Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Talking About Detective Fiction
Talking About Detective Fiction 

by P.D. James

If you are interested in learning about detective fiction this is a good place to start. You may have to go no further. P. D. James, whose novels I have enjoyed reading, has written an informative, if not comprehensive, short book about detective fiction. Starting with references to the earliest examples of the genre in books like Charles Dicken's Bleak House, she discusses writers and their works including Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and others. She discusses detective fiction as social history, the stylistic components of the genre, her own process of writing, the reaction of critics, and what she considers the renewal of detective fiction in recent years. This is a book for both lovers of detective fiction and good writing.

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

She Had Everything

The Custom of the Country 
by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country (Modern Library Classics)

"she had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them." (The Custom of the Country, p 362)

Published in 1913, two years after Ethan Frome, but in gestation since 1907, The Custom of the Country is a novel that combines the tradition of the 'money' novel with Wharton's customary depiction of New York society and, in this case, also Parisian society. Undine Spragg is a beautiful, domineering, and spoiled young woman from somewhere in the Midwest who enters this society with the baggage of one divorce already behind her. Wharton's satirical prose envelopes Undine, her parents, and the New York social crowd, as Undine attempts to join it in her effort to get ahead. Never satisfied with her lot in life (sometimes anxious and always observant of those around her imagining what they expect from her), she is impatient and makes mistakes including marrying Ralph Marvell whose family is pedigreed but impecunious. Her attempts to live in a lifestyle which she considers worthy of her grand ambition quickly leads to difficulties that engulf the marriage. Her story continues with financial intrigue on the part of her first husband, who has also migrated to New York from the Midwest for greater financial opportunities. Undine in the meantime lives in Europe chasing after a Prince before settling on a marriage to Count Raymond de Chelles. However, her all-consuming greed leads to the end of that marriage; while further financial dealings bring vast wealth to Elmer Moffat, her first husband who has become more and more interesting to her throughout the story.

Undine is one of Edith Wharton's greatest creations, who resembles Thackeray's Becky Sharp, a heroine from an earlier age. With her reliance on men of questionable financial character and the increased rate of change in society in the new century Undine devastates the social landscape before her as its representatives are shown to have feet of clay. A theme that courses through each of Undine's unsuccessful marriages is the battle between the traditions of the old families -- Marvel, Van Degen, and de Chelles -- and the modern world to which Undine so desperately wants to belong:  "she merely felt the impossibility of breaking through the mysterious web of traditions, conventions, prohibitions that enclosed her in their impenetrable network." (p 316)

Through all of this she remains consistently unattractive and  I found myself unable to generate any sympathy for her character, unlike my experience reading about Wharton's other leading ladies (Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence).  In its structure the novel covers new ground for Wharton with the introduction of a journalistic narrator, Mrs Heany, in the second half of the book. The result is a more modern novel than her other great works. The story ultimately is one of a self-made woman who, while lacking moral character, is able to create a world through her ability to use the people around her for her material advantage. The novel is one in which satire is omnipresent and the result is a brittle yet brilliant achievement.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. The Modern Library, New York. 2001 (1913)

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Joy of Reading
The Joy of Reading

by Charles Van Doren

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot

The title says it all; the book is about the joy a reader experiences when exploring the best works of literature from the time of the Greeks and before until the twentieth century. While this book did not begin my journey through great literature it has enriched it and provided a companion to turn to when I am in need of meditation on the favorites of someone who evinced what is truly the best in literature. Do I agree with all his favorite books? No, but they are all worth considering, exploring, reading for a while to see if I can find some of what he saw in them. Some I have made my own with readings and rereadings and some have been reserved for what I hope will be a properous reading future filled with more joy.

