Monday, July 30, 2018

The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

We listened to E. L. Konigsburg’s Newbery winning book, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler last year, and enjoyed it, so we thought we would try another of her Newbery winning books, this one some 30 years after the first. The View From Saturday was a hit with the kids, and a pleasant enough audiobook to travel by. 

The story is pretty simple. Four 6th Graders are selected by their teacher, Eva Marie Olinski, to compete in the Academic Bowl. She is not quite sure how she selected them, but they are all connected, as we find out throughout the story.

There are two parts to the story, essentially. The one is the story of the competition, which is told from the perspective of Ms. Olinski. The second consists of four stories told by the individual children, about an incident which deeply affected them, and also turns out in retrospect to be a link to the other children.

Noah Gershom starts it off with the story of a wedding at the retirement community his grandparents live at. He becomes best man unexpectedly after the son of the groom breaks an ankle. He also learns calligraphy, and gains an appreciation for some of the residents.

It also turns out that the groom at the wedding was Nadia’s grandfather. She spends the summer after the wedding rescuing and monitoring sea turtles with her grandfather and his new wife, Margaret, who used to be the principal of her school - and also Ms. Olinski’s best friend.

It turns out that said Margaret is also the grandmother of Ethan, who she ends up meeting. (They had attended the same school without becoming acquainted.) Ethan then tells of his meeting of a new and unusual kid at school, Julian Singh, an immigrant with a British accent. Ethan is wary of getting involved, but ends up helping Julian avoid bullies, and is eventually invited to the tea parties at the bed and breakfast Julian’s father owns.

Julian in turn tells the story of how Nadia’s dog was chosen to play a part in the school play, the bullies attempted to poison the dog, but Julian thwarted the attempt. He also turns down a chance to take revenge, opting for the high road instead.

There are even more connections than the ones mentioned. But the main connection that draws the children together - and causes Ms. Olinski to choose them - is their gravitation toward kindness.

At first, I found the way the narrative jumped around between past and present to be an annoyance. This was compounded by a technical issue. We ripped the CDs to a thumb drive, and three of the disks appeared to my player to be in the same directory, so we had to carefully select which track to play next. There were a few false starts before we figured things out. As things went on, however, the sequence of events became clear, and the overall design of the book emerged.

Overall, it was an interesting narrative. Plenty of humor, good characters, and ethical dilemmas which are resolved in a surprisingly mature manner by both children and adults.

There was a definite attempt at multiculturalism in this book, and it is mostly successful. It is also 20+ years old, and it reads that way just a bit. Also showing is Konigsburg’s own background. She was a New York Jew, like several characters, and treats Jewishness very much as a minority status. Julian Singh is a great character, and written well. But he is the only non-white child. Perhaps it is my own California bias, but that fact seemed just a little odd. On the other hand, it is plausible that this reflected the author’s experience. In any case, I did not find the book to be patronizing or stereotyping. Unless you count a British expat serving elaborate tea. And I find that to be charming in the extreme.

Just a couple of details that I found fun. First is that a winning question for the team involved the distinction between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I am a fan of both (and married to a fan of both - and particularly the original Tenniel illustrations…), so I knew the answer to the question right away. I suspect that too many have only seen the Disney movie, which draws elements from both books, and haven’t bothered to read the originals.

The second detail was Julian’s approach to a particular bullying incident. When the bullies snatch his backpack, and write on it in permanent marker, “I am a ass,” Julian changes it to “I AM A pASSenger on spaceship earth.” And of course, bullies would definitely get the definite article wrong. Just one of several fun responses that Julian, ever the optimist, comes up with.

As I said, my kids liked it, and I agree that Konigsburg does have a way with words and characters.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

“If you like ______, then you might like _____.” I kept having this pop up regarding a few of my favorite non-fiction authors (particularly Sam Kean.) The name recommended was Simon Winchester. So, I figured I would find one of the books that was at our local library, and give him a shot. The recommendation was spot on.

The Professor and the Madman is about those two figures, but the real subject of the book is the Oxford English Dictionary.

I have a couple of unabridged dictionaries, both by Webster. My wife brought a 1961 edition to our marriage. I had a 1996 Encyclopedic Dictionary - my mom bought one for each of us kids. But I do not have an actual OED, sadly.

Dictionaries are not all alike. They are written with specific purposes, and serve particular functions. The OED is unique and historically important because of its ambitious goal: to show when each word was first used in writing, and give examples from said writing to illustrate each meaning and nuance of the word.

To this end, those who created it enlisted a vast army of volunteers who searched through old books (and new too), and sent in words in context, with reference to book and page. Forms were created for this purpose, and the committee hired a few dozen clerks to sort through and catalogue the submissions.

Even with this vast machine, the dictionary still took over 75 years to complete, from the time it was first planned, to the day the last installment rolled off the press. No one person was involved from beginning to end; the project was the work of many individuals.

However, one name stands out above the rest: James Murray, who was in charge of the process for several decades. He is the Professor of the title, the educated and energetic man whose vision did more to make the OED a reality than any other person. He created the streamlined process for volunteers, and personally wrote tens of thousands of definitions.

The other character is perhaps even more fascinating. William Minor was a volunteer who contributed many thousands of words and quotes. Along with one other person, he was recognized as the greatest of the volunteers, and was specifically named in the acknowledgements. A quick reader, with an analytical mind, he stayed just ahead of the publication alphabetically, submitting timely and much appreciated information.

He was also confined in an insane asylum after committing a murder.

The book tells the stories of these two men, and how they came to be friends and collaborators. It also tells of the history of English language dictionaries (with quite a few pages dedicated to Samuel Johnson, of course), and the history of the OED project. Each chapter starts with a definition of a key word, quoted from the OED of course.

Winchester spins a compelling tale, one that is unusual, tragic, and redemptive. He also clears away some of the false narratives which became popular after a writer essentially made up a “more romantic” version of the story. Winchester obtained the government archives with the primary sources for use in writing this book. He is able to cite and quote extensively from the correspondence between Murray and Minor and others, and piece together the actual facts.

I won’t say too much about Murray. His story is conventional, and thus not that interesting, until the dictionary project. And even then, like many a diligent person who accomplished great things, his hard work and quiet brilliance don’t make for a good tale. Well behaved editors may make history, but they cannot carry a tale by themselves.

Minor is much more fascinating, because his life goes awry. Born to American missionaries in Sri Lanka, he seemed destined to a successful career as a Physician. During the Civil War, he was called on to serve the Union, and something happened to his psyche as a result. Winchester does the best he can with limited information, but he has to speculate as to exactly what happened. Many Irish immigrants fought in the Union Army - and did so in order to learn how to fight so they could kick the bloody British out of their homeland. When it became apparent that they were often sent in as cannon fodder - and after the Emancipation Proclamation, which the Irish feared would mean competition for their jobs, many Irish deserted. When caught, they weren’t executed - soldiers were needed, after all - but they were visibly branded, which ruined their chances at remaining incognito in an Irish rebellion.

