Thursday, April 29, 2010

A most important misunderstanding

In 1516, [Sir Thomas] More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.

Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.

--J.C. Hallman, Drifted toward Dragons: Utopia Today

E.M. Forster's Arctic Summer

'. . . my new era is to have no dawn. It is to be a kind of Arctic Summer, in which there will be time to get something really great done.' (Venetia murmured, 'Arctic Summer.') 'Dawn implies twilight, and we have decided to abolish them both. . . '


And they chattered on in the strain that pleased all three, maintaining their opinions with sincerity and yet without inconvenience, brandishing as it were the little knives that had been given to each man to defend his soul, but never proving their metal. An outsider would have thought that they were quarrelling, an intelligent foreigner that they were making conversation. Both would have been wrong.


. . . and though he doubted a purpose behind the Universe, he never ceased to act as if there was a purpose. Of course he had his difficulties and temptations; for instance he nearly became a bad citizen. When beauty flowered, the wonder of life so dazzled him that he saw nothing else, and the world appeared as a gymnasium in which fine fellows develop their muscles and swing about from rope to rope. But he had an Englishman's capacity for correcting his faults, and a Quaker's capacity for perceiving them, and he took himself sternly in hand.


For that was the wonder of the picture--that he was here to see it. He might have been at the Basle hospital--or nowhere; he might have been clicked out of life. But he was here: a fellow creature had saved him.


Beauty may sink into the decorative too--she moves between two abysses--and this Italian tour gave him the sense of stage scenery which borrows all its value from the events that take place in front of it. No events did take place--here was the defect. The jar inside him was spiritual as well as aesthetic: he was rushing day after day through a world that did not belong to him.


He had never felt the rough winds that still blow about the world. He imagined them abolished--as if by some international agreement! Well, the least breath from them, the merest puff, had touched him this evening, and he had run away.

--E.M. Forster, Arctic Summer

Book 13 in the Girl Detective's 15/15/15 project was Forster's segment of an unfinished novel, which I enjoyed despite its lack of anithesis.

Two more to go!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Books 9-12

I'm feeling a time-crunch since next week is the primary--I really ought to reacquaint myself with the election manual-- and because I start three-months-worth of extra hours at the library--which were only okayed late last week-- on Sunday. I told my husband over the weekend that I thought I would drop out of the 15/15/15 project to free up some more time between now and then, but he, he of the you-read-too-much/own-too-many-books opinions, told me I'd come too far not to finish.

So what have I read since I last checked in?

Ninth book was E.L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley. Everyone already knows about Homer and Langley, right? It was a pleasant enough read and it firmed up a notion I'd already had for awhile to reread Ragtime--it's been at least 30 years, so I think it's due.

Tenth book was Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, which I loved so much that it moved directly onto my best of the year list. A Berkeley grad student goes home to the family ranch intent on using all her considerable powers of personality to bring her identical twin's wedding to a halt. Cassandra has not felt whole since Judith abandoned her for New York several months earlier; she feels her life impossible if her twin cannot be convinced that their bond is too vital ("Just us. Nobody else ever.") for separation.

If not:

The bridge looked good again, she tells us on the second page. The sun was on it, and it took on something of the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless and where you are listening to a lecture, as I so often do, that is in no way brilliant. But lectures can't all be brilliant, of course; they can be sat through and listened to for what there is in them, and if the exit sign is dazzling it can still be ignored. Besides, my guide assures me that I am not, at heart, a jumper; it's not my sort of thing. I'm given to conjecture only, and to restlessness, and I think I knew all the time I was sizing up the bridge that the strong possibility was I'd go home, attend my sister's wedding as invited, help hook-and-zip whatever she wore, take over the bouquet while she received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it, and hold my peace when it became a question of speaking now or forever holding it. . .

Confession: I chose the eleventh book, Forrest Gander's As a Friend, from the browsing collection at the university library solely because of its size: a mere 106 pages with lots of white on its pages ("I listen to what I can leave out," we're told in those pages). I may have been looking for something to careen through in an hour (the book I'd started earlier in the day turned out not to want me reading it right now), but Gander's book is a gem (and it led me to order his nonfiction A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transendence within minutes after it was finished) and much deserving of a less frenzied pace: I won't be returning it to the library any time soon.

