Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wigs on the Green

Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford

This was such an oddball funny novel!  I really enjoyed it a lot.  But first, some history: Nancy Mitford, oldest of the six Mitford sisters, was a comedic novelist who made it a rule never to take anything too seriously.   You may also know that two of her sisters were dedicated Fascists (and one was a Communist too! and one became a duchess!  and one just liked chickens.).  Diana dumped her mundane husband to become the lover and later wife of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascist movement.  Unity went to Germany to meet Hitler, who she thought was marvelous. And Nancy wrote a novel that poked some light-hearted fun at them.  This was in 1935, when many Britons still found Fascism more amusing than anything else.  Unity--who the main character is based upon--seems to have taken it in good part, but Diana was so offended she broke off relations for several years.  After the war, Nancy refused to reprint the novel, not wanting to re-offend Diana; by then, Unity was a tragic case of brain-damage from a suicide attempt, and Fascism was just not funny to anyone.

And now, the story: a young man receives a small unexpected inheritance, and he and a rakish friend head off to a village in hopes of hooking young heiresses to marry.  They are thinking that young Eugenia Malmain will be ideal; she's 17, beautiful, sheltered, and filthy rich.  Eugenia, however, is a dedicated supporter of General Jack and his Union Jackshirts, a nationalist Fascist group.  (Jackshirts!  They wear shirts made of British flags!)  She recruits everyone she sees (they all join up to please Miss Eugenia).  Meanwhile, Lady Marjorie and her friend have run off from a wedding and are in disguise.  The local artistic beauty is looking for some amusement, and her artistic Pacifist friends are up for a fight with the Jackshirts.  Let the fun begin!

It's very much like a Wodehouse novel, with the same frothy humor, and the Jackshirts are as absurd as Roderick Spode's Blackshorts.  A very fun story and a pretty good history lesson too.  If you've never heard of the Mitford sisters, look them up right away.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Go Tell It on the Mountain

I read a boring Everyman edition.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

This is such a powerful novel; it's not easy for me to describe it. 

The story starts with John on his 14th birthday.  It's 1935 in Harlem, and he belongs to a family that is very strictly religious.  Their lives revolve around the church they attend, and John's mother expects great things from her oldest son who is so intelligent and quiet.  John, however, is not at all sure that he has (or wants) a calling to follow God, and his feelings about religion are complicated by his hatred of his father, who claims to be a preacher and a man of God but mostly seems to use that as an excuse to beat the son he despises.  As the novel unfolds, we learn the stories of John's elders--his mother, his father, his aunt, and others--and we come to understand the family in ways that John cannot.  He, however, starts to gain his own understanding. 

The novel's language is amazing.  It's written in the heavily Biblically-influenced language that was once heard from people, especially black preachers and speakers, who were so immersed in the Bible that they knew every bit of it more deeply and personally than most people do today.  It's very layered and complex, full of allusions--just amazing language.

A great classic novel.  Read it! 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In the Steps of the Master

In the Steps of the Master, by H. V. Morton

H. V. Morton was quite a famous journalist in his day.  He made his career by being the first to report on the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb, and then he wrote a lot of very popular books about spots in Britain (I have read and loved a couple of them).  This book is the account of a trip he took to Palestine in about 1934, and though he writes quite a bit about Crusaders and Arabs and Romans, his main focus is on the events of the New Testament and on the Hebrew people.

The amazing thing about this book is that Morton was there 80 years ago--before the modern state of Israel was established, and just about before much modernization had occurred at all.  I'm quite sure that if I went to the same spots, they would all be very very different now.  Although much had changed in 2000 years, Morton was able to see quite a few things--ways of life, habits, and so on--that had changed relatively little.  Every so often he could look across the street and see one of the parables, or some street scene, enacted in real life.  That would all be long-gone now.

It's a very long book, and Morton has plenty of time to see a lot and tell us about it in detail.  He starts in Jerusalem, observing the old, old churches there, the encrustation of tradition and diplomacy, the rituals and the devotion of pilgrims.  Some of the people he speaks with belong to ancient traditions that I suppose are now swept away.  As he travels around the country, he describes not only what he sees, but what used to be there, the history and the wars and everything.  Morton can very often throw light on a confusing scene from the New Testament simply by being on the spot and observing.  And then there is Roman, Arab, and Crusader history, empire after empire arriving and fading away, and meanwhile, ordinary people scratching out a living.