As physician, Minor was certainly called on to dress the brand afterwards, and there is evidence that the branding was done by doctors in many cases. In any event, something clearly went wrong, because Minor started to develop a paranoia about Irishmen, who he felt would revenge themselves on him.

It wasn’t just trauma, however. That served as a trigger for what we would now diagnose as paranoid schizophrenia. Minor became obsessed with the idea that people were breaking into his room at night and poisoning or sexually abusing him. The Army eventually realized he was no longer functional, and gave him a lifetime disability pension. Minor, in an attempt to cure himself with a change in scenery, moved to London. It was there that he caused a tragedy.

In one of his nightly fits, he imagined a man was in his room, charged out with his service revolver, and shot a worker walking to his job in the wee hours of the morning. There was no doubt of his guilt - he admitted it, and was horrified at what he had done. There was also no real doubt that he was mentally ill, and that the illness caused him to do what he did. He was confined to an asylum.

Minor was rather a model inmate, however. Sure, he remained crazy enough with his endless delusions. But he was non-violent and cooperative. As a result, he was given significant privileges, including the chance to acquire a library. It was around this time that he became aware of the OED project, and began to submit words. Eventually, Murray was curious about why Minor never came to meet him, and discovered his situation. He would visit Minor regularly over the decades, and the two became friends.

Much of the book is about Minor, because of his colorful history. Winchester also discusses the change in the treatment of the mentally ill from when Minor committed his crime, to his death many years later. It is interesting to see the change in understanding, even if treatment wouldn’t become effective until long after.

Minor’s life took a somewhat tragic turn in his 70s. Probably suffering from dementia in addition to his other issues, he decided to take a violent approach to his sexual guilt, and cut his penis off. As a result of this, strings were pulled (including with Winston Churchill, then relatively unknown) to have Minor returned to the United States, where his brother could care for him. That part was good, but the last decade of Minor’s life was a long decline.

A few other things in this book were fun. Murray initially gained admission to the Philological Society through the efforts of a certain pigheaded and rude phonetician named Henry Sweet. Said person was the model used by George Bernard Shaw for Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, later adapted for the musical My Fair Lady. Winchester notes that Rex Harrison wasn’t exactly acting in his part - he too was that rude and pigheaded himself.

I also have to quote the ever-pithy Samuel Johnson.

One woman even disparaged Johnson for failing to include obscenities. “No, Madam, I hope I have not daubed my fingers,” he replied, archly. “I find, however, that you have been looking for them.”

Minor was one of two contributors who were specially recognized. The other was a certain Fitzedward Hall, likewise American, and likewise a bit insane. A successful professor of Sanskrit at a university in India, he had an argument with a colleague, left abruptly, and became a hermit in England for the rest of his life.

This was a fun read. Winchester combines solid research with good storytelling, and ties things together well. I shall definitely be reading more of his books.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book was the selection for a local book club I am part of. I would likely never have discovered it on my own, as modern Science Fiction isn’t something I follow closely. However, it was a good read.

The basic idea of All the Birds in the Sky is one of magical realism - combined with a kind of “scientific realism” too. Let me explain. One of my friends from law school really blew my mind years ago with his observation that magic and technology are really the same thing, in the literary sense. Magic isn’t generally supernatural in sense that it is at the whims of the gods. Rather, it is a force just like, say, electricity, which can be controlled and used by the engineers (or wizards) in the same way technology that most of us cannot truly understand can be controlled by our own scientific wizards. In this book, then, there are the two contending forces. One is magic, which is connected with nature, which makes the “witches” kind of environmental healer sorts. The other is that of cutting edge science, which seeks to either master nature, or leave planet earth for a new home.

The central characters are Patricia, who discovers her magical powers at a young age, and Laurence, who has scientific powers. The two of them become friends. Essentially, they are outcasts, persecuted by the other kids, and misunderstood by their very different dysfunctional families.They intersect at various times in their lives, culminating in the ending, when they have to, well, save the world together. By stopping their respective tribes from bringing their versions of the apocalypse about.

The theme of alienation is unsurprising. Anders is a younger person (than me at least), and disaffection is certainly trendy. But also, Anders is transgender, and I feel that her own struggles to fit in are reflected throughout the book.

I won’t get much into the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it. Okay, one major spoiler: the ending requires the fusion of the powers of magic/the earth and technology/humankind. While the exact solution is left unsaid, it is essentially a union between the Tree (representing Gaia or the earth soul) and an artificial intelligence created by Laurence and Patricia (representing the human element, both rational and emotional). It is a union that is a meeting of soul mates, almost sexual in intensity.

One of the interesting things about the book is that in some ways, the apocalypse takes a back seat to the human relationships. Both Patricia and Laurence form romantic relationships with others that ultimately prove unsatisfying, before realizing they are soul mates. But beyond this central relationship are a plethora of complicated, realistic relationships and characters. In fact, I think I was more curious about how the relationships would play out than I was about the ending.

But let me be clear: I really liked the ending. Many modern books are ambiguous and do the “lady or the tiger” thing at the end. Which is a defensible literary decision. But I appreciated the ending in this one. It was connected with the beginning, and supported throughout. In other words, good, tight plotting. But it was also both creative and satisfying, even if it didn’t give a full solution. The marriage of technology and magic, human and earth, and Patricia and Laurence, felt right, given the world created.

Our book club discussion was enlightening as well. One thing another member pointed out was that the first sentence or two of every chapter was fantastic. I have to agree. Anders really thought through the openings, and each one is a hook to draw you in. Here is just one, from Chapter 16:

Other cities had gargoyles or statues watching over them. San Francisco had scare owls.

And each of these openings relates to the content of the chapter. It is good writing, and I appreciate that, regardless of the genre.

What else to mention? Well, there is a big sex scene. Our discussion of that was interesting. For the most part, the women mentioned that it was clearly a female-written scene, given the particular observations and focus. The men, for the most part, found the scene awkward. I am not sure anyone else noticed that the author was transgender, and the discussion moved on before I could mention it. Personally? I find most sex scenes awkward, whether it is because of my Fundie history, or because sex is hard to write about. I will give credit for the scene being rather female-focused, rather than phallocentric.

One more thing: I want to mention again that the secondary characters are good. This is a fairly short book, and there isn’t time, like in an 800 page novel, to develop each one. But what we do see is interesting, and I was almost disappointed that there wasn’t time to go into the lives of those other people. Again, this is all a sign of good writing, and careful observation of people.

