Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wrap-up Post: Back to the Classics

I read these books for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Click the posted date to go to the review.

1/ An award-winning classic – John Newberry Medal Winner – Audubon – Constance Rourke (1937)

2/ A classic published before 1800 – The Adventures of Roderick Random - Tobias Smollett (1748)

3/ A classic by a woman author – Domestic Manners of the Americans – Frances Trollope (1832)

4/ A 19th Century Classic – Pride and Prejudice- Jane Austen (1813)

5/ A Russian Classic – The Complete Short Novels – Anton Chekhov

6/ A classic set in a place you'd like to visit – Small Town D.A. – Robert Traver (1958)

7/ A romance classic – The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

8 / A Gothic or horror classic – One Thousand and One Ghosts - Alexandre Dumas (1848)

9 / A classic with a number in the title – The Case of the Seven of Calvary – Anthony Boucher (1937)

10 / A 20th Century Classic – The Crying of Lot 49 – by Thomas Pynchon (1965).

11 / A classic which includes the name of an animal in the title -  Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas - John Masters (1956)

12/ A classic in translation – The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu (about 1021)

Other classics: Click the title/author to go to the review

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Classics #12

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

The Tale of Genji – Murasaki Shikibu (tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Lady Murasaki Shikibu composed this long novel in 11th century Japan. The novel chronicles the story of Genji, an aristocrat connoisseur and government minister, whose good looks, refinement, aesthetic taste, and accomplishments in all the arts and crafts attract the admiration of everyone he meets, except of course mediocrities who envy his talents and feel jealousy with his success with the ladies.

The novel’s 1100 or so pages can be divided into three large sections. Chapters 1-33 cover Genji’s youth through middle age. Genji suffers the ordeal of exile to faraway Satsuma because he is caught with the daughter of a high minister of state. However, after that unhappy sojourn, his court success and eventful personal life are described in witty, readable incidents.

Chapters 34-41 feels as if the author were ready to move on to other characters in the next generation. There is also a discernible shift in tone. Genji begins to feel what our ancestors in the 1950s called “that old mortality,” the melancholy we feel as we contemplate being subject to death. The Japanese have called this feeling mono no aware (物の哀れ), “the sadness of things.” Everything is subject to flux in both the short and the long term. We need to savor the sad beauty that people, places, and things express because of their transient nature.

Finally, Chapters 42-54 cover Genji’s grandson Niou and supposed son Kaoru. There’s no point to applying morals or ethics as we understand them to many characters in this book. In fact, their callousness to each other, destructive jealousy, breaking up of families, harsh treatment of women, casual treatment of illegitimate offspring and lack of anything we’d call privacy rather prevent us from being sympathetic toward many of the characters. The men are weak when faced with temptation and strong when justifying their own selfishness.And women can't relax for a minute because a mistake in a unguarded moment will bring down gossip, derision, and economic insecurity.

I suppose some readers will condemn this book for the same reasons the Victorians turned their noses up at it. That is, the lack of sexual restraint stands out. People in the court of Heian Japan acted promiscuously, however, according to a strict code of conduct not only social but aesthetic. For example, it was obligatory that lovers could compose and appreciate poetry in its various forms and be able to write poems that drew on famous poems and stories. Such poetical allusions had to be made in exquisite calligraphy. People judged each other on the basis of their penmanship.

This novel is truly for people who love to read novels packed with episodes and people with curious characters. In other words, if you like Trollope, you might want to try this one. It’s the same kind of comfy reading experience as, say, Doctor Thorne or The Last Chronicle of Barset in that once it gets going - and for pete’s sake it takes a while to get going - it’s un-put-down-able.

Finally a caution and advice. This is not like Anna Karenina, which can pick up and enjoy without knowing too much about Russian society and culture in the 19th century. But, in the interest of full disclosure so people know that they are getting into, I think a reader that knows little or nothing of Heian Japan will probably become lost and disgruntled without first reading Ivan Morris' The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. No sheepish apology here for advising background reading and prep to the unknowing. This is a masterpiece of world literature about people who are different from us post-moderns. So it had better be approached with knowledge and respect.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Classics #11

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

Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas - John Masters

John Masters was a soldier before he became the popular novelist of the best-selling Nightrunners of Bengal, the WWI novel The Ravi Lancers, and the light entertainment The Venus of Kompara. In 1933, at the age of eighteen, he attended Sandhurst, where all officers in the British Army are trained. He was commissioned into the 4th Gurkha Rifles in time to take part in some of the last campaigns on the turbulent north-west frontier of India before WWII.

Granted not all readers will be sympathetic with the subjects of Sandhurst vigilantes enforcing The Code savagely and of violent young men fighting massive brawls with each other. His hypothetical realist replies to charges of hooliganism among cadets:

War is a dirty business, and we are training these young men for war; we are not running a kindergarten; we do not intend to snoop around seeing whether the cadets treat one another like Little  Lord Fauntleroys; we have learned that a wild young man  can learn wisdom as he grows older — if he survives — but a  spiritless young man cannot learn the dash that wins battles.  And, finally, we believe that a man’s contemporaries are his fairest judges.

