edwinbcn's reading in China 2019, Part 1
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In 2017 and 2018 my participation was severely hampered because of limited access to the Internet in China. For the moment it seems I have full access to LibraryThing and can only pray it lasts (I am not looking into using a VPN).
Perhaps as a result of not spending a lot of time on LT, I managed to read 219 books in 2017, and 189 books in 2018. Instead of writing long reviews on LT, I started writing short reviews on a social media platform. I hope I can find the time again to write longer reviews here, provided I have access.
Over the past two years I have changed my reading habits a little bit. According to my LT catalogue I have at least 3200 unread books on my shelves, but in reality that number is much higher, because not all books have been catalogues and / or not all books have been tagged as unread. In 2017 and 2018 I managed to only read books I already own. I didn't buy and new books. I donated 400 books to libraries in Nanning (China) with another 600 books to be shipped to the Guangxi Library (in Nanning) from my home in Guangzhou (Canton, China).
Another change to my reading habits is that I go into skim-read mode if books bore me or abandon them altogether. I have also started discarding books unread if two or three books of the same author bored me to death.
I will be 53 years old this year, born in the Netherlands I have been living and working in China for nearly 20 years. I work as a teacher and textbook author, and have published two textbook series for learning English in China. I divide my time between two cities both in southern China, namely Guangzhou and Nanning. The distance between these two cities is about 500 kilometers.
Finished reading: 6 January 2019
Susan Sontag is in particular well-known for her essays, but she also wrote novels. This first volume is a selection from her early diaries, written between 1947 and 1963. The diaries are not written in a flowing narrative style, rather more they are often mere jottings of ideas, lists of books she read, plays and films she watched, or people she met. The early years being the formative years, her reading shows a strong interest in left-wing writers, sociology and culture across the literatures in English, German and French. Sontag can be observed to travel extensively. Susan Sontag is often seen as an awe inspiring woman, but these early diaries show her vulnerability, as she started to come to terms with her queer identity, separated from her husband while taking care of her son David. Sexuality is openly discussed in the journal.
To read the journal it would be advisable to first read some of her essay collection, although the writing of those lay far in the future. The journal for 1962/3 refers to her work on her first novel, The benefactor.
So far, two volumes of Sontag's diaries have been published.
Other books I have read by Susan Sontag:
The complete Rolling Stone Interview Highly recommended
Against interpretation and other essays
Regarding the pain of others
Under the sign of Saturn. Essays
Where the stress falls
Illness as metaphor & AIDS and its metaphors
Finished reading: 9 January 2019
The Last Tycoon is F. Scott Fitzgerald's last novel. It was unfinished and published posthumously. This edition contains the full text as finished by the author + outlines, notes and correspondence about the novel which elucidates or helps understand the novel and how Scott Fitzgerald intended to finish it.
Scott Fitzgerald was one of the top authors of his age, the best-paid short story writer of the 1920s. He is probably best known for those stories which are the ultimate expression of the 'Roaring Twenties'. After the Great Depression of 1929, the market for magazine-published stories collapsed, and his stories written and published in the 30s reflect this depressing period, almost like a hangover from the previous decade.
Scott Fitzgerald's novels tend to be a bit more serious. They are set in the same milieu of the jet set, often featuring loose lifestyle morals with a tendency to flippancy. The Last Tycoon is a little bit more serious.
The novel is set in Hollywood, but its main character is not a film star. She is the daughter of a wealthy director. Thus, the novel portrays the Hollywood life from within, but not directly from its glamorous side. Focus is rather on the writers and the makers of movies, perhaps one might say the unglamorous side of the film world.
While Hollywood movies are all about the fulfillment of Romantic love, the novel is about unrequited love: She loves him. He loves someone else. The idea is simple, yet so true.
Besides this main theme, the novel develops some sidelines about the less glamorous side of Hollywood.
Personally, I find the novels of Scott Fitzgerald difficult to read. The writing is obviously very good, and in many places wonderful, creating great moments, however, the overall structure is loose and sometimes it is difficult to follow what's going on. With Fitzgerald, however, it's worth the effort, and on the whole The Last Tycoon is a satisfactory read.
Other books I have read by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
This side of paradise
A short autobiography
The curious case of Benjamin Button, and six other stories
The curious case of Benjamin Button
Flappers and Philosophers
The diamond as big as the Ritz and other stories
The beautiful and the damned
Finished reading: 10 January 2019
The Italian author Umberto Eco is an extremely prolific writer, who has published several novels, collections of essays and academic papers, particularly in the field of semiotics. This interest in semiotics, perhaps, leads to a tendency to look for meaning in places and events where others see no connection. Some of Eco's novels are suggestive of conspiracy or dark powers. However, Eco is much more sophisticated and much more careful than, for instance, Dan Brown (This book features an essay on The Da Vinci Code).
Eco's massive output makes selective reading necessary. This collection of essays contains several short pieces of very temporary value, often very specifically related to Italian politics. While these pieces are related to the main theme of the book, they are hard to follow for readers at a greater distance.
"When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it's not that they no longer believe in anything, it's that they believe in everything." (p. 301)
This sentence perhaps most clearly demonstrates the main idea of these essays. It is the expression of the shattered optimism that postmodernism has brought to the fore. While in the intellectual aftermath of the Second World War, writers gradually concluded the demise of the Age of Enlightenment, the emergence of postmodernism led to an increasingly depressing outlook on the world. Reason is seen to have failed, and rationalism has led to computationalism and mechanization, which has been seized upon by capitalism to take a squeeze hold on society. This is reflected in the emergence of conservative politicians in the United States and Europe, a trend which has become even more pronounced recently with the emergence of strong authoritarian leaders in various countries around the world.
