Sunday, April 30, 2017

Deadlock by Ruth Fenisong

Today was a sad weekend.  Lately I have had a horrible time keeping my boy guinea pigs in their pen outside.  Somehow they were breaking out and finding their way to the girl guinea pig pens.  No doubt the girls are pregnant and this has also made the boys aggressive with each other.

So, with heavy heart, I gave the girls away to a family with middle school children who are excited about caring for them and are delighted that they are pregnant.  A teenage boy took Bosephus Hambone.  Thank you Craigslist.

So goodbye Bosephus

 Goodbye Henrietta Sweet Pea

And goodbye my little Nellybelle

That leaves me with my two original piggies, Percy and Little Bear.  I combined the pens and they now have a lot of room to run around in.  They seem to have accepted that the girls are gone and have settled down.

 Appropriately, I am listening to some poignant music:  the Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor Mov. IV by Gustav Mahler

I may have mentioned that I read nonfiction and fiction during the week, but weekends are for fun and that usually means a mystery novel.  Today's review is on what I read this past weekend by a new (to me) author.

DeadlockDeadlock by Ruth Fenisong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had never read anything by Ruth Fenisong before. She has not lasted as Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout, or Erle Stanley Gardner have (not to mention Josephine Tey and Agatha Christie) and maybe with good reason.

Her writing is definitely dated, which is not a bad thing in that it can give the reader a taste of a writing style that speaks of a certain era, even if it is archaic. In this case the style is one that was popular in the fifties.

The mystery is not extraordinarily profound although it does keep the reader moving to the end.

What I liked especially was that none of the characters were one dimensional or hateful. Each person was presented in a way that allowed the reader to feel a certain amount of compassion for them.

From the get go the murder victim, Glen Williams, is not shown to be a sympathetic character. Before we turn the first page we know that he is a drug addict and trafficker and a very wealthy one. Or is he?

As the story develops we learn through the various suspects and eyewitnesses that Glen was someone who created an image for himself as very important person who had all sorts of terribly "high up" connections that he was going to use to "help" all his new friends become "hugely successful". As we learn through the other characters, perhaps Glen was not rich or particularly important, in fact maybe he created this legend of himself in order to manipulate other people.

But why? The people he manipulated were just every day people, usually struggling in the world trying to make ends meet. What purpose did it serve to deceive these people? They had no money or connections themselves? Was it just a fantasy world that he wrapped himself up in?

The motive is not immediately apparent. Unlike Agatha Christie whose normal formula was to make the victim someone whom everyone would like dead, we don't see at first what the motive for murder would be.

And, as I said, the other characters, while not perfect, certainly don't seem capable of murdering anyone. So who did it?

All of the above makes a decent story but what sold me and what inspires me to read more stories by Fenisong (she was rather prolific so there's plenty of her material to be had) is that the police aren't stooges to be outwitted by a brilliant detective (think Nero Wolfe or Nick Charles) but decent, intelligent people who care about getting home to have supper with their wives while getting to the bottom of the mystery instead of plowing over everybody to get a verdict. This really appeals to me and why I like Josephine Tey's Inspector Grant so much.

The ending might be considered by some a little hokey but I didn't mind it.

Since finishing Deadlock I have bought two more Fenisong mysteries. Josh said I could break the book fast and buy three books, one for each pig I gave up.

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Hercule Parroh has taken the departure of the pigs more philosophically than me.  "Just a few less ears to nip."

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

I have driven by this scene for the last couple of weeks.  It is in a field next to HWY 80 right as I leave Marshall heading toward Longview.  I finally remembered before passing to pull over and take a photo.  I'd say this "room" has a view, wouldn't you? 

 I am enjoying Rameau's Trio and Sonata for Strings no. 5 and Harpsichord as I write. I'm not sure it best conveys the mood of the book I'm about to review but it was what was on my classical station.

A Room with a ViewA Room with a View by E.M. Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So far this is my favorite story by E.M. Forster. He wrote it in 1910 before WWI which may explain its optimistic attitude compared to the more pessimistic view that shadows Passage to India which was written in 1927.

