Thursday, December 29, 2016

Henry James on Italy; Odyssey by Homer; Images and Imagination by C.S. Lewis; Political Woman: The Big Little LIfe of Jeane Kirkpatrick by Peter Collier

  I wrote this post before I left for Paris on December 10th.

I'm listening to my favorite Christmas Carols on Spotify. Feel free to listen to your favorite while reading today's post.

In two days I'll be in Paris.  Four books are piled one on top of the other on my table and I am going to write a brief paragraph on each so I can start the year with a clean slate, so to speak.

Henry James on Italy

I love James' writing, however, his need to describe every nook and cranny of Italy can only be inspired by the fact that photography was not accessible to everyone and most people had not seen what he was describing.  Hence his attention to minutia.

He does a thorough and adequate job painting the scenery with his words and he includes more than a few jibes at John Ruskin at no extra charge.  Apparently, Ruskin also wrote of Italy and in a manner James did not approve.

What makes the book worth the money (and by that I mean the two dollars I paid for it at an Independent Book Store) are the prints of oil paintings of different scenes throughout the "Lo Stivale". (That's Italian for "the boot", a nickname because Italy is shaped like, well, you know.)

Images and Imagination by C.S. Lewis

This is a compilation by Walter Hooper of C.S. Lewis' essays and lectures on different authors and genres of literature.  The chapters I enjoyed the most were on subjects I had previously read about or authors whom I had read.

Therefore, his articles on the different Inklings such as Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and, of course J.R.R. Tolkien were interesting to read.  I also enjoyed his analysis of Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey.  I had not read his translation but because I had just read the Odyssey, I could appreciate his comments.

My favorite was his analysis and critique of Malory's translation of the Arthurian legends.  He brings other experts in and either agrees or disagrees with their opinions and explains his point of view in a way I could understand and enjoy. 

This was not true of many of the essays because I was either unfamiliar with the writer or the work.  

 In one of his essays Lewis points out is that he thinks his was the age of the biography rather than literature which I found funny since I have been reading a lot of biographies lately.

Odyssey by Homer, translated by Samuel Butler

And speaking of the Odyssey, I found I enjoyed the story much better than the Iliad.  The Iliad was much too stagnate.  It went nowhere but stayed at the battle field with lots of poetic speeches by warriors, gods and goddesses about what sort of revenge they were going to take on each other and even more poetic descriptions of battle scenes.  I understand that I am exposing my own limitations and taste in literature and not in any way making an intelligent judgement on a timeless work.

The Odyssey, on the other hand, went places.  Odysseus just had a time and a half trying to get home.  And of course the whole sale audacity of the young men back home just eating up all of Odysseus' larder and trying to pressure his wife into marrying one of them for the purpose of taking over Odysseus' possessions primes the reader for the final showdown where our hero slaughters them all and not too soon either.

Odysseus has many adventures, mostly at the expense of his crew, none of which survive.  Life was cheap back then and the gods were not you could turn to.  They were capricious and destroyed men at their whim.  There was no reason, either.  I cannot do justice in this brief review to describe all my thoughts on the subject of Greek Gods.  I would love to know their history and origins, not to mention the psychology behind such inventions.

I wonder if the reason I read through the Odyssey more easily than the Iliad was that the translator, Samuel Butler, chose to put it in prose rather than poem form.  My Iliad, translated by Andrew Lang was written as a poem, which the epics were.

And finally....

Political Woman:  The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick

I am really not going to be able to do justice to this book and it is worth much more than the brief paragraph I am going to give it.  But briefly...

Jeane Kirkpatrick was a political scientist and diplomat.  Starting as a Democrat, she converted to Republicanism as the Democratic party moved farther and farther left.  In a time when women played no significant role in politics, she was appointed by Ronald Reagan to be the American U.N. Ambassador.  She also served as his political advisor.

The best part of this book is the insight it provides as to how our political parties, especially the Democratic party evolved from being a party concerned about American citizens as individuals and protecting their rights insofar as their rights were limited to opportunities in employment and education, to propagating ideology at the expense of the individual.  

She tried to understand the intellectual "perversion" of utopianism.  In her words utopianism was:

"theories ungrounded in experience (that can therefore) never be tested."

This led to what she called "rationalism" whose politica effect was:

"the determined effort to understand and shape people and societies on the basis of inadequate, oversimplified theories of human behavior...(which) encourages utopianism..Both are concerned more with the abstract than the concrete, with the possible than the probable.  Both are less concerned with people as they are than as they might be..."

