Thursday, October 19, 2017

Yorktown Day, 2017

Ceremonies, a parade, fifes and drums performances, and special programs commemorate the 236th anniversary of America’s momentous Revolutionary War victory at Yorktown.

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different - Gordon S. Wood

Historian Gordon S. Wood (Professor Emeritus of History, Brown University) neither emphasizes race, class and gender nor does he debunk the Founders with anecdotes that dwell on their personal faults and political shortsightedness. This probably appeals to readers who hero-worship the founders, who view history from the top down, and who could care less about the historical role of the less powerful and articulate. The preferences of certain kinds of readers, however, do not mean that Wood isn’t worth reading.

This book collects his fascinating essays that were originally published as chapters in books edited by other prominent historians. The essays examine six founders (Jefferson, Washington, John Adams, Hamilton, Franklin, and Madison) and the reasons why two figures are not regarded as founders (Paine and Burr).

“The past is a foreign country and it speaks another language,” said Joseph J. Ellis on Booknotes, “[A]nd, therefore, if you try and impose its values on the present, it's like a bad translation and you'll end up distorting more than you clarify.” Wood, like a good teacher must, reminds us to avoid applying post-modern meanings to words that the founders were using.

For instance, for the founders, “politeness” was sociability, cultivation, the source of civility, or civilization. An Enlightenment idea was that societies move through stages of development, from rude simplicity to commercial civilization, by the efforts of human beings whose leaders were “gentleman.” We post-moderns use “gentleman” as a sham-genteel synonym for “man” (or as on “Cops” shorthand for “white working class middle-aged half-naked overweight male arrested as drunken wife beater”).

However, for the founders a gentleman was reasonable, tolerant, virtuous, cosmopolitan, free of prejudice and religious enthusiasm – in other words, what a modern liberal arts education is supposed to deliver. Wood also points out that a leader was supposed to be a gentleman that was “disinterested” as in “impartial” or “fair” instead of our meaning of “indifferent” or “uninterested.”  Wood is obviously a reader – points in my book -- and cites Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennett’s search for a real gentleman with learning, grace, and character.

Wood also points out that for us “character” means “personality” but for the founders “character” was a persona, what people seemed to be. Instead of keeping it real by disclosing their authentic selves, the founders were self-consciously playing the role of the disinterested gentlemen rendering service to their country. They were first-generation gentlemen, the first in their families to receive a college education, and really become somebody. In the essay on Aaron Burr, Wood says that Burr’s inherited claim to leadership set him apart from other leaders of that generation. Born fully into nobility of 18th century America, Burr behaved very differently in promoting his own selfish interests over the interests of his country.

Finally, the founders were not “democrats” in our sense of the term. They were the elite and they knew it and they expected to lead and be respected because they were impartial and dedicated leaders working for the common good. Ironically, the founders succeeded only too well in establishing democratic and egalitarian ideals. In the early 19th century the voices of ordinary people began to be hard, and it overwhelmed the high-minded revolutionary ideals advocated by the founders. Think Jackson. Think No-Nothings. The elitists succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves. Politicians started to claim humble origins so they could connect with “guys like us” and get their votes. Who would you rather have a beer with, the Crude Loud Egotist or the Know-All?

Basically this is an interesting book whether or not the reader believes in The People, i.e., the wisdom of crowds. It makes us understand that the founders created a world in which their elite and politically creative kind was no longer possible.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Mount TBR #48

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 Most Contagious Game – Catherine Aird

In this 1967 whodunnit, our main character, Charles Hardin, is a London business man who has had to retire in his early fifties because of a dicky heart. While in hospital, he’s given his wife a blank check to buy whatever manor house she can find that she finds suitable.

Once discharged and in the house in the village of Easterbrooke, Charles is discouraged to find the house is not much of a fixer-upper. His attitude changes quickly when he discovers a priest’s hole, a hiding place for a priest built into many of the foremost Catholic houses of England during the period when Catholics were persecuted by the Tudors. The chamber, in fact, contains a skeleton about 150 years old. To parallel this old murder mystery is the contemporary murder of an errant wife, whose husband, having vanished, is the suspect.

As Charles does his research on the old murder, readers will be reminded of Josephine Tey’s classic A Daughter of Time, in which a bedridden copper rehabs the rep of Richard III. This village cozy has a brisk pace and well-drawn characters. The prose is witty and intelligent but not too much so. This is a stand-alone mystery, her only outing that did not feature the team of Sloan and Crosby. Though I have kiddish memories of an uncle who read mysteries having Catherine Aird books, this was the first one of hers that I’ve ever read. I can say that I’d like to read more, though I’m usually snooty about cozies. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Master of the Day of Judgment

The Master of the Day of Judgment – Leo Perutz

This 1930 classic fantastic mystery by Leo Perutz is set in Vienna in the early 20th century. The themes and devices will be familiar to us post-modern readers.

A romantic triangle in the era of the late Hapsburgs as in Sándor Márai’s Embers. Guilt over sexual transgressions as in Arthur Schnitzler’s stories from decadent Vienna.  The secret revealed in a manuscript as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The phantasmagoric atmosphere as in William Kotzwinkle’s Fata Morgana. The unreliability of an unsympathetic narrator – well, name your favorite modernist writer from the early 20th century.