This pull to the right means much of the optimism of the 60s and 70s has evaporated and much of the progress achieved in those decades is under threat. «Turning Back the Clock» .
Other books that I have read by Umberto Eco:
Inventing the enemy. Essays
The Prague cemetery
Travels in hyperreality
Five moral pieces
Finished reading: 13 January 2019
Marco Polo (1254 - 1324) has become the embodiment of East-West relations with China. To any foreigner with ties to China, Polo looms large. Both in Venice, where Polo was born and where he died, and Beijing, where he lived for some time, there are historical relics, in Venice his home known as 'il corte del milione' and the Marco Polo bridge in the western suburbs of Beijing (Lugouqiao).
Marco Polo was a contemporary of Dante Alighieri, and lived nearly a hundred years before Geoffrey Chaucer. Few people read works from the Middle Ages, as both the language and mind set of people of those times are difficult to comprehend. Polo's description of the world, or his travels have often been characterized as a phantasy, fiction rather than fact. However, an increasing amount of scholarship, including contemporary Persian and Chinese sources indicate that the Polos did actually reside in the Chinese empire, suggesting that Polo's travelogue is largely true.
Laurence Bergreen's book is not an edition of Marco Polo's Travels. Marco Polo. From Venice to Xanadu is more of a concordant history book. As the author explains in various places, Polo's book seems to be based on a loose-leaved manuscript that has fallen down the stairs and been recollected: there is no logical, historical progress to the narrative. Marco Polo claims to have been an emissary to Kublai Kahn, the then-ruler of China. The travels suggest that he made several prolonged stays in Chinese cities other than Beijing, but it isn't clear whether he would have returned to the capital after each mission or reported to the Kahn while travelling. In this sense, Bergreen's assumption that Polo's stay in China can be charted as a linear progress rather than a back and forth to the capital may constitute a violation of the historical accuracy of Polo's work. However, it does considerably clarify Polo's trajectory and create a clear and logical framework for the reader.
The opening chapters of Bergreen's book shine with a brilliant description of the Venetian Republic in its full splendour. In 14 chapters, Bergreen describes all we know about Marco Polo, all the people who surrounded him, both literally and historically, and all facts of history and geography that are relevant to the various stages of Polo's travels from Venice to China, and on the way back via India, returning to Venice. Bergreen's book bring together an impressive amount of scholarship, and he does not fail to point out contention and disagreement. Nonetheless, Bergreen is a strong proponent of the essential veracity of Polo's travelogue, and in Marco Polo. From Venice to Xanadu tries to tell us what Polo's cannot make sufficiently clear. In that sense, Bergreen's book is a great tribute to Marco Polo.
The final chapters of Marco Polo. From Venice to Xanadu are dedicated to the reception of Marco Polo's Travels, including Coleridge's famous lines. In these chapters Bergreen points out the problematic textual history of Polo's travels, authorship, language and manuscript versions. In fact, the end notes of Bergreen's book make a very interesting reading, and can be read as a succinct academic summary of the book. However, it is obvious that Bergreen is no sinologist of medievalist, and his book which is largely free from references and footnotes is intended for general readership.
Marco Polo. From Venice to Xanadu is a great book that (re-) tells a fascinating story. It is a pity that Chinese scholars are mainly wary of any research beyond anything purely Chinese. In fact, the legacy of Genghis Kahn as a conquerer of China is not without controversy in the People's Republic, while Chinese scholars do not really see Marco Polo as a truly researchable object within the body of Chinese history or Chinese studies. However, a thorough study of Chinese sources might reveal and make a major contribution to the understanding and significance of Marco Polo as a link between the western world and China.
Finished reading: 15 January 2019
Harvest by Jim Crace is not an easy book to review. The novel seems fraught with meaning and mystery that drives the critical reader mad. Harvest is a relatively short novel, but its sparseness in number of words merely means that almost every sentence bears on the story. The language of the book is often archaic, at times very precise, and at times vague, oddly poetic with suggestive metaphore and similes. Scattered throughout the book, the story provides an enormous amout of detail, which gives the reader the impression that careful reading or rereading may solve the riddle, but the enigmas in the book remain unsolved. It is obvious the writer likes teasing the reader, for instance with the names of characters. A critical reader will soon assume that the name Walter Thirsk might contain a clue as the name could hide the words "Water" and "Thirst" and the author throws this suggestion at the reader. Likewise, it is suggested that the name Philip Earle is suggestive of the "Erlking" suggesting this character is shady or unreliable. The novel is built around numerous dichotomies, old versus new, young versus old, blond versus dark, inside versus outside, etc. Numbers seem to play an important role, 12 years since Walter came to the village, seven days in which the story unfolds, three widowers and three bachelors. There is no historical reference for the choice of a "Gleaning Queen" and names such as "Mistress Beldam" and Willowjack seem to draw on readers subconscious cultural knowledge that might be accurate of not. Similarly, the reader is teased with the idea as to whether horses sleep while standing or lying down.
In its treatment the novel is more like an allegory than an historical novel. Set in the late-Sixteenth Century, the community is described as small, and remote enough to have escaped the great modernization of its time sofar. The feudal community consists of some 60 serfs to the lord of the manor, a peaceful pastoral community that lives in medieval tradition of plowing the land, livelyhood dependent on harvest but guaranteed by the benign lord of the manor. This lord, Master Kent, is described as unusually mild and benign. Thus, this small rural community seems to exist is a bubble, ill-prepared for reality and modern progress.
