Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Mount TBR #42

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.

Personal note: When this book was published in 1985, the reviews made me want to read it, because I was interested in mass media's effects on culture. But I was wrapping up grad school and looking for work overseas, so I had no time. I finally got around to it after finding this anniversary edition at a used book sale. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business – Neil Postman

In early 2016, a TV character sang to his pregnant wife Paul Anka’s June 1974 hit “You’re Having My Baby.” 40 years ago – the wake of Roe v. Wade - the sexist undertone of “my baby” versus “our baby” was not, I recall vividly, unnoticed. The National Organization for Women gave Anka the "Keep Her in Her Place" award for that year. Nowadays this controversy is so forgotten, and 30-something TV writers and actors and producers so oblivious to the meanings and tones of words, it is as if the last 40 years haven't happened in terms of either mindless sexism or relish for the slushy sentiment of pop music.

Given how little things have changed, then, why the hell not read a complaint about television’s effect on culture written in the middle 1980s? Especially since digital communication is TV on steroids....

The thesis of this book is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1985. Postman’s thesis is that entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. Babble drowns anything worth knowing in an information glut, as TV is not suited to thinking and talking, which is not a performing art. Good TV requires a performing art because people watch TV for dynamic images and strong emotions. The nature of American TV has developed along lines that accommodate the way human beings want to watch TV; that is, TV is not a medium for education or propaganda but for endless amusement, incessant distraction.

Visual- and entertainment-oriented TV has degraded public discourse in education, business, religion, and politics. Postman is not against junk on TV but argues that TV is at its worst when it is trying to be serious. He cites televised presidential debates as an example of the impossibility of discussing complex issues like peace in the Middle East in three minutes for Candidate A, while Candidate B has a minute to rebut. Postman is not claiming anybody systematically conspired to make TV technology a tool of suppression of literate or complex discourse in say, political campaigns and commercials. It just part and parcel of how we Americans use technology with humdrum inattention – like popping a smartphone in a toddler’s hand to make him shut up and then wondering why the little tyke seems unable to look anybody in the eye.

Indeed, things have change little in the last 40 years. We still live an age of information glut. We have flooded our culture with technologies that fill our lives with information, mainly about people, places, and events and situations that are out of our control. We are at the point where our dealing with too much information, so much it leads to a situation of meaninglessness. With poor skills at critical thinking and identifying illogical thinking, many people have no basis for judging what information is useful or useless. Media does not categorize itself as worthwhile or worthless so people get lost due to sheer noise. How to help people get meaning and truth has become an urgent problem. Ironically, near the end of this book Postman speculates computer technology may help people sort out the relevant from the irrelevant, but we all have seen how that has worked out.

The book is a well-written complaint, written in the hope that the vitality of America can contradict Aldous Huxley’s prophecy in Brave New World that our freedom is lost because of our immense propensity to be distracted. Readers looking for a book with intellectual heft and decorum won’t be disappointed by this slim book. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mount TBR #41

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 Belton Estate – Anthony Trollope

This stand-alone novel was serialized in the Fortnightly Review from May 1865 to January 1866. It was published in three volumes, to Trollope’s anger, since he wanted it in only two volumes. Greedy damn publishers!

The Belton estate is entailed to Charles Amedroz. Charles parties like it’s 1899 in London while his father and sister Clara in rural Somerset sit home and worry. Debt and humiliation and one too many blistering hangovers drive Charles to do away with himself. The entail discriminates in favor of males of course and passes the legacy on to Will Belton, well-off Norfolk farmer, paragon of hearty manliness, as spontaneous and down to earth as he could be.

Father Bernard Amedroz is a comic neurotic who feels it “quite heartless” for Will to be wanting to visit Belton, express his condolences, and offer to help his relations.

Everything that everybody did around him he would call heartless. The man pitied himself so much in his own misery, that he expected to live in an atmosphere of pity from others; and though the pity doubtless was there, he misdoubted it. He thought that Farmer Stovey was cruel in that he had left the hay-cart near the house, to wound his eyes by reminding him that he was no longer master of the ground before his own hall door. He thought that the women and children were cruel to chatter so near his ears. He almost accused his daughter of cruelty, because she had told him that she liked the contiguity of the hay-making. Under such circumstances as those which enveloped him and her, was it not heartless in her to like anything? It seemed to him that the whole world of Belton should be drowned in woe because of his misery.

During the visit, impetuous Will naturally falls in love with distant cousin Clara whose spirit and intelligence attract him. Clara, however – always a looming “however” in a Trollope love story – has decided to marry the more eligible but dull Capt. Frederic Aylmer, an MP though not the first son.

Aylmer’s mama takes a scalding dislike to Clara, seeing as how penniless no-name Clara brings neither money nor title to the marriage with Fred. Besides the calculated snubbing, the Aylmer style is cold, formal, and stifling, not a clan that the self-respecting Clara could possibly fit into.

Clara is also in a bad position because her aunt has not left her a shilling but granted her entire estate to Capt. Aylmer. The aunt has, in fact, extracted a death-bed promise from the Captain to ask Clara to marry him. Trollope calls the aunt, “one of those women who have always believed that their own sex is in every respect inferior to the other.” Clara has religious differences with her low church Aunt which she has not been shy about expressing to her aunt, feeling it would be hypocritical to hide her convictions.

The reviewers bashed this story when it was put between covers in 1866. In print a young Henry James called it “stupid.” Always modest about his writing skills like Somerset Maugham, Trollope himself bowed to critical opinion and said in his autobiography, “It will add nothing to my reputation as a novelist.” In our day, readers seem to concur, with only two reviews by hard-core book challenge readers like us (here and here). Per my unsystematic observations at countless used book sales and stores since the early 1970s, I’ve seen this book only once.

Snobbish to read what virtually nobody else reads, I snapped up The Belton Estate and read it. Only to find the plot minimal, the comedy negligible, and the characters type-cast. Everybody’s motive is sensible (if awkward at times), their behavior plausible. Trollope goes out on a limb by encouraging us readers to sympathize with Mrs. Askerton, who left a hopeless drunk of a husband in India, lived with a man as his mistress for five years, then married the man when her husband finally drank himself to death. Trollope also sympathizes with the lot of Clara, who is boxed in by conventions of law and custom that force her into poverty and a wretched life in which she can bring no benefit to anybody. There are some very good passages, like this one that kicked off Chapter 25:

Clara felt herself to be a coward as the Aylmer Park carriage, which had been sent to meet her at the station, was drawn up at Sir Anthony Aylmer's door. She had made up her mind that she would not bow down to Lady Aylmer, and yet she was afraid of the woman. As she got out of the carriage, she looked up, expecting to see her in the hall; but Lady Aylmer was too accurately acquainted with the weights and measures of society for any such movement as that. Had her son brought Lady Emily to the house as his future bride, Lady Aylmer would probably have been in the hall when the arrival took place; and had Clara possessed ten thousand pounds of her own, she would probably have been met at the drawing-room door; but as she had neither money nor title,—as she in fact brought with her no advantages of any sort, Lady Aylmer was found stitching a bit of worsted, as though she had expected no one to come to her. And Belinda Aylmer was stitching also,—by special order from her mother. The reader will remember that Lady Aylmer was not without strong hope that the engagement might even yet be broken off. Snubbing, she thought, might probably be efficacious to this purpose, and so Clara was to be snubbed.