Our narrator, the often ruthless and brutal Baron Yosch, narrates the events surrounding the suicide of actor Eugene Bischoff, the latest in a mysterious series of suicides. His chronicle is plagued by semi-confessed guilt over adultery. We readers receive tantalizing hints as to who is behind the eponymous "The Master of the Day of Judgment." As the amateur detectives Solgrub and Gorsky reconstruct the dead man's final hours, we realize we have to read this slowly so as not to be more confused than the author intends us to be.

Creepy, with a surprise ending. Readers looking for Kafka-lite won’t go wrong.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Indigenous Peoples' Day 2017

Indigenous Peoples' Day is a holiday that celebrates the indigenous peoples of North America. It is celebrated in various localities in the United States on various dates.

The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics among the New England Indians - Patrick Malone

After fighting the Indians in the 17th century, the English colonists in New England had to alter the way in which they fought wars. Instead of firing their muskets into tightly massed formations of enemy soldiers, they had to adjust by actually aiming at an individual adversary, taking cover behind trees and rocks, and attacking in ambushes. In short, they came to rely on the same skulking tactics of the Indians, which at first the colonists disliked because they thought such tactics cowardly and unsoldierly.

These skulking tactics became their doctrine of woodland warfare. Such were used against British troops during the American Revolutionary War. So, the patriots had learned forest tactics from their colonist ancestors, who had learned from bitter experience fighting the Indians.

The Indians based their use of firearms on their traditional way of fighting in the forest with bows and arrows. For one, their ability to aim was practiced since childhood. They preferred the flintlock to the musket because they thought it more natural to aim at a target. They obtained firearms despite colonial efforts to restrict sales of arms, ammo, and parts. When the English forces took an Indian fort during King Philip's War, they killed "'an Indian blacksmith' who repaired Narragansett firearms" and also "demolished his forge and took away his tools. Obtaining gunpowder, however, was a constant problem.

Malone also asserts that the Indians learned the way of total warfare from Europeans. Because of the harsh religious wars in Europe such as the Thirty Years' War, it was usual for armies to make war against civilians by firing villages and destroying crops. The Indians were at first shocked by the new increased intensity of war and the larger numbers of fatalities, which were unexampled in their previous experience.

This is a coffee-table book, lavishly illustrated in black and white, though some of the graphics are of the time and show Indians acting like white people’s ideas of Indians. I’m not especially interested in weapons technology and infantry tactics, but the book held my interest when it focused on these topics.  The author Malone was a Marine who saw combat in Vietnam. In the introduction he drily says he does not recommend the participant observation method to budding military historians. But the reader would have to grant unique experience should give the author a certain authority to add to his technical knowledge and expertise, and historical research.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Rich Presidents Too

From After Many a Summer by Aldous Huxley, a cool novel about LA in the 1930s.

Dr. Mulge was a college president chronically in quest of endowments; he knew all about the rich. Knew, for example that they were like gorillas, creatures not easily domesticated, deeply suspicious, alternately bored and bad tempered. You had to approach them with caution, to handle them gently and with a boundless cunning. And even then they might suddenly turn savage on you and show their teeth. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Bride Wore Black

The Bride Wore Black – Cornell Woolrich

Innocently, I had picked up The Red House Mystery, a 1922 mystery by A. A. Milne. Yes, Winnie the Pooh, that A. A. Milne - Eyore should have tipped me off. After about four pages, the coziness started to smother me. To get my wind back, I did fifteen pushups, three chin-ups, ran in place five minutes and then chucked The Red House Mystery as far as I could.

Like a shot put.

And then – panting – I turned to the 1940 classic of the suspense mystery genre The Bride Wore Black. Yee-haw! A raving beauty shoves a guy off a high-rise ledge, blasts another guy to death, and suffocates yet another guy inside a closet. Coolest of all, dressed as Diana the Hunting Goddess, she zings an arrow into a guy’s chest.  To summarize the plot would do a disservice to both Woolrich the writer and prospective readers. Suffice to say, Woolrich weaves noir magic in unemotional prose as he builds suspense to heart-stopping points, while still developing character and plot. The ending is a rocker.

Just read this exciting and well-crafted story! Don’t mind that the grotesque coincidences  because it’s not like real life is free of them. Ditto for the relentless prose. After all, it comes out of the venerable pulp tradition. And Woolrich is considered a founder of noir, up there with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The High Window

On this day in 1923 my father was born. He died in 2012. It was my father that turned me on to authors like Ross MacDonald, Hammett and Chandler. This post is dedicated to him.

The High Window – Raymond Chandler

In the third novel featuring LA PI Philip Marlowe, our series hero is hired by a mean old rich lady to recover a rare coin that was allegedly stolen by her daughter-in-law. Later a killing baffles everybody, since the person of interest didn’t even know the victim. A second killing makes no sense either. 

Readers like me will be relieved that the plot is not as convoluted as The Big Sleep or Farewell My Lovely. Rousing action is on the skimpy side. Nor does the private eye do much detecting. Chandler, always experimenting with language and going beyond the conventions of the mystery genre, focuses on setting, character and theme.

Marlowe’s investigations take him to locations ranging from ritzy to sleazy. On the first page, we get a sense of the tasteless consumption of exotic Pasadenans in the boom years during WWII. The client’s mansion is decorated with “a stained glass window about the size of the tennis court.” We are then introduced to the mean old rich lady, with her “pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones.” No fault of Chandler’s that many writers imitated these dazzling expressions, too often not with as much the delicate sense of "so enough already."