I wouldn’t say this book is great literature. It is genre fiction, intended to be so, but good at what it is. Anders writes well, and I found myself appreciating a well turned phrase or psychological perception. Definitely worth the time spent.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

But I should mention that I own - and have read - the complete Washington Irving short stories. We listened to Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I have a short list of authors that I consider unjustly neglected. By definition, these are older writers, as the list consists of authors who were once popular, but whose star faded with time and changing taste. They generally share an archaic style, which serves as a barrier to appreciation by modern readers. This is, in my view, a shame, because once you learn to speak the language, the genius and psychological perception are ever so rewarding.

Just to mention some off the top of my head: Anthony Trollope (I am a total missionary for Trollope, my favorite Victorian), who inadvertently cratered his reputation by admitting he wrote a certain number of words a day - he approached writing as skilled labor, not as a brooding artist waiting for inspiration. P. G. Wodehouse, often dismissed as a “mere” humorist - even though humor is the most difficult kind of writing to pull off. Langston Hughes, whose populist style has meant scorn from many critics, despite the incredible resonance of his writing. Ursula Le Guin and Madeleine L’Engle, often dismissed because they wrote Science Fiction - as women no less. Sir Walter Scott, who basically invented Historical Fiction, but is little read today.    

But also on that list is Washington Irving.

Irving was the first professional author of the fledgling United States. The very first to support himself entirely by his writing. And also, widely recognized as the founder of the American short story tradition. Before Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Eudora Welty, Sarah Orne Jewett, or the plethora of fine American short story writers, there was Washington Irving. It is easy to recognize his influence on later writers, particularly Twain. The combination of the legendary, supernatural, realistic, and sarcastic is already there.

So yes, the language is that of the early 19th Century - I rather like it, but your mileage may vary. But there is much to like. The regional flavor. (Mostly New York State for Irving.) The ambiguity about the supernatural versus the natural. The use of local legends. The “tall tales.” The slightly tongue in cheek attitude which is such an American characteristic. The unforgettable characters which everyone knows, although few have read the originals.

I already read the older kids The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a few years back. It was a bit over their heads at the time, unfortunately, although some parts got some laughs. Now, with them older and more widely read, I think it went better. We also listened to Rip Van Winkle, which is both shorter and a little faster to get to the point. Of course, my kids have developed a finely tuned sense of sarcasm and snark (with parents like us, well…), so Irving’s deadpan satire made more sense. 

Just a few fun things to mention about Rip Van Winkle. The idea that politics has changed completely in 20 years is a good one. Certainly, I would not have predicted our current situation back in my early 20s. Things change, alliances change, and generations change. I suspect that in 20 years, the Trump era will be looked on with as much puzzlement (and scorn) as loyalty to King George was viewed after the Revolution.

It was also kind of fun to view this story as having several potential meanings. Is it about the dangers of sloth? Or the peril of consumption of liquor? Or is it about the dream of freedom from a termagant wife? Or a paean to walks in the wilderness? You can find your own meaning, I guess.

These stories purport to be told by Dietrich Knickerbocker, the fictitious character invented by Irving. In fact, many of his stories are alleged to have been told to Irving by certain invented characters. But even though Irving did draw on local folklore, the stories are largely his own, written out of his own imagination.

These two stories are undoubtedly Irving’s most famous. But his other writings are delightful as well. I particularly recommend Tales of the Alhambra, the “Buckthorne” stories, and the Italian Banditti tales.


I think this calls for some Shannon and the Clams.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

There has been a trend over the last, say, 40 or so years, to turn tropes on their heads. One of these has been to repurpose - to redeem, so to speak - the Witch. No longer a byword for evil of the worst kind, a menace to children, in league with the devil, she is at minimum more complex and human. In many cases, she is the greatest force for good in a community.

There is a lot of truth to this transformation. An honest analysis of the history of witch burning - and let’s call it what it is: murder - reveals that “witches” generally fell into two categories. The one was the elderly woman with no relatives to defend or avenge her. She was viewed as a drain on the community resources. Rather than support her (say, through the poor laws), it was easier to imagine her malignant and murder her. Not a particularly savory human trait on display there.

The second sort of historical “witch” is even more intriguing. Throughout history, there have been women who refused to kowtow to the patriarchy, who served as the physicians of the community, healing with pharmaceutical herbs, providing contraceptives (and yes, abortifacients too - this was all women’s work for millennia), delivering babies, and so on. One can trace these sorts of women (very often called “wise women”) from the dawn of human history to modern times. The Florence Nightingale sorts who stood up to chauvinist doctors and provided far better care than they did. Although nursing is no longer a solely female profession, it is still the nurses - not the doctors - who do the hard work of medical care.

Sadly, the “wise women” always existed in uncomfortable tension with the patriarchal powers of society. So, from time to time, one would be murdered as a “witch.” That way, the balance of power could be maintained, and the healers would live in fear, and thus stay in their place. Several of these women are mentioned in Uppity Women of Medieval Times - success and popularity were dangerous to women. 

I start off with this, because The Girl Who Drank the Moon is one of those books in which a witch is a healer. (Although the best, for my money, is still Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series - they are a great crash course in ethics for kids.) This book is also quite political - in a good way - without being particularly didactic.

The setting is a rather dystopian society. The Protectorate is a city with a problem. There is a witch living in the forest, and she will destroy the city unless a baby is left for her in the woods each year - presumably for her to devour. This belief is fostered by superstitious stories passed from generation to generation. But it is also enforced by the powers that be: the all-male council of elders, and the all-female quasi-military force. (They are kind of a cross between nuns and ninjas…) So, every year, the youngest child in the city is brutally ripped from his or her parents, and left to die in the forest. Thus, the witch is appeased, and the city lives another year.

But this is not, of course, the reality. There actually IS a witch, but she is rather puzzled by the whole “abandoned baby in the forest” thing. She comes every year, takes the baby, and places it for adoption with a family on the other side of the mountains - communities for which she serves as healer and therapist. Sure, she probably should have inquired as to why they were abandoned, but the Protectorate was obscured in a fog, both literal, and magical (a fog of sorrow.)

This goes on for some time - 500 or so years - before things change. First, Xan (the witch), takes a shine to a particular baby, Luna, and accidentally feeds her moonlight instead of starlight, which “enmagicks” her. At the same time, Antain, a young man who is expected to eventually take his place as an elder, is traumatized by Luna’s abduction. Her mother refuses to peacefully surrender the child, instead going mad in the aftermath. She is locked in a tower, and Antain is haunted by the scene. He investigates, and is cut on his face by a flock of paper birds created by the mad woman. He eventually marries, and his child in turn is due to be sacrificed.

