Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Edge of the Chair edited by Joan Kahn

Happy Halloween (slightly early)!  Here is Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky to listen to (but play it softly!) while reading today's post!  

Of course I must write at least one review about a scary book I have read, although in fact I am reading three concurrently.  I'll write reviews of those when I have finished reading them.

I can't remember where I found The Edge of the Chair.  Either east of me at a book fair in Marshall, Texas (where the public library there has several fairs where they sell thousands of books throughout the year.  It is the best type of fair I've come across and for a dollar a book, you really can't beat it!) or west of me at an Independent bookstore in Gladewater, (the Capital of antique stores, at least in East Texas) called, crazily enough, Gladewater Bookstore.

The Edge of the Chair is an anthology of both fact and fiction.  

The fiction stories are by authors such as Alexander Pushkin (The Queen of Spades); Ambrose Bierce (A Watcher by the Dead); and others such as Graham Green, Harold Pinter, Jack London, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, and William Faulkner.  John Buchan, G.K. Chesterton, Guy de Maupassant and Dorthy L. Sayers also contribute to this section.  There are more but I list the ones who have not since disappeared into obscurity.  (The book was published in 1967.)

The above writers do not always write of the supernatural but also mystery and suspense.  Some, like Pushkin's Queen of Spades offer a combination of the supernatural and the psychological.  The stories range from thrilling to entertaining but all were fun to read.

Bierce's A Watcher of the Dead also combines the psychological with the supernatural or so we are lead to think.  Two men bet a third man that he won't spend the night in the room with a dead body because our primitive psyche will project supernatural conclusions, over riding what our senses tell us.  The third man decries any notion that man cannot reason himself out of any situation and accepts the bet.  The conclusion arrives with unforeseen consequences that inflict everyone involved.  

Dry September by William Faulkner is horrible not because of its suspense but because of its all too accurate and harrowing picture of the South in Jim Crow times. A woman, for no other reason than loneliness and a desire for attention and importance, falsely accuses a black man.  This offers certain citizens of the town, one thug in particular, to act out his own criminal proclivities with the contemporary culture on his side.  Not even because most of the people in the town like him or agree with his intent, but because it's easier to stand by and do nothing.  

Other stories by Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers are fun mysteries.  Christie, is the usual whodunit.  Chesterton's is always more than a whodunit, but rather a why did he do it?  The reasons are always comments on the inner motives of man and the truths they cling to and follow to their logical end, even if it means murdering someone to maintain the illusion. 

 But the anthology ends with a a story by Sayers that is as suspenseful as the ending is unexpected and, if I may say so, hilarious.  I give no titles so as not to ruin the opportunity for any reader out there who may run across any of these stories in other collections.

These are only a couple of the fiction stories I offer as a sample.  The remaining stories are non fiction.

These stories include descriptions of murder trials, some where the narrator is obviously sympathetic with the victim(s) and others where the narrator clearly defends the murderer(s).  The latter, as in the case of Rattenbury and Stoner by F. Tennyson Jesse, the author justifies the murderers, if not the crime, and roundly condemns society for judging these poor oversexed lovers who felt compelled to kill the one lover's husband.  His argument was they lacked the intelligence to do otherwise and therefore should not have been found guilty.  I was not convinced. 

A particularly fascinating non fiction is by William Seabrook who describes a personal experience in Haiti with zombies in Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields.  His graphic descriptions and personal conclusions left me thinking about the possibility  Zombies and a desire to read more of his writing.

Another non fiction was Shattering the Myth of John Wilkes Booth's Escape.  I did not know this but back when this account was written, a family had in their garage a coffin with what they avowed was the corpse of John Wilkes Booth.  The author, William G. Shepherd traces the history of the man behind the corpse through documents and letters to prove who the body actually belonged to.

There are many non fiction stories some interesting, some less so but hands down the best was an excerpt from Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Most people recognize Saint-Exupery as the author of La Petit Prince (The Little Prince).  He was also a pilot and wrote several books both fact and fiction about the adventures of flying during the thirties and forties.  Prisoner of the Sand comes from his novel, Wind, Sand and Stars.  This particular excerpt is about a time he and his co pilot crashed his plane in the desert of Saudi Arabia.  Their ordeal and final deliverance is one of the most nail biting stories I've ever come across and, as a result, I bought the book.