The poor and middle-class characters don’t act better than they should either. Of a dubious dealer in old coins: an “elderly party in a dark grey suit with high lapels and too many buttons down the front… Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth … a Hoover collar which no decent laundry would have allowed on the premises nudged his adam’s apple  and a black string tie poked a small hard knot out of the bottom of the collar, like a mouse getting ready to come out of a mousehole.”

Our hero Phil Marlowe is the only likable character, although we readers are happy when in the scene we find Merle, a young secretary who has lost faith in herself. Her broken appeal is believable and moves the plot. Tough and resourceful, Marlowe can deal with all types of crook, such as the drunken stick-up artist Hench and the smooth villain Vannier. But Marlowe has a profound side too. He relaxes by doing chess problems. When he delivers Merle back to her parents back in Kansas he thinks, “I had a funny feeling … as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again.”

Chandler brought serious themes to mysteries. In this one he examines the effect of power and coercion of human relations. For instance, his mean old client runs roughshod over her son and secretary and thus blights their lives for no discernible end. Chandler looks at the corrosive effects of infidelity on marriage. Marlowe’s sensitive relationship with the police is subtly and intelligently handled here than in most mysteries.

Other Reviews of books by Chandler
Playback
Trouble is My Business
The Long Goodbye

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bury Me Deep

Bury Me Deep – Harold Q. Masur

Woo-hoo, this 1947 mystery has a humdinger of an opening scene. Returning from a business trip in Florida, lawyer Scott Jordan enters his New York City apartment. On his couch he finds a bodacious and scantily-clad blonde, listening to his radio and sipping his brandy from his snifter. But Scott smells a rat and bundles the boozy beauty into a taxi. The honey turns up dead, embroiling Scott with iffy lawyers, snarky cops, dense bully boys, a rich girl that wants to be a Broadway star and her sleazy singing coach, a drunken bon vivant and his angry wife, a smooth villain, and a snow bunny. Scott also finds the love of his life. As if the cast of scores was not enough to grab and hold our interest, the episodic action includes poisoning, a fatal car accident, shootings, and assorted fisticuffs.

A contemporary critic summed up this novel with this telegram of a review, “Fast and tough by rote but played so effectively that it slips past the eyes.” This is true. Like a noir movie from the same period, this mystery is simultaneously realistic and implausible. The hard-boiled characters strike the same old poses and their capers are pretty zany. The reader gets the feeling that in this first novel, the writer is jamming in every character and plot twist he can think of, in the most shiny prose possible. It’s appealing as a glittering, fast-moving story. I won’t remember it after a month.

I felt Raymond Chandler’s influence on Masur. For example, Masur describes in dazzling expressions  - “Broadway had pulsed into neon-glaring night life. Swollen throngs milled restlessly with a rapacious appetite for pleasure. Box-office windows spawned long queues, and the traffic din was a steady roar in your ears.”

Released in the same year as the notorious I, The Jury, this best-selling novel is regarded as “a cut above many of the American detective novels churned out at the end of the Second World War.”  Masur later wrote nine mysteries starring lawyer Scott Jordan. Masur once described Jordan: “The series character, Scott Jordan, a New York attorney, was first conceived to fall somewhere between Perry Mason and Archie Goodwin . . . with the dash and insouciance of Rex Stout’s Archie.” Therefore, readers that like the novels of Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner would like Masur’s work.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mount TBR #47

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 Big Knockover and Other Stories – Dashiell Hammett

Hammet was a master of PI fiction in the 1920s. These long stories star The Continental Operative, the nameless detective employed by the Continental Detective Agency. The writing is lucid, the tone hard-boiled and the settings realistic.

The Gutting of Couffignal (1925). The Op is employed by a rich dude to guard the presents at the wedding reception of the rich dude’s daughter.  An audacious attack by a gang of robbers nets millions in booty. His attempt to recruit the locals on the exclusive island fails since "You can't fight machine guns and hand grenades with peaceful villagers and retired capitalists."

Fly Paper (1929). A debutante hangs out with the wrong people and finds that living on the edge with violence-prone knuckle-walkers is to her taste. The Op lands right in the middle of four marriages that are all rotten in unique ways. This story also shows Hammett’s penchant and supreme ability to set a large number of characters to bounce off each other.

The Scorched Face (1925). The Op is assigned to find two missing daughters. He uncovers evidence that connects a many socialite suicides and disappearances. The subtext of unbridled sex and its unfortunate consequences for vulnerable people – especially women - reflect an unease many people felt in the 1920s as Victorian mores were discarded.

This King Business (1928). The Op is sent to a Balkan country to extricate the wayward son of a rich guy. The son has found himself bankrolling a revolution for a crew of wily Slavs. The treatment of freebooting – i.e., funding coups out of sheer ignorance and misguided adventure and idealism – holds powerful interest in this story.

The Gatewood Caper (1923). Another wayward daughter case. It’s good, but feels half-done, as if its writing were rushed, that the writer should’ve revised a couple more times.. The setting of the Pacific Northwest – lumbering land – is persuasive.

Dead Yellow Women (1925). Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Op and a Master Chinese Tong Boss match wits. In places it feels like a satire of a Yellow Peril story. The description of the maze-like interior of the criminal mastermind’s mansion is a tour de force.