A couple of excerpts:

My last birthday. The living room unlit. I suspected a surprise, but before I could reach the light switch, you struck a match to the horse skull you'd hung from the ceiling and doused with lighter fluid. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. The slow liquid-blue flame in the shape of a horse's skull flowering into a new dimension, turning slowly on a string in the dark.


It's a barren feeling to know at the age of twenty five that you've already lived the most intense period of your life, that a vividness has blazed up and short-circuited something in you and you will remember what it felt like to be alive but not feel it again, and you won't even want to remember, can't bear it, it's too ploughed with guilt and pain. It seemed all of a sudden like a wind had slacked off and I was left leaning off-balance in a world something considerable had passed through. Once I had choices. Then it was as if my life leaped out of my body.

And I'm 40 pages away from finishing a reread of James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times; it's book 12. I love Thurber. Are students still required to read him? I don't remember seeing him in either of my kids' texts, so I suppose he's been long gone. A pity.

Three more books to go.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Marta Randall's Islands

Marta Randall was a Readerville regular for many years and when she quit posting in the forums there I missed her. So I was pleased when another poster sent me a reissue of Islands, Randall's first novel, first published in 1975, which, of course I managed to shelve before reading. Story of my life.

Islands was my 8th read in the Girl Detective's 15/15/15 project. The islands themselves are those of Hawaii, underwater due to global warming ice melt centuries in the past, and the location of an underwater excavation for 67-year-old Tia and a group of youthful immortals. Procedures now exist that wipe out both aging and death; Tia, unfortunately, proved resistant to these treatments and has spent her life being regarded as a freak, a mere animal instead of a real human. Despite her alienation, she has experienced as much of life as possible, while the immortals had "taken the most important advance in history and used it to stop advancement forever."

Things got a little too mystical for me to follow at the end, but a good read for anyone in the mood for some science fiction.

Friday, April 23, 2010

New books

New books! Glorious new books!

Please welcome:

E.M. Forster's short story collection The Obelisk. First sentence: "Ernest was an elementary schoolmaster, and very very small; it was like marrying a doll, Hilda sometimes thought, and one with glass eyes, too."

Willy Vlautin's Lean on Pete. First sentence: "When I woke up that morning it was still pretty early."

J.C. Hallman's In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise, nonfiction/uncorrected proofs, and The Hospital for Bad Poets, short stories/review copy. First sentences: "Utopia is in a bad way" and "The average man is not what he used to be."

Wendy Burden's memoir Dead End Gene Pool. First sentence: "It's a testament to his libido, if not his character, that Cornelius Vanderbilt died of syphilis instead a apoplexy."

And--squee!-- two copies of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I ordered the UK version months ago and received the US ARC after entering a drawing at Random House (I think). First two sentences: 'Miss Kawasemi?' Orito kneels on a stale and sticky futon.

What's your favorite first sentence of the lot?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

David Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down

I bought David Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down while in the British Museum in late 2001. I hereby absolve myself for all the guilt I've suffered for not picking it up before now, since it's the perfect novel to read with Ulysses in progress.

A "novel where life" keeps "taking the shape of literature," it's a day in the life of PhD student Adam Appleby, who spends a Saturday at the British Museum worrying over his wife's suspected fourth pregnancy instead of actually getting any work done on his thesis. There are parodies and pastiches and Catholic prohibitions against any contraception beyond the rhythm method.

And there's all the literary talk at the department sherry party in the evening:

'What do you think of anus?' said the man.

'I beg your pardon?'

'The novelist, Kingsley Anus,' said the man impatiently.

'Oh yes. I like his work. There are times when I think I belong to him more than to any of the others.'

'Please?' said the man, frowning.

