Monday, December 22, 2014

Books Read, 2014

Books! Books! I read a lot of books this year. I will attempt to say a few words about a few of them, as if I am delivering a eulogy, apparently. Though few of these books are dead despite the less-than-ideal physical condition of many of their authors. I digress.

Chekhov and Shakespeare are always a delight; I wish I'd read more Shakespeare but we saw a good number of plays performed so I don't feel deprived. We're seeing "Three Sisters" in January sometime, and that'll be swell I am sure. I continue to digress.

The Confessions of St Augustine was well worth reading again, after lo so many years. It was instructive to see how his initial difficulties with faith were based upon fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of God, rather than differences with actual Christian theology. He was repulsed by his imagined God that was nothing like the God of Christianity. One encounters this sort of unintentional straw-manning all the time.

I seem to have been heavily influenced this year by Tom at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Tom invited people to read along with him through the great Russian novel chain of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevky's wacky What is to be Done?, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. I kept going on past these books, reading The Devils (a lot of fun though less mad, perhaps, than it's made out to be) and finding some connections between all of this and Anton Chekhov's story "An Attack of Nerves." So I've had a good time with the old Russians this year. Next year I'll read Chekhov's nonfiction book about the prison colonies of Sakhalin Island. At that point I will have run out of Chekhov. Perhaps next year I'll finish reading all of Shakespeare's plays, too. I've read most of them by now. I think I have eight left. We'll see. Another digression.

Tom of Wuthering Expectations also read Robert Browning's masterpiece The Ring and the Book, and his posts led me to also read it, and I don't exaggerate when I say that it was a life-changing event. A long and difficult book in verse, full of all sorts of surprises and delights and horrors too, yes. Excellent.

This year I discovered Danish author Henrik Pontoppidan, and I read two of his novels including his long brilliant Lucky Per, which you should read if you can find it at a library (or if you can spare the $50 to buy a copy). I have an early Pontoppidan novel on the shelf at home, waiting to be read. Maybe in 2015. Lucky Per is great stuff.

I want to read more Latin/South American books in 2015, and more Japanese books, and more poetry. I also have a lot of Ruskin waiting in the wings to be read next year, which is good to know. Comforting. More French books, more African books. More of everything.

Mighty Reader and I have briefly discussed a simultaneous reading of Proust's In Search of Lost Time novels, tentatively over the summer. She read the whole thing a couple of years ago, and I've only read Swann's Way but have long meant to read all of it. The fly in the ointment of that plan is that we'd need to purchase a second set of the seven novels to accommodate two readers. Are we that mad? Maybe.

I continue to read mostly old books. I don't know quite why that is; I follow the scent of the reading and it leads me where it will. It's all discovery, and very little intent.

And now, the dull as dirt actual list:

William Shakespeare The Tragedy of Richard II
Angela Thirkell August Folly
Charles Dickens Bleak House
Michelle Argyle Catch
D.H. Lawrence Sons and Lovers
Henrik Pontoppidan The Apothecary's Daughters
Michelle Argyle Out of Tune
Leo Tolstoy Cossacks
Hans Christian Andersen Tales
Ivan Turgenev Fathers and Sons
Henrik Pontoppidan Lucky Per
Thomas Bernhard Concrete
John Ruskin The Stones of Venice (abr.)
St Augustine of Hippo Confessions
Reinhold Messner My Life at the Limit
Nikolai Chernyshevsky What is to be Done?
Rebecca West The Return of the Soldier
Cesar Aira Ghosts
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Memories of My Melancholy Whores
Benito Perez Galdos My Friend Manso
Angela Thirkell Summer Half
Fyodor Dostoevsky Notes From Underground
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 9 (trans. Garnett)
Francois Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 5 (trans. Garnett)
Anton Chekhov Tales of Chekhov, Vol 2 (trans. Garnett)
Franz Kafka The Trial
John Cowper Powys Weymouth Sands
Iris Murdoch The Sea, The Sea
Harold Bloom The Anxiety of Influence
Yasunari Kawabata The Sound of the Mountain
Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Devils
Felisberto Hernandez Piano Stories
Michael Hearn (ed.) The Victorian Fairy Tale Book
Graham Greene The Heart of the Matter
Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Ann Dunnigan, trans.
Anton Chekhov The Shooting Party
Angela Thirkell High Rising
Heinrich Boll Billiards at Half-Past Nine
Gabriel Garcia Marquez Collected Stories
Henri Troyat Daily Life in Russia Under the Last Tsar
Robert Browning The Ring and the Book
Benito Perez Galdos Nazarin
Saul Bellow Henderson the Rain King
Orhan Pamuk Snow
James Joyce Dubliners
Anton Chekhov Three Sisters
Knut Hamsun Mysteries
Elie Wiesel Night
E.T.A. Hoffmann The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr
Wilkie Collins The Woman in White
William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet
Robert Browning The Shorter Poems*
John R.R. Tolkein The Hobbit*

