Sunday, March 1, 2015

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forester

This is the first book I've read by E. M. Forster.  He's another author, like Thackeray, that I was never motivated to read, especially after seeing the movies Howard's End and A Room With a View, neither of which impressed me much.

As I said in a previous post, there are seasons to read certain books.  And this is apparently the season for me to read E.M. Forster as well as Thackeray (and Evelyn Waugh but more about him later).

Spoiler alert:  Don't read my review if you don't want to know how the story ends.

Lilia, the widow of the son of a upper crust family, the Herritons, takes it into her head to travel to Italy by herself.  Her primary objective is to escape the domination of her late husband's family.  While in Italy she meets an Italian and impulsively marries him.

Philip, the brother of Lilia's late husband, travels to Italy to retrieve her but finds that it is too late.  He meets the husband, Gino, finds him to be a working class regular fellow that is likeable, but, tragically, not English, hence the scandal.

Philip returns to England empty handed and for the first half of the novel we read about Lilia and her life free from the Herritons.

Except it isn't free.  She finds that Italian culture is not advantageous for women.  They are expected to lead largely confined lives.  Lilia finds herself stuck in a house, alone most of the time, friendless, and for the most part husbandless.  Gino, being a man, is not limited to staying at home but enjoys a robust social life with both men and women. And since he doesn't need to work having married a woman with money, his socializing is pretty much unfettered.

Half way through the book, Lilia has a child and dies in childbirth.  You feel relief for her that she finally has escaped.  

The rest of the book is about the Herritons.  They discover Lilia had a child because Gino has been sending postcards and photos of the baby to Lilia's young daughter whom she left behind with her husband's family (as a mother I will never, ever understand how anyone could do that).

The matron of the family, Mrs. Herriton determines that they must rescue Lilia's baby from the abominable fate of being raised Italian and sends Philip back, along with his sister Harriet, to negotiate terms  with Gino (aka bribe) to gain custody of the little boy who is now nine months old.

Philip and Harriet go to Italy.  Philip spends time with Gino, finds that he likes him a great deal and also realizes that Gino is never going to relinquish his baby.  He returns to the hotel to inform his sister of this.

At the hotel he finds his sister gone and frantically looks for her. He finds her in a horse and carriage on the way to the train station.  He jumps into the carriage to discover that his sister has kidnapped the baby and intends to rush back to England with it.

This never happens. The carriage runs into a ditch and overturns.  The baby is killed.

  Many observations can be made about this strange little story.  E.M. Forester, as in his Passage to India (which I've just started reading), is making a pretty scathing statement about his countrymen.  In the Herriton's effort to rescue a baby from the barbarity of a Mediterranean, Papist upbringing, they themselves commit a number of barbarities.  They attempt to buy a baby, and when that fails, one of them kidnaps the baby and commits manslaughter.

Now, not all the Herritons are presented so starkly.  Really just mother and daughter.  Philip is caught in the crossfire.  He  didn't want to rescue Lilia and neither did he want to buy Gino's baby.  But neither does he seem possess the strength to stand against the tide of his family.  

One other character of significance is included in this tale. A Miss Abbot.  Lilia meets Miss Abbot when she first arrives in Italy and is encouraged by her to marry Gino.  Later, Philip meets Miss Abbot in Italy and finds a contrite woman who regrets her part in Lilia's marriage.

When Philip returns to Italy he finds Miss Abbot there ready to fight Gino for the baby.  After meeting with Gino, she makes an about face and convinces him never to give up his baby but to never marry again either.

Philip, with his interactions with her both times in Italy finds that he has fallen in love with Miss Abbot.  They return to England together but it is not meant to be.  On the return trip, Philip realizes that Miss Abbot has fallen in love with Gino.

I suppose this novel, like A Passage to India, was E.M. Forster's call to the British to awaken their conscience to their own particular brand of racial superiority.  Today it seems rather quaint.  With our politically correct social boundaries, westerners bend over backwards to spine breaking contortions to persuade the world and themselves that they are inclusive and tolerant and pro diversity.  Which is fine as long as it's sincere and not merely for show.