The Joy of Reading by Charles Van Doren. Harmony Books, New York. 1985

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The Cunning Man

The Cunning Man 

by Robertson Davies

Cunning men, wizards and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind. . . .
   The body's mischiefs, as Plato proves, proceed from the soul: and if the mind be not first satisfied, the body can never be cured.
    Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

Robertson Davies is more than just a good storyteller. He is a literate storyteller who fills his novels with references to literature, music, art and science and does so in an engaging way while creating characters that are so interesting that it is difficult to put the book down. At least that has been my experience and my only regret is that I have read so few of his novels.
The Cunning Man is a clever story, part mystery, part bildungsroman, part family saga and a bit of a romance, that keeps you reading to find out how the life of Jonathan Hullah, the cunning and wise doctor at the center of the book, will turn out and how those of the characters whose drama fills his life will also conclude. The doctor is a cunning man in the sense used by Robert Burton in his The Anatomy of Melancholy, a seventeenth century compendium of information about the subject of melancholy. Thus the cunning man is a sort of wizard who is as much a doctor of the soul as he is a doctor of the body. From Dr. Hullah's early days learning from a wise Indian woman called Mrs. Smoke through his years in medical school and as medic in the army he develops both expertise in traditional medicine and sometimes mysterious abilities to look into his patients' souls. The result makes for a unique career. Throughout the story the reader is treated to the differences between high and low church Anglicanism, how one deals with a journalist in the family and, most of all, how the cunning man spins his web of masterful medicine through it all.

The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies. Viking Press, New York. 1995

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Monday, November 22, 2010


by Michael J. Arlen

Exiles is a memoir of a father and a son in a different era both from our own and the one in which I grew up. I was impressed with the literary references which, not surprisingly, were due to Michael J. Arlen's father's own profession as a writer of novels and essays. The change in American letters is made clear in the sons life as writer and critic, perhaps best symbolized by an early job at Life magazine. His schooling and other events seem to be apart from his father, not so often his mother, but the presence of the father seemed always there in the background.  While he would later become a writer for The New Yorker, Michael Arlen's son was part of a new generation. Fortunately for us he captured the essence of his father's style and generation in this exceptional memoir.

Exiles by Michael J. Arlen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 1970
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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Bonfire of the Vanities
The Bonfire of the Vanities 

by Tom Wolfe

On Wall Street he and a few others - how many? - three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? - had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe.

Bonfire of the Vanities is a novel that reads as if it were taken right out of the current news, or at least the news when it was written in the late 1980s. The story focuses on a "master of the universe" Wall Street bond trader whose life unravels as the result of a literal wrong turn taken. His life is then turned upside-down by the machinations of several other characters including an ambitious journalist, a hypocritical reverend, and the questionable actors from the judicial system. The denouement does not reward the good characters for in this book they do not exist. The result is a great read, the best book about unlikeable characters since Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, and what I would now consider great historical fiction about an earlier time and place.

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places
Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places

by Bill Streever

It has been said that feathers evolved first to protect birds from the cold, and later the birds realized or learned or somehow found out that feathers, managed in just the right way, would allow the convenience of flight. (p 135)

Bill Streever's book, Cold, is subtitled "Adventures in the World's Frozen Places". It read like a natural history of the climate of cold with almost everything you might want to know about cold from the scientific discovery of absolute zero to the development of high-tech clothing to augment if not surpass the use of nature's wool and fur to keep warm when it is cold. Using the calendar year - starting and ending in the summer - the author takes you on ever colder adventures and explorations of the nature and meaning of cold. He includes details of how animals cope with cold such as hibernation: what it is and how some animals use it while others use a variant of it to survive the cold of Winter.  His story is one that expands to include the way cold climate has shaped our planet and gave this reader pause to consider the massive forces that have been unleashed to raise and lower the earth's temperature over the millenia. Having grown up in an area of the Midwest United States whose contours were shaped by the last major ice age I found this book a fascinating education in who and what cold had effected elsewhere over history. Streever interlaces his personal adventures with natural history and science creating an educational and entertaining story of the continuing presence of cold in our lives.

Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places by Bill Streever. Little, Brown & Co. New York. 2009

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William Tell

Legend says that the Swiss hero William Tell shot the apple from his son’s head on this day in 1307. Tell is a hero in Switzerland, and the tale is oft-told (some variant tellings pre-dating the Tell legend), but not as P. G. Wodehouse tells it in William Tell Told Again:
Once upon a time, more years ago than anybody can remember, before the first hotel had been built or the first Englishman had taken a photograph of Mont Blanc and brought it home to be pasted in an album and shown after tea to his envious friends, Switzerland belonged to the Emperor of Austria, to do what he liked with….
William Tell Told Again (1904) is a collaboration, the prose telling by Wodehouse accompanied by a second telling in verse by John W. Houghton, and a third in color illustrations by Philip Dadd. Below, Houghton’s lines describing the key moment when Tell explains to the tyrannous Austrian Governor, Hermann Gessler (the “G.” of line 2) why he had pulled not one but two arrows from his quiver:

But, as the arrow cleft the core,
Cried G. with indignation,
"What was the second arrow for?
Come, no e-quiver-cation!
You had a second in your fist."
Said Tell, the missile grippin',
"This shaft (had I that apple missed)
Was meant for you, my pippin!"

Source: Today in Literature

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Swann's Way

"For a long time I used to go to bed early." - Swann's Way, Marcel Proust*

Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, was published on this day in 1913. Declined by a handful of publishers, this first volume of In Search of Lost Time was author-financed, but in the literary community at least, the book’s rise to fame began almost immediately. Just a few months after he had rejected the book for his literary magazine, Nouvelle Revue Française, André Gide wrote Proust to apologize: “For several days I have been unable to put your book down…. The rejection of the book will remain the most serious mistake ever made by the NRF and, since I bear the shame of being very much responsible for it, one of the most stinging and remorseful regrets of my life.”
By the time Proust died just a little over a decade later (November 18, 1922), he was the envy of even those modernists engaged in similar stylistic experiments. “Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures—there's something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can't write like that….” Several months after Proust’s death, John Middleton Murray noted in the Times Literary Supplement that literary conversation was dominated by “that odd king over the water, M. Proust”:

The vogue has risen into a cult; and the cult, embracing the cultured masses, has deepened into a wave; until the whole of our literary taste is threatened by the towering line of this tidal, this positively Marcel, wave.
James Joyce observed Proust’s funeral procession through the streets of Paris. The two had met six months earlier, at the legendary dinner party held at the Majestic Hotel, Paris, attended by Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Picasso and others. Accounts of the conversation between Proust and Joyce vary, though all versions indicate that the two giants of modernism had little to say to each other, perhaps because Joyce was drunk. Later comments show that Joyce envied Proust his cork-lined solitude and his independent means, and did not think that he had “any special talent.”

Source: Today in Literature

* Swann's Way by Marcel Proust. Random House, New York. 1961 (1924), p3

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Favorite British Authors

I enjoy reading the Friday columns of Cynthia Crossen in the Wall Street Journal.  Her answers to readers' questions about reading and books are informative, witty and wise with reading experience that is clearly wide and deep.  Her most recent column was a question about her favorite British Authors.  This suggested to me that I might share a few notes on the topic from my reading perspective. 

