Saturday, March 31, 2012

Quick Review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At seventy something, can't nobody tell him nothin'. Hoorah! Clever, clever Frank Langella decided to not write an autobiography but instead just skip to the rich, the famous, the cool and the crumby. Bliss. Mr. Langella, not always nice himself, thank God, has a specially fine eye for the thorough shits that have crossed his path; Anthony Quinn, Bette Davis, David Begelman, etc. More importantly though, he has a fine appreciate memory for every kindness -- even the ones he admittedly did not deserve -- and for the funny line, the better friend and the rare occasion. Unbelievably,for instance, his vignette of a summer afternoon in a Kennedy Camelot, the charm of which having always escaped me before, nearly made me cry. His sketches of real friends, like Raul Julia, and Anne Bancroft, are unsparing and yet deeply moving. Remarkable and very funny -- if still slightly scary -- man. A delight.

Vernal Equinox, by Amy Lowell

Daily Dose

From Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good, by Kevin Smith


"Some filmmakers are talented enough to let their work simply speak for itself.

I'm the other guy."

From Chapter Eight, When the Shit Hit the Fan, Red State, Part 1

Friday, March 30, 2012

From You Have I Been Absent, by William Shakespeare

Daily Dose

From The Expression of Emotion in Man & Animals, by Charles Darwin


"Englishmen are much less demonstrative than the men of most European nations, and they shrug their shoulders far less frequently and energetically than Frenchmen or Italians do."

From Chapter XI, Disdain, etc.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, by Jerome K. Jerome


"They have a genius for doing the most ridiculous things, and they do them in a grave, stoical manner that is irresistible."

From On Babies

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Quick Review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charming biographical essays by the author of The 39 Steps. Who knew? I'm sure loads of people did, or do, but I certainly didn't. Turns out, the much decorated author was a quite accomplished man of letters in the best old sense. A much traveled and sophisticated gentleman, Buchan is also Scots to the tips of his fingers, and so much of the interest here is in his view of his true country's past, and something like his own. This collection, for example, includes a fairly acid portrait of Charles Stuart, the Second of England, but also a delightful, and forbearing short biography of an earlier, noble Buchan, a noted eccentric and something of a pest to the great Sir Walter Scott.

This was an Espresso Book Machine reprint of a Google book -- inexpensive, and a very nice, clean text.

Quick Review

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If after a Prologue, some 75 pages and the better part of the first two chapters, we would seem to be really no further along in our narrative than a walking trip to Scotland that did not produce a promised travel book, nor, so far as I could tell, much of anything else, I put down this vast and scholarly object with regret and and my most humble blessing. It will be a better man than me -- biographer Richard Holmes, as quoted on the dustjacket for instance -- who can be said to have "... hugely enjoyed this dense, brilliant scholarly biography." Dense, indeed, it or me, does it much matter which? I for one am done.

David Wagoner Poem

Daily Dose

From How to Tell your Friends from the Apes, by Will Cuppy


"Flamingoes live in wild and inaccessible spots where we don't have to look at them."

From The Flamingo

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A College Doodle

Daily Dose

From Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I knew Them, by Frank Langella


"Bunny's life is privileged beyond the imagination of most people. The wealth enormous and the perks extraordinary. But despite that, she lives by this simple maxim:

'Nothing should be noticed.'"

From Rachel "Bunny" Mellon

Monday, March 26, 2012

Letters Richard Steele

Daily Dose

From Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I knew Them, by Frank Langella


"And he would often pass by me, tossing off a casual one-liner, as in:

'Get out your pencil, Frank, and take this down. Herewith a list of the ten dullest actors in Hollywood. They are: Gregory Peck.'"

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tea Party Trading Cards #8

Quick Review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A wonderfully quaint, and genuinely interesting anthology, selected and edited by two Religious Sisters, specifically to promote and preserve an even then (1948) rapidly disappearing way of life in America. Full of good things, famous and otherwise, from authors revered and, again, otherwise. Worth picking out of a dusty library sale near you.