E.M. Forster's writing style is fast flowing and I enjoy his dialogue and story developments.  I have since bought very nice hardcovers of A Room With a View and Howard's End.  You can expect reviews of them in the future.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

When I was in high school I saw a drawing of a beautiful young girl looking innocently out at the viewer.  The sub title read, "Rebecca of Vanity Fair with her claws sheathed."  That little comment kept me from reading Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray for the next thirty years.  I thought, "Oh, another story about some femme fatale who leaves a score of victims in her wake.  Blah."

The photo of Rebecca that accompanied the article that discouraged me from reading Thackeray

So why did I pick up the book now?  I was at a book fair and a copy of the book was available for a quarter.  It wasn't just the cheap price, although that always carries a seductive charm for me, it was something even less profound:  the book cover and the shape and feel of the book.  I cannot explain why I am tempted to buy books solely for their looks and texture but I am.  Usually I can successfully overcome the urge- especially if the book is by an unknown.  But I did know about Thackeray and something in me said, it is time to read this book.

I do believe that we read types of books in different seasons.  Probably I would not have understood or enjoyed Thackeray as a teenager.  I do now.

Vanity Fair is Thackeray's social commentary on British society.  He's not the only British author to do so.  The British upper class is a common theme among many if not most writers of the United Kingdom, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  What is interesting is how each good writer is able to stamp the same theme with their own imprint.

Thackeray achieves this.  Rebecca isn't much different than Lizzy Eustace in Trollope's novel, The Eustace Diamonds.  But yet the stories and the characters are still very different.  The only commonality is the stories' foundation.

In Vanity Fair, two young girls, Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp leave school to begin their lives as adult women.  For Amelia this is to return to the home of her well- to- do parents and wait for her fiance, George Osbourne-also from a wealthy family- to marry her.  For Rebecca, who is the daughter of a poor artist and French dance hall girl-both now dead, it is to become a governess to a family of aristocrats.

Before heading off to her job as a governess, Amelia insists that "her dear friend" stay for a while with her and her family.  Rebecca agrees to this and while there sets herself to the task of seducing Amelia's older brother and marrying him before her time to leave.

She almost succeeds because Amelia's brother, Joseph, home from India is a chubby buffoon with very little sense.  What saves him is Amelia's fiance, George Osbourne, who makes it clear that Joseph can't marry a girl, no matter how pretty and charming, who is low class.

So eventually Rebecca moves on to her aristocratic family, the Crawleys.  Here she absolutely charms everyone and succeeds in getting a nephew, Rawden Crawley, to marry her.

It's interesting because, on the one hand, everyone seems to be at Rebecca's mercy.  She's so mean and nasty and cunning and yet is able to win everyone over, often through backstabbing the others.  Yet she also fails so miserably because as much as the rich people enjoy her company, they never  forget that she is beneath them socially.

For instance, all the Crawleys spend a great deal of energy fawning and pandering to an elderly spinister aunt because she has all the money and they don't. Another point of interest:  being an aristocrat doesn't mean you have any money.

Rebecca completely ingratiates herself to this aunt who keeps her as a constant companion.  Rebecca amuses her by mocking all the other members of the Crawley family, whom the aunt detests. She only loves Rawdon Crawley, a hedonistic young soldier because he is a hedonist, and she plans to bequeath all her money to him.

This Rebecca knows, so she wins Rawdon over and they marry in secret.  Rebecca hopes to keep this a secret but is unable to when an elderly decrepit  Crawley, Sir Pitt, proposes to her after the death of his wife.  As much as the aunt enjoyed Rebecca's company she is outraged that she would presume to marry into her family and disinherits Rawdon.

And that is pretty much how the whole story goes.  Rebecca flirts and charms and seduces men, usually married men, of rank and importance, falls, gets back up and continues on.  On the one hand you'd like to see her get her just desserts, but on the other hand, one figures she's punished enough by having to live with herself.  There's nothing about Rebecca that would induce anyone to envy her.  Her whole life is consumed with being the center of attention, getting money, and hurting other women.

Thackery shows human weakness on every level but he is not devoid of humor or compassion which saves the plot from becoming drab.  Rebecca never changes, she never repents, who knows what'll happen when she grows too old to attract anyone.  Probably she'll have to settle on being a Madam at a house of ill repute.