Several times he is visiting spots that very few Westerners have ever been to, great inaccessible ruins with people living in them that no one else has paid attention to for centuries.  He goes to Petra, for example--now a major tourist destination, but at that time a very difficult trip.  The Krak des Chevaliers is a messy ruin that no one in their right mind would visit when he describes it in the book; now it is all cleaned up and curated.  He visits a priest who has just recently discovered a beautiful Roman mosaic from a long-gone church--it's still buried for safekeeping.  Nowadays it has a new building, a display, and its own website.  (I'm glad it's possible for me to see it!)

Finally, ss you might expect, Morton shows some attitudes that we do not approve of, though as a world traveler he certainly has less of them than most people probably did.  

A fantastic book, just fascinating and hard to put down.  I would highly recommend it. 

People Tell Me Things

People Tell Me Things: Stories by David Finkle

It's high time I wrote up reviews for all these books on my desk that I read during the Wicked Wildfire Readathon!  I'll start with the TBR titles, since I'm extra-late with those.

David Finkle writes about the arts for various New Yorky publications, and here he was written a collection of short stories that are about the same world.  The stories are kind of rambly--I mean, they have a point and they're not over-long, but they're kind of like a guy at a coffee shop telling you a random story about his life.  Artists, writers, and film people wander in and out and get up to things.  And all of it takes place in Manhattan, with very, very New York sensibilities.  It's probably quite literary, but in a way that I don't really get.

I'm not really much on New York stories, so I wasn't enthralled.  Meh.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Readathon Wrapup!

Well, that kind of got away from me for a few days!  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the readathon and finished a pile of books, few of which I have managed to actually write reviews for yet.  Here on my desk in front of me I have the following finished books:

Blind Justice, by Anne Perry
Tristan, by Gottfried von Strassburg
People Tell Me Things: Stories, by David Finkle
Go Tell It On the Mountain, by James Baldwin
Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford
Linnets and Valerians, by Elizabeth Goudge
In the Steps of the Master, by H. V. Morton

And today I started Savage Continent, a book about the aftermath of World War II in Europe.  It's been fun!  Thanks to My Shelf Confessions for hosting!  Hope it happens again next year.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Readathon Update, Day 7

Here's an update on my weekend's reading:  I finished Go Tell It On the Mountain, which is an amazing novel.  Wow.  I'm now about 3/4 of the way through In the Steps of the Master.  And I've started Wigs on the Green, a comedic novel by Nancy Mitford that is very funny!  Sort of Wodehousy.  It was written in about 1935 and pokes fun at Fascist beliefs, which annoyed at least one of her two Fascist sisters so much that after the war, Mitford wouldn't let it be reprinted so as not to offend her--and also because by 1951 Fascism wasn't very funny anymore.  But I'm completely entertained by a group that makes their shirts out of Union Jack flags so that they are called the Union Jackshirts.  There is also, of course, a lot of comedy around romantic pairs.

Clearly I need a 30's jazzy kind of song here, for Wigs on the Green.  I picked "Okay, Toots!" which was a hit in Britain about that time--you can imagine Bertie Wooster banging it out on the piano and it's really catchy--but the only version I could find with the words in is in this collection of songs.  Enjoy them all!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Readathon Update, Day 5

I was out and about a little more today, but I did get some reading done.  I finished People Tell Me Things, which was meh.  Too much New York.  I read a good solid chunk of Go Tell It On the Mountain, which is just amazingly written but (as you might expect) very wrenching.  And I've read a bit of In the Steps of the Master--I'm now a little over halfway through.

I keep meaning to pick up Beauty in the Word, a book about classical education.  Just today I heard that the author has passed away; he will be very missed, I know.  So I'm going to start that next.

I now have 3 finished books in a pile on my desk to review.  Maybe tomorrow...

