Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Final (Somewhat Sheepish) Accounting

I only read three titles during the TBR challenge, which seems pretty shabby as these things go.

1. The Well Educated Mind - Wise Bauer
2. In the Shadow of the Law - Roosevelt
3. The Splendor of Letters - Basbanes

# 1 and 3 were from the original list and #2 was a substitution. I got distracted, pure and simple. Or else I sought to be distracted. I was reading (but mostly other stuff, based on what is here on the blog...)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Working Through Wilde

Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings stopped by and expressed a hope that I would give other works by Oscar Wilde a try [see his comment here]. He recommends Wilde's plays to me and, for what it's worth, Carl, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed many of his plays. I have read The Importance of Being Ernest multiple times since I was in middle-school and have read An Ideal Husband and Lady Windemere's Fan with equal enjoyment.

I rather suspect that I simply need to give Dorian Gray a second read. Based on my brief foray into the context of Wilde's novel, he was making a point and to be fair to him as an artist, I need to review and re-evaluate whether he succeeded. Some interpretations of Dorian Gray propose the idea that Gray makes a Faustian bargain and that Lord Henry is simply the figure of Mephistophiles. As I've thought about this book the past two or three days, I have decided that Lord Henry most likely represents the knowledge we have about the universe based on our own investigations and observations. Basil, as the great artist, represents that which we know in other ways -- what we strive for, what we want to believe, what we hope to be true. Dorian's story (and Wilde's) is best understood as the author trying to work out through fiction the difficulties of balancing the two ways of understanding the world around him. Yes, one needs to be aware of Wilde's sexual appetites and the trouble such behavior represented in Victorian society. That element, only obliquely referred to in the text, is part of what makes Dorian Gray's stunted understanding and self-destruction so vivid. Gray never finds a comfortable way of living in his world (hence his constant need to rush home and reassure himself as to the condition of the portrait) and neither apparently did Wilde ever come to accept his own divided life. It's a most painful book viewed in that context. My negativity was a response to that pain coming through on the page.

I need to know more both about the book itself and about Wilde's experiences as an author. As I understand it, the publisher insisted on Wilde making certain revisions to The Picture of Dorian Gray so as to make the final text more palatable to the marketplace and it would be useful to know exactly what sections were added or modified before making any final judgment. It would make sense for me to seek out a decent biography of the man.

So it isn't really that I don't *like* Oscar Wilde or that I truly believe that Elizabeth Gaskell was a nicer person than he was. They were two people living fifty years apart in time with different experiences of life. She was a vicar's wife and largely comfortable in her situation; he was something else entirely. I need to get a better handle on the man and the context of the novel.

Which raises another question that some of you may find interesting -- should judgment of a novel be based solely on the reader's experience of it, without reference to the context of the work? Or ought we to try to get as complete an understanding of that context as possible, ie. by investigating the author's personal situation and intent? Any thoughts? I'm talking about leisure reading, not reading as part of a formal educational process.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Another Victorian Author.

Just a brief blog entry to note that I'm about five or six chapters into Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. We've already seen death, destruction by fire, and the misery of disease in those first chapters, but the distance maintained by Gaskell in her narrative as well as the inner strength of her characters keeps it manageable. I've encountered one lengthy intrusion of Gaskell's social philosophy (as Didi notes, this is a social justice novel), but I seem to mind it less given her general sympathy towards those on both sides of the class gap. The misery of Dorian Gray and the bitterness of his creator left something of an after-taste, so I wasn't sure I was eager to encounter the grim realities of Victorian England again.

What I'm really saying is that based on the most shallow comparison of two utterly disparate pieces of fiction, Mrs. Gaskell seems to me to be a much nicer person than Oscar Wilde. (The poor man's been dead for more than a hundred years, and yet sadly, middle-class conformists, such as myself, are still abusing him and his work. Artists suffer, you know?)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Author: Oscar Wilde (bio at Wikipedia)

Copyright: Originally published 1891, (falls in public domain; full text at Project Gutenberg). I used the Modern Library/Everyman's Library edition, published November 2000.

