Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Old Christmas by Washington Irving ; illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1819)

Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington IrvingOld Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving by Washington Irving

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up for several reasons. I read an article here -- http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dick... that detailed how Old Christmas was the father of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I read another essay that while Washington Irving didn't invent Christmas, he certainly "dressed it up." And finally, it was Christmas weekend and I wanted something new but delightfully old fashioned to read. This certainly fit the bill. If you read Dickens every holiday season, consider adding Washington Irving to that list. You won't be disappointed. The first few paragraphs of the first story are my favorite - poignant and moving. Even here in sunny summery southern California, Irving made me feel the chill bite of winter and longed for a hearth to huddle by. I loved the character of Master Simon, the bachelor reletive who sings, tells the best stories, and makes the young girls giggle at inappropriate times and gossips with the old widows. He's definitely an archetype. The Randolph Caldecott illustrations - he of the medal fame - are whimsically fantastic.

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Old Christmas by Washington Irving ; illustrated by Randolph Caldecott (1819)

Old Christmas by Washington Irving, with illustrations by Randolph Caldecott, is part of the larger work The Sketch Book which includes the most famous Irving stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." "The Christmas Dinner," the fourth in the Christmas stories, was the story of the week from The Library of America, the introduction of this (to me unknown) set of stories led me to another short essay (http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/xmas/kelly2.html) on the direct line from Washington Irving's Christmas to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In 1876, Randolph Caldecott (he of the medal fame) illustrated Irving stories, and that was the version I read (online), although I also read the Library of America hard cover version (sans illustrations). I'm not a huge fan of the online reading experience and like the feel of a real book in my hands.

Old Christmas was a perfect holiday weekend read. Irving has some poignant and moving passages in the book regarding the Christmas season. Although I enjoyed reading all four stories, the following I consider the most lovely and moving. It certainly helped keep me in the holiday mood:

"There is nothing in England that exercises a more delightful spell over my imagination than the lingerings of the holiday customs and rural games of former times. They recall the pictures my fancy used to draw in the May morning of life, when as yet I only knew the world through books, and believed it to be all that poets had painted it; and they bring with them the flavour of those honest days of yore, in which, perhaps with equal fallacy, I am apt to think the world was more home-bred, social, and joyous than at present. I regret to say that they are daily growing more and more faint, being gradually worn away by time, but still more obliterated by modern fashion. They resemble those picturesque morsels of Gothic architecture which we see crumbling in various parts of the country, partly dilapidated by the waste of ages, and partly lost in the additions and alterations of latter days. Poetry, however, clings with cherishing fondness about the rural game and holiday revel, from which it has derived so many of its themes,--as the ivy winds its rich foliage about the Gothic arch and mouldering tower, gratefully repaying their support by clasping together their tottering remains, and, as it were, embalming them in verdure.

"Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervour and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men. I do not know a grander effect of music on the moral feelings than to hear the full choir and the pealing organ performing a Christmas anthem in a cathedral, and filling every part of the vast pile with triumphant harmony.

"It is a beautiful arrangement, also derived from days of yore, that this festival, which commemorates the announcement of the religion of peace and love, has been made the season for gathering together of family connections, and drawing closer again those bands of kindred hearts which the cares and pleasures and sorrows of the world are continually operating to cast loose; of calling back the children of a family who have launched forth in life, and wandered widely asunder, once more to assemble about the paternal hearth, that rallying-place of the affections, there to grow young and loving again among the endearing mementoes of childhood.
There is something in the very season of the year that gives a charm to the festivity of Christmas. At other times we derive a great portion of our pleasures from the mere beauties of nature. Our feelings sally forth and dissipate themselves over the sunny landscape, and we "live abroad and everywhere." The song of the bird, the murmur of the stream, the breathing fragrance of spring, the soft voluptuousness of summer, the golden pomp of autumn; earth with its mantle of refreshing green, and heaven with its deep delicious blue and its cloudy magnificence, all fill us with mute but exquisite delight, and we revel in the luxury of mere sensation. But in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. we feel more sensibly the charm of each other's society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms: and which when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.

