Saturday, May 2, 2015

My Name is Asher Lev

My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok

Here we have my Classics Spin #9 title.  I am so glad I put Chaim Potok on my Classics Club list; I read The Chosen some time ago (and I'm glad I got that one first) and was looking forward to Asher Lev.  There will be more Potok in my future, but I have to go slowly, what with all the heartbreak.

Asher's story starts with his birth and family background; he's born into a sect of Hasidic Judaism (in the book called Ladover, but resembling Lubavitch Hasidism).  His father works for their beloved Rabbi, traveling to help European Jews, especially those in Russia.  Asher is only little when his mother's beloved younger brother dies and she is thrown into a deep depression and breakdown, which marks him deeply.  He loves to draw--in fact he has to draw--but his father strongly disapproves of such time-wasting nonsense.  Fearful for his mother and pressured by his father, Asher stops drawing but has...some issues.  By the time he is ten, the poor little guy is a mess.  I had a hard time reading his story.

Asher is terribly frightened of the rabbi, but he turns out to be Asher's best advocate.  I love this.  The rabbi's influence helps Asher on to the difficult but necessary path of his life. 

I loved loved loved this novel, but it is seriously heartbreaking.  Be prepared for that, but do read it.  I'm not sure if I want to read the much-later sequel; anyone have an opinion on that?

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Secret History

The Secret History, by Procopius

Procopius was an official in the Byzantine government under Justinian and Theodora, who reigned from 527 - 565 AD.  He wrote a lot of history--that is, he wrote official histories for the court, which of course flattered Justinian.  On the side, though, he was working on a more personal project--a 'secret history' in which he spoke about his real opinions.  And Procopius did not think much of the Emperor and Empress.

This is a short book that is filled with invective.  Procopius paints Justinian and Theodora as endlessly grasping and cruel tyrants.  Theodora's youth sounds like the most scurrilous gossip, and I don't see how Procopius could possibly have known what was true and what was false, but much of the rest of the material is what he himself would have witnessed.  He portrays Justinian as voracious for cash, but a spendthrift; as weak and indecisive, unconcerned about the welfare of his subjects, and as totally corrupt and incompetent to rule.  Theodora is shown as extremely cruel and vindictive.

An interesting read, obviously, but it does become difficult to tell how much is pure venom and how much is accurate.  I have no doubt that Justinian, like most human beings given absolute power, was pretty awful.  On the other hand, I do doubt that his head disappeared in a demonic cloud late at night, as one courtier claimed.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Two Drovers

The Two Drovers, by Sir Walter Scott

Some time ago, Scott's short story "The Two Drovers" was recommended to me as a way to step into the world of Waverley.  I've read Ivanhoe, but so far my (miniscule) efforts to  get interested in the Waverley novels have come to naught.  I think this is partly because I thought I had to start with the first one, and really I should start with Rob Roy or Heart of Midlothian, something like that.  Anyway, while I was looking for some Romantic stuff to read, I found "The Two Drovers" in that trusty old Norton anthology.  It's also found in Chronicles of the Canongate with two other stories.

Statue of a Scottish drover

Two drovers are setting off with their herds from the border of Scotland.  They'll walk to Lincolnshire to sell the cattle, and every night they'll rent fields along the way for pasturage.  Robin Oig is a Highlander, well-regarded and of a proud family, and he is good friends with the younger Englishman Harry Wakefield.  They often travel together.  This time, though, there is an altercation, and their differing cultural temperaments prevent a reconciliation.  Uh-oh.

Scott's idea in this story is to compare Highlanders, Lowlanders, and English--their differing traditions and cultures.  I guess you'd call it cultural psychology?  Both men are playing fair according to their lights, and yet one of them ends up dead.  Just how does that happen?

I suppose Sir Walter Scott is the preeminent English Romantic novelist.  England produced a lot of Romantic poets, but not so many novelists; they tended to go dark and Gothic.  (I'd certainly call Gothic a sub-set of Romanticism, though, so here I mean non-Gothic Romanticism, and oh dear this paragraph is out of control.)  Anyway, what with Ivanhoe and all those Scottish dramas, we've got some solid Romantic material here.

