Skip to content

Magic’s Pawn, Mercedes Lackey

December 3, 2020

With two more sets of papers to read and comment on before the end of the semester, I was looking for more easy reading and all out of Louise Penny books, so when I read about Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey at RoofBeamReader I decided to try it. It is an easy read of a fantasy novel with familiar elements but also with a few twists on the usual. The sixteen-year-old hero, Vanyel, is not chosen. He has no powers, at least at first. He is not saved by the love of a good woman or even a good man. He falls desperately in love with a man who is, like Malcolm Reynolds in the Firefly episode called “Shindig,” trying to be a “great man” but who ends up able to say only “guess I’m just a good man….Well, I’m all right.” Just human, in other words. And quite mortal.

Growing up as the son of a rural landowner in the fictional land of Valdemar, Vanyel doesn’t even know he’s gay until he is moved to his aunt’s household and some gossipy girls define the term “shay’a’chern” for him, saying that it means “he doesn’t like girls. He likes boys.” The boy Vanyel likes is called Tylendel and is in the last stages of his training to become a “Herald Mage,” one of the magical officials who protect Valdemar. As they fall in love, we find out that Tylendel has a twin brother and that his family is involved in a feud with a neighboring landowner. We know the neighbors, the Leshara, are evil because after Tylendel’s father dies they “hired some kind of two-copper conjurer to convince Mother that Father’s ghost wanted to speak with her.” This is necromancy and it’s always bad, you know. But so are feuds, and no matter how aggrieved one side gets, there’s no winning, as Tylendel ultimately and tragically finds out.

Left with magical powers and no will to live after Tylendel’s death, Vanyel must heal and figure out how to manage his new powers so he doesn’t hurt anyone with them. He is chosen by one of the magical horse-people, Yfandes, and she helps him find a way to cling to life. His aunt, Savil, a teacher of Herald Mages, finally decides to take him to another land where the magical Hawkbrothers can help her heal and train him. She does, and they do, and when Vanyel feels the first stirrings of civic responsibility and kills a dragon who is menacing a lady and her children, we know he’s going to be all right.

One of the amazing things about this fantasy adventure, as RoofBeamReader points out, is that it was written in the 1980s and features an unabashedly gay hero. Someone who picks it up today might not react much to that, but Magic’s Pawn was one of the first to do it.

Somewhere Between Four and Five A.M.

November 24, 2020

We’ve finished cleaning up our basement library and Ron has successfully installed all the carpet squares. They look great. Even the cats like them, and cats don’t easily accept change.

In the course of cleaning up we noticed things we hadn’t really paid much attention to in years, like an old cabinet full of my papers from graduate school, with particleboard legs that got wet for the last time, or a four-drawer filing cabinet full of papers that we didn’t look at anymore. I found stuff in there that I had forgotten we’d kept, like old copies of birth certificates. I also found things we don’t need anymore: old receipts for things like graduate school parking permits, preschool fees, and plans for a deck on a house we no longer own. Plastic bins full of comforters and keepsake clothes and toys from when my kids were babies. An old teapot someone gave us because it had a picture of “Sunday in the Park with George” but the spout dribbled whenever we tried to pour from it so we kept it on a bookshelf along with other small keepsakes of people and places. We’ve lived in this house for thirty years, so it was time to go through some of the stuff.

One night, after taking a small SUV-sized load of things to Goodwill, I woke up in the wee hours of the morning and realized that I didn’t know the location of a bag of bedding I’d kept on top of a rolltop bed, to make it up with.

But we’re on to the fun part of cleaning up the library now, rearranging the books as we put them back on the shelves. And we’re reading as we go, because, you know, that’s why we keep these books, so we can dip into them whenever we want to.

I came across a book of poetry by an acquaintance from graduate school, The Last Girl, by Rose Solari, and remembered how much I liked the poems. I especially liked “Somewhere Between Four and Five A.M.”:

Somewhere between four and five a.m., the soul
gets restless, leaves the body. You wake

to the kite-string tug, know all you can do
is wait, filling the time with books,

self-scrutiny, or scotch until that filament of self
settles back in.

Years ago, you had a chance

for a different life. A door opened, but you
were looking elsewhere, listening to someone’s

bad advice, and didn’t hear the hinge creak,
the voice whispering, this way. Or perhaps

you did, but thought your chances infinite, told
yourself you’d come back.

You could always

come back. Those are the breaks, your mother would say
if she heard you now, and she’d be right. But

sometimes, you know you see it, that unlived life. It passes
quick, in the corner of your eye. You glimpse yourself,

what you might have been, a face that could be
but is not your own. She isn’t angry. But she knows

everything you have missed, and is writing it down.

“You thought your chances infinite” sums up so much about finding yourself my age and still living in a place I don’t like because of people I do. I remember my parents talking about ending up in southern Missouri and how they never thought they’d stay there. At the time I thought it was an odd conversation—they were adults, they could have moved somewhere else, couldn’t they? At some point, a few of us do end up staying in a place we thought we would move on from. At the point where a person sees all her choices laid out in piles of paper, she can see what happened because it turned out that there was no coming back; those other lives are just hypothetical now.