Lucy Honeychurch has gone on a trip to Italy with her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. The story opens with Charlotte and Lucy in Florence at their hotel seated in the dining room.

Charlotte is complaining that the owner of the hotel promised them rooms with a view but they have no view. Not only that, but the hotel is filled with English people. Even the proprietor is a "cockney".

We might be in London, Lucy laments.

Their conversation is interrupted by a man at a nearby table crying, "We have a view, we have a view!"

Charlotte is too shocked to reply to such an obvious display of vulgar gloating, something a little child would do and entirely unbecoming in a grown man.

The man clarifies. He and his son, would be more than happy to exchange rooms because the view means nothing to them and so much to the ladies.

Instead of appreciating the generosity of the man's offer, Charlotte is disgusted at his lack of social propriety. Who is this stranger, breaking social boundaries and making an offer that would put her and Lucy under "obligation"?

Later, Charlotte and Lucy do take the rooms because another man, Mr. Beebe, who is rector to their church back home and who is also touring Florence encourages them to take up the offer and shows his displeasure with Charlotte's airs. Noticing Mr. Beebe's displeasure motivates Charlotte to accept the offer.

This sets the tone for the book. We realize that Forster is lampooning artificial social constructs that pass as manners but in reality keep people alienated from each other.

Charlotte and Lucy are quickly informed by the other hotel lodgers that the elderly man, Mr. Emerson and his son, George are not "one of us" and should be snubbed accordingly.

Charlotte, a penniless relative who is only in Florence because Lucy's mother is paying for her trip, is only too eager to stand on her dignity and turn her back to the Emersons. Lucy is not so eager.

Reading the first part of the book it is easy to conclude that we are going to have the usual stick figures, each representing a "type" of "good guys" and "bad guys".

Charlotte is a "bad guy" representing the snobbish Englishwoman. Mr. Emerson and George are the "good guys" because they are the underdogs and free spirits who won't conform to social norms. Their being snubbed commands our sympathy.

But it isn't so cut and dry as that.

Charlotte is tiresome, but everyone else, with the exception of a few people, possess an assortment of angles that allow us to see their shortcomings but also to perceive their humanness and sympathize accordingly.

Lucy gets to know the Emersons and finds she likes them very much but is disturbed by the fact that she likes them because she feels she shouldn't. When George impulsively kisses her, she is even more confused.

Charlotte, who witnessed this affront immediately removes Lucy and herself to Rome. This enrages Lucy because she has grown to an age where she wants to make her own decisions.

If it were merely a battle of the wills where she and Charlotte confronted each other from opposite hills and started firing, the war would soon be over and the case closed. But Charlotte is one of those characters that doesn't operate that way. She is a master manipulator.

She gets her way with Lucy every single time because her weapon is insisting on doing everything that Lucy wants to do, even if she, Charlotte, is "too tired to walk, but if you insist..." and the reason Charlotte took the larger room with a view is because it had belonged to the son, George, and if Lucy slept in it, she would be "under obligation" to him. Charlotte was all about doing things "Lucy's way" and thus ensured for herself getting her own way.

If Lucy put up any kind of fight, Charlotte was quick to announce, "Oh, of course, we must do everything Lucy's way because after all, I am a penniless relation who is only here because of your mother's generosity...of course I must sacrifice...."

Charlotte gets her way but at a price. Lucy loathes her and so do most people who come into contact with her. Charlotte knows this and uses it as another weapon in her arsenal. "I know I'm unwanted..."

One wonders if Charlotte, a spinster, is not serving as a warning to Lucy: "This is what you could become one day if you don't break away and follow your heart." I won't say what that desire is in case a reader hasn't read the book.

Yet, Charlotte knows the "right way to do things" and it is the lash she cracks over everyone if they protest because English people must behave "correctly".

Things could be suffocatingly heavy if that's all there were to the story. If E.M. Forester's intention was only to point out the hypocrisy of English custom, the story would quickly devolve into tiresome sermonizing.