There are some pretty good books in that list.

* As I write this post, I'm still reading these two books, but I assume I'll have finished both of them by the end of the month. They are short books and I have over a week, after all.

Friday, December 19, 2014

I Saw Lightning Fall: An Advent Ghosts Story


We waited, reading the heavens. He's coming, I said. Polly held my hand. We were protected by scarves, mittens, hats and overcoats. He's coming, Polly said. It was a moonless night: the million stars aflame within the black. I see the Mikky Way, Polly whispered. She was only four. She raised a hand and pointed to a dazzling movement of starlight high in the east. There he is! This racing glittering thing was followed by another, and then dozens burst forth, arcing swiftly down to strike against the earth. A host of burning white cities mushroomed into the Christmas sky.

[This is my contribution to Loren Eaton's annual "Advent Ghosts" shared storytelling event.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A drop of sweet sorrow within the fallen world: Romeo and Juliet

The Verona of "Romeo and Juliet" is a violent, pornographic world in which wealthy young men (and their servants) stalk the streets, armed with swords and spoiling for deadly combat to fan the flames of ancient feuds while making obscene puns with every breath, claiming that all men are lechers and all women are bawds. Their elders would end this long-running mafia-style warfare, and have even forbidden the combat, but they cannot control the sex-and-violence-obsessed wealthy young men. Fathers lock up their daughters, making them socially available only during chaperoned parties and church services. The prince of Verona and the working classes are all sick of these rich families, sick of them committing murders in the streets, sick of them treating the city as a debauched playground. But even the prince's own man runs with the Montague gang, bragging of sexual exploits and making endless filthy jokes. Verona is the Fallen World, a sinful world, a cynical world where innocence exists merely to be mocked and defiled. It is within this awful city of Verona that William Shakespeare has trapped the innocents named Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. They will attempt to live in a different Verona, a pure city hidden inside the depraved city. As the opening prologue tells us, they will fail.

Romeo begins the play as one of the disaffected violent young men, son of one of the merchant families who have grown to become more powerful, maybe, than the nobles who "rule" Verona. Romeo spends much of his time alone, brooding, as does his cousin Benvolio. They are bored young men, rich and without occupations; no wonder they roam Verona looking for sex and death. Romeo, however, will rebel against this disaffected lifestyle and stand away from his friends when he meets and falls in love with Juliet. Much critical ink has been spilled already about Juliet and Romeo's separateness from the decay around them, the poisonous air of Verona.

What's Shakespeare getting at here? I am tempted to read the play as a condemnation of the rising merchant class and the lowered respect given to the nobility. The prince would have order, if anyone listened to him. Count Paris would have Juliet for a wife, if that ratbastard merchant's son Romeo hadn't wooed her already. The priest would have us believe that words have meaning, that the word of the law and the word of God insist upon order, but the young men of Verona speak in puns and double-meaning because even language--even the intention behind any given thought--can be transgressed, violated. When we laugh at the jokes, are we implicating ourselves in the fall of civilization? Maybe that's all too much. Maybe Shakespeare just used what he found, and "Romeo and Juliet" was well-known to English audiences when Shakespeare took it up. Maybe the play's version of Verona is so foul because Shakespeare thought it was funny to write it that way, and the dislocation of Romeo and Juliet within that foul Verona exists only because the playwright wanted to preserve the possibility of sentimentality in telling the lovers' part of the tale.