The Edge of the Chair was a gem of a find, and I encourage you to scour your local bookstores and library fairs (or ebay or Amazon, which is easier if less fun) for a copy.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Waltzing Matilda is a song I taught my students when I was a music teacher at a Title One public school years ago (Title One means over a third of the school population lives under the poverty line).  We sang it as we learned to play the guitar.  Waltzing Matilda is the unofficial national anthem of Australia.  You can listen to Slim Dusty singing it here.

You can learn the meaning and origin of the song here. was an interesting book. I read it on the recommendation of an Australian blogger I follow because I have not read much, if any, Australian literature. (You can visit Carol's blog, Journey and Destination "down under" or click on the link here.)

Therefore, I do not know whether Franklin's book reflects Australian culture or just or her own thoughts and ideas.

Amazingly, she wrote this while a teenager. The writing is wonderful. Her descriptions of farm life and the Australian countryside are fantastic! But then again, that might explain the immaturity of the protagonist.

The story takes place in the 1890s and is about a young girl, Sybylla, who is sixteen and hates her life. Well, don't all sixteen year old girls.

But Sybylla is slightly different. She hates living on a farm, hates the work, hates the people she's surrounded with. She's a "thinker" and they're not. Her mother is beautiful, but thinks the highest ideal for a woman is to marry and have children. This is anathema to Sybylla who has dreams of a brilliant career. I'm not sure in what, writing or music I suppose.

Her family's farm goes under and Sybylla shakes her fist at her father and at God and all of life. Her mother talks of sending her out to work somewhere. But then her grandmother invites her to come live with her. She meets her aunt Helen who persuades her she is not as ugly as she believes herself to be.

Her life is full of tea parties, dinners, and flirtatious young men. To most of them Sybylla is rude if not out right odious. Her Grandmother and Aunt Helen find her behavior shocking but her Uncle Jay Jay thinks its hilarious.

There is one man, Harold Beecham, who stands up to her challenge, although why he bothers with her I don't know, because she acts like a perfect imp to him. And I'll stop right there so as not to give away anything.

I really did not understand this novel. Sybylla is a nasty brat with no redeeming character as far as I can see.

The story is supposed to have a wonderful feminist message. Well, if hating men and believing the only way a woman can be strong and independent is to never get married or have a family, and thinking you're smarter than everyone else, it does.

But I wonder where that thinking comes from. I am strong and independent and the greatest joy I receive in my life is my family. I wouldn't give my husband or son up for anything.

In my view, strong and independent by Sybylla's terms means to be self-absorbed and rude.

I'd be interested in other people's opinions because it is possible I'm missing something.

On a side note, Miles Franklin was so upset to realize that readers thought she was basing her story on her real life that she removed the book and did not allow its publication until after her death.

Unfortunately for her, she got to expose her immature teenage years to the world while the rest of us get to blissfully forget about them.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The World of Rome by Michael Grant

I'm listening to some lovely piano music, a Variations on a theme by Pierre Rode composed by Carl Czerny.  You can listen to Vladimir Horowitz playing the piece here.
I work out at a gym and because I find stationary exercisers terminally boring I have to read while using them.  Therefore while I jog away on the elliptical or step on the stair aerobics machine, I have a book on hand to while away the time.  This is especially helpful on the stair stepper which would be hard to get through if I didn't have my mind on something else to block out the sound of my calves and thighs squealing in pain.

Usually I can't read fiction because reading literature is not something to gulp down.  I read to savor the art of word choice, sentence construction and expression of ideas.  One can do that while toiling away on an exercise machine, I suppose, but I find it easier to read non fiction where I can just focus on the facts.

Hence, I just finished the World of Rome by Michael Grant.  Ever feel as though you uncovered a gem in the sand?  That is what this book is like.  It is one of the best histories of Ancient Rome I have ever read.

The book was published in 1960 and has stood well the test of time. I have had a hard time finding information on Grant today, because there is a popular YA author by the same name and his information kept popping up.