Corkscrew (1925). The Op is a fish out of water when he assigned to clean up remote Corkscrew, Arizona. This ought to remind the astute reader of the masterwork Red Harvest. A gunslinger remarks, “A hombre might guess that you was playing the Circle H. A. R. against Bardell’s crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other, and save you the trouble.” The Op replies, “You could be either right or wrong. Do you think that’d be a dumb play?”

Tulip (1952) is a fragment of an autobiographical novel Hammett attempted near the end of life. Not consistently convincing as fiction, it at least presents Hammett’s ideas about literary form and content.

The Big Knockover (1927). Another audacious crime – the robbery of two banks at the same time. Unlikely that such an operation could be planned as carefully as the story would have it, but it has a lot of action and witty dialogue.

106,000 Blood Money (1927). This presents the sequelae The Big Knockover. Like many aftermath stories, it is less satisfying than the original, because the characters are made of cardboard. With hinges.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Mount TBR #46

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 Literature: An Anthology – Donald Keene (editor)

In 1956, Grove Books published this collection, which gives an excellent overview of Japanese literature from the Meiji era to just after WWII. Donald Keene was the editor and translators include luminaries such Ivan Morris, Edward Seidensticker, Howard Hibbett, and Keene himself.

Kanagaki Robun’s “The Beefeater” exemplifies the wariness of Meiji era intellectuals about Westerners and Western ways. Traditional Japanese people were influenced by Buddhism which prohibited eating beef so Kanagaki Robun mocked the beefeaters in this story as reprehensible and corrupt.

Hattori Busho’s The Western Peep Show gives an incongruous feeling because it treats a gaudy Western product in ponderous Chinesey prose. It must have been a bear to translate, but I think it comes off believably.
               
Kawatake Mokuami’s The Thieves is the last act of a Kabuki play. Despite the tried and true theme of “virtue praised and vice castigated” this is interesting for its rarity value. How often do we read Kabuki plays?
               
Keene includes translations of belles lettres such as waka, haiku, modern poetry in Chinese, and critic Tsubouchi Shoyo’s essay The Essence of the Novel.

Included is a wonderful excerpt from Futabatei Shimei’s unfinished novel The Drifting Cloud. Described as Japan’s first modern novel, it follows the adventures of four characters. Bunzo is an immature 23-year-old who is canned from his cushy government job because he doesn’t kowtow to his bosses. His landlady Omasa castigates him for his job woes because she wanted her daughter Osei to marry him. Like a hapless neurotic in a Natsume Soseki novel, Bunzo wants Osei but does not do anything to attract her because he just wants her to fall into this lap. But he hates it when she seems to favor the dynamic Noboru, a hearty colleague of Bunzo.             

Combining slice of life proletarian themed and coming of age story is Higuchi Ichiyo’s Growing Up. A long story set in the late 1890s in Asakusa and the Yoshiwara, the main characters are teens growing up, gradually losing their liberty to the grind of the adult working class world.

Kunikida Doppo’s Old Gen is the saddest story I’ve read in a year that has included Chekhov. 'Old Gen, set in the countryside abutting on the sea, portrays the tragedy of a ferryman doomed to lose his family, both natural and adopted.
               
The excerpt from Natsume Soseki’s novel Botchan has our unlikely hero, the titular character who’s the narrator, taking his leave from his too-loyal maid and worshipper. He is hilariously clueless about other people, a narcissist for whom other people are just weird shadows. This classic novel ought to be read by anybody into Japan. So beloved was Soseki that he was pictured on the thousand-yen note for years and years.
               
Shimazaki Toson wrote the 1906 novel The Broken Commandment about a young teacher whose outcast father made him promise to keep his burakumin origins secret.The excerpt, a moving one, covers the teacher’s attendance at his father’s funeral back in the old hometown. Written in the naturalist style, it is both persuasive in tone (sadness) and vivid in setting. This makes the reader want to hunt up the entire novel.

Tayama Katai’s One Soldier is another example valuable for not only for its literary merit but its scarcity. Where else can read war stories, written from a different point of view, about a war faraway in time (the late 19th century), place (Manchuria), and origins (The Russo-Japanese war)? It sums up the experience of the infantry soldier, “It hurts! It hurts! It hurts.”

Nagai Kafu’s The River Sumida is a novella that captures his characteristic elegiac tone. At first the usual sad sack protagonist put me off, thus reminding us the reader should be the right state of mind (e.g., openness, tolerance for ambiguity) for Nagai Kafu and Natsume Soseki. But I was eventually quite taken with the mood and theme. In very few pages considering the writer’s large ambition, Nagai Kafu shows changes in a teenager and in society itself. 
               
Ishikawa Takuboku, in The Romaji Diary, explores a writer’s introspection concerning his failure to create as an artist and his failure to fulfill the responsibilities of a wife, husband, and son. An interesting personal document, but I wonder if it’s really literature, given all the “poor poor pitiful me” stuff.
               
The Wild Goose is an excerpt from the novel of the same name by the very serious Mori Ogai. Bored with his sour wife and moneylending business, Suezo takes Otama as a mistress. Otama feels responsible for her aging widower father so her need for money to do so forces her into being a kept woman. This excerpt covers her painful realization that the neighborhood knows the situation and is scandalized.

