Monday, August 31, 2015

Mount TBR #29

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Red Spectres: Russian 20th Century Gothic-Fantastic Tales – Various, tr. Muireann Maguire

From about 1890 to 1924, Russia experienced ordeal after ordeal. Defeats in two major wars. Two revolutions. A civil war. The Volga famine. The extermination of the peasantry as a class. Epidemics and hunger.

No wonder during this turmoil the response of some writers and readers was the wish to escape dealing with trouble and chaos, if only for a short time with a short story. Writers of the Soviet gothic included major figures such as Ivan Bunin, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Mikhail Bulgakov. Lesser known writers of such stories include Perov, Chayanov, Peskov,

These nine stories feature typically gothic stand-bys like mirrors, witches’ sabbaths, occult paraphernalia, and mannequins coming to life. The themes are as Russian as a samovar: the ennui of superfluous men, the obsessions of bored housewives, and, as we expect, the nature of mortality and the soul. Mustn’t forget that old faithful of gothic stories either: the panopticon!

The stories are not all that frightening. But they have a creepy settings and fantastic plots that induce a welcome chill on hot summer evenings.

The translator, Muireann Maguire, is a lecturer in Russian at the University of Exeter. Her research interests are nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature and comparative literature.  She earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2009.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Mount TBR #28

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Hollywood Hoopla – Robert S. Sennett

This book chronicles the Hollywood publicity machine during the so-called golden age from 1929 to 1949. The mad promotional gimmicks and stunts have a gleeful unabashed quality that is as American as a sawed-off shotgun.

Sennett devotes chapters to agents, studio heads, publicists, gossip columnists and the studio publicity departments. A plus of the book is that he stands on the shoulders of giants. He leans heavily on columnist Ezra Goodman’s immortal study, The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood.

He has an unfortunate tendency to deplore the passing of the star system and to regret that stars and producers call too many shots nowadays at the end of every chapter.

The writing style is typical of books about Hollywood during the golden age. That is, it is readable and entertaining aplenty but the tone is chirpy and not nearly satirical enough for me.

This is a good book for the summertime when sunlight and humidity make it hard to concentrate.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mount TBR #27

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
The Twenties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period – Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)

This book is a selection from his notebooks from the 1920s, when journalist Wilson was working in New York City. Parties, drinking, and lots of carnal relations. The passages, as we would expect, range from diary-type entries to mini-essays on literary figures and their books. He jots down funny stories he’s heard:

…It seems that Nat Willis married a famous circus rider. The morning after the wedding, as they sat at breakfast, he began reading the comic supplement – “Yellow Kid” etc. She picked up a mess of pancakes that had just been brought in and heaved them into the midst of the paper: “Say, have I married one of these bookworms?”

I can imagine the intonation brash mouthy Patsy Kelly would put on “sayyyyy.” He also jots down slang he heard in February 1922, some long-lasting, some long-gone

·         ratty: “Well that makes if very ratty for us.”
·         crocko, squiffy
·         boiled to the ears
·         dumbbell
·         to high-hat
·         upstage
·         lousy
·         to crab someone’s act
·         to snap one’s lunch, one’s cookies, one’s crackers
·         “He’s always doing his stuff.”
·         cuckoo

Wilson is widely regarded as the preeminent American man of letters of the twentieth century. He was a novelist and social commentator. He also dabbled in history, anthropology and economics.

But it was a literary critic that he had the most influence. For example, his two take-downs of Somerset Maugham in the 1950s assigned Maughm to the ranks of the mediocre. Critics and academics still take no notice of Maugham though his stories and numerous novels like Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge are still read by certain kinds of readers. Also, readers of mysteries will recall that Wilson’s "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" (1945) in which he dismisses the genre with “As a department of imaginative writing, it looks to me completely dead.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Chronicles of Barsetshire

When I was a smart-aleck college student, waiting for an English Lit lecture to start, me and another guy had fun teasing a fellow student who had said she had read all six Palliser novels. “You musta had copious free time.” “Were you laid up with something Victorian, like a wasting disease?” “Brain fever, indubitably.” “Poor boyfriend, prolly swore off dating readers.” Making females roll their eyes – a typical male bonding ritual.

Anyway, be happy to know that I have mentally apologized since those bygone days. Especially for the reason that I have read all six novels of the Chronicles of Barsetshire since early May. I didn’t set out to read all of them in a summer. But because Trollope is such a pleasure to read, it just ended up that way.

Click on the title to go to the full review.

The Warden (1855). Very short, writing is about concise as Tony ever gets. Meek and mild-mannered Rev. Harding gets dragged through the wringer, too mindful of the world’s fickle opinions. But what else could he do to salve his own conscience?