But we still have all the books from everywhere we’ve been, and soon we will have them out of the boxes again.

Magic Dark and Strange

November 19, 2020

If a person who enjoys the steampunk aesthetic and an idea of necromancy without any of the usual drawbacks wrote a short novel in which very little actually happens, the result would be Magic Dark and Strange, by Kelly Powell.

Powell enjoys seeing her young characters swan around the streets of a fictional city she names Invercarn in Victorian-style dress, drinking tea and addressing each other with formal titles. The heroine, Catherine (usually addressed as Miss Daly) is introduced in the course of her night duties at the newspaper, using a piece of type to cast a spell that makes it possible to wake up a recently dead person for one hour. The price is one hour of Catherine’s life, and her employer evidently has no qualms about asking this of his employees. Waking the dead seems to be more or less commonplace in the city, as it’s done when a loved one wants to say goodbye.

When her employer sends her to dig up a grave in order to find a magic “timepiece,” Catherine asks her new friend Guy, a clockmaker, to accompany her to the cemetery. After they find that the grave contains no timepiece, Catherine feels she must wake up the decomposed corpse to ask where it is. Although he is described as “dried out and skeletal,” she succeeds in making the body “flesh itself out—by nerve by sinew by vein by artery by organ.” Soon he sits up and makes their acquaintance and they name him Owen Smith. There’s some scintillating dialogue about why he can remember nothing of his life before:
“Perhaps it’s better if I don’t remember. I’ve no idea what I was like, truly. I might’ve been an awful person.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself, Mr. Smith,” Guy said. “I’m sure you were a perfectly decent fellow just as you are now.”

Guy and Catherine explore several spooky and abandoned places in their search for the timepiece, finally learning two important facts:

  1. Owen was killed to make the magical necromantic timepiece, a pocket watch, and bringing him back to life has used up all its magic.
  2. The watch was in Guy’s father’s shop all along—in fact, he was wearing it on the night he accompanied Catherine to dig up the grave.
    It turns out that Guy’s father has been “selling pieces of time for a while. Such business would’ve eaten away at his memories” so he didn’t even remember that he’d made a watch with the power to bring back the dead.

The bad guy—a big boss at the newspaper—thinks he can make lots of money from necromancy, saying to Catherine that her immediate supervisor “made a bit of coin from the farewell service, but this—this magic—is what people truly want. How much would someone pay to bring those dearest to them back to life?” We know better, though. Even Catherine asserts that “no one ought to use it.”

Luckily, the newspaper boss’ scheme is easily foiled, the police believe everything Guy and Catherine tell them, and Owen becomes Guy’s apprentice, while Guy and Catherine finally allow each other to use their first names. It’s a short and atmospheric slog to nowhere, through what seems to be danger but turns out to be a very tidily wrapped-up little excursion for a courting couple.

Like the necromantic spell being canceled out by the original sacrifice being brought back to life, any charm this story might have had is eroded by the slow revelation of its secrets.

The Long Way Home to All the Devils are Here, Louise Penny

November 12, 2020

For a while I had a nice, tall pile of unread books by Louise Penny and now there are none left. I just couldn’t stop reading them, although I had notions of saving a few of them for later in the long Ohio winter.

I loved the literary references, like whether Clara’s husband Peter hadn’t returned because he had “an appointment in Samarra.”

I loved the observations about people, especially large women like Myrna, who when she is following a “slender maître d” feels “like a giant. All big and galumping, disheveled, and fictional. Not really there at all. Invisible behind the siren showing them to their table.” I’ve felt like that. And I especially loved one of Gamache’s observations about people because it’s one I apply to blog writing: “we can’t separate our personal experiences from our professional choices….If we think we can, we’re deluding ourselves.”

I loved the observations about gifted people because they made me think about my students at Kenyon, who are like the artist Peter when they are trying to make a cognitive leap, feeling like they’ve made their writing worse in order to get better. Like him, they are “so used to applause for everything he did. So used to getting it right the first time. How strange it must be to suddenly not be good at something he was once celebrated for. Like a great golfer changing his swing, to become greater. But making it worse in the short term.”

Occasionally I loved the way Penny sets up jokes in passing, as her protagonists try to figure out a mystery:
“Maybe, like Carlos Casteneda insisting peyote fueled creativity, Professor Norman had been pushing coke. To students eager to blow their minds, and put it on canvas.
‘Maybe that was the tenth muse,’ said Gamache. ‘Cocaine.’”