"The pitchy gloom without makes the heart dilate on entering the room filled with the glow and warmth of the evening fire. The ruddy blaze diffuses an artificial summer and sunshine through the room, and lights up each countenance into a kindlier welcome. Where does the honest face of hospitality expand into a broader and more cordial smile--where is the shy glance of love more sweetly eloquent--than by the winter fireside? and as the hollow blast of wintry wind rushes through the hall, claps the distant door, whistles about the casement, and rumbles down the chimney, what can be more grateful than that feeling of sober and sheltered security with which we look around upon the comfortable chamber and the scene of domestic hilarity?"

It's rare, I think, to read an old book or classic and not have some trouble with the language, particularly stilted language or overly descriptive phrases without much action. But Old Christmas didn't feel that way at all - mostly easy to read and "regular" language.

My favorite character described in the book is Master Simon, the old bachelor who is friends with all the widows, knows all the best stories and jokes, and performs on command, whether dressing up in costume or singing in the church choir. He's some sor to ancestral gay guy, the orginal old archetype of everyone's elderly gay uncle.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Rescuers (1959) and Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines (1966) by Margery Sharp

Why are there so many books written for children that have mice as the central characters? In addition to the two I finished over the weekend, we've also got The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Pleasant Fieldmouse, Angelina Ballerina, Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, Despereaux, Redwall, Geronimo Stilton, Poppy... I could continue ad nauseum. What is it about mice and kids? No one wants a mouse in their house (and I can only think of one famous rat, Templeton, and he was, well, a rat). I would hazard a guess that many suburban kids haven't seen a mouse outside a pet store, what with the advent of exterminators. Yet the houses of children's literature are filled to the brim with talking, clothes wearing, mice.

The Rescuers and the world of Miss Bianca in general is pretty sophisticated for a children's book. The language is hard - I stumbled over words. And to be really honest, it's not all that interesting. Which is funny, because I thought of these are beloved classics from my childhood. But I don't recall reading any others in the series besides these two. I thought maybe that was because I didn't have access to them as a kid, but in reality it may have been because - well - they are kind of boring. Maybe mice are just for kids. Or maybe The Mouse and the Motorcycle will hold up if I re-read it. I don't think this holds up all that well over the years, but maybe that's looking at it with the jaundiced eye of a grownup?

Miss Bianca and Bernard's relationship is old fashioned to say the least. Miss Bianca is always so prim and ladylike, and she's always stuck with hypermasculine other mice (Nils the Norwegian mouse, the two professors). She's kind of snobby too. And maybe that's just the kind of character she's meant to be, and I'm reading way to much into her. Her pictures by Garth Williams are pretty though.

Rutherford B. Hayes by Hans L. Trefousse (2002)

A low-gloss take on a likable but bland president. Trefousse concentrates much attention on Hayes's early life and Civil War career, much attention on the disputed election of 1876 - but makes light work of the actual administration. That may be because not a whole lot happened during the tenure of Rutherford B. Hayes. His election was the peak interesting point, of perhaps his entire career. He certainly comes across as a middle of the road kind of guy, fiscally conservative, moderately liberal on the social issues of the time. Certainly the kind of Republican that doesn't really exist anymore - Rutherford B. Hayes would most likely be a Democrat today.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

East Side Story by Louis Auchincloss (2004)

I had some trouble figuring this one out. It was pretty dry and straightforward, and the chapters were only loosely connected. They almost read like short biographical sketches crossed with a short story. I wasn't exactly sure what the point was. I liked the story about Alida the best - her husband was a heavy drinker, who gave up drinking when he joined a quasi-cult. But the cult leader was money grubbingly greedy, so Alida thought she would pull one over on her husband and get him drinking again so he would stop going to church. But the husband had the last laugh - he left most of his money to the cult. The black humor of that story made up for the dryness of other stories. I was disappointed, because I like Auchincloss's nonfiction so much. I don't know if I want to try another fiction book or not. I hate it when I don't "get" a book too, especially a literary book - I always feel so dumb.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Images of Early Pomona by Mickey Gallivan (2007)

This is sort of a coffee table book in miniature and in paperback of what I - at least for now - consider my "home town." Pomona, for all its (somewhat deserved) piss poor reputation, is an old city with a rich history, and this little book proves it. The earliest settlers in Pomona were arrived in 1837 - and built a house (the Casa Primera) around the block from my current house. This is far older than my actual hometown in Kansas; it's almost (but not quite) "East Coast" old. Easterners and Midwesterners forget that history was happening often simultaneously out west.

