April 30, 2009
Every month I record my reading in a small notebook. I am afraid of losing that book (along with my memory), so I started my book blog two years ago to record my monthly reading. But as everyone knows who starts a writing project, intentions evolve. Initially I noted a short comment about each book. Then I added longer posts about books or questions of interest. More recently I have entered a short post for each book– I find that sharpens my attention as I read.
I don’t know what is next, but I have a good model in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, where the Queen finds that reading takes over her attention and her life.
In April I finished the following books. All have recent blog posts.
Guiseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard
F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders
Michael Harrington, The Other America
Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis
P. J. O’Rourke, Peace Kills
Jane Smiley, Good Faith
Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
April 24, 2009
“A book is a device to ignite the imagnation.” So Queen Elizabeth says when the book she has carefully hidden under the cushions in her coach has been confiscated as a possible explosive device. Her addiction to reading builds gradually after a chance encounter between her dogs and a traveling library van, but the books do, indeed, ignite her imagination.
The Queen does read, but few politicians or court figures do, as she discovers when she tries to discuss her findings with them. You can tell that author Alan Bennett also writes plays and film scripts, he inserts the dialog in bits here and here and it is just delicious:
Sir Kevin plunged on. ‘Were we able to harness your reading to some larger purpose — the literacy of the nation as a whole, for instance, the improvement of reading standards among the young…’
‘One reads for pleasure,” said the Queen. ‘It is not a public duty.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Sir Kevin, ‘ it should be.’
‘Bloody cheek,’ said the duke when she told him that night.
Inasmuch as this is a pleasant fantasy about monarchical developments, Bennett shows great tact in not carrying the thing too far. I particulary enjoyed the picture of a person who comes to reading rather late in life and decides that this is the greatest pleasure available to her, even though duty (the old familar round of openings and walk abouts) still calls. I also enjoyed the sly comments on Proust, especially Proust, and the other writers to whom the Queen brings a mature mind and immense experience. In the end she has fun and so will you when you read this book.
April 23, 2009
Real estate dreams and schemes — doesn’t sound like much of a novel, does it? I enjoyed every minute of the action in Jane Smiley’s Good Faith until, near the end, one of the characters, Marcus, began to remind me too acutely of my former husband. Good novels can do that. A character sets off echoes in your own emotional sphere, and while these echoes are painful you can only say, “how true, how true.”
We begin, however, with Joey who, divorced and nearing 40, is a moderately sucessful real estate agent. He drifts through life with few complaints, but not much purpose either. Then two events change his life: an affair with a married women he has known (but not known) for years and a partnership with Marcus to develop a expensive golf course and housing complex. Marcus becomes his best friend, and Joey acknowledges that he never had a best friend before.
Joey and lovers and customers and acquaintances are fine and interesting people, but it is Marcus who holds the story. Is he crazy or is he right or is he both? A person can be right, but also be a disaster to all who know him, as we increasingly come to suspect. It’s not fair to tell you ahead of time how it all shakes out.
I have enjoyed several of Jane Smiley’s books, including her much-praised A Thousand Acres. Her prose is straightforward, just right for advancing the story within a believable setting. More than the earlier books, these characters returned me to my personal experiences with those who know, persuade and advise but who also imagine, evade and lie.
April 17, 2009
The 1977 film Iphigenia gives us scene after scene of beauty and terror. Made in 1977, in Greek with subtitles, it stars Irene Papas as Clytemnestra. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks against Troy, sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to get the wind that made the expedition possible. Clytemnestra’s rage led her, in turn, to murder Agamemnon when he returned from Troy.
The movie can show us more than is possible on any stage. The film is beautiful, with the Greek landscape, the shore, the ships and even the ruins of the citadel at Mycenae where Agamemnon ruled. The Greeks, like the later Elizabethans, had a strong stomach for violent stories. The movie could show us more, not relying on reports by messenger. It treads carefully, however, letting us understand and fear the violence to come in that final, terrible scene.
After the movie, I read Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides’ tragedy. The scenes, the human drama, much of the dialog of the play are embedded within the movie. The cinematic additions are all to the good and bring this ancient story to life.
April 14, 2009
This is a juvenile book, written by a very young F. Scott Fitzgerald (he was 23). The story has roughly three parts: Amory Blaine pre-Princeton, Amory Blaine at Princeton, Amory Blaine after Princeton. I think he was looking for himself in all three places.
The last section, especially, is rather desperate. He tries the army (World War I), New York City, alcohol, work (briefly) and romance. Nothing works for him as the world continues to be indifferent to the potential greatness of Amory Blaine.
Really! I’ve gotten too old for books which are a way station between Oscar Wilde and Holden Caulfield. And it is seriously, seriously overwritten. We even get Fitzgerald poems, every one of which has a reference to trees, wind or rain or a combination of the above.
His parting thought:
He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.”
April 12, 2009
A classic study of poverty in America, The Other America by Michael Harrington was published over 45 years ago and not much has changed since then. Yes, we had the “war on poverty” but that pretty much ended in a draw. The permanent improvements seem to be Medicare and Medicaid which, despite our current discontents with health services, alleviated some of the conditions Harrington pointed out.
Harrington makes several central points, and these remain, however much you fiddle the statistics.
1. The poor are invisible to the rest of us.
2. They are sicker, less well-educated, and more likely to have multiple social disabilities than the rest of us.
3. Most welfare does not help the truly poor, but the middle and working classes.
4. The poor live in a culture of poverty which replicates itself generation after generation.
5. The poor lack advocates in the government, so when benefits are distributed they are the last to receive them and when cuts are made, they are the first to receive them.
I see this last point right now, as state and local govenments struggle with the current financial crisis.
April 7, 2009
Giuseppi di Lampedusa was a one-book writer, but what a book. He takes us into the life and head of “the leopard” in Sicily at the time of Garibaldi. Don Fabrizio, the Prince (and leopard), is not the last of the Salina family. He has children and, in time, grandchildren, a nephew, but he is the last of his kind — a man who knows his importance in the traditions that make his position possible.
The first time I read the book I was impatient with Don Fabrizio. Why didn’t he get it? Why the clinging to the old when the new Italy was knocking. On a second reading I see that the new Italy has nothing to offer that is better than what he already has. He is what he is and that is what he wants to be. (Not that different from most of us.)
What gives the book its depth is that it goes beyond an acute portrait of an aging aristocrat to show us some pieces of the new Italy, exemplified in the persons of his ambitious nephew and his wealthy wife. These are not evil people — they love Don Fabrizio and admire what he is — but they also are what they are and want to improve on it.
I think my favorite character is the unassuming Jesuit, Father Pirrone. His comments on the family:
“They’re just different; perhaps they appear so strange to us because they have reached a stage toward which all those who are not saints are moving, that of indifference to earthly goods through surfeit.”
Yet Father Pirrone heals a dispute among members of his own family through a diplomacy which he surely must have learned from Don Fabrizio.
April 1, 2009
I have just reread the book, and it would have been better to have left it in the past. The book is absorbed in av adolescent pain and posturing I could not take seriously. In trying to bring us into Holden Caulfield’s world, as he sees it and expresses it, Salinger subjects us to a drip drip drip drip of teen age language. “It was sort of depressing” (over and over) and “that killed me” (many times dead) and “old Sally” and “old Stradlater” and “old Phoebe” and old everyone else in sight.
Maybe it’s satirical. Here’s this kid who has everything and enjoys nothing and cannot tell the truth. So why should we believe anything he says? Is this a picture of serious mental illness getting ready to happen or of a sensitive youth? He seems sensitive mainly to his own pain. In short, I not only don’t get it, I don’t think I want to try.