“Weights and measures of society” – too right, Mr. Trollope. In the end, though, the novel is run of the mill. Near the end I was reminded of Wilkie Collins’ formula, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” Brought home was the truth that Trollope, like Erle Stanley Gardner, was operating a fiction factory, churning out serials in a time when print was the main outlet for thinking entertainment.

When the resulting fiction-artifact shines and smoothly ticks by giving us the rush a good novel gives, we feel no misgivings being satisfied consumers of it. But when product fails to sparkle due to flat prose or stretched lengths, reader patience is taxed and developments such as Clara’s letter to “brother” Will just seem capricious. “Tarnation, perverse Lily Dale again.” As I read the last quarter of The Belton Estate, I wondered to myself, “What lack in me, what sloth of mind, keeps me turning the pages to discover the fates of these people, fates I can guess tolerably easily and won’t remember by Christmas.” I never thought such a self-accusatory thing near the ends of The Last Chronicle of Barset or He Knew He was Right

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bennington Battle Day, 2017

Bennington Battle Day is a state holiday in Vermont to honor of the Battle of Bennington, which took place during the Revolutionary War in 1777. It was the first victory of the colonials of the war.

Common Sense – Thomas Paine

Born in England in 1737, Thomas Paine was born relatively poor, but even with only a grammar school education he was smart and fluent. In London, he attended public lectures about current affairs and met Benjamin Franklin. Like many bright rootless people, Paine hoped for better prospects in the colonies. Franklin wrote a letter of recommendation for Paine, which was a generous act in an age where testimonials opened doors in faraway places. Franklin referred Paine to his son-in-law who introduced him into Pennsylvania society. He became the editor of Pennsylvania Magazine and wrote about the possibility and opportunity of independence from the mother country when almost nobody else had reached that point of thinking.

After the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, Paine drew the conclusion that the aims of the colonial revolt had to extend beyond unfair taxation in order to include full independence. Dr. Benjamin Rush urged him to write a pamphlet but discouraged him from using the words “independence” and “republicanism,” advice that he utterly ignored. He wrote for the common man so the argument is not subtle or scholarly. The simple style and easy word choice were powerful enough to convert people’s thinking toward independence or at least provide natural rights arguments for people who were inclining that way.

He put his ideas into a pamphlet Common Sense. By January, 1776, it had become a best-seller, selling over 120,000 in the first few months after it was released. Not bad for a man who had been in the country only a little over a year.

Published in July 1776, he demonstrates the shallow stupidity of monarchial tyranny, hereditary privilege, patronage, and corruption. His irreverence was effective, calling William the Conqueror, “a French bastard.” His scorn is scathing when he asserts, “And as a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.”

To Paine, since the English Constitution lacked legitimacy, then it naturally followed that independence  was the obvious choice. In the second part, he related what kind of government the Americans could construct. In stirring language he says that colonists could launch a democratic revolution all over the world. It’s not hard to see why his arguments persuaded people to look at their issues in new ways.
Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART. Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America, is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven.
Paine bragged it was the best seller of all time. JohnAdams, however, didn’t like section on the organization of government, which he thought too democratical. Adams called Common Sense “a crapulous mass,” which is about what we would expect from a thinker who dismissed Plato’s Republic as mere “vaporizing.” It is a fact that Common Sense focused thinking and conversation on independence the summer of 1775, a topic either never spoken of or spoken of in whispers because it was treason.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Mount TBR #40

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.

A History of Japan, Volume II: 1334-1615 - Sir George Sansom

The three centuries covered represent an era among the most troubled in Japanese history. In 1333 the Emperor Go-Daigo restored imperial power after knocking off the Kamakura Shogunate which was established in 1192 by Minamoto Yoritomo. But the Kenmu imperial restoration was short-lived. An irreconcilable conflict between the court aristocracy and the warrior class emerged with new struggles that ended with the Ashikaga, a branch of the Minamoto, who rebuilt the shogunal government establishing its headquarters in the Muromachi district of Kyoto.

But the new Ashikaga government failed to deal with the forces that made it the weakest of the three military governments of the times. The increased power of the great feudal lords, or daimyo, who established and maintained troops in their territories by employing warrior, or samurai, vassals, seriously jeopardized stability. On the one hand, the lords refrained from paying taxes to the shogunate and on the other, they gradually increased their territories at the expense of weaker neighbors. The same governmental officials who were responsible for controlling the provinces on behalf of the shogun became local military leaders and feudal lords.

The struggles that the feudatories took up in order to seize the most territory reduced the country to anarchy in a short time. As the daimyōs feuded among themselves in the pursuit of power in the decade-long and bloody Ōnin War, loyalty to the Ashikaga grew increasingly stressed, until it erupted into open warfare in the Sengoku (country at war) period. Reinstatement of order was the task of the three towering figures of Japanese history: Oda Nobunaga (1534 - 1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 -1616). Sansom clearly and interestingly covers the military movements which ended on October 21, 1600 with the Battle of Sekigahara, the decisive clash that brought about the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Meanwhile, the Europeans had arrived in the Japanese archipelago. In 1543 some Portuguese merchants landed at Tanegashima. They introduced Japan's first firearms, which revolutionized the traditional techniques of war in Japan. Jesuit missionaries, led by Francesco Saverio, bravely undertook Christian preaching in the country. Nobunaga was impressed with Jesuit learning and manners and with his benign approval the Jesuits converted thousands of Japanese people in all walks of life. Hideyoshi did not impede Jesuit efforts until one evening in 1587 when he unaccountably banned Jesuit missionary work and placed restrictions on their movement and work.

In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun and established the seat of government in Edo (today Tokyo). He imposed absolutism on the daimyo and oppressed the peasants unmercifully but assured the imperial court its honorary prerogatives at the same time.

Sansom was writing for both the specialist and the thinking lay reader. He organizes clearly and condenses essential events of politics, sociology, and economics. His interpretations are careful and rest on scholarship at a high level. Sansom’s critical insight combines a vast erudition and an extraordinary ability to write lucidly. I recommend this book to the reader seriously interested in the topic.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Death and the Pleasant Voices

Death and the Pleasant Voices - Mary Fitt

ISBN-10: 0486246035

Mary Fitt was the pen-name of Kathleen Freeman (1897 - 1959), a British classcist. She will bring to mind another British professor – J.I.M. Stewart who wrote as Michael Innes – because, though she employs no jocosely recondite vocabulary, she expects readers to keep up with Latin tags, French idioms, and allusions from Euripedes and Lewis Carroll. Like Cecil Day-Lewis, who wrote mysteries as Nicholas Blake, she was a professor of classics, so her themes are accordingly Greek:  character  is destiny and fate is implacable.