Kirkpatrick moved to the Republican party after Carter made it clear to her and other moderate Democrats that they were not going to take the "kick me" sign off of America's back for the rest of the world.  Or change their or Europe's or the Middle East's anti-Israel stance.

Carter succeeded in costing America so much respect globally that he practically ensured Reagan's election.  Parallels between that election and our current one are hard to ignore. 

When Kirkpatrick later became U.N. Ambassador under Reagan she tore the "kick me" sign off America's back.  She personally contacted countries that were denouncing the U.S. during U.N. meetings and asking if they were still interested in receiving U.S. aid.

I may add that reading the nasty and even sophomoric tirades that certain third world countries gave at the U.N., not the least of which by the likes of Idi Amin, Fidel Castro and other tyrants one sees the flaws in an organization that gives equal floor to countries that point fingers at the U.S. (to standing ovations!) while their own houses are filthy.

Which leads me to one of the next books I plan on reading:  The Tyranny of Guilt by Pascal Bruckner.

Bruckner is a French philosopher and his book  argues that it is time for the West to stop self-flagellating.  But more about that in the future.

I have not done justice to any of these books but at least I got them off my chest and back on the bookshelves.

In the mean time, have a joyful, blessed season of Peace and God bless you!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Finishing up the year with eleven books on my Kindle

Hello to all!  Miss me?  I have just returned from ten days traveling in Paris.  The journey was arduous, not on the scale of trekking to a mountain and fighting a dragon for jewels, but still very tiring.  

My journey started with my husband and I arising on December 11 at four a.m. We drove three hours to Dallas, deposited our car at a hotel and took the shuttle to the airport.  We flew three hours to JFK in New York,  and endured a four hour layover made worthwhile with good conversation over dinner with a very nice young man from San Fransisco on his way to scuba dive in the Canary Islands.  Eric and Josh and I disagreed on everything we talked about from religion to politics but developed a firm, if temporary friendship.  We hugged goodbye and I told him I was going to pray for him and he said, "Good!  I want you to!"

And I am.  Josh said that Eric fulfilled his man hug quota for the year, but I think he enjoyed the conversation as well.

The flight to Paris was eight hours.  I read several books on my Kindle.  I will be writing more on my adventures in Paris (the most magical week of my life-that's your teaser!) but suffice to say, that after walking over eight hours a day sight seeing, I fell asleep every evening around seven p.m., woke up wide awake at midnight, read for two or three hours before finally falling asleep around three a.m. then waking up again around six a.m. starving.  Unfortunately Paris does not wake up before nine.  More reading since I can't sleep with my stomach growling.

At the end of our trip we flew back, with all the hours of flying and driving in reverse.

In conclusion, I read eleven books in ten days on my Kindle.  None of them were very long, and my reviews here will be quite short as well.
Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith

This is a collection of essays by Smith about his personal observations about his life, society in London, religion, and socio-political thought from the eyes of a Victorian/early Twentieth century man.

I thought his essays, were lucid, thought-provoking and charming.  I recommend this short book to anyone who likes to read the inner thoughts of a man who combines humor with realism.

The Mouse and the Moonbeam by Eugene Field

This very short book is a Christmas story told by a mouse and then a moonbeam.  A good children's book that has a moral about the consequences of the lack of faith as well as the actual purpose of Christmas.

My one complaint:  I know that at one time (perhaps still is), it was popular to take some license with Bible stories. In this story the moonbeam shares something he saw many years ago.  Jesus as a child is friends with
another boy who winds up being the thief on the cross who finally remembers Jesus and surrenders his heart and soul to spend eternity with Him. 

This never happened, the author just thought it would make a nice story.

To me, reducing  profound Biblical history to a children's story trivializes it into some sort of sentimental tale and robs it of its true power.
The Story of My Heart:  an Autobiography by Richard Jefferies

I don't know much about Jefferies, I'm not sure how this book ended up on my Kindle.  Probably an impulse buy since it was public domain and free.

Apparently Jefferies is one of the transcendentalist writers.  His reflections basically consider our aesthetic reaction to nature as the ultimate experience.  The supernatural is only the ecstasy our senses receive as they drink in the wonder the sky, the stars, earth, trees, etc blah, blah blah...breath into us.

There is no God, no metaphysical.  Anything created by, books, architecture, whatever... amount to nothing and living as a jungle beast alone in the forest is vastly to be preferred.

