Monday, January 23, 2017

Mount TBR #3

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Haunted  House – Charles Dickens

Dickens ran a weekly magazine called All the Year Round. In the Victorian era, magazines catered to the wish of the public for reading aloud ghost stories at Christmas time. So for its Christmas number of 1859, Dickens got some fellow authors to collaborate on a connected tale. The authors we still read today are Elizabeth “North and South” Gaskell and Wilkie “The Woman in White” Collins while the forgotten ones are Hesba Stretton, George Augustus Sala, and Adelaide Anne Proctor.

Dickens himself opens the story by narrating a tale in which a skeptical guy decides to rent a haunted house.  The spooks run off his servants, which gives Dickens a change to strut his comic stuff. It’s very funny though we post-moderns think that Dickens' makes too much fun of female servants. Not giving up, the narrator recruits some friends to stay in the house to rustle up any wraiths or ghouls or spectres. They gather round the fire to recount stories of what happened in their respective rooms.

The stories, however, are not ghost stories of the M.R. James type. Rather, they are well-told tales of wrong-doing, trepidation, or pangs of guilt. Long on atmosphere, short on shades and phantoms. But it’s fun to read nevertheless. There is also the appeal that one is reading neglected, out of the way fiction that the squares don’t even know about. I read this in an edition published by Hesperus Press, which reprints little-known works by famous writers.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day

“Civilization, in fact, grows more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary. Wars are no longer waged by the will of superior men, capable of judging dispassionately and intelligently the causes behind them and the effects flowing out of them. The are now begun by first throwing a mob into a panic; they are ended only when it has spent its ferine fury.”

― H.L. Mencken, In Defense Of Women

maudlin - self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental

clamorous - expressing or characterized by vehement protests or demands.

ferine - wild, feral

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Classics #1

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Audubon - Constance Rourke

This biography of the American bird artist was written for young adults. It won the Newbery Honor Award in 1937. It is not a formal biography because it gives the facts of his life in novelistic form. Written in plain language, it is extremely readable and will help the reader appreciate Audubon’s  contribution to American art. There are no distracting footnotes but the afterward persuades us that Rourke, a folklorist, was assiduous in doing the research with primary sources.

Rourke narrates her subject's journey from his native France to America in 1803, across Pennsylvania and down the Ohio to Kentucky, where he lived for a time after 1808. She gives beautiful descriptions of his trips up and down the Mississippi; to Louisiana, where he lived a few years; various trips to the North and to England, Scotland, and France; to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and to New York where he died in northern Manhattan.  I read this book in the original 1936 edition (I got it from a library) which has a dozen colored plates from original Audubon prints and numerous woodcuts.

Rourke depicts Audubon as a man ready to adapt himself to any challenge of frontier travel in a day when travel involved much travail. His companions were backwoodsmen, loggers, and other roughnecks, but he got along with them just fine because he talked to everybody, wanting to know their story. And people are usually gratified that somebody is interested in their story. Though reserved at first due to his lack of formal education, he learned to get along with the intellectuals and royal types he met in Edinburgh and London. Like Franklin, he was not above using the folksy image for marketing purposes.

The author makes clear that her subject was at his happiest in primeval forests birding  and botanizing and before his easel painting. Also interesting are stories of Audubon’s money problems, the vicious criticism of scurrilous newspaper writers, and his struggles to get subscribers to his first massive work Birds of America. He was also inspired by his family, consisting of two sons and his strong patient wife Lucy, whose pay from a teaching job assisted the family through hard financial times.

Rourke’s tone throughout is quiet and calm, but her style is readable and pleasant. It’s a relaxing book to read, perhaps because of the plain language for the YA target audience. It’s an old-timey biography in the sense that the faults of the subject are only hinted at. Rourke was a folklorist and historian of the American frontier so her information on the social life and culture of Audubon’s time is credible and interesting.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Mount TBR #2

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

From Satchmo to Miles – Leonard Feather

The author was the most respected jazz critic and chronicler after WWII. This book collects magazine profiles of jazz musicians that appeared in monthlies (between the pictorials) such as Playboy and Nugget in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Covered are the greats:

Louis Armstrong
Duke Ellington
Billie Holiday
Ella Fitzgerald
Count Basie
Lester Young
Charlie Parker
Norman Granz (impresario)
Oscar Peterson
Ray Charles
Don Ellis
Miles Davis

As they are articles written at different times, probably under various circumstances, the material is rather uneven. On one hand, before it was a cool stance to take, he rehabilitated Louis Armstrong’s output in the Forties and Fifties, making the fair point that it is rare when a performing artist profoundly influences more than two generations of succeeding artists. He also provides insights on the jazz genius of Holiday, Young, and Parker. But the stories about Ellington and Fitzgerald feel like puff pieces written for an in-flight magazine.

“These are portraits of human beings first, analyses of musicians or musical history only peripherally if at all,” says Feather in the foreword. He admits that he does not have the musical knowledge to pick up on the really daring things a jazz musicians would be experimenting with, but he balances this by telling interesting stories.