'Well, you see, I have this theory,' Adam, who had just thought of it, said expansively. 'Has it ever occurred to you how novelists are using up experience at a dangerous rate? No, I see it hasn't. Well, then, consider that before the novel emerged as the dominant literary form, narrative literature dealt only with the extraordinary or the allegorical--with kings and queens, giants and dragons, sublime virtue and diabolic evil. There was no risk of confusing that sort of thing with life, of course. But as soon as the novel got going, you might pick up a book at any time and read about an ordinary chap called Joe Smith doing just the sort of things you did yourself. Now, I know what you're going to say--you're going to say that the novelist still has to invent a lot. But that's just the point: there've been such a fantstic number of novels written in the last couple of centuries that they've just about exhausted the possibilities of life. So all of us, you see, are really enacting events that have already been written about in some novel or other. Of course, most people don't realize this--they fondly imagine that their little lives are unique. . . Just as well, too, because when you do tumble to it, the effect is very disturbing.'

Book seven for the Girl Detective's 15/15/15 project.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Max, cats; Morel's invention

I've spent the last couple of days down in South America--reading books five and six for the Girl Detective's 15 Books 15 Days 15 Blogs project.

Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella Max and the Cats was "the spark" behind Yann Martel's Life of Pi--you may well remember the furor from a few years back that followed on the heels of Martel's Booker Prize win. Martel was publicly accused of theft of "intellectual property" instead of inspiration, although Brazilian Scliar never pressed charges.

At any rate, I prefer Pi to Max--Scliar's prose was spare enough to keep me at a remove. Herbert Mitgang found it brilliant, though, and provides an interesting review.

Adolfo Bioy Casares' The Invention of Morel didn't go in any of the directions that I thought it might, but I believe the least said about its plot the better for anyone who hasn't yet read the book--I know it's been popular due to its connection to the TV series Lost (I haven't watched a single episode of Lost, although my Ulysses-reading buddy is a great fan; I will therefore not hold myself back from mentioning a link between Morel and Ulysses during our discussion tonight.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

1995 was my Shirley Jackson year. I read six books by Jackson and two about her. Previously I'd only known her through "Charles" and "The Lottery"--school fare.

I have my doubts that --at least since adulthood--I've ever read as much by a single author in the same year as I did with Jackson. '95 would have been the 30th anniversary of her death; perhaps a publisher's marketing push was behind my absorption in all things Jacksonian.

I remember first reading about Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons in the late, much mourned A Common Reader (and ordering them as quickly as possible); I bought an omnibus of her novels that year from QPBC. I remember the delight in stumbling upon old copies of her work on the shelves at the main branch of the public library that had somehow evaded making their presence known via the new electronic catalog.

I loaned Life Among the Savages to an English major friend down the street and was told on its return that she much preferred the Erma Bombeck style to anything this literary. Slap. I made no more overtures to share my love of Jackson after that.

I thought I had reread Jackson over the years, but this reading must have been in little snatches here and there, nothing complete, for other than spotting The Road Through the Wall on my 1998 list, they all show as Jackson-free years.

So I'm particularly glad that I chose We Have Always Loved in the Castle as my fourth read for the 15/15/15 project. It has been a pleasure to reaquaint myself with Merrikat and Constance and their dear uncle Julian.

"A family gathering for the evening meal," Uncle Julian said, caressing his words. "Never supposing it was to be our last."

"Arsenic in the sugar," Mrs. Wright said, carried away, hopelessly lost to all decorum.

"I used that sugar." Uncle Julian shook his finger at her. "I used that sugar myself, on my blackberries. Luckily," and he smiled blandly, "fate intervened. Some of us, that day, she led inexorably through the gates of death. Some of us, innocent and unsuspecting, took, unwillingly, that one last step to oblivion. Some of us took very little sugar."

"I never touch berries," Constance said; she looked directly at Mrs. Wright and said soberly, "I rarely take sugar on anything. Even now."

"It counted strongly against her at the trial," Uncle Julian said. "That she used no sugar, I mean. But my niece has never cared for berries. Even as a child it was her custom to refuse berries."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Nancy Mitford's Wigs on the Green

Third book read for the Girl Detective's 15/15/15 project was the long-out-of-print 1935 Wigs on the Green, reissued recently by Penguin. Nancy Mitford based her characters on her sister Unity, who was enamoured with Adolf Hitler; her sister Diana's lover and second second husband Sir Oswald Mosley, who founded the British Union of Fascists; as well as her own husband Peter Rodd and his Oxford friend Basil Murray. World War II and the fact that the book caused discord within her family led Mitford to refuse her publisher's efforts to bring out a reprint during her lifetime.