Izumi Kyoka’s A Tale of Three Who Were Blind is a supernatural story written in a romantic and florid style. Again, for pure novelty, it’s worth reading as an example of a kind of tale popular in the Edo period, with elements of Chinese ghost stories and native Japanese puritanism. Very gothic, well worth reading for people wondering about the roots of Japanese horror stories.
               
Naka Kansuke’s Sanctuary is an excerpt from his well-regarded memoir of growing up in Meiji era Japan, The Silver Spoon. This author was known for his depictions of childhood.
               
Shiga Naoya’s 1913 story Han’s Crime calls to mind to mind the theme of ambiguity and the futility of ever knowing what really happened in a complex incident, similar to the theme of Rashomon by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. A psychologically acute story.
               
Shiga Naoya’s At Kinosaki is another probe into the psychological state of a man who stays in the country to recover from a traffic accident. He comes to the patient realization that death is just a natural part of life, not something to be feared but prepared for.

In Kikuchi Kan’s The Madman on the Roof, from 1916, all kinds of Japanese tensions make an appearance: ambivalent attitudes toward the cognitively disabled and ancient versus modern attitudes toward supernatural explanations. I grant a lot is packed into a short short story, but to me, Kan is overwrought.
               
Kume Masao’s The Tiger, I gather, is an example of the touching heart-warming story that made him popular in his time. I really liked the Asakusa setting, but the tone is blubbery.

The two stories in this collection by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Kesa and Morito, and Hell Screen, are fine examples of this great writer’s work. Both are grim and gloomy and macabre as all get-out. His writing is so intense and odd that a reader has to wonder if he really did inherit his mother’s mental disturbances and if writing relieved or released his personal devils.

Kobayashi Takiji’s The Cannery Boat is a grim story of proletarians exploited out of greed and sadism. As literature, it doesn’t work, but as document of how modernization and capitalist socio-economics has worked common people over not only Japan but just about everywhere, it works. In 1933, for his union activities, Kobayashi was yanked out of rally to unionize fishery workers, taken to Tsukiji Police Station, and tortured to death by the secret police.

Yokomitsu Riichi: Time. Powerfully written quest story filled with misery and suffused with Buddhist sense of life as suffering. Awful things happen to a group of stranded players as they escape paying a lodging bill, such that when you figure nothing could be worse, it gets worse.      

Hino Ashihei’s Earth and Soldiers an encouragement of the gratitude the reader should feel at the sacrifices of soldiers implementing Japan’s plan to convert China into a vast slave labor camp. As I’ve said above, where else are we going to read something so unusual? It also confirms us in our dark suspicion that some writers feel they have to put literature to dubious purposes, like persuading people aggressive war against a weak neighbor is a commendable thing.

Kawabata Yasunari’s The Mole refers neither to a spy nor to a burrowing animal but to, as readers familiar with Kawabata’s thing about skin will readily guess, the blemish or birthmark kind of mole. Sigh. Since 1980, I’ve read most of his novels and more short stories than I can count, and next to his themes of modernity vs. traditional, desire and regret, there’s always something about female skin. Always.

The Firefly Hunt is a pretty excerpt from Tanizaki Junichiro’s beautiful novel Sasameyuki a.k.a The Makioka Sisters. People seriously into Japan must find a comfy position with good light and enter the world of The Makioka Sisters.

Tanizaki Junichiro’s The Mother of Captain Shigemoto reminds us that Tanizaki had a macabre and decadent streak as wide as Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s. It takes place in Genji-era Kyoto, but its graveyards and corpses are a far cry from Murasaki’s pretty rooms and Niou’s ritzy palaces. It reminds us of the Zen/Stoic thing that such extremes naturally occur in the word. I sternly warn squeamish readers off, like Mr. Halloran warning Danny not to enter Room 237. But this is heady stuff:

Those who have not seen the truth are stirred to the deepest covetousness by that which seems of good quality, and their resentment is not small at the rag that seems the opposite; the fine and the base may change, but that from which arises the cycle of birth and rebirth is eternal. … How pitiful, how profitless are worldly illusions. One can but think that only the trivia of a dream cause men to look with dread on resting in the eternal.

Dazai Osamu: Villon’s Wife. Another exploration of artist as brute, along the lines of Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, Nabokhov’s Humbert Humbert, and lots of Japanese modernists.         

Hayashi Fumiko’s Tokyo . Again with Shitamachi and Asakusa as the setting, a WW2 widow struggles to not actually have to starve. A moving story.  She died too young at 47, in 1951.

Omi is an excerpt from Mishima Yukio’s gay novel Confessions of a Mask. Kochan narrates an incident in which his love object, the rugged Omi, senses that something is odd about the schoolboy adoration of the weakling Kochan. That Mishima could write like a barn afire in only his early twenties boggles the mind.