The back of the book says that Grant was President and Vice-Chancellor of the Queen's University of Belfast. He was a graduate of Harrow and Trinity college, Cambridge and is "universally acknowledged as one of the most eminent scholars of the classical Roman era."  I've added more information at the bottom of the post.

Grant is very even-handed in his study of Ancient Roman culture.  After giving a historical overview he breaks down every level of the society:  the rulers, citizens, subjects and slaves; their religious beliefs; and their art.

Part III, their beliefs was especially interesting to me.  He adequately compares and contrasts the different religious beliefs by people who believed in fate and the stars to those who were religious and also the philosophers.  Of course he shows the obvious Greek influence and also fairly compares the Christian and Jewish beliefs and their place in the Roman world.

One part that I found fascinating and I formed a conclusion (Grant does not say this in his book):  When Julius Caesar decided to overthrow the Roman Republic and established the rule of the Caesars, he guaranteed not only brutal despotism, but also the murder of every Caesar.  If a Caesar is appointed for life, then how are you going to get rid of him since you can't vote him out?  Really, shouldn't they have seen that coming or were they all too power hungry to think objectively? 

I am currently reading Suetonius' account of the Caesars and I think perhaps a good many of them were insane.  But then again,  were they any more insane than any of us would be without any checks and balances to stop us from gratifying every selfish whim?

Another provoking statement concerned Roman entertainment.  The Caesars knew if they could keep the population occupied with mindless entertainment, the coarser the better, they wouldn't bother thinking about how effective or adept their governing body was. 

Cato the younger, as well as more opportunistic politicians, had felt that the only sound and safe policy was to keep the populace quiet by entertaining them and subsidizing their food supply. (pg. 106 Part II. State and Society Chapter 3, Citizens of Rome)...

All subsequent emperors agreed that this dual formula of 'bread and entertainments' was the right one and participation in politics the wrong one, for the Roman proletariat. (pg. 107)

Hmmmmm......  Entertainment around the clock and free stuff...where have I seen that?  

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject.  It is a book I plan to return to again. 

Michael Grant has written several books, a few of which I have since ordered and eagerly look forward to reading.

Michael Grant CBE (21 November 1914 – 4 October 2004) was an English classicist, and author of numerous popular books on ancient history. His 1956 translation of Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome remains a standard of the work. Having studied and held a number of academic posts in the United Kingdom and the Middle East, he retired early to devote himself fully to writing. He once described himself as "one of the very few freelancers in the field of ancient history: a rare phenomenon".  His hallmarks were his prolific output and his unwillingness to oversimplify or talk down to his readership. He published over 70 works.  from Wikipedia

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

I'm listening to the Wind Quintet Op. 43 by Carl Neilson as I write.  You can listen here.

I bought this book on a whim.  I had not heard positive things about Ford but then again, my only source was Ernest Hemingway who despised Ford.  But then Hemingway despised a lot of people, especially those that helped him get his start.  As my husband said, "You can afford to be mean when you're good (at what you do)."

I'm not sure Hemingway could afford it, considering his own ultimate ending.  At any rate, I wasn't inclined to read The Good Soldier.  I allowed an unreliable source to prejudice me.  Furthermore, when I read the reviews on Amazon, the only thing anyone could say about the book was how very sad it was.  This inclined me even less.

But there it was in the Indie bookshop in Shreveport, in such an appealing edition and at such an appealing price that I whipped it off the shelf and handed it to Josh who brought it to the cashier.  (After thirteen years of living off of a single mom's income, I can't tell you how much I enjoy doing that.)

The book is not long.  I read it in a couple of days.  For a short book, it has a powerful impact.

 Before continuing let met say that I was reading the blog by a literary agent who decried people who wrote "spoiler alerts" because they were going to give away key elements of a story.  I understand her point if one is writing a review of a contemporary author and the point of the review is to give potential readers (and buyers) the ability to make informed decisions.

However, this book has been around for a hundred and one years and even if you don't know the story already,  the first person narrator does not tell the story as the events occurred; he tells you the ending of his sad tale at the front.  

Also, I want to be free to analyze the story without avoiding important points.  There is no plot to speak of, just the musings of a dazed and confused man trying to make sense of the tragedy of his life and the others in his sad tale.

