Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is a writer I have been meaning to read for years.  I knew he had written some of the great classics in literature. What I didn't know is that prior to beginning his writing career, Conrad had spent his early years at sea starting out as a sailor and eventually rising to the level of ship's captain with the British Merchant Service.  He uses this knowledge about sea travel to marvelous effect in Lord Jim published 1900, a novel that deals with guilt and redemption.

And so, when Lord Jim begins it is the late 19th century.  Jim, the title character, is a young English maritime officer who has grown bored with his profession.  As a young boy he read stories of high drama at sea, a chance to be a hero and test oneself against the elements.  But Jim has been sailing for a few years and his voyages have been uneventful.

And then Jim accepts a job on the Patna, a ship carrying 800 passengers on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  The voyage starts out routine but suddenly at night the Patna hits something and begins sinking.  Jim watches in horror as his fellow officers and the captain get into one of the few lifeboats prepared to abandon ship with the passangers sleeping below.  Jim doesn't want to get into the lifeboat:

"He was not afraid of death perhaps, but I'll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency.  His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped - all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of.  He might have been resigned to die, but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance".

And so at the last moment, with Jim fearing the chaos that will ensue, he jumps into the lifeboat.  A day or two later a French ship rescues Jim and the officers and they learn that the Patna miraculously has also been rescued.  All of the passengers are safe. An inquiry is held back in England.  Jim's fellow officers don't bother to show up and their sea licenses are revoked.  Jim insists on attending the inquiry believing possibly that he can convince the court that he behaved differently somehow than his colleagues.  However his officer's licsence is revoked as well.

It is during the inquiry that we are introduced to the novel's narrator Captain Charles Marlow who attends the inquiry and though Marlow doesn't appprove of how Jim behaved he is empathetic.  Maybe he sees some of himself in Jim.  Throughout the book Marlow tries to figure out Jim's psychology.  What is he searching for in terms of finding peace? It's not a fascination I shared at first.  I didn't judge Jim for what he did.  Who knows how any of us would have behaved?  But it seemed that Jim didn't so much feel guilt as shame and he was angry about that.  He was angry a good deal of the time.

Marlow tries to set Jim up with other jobs at sea under a different name but then someone would mention the Patna at the new place he worked and Jim would walk off.  Why couldn't Jim find some other career and most important where was his gratitude that the 800 passengers had survived?  Jim is upset that the image he had of himself didn't measure up in a crisis but you can recover from shame and humiliation.  It's alot harder to recover from the kind of guilt he would have suffered if the passengers had drowned.

Jim finally lands a job managing a trading post on a remote island where they have never heard of the Patna.  It's a chance to prove himself and start anew.  He falls in love with a young woman named Jewel and the native people see him as a great leader (Lord Jim) due to his protecting them when he first arrives.  Jim has found peace and his friend Marlow who visits notices the change.  Jim cares about the local population and has a number of ideas to make improvements on the island.  This ideal circumstance though cannot last.  I won't go any further as to why except to say that my image of Jim changed.  He shows himself in the end to be the romantic, mysterious young man that Marlow suspected he was all along and very brave as well.

I recommend Lord Jim.  Book four on my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic tragic novel.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by Susan Bordo

In the months after the 2016 Presidential election Hillary Clinton retired for a bit from public life.  She stayed at her home in Chappaqua trying to regroup. It had been a brutal campaign with chants of "lock her up" at Trump rallies and you would think that the Hillary haters would be relieved that they hadn't seen or heard from their nemesis for awhile.  But instead accusations of why is she hiding began to be heard.  She's a sore loser etc.  I remember Jeanine Pirro at Fox for example prowling the grounds near Hillary's home with a nasty smile on her face whispering into her microphone about how there was no sign of Hillary yet.

This is what hatred looks like and it's not a pretty picture.  Hatred can't leave someone alone and the question is why?  Why the Hillary hate dating back to 1992 when she became First Lady?  And how big a factor does Hillary's gender play in all this obsessional rage and what role did it play in 2016? I have searched for a book to answer these questions.  I assumed it had yet to be written but actually Susan Bordo tackled this subject back in 2017 when she published The Destruction of Hillary Clinton and it has turned out to be the book I needed.