Quick Review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ever read Benvenuto Cellini? Fascinating man, and artist, and his autobiography is a classic full of adventure, art, history, the famous and the infamous of his day. A remarkable book. I confess though, I found Cellini -- having tried him in two different translations just to be sure -- maddening. I really did. Part of it, I'm sure, is just the style, the expected braggadocio of a Renaissance bad-ass, etc., and the fact that I personally have always found that kind of thing off-putting, but there's more to it than that. I think Cellini really was rather a dick. In fact, I would go so far as to assert that Benvenuto Cellini, however great an artist and however important an historical resource, was one of the biggest swingin' dicks of his or any other day. I can't help it, I find him obnoxious; humorless, mean, and full of shit, even if pretty much everything he claimed to have done he did.

On the other hand, I genuinely love Stephen Fry. I'm not suggesting that Fry is a comparable artist, or that his two volumes of autobiography to date represent anything like the same deathless record of his day, but I would much rather spend time with Fry than with Benvenuto.

I can heartily recommend all of Fry's books. I find him nearly as delightful on the page as he is on the television; acting Jeeves etc., lecturing, in documentaries, chat shows, or on his marvelous panel show, QI. (Check it out on if you haven't. It's addictive fun.) Fascinating man, Stephen Fry, and a very interesting life he's led, may I just say. This latest volume, however was a bit trying, for exactly the opposite reason -- exactly -- to Cellini. You see, where the Italian is endlessly, hatefully self-agrandising, Fry's very British and quite neurotic self-abasement, at least here, finally, quite nearly got the best of me. Funny as Fry is, and witty and bright as he is, he is just pathologically self-critical and, as he is all to quick to suggest, it can get, and here does get, well... tiresome.

It might not for everyone, but for this reader, it can all be too much of less. I frankly identify so strongly with the need to apologize for anything that might feel like putting something on, I can find reading Fry on Fry sometimes painful. All the more reason, in a way to read the book. Let it be a lesson to the like-minded. (I'm trying not to apologize for the presumption in saying even this, you see. Do you see?) Anyway, for all his faults, real and imagined and erroneously assumed, Fry is something of a hero of mine. To have done so much, and done so many things so extraordinarily well, well, it rather shames me. That he should think so little of what he's done seems to me appalling, frankly. I get it. Lord knows I do. But, oh my.

Still, despite this distinctly unfunny review, I do hope others will read this book, and his others. He's a dazzling performer, truly. Don't just take my word for it. Who am I after all, to even have an opinion of such an accomplished man? (See?) Shame is infectious, but only to the susceptible, I suppose. Oh bother. Read the damned book. He funny. He's charming. He's no goddamned Benvenuto Cellini, I'll say that for him. Just get on with it. You'll love him. I do.

Daily Dose

From News from the World: Stories & Essays, by Paula Fox


"The paradox is that by our constant, obsessive concern with security, we imply even more powerfully the dark forces against which security is supposed to guard us."

From Other Places

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Walt Whitman Bathing: Poems, by David Wagoner

"To live here is to take the Middle of Nowhere
To heart against plain speech and desolation..."

From On the Plains

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From My Early Times, by Charles Dickens, compiled and edited by Peter Rowland


"I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me, and sometimes for months together put everything else from me."

From Valedictory

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Doodle for Colleen & Co.

Daily Dose

From The British Essayists: Guardian, edited by Rev Rbt. Lynam, A. M.


"When I reflect what an inconsiderable little atom every single man is, with respect to the whole creation, methinks it is a shame to be concerned with the removal of such a trivial animal as I am."

From No.132, Wednesday, August 12, 1713, by Richard Steele

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tea Party Trading Cards #7

Okay, I already rejected "Necrotically Obese Manatees," "Nominally Occupied Morons," and "Not Obviously Married" -- 'cause nobody's seen this chick's wedding-ring, or her mystery husband, Mr. Srivastav, since before she decided to save marriage from the Gays. Personally? Say what you will about this asshole, I love anyone with the ovaries to just to declare herself both an "Institute" and a "National Organization." Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes, beyotches.