My reading of British literature goes back to my earliest days and some of my favorites stem from that time when I discovered Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre) who continue to be among my favorites.  I enjoy the 'classic' novelists of the Victorian era including Charles Dickens (David Copperfield and all the other novels), George Eliot (Middlemarch) and Thomas Hardy (The Return of the Native).  Among contemporary British novelists I would consider my favorites to be Pat Barker (The Ghost Road), John Banville (The Untouchable) and Julian Barnes (Arthur and George).  Does this leave some great authors by the wayside, perhaps favorites also?  Yes.  So I will pick up this thread again in the future after deeper thought allows for augmentation of this list.  In the meantime I welcome any suggestions from fellow readers as to their favorite British authors.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Fyodor Dostoevsky was born on this day in 1821 (New Style). Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first book, was published to wide acclaim in Russia when he was just twenty-two. Dostoevsky scholars find in the tale and the writing talent many characteristics of the later classics, most notably Dostoevsky’s ability to capture and empathize with the lives of the poor, the marginalized and the misfit. The story is framed as a series of impassionate letters between an impoverished clerk and his beloved, a seamstress but also an avid reader and writer. Her letters include her own autobiographical short story in which her friend, a poor tutor in the last stages of tuberculosis, finally passes away. His funeral must be financed by the sale of his precious books, but his father, overwhelmed by grief, cannot bear to see this happen. He stuffs as many books as he can into his pockets and hat, and will not set them aside even to follow the broken-down hearse to the graveyard:

At length the coffin had received its burden and was screwed down; after which the bearers placed it upon a bier, and set out. I accompanied the cortege only to the end of the street. Here the driver broke into a trot, and the old man started to run behind the hearse—sobbing loudly, but with the motion of his running ever and anon causing the sobs to quaver and become broken off. Next he lost his hat, the poor old fellow, yet would not stop to pick it up, even though the rain was beating upon his head, and a wind was rising and the sleet kept stinging and lashing his face. It seemed as though he were impervious to the cruel elements as he ran from one side of the hearse to the other—the skirts of his old greatcoat flapping about him like a pair of wings. From every pocket of the garment protruded books, while in his hand he carried a specially large volume, which he hugged closely to his breast. The passers-by uncovered their heads and crossed themselves as the cortege passed, and some of them, having done so, remained staring in amazement at the poor old man. Every now and then a book would slip from one of his pockets and fall into the mud; whereupon somebody, stopping him, would direct his attention to his loss, and he would stop, pick up the book, and again set off in pursuit of the hearse.

Source: Today in Literature

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Music and the Ineffable
Music and the Ineffable 

by Vladimir Jankelevitch

"music is at once expressive and inexpressive, serious and frivolous, deep and superficial; music has meaning and does not have meaning." - Vladimir Jankelevitch

This is a short but thoughtful book in which the argument is stated on the first page — namely, that since music works through melodies, rhythms and harmonies and not through concepts, it contains no messages that can be translated into words. There follows 50,000 words devoted to the messages of music — often suggestive, poetic and atmospheric words, but words nevertheless, devoted to a subject that no words can capture. The author goes into detail about what music is not: hieroglyphics, language, sign system; and he argues that neither does it express emotions. Music is unique in a way that, well, only music can be. I personally can testify that music can elicit emotions and is important to my life, but I know perfectly healthy intelligent people for whom music is of minimal if any importance. Fortunately, music has been important and vital to many humans over the eons and this book tries to identify through words what that vitality means.

Music and the Ineffable by Vladimir Jankelevitch. Princeton University Press. 2003 (1983)

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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Wild Imaginations

A Lecture on Jane Austen

"What wild imaginations one forms where dear self is concerned! How sure to be mistaken!"
-  Jane Austen

A lecture with the awesome title, "Monsters and Monstrosity": Desire and Corporeality in Jane Austen's Novels, gives one pause as to what to expect, even when the lecture is proffered by a proven sage (on Austen and her literature) such as Elisabeth Lenckos, Instructor in the Basic Program of the University of Chicago.  When that lecture begins with a discourse on the genre of "mash-up" novels based, loosely, on Jane Austen's original texts the wonder grew until Ms. Lenckos turned her analysis toward Austen's original texts and began to explicate the role of villainy and seduction as it was truly portrayed by the pen of Jane Austen.  The result was a delightfully instructive hour of learning about the influences and interests of Jane Austen and how she portrayed both lovers and other strangers without the need of some of the monsters that have been attached to her work in the twenty-first century.