May will be Transcendentalism.  I'm afraid I don't like Transcendentalism, but I will try.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Some Wordsworth

Selections of poetry by William Wordsworth

I thought I would read some poetry by one of the quintessential Romantic poets, so I broke out my trusty Norton and chose a few pieces by Wordsworth, whose name is synonymous with Romanticism and sentiment.  I think he's the only one who lived long enough to make everybody tired of him while he was still around.  I tried to pick poems I've never read before, or at least ones that weren't all marked up in my book.

Tintern Abbey, certainly a place to visit
Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey has Wordsworth re-visiting the spot after a five years' absence.  He falls into a meditation on how often he has refreshed himself with memories of this spot, and how he has changed from a boy to a young man, and how now, in maturity, he does not just take in the scene with his senses, but adds his reason to his feelings.  Now, he not only loves what he sees, but uses it as his spiritual and moral anchor.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,--both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
The "Lucy poems" are a series of short lyrics about Lucy (or, once, an unnamed 'she').  My book says this is not the same Lucy as in "Lucy Gray," which is a poetic account of a real incident in Germany.  In these poems, Lucy is a lovely innocent country girl who lives in some secluded spot, and dies young.  They are all mourning lyrics.  The most famous you will recognize:
She lived unknown, and few could know
   When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
   The difference to me!
The Ruined Cottage was written in 1797 and revised a few times after that.  Eventually it became Book I of The Excursion, but I don't have the whole thing; I just have a version of the Ruined Cottage dating from 1799, before it was expanded and put into the longer work.  This is supposed to be one of Wordsworth's very best pastoral poems, but it is a little different than the usual--it's melancholy, and forms a protest against undeserved suffering.  What do we do with the fact that so many people endure so much through no fault of their own?

The story is that the poet is traveling on foot and meets a fellow walker near an empty and ruined cottage.  His companion is older and once knew the inhabitants of the cottage.  He tells the story of Margaret and her husband, cheerful hard workers with two pretty children--until there were two bad seasons and a war together.  One piece of bad fortune followed another and the whole poem is a litany of good people brought low despite all their efforts.
O Sir! the good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket. Many a passenger
Has blessed poor Margaret for her gentle looks
When she upheld the cool refreshment drawn
From the forsaken spring, and no one came
But he was welcome, no one went away
But that it seemed she loved him. She is dead,
The worm is on her cheek, and this poor hut,
Stripp'd of its outward garb of houshold flowers,
Of rose and sweet-briar, offers to the wind
A cold bare wall whose earthy top is tricked
With weeds and the rank spear-grass. She is dead,
And nettles rot and adders sun themselves
Where we have sate together while she nurs'd
Her infant at her breast.

The only time I studied Wordsworth in school was in a class that surveyed, I think, late 17th to early 19th century English literature.  The professor was, as he put it, "a Marxist, of course," which was pretty funny considering it was about 1993 and Marxism had never been less popular.  For some reason he preferred us to read prose, so we had to read all these essays by Shelley, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, and only a few of the most famous poems.  As a result, I am familiar with something like two poems each, but I've read Shelley on the necessity of atheism, Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (ugh), and Wordsworth's long Preface to Lyrical Ballads (but not most of the actual ballads).  I am grateful to Byron and Keats for not producing any boring prose on the superior sensibility and sensitivity of the poet...but I did have to read John Stuart Mill on What is Poetry?  if you can believe it.

Wordsworth is most famously associated with the Lake District, where he was born and where he lived from 1799 on.  That's in Cumberland.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

William Blake: Selections

Some things by William Blake

For this month's Romanticism theme, I thought I'd start at the beginning, with William Blake--especially with some things he wrote in the 1790s.  I've read Songs of Innocence and Experience a few times, and various other bits and bobs--Jerusalem of course--but I had never read these sort of mythic pieces, long poems or whatever they are.   Blake etched and printed these as illuminated books, as he did so much of his writing.  (I must confess that though I know I should properly read them in the watercolor-painted images, I always find that very difficult.  It's hard on the eyes!  So, Norton Anthology it is.)