Go Tell It On the Mountain is written in a gospel style; it's all about people who live and breathe their religion, and they think in the semi-Biblical, gospel style that is most familiar to many of us now through the speeches and writings of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.  Gospel songs are quoted throughout the novel, and here is one of them for you, "Traveling Shoes":

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Readathon Update, Day 4

Today was pretty good for reading.  I finished Anne Perry's Blind Justice, about the last third of it (turned out I'd read two thirds yesterday), and got in a chunk of In the Steps of the Master--a really long book, I'm now about a third through it.  I also picked up a book of short stories from my TBR pile that I started a while back, which I'm having trouble getting into.  It's called People Tell Me Things, and they are really New Yorky stories which I'm not much into.  One of the stories I read today had a poster of Sting as a story element.  Sting is possibly the only real person mentioned in this entire book of stories, which contains a lot of gossipy-sounding stuff about real-sounding people who are not in fact real.  Sting, therefore, gets the song of the day.  I quite like Sting (despite his undeniable pomposity) so it was hard to pick, but we'll go with Desert Rose because it's about the right timeframe for the story--no early songs allowed!--it has no particular meaning for me, and I like the Algerian guy, Cheb Mami, who does the other half of the song.  Although it's an uber-obnoxious video, pretty much an ad for a video camera and a fancy car.  

And here, as your daily special bonus, is a collection of "retro library posters" like the paperback covers I linked to the other day.  This one here will resonate with any reference librarian:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Readathon Update, Day 3

Today I read a pretty good piece of In the Steps of the Master, which has some great stuff in it about old legends and ruins and history.  I needed something to read by the pool, so I started Anne Perry's latest mystery, Blind Justice, which is pretty good so far. I'm probably about a third of the way through.  I always read Perry, but she sort of bugs me too, always spending a lot of time on fine shades of emotion and meaning--though her characters aren't as annoyingly prickly and irritable as they used to be.

The Perry novel is, of course, set in Victorian London, and contains some mentions of music halls.  The music hall song I know best is "My Old Man Said Follow the Van," so here it is, with some other classic London songs.  This performance is from 1961 and quite stagey, but it's fun.

I have another song for you!  This is a library-themed song, and I can't get it to embed, but the lyrics are at the page anyway.  Please enjoy "What Can I Help You Find Today?" -- it's funny!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Readathon Update, Day 2

I had a much quieter day today and actually did some reading.  I finished Tristan!  I read a good chunk of Go Tell It On the Mountain, and I got started with In the Steps of the Master, H. V. Morton's journal of his travels in Palestine in about 1935.

In other booky news, I was directed to this completely wonderful collection of "pulp librarian literature"--that is, old paperbacks changed into librarian titles.  Take a look, they are hysterical.  Here are some of my favorites:


1st ed. cover
V., by Thomas Pynchon

I wanted to spend part of the summer reading Thomas Pynchon's first novel, V.  This is my first full-length Pynchon venture, so I figured I might as well start at the beginning.  I cannot say that I loved it, but I will say that I plan to continue with the next novel--at least one of these days, not right away.  It was interesting sometimes, and other times not so much.  It's kind of more a guy novel, maybe.

It starts with Benny Profane, ex-Navy, who falls in with a crowd of oddballs called The Whole Sick Crew in New York, and there are random adventures.  Then there is also a fellow called Stencil who is on a life-long quest to search for V., a mysterious woman with many different personae.  Maybe.  The episodes interchange and wander all over the place and in time as well. There are fictional countries and real places--Malta figures largely--and a lot about yo-yoing and Vs, and historical episodes.  It's very strange and not the kind of thing I can describe well.

My copy is a first edition that looks like the image here.  I got it from work and we seem to have a complete collection of Pynchon; whoever was buying back then was on the ball, I guess.  The 50-year-old library jacket nearly drove me crazy, though.

For the music to match, I pick Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale, which may not be entirely fair since V. was published in 1963 and this song is from 1967, and I have no idea if the two (Pynchon and Procol Harum) had any interest in each other whatsoever.  They aren't even from the same country.  BUT I always associate them in my head, because of college, and they do have the same weird surrealist thing going on.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Readathon Update, Day 1

As I thought, I didn't get very much read today.  The birthday was more important, and I baked an awesome Doctor Who cake (plus many other things).  What I did read:

A bit of Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan.  I'm 2/3 of the way through and they've finally quaffed the love philtre.

A bit of James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain, which I've just started.  I think I made it to page 35.  The writing is amazing.

Tomorrow will be much more relaxed, and I presume will contain more reading.

Tristan -- check out Strassburg's name up there!

The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

I don't think this is the most famous of Wharton's novels, but a review quotation on the cover says "Edith Wharton's finest achievement," and that may be true.  This is a wonderful novel.