Daily Dose

From Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by E. K. Brown


"The secret of a large fortune which has no perceptible explanation is a crime that has been forgotten because it was neatly done."

From Page 117, this edition

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Clerihew Drag Realness


Who was Roxana? And who spoke for Moll?
Who was then the greatest whore of 'em all?
I'll have you know,
'twas Daniel Defoe.

Daily Dose

From Roxana, or, The Fortunate Mistress, by Daniel Defoe


"'Why then,' said I, 'do you go away from me?'
'Because,' said he, 'you won't take me.'
'But if I won't take you,' said I, 'you may take me anywhere but to Paris.""

from Page 150, this edition

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Roderick Hudson, by Henry James


"Prettiness is terribly vulgar nowadays, and it's not every one that knows just the sort of ugliness that's amusing. However, there are more people now that are horridly knowing than not -- and the only nice thing, I think really, is to be ignorant as a fish."

From Chapter VIII

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Roderick Hudson, by Henry James


"The brilliant Roman winter came round again, and the whole sense of it entered still more deeply into Rowland's spirit. He grew intimately, passionately fond of all Roman sights and sensations, and to breathe the air that formed their medium and assured them their quality seemed to him the only condition on which life could be long worth living."

From Chapter XI

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Roderick Hudson, by Henry James


"The poor woman can certainly never lie quiet, she's unacquainted with the luxury of repose. She's always building castles and pulling them down again -- always casting her nets and pulling them in."

from Chapter VIII

Friday, March 16, 2012

Tea Party Trading Cards #6

Daily Dose

From Gleanings in France: Selected Letters, by James Fenimore Cooper


"... but, still, he said he 'would as soon see his dinner again, after a heart meal, as to read one of his own tales when he was fairly rid of it.'"

From A Visit from Scott (To James E. DeKay)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Paperback Counter-Revolution

I've probably mentioned this before, but should I predecease the husband, my beloved A., before he packs up and flies off to a small condo in San Francisco -- and yes, that would happen just that quick -- he will be faced with a whole lot o' books he will need to be shed of. Now when we've speculated about such a tragedy as the end of me, dear A. has often loyally insisted that he would want to keep all my books about him, the sentimental old thing, so as to keep my ghost about the place and happy. How very sweet. I'd be genuinely touched, had the man not also confessed in nearly the same breath his desire, should he be the one new clad in weeds and jet beads, to wing it back, straightaway to what is still our favorite city, where, presumably he could finally afford to live again, alone on his government pension, in a modest studio and play the merry (black in the best sense) widow. (Being ruthlessly realistic, and because, as yet, I will get not a dime from his pension, should the old man croak before me, leaving me with a mortgage, it seems likely that I on the other hand will not have quite so many romantic options. Reduced to just my comically adolescent wages as a bookseller, I most likely will be forced to either take in boarders -- think cats, pitbulls and or a meth-lab in the garage -- or, me and the library will be the death of each other in some damp, airless flat in the U District, where my mummified remains will be discovered trapped under my sets of Dumas, Balzac and Dickens, a la a more literate variation on the Collyer Brothers. Thus my time in the middle class may someday come down to a dusty dream and death. Sigh. That is, unless by some cruel but convenient stroke of Fate, my beloved work-wife. Ms. T. happens -- Gods' forbid -- to be widowed in the same window of opportunity, in which case she and I plan to repair with various surviving pets and or books to some charming pied-à-terre in Spanish Harlem we plan to wheedle out of some as yet un-named, equally elderly admirer -- hers or mine or both -- while workin' the mean streets of The Big City. Don't laugh, ya bastards, it could still happen. We got moves. Well, she has. I still got... personality? We'll work it out.)

