Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Man in the Picture [Review]

Title: The Man in the Picture

Author: Susan Hill

Copyright: 2007 (Published in the U.S., 2008, Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY; ISBN: 978-1-59020-091-9)

Genre: Gothic

Length: 145 pages

Summary: A modern scholar of medieval literature visits his old tutor at Cambridge University, the Chaucerian scholar Theo Parmitter. Seated before a fire, with the lamplight low, in Parmitter's college rooms, Oliver is told the tale behind a painting that has been in Parmitter's rooms for some time. The painting shows a scene of revelers at a Carnivale Masque by the Grand Canal in Venice. It is the history of the painting that forms a tale within a tale, deliciously macabre and eliciting a delicate shiver. There are elements of frustrated love and unending imprisonment in this very short, highly enjoyable literary ghost story.

Extract: 'I do not know what I expected to find,' he said, after sipping his whiskey. 'I had no preconceived ideas of the place called Hawdon or of this Countess. If I had...You think mine is a strange story, Oliver. But my story is nothing, it is merely a prelude to the story told me by an extraordinary old woman.'

Also relevant: This was a quick read as I got through it in less than a week of commuting to and from my office. You may remember that I had a tremendous liking for Hill's other work, The Woman in Black, which is similarly gothic in tone. The Man In The Picture offers masks, crowds, cold hatred and shadows, prisoners being taken into custody and a delightful sense of unease. You still have a week before Halloween. This one is worth ordering from Amazon now so as to have it in hand, to read as you wait by the front door for mysterious figures seeking treats on the 31st. Excellently done.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Season of Splendor [Review]

Title: A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York

Author: Greg King

Copyright: 2009, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken NJ. ISBN 9780470185698

Genre: History

Length: 508 pages including 50 pages of notes, bibliography and index. (PDF excerpts available on this page)

Summary: Between roughly 1870 and the outbreak of the first World War, the class structure of American society was dominated by Caroline Astor and her famous four hundred. Motivated by a certain idealism, author Greg King suggests that Caroline Astor thought to "endow American society with tradition and a sense of noblesse oblige...imposing on them a sense of responsibility to establish taste for the enrichment of the nation as a whole". In an attempt to position American wealth and breeding on a par with that found in major European capitals, Caroline Astor forged a new understanding of social rank which bridged old New York Knickerbocker society and that of the industrial nouveau riche. King embarks on a thoroughly footnoted tour of the various elements that were used to display that breeding -- clothing, architecture, jewelry, transportation, etc. He notes that the real excesses of the Gilded Age were spawned during the latter half of that time period, by those possessed of more wealth than intellect. The spectrum of excess and extravagance is breathtaking, even as one recognizes that, over time, the wealth of these families has been distributed throughout the country to modern museums and philanthropic organizations. King offers detail that both exemplifies and illuminates the Gilded Age. This book both educates and entertains, making it a worthwhile and fascinating read. The New York Social Diary found it to be equally worthwhile during a recent October weekend in New York.

Extract: A few of the older, socially secure, and traditionally minded hostesses still clung to the soirees common in the first years of the Gilded Age. Soirees were considered exceptionally difficult affairs to manage; they existed in a separate category and could not stray into hte territory reserved for a dinner or a ball, yet had to offer both entertainment and substantial refreshment. Held in the early evening, a soiree was generally artistic in nature, focusig on a literary reading, a chorale, or a small concert, often accompanied by a small buffet supper. Such an entertainment called for both foresight and diplomacy. In an era of increasingly opulent parties, a quiet circle listening to arias or somber chamber music offered little excitement, and there were few potential guest unlikely to be bored by such proceedings. Eventually, given the problems presented, most ladies abandoned the soiree entirely. (page 343)

Also relevant: Let's face it. The elegance of the gilded age is fascinating. I loved to watch the series, America's Castles, on A&E a few years ago as much because it gave me a glimpse into another way of life as because of the introduction to the architecture. While it isn't unheard of to encounter debutante balls in this day and age, such events have nowhere near the economic significance that they had for young women a hundred years ago. Back then, a young woman's introduction to society was the starting gate to a wealthy marriage and lifelong financial security, regardless of compatibility. The extract selected above gives a sense of how carefully social events were scheduled and orchestrated. One had to display a level of cultural taste and understanding while avoiding boring one's guests. Greg King does a spectacular job of conveying all of this to a modern reader.

