Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Quick Review

Poppers make Mrs. Partridge cum harder.  I paraphrase, but not by much, honest. She's said so herself, in her latest autobiography.  She has a lot to say, and from the get in this new book, about her private life, if it can still be called so now, and about her sexuality specifically.  So, if anybody was expecting Shirley Jones to be just the the sugar-sweet ingénue of those Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, or the nice lady in pant-suits driving the bus in that Seventies sitcom, think again.

She's led an interesting life, has Shirley.  Her people were Pittsburgh brewers and bartenders.  (And yes, she was in fact Miss Pittsburgh early on.)  Discovered -- and groped a bit -- and signed to a personal contract by the great composer, Richard Rogers, our Shirley has been a star since she was a teenager.  As Laurey, in the film of Oklahoma!, she won many a heart singing "Many a New Day" in perfect, virginal white, and broke many another as Julie Jordan in Carousel, singing "If I Loved You," again with the stalwart Gordon MacRae.  (It was supposed to be Frank Sinatra, playing Billy Bigelow, but Ol' Blue Eyes funked out the first day of shooting, the reader discovers here, to go fuck Ava Gardner.)  She went on to win an Oscar, lest we forget, playing a prostitute in Elmer Gantry.

For those of us now of a certain age, for good and ill, she will always be the matriarch of The Partridge Family on the hugely popular television show.  She's quick to acknowledge that the phenomenal success of that show eventually had everything to do with her stepson, David Cassidy.  While he was her costar on that show, he became the biggest pop star of his generation, for a hot minute there, with one of her own three kids, Sean Cassidy, following after.  

At the heart of her personal story is her long and troubled marriage to the great love of her life, the equally beautiful Jack Cassidy.  When they met and fell in love, he was a married man, and a star on Broadway.  She was the new kid.  Theirs was a justly storied romance.  They went on to have three beautiful children together.  She went on to become a movie and television star.  Jack Cassidy never quite did.  A man whose talents were only exceeded by his insecurities, miseries for everyone involved ensued.  Eventually her marriage to Cassidy would end in divorce, and his life would end tragically, after many professional disappointments and repeated hospitalizations for mental illness, in an accidental fire set by his own cigarette.

Jones is blunt in her assessment of both of her marriages, as she is in nearly everything else, (from suave to nuts, as it were: as her second marriage, to the deeply eccentric comedian Marty Ingels, not without it's own very public trials, has lasted.  He makes her laugh.  I get that.)

The headlines for this book have come from some of the hotter revelations therein: Anthony Newley and his then wife, Joan Collins, suggesting a four-way with the Cassidys -- Shirley declined, Jack Cassidy slipping on Shirley's peignoir, stockings and slippers on their wedding night, etc.  All good clean fun in a movie star's memoirs, as far as I'm concerned, and I've read a lot of 'em.  What's missed in just retelling those stories out of the context of the book is, for me the real revelation of the thing.  Here's an eighty-year-old dame, a genuine star of some of the last great movie musicals, a television star, and an Oscar winner, no less, who doesn't hesitate to share that sex, and masturbation for that matter, are still a vital part of the old girl's routine.  When it comes to sex in general, she digs it.  Always has, probably always will.  Cassidy taught her a lot.  He was really good at it, evidently and had the tool for the job.  (Inherited, our Shirley proudly tells us, by all his sons -- in the one instance of truly questionable taste in the whole book.  Not like I wasn't tickled to read that about all dear old, once dreamy Cassidy men.)  More than that though, this isn't just some celebrity nonentity's kiss and tell, but rather a damned fine actress, and a mature woman honestly recounting her experience, her love life, yes, but also her life, as lived, all of it.  Sad to say, I don't think there's a male actor of her generation we would be quite so much aflutter over had it been a man saying the same damned things.

Still, our Shirley is a Republican, so there's that potential invitation or two she might not be getting again -- she should live so long, we should all live so long as to see another Republican Inaugural. ("Not", as the kids I suppose still say.)

I think her an admirable character, all in all, and I do not doubt, a helluva lot of fun, our Shirley, in and out of the sack.  Her book anyway was worth the evening it took to read.

(Meanwhile, it's not a song actually associated with her career that's played in my head since I read the book, but an old Sinatra tune:

"Have you met Miss Jones?" someone said as we shook hands,
She was just Miss Jones to me...

Not so much now.)

Daily Dose

From The Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral, by Francis Bacon


"  For friendship maketh indeed a fair day in the affections, from storm and tempests; but it maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness and confusion of thoughts."

From Of Friendship

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Reason Not the Need

 I've again had to "repair" my copy of Hume's Essays.  I put the verb between quotation-marks because, in the first place, I haven't so much fixed the crumbling binding as delayed its dissolution awhile longer with Elmer's Glue, and secondly because the sentence suggests that I've just read Hume to tatters.  I haven't.  I bought this little book, "As Is" just a year or two ago.  I paid $4.50 for it.  Since then I've read all of ten essays in it, and those, with titles like "Of Essay Writing," and "Of Love and Marriage," the easiest. 