Genre: Fiction/horror

Length: 254 pages

Summary: This short novel is about the influences that shape one's choices in life (and ultimately one's soul) for good or ill. Art, truth and beauty are personified in the characters of Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wottan, and Dorian Gray. While movie screenwriters have reduced the story to one of a portrait that reflects the corruption over time of a young man's nature, a close reading of the book offers a somewhat bitter commentary on the forces that influence social standing and behavior. Wilde points out how readily we permit socially-imposed constraints to color public perceptions of an individual's level of personal virtue. The Picture of Dorian Gray might serve as a prime example of an author's examination of what John Mullen refers to as 'character' as social phenomenon. As Gray increasingly disregards social constraints and the consequences of his personal behavior on those around him, the secret of the portrait that displays his wickedness becomes an increasing burden, both terrorizing him and isolating him from those whose true regard might have helped and supported him.

Extract: Two extracts are offered below, the first being from the opening page of the book and the other from Chapter 11, about mid-way through the book:

(a) From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.

(b) At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which mad gipsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave, yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning Negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass and charmed-- or feigned to charm--great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders. The harsh intervals and shrill discords of barbaric music stirred him at times when Schubert's grace, and Chopin's beautiful sorrows, and the mighty harmonies of Beethoven himself, fell unheeded on his ear.

Essentially, this is not for the faint of heart. If you read either of the above extracts (neither of which is longer than two sentences and neither comprising a full paragraph), if such caused you to blanch at the purple prose, the style of this novel will not appeal. I suspect that modern readers will consider that Wilde's storytelling was far better suited to the dramatic form. His epigrams shine out in a play; they get buried in prose.

Also Relevant: I can't tell you why I picked this up -- maybe because it was short, maybe because I'd enjoyed the gothic novels I read last fall and thought I'd like this, maybe simply because I was enamoured of the Everyman's Library binding. Suffice it to say that I did not enjoy the book. I finished it as an intellectual exercise, but not as a particular fan of the work. I was tempted to agree with the Victorian critics who found it poisonous. It's clearly social commentary with some validity to its observations, but the worldview depresses and/or disheartens.

Wilde presents a horrifying and scathing view of the social environment, but offers no recommendations or solutions for finding one's way out of the maze. Based on what little I know of his life, that's possibly due to his own failure to find any acceptable path for living in his society but The Picture of Dorian Grey is still horrifying (and Gray's portrait is the least of it).

I can see why we consider this a classic work. Wilde articulated well the perils of promoting self-actualization without instilling some measure of moderation or constraint - the human ego runs amuck. It doesn't make for a pretty picture.

I suppose we *could* send copies to Paris Hilton and the rest of her crowd. But then like Dorian Gray, I would have to wonder whether I really performed such a service out of good intentions.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Swing: A Mystery

Title: Swing

Author: Rupert Holmes (official web site)

Copyright: 2005, Random House (ISBN 1-4000-6158-0, hardcover with CD)

Genre: Mystery

Length: 358 pages

Summary: California, September, 1940, jazz musician Ray Sherwood is in town to play a gig at the Hotel Claremont. His abilities as an arranger are enlisted by musician-composer Gail Prentice, winner of a recent musical competition. Her composition will be played at the Golden Gate Exposition by the Pan-Pacific orchestra and she needs Ray to work out the appropriate scoring for each instrument. Ray, traveling with an enormous amount of (emotional) baggage himself, agrees to at least listen to the work before making any firm commitment, but that's all it takes to thrust him into the flow of an international intrigue. Minutes later, he witnesses a young woman's fall to her death at the exposition. Subsequent events in the story expose him to injury and blackmail, while his past threatens his present connection with Gail. It's all ever-so-RKO- movie stuff. The back story unfolds somewhat slowly in the first third of the book but gives way to more of the mystery in the second third. Puzzles abound as the scope of the crime gets revealed in the final third but the abruptness of the final resolution may leave some readers unsatisfied. Characterization throughout is good.


I openly studied her face, seeing her in a new light even as the sky grew ominously dark. Take twenty years from her, fill her with giggle water until she's juiced, let an honest smile cross her features and yes, she might have been one of my conquests back then.
"I understand that you might dislike me," I said.
"Oh, you're much too kind to yourself," she said, taking a Pall Mall from the clutch bag she carried.

Also Relevant: The excerpt above should give an indication of the slight resemblance here to a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel. Unfortunately, Holmes' style isn't as literary as Chandler's or as hard-boiled as Hammett's. Holmes' greatest success in this novel is the sharp turns built into Swing. Particularly in the final third of the story, he ends a chapter with one amazing revelation, only to reverse your sense of where things are headed on the opening page of the next chapter.