The book wasn't chock full of gems - there are quite a few pictures of people I don't know in old clothes. But there were several interesting tidbits. The pictures of Ganesha Park were interesting; the fact that Garey, White and Holt Avenues were all named after founding fathers of Pomona was another interesting fact. The Padre Oak at 459 Kenoak Place was "believed to have been the stoppiogn place of the mission fathers when they traveled through in 1832. It was under this tree that the first Christian religious service in the Pomona Valley was held. Tomas Palomares" - another street name - "built his adobe home on this site just north of the oak tree." I could almost spit on this tree if it wasn't for the 10 Freeway; I've probably walked by or under it and didn't even realize it was there.

Sandhill Sundays and other recollections by Mari Sandoz (1970)

Mari Sandoz reminds me somewhat of the gritty female descendants of pioneers that I grew up with - the picture on the back of the book could be Mrs. Belton, my art teacher from high school (granddaughter of Czech pioneers). Sandoz's recollections are from the house next door to Little House on the Prairie, where everything was even tougher, and the dad was crazy mean. I have to be honest - the book lost steam somewhere in the middle. The recollections became too abrasive and unpleasant.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Joseph Smith by Robert V. Remini (2002)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to a wise sage (Maureen O'Hara), "Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to." The story of Joseph Smith certainly requires a leap of faith. I thought Remini did a pretty good job of remaining neutral about some of Joseph Smith's more questionable revelations and actions. Regardless of whether you believe Smith pulled off one of the greatest scams of all time or was indeed a prophet of God (I guess this all depends on who you ask), you have to admit that he was a mover and shaker of men and ideas. I guess religions are generally based on those kinds of men.

Joseph Smith by Robert V. Remini (2002)

As a famous person once said, "Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to." (that famous person was Maureen O'Hara in A Miracle on 34th Street, which may instantly negate the seriousness of this post, but oh well). You gotta have some pretty deep seeded faith to believe a man walks on water or turns water into wine (or comes back from the dead). You gotta have some faith to believe statues can both cry and cure you. You gotta have some faith to believe that you can die and come back as a houseplant or a spider or Shirley MacLaine. Faith is what it takes to believe in Joseph Smith, because a doubter can certainly call him a charlatan and a trickster. He's either is a prophet who talked to God, or pulled the best and longest running hoax ever known to man. His revelations - particularly the ones dealing with women (and especially the one dealing with his postpartum depressed, royally pissed off, feeling neglected wife) certainly can come across as a bit self serving. Regardless of whether you believe Joseph Smith is a charlatan who ran a scam worthy of the Nigerians, he certainly knew what it took to move and motivate people and bend them to his will. I guess the founders of all religions possessed the same gift.

I appreciated Remini providing a backdrop of the history of Jacksonian American Smith's story. This definitely provided a context for why people were so rabid in their passions for and against Mormons. The rough and tumble Second Great Awakening America was not a time for the faint of heart, particularly on the frontier.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How To Become a Great Boss by Jeffrey Fox (2002)

One of my former employees said I'm already a great boss. But one can always add to the toolbox. Although the tools in this one were pretty simple. An "airplane" book - and for someone other than me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (1993)

The Buccaneers was Edith Wharton's last book, left unfinished and then initially published on her death in 1937; Marion Mainwaring (a Wharton scholar) added her own ending (apparently based on a Wharton outline) in 1993. Which shows, but doesn't necessarily detract from the book.

The novel takes place during the height of the Gilded Age; the "buccaneers" are five American girls of wealth (but not New York society, a bone of contention among one of their mothers) who marry (or are scheming to marry, at the end of the book) British peers / gentry (with many, many direct nods to the sad story of Alva and Conseulo Vanderbilt).