While one doesn't like to think of leaving the love of one's life behind, and with nothing but memories, debt and a devalued hatchback economy car, that would be pretty much the sorry state of my estate should I go first. All that, and, as I've said, thousands of books. Now my beloved A., through the years, has been generous about buying me some wonderful and much coveted volumes. Because of his kindness, and that of a special friend with excellent taste, I do own a few very nice, and even valuable things. The husband knows, in a fire, say, to save the first edition Beerbohms, and a signed Edward Gorey or two before he even thinks of dragging me from the flames. That said, I am trying to imagine just now what might be made of my library as of tonight by the dealer come, post-mortem me, to value and or buy the lot. I am afraid, dear readers, said dealer, and my better half may be in for a shock.

There is a former employer of mine, and maybe one or two other likewise reputable used dealers of my acquaintance, who might, with sad hearts, back up a pickup-truck to the house of mourning. I've been at this a long time now, the buying, selling and piling up of books. I don't say the trip would not be worth said dealers' time. I got some good, clean, salable stock, may I just say. So while a house-call here would not be unprofitable for my survivors, I confess, my library valued as-is, will sadly not prove to be all that and a bag o' chips. Forewarned.

The thing is, there have be depredations. No lie. Some of the things I bought through the years have gone up in the estimation of the collectors. There have been, and still are, some signed modern firsts. There are, here and there, a few fine bindings. There are even some genuinely rare, if hardly much sought after titles. There has also been some house-cleanings, not to look at the joint, I admit, but honestly, I've moved a lot of books back into circulation.

In part, this has been the natural evolution of my reading; good and even great books I've no longer felt the need of have gone, and been replaced, I admit, with... other stuff. But there have also been occasions, and more often than I like to admit, when some pretty nice books have had to go, go, go, just to pay the hateful bills. How else, on what I make -- an honest wage, for which I am grateful, but still -- to pay for new tires? My ever more substantial "deductible" when I've been hospitalized for the dizzies? The freakin' cable bill? You know, the ugly business of living, as loyal and thoughtless American consumer? And so, goodbye fine bindings and rare firsts, to say nothing here of those copies of Bruce Weber's Bear Pond I had the rare foresight to buy in bulk, and nearly at cost, and then kissed goodbye, one by one, on Ebay.

I fear, should the day inevitable come, one way or another, when I or my heirs must face liquidating the remainder, there's going to be... a lot of remainders, baby.

One thing I never anticipated, and here's a new wrinkle on my age and poverty, that the time would ever come again when an increasingly substantial percentage of my books budget -- a laughable notion -- would have been spent on paperbacks. Paperbacks! Can you imagine? Middle-aged bibliophile and much sniffed at snob, unexpectedly -- again, laughable -- surprisingly is taken before his time, and when Aladdin's Cave is opened -- what's this? Paperbacks?!

It's only too true.

I haven't collected paperback books since college. There was a day, that was all I could afford. (We'll just pretend, shall we, that that day has passed.) I sold off nearly every paperback I owned, years ago, in San Francisco. My late friend, P., borrowed a delivery van from the restaurant where he was working and drove me, grinding the gears up hill and down, selling my collection in bookstores all over that fair city. Since then, paperbacks? Not so much.

I'm too hard on most books, and need a more substantial binding. And I just like the feel and look and smell of most hardcovers better. And then there's my taste in books, many if not most of which nowadays are not being much reprinted for a mass market.

Things however change. For a couple of weeks there -- maybe closer to a month, come to think of it -- the bookstore's Espresso Book Machine, Homer, was "down." The technology being, if not entirely new, then most imaginatively repurposed, shall we say? Homer still has some health issues, now and again. The EBM support is marvelous, and our remarkably imperturbable and resourceful operator, A. is a wonder, but not everything that might go amiss in the machine can be rectified with a gentle, soothing tone of voice and a standard screwdriver. (Which would have been my only suggestion, as you might imagine, so I'm no help at all in a crisis.) No. Sometimes, as with even the greatest and most innovative technology, ya gotta wait for "the part." What a world, what a world. Now all the good people actually involved in the productive operation of the press will have naturally done whatever was necessary to keep up with orders. The community here in Seattle of helpful and friendly EBM techs continues to be a model of economic cooperation and mutual support. The power of Independents, indeed! However my personal addiction to reprints, quite sensibly, does not rise to the level of a crisis, so I had to simply do without until God was back in Her heaven, Homer was healed and all again was right with the world.