Undine Spragg, social climber and daughter of suddenly-wealthy parents, is set on getting her own way.  She wants to move in the best circles, and to do that she has dragged her parents to New York City.  There, she waits for her chance to break into the enchanted circles of the Gilded Age.  Soon she meets and charms a young man belonging to the old New York aristocracy, but exclusivity turns out to be less fun than she thought it would be; the aristocracy are not wealthy enough for Undine.  Surely there is more out there for her.

I really had kind of a hard time with this novel.  It's a beautifully-written, excellent novel, but Undine is constantly, blindly, willfully extravagant, and it was painful to read about.  She simply believes with all her heart that she deserves to get everything she wants as soon as she wants it; and what she wants costs millions.  She also wants some contradictory things--to move in the highest, most exclusive society, and to act just like the more showy and vulgar nouveau riche who can afford more.  Undine tramples on a lot of people on her way up.  I often had to make myself pick up the book, but by the end I could barely put it down.  Some samples of Undine's character:
Her eyes grew absent-minded, as they always did when he alluded to business. THAT was man's province; and what did men go "down town" for but to bring back the spoils to their women?

...he now knew that a disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral insouciance with Sheban elegance.

If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable. 
A great American novel of the Gilded Age.  Read it!

For this week's readathon, we are supposed to pick music to go with our reading.  I actually finished this novel yesterday, before the readathon started, but an old 80s song, Everything She Wants, started playing in my head before I was halfway through the book.  It is, after all, the story of a man married to a modern Undine.  Here you go, and be sure to enjoy the hairdos:

Wicked Wildfire Readathon...Go!

Today is the start of the annual Wicked Wildfire Readathon!  I love the mini-challenges and things they have.  It's 10 days long, which is lucky for me because I won't get much done today.  From my perspective, it's even more important that it's my oldest daughter's birthday and she is 14.  (Ack.  Help.)  I have secret plans for a cake!

I will be posting a bit today on whatever I do manage to read, plus a review of the Edith Wharton book I just finished.

So, if you want to join up, you still can.  Ready, set, read!

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Tristran, by Thomas of Britain

One of the earlier versions of the Tristan and Isolde tale is one by "Thomas of Britain," who was probably writing for the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It's all rather fuzzy, but the clues seem to point that way, and certainly Thomas was writing for a courtly audience who expected certain things out of the story.  This divides Thomas' story from the earlier Beroul, who is known as 'primitive' in contrast.

This tale of Tristran and Ysolt only survives in fragments.  There are about 50 pages of material, and they start with the story already well underway.  Tristran is living in the wilderness alone, after King Mark's suspicions got to be too much.  In a truly strange addition, Tristran has life-like mechanical statues made of Ysolt and Brangvein (and their dog!).  He keeps them in a cave, which he visits to lament his awful fate.   Before long he marries Ysolt of the White Hands, and Thomas includes a long lament on the intolerable situations of all four, none of whom can have what they want.

Tristran gains a companion, Lord Caerdin, who helps him contact Queen Ysolt.  Caerdin becomes Brangvein's lover, but through a misunderstanding, Brangvein becomes angry with Ysolt and everyone else, and almost betrays them to King Mark--instead, she tells Mark that another knight is about to become Ysolt's lover.  This is all cleared up, but only to move on to the last chapter, which leads to the deaths of both Tristran and Ysolt.

We only have a small amount of Thomas' composition, but luckily others used it as source material and have provided us with the rest of the story.  Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan is based on this version, and although it is unfinished, there is a great deal more of it.  I'm reading that now.

This courtly strand of the legend has several elements in it that I have not run into before, so it's proving to be a very interesting read.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Joseph Andrews

Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding

Remember last summer, when I tortured myself by reading both volumes of Pamela?  Well this summer I had a better idea; I read Henry Fielding's second take-off on Pamela.  The first was Shamela, an outright parody.  Joseph Andrews is not quite a parody and not quite a satire, though it has those elements.  This is the story of Pamela's brother, Joseph.  He is just as good-looking, just as intelligent, just as humble, and just as virtuous as Pamela was in her story!

After all, why can't a man be chaste and virtuous?,  Fielding asks.  Joseph is a footman in the house of Lady Booby, a very recent widow.  (She is Pamela's Mr. B's aunt, so now we know Mr. B's real name!)  Lady Booby cannot resist the charms of Joseph, and when he declines to respond, he is fired.  Poor Joseph sets out to walk the long miles to the Booby country estate, and as he meets his clergyman, Mr. Adams, and later on his true love, Fanny (an orphan servant girl at the Booby estate), it becomes a journey of innocents abroad.  The travellers' honesty and goodness stands in contrast to the crooks, rascals, and thugs they meet along their way.