As a rule, I'm not much for philosophers.  Essayists I like.  History I read all the time.  Even short works with titles like, "Of the Origin of Government," or "The Platonist," not so much.  Still, David Hume is not a difficult stylist, as the general run of philosophers go, and as a gentleman of the Enlightenment, he's very much my sort.

I picked the Essays out of my general stacks again because I was already reading Hume this summer, and wanted further reference.

Dr.  Johnson thought David Hume a dangerous man.  To the reader of either gentleman today, this seems a curious response to such an important, if largely benign figure in modern philosophy. But then, the Englishman loudly disliked the Scots as a body, or claimed to, despite his affection for Boswell.  (Clearly, the Doctor rather enjoyed teasing his biographer.)  It's also clear from conversations reproduced in the great biography that Johnson, justly or unjustly, considered the philosopher a bad'un, and went so far as to hurl the opprobrium of "atheist" at him.  Of course, the definition of that word "atheist" in Johnson's day was rather broader than it is in ours.  (Don't know that it would have occurred to Hume to simply do away with the whole metaphysical and cultural apparatus of Christianity, for example, as a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins might hope to nowadays, although Hume himself clearly had little use for any of it.)  For Johnson, that word, "atheist," was entirely pejorative, perhaps the worst thing he could think to say of another human being and doubtless reserved in even his liberal usage for only those he saw as active enemies of religion.  Whatever Hume's actual beliefs or lack thereof, from the evidence of his biography and his writings on the subject of religion, we would probably describe him as a sceptic, for want of specifics, hence more an agnostic.  Certainly, Hume was too cautious a man to have ever used the word to describe himself.   "Atheist", in its more activist, contemporary meaning, may seem something of an exaggeration, even now, at least in so far as Hume's published work.  Privately, he seems to have disbelieved in both God and his Heaven, but Johnson would not have ever heard him say so in person or print.  But scepticism, even just doubt, or any divergence from strict orthodoxy was enough to brand Hume an "atheist", and not just for Johnson.  Indeed, what he'd written was enough to keep Hume from not one but two potentially lucrative and estimable academic appointments, presumably on just such grounds.

Johnson's antipathy to Hume nevertheless does indeed seem a little strange, and not just to the casual reader of both. (So strange in fact as to have produced a few years back a whole book arguing their philosophical kinship, by one Professor Adam Potkay.)  Both were Tories after all: politically conservative monarchists, both just shy of actually espousing the lost cause of the Jacobites, with little enough affection for the German Georges, Whig reforms, Voltaire, or "the mob."  Both saw tradition and the stability of political and cultural institutions as fundamental to the maintenance of individual liberty and the English Constitution. Neither trusted either republicanism or representative democracy -- at least not in any form we might recognize as such -- and both saw revolution as a dangerous and irrational destructive force.    

Johnson may never have been the most tolerant man when it came to religion -- or any disagreement  for that matter -- but what makes Hume "dangerous"?

I've started the second volume of Hume's History of England, aka My Summer Reading Project.  Not much in the way of dangerous ideas so far.  Indeed, unlike some of the other and later English histories I've read, Hume's seems to me deliberately dry and rather rigidly objective.  There's none of Macaulay's Romantic dash and Whig triumphalism, none of Froude's fury, nor for that matter any of the more quietly progressive, more typically Victorian optimism of John Richard Green. From the evidence of Hume's first volume, from prehistory to King John, there's nearly nothing to suggest a style, let alone an agenda.  Facts, such as Hume had, questionable, incomplete and or horrifying as they may be, are pretty much all that's on offer.  Facts carefully marshaled in tight formation and marched down the ages, page after page, and while the historian clearly disapproves of all this barbarity and bloodshed, he reports it all as honestly as he can.  He doesn't judge Canute for failing to be a decent chap, as some of the later gentlemen-historians might have done, and neither is he much impressed Æthelberht of Kent conversion to Christianity.  Hume seems to judge most men by their times.  Ironically then, at least in this, Hume can read as a more modern historian than many that came well after him.  Can make reading history a rather more dull business than otherwise though, that kind of strict reasonableness. Hume hardly lets so much as a hint of real emotion into the whole first 400 pages.

Admittedly, in his History, when it comes to the Church, he isn't subtle in his disdain for the institution from the start. Saints, from the martyrs to St. Thomas More, he clearly finds risible, priests, prelates and popes all come in for a a measure of blunt disrespect in Hume's evaluation of both their actual motives and their effect on the body politic.  This might once have passed for the general British distrust in those days for all things Roman Catholic.  (There are periodic nods to "true religion" in the text, a traditional Protestant catch-phrase.)