The book's theme is coping with death and/or the threat of imminent death. The references to Nazi aggression in World War II and the treatment of Jews in Europe is a constant thread in the story.

This was a selection for the Township Library mystery group and they seemed to like this one. One gentleman was familiar with the setting of the novel and brought printouts from Google Maps to show the rest of the group. (The exposition's Treasure Island became a naval station during the War). Everyone enjoyed the swing band sound of the CD, but the claim that one can pick up clues to the mystery by listening to the music was deemed to be *quite frankly* bogus. The entire novel had originally been intended as the basis of a Broadway musical, but the death of the author's daughter infused the music he composed with such sadness that Holmes shelved the project.

Rupert Holmes is an award-winning lyricist and writer for the Broadway stage, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood and that wonderful AMC television series, Remember WENN. He has been nominated for an Edgar this year for his play, Curtains. He is most immediately known to a broader population as the composer of the TV theme song for The Partridge Family and the hit pop song Escape (The Pina Colada Song) which was a major hit back in 1979-1980. Just as most of us would acknowledge that song as fun but not perhaps the culmination of musical achievement, we can say pretty much the same of this book. Enjoyable, but not what one would likely call literature in its highest form.

More: A review from the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times' Marilyn Stasio's review of Swing

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How Novels Work

I can't recall whose blog directed me to John Mullen's How Novels Work, but I'm actually finding it quite useful. I'm only a chapter or two into it, but it's definitely written at the right level for me and the content is readily applicable to the material I've got before me.

Chapter Two is entitled Narrating and almost immediately he started talking about first-person narratives. Apparently Henry James had rather strong attitudes towards this approach towards informing the reader, calling it 'that accurst autobiographic form which puts a premium on the loose, the improvised, the cheap and the easy'. (see page 42). Mullen goes on to mention how popular this narrative style has become in recent decades. This caused me to pause and mull over the fact that the mystery I'm currently reading this month (Swing) has been told in the first person.

Mullen talks about multiple narrators, such as those used by Wilkie Collins in The Moonstone. And he makes reference to the powers of recollection Defoe ascribed to his narrator, Robinson Crusoe; that put me in mind of Gabriel Betteredge, of course, and I wondered whether I ought to have been more aware of the depth of detail recollected in his narrative there.

Essentially, reading How Novels Work has been rather serendipitous in driving me to piece together my reading this month.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Geoge Eliot's Silas Marner

My #2 Review for the Winter Classics Challenge

My list of titles for this challenge appears here.

Title: Silas Marner

Author: George Eliot [ biographical info from Univ. of Virginia ]

Copyright: 1861 (Novel falls into the public domain); I used the Borders Classic hardcover edition, ISBN 1-58726-164-2, copyright 2005 Ann Arbor Media Group, LLC. Full text available here.

Genre: Fiction

Length: 172 pages

Summary: Falsely accused of theft and deeply shaken by the resulting distrust in his community, Silas Marner leaves his urban environment and moves to the rural village of Raveloe. Because of his slightly odd appearance and his intense sensitivity, he withdraws from community and approaches life from the perspective of a hoarder, a miser. He is however still an innately honest soul. Circumstances bring a daughter to him and in the interests of taking care of a child, he is forced to interact with his world in new ways.

Conversely, Godfrey Cass is the fortunate son of the local squire. Blessed with most of life's advantages, he makes bad choices. The consequential deceit that follows wreaks havoc on the lives of those around him and, in the long run, robs him of life's emotional treasures that he might have had.

Essentially, Silas Marner is a character study of two individuals whose paths in life direct them to different ends. Eliot contrasts the good and evil in choices made by two very human characters.

Extract: Silas himself was feeling the withering desolation of that bereavement about which his neighbours were arguing at their ease. To any one who had observed him before he lost his gold, it might have seemed that so withered and shrunken a life as his could hardly be susceptible of a bruise, could hardly endure any subtraction but such as would put an end to it altogether. But in reality it had been an eager life, filled with immediate purpose which fenced him in from the wide, cheerless unknown. It had been a clinging life; and though the object round which its fibres had clung was a dead disrupted thing, it satisfied the need for clinging. But now the fence was broken down -- the support was snatched away.