Saratoga, very unfashionable, is where the novel begins, with two of the sisters, Virginia and Nan, befriending the other three - Lizzy and Mabel Elmsworth (whose mother is vulgar and loud) and Conchita, who was clearly based on the woman for whom Conseulo Vanderbilt was named, Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester who was Cuban, not Brazilian. Conchita is the "dangerous" one, who marries into the nobility first. The other girls are assisted in this by the Nan St. George's Italian turned English government, Miss Testvalley, and Jacky March, an American who was jilted by a British lord but continues to live in England, apparently matchmaking (and being part of schemes). Virginia eventually marries a marquis (as part of the best scene in the book); Lizzy marries an up and coming British MP; Mabel marries an elderly "cereal king" who leaves her the richest widow in the world; Nan marries the Duke of Tintagel, who is vaguely and mysteriously awful to her. This relationship is the flip side of The Age of Innocence marriage of the Count and Countess Olenska. But, like The Age of Innocence, we get only a taste of why the marriage is a bad one. At least with TAOI, the marriage plot was overseas and while necessary to the plot, the details weren't necessarily integral; The Duke of Tintagel, on the other hand, doesn't seem at all that bad (he's certainly not as wicked as the Duke of Marlborough).

That's part of the overall flaws of this book. There is a skeleton, some muscle tissue, some sinews - but not a complete body. In fact, occasionally it's like the bones of five bodies thrown together, and Wharton was trying to rebuild them as one. Even that skeleton, though, is incredibly well written, with vivid characters.

(It's almost like some characters have two or three skeletons though - Mrs. St. George, for example, seems to shift slightly throughout the book. She's much more languid at the beginning and much more Alva Vanderbiltish at the end.).

I guess another problem I had was that I wanted more, and even with Marion Mainwaring (a name that sounds like it came from a Wharton book) it still wasn't quite enough. Telling the interconnected stories of five beautiful girls was going to take a longer book than this one - maybe even several.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

James A. Garfield by Ira Rutkow (2006)

Among presidents, perhaps James A. Garfield holds the most "what might have beens." You can certainly say that about any of our leaders who were slain or died while in office; but Garfield had just begun to serve when he was shot by the (clearly) mentally ill Charles Guiteau, stuffing Garfield into the box of historical footnotes. Garfield was president in the height of the Gilded Age (his previously dealings and writings has him as certainly the proto-typical pro-business Republican - "a leader on the fiscally conservative side of the political debate"). Reconstruction had died a tragic death under the administration of Rutherfurd B. Hayes (more on him later; I accidentally read my presidents out of order); Garfield, whose views on African Americans (as with many of the post Civil War politicians) had evolved over time; he might have been a better friend to the former slaves and foe to the south than Chester Arthur (we'll see when I read about Arthur!). Rutkow's Garfield is young, intellectual, politically savvy (come on - you don't just fall into the nomination; it's clear he was playing all sides), lusty (hints of numerous affairs resound throughout Garfield's adult life). The story of the death of James Garfield couldn't be told without the story of Gilded Age medicine, its advances, and the opponents of those advances (who ministered to Garfield during his agonizingly long, painful death), and Rutkow's account of Garfield's last days includes many interesting side notes on what was then considered modern medicine (which would make sense, considering that Rutkow is a surgeon). The short, poignant epilogue briefly notes that Ronald Reagan was similarly shot by a madman and survived (history, though, has argued since then that Reagan probably did not survive completely unscathed) and imagines that Garfield, if shot today, would probably have been home that same evening, scared but recuperating.

The time machine transports Garfield to the 21st century White House - how would he react to the top political, social and international issues facing us today?

The top news right now, from the New York Times website.

European debt crisis. No bail outs here. Garfield was a laissez-faire Republican, with a mistrust of Europe and its entanglements. His biggest foreign policy missions during his brief presidency were aimed at strengthening ties with our South American neighbors. Stories about Iran and Myanmar followed that of the European debt crisis - I think his reaction would have been ditto to the Europeans, although he did sign a treaty with Madagascar!

A story about illegal immigration, President Obama, and Arizona. Garfield was trying to keep the Chinese out of the U.S. ("the yellow peril") and I can't imagine he'd be any more friendly to undocumented aliens today (although his wanting to strengthen relations with our neighbors to the south might bode well for a different opinion - perhaps he would have encouraged Mexican immigration as something more favorable to Chinese immigration).

Gingrich as lobbyist. Garfield would have been right at home in the new Gilded Age; although not corrupt himself (or not alive as president long enough to be given the chance), there were cries of foul because he continued working as a lawyer in addition to serving in Congress. He certainly would have been right at home in our time of divided government - but have we ever had a time when our government wasn't bitterly divided over something?

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