Still, nothing to warrant such hostility from Johnson, I shouldn't have thought.  I've read Hume's essay "On Miracles" just tonight to get a clearer picture of what it was that might have set Johnson again' him.  Not the most orthodox discussion of the subject, certainly.  Neither is it a denial of either Christ or Christianity.

Elsewhere Hume said, "In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence."

According to the evidence then, at least insofar as I've been willing to look, it's only just occurred to me what it was got Hume such a reputation for disbelief, at least so far as his History is concerned.  It is Providence that is missing.  There's not a hint of the Hand of God anywhere in it.  Men move about, make wars, and kings, make some progress in terms of both civilization and the creation of workable political institutions, make history.  Various claims are made on the supernatural; first the old gods are invoked and then the new God, and still men move about, make wars, etc.  It is never Hume who names God in any of this hugger-mugger of Princes and Popes, competing dynasties and systems.  If anything, at least in the early going, it is at most those rare instances of rational self-interest, of sense that seem to offer the only suggestions of future prosperity, tranquility, civility, order.

What's made this all seem strikingly relevant in the past few days has been a test set me by social media, a test I recently failed.  Having made contact with a few old friends via facebook, I've now been "friended" in turn by a number of people I remember less well; people from my hometown, people with whom I went to school.  Among this wider circle of my "new" old friends, there have proved to be more than a few with whom I have little or nothing otherwise in common.  There are inevitably Republicans, and NRA members, and yes, even Christians among my more established and better remembered friends.  Now there are people, at least in my new "virtual" acquaintance, who are not only at variance with me politically, but for whom social media is a regular, if not daily means of expressing their political and religious opinions, just as inevitably those with whom I am in better agreement do.  That then has been the test.

Naturally, I do not agree with everything posted by my fellow progressives and liberals.  I do not think Monsanto has been a particularly responsible corporate citizen, for example, but neither do I think that GMOs are tools designed specifically to poison third world children or to eliminate heirloom tomatoes from my local farmers' market.  I do not want to Take Back the Night anymore, it's true, and neither do I wish to sign the virtual petition requiring skateboarding helmets.  Just as inevitably, from the other side, I am as completely disinterested in joining a prayer network as I am in recipes made from corn chips and ground beef.  All of that can and does just slide right by me without comment.  To each, virtually his or her own. 

This diversity of opinion has been, I've thought, good for me; a lesson in tolerance.  (Such a liberal notion, in both the older and newer, more American sense, I suppose, but there we are.)  I've had to find my own way of negotiating what may or may not require comment.  Racism, homophobia and misogyny are all on my list of what cannot pass without challenge in what is, after all, my own little corner of the virtual town square.  Not on my front door, thank you very much.  (Perhaps I was naive, but this has come up more often recently than I might ever had thought still possible.)  Likewise obvious, often less than entirely innocent errors of fact and or attribution.  (Poor ol' George Orwell seems to come in for a lot of the latter.) 

I think, on the whole, I've handled myself pretty responsibly in this new context; I've minded my manners more often than not, not said nearly what I might have done, and I've tried with some success to be respectful even in fairly heated exchanges with what are, after all, only virtual friends or put it another way, strangers.  I have tried to be kind, even when I may not have felt much like being kind.

To "unfriend" someone has become a response of only last resort, though I haven't hesitated to do so when on rare occasions it has become clear that continuing the conversation can only make me, and presumably the other party, really unhappy.  (This happened again not but a few days ago, over a posting presumably inspired by a recent criminal acquittal, a posting I initially intended to refute as best I could, point by point, before I finally just had to admit defeat and say goodbye.  The sentiments expressed were flatly racist, the author of the post was a notorious reactionary, a man I personally detest.  I do not believe the person who put this item up on facebook, my old school friend, intended offence to me personally, but I had, it seems already exhausted my patience in previous discussions of like postings.  I simply wasn't willing to argue why Patrick Buchanan is a shit, but neither was I willing to let that kind of hatefulness go unchallenged.  I wished my friend well, sincerely, and admitted defeat.)

Nevertheless, it's been good for me, this new commitment to respectfully disagree, as often and as best I can, it really has.  I've learned from it a patience clearly not altogether natural to me.  It has reminded me of lessons learned in childhood, from good parents and teachers, lessons that, luckily, I have had the need of less often since I moved away from places where my own beliefs and opinions would have inevitably put me very much in the minority.  It has reminded me daily of the persistence of many of the ideas I rejected when I determined, at a very young age, to get as far away, physically and psychically as possible from the people and opinions that threatened my sanity and well being.

I was shocked then, in a very recent exchange with one of these renewed contacts, to find myself arguing not over a difference of opinion, as I'd assumed, but rather with a rejection of the very premise from which I was arguing, namely that tolerance of diversity in religious belief, or in my case, disbelief, was an inherent good.  Discretion even now prevents me reproducing any substantial part of the conversation to which I refer here.  I still believe that the other party to this discussion is neither a bad person nor an unkind one.  Obviously, I think she is wrong.  I don't feel I am betraying any confidence in quoting her final statement on the subject:

"I can't have your atheism in my life."