The above extract from Chapter 10 is actually a fair sample of Eliot's writing. Her sentences do tend to run long with lengthy clauses inserted into them. I can understand why the style is somewhat disconcerting to high school students. (In my day, this was a fairly standard high school assigned text, but I don't think that's true any more.) Those who speed-read may get the high points of the relatively simple plot but I suspect they will miss Eliot's intention in presenting the story. Casual readers may also want to be aware that Chapters 6 and 7 have a good deal of dialect in them which will also slow the pace (although you couldn't ask for a better text rendition of English lower-class existence in another century).

Also Relevant: Eliot is good, no doubt, but I must say that she doesn't speak to me across time the way other writers from the nineteenth century do. She's very realistic in the rendition of her characters which I liked. Silas Marner is the opposite of what many today demand of their chosen heroes; he's not physically attractive and he seems to be incapable of standing up for himself. On the other hand, we see him as a loving single parent which tends to make him more sympathetic as a character. Eliot's explanation of why he withdraws from society and the forces that drive his re-entry into Raveloe society struck me as entirely plausible and certainly, one roots for the underdog. Knowing that he's been badly treated by a number of people elicits some hope in the reader that Marner will somehow succeed against the odds. Having said that, he's not a particularly interesting person; he's basically taciturn by nature and too isolated and/or withdrawn to hold our attention.

Godfrey Cass, by contrast, is well-situated in life, but lacks an internal moral compass. Unsure of his father's approbation, he is deceitful because of his emotional insecurity. This causes him to wreck the lives of those women who have the misfortune of joining their lives to his.

I *think* there are a number of things going on in the background. Eliot may well be presenting the lower-classes and rural life as having a claim to inherent superiority over the life found in urban settings. Otherwise there's no purpose to the narrative framework she employs, showing Marner's life in Lantern Yard before he adopts Eppie and then offering the contrast in his view of Lantern Yard when he returns there late in life with Eppie. I am not sure that I buy any of these views by scholars and critics. There is a repeated theme of violated trust in the tale and the human need we have for that trust from those who we care for and who know us most intimately.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


It arrived this week in my part of the country. We went from having days in the 50s and 60s to having the temperature plunge down into the twenties and, with wind chill, even into the single digits. Hence the need for my new dress coat (with which I am very pleased) and which makes me appear to be just as fetching as this sweet young thing.

Travelsmith is a very nice place to shop!

So now I'm sitting inside the house with books and with hot chocolate. Because birthdays, business trips, and a forthcoming Annual Conference can be wearing....[Note that crumpets from Wolfermans help one cope as well. Hot *buttery* crumpets with jam.]

Friday, January 19, 2007

Glorious Battle

[ just an ordinary review; not for any challenge ]

Title: Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism

Author: John Shelton Reed (see information here; an Angelfire personal website without attribution, so I have some reservations as to its reliability)

Genre: Non-fiction, history

Length: 396 pages

Copyright: 2000, Vanderbilt University Press, ISBN 0826513808 (paperback)

Summary: Fascinating, cultural investigation of the shifts in practice in the Church of England during the era roughly spanning the years, 1833 - 1890. Reed primarily investigates how and why the attitudes and practices re-introduced by the Oxford Movement took hold at this particular point in time. What was the movement reacting to and how did the rise of ritualism in its wake become part of the mainstream? What were the various factions that drove the shifts in thinking and practice? His interest is less in the theological debates and more in the social pressures that forced the institutional Church into new channels. This is a thoroughly accessible history for those with an interest in the Victorian period.

Extract: This directive set off a flurry of meetings, petitions and protests throughout the diocese, and Philpotts withdrew it soon after issuing it. But at the parish church of St. Sitwell's, Exeter, already divided and suspicious because of an earlier conflict, the curate ill-advisedly wore the surplice for preaching anyway. Two-thirds of his congregation walked out, and he was mobbed on his way home by two hundred protestors. The next Sunday he required a police escort to protect him from a mob of two thousand. The following Sunday, he relented, but five thousand people were on hand to see that he did. (Glorious Battle, page 36)

The above paragraph references the Surplice Riots of 1844. I hope you hear the faint humor in Reed's prose. Yes, people allowed themselves to become overwrought to the point of violence over a garment worn in the pulpit. But you should read the volume to better understand why. Note that Reed is entirely respectful of the leaders of the Oxford Movement and of the body of activist Christians who moved into the slums of London as a part of the ritualist movement. It is only the truly silly, ostensibly theological debates that evoke a certain entertainment in his narrative.