In Death and the Pleasant Voices (1946), she focuses not on plot or puzzle, but, as she said in an interview, on “people, their pleasant or queer or sinister possibilities.” This is apparently the tenth book with her series hero Inspector Mallet, but he does nothing beyond questioning people in preparation for the inquest.  We readers walk along with the main character Jake Seaborne as he haltingly makes his way among members of a family driven by avarice and animosity. They are wrangling over the inheritance of a large country house. None of them admirable, they come off as deceptive and grasping as mean carnies.

The murder does not come until half-way through the book, but this balanced by the detailing for the interplay among the characters for the remainder. They are a pair of twins, who expected to inherit but did not; a poor relation who attended the dying days of the twins’ father; the callous Aunt and cranky Uncle; and finally the family doctor who has a thing for one of the twins and alcohol.

Because of the lack of detection and focus on character instead of the puzzle, I can’t regard this mystery as a paragon of the golden age of mysteries.  The interest lies in the surprising characters. I had to finish it to see where they ended up. In fact, the climax seemed inevitable, like a good Greek tragedy should.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Purple Heart Day, 2017

Acts of War:  Behavior of Men in Battle – Richard Holmes

This is an interesting book not only about the behavior of men in combat and its after effects, but also about basic training, male identity, comradeship, homesickness, and the preoccupations of most soldiers, i.e., when the next chance for warmth, food, sleep, tobacco, alcohol and sex are coming.
Holmes, an historian with a military background, gathers data from memoirs, interviews with vets, and the popular press. 

The soldiers are mainly British and American, from the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Falklands, which was a recent conflict when the book was published in 1989. One drawback is that he uncritically applies the work of Freud, Jung and LeBon (of crowd psychology fame) to the subject, which nowadays is a sure way to induce shrugs and eye-rolling and the cool response, "Possibly" from scholarly types and readers that have read of stack of militaria.

Generally, this is a readable book that I have no reservations recommending to readers who enjoyed John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, or Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Mount TBR #39

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.

Three Doors to Death – Rex Stout

Mystery writer Rex Stout made handsome change writing about 30 novelettes for The American Magazine, a slick nicely illustrated weekly that lasted from 1904 to 1956.  Featuring his series hero PI Nero Wolfe, he wrote "Man Alive" for the December, 1947 issue, "Omit Flowers" for November, 1948, and "Door to Death" for June, 1949. Then Bantam Paperbacks collected the novellas in cheap paperback re-issues.

In "Man Alive" a young, up-and-coming fashion designer consults Wolfe after she spots her uncle, in disguise and sporting a new beard, attending a show for her new line. This would not be so weird if everyone understood that a year before the uncle had topped himself by jumping naked into a hot spring geyser in Yellowstone Park (Stout could be gruesome – even if playfully so - despite the predominantly female readership of The American Magazine). Wolfe’s legman, Archie Goodwin, is often deputized to attend outlandish events like flower shows so he ends up going to another fashion show with the mission to identify and nab the father. The inevitable killing occurs. In the classic fashion, Wolfe gathers all the suspects in a room, and their alibis notwithstanding, gets to the bottom of things. This is a very satisfying story.

In "Omit Flowers," Wolfe’s oldest friend Marko Vukcic prevails upon Wolfe to take up the cudgels for Virgil Pompa. Once an excellent chef, Pompa was seduced by the big bucks to become a high level manager for a chain of family restaurants called Ambrosia. The founder of the chain has been murdered. The cops have nailed Pompa, but Marko is sure it was a member of the founder’s family, who had much to gain. The family is a lot of fun: grasping, devious, unlovely. The strong plot, though, is undermined by a slow pace and gloomy tone.

"Door to Death" is the best of trio even though it is not really a detective story. Wolfe’s orchid guy Theodore Horstmann has to leave the brownstone to do caregiving for his sick mother. A desperate Wolfe must leave the residence and brave a car ride to remote Westchester in order to tempt a young botanist to come work for him temporarily. He and Archie discover the corpse of a young woman in the greenhouse. They then question various people to get the young orchid guy off the hook, since the vic was his trampy fiancée. Commenting on the sad single-mindedness of some middle-aged men, a rustic says to Wolfe “I don't know why -- when a man starts turning gray why don't he realize the whistle has blowed and concentrate on something else? Take you, you show some gray. I'll bet you don't dash around crowing and flapping your arms.” Archie reports, “I tittered without meaning to. Wolfe gave me a withering glance."

For me, there is no better mystery than a Nero Wolfe novelette by Rex Stout. It is ideal for the beach and deck in summer, for sheer reading pleasure.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Fate of the Malous

French title: Le Destin des Malou
Published: 1947
Englished: Denis George, 1962

The Fate of the Malous – Georges Simenon

Call nobody happy till he’s dead. Just because a mogul like Eugene Malou is rich and respected doesn’t mean he’s going to slip away peacefully of old age. This novel opens with Malou blowing his brains out on the doorstep of the well-appointed manse of Count Adrien Estier, who can’t bail him out this time. The suicide triggers a family crisis mainly because also blown to bits is their lifestyle. Malou has left in family in financial straits.

Alain Malou, the youngest son, plays the shuttlecock between his mother, selfish and indifferent, and his sister Corine equally self-absorbed. Alain faces the prospect of making a living, an abrupt change from his previously carefree youth. He lands a job in a print shop after fleeing his sister and seeing his mother off to Paris.

In search of the backstory to his father, Alain looks up some of his father’s companions. They reveal his father’s fragile dreams. Alain comes to understand that his family’s peaks and valleys were caused by his father’s alternate booms and busts in the building business. He discovers that his father was probably not an upright man. But for all his mistakes, lapses of judgement, and sharp business practices, he was a man, especially in Simenon’s and his generation’s terms. That is, he was a risk-taker, damn the consequences. Plus, he was the only one in his family, with the unthinking son, selfish wife, and self-absorbed daughter that knew what love could be. The father’s death broke the family up, but they were never a family, emotionally cohesive, in the first place.

But the world of the present brings Alain to a fork in the road. Due to personal animosities, he is fired at the print shop. He realizes he has to leave the flat, dull, provincial town for Paris. And there he must strive to become a man, like his father.

This subdued novel examines an ordinary life. Doing so, it very typical of the roman durs – the hard novels that scrutinize characters in a liminal space, a transitional stage, usually brought on by a death but sometimes by a change of neighborhood or a new neighbor.

Other Non-Maigret Novels by Simenon


Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Case of the Fugitive Nurse

The Case of the Fugitive Nurse - Erle Stanley Gardner

ISBN-10: 9997513800

Like any reader of mysteries with the sense Heaven gave a goose, Perry Mason does not believe that a shifty doctor-millionaire died in a plane crash. After dealing with the difficult widow, Perry figures that the good doctor faked his own death and ran off with a nurse.

The widow is charged with her husband’s murder. A typical pain of a client, she involves Perry up to his neck since she accuses him of making off with thousands in income that was undeclared by her husband. Gardner respected forensics because he assumed that scientific methods would balance the prejudiced inclinations of detectives, so the use of dental records in the identification of burned bodies provides some interesting tangents.