Or even this one, reminiscent of Fezzick’s rhymes in The Princess Bride:
“Jean-Guy sat on the sofa marveling how a story that should have been, could have been, very moving had been rendered ridiculous by infantile and clunky lyrics and silly attempts to force words to rhyme. Beauvoir was not sure ‘dog’ rhymed with ‘idealogue.’
It was a shame. Lepage’s ideas, his voice, his music were powerful. His lyrics, on the other hand, were merde. They should never have been shared. Beauvoir wondered how the record had fared.
Jean-Guy was having fun finding words that rhymed with merde, when Ruth reappeared. And glared.

I loved these books for the descriptions of life in the north, especially this part because it’s what Ohio is like in November:
“The flurries had stopped in the night, leaving just a thin layer barely covering the dead autumn leaves. It seemed a netherworld. Neither fall nor winter. The hills that surrounded the village and seemed to guard it from an often hostile world themselves looked hostile. Or, if not actually hostile, at least inhospitable. It was a forest of skeletons. Their branches, gray and bare, were raised as though begging for a mercy they knew would not be granted.”

Who could not love meeting a cheerful character who goes through life seemingly without worries, a boy whose parents bowdlerized one of Larkin’s most famous poems for him—the one that begins “they fuck you up, your mum and dad”—so that the sentiment matches the sweetness of the rhyme scheme:

They tuck you up, your mum and dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you

Man hands on happiness to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can,
And have some cheerful kids yourself.

I’m not all that enthusiastic about the fragments of poetry supposed to have been written by Penny’s poet character, Ruth, but I was surprised into enjoying the Larkin parody. And I learned some French slang; evidently in Quebec they use words like “tabernac,” “calice,” and hostie” as profanities.

I even liked the way the last novel takes us away from Quebec to Paris, so we could see some of the characters in a new light. It added to their appeal, although I wasn’t a big fan of the supposedly astounding reveal of Armand’s son Daniel’s childhood nightmare:
“There was a knock on the door. I’d run to answer it, and there you were….But. You. Were. Dead.”
Luckily it’s just dream necromancy, and everybody goes home to Quebec in the end, seemingly to live happily ever after to the end of their days.

Oh, I almost forgot to say that I initially wasn’t happy with the publisher, Macmillan, because my copy of the penultimate novel, A Better Man, stopped at p. 426 and repeated pages 395-426. But after I wrote them about it, they asked for my address to send me a complete copy.

What do you think of the Louise Penny novels?

Poem in the American Manner

November 5, 2020

As we wait to find out who will be the next American president, I’m discouraged and disappointed to find out how many Americans voted for someone who openly promotes venality and ignorance.

It helps a little to know that this is not exclusively a recent phenomenon. Dorothy Parker wrote about it.

Poem in the American Manner

I dunno yer highfalutin’ words, but here’s th’ way it seems
When I’m peekin’ out th’ winder o’ my little House o Dreams;
I’ve been lookin’ ‘roun’ this big ol’ world, as bizzy as a hive,
An’ I want t’ tell ye, neighbor mine, it’s good t’ be alive.
I’ve ben settin’ here, a-thinkin’ hard, an’ say, it seems t’ me
That this big ol’ world is jest about as good as it kin be,
With its starvin’ little babies, an’ its battles, an’ its strikes,
An’ its profiteers, an’ hold-up men—th’ dawggone little tykes!
An’ its hungry men that fought fer us, that nobody employs.
An’ I think, “Why, shucks, we’re jest a lot o’ grown-up little boys!”
An’ I settle back, an’ light my pipe, an’ reach fer Mother’s hand,
An’ I wouldn’t swap my peace o’ mind fer nothin’ in the land;
Fer this world uv ours, that jest was made fer folks like me an’ you
Is a purty good ol’ place t’ live—say, neighbor, ain’t it true?

So many people must be thinking “I wouldn’t swap my peace o’ mind fer nothin’ in the land.” There’s still a lot more work to do in my neighborhood. How about yours?

English and American Literature, the canon circa 1985

October 28, 2020
tags:

Last week we had to unload the contents of a few of our bookshelves after a plumbing problem in our finished basement that got the carpeting so wet it had to be removed. In the end we filled 80 boxes with books and several bins with DVDs and folders full of papers.

In the process of going through the papers I found my PhD oral exam reading list from the University of Maryland, College Park. I’m going to reproduce it here, for your perusal. It’s interesting to see how the canon has changed since the mid-80s (and to try to read the print, which seems to have been copied from a mimeographed original).

.

The text inside the box says that the lists are “not offered as sets of material the mastery of which would constitute mastery of the period represented” but are “short lists of major texts which….should be familiar to any student doing advanced work in English.”

Because I like to read everything, I did read every title on this list, except that we were expected to eliminate two parts from two different areas. From Area I, I chose to eliminate Old and Middle English and from Area IV, Early American. (That doesn’t mean I didn’t read many of the works on those sections of this list, but it does mean that I decided not to be completist about it.)