Then came the happy day, last week, was it? when dear, noisy, stinky, clunky ol' Homer started to make the donuts again. Rejoicing not only for the self-published, the press and the good people in the bookstore and beyond, but then there was pathetic, print-junkie me. I all but jigged when I got the news. Why, you may well ask? Well, I'll tell you.

In 1827 and thereabouts, the right Rev. Robt. Lynam, A. M. (?) undertook to continue a worthy and most mighty task, and under the auspices of one J. F. Dove, printer and publisher, St. John's Square, London, Volume # 11, of "Thirty Volumes, with Portraits," of The British Essayists: with Prefaces Biographical, Historical, and Critical, (this one being) The Guardian, saw the happy light of its original publication. I know, too exciting, even now.

The Guardian here collected is not the famous Manchester newspaper, "born May 5, 1821," but rather the last great magazine of Addison and Steele from the previous century. Not so famous, or good really, as their earlier Spectator and or their Tatler, The Guardian essays are considerably harder to come by, and then only piece-meal and anthologized, despite the acknowledged contributions therein of even Alexander Pope. Now you understand, I'm sure.

See, I found the whole glorious run of this thirty volume thing listed as available for reprint on the EBM. Imagine! And here was the first one I so desperately felt I needed, 'cause, like I said, where else was I ever going to find the damned thing? And then there is the hilarious idea that I would ever be able to afford a full set, in even the worst condition, of the original books. The only ones not actually falling apart are two sets, privately bound in full leather and just try -- try -- to think of what thousands of dollars those precious old darlings cost. But never despair, here I was able to get me one fat, full volume for ten measly bucks! As soon as Homer got over his surgery, bless 'im.

In the unwelcome pause of EBM printing though, I was given pause, equally unwelcome but perhaps as necessary, and realized that fully a quarter or more of the money I now spend on books, it seems I now spend reprinting just such old treasures on the bookstore's EBM. Well now.

Notice, as soon as I could, I was right back in the business of dancing 'round the machine, gleefully hoping my book was next and whooping a little when it finally came to me, now in the much more attractive standard white, red and black cover for a Google book , replacing the previous standard of either hideous teal or popsicle-orange trimmings.

I've said nothing here, I hope, to suggest any intention of reforming, have I?

Anyway, pause I nevertheless took to think that besides the shift in my library to ever increasing numbers of wonderful but basically rather cheap old classics in preference to more valuable modern firsts, etc., I have also abandoned almost any pretense to proper collecting and committed myself and my pitiful resources to acquiring more and more, and more again, of rather less than pretty paperback books.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy, but my executors? Well, my darlings, you're fucked.

Some people, you know, are just meant to be poor.

Quick Review

I genuinely look forward to every new book from Thomas Mallon. Not too many contemporary novelists about whom I can say that. What's more, and again to my surprise, Mallon is a writer who has, I think, simply gotten better with each book he's written. Thoughtful, humane and emotionally engrossing, his novels to date have all become easy recommendations to make at the bookstore where I work, and what's more, Mallon's books can be recommended to a great variety of readers without fear of offense or indifference. Hard to name another living American novelist of whom that is true. His nonfiction anthologies, of diaries and letters are quire simply among my favorite books.

And then there's... this. I'm sorry, maybe I'm just old enough to still despise these men, but there is just no way in Hell I am ever going to want to spend time inside the head of E. Howard Hunt. If there was some hope of escape, some suggestion of objectivity or rational perspective, then maybe -- maybe -- I could manage this book. But, alas, it is all assholes, all the time. There is something inexpressibly depressing about any book in which Martha Mitchell is a character to whom one must look forward as the least unsympathetic reptile in the cage.