Perhaps the best summation of his work is found in the next to last paragraph of the book when he quotes another historian from 1897 who said, "it is perfectly marvellous to observe how things are now accepted which once provoked suspicion and even actual rebellion."

Also Relevant: I know. The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism; that subtitle just screams "bestseller". You're wondering, is this really anyone's idea of leisure reading?

I read this book for several reasons: my interest in nineteenth century British literature and history, my active lifetime participation in the Episcopal church in modern-day America, and my curiousity about the ecclesiastical tensions that surface in much of Trollope. Certainly, the Episcopalians are variously known as the "Frozen Chosen" and the High-and-Dry even as Robin Williams makes fun of us for being "Catholic-Lite - all the ritual; half the guilt." Given the upheavals that currently threaten my denomination, I thought reading up on some of the historical background made sense.

The good news is that by reading Glorious Battle, I'm persuaded that my church, having suffered through some fairly dramatic hoo-rah in the past, will likely survive the current threats of schism. I know some in my parish can't believe that we are still arguing points of church law with regard to women's ordination, while others wish we could go back to the 1928 Prayer Book. It's somewhat upsetting until you read something like this history and realize that 140 years ago, the issues were really just as absurd despite all of the very human participants' very serious, anxiety-ridden, yet basically good intentions.

This is really fairly demanding reading in some ways. One chapter at a time and synthesizing what I read the next morning was frequently the only way I could get through it and be sure I had something of a grasp on the discussion. But it's an interesting read. And despite the truly distressing news from the South (do read this Washington Post article), we will get through this.

[Quick Post-Script] I just wanted to note that the type of issues that raised hackles in the Church of England at this point in time included such fearful notions as having flowers at the altar as well as candles. Such things smacked of popery, to use their vocabulary. Given that I can't recall a single Episcopal church that I've ever attended as being without either of those two elements, the point is made that much of what we're agonizing over today may seem absolutely run-of-the-mill in the future. Reed's book discusses how the Victorians ended up getting from Point A to Point B.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Being Silly

One could waste a whole lot of time playing this. You click the mouse on groups of three or more cubes to make them disappear. Then the blocks rearrange themselves so you can zap some more of them. I think the point is to bring your blocks down to as few as possible. (Turn the sound on and the experience is vastly enhanced...)


Mary noted a quote from Zadie Smith that I'd posted a month or two back. (Thanks, Mary!) The quote has played a tug of war back and forth in my head because there are the easy books to read (like What Angels Fear which I reviewed below) and there are those books that are challenging. Do I want to read for entertainment or education? It's my primary leisure activity. I want to read something because it stimulates areas of interest for me other than those I encounter at work and in the daily grind. That means I may read The Odyssey or a history of Victorian anglo-catholicism or some frothy mystery next. (See my five books entry).

That's why that Zadie Smith quote lingers in the back of my mind. Entertainment or education? We balance between the two every time we pick up something to read from our TBR pile.

Clearly I need a new thought to chew on. This one is getting worn. Actually, Victorian anglo-catholicism has modern parallels. Maybe I'll finish up that one and review it.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What Angels Fear

[ Just an ordinary review; not for any particular challenge ]

Title: What Angels Fear

Author: C.S. Harris (pseudonym; her blog is here)

Copyright: 2005, published by New American Libraries, a division of Penguin Group (USA), New York (hardcover, ISBN: 0451216695). Amazon link

Genre: Mystery

Length: 340 Pages

Summary: Debut novel in a mystery series. Sebastian St. Cyr is Viscount Devlin, heir to the fifth Earl of Hendon, recently returned from the Napoleonic Wars. Falsely accused of murder and sought after by the authorities, St Cyr seeks to clear his name before he's captured and hung for two vicious crimes. While St. Cyr is intelligent and well-equipped both socially and physically to maneuver his way around the various layers of London in 1811, his situation draws others into his orbit -- Tom, a sharp, young pickpocket, and Kat, a beautiful actress from St. Cyr's past. St. Cyr's family is perhaps less supportive than they might be in his troubles with the law; the magistrate and the constables charged with bringing the Viscount to justice have no particular incentive to believe in his innocence. Those closest to the Prince (about to be named Regent) have political reasons reasons for wanting St. Cyr captured and certain truths kept quiet. Particularly strong plotting makes this mystery interesting and the author avoids, for the most part, hack machinations that would push the story into the realm of the predictably obvious.