The action of the novel is apparently set in train by the arrival of three strangers, but as becomes clear towards the end of the novel, these three refugees are as much victims of the modernization that is sweeping through the country as the community members who are driven out upon their arrival. The backdrop of the story is the Agricultural Revolution, and specifically the introduction of the Enclosure Acts, which took away the commons, and the transition from cropping to raising sheep. The production of wool and cloth, being more profitable and more stable, depending less on the fortunes of the weather, but also requiring less labour revolutionized the countryside, displacing small farmers. The three strangers are the victims of the same phenomenon elsewhere, and the villagers driven out awaits the same fate as theirs.
Readers are closely searching for clues in the book to see who within the community has perpetrated the evil acts which so much upset the community , the killing of the doves, arson of the stables, and the killing of the horse, all apparently against the lord of the manor. Suspicion falls on the three strangers, but as is clearly shown, they cannot be the culprits. In fact, the only villains capable of such cruelty and violence seem to the the men brought in by the young Master Jordan, heir to the estate. It is he who wants to push for modernization, who wants to to replace the old master.
Most emblematic about Walter Thirsk is his injury sustained at the beginning of the novel, establishing that he could not "have a hand" in any of the main actions of the story, as there is also much emphasis on his alibi. This creates as aura of innocense which is, of course, deceptive. As a close associate of Master Kent, Thirsk is "in" on the whole scheme from the beginning. Long before the serfs, he knows what fate is going to befall the community, and while he may not be an agent in the unfolding of the action, neither is he one of the victims. In fact, after the masters Kent and Jordan have left, Thirsk remains to literary "oversee" the winding up of the story from the manor, his high point a turret of the manor, "Master Jordan's trusted winter man" (p. 268).
Other books I have read by Jim Crace:
All that follows
Signals of distress
Finished reading: 16 January 2019
The Emperor Waltz is a post-modern novel consisting of five narratives, divided over ten sections. Two main narratives each consist of three sections, supplemented by three minor narratives and one concluding, dual narrative. The main narrative relates the fictional history of a gay bookshop in London. The novel itself seems to be an overturned book case, each narrative seemingly a pastiche of other gay novelists, the Twenties and Thirties for Stephen Spender or Christopher Isherwood, the Eighties and Nineties for Alan Hollinghurst, while the smaller fragments are not as easy to characterize, perhaps the Christian era episode as in the novels of Mary Renault, while the contemporary like Michael Cunningham, etc. What all these writers have in common, and what perhaps binds the five narratives is the theme of oppressions, persecution and phobia.
Unfortunately, each narrative is extremely superficial, while extremely wordy. The Emperor Waltz is a real door stopper. The Bauhaus episodes consist of a quasi historical novel set in the Weimar Republic, but the style does not quite emulate that of its historical predecessors, neither German-speaking nor English-speaking authors. The London Bookstore episodes are too obviously inspired by Hollinghurst to whom several very obvious references are made. Since this narrative is more or less contemporary, there is no particular stylistic challenge. The other fragments are very short.
Together with the decline of general bookstores, so-called gay bookstores have lost reasons for existence. The main narrative, namely that of the gay bookstore, is perhaps still of some interest as it documents this historical phenomenon of specialized bookstores which existed in large cities in western countries from about the mid-Eighties till about the beginning of this century, with some still surviving. However, their surmise is not succumbing to homophobic repression but rather a decline in interest to shop with specialized retailers, as likewise general acceptance has apparently led to the decline or disappearance of gay bars in many places, while shopping and dating have migrated to the Internet or blended in with general sites.
The Emperor Waltz or in German the Kaiser-Walzer (opus 437) is a waltz composed by Johann Strauss. It was originally titled "Hand in Hand" symbolic as a 'toast of friendship' between the two emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Finished reading: 16 January 2019
Various colonial empires were built up and sustained for several centuries while the undoing of colonial history took place in less than 50 years, with most African counties becoming independent within the decade spanning the 1960s. Decolonization by Raymond F. Betts is published in the Routledge series "Making of the contemporary world" but at just over a hundred pages this small book can merely give a summary. The most useful part is, therefore, perhaps the appendix on pp 99-101, the Chronology of political decolonization which lists the chronological order of decolonization of mainly Asian and African countries. While the book touches on all major issues related to decolonization, it merely provides and introduction to the topic. Readable and interesting, but very limited.
Finished reading: 16 January 2019
Faith is for fools, and Faith in conservation. New approaches to religions and the environment is an extremely naive publication. The book consists of two parts. Part 1 consists of five chapters describing world efforts in environmental protection and the religious dimension in views on the environment. Part 2 consists of 12 short chapters, an introduction followed by 11 chapters each devoted to one of the major religions. For each of these religions, the authors point out what the basic views of each of these religions is on the world and the environment. However, this is all very theoretical. The authors suggest that almost all religions are very positive about protecting nature and the environment, but they seem to forget that this has not helped very much during the past 1000 years, or so. Besides, the overall worldwide trend is one of secularisation, which means that religious groups have less influence than before. Since the book apparently in meant to show similarities between religions, the structure of the 11 chapters in Part 2 is similar, making the book boring and repetitive. Many sections in each of these chapters are very short, half a page or less. The five chapters in Part 1 are simple, while a lot of interesting material is spread out over the introductions to each of the 11 chapters of Part 2.
Interesting but futile.
Finished reading: 18 January 2019
Helen Humphreys book The frozen Thames, particularly the Delacorte edition, has all the qualities of a coffee table book, its shape being square, high-quality glossy paper, and multiple full-color plates, except that it is a very small book. The perfect Christmas present, perhaps.
Between the year 1142 and 1895, the river Thames froze over forty times. For each year, the book includes a short piece of writing, a vignette, to describe each occassion. No instance of winters so cold that the Thames would freeze are recorded for the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century. Only once during the Twelfth Century, and three times during the Thirteenth Century, twice during both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century. After that it picks up, and it seems the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries were the coldest, with the river freezing over several times in these two centuries.