So successful is he in covering this period that I find myself going on a reading binge of related titles. Wharton's The House of Mirth is on the top of one TBR pile and a coffee table book with photos of the famous 'four hundred' is en route from a used book store even as you read this. My lifestyle doesn't support any need for a parure of diamonds or other precious gems, but the documentation of a social environment that insisted upon such a set (tiara, matching necklace, earrings, and brooch) as a wedding or anniversary gift set me all agog with vicarious enjoyment. A Season of Splendor is a surprisingly engaging read.

Bonus link: I feel confident in saying that Caroline Astor is likely twirling in her grave at being included in this particular list of top twenty socialites of all time.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Today's Tidbit

Fantastic essay about how important our reading is in adolescence. Truly worthwhile! 

The Meaning of Everything [Review]

Title: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

Author: Simon Winchester (author page with audio excerpt from the book, here)

Copyright: 2003, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 0198607024

Length: 260 pages

Genre: Non-fiction, history

Summary: In 1857, Chenevix Trench, an eminent churchman and then Dean of Winchester, read a paper at an evening meeting of The Philological Society with the interesting title, "On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries". Among other deficiencies identified, he suggested that the lexicons available to him and his colleagues offered incomplete histories of words, shallow, incomplete research as to the meaning of words and inadequate examples from English literature of the word in contextual use. The soon-to-be Archbishop of Dublin proposed that the Philological Society vote to sponsor the creation of a new dictionary that would capture the fluidity of the English language over the course of time. The result was the Oxford English Dictionary, a marvelous example of scholarship created by some of the most marvelous English eccentrics of the nineteenth century. Simon Winchester, perhaps most known for his book, The Professor and the Madman, presents the intriguing history of how this classic dictionary came to be compiled by dedicated volunteers and contributors.

Extract: The story of Fitzedward Hall might seem one of anger, bitterness and yet an obsessive devotion to duty; that of W.C. Minor, by contrast, is one of dangerous madness inelectable sadness, and ultimate redemption -- redemption in which his work for the dictionary became in time his therapy, a labour that he needed to perform in order to remain halfway sane. If the outward parallels between the two men -- both Americans, both learned, both with Eastern connections, both troubled in the mind -- are intriguing, the different ways in which the two made their separate contributions to the Dictionary -- and the ways in which the Dictionary in turn made improvements to their lives -- seem even more so.

Also Relevant: The Meaning of Everything offers an interesting reading experience, and I say that with something of a tongue-in-cheek meaning. On the one hand, it is a wonderful story that Winchester offers. It took roughly fifty years to assemble the various segments of the dictionary for final publication; the work was done by a scattered force of readers and scholars, each just a little more odd than the one before. I had only a casual awareness of how the OED came into existence so the book provided me with a historical perspective that I hadn't had before. I have a good deal more respect for Jimmy Wales and his work with Wikipedia, having read this book, than I might otherwise have. The effort of building the OED isn't very different from the effort of building the Wikipedia, except that our information and communication infrastructure is 1000 times more efficient than that supporting James Murray and his staff of editors. It is worth noting that just this past month the OED celebrated the 80th anniversary of the publication of the final fascicle of the original edition of the Dictionary. Given the problems surrounding its inital print publication, one wonders if any similarly ambitious project would ever found its way through the current economic jungle of publishing.

But as I think the extract shows, Winchester is somewhat obsessive and eccentric in his presentation of the story. His sentence structure is entirely convoluted and the reader has to frequently jump forward and back from the beginning of a paragraph to the final line of the paragraph to ensure that the sense is grasped. Add to that, the opening chapter offers a lengthy discussion of the roots of the English language as Winchester tries to show just how much our mother tongue shifts and morphs over time. It's fairly well-done, but that introduction represents about 20% of the book. (If you are one of those readers who decides to stick with a book based on whether the first 50 pages actively engages your attention, then in this instance, Winchester only has about 5 pages past that first chapter to retain your interest. ) Only further on does the reader discover the pigeonholes built to hold slips of paper associated with specific letters and word pairings or the depth of devotion shown by the afore-mentioned Fitzedward Hall as he spent four hours of every day for twenty years in delivering quotations, clippings, proofed pages, etc. to James Murray, the editor and true father of the OED.

I do believe that the OED should receive enormous respect, given its provenance. We're lucky that ninteenth-century England supported so many eccentric, detail-oriented readers.