And there we are.  Back to Hume and Johnson and the absence of Providence.  Just to be clear, I made no argument against her faith.  I never attempted to persuade her to disbelief.  I had not mocked her God.  At the time that she decided to cease any further communication, we were not even discussing religion, or politics for that matter.  She simply decided that our renewed  acquaintance, and my disbelief was enough to challenge her personal equilibrium and constituted an affront to her faith.  What possible answer could I make to that, even had I wanted to?  And so we parted ways.

Let that be a lesson to me.  I have a new appreciation of Hume's delicate position.  I also have a personal context for Johnson's rejection of David Hume and all his works.  Finally, I have a better understanding now, as much from my recent reading of Hume & Johnson as from recent national events and the personal encounters described briefly above, of what it means to believe.

It seems it is still enough that some people disbelieve to discomfort some that do.  Johnson wasn't wrong to think that reason can not answer every question, but then Hume wasn't wrong, I think, to try.

Daily Dose

From Right & Left, by Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann


"He was pointlessly industrious.  The world's philosophers and poets, its thinkers and inventors and explorers thought for him, and kept his brain supplied with information."

From Chapter 14

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Charles Jarvis


"..., I am not now in a condition to tell tales, or make up accounts; for I have a qualm come over my stomach, and shall be upon the rack, till I have removed it with a couple of draughts of cordial."

From Part II, Chapter 3, Sancho

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, by Bruno Schulz, translated by Celina Wieniewska


"No one has ever charted the topography of a July night."

From A Night in July

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Still Another Bad Bookstore Idea

Daily Dose

From Colonel Chabert, by Honore de Balzac, translated by Carol Cosman


"Misfortune is a kind of talisman whose power confirms our original nature; it increases mistrust and meanness in  certain men, just as it improves the goodness of those with kind hearts."

From Pg. 81, this edition

Friday, July 26, 2013

Another Bad Bookstore Idea

Daily Dose

From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare


"Why should the poor be flattered?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning."

From Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Bad Bookstore Idea

Daily Dose

From Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare


"Moral? No, by my troth, I have no moral meaning."

From Act 3, Scene 4, Margaret

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Curiosity

Pretty old thing.  That could easily be a whole category of books at the Used Books buying desk; a category it might be best to avoid, frankly.  And avoid them we usually do.  Pretty bindings, embossed covers, gilding, deckled edges, illustrations -- that's a list of what can make an otherwise obscure and or unsaleable book alluring to even the most jaded dealer.  Still, experience teaches that when confronted by such superficial attractions, the dealer should resist stoutly.  Why?  Well, because there were once hundreds if not thousands of lovely new things published just this way, from say the end of the 19th through the first two decades of the 20th Century.  It was a thing, the nice bindings; not a fad per se, like the giant car-stereo speakers of my youth, but more like Cinemascope; an aesthetic enhancement of the familiar entertainment experience, meant also to elevate the price and lend a cultural cachet to even the likes of Bhowani Junction.  (The studios had to do something to compete with Milton Berle.  Simpler times, simpler times.)  Fine bindings were no more a guarantee of quality when it came to  the content of a book.  There were a lot of what one might most charitably now call, "popular authors" of the day who rated the high-end treatment.  (Think of those limited, gift editions of Stephen King that will one day confound our heirs when tagging the estate sale.)  If no one now reads any of such long out-of-print fin de siècle darlings -- and trust me when I say no one certainly seems to want to buy those books anyway -- there may be a lesson in it it for us all, no?  Sic transit gloria mundi, bub.

So then, how decide to actually look up such books online on the off-chance of them being somehow collectible?  Again, there may be less point to this than one would assume.  Most of the time, if the used buyer of any experience has never heard of book or author, ain't nobody likely to be looking.  No harm in checking, but disappointment is all but inevitable.   Here's another.  Price?  Couple o' bucks, pretty and all.

So how'd this one get me?  Who could resist a quick online check of a name like Sadakichi Hartmann?  Not me.  Check it out: Carl Sadakichi Hartmann,(November 8, 1867 - November 22, 1944), German pops and Japanese moms, Symbolist poet, editor, critic, translator, friend to Ezra Pound, published some of the first Haiku in English, and so on.

Look!  He looks like Yeats! 

Now this was an interesting fellow.  And, from a quick browse, this is actually quite an interesting little book.  Hartmann covers a remarkably wide range of pictures, from formal paintings, to illustrated editions of Shakespeare, artists of world reputation to fairly obscure journeyman.  Obviously Hartmann has a lover's knowledge of the plays, and of the pictorial arts, but he has not only those requirements for such a book, but also a poet's eye for telling description.  It looks a most scholarly job, for 1900.

So, yeah, I bought it to try and sell from the Shakespeare section in the bookstore where I work.  It won't sell, even for five bucks, probably, but this one got me.  I could print up my five minute's research on the internet and stick that in the thing, but I don't know that anyone will find all that as fascinating as I did.