AREA I (Old and Middle English—Sixteenth-Century British)

Part I. Old and Middle English

OLD ENGLISH:
Beowulf
The Wanderer
The Seafarer
Dream of the Rood
Caedmon’s Hymn
Battle of Maldon
One Caedmonian poem
One Cynewulfian poem

MIDDLE ENGLISH:
Owl and the Nightingale
Ancrene Riwle
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde, two dream visions
Gower, Confessio Amantis
Middle English lyrics, selections
Arthurian materials and Romance:
Alliterative Morte Arthure
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Malory, Works: Bk. 1 Tale of King Arthur
Bk. 4 Tale of Sir Gareth
Bk. 7 Book of Lancelot and Guinevere
Bk. 8 Tale of the Morte Arthur
Havelok the Dane
Sir Orfeo
Pearl Poet, Pearl
Langland, Piers Plowman, B-Text

DRAMA:
N-Town Passion
Wakefield Pageants in Townelye Cycle
Everyman
Digby Play of Mary Magdalene
Mankind

Part 2. Sixteenth-Century British

Drama:
Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
Marlowe, Dr. Faustus, Tamburlaine (I & II)
Shakespeare, 20 of his plays
Jonson, The Alchemist, Volpone, Bartholomew Fair
Tourneur, Revenger’s Tragedy
Middleton and Rowley, The Changeling
Ford, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
Webster, The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi
Chapman, Bussy d’Ambois
Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Beaumont and Fletcher, The Maid’s Tragedy

Non-dramatic:
More, Utopia
Lodge, Rosalind
Sidney, The Old or New Arcadia, Astrophil and Stella, The Defence of Poetry
Marlowe, Hero and Leander
Spenser, Amoretti and Epithalamion, The Faerie Queene
Shakespeare, Sonnets

AREA II (Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century British)

Part I Seventeenth-Century British

Poetry: (Witherspoon and Warnke, Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry)

Donne, Jonson, Herrick, G. Herbert, Carew, Crashaw or Vaughan, Lovelace or Suckling, Marvell, Waller
Butler, Hudibras
Dryden, Annus Mirabilis, MacFlecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel, Religio Laici, The Hind and the Panther
Milton, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, Comus, Lycidas, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes

Prose:
Bacon, Essays, The Advancement of Learning
Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Hobbes, Leviathan
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Browne, Religio Medici
Milton, Areopagitica
Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy

Drama:
Beaumont and Fletcher, The Faithful Shepherdess
Dryden, Aureng-Zebe, All for Love
Wycherly, The Plain Dealer or The Country Wife
Congreve, The Way of the World

Part 2 Eighteenth-Century British

Poetry: (Bredvold, McKillop, and Whitney, Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Prose)

Pope, Gay, Thomson, Collins, Gray, Johnson, Goldsmith, Cowper, Burns

Prose:
Addison, Steele, Swift, Johnson, Goldsmith, Boswell, Hume, Burke, Gibbon

Drama:
Farquhar, The Beaux Strategem and The Recruiting Officer
Vanbrugh, The Relapse
Cibber, Love’s Last Shift (La derniere chemise de l’amour)
Steele, The Conscious Lovers
Addison, Cato
Gay, The Beggar’s Opera
Lillo, The London Merchant
Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer
Sheridan, The School for Scandal

Fiction:
Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Swift, A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver’s Travels
Richardson, Clarissa
Fielding, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones
Smollett, Humphrey Clinker
Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Walpole, The Caste of Otranto

Area III (Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century British)

Part 1 Nineteenth-Century British

Romantic Period

Poets:

Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The book of Urizen, Jerusalem

Wordworth, Lyrical Ballads, the Lucy peoms, Michael, The Excursion, Resolution and Independence, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, Elegiac Stanzas (Peele Castle), The Prelude, Home at Grasmere, the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads

Coleridge, To the River Otter, The Eolian Harp, Religious Musings, France: an Ode, Frost at Midnight, The Nightingale, Kubla Khan, Dejection: an Ode, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Biographia Literaria

Byron, Darkness, Childe Harold I-IV, Manfred, So We’ll Go No More A-Roving, The Vision of Judgement, Don Juan

Shelley, Alastor, Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills, Julian and Maddalo, Stanzas Written in Dejection, Ode to the West Wind, Prometheus Unbound, The Mask of Anarchy, Adonais, the Jane poems, The Triumph of Life, A Dirge, The Cenci, On Love, A Defence of Poetry

Keats, Sleep and Poetry, the Odes of 1818 and 1819, The Even of St. Agnes, Lamia, Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion, sonnets, to include On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, When I Have Fears, To Sleep, Bright Star, La belle dame sans merci. Letters, to include To Bailey, Nov. 22, 1817, to G. and T. Keats, Dec. 21-27, 1817, To Reynolds, May 3, 1818, To Woodhouse, Oct. 27, 1818, To G. and G. Keats, April 21, 1819

Novelists:

Austen, Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion
M. Shelley, Frankenstein
Scott, Heart of Midlothian or Redgauntlet or Waverley

Essayists:

Lamb, Old China, Dream Children, The Superannuated Man, A Dissertation on Roast Pig, Mrs. Battle’s Opinions on Whist, On the Tragedies of Shakespeare