Couldn't do it. To any who don't remember these villains in the flesh, as it were, I'm sure you can trust Thomas Mallon. He is a skilled and honest writer. But for anyone, like me, who still flinches with disgust at even the hint of Nixonian mendacity in the air, better let CREEPs lie.

Daily Dose

From Père Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac, translated by E. K. Brown


"One may suppose that ideas are projected in direct ratio to the force with which they are conceived, and speed to their mark by a mathematical law comparable with that which projects the shell from the cannon."

From Pg. 101, this edition

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The British Essayists: Guardian, edited by The Rev. Robert Lynam, A. M.


"One can scarce conceive the pomp that appears in everything about the king; but at the same time it makes half his subjects go barefoot."

From #101, Tuesday, July 7, 1713

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The British Essayists: Guardian, edited by The Rev. Robert Lynman, A. M.


"Let them take an old man's word; the desire of fame grows languid in a few years, and thoughts of ease and convenience erase the fairy images of glory and honour."

From #141, Saturday, August 22, 1713, by Richard Steele

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Inward and Outward History: "Liking" Hawthorne

Another of the unexpected pleasures of my life online -- a life that I, like most of my generation never anticipated and for which I have become increasingly thankful as I find myself happiest now when home -- has proved to be how easy it is to find like-minded readers I would not otherwise have ever encountered. Working in a bookstore, I have had the happy recurrence of acquaintance with all kinds of enthusiasts with whom I share a fondness, say, for Emma in preference to Clarissa, and that has been an instant bond. With some customers, and not a few coworkers, I have come to share whole shelves together, and found in just this way, true friends. It's a very common usage now to speak of communities and mean not neighborhoods or towns, or even the old affinities of sect, but rather the commonalities of reading; most obviously in genre, but also, and better I think for not being so narrowly defined, just reading as either a pastime or, in many cases including my own, a way of life. I see it as such for me, and more so now that the idea that all culture is equally worthy, all expression valid, and all effort commendable would seem to be making every passing day the reading of books but one among the all but innumerable ways in which the good citizen-consumer may harmlessly entertain the stray hour -- neither more nor less, really, than knitting or shooting cartoon zombies -- both activities, I hasten to add, the practitioners of which I honestly hold in some awe as being so far outside my ken or skill. Even as good bookstores vanish, and the ideal of the book as the best and most affordable means of intellectual satisfaction continues to decline, the means of finding other readers, of discussing, recommending and reading books, as it were, together, has expanded so that now, I can read Austen with an Australian, a Greek and a woman from Des Moines, and all of us chat and exchange impressions, facts and whatnot in real, or nearly "real time," and none of us not in just a housedress. (Mine's a nightshirt, to be accurate, but it comes to the same thing as I'm wearing it in the daytime and with just slippers.)

I'm speaking again of Goodreads, of course, the social site with which I've recently become a little obsessed, but not to say that everything from Facebook to Twitter doesn't offer similar opportunities to connect reader with reader, at home and abroad. It's all good. I mean that. I know I can be seen here, often enough, and in the bookstore, to speak for just the Luddite and the print-stained, but I genuinely love the new immediacy and range that reading, writing and being online has provided to even musty old inklings like me. I confess myself ecstatic to read, for example, a nineteen year old girl from the other side of the world carefully explicating the universal appeal of Becky Sharp! Then there's another young reader -- this one Portuguese! -- with whom I have become, in this curious new way, fast friends through a shared affection for Tobias Smollett, through whose collected works the boy has just read! No lie! What, I ask you, are the chances of that?! What were the chances before this miraculous technological age of ours that I would ever have come across such a prodigy, or more accurately, that he might have found me?