I’d give this a qualified recommendation for a reader who was interested in a general history of post-WWII jazz music.It's written for a general audience, not experts or musicians.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mount TBR #1

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

He Knew He Was Right  – Anthony Trollope

Louis Trevelyan and his wife Emily are a young married couple with a toddler son.  Despite hearing that women from the colonies are head-strong, Louis loves Emily, the daughter of Lady Rowley and Sir Marmaduke, a governor in what sounds like either the Bahamas or the Antipodes (Tony wrote fast so details slipped). Colonel Osbourne, her father’s contemporary and friend, likes to drop in for a bit of gossip. Plus, he gets an ego boost from the idea that even at his age his frequent visits can cause friction between husband and wife.

The friction, however, reaches the danger point because Emily asserts that Louis slanders her reputation by confronting her about the colonel and banning visits and letters between them. Essentially a suspicious weakling, Louis in his jealousy feels he must put his foot down and demand obedience as his wife’s duty. She claims that because there is nothing a reasonable person would find objectionable in her friendship with the colonel, he has no call to make such demands or dictate her duties. The confrontation drives them into irreconcilable positions and finally drives a miserable Louis off his dot.

By the time he wrote this novel in 1869, Trollope was a seasoned writer with a growing interest in psychological changes in his characters. Over 900 pages, he introduces interesting characters, juggles multiple love stories, and moves the story at a steady pace. I don’t want to describe the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. So this is an overview of the characters.

Nora Rowley, the second daughter of Sir Marmaduke, rejects – in two of the four (count ‘em!) proposal scenes - the suit of Charles Glascock, wealthy son and heir of Lord Peterborough. She is in love with Hugh Stanbury, a poor reporter working for the penny newspaper The Daily Record and a friend of Louis Trevelyan.  Miss Jemima Stanbury, a spinster who lives in the cathedral town of Exeter, is a former benefactor of Hugh Stanbury, her nephew. She’s put him out of her house for using her money to go to college only to end up working at a dingy newspaper for a low and precarious income. Aunt Stanbury, a wonderful comic tory and tyrant, has Dorothy Stanbury, sister of Hugh Stanbury, come live with her. Doing go, pretty Dorothy attracts the attention of both Thomas Gibson, a minor canon, and Brooke Burgess, Aunt Stanbury’s heir and a mid-level government clerk in London. Another great character is the stoical, ill-conditioned, prickly Priscilla Stanbury, sister of Hugh and Dorothy. We hardcore readers can tell Priscilla reads as much as us:

To her eyes all days seemed to be days of wrath, and all times, times of tribulation. And it was all mere vanity and vexation of spirit. To go on and bear it till one was dead,—helping others to bear it, if such help might be of avail,—that was her theory of life. To make it pleasant by eating, and drinking, and dancing, or even by falling in love, was, to her mind, a vain crunching of ashes between the teeth. Not to have ill things said of her and of hers, not to be disgraced, not to be rendered incapable of some human effort, not to have actually to starve,—such was the extent of her ambition in this world.

Trollope gives even the minor characters much life and points of view. Martha, Jemima Stanbury's maid, resolutely carries out her employer’s wishes, while making her own points in circuitous ways. Mr. Samuel Bozzle is a compunction-free ex-policeman and PI employed by Louis Trevelyan to keep an eye on Emily while she lives with the put-upon vicar Mr. Oliphant Outhouse, an uncle of Emily and Nora.  Sisters Camilla and Arabella, with the assistance of their mother Mrs French enter into conspiracy to trap Mr. Gibson in marriage. Caroline Spalding, a young American woman, battle Miss Wallachia Petrie, an American feminist, who objects to Carry’s relationship with the feudal lord Charles Glascock. Beating even naming Oliphant Outhouse, Trollope assigned somebody only mentioned a typically loopy name: an eminent mad doctor is named Dr. Trite Turbury.

I highly recommend this novel to readers looking for a long winter-time read filled with interesting and familiar characters in plausible settings, in adult situations, with many excellent moments and scenes. It’s not only the title “He” who stubbornly knows he right. Almost all of the characters are self-willed, obstinately clinging to their choices, both rational and irrational. As prickly Priscilla observes, probably as a stand-in for Trollope:

All that is twopenny-halfpenny pride, which should be thrown to the winds. The more right you have been hitherto the better you can afford to go on being right. What is it that we all live upon but self-esteem? When we want praise it is only because praise enables us to think well of ourselves. Every one to himself is the centre and pivot of all the world.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart

Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart - Scott Eyman

ISBN 1556111479

This readable biography is an informative and appreciative examination of the silent film actress who was the first multi-media star. Although she is nearly forgotten today, Pickford was first mega-celebrity. Eyman gives us a good sense of how her fame grew and what she did to maintain it. This can also be read as the story of a woman who was not going to depend on others to keep her family together or her career going. The toughest Hollywood moguls grudgingly admired Pickfor for her  business sense and negotiating style. This well worth reading for people into the history of film, the sociology of celebrity and women's issues.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

European Challenge 2017

I will read these books for the European Challenge 2017.

1/ Lament for a Maker - Michael Innes (Scotland)

2/ An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo - Richard Davenport-Hines (England)

3/ The Premier - Georges Simenon (France)

4/ The Judge and His Hangman - Friedrich D├╝rrenmatt (Switzerland)

5/ Spies of Balkans – Alan Furst (Greece)

6/ Conquered City – Victor Serge (Russia)