The other characters that surround Rebecca, however, do change.  And they change for the better.  Rebecca seems to be the refining fire that burns off the slough.

Amelia turns from being a simple-minded naive girl to one who finally understands true love and devotion.  But not through her husband who gambled away his fortune plus lost it after his father disinherited him for marrying Amelia.  

What, you say?  Wasn't Amelia part of the privileged class?  She most certainly was, until her father lost his money through a series of bad investments.  Amelia's family lost their wealth, their social standing, their friends, everyone.  

George's father was in favor of the marriage until Amelia became poor.  The sad part is that Mr. Osbourne's investments caused Mr. Sedley's misfortune. This is doubly sad as Mr. Osbourne's wealth is due to Amelia's father's initial financial help.  Because Mr. Osbourne knows this, he runs from his guilt  by demonizing Amelia's father.

The story shows how fickle life is when one's identity is wrapped up in how much money you make or your aristocratic name.  There are many other plots of this nature throughout the novel.

The biggest change comes from Rawdon who, after being falsely imprisoned by the Marquis Steyne, is able to free himself and return home to find Rebecca dancing and flirting with the Marquis.  His eyes are finally opened and he leaves and returns home to his family.  Rebecca is left with nothing.  No money, because she and Rawdon had none.  They were living on credit, much to the disadvantage of their creditors, which cause at least two of them to go bankrupt.

That was another interesting point.  How, if one has a name,  can one live as a rich person without any money?  Who gets the shaft?  The people renting to you, supplying you with groceries, and everyone else you hire.

Rebecca finds herself alone, penniless, in a house owned by someone she financially destroyed.  The house servants now mock her and refuse to help her.  Why should they?  She owes them over a years' salary.

Rebecca disappears for awhile from the story and we get to witness the transformation of the other characters who all have fairly happy endings.

Except for Joseph, Amelia's brother.  He ends up on the continent where he discovers Rebecca again.  This time he is completely seduced, financially destroyed and possibly even murdered by her through poison.

I have not mentioned our hero, William Dobbin (even though Thackeray insists there is no hero).  He is the backbone to the whole story.  He is the strength, the moral hero, the one man who always sees through Rebecca, the only man not tempted by her.  The one who truly loves Amelia and cares for her and her son after George is killed in the war.  

It would take too long to portray him.  Know that he weaves in and out of the whole story and touches each character in a way that causes them to rise above themselves.  I won't call him a Christ character, but certainly one with Christ like attributes.

At 753 pages, Vanity Fair is not a short read, but definitely a worthwhile one.  I can only sum up the story line.  I can't imitate Thackeray's wit and insight.  You have to read his story for that.  I especially enjoyed how Thackeray would insert himself into the story.  His characters are so strong that they become real from the first page.  You forget that they are fictitious.  Thackeray knows this so he playfully makes little comments throughout the novel to remind you that he is only making the story up ("For novelists have the great privilege of knowing everything.")

And Thackeray is very playful and funny.  My outline makes it look a pathetic story indeed and one really can't help hating Rebecca, but Thackeray takes a light-hearted approach while making serious observations about a society that can be merciless to its citizens. This allows the reader to enjoy the book without becoming depressed.

I'll end with the final words on page 753:

ah! Vanitas Vanitatum!  Which of us is happy in this world?  Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?-Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

On Kindle for .99

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun: an Anthology of Medieval Poetry and Prose edited by Pamela Norris

This is a little gem of a book that I got through Paperback Swap.  As I've mentioned before that is a site that allows people to trade books on an honor system.  

Not all the books are paperback, and while some of the books I've received have obviously been used, many of them arrive in mint condition.  Through The Glass Window is a hardcover and in excellent condition.  

Pamela Norris, the editor, specialized in Medieval Literature at Bristol University and has a master's degree in Renaissance Studies.  She compiled excerpts from many medieval books and also a great deal of contemporary art.  Each page contains either a poem or excerpt from a story or legend with a painting on the page next to it.  