Barchester Towers (1857). Rev. Slope and Mrs. Proudie deserve each other, but I started to feel for Obadiah by the end. Critics of Trollope always scold the writer for never letting the reader forget she’s reading a novel. I must confess that self-referential tendency did get in my face in this novel. So did the lame Arabin – Elly falls for him, affection is like lightening: who knows where it will strike? This was balanced by the heartless Stanhopes – Trollope had their number, for sure.

Dr. Thorne (1858). The very slow start takes a lot of toleration, I was wondering if the novel was going to have any kind of story at all. And to complain about Trollopian funny names – the medico named Dr. Fillgrave – seems a quibble in the face of this marvelous novel peopled with believable characters like Sir Roger Scatcherd, one of literature’s best high-functioning alcoholics and nobody’s fool Martha Dunstable, the richest woman in England.

Framley Parsonage (1861). All I gotta say is that anybody in the bondage of debt and its attendant money worries – i.e., all of us – will feel for Mark Robarts’ troubles. The Lucy and romance angle is made bearable by the very plausible Lady Lufton. Griselda Grantley starts getting creepy in this one.

The Small House at Allington (1864). Fantastic. Crosbie jilts Lily to marry a countess. And, son, does Crosbie ever pay. Another small-minded, tiny-souled guy an over-sympathetic reader will feel sorry for. John Eames also rose in my estimation by the end of the book, though he would act against his own best interests.

TheLast Chronicle of Barset (1867). Written as a weekly serial so it’s repetitious when we reading gluttons break off 70-page chunks and relish them down. But wonderful. Crawley and Lily both fall into ruts in their thinking, giving me to wonder how prone we oursevles are to rigid thinking without even knowing it.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Mount TBR #26

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Last Chronicle of Barset – Anthony Trollope

Perpetual curate Josiah Crawley is accused of stealing of check and using the money to pay off debts. Crawley is a tragic figure because his own pride and sense of grievance sorely distress him. He also feels guilt over bringing pain to his family, especially his long-suffering wife. His daughter Grace, also, refuses proposals from Major Grantley, who offers an advantageous match.

A reader of the Barsetshire novels – this is the sixth of six – needs to get accustomed to the fact that Trollope needs a lot of space to tell his stories. Trollope’s prose is unassuming, his points gently ironic. He returns to his theme of people rarely acting in their own best interests, using again the reference to moths being drawn to flame in The Small House at Allington. Johnny Eames’ “it” below is extricating himself from a dalliance with the creepily husband-hungry Miss Demolines:

He had felt that it was coming for the last quarter of an hour,—and he had felt, also, that he was quite unable to help himself. He did not believe that he should ever be reduced to marrying Miss Demolines, but he did see plainly enough that he was getting into trouble; and yet, for his life, he could not help himself. The moth who flutters round the light knows that he is being burned, and yet he cannot fly away from it.

He also returns to the story of sad fawn Lily Dale. She takes up the role of old maid despite her friends urging her toward suitable matches. The reader would feel bad for her if Lily Dale weren’t so self-important and rigidly unwavering (like Josiah Crawley). For no good reason that I can identify, she denies herself the normal pleasures of companionship with a spouse, the satisfaction of child-raising, and the comfort of not growing old and sick totally alone. For that matter, her refusal denies Johnny Eames too those consolations, though one wonders given his caddish behavior with Amanda Roper and Miss Demolines, he himself deserved a chance at matrimonial bliss.

Speaking of matrimonial bliss, Trollope examines two marriages. Mrs. Crawley stands by the difficult Josiah through it all. She’s a paragon but genuine and admirable all the way. The marriage, however, of the Bishop and Mrs. Proudie reaches a bad place after she humiliates him in public. He withdraws from her and the rest of the family into a slough of despond. And the reader even feels for the she-Beelzebub by the end.

My reservations were only three. Sometimes the dialogue was too high toned. Given Lily’s determination to stay away from marriage, the Lily, Johnny, Adolphus Crosbie triangle started to feel mildly tedious. Trollope’s grammar with respect to piling up negatives started to grate:

He could not give up Grace Crawley; and unless he were to do so he could not live at Cosby Lodge.

It is seldom that servants are not good in such straits as that.

That was a day which Posy will never forget,—not though she should live to be much older than her grandfather was when she thus left him.

But I quibble. After all, I stillread the pages with Lily, Johnny, and Crosbie. And shook my head to clear it of cobwebby “nots” and “seldoms” and “unlesses.” I was surprised that Trollope could keep us readers rapt over the course of about 900 pages with the thinnest of plots, whether or not a poor clergyman took money that wasn’t his. Trollope, by the way, thought this was his best novel.