I don't care.  During my last performance review with my managers, I did reaffirm our pledge at the Used Books buying desk to continue more cautious and critical in our buying; taking fewer chances, respecting the realities of the business we are primarily in, which is selling new books and used, not being an antiquarian shop, etc., but...

What the hell?  A five dollar fling.  Now and then a curiosity gets the better of the most sober judge.  'sides, it's pretty, ain't it?

Daily Dose

From The Second Tree from the Corner, by E. B. White


"Up early this day, trying to decide whether or not to bequeath our brain to our alma mater, which is making a collection of such stuff.  It struck us as odd that the decision will have to be made by the brain itself and that no other part of us -- a foot or a gall bladder -- can be in on the matter, although all are, in a way, concerned."

From Notes on Our Times, Time Present, Daylight and Darkness

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

More Rowling Revelations!

Daily Dose

From Lord of the Flies, by William Golding


"One must remember to wake at first light, in order to diddle the savages -- and he did not know how quickly sleep came and hurled him down a dark interior slope."

From Chapter Twelve, Cry of the Hunters

Monday, July 22, 2013

J. K. Rowling Revealed!

Daily Dose

From Blow-Up and Other Stories, by Julio Cortazar, translated by Paul Blackburn


"Seated ready to tell it, if one might go to drink a bock over there, and the typewriter continue by itself (because I use the machine), that would be perfection."

From Blow-Up

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Neglected Literary Gent Remembered

Daily Dose

From Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis


"There is character in spectacles -- the pretentious tortoise-shell, the meek pince-nez of the school teacher, the twisted silver-framed glasses of the old villager."

From Chapter One, IV

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bottomless Wells

Fame's a fickle ol' sow; as likely to eat her children as nurse them.  Literature is littered with the bones of yesterday's darlings.  One has only to review the bestsellers of a bygone NYT to see the once familiar names now largely lost to history.  As someone who buys used books for a living, believe me, there are few sights sadder than the lovingly preserved hardcovers of, say, John O'Hara, let alone the likes of Frank Yerby.  (Ah, the promise that was Grace Metalious!)  

There's another twist, nearly as common and perhaps as unfair.  The most familiar example is probably still A. A. Milne.  Eighteen successful plays, three novels -- including an excellent if improbable thriller, The Red House Mystery, 1922 -- essays, and humour and editorial work, and now he is naught but the father of Pooh.  There's an immortality that clearly wasn't all the author had in mind when he went to his desk every morning of a long literary life.

And so to Wells.  The remainder tables at the bookstore where I work are dangerous places for the poor bibliophile, and never more so than when newly populated by unforeseen British reissues, in hardcovers, attractively bound in a uniform edition and of titles otherwise obscure.  Here we have four comic novels, all dating from the turn of the last century, by one of the most admired practitioners of the form, H. G. Wells.  Now if that somehow doesn't sound quite right to you, dear reader, you are not wrong to think so.  Nowadays Wells is still widely read, but only as the father of modern science fiction, to which he contributed a number of now classic titles: The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau.  Even his lesser efforts in this genre, however quaint they may now seem, as in The First Men in the Moon or The Sleeper Awakes, still have their ardent enthusiasts, as do a number of his more speculative short stories.  One would be hard-pressed to remember more than a handful of names contemporary to Wells with so much of their published work still not only in print but so widely read, in both the original and translation.

A writer like Wells, a writer who spent a good part of his adult life in not only making literature but also trouble in the world -- in the very best sense, mostly I mean -- might well be forgiven for thinking that politics and history would define their posthumous fame nearly as much as their as their efforts at fine letters.  Wells certainly seemed to think so.  He spent at least the last half of his life vociferously advocating for his ideal of the "World State", among other noble-minded socialisms, and played the sage from podium to podium for decades.  (I don't mean to be flippant about what were, by and large, quite respectable and progressive ideas from a man whose financial and artistic success might as easily have allowed him to abandon the political idealism of his youth.  Happens all the time.  Wells however remained a committed and active reformer, and an astute critic of both the capitalist west and the socialist east all his life.  True, he was unfortunately a life-long subscriber to, for example, eugenics, but that now rather unforgivable slip had, in his day, still at least the endorsement of other notables as diverse as George Bernard Shaw and Margaret Sanger.  Never the less, H. G. Wells was also one of the first and few committed socialists in his day to denounce totalitarianism, left or right, and to revise his opinions according to changing circumstances rather than just ossifying, as so many did, into just another Communist dinosaur.)

Much is still made of Wells the "futurist" and to that I cannot speak.  I haven't much interest in checking either his fictional inventions or his predictions against the historical record.  Perhaps he foresaw cellular phones and the yet to be realized socialist Eden.  If that was the primary reason to read Wells, I would argue that the few benighted hobbyists of scientific esoterica, and a few ageing communists would now constitute his only devotees. Such is clearly not the case.