A comedy of manners, Wigs on the Green tells the story of two young men in search of wealthy heiresses to marry. Since the wealthiest heiress in England lives in the village of Chalford, and is regarded as enough of a lunatic to give their scheme a chance, they take rooms at the hotel there. Jasper and Noel quickly meet a pair of interesting young ladies using the aliases Miss Smith and Miss Jones, although their true identities will soon be exposed. Almost as quickly, they meet the local village beauty, an affected young married woman discontented with her life and willing to fall in with the hotel crowd.

And, of course, there's the heiress herself, the teenage Eugenia Malmains, who dresses in "an ill-fitting grey woollen skirt, no stockings, a pair of threadbare plimsolls, and a jumper made apparently out of a Union Jack." There's a dagger attached to her belt, and she's followed everywhere she goes by her loyal black horse and large mastiff. She's prone to mounting overturned washtubs in the village green and exhorting the crowd that gathers to pay their dues and join the Social Unionist movement--they'll receive a Union Jack shirt and emblem in return.

Before long, the group will be planning an outdoor pageant and falling into love with the wrong people, although Jasper admonishes that there are times "when love has got to take its proper place as an unethical and anti-social emotion, and this is one of them."

Provides an interesting glimpse of how Nazism could be regarded for a time by those who found "nothing grand, nothing individual, nothing which could make anybody suppose that the English were once a fine race, brave, jolly and eccentric" as a saving spirit of sorts.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Michael Harvey's The Third Rail

Second book read during the Girl Detective's 15/15/15 project was Michael Harvey's The Third Rail.

This was a review copy received from Knopf late in the week. It's atypical behavior on my part not to let a book that won't require returning to a library languish for awhile in deference to the almighty library due dates, but after a preliminary glance at its first page, I determined this one was exactly what I was in the mood for.

Third in a series of crime novels involving Chicago private investigator Michael Kelly, The Third Rail is a fast moving smooth ride of thrills. Kelly's on the Southport L platform the morning a woman is abruptly shot; he gives chase and is ambushed in an alley, hit upside the head with a handgun. After a second woman is shot an hour later while riding the train, Kelly receives a phone call from the killer, who taunts him with a classical reference: "Homer pegged it as a zero-sum game. The more you suffer, the greater my glory." Still later, a chemical weapon is dumped into the holy water at the Holy Name Cathedral and a possible anthrax timebomb is planted in the subway.

Both the mayor and the FBI want Kelly's help in locating and killing the ones responsible, but no one will take seriously his theory that the suspect must be someone he's known in his past. Meanwhile, the deaths mount up and Kelly's girlfriend is kidnapped and used as a pawn to draw Kelly deeper into the game.

Harvey bases his plot on real life events--a 1977 L train accident and a 1993 Pentagon report, "Terror 2000," that assessed various terrorist scenarios including anthrax being released in a subway system. A journalist and documentary producer as well as a writer of crime fiction, Harvey writes dialogue that's pitch perfect.

The only wrong note sounded was that of Kelly's beloved puppy Maggie. Equipped with a bladder of steel, Maggie could last until Kelly returned at 10:30 at night, cuddle and eat dinner, all before "a quick tour of the neighborhood." She'd have been more believable if Kelly had mentioned a dog-walker or if she'd been created a cat.

Friday, April 16, 2010

George Gissing's Sleeping Fires

George Gissing's 1895 novella Sleeping Fires was my first book for the 15/15/15 project. At 101 pages, it took me about 2 hours to read, which is knowledge that will helps me gauge which books I should attempt over the next couple of weeks if I want to complete one each day.

But, what should you know about Sleeping Fires? That it's mostly excellent--I could quibble a tad over the ending--and would be a great first Gissing for anyone who hasn't read him previously and feels frightened of committing to longer works such as New Grub Street or The Odd Women when he's not nearly as popular as many other 19th century writers.

