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review 2016-03-17 01:42
Books of 1915 (Part Four)
The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories (Oxford Books of Prose & Verse) - Theodore W. Goossen
The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange - Anna Katharine Green
The Good Soldier - Ford Maddox Ford
The Lost Prince - Frances Hodgson Burnett
A Little Princess and the Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
Daddy-Long-Legs & Dear Enemy - Jean Webster,Elaine Showalter
Victory/The Secret Sharer - Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim - Joseph Conrad
The 39 Steps - John Buchan

 “Sansho the Steward” by Mori Ogai

 

This is a poignant short story about a brother and sister who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. There’s no way there could be a happy end for both of them.

 

The Golden Slipper, and other problems for Violet Strange by Anna Katherine Green

 

A fun detective novel! The detective is a beautiful, rich, popular heiress. So why is she solving crimes simply to make money? Her special ability is to understand people’s characters. There was a single thread or plot about Miss Strange running through it, but it was also a series of basically stand-alone mysteries. The cases started out being the kind of crimes a society girl might potentially encounter, like a missing necklace, but became increasingly more atmospheric and gothic, involving hidden chambers and tunnels and caves and spooky old houses with dozens of clocks and a blind doctor who is a top gun shooting ace.

 

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

 

I read this when I was a teenager and I don’t remember it well, just that it was about a group of friends who are having marital problems. I remember that the real story was revealed somewhat slowly, and that I liked it. I looked it up just now on Wikipedia to make sure I was even thinking of the right book, and I learned that Ford originally wanted to call it “The Saddest Story.” His publishers asked for a new title (very properly, in my view—I don’t want to read a book called “The Saddest Story”) and as a joke he came up with “The Good Soldier” in view of the war. I can only ever think of a joke title for my books too, so I really identify with this.

 

The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett

 

A poor little boy lives in London with his beloved father, who is working to return to the rightful king of his homeland to the throne. You may have figured it out from the title, but in the final pages of the book the boy is astonished to discover that his own father was the missing heir to the throne. I liked that there was a plucky character with a disability who neither died nor was cured; actually, that character reminded me a bit of Becky from A Little Princess. Not Burnett’s very best book, but I enjoyed reading it.

 

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

 

This is the lesser-known sequel to Daddy Long Legs. In this epistolary novel, Judy, a rich socialite with lively and original ideas takes over the orphanage that the Daddy Long Legs heroine grew up in. I was charmed to learn that the orphanage is in Dutchess County, where I live. The orphanage is cheerless and unhealthy when Judy arrives, but she manages to transform it into a place where the children can have nice clothes, affection, a gentle education, up-to-date (for the period) medical treatment, and the chance to play outdoors. It’s understood that Judy will just run the orphanage for a little while, and then marry her rich boyfriend and stop working forevermore, but later Judy is not so sure. Judy comes into conflict with the orphanage’s crabby Scottish doctor, the “Enemy” of the title. However after a while their animosity turns to friendship and then to...? But the doctor is guarding a sorrowful secret.

 

This part of the book mirrors Jean Webster’s real life. I don’t know much about her, but I did read her Wikipedia page from top to bottom. In addition to being a supporter of women’s suffrage and various reform movements and education for women, she had a boyfriend who couldn’t divorce his wife because she was mentally ill. (I hear this story over and over, and yet I never hear about the undivorcable mentally ill husband.) Webster’s boyfriend also had a “mentally unstable” child. And it sounds like the boyfriend was not the picture of mental health himself.

 

Anyway, the least appealing part of Dear Enemy is the lip service granted to the eugenics models of Galton and Goddard, with discussion of the feebleminded Jukes and Kallikaks. Judy eventually concludes that there’s nothing in this heredity business, but because it was the “scientific” idea of the age, Webster gave eugenics quite a bit of air time. It does seem that the whole question of inherited mental illness was one that she had a real personal interest in, and I think she was honestly trying to figure it out rather than just being sensationalistic.