My recent re-reading of his short novel, The Invisible Man, convinced me that what makes reading Wells such a pleasure still is less to do with his powers of speculation and prediction than with his craft as a comic novelist.  It's a funny book.  True, the story of a scientist hounded to madness for a mistake he can't himself correct is not without a wider resonance, both as a cautionary tale of unintended consequences and of the primitive power of the mob to destroy what, and who it cannot understand.  The genius of the thing though is in the nakedness of the protagonist.  Wells has the great comedian's eye for awkward repercussions of fantasy played out in a real place and time; for example, what weather can do to undo dreams of perfect liberation.  (Hint: the English climate is not the nudist's friend.)  It is the comic novelist who appreciates that human beings in a frightened mass are more dangerous, yes, but also funnier; slapping and kicking and accusing one another instead of their unseen foe.  It's Wells the satirist who shows the even most respectable, rational sort of persons resorting to the same violent superstitions as the comic, rural rubes when threatened by the seemingly inexplicable, indeed, the invisible, and so on.

In his own day, H. G. Wells was as much a literary gent as he was an agitator or prognosticator.  To really appreciate this, may I recommend the selection of his comic novels not to do Dystopian futures or alien invaders, but rather to do with the rise of advertising and the nouveau riche, with the "New Woman", and always, or nearly always to do with the deadly hand of the British class system?

It's worth remembering just here that Wells was a working class lad, as likely once to have ended up a draper's assistant in a shop as a anything, despite his native intelligence and talents.  There was some luck in his rise, as well as genius.  He had a quite healthy ego, did Wells, but he never forgot what a near thing it was, obscurity.

Which makes it such a pleasure to see some of his best comic novels so recently retrieved from said forgetfulness and reissued in these handsome British hardcovers.  By the time I saw them of course they have been remaindered by some American firm or other, but even just their reissue gives me hope.  More people should read these books.  They're quite good.

From the remainder table I've collected four of the best of these.  I've read two before, the almost autobiographical story of ruined aspirations, The History of Mr. Polly, perhaps his greatest "straight" novel, and the marvelously entertaining, Tono-Bungay, a tonic comedy on the rise of the then quite new consumer-society, advertising, new money and bad, if successful ideas.  The other two books, Kipps and Ann Veronica, I haven't read before, though now I've started the latter at lunch and am already enjoying it.  The story of the "new woman", I was most dubious when I picked the book up.  I had some apprehension of it proving one of those wrong-headed, anti-feminist antiques like James' unfortunate novel, The Bostonians -- an otherwise predictably beautiful book, made all but unreadable by a laughably overheated horror of the unhealthy influence of an older lesbian on a Suffragist prodigy.  So far, there's none of that Victorian auntishness, nor I should think is there likely to be.  Among the many lovers of that ol' dog, Herbert George Wells, were a number of brilliant and rather challenging women, including not only that intellectual and feminist powerhouse, Rebecca West, but also Margaret Sanger and the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim.  No man, however much the egoist, attracted to such women could really have learned nothing from them, could he?  Instead, I'm reminded of many a Shavian heroine, and not a little of Waugh's early comedies, still a couple of decades out from Wells' novel.  As for Kipps, it may well have been the novelist's most popular title and was, I know, made into a popular movie some long while after.  A quick peak at this one suggests Thackeray's Pendennis; another once popular novel of a largely harmless young man's coming of age.  Wells version seems more straightforwardly comic, and considerably less forgiving than Thackeray's novel, though I can also already see how Kipps might have endeared himself to the reading public.

Huzzah then, yet again, for all the books that can still bob back up to the surface, even after being under for more than fifty years, and even if only on our beautifully maintained bargain tables at the bookstore where I work.  Now I've got two comic novels to read for the first time, by one of the masters of the form, and for less than the price of a new paperback.

Daily Dose

From Murphy, by Samuel Beckett


"He would never on any account allow himself to be affected by the abuse, no matter how foul and unmerited, that would be poured upon him."

From Nine

Friday, July 19, 2013

A SF/F Doodle

Daily Dose

From Marriage Lines: Notes of a Student Husband, by Ogden Nash


To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

New True

Here then a dilemma for the coming weekend.  One of the true signs of Summer is the itch not to be bad -- rather past that, if I ever truly felt it -- but to read about bad guys. Something about the long, languid afternoons, the sun blazing away, even the birds quietly retired to the shade, that makes reading True Crime somehow safe and more satisfying.  Psychologically I suppose nothing too bad can happen with a long glass of iced tea sweating at my elbow and the fan ruffling the pages of mayhem and general criminality.  Not to say I may not read this sort of thing year 'round, but, yeah, I'm in the mood for bare-feet and bad men.