But he balances Charlotte out with most of the other characters who are likeable and very human. Yes, they may act the snob and be a little overly concerned with who is acceptable and unacceptable but mostly they forget about it and enjoy each other's company.

Lucy's trip ends and she goes back home to her mother and brother who are simply charming individuals. They are easy going, easy to accept others and quick to include them in their circle without much ado. When Mr. Emerson and George move into their neighborhood, Lucy's family invites them over without ceremony.

George, Freddie and Mr. Beebe sun bathe together and are soon running around stark naked like a group of school boys.

When Lucy and her mother accidentally come across them, one supposes Forster plans to use the incident to expose the English woman's "unnatural aversion" to nudity but not so. Later when Lucy endeavors to introduce her to George her mother asks if it is necessary, or perhaps they could consider themselves already introduced.

Even Lucy's fiance, who spends a good deal of the book looking down his nose at everyone comes to himself in the end and turns out pretty decently, even if it does take a momentary crisis to provoke that decency.

The rich, pleasant color that Forster paints most of his characters (there are a few ugly ones) is a pleasure to read, but the best part of the book is his writing style. Here's an example:

Mr. Beebe and his twelve year old niece Minnie are visiting Lucy's family. Lucy's brother Freddy and Minnie are playing some kind of game involving tennis rackets and broken balls.

"Freddie possessed to a high degree the power of lashing little girls to fury, and in half a minute he had transformed Minnie from a well-mannered child into a howling wilderness."

That is a sentence I enjoy repeating to myself. It's descriptive powers are brilliant. And most of his sentences are similarly fluid and descriptive. Especially the inner thoughts of each character from which the third person limited narrator bounces between.

Ironically, the most boring characters are Mr. Emerson and his son, George. They are hardly developed as people and seem to serve only as tools to point to the archaic character of Edwardian society. If any preaching is done it is when Mr. Emerson pontificates in a Thoreau-esque fashion about the meaning of life in some sort of transcendental fashion which I found as meaningless as it is devoid of joy. If George is supposed to attract us as he did Lucy, he fails. He's not around enough or says anything worth reading to make him very interesting.

Nevertheless, the overall tone of the book is one of affection and the lucid writing makes it a treat to read.

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E.M. Forster 1879-1970

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Tyranny of Guilt: an Essay on Western Masochism by Pascal Bruckner translated by Steven Rendall

Pascal Bruckner is considered one of the eminent philosophers in France today.

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western MasochismThe Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism by Pascal Bruckner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pascal Bruckner clearly and successfully articulates my own thoughts and feelings concerning the West's heavy love affair with flagellating itself.

He makes so many good points and I certainly won't attempt to list them all, but
here are a few:

Once upon a time the West had good reason to feel guilty of slavery, racism, genocide, fascism, communism, imperialism etc... but those days are gone. We are still apologizing for events that have happened hundreds of years ago. The most recent events, like segregation and racial discrimination hearken back to the years before affirmative action which was the 1950s. Notice how all the popular movies about racism in the U.S. take place in the fifties or earlier? But according to our culture of Western guilt nothing has changed.

Yes, we have poverty and too many minorities and immigrants living in ghettos, but are the reasons still due to racism and discrimination?

Bruckner gives a resounding "No!" He then elucidates on what actually does hold minorities and immigrants back. It is the tyranny of Western Guilt. Because when the great white west tells African and Middle Eastern immigrants and also racial minorities in the U.S. that "It is all due to the evil white empire that you are degraded." What are you saying? You are calling these people degraded.

What can be more degrading than to make a career of victimhood?

The terrorist threats? The West's fault! Poverty among immigrants? West's fault.

Bruckner's book goes further into citing specific historical sources and also political leaders that have profited by perpetuating this myth and the people that follow along because it makes them feel virtuous while they continue to live in upper scale, segregated neighborhoods, putting their children in private schools while denying minorities who are too poor to pay for these schools the same choice and have to put their children in dangerous, failing public schools and continue to live in gang-ridden neighborhoods.