The protagonist,  John Dowell, is telling us the story.  Later in the book he explains that he sat down in his English country manor and wrote the story down over eighteen months.  He explains to the "silent reader" that he knew nothing of what was happening as it happened and only discovered the reality after two of the people involved were dead.

Dowell elopes with his wife, Florence via a ladder at the window from her aunts' house.  The aunts try to warn Dowell about marrying her but he replies that he doesn't care if she "robbed a bank", he was going to marry her.

So they do marry and sail for Europe.  Florence had sailed once before with her Uncle and a young man, Jimmy, some years previously.  We are made to understand that perhaps Florence's relationship with Jimmy was not respectable but back then Dowell was blind to subtle hints.

After they land in Europe, Florence informs John through several doctors that her heart is so delicate that she will not survive a return trip to America so must stay in Europe. 

They meet a British couple, Leonora and Edward Ashburnham.  The four become friends and see each other over the next nine years.  

For nine years, Dowell gives us to understand that his life was serene.  He does not reveal any passion he shared with his wife but apparently things sailed along smoothly.  None of his life looks serene to us because he is informing us of how things really were after he discovered it through a blunt, thoughtless comment from Leonora who assumed he knew as much as she did.

Dowell has given the previous nine years a lot of thought and is trying to piece together the reasons and motives each player had for acting as they did.  He is attempting to explain to the reader and to himself how and why everything came about.

He comes to understand that Florence had it in her mind to return to the country of her ancestors, England, and acquire an English manor.  Dowell was simply a vehicle of means. 

Ford relates this story from the perspective of an American, even though he is English, and he explains that Americans of old aristocratic ancestry valued their lineage and it was important to them to maintain a class distinction even though they lived in America.  Florence wanted more than that.  She wanted to be the English Lady.  This is all the more ironic as we learn how "classy" she really was.

She gets Dowell to bring her to Europe immediately after eloping.  As soon as they get to Europe she devises a reason to stay in Europe.  As it turns out her heart ailment is a fabrication and a manipulating tool to ensure a permanent home in Europe.

We later find out, through Dowell, that Jimmy soon enters the picture and right under his nose, Jimmy and Florence continue their previous affair.  Jimmy, we are made to understand, is a sleaze ball of the highest order.  As if someone who would sleep with another man's wife would be anything but.  This also allows us to appreciate the true quality of Florence's character.

Dowell, believes that Florence tired of Jimmy fairly soon and got rid of him by having an affair with Edward Ashburnham who no doubt gave ol' Jimmy his walking papers in no uncertain terms.  Florence also saw in Edward the means to achieving her object of becoming the Lady of an old English manor and all the status that would accompany it.  Of course, Leonora, his wife was an impediment but Florence figures she can manage that.  

She does this by flaunting her relationship with Edward  in front of Leonora, hoping to push the envelope ever farther until Leonora admits defeat, but Leonora is made of sterner stuff.  She lets Florence know what kind of whore she thinks her and that she is never going to divorce her husband.  This discourages Florence but slightly. 

But here Florence's fictitious heart ailment backfires on her.  Because if she is too ill to travel abroad, she cannot cross the English Channel.

Edward Ashburnham is a weak, tepid individual who tries to break out of his own iced over shell by engaging in passionate affairs.  This only gets him into trouble and bankrupt.  One of his affairs that almost financially broke him was with a Spanish woman called "La Dolciquita".  He falls passionately in love with her but discovers that, after the first night, her love was to be had at a price.  A very expensive price.

By the time Leonora discovers everything, he has wasted a fortune.  But Leonora is up to the task.  She puts herself in control of his finances and puts a tight rein on him.  She is unable to keep him faithful, but she puts herself in control of his love affairs as well.

Ashburnham's last affair is with a young charge, Nancy Rufford.  She is staying with them fresh out of convent school because her parents are unstable and abusive.  She is too naive to understand his overtures even when he passionately declares his love for her on a bench outside a casino.