Joseph is a reasonably sensible young man, but Mr. Adams is so absent-minded and credulous that he is a danger to himself and others.  He supplies much of the comedy.  Fanny, meanwhile, is so pretty and charming that half the men she meets promptly try to have their way with her.  She supplies much of the danger.  When they finally manage to get home and plan to marry, everyone but Mr. Adams tries to oppose the match, even Pamela, who is revealed as really kind of a snob.   Will Joseph and Fanny ever get their just deserts?

This comedy is much more fun to read than Pamela was.  As I said, it's not really a parody.  Joseph Andrews stands as a novel of its own that plays around with stock literary tropes and gender behavior.  It's quite fun.  Fielding really gets his skewer into society.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Kindly Inquisitors

Kindly Inquisitors: the New Attacks on Free Thought, by Jonathan Rauch

OK, people, this is it.  THIS is the best book I have read so far this year (in the non-fiction category, but way above most of the fiction too, I just don't want to dis DWJ here).  And everybody should read it who plans to be a citizen of a country.  Or ruler of their own one-person country, it would be important then too.  You wouldn't want to oppress anyone, now would you?

In 1993, Rauch published this treatise about the importance of free speech, free thought, and the whole system he calls "liberal science."  He used the then-current case of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses as a special example of the importance of free speech.  It was a timely book, what with the quick rise of political correctness on college campuses and all.  Nobody paid a lick of attention, so in 2013 Rauch wrote another chapter and re-published the book.  

Rauch explains exactly how and why our system of liberal science developed, asserting that it is our best method of determining truth.  Who gets to decide what is true, what is correct, whose opinion is right?  Well, if Plato had his way, it would be the wise philosopher-king.*  Rauch points out that while this is a favorite system for those who plan to be philosopher-kings, it is not fair on everyone else.  The only way is for everyone to get a chance to say what they think or what they have found out.  If you can prove your data and convince everybody else, great; it goes in the science textbooks.  If it's opinion or belief, you don't get to put it in a science textbook, but you can certainly try to persuade others of your point of view.  What you don't get to do is decide that someone else's opinion, belief, or data is so awful that it should be silenced.  Nobody ever gets that much power.

In fact, Rauch asserts strongly, offensive opinions are good for society.  It gives the rest of us something to argue over and disagree with.  It energizes debate and change.

In separate chapters, Rauch explores the dangers of the fundamentalist mindset (not necessarily a religious mindset, but that of someone who cannot tolerate the existence of other ideas) and the humanitarian mindset (the idea that not hurting people is more important than finding truth).  He is upfront about the fact that the system of liberal science is a tough one that hurts a lot of feelings.  There is going to be a lot of hurt and offense involved.  But what the liberal science system does not do is physically hurt people, and that's often what happens if the liberal system is not allowed to flourish (see Rushdie's fatwa). 

Rauch is really good at drawing careful distinctions and explaining fine points--for example, why can't we have creationist narratives in science books on the basis of giving equal time to differing systems of thought?  Why shouldn't we ban hate speech in the interests of protecting minorities?  He tackles every single objection to free inquiry and brings out the muddled thinking or disastrous consequences.  It is so great.

Some random bits:
To believe incorrectly is never a crime, but simply to believe is never to have knowledge.

As knowledge-making regimes go, nothing is as successful or as respectful of diversity or as humane as liberal science.  The trouble is that liberal science often does not look very humane.  It uses sticks as well as carrots...Those sticks are nonviolent, true.  But it is unconscionable not to admit that denying respectability is a very serious matter indeed...

If one is going to enjoy the benefits of living in a liberal society without being shamelessly hypocritical, one must try to be means that people who get righteously offended twice every day before breakfast should learn to count to a hundred--granted, that takes discipline--and say to themselves, "Well, it's just that person's opinion," before they charge out the door crying for justice....And it means that people receiving the complaints of the offended should count to a thousand before rushing out to do something out them.  The alternative is to reward people for being upset.  And as soon as people learn they can get something if they raise Cain about being offended, they go into the business of professional offendedness.