In the meantime, Luna has grown up raised by Xan, a primeval swamp monster named Glurg (who is a sensitive poet, and may be both one with creation and its creator - it’s a paradox to say the least), and a pocket sized dragon. Xan locks her magic inside her, lest she hurt someone or herself (which is a legitimate fear), until she turns 13. In that way, Luna’s discovery of her magic self is connected with puberty - and is just as awkward.

As the book proceeds, the mystery of the past unfolds. All of the characters - not just Luna - has some part of their memories locked away. Their sorrow, in particular, cannot be recalled. As the fog lifts - literally and figuratively - a past tragedy is remembered. And it becomes clear that the real power behind the Protectorate is a “sorrow eater,” the evil counterpart to the Witch, who lives on the pain of others.

There are some pretty heady political lessons here. How does oppression work? Why do people tolerate it? How is blind allegiance created? How are people prevented by fear and violence from thinking for themselves? And, of course, the necessity of the good people of the world to challenge not just the status quo, but the powers of hate.

There are some interesting things about this book that I think make it better than average. First, the author is pretty good about showing, rather than telling. The beliefs of the Protectorate are revealed through a series of “fairy tales” told to children. These open the book, and recur throughout at crucial junctures. Also in this vein, the author allows the full horror of the child sacrifice to be felt. Nothing graphic, but it is clear that the Elders believe that the child is eaten by wild animals - and that they perpetuate the sacrifices because they know it maintains them in power.

I also appreciated that the book is told from various points of view. And they are all sympathetic in some way. That includes the point of view of Sister Ignatia, the villain. Barnhill makes it clear that she too has her hidden pain, and came to be who she is because her own trauma.

That said, it is the trajectories of Sister Ignatia and the chief Elder that are by far the most chilling part of the story. Both of them are so wedded to their power that they cannot, even at the end when their powers have been stripped, repent. They end their days in confinement, cut off from nearly all human contact, their pride having sentenced them to their own private hells. They cannot even admit that they were wrong, which is one thing that the better inhabitants of the book are willing to do. I do not pretend to be an expert on the afterlife, but this kind of matches my own (tentatively held) belief: there are many who, given the choice of repenting and apologizing as a condition of eternal life in the presence of God, will instead choose annihilation rather than bend. (For many from my own time and country, they will choose to not exist over having to be equals with brown-skinned people - I’m looking at you, Phyllis Schlafly…) I say this, not because of theology, but because of psychology. (And yes, I think C. S. Lewis was highly perceptive about this.)

One final thing merits some praise for this book. The ending is set up perfectly for the good people of the story to exact justice. Or revenge, perhaps. But they don’t. It is enough to stop the bad people from hurting everyone else. Mercy and grace are extended to all. Even the chief Elder and Sister Ignatia. But they cannot accept that grace, and choose their own annihilation. At the end of the story, I was strongly reminded of the ending of Les Miserables. Javert too cannot accept grace, because he refuses to extend it. And, like so many of Victor Hugo’s heroes, the heroes of this book become so much more heroic because of the grace they extend.

I found this book fascinating. Those who know the Western fairy tale tradition will find all kinds of “Easter Eggs” within the story. Likewise for those who know their Bibles. Obviously, Fundies will clutch their pearls at the idea of the opening of the Gospel of John being repurposed as an explanation as to how the primordial Chaos (the “bog monster”) became the world and the creator and the poem and the poet and everything. But for those not so obsessed with doctrinal purity, this mythology will, like fairytales and myths and allegories and parables around the world and throughout history, be another way of thinking about truth - a poetic and figurative representation of some deeper truth about reality - and ourselves.

Overall, a better than average book, with memorable characters, a good story, and thoughtful explorations of deeper truths. 


Oh yeah, this is the Newbery Award winner for 2017.


I first read this poem in high school, and it has always stuck with me.

After the Battle by Victor Hugo

My father, that hero with the sweetest smile,
followed by a single hussar whom he loved above all others
for his great bravery and his great height,
was riding, the evening after a battle,
across the field covered with the dead on whom night was falling.
He thought he heard a weak noise  in the shadow.
It was a Spaniard from the routed army
who was bleeding, dragging himself by the road.
groaning, broken, ashen, and more than half dead,
and who said, "Drink! Drink, for pity's sake!"
My father, moved, handed to his faithful hussar
a canteen of rum that hung from his saddle,
and said, "Here, give the poor wounded man something to drink."
Suddenly, at the moment when the hussar bent
leaning over him, the man, a kind of Moor,
seized a pistol that he was still gripping,
and aimed at my father's forehead crying "Caramba!"
The bullet passed so near that his hat fell off
and his horse shied backwards.
"All the same give him something to drink," said my father.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cocktail Time by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: I own this.

A trip to the beach. (Okay, a trip to the beach to run the world’s greatest 10 kilometer footrace...blame my wife for getting me into running again, and into this race in particular.) Anyway, a trip to the beach requires a propper beach read. And yes, I know I am probably not the sort of person to ask for recommendations - after all, I once tackled Camus on a beach trip - but I do think that it is difficult to do better than Pelham Grenville Wodehouse for the occasion.

I am a big fan of P. G., and have been ever since my high school violin teacher’s husband gave my brother and I some of his old books. (We were his favorites, I think, because we were always happy to discuss Dickens and other Victorian authors with him. I also credit him with introducing me to Anthony Trollope.)

I have read quite a few of Wodehouse’s books over the years. Even though I am not a golfer, his golf stories are most hilarious, and one can usually count on his books to be entertaining, witty, and utterly ludicrous. In any event, here are the books I have reviewed on this blog, along with an introduction to the author himself:


Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, the fifth Earl of Ickenham - known to Wodehouse fans more jovially as “Uncle Fred” - is one of Wodehouse’s most delightful creations. An older man, usually tied down by his far more sensible wife, he is a force of nature, a “chaos muppet” of the first water (to use a favorite Wodehouse expression), and a good example of what Psmith might have become given enough age. Wherever Uncle Fred goes, expect the unexpected, the crazy, the bizarre - and the hilarious, of course.

I first experienced Uncle Fred in Uncle Fred in the Springtime, which I read a few years back. He combines the intellect of Jeeves (and the ability to, well, fix things) with the exuberance of Psmith. And perhaps the aversion to battleaxe females of Bertie Wooster. In any event, he is a lot of fun. I understand that David Niven once played him. This sounds promising...