Hazlitt, My First Acquaintance with Poets, On Going a Journey, On Gusto, On Genius and Common Sense, The Fight, Spirit of the Age

Victorian Period

Poetry: (Houghton and Strange, Victorian Poetry and Poetics)

Tennyson, Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind, The Kraken, Mariana, The Poet, The Poet’s Mind, The Hesperides, The Lady of Shalott, Oenone, The Palace of Art, The Lotos-Eaters, You Ask Me Why, The Epic, Morte D’Arthur, Ulysses, Tithonius, Locksley Hall, The Vision of Sin, Break, Break, Break, Songs from The Princess, Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, In Memorium, Maud, Lancelot and Elaine, The Holy Grail, Lucretius, To Virgil, Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, Crossing the Bar

Browning, Porphyria’s Lover, Pippa Passes, My Last Duchess, Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, The Lost Leader, Home-Thoughts from Abroad, Home Thoughts from the Sea, The Bishop Orders His Tomb, Meeting at Night, Parting at Morning, Love Among the Ruins, Fra Lippo Lippi, A Toccata of Galuppi’s, An Epistle, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Respectability, The Statue and the Bust, How It Strikes a Contemporary, The Last Ride Together, Bishop Blougram’s Apology, Memorabilia, Andrea del Sarto, Cleon, Two in the Campagna, A Grammarian’s Funeral, Abt Vogler, Caliban upon Setebos, Rabbi Ben Ezra, Prospice, Pomilia and The Pope from The Ring and the Book, An Essay on Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prologue and Epilogue to Asolando

Arnold, Quiet Work, To a Friend, Shakespeare, In Harmony with Nature, Resignation, The Forsaken Mermaid, Memorial Verses, Stanzas in Memory of the Author of Obermann, Empedocles on Etna, Switzerland (1-7), A Summer Night, The Buried Life, Tristan and Iseult, The Scholar-Gipsy, Sohrab and Rustum, Philomela, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, Thyrisis, The Better Part, Dover Beach, Rugby Chapel, Preface to Poems (1853), Obermann Once More

Clough, Duty, Qui Laborat, Orat, Epi-Strauss-ium, The Decalougue, Say Not the Struggle Nought Availeth, Easter Day (Naples, 1849), Easter Day II

D.G. Rossetti, The Blessed Damozel, My Sister’s Sleep, Sister Helen, sonnets from The House of Life, The Woodspurge, Jenny, The Burden of Ninevah

Morris, The Defence of Guenevere, The Blue Closet, The Haystack in the Floods, L’Envoi from The Earthly Paradise

Meredith, From Modern Love, The Woods of Westermain, Lucifer in Starlight, Hard Weather

Swinburne, Choruses from Atlanta in Calydon, Laus Veneris, Hymn to Proserpine, Hertha, Faustine, The Garden of Proserpine, Ave Atque Vale

Hopkins, God’s Gradeur, The Windhover, Pied Beauty, Spring and Fall, Carrion Comfort, No Worst, There is None, That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, to R.B.

Wilde, The Sphinx, The Harlot’s House

Prose: (Harrold and Templeman, English Prose of the Victorian Era)

Macaulay, Southey’s Colloquies

Carlyle, Characteristics, Biography, from Sartor Resartus, The Hero as Divinity, Past and Present

Mill, On Liberty, from Autobiography, Nature

Newman, The Idea of a University, Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Ruskin, Modern Painters, Unto This Last, The Stones of Venice, Fors Clavigera

Arnold, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, from Culture and Anarchy, The Study of Poetry

Pater, from The Renaissance, Style, The Child in the House

Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Novels:

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Thackeray, Vanity Fair
Dickens, one early novel (to 1846), one mature (Dombey and Sons, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Hard Times, Our Mutual Friend) and Great Expectations
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Trollope, Barchester Towers or Last Chronicle of Barset
George Meredeith, The Ordeal of Richard Feveral or The Egoist
Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and one other (Jude the Obscure, Far From the Madding Crowd, or The Mayor of Casterbridge)

Part 2. Twentieth-Century British

Novels:

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent
John Galsworthy, The Man of Property
Norman Douglas, South Wind
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End
E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
James Joyce, Ulysses

Virginia Woolfe, To the Lighthouse
Wyndham Lewis, Tarr
D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love
Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day
George Orwell, 1984
Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Christopher Isherwood, The Last of Mr. Norris
Henry Green, Concluding
Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (at least one volume from each)
Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
William Golding, The Spire
Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (at least one volume from each)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockword Orange
Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head
John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman
V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River

Plays:

Arthur Wing Pinero, Mid-Channel
G.B. Shaw, Heartbreak House
W.B. Yeats, The Only Jealousy of Emer
J. M. Synge, The Playboy of the Western World
Sean O’Casey, The Silver Tassle
R.C. Sherriff, Journey’s End
James Joyce, Exiles
T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
John Osborne, Look Back in Anger
Harold Pinter, The Homecoming
Tom Stoppard, Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead

Poetry: (G.D. Sanders et al, Chief Modern Poets of Britain and America)

Thomas Hardy
A.E. Housman
W.B. Yeats
D.H. Lawrence
Edith Sitwell
Wilfred Owen
W.H. Auden
John Betjeman
Stephen Spender
Dylan Thomas
Philip Larkin
Ted Hughes

AREA IV (Early and Modern American)

Part 1. Early American

Major Works: (McMichael, Anthology of American Literature and Eberwein, Early American Poetry)

Brackenridge: Modern Chivalry
Bradford
Bradstreet
Brown, Wieland or Arthur Mervyn
Cooper, Last of the Mohicans or Prairie or Deerslayer
Dwight
Edwards
Emerson
Franklin
Freneau
Hawthorne
Holmes
Irving, Sketchbook of G. Crayon
Jefferson
Longfellow, Evangeline and selections
C. Mather
Melville, Moby Dick and selections
Paine, Age of Reason, Part 1 and selections
Poe, Narrative of A.G. Pym and selections
Taylor
Thoreau
Tyler
Whittier
Whitman
Wigglesworth

Part 2. Modern American

All selections in Brooks, Lewis, and Warren, American Literature, The Makers and the Making, Vol. II

Novels:

Realism:
Twain, Huckleberry Finn
James, Portrait of a Lady
Howells, Rise of Silas Lapham
Adams, Education of Henry Adams

Naturalism:
Crane, Red Badge of Courage
Dreiser, Sister Carrie

Between the Wars:
Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby
Faulkner, Sound and the Fury
Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
Hemingway, Farewell to Arms
Lewis, Main Street
Wright, Native Son

Post-World War II:
Ellison, Invisible Man
Mailer, Naked and the Dead
Heller, Catch-22
Malamud, Assistant
Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

Drama:

O’Neill, Emperor Jones, Hairy Ape, Desire Under the Elms, Mourning Becomes Electra, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Odets, Waiting for Lefty
Anderson, Winterset
Miller, Death of a Salesman
Williams, Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire
Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Poetry:

Pound, Selected Cantos
Williams, Paterson
Crane, The Bridge
Eliot, Four Quartets
Ginsberg, Howl

What do you think? I’ll start us off by observing that although Ted Hughes is required reading for 20th-Century British Literature, Sylvia Plath is not.

Do you see other obvious omissions or surprising inclusions?

News of the Living

October 22, 2020

This past weekend I heard four poets from New York City read a few of their poems out loud for a zoom audience. Mervyn Taylor’s slow and calm delivery showed me more about how to read his measured cadences in his volume of poems about the coronavirus, News of the Living, published by Broadstone Books.

Centered on spring 2020 in and around New York City, Taylor’s poems also evoke other places and times, like South Africa under apartheid in “Lockdown,” which ends with people who “help turn the sick/face down, so all the patient sees are/the plastic covers on the doctors’ shoes,/the bin in the far corner, overflowing.” The poem shows more than one way of being isolated and “locked down,” and anyone who has ever been in a hospital can remember what it’s like to be so helpless.

The image of New York City as “Corona City” is also a powerful one, beginning with the “wind blowing through windows,/ down corridors into deserted rooms” and ending “high in the lookouts of trade/centers and skyscrapers” where “sensors/scan for planes that never come.”

My favorite poem in the volume is a short one entitled “Bird’s-Eye View:

As a field hospital goes up in Central Park,
a hawk feeding her babies stops to look

at ambulances unload their cargo, and
doctors follow stretchers into dark interiors.

And tired interns look up to see
the hawk, tearing at an animal’s insides,

her babies squealing. Only last year,
a crowd of tourists flocked to the

building on Fifth Ave. where she built
her nest, high among the gargoyles.

I like the way it captures the feeling of living through spring 2020, that feeling that we didn’t expect to be confronted with issues of life and death just then–that we thought the world had left plagues behind, in the world where people made gargoyles, and that we could celebrate and show our children a wondrous wild animal without having to get a close-up look at what survival entails. Those feelings are also part of “The Exhibit,” in which black bears enter an art gallery “upstate” and find their way into “an/office someone left hurriedly,/ a Covid-19 notice on the floor” and “Signs of the Pandemic” in which a “doorman keeps goats from entering/the lobby.”

There’s even an urge to necromancy in one of the poems, “How to Grieve,” when “a woman/straddles the coffin/of a dear one in an attempt/to love him back to life.”

Each of the poems in this volume is a window on the world no matter where you’ve gone to ground, showing you images of transition and potentially giving you the strength to face a new era in which we learn how to live with our grief and isolation.

Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, Louise Penny

October 19, 2020

I’ve continued to be entertained by Louise Penny mysteries in my spare time, and when I finished reading How the Light Gets In I had to pause and write about them again, as this ninth one is my favorite so far.