English gentleman Edmund Langley is living in Greece, reading Aristophanes over breakfast, doing his level best to avoid his fellow countrymen who are touring about, when he bumps into an old Cambridge classmate near the Temple of Theseus. Worboys is the traveling companion for an 18-year-old boy, who, it turns out, is the ward of the woman Langley once loved. Langley is intrigued by both Louis and the information that his guardian's husband is now dead.

Louis wants to do something useful with his life, which is profoundly disconcerting to his aristocratic guardian. He's been sent abroad to diminish the influence that a married woman with radical political and humanitarian views has had on him. Worboys is too much of an archaeological geek to have much rapport with Louis, but Langley and Louis fall into an easy companionship.

When Louis receives a letter from his married friend breaking off their correspondence at the request of Louis' guardian, he's upset and determined to return to London immediately to set things right. Langley convinces him that he should go in his stead--this will give Langley an opportunity to reconnect with the only woman he's loved.

But, of course, things won't go exactly as Langley desires.

For the fire that so long had slept within him, hidden beneath the accumulating habits of purposeless, self-indulgent life, denied by his smiling philosophy, thought of as a mere flash amid the ardours of youth--the fire of a life's passion, no longer to be disguised or resisted, burst into consuming flame.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Remember the LOL in the middle of Angelology

Anyone who's read this blog for awhile should know I have difficulty with thrillers. I would like to find one that works for me, though. My fingers have been crossed for awhile regarding Justin Cronin's Passage, due out early this summer. I read Mary and O'Neil, Cronin's interconnected short story collection, several years back and was much taken by Cronin's writing. Maybe, I've been thinking, good writing's all it takes to win me over. Maybe Iowa's all the edge I need to make a thriller work.

Well, no.

The NYT review I'd read said Iowa grad Danielle Trussoni's Angelology was "more Eco than Brown," so when I spotted it on the library shelf I was quick to check it out. The cover is very cool and I am easily swayed by covers, I admit. But I spotted enough homage to Dan Brown in the first few chapters, right down to the use of the word "alluring," to make me question several times whether I should proceed. What the heck, I ultimately decided, I've come so far. . .

For those who've missed the buzz (Angelology's already optioned for a movie and there's a sequel underway so you won't miss it for long), the book's about the Nephilim, the fallen angel/human hybrids mentioned in Genesis. Thanks to some last minute subterfuge, a Nephilim made it onto Noah's ark, fathered offspring, and the Nephilim have been managing things at a safe but financially lucrative remove ever since. They're tall, fair, sexy gorgeous, but evil. They're the ones behind the science/religion split, the silent partners behind the Nazis. Their penthouse suites are filled with stolen original art and leatherbound volumes detailing the legacy and exploits of their ancestors. They really would have nothing to complain about besides issues of class (of which they're quite attuned) in their multi-centuries-long lives were it not for an illness that's causing their wings to wither and their lungs to collapse. Perhaps the disease was caused by "exposure to various lower breeds of human life," but most of their attention is turned toward a cure, which involves acquiring Orpheus's lyre, the celestial music from which is expected to restore their health--if it doesn't destroy the world or trigger something equally as dire in the process.

The angelologists are humans who've studied the Nephilim throughout the centuries and sought to contain their evil, if not destroy them outright. The Nephilim spy on them, terrorize and torture them, on occassion murder great numbers of them, but don't wipe them out altogether because, as an angelologist explains, they don't have "the intellectual prowess, or the vast store of academic and historical resources, that we do. Essentially, they need us to do their thinking for them."

You bet.

For centuries the angelologists have been intent on retrieving Orpheus's lyre from a cavern in Bulgaria, and during World War II, they're finally successful. The lyre is smuggled out of France and into America, where Abigail Rockefeller--a finanical backer-- stashes it away where no one can find it. Then she dies.

This is all backstory, filled in during the middle of the book, via lectures for the most part (just like DaVinci Code!) and the most interesting part to me by far. Trussoni opens Angelology in 1999, with a young nun in Milton, New York, receiving a letter from a V.A. Verlaine who wishes to come to the convent to research a possible correspondence between Abigail Rockefeller and the former abbess. Evangeline's initial reaction is to deny the researcher access, but to find evidence of the correspondence in the library archives on her own. Verlaine shows up unannounced and sneaks in to the library (he's stolen blueprints of the convent in his possession) instead of waiting for permission. The two are instantly attracted to each other, despite the fact that Evangeline is obviously wearing nun's clothing* and Verlaine, who's never done well on first dates or job interviews, is outlandishly attired in white corduroy jacket, Snoopy socks, wingtip shoes and a Hermes tie.