Susan Bordo is an English Lit and Women Studies Professor at Kentucky State University.  She is the author of a number of books, one of which, Unbearable Weight, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Ms. Bordo makes clear at the beginning of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton that by destruction she does not mean Hillary Clinton the woman who as the author notes is "as resilient as they come".  Instead what Bordo is referring to is that while we have had rough Presidential campaigns before in our history what happened in 2016 was different, "an all-out assault on the character and candidacy of Hillary Clinton".  

As to how we got here Susan Bordo takes us back to 1992 and Bill and Hillary Clinton's arrival on the national stage.  Hillary was a new kind of First Lady.  A Yale Law School graduate, first female partner at her law firm.  She was opinionated, smart and had kept her maiden name while Bill was Governor of Arkansas.  When you first enter public life you can slip up.  Hillary's exasperated comments during Bill's campaign for example about how she wasn't going to sit home and bake cookies was unfortunate.  Ditto for Bill Clinton's remark about how if people elected him they would "get two for the price of one".  Hillary apologized for the cookies remark but for her enemies its never enough.  They have been parsing every word she utters for almost thirty years and I marvel at her strength.  Subjected to the same treatment I would have been a basket case by now.

Susan Bordo writes about all of this and tells us that being from the same generation as Hillary she has always felt a kinship with her which many younger women figuring the battles have all been won, cannot understand.  Bordo quotes Hillary's experience back in the early 1970's taking her law school admission's test as an example of what her generation faced:

We had to go into Harvard to take the test, and we were in a huge room, and there were very few women there, and we sat at these desks waiting for the proctors or whoever to come and all the young men around us started to harrass us.  They started to say, "What do you think you're doing?  If you get into law school, you're going to take my position.  You've got no right to do this.  Why don't you go home and get married". 

The majority of Susan Bordo's book focuses on the 2016 campaign and as Bordo sees it the destruction of Hillary Clinton's campaign was book-ended by two factors.  One was the interference in the general election by FBI Director James Comey pertaining to Hillary's emails which Bordo discusses at length.  The other factor involves Bernie Sanders' supporters

These people in so many ways are my natural colleagues, and most are as upset as I am by Trump's victory.  But they played a big role in the thin edge (not a landslide as Trump would have us believe) that gave Trump the election.  For while Trump supporters hooted and cheered for their candidate, forgiving him every lie, every crime, every bit of disgusting behavior, too many young Democrats made it very clear (in newspaper and internet interviews, in polls and in the mainstream media) that they were only voting for Hillary Clinton as the "lesser of two evils," "holding their noses," tears still streaming down their faces over the primary defeat of the person they felt truly deserved their votes.  Some didn't vote at all."

Susan Bordo is writing here I believe about a small segment of Bernie Sanders' supporters.  Most who voted for Bernie in the primaries had no problem voting for Hillary in tne general and I saw a statistic that bears that out.  But its also true as we head to 2020 that Democrats need to pull together whoever the party nominates be it Biden, Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg etc.  No staying home this time or going third party.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton was published in April 2017 and alot has happened since then but the book doesn't feel dated.  And if fifty or sixty years from now America has still not elected a woman President people may come back to Susan Bordo's book to learn the reasons why.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

A few years ago Elizabeth Scalia at her website The Anchoress posted her thoughts about a biography of St Catherine of Sienna by Sigrid Undset.  It was a glowing review and so I filed away Ms. Undset's name as someone I might want to read in the future.  Now, thanks to the 2019 Classics Challenge - choose a classic in translation, that day has arrived.  But instead of Sigrid Undset's biography of Catherine of Sienna,  I decided to go with another book, The Wreath published 1920. It's the first book in Ms. Undset's highly acclaimed Kristin Lavransdatter series (The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross).  Three historical novels set in fourteenth century Norway which revolve around the life of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The Wreath, begins with Kristin Lavransdatter at about age six and ends with her marriage at age seventeen.  She is a very well drawn character and Sigrid Undset does a wonderful job depicting her thoughts, her conflicts, her dreams.  Other interesting characters appear in The Wreath as well: Kristin's parents Lavrans and Ranifrid Bjorgulfson, Kristin's betrothed, Simon Andresson and Erlund Nikulausson the man she really loves.  I was concerned that I might have trouble keeping straight the different Norwegian names of the chatacters but after a few pages it was fine and I got drawn in to Kristin's world.  Kristin age six for example accompanying her father on a journey, the furthest she has been from home:

"Kristin had thought that if she came up over the crest of her home mountains, she would be able to look down on another village like their own, with farms and houses, and she had such a strange feeling when she saw what a great distance there was between places where people lived ...she knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls and goblins and elves and she was suddenly afraid, for no one knew how many there were but there were certainly many more of them than Christian people.  Then she called loud to her father, but he didn't hear her because of the wind".