The narrative elements of each vignette are very similar: ice, skates, the various bridges over the Thames, among which the London Bridge and the recurring event of the Frost Fair, last held during the winter of 1814. In most vignettes, a short event involving commoners is mentioned, one can hardly say they tell a story, as most vignettes are only three pages long, and very small pages at that. As a result, each successive prose fragment is very similar, almost repetitive, while not very remarkable, and nothing leaves a profound impression.
Other books I have read by Helen Humphreys:
The lost garden
>15 edwinbcn: I think Virginia Woolf had the last word on frost fairs.
Humphreys' book while she omitted five more winters when the Thames did freeze over, nl. 1689, 1691, 1762, 1809 and 1811 (Wikipedia has a reference for that information). Wikipedia already includes all years when the Thames "more or less frozen over". One wonders why Ms Humphreys missed those five winters.
Both the Wikipedia page and The frozen Thames give 1814 as the last year of a frost fair. The frozen Thames contains a postscript for the year 1927, although this is not one of the forty vignettes and is not a year when the Thames froze over. This short postscript is dedicated to the early chapter in Orlando, Virginia Woolf's novel was published in 1928. This chapter is set during the Great Frost Fair of 1608.
I disagree with your assessment that Walter Thirsk is an unlettered man, but to get any clues for closer dating we should closely follow Mr Quill. Closer dating may rely on observance of what the villagers have and not have. To make the maps, Mr Quill relies on vellum, rather than on paper, but when Thirsk looks around Quill's possessions he expects to smell nutmeg (p. 129) and find smalt (p.130) among the paints. These substances did not come into broader usage until the mid- to late Sixteenth Century. Thirsk mentions "a stylish word" he hears used, nl "subterfuge" (p. 93), which according to etymology for this words came into vogue during the late Sixteenth Century. With regard to the question as to whether the punishement given to the strangers was just or not there is reference to "sturdy vagabonds and fire setters" (cannot find the page now) which may be a reference to the Act for Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars of 1536.
While writing the review, I realized that I would have to read the novel again to get various details right, but I am not really willing to do so, especially because I think it is an intentional teaser. Crowning myself a Gleaning Queen is about the least of my ambitions.
Finished reading: 22 January 2019
William Golding. The man who wrote Lord of the Flies is the first biography written about William Golding, the Nobel Prize Laureate who died in 1993. No biography was written or started on while Golding was still alive; he was strongly opposed to the idea. "Golding was a shy, private man, scornful of publicity (...) and strongly averse to the idea of a biography written in his lifetime" (p. ix). The Golding archive, still in hands of the family, contained two unpublished autobiographies and a journal, which Golding kept for 22 years. The biographer, John Carey is an academic, mainly specialized in English Renaissance literature. He first met Golding in 1985, when he was asked to edit a Birthday Book (as Golding would like to have it) or Festschrift as Carey would like to call it: a collection of essays by various authors about Golding's work, to be published on the occasion of Golding's 75th birthday. This was later published as William Golding: The Man and His Books - A Tribute on His 75th Birthday. The similarity of the two titles is striking. Having met Golding for the first time in 1985, Carey only knew Golding during the final seven years of his life, a period during which only three books were published.
In William Golding. The man who wrote Lord of the Flies Carey does not tell us that much about the man that Golding was, telling us much more about his books. In fact, William Golding: The Man and His Books would have been much more apt as a title for the biography. Although Carey states that the Golding archive is remarkably rich, the impression we get from the biography is that the archive mainly consists of drafts, annotated manuscripts, notes, project plans and journal entries about writing his books. The other main source that Carey used to write this biography is the correspondence archive of Golding's publisher, Faber & Faber, particularly his correspondence with Charles Monteith, who was Golding's editor at Faber & Faber for forty years.
Golding's breakthrough as a writer came relatively late in his life, at the age of 40. It was Monteith who recognized the merit of the manusrcript of the book that was subsequently published as Lord of the Flies. For years the manuscript had been rejected by various publishers, and before publication is was extensively revised under the supervision of Monteith. The first forty years of Golding are described in 150 pages. The following chapters mainly deal with the writing, revision and publication of Golding's books. The chapters of the biography often simply consist of the title of Golding's books: in fact, those chapters are not about Golding, the man, they are about the books. Many of Golding's books are difficult to understand, and besides describing their publication history, Carey often takes it upon himself to explain the books, describing their structure, plot and meaning.
True, some biographies tend to focus more on the author's life, and some biographies focus more on the author's work(s). William Golding. The man who wrote Lord of the Flies clearly belongs to the latter category. In this respect, this first Golding biography is rather disappointing, but since there are no other biographies of William Golding, there is no other choice.
This confused me too when I later read of other frozen winters on the Thames, but then I wondered "Were there no lovely 'corresponding colour plates' to go with those winters?"
It's good to see you back here.
Finished reading: 24 Januari 2019
Literary criticism and theory investigate "the moral, political, and experiential dimensions of literary traditions, linking form to content, literature to history, (and) the sensuous love of literature to analytic understanding (general preface). It's mission is to describe and provide insight into a literary heritage, helping readers and educators to see literary works in a broader context. Besides canonized authors and literary works, minor authors and works of lesser renown are discussed to convey a broad sense of a cultural development.
Published in the year 2000, American dream, American nightmare. Fiction since 1960 covers the period from 1960 to about 1995. The book aims to be neither a wide-spectrum description of American fiction, nor being too specialized by for instance focusing on race or gender. Instead, this work discusses about one hundred novels which bear on the main theme of disappointment with America, specifically spiritual recoil from America, the failure of the American Dream. In the introduction, the author defines the American Dream as "prosperity for anyone willing to work" (p. 3) and certain liberties. The introduction mentions a number of canonized authors.
