“Is he the only man that hath set his life against a stake which may be not worth the winning? Another risks his life (and his honor, too, sometimes,) against a bundle of bank-notes, or a yard of blue ribbon, or a seat in Parliament; and some for the mere pleasure and excitement of the sport;”
“And now, having seen a great military march through a friendly country; the pomps and festivities of more than one German court; the severe struggle of a hotly contested battle, and the triumph of victory, Mr. Esmond beheld another part of military duty: our troops entering the enemy’s territory, and putting all around them to fire and sword; burning farms, wasted fields, shrieking women, slaughtered sons and fathers, and drunken soldiery, cursing and carousing in the midst of tears, terror, and murder. Why does the stately Muse of History, that delights in describing the valor of heroes and the grandeur of conquest, leave out these scenes, so brutal, mean, and degrading, that yet form by far the greater part of the drama of war?”
“Similarity, a virtue in peas, is a vice in books.”
BOOK? . . . The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade (1861)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical Fiction/Adventure/Romance
ABOUT WHAT? . . . Set in the late 15th Century, The Cloister and the Hearth is a kind of English Three Musketeers. Following the travels and adventures of Gerard, the hero and lover, from his home in Holland to various parts of Europe and back, it is a swashbuckling epic weaving historical background with fictional family saga. Charles Reade was thoroughly English, but the story itself is steeped in the culture and history of the Continent, and, if nothing else, is an encyclopedic travelogue of Renaissance Holland, Germany, France and Italy. But, the book is a great deal more than that. There is gallantry, there is villainy. There is suspense, there is intrigue. There is humor, there is irony. There is insight into Christianity as well as Greek and Roman thought.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . I call it a masterpiece. Cloister is 900 pages of unparalleled adventure, cleverly constructed and brimming with memorable characters drawn with an artist’s eye. The book is rich in factual detail; Reade was known for his painstaking research, he is said to have amassed thousands of notes and documents for many of his works. And what sets this work apart, also, is Reade’s style: he is a master of Renaissance-style prose. The book is almost Shakespearian in its wit and charm, in the lyrical quality of its language.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . It takes a mighty good book to keep me reading for 900 pages. If you like anything written by Alexander Dumas, then you would like this. If you don’t, you won’t.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . I would like to read some of Reade’s other works, just to see how they compare to his historical masterpiece.
“Mr. Doe, you’re a U.S. Senator and a loyal Trump supporter, is that correct?”
“I stand with the President 100%.”
“And you agree with Mr. Trump that the election was somehow rigged against him?”
“It most certainly was.”
“What would it take to satisfy you that the election was free and fair?”
“Well, there would have to be a full investigation of every allegation of fraud.”
“Well, Sir, state election officials have done those investigations and found no fraud. The U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have also found no fraud. And the Courts have reviewed Mr. Trump’s claims and found no evidence of fraud. So doesn’t that address all your concerns, Senator?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“I see. So what WOULD satisfy you that the election was free and fair?”
“Well I don’t know, there has to be proof that there wasn’t any hanky-panky going on.”
“What kind of proof?”
“How should I know, I don’t work in the election office. I’m a Senator.”
“So you’re saying that the people running the election are the ones who would know the actual facts.”
“Of course, that’s just basic horse sense.”
“And those officials have all confirmed the accuracy and fairness of the election, correct?”
“They said it, but they could be wrong.”
“All the state and local election officials across the country could be wrong? And you think you and Mr. Trump are right.”
“Yes I do.”
“And that’s based on . . ?”
“I told you, the election was rigged, there was fraud everywhere.”
“Senator, you’re up for re-election in 2022. Why should the people of your state send you back to Washington in two years?”
“The people of my state know I have always done everything humanly possible to improve their lives in every way.”
“Uh-huh. How much Covid relief for families, workers and small businesses are you voting for, Senator?”