Later in The Wreath when her younger sister Ulvhild is seriously injured, Kristin contemplates becoming a nun and that if she enters the convent God will perform a miracle and make Ulvhild well:

"But Kristin didn't want to do it; she resisted the idea that God would perform a miracle for Ulvhild if she became a nun.  She clung to Sira Eirik's words that so few miracles occured nowadays.  And yet she had the feeling this evening that it was as Brother Edvin had said -- that if someone had enough faith that he could indeed work miracles.  But she did not want that kind of faith; she did not love God and His Mother and the saints in that way.  She loved the world and longed for the world.

It is this struggle that Kristin Lavransdatter wrestles with in The Wreath whether to do what God and her parents want and marry Simon or follow her heart and marry Erlund and as the series progresses Kristin Lavrandatter will no doubt be presented with other challenges.

In 1928 Sigrid Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and the comittee singled out The Kristin Lavransdatter novels.  It's an exceptional series  and not just because of the amount of research Ms. Undset did in accurately portraying fourteenth century Norwegian life but the characters have an authenticity about them as well.  I really did feel that this is how people must have thought and behaved back in Medieval times.  The Kristin Lavransdatter novels have been greeted with renewed interest in recent years thanks to the very fine translation by Tina Nunnally which makes these books accessible while maintaining the beauty and other worldliness of the prose.  This is a series I see myself completing.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block

Time to Murder and Create published 1977 is book two in Lawrence Block's bestselling and critically acclaimed Matthew Scudder mystery series.  There are a total of eighteen novels in this series, all of which are narrated by Matthew Scudder.  He's the ex cop turned private investigator who when he's not working on a case can be found nursing his troubles in bars around Manhattan.  In lesser hands Scudder might have come off as a hard-boiled caricature but Lawrence Block is too good a writer for that.  I knew from book one, Sins of the Father, that Scudder was a character worth following.

And so when Time to Murder and Create begins we are in NYC and it's the 1970's. The crime rate is high, people are on edge.  It's a world before 9/11, cell phones, the internet, texting etc and Scudder is in his favorite watering hole, Armstrong's, waiting to meet a prospective client, Jacob, the Spinner, Jablon.  The Spinner back when Scudder knew him from his time on the police force was a small time crook and informer but Scudder hasn't seen him in years and things have changed:

"When a man who side-steps through life by keeping his ears open suddenly turns up wearing a three-hundred dollar suit, it's not hard to figure out how he got it.  After a lifetime of selling information, the Spinner had come up with something too good to sell.  Instead of peddling information, he had turned to peddling silence.  Blackmailers are richer than stool pigeons, because their commodity is not a one-time thing; they can rent it out to the same person over and over for a lifetime.  The only problem is that their lifetimes tend to shrink.  The Spinner became a bad actuarial risk the day he got successful".

The Spinner tells Matthew Scudder that he has been blackmailing three people and one of these three is trying to kill him.  The Spinner hands Matthew Scudder an envelope with compromising photos of all three.  He trusts that if he winds up dead, Scudder will find out a) who killed him and b) destroy the pictures of the other two who as the Spinner sees it played it straight with him and deserve to be let off the hook once he's gone.  As to why Matthew Scudder would take a case like this, the Spinner explains it as follows:

"Why I think you'll follow through is something I noticed about you a long time ago, namely that you happen to think there is a difference between murder and other crimes.  I am the same.  I have done bad things all my life but never killed anybody and I never would".

This is true.  Matthew Scudder is not a judgemental man but he draws the line at murder.  Some things you don't get to get away with and murder is at the top of that list for Scudder and so he decides to take the case.

As the novels in this series progress through the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's, Matthew Scudder will change.  He gives up the booze, finds love and becomes more at peace with himself, all while retaining his wit and cynical view of human nature.  An added bonus is that NYC changes along with Scudder so that the 1970's New York when these novels began is very different from the NYC that one encounters in Block's most recent addition to the series published in January of this year where Matthew Scudder decides to come out of retirement to take on one last case.