Florence, who has followed them and overhears everything, understands perfectly.  She realizes she's never going to have that English Manor (she even tried to persuade Leonora of a kind of polygamous relationship).  She rushes back to the hotel where she finds her husband in the lobby with a  man who recognizes her from her days traveling with her uncle and Jimmy.  She realizes that her husband is going to find out everything so she goes up to her room and commits suicide.

Dowell, is still clueless, he finds her body and believes that her heart finally failed her in the end.  It is not until after the funeral of Ashburnham that he discovers the truth about everything when Leonora informs him.  

"That's how I got it.  Full in the face."

That is the point in time when he realizes that he has been the most clueless cuckold in the history of mankind.  So here he is at his desk writing everything out trying to make sense of it.

I read one commentary that suggests that Dowell is really the evil one, playing the passive voyeur refusing to interfere with his wife or Edward's suicides but I didn't gather that myself.

What I saw was a man who married a woman for passionless reasons and a woman who married him to meet her ambitions.  Her character was that of a degraded reprobate who didn't even have the courage to live after seeing her desires come to futility.

I saw Leonora who lived a life tormented by her husband's lack of passion for her and forced to witness his own attempts at passionate experiences through a series of adulterous affairs.  Trying to gain some control of her life she managed his finances and even his affairs.  

Leonora, although acutely aware of the plays transacting around her is in denial in her own way.  She has in her mind that her husband will finally return to her and love her with the passion he seeks from others.

After seeing him fall in love with Nancy she wakes up and in despair drives her husband to despair as well.  She offers to divorce him so he can have Nancy.

Edward, according to Dowell, had by this time begun to develop a sense of self-loathing.  He edges toward despair as he realizes that he can never find meaning or passion in the relationships he seeks and his wife's final offer seems to put a cap on it.

That seems to be what the entire story is about.  A group of people trying to achieve some kind of significance or meaning in their lives and failing.  Every one of them seems to be groping blindly about, snatching whatever their hands touch but dropping it as soon as they realize that what they are clutching fails to satisfy.

Ford's writing technique is effective.  He tells you the basic story, then he tells it too you again from another character's perspective.  He brings you forward and then backward as he re tells the story several times from each person's vantage point. 

 Or rather from Dowell's perspective of their vantage point.  Again, the question arises as to Dowell's reliability as a narrator.

As Dowell finishes his story but he has not achieved any kind of resolution.  

The ending is filled with ironies. 

 Dowell, who did not want the English Manor, buys the Ashburnham's after Edward's death.  He does so with Florence's money, which he has inherited.  So he acquires what Florence spent so many years conniving for.

Leonora marries a neighbor who loves her deeply so she receives the passion that her husband never gave her and what he never received from any of his affairs.  Dowell is somewhat denigrating about Leonora and her new husband but I think that is sour grapes on his part.  He admits that he is jealous and wished that perhaps he had acted a little more quickly.

A final irony is that he also gets Nancy, someone Edward wanted but never got.  But in an irony within an irony, Dowell cannot marry her because she has become insane so instead he serves as her caregiver in his nice, big English Manor.

When reading the story one realizes that John Dowell, changes his opinion about the incidents as he retells the story.  One wonders: is he changing his mind as he gives the matter more thought or does he not know what he thinks or is he, in fact, being manipulative?

Sometimes he describes Edward, Florence, Leonora and even Nancy as innocent, trying to act nobly without any intentions to cause harm.

Then he turns around and insists that all of them are evil, selfish or at the least, willfully stupid.

One thing he certainly achieves is showing how adultery destroys the mental health and emotional stability of everyone involved.

Ford wrote this story based on his own real life circumstances.  I think this is fairly clear because I don't believe anyone could write with such perspicuity on a topic like this from the outside. 

I'm not sure why Ford titled the book "The Good Soldier."  Edward is a soldier but that hardly comes into the story.  Perhaps because he tries to be (sort of) honorable in the end?  Or is John Dowell considering himself to be a kind of "good soldier" because he "stiff upper lips" his tragedy and carries on with endurance?

In The Good Soldier, Ford introduced writing techniques that influenced later writers, like Graham Greene.  He is credited with pioneering Literary Impressionism with his non-chronological story line, and also employing the "unreliable narrator".

If anyone has read this book I would be interested in their opinions as to how reliable they think Dowell is.