This is an okay Mason novel from 1954, when the books started to feel especially familiar and formulaic. Della Street has a lot to do, which will please fans of Della. Paul Drake is put upon in the tried and true manner. The story is complex without being convoluted to the point of bewildering. Gardner emphasizes how problematic clients can land lawyers in a peck of trouble.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

NY Statehood Day, 2017

The Life and Times of Captain N. – Douglas Glover

During the colonial period and Revolutionary War, New York had many influential loyalists (Tories) that had no time or sympathy for hot-headed revolutionary talk from Boston. They also criticized Boston’s cheating during the non-importation crisis. Still, there were plenty of patriots (Whigs) too. The beginning of the American Revolutionary War revealed many kinds of divisions among local people, as well as unity, because people had to make social, political, and ethical choices.

Tories and Whigs making choices lead to civil war on the Niagara Frontier, the land bordering the eastern Niagara River and southern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and is part of the region known as Western New York (where I live). It was an ugly war of Patriot neighbors versus Tory neighbors. The conflict also broke up the confederacy of Indians and set different bands against each other. A vicious parallel of property confiscations by the Patriots, raids, burning of farms and villages, revenge, massacre and ordinary people caught between irregular armed forces brings to mind the guerilla war in Missouri during the Civil War.

With this war within a war as background, this 1993 novel is about the lives of three literal head cases. Captain Hendrick Nellis, a loyalist, suffers migraines due to anxiety. His severe stress is caused by battle and fear of his entire world being turned upside down. "It is a strange thing," he thinks during a skirmish, "to fight a war over ground where you played foxes and hound as a boy and courted your wife and watched your children tumble in the hayricks."

Nellis’ son, Oscar, is a neurotic teenaged patriot who alternately moons over a love object who treats him meanly and wildly fantasizes about becoming a hero of the revolution. Oscar is lost and angry enough at his father for abandoning the family to go to war that he wants to kill him the next time he sees him.

Mary Hunsacker barely escapes when her family is massacred by loyalist Indians. To keep her in line, the Indian warrior Scattering Light bashes her head with a war club, which calls for a disc the size of a sovereign to be inserted in her skull by a doctor who doesn’t know what he’s doing. She experiences pain “as if Scattering Light's death maul had split me off from myself," and in nightmares she enters "some strange state between being born and giving birth."

Glover has his characters question their identities in the hallucinatory ways that we expect in post-modern novels. Nellis paints his face like an Indian, just like his headaches: “When the pain reaches my forehead my face is suddenly split in two. The right side is on fire, and the left is in shadow.” With the flexibility of youth, Oskar plays Patriot, then Tory, then Patriot again by writing letters to Gen’l Washington. Mary’s captor’s wife has threatened to stop sleeping with him if he doesn’t find a replacement for a dead daughter, so kidnapped and brain-injured Mary has to adjust to Indian life, which at least does not entail daily beatings from parents.

This is a short novel and more readable and plot-driven than post-modern novels usually are. It’s not a real pretty story (the pus-filled details are much in keeping with the  18th century, after all - think of Tobias Smollet), but it gives a disquieting eerie sense of what ordinary people probably went through and how they felt about their worlds being turned upside down in civil conflict during the Revolutionary War.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mount TBR #38

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.

Weakness is a Crime: The Life of Bernarr Macfadden – Robert Ernst

Bernarr Macfadden is a forgotten figure nowadays despite his great influence on our culture. In the Twenties and Thirties millions and millions of readers devoured his daily newspaper The New York Graphic  and his weekly magazines Liberty, True Detective, True Story, True Romances, Dream World, Ghost Stories, and the movie mag Photoplay. He got his start at the turn of the 20th century with Physical Culture, a weekly that promoted health, fitness, wellness, and diet. It is arguable that as a mass market publisher, his only rival was Henry “Time-Life” Luce, who would still come in a weak second.

Macfadden was a child born weak and sickly in hard-scrabble Missouri. He was unloved and shuffled among grudging relatives as poor as church mice. By his older teenage years he was on his own. He has very little education and little taste – he changed Bernard to Benarr because it sounded like the roar of a lion. However, at the turn of the century, he had native genius enough to see that body building and physical fitness activities – along with pro sports – were the coming thing. By the 1920s he had built a fortune with his publishing ventures. He was arrested for obscenity a couple times for lewd pix in the mags but will still able to catch the ear of important people like Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Alf Landon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, and Thomas Dewey.

The rich media titan had political ambitions to be President of the United States. In the Thirties, he peddled the usual claptrap about shipping all the immigrants back to their homelands (funny how the message never ever changes: lower taxes, less government regs, anti-other, etc.). He was a narcissist and egomaniac, not caring what people said about him as long as he was talked about. He was bombastic yet inarticulate. He had an insatiable yen for sex, cheating on all his wives.

Yes, he reminds us all of Somebody Else We Know. But Macfadden didn’t hold grudges and because of his poor childhood had a feeling for people in hard times.

Macfadden is largely forgotten now because he was hard to admire and easy to ridicule. A showman of the 19th century style, he indulged in shameless bragging that thinking people thought was obnoxious. His sensationalist publications flaunted sexuality and semi-nudity.  In scarcely literate language supported by nutsy thinking, he rejected modern medical science by advocating weird diets and strange exercise regimens. The AMA and its member doctors frequently criticized Macfadden for boosting health fads like the raw milk diet and dynamic tension calisthenics a la Charles Atlas. He was an often kooky figure in his own time though he did support practices we accept as given in our day: tolerant views about sexuality, daily moderate exercise, restrained eating with little meat and lots of fruits and vegetables, fasting, no smoking or drinking and good posture (click here to listen to his awful earnest prose).

This biographer did a great job by interviewing the surviving participants (or their progeny), digging out the primary documents, and explaining what it means to us today. His style is easy to read and he keeps his sense of humor despite Macfadden’s terrible provocations (i.e., how he treated his children is harrowing). I strongly recommend this book to readers who are interested in media history, the Twenties and Thirties, magazines in pop culture, tabloids and the social idea and value of fitness.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mount TBR #37

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.

Kingdom of Shadows – Alan Furst

Published in 2000, Furst’s sixth historical espionage novel won the 2001 Hammett Prize. The novel begins in 1938 and goes to the brink of war in September, 1939. Nicholas Morath, Hungarian bon-vivant, is living a life of ease in Paris, working a silly job in advertising, and sleeping with a beautiful heiress half his age from Buenos Aries. I totally believe this is possible since my Hungarian grandmother said Hungarian men are handsome and charming

Despite his shallowness, Morath is loyal to his country and aristocratic family. So he always says yes when his uncle Janos Polanyi, diplomat in the Hungarian legation, has him perform little tasks in the secret world. Morath deals with refugees, killers, gangsters, fascist thugs and scamps of various stripes in efforts to fight Hitler's aggression in Europe.

One could complain that it’s episodic and its paper-thin characters are overly familiar from other outings. But Furst pleases discerning readers, assuming they have travelled and read enough Joseph Roth, Victor Serge and Rebecca West to savor asides on the order of:

… Ruthenia. Or affectionately, Little Russia. Or, technically, Sub-Carpathian Ukraine. A Slavic nibble taken by the medieval kings of Hungary, and ever since a lost land in the Northeast corner of the nation. Then, after the world war, on a rare day when American idealism went hand in hand with French diplomacy … they stuck it onto Slovakia and handed it to the Czechs. Somewhere, Morath speculated, in a little room in a ministry of culture, a Moravian bureaucrat was hard at work on a little song, 'Merry Old Ruthenia / Land we love so well.'