Authors include Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, Sir John Mandeville, Margery Kempe Sir Thomas Malory.    A good half of the poems are by that ever famous author, Anonymous.

The book is divided into four sections.  The first is devoted to "The Queen of Heaven", Mary the mother of Jesus.  The second is about earthly love between men and women.  The third section are writings about life during times of peace and during times of war and the last is titled "Marvelous Tales". 

That really sums up this book.  If you are a fan of this time period, it's a delightful little book to own and enjoy.

I'll include one poem of each section with the painting accompanying the poem.

I Sing of a Maiden

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless:
King of all kings
To be her son she chose.

He came also still Where his mother was,
As dew in April 
That falleth on the grass.

Mother and maiden 
Was never none but she:
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.

The Bride's Song

The maidens came
When I was in my mother's bower.
I had all that I would.
The bailey berath the bell away;
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And through the glass window shines the sun.
How should I love, and I so young:  
The bailey beareth the bell away;
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.


A Song for St. George

Enforce we us with all our might
To love Saint George, our Lady's knight.

Worship of virtue is the meed, 
Ad follow him ay of right;
To worship George the have we need,
Which is our sovereign Lady's knight.

In his virtue he will us lead
Against the Fiend, the foul wight,
And with his banner us over spread,
If we him love with all our might.


Jerome and the Lion

One day towards evening, as Jerome sat with his brethren listening to the holy lesson, suddenly a lion came limping into the monastery.  When the brethren saw him, at once they fled, but Jerome went towards the lion as he would approach a guest, an then the lion showed him his foot, which was hurt.  Then Jerome called his brethren and commanded them to wash the lion's feet and carefully to seek out and search for the wound.  That done, they found that the pad of the lion's foot was sorely hurt and pricked with a thorn.  Then this holy man set himself diligently to cure the foot and healed him and the lion abode ever after as a tame bast with them.

From Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Haiku Inspirations by Tom Lowenstein with Victoria James

This New Year's I went to the Gulf Coast to visit my parents and sister's family.  Needless to say we spent a lot of time on the beautiful beaches of Destin and Grayton Beach.  What can I say?  Miles of blinding white sand, sand pipers, sea one but us because of the cold season-except a few crazy northerners braving the frigid water.  In the winter the sun takes an hour to set on the horizon and the colors are so brilliant.

I always like to go to Barnes and Noble afterward, which is on the way back home.

We arrive at the store. Derek, my son immediately loses himself in the aisle of graphic novels.  After I look at the bargain books, I treat my mother and myself to coffee where we visit.  This is our tradition every time I come home.  I tell her as I tell myself that, other than the half price Christmas cards, I'm not buying anything.  Nothing.  Nada.  I don't need any more books.  My mother laughed and sipped her coffee.  She knows me too well.

I almost made it.  I almost spent a pleasant couple of hours in a bookstore without buying any books. We were walking towards the exit when I saw it.   A beautiful hardback about one of my favorite forms of poetry:  Haiku Inspirations by Tom Lowenstein and Victoria James.  I left the store with it  (and a  hardback of Robert Frost's poems, but that's another post.)

On the way back to Texas I let Derek drive so I could read my treasure.  Even when we stopped at a Denny's for dinner, I brought the book in to read.  Haiku: Inspirations was even more than I originally thought it was.  Yes it is a book of Haiku but it contains even more.

 Lowenstein and  James divide into brief chapters the history of Haiku, the original authors of Haiku, and their different styles, the Buddhist and Shinto beliefs that inspired the art form, and the different reigning families  that supported and developed art and literature in Japan.

 From the Tale of Genji: Court Life

They also give a concise history of Japan, from their Chinese influences to where they eventually broke out into their own uniquely Japanese style.  We learn about Society and Court life, the symbols and different beliefs such as Zen, Koans, about suffering, transience pilgrimage and how these different beliefs affect Haiku writing.

They describe the development of arts and culture such as calligraphy, ink painting, Japanese gardens, tea ceremony and music, dance and theater.  

