Saturday, September 27, 2014

Howards End by E.M. Forster (1910)


Listening to Howards End on audio, read aloud by the inestimable Nadia May.  I do not know how many times I've read this book - at least five.  It is one of those books with which I am slightly obsessed.

 "I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen.  The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them.  It's one of the curses of London.  I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place."

Hearing this passage really struck me deeply this morning.  Is it true?  This certainly matches my idea of the circles of friendship, and how different people dance in and out of those circles.  Sometimes people you know and love are in the inner circle, the one nearest to family (which is the center, at least for most people).  The men and women you refer to as "almost like family."  But even they can dance outward, usually due to time and space, sometimes to emotion.  I'm not sure place can replace people though. 


As with all books I really love, I have a difficult time writing about them.  I’ve read Howard’s End so many times now that I just feel a part of the book.  Listening to it was a different experience though.  You hear everything, and the characters – which are always alive to me – are especially vivid.   And not completely likable.  I mean, you always sort of dislike the Wilcoxes, right?  They aren't written in a particularly sympathetic way.  Other than the first Mrs. Wilcox, and even she has some flaws.  Overly sensitive, I think – although she is dying, and no none knows that she’s dying – so I guess she’s entitled to be touchy and thin skinned.
It’s Leonard Bast that comes off as particularly unlikable, I think.  He’s really sort of a jerk, and I just don’t get what makes him attractive to Helen.  He’s one step short of a boor.  His earnestness is irritating rather than making him sympathetic or likable.  I came away from Howard’s End with a hope that I’m not a Leonard Bast.  I’ve always wanted to be more of a Schlegel – but perhaps the best people are the combination of the Wilcoxes and Schlegels.  I suppose that is partly what Forster means:  “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.”  A whole person is able to connect his Schlegel-ness and his Wilcox-ness.


“We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.”  I did particularly like this, and think it’s true.  We are more about our Iphones and bags and tschotkes, our Halloween decorations and Christmas trees, our Le Crueset pots and laptops and lipsticks.  It’s scary the amount of stuff we acquire.  Forster was writing this a hundred years ago, and it’s still true.  He was very prescient about this and so many other things.


Howards EndHowards End by E.M. Forster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm almost (almost but not quite) obsessed with Howards End but I'm not exactly sure what it is about the book that obsesses me, engrosses me, haunts me about the novel. It's nothing in particular and everything about Forster's work - I think it's his greatest novel, and certainly one of my absolute favorites.  The adroitly written characters, the surprising plot, the comedy of manners and errors.  It's prescient too - Forster writing a century ago about Schlegels and Wilcoxes could have been writing about the 21st century.  "We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty," he writes - and our need for more and more things to make us happy seems more true now than at any other tim e in our history; good prognostication, Mr. Forster.  And in this time of horrible time of worry and strife, could "only connect" be any more important either?  I search and search for a book as meaningful and moving as Howards End; I come close occasionally, but nothing seems to surpass this wonderful, wondrous novel.  Nadia May's audio version is, to add a bit of Edwardian slang, too deevy!!!



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Queen of Hearts by Rhys Bowen (2014)

Queen of Hearts (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries, #8)Queen of Hearts by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While not the strongest entry in this series, it was still screwbally fun.  And Mrs. Simpson made a (sadly, brief) appearance, so that made the book even better.


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Daisy Princess of Pless by Herself (1929)

I was looking forward to this, but it's really a mine for researchers.  There may be some gems in it, but it 's too long, and quite frankly, too dull to continue.

Having just finished Rhys Bowen's Queen of Hearts,  I wonder if Daisy Princess of Pless was a little bit of Lady Georgie at heart, but couldn't show that in her memoir (regrettably) for decorum's sake.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

It was like Charles Dickens was hitting me over the head with a book-shaped hammer, again and again and again, trying to pound something into my brain, only I'm not exactly sure what.  I immensely liked both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations but A Tale of Two Cities fell completely flat for me.  The characters were wooden, half the time I didn't even know what the hell was going on.  Like all villainesses, Madam Defarge was probably the most interesting character, and she hardly ever even appears in the book.  This was the best of books and the worst of books, indeed.