And it is all this cleverness with wingtips and Hermes ties and the Milton, New York, location and the Gibborish (the Gibborim are the winged monkey thugs of the Nepilim caste system) charms still to come that undermines efforts to take Trussoni's created world seriously. What's with the angelologists sporting the names of archangels --Gabriella, Raphael, Michael -- and driving already distinctive cars with personalized license plates --Angel1, for example? Wouldn't it be to their benefit if they weren't so easy for the Nephilim to hone in on during the inevitable chase scenes?

Exceedingly annoying was Trussoni's overuse of the letter V in names. Evangeline and V.A. Verlaine are, of course, our main characters, and since we're never told what the V.A. stands for, I was left free to wonder what Trussoni 's big reveal over the name will be in Angelopolis, the sequel. Vincent, since he's an art historian? Vidal, since he's a self-professed borderline metrosexual? Valentine, because he's Evangeline's love interest? Or Virgil, since he'll probably have to go through hell in the sequel? And does the A stands for Angelo, to match Evangeline's middle name of Angelina? Beats me, but I wouldn't be surprised. In the meantime, the reader encounters Percival, Vladimir, Victor, various members of the family Valko and the celestial element Valkine. Is this just a tic on Trussoni's part or a nonsubtle way of underscoring that angels are now the new vampires and the Stephenie Meyers' and the Sookie Stackhouses' of the world should take note they're being muscled aside?

The letter G is overused as well: "Gibborim held Gabriella at Grigori's side, one gruesome creature to each of her arms." G-g-g-groovy.

Fan fictiony elements abound and I won't be surprised if Angelology attracts its own stable of writers at once the movie's out. I've a tendency these days to regard any particularly lovely 23-year-old character with an unusual name and extraordinary qualities or skills as a Mary Sue--and Evangeline scores high on the Mary Sue litmus test by the end of the book. Who'd a thunk she had it in her, huh? Um, anyone paying attention. Cough, cough.

But pay no attention to me. I don't appreciate a lot of books that inspire a lot of sales and readerly devotion. I try, but I just can't do it.

I still have my fingers crossed for the Justin Cronin, though.


*Just as Genesis opens with two juxtaposed creation stories, Angelology opens with two back-to-back versions of Evangeline getting dressed: in paragraph one, she goes to the restroom and dresses without looking in the mirror; in paragraph two, she looks at her body in the mirror prior to dressing. I can't tell that one version's any more relevant to the story than the other, frankly.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

15 books, 15 days, 15 blogs

The Girl Detective's upcoming 15 books, 15 days, 15 blogs challenge, which begins this Friday, April 16, had immediate appeal.

I've always harbored more than a twinge of jealousy for those who succeed at reading a book or more a day for lengthy swathes of time. Even though I'm capable of zipping through a standard-length contemporary novel in a day on those weekends when no one makes any outside demands on me (and many times in spite of said demands) I will then go a couple of days during the week without picking up a book at all except to cart it from one place to another.

I'm not going to put a lot of pressure on myself to read standard-length literary fiction for the rest of the month--I've still got my weekly sections of Ulysses to read on the side--but I'm going to do my best to make a dent in my stacks of skinny--my Hideous Kinkys, my So Long, See You Tomorrows, my Max and the Cats. I've a George Gissing that's only 101 pages. I've a couple graphic novels for the Saturdays that will be dedicated to out-of-town trips, not reading. All I will need to do is stay focused, not wander off to read political blogs or watch three episodes of Breaking Bad in one night.

Want to read along?