Nor will all readers relish the blunt stories that illustrate why the Gurkhas have the legendary reputation that they do:

During World War II a Gurkha patrol went out in the vicinity of Cassino to locate German positions. After slipping by two enemy sentries in the dark of the night, they found  the other four Germans of the post asleep in a row in a barn.  They beheaded the two men on the inside, but left the two  on the outside to sleep — to wake up, to try to rouse their  comrades ... It was a brilliant improvisation, which went  straight to the unlovely heart of psychological warfare.

Though we have all had superiors we were loyal to despite their silence, moodiness, micromanaging, and procrastination, it’s still a challenge to meet a mind with a different sense of responsibility, of loyalty, of discipline:

Burbury said, ‘Loyalty means backing up a man even when he’s in the wrong. Even if he’s stupid and inefficient. That’s why it’s so hard to be loyal. ….

Still better to be wary, I think, of bosses that are especially sensitive to disloyalty – to them, the best obedience is exacted when the subordinate is submitting against her better judgement.

And Masters was certainly a man of his generation. Imagine what grad students in World Civilizations would do to this aside on mid-19th century English attitudes in Inja:

There was also an increasingly strong colour bar, though I get the impression from reading old books and memoirs that the Englishman’s initial aversion was from Indian customs and habits, especially those connected with Hinduism, and that he gradually transferred this feeling to the colour of the  Indians’ skin because, whereas the former could be explained, the latter could not, and was thus indefensible.

Indeed, customs such as animal sacrifice do take up more pages than we post-modern readers like to read. Suffice to say, even the British in Indian quite blanched.

The morning wore steadily on and the smell of blood grew thicker in the dust and glare. One of the British wives turned green and went away, escorted by her husband, who was almost audibly saying, ‘I told you so.’ The row of heads, each crowned with a live coal, lengthened. The smell of burned hair grew stronger, and I was glad of those brandies. At last the sacrifices came to an end. We hardly had time for a cigarette before we were on our feet as the pipes began to wail and the drums to thud

But there are incredible stories of bee attacks and other natural disasters endured:

That night we established camp at Ghariom, half-way to the Faqir’s cave, and waited for more troops to arrive. The wait was marked by a storm of appalling violence. In the afternoon the sky began to darken over, and dust devils hurried down the valley. A drizzle of rain set in, and after a few minutes changed to light hail. The hail quickly strengthened and was soon coming down like a barrage from a million machine-guns, I measured a hailstone 1.6 inches in diameter. The hail cracked tent poles, tore canvas, and flattened every tent. It stunned five sepoys caught in the open, though they were wearing turbans, and maddened all our thousand animals so that they jerked up heel ropes and halters and crashed in snorting, frantic panic through the shattered camp, leaped the low walls, burst in tethered droves through the gates and scattered over the countryside. The hail changed to sleet, back to rain, and for an hour fell like Niagara. It became dark. Thunder volleyed across the low sky, and below our feet, under the earth, the mountains shook and grumbled. Lightning flashes sent searing shafts of ruin through the black rain. In one towering burst I saw four  linked horses galloping abreast over fallen tents and broken  boxes, their eyes rolling white, teeth bared, coats shining wet,  a soldier in front of them. The riderless four of the Apocalypse vanished through the sudden wall of darkness

Readers into coming of age stories, the British in India, and unique military memoirs will like this memoir. This volume goes up to WWII. He chronicled his command of one of the Chindit columns behind enemy lines in Burma in The Road Past Mandalay, a classic WWII memoir available in many editions.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mount TBR #25

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.

Silence Observed – Michael Innes

In this 1961 mystery, Appleby says he is 53, which means he was born in 1907 or 1908. Yard detective John Appleby first appeared in 1936 in Seven Suspects, an academic murder mystery set in an Oxford-type institution. He retired from the Yard after WWII and went to work in the upper reaches of the Metropolitan Police. He was active post-retirement in 1986 when Appleby and the Ospreys appeared. I know of no other author who kept a character going for 33 novels and numerous short stories for 50 years.

I suppose some critics argue that the Appleby novels of the 1970s and 1980s lack the literary touches that characterize Hamlet, Revenge!  (1937) and Lament for a Maker (1938). Silence Observed is mainly for entertainment, with few literary flourishes and only a little suspense. I think it’s worth reading for the creative use of learned language and examination of the acquisitive mentality of collectors and misers. Appleby observes, “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Just a little mad, for a start. Inclined, say, to unreasonable jokes in the course of business. But later – well, very mad indeed.”

Just by chance, Appleby’s attention is arrested by two instances of forgeries in the art world. One collector has acquired a forgery of a notorious forger; another has been offered, of all things, a lost Rembrandt. An unlucky young man has been discovered with both bodies in highly suspicious circumstances. Appleby feels something is amiss and gets him off the hook, since in whodunit land, as we hardcore mystery readers know, it is never the obvious suspect.