The book is divided into nine chapters. Surely, the first seven chapters discuss authors and literary works which are quite well known, Chapter One with some works by Chinese American authors, Chapter Ttwo some African American writers, followed by several chapters which include some of the most well-known American authors, such asd Updike, Bellow, Pynchon, DeLillo, Vonnegut, and Easton Ellis, etc.
But the works selected for Chapters Seven and Eight are almost all new names to me, and rather bewildering. There is hardly a moment of recognition or familiar titles. In Chapter Seven, the main focus is on the following novels: Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel, Dhalgren, Always Coming Home, The Dispossessed, Woman on the Edge of Time, He, She and It, The Fifth Sacred Thing, and in Chapter Eight, Hiding Place, Damballah, Sent for you Yesterday, Tracks, Love Medicine, Ceremony, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, Merry Men, Slapstick or, Lonesome No More！, and Islands in the Net.
The unfamiliarity with so many authors and works is staggering, but perhaps to American readers these authors and works are well-known.
Finished reading: 28 January 2019
Deborah Levy was (already) a published author, with no less than five novels, two collections of short stories, 18 plays and a volume of poetry to her name. However, in an interview with Bookslut she complained that most of her books were out of print and that she was working on getting them in print again.Did she experience difficulty getting Swimming home published with her publisher or any other main publishing house? The novel surprisingly came out with And Other Stories an then new publisher that finances book publications by subscription. Was the jury of the Man Booker Prize perhaps positively biased to niche publishers, or did her work stand out in that area of publishing? Would her novel be noticed and equally well received had it been published by her regural publisher Jonathan Cape? If it had been a strategic move by Deborah Levy to publish the novel in this way, she was rewarded beyond measure: the novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and thus the author was catapulted into the limelight. Soon after, her early novels were reissued by Penguin Books.
But is Swimming home really such a good book? Far from it! A muddled story, vague characters and no action. Of course, these are characteristics of many postmodern novels. It is obvious that the author is no newby. She knows something about writing, but she knows very little about telling a story, let alone an interesting story. The jury of the Man Booker Prize should be ashamed to have long listed, and then even short listed the book.
>26 edwinbcn: seems general opinion is the Booker prize committee should just carry around a bucket of sand to bury their heads in every time readers remind them of weird decisions.
Finished reading: 30 January 2019
Life used to find its fullfilment in Old Age, followed by Death, but nowadays there's Old Age, Old Old Age and Death, and come to think of it Old Age isn't considered old any more. Daniel Martin Klein (b. 1939) embarked on his second youth in his early seventies. Elaborating his story with the experience of his friends and acquaintances, presumably in the same age category, he shows readers how to find life fullfilment as propagated by Epicurus while you still can, that is before Old Old Age.
Eat what you like, go on smoking if you like it, get married (again) in advanced years, and remember "that prostitutes were welcome at Epicurus's table" (p.87). Throughout the book the author throws a remarkable number of philosophers across the table, not just Greek, but also pointing out existentialism and the need to make the most of your own life, while you can.
The moment "to pull the plug" (p.129) is before drifting into full-blown demetia. The final two chapters of the book are light-footed dalliances about depression and anxiety in old age and the praise for the Netherlands where "mercy killing" is now an option.
With all the tongue-in-cheek jokes and humour Travels with Epicurus is a bit over the top, but if you belong to the elderly, and unlike the author you do not have the money to start a second youth on a Greek island, perhaps the reading of this little book may cheer you up a bit.
Finished reading: 31 January 2019
Augustus Carp, ESQ. was originally published anonymously, or as the title page suggested the book was written "by himself". The additional substitle "being the autobiography of a really good man" might raise some eye brows, and is a subtle hint at the character of the main protagonist. The book first appeared in 1924, and authorship remained obscure until 1961, when it became clear that the author was the late Sir Henry Bashford, M.D., F.R.C.P., Chief Medical Officer to the Post Office, Medical Adviser to the Treasury, Honorary Physician to King George VI, etc. This partly explains why some of the protagonists in the novel suffer from a variety rare ailments, of course all adding to the hilarity.
Very few books are really humorous throughout, but if you are interested then I would recommend this novel which pairs ridicule with verbal virtuosity. The book should perhaps be read as a parody of Hugh Walpole's Jeremy trilogy, of which the first two volumes were published in 1919 and 1923, describing a youth's development from childhood through adolescence to manhood. However, in spirit the book is closer to Geoffrey Willans's Whizz for atomms. A guide to survival in the 20th century for felow pupils, their doting maters, pompous paters and any others who are interested (1956).
Like the Jeremy trilogy, Augustus Carp, ESQ. describes the youth of young Augustus and his career into manhood, particularly his moral development. Much of the humour is tied in with religion and particularly with hypocracy. Like many such coming-of-age stories, the novel is dated, and this means that some of the humour doesn't work. It also depends on your sense of humour, and whether you think it is funny to read a whole page of chatter between father and son about a slip of the tongue: "A weed before the rind."
Finished reading: 1 February 2019
The novella Schwüle Tage by the German author Eduard von Keyserling has been translated into various European languages, but apparently not in English, although some of his novels were translated into English during the 1920s. Von Keyserling belonged to the German nobility, he holding the rank of count, and his novels and stories are set in this environment. His stories are unlike any other in German, and his work has been compared to that of Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov. The ancestral manor of the Keyserlings was Schloss Tels-Padder and Von Keyserlings stories are set in the German Baltic provinces. His works written during the first decade of the Nineteenth Century places him at the centre of German Impressionism (Schwüle Tage was published in 1904). Stylistically his works are characterized by a subtle and elegant style, with fine nuences.