One of the more satisfying aspects of True Crime has to be the straight forward right and wrong of the thing.  I know that traditionally this is one of the arguments for reading mystery novels, and I get that, I do.  The body is in the library, Poirot's in his element and all's right with the world.   But that isn't quite the kind of tidy, clockwork moral universe in which I wish to dwell just now.  Heat makes me uncomfortable, irritable and frankly cynical about living in a just universe.  So, what I have been doing instead has been reading a fair amount of the grittier, funnier and more morally and ethically ambiguous Swedish police procedurals of the Seventies and Eighties.  Good stuff.  But the focus of those books is on the cops, not really the criminals, and in their way, even the Swedes don't care to linger too long in the devil's shadow.  Whereas, True Crime reporting, when it is done right, is pretty much all about the bad, in fact the very worst of us.  Yes, in the best of it there can be nuanced reporting and complex story, but in the end, bad things happen, somebody's done or is still doing something wrong and the good is in the telling; bringing the bad to light.  There need not even be a hero in a good True Crime book, except maybe the reporter who brings us the facts (which is why so often real heroes have written not very good True Crime.)

Actually, that's the other attraction.  When it is done right, True Crime can be one of the last really satisfying reads in contemporary journalism.  Whatever the actual crime, the larger issues shouldn't be a distraction from the events.  Nobody should need an explanation of why this, whatever it is, was bad.  This is what reporting, good reporting, looks like: unadorned prose narrative, about fundamental conflicts, researched down to the ground and reliably referenced throughout.  You want a good True Crime story?  Read the acknowledgements and review the notes.  No True Crime book worth reading has ever been written outside of a decent library, a newspaper-morgue and without reference to the stories of other crime reporters.  (Even if the story is obscure, somebody else wrote something.  You don't see that fact reflected in the acknowledgements and the notes?  What you're about to read isn't True Crime, it's either fantasy or fiction.)

Luckily, I have some excellent reading options just now, three new books of True Crime, each well reviewed, about unfamiliar crimes and just waiting for a few uninterrupted hours reading.  I took each of the three to lunch on three separate days, just to get a taste and the first fifty pages of each promised a pretty good read.

First up, a big blowhard of a book, about a relentless Mafia sonofabitch, his FBI "handler", and the corrupt relationship that seems to have somehow kept them both out of jail.  This is classic True Crime material.  A good indication of both content and tone can be had from just a few Chapter headings: Chapter One, "The Kiss of Death", Chapter Five, "Sinatra, Capote, and the Animal", Chapter Eighteen, "I Shot Him a Couple of Times", Chapter Thirty Six, "Gaspipe's Confession".  How you gonna not want to hear Gaspipe's confession?  From the first 60 pages I can already tell you this Peter Lance character is very much of the Breslin school, though to be fair, considerably more disciplined and less garrulous altogether. Still, while I don't think he's actually called anyone either an asshole or a jamoke, the reader should not be surprised should he do so.  (Though it's worth noting the righteous indignation would seem higher than the style here.  None of loveable losers that would actually put Lance in the line from Runyon to Liebling to Breslin.  These are murders, not a lot of charming rascals and comical hoods.)  The writer's research is referenced roughly every other page, and details a string of nasty hits in an almost impossibly long criminal career, based on recently released FBI documents, eyewitness testimony from cops and robbers, and review, review, review of the record.  One of the traditions in mafia stories is having the inside dope, which invariably means discounting the "official" version of events, so at least part of every chapter seems to be either supporting or discounting some previous authority on the mafia.  Nothing a mafia authority likes better than calling "bullshit" on friend and foe alike; lends an old-school newspaperman's verisimilitude to proceedings.  From the look of it so far, Lance backs up his mob gossip like a pro, when and wherever he can.  It's all a big, bad-ass and bellicose affair, and there's even a still rather inexplicable promise of Al-Queda cross-criminality by the end.  Stay tuned.  It makes for a riveting story.  Meanwhile, it's the Columbo crime family and the Machiavellian hoodlum who managed to keep robbing, killing and ratting out his enemies and friends to the Feds for forty years.  I'm hooked.

The first sentence of the Prologue in the next book is the kind of pastoral prose that quite nearly put me off the lot: "When the song of the snowmachine had faded down the valley, the sisters got ready to go."  There's that Alaskan/Sarah Palin localism, "snowmachine" -- one word -- substituted for the more common "snowmobile", and that phrase, "song of the snowmachine" that has all the clunky charmlessness of a Robert W. Service poem.  Happily, context being nearly all in this sort of thing, the nature of the story that follows comes near to justifying, or at least makes more forgivable the occasional lyric excess.  This is a book all about place, here the so-called "last frontier" in the United States, Alaska.  It's the story of a classic American type: the Lilliputian prophet or self-annointed messiah, leading his tatterdemalion clan off into the wilderness to fight... the Forest Service?  Okay, that last provides a rather unusual twist, I'll admit.  Nevertheless, there are few more American stories than the pernicious influence of visionary religious fanaticism coming into direct conflict with even the most seemingly benignant federalism.  So, here's "Papa Pilgrim" bringing in his heavenly host and his heavy equipment to park-land, the idea being presumably to bring a bit o' Kingdom Come to the Great white North, and I'm betting that didn't work out.  Clearly, from even just the first few chapters here, there's tragedy coming to the ghost-town of McCarthy, Alaska.  (Again, one can't help thinking the tourist posters should read: "Alaska: the State Where Irony Gets You Stopped at the Border.") 