 The Book of Thel is a mythic story about Blake's favorite theme of innocence and experience.  He was working on this at about the same time as the poems.  Thel is an airy spirit dwelling in "the Vales of Har," --at least, it's hard to tell.  She might be an unborn soul, or a desire not yet materialized.  I like the unborn soul theory myself, but at any rate she has not yet achieved real existence; she lives in a state of innocence, unable to understand physical life or death.  Thel meets a Lily of the Valley and a Cloud, who try to explain to her how happy they are in their places; she should be too.  But Thel longs for real experience; she is unfulfilled as she is.  She then meets a Clod of Clay--physical substance-- which introduces her to the Worm (her unborn child?).  The Clod doesn't know much, but invites her to try physical life.  In a short coda, Thel questions the senses and, frightened, flees back to her airy but unsatisfying shelter.

  Visions of the Daughters of Albion is another illuminated book, composed a few years later, featuring a very different heroine.  Oothoon, "the soft soul of America," is very much looking forward to experiencing life and love.  She sets off to meet her lover, the Atlantic Ocean, but is abducted by the villain in a thunderstorm, who robs her of her maidenhood.  Enraged, Theotormon (the ocean) ties them both up in a cave, and they all speak in turn.  Blake compares English people (especially women), oppressed by incorrect religion and society's mores, to the literally enslaved black people in America.  Oothoon, being America, is a revolutionary spirit who longs for freedom for both, and is seen as a black woman herself.  It's very strange, and moderns probably don't think much of the comparison.  Blake was really opposed to society's rules, to dogmatic and oppressive religion, to the subjugation of women, and to slavery.  He finishes off with a line he uses more than once: "...every thing that lives is holy!"

 I found the Marriage of Heaven and Hell even more confusing than the other pieces, though my book calls it "the most immediately accessible" of them.  Ha.  It also says it's "deliberately outrageous," and that's for sure!  Blake reverses much of the orthodox Christian vocabulary, and makes angels the villains, or at least a bunch of hypocrites.  Devils represent action, energy, and freedom.

Blake presents a series of vignettes--"argument"s, dialogues, "memorable fancies" which are kind of like visions, and more.  He reads the Proverbs of Hell, meets Isaiah and Ezekiel, and has an angel take him to Hell, which is only such when the angel is present (after a labyrinth of odd images representing the twisting of religion).  He even finds a skeleton in a mill which "was Aristotle's Analytics."  (In other words, Blake doesn't think much of logic.)  Finally, there is "A Song of Liberty," which ends "For every thing that lives is Holy."

I'm not sure what to make of all this, except that Blake had some really unusual ideas for his day--or any day, for that matter.

 Blake certainly fits right into Romanticism--well, better than anywhere else, at least.  He was a strange guy.  But in his love of nature and the world, his emotionalism and disdain for cold logic or philosophy, his belief in imagination as a purifying and supernatural good, and his mysticism, he is a Romantic.  Everybody should try a bit of Blake sometime.

He mostly lived in London, with a short stint in Sussex.  That would hardly seem to count, so I guess I'm out of luck for a new county.

Can You Forgive Her?

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

 Happy 200th birthday, Mr. Trollope!  I've read two novels this month and very good they were too.  Can You Forgive Her? is the first in the Palliser series, which is six books long and has a lot of politics in it.  I'm not sure how interested I am in the politics, but I loved Can You Forgive Her? and so I'm planning to read the rest of them too.

Alice Vavasor is engaged to be married to a perfect paragon of a man, Mr. John Grey of Cambridgeshire.  He is honest, kind, calm, respectful, and intelligent.  Alice rather feels in fact that he might be a bit too perfect to live with, and she allows her cousins Kate and George Vavasor to fan those doubts until she doesn't know what she thinks, except that when older people try to tell her what to do, she rebels.  Alice thus gets herself into the worst of muddles, making me wish to take her away for at least six months to someplace--a full-time job in retail, perhaps--where she will be completely distracted and no one will talk to her about boys.  Alice needs some perspective!  The title question is whether you, the reader, can forgive Alice for being so completely muddled for so long.