In Schwüle Tage the young count Bill von Fernow has to spend his summer holiday at their family manor, together with is father. He has failed his school exams, and instead of travelling and spending the holiday with the rest of the family on the coast his father keeps him at their estate. The relation with his father is strained, Bill does not live up to his father's expectations and his father is disappointed in him. Bill indeed seems somewhat immature, and young for his age. As the father tries to make him more of a man, Bill's sexuality is stirred by a young maid on the estate. The novella ends on a sinister note, the ultimate test for which the young count should be prepared.
Other works I have read by Count Eduard von Keyserling:
Finished reading: 4 February 2019
While German literature counts few works by late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century authors with an aristocratic background --- with the exception of Count Eduard von Keyserling --- there is an English author who has described that milieu from within. Sybille Bedford, was born as Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck, and she grew up at the family estate Schloss Feldkirch in Baden, in southwest Germany. She lived the first 14 years of her life in Germany. In 1956, she published the novel A legacy, which is largely autobiographical, describing her family.
The novel consists of five parts, each composed of several chapters, although some parts are very long while some are very short. The first part describes the story of the escape of the young Zoegling Johannes von Felden from the military academy in Benzheim am Rhein bei Cologne and his return to the family estate Schloss Landen in the Grand Duchy Baden. This part of the novel is brilliantly conceived, enticing and convincingly illustrating the Prussian cadaver discipline of that age. Fortunately, for Johannes, his family embraces his and protects him from being forcefully returned to the academy, particularly through the sublime tact of the Baron Felden. These episodes illustrate the tension in the novel between old nobility for whom duty and social position determine social relations, and young ambition. Although this story is set up and executed perfectly in the first part of the novel, it is carried on throughout the novel, but is not forceful enough to encompass a full-length novel. Instead, the novel describes the aristocratic family at large, on both sides of the extended family, bringing in very many characters, while there is hardly a plot to speak of. Personal matters, financial dealings, and the whole extended running of the aristocracy is described. A Legacy is set mainly in Berlin and Baden around the turn of the century. Part of the confusion in the novel are the rich and colliding differences between the two branches of the family: between the stilted Catholic aristocracy of Southernwest Germany and the rich Jewish mercantile establishment in Berlin. This provides a unique perspective into Bismarck’s militantly nationalistic Prussia and Wilhelminian Germany from the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 till the First World War in 1914.
Other works I have read by Sybille Bedford:
Jigsaw. An unsentimental education
Finished reading: 4 February 2019
W. B. Yeats is a short biography (153 pp.) of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, which was published as volume 18 in the series of Great Biographies of "lives that shaped the nation" with the Irish Independent listed as co-publisher (2006), in a handsome, small-size hardcover edition. In fact, it is a reissue of a biography which was first published in 1983, authored by the late Augustine Martin (1935-1995), who was Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin, Director of the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and a member of the Seanad Éireann from 1973 to 1981. Martin was also the editor of W. B. Yeats, Collected poems (London: Arena (1983)), and obviously writes on Yeats with great authority, which is evident from his confident style. Perhaps due to the intended audience, and year of conception (in the early 80s), this short biography focuses less on the works of Yeats and more on his political life. Yeats was strongly committed to the Irish cause, and so were the women in his life, particularly Maud Gonne, whom he woed for many years, and unsuccesfully proposed to twice, as well as Lady Gregory who remained important to him throughout his life. This gives the biography a strong political slant.
In Ein springender Brunnen the German author Martin Walser suggested that the rise of fascism was in part due to the ongoing struggles between communists and fascists, while the people who were wary of politics languished in a dream-like state, adhering to esoteric beliefs and eastern philosophy. Yeats didn't get married until 1916, when he was already 51 years old, to Georgie Hyde Lees, who was deeply interested in spirituality. Together with their interest in traditional culture, Yeats manifested interest in fascism. His biographer, however, states that the larger picture should be taken into account, that "the age was desperate, time out of joint" (p.112). Since 1922, Yeats was a member of the Irish Senate, a body fiercely and violently opposed. His final years, his years of fame, particularly after winning the Nobel Prize in 1923, were dominated by political struggle.
Finished reading: 4 February 2019
Diarmid Cathie (1910 - 1993) is an author who is now almost completely forgotten. Author of a single novel and some miscelleanous works, all written under the pseudonym Diarmid Cathie, he is perhaps more remembered under his own name, Dermot Cathie. Perhaps a minor poet, and occasional writer, Cathie was mainly an actor and producer, he was in the BBC repertory company, and known for his roles in They Came from Beyond Space (1967), The Dinner Was Deadly (1946) and And So to Bed (1949).
Cathie's novel She's right was published in 1953 and reviewed in two New Zealand literary magazines, now available on line. Diarmid Cathie spent a term there in the broadcasting service. The novel is set in New Zealand, in the Marlborough district, although the place names--Dunoon-- seem to be fictional. The main character in the novel, Roderick MacGregor arrives in Dunoon to spend eight weeks there training several groups of local women play-acting skills. Having arrived but not being contacted, and confusion over the agreed duration of his stay, convey a sense of provincialism and amateurism from the start. Far away from home, MacGregor soon becomes bored, and half-way through his assigned time is overcome by spleen. He doesn't really fit in, and barely makes contact with the local people. References to poetry, classical music and reading suggest that he belongs to a more cultured type of people, and feels at a loss among the relatively simple locals in NZ. Some references are made to local language, both dialect and maori words, and perhaps the title of the book, She's right is a slang expression. MacGregor had already observed that many of the local men, even his driver, are inebriated much of the time, and the only moment he seems to find himself engrossed with the locals is when he gets drunk in their company. From then on, the pub becomes his place to go, and alcohol his undoing, which ends in murder.