Furst has been an expatriate too so he knows how to evoke place by appealing to the senses. His Hungarian hero returns to Budapest, his sense of smell confirms that he is home: "Burnt coffee and coal dust, Turkish tobacco and rotten fruit, lilac water from the barbershops, drains and damp stone, grilled chicken." Don’t visit other countries to widen your horizons; go to see what they smell like.

The novel’s atmosphere of world on the edge of flame and blood is palpable. The reader can tell Furst has read the history and the novels of the 1930s, because the air, the very ether of the novel seems so real. And the familiar Furstian theme of “Every helpful act, even the smallest, affirms the bond that unites decent human beings” comes out as does the themes of forgiveness and redemption. Uncle Janos says, “Forgive me, Nicholas. Forgive, forgive. Forgive the world for being what it is. Maybe next week Hitler drops dead and we all go out to dinner.” We need to forgive ourselves, forgive others, forgive the world for not being what we would like it to be.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Mount TBR #36

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.

A Guide to Rational Living – Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper

Therapists in rational-emotive therapy (an early name for cognitive behavioral therapy) believe that people who want peace of mind had better control their emotions with their reason. This book is an attempt to teach people how to put into perspective emotions that don’t help them. They emphasize how people can challenge their irrational ideas, which are the following. Note demands for perfectionism, not pride, will lay a person low.

1. You must have love or approval from all the significant people in your life.
2. You absolutely must be thoroughly competent, adequate, and achieving in all important areas.
3. Other people absolutely must never act obnoxiously and unfairly, so when they do, you should blame and damn them, and write them off as bad, wicked, or rotten individuals.
4. You have to judge things as being awful, terrible, and catastrophic when you are seriously frustrated or treated unfairly.
5. You must worry and fret when you have pressures and difficult experiences because you have little ability to control, and cannot change, your own disturbed feelings.
6. You must obsess about hard situations and difficult people and frantically try to escape from with alcohol or drugs. Or TV or chocolate. Or sports or politics. Or cleaning or yardwork.
7. You can eat, drink and be merry today - and every day - and still lead a highly fulfilling existence.
8. Your past remains all-important and because something once strongly influenced your life, it has to keep determining your feelings and behavior today.
9. You yourself, other people, the whole world must be better than they are at present; it is an awful and squalid world since you cannot change life’s grim facts to suit you.
10. You can achieve maximum serenity and felicity by inertia and inaction.

The authors argue that when we feel anxious or sad, one or more of these irrational beliefs is at the bottom of our disturbance. We can – and had better – think in order to dispute these irrational beliefs and improve our tranquility. They grant that some of us are too slow to dispute our own irrational beliefs convincingly and consistently , so they advise us to keep in mind slogans such as Hamlet’s “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so” or Epictetus’ “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”

The authors readily admit that none of this is easy and takes a lot of practice. I’ve been taking this way of thinking seriously since late 2015. There’s still a part of me – call it “the flesh” - that balks at making straightforward thinking and employing reason a habit. I am prey to crooked thinking, unwarranted assumptions, half-digested information, lame prejudices, silly default settings. It’s hard for me to control my thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations. But lately I’m a lot better at not letting traffic and other drivers get my goat. Second, I’m more patient with co-workers than I used to be. Third, I’m much tougher, hard-boiled, when dealing with health care merry-go-round of appointments, tests, waiting, confusion, anxiety, preventable medical errors, which is a good thing for my own sake and for a significant other’s.

I read the original 1961 edition of this book, which uses the helping verb “should.” Ellis later assiduously avoided this absolutist word, preferring to use “had better.” This 1961 version also uses forms of the be-verb, such as “had been” and the passive voice.  The authors revised this book in the middle 1970s, using exclusively the e-prime style which eliminated all forms for the verb “to be.” This 1961 version does not have forms to do cognitive behavior homework, but these worksheets are available here and there on the web. This book gives only a passing mention of the ABC method, which are better sketched out in later books.

So I would advise this 1961 edition only to those readers who know CBT already and either want to examine the roots of the therapy out of curiosity or want to review the method for the sake of periodic refreshers. I try to read or re-read one Ellis book a season, to keep the ideas and methods fresh. Backsliding is all too easy, but that’s the way it goes!

Other books about CBT
·         A Guide to Personal Happiness

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Mount TBR #35

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.

Rachel Ray – Anthony Trollope

A light fairy tale like this novel is the choice to take on summer vacation, laze on a deck, in the shade, and delight in.

Our titular heroine lives with her widowed mother and older sister. Mrs. Ray is timid but good-natured. Sis, a.k.a. the widow Mrs. Prime, is a dour bible-thumper put out when others seem to be enjoying life. The trio lives in a humble cottage in Bragg’s End, where reasons for boasting peter out. Mrs. Ray is tyrannized by Mrs. Prime, but Rachel holds off Sis’ efforts to get to toe the evangelical line.

Comely - of course - Rachel attracts the attention of Luke Rowan. He has inherited a share in a local brewery that makes a little profit though its product “isn’t worth swallowing” and thus can’t compete with the local hard cider (strange how things come back, considering the growing popularity of cider in our day). Mrs. Prime mistrusts Luke’s character, and does not hesitate to share her concerns with her easily-alarmed mother. Mrs. Ray talks to her pastor, the misnamed Mr. Comfort. He vouches for Rowan’s motives at first but unfounded rumors undermine Luke’s reputation. Mr. Comfort then advises Mrs. Ray to squelch the engagement between Rachel and Rowan. O, trouble, indeed.

Trollope also includes a serio-comic courtship between Mrs. Prime and her pastor, Samuel Prong. Prong is as fanatical as narrow-minded as she. But conflict ensues because his ideas on wifely submission to husbandly authority include his control over her income from her first husband's estate. Stand-out pieces include the planning and execution of Mrs. Tappitt’s ball and the conversations between Mr. and Mrs. Tappitt. Luke is not nearly the fatuous overly confident young person as the clerks in The Three Clerks, Harry Clavering in The Claverings, or the naïve lame suitors (Arabin, Eames, etc.) in the Barsetshire chronicles.

This was written in 1863 between Framley Parsonage (1861) and The Small House at Allington (1864).  This novel is an example of what George Eliot was talking about when she wrote Trollope of his novels, “They are like pleasant public gardens, where people go for amusement and, whether they think of it or not, get health as well.” If you in the mood for English-style "nice" this is the ticket

Click on the title below to go to my review of other Trollope novels.

The Warden  (1855)
Dr. Thorne (1858)
Orley Farm (1862)
He Knew He Was Right (1869)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Mount TBR #34

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 Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City – Kat Long

This readable overview of risqué entertainment in the Big Apple describes how the enemies of vice sought to protect the public, only for the purveyors of vice to think up ingenious ways to deliver sex, liquor and male-oriented attractions to the ever-interested public.