“Well, we’ll have to see about that. This Covid thing has been way overblown. Very few people have died, it’s nowhere near as bad as what the . . .”
“Are you all right, Senator?”
“Yeah I just got a little dizzy there. Feels like there’s a weight or something on my chest, all of a sudden.”
“Gee that’s a deep cough you have there, Senator. How long have you had that?”
“Just the last couple hours, I . . .”
“Senator, the video output of your computer is a little blurry, but you don’t look so good. Do you have someone there who could take your temperature?”
“My wife Elaine is here but she’s in bed. She’s had the worst cold all day, can barely breathe.”
“Senator, my network is gonna call 9-1-1 for you. Okay?”
“Yes, you know. One of those public services that you’re always saying will take us down the road to socialism.”
“Upon which the other observed, that since the unfortunate man’s alleged experience could not be deemed very conciliatory towards a view of human nature better than human nature was, it largely redounded to his fair-mindedness, as well as piety, that under the alleged dissuasives, apparently so, from philanthropy, he had not, in a moment of excitement, been warped over to the ranks of the misanthropes.”
This is an actual sentence from the book I’m reading – The Confidence Man by Herman Melville. As you can see, the writing is complex, highly-punctuated, and awkward. It is also a very clever and witty book, full of social commentary and dramatic irony. I am about halfway through. I do not, in truth, expect to finish the book, which is not of inordinate length, anytime soon, given the limitations and, circumstances being what they are, stultification of my brain as the months flow by with no foreseeable deceleration of the aging process, inevitable as it tends to be despite our best efforts to hinder that implacable, albeit invisible, adversary.
Until the federal government takes responsibility . . . states, counties and cities need to enact EMERGENCY laws PROHIBITING GUNS IN PUBLIC. Starting now. No guns in public. Big guns, little guns, pretty guns, ugly guns, manly guns, silly guns. Guns.
Otherwise, we are held hostage by angry armed thugs. We know that without their guns they’re cowards. With their guns they’re self-righteous bullies. I like them better without their guns.
A high fog covered the sky, and behind it the moon shone, so that the forest was filled with a gauzelike light. There was none of the sharp outline we think of as reality. [Tortilla Flat]
They are novels in that each one is a series of connected stories, occurring chronologically. Put together they only equal the length of one shorter-than-average novel. But in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, there’s more heart, and soul, than just about anything before or since.
Light in tone and small in scope, these short works capture everyday humanity, its strengths and weaknesses, to a T, because that’s what Steinbeck did better than anyone. Together they paint a true to life picture of the Monterey that Steinbeck knew as a young man.
They should be read consecutively, Tortilla Flat and then Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat, set in the squalid outskirts of Monterey, charts the friendship and fates of a group of young men bonded by their mutual lack of opportunity and ambition. Cannery Row is the industrial shoreline of Monterey, and its inhabitants reflect all the earthiness of any Depression-era factory town or village. The reader begins to feel like Monterey is a place they know and understand.
The stories should be read with appreciation for Steinbeck’s language: spare, vivid, poetic, every word a key to something. The characters’ speech is unadorned, natural to the place, time and class of the speaker:
“He ain’t going to be what you’d call tender,” said Hazel. “You’d have to cook him about two weeks to get him tender. How old about do you judge he was, Mack?”
“I’m forty-eight and I ain’t as tough as he is,” said Mack.
Eddie said “How old can a chicken get, do you think—that’s if nobody pushes him around or he don’t get sick?”
“That’s something nobody isn’t ever going to find out,” said Jones. [Cannery Row]
Steinbeck wrote some weightier books, far more serious and larger in scope. But these two short works are American gems, they say so much so sweetly about what we’re capable of as simple human beings.
Apparently, when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 there was criticism of the choice. I will never understand how that could be. While taste is a subjective matter, when you weigh the stories, the strength of the characters and their lives, along with the richness of the prose, I cannot see another writer more deserving of the award. In my school of thought, Steinbeck is the Dean of American writers.