Bruckner makes an interesting observation about the recent turn against Jewish people, especially in Europe. They were acceptable as victims of the holocaust, and living in ghettos, but once they rose to equal status to the rest of Europe and America and built their own nation, they are the "new fascists" and the Arab nations are Israel's victims.

He points out how Europe enables anti-nationalism because we are not supposed to identify with a particular country anymore but see ourselves as part of a global community. So people gleefully boo during the French national anthem during soccer matches. Algerian immigrants who were born and raised in France wave Algerian flags while never ever intending to step foot in Algeria.

The career of Victim-hood demands that we see ourselves as the tyrannical oppressors of Middle Eastern countries while never contemplating why these same people are desperately trying to get out of their own countries and come to Europe, America and Canada.

He brilliantly points out a fact that the self-flagellates are blind to: that to view yourself as an oppressor or tyrant is to hold yourself as guess what? Superior! And guess what it also does? Holds your "victims" as Inferior.

The results of this Western Guilt is to preserve racial division and create an even greater hostile environment between the different groups than when there was actual discrimination.

An excellent quote from the book:

"It is a mistake to believe that making schoolchildren feel guilty in accord with the principle 'your ancestors enslaved mine' will make them like the idea of human diversity any better or will seem to them anything more than a theatrical artifice.

Just imagine little blond, brunette or curly headed kids coming up to each other on the playground and introducing themselves as descendants of slaves, of colonized peoples, of slave traders, of bandits, of peasants, of beggars...

...Why ask boys and girls to make themselves the contemporaries of crimes that may have been committed three centuries ago...we are supposed constantly to inject rage and anger into them. "

He goes on to say that perhaps we should simply abolish any kind of statutes of limitations on crimes, give all of us a portfolio at birth of grievances to exploit. That we can go back as "far as the Middle Ages" to "demand justice."

Our present system of white guilt has produced "chronic malcontents" where no one can ever get on with their life and enjoy it. We must either view ourselves as oppressed and be miserable or as oppressors and be consumed with guilt (another form of misery).

Somebody finally put in print what I have been thinking for ever so long.

The book says far more with many historical recitations and I don't agree with everything he says, especially concerning Christianity, which he considers the originator of guilt, at least the Medieval Catholic church, which is an oversimplification and it ignores the gods of pagan countries who had to be constantly appeased in order to avoid destruction.

He says that the Enlightenment threw off religion but retained the mantle of guilt. This is his theory of origins but he can't really substantiate it.

However, his observations of the here and now are compelling and one of the most perspicacious studies on the subject.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Confessions of an Original Sinner by John Lukacs

You will notice I write my reviews well in advance.
It is March first, Ash Wednesday.  I am sitting outside in only slightly nippy weather. Hercule Parrot is on my hand as I type. Luckily he is light as a feather (ha!).   My piggies are nibbling grass a few yards away.  My dogs are patrolling the backyard.  I'm grateful for them because they keep the Red-Tailed Hawks away from my pigs, although they do occasionally sit in the upper branches of my Oak tree (the hawks, not my dogs) and peer down like a couple of old men with their arms clasped behind their back. My pigs are well-fed.  Could a hawk lift them?

By the way, I am listening to Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto, 2nd movement as I write.  It is simply one of the most beautiful, poignant pieces of music ever.  I hope you will find a recording and enjoy it.

Confessions of an Original SinnerConfessions of an Original Sinner by John Lukacs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lukacs was born in Hungary and as a young man went to live in England because his mother was an Anglophile and thought it was the only place for her son to become educated. He stayed there for school and college but returned to Hungary in time for WWII. His father was Roman Catholic (the religion he embraced) but his mother was Jewish and he was forced to fight in a Jewish battalion during the war.

After Germany's defeat, he realized that his country was going to become part of the Soviet "Iron Curtain" so he fled to America where he got a job teaching at a college. He has some interesting opinions about the responsibility Churchill and FDR had in letting Stalin have so much of Europe.

This book is filled with his memories but also his observations of Americans and comparing them to his own upbringing and also the culture prevalent in Europe at the time.