In this book, it is Uncle Fred who starts a whole cascade of crazy events, with a simple amusement. While out at the legendary Drones Club with his nephew Pongo Twistleton, he hears of a marvelous idea: shooting hats off using a slingshot and a Brazil nut. He immediately borrows one, and shoots off the hat of Sir Raymond Bastable, a rising barrister and possible future member of Parliament. “Beefy” Bastable and Uncle Fred also are old acquaintances. Bastable has no idea who did the dirty deed, but suspects the “young people” he sees laughing at him. Burning for revenge, he is given an idea by Uncle Fred, who suggest that someone with actual writing talent would write a scathing novel. Bastable takes this as a challenge, and writes “Cocktail Time,” a novel filled with sex, scandal, and a vociferous denouncement of the younger generation. He submits it under a pseudonym, and, after many rejections, it is published.

It remains mostly unknown, until, by chance, the daughter of a bishop is caught reading it, he denounces it from the pulpit, and the rest is history.

Except for a big problem. It isn’t the sort of novel that an aspiring member of parliament wishes to be known for writing. Enter Uncle Fred again. For a small fee, Bastable’s doofus nephew, Cosmo Wisdom, agrees to accept “credit” for the novel. But Wisdom owes a gambling debt to an American con man and his intimidating wife - and they quickly realize there is a deeper pocket they can plumb. Things get, um, complicated really fast.

Before things are wrapped up (with no fewer than four marriages), we meet a potty old literary agent - given to knitting and forgetfulness, a battleaxe housekeeper, Bastable’s sister - who resembles a white rabbit, a letter everyone wants for different reasons, yet another butler (of course), and a novelist who can never quite make ends meet. For someone of Uncle Fred’s resourcefulness, this is, of course, just an epic challenge. Between his imagination, his ability to impersonate, and his epically cool demeanor, everything comes right in the end, to great hilarity. (Well, except for the con man and his wife. After all, the “goodness and light” that Uncle Fred has to spread around has its limits, and someone is bound to be left out.)

Wodehouse is so epically quotable. I literally wanted to just reproduce a few chapters. But I did select a few of the best quotes to share.

The whole Britishism affect is hilarious. Not that any of the Brits I know really talk like this. But one can certainly imagine the denizens of the Drones Club doing it. How about this opening exchange?

“Yo ho,” said the Egg.
“Yo ho,” said the Bean.
“Yo ho,” said Pongo. “You know my uncle, Lord Ickenham, don’t you?”
“Oh, rather,” said the Egg. “Yo ho, Lord Ickenham.”
“Yo ho,” said the Bean.
“Yo ho,” said Lord Ickenham. “In fact, I will go further. Yo frightfully ho,” and it was plain to both Bean and Egg that they were in the presence of one who was sitting on top of the world and who, had he been wearing a hat, would have worn it on the side of his head. He looked, they considered, about as bumps-a-daisy as billy-o.

And, soon thereafter, the topic of the Brazil nut catapult comes up.

Lord Ickenham was intrigued. He always welcomed these opportunities to broaden his mind and bring himself abreast of modern thought. The great advantage of lunching at the Drones, he often said, was that you met such interesting people.
“Shoots Brazil nuts, does he? You stir me strangely. In my time I have shot many things - grouse, pheasants, partridges, tigers, gnus, and once, when a boy, an aunt by marriage in the seat of her sensible tweed dress with an airgun - but I have never shot a Brazil nut. The fact that, if I understand you aright, this stripling makes a practice of this form of marksmanship shows once again that it takes all sorts to do the world’s work. Not sitting Brazil nuts, I trust?”

Sir Bastable is decidedly NOT amused by the incident, of course. And he, like many a codger, would prefer that all those annoying young people stay off his lawn.

What had occurred, it was evident, had been one more exhibition of the brainless hooliganism of the modern young man which all decent people so deplored. Sir Raymond had never been fond of the modern young man, considering him idiotic, sloppy, disrespectful, inefficient and, generally speaking, a blot on the London scene, and this Brazil nut sequence put, if one may so express it, the lid on his distaste. It solidified the view he had always held that steps ought to be taken about the modern young man and taken promptly. What steps, he could not at the moment suggest, but if, say, something on the order of the Black Death were shortly to start setting about these young pests and giving them what was coming to them, it would have his full approval. He would hold its coat and cheer it on.

It occurs to me that Wodehouse was a solid 50 or 60 years ahead of our modern era, when the older folks seem to make dissing the Millennials (and whatever the heck my children will be called as an epithet…) But Wodehouse is indeed timeless for many reasons. Here is another. I remember as a kid the clergy of that time getting their panties in a complete knot over The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie which was mediocre at best, and would have died an obscure death had they not rescued it from oblivion by their vehement protestations. In this case, the Bishop of Stortford sees his daughter reading the book - at a particularly racy spot - and then, well, Wodehouse describes it thus:

At twelve-fifteen on the following Sunday he was in the pulpit of the church of St. Jude the Resilient, Eaton Square, delivering a sermon on the text “He that touches pitch shall be defiled” (Ecclesiasticus 13:1) which had the fashionable congregation rolling in the aisles and tearing up the pews. The burden of his address was a denunciation of the novel Cocktail Time, in the course of which he described it as obscene, immoral, shocking, impure, corrupt, shameless, graceless and depraved, and all over the sacred edifice you could see eager young men jotting the name down on their shirt cuffs, scarcely able to wait to add it to their library list.

This success, naturally, leads to the press wanting to know the real identity of the obviously pseudonymous author. And thus is set in motion the rest of the plot.

 I also have to quote Uncle Fred in a passage involving Albert Peasemarch. Said fellow is an old friend of Uncle Fred from the war. He is wealthy enough, but bored with idleness, so he takes a job as butler for Sir Bastable. He plays the part well, but this irritates Uncle Fred.

“Now listen, Bert. This ‘m’lord’ stuff. I've been meaning to speak to you about it. I’m a lord, yes, no argument about that, but you don’t have to keep rubbing it in all the time. It’s no good kidding ourselves. We know what lords are. Anachronistic parasites on the body of the state is the kindest thing you can say of them. Well, a sensitive man doesn’t like to be reminded every half second that he is one of the untouchables, liable at any moment to be strung up on a lamppost or to have his blood flowing in streams down Park Lane. Couldn’t you substitute something matier and less wounding to my feelings?”

It is this sort of thing that keeps me returning to Wodehouse every year. How about another? The senior (in many ways) literary agent of the publisher that takes on Cocktail Time is Mr. Saxby senior. He has taken up knitting - in a very serious way. As in, he rambles about turning the corner on a sock, and is constantly involved in making sweaters for his grandchildren.

Old Mr. Howard Saxby was seated at his desk in his room at the Edgar Saxby Literary Agency when Cosmo arrived there. He was knitting a sock. He knitted a good deal, he would would tell you if he asked him, to keep himself from smoking, adding that he smoked a good deal to keep himself from knitting.

