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.