Diarmid Cathie's novel can't have made him many friends in New Zealand, and for boredom leading to spleen and total degeneration of a man, a period of merely eight weeks seems a bit implausible.
Finished reading: 5 February 2019
I know who I am (p.358)
William Dubin, the main protagonist in Malamud's novel Dubin's Lives is a writer, particularly a biographer. The largest part of the novel is about Dubin's life, especially his sexual escapades with Fanny Bick, who made her first advances when she came to his home as a house-cleaner. Throughout the novel there is no doubt that Dubin and his wife Kitty are in a long, happy and loving marriage, and Dubin often struggles with guilt about his sexual affair with Fanny. Although he is hiding his affair and his sexual adventures with Fanny, the game is brought home to him, so to speak, as Fanny seems intend on replacing Kitty. From a visit to Venice, to visiting her in New York, later on Fanny starts visiting Dubin at home, at first having sex with him in his studio in the garden and later in the home, in his the bedroom. Dubin's relation with Fanny has all the characteristics of a relation sprung up around a mid-life crisis, from early wonder and joy that such a young women would show so much interest in a man of his age, to a completely promiscuous and illicit extra-martital affair right under his wife's nose. Dubin's impotence while with his wife, and his attempts to hide his affair with Fanny add a great deal to the fun of the book.
Throughout the book, Dubin is working on a biography of D.H. Lawrence, at times wondering whether he has "given up life to write lives." As he is stuck in his biography about Lawrence, he likewise seems to have got stuck in his life. In Lawrence he reads: "We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh and part of the living incarnate cosmos." (p.338) Besides working on Lawrence, Dubin finds time to read Saint Augustine. The novel begins with two quotations: What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? from Thoreau, about whom Dubin has written a biography, and Give me continence and chastity, but not yet. by Saint Augustine. While worried whether his adulterous affair may hurt his wife, Dubin feels that he needs more in life, and that Fanny can give him that.
Du bist Dubin (p.358). Although the root of confusion about the self lies in Dubin's name, Ich bin, Du bist Dubin's concludes that he knows who he is, at least "well enough the take the next necessary step." (ibid), n.l. to act his age. The final part of the book is revealing, as the basic theme of the book is expanded to the other characters in the book. The existentialist dilemma of how to live your life, create and use the freedom to be alive, and shape your life to it's ultimate fullfilment is worked out, showing that each and everyone has to deal with these questions, and that there is an infinite variety of possibilities.
Other works I have read by Bernard Malamud:
The magic barrel
Finished reading: 8 February 2019
The Memoirs by Tennessee Williams were clearly written for publication by an author self-confident enough to write whatever he liked in whatever way he liked, seemingly with disdain for the reader or even the publisher. However, this makes the book very personal. The book is chronological, but not evenly spread out. Likewise, the book doesn't aim at accuracy or completeness. The Memoirs could be read as a supplement to a biography but aren't detailed enough to be read instead of a biography. Reading these Memoirs one gets the feeling the author enjoyed looking back on his life en enjoyed writing about it so openly and explicitely, which was possible in the early 1970s when the book was published. Here is a writer who enjoys telling his story, and so many of his romances and sexual escapades find their ways into the book, including his long-term relationship with Frank Merlo. On the other hand, the book is somewhat disappointing for readers who are expecting to read more about Williams career as a writer, his ideas and inspiration, literary friendships, etc., although it is worth mentioning that there is a lot about his friendship with Carson McCullers and readers interested in that author might need to refer to these pages. It is therefore questionable why Penguin Books published thje book as a Modern Classic, probably more as a tribute to the upcoming openly gay writing of the 1970s than the literary merits of the work.
Other books I have read by Tennessee Williams:
Five o'clock angel. Letters of Tennessee Williams to Maria St. Just, 1948-1982
The Roman spring of Mrs. Stone
The glass menagerie
Sweet bird of youth
A streetcar named Desire
Finished reading: 8 February 2019
It is debatable whether we should read a novel entirely for its own merit, even disregarding the intention of the author, while it is questionable how much a reader twice removed could make of a classical novel, written nearly 200 years ago, and belonging to an entirely different age, and entirely different culture. The significance of Turgenev's first novel, Rudin (1855) might even be difficult for Russian readers to grasp.
Without reading the introduction or any other literary criticism, Rudin would appear merely a stiff novella. Where the novels of Dostoyevsky still appeal to universal sentiment or character, the early novels of Turgenev are novels of manner. Rudin surely can be read as a short, failed love story, the main character Rudin being more of an anti-hero than a hero. However, as the introduction explains, the reader can make more of the novel when it is understood that in Rudin Turgenev portrays a type rather than an individual character, a cultural phenomenon rather than a tragic hero. Rudin exemplifies a certain type of man of his time, a personification of the ills of Russian society at that time. It is this added dimension which enable us to see Rudin as a tragic figure.
Nonetheless, Rudin remains a somewhat stifled short novel, and the long, difficult Russian names of relatively many characters add to the reading difficulty. Readable, but not very enjoyable.
Other books I have read by Ivan Turgenev:
On the eve
Fathers and sons
Finished reading: 10 February 2019
Claire Harman's Jane's fame. How Jane Austen conquered the world isn't a biography about Jane Austen but reading it will help you a long way. Instead, it is a description of Jane Austen's road to fame. Readers who already know a lot about Jane Austen will not likely learn much new, and yet Jane's fame. How Jane Austen conquered the world is just the kind of book that Jane Austen fans would most like to read.