He has a habit of making some rather sweeping generalizations about American citizens, some of which I agree, others which I'm not sure it is completely accurate to make so broad a conclusion about so many people. But I think his is the perspective of an outsider who spent many years as a foreigner, feeling like a foreigner, being viewed as a foreigner, even though his goal was to assimilate into American culture.

He noticed that the average American was parochial in that they possess little interest beyond the scope of their immediate environment or culture. Little to no interest was shown him about his own background or history, even though it is very interesting and unusual.

Another observation was that over eighty percent of college educators are liberal and teach their classes accordingly. They filter every subject through the lens of socialist ideologies.

I thought this interesting as well as surprising since he made these observations back in the fifties and sixties. Lukacs remarks that there is a population of progressive elitists that believe the socialist model is the only experiment that can be successful and that America should look to Europe as a blueprint on which to construct our own society.

Never mind that the majority of immigrants in the world, including Europe, were (and are) applying for Visas to the United States. Lukacs considers these "elitists" to be out of touch with reality and can only preserve their vision by living in their self-made bubbles in the world of academia.

He notes that people out in the real world just want jobs and to pay their bills have a more pragmatic outlook.

I did not find much of his personal history interesting, except when he described his extreme loneliness for some years after immigrating because it was so hard to access people already entrenched in family and communities of which he had no part. As someone who has moved around a lot, I appreciated this because I experienced the same alienation.

He did finally marry and it was to a woman whose family could trace their ancestry back to the original settlers. His father-in-law was part of the "Old Money Aristocracy." When his wife died he married another woman belonging to the old Aristocracy, this time from the Old South. Lukacs does not say but I wonder if marrying these women was an unconscious effort on his part to finally belong to his chosen country. If his roots did not go deep, at least his children's did.

The information Lukacs presented was very interesting but his writing could be a bit dry. I hope that was not how he lectured to his class at University. There were certain musings, recollections and details that could have been eliminated to produce a more fluid content.

Nevertheless, this book is worthwhile and I recommend it.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

Josh and I celebrated Valentine's Day the Saturday after because I am trying to lose weight and have joined Weight Watchers.  I weigh in on Thursdays.  So far I've lost ten pounds in the last month in a half.  Something I wasn't able to do on my own for the last two years.  Just knowing I'm going to have to get on that scale in front of  another woman who is going to record it is the impetus to control my eating habits.

But Saturday we went and bought chocolates from a factory.  They were very, very good.  I'd show you but I ate them before I thought of taking a picture.  Ah well, enough of that; on to the review:

All Hallows' EveAll Hallows' Eve by Charles Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a hard book to review because I feel that Williams was making a lot of statements that weren't clear to me. Therefore, all I can tell you is what I thought the book was about.

At the very beginning, two women are killed. They find themselves, as spirits walking the streets of London. The women, Lester and Evelyn, are entirely alone except for each other. The race around looking for other signs of life. As the travel over the city, we get to know them.

Evelyn is a petty, cruel person who enjoyed tormenting another girl in school named Brenda. Brenda was a weak helpless person who had no one to defend her. She spent most of her time at school trying to escape Evelyn.

Lester, while not exactly a sterling character, found Evelyn's small-minded sadism toward Brenda tiresome. She had tried half-heartedly to prevent Evelyn from getting at Brenda but mostly to stop Evelyn from annoying her, Lester, rather than hurting Brenda whom she also found tiresome.

In this Twilight land Lester and Evelyn undergo changes. This is due to the fact that a sinister figure is on the horizon who is doing his utmost to turning himself into a counterfeit Christ figure.

The Clerk, or Father Simon as he is called by his followers, seems to be able to imitate some of Christ's traits. He apparently heals people of diseases and physical disabilities. He does have supernatural powers, but he has obtained this through witchcraft and nercromancy.

Father Simon, unlike Christ, does not love anyone. I'm not sure he hates anyone. He has a single minded obsession on which he exerts all his energy. His goal in deceiving people is to become worshiped and adored like Christ. His plan is to get the world to come under his dominion and worship him.