Extract: The opening chapter is found at the author's website. Actually, that's misleading; that link takes you to the Prologue. The author's web site calls it the opening chapter.

Also Relevant: This was first brought to my attention by one of the participants at my library book group. She was so excited after finishing it, that I took her recommendation and included What Angels Fear in the list of historical mysteries that I was doing in 2007 with the township group. Then, when the group that meets at Didi's needed a recommendation for a mystery, I brought this one up as a possibility because it seemed likely to appeal to their interests.

It's a fairly fast read because of the narrative style she adopts in telling the story. We don't get much in the way of either descriptive passages or transitions. In fact, that's my biggest irritation with this novel. At the end of it, I couldn't have given you a physical description of the hero, with the possible exception of telling you his eye color. With regard to transitions between scenes (within the same chapter), we're reduced to the use of dingbats to indicate that we've moved from a scene of the Viscount purchasing a disguise in Half Moon Street to the next scene of him holding a French aristocrat hostage in a hackney cab. I know that the use of dingbats is not an uncommon device in modern story-telling and I know that there is a belief that modern readers prefer such rapid transitions because it moves the story along. I personally think it indicates a certain weakness in the story-telling. Novels are not television, and I think she has been influenced too much by screen-writing in creating the novel. For my money, I prefer the P.D. James approach of providing the reader with descriptive detail, fueling the reader's imagination in envisioning the whole scene.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the mystery. I did. I would certainly read another St. Cyr mystery by C.S. Harris (which is good because the second in the series is now out in hardcover, the third one is with the publisher in the production process, and she's finishing up the manuscript for the fourth). As I was reading this one, I twice predicted who I thought would turn out to have done it and both times I was wrong. I admit that I would like to see a greater depth of character development in the next few volumes. Harris has set up some interesting tensions between St Cyr and his family, St. Cyr and his former lover, and St. Cyr and the authorities. Those now need to be played out.

All in all, I think this series debut was above average. I'd like to see it soar to excellence.


I'm working on a review or two but, in the meantime, you might find this article by Zadie Smith which appeared in today's Guardian (UK) to be of interest. It pertains to the obligations of writers to readers and vice versa. It is in fact a longer meditation on an earlier Smith quote which I captured here. Really worth a read; well-worth thinking about.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

How was your day? (Humor)

Because this seems to describe the normal day of a goldfish. (Found at Reddit)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

From The Stacks Status Report

Two of the books on my TBR challenge list dealt with literary analysis of specific literary works. The titles, The Battle for Middle Earth and The Things That Matter, have both been attempted but without, quite frankly, much success. Neither discussion has really resonated with me. In the case of the former, I overestimated my level of interest in the theological analysis of the Lord of the Rings (book and films). In the case of the latter, I am faced with the fairly common gap between interpretation of classic works when read by a university professor and the rather common-place interpretations of an ordinary reader. I doubt I'll get through The Battle for Middle Earth (at least within the time frame set for the challenge) -- but even having gotten through the bulk of The Things That Matter, I'm not sure what I'll have to offer in reaction to it.

This is when this quote I found in November comes back to haunt me a bit, specifically this part where author Zadie Smith likens the reader to an amateur musician at the piano:

"An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading."

The niggling concern is whether my negative reaction to an expert's analysis of Jane Eyre is due to my own failure to properly engage with the text or due to a legitimate disagreement between two rational adult readers.