My wife is seriously into knitting as well - she’s really good at it. So I have to tease her with this one. The knitting keeps coming up throughout the book, usually in hilarious fashion.

Another thread is Lewis Carroll’s most famous book. Several characters are compared to those from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from Bill the Salamander, to the White Rabbit - who is the pattern for Sir Bastable’s widowed sister Phoebe.

One final line, which is so Wodehousian, fans will recognize it anywhere. Sir Bastable is about to reconcile with his old flame, Barbara Crowe (who is the real power at Edgar Saxby.) He discusses this with Uncle Fred, who has done his best to orchestrate the reconciliation.

“And what steps do you propose to take?”
“I’m going to tell her I’ve been a fool?”
“Doesn’t she know?”

I definitely laughed at that one. Actually, I laughed at a lot of this book. It is classic Wodehouse, with a twisted plot, goofy and memorable characters, and a witty and razor-sharp, yet good natured sense of humor. I recommend books to people all the time. Wodehouse is one of my most regular recommendations. Don’t expect profundity. But humor is indeed the hardest genre to write, and beneath the hilarity often lurks the germ of the truth we don’t want to acknowledge. If you haven’t discovered P. G. Wodehouse, by all means give him a try. If you have, well, he was prolific, so grab another of his books as a summer read.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This is my first experience of Zadie Smith. She is a British novelist, born to a Jamaican mother and a white father. From the first page, her British background was obvious. (It took me a minute to remember that “estates” are what we Americans call “apartment complexes.”) Although I certainly have read a lot of British literature over the years, I haven’t really read modern ones. (Unless Waugh counts as “modern”) Although I did read Black Swan Green a few years back, that one was rural. Certainly, I haven’t read any modern British literature with an urban setting. One of those weird gaps, I guess. 

 Zadie Smith

Anyway, Swing Time is set mostly in London and Africa, with a few episodes in New York and other big cities. While the novel is not autobiographical, the unnamed narrator is very similar to the author in biographical details. The black mother, white father, a love for tap dancing, and a complex set of half-siblings are the most obvious. The narrator’s childhood friend, Tracey, is also a bit of Ms. Smith. Although the colors of her parents are switched, she looks a lot like the narrator. Except she is actually talented at dancing, while the narrator is mediocre. While the narrator’s mom is literate and socially ambitious, her father is a plodder, content to work for the postal service. Tracey’s dad is not in the picture (and it is implied that when he does show up, he sexually abuses her.) Her mom is what we would call “white trash” here in the United States: vulgar, overweight, uneducated, tacky - and looks down on the narrator’s parents as much as they look down on her.

The book is written in such a way that you have to piece the timeline together as you go. It keeps switching between the narrator’s childhood and her adult life, and the prologue starts near the end of the story, and isn’t actually explained until near the end. It is a bit disorienting, and you really have to pay attention to narrative details or you miss how things tie together. I think this contributes to the feeling I had that the book was more of a series of episodes than a narrative with an arc and direction. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. If anything, life itself tends to be episodic rather than fit a neat arc. I was reminded a bit of David Copperfield, which also followed a character through his youth in a series of related, yet disconnected episodes. In a way, this very style is an assertion that life isn’t neat, people aren’t simple categories, and events take their own directions, not the ones dictated by artistic considerations.

The basic plot is as follows (spoilers, so skip if you prefer):

The narrator becomes friends with Tracey after they meet at a dance class. They don’t have that much in common, but are the only non-white kids there, and they at least share a love for dance. Later, they drift apart after Tracey gets into a dance-oriented school on scholarship, and the narrator takes a more academic route. They reconnect a few times, but find they have less in common than they thought. Tracey gets some professional dance roles, but never makes it big. Instead, she ends up a lot like her mother, with some kids with different fathers and no real direction to her life.

The narrator, on the other hand, disappoints her mother with mediocre results in school, and a low paying job at the fictional equivalent of MTV Britain. Then, she happens to meet Aimee, an Australian pop megastar (probably patterned after Madonna), who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. She spends the next decade plus at this job, before events cause a shattering break near the end of the book, and the narrator finds herself without a job, having essentially devoted all her time to Aimee. During their time together, Aimee decides to build a girls school in Africa (the place isn’t named, but is probably Gambia.) This turns out to be a bit of a failure because of Aimee’s failure to listen or understand the real needs of the community. As I said, it kind of meanders, just like the narrator tends to drift without a purpose.

The strong point of the book, on the other hand, was the well-drawn characters. The narrator is at the center, obviously. It is odd that her name is never given, even by the other characters. But perhaps not knowing makes it easier to imagine oneself in that place. The narrator’s parents were recognizable people - I’ve met a few like them. I suspect there might be a bit of Smith’s parents in them. They certainly explain how the narrator came to be who she is. The psychological interplay of the characters is quite true to life.

I also thought that Tracey and her family were intriguing. There are a lot of people like them in my part of the world too. I thought the author was perceptive about a couple of things. First, she gives a rather positive picture of a loving (if not always put together) single mother. Tracey’s home is challenging, but her mother is actually a better mother on balance than the narrator’s distant ice-queen mother. Poverty and occasionally questionable decision-making do not overwhelm what is essentially a happy home. In my work in juvenile dependency proceedings, I see the dynamic that Tracey and her mom face. Poverty leaves one with a low margin for error, and thus there is social worker involvement, and more judgment than assistance.

The other thing, though, that the author also gets right is a kind of defensive superiority complex - a defense mechanism against feelings of inadequacy. We all fight our insecurities in our own way, and Tracey’s mom does it by lording what she feels is her superiority over others. It is the flip side of the coin of the narrator’s mom, who goes full on Tiger Mom on the narrator.

There are a few great lines in the book that I want to mention. One is a description by the narrator of her time at the TV station. She doesn’t fit in culturally, both because of her race and because of her background. She is into the old dance musicals, not her own era of music.

In the great piles of glossy magazines, also freebies, left around the office, we now read that Britannia was cool -- or some version of it that struck even me as intensely uncool -- and after a while began to understand that it must be on precisely this optimistic wave that the company surfed. Optimism infused with nostalgia: the boys in our office looked like rebooted Mods -- with Kinks haircuts from thirty years earlier -- and the girls were Julie Christie bottle-blondes in short skirts with smudgy black eyes. Everybody rode a Vespa to work, everybody’s cubicle seemed to feature a picture of Michael Caine in Alfie or The Italian Job. It was nostalgia for an era and a culture that had meant nothing to me in the first place, and perhaps because of this I was, in the eyes of my colleagues, cool, by virtue of not being like them.

The narrator’s taste, throughout, is always toward an older period.

            But elegance attracted me. I liked the way it hid pain.