In the world of mystery and crime fiction Lawrence Block is a legend.  He has been compared by fellow writers and critics to the great Dashiell Hammett and having read both authors I can agree.   My favorite Block novel is The Girl With the Long Green Heart published 1965 but his Matthew Scudder series is his most popular and so if you have never read Lawrence Block that is also a very fine place to begin.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

There are always going to be writers that we never get around to reading and for me, until recently, Barbara Pym fell into that category.  I knew she was a mid-20th century British novelist.  I assumed she wrote well but my desire to read her never materialized.  But it turns out many of my favorite bloggers are Barbara Pym fans and I value their judgement and so for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by a woman author, I chose Excellent Women by Barbara Pym published 1952.  It's one of the best books I have read in some time.

Excellent Women is set in London in the early 1950's.  The first person narrator and protagonist is Mildred Lathbury, a spinster in her early 30's, which is how she defines herself.  Mildred's social life revolves around St Mary's Church.  She is good friends with Father Julian Malory and his sister Winifred and when Mildred is not volunteering or attending services at St Mary's she works part time for an agency that helps elderly ladies who have fallen on hard times.

Mildred is an "excellent woman".  As described in the novel excellent women are single women who fill their lives volunteering and offering a sympathetic ear and a cup of tea when friends and neighbors come calling with problems.  Excellent women are seen as a bit odd and to be pitied by their friends due to their lack of family ties and no one is more aware of this than Mildred.  Throughout the novel Mildred makes a number of references to her spinster status in a somewhat joking manner but I sensed a defensiveness in tone which got me wondering if Mildred was as content with her situation as she assures the reader she is.

Still, Mildred's life is reasonably comfortable and predictable but then things take a turn when two new tenants, Rocky Napier and his wife Helena, move into the apartment above Mildred.  She gets entangled in their lives eventually becoming a go-between as the Napier's marriage comes apart.  Trouble is brewing at St. Mary's as well when Father Julian, who no one thought would ever marry, becomes engaged to the widow, Allegra Gray.  Allegra does not get along with Julian's sister Winifred and wants her to move out.  Mildred is dragged into this domestic dispute as well.

As a writer Barbara Pym has been compared to Jane Austen and I see the resemblance, the humor, the excellent writing and as with the narrators in Jane Austen's novels, Mildred is a keen observer of the world around her.  But maybe what Barbara Pym is also telling us is that observing life is not the same as living it, taking risks and being open to change.  There can be a danger in wanting to keep things exactly as they've always been and this is brought home with regard to another character in Excellent Women, Winifred Malory.

Winifred is a sweet and innocent woman who if she knew anything in life it was that she would always have a home in the rectory, helping her brother Rev Julian Malory run St. Mary's.  When Julian becomes engaged to Allegra, Winifred thinks it's wonderful.  She will simply move into the attic apartment and the three of them can help run St. Mary's together.  Allegra though wants Winifred out and at one point suggests that Winifred might want to join a religious order or live in a settlement house in the East End.  Avoiding change did not provide Winifred with security, quite the contrary, and so it pays in life to take sensible risks or others will make the decisions for you.

As to how the situation with Winifred, Allegra and Julian resolves itself I leave it to the reader to discover and I hope people will read Excellent Women.  I enjoyed this novel a great deal and as with many classics I was left with alot to ponder.  In a few months I am looking forward to my next Barbara Pym novel.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Bastard by John Jakes

The Bastard by John Jakes published in 1974 is a book that's been stored away in my kindle for some time.  It's the first novel in Jakes' bestselling Kent Family Chronicles series.  Eight books which takes the fictional Kent Family and their descendents from the 1770's to the 1890's.  Family saga novels can be alot of fun.  Throw in some American history, which is what this series does, and it can be an educational experience as well.

And so, when The Bastard begins it is 1770.  Philippe Charbonneau (who will later change his name to Phillip Kent) is a young man living in Auvergne France with his mother Marie.  Philip has grown up never knowing his father but when he turns seventeen Marie decides to tell him.  Philip is the son of Lord James Amberly, a member of the British aristocracy.  Marie met Lord Amberly years ago when she was an actress performing on the Paris stage.  A member of the aristocracy could never marry an actress and so their affair ended.  Lord Amberly returned to England and Marie stayed in Paris to raise their son Philip on her own.  But Lord Amberly gives Marie a copy of his will stating that upon his death Philip will share half of Lord Amberly's estate with his other son Roger.  When Lord Amberly dies Marie and Philip head to England to claim the inheritance.  Needless to say Lord Amberly's wife and son Roger are not pleased.  Roger goes one step further in trying to have his half brother killed.