The lecture made clear the familiarity that Austen had with the Gothic novel based, in part, on her novel Northanger Abbey which manages to maintain a basis in reality while referencing the Gothic and suggesting mysteriousness.  I enjoyed the recommendation of Anne Radcliffe (among several Gothic novelists referenced by Austen) as a worthwhile and entertaining representative of the Gothic genre in the lecture.  And also the discussion of Austen's ability to portray moral 'monsters' such as Willoughby and Wickham while maintaining a classically-balanced presentation of personal and social affairs in her novels.  Ultimately Austen's novels were shown to be " dramas of the mind and heart" where one can see the benefits of self-improvement and introspection in Austen's heroines.  It was an expansive lecture that limned the breathtaking scope of Austen's consideration of the role of the sensible and human reason in the realms of love.

Friday, November 05, 2010



by Anthony Storr

When from our better selves we have too long
Been part of the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

- Wordsworth, The Prelude

Anthony Storr contrasts the significance of human relationships with the power of solitude in this engaging look at the nature of solitude. The importance of the impersonal part of the human condition and its value for creativity and life is the message of Storr's thoughtful meditation and exegesis. On a voyage consisting of twelve chapters or excursions into the variety of solitude and its meaning the author considers aspects from the "hunger of the imagination" to the "search for coherence" in one's life with digressions into depression and its counterparts. Containing a wealth of references to writers from Plato to Freud (plus artists and other creative types) the book uses examples of creativity and healthy living that have flourished in solitude. While the creative among us have contributed to the benefit of all, Storr suggests that everyone can benefit from some moments of solitude, if not a life based upon it. The desire for human companionship is important, but it should not exclude a realization and participation in moments of solitude. This book expands the possibility for human flourishing by considering the impersonal side of our human nature.

Solitude by Anthony Storr. HarperCollins, London. 1997 (1988)
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The Solitary Reaper

William Wordsworth composed "The Solitary Reaper" on this day in 1805. The poem was partly inspired by Wordsworth’s 1803 walking tour of the Scottish Highlands in harvest time. The second inspiration was a sentence in a book by his friend, Thomas Wilkinson, describing a moment during his own harvest walk: "Passed a Female who was reaping alone: she sung in Erse as she bended over her sickle; the sweetest human voice I ever heard: her strains were tenderly melancholy, and felt delicious, long after they were heard no more." In such moments of "low and rustic life," Wordsworth believed, "the essential passions of the heart find a better soil” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads). The poem's final stanzas:

Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again!
Whate'er the theme, the maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;
I listen'd, till I had my fill;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more.

Source: Today in Literature

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

In Plato's Cave

In Plato's Cave 

by Alvin Kernan

How does a philosopher live and act in the real world? Alvin Kernan's touching memoir answers this question through sharing his experiences as student, professor, and administrator at a variety of major universities. In his telling of these experiences he also sheds light on the changes in university life over the second half of the twentieth century. I enjoyed the personal touches and the insights into the academic life that seemed to be true. I say seemed to be only because, even in a supposed non-fiction memoir like this I always sense there may be a bit of unreliability in the narrator. I still found this book an engaging and thought-provoking read for anyone interested in philosophy and academic life.

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Monday, November 01, 2010

Poem for November

by Thomas Hood

No sun--no moon!
No morn--no noon!
No dawn--no dusk--no proper time of day--
No sky--no earthly view--
No distance looking blue--

No road--no street--
No "t'other side the way"--
No end to any Row--
No indications where the Crescents go--

No top to any steeple--
No recognitions of familiar people--
No courtesies for showing 'em--
No knowing 'em!

No mail--no post--
No news from any foreign coast--
No park--no ring--no afternoon gentility--
No company--no nobility--

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

Thomas Hood was a nineteenth century British humorist and poet.  He left school at an early age and was primarily self-taught.  He was associated with the London magazine and later the Athenaeum, started in 1828 by James Silk Buckingham, where he was a regular contributor for the rest of his life.