 

This is one of the books of 1915 that’s still read today, as a fluffy fun book for young people, not as a towering literary classic assigned in school. I think the reason for its endurance is that the main character is spunky and is more like a contemporary woman in terms of her attitude toward education, career, and love.

 

Victory by Joseph Conrad

 

An Englishman whose business concern in Asia (I think Indonesia?) has failed ends up living “all alone” on an island. (Actually, he has a servant and in addition the native inhabitants of the island live there, but he is quite isolated.) But when he rescues a musician who is being abused by her boss and brings her back to the island to live with him, the boss hires thugs to exact a horrible revenge. This novel was suspenseful and weird. I think Conrad managed to say something racist about every ethnic group on earth, but it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Spoiler:

EVERYONE dies at the end.

(spoiler show)

 

I never read any Conrad before except for “The Secret Sharer” which I quite liked and the first few pages of Lord Jim. But the way everyone talks about him, I was expecting something very dreary and “important.” Instead it was the sort of shlocky melodrama that I enjoy. So I will definitely read his next offering.

 

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

 

I always liked the Hitchcock film, and the book it is based on is fairly similar. It’s a thriller about a man who has to clear his own name by catching the real killer, and in the process he unmasks a ring of spies, with a lot of picturesque running through the Scottish highlands. There’s an extended soliloquy by one of the characters about Jews who control finance and the world (“The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the back stairs to find him... to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.”) I’m not sure if the reader is supposed to take that seriously or think it’s ridiculous, but it was rather creepy.

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review 2016-03-17 00:37
Books of 1915 (Part Two)
Of Human Bondage - Maeve Binchy,Benjamin DeMott,W. Somerset Maugham
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock - T.S. Eliot
Grass on the Wayside (Michikusa) - Sōseki Natsume,Edwin McClellan
A Bride of the Plains - Emmuska Orczy
The Underdogs - Mariano Azuela
Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Ann J. Lane
Ammonite - Nicola Griffith
The Temple at Landfall - Jane Fletcher
Houston, Houston, Do You Read? - James Tiptree Jr.
The Scarecrow of Oz - L. Frank Baum

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

 

It has been quite a few years since I read this novel, but I thought it was absolutely terrific and I remember it vividly. The story opens when the main character Philip is a lonely young boy with a club foot being raised by his aunt and uncle. As soon as he is old enough to get away, he moves to Germany and then France where he decides to become a visual artist. That part was extremely interesting to me, as it seemed that, although art and education and customs of every kind have changed so much in the last hundred years, the inner work and the shame of “becoming an artist” have not changed in any way. It seemed very fresh and relevant. There is a “Least Likely To” type of girl who falls in love with Philip and dies by suicide.

 

Phillip decides that he doesn’t have what it takes to be an artist either, so he returns to London to study medicine. There he meets a server at a restaurant who is incredibly toxic. He falls in love with her and is completely under her sway, supporting her when she gets pregnant by another man. He seriously needs to get himself to a meeting of Codependents Anonymous! I won’t spoil the whole story but let me just give you a couple of key words: “sex work” and “syphilis.” But you will be happy to know that Philip eventually finds happiness and even love.

 

“The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

 

This poem is perfect, and I don’t even know what I could possibly say about it. The back of the copy of The Wasteland and Other Poems that I have says “Few readers need any introduction to the work of the most influential poet of the twentieth century.” So there you go. I remember when I was a kid I liked the way the poem is so interior (as in, the interior of someone’s head), and how it was about someone who was getting old, and I just liked how it sounds. My mom used to recite and read this poem to us and I can still clearly hear in my mind just the way she would intone

 

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                              
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

  In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

 

and then later:

 

  I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                              
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

  Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

  I do not think they will sing to me.

 

She explained to me that when you’ve had certain kinds of dental work you don’t dare to eat a peach.

 

T.S. Eliot is an example of someone who was a horrible bigot but who managed to keep it out of his poetry (as far as I’m aware.) I wish Baroness Orczy and some others could be more like that. I’m psyched for more modernist poetry to come!