For every favorite book I've bothered to look up on Goodreads and follow the thread of comments down, I have found, with real admiration, all kinds of enthusiastic readers, of every level of education, from all sorts of places, and of nearly every age, race or what-have-you, offering genuinely interesting reviews, remarks, posing questions and or answering them for other. (The group specifically devoted to reading the great Victorians, for a more organized example, is to my mind a model of good, democratic reading and full of very thoughtful help. Can't recommend them enough.)

There is also, of course, some shocking nonsense, but then when is there not in a public space? (Anyone who has ever hosted a reading in a bookstore or read a poem at a mic in a coffee-house will confirm the inevitable mad person, just vibrating to participate, come their turn or the Q&A.)

I must say, the strangest reviews I've read on my new favorite site? All to do with one novel, for which many readers seems to have neither any reverence nor points of reference. Very odd. Even those who've made a point of mentioning their previous reading of Hawthorne in school, and one must assume that meant either short stories and or The Scarlet Letter, would seem to find Hawthorne's style, and The House of Seven Gables specifically, pointless and confusing. I hadn't thought about this book, or the reading of it much since I had done years ago, when I myself was still a student. Rereading it now in middle age, I was struck most by how truly strange the book is, though, I find, in a wonderful way. There would not seem to have been an intellectual fad or technological innovation, from mesmerism to photography and the railroad that Hawthorne did not incorporate into his novel -- however ridiculous or barely understood -- and about which the novelist was not prepared the enthuse, all by way of contrast and celebration of the modern against the dead hand of history. If Hawthorne did not do specially well as a prophet of the coming age, he nevertheless created one of the most telling and atmospheric depictions of not only the dark and remoter origins of his country, but of the strangely violent clash, in even the remotest corners of the Republic of his own day, between the calcified and decaying traditions of the old world in the New, and the new age just then gathering steam, as it were, and barreling past everyone and everything in its path.

And yet! I was fascinated by the delicacy and affection with which he treats all the survivors of the disappearing New England: from the itinerant on the road to dear, dry old Hepzibah and her aesthetic ghost of a brother, and of course the country innocent, their angel, cousin Phoebe, the very last blossom & fruit of their rude and withered old stock. Curiously, the only truly modern men, the grasping Judge, and the young daguerreotypist upstairs -- as close as the novel comes to a hero -- are both dangerous; the one ruthless in his selfishness and the other, for all his weird science and powers of unearthly influence, little better than a magician, specially as compared to the solid, Christian virtues embodied in dear Phoebe and even the rigid devotion of Hepzibah Pyncheon to her name, and more and better, to her brother. Oh! And the other modern and most sympathetic, at least in my reading? That wonderfully greedy little Ned Higgins, the boy who would eat Creation, gingerbread by gingerbread, if they let him! Marvelous, dangerous boy!

Anyway, that's my gush, having just finished the book for only the second time. I don't remember what I made of it the first time I read it, or if I made much of anything of it at the time at all. (I can only hope that there are no surviving records of what I thought, about anything, at eighteen.) Obviously though, this is a complex novel, and not perhaps the easiest book then, I grant you, to talk or write about without considerably more study and or seriousness of purpose than I might ever bring to the task.

That said, I was still shocked by much of the posted comment on this book. Strong feeling, and much of it, frankly bad. But why so much? And why this book? Granting the usual contingent of snarky teenagers who may not think it wise to like things generally -- for fear of getting it wrong, again -- I can't quite understand the number of unhappy readers compelled to comment on this book.