Whatever.  I read this in one setting, which is a good thing for the author because I wouldn't have bothered to pick the book up again.

Three stars for the quality of writing, not the substance.

Perpetual Light:  a Memorial by William Rose Benet

Benet wrote the poems throughout his lifetime for his beloved wife whose life was cut tragically short.

Hence the evolution of these poems are wonderful to read, beginning with the ones he wrote in his youth, expressing the first giddy excitement of being in love, mellowing with a rich enjoyment of being married to the love of his life and ending finally with the stark and barren wilderness that he finds himself thrust into as he endures his loss and loneliness.

Even in his darkest moments, there are undercurrents of strength and hope.  I enjoyed these poems and yes, I also read these in one sitting, which allowed me to better appreciate the transition of his life journey.

Poems and Ballads of Heinrich Heine

Our first morning in Paris, which was very early because the sun hadn't risen and our hostel room wasn't available yet, we walked to Montmartre Cemetery.  It was peaceful, though cold, as the sun rose, slowly illuminating the gravestones and chapels.  
While we walked among the tombs looking for famous graves a French woman walked up to us and pointed to a grave we were standing near.

"That is Anrish Ann. He is a German poet."

We looked at the grave which had a bust of the poet on top. The poet's name was Heinrich Heine, which I would pronounce differently than the French woman, but who am I to correct others?

When I woke up the next morning around two a.m due to Jet Lag, I opened up my Kindle and discovered that I had a collection of Heine's poems.

This is a beautiful set of poems by a preeminent 19th century German poet. He writes of love, of longing, of spiritual fulfillment in excellent verse. Another book I refused to put down and read in one sitting.

The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood
I started this collection earlier in the year but finished it one early Parisian morning.
This is a fine collection of scary, suspenseful short stories, reminding me of Lovecraft, Steam Punk and other mystery/supernatural stories of the turn of the last century.,204,203,200_.jpg

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Another book I'd been reading for several months but finished in Paris.  

The King in Yellow is a series of short stories written in H.P. Lovecraft style.  The common thread is horror and a mysterious set of letters, documents, or other metaphysical phenomena that leads to the death or tragic conclusion involving the narrator.

The stories are in turn suspenseful, scary and sometimes funny as a few of them turn out to be merely dreams.

The writing is style can be a little archaic and after the fashion of a lot of Steam Punk or lesser known authors of the time period, which can be seen now as somewhat melodramatic and sentimental.

Women are described after the fashion of many late Victorian writers in poetical turns.  There are often depicted as goddesses, often unattainable or if attainable, not sustainable because of a tragic ending.  Oh, those Victorian writers. 

Fables for Children, Stories for Children, Natural Science Stories, Popular Education, Decembrists, Moral Tales by Leo Tolstoy 

I don't know if Tolstoy wrote these stories or compiled them.  They are small moral tales like Aesop's Fables, each only a paragraph long.  Still they are interesting and worth reading.

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley
This book started out very interesting and written in a lively style.  It quickly turned into a story of imagination with a tremendous amount of detail.  I suppose for a child of the Victorian age who has not suffered the modern child's affliction of information overload, it would be a magical journey.

In a nutshell, a little chimney sweep who experiences nothing but abuse and neglect finally, in a panic, runs away but finally collapses at the edge of a spring.  There the Queen of the Fairies turns him into a Water Baby. 

When he wakes up, he finds himself only a few inches high with gills on the sides of his neck.  The rest of the story is filled with his new discoveries of his environment and the various animals and sea life.

There is also a moral tale of the wrongness of child abuse and also redemption for even the most hardened heart.
Fast and Loose by Edith Wharton
This is the first story in the Complete Edith Wharton I have on my Kindle.
It is very short and I read it in a few sittings shortly before I left Paris.  (I had quite a few early morning readings. 
It was written when Wharton was fourteen years old and though has much that is tragic about it, there is none of the cynical "modern realism" that readers expect from Wharton.  I was surprised to see how positive and even moralistic the story ended.
A young girl, Georgie, breaks off her engagement to her cousin Guy, because, even though she loves him, she would rather be the wife of a Baron.  
She marries the Baron and has a brilliant career among the rich and elite who find her brazen sauciness both shocking and irresistibly attractive.
As the story progresses we see how the jilted Guy lives under heartbreak and also how Georgie eventually comes to repent of her selfishness.
Overall, I thought the story transpired rather nicely even if it ended on a rather melodramatic, if not typically Victorian moralistic tone.
A worthy read for Wharton fans.
The Christmas Child by Hesba Stretton