 

 

Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Soseki

 

I really enjoyed reading this. It was almost as great as Soseki’s 1914 book Kokoro. It’s about a middle-aged curmudgeon who doesn’t know how to get along with anyone, especially his wife and his family. This curmudgeon had been adopted into another family as a child, which was apparently a common Japanese custom of the period, but later the adoption was reversed and he returned to his original family. Now his onetime adoptive father has resurfaced, unsuccessful and unsavory and grasping for money, and our curmudgeon isn’t sure what the right thing to do is. According to the introduction, the story is autobiographical and the main character is supposed to be a very close match to Soseki. But I don’t understand how that can be—how could anyone who has social skills as poor as the main character have the insight to present the situation the way the author does? If the author were really as blinkered as the main character, there’s no way he could have written this book.

 

I’m looking forward Soseki’s next book in 1915. But oh no! It’s his last one!

 

A Bride of the Plains by Baroness Orczy

 

As you may know, I’m a big Baroness Orczy fan. This year I have to give her credit for something very special: although basically the entire world is embroiled in war, she is the ONLY author to address this. She was the ONLY one to write about war, and in Hungary in the Carpathian basin, more or less where all the trouble began. (Okay, I guess there’s also Mariano Azuela writing about the Mexican revolution. But still, props to the Baroness!) I know the production schedule for publishing a novel is pretty long, but a lot of these Edwardians wrote two books a year, and I do think some of them could have at least acknowledged in some way, even thematically, that there’s a world war going on, a pretty big deal! (PS. Are they still Edwardians? What am I supposed to call them now? Baroness Orczy ain’t no modernist!)

 

Anyway, no one seems to set their novels in the present day, and in fact Baroness Orczy is no exception; A Bride of the Plains is set in what seemed to me like a non-specific time in the past. But the book’s opening takes a pretty clear anti-war tone. It’s almost the day when young men in this little burg are conscripted into the army, a sad day for all:

 

On this hideous day all the finest lads in the village are taken away to be made into soldiers by the abominable Government? Three years! Why, the lad is a mere child when he goes—one-and-twenty on his last birthday, bless him! still wanting a mother’s care of his stomach, and a father’s heavy stick across his back from time to time to keep him from too much love-making.

 

Three years ! When he comes back he is a man and has notions of his own. Three years! What are the chances he comes back at all? Bosnia! Where in the world is that? My God, how they hate it! They must go through with it, though they hate it all-every moment.

 

By the way, I realize that there is probably a glut of war books coming down the pipe, and in a few years I’ll be very nostalgiac for the kind of books I read this year.

 

Anyway! This is the story of a girl, Elsa, who tries to be true to Andor, the boy she loves who’s been sent off to war. But when it seems that he’s been killed, she knuckles under to her mother’s pressure to marry the bad-tempered richest man in town. But on the eve of her wedding,

Andor returns!

(spoiler show)

 

The downfall of this book is the same problem that Orczy always has: anti-Semitism. Usually it’s just a few throwaway descriptions, but here the villains are an Evil Jew and Evil Jewess. Kind of ruined the book. That’s the whole thing about bigoted people; they just can’t let it go. If you hate Jews so much, Emma Orczy, why don’t you just stop writing about them? But no, she can’t help herself! Maddening. I will say that there’s a lot of suspense and action in this book, if you can get past the bad taste in your mouth.

 

The Underdogs (Los de Abajo) by Mariano Azuela

 

This interesting novel about the Mexican Revolution is cynical toward everyone concerned. The main characters are peasants who become rebels. There are a lot of funny bits. The most depressing part is how the women are treated like garbage by everyone. You get the impression that the people of Mexico will get the shaft, no matter who wins. This is the first Mexican novel I have encountered in this project and I hope I will find more.

 

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

I like Herland even more than 1911’s Moving The Mountain, and almost as much as “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which I think is one of the finest short stories. Although Gilman is famous for being a feminist, I don’t think she gets as much credit as she deserves for being a speculative fiction writer.