For instance, Long describes the Raines law, an 1896 act that was designed to regulate alcohol consumption. One provision was to prohibit of the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday except in hotels. This was typical class-warfare stuff for elites to control the poor and working class. Since working men put in a six-day week, Sunday was the one chance for drinking at saloons. The law stipulated, though, that hotels could serve liquor on Sunday, to guests exclusively, only if it were served during a meal or in the hotel’s bedrooms. It stipulated that any business be considered a hotel if it had 10 rooms for lodging and served sandwiches with its liquor (if you lived in New York State, like I do, you’d know how typically convoluted these kinds of stips are). Saloons were quick to speed their carriages through this loophole by adding bedrooms and applying for hotel licenses. Scores of "Raines Law Hotels," strangely located directly above saloons, opened to great business. And side businesses...

Long is strongest when she is giving mini-biographies of figures we’ve all heard of but never really knew why they were important. Anthony Comstock's ideas of the labels "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" were so wide-ranging that as US postal inspector he lumped brochures about birth control with pornography. This put him on a collision course with Margaret Sanger, a real American hero. She opened the first birth control clinic in the US and established organizations that evolved into Planned Parenthood, which the "moral eunuchs" (Emma Goldman) of our own day are currently doing their best to destroy.

Another major topic in the book is 42nd Street, the theater and red-light district of Manhattan with its burlesque shows and Prohibition-era speakeasies. Peep shows also drew huge crowds; the lucky originator lugged to the bank in one day $15,000 in quarters (about $200K in our money). From the late 1950s until the late 1980s, cheap grindhouse movie theaters showed sleazy films. Long also covers spots where gay men would meet such as bath houses and the Y and the famous Stonewall incident, whose details I never knew before. Her overview of the AIDS crisis and activist Larry Kramer during the Reagan administration was news to me, since I was out of the country at the time.

Long tells the story of another champion of free speech, Ralph Ginzburg. In 1962, Ginzburg began publication of a magazine, Eros, a high-class quarterly featuring provocative articles and translation of erotica as well as photo-essays on love and sex. He published only four issues of Eros before he was indicted under federal obscenity laws for the fourth issue. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, incensed at anti-JFK material in the magazine, called for a fine of $280,000 and 280 years in a federal pen. Ginzburg was sentenced to five years in prison but was released after eight months, an experience that scarred him. He went on to publish Avant Garde, a slick I saw a time or two when I was in high school in the early Seventies. I seem to remember a naked picture of a heavily pregnant subject, but I can’t recall what I thought of it beyond feeling awe-struck. Reproduction - creation - is mysterious, stunning, impressive after all, and I was an impressionable youth.

The book illustrates the two classic orientations: authority opts for virtue and resistance chooses freedom. Authoritarians value obedience and submission to authorities such as religion and the state while rebels take keen pleasure in questioning authority in both word and deed. Or maybe it speaks to even deeper default settings. Alan Watts once spoke of materialists and abstractionists. Materialists are devoted to the physical and immediate present (and its attendant pleasures of lust, gluttony and good old sloth) while abstractionists are, in Watts words, “so preoccupied with saving time and making money that they have neither taste for life nor capacity for pleasure.” The abstractionists do their damnedest to make us scamps and slackers “fit” or “productive” or “compliant” or “regular” – “You’ve had your nose in that book all day; get outside and play” – and all we readers want is to be left alone….


“It is not when he is working in the office but when he is lying idly on the sand that his soul utters, ‘Life is beautiful.’” – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

"A good idea doesn’t come when you’re doing a million things. The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. It’s when your mind is on the other side of things.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, MacArthur genius and creator of the blockbuster musical Hamilton

Friday, July 7, 2017

Mount TBR #33

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.

A House to Let – Charles Dickens

This novelette was first published in 1858 as the extra Christmas number of Dickens’ two-penny weekly magazine Household Words. The practice in the publishing industry then was for an editor to have authors collaborate on a connected tale with a Christmas theme. So this was written by Dickens himself, his friend Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone), Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford) and Adelaide Anne Procter, a poetess second only to Tennyson in popularity at the time.

The plot concerns an old maid, Sophonisba, who is lovably despotic and feisty like Aunt Betsy Trotwood or Aunt Jemima Stanbury. She has moved from a quiet village to London on doctor’s advice to get a little excitement in her life. She gets more than she bargained for when she notices the glint of an eye looking from a window in an empty run-down house across the way. She orders her admirer Jabez Jarber (who regularly proposes to her) and her servant Trottle to find out what it is up with this house, which supposedly belongs to her cousin with whom she has not had any contact for a long time. The two rivals for Sophonisba’s  attention and favor investigate by gossiping with long-time residents of the neighborhood and come back with reports

Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Manchester Marriage” tells the story of Alice Openshaw, who first marries her cousin, a sailor, who then goes missing, believed shipwrecked, but not before he has a child with Alice. The daughter, however, has a handicap. Believing her husband dead, she marries a well-off traveler after a couple years and begins a new life. But her sailor husband – well, I’ll let you guess. A good story, over the top in a nice way, by the author of North and South, who knew her Manchester people. Gaskell also has a gift for turning a phrase as in “the final goad” and “my mind misgave me.”

Charles Dickens’ “Going into Society” tells about a short-lived circus artist who wins a fortune in a lottery and fulfill his ambition to run in the best society. O Reader, dost thou think he will be disappointed in all his dreams and expectations and discover the people into wealth and property and owing and consuming are not virtuous? This is Dickens being moralistic and facetious so I was grateful this was a short story. I'm finding the older I get, the less patience I have for Dickens.

Adelaide Anne Procter’s “Three Evenings in the House” is a poem that tells the story of a faithful sister who gives up her own life for her brother and is considered as unfeeling by all and ultimately has to face the facts.

Wilkie Collins’ “Trottle’s Report” pulls everything together as to what is going on in the house opposite. Written before The Woman in White, he has yet to find his fluent style that neatly blends realism with sensation.

The novella is entertaining enough but only for the most hardcore readers of the well-known Victorians. You know, the kind of people that have read obscurities like No Name. Us. The same four authors wrote another together in 1859's The Haunted House which appeared in the Christmas issue of All the Year Round, the successor to Household Words.




Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day, 2017

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence – Pauline Maier

The Declaration of Independence has become a sacred document for us Americans. Noting the quasi-religious imagery of its display at the National Archives, Maier asks how did a document drafted for a practical purpose become a sacred document. In this book, Maier examines how the Declaration of Independence was drafted and edited; how independence was announced to the people; and about how American people gradually re-defined it into a document whose wording has provided the American creed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I learned a lot in the first part of the book where Maier goes over how slow people were to get to the point where they thought independence was the right course. Maier explains that by 1774 the colonists had worked out the idea that the British Empire could be composed of countries with local legislatures united under the Crown, in other words, what the modern British Commonwealth became. The colonists were done with Parliamentary authority and tied only to the king. They deeply resented the withdrawal of the protection of the king in the Prohibitory Act. People take it personally, being declared outlaws and rebels. When Thomas Paine in Common Sense referred to George III as "the royal brute," it was a candidly seditious argument in support of independence that really captured people’s attention. A strong feeling of colonial unity was also a results of the events at Lexington.