I was interested–and kind of appalled–to learn that in old Quebec City people walk in the middle of the street during the winter, for fear of snow and ice falling from the rooftops:
“Every winter roofs did collapse and every winter snow and ice slid off to the sidewalk below, crushing unfortunate pedestrians. There was a sound sliding ice made, a sound like no other, a cross between a slow, deep moan and a shriek. Every Quebecois knew it, like buzz bombs in the Blitz.
But hearing it, and being able to do anything were two different things. The sound echoed off the old stone buildings, disguising location. It might be right above you, or it might be streets away.
True Quebecois walked in the middle of the road. Tourists often thought the Quebecois gracious, to cede the sidewalk to them, until the sound began.”

I was also amazed and appalled by a passage where two old ladies “walked cautiously over the path of hardened snow, planting their feet firmly and carefully. Watching their own steps, watching each other’s.” It’s hard to believe people would continue to live in a place where “in winter the very ground seemed to reach up and grab the elderly, yanking them to earth as though hungry for them. Shattering a hip or wrist, or neck.”

A reader can pick up some French from reading these books; I was frequently amused by the connotations of the cognates, like that “desole” means “sorry,” but it always sounds like the French-speakers are absolutely desolate, and that a bookstore is called a “Librairie,” a cognate that another English-speaker, the character Ruth, also makes much of.

I learned more about the clash between English and French speaking people in Quebec City. It’s a little hard for me to imagine living in a place where part of the population speaks a different language and not learning that language, but it happens, and it produces some good comedy in Bury Your Dead. I particularly like the moment when an English-speaking librarian comes in and politely tries to speak French to investigating officers, informing them:
“that the night was indeed a strawberry, but added that the English were good pumpkins and that the library had a particularly impressive section on mattresses and mattress warfare.
‘In fact,’ she turned to Gamache. ‘I think that’s an area you’re interested in.’
‘It is, he admitted, to the surprise of both Langlois and his assistant. After Winnie left, saying she had to launch a new line of doorknobs, Gamache explained.
‘She meant “naval,” not “mattress”.’
‘Really?’ asked the assistant, who’d made notes but had decided to burn them in case anyone thought he was stoned when he’d taken them down.”

The dinner parties and conversations between the characters in Three Pines are are always fun to read about. I enjoyed this exchange over dessert at Clara’s house:
“Gabri took Olivier’s trifle out of the fridge, with its layers of ladyfingers, custard, fresh whipped cream and brandy-infused jam.
‘The love that dares not speak its name,’ Gabri whispered as he cradled it in his arms.
‘How many calories, do you think?’ asked Clara.
‘Don’t ask,’ said Olivier.
‘Don’t tell,’ said Myrna.”

I didn’t like Ruth until I got to the ninth book, but her character slowly grew on me. From throw-away characterizations like “Ruth was trying to stone the birds” (in the 7th book), the narrator gradually reveals more of her story until I did learn to like her, at the moment she gives her pet duck to Jean-Guy.

Especially during a week when my elected congressional representative admitted that he had attempted to post false information on Facebook, it was comforting in that “misery loves company” way to hear Gamache, Penny’s fictional detective, say that “corruption and brutality are modeled and expected and rewarded. It becomes normal. And anyone who stands up to it, who tells them it’s wrong, is beaten down.”

These mystery novels are making my days easier to get through, along with the tea for four we hosted this weekend, out on our porch and deck. What is making your days easier?

Piranesi, Susannah Clarke

October 15, 2020

Susanna Clarke’s new novel Piranesi takes its title from the name of an 18th-century artist famous for his etchings of Roman architecture, in particular a series of prints he called “Imaginary Prisons.” Too bad if you don’t like spoilers because the author herself has already told you what’s going on.

As if that isn’t enough, the villain is revealed almost immediately when Piranesi tells readers that “the Other” is interested in “vanquishing Death and becoming immortal,” the typical path to deepest, darkest necromancy. Piranesi himself is revealed to be virtuous when he says that he has no “desire to live forever. The House ordains a certain span for birds and another for men. With this I am content.” Indeed Piranesi is so contented and so utterly lacking in curiosity that readers may wonder if he has suffered some kind of mental damage.

Piranesi’s suffering is clear, especially when he points out that “winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm.” It’s also clear that the Other could make his life a lot easier, as when it suits his own purposes he can bring the starving and barefoot Piranesi a ham and cheese sandwich or a pair of shoes.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Piranesi keeps careful records, and it is from them that we piece together his story. It takes him a long time to understand what is happening, however, as he has to ascribe meaning to words he no longer knows the meaning of: “for example I know that a garden is a place where one can refresh oneself with the sight of plants and trees. But a garden is not a thing that exists in the World.”