...we must not overlook the specific effects on minorities: it doesn't seem fair to sacrifice their interests on the altar of free speech.  Do gays and Jews benefit from toleration of homophobic or anti-Semitic claptrap?  I believe the answers are yes, yes, and yes.  Society benefits from the toleration of hate speech, and so do targeted minorities...  [Rauch is using those two examples because he is both gay and Jewish.]
My verdict: read this book.  Buy it and read it and make your kids read it before they graduate from high school.   Jonathan Rauch, if you ever read this, thank you for writing Kindly Inquisitors.

*One of my very favorite things was how much Rauch dislikes Plato's Republic.  I don't like the Republic either (I read it a while ago and you can see my opinion here), so that made me very happy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Classics Club: July Meme

This month's question for Classics Club bloggers is:
Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?
 I have read several biographies of authors!  From Beverly Cleary's wonderful autobiographies to Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, I've read a bunch.  Plus an old and obscure life of Jane Austen that I got from the library and have no idea what it was called.  It was a nice book though. Here are some that I remember:

Dr. Johnson, writer of first English dictionary

Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell -- rambling and huge, but entertaining.  Actually more fun to read than most of Dr. Johnson's writing (sorry) and source of many favorite quips.

The Tale of Beatrix Potter, by Margaret Lane -- A really nice biography of Miss Potter, and not endlessly long.

J. A. H. Murray, ultimate English dictionary
Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary, by K. M. Elisabeth Murray -- Is the OED a classic?  Of course it is!  Anyway I just have to plug this excellent book.  I know The Professor and the Madman is all stylish and hip, but this biography is my favorite. Plus, look at him.  Is he the nicest-looking academic you ever saw or what?

Boy and Going Solo, by Roald Dahl -- Memoirs of boyhood and his life as a young man working in East Africa and then as an RAF pilot.  The first chapter of Going Solo is one of my all-time favorite pieces of humor!  What he doesn't tell you is that after the stint as a pilot, he went to work in Washington DC for the rest of the a spy!

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet, by Beverly Cleary -- Memoirs of girlhood and then trying to get through college during the Depression, and working as a librarian during WWII!  Both of these are great and give nice insights into one of the best children's authors of the 20th century.

One time I even read a Lives of the Poets by...Louis Untermeyer!  I learned a lot, but it was quite the project.  I think it started with Caedmon, maybe?, and went right through both English and American poets.

The Guns of August

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman 

I wanted to re-read this classic of history this summer, and I was sure right!  This is such a great book, and I'd forgotten everything.  The Guns of August is not Tuchman's first book, but it is the book that launched her into well-deserved fame.  She covers the first month of World War I in detail, from all sides--after giving the necessary background as well--we go day by day, seeing decisions as they were made and as if we don't all know how it's going to turn out.  It works really well.

The book actually starts with Edward VII's funeral, a glittering parade that brought 70 countries together for one last gasp of the old order.  Even at the official parties, Kaiser Wilhelm II ("possessor of the least inhibited tongue in Europe") couldn't help trying to wheel and deal in politics, usually to the horror of everyone else including his own staff.  We then see the world hurrying towards disaster.

Tuchman covers several points of view, so we see 1914 from the eyes of the British, French, Russians, Germans, and Belgians, though the Austrians and Turks don't get a lot of space.  She describes all the personalities in wonderful sharp phrases that stick ("Joffre looked like Santa Claus and gave an impression of benevolence and naivete--two qualities not noticeably part of his character"), and all the strategy in clear terms that make it fairly easy to understand the complexities of what was going on.  She is very clear about the problems in the British command, though she is careful not to judge the French too harshly.  And she is very, very clear about the horrors perpetrated upon the Belgians: what happened, why the Germans committed crimes against civilians that no one expected and that horrified the world, and why the consequences were exactly the opposite of what the Germans hoped.

It should probably be noted that Tuchman, a Jewish woman writing in the 1950s, is no fan of the Germans.  I think she is reasonably fair; she can't help putting in some jabs at their expense but honestly the Germans were pretty jab-worthy in 1914.  Here are a couple of samples:

The cult of arrogance practiced by Prussian officers affected no one more painfully than themselves and their allies. (214)

Talk of this kind for years before the war had not increased friendliness for Germany.  "We often got on the world's nerves," admitted Bethmann-Hollweg, by frequently proclaiming Germany's right to lead the world.  This, he explained, was interpreted as lust for world dominion but was really a "boyish and unbalanced ebullience."  The world somehow failed to see it that way... (312)
This is a truly great classic of history.  If you want to understand World War I, The Guns of August is an excellent starting point.  It's dense and not easy, but it's riveting and excellent writing and history.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Russian Lit Challenge Check-In

O wants to know how we're all doing with the Russian literature.  I've been reading a lot of Russian this year, though I needed a break after August 1914.  So far I have read 8 titles.  I signed up for 4-6, but I'd quite like to get to ten.