A Tale of Two CitiesA Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is a far, far better book that I go to, because I thought  A Tale of Two Cities was... I'm going to be nice.  A book that only recently celebrated a sesquicentennial and has been in print for 150+ years can't be all bad; clearly someone likes it.  Having enjoyed Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, I was looking forward to this, and I was disappointed.  Really, it was like Charles Dickens was hitting me over the head with a book shaped hammer, again and again and again, trying to pound something into my brain, but I never was exactly sure what it was.  Madame DeFarge is the most interesting character in the book (like all villainesses), and she hardly appears at all.  The best of times and the worst of times, indeed.


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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (2012)

 This was limestone writing, layered and thoughtful, and hard, and if I had the time and patience for a deep reading, I could have carefully deconstructed it to find gems and fossils.  But my life of reading isn't divided into chunks of quiet time; it's unfortunately more like bits and pieces of time to read here, there, and everywhere, without a whole lot of time for careful thought or rumination or analysis.  I wish my life were ordered differently, but it's not.  And I have the attention span of a gnat.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland (2009)

One of my favorite poems is Deor.

Some dark stuff here, but beautifully dark.  Crossley-Holland's translation of The Wanderer includes these lovely, haunting lines:

"So this world dwindles day by day,
and passes away; for a man will not be wise
before he has weathered his share of winters
in the world."

and this one:

"Nothing is ever easy in the kingdom of earth,
the world beneath the heavens is in the hands of fate.
Here possessions are fleeting, here friends are fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsman is fleeting,
the whole world becomes a wilderness."
So spoke the wise man in his heart as he sat apart in thought.

___________________________

I don't think I'd make a very good Saxon.  I like creature comforts a bit too much, I'm probably too femme to be a warrior.  Maybe I would have been a monk in Iona or Lindesfarne, transcribing the gospel.  I mean< I am a librarian, so that would make sense.  Anyway, they lived in a fascinating time and sure have great poetry. Beautifully dark and heavy; they were a somber people.   I admit, I didn't read every page of this book - I picked and chose what I wanted to read.  But hey, isn't that what an anthology is for?  Kevin Crossley-Holland's translations are excellent, although I don't have a lot to go as a judge, as I hadn't read most of this before.  A book I wished I owned, actually.


The Anglo-Saxon World: An AnthologyThe Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology by Kevin Crossley-Holland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not exactly sure you can give stars (or thumbs up or whatever rating mechanism you may wan to use) to thousand year old poetry.  It seems to me if it's been around for a thousand years, it must be pretty damn good.  Crossley-Holland's translations and explanatory notes about the poems and prose were great.  I don't think I would have made a very good Saxon, but I sure like their poetry.  It is beautiful dark and heavy.  Like George Washington, I can not tell a lie - I did not read every single page of this anthology. I skimmed some parts, skipped some parts, read ahead, went back and re-read, and fell madly in love with other parts. "The Wanderer" and "Deor" were two of my favorites.  Made me want to run out and try to learn Old English.


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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Marlborough House Set by Anita Leslie (1972)

At the end of this book, Anita Leslie quotes at length from the diaries of English poet and writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt on the death of King Edward VII, and used the turn of phrase "pleasant little wickednesses" in reference to monarch who gave his name to the era, and about whom the major and minor personages in this book revolved, the sun to their planets and moons and asteroids.  The phrase could have been the title of the book, because that's essentially what the book is about.  Anita Leslie knows her stuff here; her grandmother was Leonie Jerome Leslie, one of the Gilded Age American heiresses who shot into the British aristocracy of the later Victorian era; her great-aunt was Winston Churchill's mother Jennie, who may (or may not) have had an affair with the King (Anita thinks not, as the King wasn't really Jennie's type).  I wasn't enamored of the whole book; it reads almost like listening to scandalous but quiet talk at a dinner party given by someone's grandmother.  Not my grandmother, mind you.  But someone's rich, aristocrat grandmother. Anita Leslie saves a whole chapter for the long suffering Queen Alexandra, who she calls the most beautiful queen in English history; there is a bit of skewering here, as most biographers treat the Queen with kid gloves.  Not so Leslie, who points out how childish the Queen could be, and also how poorly she treated her adult children, particularly Princess Victoria, about whom Anita Leslie writes warmly (and more than a bit sadly) about.  There are some fascinating stories here, mostly about people who are long dead; Edwardian legends almost.  Leslie mostly condones the many extra-marital affairs she writes (gossips) about in her book; not only is this book 40some years old, but Leslie herself was an old woman at this time.  I don't think modern writers would be quite as forgiving (although maybe so).  The affairs, quite frankly, are a bit boring; it's the bitchery of some of these women that's interesting; the story of the revenge of Gladys, Countess de Grey on the Marchioness of Londonderry is something right out of a soap opera.  Not a great book by any means, but quite interesting all the same.