Oh, who has the time to worry about it anyway? Generally speaking, I just close my eyes and jump.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone

[ A review for the Winter Classics Challenge ]

Title: The Moonstone

Author: Wilkie Collins [ biographical entry, Wikipedia ]

Copyright: 1868 (novel falls into public domain); I was reading the Everyman's Library 1992 edition (Random House/Knopf)

Length: 473 pages

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Summary: With a certain malicious intent, a British officer bequeathes a trophy of his service in India (a valuable yellow diamond) to his niece on her eighteenth birthday. However, because of the diamond's history, a curse follows it and evil touches the lives of those connected with the lovely young heiress, Rachel Verinder. The diamond is sought by various individuals with an interest in its financial and spiritual value. The story is told in first person, narrated by eight characters in different walks of life with differing perceptions of people and events. These include Gabriel Betteredge, a 70-something family retainer with a fondness for his pipe and book; Miss Drusilla Clack, an earnestly-sermonizing spinster sourpuss; Franklin Bates, a cosmopolitan young man who is also the suitor of Miss Verinder, and Ezra Jennings, a medical assistant. Mystery readers may figure out the logical suspect without a great deal of difficulty, but it's much more enjoyable to sit back and enjoy the twists that Collins constructed so carefully. The pacing is what one ought to expect of a Victorian novel as each narrator has particular points to make about the habits and relationships of each person observed. I found it satisfying, but others may not.

Extract: (From Gabriel Betteredge's narrative)

Looking back at the birthday now, by the light of what happened afterwards, I am half inclined to think that the cursed Diamond must have cast a blight on the whole company. I plied them well with wine; and being a privileged character, followed the unpopular dishes round the table, and whispered to the company confidentially, "Please to change your mind and try it; for I know it will do you good." Nine times out of ten they changed their minds--out of regard for their old original Betteredge, they were pleased to say-- but all to no purpose. There were gaps of silence in the talk, as the dinner got on, that made me feel personally uncomfortable. When they did use their tongues again, they used them innocently, in the most unfortunate manner and to the worst possible purpose. Mr. Candy, the doctor, for instance, said more unlucky things than I ever knew him to say before. Take one sample of the way in which he went on, and you will understand what I had to put up with at the sideboard, officiating as I was in the character of a man who had the prosperity of the festival at heart.

Also Relevant: My first exposure to The Moonstone was through the Classic Comics Illustrated that were popular back in the early 'sixties. The comic book didn't impress me at the age of eight or nine, which explains why I never felt particularly compelled to read this novel until now. It's a pity because I have thoroughly enjoyed this novel; on the upside, I can now look forward to reading other of Collins' works to see if they are as good. This was (if I may borrow The Bluestalking Reader's description of the Collins novel she read) a "truly RIPPING YARN". There were twists and turns, people dropped dead or went missing at interesting junctures, and went into seclusion or left town exactly at that point when amateur and professional sleuths were most anxious to meet with them. There was humor in the narrative as well as suspense, and a certain amount of satirical jabs (usually in the direction of Miss Clack who invited abuse by handing out Evangelical tracts at ill-chosen times).

Even early on, there were intriguing questions posed by the story. Had the diamond been stolen? Or was it put in hiding by someone with Rachel's best interest at heart? Who was in league with whom? Were they working to help the police or divert them? Was the upstairs maid really dead?

Imagine a strange petite woman suddenly grabbing you by the elbow, thrusting a volume into your hand, and stressing most emphatically that you just have to read this! That's me -- not Miss Clack --and how I feel about The Moonstone. You've just got to read this book. I very nearly called in sick to the office this week because I thought Moonstone was far more interesting than work could possibly be. I read long past the hour when I normally would go to sleep at night in order to find out what happed next. I neglected most everything today in order to finish it. Now I know why the Victorians called it sensation literature (and why they thought it was bad for female readers...)

Note: If you want further depth into the historical context of the novel, I can point you in the direction of these two educational sites that offer interesting background:

However, understanding the historical context isn't really critical to a happy enjoyment of the action.

One Additional Thought: I was not overly fond of the romance element in this, chiefly because Collins portrayed his heroine with a certain amount of sentimentality as the story reached its climax. At that point, I thought she was drippy and uninteresting; previously she had held some interest for me. But, as previously mentioned, this is a Victorian novel and one must be prepared to deal with some of the baggage that comes along with that.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Libraries' Weeding of Collections

To those of you who have come here via JenClair's entry on Garden in the Pocket, welcome and thank you, JenClair.

I don't want to beat a dead issue, with regard to the Washington Post article about Fairfax County Library System's weeding policies. But there is one (perhaps obvious) point that I feel compelled to make.