Another great line comes from Fern, one of the guys who makes Aimee’s Africa project work as well as it does. He is a sympathetic character, as one of the genuinely good-intentioned people in the book. He is also more perceptive than most of the others.

“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”

This one is so true. Aimee’s biggest problem is her wealth, which allows her to both dictate her life, and assume that everyone else can do so too. In her view, differences in outcomes “were never structural or economic but always essentially differences of personality.” This attitude, too, permeates a lot of middle to upper class whites I know. It is darkly amusing when they complain that poor people can’t budget - when they themselves have far greater incomes and piles of debt. The margin for error is just greater for them…

There is another perceptive observation, this one by the narrator, about her experience in Africa, while visiting the site of a slaving prison.  

All paths lead back there, my mother had always told me, but now that I was here, in this storied corner of the continent, I experienced it not as an exceptional place but as an example of a general rule. Power had preyed on weakness here: all kinds of power -- local, racial, tribal, national, global, economic -- on all kinds of weakness, stopping at nothing, not even at the smallest girl child. But power does that everywhere. The world is saturated in blood. Every tribe has their blood-soaked legacy: here was mine.

Sad, but undeniably true. And true in our time, where children are sacrificed to power and tribalism.

One final quote is on the topic of the narrator’s mother. After a lifetime of trying to make her daughter into the sort of world-conquering superwoman that she envisioned, she is obviously disappointed.

I wondered if some similarly chilly epigraph existed for me: She was not the best daughter, but she was a perfectly adequate dinner date.

It’s the little bon mots like that which add sparkle to this book. Overall, I found that it was hard to put this book down. Good writing, human characters, and a tendency to bestow grace on even the most flawed people in the story.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Source of book: I own this.

Tortilla Flat was Steinbeck’s first real success. Set in Monterey, California, and telling a story of people on the edges of society, it is in many ways a precursor to Cannery Row, which shares many of its themes and elements. However, it is not quite the same book, despite the similarities.

The particular characters that Steinbeck creates are all “paisanos.” Which is a mix of Mexican, Spanish, Native American, and Caucasian - people who have occupied California since long before it became part of the United States. Not quite as aristocratic as the Californios, the great Mexican-Spanish landholders and luminaries of the Spanish and Mexican periods. Well, not even close. By the time this book is set, they were more like the typical Californian drifter sorts who worked when they had to, and not when they didn’t. In this sense, they are strongly related to Mack and his buddies in that latter book.

In Tortilla Flat, Danny is the leader of the pack, and is intentionally written as a (literally) poor man’s King Arthur. He inherits two houses from his grandfather, in the part of Monterey known then as Tortilla Flat - which is not flat at all, but a hillside - but is the home of the paisanos and other down-and-out sorts.

The story starts off with Danny. He inherits, and gets drunk. Then, he starts collecting friends - the various knights of the Round Table, so to speak. They too share Danny’s love for leisure, companionship, and as much red wine as they can purchase, barter, or steal.

Danny is the rich man, naturally, as he has two houses. Well, until Pilon (the smartest of the bunch) and Pablo (not so much) accidentally burn down one. This saves Danny the trouble of charging rent, which is never, ever, paid.

There are a host of crazy characters in this book. Pilon is the philosopher. Danny the ringleader. The Pirate as the one productive (and mentally challenged) member of the group. Jesus Maria and Pablo as sidekicks. Big Joe as the brawn of the outfit. And the various women and ordinary townspeople who inhabit their world. 

 The Pirate and his dogs. 
Illustration from the 1942 edition
by Ruth Gannett

In the end, like the Round Table, the group disintegrates, and Danny dies under circumstances which show the depression and mental breakdown that Arthur undergoes at the end of his life.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of this book. On the one hand, like Cannery Row, which is a more focused book (in my opinion), it is full of interesting and amusing incidents. On the other, it indulges in some kind of unfortunate stereotyping of Mexican-Americans. The group lives to get drunk and sit around shooting the bull. They steal anything not bolted down. The women seem to get pregnant by multiple men, and be sexually loose at most times.

So, it’s complicated. That’s one reason that I find Cannery Row to be the better book. It lacks the racial issues, and seems to have a more coherent story arc. However, even in this early effort, Steinbeck shows his skill at writing. Whether or not you like the stories he tells (and I know people who hate Steinbeck), it is hard to ignore just how skilled he is at telling them. Every book I read of his, I marvel at how compact yet evocative his descriptions are, how he can take a single sentence and make a world of it, and how he never feels wordy or long winded. It is a totally different style from other favorite authors: very American, very modern, and more terse. But it is great writing indeed.

Just a few lines that are worth mentioning. The paisanos are talking about Cornelia, who is a bit wild, but always has masses sung for her father - who appears to have been even wilder. Pablo questions whether these masses are effective.

“That soul will need plenty of masses. But do you think a mass has virtue when the money for that mass comes out of men’s pockets while they sleep in wine at Cornelia’s house?”

“A mass is a mass,” said Pilon. “Where you get two-bits is of no interest to the man who sells you a glass of wine. And where a mass comes from is of no interest to God. He just likes them, the same as you like wine.”

I’m not convinced Pilon is right about the second part, although he certainly is about the first. And I think he is right that the purveyors of the Religious-Industrial Complex don’t give a rat’s rear end about where they get their political power or money from as well. As the last election has proven.

Steinbeck was not a fan of religion. (And honestly, although I remain a committed Christian - a follower of Christ - I am not either these days. Here in America, it has become a strong force for evil, sad to say.) Here is another perceptive and sharp-edged barb.

It must be admitted with sadness that Pilon had neither the stupidity, the self-righteousness, nor the greediness for reward ever to become a saint.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire many of the saints. The writers of the New Testament. Saint Francis of Assisi, many of the women. But particularly for our modern “saints,” it does seem to require greed, self-righteousness, and willful ignorance. I’m not as cynical as Steinbeck, but damn it’s hard not to be right now. (I’m thinking of how everyone I know who defends breaking up immigrant families and criminalizing those who come here fleeing violence and poverty - and there are more than I expected - claims the name of Christ. Mostly Evangelicals, but a Catholic here and there too. And every last one of them white... it’s been a hard month.)

I should also mention the hilarious treasure hunting chapter. Like the hunt for the grail, it ends with disappointment, but in a humorous way.

Anyway, I still think this isn’t Steinbeck’s best book, but it is still a worthy read. I admire his idea: King Arthur set among the marginalized. Already, he shows a knack for characterization and vignette which would truly flower in his later works.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Library by Stuart Kells

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Plenty of the books I have read over the years have been impulse reads. The library (sinister institution that it is) has a new books display as you walk in, and books (sirens that they are) call to me. I pick them up, and I end up reading stuff that was not on my list. Oh well. Such is the life of a bibliophile.