The chapters are accompanied by paintings and photos of Japan as well as Haiku.  The introduction gives a brief description of the structure and form.  For instance, Haiku can only use "essential words" and 17 syllables.  Classic haiku is three line long, with 5-7-5 "syllables".  Of course, some of the structure will necessarily be lost when Japanese is translated into English. 
Another attribute is "kigo".  This means "season word" which "suggests the mood and atmosphere governing the poem."    Sometimes the name of the season is included in the Haiku, other times it is implied when a seasonal attribute is mentioned, such as a flower that only blooms in summer or the rainy season, implying spring etc.

Here are a couple of samples:

Hazy morning:
as in a painting of a dream
the people passing.

Moon behind the grasses.
Wind blows through.
The cry of a cuckoo.
Come to me:
let's play
little sparrow orphan!

The book is a delight both to the eyes with the paintings and photos and the ears and mind with its descriptions of Japanese history and culture and, of course, the Haiku which includes authors from different philosophies and time periods.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Help, Help! Another Day! by Hal Boyle

Hal Boyle wrote over 6000 columns for the Associated Press.  All of them were commentaries on the life he lived and what he saw around him.  He saw, he mused, he wrote and got published in the paper.  Most of us don't get that kind of audience for our opinions.

Because, really, that's all Hal Boyle wrote about.  His observations on women, children (his wife and adopted daughter especially), life in New York City, remembrances of his mid western upbringing in a large Irish Catholic family, dark times overseas during WWII...

We all sit around and talk about things but rarely put pen to paper (or fingers to computer nowadays), much less get published.  How did Mr. Boyle end up getting paid to be opinionated?

For starters, he's a good writer.  His style is personable.  The reader has never met him (and never will in this lifetime) but feels as though he is a good friend.  He's not arrogant but self-deprecating.  That's the type of writer the world at large enjoys reading, generally speaking. 

Hal Boyle is your friend next door.  When he tells you about his mother, you think "Yes, my mother was like that.  Well, maybe my grandmothers.  They were the ones the same age as Boyle's mother who gritted their teeth and slogged it through the depression, feeding and clothing children, burying the ones that got sick with no penicillin to heal them and never lost their ability to laugh.  

He married one woman and stayed with her until she died in her middle years of cancer.  His columns express his love and respect for her.  He never remarried.  The little girl they adopted amazed him and he announces to the world he never knew he could love anyone so much.

Secondly, he's funny.  One reads his articles while smiling.  The only stories that contained sadness were his years in Germany during WWII.  He wrote what he saw but with compassion at the suffering.  Not only of Americans but of the Germans learning to carry on in the aftermath of a wrecked, broken country.

Help, Help!  Another Day!  Is out of print but there are used copies on Amazon.  I bought the book because it was mentioned in one of my "how to be a brilliant writer" books that I'm a sucker for.  His writing is a good example of great writing and I'm emulous of it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Life Photographers What They Saw by John Loengard

John Loengard was a photographer for Life magazine back in the sixties.  In the nineties he sought out every living photogapher that was ever on staff at Life.  This could not have been easy since the magazine was discontinued in 1972.  In his introduction, Loengard states that was able to interview half of the 88 photographers that had worked for Life.  

In his book he asks each photographer why they chose their profession, how they got started, their philosophy on taking photos and their most interesting moments.

While the questions are largely repetitive the stories are completely unique.  Each photographer has their own history, what drove them to photograph historical moments even at the risk of their own lives.  Loengrad includes some of the photographers' most famous photographs, many of which the reader will recognize.

Some of the photographs are interesting because they are of famous people such as Harry Benson's photos of The Beatles pillow fighting on a bed or Loomis Dean's portrait of Noel Coward in a full dress suit calmly smoking a filtered cigarette  in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Others are poignant like the Navy chief petty officer playing the accordion with tears streaming down his face as President Roosevelt's casket passed by. Some are horrific, such as the photos of skeletal prisoners of war.  

Famous moments in time are included:  Bill Eppridge's photograph of Robert Kennedy lying on the ground his final life seconds quickly ebbing and Carl Mydans' of General MacArthur landing on Luzon.

The photographers explain their photos and the story behind their most famous ones. This is a good book for any lover of documentary photography and useful for those interested in becoming an amateur or professional photographer.