There is a lot of biographical detail about Jane Austen in the book but that is not the main focus. It could even be said that Jane Austen is not the main topic of the book, although her name appears on every page. Actually, the title says it all, very accurately. This is a non-fiction book that tells us how Jane Austen has become one of the most famous writers in the world, today.
Writing a book is no longer a way of achieving lasting fame. In fact, many novelists are forgotten, soon after they have published their last book, which is often a few years before their death, and most novelists are forgotten within two decades after their death. However, contemporary novelists are all aware of the fame they could achieve, and are generally careful about their manuscripts and correspondance. However, it hasn't always been like that.
The novel as a genre has only existed for about 300 years, and initially, most writers were men. When women started writing, they often published their novels under a pseudonym, hiding the fact of female authorship. Jane Austen wrote her novels well over 200 years ago. At that time there were professional writers, but few writers who could live of their pen, and writers earnings were based on selling stories to newspapers and publishers. It would still take a hundred years for proper laws and the protection of copyright to develop, and American publishers belonged to the fiercest rogue publishers.
To her family members, Jane Austen was their eccentric aunt, scribbling away and publishing a few novels in her lifetime. The family did not think highly of her writings and after Jane's death they threw most of her personal papers away, keeping only a few as memorabilia. They did not believe anyone would be interested in Jane Austen after she had passed away. Thus, a lot of material, especially letters were lost, and initially little was undertaken to record life details. The idea that any novelist, let alone Jane Austen could reach world renown was almost unthinkable at that time. However, the Nineteenth century saw a boom in the production of literary writing and is described as the age of the birth of the leisurely reader. Prior, reading was a pastime for the wealthy, but through serialized novels in newspapers, a much wider audience gained access to literature, and throughout the 19th century interest in Austen's books, her collected works and eventually her authorship increased.
Jane Austen had perhaps a most unfortunate start with a family so disdainful and so neglectful, but eventually, as biographical interest in her person grew, short biographies were recorded and compiled, and attempts were made to collect, and preserve her manuscripts. Harman's book describes all angles of the gradually developing, and increasingly intense interest in Jane Austen. The book traces the preservation of all remaining manuscripts and memorabilia, such as objects and furniture from the household of the Austens. It describes the publication history of all works of Jane Austen, and all biographies and related works written on Jane Austen. Finally, it admits to the Jane Austen mania, of which the book itself is a manifestation, as interest in Jane Austen and her work is now to great, that Jane Austen has fans all over the world.
Jane's fame. How Jane Austen conquered the world is very well written, but it's subject matter is still rather specialized and academic.
LibrartThing is not blocked in China but low-speed access sometimes hinders access, especially since google.analytics or other parts of google must download and Google is blocked in China.
In February, I was hospitalized for a month (and no access in hospital), in the summer I unexpectedly had to find a new job and move to Nanning, leaving Guangzhou. In September and October, I was unable to log in to LT because the new login procedure didn't work in China, but the LT software developers did a great job to create an alternative way of enabling login.
In August, I donated most of the books I read this Spring to a local library, so it's hard to catch up and write reviews for books that are no longer around.
As a result of all these problems, I read the smallest number of books in 10 years time, just over a hundred, although there were several very thick tomes among them.
I am trying to catch up, and have already joined Club 2020.
Finished reading: 3 March 2019
If you manage to read a larger number of books by Julian Barnes you may agree with my conclusion that he is a bit of a slacker if he thinks he can get away with it, and Nothing to be frightened of is a prime example. After about 50, 60 pages he turns to the reader suggesting that this book is NOT all just self-indulgent navel staring, a natural thought which he rightly assumes the reader to develop after having read that many pages, and it IS. The book utterly lacks depth and scope, it's just all about Barnes willy-nilly, highly personal insignificant musings. The prerogative of the author, yes, to "essai" but also very self-indulgent, sheer egotism to pollute 244 pages with useless ink splattering. Perhaps Barnes' whimsicality is to emphasize that he knows as little about the topic as you, me and the milkman do, but then what's the point of the book in the first place? Yes, perhaps simply for him to make money, and for readers to while away the time uselessly; after all, Nothing to be frightened of is no more or less useful than a piece of fiction. It is just a clever ploy of the author and / or his publisher to make buyers believe they pick up a philosophical book. And, that in itself is probably postmodern irony, if you don't know what you are buying: Either you do, or you don't, the book is just the book: a fairly useless pile of paper.
Other books I have read by Julian Barnes:
Arthur & George
The Sense of an Ending
Through the window. Seventeen essays and a short story
Something to declare
Levels of life
The lemon table
Finished reading: 3 March 2019
Socalled stream-of-conscious "automatic writing" is prone to lead to disappointment in readers, and even in it's best form somewhat difficult to appreciate. It should be considered the "abstract" painting of prose style. Kerouac's novels include some interesting experiments with this approach to writing. However, Old Angel Midnight should not be counted among his successes with this style. It is a bit unfair, too, because the introductrion states that these short pieces of writings were experiments, try-outs for Kerouac to develop his ability and style. Apparently, they were not intended for publication, and the title was added later. A later editors made various decisions about the order of the material. It is, therefore, questionable whether this material should have been published at all, and dubious to publish it as poetry, even though the short pieces look like poetry in terms of form. The collection of fragments known as Old Angel Midnight is also included in Vol. 1 of the poetry of Jack Kerouac in the Library of America edition.
Other books I have read by Jack Kerouac:
Vanity of Duluoz. An adventurous education, 1935-46
The subterraneans / Pic
Visions of Gerard
On the road
Doctor Sax. Faust part three