Common sense should tell any library patron that it's a necessity for libraries to weed their collections; when you run out of shelf space, you have to do something with the surplus books, preferably the ones that are being used with the least frequency. It's not a judgement on the quality of those texts; it's a judgement of how best to allocate space and shelving. Christine explains the professional practice very well.

Libraries can only provide a finite set of services and they are currently expected to do a great deal these days with regard to electronic resources, computers, etc. The money only stretches so far and a public library has to serve every single one of its constituents, whatever their circumstances. Most libraries are expected to provide materials to a wide variety of patrons and they have to do so with a finite and generally shrinking set of resources (ie. money, time, space, and patience). As Maud Newton learned. Imagine what it takes to support a library user population like the one described in this article.

As the Director of Fairfax Libraries himself points out, a library system doesn't discard every copy of Hemingway it owns, when it weeds things out. They have 108 copies of Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls in various formats, including audio-cassette and Large Print. It isn't just a case of the library only providing the standard print; a modern public library has to carry the work in multiple forms so that the senior citizen who needs Large Print can get it as easily as the daily commuter who wants to listen to the book while driving to and from work. That "reliable lexicon" that the Wall Street Journal thinks is needed? The libraries are working that angle as well, even while they're being chastised for being "welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart". Sheesh, WSJ!

No one is saying that it's more important to have Grisham than Hemingway. But they do have to make sure that they have both authors in as many formats as may be economically feasible. Because patrons expect libraries to have books, DVDs, books-on-tape, electronic databases, and everything other format known to mankind. God bless this woman for her effort, but it really is just not this simple. Because it will be the citizen who can't get Grisham (in one of the aforementioned preferred formats) who will complain most loudly about the quality of library services to the county supervisor who serves as the liaison to the Library System. The mother who can't get the references needed for her child's report on transportation in Colonial America will write to the local paper. Even a small failure corrodes support for funding. And no library, even those in the wealthy Fairfax Country system, can afford to let that happen.

These are professionals! They know what they're doing. Hemingway, Aristotle and Bronte are in absolutely no danger.

(I may get irritated by some of the people in my professional community, but I'll stand up for 'em!) Now, I'm going to go hear more from Drusilla Clack in The Moonstone. I *love* this book.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Five Books I Saw In The Store

But did not buy...

  1. England's Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton by Kate Williams
  2. Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
  3. Passage to India by E.M. Forster
  4. At Home With Kate by Eileen Considine-Meara
  5. The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs to Know by Michael Ravitch and Diane Ravitch.
Mind you, there was nothing wrong with any of those options, but I really am working hard to finish reading these five:
  1. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  2. Swing by Rupert Holmes
  3. What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris (oooh, Didi, look - she has a blog!)
  4. Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism by John Shelton Reed
  5. The Things that Matter by Edward Mendelson
Just so you know I'm fairly focused at the moment...

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Lists, lists, lists

You'd be better off starting with somebody else's blog today. I have not yet made up a 2007 list.

Jenclair is making up an uberlist, one with Montaigne, Voltaire and Marie Antoinette. Apparently she got the idea from Carl's uberlist.

A Reader's Journal has a list not just of participants in her Winter Classics Challenge but also her list of classics which includes Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Just as a point of contrast, I'm reading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins for my challenge. [That's so you know I'm doing something constructive.]

Kate has a full-blown list of reading resolutions up.

Kirsten posted her list on December 18th.

Pages Turned has a nice list posted; that list includes Robinson Crusoe. Gabriel Betteredge (in The Moonstone which you know I'm reading) believes that every problem can be effectively dealt with via a pipe of tobacco and a re-read of Robinson Crusoe. [I'm just making conversation here.]

Mary doesn't need to make a list because she has the eighth edition of The Norton Anthology.

Didi's got a list . Her classes haven't started up yet so she's getting ahead early.

The Literary Feline has a *lovely* list with clever categories and everything.

Reading Matters has a very L-O-N-G list.

Scholar's Blog offers up the CYBILS Shortlist.

Bluestalking Reader offers up a partial list of Isaac Asimov's works, given that today is his birthday.

So unless you want an office to-do list or a grocery list, I'm not really able to help you here.

Monday, January 01, 2007

2007 (Reading) Intentions

I am going to go for substance rather than volume.

Brief, yet to the point. More anon.