I suspect that that word, "Romance," which Hawthorne so purposefully chose to describe his book, and the reputation this novel was awarded for weirdness by later, lesser talents like H. P. Lovecraft, have made much of the mischief for new readers. That word "Romance" has sadly shrunk in our time to just the thin stuff of sentimental sex, whereas for Hawthorne it would still have had all the thrilling mystery of history, myth and larger than life characters, and I suspect, already for a novelist of Hawthorne's generation, a pungent, not to say irresistible irony in what was already an unromantic and overwhelmingly materialistic country, or soon, as he quite rightly saw, his was to be. As for the weirdness, it's there, aplenty, but not as we've come to expect it; in gory spooks, butcher's paper, labyrinthine private mythologies and like childish silliness we think of now as "horror." Hawthorne is a serious artist, and even at his silliest, he doesn't stoop to such crude invention. Hawthorne's horror, and his romance, is all in the detailed description of place and people, in the influence of superstition and the potential for harm in even the greatest innovations of the dawning Industrial Age: it is in the Pyncheons then, and in us, and not in rotting timbers and weedy walks and dim rooms.

There are also lingering influences from the last century, and some of them like Freudianism, almost exclusively silly, that can still result in the most astonishing, and entertaining nonsense being posted. One gentleman from the Philippines, posting as Joselito, bless 'im, has a relatively lengthy review of Hawthorne's novel that has to be either a delightful, tongue-in-cheek parody of the ol' psychological criticism, or just a wildly inappropriate, and entertaining reading of the text, but either way the most hilarious bit of criticism I've come across since a certain little Big Noise out of Iowa defined the "lyric essay" as, well... anything written down.

Nevertheless, for all the unhappy comment and or unsympathetic reading of Hawthorne, the point is that one has only to look a little further down the line to find someone's comment that may inform, amuse and or suggest yet another kindred spirit:

Said one April Murphy, "My favorite quotation involving the reversal of Jonah and the Whale when the boy devours a whale-shaped cookie." -- There's our boy, Ned, again.

And next comes, Kimberly, with "Hawthorne has popped up in a couple of biographies I've read recently: he was part of Louisa May Alcott's circle; and his time in Paris was mentioned by David McCullough." -- Did not know either of those things. You get the idea.

I wish I could communicate better the pleasure to be had, for even the reader, like myself, inadequately versed in the history of New England, and Hawthorne, in reading such a masterful novelist let loose in such wonderful extravagance as this! No wonder Melville worshiped him and wanted him as his friend! I can only suggest any who haven't tried this book, or read it, as I hadn't, for thirty years, pick it up and allow themselves the pleasure of a visit to this marvelously strange corner, and major landmark of our literature. The House of Seven Gables deserves more visitors and finer sensibilities than the likes of what it seems sometimes to attract these days, myself included -- though, I had a grand time! And I've throughly enjoyed finding that I am far from alone.

Quick Review

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Loomis is a perfect example of a very old fashioned ideal; the sympathetic biographer. He genuinely likes the DuBarry, and reading this book, it's hard not to. She seems a lovely woman: beautiful, bright, generous and kind. That such a charming creature should have come to such a gruesome end, as I read Loomis, speaks more to the barbarous nature of man's competition for power than to the corruption of the society that made this ravishing girl first a whore and then, briefly, something very like a queen. I don't say, for the purpose of this biography that the author is wrong. Still, while Loomis is all too quick to dismiss earlier historians like the great Carlyle as judgmental puritans and preachers, he might have spared a mention to the grotesque inequalities and genuine iniquities that brought the mob to the good lady's door. Yet, interestingly, not unlike her earlier biographers, the Goncourts, of whose rather wishful researches he disapproves and disproves, Stanley Loomis is still decidedly on the side of romance rather than political or economic analysis. It works. One can't help but love the woman. So, within the more limited sphere of his narrative, Loomis does bring not only the DuBarry, but her friends and enemies back to life, with all their extravagant charm and dazzling insularity intact, and that is an admirable job, well done.

Daily Dose

From The House of Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne


"They are practiced politicians, every man of them, and skilled to adjust those preliminary measures which steal from the people, without its knowledge, the power of choosing its own rulers."

From Chapter XVIII, Governor Pyncheon

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Some Eighteenth Century Byways and Other Essays, by John Buchan


"He starved the Navy to adorn his mistresses."

From Charles II

Saturday, March 10, 2012