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Germinal by Emile Zola

His rage was terrifying. Never had he spoken so vehemently. With one arm he supported old Bonnemort, displaying him like a flag of misery and grief, crying for vengeance. In rapid phrases he went back to the first of the Maheus, and told of the whole of this family done to death in the pit, victimized by the Company, hungrier than ever after a hundred years of toil; and then by contrast he pictured the bellies of the directors sweating money, the great crowd of shareholders kept like whores for a century, doing nothing, just enjoying their bodies. Wasn't it terrible to think of? A whole race of people dying down in the pits, sons after their fathers, so that bribes could be given to Ministers and generations of noble lords and bourgeois could give grand parties or sit and grow fat by their own firesides! He had studied miners' occupational diseases and now brought them all out with horrible details: anaemia, scrofula, black bronchitis, choking asthma, paralysing rheumatism. They, poor devils, were just machine-fodder, they were penned like cattle in housing estates, the big Companies were gradually dominating their whole lives, regulating slavery, threatening to enlist all the nation's workers, millions of hands to increase the wealth of a thousand idlers. But the ignorant miner, the mere brute buried in the bowels of the earth, was a thing of the past. In the depths of the mine an army was springing up, a harvest of citizens germinating like seeds that would break through the earth one sunny day. And then they would know whether, after forty years' service, they could dare to offer a hundred and fifty francs as a pension to an old man of sixty, spitting coal and with legs swollen with the water of the coal-face. Yes, labour would call capital to account, capital, that impersonal god, unknown to the worker, crouching somewhere in his mysterious tabernacle whence he sucked the blood of the poor starving devils he lived on! They would go and hunt him out, and make him show his face in the glare of fire, they would drown him in blood, this disgusting hog, this monstrous idol gorged with human flesh!


Long regarded a masterpiece of French naturalism, Emile Zola's Germinal introduces us to the inhabitants of a company mining town in northern France during the mid-1800s. Conditions are brutal within the coal  mine and not much better at the surface--mothers routinely sell themselves and their young daughters sexually in order to put a meager amount of food on the table. Debt, deprivation and depravity are the natural order and no one has any expectations that things could be otherwise than worse.

Then a stranger, Etienne, comes to town. He convinces the miners to begin a provident fund which later, when the mining company cuts the already bare-bones wages, will enable the miners--for a time--to make an attempt to better their lives by going out on strike.

Zola takes us into the lives and perspective of the capitalists as well, who have their own limitations and problems:

He had food in plenty, but that did not prevent his groaning in anguish. His devastated home and the long drawn-out pain of his life--these things seemed to rise and catch him in the throat like the gasp of a dying man. As though everything in the garden were lovely just because you had bread to eat! What idiot imagined that happiness in this world depended on a share-out of wealth? These starry-eyed revolutionaries could demolish society and build a brave new world if they liked, but they would not by so doing add one single joy to man's lot, nor relieve him of a single pain merely by sharing out the cake. In fact they would only spread out the unhappiness of the world, and some day they would make the very dogs howl with despair by removing them from the simple satisfaction of their instincts and raising them to the unsatisfied yearnings of passion. No, the only good was to be found in non-existence, or if one had to exist, in being a tree, a stone, or lower still, a grain of sand, for that cannot bleed uder the heel of every passer-by.

I'd had it in the back of my mind to read Zola for many years, Germinal in particular since 2006, so I'm most appreciative of The Classics Circuit's Zola tour serving as motivation to actually follow through in doing so. This was a tough read in that there was so much unrelenting misery in the miners' lives, and there were times when I would have appreciated a bit of authorial pulling back instead of a full-throttle assault on my emotions: yes, I'm talking about Poland the rabbit and the pit ponies. Eep. My imagination would have been sufficient in supplying the details without any help on Zola's part.

I read the Leonard Tancock edition and would recommend it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

New books

The book purchasing is slowing down. I have three pre-orders that should arrive by the middle of next month and a couple more over the summer. I'd like to see if I can stockpile my gift certificates for awhile instead of spending them the moment they arrive.

Hearts and Minds. Amanda Craig. I'd never heard of this before it showed up on the Orange long list and now I'm seeing it everywhere. London, immigrants, murder. I love the cover and its colors.

White is for Witching. Helen Oyeyemi. I remember checking Oyeyemi's first novel out from the library, but I don't believe I ever opened it. Maybe owning a copy will make the difference.

Shanghai Girls. Lisa See. Review copy. I've never read See. The covers always look too girly for the likes of me.