In conclusion, I urge readers to read short stories and give them their due. That is, read one and then do something that will space you out and give you room to think about it. Read one, do dishes, think about the story. Read one, get on the elliptical, think about the story. Read one, sit and do nothing but think about the story. Read one, watch grass grow, water evaporate, laundry spin, and think about the story. Note that worthwhile spacing out activities disengage you from screens. To paraphrase Manoush Zomorodi, you have to go through pain and discomfort and boredom to get to get to your imagination, your dreams, your mystery that’s only yours, that “whatever it is” which will help you fathom the story beyond what happened, beyond empathy, to what the story means to you. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Constitution Day, 2017

The Whites of the Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History – Jill Lapore

Jill Lapore is a professor of American History at Harvard.  As a historian, Lapore defends her profession’s critical inquiry into history against historical fundamentalism. That is the tendency to venerate the Founding Fathers with religious zeal and fanatically regard the Constitution and its originalist interpretations as sacred writ. Lapore also criticizes the reverent nostalgia that can’t and won’t cope with the realities of the past such as race-based chattel slavery and the ill-treatment of vulnerable members of society such as women, the old, the young, the poor, the sick and afflicted, and the insane.

Lapore’s argument is that people on both the left and the right practice historical fundamentalism when they refer to the Revolution to advocate for their particular points of view. They misuse history to validate their own positions and promote their own agenda.

For instance, she examines how in the 1970s left-leaning profs and activists viewed the events of the American Bicentennial rather askance. She writes, "Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived but didn't offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business." By “other people” she means people who were offended by those who would be skeptical about the Revolution or the motives of figures such as neurotic crank Samuel Adams or smuggler extraordinaire John Hancock.

During the first couple years of the Obama administration, at rallies and get-togethers in taverns, she talks to members in the Tea Party about their use of Revolutionary garb (tri-cornered hats) and patter (“No taxation without representation”) in anti-tax, anti-bailout, anti-Ocare protests.

In the spirit of David Lowenthal’s title The Past is a Foreign Country, Lapore emphasizes that the 18th century has become a very very long time ago. So it behooves us to think hard to see it as it was, not as a golden age that we may wish it to be. She criticizes members of the Tea Party for not appreciating “the distance between the past the present.” Reverence in approaching the past, she says, is not as important as imagination and creativity.

Lapore’s prose is clear, her tone isn’t snarky. The organization suffers a little because she will meander with her juxtapositions of the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I’d recommend it to readers who, like me, want a starting point before getting into heavier deeper scholarly works.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Eighties: Best Tunes

Kids these days are forever being snarky about music in the 1980s.

They can get lost.

The early 1980s had me janitoring, the middle saw me in grad school, and from 1986 to 1992 I was teaching English in Okinawa and listening to the Far East Network, a much more diverse station than the armed forces radio service in Tokyo. When I think of the 1980s, I think of these songs. 

·         Hold Me Now – Thompson Twins. Hypnotic hook.
·         Electric Avenue - Eddy Grant. Dance, I told you, Dance!
·         Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics. Dubious generalizations re human nature but compelling song.
·         White Wedding - Billy Idol. I'm told Billy was a nice guy until two hours before show time and then he'd start sneering a lot, putting on his show face.
·         Flying in a Blue Dream - Joe Satriani. Whadda hook, stay in your frickin’ head all day.
·         West End Girls - Pet Shop Boys. Languid boredom but peppy, an odd combo.
·         Kyrie - Mr. Mister. Another hypnotic hook which saves kind of a lame song. How do the English do it?
·         Everybody Have Fun Tonight - Wang Chung. Everybody up-chuck tonight! At the end of the working day by the elevators to get the hell out,  I sometimes ask people if they're going to wang chung tonight. Yeah, I get stared at.
·         Sweet Child O' Mine - Guns N' Roses. No escaping this song the year it was released.
·         She Drives Me Crazy - Fine Young Cannibals. Intense, calling to mind Motown but better.
·         Walk Like An Egyptian – Bangles. Fun.
·         Never Gonna Give You Up – Rick Astley. Never had a big problem with this groovy little tune until y’all made it so ironic and all.
·         Circle in the Sand - Belinda Carlisle. A guilty pleasure.
·         You Make Heaven a Place on Earth - Belinda Carlisle. The only artist here twice. I feel really guilty now. But there's no denying the Abba-type wall of sound
·         How Will I Know - Whitney Houston. Lotsa energy and she's so pretty too.
·         Material Girl - Madonna. She says it's the bucks but she still leaves with the poor producer Keith Carradine who wins her with a little romancing.
·         Little Lies - Fleetwood Mac. Only cuz it reminded me of Rumours.
·         Heat of the Moment – Asia. Another ditty from which there was no escape.
·         Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Tears for Fears. More dubious generalizations, but haunting. A good song to shoot baskets by.
·         Girls Just Want to Have Fun - Cyndi Lauper. In grad school, I knew a guy that looked just like the dude with the moustache and glasses. 
·         Dancing in the Dark - Bruce Springsteen. A good song to spin by nowadays.
·         Sharp Dressed Man – ZZ Top. Classic video, classic guy's song.
·         Addicted to Love - Robert Palmer. Still hear this one at least once a week somewhere.
·         Human - The Human League. Cool synth pop. Still works for me but I'm a romantic.
·         Call Me – Blondie. Early Eighties, yes? A rocker.
·         Harden My Heart - Quarterflash. Lotsa style.
·         Take On Me - a-ha. Best video ever; both leads very 1980s good-looking. So how this song became a joke is beyond me. I don’t even want to know why. I don't want to understand people who weren't around at the time!