Am I going to quote anything here? No, I am not going to quote anything here. I'm reading the Pelican edition, edited and with notes by Peter Holland.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's a Man's Man's Man's World

I'm quite far along with Wilkie Collins' 1860 sensationalist novel The Woman in White. Observations: titles and social graces will be routinely mistaken for good morals and trustworthiness; women are the victims and servants of men, who get things done; foreigners are not to be trusted (and the middle classes are the Strength of England); when a man recovers from a serious illness, he gains fortitude but when a woman recovers from a serious illness, she is left forever weakened; have I mentioned that foreigners ain't no damned good?

Count Fosco is a great invention, a truly magnificent character. Mr Fairlie is also delightful, and the more socially blinkered of the supporting cast are finely drawn and ironically comic. Good stuff, Wilkie. I'd like to have a look at the original case that inspired Woman in White. The plot twists and labyrinthine machinations of the villains could begin to strain credulity, but that's part of the fun. "No way, Collins! Who believes that?"

Here's a bit from Mr Fairlie's narrative:
Louis suddenly made his appearance with a card in his hand.

"Another Young Person?" I said. "I won't see her. In my state of health Young Persons disagree with me. Not at home."

"It is a gentleman this time, sir."

A gentleman of course made a difference. I looked at the card.

Gracious Heaven! my tiresome sister's foreign husband, Count Fosco.

Is it necessary to say what my first impression was when I looked at my visitor's card? Surely not! My sister having married a foreigner, there was but one impression that any man in his senses could possibly feel. Of course the Count had come to borrow money of me.

"Louis," I said, "do you think he would go away if you gave him five shillings?"

Friday, December 5, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

There in your hand is the paper that offers you perpetual choking mouthfuls of country breeze for four months' time: The Woman in White

I'm reading the 1950 Dolphin edition of Wilkie Collins' sensation novel The Woman in White. The paper in this edition is wonderful, really quite fine, but I come here to quote the sales copy on the back cover:
The curious narrative of The Woman in White is gradually unfolded through the diaries, letters and memoranda of several characters. Its plot was taken from a dilapidated volume of French criminal cases that Wilkie Collins found while browsing with Charles Dickens through a Paris bookstall.
Why, it's The Ring and the Book!

Well, maybe not quite. Browning's epic poem is a masterpiece; Collins' novel, while entertaining, is not a great book. A pretty good book and worth reading, yes, but not great. Like Dickens, Collins gives us instantly memorable minor characters but earnest and lifeless protagonists. I have no idea why these main characters are generally relegated to being story-telling devices rather than something more like humans, but that's the way of it. Man-shaped lenses, but not men, that's what Dickens and Collins wrote. Still and all, it's mostly delightful fluff and I'm pleased to finally be actually reading it.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thus, the Croyden publican buys the iron railing, to make himself more conspicuous to drunkards.

A quick trip to MacLeod's Book Shop in gorgeous Vancouver, BC, sends us home with another stack of books, including:

The Seven Lamps of Architecture
The Crown of Wild Olive
Munera Pulveris

all of which were written by John Ruskin, and all of which were purchased in handsome old editions (the last title in an 1872 printing, the first two in volumes printed within a couple of years after Ruskin's death in 1900). MacLeod's is the first shop in which I've been invited to browse "the Ruskin shelf," and where I was also invited to purchase (but did not) a five-volume set of Modern Painters ($250) and an autographed first-edition three-volume set of Stones of Venice ($2000). MacLeod also had an autographed pamphlet from 1880 or so, containing a couple of Ruskin's lectures on politics. We were sorely tempted by the Stones set but not enough this time. Perhaps next year, if MacLeod still has them. We always manage to drop a bundle of cash at MacLeod's whenever we visit Vancouver.

I also picked up John Cowper Powys' Wolf Solent in a decent trade paperback, and Fontane's Effie Briest as well as a couple of nonfiction titles for my own research use. No unfamiliar Chekhov showed itself, nor any interesting editions of other dead Russians.

Vancouver is a lovely and clean city, highly walkable. I am glad, however, that our traveling is done for the year.