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May, 1776. The delegates expected to decide how to proceed in light of changes since the First Continental Congress late in 1774 and issue policy statements about reconciliation with the mother country. But Lexington and Concord changed the situation to the extent that the Congress found itself the de facto government of a nation at war. They had to raise an army and navy, manage the war effort, guide Indian affairs and many other pressing duties.

I was impressed by how careful and deliberate leaders were about declaring independence, as they didn’t want to proceed further and faster than people would support their decisions. Delegations to the Second Continental Congress wanted direct orders from their colonies before they started talking about independence. Though some states were slow, the delegations eventually got these orders.

Maier points out that in fact, there were many declarations of independence in various local areas so the Continental Congress was not the only forum where independence was discussed. Local declarations showed the mobilization of the people and their thinking about independence. Many local declarations list the grievances that are familiar to us because of the Declaration that Jefferson drafted; for example: British contempt of reconciliation, killings by troops, the stern Prohibitory Act, the use of German-speaking mercenaries in colonies, stirring up the savages the take up the hatchet.

In a town called Ashby, Massachusetts, in the north central part of the state, the people said, `If Congress decides to vote for independence, then we, the inhabitants of Ashby, will most solemnly defend that decision with our lives and fortunes.' Even people in remote places, Maier observes, had profound confidence that their opinion made a difference the course of human affairs. Nowadays we often focus so much on The Founding Fathers that we neglect the key point that ordinary people were part of the conversation.

The Congress assigned to Jefferson the job of drafting the Declaration. Editing and debate began on July 1. Word changes both moderated language and made it more extreme. Jefferson’s draft blamed the King both for introducing slavery into the Americas and for offering freedom to slaves if they fought for the Loyalists. The Congress, under the influence of the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, struck all that wording out. Jefferson had much author’s pride in his perfect prose and was therefore not happy with the editing. Good thing he can’t see his memorial where the right to revolution when the government violates the social compact – which Jefferson thought most important – is not written on the wall. 

Maier is extremely careful to marshal facts to support her assertions so the copious evidence may try the general reader, who might think, “Okay, you make a good case. Now let’s move on.” This is the only drawback to a very interesting book.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Mount TBR #32

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.

Modern Japanese Stories – edited by Ivan Morris

This is a collection of 25 longish stories that give an excellent overview of Japanese fiction in the first half of the 20th century. They were carefully selected by premier scholar Ivan Morris, known for his 1967 translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. The translators were luminaries of the Post-WWII group of scholars such as Morris himself, Edward Seidensticker, Howard Hibbett, and Donald Keene.

Published in 1962, obviously the title is, in our year of 2017, a misleading one. Modernist, perhaps, since the writers were born in the early 20th century, educated before Japan went mad with nationalism and xenophobia, and influenced by movements such as naturalism, decadence, nihilism, and Marxism.

"On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao" by Kikuchi Kan is an example of pop historical fiction that the Japanese enjoy but is rarely taken on by snooty translators who see little literary merit in genre fiction. "Tattoo" by Tanizaki Junichiro also has an Edo-era setting, but its concerns – the thin line between pain and pleasure, between dominance and submission – are decadently and creepily 20th century.

Plenty of Japanese writers struggled with the perennial issue of “western knowledge, eastern spirit.” "Under Reconstruction" by Mori Ogai explores the tangled relationship of Japan and the West through the broken romance of a Japanese intellectual and the German woman who loves him but doesn’t know when to be quiet about it. "Hydrangea" by Nagai Kafu makes the point that although Japan changes on the outside, in its spirit the Japanese discover that they must be themselves.

The extreme realism of naturalism is evidenced in many stories. "Seibei's Gourds" by Shiga Naoya is about an unloved child. "Brother and Sister" by Muro Saisei explores an abusive and violent relationship. "The Handstand" by Ogawa Mimei and "Letter Found in a Cement-Barrel" by Hayama Yoshiki are about the hard lives of working people. "The Charcoal Bus" by Ibuse Masuji is a story about how exhausting life is when people must deal with poverty and ignorance every day. A harsh look at prison life is in "A Man's Life" by Hirabayashi Taiko. No cherry blossoms or tea ceremony or games of go in these stories.

The Pacific War is the backdrop for various stories. "Downtown" by Hayashi Fumiko shows us the life of a poor war widow who struggles to get by and reluctantly lets another man into her life. "The Idiot" by Sakaguchi Ango is a rough story of the effect on civilians of the mammoth Tokyo bombings in April, 1945. In "The Hateful Age" by Niwa Fumio, the dementia of an elderly mother causes chaos for a family already emotionally and economically hard-pressed by being bombed out of their Tokyo house. "Nightingale" by Ito Einosuke is set in the country, with cunning farmers reacting to change with their usual conservatism and duplicity.

Fantasy is well-represented with "The House of a Spanish Dog" by Sato Haruo. The Chinese influence on writers educated in the late Meiji era is found in "Autumn Mountain" by Akutagawa Ryunosuke and "Tiger-Poet" by Nakajima Ton. "Machine" by Yokomitsu Riichi is a curious experiment in narration which will work for you or not. "Morning Mist" by Nagai Tatsuo is either an essay with fictional elements or a short story that Nagai daringly jams into an essay. Who knew a short story would have the space?

Well-known writers writing in their familiar styles with familiar themes are well represented: "The Moon on The Water" by Kawabata Yasunari, "Shotgun" by Inoue Yasushi, "The Courtesy Call" by Dazai Osamu, "The Priest and His Love" by Mishima Yukio.

I can recommend that this is worth the time for readers into this kind of story. My usual way is to read short stories one a time, usually on weekends. So I started this in January and finished the 25th story this June. That seems to be the right pace to read, think, return, let it sink a little more.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Mount TBR #31

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.

Pearl Buck in China: Journey to “The Good Earth” – Hilary Spurling

After finishing a 500-page biography, I wanted to stay in non-fiction but wanted a book less formidable in length. Most of this compact narrative of the life of Pearl Buck focusses on her life in China up to the writing of the novel she is remembered by. Published in 1931, “The Good Earth” was two years on best-seller lists and won Buck the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She later became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.

The best thing about this book is that it tells about Buck’s experience growing up in Zhenjiang (upriver from Shanghai) as the Qing dynasty’s obstructed social and economic reform in the shadow of Western trade, religion, and wars brought more and more calamities upon China. Growing up bilingual and knowing her host country better than most Chinese urban intellectuals, she witnessed social and economic trials first hand: the physical and mental abuse of women, the sale of girls into brothels and sex slavery, soldier-bandits, Yangtze floods, leper beggars, droughts, famine, typhoons, mobs, and peasant brutalization through ignorance and poverty.

The second best thing is Spurling’s re-assessment of Buck’s literary reputation. Critics in our country have disliked her use of pop fiction techniques so Buck is little read these days, except among the hardest of hard-core readers like us. Critics in China have long figured that only Chinese should write about Chinese topics. This is changing, but slowly. "She was a revolutionary," said Liu Haiping, translator of Buck’s book into Chinese and a professor of English at Nanjing University. "She was the first writer to choose rural China as her subject matter. None of the Chinese writers would have done so; intellectuals wrote about urban intellectuals. …Many of us feel we should include Buck as part of Chinese literature." 