I can't say that my pleasure in this kind of clown show isn't abated a bit by what looks to be some genuine horrors.  No one would wish any further harm to the kids raised in such madness.  Still, the long Alaska night seems as inevitable a metaphor here as the disaster of following some messianic hobo into the woods.  I want to know.

And finally, to an author I heard on the radio.  Fascinating, frustrating and frightening story he had to tell too.  An important story, come to that, of an unsolved series of murders in Long Island.  The writer talked most eloquently of his attempt to reclaims the victims, and their deaths, from the careless oblivion of crime-statistics and indifference.  This last is yet another standard subject for True Crime, the unsolved serial murder case.  (Think Zodiac.)  This is usually yet another variation of journalist as hero common to some of the mafia books:  a writer works to solve what the police can't or won't.  Here though the subject would really seem to be the ways in which moral judgements made about these murdered women, all prostitutes, made finding their killer somehow less important.  Of the three new books, this is the one of which I have read the least.  I feel confident in suggesting after even so cursory a reading that this may well be not only the most important of the three, but the one that will probably stay with me. 

Daily Dose

From Everyone But Me and Thee, by Ogden Nash


High up along Park Avenue
A bit of Moscow comes in view.
Here, after a day at United Nations
Of dutiful denunciations,
Reside the bluebloods of the Reds,
True dialectic thoroughbreds.
A group my tiresome Cousin Emlyn
Refers to as la creme de la Kremlin.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lonely Hearts

Daily Dose

From One Half of Robertson Davies


"We know from countless records that anyone in the Gallery who recognized a friend in the Pit gained his attention either by shouting or, if that failed, by spitting deftly on his hat."

From The Devil's Burning Throne

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Longfellow Remembered

Daily Dose

From Anecdote Lives of the Later Wits and Humourists, by John Timbs


"Captain Gronow relates that, at an evening party, at Lady Jersey's, every one was praising the Duke of B---, who had just come in, and who had lately attained his majority.  There was a perfect chorus of admiration to this effect: -- 'Everything is in his favour; he has good looks, considerable abilities, and a hundred thousand a year.'  Rogers listened to these encomiums for some time in silence, and at last remarked, with an air of great exultation, and in his most venomous manner, 'Thank God, he has got bad teeth!'"

From Samuel Rogers

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hermes Dog & Star

Daily Dose

From The Oxford Authors: Oscar Wilde, edited by Isobel Murray


"That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul."

From The Critic as Artist, Part 1

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Sun Used to Shine

Daily Dose

From The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett


"'Can there be a greater pleasure,' she confided to her neighbour, the Canadian minister for overseas trade, 'than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen.'"

From pg. 67

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler


"It is hard enough to know whether one is happy or unhappy now, and still harder to compare the relative happiness or unhappiness of different times of one's life; the utmost that can be said is that we are fairly happy so long as we are not distinctly aware of being miserable."

From Chapter 44

Friday, July 12, 2013

Thackeray to FitzGerald

Daily Dose

From The Anti-Christ, by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by H. L. Mencken


"But when faith is thus exalted above everything else, it necessarily follows that reason, knowledge and patient inquiry have to be discredited: the road to the truth becomes the forbidden road."

From 23

Thursday, July 11, 2013

To E FitzGerald by Alfred Tennyson

Daily Dose

From The Eye, by Vladimir Nabokov, translated by Dmitri Nabokov


"Everything is fluid, everything depends on chance, and all in vain were the efforts of that crabbed bourgeois in Victorian checkered trousers, author of Das Kapital, the fruit of insomnia and migraine."

From pg. 28 this edition

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From Daily Readings with Blaise Pascal, edited by Robert Van de Weyer


"Man's greatness comes from knowing that he is wretched.  A tree does not know that it is wretched.  One must feel wretched to know that one is wretched.  But that knowledge raises man above the trees."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I Call the Old Time Back

Daily Dose

From Persian Letters, by Montesquieu, translated by C. J. Betts


"It is in sum a spirit of dizzy madness, the spread of which can only be regarded as the total eclipse of human reason."

From Letter 85

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Lost Leader

Daily Dose

From Volpone, by Ben Jonson


"Where shall I run, most wretched shame of men,
To beat out my unlucky brains?"

From Act III, scene viii

Sunday, July 7, 2013

After a Lecture on Keats

Daily Dose

From The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky


"'It's hateful to me, this novel' relied the master, 'I went through too much because of it.'"

From Chapter 24, The Extraction of the Master