No Duran Duran is not an oversight. So shoot me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic

This is a unique travel book by Redmond O'Hanlon, who is famous for his books about Borneo and the Amazon. The dangers faced by miners make the news, but we don't hear often about the hazards in a day's work of loggers and commercial fishermen on trawlers. Without really knowing what he was getting into (as usual), O'Hanlon starts the trip with descriptions of evolution and fish, his main interests. But soon it becomes an account of pain, fright, and anxiety. Redmond and the crew suffer from sleep deprivation, which leads to mood swings, mean spiritedness, delusions, and a profound sense of claustrophobia. During the huge storms, the physical risk is braining yourself after being tossed against a wall or down stairs. The last part is told in a stream of consciousness style that cannot be read easily. Recommended.     

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Mount TBR #45

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.

Money from Holme – Michael Innes

Up and coming painter Sebastian Holme was killed in an African revolution. So says the catalogue for the exhibition and sale of his paintings on behalf of the widow, Hedda Holme. The art dealer is Hildebert Braunkopf, whose “injured innocence” act is a hoot. Readers of One Man Show (an Appleby mystery) will be pleased by more examples of the scamp Braunkopf’s malaprops: “Aha, with this authentink criminous fraud, you have met your Paddington, my friend.”

Holme, however, turns up at the sale disguised in a beard. Mervyn Cheel spots him and forces him into a conspiracy.  Cheel, as failed painter of abstract pointillist pictures, has taken to writing art criticism for provincial papers. Cheel is cunning and devious besides being an entitled Tory and bottom pincher. He totally gets what he deserves by the end at the hands of hustlers about as bad as himself.

This 1964 novel is not really a mystery but rather a crime novel. It’s slim, good reading for a plane, a hotel room, or waiting room. The vocabulary is erudite, the allusions right up the alley of an English major. If a reader liked the Michael Innes novels listed below, she’ll like this one.

Click on the title to go to the review.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mount TBR #44

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.

Who Killed Zebedee? – Wilkie Collins

This volume collects an 1881 short story “Who Killed Zebedee?” and an 1874 novella “John Jago’s Ghost” a.k.a. “The Dead Alive.” Both are examples of detective fiction pioneered by Collins in his more well-known long novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White. These are well-worth reading for fans of Collins who enjoy his realistic settings and dialogue, melodramatic plots, sympathetic treatment of women and vulnerable members of society, and jabs and thrusts against hypocritical conventions.

Where to find them:

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day, 2017

It's Labor Day, a holiday. Let's loaf around. Be idle.

Chuang Tzu – translated by Burton Watson (0231105959); by Martin Palmer and Elizabeth Breuilly (014045537X); and by Lin Yutang

The world has looked sick, sad, and falling down a rabbit hole from time immemorial. In traditional China, Confucius advised people who were into examining life to adapt ways to achieve morality in private and public relationships. In his practical and utilitarian philosophy, he recommended developing one’s sense of righteousness and benevolence by performing rites and ceremonies in the correct manner.

Lao-tse founded Taoism. He granted the importance of righteousness but derided Confucian rites and ceremonies as useless wastes of time. Some assert that it was a Taoist monk who coined the maxim popularized by Reinhold Niebuhr "Strive to develop the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Another Taoist, Chuang Tzu, seconded the idea that we have to accept people, places, events and situations that have no remedy. The ideal life revolves around simple pleasures, whatever we take them to be, but pursued in such a way that they don’t shorten our allotted span of years. Writing for scholars who were either fed up with running petty fiefs or drummed out of their administrative jobs in disgrace, Chuang Tzu advocated keeping a low profile in order to avoid trouble with fame, the vexations of office, and arbitrary superiors , since all of these (and more, endlessly) tend to upset self-control and level-headedness.

Anticipating Carl Rogers’ idea of unconditional positive self-regard and Albert Ellis’ concept of unconditional self-acceptance, Chuang Tzu suggests that we go easy on ourselves and quit demanding that life be anything other than what it is or that other people be smarter or more ethical than they can possibly be. If there were such a thing as ethics between human beings, said mystery writer Craig Rice, there would be no need for lawyers. Chuang Tzu has such cynical expectations about human behavior that he feels profound compassion for us people that can’t help being what we are, especially in terms of greed, lust, and anger. Not so much "Forgive them for they know not what they do," but "Bless their little hearts for they know not what they do."

It’s fun to read Chuang Tzu. He’s got a sense of humor, which makes him a rarity like Epictetus, i.e, a funny philosopher. He is irreverent about the limitations of logic and language, and power and the nitwit bullies attracted to ruling and leadership. He deflates the pompousness of the Confucians. He feels a merry derision for conventional wisdom and received opinions. He also bluntly advises us outsiders, misfits, floaters, nonconformists, seekers, malcontents, beatniks, and grouches to be slackers: "Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely."  One of his translators into English, Lin Yutang, said:

Culture . . . is essentially a product of leisure. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing.  From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won't be busy, and those who are too busy can't be wise.  The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.

Sure, so-called realists could argue, “Yeah, well, who the hell are you, you taker, to hold our makers and leaders in such low esteem? What if everybody just shrugged and said, ‘How the hell does all this work do me good? Who cares and what’s it to me?’” I too wonder who will do the dishes when the party’s over. But somehow I think in the US at least the driven, the obsessed, and the ambitious are hardly on the endangered species list.

Anglo-American Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton says: “I simply like Chuang Tzu because he is what he is and I feel no need to justify this liking to myself or anyone else.”