Any reader with an interest in 20th century China, Nationalist China, or rural China should read this book. So should any reader with an interest in women authors and the hard roads that women writers have to take for their art. Finally, as an example of how a political innocent can become the object of contempt and derision from both sides, Pearl Buck stands tall as truth-teller, brave and wise.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mount TBR #30

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.

W.C. Fields: A Biography - James Curtis

Anybody interested in the history of entertainment in the US should read this biography of the 1930s and early 1940s screen comedian. Curtis relates at interesting length that in his youth Fields played every performing venue from fair pavilions to circuses, burlesque to minstrelsy, travelling shows to early vaudeville theaters. Then he was a star in the Ziegfield Follies, stage, screen and radio. Fields made such an imprint on pop culture that his reputation experienced comebacks after his death on Christmas in 1946. For instance, when I was a college student in the 1970s, plenty of guys had his poster in their dorm room.

The reason for Fields appeal to youth and other crusty personalities was that he was a rebel. Therefore, directors and actors either loved or hated to work with him. An anti-authoritarian and agent of chaos down to his heels, he was always for the underdog. The crew always loved him because Fields was generous with money and assistance when they or their family members were in trouble.

This is a long book, mainly due to production stories that, to my mind, might have been snipped. I mean, wrangles over creative differences start to feel same-same to me, past a certain point. But that is what skimming and scanning are for.

The Fields estate granted Curtis access to Fields' papers, plus he went over unpublished manuscripts provided by employees or their families. Curtis also interviewed the ever dwindling number of Fields’ fellow actors and crew members. So readers who consider the research will be assured that Curtis has done his homework. The book also has many revealing photos, especially one of Fields as a15-year-old. Beaten at home by his drunken father, homeless at times, hassled by older toughs and chickenshit adults, he looks angry to bursting but determined to get his own back from the world.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

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, 2017. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

A Spy among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal - Ben Macintyre

Kim Philby was recruited by Soviet intelligence when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1930s. The ideological appeal of communism was that it wasn’t fascism nor was it an economic system that caused the Great Depression. His decision was purely political, he says, and so politics always trumped his personal relationships. He says it pained him to deceive and manipulate his friends and family. But then he said a lot of things. It’s just as easy to believe that he just felt jeering contempt for people he perceived as stupid and gullible enough to believe him.

His betrayal of many intelligence operations cost agents their lives. Remember too that Communists punish the family and friends of “enemies of the people.” For example, the British secret service hatched operations in which Albanian and Ukrainian patriots were infiltrated into their countries to work against the communists but they were effortlessly rolled up and executed because of Philby's advance warnings to his Soviet masters. There is no telling exactly how many people lost their lives or freedom due to Philby’s spying, but the figure must be in the hundreds. And all for a creed deservedly dead, in the trash can of history.

This is a well-written story of not only Philby but also the two Western agents he utterly took in, James Angleton of the CIA and Nicholas Elliott of MI6. During WWII, Angleton forged close ties with Philby and welcomed Philby to the US when he was assigned to DC after the war. Philby did his most serious damage from 1949 to 1951 in this job. The Americans had started to have grave suspicions about Philby, thanks to CIA employee William King Harvey, a former FBI agent, who had done research to back his doubts regarding Philby. Angleton obsessively double-checked for moles after Philby was confirmed as a Soviet mole defected to the USSR.  This obsession nearly wrecked the CIA.

Philby and Nicholas Elliott had been the closest of friends. After the truth about Philby came out, Elliott felt the betrayal bitterly. Elliott claimed he could not have prevented Philby's flight to Moscow. However, author Macintyre theorizes that Philby was allowed to defect to avoid an embarrassing trial. Embarrassing to the British Establishment, that is. This tale of the old boy network looking out for their own is right sick-making to us cosmopolitan readers that detest tribes, cliques, clans, syndicates, and secret societies that operate mainly for the convenience of their members. MI6 treated him like a gentleman even after they knew he was bad.

In the end, though, Philby remains a cipher. His egomania made him think he would never get caught, though as he aged his duplicity must have graveled him because he drank like a fish. It’s grim that somebody could feel so bad about his own country as to betray it, especially for a rotten system that meant oppression to millions.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Emancipation Day, 2017

My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Born a slave, Frederick Douglass (1818 - 1895) escaped in 1838 and became a key figure in the Abolitionist movement. My Bondage and My Freedom was his second memoir, written in 1855 as an expanded version of his best-selling autobiography of 1845. I have no reservation recommending this book to readers with an interest in antebellum America, race-based chattel slavery, the Abolitionist movement, social reform in the US, or memoirs of great Americans.

Douglass examines the baleful effects of slavery from many angles and in so doing demolishes pro-slavery arguments. For instance, in 2012, Arkansas state legislator Jon Hubbard, a Republican, argued that blacks received a better quality of life as slaves in the U.S. than they would have had they stayed in Africa.  Douglas reports that in fact slaves are poorly clothed, fed, and sheltered and that their lives are in constant peril of violence, torture, and sexual exploitation. To the argument that slaves are kindly taken care of in their old age, he tells the story of his own grandmother:

[H]er present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die!

Douglass argues that slave-holders sold husbands and wives to different owners and tore babies from their mothers as deliberate policy. Breaking up families “is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.”

Douglass paints a frightening picture of the total absence of law, of civil society, in slave states: “That plantation is a little nation of its own, having its own language, its own rules, regulations and customs. The laws and institutions of the state, apparently touch it nowhere.” Slavery also had a bad effect on slave owners and their families:

The poor slave, on his hard, pine plank, but scantily covered with his thin blanket, sleeps more soundly than the feverish voluptuary who reclines upon his feather bed and downy pillow. Food, to the indolent lounger, is poison, not sustenance. Lurking beneath all their dishes, are invisible spirits of evil, ready to feed the self-deluded gormandizers which aches, pains, fierce temper, uncontrolled passions, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago and gout; and of these the Lloyds got their full share. To the pampered love of ease, there is no resting place. What is pleasant today, is repulsive tomorrow; what is soft now, is hard at another time; what is sweet in the morning, is bitter in the evening. Neither to the wicked, nor to the idler, is there any solid peace: "Troubled, like the restless sea."

Throughout the book, Douglass takes jabs at the work ethic that was undermined by slavery. Farms are shabby, workmanship shoddy. For all the talk of refinement and genteel manners, people are careless, stupid, ill-informed, angry, short-tempered, lacking in foresight, paranoid, and never seeing anybody outside a narrow world of uncouth stressed relatives and impatient vulgar cronies. Not to mention the whole system has to be propped up with an army of thugs such as overseers, slave breakers,  and hired kidnappers.

Ashley Wilkes, my red Indian ass. 

Race-based chattel slavery lowered and tainted everything it touched. It caused psychological, social, and economic damage. Douglass pulls no punches: “While slavery exists, and the union of these states endures, every American citizen must bear the chagrin of hearing his country branded before the world as a nation of liars and hypocrites; and behold his cherished flag pointed at with the utmost scorn and derision.”