The pool of suspects is small enough to make the reveal fairly predictable. But the familiar characters, the erudite vocabulary, and London setting – though there is another remote insane manse as in Lament for a Maker and Hare Sitting Up, among others – make this an agreeable, soothing read.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Classics #10

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

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

Oedipa Maas is a housewife in her late twenties in Southern California in the mid-Sixties. SoCal experiences rapid changes in population, economic activity, and infrastructure. Like many sensitive people, Oedipa feels unmoored by the speed of change in everyday life. She is seeking order:

[S]he thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity ... [T]here were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.... [Now,] a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding ... [She] seemed parked at the center of an odd religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken.

She is tapped to be the co-executor of the will of a former lover who became super-rich through investments in hi-tech and land speculation – i.e., he was an agent of chaos. In her quest to fulfill her duties she meets many strange people, mainly men that let her down in both mundane and spectacular ways. For instance, her husband develops an affinity for becoming one with the universe via LSD and her psychiatrist takes her hostage in an active shooting.

During her travels, Oedipa stumbles over Tristero, an underground postal system used by marginalized people such as artists, musicians, and dabblers in fringe science. Or, she fears, it is merely a huge practical joke set up by the rich and powerful lover that died. Oedipa comes to theorize an either/or question:

[T]here either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

Pynchon suggests that Americans in the last fifty years or so subject and distract themselves with an unceasing stream of impressions, from sports to Self-Empowering Slogans to LOL Cats to You Name It You Can Have It. People then assent to whatever meaning these impressions convey, half sure, half not sure if they are capturing a piece of reality or using their own irrational beliefs to impose a silly explanation of the world. Am I being hoaxed or am I deluding myself?

Oedipa concludes that she might need "the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia" to unconfuse herself about where she stands. This novel makes the reader think about her own sense of the importance of being “relevant to it” and living with the idea that constant flux is the default setting, not just for SoCal, but everywhere, all the time, within our own aging bodies to start (and isn’t that decay and dissolution enough to deal with?). And that she’d better keep moving because stagnating will only hasten decline.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Classics #9

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

The Case of the Seven of Calvary – Anthony Boucher

This is the second academic mystery that I’ve read in about two months, the first one being Michael Innes' From London Far. This 1937 mystery fits the criteria for genre: set at a university department, professor as detective, an international cast, erudite dialogue, recondite digressions, and mild gibes at scholar’s manners and ways.

Though this was the author’s first mystery, he takes pleasure is satirizing the conventions of the Golden Age mystery. For instance, the professor-detective, like Nero Wolfe, never stirs out of his rooms to investigate the crime. In fact, he has a graduate student be his Archie Goodwin, getting out and talking to persons of interest. The grad student narrates the story in an arch and faux-sophisticated tone, very much like Michael Innes in the Thirties. In an outrageous post-modern technique, the grad student and Boucher meet over chow to confirm with each other that fair-play has been the byword, that clues needed to solve the mystery have indeed be given to the reader.

The story moves steadily through plenty of action. Boucher misdirects too but the long-time mystery reader, while alert to being fooled, will not be cheated out of a good surprise either. It’s very impressive that Boucher developed such a crackerjack story his first time out. This book well deserves its classic status. Although he did not return to a campus setting, he wrote many more mysteries and short stories, even producing science fiction. For many years he was the mystery reviewer for the New York Times. He has a convention of mystery fandom named after him, Bouchercon.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Classics #8

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

The Thousand and One Ghosts – Alexandre Dumas (1849)

This collection of short scary stories uses the seen-before device of guests at a dinner party in a country manse relating eerie stories. In this case, the guests have been thrown together by a murder in the village of Fontenay-aux-Roses. The killer confesses that after beheading his wife with a sword – for a reason he refuses to divulge - he went to grab the head and she bit him on the hand and wouldn’t let go. When the head finally let go she said, “You wretch! I was innocent!”

The gruesome happening, understandably enough, puts the village worthies in an odd unsettled mood, motivating them to tell stories that they’ve never told anybody before.

The story that got under my skin involves heads severed by the guillotine that stay alive to move by themselves and express unhappiness. In another, a Carpathian vampire tries to have his way with a virgin from Poland, whose unhappy encounter leaves her pale and enervated (but somehow ravishing, of course). In yet another, an executed crook comes back to hang the hangman that executed him for the state. The content of the stories may not strike us as especially weird and uncanny after all the horrifying things we witnessed in the year 2016. However, even after scores of terrifying times seeing the presidential pie-hole contorted to look like a Cheerio, we quail and quiver at Dumas'  plain homely details.

Like: disinterred French kings dragging a worthy citizen into quicklime.

Like: during the Revolution they were slicing off heads to the extent that an eight-year-old slips, falls and drowns in a trough of blood at the execution ground.  

I know – yuck.

But isn’t that why we search out horror? Even though we wonder how a severed bean could talk considering the damage to the vocal cords would make that impossible. But to hell with logic, with skepticism, with reasonable. We wanna be scared witless, beyond rationalism.

Readers into Gothic tales may find this fun. Another point for their stories is their pathos – they’re all sad, about lost love, dashed hopes, dreams betrayed. Severed heads are mercifully out of the usual run of daily life. Sad is always relatable.