When I finally understood that Piranesi had been a person very much like me–a man who was writing a book on “transgressive ideas, in the people who formulate them, and how they are received by the various disciplines—religion, art, literature, science, mathematics and so forth”—it became clear that this was a mystery novel about a kidnapping. And when, right after I found out who Piranesi had been, the man who became the Other asks him “does anyone know you’re here?” the entire mystery is revealed. The rest of the novel, about sixty pages, is devoted to Piranesi’s rescue and the revenge of his House on his captor. He even prophecies the fate of his captor, saying “on Thursday he will watch the Tides pouring in through the Doors and he will scream and scream. And I will laugh and laugh.”

One of Piranesi’s final questions is whether “perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not.” Certainly this is one effect of reading Susanna Clarke’s novels. There’s something fundamentally cruel at the heart of her plots. In both Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Piranesi, that cruelty is a result of the characters’ necromantic temptation, the quest for magic at any price, no matter what it costs someone else.

Return of the Thief, Megan Whalen Turner

October 11, 2020

Return of the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, is a spectacular finale to one of the most fun-filled series of books I know.

If you haven’t yet read The Thief, it’s high time you did—it’s one of the best short novels I’ve ever read, with a surprising and spectacular ending. Once you’ve read it, though, you have four more to look forward to, plus this final novel which is so great I could have read it all in one afternoon but deliberately stopped and saved some of it for the next day so it wouldn’t all be over much too soon.

Return of the Thief is narrated by a new character, Pheris, an extremely vulnerable little boy being used as a political pawn by his powerful grandfather. When the king of Attolia asks for the new heir to one of his great estates “to be raised in the palace away from the malignant tendencies of his family,” he does not expect the arrival of Pheris, who has been taught that he must pretend to be a drooling idiot so that his family will leave him alone. Eventually Pheris and the king discover that when the other one is around they don’t have quite as easy a time fooling other people.

Readers get a number of interludes in which the king and Queen of Attolia communicate obliquely or directly, and enjoy the delight of those who are fond of them and know what they mean, after years of loving them both despite their many faults. I particularly enjoyed the part where the king is watching a satirical play in which he is the main figure of ridicule and comments to Attolia “I feel I am missing something in the references to wine,” to which she replies “I have increased the royal requisitions of it, as well as the other crops we are stockpiling.” The king’s disingenuous reply is “I don’t see why that’s my fault.” The country is preparing for war and while the king and queen may be irritated on a personal level, as rulers they are understanding that the play provides a safety valve for the feelings of “all those who resented the high taxes and the requisitions levied to support the war effort.”

It’s a marvelous thing to read about, in this day and age, when the leaders of a country are dedicated to their gods and serious about their responsibility to the people they serve. The king’s apology to Pheris, at one point, is so wise it hardly seems human. He has realized that the reason Pheris seemed to betray him at one point is because he had seen the king lose his temper: “I frightened you and I am sorry for that. You might otherwise have come to me when Juridius threatened you.” He also finally asks the boy if he wants to be the heir of his house, something no one else had even thought to ask, up to that point.

The king, Eugenides, still has moments when his emotions get the better of him, however. There is a fight to the pain, a dashing and heroic venture on horseback, a merry chase around the royal palace, and a moment when the barons of the great estates think they have the king cornered and he responds by saying “If you truly think the king may not oppose his united barons”—he paused while he lifted his hand to his mouth and used his teeth to pull the seal ring off his finger—“find yourselves another king.”

We also find out what happened to the rubies from the Attolian crown and “the diamond and sapphire collection colloquially known as the Attolian Skies.” They are used to buy some ships.

At one point when the queen of Eddis is nervous about what will happen in the war, her husband attempts to comfort her by saying “I’m sure Gen has a plan,” and she responds by saying “if that doesn’t frighten you, it should.” A little later, Gen himself reassures her by saying “Helen, you know how it will go. They will agree, like people always do, that it’s all my fault….They will embark on a long relationship of mutual respect and admiration and lecturing me.” And of course this does comfort her, for as the king himself points out “I am right. I am always right.”

As usual, some of Gen’s best plans are spontaneous, like when he is riding out to meet some opposing generals and discovers that they are riding elephants, rather than horses. Pheris is worried, realizing that even the gentlest horse “would go wild when confronted by an animal ten times his size, and the king was no rider to handle a badly spooked horse.” But “as if unaware of this looming humiliation, the king suddenly said ‘I really want one of those’” and then a whole game’s afoot, with the king ordering up all the melons from the breakfast table and walking up to the elephants, feeding them melons, patting them on their noses, and generally causing such a commotion that the generals have to climb down and meet the king and queen of Attolia on even terms.

Pheris is a masterful narrator, even calling his readers’ attention to the fact that “people are no less mysterious than the gods. If an author’s account of any man is tidy, you must believe it has been made so in contrast with the truth, which is rarely clear and never simple.” And before the end of the story Pheris has become a masterful courtier, finding a precarious way to serve the interests of his king in one of the very few instances when the king isn’t entirely aware of where his own best interests lie. In a novel full of clever characters delighting in each others’ cleverness, Pheris proves himself to be one of the cleverest.

Return of the Thief is all anyone could have hoped for, except that this series might never end.

%d bloggers like this: