enemies; they are ready enough to tell them."

p. 46 "Therefore conversation which is suggestive rather than argumentative, which lets out the most of each talker's results of thought, is commonly the pleasantest and the most profitable." Yes, but we must be convinced that our interlocutor is not an absolute dunce who is even capable of saying anything worth our listening to, which is rare in our time.

p. 54 "How many people live on the reputation of the reputation they might have made!" Not many anymore I wouldn't think. We've set ourselves with some dedication to snuffing out that kind of conceit.

p. 54 "When one of us who has been led by native vanity or senseless flattery to think himself or herself possessed of talent arrives at the full and final conclusion that he or she is really dull, it is one of the most tranquillizing and blessed convictions that can enter a mortal's mind." Yes and no. It may be liberating to an extent for the non-genius himself to realize his limitations, and it is certainly applauded by all the people who were annoyed by his ridiculous pretensions, but the people he has close relationships with who rely on him to some degree do not happily welcome the definitive proof that their fortunes are chained to a dullard with little prospect of improvement.

This is essentially the edition of the book I have, though instead of this teapot I have a red rectangle with a gold border and the initials O.W.H. imprinted on the field in gold letters.

p.58 There was a reference to news from India which was unclear to me, but a little research indicates that he must be referring to the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. I am so conditioned to assume that insightful and adroit minds even in the past must have at some level been suspicious of the virtues of European colonialism (and certainly some were), that I thought that perhaps Holmes's references to unidentified women and children being outraged and babies being killed were oblique statements against British conduct, and that his referring to the Indians as the inferior race was ironic. But no, he was taking the pro-English position all the way.

Holmes ascribes powers to genuine (high) poetry and its relations/interactions with human souls that may contain some truth, but are largely foreign to the way almost everyone intelligent experiences life now.

He also makes an interesting mechanical comparison of the making of a poem to that of a fine violin, that time is necessary to dry out and fit together the many parts of which it is composed to produce the grand effect.

p. 146 I like the account of his morning rowing around Boston.

Holmes's own poems are interspersed throughout the book. They are for the most part not very good, difficult to read and scant on impressions and images. There are two poems that are moderately famous, or used to be, "The Chambered Nautilus", and "The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay", the latter a comic poem, that are markedly better than the rest.

p. 171 Holmes on people who smile stupidly for no good reason in social interactions: " is evident that the consciousness of some imbecility or other is at the bottom of this extraordinary expression. I don't think, however, that these persons are commonly fools. I have known a number, and all of them were intelligent. I think nothing conveys the idea of underbreeding more than this self-betraying smile." Underbreeding seems to me a useful concept that is not discussed nearly enough in our time.

He muses on how "there is no looking glass for the voice", such that people have no real sense of the sound of their own voices, and how pleasant it would be to be able to inhabit another form and be able to observe oneself speaking and moving. (Of course the technology to do this had not yet been developed in the 1850s). 

There is a long and pleasant section about the trees of New England which is perhaps of greater interest if one happens to live here. Holmes notes many particular favorites and claims to "have as many tree-wives as Brigham Young has human ones." The loss of our elm trees was such a blow to New England's historical character. Holmes mentions them extensively, as does almost everyone who writes about the region prior to World War II.

Holmes sees the English and American varieties of elms as characteristic of the creative force of the respective countries. The English he describes as "compact, robust, holds its branches up, and carries its leaves for weeks longer than our own native tree", and the American as "tall, graceful, slender-sprayed, and drooping as if from languor." How this is related to the creative force of America especially I am hazy on.

pp. 261-2 "Qu'est-ce qu'il a fait? What has he done? That was Napoleon's test...Is a young man in the habit of writing verses? Then the presumption is that he is an inferior person. For...there are at least nine chances in ten that he writes poor verses." Common knowledge (sort of) now, but worth being reminded of and impressed on the young.

p. 279 "One's breeding shows itself nowhere more than in his religion."

If you have stuck out this post to this point, I thank you and consider you a true friend. I may not exactly be a tortured soul, but I do feel that I never quite made it as a fully accepted member of the educated classes, and I am lonely in my interests.

The Challenge
1. M. R. Carey--The Girl With All the Gifts.......................................................2,525
2. Haraki Murakami--1Q84................................................................................1,687
3. Tana French--The Secret Place.......................................................................1,663
4. Rachel Macy Stafford--Hands Free Mama.......................................................326
5. Jay Winik--1944: FDR & the Year That Changed History...............................301
6. Rachel Macy Stafford--Hands Free Life...........................................................222
7. D. H. Lawrence--Women In Love......................................................................147
8. John Whyte--Is This Normal? The Essential Guide to Middle Age & Beyond...35
9. Kathleen Ann Goonan--In War Times.................................................................28
10. Germany 1945: The Last Months of the War......................................................0

A small, but pretty strong field for our game, with seven 100+ scoring entrants and the top three seeds all north of 1,500!

1st Round

#7 Lawrence over #10 Germany

The Germany book appears to be a bilingual coffee table book of photographs that was published in Germany and has had no U.S. release. I read Women In Love, which does not appear on the IWE list and therefore qualifies for the Challenge, as the second book on my "A" list way back in December of 1994. It was not my favorite book at the time, though a few years later when I was about 28 I read The Rainbow, which preceded it and follows many of the same characters, and liked it very much, though I don't know if I would feel the same about that one if I read it now either.

#9 Goonan over #8 Whyte.

A close battle. The book about aging was not tempting enough to me to give it the edge here.

Final Eight

#9 Goonan over #1 Carey

Carey is a dreaded genre book. Also my library didn't have it.

#7 Lawrence over #2 Murakami

I was a little excited about the Murakami, which seems to have the status of a contemporary instant classic, but at 925 pages and with a tough matchup in its first game, it falls.

#6 Stafford over #3 French

French is a mega-genre writer, and her book is long. Plus Rachel Macy Stafford is a Generation X (b. 1972) supermom/superwife, Southern Christian variety, and what is not to like about that (if you're me)?

#4 Stafford over #5 Winik

While I acknowledge I have a crush on Rachel Macy Stafford, that is not the whole reason why she triumphs here over a major history. The 1,027 page length of the competitor's offering was what mainly killed it. Jay Winik has a demonstrated fondness for identifying years or even months that changed everything and writing books about them. Another title of his is April 1865: The Month That Saved America.

Final Four

#9 Goonan over #4 Stafford
#7 Lawrence over #6 Stafford

I was feeling guilty about passing over so much literature.


#9 Goonan over #7 Lawrence

Upset special. The Goonan is another science fiction book, which I have not have good experiences with so far (ed--apart from the Ray Bradbury book; I liked a lot of those stories), but I am willing to give it another try.