Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Alexander Hamilton

Back in the very early days of this blog, I spent several months slowly making my way through Ron Chernow's superb biography Alexander Hamilton. I recommended it to Wendy, and she also became a fan of both the book and its subject.

In December I learned of the upcoming off-Broadway musical Hamilton and sent Wendy a link to Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2009 Hamilton Mixtape performance at the White House.

In January we ordered tickets for a late March performance. It turned out to be a Javier Munoz, or #Javilton show, and after three months of obsession over all things Miranda, it took a bit of mental adjustment over the course of one musical number to accept someone else in Miranda's role, but then I was caught up in the overall awesomeness of the show and in Munoz's own performance.

The show moves to Broadway this summer. The cast album comes out this summer. I'll be buying the cd immediately and I'm hoping I can manage to get to NY to see the show again.

And I need to reread Chernow.



Monday, April 06, 2015

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday takes place on April 24, and Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting an Anthony Trollope Bicenntennial Celebration all this month in his honor.

Due to my reading slump, who knows if I'll get a Trollope novel completed by the end of the month, so I thought I'd repost a review from 2010. I read The Way We Live Now then as part of the Classic Circuit's Trollope Tour.

The Way We Live Now, a satirical attack on the "commercial profligacy"of early 1870s England, is regarded as one of Anthony Trollope's finest novels, if not his masterpiece. In the summer of 2009, Newsweek put it at the top of its list of works that "open a window on the times we live in," explaining "[t]he title says it all. Trollope's satire of financial (and moral) crisis in Victorian England even has a Madoff-before-Madoff, a tragic swindler named Augustus Melmotte."

The audience of Trollope's day was less appreciative of its portrayal. Reviewers took issue with and resented the title itself; they argued that Trollope had not created a novel that was an honest characterization of their world. According to Marion Dodd, who wrote the introduction the 1950 edition, Trollope had peaked in the 1860s: "Mercenary marriages, abuse of the wealthy and their ill-gotten gains, satirical treatment of the nobility bereft of money, morals, and stamina, were so different from the material in Trollope's other books that the result was first shock, and then indifference and weariness."

(illustrations: Lionel G. Fawkes)

Trollope had intended to focus the novel on Lady Matilda Carbury, his notes show:

Living in Welbeck with son and daughter, spoiling the son and helping to pay his debts -- clever and impetuous. Thoroughly unprincipled from want of knowledge of honesty -- an authoress, very handsome, 43 --trying all schemes with editors, etc. to get puffed. Infinitely energetic --bad to her daughter from want of sympathy. Flirts as a matter of taste, but never goes wrong. Capable of great sacrifice for her son. The chief character.

The book opens with Lady Carbury dashing off letters to the editors of the London papers with the intention of securing the necessary reviews for her just-published Criminal Queens, a book in which she's spread "all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book but was painfully anxious to write book that the critics should say was good." Lady Carbury, the narrator tells us, "was false from head to foot, but there was much of good in her, false though she was."

Lady Carbury's greatest desire is to marry her handsome son off to an heiress. Sir Felix Carbury at 25 has already run through all the money left him by his late father and has no compunction against demanding and wasting the little that his mother and sister have to live on keeping horses in the country and gambling at the Beargarden, the club where all the young wastrels spend their time passing IOUs back and forth (living within one's means is not the way anyone lives now).  Mother and son set their sights on Miss Marie Melmotte, only daughter of financier Augustus Melmotte, recently established in London and growing in prominence among the upper-crust despite a cloud of rumors.

It was at any rate an established fact that Mr Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealing in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. All this was said of him in his praise, -- but it was also said that he was regarded in Paris as the most gigantic swindler that had ever lived; that he had made that city too hot to hold him; that he had endeavoured to establish himself in Vienna, but had been warned away by the police; and that he had at length found that British freedom would alone allow him to enjoy, without persecution, the fruits of his industry."

Melmotte desires that his daughter marry well, in the upper rungs of society; Lord Nidderdale is willing "to take the girl and make her Marchioness in the process of time for half a million down." While the men are arguing terms, Marie, who's been developing a mind and opinions of her own, falls for the undeserving Felix, who at least is paying attention to her.

Melmotte refuses to consent to the match, telling his daughter that Felix is destitute and wants her only for her money. Undeterred, realizing that all men want her for is her money, Marie contrives to elope to New York with Felix, stealing money from her father and giving it to Felix to finance the trip. Felix, however, fearing that Melmotte will cut them off without a penny despite Marie's assurances that she has a fortune already signed over in her name, is too much of a coward to meet Marie in Liverpool as they've planned. He instead loses the money given to him gambling at the Beargarden while Marie is prevented from getting on the ship by men her father has sent to bring her back. Much to Lady Carbury's dismay, Felix gives up on the schemes to marry Marie.  Melmotte and Lord Nidderdale, however, continue their negotiations for a mutually beneficial marriage; Marie is but chattel to them and nothing she says or does really signifies.