The Marlborough House setThe Marlborough House set by Anita Leslie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anita Leslie quotes at length from the diaries of English poet and writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt on the death of King Edward VII, and used the turn of phrase "pleasant little wickednesses" in reference to monarch who gave his name to the era, and about whom the major and minor personages in this book revolved, his sun to their planets and moons.  The phrase could have been the title of the book. She knows her stuff -- her grandmother was Leonie Jerome Leslie, one of the Gilded Age American heiresses who shot into the British aristocracy of the later Victorian era; her great-aunt was Winston Churchill's mother Jennie, who may (or may not) have had an affair with the King (Anita thinks not, as the King wasn't really Jennie's type).  I wasn't enamored of the whole book; it reads almost like listening to scandalous but quiet talk at a dinner party given by someone's grandmother.  Not my grandmother, mind you.  But someone's rich, aristocrat grandmother. Still, some fascinating stories here, Edwardian legend crossed with soap opera.


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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Should Literature Be Considered Useful?" New York Times, September 2, 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/books/review/should-literature-be-considered-useful.html?ref=books

I love Dana Stevens's writing, and here are two gems that are worth adding to my dragon's hoard of quotes and good writing, from the above article:

"Literature is life’s long-lost twin, its evil double, its hidden velvet lining, its mournful ghost..." 

"Literature is the record we have of the conversation between those of us now alive on earth and everyone who’s come before and will come after, the cumulative repository of humanity’s knowledge, wonder, curiosity, passion, rage, grief and delight. It’s as useless as a spun-sugar snowflake and as practical as a Swiss Army knife (or, in Kafka’s stunning description of what a book should be, “an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us”). All I know is that when my daughter pushes for another chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder at bedtime, I feel a part of something very ancient, mysterious and important, something whose existence justifies in and of itself this unlikely experiment of life on earth. I couldn’t tell you exactly what shelf in the utility closet that equipment for living occupies, but I suspect none of us storytelling apes would survive for long without it."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search by Martin Sixsmith (2013,2009)

First off, this book should come with a warning - it's nothing like the movie whatsoever.  The characters are the same, but it's like the movie viewed the story from a different lens.

The book was originally titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee which is a far, far more descriptive and apt title.

It's narrative/literary/creative nonfiction, reads sort of like an extra long piece of longform journalism.  The dialogue is wooden and sometimes atrocious.  Because it's narrative nonfiction, we get to see people's thoughts and hear their intimate conversations with other people, but I kept wondering how Martin Sixsmith knew these things.  Was he a fucking mouse in their pockets?  Some of these conversations took place sixty years ago too.  I wasn't always able to suspend my suspicious disbeliefs.

There isn't an index either, which bothered me too.

  To quote The Sound of Music, "But it doesn't mean anything."  What exactly is this book about?  Bad nuns.  AIDs, Closeted gay Republicans. Except I already know about that.   It's certainly not about Martin Sixsmith, and not even really about Philomena, which again, is completely different from the movie.  Interesting choice; the book is about Michael Hess, who quite frankly isn't very sympathetic and whose story isn't really all that interesting or revolutionary.  The movie, conversely, is about Martin and Philomena, their search, and some religious and philosophical discussion thrown in.  That's what is missing from this far from perfect book.

Enjoyable, but only just.


The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a 50 Year SearchThe Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a 50 Year Search by Martin Sixsmith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enjoyable, but only just.  There is plenty about this book that bothered me.  First, if you've seen the movie, be prepared that the book is the same story only inverted and changed.  It's one of those rare times that I liked the movie far, far more than the book.  This is essentially an extra-long piece of longform journalism, mixed with narrative nonfiction, so we get to see people's thoughts and are privy to long ago conversations.  I am suspicious of this type of nonfiction, and I'm always wondering how a sixty year old conversation gets perfectly transcribed, including what the day was like or the furrowed brow or the smell of popcorn in the distant, or whatever... it just seems fishy.  Michael Hess isn't a particularly sympathetic character either (which may be why in the movie he's more of a peripheral character, the MacGuffin that allows Judi Dench and that other guy to wax poetic and argue about religion and nuns).


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