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Plunder of the Sun

Plunder of the Sun – David Dodge

In this 1949 crime adventure novel, PI Al Colby accepts a job from a mysterious, wheelchair-bound Chiliean. Colby has to smuggle a small package from Chile to Peru. As an American tourist with coveted Yankee dollars, his luggage won’t be tossed by customs officials like his employer’s would. But often assignments that easy are on the face are not easy in the execution. A dead body. Two beautiful women lead him down the garden path. Colby is lambasted and sees stars. Greedy gunmen menace him. A crafty villain steals the small package. The rousing climax has Colby and greedy guys on the hunt for a treasure of Incan gold in Peru.

Cripes, with the South American locale, noir atmosphere and non-stop action, it would be crass to ask for more. Dodge’s other job was travel writer so his descriptions feel accurate. Like this: “There was a tremendous snow-capped volcanic cone rearing up behind the town but looking so close in the thin mountain air that it practically kept me company while I ate.”

At times the travel writer and the noir writer get along real well: “The [train] car stank with the smell that exists only on the desert side of Peru, where the population is heavy and water is too valuable to waste on washing. It was a dead, rancid smell that even the breeze from the open windows wouldn’t blow away.”

At other times it’s pure noir: “She was done up like a Christmas tree – over-ripe mouth, beads of mascara thick on her eyelashes, green eye-shadow, a hat with a trailing drape that wound twice around her throat and hung down her back. The only thing missing was a man on a leash.”

David Dodge’s most famous book is To Catch a Thief because it was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Plunder of the Sun was also made into a movie with Glenn Ford, but apparently Hollywood, in its typical ham-handed way, screwed it up so badly that nobody remembers it.

The novel, though, is terrific reading courtesy of its crisp and vivid writing, wild pace, and unpredictable plot twists. The series character Al Colby is tough-minded but good-hearted in that he doesn’t exploit the vulnerable and takes the side of the underdog. Besides, my inner 12-year-old is partial to buried treasure stories.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Cursed Days

Ivan Bunin's Cursed Days was translated by Thomas Gaiton Marullo, who provides extremely informative footnotes for those of us who need to be reminded of the differences between Black Hundreds, Cadets, and Decembrists.

“A revolution is not a tea party,” said Mao Tse-tung. "It is an act of violence by which one class overthrows another." Nobel-prize winning author Ivan Bunin, born in genteel circumstances, could not but agree. In Cursed Days he chronicles the Bolshevik revolution as seen by a conservative member of the upper class who was also a sensitive writer. It was written while chaos in the streets was ongoing and rumors about the victories of the White armies were rife. Bunin has tough things to say about cynical revolutionaries like Trotsky and Lenin and their enablers among students and intellectuals. He also berates The Folks like workers and peasnats for turning into beasts the minutes the yoke was lifted. Like Sofia Petrovna, a novel written during the time of Stalin’s 1937 Purge, this memoir has immediacy. In fact, some parts are hard to read as the highly strung Bunin tries to write despite feeling the choking, dizziness, chills, nausea, sweating, and trembling of anxiety. How he escaped to Paris without having a heart attack amazes me.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Mount TBR #43

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.

Sudden Country - Loren D. Estleman

After reading a lot of them for a couple of years, I stopped reading westerns even by good writers like Benjamin Capps and Elmer Kelton. The reason is that two persistent clichés and tropes drove me off: the go-to characterizations (such as the strong stoic hero) and the “inevitability” of the passing of the redman, as if prejudice, corruption, fraud, and government policy had little to do with oppression.

But for Loren D. Estleman, I make an exception because he writes historical westerns. The reader knows that he had done research. Plus, the reader can trust that Estleman’s imagination will draw together unexpected elements in an engaging way. Sudden Country, for example, is narrated by a middle-aged publisher of pulps in 1930, as he looks back to the time when he was 13 years old in 1890. Obviously a coming-of-age story is on tap.

But it is also a quest story.  Narrator David Grayle's mother runs a rooming house where she provides extra services to preferred travelers. David does not seem cut up over these boardinghouse antics so Estleman neatly sidesteps the cliché of the angry young male. A writer of dime novels, Judge Blod, boards in the house while he awaits the arrival of Jotham Flynn. The cut-throat Flynn has been released from jail and is going to tell Blod his story so Blod can get copy for his awful western tales. Flynn also has a treasure map that locates a horde of gold robbed by Quantrill's Raiders from the Union Army during the hostilities.

Flynn is murdered by a gang in the middle of the night in a helluva scene but David gains possession of the map. Judge Blod, David and David's schoolteacher, stalwart ex-Union officer Henry Knox, decide to visit the Dakota Badlands to recover the Black Hills country of the Sioux. Our trio of heroes hires Ben Wedlock and his cohorts as guards and guides. As we rather suspect, Wedlock and his cronies turn out not to be exactly upright men.

The story is full of surprises, solid characterization, funny asides, and nods to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic. Estleman uses tried-and-true elements of the western, coming-of-age story, and quest ingeniously. Anybody looking for airplane reading or waiting room distraction won’t go wrong with this novel.

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 Bernard 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.

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. Sorry as I am to say, the novel is run of the mill. Near the conclusion 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 stokes, we feel no misgivings being satisfied consumers of it. But when product fails to sparkle due to flat prose or stretched length, 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 climaxes 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.