This book was one step removed from that. My eldest daughter saw it on the new books shelf, checked it out, and read it. And told me I should read it. And seriously, who can say no to that?

The Library isn’t a history of libraries, exactly. It is more like a series of interesting stories about Western libraries since the great library of Alexandria. It is a book about book collectors. It tells of how famous libraries came to be, from Roman times, to our own times. It has its tragedies: books destroyed by fire, flood, mold, insects, and war. It has humor and skullduggery. It has book thieves along with collectors (often the same person.) It has copyists, artists, printers, and more. It has mentions of Terry Pratchett and Umberto Eco. And Doctor Who.

Stuart Kells is apparently an authority on rare books. His official professions are “author” (of course) and “book-trade historian,” which is as specialized as it sounds. And he loves books. Dearly. His passion and affection shine through on every page. I can certainly sympathize. I have a decent library of my own. (Yes, we have a whole room dedicated to it. My wife found our current house, and when we walked through it intending to make an offer, we both thought “library” when we entered the room, which was - at that time - desecrated with a giant television.) Not that our books actually fit in the library. We have bookshelves elsewhere too. And our kids have books. I haven’t counted or catalogued them, but between all of us, we are certainly north of 2500 volumes - and possibly over 4000. (See below.) This would make ours a rather large library by medieval standards, if fairly small by 19th or 20th Century measures. Like the older tradition, though, ours are mostly used books. We have painstakingly collected them at thrift stores, at library sales, at used book stores, and off Ebay. These days, we mostly limit ourselves to hardbacks, due to limited space. But our library is a lovely thing, and our happy place.

Trying to summarize this book is impossible, so let me just hit a few fun highlights.

Our word “library” comes from the Latin “librarii,” the scroll copyists who worked off of the author’s manuscript. So, a collection of scribes gave the name to the place where books were kept. But libraries weren’t just for reading or copying. Originally, they were where books were translated. The Alexandria library made the attempt of translating works from around the known world. One of the major works that resulted was the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which is the bible that Christ would have known.

Since the dawn of the modern era - which brought both the printing press and (eventually) widespread literacy - libraries have grown exponentially. Leibniz (co-inventor of calculus) worried as early as the late 1600s that at the rate books were being written, whole cities would be filled with books. A generation earlier, Thomas Coryat said “methinks we want rather readers for bookes than bookes for readers.” If only he had known. It is kind of ironic that today we do the same thing, whining that nobody reads anymore, which isn’t true. (Especially ironic coming from Baby Boomers, who read less than their children and grandchildren.) Worldwide literacy is at an all-time high. While discernment about sources continues to be an issue, we are in the golden age of books. At least until the next one.

Speaking of interesting quotes, there is a conversation between Henry James and Edith Wharton that is fantastic. There is a chapter devoted to naughtiness of various sorts, particularly erotica, which has existed since humans learned to draw. So has censorship, and keeping the sexy stuff out of the reach of plebeians has long been a priority. Wharton mentioned the kind of novel “that used euphemistically to be called ‘unpleasant.’”

“You know,” Wharton told James, “I was rather disappointed; that book wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.” James replied with a twinkle, “Ah, my dear, the abysses are all so shallow.”

This is why I love Henry James.

Speaking of naughty stuff and censors, there is a mention of a book from the Puritan era which is housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library. I mention it solely because of its marvelous and descriptive name:

A Just and Seasonable Reprehension of Naked Breasts and Shoulders, Written by a Grave and Learned Papist by Jacques Boileau.

You can read it in translation here, if you wish. Clearly Modesty Culture™ is nothing new, and has generally be driven by dirty old men.

Irony abounds in the history of book collecting. In describing the Pierpont Morgan library (which is, to say the least, ostentatious), the author points out that in a prominent place over the fireplace hangs Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s tapestry, The Triumph of Avarice.

The final chapter of the book concerns the future of libraries. The idea of the public library isn’t new. Ancient Rome was full of them, and emperors from Trajan to Augustus supported them. (Even if the books contributed were generally plundered from conquered nations…) The Middle Ages were “dark,” in part because literacy declined precipitously, and libraries were placed under lock and key. The Renaissance revived the idea of the public library, open to those who could read and wished to. During the Victorian Era, Anthony Panizzi, librarian of the British Museum, expressed the goal of public libraries eloquently:

I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry, as the richest man in the Kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect.

Sadly, this goal has become unpopular in our day. Libraries, after all, cost money, and don’t yield obvious economic rewards. Government services in general are under attack by a Right Wing increasingly opposed to the very concept of the Common Good.

Here in Kern County, we have had ongoing attempts over the last few years to privatize the library system. (Fortunately, a neighboring system to the south already tried it, and just went back to a public system. This failure has helped us turn the tide.) The nadir of this discussion was when our former District Attorney actually said that she thought that every library in the County should be closed before her office lost one cent of budget. This despite the fact that our spending on libraries is far below other California Counties - and we haven’t opened a new library in decades despite doubling in population. (We depend on oil and agriculture for our tax base - when gas is cheap, our budgets suffer…) This shortsighted viewpoint is what those of us who love our libraries are up against. Rather than being seen as a vital public service - the sign of a healthy society - libraries are viewed as an expendable drain on the budget. It isn’t just here in the United States either. As the author points out about his native Great Britain:

Today Britain’s public libraries are caught in a downward spiral of reduced funding and the de-professionalization of library services.

This is the heart of the privatization debate. For-profit companies promise to lower costs. How does one do that? Buildings and utilities cost the same for everyone. So, buy fewer books? Reduce hours and close branches? Or, what is usually the plan: fire the professional librarians and hire glorified store clerks to do the work. That’s what de-professionalization means in practice. The library ceases to become a learned place, and becomes a glorified WalMart. Fortunately, our community has fought back, and our libraries remain public.

This is a fascinating book for those who love books. And if you don’t love books, then, you probably aren’t reading a book anyway…


How many books DO we have? I did a rough estimate by measuring “shelf-feet,” then multiplying by the average number of books per shelf-foot. By the way, when I say “shelf-feet,” I do not mean that we have that much in shelving. We don’t. We have stuff double rowed on shelves, stuff in boxes, and stuff waiting to be read on tables and nightstands.

By my count, we have roughly 360 shelf feet of books. I counted a few shelves containing different sizes of books, and think that 12 books per foot is a reasonable average. That would give us around 4300 books. If we go with larger average size - 10 to a foot - you end up with 3600. Which is still a lot. Hi, my name is Tim, and I’m a bookaholic…

 This is about 72 shelf feet of books - my prettiest ones. I built the shelves, and 99% of the books are used book finds.