However, this is a 700+-page novel, so there is plenty of room for other plots.  Lady Glencora, pressured into her marriage with Mr. Palliser, is unhappy in her new life and headed for trouble.  George wants to run for Parliament, and he's sure to get in for Chelsea, if only he can come up with the cash.  Kate spends some months in Norfolk with her aunt, Mrs. Greenow, a pretty, wealthy, and shrewd widow with two men hoping for her hand.

 I just love Trollope, and now I love this novel.  For quite a while there in the middle I could hardly put it down, it was so exciting.  Although long!  And the story takes a while to get started.  This is not the title to pick if you're looking to give Trollope a try; it's more for the established fan.  Somebody else said that it takes a good 150 pages to really get going and I found that to be true--and well worth it.

This novel is long and complex and takes place in several locations, including London, Barsetshire, Norfolk, and Switzerland, but the Vavasor seat in Westmoreland is an important spot, so I'm going to count it for Westmoreland.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Dean's Watch

newly back in print!
The Dean's Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge

It's Elizabeth Goudge Week, and I've already finished a book!  This is the first of her "cathedral" books; it's set in about 1870 and is based on Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.  It took me a little while to get into it and figure out the shape of the narrative, honestly, but after a while I really got into it and read a huge chunk yesterday afternoon.

We have two protagonists, opposite yet parallel.  Isaac Peabody is a little, nervous clockmaker--a great craftsman, but prone to bouts of depression.  Adam Ayscough is the Dean of the Cathedral; one of the most eminent men in the city, yet miserable because he wants nothing more than to serve and truly connect with the people of the city, which his crippling shyness and intimidating appearance make almost impossible.  The Dean's watch--an actual watch--becomes the catalyst for a friendship between the two men that makes it possible for a lot of fairly miserable people to be rearranged into a pattern of peace and happiness, and finally for the Dean's watch--his calling to have the people of the city in his care--to be fulfilled in the way he wishes.

An interesting thing in a Goudge novel is that virtually no one, no matter how villainous, gets a comeuppance.  Nobody gets what they deserve; they invariably get something much better, and even the most awful people get some easing of their burdens, some way to be softened and become a bit better.  They don't usually repent completely and become wonderful people--she's more realistic than that even when writing a fairy tale. 

I quite liked The Dean's Watch.  Thanks to Lory for hosting this week, which prompted me to find a copy!  I have one or two other Goudge books from the library, so we'll see if I can manage another one.

Yeah, I'm going to need to visit this...

This book is based on the real-life Ely, so it counts for Cambridgeshire.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Dr. Wortle's School

Dr. Wortle's School, by Anthony Trollope

This was my first choice for Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday month, partly because my other choice was Can You Forgive Her?  and Dr Wortle is much shorter, so I knew I could read it in the time.  Sure enough, I'm over halfway through Can You Forgive, and I'm loving it but I don't think I'll be done by the end of the month!  Anyway, I read Dr Wortle in about two days; I couldn't put it down.  This novel has a really boring title, but it's a very good read.

Trollope tackles a moral question that people ran into more often before the days of fast communication, Internet, and credit cards.  What do you do when you discover that you're an accidental bigamist?

Mr. Peacocke is a classical scholar, newly appointed at Dr. Wortle's exclusive boys' prep school.  He has lived in America for the past several years and has brought his lovely American wife back to England, and they are well-liked but oddly reclusive.  Then Mrs. Peacocke's rotten brother-in-law shows up to try to blackmail them, and the secret is revealed; her first husband was not dead (as they believed) when she married Mr. Peacocke.  For several years, the Peacockes have lived in an intolerable moral dilemma: should they part, which would leave Mrs. Peacocke to starve, or should they continue to live together despite not being married?

None of this is really a spoiler; it's the setup for what Trollope is interested in, which is how to deal with the situation.  Another, more melodramatic author might have made the dreadful secret the point of the plot and used it as the climax, but Trollope wants to talk about what happens when honest people find themselves in an awful situation through no fault of their own. 