If you'd like to see a lot of these photographs in addition to the latest Time/Life photos you can click on the link below:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Witchcraft by Charles Williams


Charles Williams was one of the Inklings and good friends of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Although his works are less known, perhaps due to his untimely death at forty-five, they have their own attraction.  

Witchcraft is a study of the art of sorcery through the ages.  It does not give a glamorous description or any salaciousness that seem to be hallmarks of contemporary studies on the subject. In his own words:

These pages must stand for what they are -a brief account of the history in Christian times of that perverted way of the soul which we call magic, or (on a lower level) witchcraft, and with the reaction against it.  That they tend to deal more with the lower level than with any nobler dream is inevitable. ...No one will derive any knowledge of initiation from this book; if he wishes to meet 'the tall, black man' or to find the proper method of using the Reversed Pentagram, he must rely on his own heart, which will, no doubt, be one way or other sufficient.  I have not wished to titillate or to thrill; so far as I can manage it, this is history, and...accurate history.

Williams begins with pagan times and records the acts of witchcraft in ancient Greek and Roman times.  He quickly moves on to the middle ages when there was a great conflict with the practitioners of Witchcraft and authority.

Interestingly, it was not the Church-inquisition notwithstanding- that diligently sought out and persecuted those convicted of witchcraft, it was the secular court.  However, it is important to remember that "secular" did not hold the connotations that it does now.  The court still grounded itself in religious principals.

Something else to understand:  The culture of that time produced different motives than they do now.  Today we have serial killers or societal deviants that engage in criminal activity and we say they have a chemical imbalance or some type of psychosis.  They didn't view things that way hundreds of years ago.  Things were seen on a spiritual level.  Not only were serial killers, perverts- what have you, accused of witchcraft, the perpetrators of certain crimes committed them believing themselves to be practicing witchcraft.

The crimes these criminals committed in order to attain supernatural power for themselves and over others were sordid indeed and if you read them you wouldn't protest the punishment that was meted out to the people who engaged in such horrible acts.

But this isn't to say that people weren't falsely accused.  Throughout Europe there seemed to be a hysteria against witchcraft that caused persecution far greater than there could have been witches.  After all, all one had to do was accuse someone, then the accused was tortured until they confessed.  If they did confess they received absolution, thus saving their soul from damnation.  They were still executed, but with the blessings of the Church bestowed upon them.

I thought about this from a Christian perspective.  In Roman times, Christians were compelled to renounce their "pagan, atheistic faith" or be tortured and killed. In this past century in Communist countries being a Christian prevented one from getting an education, owning land or getting a job.  A friend of mine from Hungary shared with me that her grandmother was a member of the Communist party.  On joining she had to agree that no living relative went to church or professed the Christian belief in any way. (Interestingly, on her death bed she told her children to baptize the grand children).

 In modern times, throughout Asia and Africa, Christians are persecuted for their beliefs.  Converting from Islam to Christianity brings the death penalty.  

So here comes the Middle Ages.  Europe is owned by the "Holy Roman" Church.  If I were Satan and I wanted to force people to renounce Christ how would I do it?  How about torture people until they confess to being witches?  Because if you're admitting to being a witch what are you also doing?  Renouncing your faith in Christ.  What does John 16:2 say? fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.

The strangest part I found was the involvement of children and how many accused others, including their own family members of being witches. Why would a child do that?

Williams devotes whole chapters to different countries:  England, Spain, Germany.  There's some bizarre tales of the court of France prior to the French revolution.  Apparently the king's mistress practiced "Black Sabbath's" to maintain her hold over the king as well as killing off any potential threats to her position.

The last chapter is left for America and the Salem witch trials.  It all started with hysterical children.  Why did they do it?  Did they understand what they were doing?  And why did adults give them any credence?  It's easy to believe that a malevolent Spirit simply possessed a whole community-all believing they were serving God.  Satan must have been laughing his head off.

On record the pastors and judges who were involved later recanted and asked pardon for the offenses they committed against innocent people.  Not that that brought anyone back to life but at least they lived to regret their actions.

This book is strange, horrific and utterly fascinating.  If you would like greater insight into the psychic of the mind and how it operated throughout history, this is a good book for it.