In the Days of Simon Stern. Arthur A. Cohen. I found this on the free books table in the university library. It won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award back in 1973.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Philip Pullman. Pre-ordered last summer. I am trying very hard not to dive into this until after I've completed a couple prior commitments. Okay, I've already read the first chapter. I can tell I'm going to love it.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

200 guineas a year

So I was reading along in Michael O'Brien's Mrs. Adams in Winter last night when I encountered "the dotty Mrs. Elizabeth Orby Hunter," who Louisa Catherine Adams knew in Berlin.

"Tall, badly dressed, smeared with rouge, she tormented gatherings by her propensity for flaming rows, violent language, hysteria, and weeping," O'Brien writes. "She was, nonetheless, puzzled that all but Mrs. Adams received her visits with 'chilling frigidity.'"

Louisa Adams called Elizabeth Orby Hunter "one of the oddest, and most eccentric women to be sane." When Hunter left Berlin she did so in a brand new carriage, bought specifically for carrying her parrot, a bird "destined to become her heir."

An end note brought me to the delightful The Book of Days and Elizabeth Orby Hunter's will:

'I, Elizabeth Orby Hunter, of Upper Seymour Street, widow, do give and bequeath to my beloved parrot, the faithful companion of 25 years, an annuity for its life of 200 guineas a year, to be paid half-yearly, as long as this beloved parrot lives, to whoever may have the care of it, and proves its identity; but the above annuity to cease on the death of my parrot; and if the person who shall or may have care of it, should substitute any other parrot in its place, either during its life or after its death, it is my positive will and desire, that the person or persons so doing shall refund to my heirs or executors the sum or sums they may have received from the time they did so; and I empower my heirs and executors to recover it from whoever could be base enough to do so. And I do give and bequeath to Mrs. Mary Dyer, widow, now dwelling in Park Street, Westminster, my foresaid parrot, with its annuity of 200 guineas a year, to be paid her half yearly, as long as it lives; and if Mrs. Mary Dyer should die before my beloved parrot, I will and desire that the aforesaid annuity of 200 guineas a year may be paid to whoever may have the care of my parrot as long as it lives, to be always the first paid annuity; and I give to Mrs. Mary Dyer the power to will and bequeath my parrot and its annuity to whomsoever she pleases, provided that person is neither a servant nor a man it must be bequeathed to some respectable female. And I also will and desire that no person shall have the care of it that can derive any benefit from its death; and if Mrs. Dyer should neglect to will my parrot and its annuity to any one, in that case, whoever proves that they may have possession of it, shall be entitled to the annuity on its life, as long as it lives, and that they have possession of it, provided that the person is not a servant or a man, but a respectable female; and I hope my executors will see it is in proper and respectable hands; and I also give the power to whoever possesses it, and its annuity, to any respect-able female on the same conditions. And I also will and desire, that 20 guineas may be paid to Mrs. Dyer directly on my death, to be expended on a very high, long, and large cage for the foresaid parrot. It is also my will and desire, that my parrot shall not be removed out of England. I will and desire that whoever attempts to dispute this my last will and testament, or by any means neglect, or tries to avoid paying my parrot's annuity, shall forfeit whatever I may have left them; and if any one that I have left legacies to attempt bringing in any bills or charges against me, I will and desire that they forfeit whatever I may have left them, for so doing, as I owe nothing to any one. Many owe to me both gratitude and money, but none have paid me either.'

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Rebecca Skloot on the Colbert Report

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In that moment, reading those passages, I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta's cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they'd led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so.

For Deborah and her family--and surely many others in the world--that answer was so much more concrete than the explanation offered by science: that the immortality of Henrietta's cells had something to do with her telomeres and how HPV interacted with her DNA. The idea that God chose Henrietta as an angel who would be reborn as immortal cells made a lot more sense to them than the explanation Deborah had read years earlier in Victor McKusick's genetics book, with its clinical talk of HeLa's "atypical histology" and "unusually malignant behavior." It used phrases like "the tumor's singularity" and called the cells "a reservoir of morphologic, biochemical, and other information."

Jesus told his followers, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never die." Plain, simple, to the point.

--Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...