There are several other affairs of the heart that thread through The Way We Live Now--Felix's sister Hetta is loved by both her much-older cousin Squire Roger Carbury, who Lady Carbury wishes her to marry, although not because he's the most moral man around, and Roger's close friend Paul Montague, who Lady Carbury disdains. Hetta loves Paul, but more difficulties arise when Paul's former fiance, the American Mrs. Hurtle, follows him to London and demands he keep his promises to her. Ruby Ruggles, whose farmer grandfather is one of Roger's tenants in Suffolk, doesn't want to marry the slow-witted but loving John Crumb, who's always covered in meal, when Sir Felix Carbury is willing to see her on the sly, especially when she runs off to London to stay with her aunt. And Georgiana Longestaffe, whose father can no longer maintain a lavish lifestyle, is so desperate that she condescends to engage herself to an elderly Jewish banker (anti-Semitism abounds in TWWLN, unfortunately).

But the engine at the center of the novel is definitely Melmotte's maneuverings through the artistocratic society that doesn't approve of his kind yet cannot resist associating with him due to his incredible ostentation and power. And, of course, his shady investments and financial skulduggery--buying property without paying a dime to the too-afraid-ask-for-it Longestaffe, for example--keep the reader attentive. Melmotte chairs the London board of directors for the Great South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, a railway proposed to run from Salt Lake City down to the port of Vera Cruz. There are no plans to actually build the railway; it is just a reason to float a company and engage in stock speculation.

Melmotte entertains the Emperor of China and  is elected a conservative member to Parliament before it becomes impossible for society to continue to condone his fraudulence.  Those who'd attached themselves to him earlier begin to break away and Melmotte is left alone -- his wife and daughter don't count -- to face a fast approaching arrest. Trollope provides a psychologically gripping portrayal of Melmotte's attempts to bully and bluff his way through, including a scene where he mortifies himself after showing up drunk in the House of Parliament.

What I found most disturbing in Trollope's depiction of Victorian England is its routine disregard for and mistreatment of women:

Henrietta had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially from a daughter. The lesson had come to her so early in life that she had learned it without the feeling of any grievance. She lamented her brother's evil conduct as it affected him, but she pardoned it altogether as if affected herself. That all her interests in life should be made subservient to him was natural to her; and when she found that her little comforts were discontinued, and her moderate expenses curtailed because he, having eaten up all that was his own, was now eating up also all that was his mother's, she never complained. Henrietta had been taught to think that men in that rank of life in which she had been born always did eat up everything.

A daughter or wife who refused to accept this natural order, or was unlucky in who her care depended, could expect and did receive violent treatment. Lady Carbury's backstory contains a history of physical abuse which she as a matter of course attempted to hide from the world; she bore the brunt of the scandal when she separated from him for awhile. Likewise, the independence of the American Mrs. Hurtle, who dared pull a gun on her ex-husband to keep him from sexually assaulting her, is presented as the grounds that justify Paul Montague's preference for the meek and innocent Hetta Carbury: Mrs. Hurtle is "a wild-cat" and just won't do in polite society.

Marie Melmotte is horribly beaten by her father during the course of TWWLN and accepts such treatment: Melmotte had certainly been often cruel to her, but he had also been very indulgent. And as she had never been specially grateful for the one, so neither had she ever specially resented the other. . . she. . .had come to regard the unevenness of her life, facillating between knocks and knick-knacks, with a blow one day and a jewel the next, as the condition of things which was natural to her.

Beaten by her grandfather, Ruby Ruggles is on the verge of being raped by Felix Carbury when John Crumb shows up to save her. Small wonder Mrs. Hurtle and Ruby's aunt do their best to ensure Ruby marries John despite her belief that the man is beneath her: he'll keep her well-fed and won't beat her. Isn't that all a Victorian woman could want?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"One last story left to tell. . ."

Inspiration up and left you? Writer's block getting you down? Burnout aggrieving your soul? Singer/songwriter Radney Foster's been there and put it to song.

L. and had a great time at Radney's show at the Double Door Inn here in Charlotte Friday night and his "Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode to the Muse)" was one of the highlights for us--I was thrilled that my video of this one turned out. And I got an autograph and a picture taken with Radney afterwards!



But alas and alack, while I was able to upload the video to Facebook, Blogger say the file is too large to upload here. (Really? Not enough space for a single song?)  Sigh.  So here's Radney Foster singing "Ode to a Muse" somewhere else back in 2013.

(Mine was better grumble grumble.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thoughts on The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

"She can't do that, can she?" I asked myself when I reached the last page of Barbara Comyns' 1959 novel The Vet's Daughter. "She can't have a first person past tense narration and then kill off the narrator on the last page! I mean, obviously, she can, but isn't it stooping kind of low?"

Then I looked back a few pages, spotted a one-sentence flashforward whose significance I'd failed to note previously, and all was forgiven. I love dead narrators. Alice Rowland has been playing this card--that she's talking to us from beyond the grave--close to the vest.