His daughter is Brenda and he somehow is able to use her as a portal to communicating with the spirit world. Brenda, as I have said, is a weak, passive creature, hated even by her mother who only does the Clerk's bidding and hopes to make Brenda as miserable as possible.

I do not want to give the story away, but some unexpected turns and developments of character transpires along the way. Some who were weak or indifferent rise to something higher and better, more noble and wonderful than they knew they were capable of. Others who were bent on evil, become more crippled in their mind and emotions. They wither and shrivel as they ever more weakly try to absorb and dominate others.

Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings, along with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield. Unlike Lewis and Tolkien who placed their stories inside fantasy worlds. Williams surreal tales take place in a contemporary and real setting.

Another difference is that while seeming to attain a definite Christian premise concerning good and evil as well as pointing to an eternal development in the condition of the human soul, Williams seems to veer from Orthodoxy by implying that people can still come to salvation after they are dead.

Overall, a book well worth reading.

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He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, let us suppose that this everyday world were at some one point invaded by the marvelous.

— C. S. Lewis on Charles Williams' novels
Charles Williams (188601945)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Owner of the House by Louis Simpson
 Water Lillies by Claude Monet (1840-1946)

 I'm listening to La Mer by Claude Debussy.  French Impressionist Music is one of my favorite genres. Ideally you should listen to Debussy or Ravel while looking at paintings by Monet, Cezanne, or Pissaro.  The flood of brilliant chords washing over each other with their stretched tonality, which at the time was pushing the musical envelope in Western culture, is the audible equivalent to the Impressionist painters pushing contemporary artistic limits defining form and color.

The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001 by Louis Simpson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fellow blogger reviewed a poem by Louis Simpson and it intrigued me so I bought this book.

I find his poems to be reflective and as capable as giving me a vision of what he's writing about as if he had taken a professional, artistic photograph. A photograph with the same dream like, haunting quality of Diane Arbus' work, except Simpson does it with his writing.

Simpson's parents are European, his mother is Russian Jewish, but Simpson was raised on the island of Jamaica. His poetry encompasses his heritage, particularly the persecution of Jews in WWII, culture on a Caribbean island and his later immigration to America.

Poetry provokes aesthetic responses. The style and substance may resonate with the reader or not. Simpson's did with me.

Here is one of his shorter poems.  Like the impressionist music and art, it suggests images through the words as they enter into the reader's mind.

As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs

As birds are fitted to the boughs
That blossom on the tree
And whisper when the south wind blows-
So was my love to me.

And still she blossoms in my mind
And whispers softly, though
The clouds are fitted to the wind,
The wind is to the snow.

And perhaps someone could explain the following poem to me.  I've been puzzling and puzzling over it.


Adele said, "I know a game.
Each of us has to describe
his or her most embarrassing moment.
Then we'll all four take a vote,
and the winner will have a prize."

Joe told of going for a swim
and walking out of the showers
to find himself standing naked
at poolside, in plain view.
He had walked through the wrong door.

Maura's most embarrassing moment,
she said, was the evening
Joe's parents came to dinner
She made a shrimp remoulade,
and ruined it entirely.

Adele's most embarrassing moment,
she said, was at Carnegie Hall,
in the Divertimento for Strings
She played a wrong note, a clinker.
She could have died.

Maura was staring at Adele.
Then she said it was late
and they had to be going.
Maura and Joe are no longer
 a foursome with Frank and Adele. 

So what actually went on there?  Was Adele setting everyone up to feel stupid so she could then brag about playing at Carnagie Hall?  Did she not foresee that she would lose Maura and Joe's friendship?  Or was this her way of getting rid of Maura and Joe and in a nasty way to boot?  Or am I assuming the worst?

A thank you goes out to Tim Davis at Informal Inquiries for making me aware of Louis Simpson.  I also have his biography which I will review as soon as I read.

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Louis Aston Marantz Simpson (March 27, 1923 – September 14, 2012) was an American poet  born in Jamaica. He won the 1964 Pulitzer for his work At the End of the Open Road. (source:  Wikipedia)

Paris December