So far I've read:
  1.  We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  2.  Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
  3. Eugene Onegin (final installment), by Pushkin
  4. Fathers and Sons, by Turgenev (mini-review!)
  5. What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky
  6. Maidenhair, by Mikhail Shishkin
  7. Notes from the Underground, by Dostoevsky
  8. August 1914, by Solzhenitsyn
Last night I got back on the Russian horse and started reading Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya.  I figure I'll read at least one play, maybe all of the three I have planned (but that might be too many plays at once), and then tackle the big one: War and Peace.

Nathan the Wise

Nathan the Wise, by G. E. Lessing

Before I finished work for the summer, I grabbed several books of literature that I thought I might like to read.  One is a collection of "Classical German Drama" that includes selections from Goethe, Schiller, and others I've not heard of.  The play I was after is "Nathan the Wise," by Lessing, published in 1779, and it's about religious tolerance.

Nathan is a Jewish merchant, living in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade.  The play narrates how he, the Sultan Saladin, and a Templar knight overcome their differences to become friends.  At the center of the play is a story narrated by Nathan about three rings which illustrates that each religion (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) has the ability to teach us to live rightly and love God.  This being a drama, there is also an incredibly complicated plot about Nathan's daughter Recha, the Templar's love for her, and just who their parents are (not who they think, of course!).

Here are a couple examples of the dialogue, which you will see is pretty unusual for an 18th-century play:

Templar:  You know how Templars are supposed to think.

Nathan: Why Templars only?  Why supposed to think?  And only in obedience to their Order's rules?  I know how good men think.  I also know that good men walk upon the soil of every country.
Nathan: Come, we must be friends!  Despise my people if you wish; we did not choose our race when we were born.  Are we our race?  What is a race?  Are people Jews and Christians more than they are human?  Oh, if I had found in you another being who prefers and is content to be a human being!
I really enjoyed reading the play.  Honestly, I read nearly all of it in one day, I liked it so much.  I would be very interested to see it performed, but I'm sure hardly anyone stages it these days.  There was a silent movie made in 1922; that would be fun to see!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Classics Spin Title: Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine

Hey everyone, I have been in a bit of a blogging slump.  I went away for a week, which was a great but exhausting trip to Utah, and then I came back but I just didn't make it to the blog.  I need to do some thinking about how my blogging fits into everything else.  Anyway!--

It's the day for the Classics Spin Title!  I drew a couple of plays by Kit Marlowe; I'd planned to read Doctor Faustus and one other, and I chose the obvious one--Tamburlaine, the play that made Marlowe known while he was still alive.

In Doctor Faustus, a scholar makes a pact with the Devil.  Mephistophilis becomes Faustus' servant, bringing him whatever he wants for 24 years, at the end of which he will be dragged down to Hell.  This does not seem like a really great deal to me, but throughout the play Faustus ignores his many chances to back out and save himself.  A Good Angel and a Bad Angel argue with him, he sees the Seven Deadly Sins in a vision, even Mephistophilis says he hates Hell, but never does Faustus waver until the very end, by which time it's a bit late.  The odd thing is that we never see him do much with his magic powers while he is still alive, except to see Helen of Troy.

Tamburlaine the Great was a big deal when it was first acted; it marks the difference between earlier Tudor drama and the great Elizabethan plays.  It's a very influential play, but moderns probably won't care for it much; the later Elizabethan drama improved on the new style and the story is not suited to today's tastes.

Tamburlaine starts off as a Scythian shepherd-bandit, but quickly rises to power in the Persian empire.  On his way up, he captures an Egyptian princess, Zenocrate, as a concubine, and she falls in love with him.  She follows and supports him all the way up to the emperor's throne, and then they attack the Turks and all of Africa.  This puts Zenocrates' father in danger of being conquered and killed, and she begs for his life.  Tamburlaine agrees to only conquer the Sultan and makes him a vassal king.  The play ends with the wedding of Tamburlaine and Zenocrate, and a second play tells the story of their sons and Tamburlaine's death.