The Peacockes are a lovable, admirable couple.  Mr. Peacocke is Trollope's ideal husband, I think, and I love him.  Mrs. Peacocke is less of a personality; she has one and all, but her troubles have so weighed her down that it's hard for her to shine.  There are a lot of other important players, too.  Dr. Wortle, of course, has a lot of influence (pay attention to him; he's something of a self-portrait) and his wife isn't necessarily on the same page as he is.  Neighbors' reactions are examined closely; there's a lot of moral reasoning and judgement going on here (on Trollope's part) and not all of the neighbors are acting as they ought to.  Also, I think Trollope does kind of hint that while the Peacockes live together, they are not living completely as man and wife.

The resolution and tying-up of plot strands is too short and pat.  This isn't one of the best Trollope titles ever.  But I enjoyed this lesser-known novel quite a bit, and would recommend it to people wanting to give Trollope a try but intimidated by the giant chunksters he produced so often.  If you're already a fan, be sure to pick this one up someday.

Oddly, in the last week I've run into two more plots that mention an Enoch Arden kind of theme.  

O informs me that Dr. Wortle's school is based on Lowick in Northamptonshire.


Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht

Hey, everybody--I've been reading a good bit, but blogging has been just about impossible lately.  Still, I've got plenty to tell you and I'm determined to have my say for Elizabeth Goudge Week (starts today!) and Trollope's birthday month (go enter the giveaway!) before it's over.

And now, to Bertolt Brecht's famous play, Galileo...

I've figured it out.  It's all Brecht's fault.  I blame him.  Or at least partly.  It's Brecht's fault that everybody thinks that medieval people were anti-science and all that.  Because he wrote this play, which shows Galileo kind of knuckling under to the evil Catholic Church because of cowardice, and we've all seen that scene acted out.... 

But!  Brecht wasn't the least bit interested in showing a historically accurate Galileo.  In fact, he happily gets a whole lot about Galileo's actual life quite wrong.  What Brecht was interested in was using the Galilean legend to comment on the modern world--in the first version, Europe in the 1930s, and later, post-WWII world.  The second version is called the 'American' version and is what I read.

As a result, I had a hard time enjoying this play.  This is entirely my own fault; lots of people read Galileo and don't worry about stupid stereotypes about medieval people.  Oh well, at least I read it.

Grumble: just yesterday I was going through some new books at work, and there was a very pretty children's book about astronomical discoveries, Copernicus and so on.  Just to see, I looked up Giordano Bruno, and sure enough, he was described as a "scientist" burned alive because he accepted the Copernican theory.  Ahem.  Bruno was not a scientist.  He was a contrarian in almost every way, and liked heliocentrism largely because he was into neo-Platonism and sun-worship, not because he had done the math and weighed the evidence and thought it was a better descriptive model than the Ptolemaic.  But that wasn't why he got killed by the Inquisition; there was a whole lot more to it than that.  Obviously they shouldn't have burned him, but good golly, get your facts right.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Sanaaq, by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk

This book is one of the perks of my job.  Now that I get to buy literature, I can spend time searching for books from all over the world, and I can find neat stuff like this!

Sanaaq is an Inuit novel, the first written in the language.  It started off as a vocabulary exercise.  In the early 1950s, a priest studying Inuttitut asked 22-year-old Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, a respected member of the community, to write down some phrases for him to learn.  Instead of making a vocabulary list, Mitiarjuk starting writing little vignettes about Inuit life.  She invented characters, gave them a story, and over a period of years wrote an entire novel--without ever having read a novel in her life.  She re-invented the novel, in fact.

This is the story of the young widow Sanaaq, her young daughter Qumaq, and the people around them.  They go about their everyday lives, hunting, building, and producing just about everything they use.   There are accidents, marriages, good days and bad, and every so often the changing background of Inuit life shows up in encounters with the qallunaat (white people, literally Big Eyebrows, which is an excellent name)--missionaries, hospitals, and work away from home.

Nappaaluk's writing is economical and energetic, with a lot of dialogue.  There is not a lot of dwelling on emotional development or deep thoughts; it's there, but she puts it into a sentence or two instead of a whole page.  All the Inuit terms for objects and relationships are left in--that was the original point, after all, and is an integral part of the novel--so be prepared to look up a lot of words in the handy glossary.

It's a very cool read.  I enjoyed it a lot and recommend it.  Besides, can you resist that cover?  No, you can't.