Miss Priscilla Parry adopts a young girl Rhoda and later an even younger girl, Joan.  She has plans for the girls, none of which includes getting married.  She firmly believes that women should stay single, be strong and independent.  When Rhoda runs off and gets married, Priscilla can't forgive her.
Filled with rage and hatred, she shuts herself up and neglects  poor little Joan.
Every Christmas Eve Joan and Rhoda would go into the barn to look for the Christmas child.  After Rhoda is gone, Joan continues to look by herself.
One Christmas Eve, much to Joan's surprise and delight, there is a child in the manger!

This is a sweet Christmas story, very old fashioned and Victorian but also a timeless message of how hard-heartedness can impact the ones we should love the most, the need for forgiveness as well as to forgive.

On the flight home I was sitting next to a young woman from Tunisia.  She was staying in New Jersey for a couple of months with relatives.  She asked where we were going.

I told her how many hours we had before us.  I added that the day after we arrived, my in laws were coming in from North Carolina.  When they left, the day after Christmas, my parents would be arriving.

After New Year's my son and I will drive them back to Florida and stay with them a week.

So it is lively at the Wilfong home. 

 Which is how I like it!

I pray you all have a similarly blessed time.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell

While I found Coming Up for Air interesting and also rather funny, I did not enjoy it as much as Keep the Apisdistra Flying and Burmese Days.
Possibly because, unlike the other two, this book was written from a first person view point rather than third person as the other two were.

Not that first person narration can't be successful, but Orwell's strength seems to lie in describing the inner thoughts of the protagonist by a third person narrator.

Also, there is no real story line or character development.  Largely it is a man's, George Bowling's, attempts to return to the England of his youth.

It starts with Bowling's present status which is a typical middle class working man, married with children.  He should be happy with what he has, but he is not.  He doesn't mind his children, his wife is a bit of a shrew, but then what wife wouldn't be if married to him.

Bowling does not make this conclusion and I'm not altogether sure Orwell is implying it.  It is what I conclude based on the loutish character of Bowling.

Bowling isn't a lout in that he's cruel or abusive.  But he's not faithful and he is selfish.  He lies to his wife by keeping money squirreled away from her and telling her he's off on business when he's actually returning to his home town, Lower Binfield, which he hasn't been to since he left it for the war (WWI).

What he wants is a vacation all to himself and return to the town of his youth.  In order for us to fully appreciate his visit he hearkens back to his childhood and describes life with his parents, his older brother and friends and schools and everyone in the town.

He particularly remembers a place near the River Thames where gigantic carp swam in a water hole.  He never got the chance to fish there.  He is determined to do so when he arrives.

He recalls his first love, who he leaves for the war.  He describes his experience in the war which is not at all remarkable.  Or rather it is remarkable for a complete lack of action.  He did, however, get quite a bit or reading done.

The first problem when Bowling arrives is figuring out exactly where the town is.  It has developed so much that it takes him some time to find the original section where he grew up.  I'm sure today it would be called the "historic district". 

He checks into a hotel.  Considers mildly flirting with local women, perhaps enjoy a brief encounter, but nothing develops.
 Bowling buys fishing tackle but upon finding, after a lot of effort and directions by people who "think they know" he finds the site of the carp pool.  It no longer exists because a new housing development has supplanted it.

In a nutshell, Bowling finds he can't go home again. His home is now a tea shop, and his family's furniture is the antique decor, including family photos, which still fills the rooms.  What a strange feeling that must be.

 He did accidentally run into his first love.  Or rather recognized her and followed her into a store.  She is no longer the slim, attractive girl he was attracted to, but heavy and square and judging from the mundane gossip she is engaged in with the store owner, not educated.

Finally, he gives up and returns home, deflated and depressed.  But, alas, his trials are not over.  His wife checked up on him and found that he was not at the town he purported to be in because the hotel he claimed to be staying in was now defunct.

Her natural assumption is that he was having an affair (there had already been a precedent set).  This time he was not but how can he persuade her that he was just visiting his childhood home.  He can't and the story ends with an indication that poor George has quite a few weeks of scolding and sleeping on the couch in store for him.

Returning to childhood is always a failed experiment.  At least for George Bowling.

Political designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  George Orwell