First I read The Plutocrat (see prior post), and now The Magnificent Ambersons. I have spent my whole life (until recently) ignorant of the genius of Booth Tarkington. Am I solely to blame? Why didn’t English teachers and professors lecture me upon his deeply American (and Midwestern) wit and wisdom? Why didn’t friends or family members fold his books into my eager little hands? Why didn’t kindly librarians lead me to the correct shelf midway between Steinbeck and Twain and tell me that Tarkington is the third and central pillar of American letters?
Why? I don’t have time to worry about why, I have thirty-three Tarkington novels to read before my body or my brain turn to mold. Maybe reading them will work like an antiseptic and delay the moldering process.
The row is broken only at the perpendicular, identical crossroads, leaving just room enough to slip between the piles of ledgers and adding machines.
BOOK? . . . The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1953)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Nouveau Roman. Absurdist and/or realist mystery
ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a murder mystery. But IS IT a murder mystery? And if it IS a murder mystery, WHY is it a murder mystery? And eventually, finding no answers, you die of frustration. When you read a story by Robbe-Grillet there will be things that you will never quite be sure of. He will tell you things and show you things and you will want to believe them, even if they don’t make sense because he never actually explains the things that he shows and tells. But if you find yourself believing certain things other things will make you think that you were a fool to believe the first set of things and that there are an infinite number of sets of things that you might want to believe in except that there could only be one set of things. Or could there?
On a slightly more literal level, the story is about a political murder in a port city of post-war Flanders. A government agent arrives in the city and investigates the murder. At least he SEEMS to be investigating the murder. And he SEEMS to be a government agent. Or does he? Sorry, strike that. Force of habit. Anyway, one thing is definite: he’s not a very efficient investigator. He spends a whole day wandering the streets of the port city, which are like a labyrinth (in college we read Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth. I remember liking it because of its mysterious strangeness. That’s all I remember). He finally manages to track down all the witnesses but the manner in which he does that leads to an illogical, nerve-racking climax. Or does it? Now cut that out, Chuck! Okay, you’re right, strike that, too.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Uhhhhh. Life is a mystery? Yeah, the book is absurdist and questions reality. It uses experimental style and structure. He creates a cold bleak mechanical world. Even the people are strange and mechanical, going about their lives as though they have no personal will. This was his first novel, the beginning of a groundbreaking career in literature and film.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uhhhhh. Depends on your mood and your personality. Maybe not. But I’m glad I read it.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The universe is expanding. In case you need something to make you feel less lost after reading Robbe-Grillet.
Almost one hundred years ago, this was the young Englishman’s declaration of independence from The Mater:
“I don’t really want to have my bed choked with hot-water bottles whenever I sneeze, and be given whiskies and lemon last thing; or to have my suits forever reft away to be cleaned, and all that. If I want a whisky I can ask the butler for it . . .”
Our criminal laws are found in statutes and court decisions, and they generally reflect our shared societal values. But they are often applied or enforced unfairly or unequally.
Assault, battery and other acts of violence are crimes, whether you’re in law enforcement or just a private individual. If you are defending yourself or others from harm, you are allowed to use reasonable force. You cannot use excessive force and if you do you are guilty of a crime of violence. These concepts are extremely complicated in real life. They get especially complicated in situations like arrests or detentions. There are whole sets of laws dealing with things like resisting arrest. Do not assume that you know what is reasonable and what is excessive. This applies to both police and private individuals. You may think something is reasonable but you could be wrong, under the law. Think with your head, not your gut.
The fundamental truth is that violence is violence and people get hurt and there is no excuse for any of that.
“When we know all of whatever it may be, we can never do anything but forgive, madame. That is the profoundest religious truth that was ever written.”