Many things are played close to the vest in The Vet's Daughter, leaving the reader at the end not quite sure how we're supposed to interpret certain events, or even certain characters. For example, the novel opens with a description of a "man with small eyes and a ginger moustache" who walks along the street with Alice while she "was thinking of something else. . . . He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps." This man is not seen or mentioned again until the final pages of the book. Clearly Comyns intends the ginger man to serve more purpose than arouse Alice's pity--but what? I can't worry it out.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is the story of Alice Rowland, 17-year-old daughter of an abusive London veterinarian who is more apt to send an unwanted puppy to the vivisectionist for a pound than to put it down humanely as he is supposed to. He's broken Alice's mother's front teeth with a kick in the face, and even worse, her spirit. He mostly ignores Alice since she disappointed him by being born a girl, but she's still frightened of him. Their house is grotesque--dark, smelly, decorated with the rug of a Great Dane's skin and a monkey's jaw, filled with animals in cages that Alice is required to take care of.

One night shortly before Alice's mother, who is dying of cancer, is euthanized against her will by Alice's father, Alice listens to her mother reminisce once again of growing up  on a farm in the mountains of Wales: "Dark brown moss grew in the mere by the farm; and once I saw a little child floating on the surface. She was dead, but I wasn't afraid because she looked so pure floating there, with her eyes open and her blue pinafore gently moving. It was Flora, a little girl who had been missing for three days. . . "

The morning that Alice is told her mother has died, she sees a Jacob's ladder that the sun has made across the floor of her mother's bedroom.

After the funeral, Alice's father goes missing for three weeks. He returns with a barmaid --the strumpet from the Trumpet-- Rosa Fisher (a fisher of men?), who he euphemistically tells Alice will be their housekeeper. Rosa quickly assumes an evil stepmother-like role in Alice's life. One afternoon while fixing their lunch in a steamy hot kitchen Alice imagines--or so she thinks at first--that she is floating above water in the mountains. "This wonderful water world didn't last long because a mist came, and gradually it wasn't there, and something was hurting my head. Somehow I'd managed to fall on the kitchen floor, and knocked my head on a coal scuttle. Coal had got in my hair, but otherwise everything was as it had been before I'd seen the water garden--just boiling beef and steam, and heard Rosa's and Father's voices coming through the wall."

Alice hasn't realized it, but her mother's reflections and death have inspired her to begin levitating. For most of the book, I was prone to read these instances metaphorically, as they happen after times of great psychological distress for Alice. Yet Comyns has Alice read ghost stories and Alice mentions how happy her mother's ghost must be when she leaves home to be a companion on an island for Henry Peebles' mother (Peebles is a kind man who cares for Alice, although she does not particularly want to marry him).  There's no denying that there's something supernatural going on here, especially once you accept the story's being told from beyond the grave.

And after Alice's father decides to exploit her talent, once she has returned home following Mrs. Peebles' suicide, to have her "rise up before all the people on the Common" it becomes clear that Comyns is turning Alice into a Christ figure, parodying the Christ story, since, as a character explains, the beauty in Alice's case is she isn't religious: Alice is given wine to drink and thinks it must be blood; she smells sour bread and cockroaches; she is kept prisoner; she exclaims, "Please God, don't let that happen to me. Father don't make me do this thing. I don't want to be peculiar and different. I want to be an ordinary person. I'll marry Henry Peebles and go away and you needn't see me any more--but don't make me do this terrible thing."

Alice's ordeal is not removed. Alice, in despair and humiliation, is brought in a bride's white dress, in a hearse-like carriage, to rise up and then come "down amongst the people." Trampled by a frightened crowd milling about in circles, she dies. Unlike the man with the ginger mustache, who dies with a terrified expression on his face, at the moment Alice's life is finished, she states, "[F]or the first time in my life I was not afraid."

And now I'm left with the thought: is the man with the small eyes and the ginger mustache a stand-in for the reader? A small-eyed someone Comyns and her characters briefly walk beside while thinking of something else?






Thursday, January 01, 2015

2015: A dare and a new long-term project


I am horrified to look back and discover that last January I didn't even manage to recycle my usual Eschew the New! resolution, that my first post of the year (and sparse they were) didn't come until February 1. I am extremely grateful that Wendy was willing to share her thoughts on books over the course of 2014 and hope she will continue to do so forever and ever. I just need to get my groove back, so prepare for a lot of inane posts while I redevelop the blogging muscle, all right? Mixed metaphors will abound!

I finished the Fill in the Gaps Project very quietly in April. A five-year plan, the objective had been to read 100 books, but we were to count ourselves successful if we read 75. I read 86, then completed another six from the list by the end of 2014. Over the course of the project, I realized I liked long-term projects with large pools of books.

And that brings me to my new project, one I'm calling 60 by 60, although I certainly hope I manage to read more than 60 books on the list. It's heavy on the classics--Gissing, Trollope, Stendhal--and other authors I really ought to have read, or read in more depth, by now.

So that's the five year plan. Perhaps I can get a head start on it, since between today and April 1, I'm participating in James' TBR Double Dog Dare.  (I am so glad James didn't retire the dare!) I have a book on back order and of course I will buy the new Anne Tyler the moment it comes available in February, but other than that, I can think of no books that will break my determination to read from the books I already have stockpiled here and on my desk at the library. Of course, one reason my will seems so strong is that I have ten books from the Tournament of Books long list either on hand or on hold!

Happy 2015, everyone. Happy reading.