The Amberly's are a powerful family and it is not safe for Philip and Marie to remain in England.  Going back to France holds no appeal either.  They decide to leave for the colonies.  Marie in poor health doesn't survive the crossing.  Philip makes it to America landing in Boston, the epicenter of rebellion against the British Crown.  As the novel progresses Philip will get a job at a printing press and find himself in the thick of it as he encounters Sam Adams, Paul Revere, Dr Joseph Warren.  He falls in love with Anne Ware, a spirited young woman who supports American independence.  But Philip is torn.  Should he make his home in this new land with its uncertain future or keep the promise he made to his mother which would involve returning to England and fighting for his inheritance?

I enjoyed The Bastard.  The characters are well drawn and John Jakes has done an impressive job of research regarding what was happening during the lead up to the American Revolution and who the key historical figures were.  Ultimately this is the story of a young man (Philip Kent) who thought he was destined for wealth and security only to discover that his life would take a very different turn.  Philip Kent sits at the start of what will go on to be the Kent Family's story in America.  The fun of a series like this is to learn in future novels who Philip's children, grand children, great great grand children will turn out to be, what their lives will be like and what events in American history will be taking place around them.  This series ends in 1890 and though I wish John Jakes had been able to take these books into the 20th century, I am grateful he took the series as far as he did and so I do recommend The Bastard.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I was unsure how to begin my review of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol published 1843 because after completing the novel I realized that I preferred the 1951 film version starring Alistair Sim.  I felt bad about that since Charles Dickens isn't just any author.  But I think the reason I preferred the 1951 film, which I have seen many times, is it's a pretty accurate retelling of the novel and so once I got around to reading the book I didn't find alot new to discover.

Then too, there is Alistair Sim's marvelous portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, putting all other Scrooge portrayals to shame.  In comparison, the Scrooge we meet in the novella needed to be fleshed out more in my opinion.  One scene from the movie for example is missing from the book and I think it needed to be there.  It's the scene in which Ebenezer, in his late twenties, is standing by the bedside of his sister Fan, the only relative who loved him.  She is dying having just given birth to a son, Ebenezer's nephew Fred, who Ebenezer will go on to blame for her death. 

That scene is missing from the novel and without it it's harder to see why Scrooge turned out so bitter because despite the cruelty of his father, Ebenezer goes on, at least in his early years, to have a good life.  He becomes an apprentice to the jolly and generous, Mr Fezziwig.  Ebenezer becomes engaged to a young woman he loves named Belle but years later she breaks up with him because she states that Ebenezer's love of money has replaced her in his heart.  But how do you go from Mr. Fezziwig and Belle to Ebenezer becoming so hard?  The interim death of Fan is the most logical explanation.  The book hints at this but the film is quite clear.

All of this said I am glad I read A Christmas Carol for my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic novella.  I have also read Great Expectations and though I have yet to find the Dickens' book with my name on it so to speak and may never do so I so admire Dickens.  I was reminded of why when I was turning the channels and came upon commentators on Fox gloating about the flack Democrats are taking for their medicare for all proposal.  I might even be open to the GOP explaining why medicare for all wasn't feasible if they hadn't spent decades trying to make medicare for none a reality and they are still trying.

Charles Dickens in contrast never forgot where he came from no matter how successful he became.  He never forgot what it was like to be poor, particularly a child growing up in poverty.  As Scrooge's nephew Fred tells his uncle at one point:

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys". 

It has been said that with his novel A Christmas Carol, Dickens pretty much invented Christmas as we have come to know it today, the family get togethers, the sumptous food, the dancing, the singing and the spirit of reaching out and being a little nicer to each other during the Holiday season.  It shows the power a novelist could have back in the 19th century and how we could use a novel to come along today that speaks  to these times and the dilemna we find ourselves in but novelists no longer have that sort of influence on the culture as they once did.  Thankfully we still have great authors like Charles Dickens whose books still speak to us about what's going on.