BOOK? . . . Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini (1921)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical fiction, Adventure, Romance
ABOUT WHAT? . . . The French Revolution, what else? Andre-Louis Moreau (aka Scaramouche) is the kind of hero that silent movies were made about in Hollywood in the 1920’s. (That was even before the word “movie” was coined—they were called “photoplays” at that time.) There are also villains, swordplay, and beautiful damsels. There is rapier-like wit on the part of Scaramouche himself (he’s really a very clever guy), and his tongue keeps getting him in trouble in situations that would probably blow over if he held his tongue. He’s not the kind of guy to hold his tongue, though, or to make nice to bad guys just to avoid bloodshed. Hence, a very exciting, romantic novel written in stunning prose by Sabatini, who was only half English and spoke several other languages.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Nothing deep or significant, except that it does a good job of describing some of the chronology of the French Revolution and the complexity of the class struggle, from maybe a little more conservative point of view than we normally see.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yeah, it’s very well written and conceived, the plot is twisty and tangly.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . It would be weird if the novel was translated into French: a French translation of an English novel about the French Revolution?
I read the New York Times article of April 12 (updated April 29), “Examining Tara Reade’s Sexual Assault Allegation Against Joe Biden”. The writers did not express an ultimate opinion about the truth or falsity of Ms. Reade’s accusation, but the overall weight of the article seemed to raise serious questions about the veracity of her claim. The article had a link to the podcast of Ms. Reade’s interview by Katie Halper in March. So I listened to the podcast of the full interview, more than one hour. She is totally credible. I was spellbound. She describes the incident so well that I can see it in my mind’s eye as if I had been there watching. I can say that about very few of the witnesses I have questioned over the years. I can see Joe Biden saying and doing exactly what Ms. Reade describes.
There are people in the media attempting to find inconsistencies but they focus mainly on outlying and second hand facts that are largely immaterial to the alleged incident itself. And Ms. Reade herself explained why it took so many years for this allegation to evolve, and why Joe Biden still triggers self-doubt and ambivalence for her. Well, there is no doubt in my mind that the incident happened and that it happened exactly or very nearly as she describes it.
The podcast interview is not testimony, in the legal sense. It is a statement, in a loose question and answer format. Ms. Reade is a victim/witness. Because people vary so much in so many ways, witness statements can range from extremely poor to unsatisfactory to average to good to great. In her interview by Katie Halper, Ms. Reade is a great witness. She is not merely credible or plausible, she is just about as good a witness as you could ask for. That’s based on forty years spent mostly in court. To use a well-worn descriptive formula, if I’ve seen one witness I’ve seen fifty thousand. Tara Reade is perceptive and articulate. She has depth and sensibility. She reminds me of my daughter. There are details and nuances in Ms. Reade’s statement. She puts everything in the real-life context of her own personal situation and the atmosphere of Senator Biden’s office. She has insight. Insight into her reactions, as well as Senator Biden’s actions and reactions. She is responsive, she is direct. Her reluctance to answer one of the particular questions is completely appropriate, it’s understandable. It hurts. There are things that she remembers and things she doesn’t. That is also appropriate. She does not try to make up answers for what she doesn’t remember. She is testifying from real memories, for better or for worse.
So, what does Joe Biden do? I will still vote for him either way. But I hope he does what Brett Kavanaugh didn’t do. I hope Joe Biden does what he did last year and admits that he’s not a saint, that he used to take liberties with women and their bodies, that he did something in 1993 that he is very ashamed of and that caused Tara Reade a lot of pain, and that he hopes he has begun to atone by becoming a better person and a champion of women and all the other segments of humanity who really need a champion in the White House right now.
I like the review, from theowlmag.com, of SOAR’s new album. I adopt his conclusions wholeheartedly. I don’t have much to add. Like I’ve said before about SOAR, I’m in love with their four-part harmonies, and also the times that they all take their voices off into separate melodies that blend like a cool fruit smoothie. Their guitars, bass and drums are voices, too. They sing with a whole range of near-human thoughts and impressions.
Soft Dial Tone is an enigmatic title, and there is much to ponder in the lyrics of the album. There are meanings in those words that I may never resolve, but we can try, can’t we? That’s what counts. Isn’t it? There is some overall feeling of transience, impermanence throughout the album. How timely. I was particularly struck with the eerie foreshadowing of the pandemic that has become our new reality. The second track, “Corner of a Room”, says “wash your hands” and feels like there’s no turning back from the choice between staying home and leaving home. We are all cornered, in a sense. Until we aren’t. And so the unsettling, disconnected nature of our lives today is echoed, like a Soft Dial Tone, in this album that is sometimes slow and contemplative, sometimes upbeat, and always ambivalent about whether there is any lasting difference between the two.
It may sound like the LAST thing you’d want to read right now, but in a weird way it could be the feel-good novel of the year. The Plague, by Albert Camus, is the story of a major city under siege by a deadly virus. Set in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940’s, it’s a graphic portrayal of a city suddenly infested with Bubonic Plague, strictly quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world. With little outside help, the city and its stunned residents must cope with the unreality of their situation alongside its very real threat to their lives. With contagion and corpses around every corner, the moral fiber of the populace is tested to its limits.
As in all his major writings, Camus questions the fundamental nature of life and death. As hard as it is to define those questions, the answers are even more elusive. But The Plague is a beautiful, yes beautiful, frightening and inspiring study of human nature in all its imperfection. And while we all want to escape, somehow, from the sadness and fear that right now bombard us from every direction, perhaps a deep dark look into the mirror of literary fiction is a truer escape, one that might comfort us longer and reflect a bit of light upon our path.
” Upon the wine list the General discovered a red Beaune, a dear lost love of his, he said—and not only said, but copiously proved by wearing his lost love’s colours, ere long, as his own complexion.”
BOOK? . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington (1927)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance, but tempered somewhat by a jaded irony
ABOUT WHAT? . . . A 1920’s Atlantic Ocean voyage and North Africa land tour embarked upon by a young playwright named Laurence Ogle (I had a high school math teacher named Miss Ogle. Probably doesn’t mean anything). Well, for Laurence Ogle, this is a case of first love. They are barely out of U.S. waters before he is unwittingly smitten by a co-voyager, a Frenchwoman roughly a decade beyond his years, but what young man cannot relate to Ogle’s puppy-like helplessness, to the torment, the humiliation, the splendor of his infatuation? Ogle is not a simple character but, seeing only her loveliness, he discovers much more complexity in Madame Momoro’s nature than he is equipped to understand. The most obvious obstacle for Ogle is the gregarious Mr. Tinker, who seems to be everywhere that he, and Madame Momoro, happen to be. A ship can be like a prison when there is a ruggedly-handsome Midwestern plutocrat on board who can’t be avoided. Even North Africa can feel pretty small.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . This book illustrates the difference between realism and romance. Not in literature. In life. Guess which one wins in the end. And guess what the book is really saying about class distinctions in America. And guess how many reversals of fortune you will encounter in its pages. And guess what mysteries will be presented and puzzled over. And guess how many other things you will see in the characters and the plot that I did not see.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uh-huh. Very funny, in parts, but that’s just the icing on the cake. There is sophistication, artistry and astuteness. The Plutocrat is a mislaid American gem of a novel, obscured and overshadowed by Tarkington’s other books only because it is not of very epic proportions. But you don’t find writing like this every day. Hardly ever, nowadays.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . I’m gonna get me some more books by this fella Tarkington because I probably shouldn’t even be writing little Two-bit reviews until I make sure I know what I’m talking about.
Some I’d heard before, others I’m hearing for the first time. Free-wheeling and original. Okay, some of it is a little crazy.
The words and music are co-equal. There’s a lot of pain in those words and notes, but, encouragingly, even more of hopefulness. And a consistent thread of humor. Love the humor. I’ll guarantee you, there’s nothing like this on the Grammys.