 

Three male explorers hear of a country that consists only of women, so they decide to check it out, and with great trouble make their way in. Jeff is a tender soul who glorifies motherhood and believes in being a perfect gentleman to women. Terry is a handsome man about town, kind of rapey and full of himself, and he thinks women should be pretty and serve him. The narrator, Vandyck Jennings, is sort of in-between these two and in general presents a “rational” point of view.

 

They are amazed to discover a beautiful utopia populated only by women, with wildly different customs from their own. In this country they don’t have poverty, they raise their children communally, they wear comfy clothes, etc. Long ago, a volcanic eruption and slave uprising led to a group of women who were cut off from the rest of the world. A few of them were miraculously able to reproduce as the result of sort of an exalted mental state, and this ability was passed down through the generations. There are so many novels about all-female societies where this happens—Ammonite by Nicola Griffith and Jane Fletcher’s Celaeno series spring to mind—but Herland must be the first.

 

The women the three explorers meet are all strong, intelligent, athletic, good teachers, and able to get things done. They confound the explorers’ expectations at every turn because they have no idea how to “behave like women.” Gilman takes the gender binary away and everyone becomes a person; however, she certainly has a rosy view of how nice an all-female society, or any society, could be.

 

The three explorers each fall in love and insist on marrying their sweethearts, which the women agree to in order to humor them, although marriage is a meaningless concept to them. All this time there has been no romantic love in the country because, well, when the men are gone, it’s just impossible! But they haven’t been missing it.

 

Terry and his wife Alima don’t get along. He attempts to rape her, but she kicks him in the balls and summons help from her friend in the room next door. Terry is put on trial, and the local Over Mother sentences him to be sent back to the outside world, with his word as a gentleman not to tell anyone about their country. At first Terry is obstinate.

 

“The first thing I’ll do is to get an expedition fixed up to force an entrance into Ma-Land!”

“Then,” they said quite calmly, “he must remain an absolute prisoner always.”

“Anesthesia would be kinder,” urged Moadine.

“And safer,” added Zava.

“He will promise, I think,” said Ellador [Jennings’ wife.]

And he did.

 

(This part reminded me of Houston, Houston, Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr.)

 

So Terry leaves, with Jennings and Ellador to escort him. Next year is the sequel! From Gilman’s Wikipedia page I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about her, including the fact that she married her first cousin, and that when she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer she “chose chloroform over cancer” (her words.)

 

The Scarecrow of Oz by L. Frank Baum

 

I love all the Oz books! This is the one in which a little girl named Trot and her sailor pal Cap’n Bill come to Oz. They meet a lot of lovable characters like the Bumpy Man and Button Bright, and they help the Scarecrow solve a problem with the monarchy of Jinxland.

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review 2014-08-18 00:00
Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction
Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction - Steven Beller A solid introduction that could use some serious fleshing out, which the author acknowledges. I can't really fault him for that, as there's only so much you can do in 120-some pages.

I'm working my way through a bunch of these "Very Short Introduction" books and this one is my favorite so far.
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text 2014-08-13 13:26
#BookadayUK 13 - Favorite "controversial" read
Antisemitism In The United States, including: Ku Klux Klan, Nation Of Islam, William Luther Pierce, Louis Farrakhan, Charles Coughlin, Christian Identity, The Turner Diaries, The Order (group), George Lincoln Rockwell, American Nazi Party, David Duke - Hephaestus Books

This isn't the book... the book is The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce.  You can usually find a free downloadable copy rather than give money to national hate groups to purchase.  

 

There was talk about this book after the Oklahoma bombings, so I found it and read it.  I found it to be little more than a disgusting rant and tome for racist scum, but I would say it is 'controversial', because my boss at the time hauled me on the carpet for downloading and printing it while at work (I worked in a computer cluster on campus at them time).

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review 2014-03-05 01:18
As gripping as any espionage thriller or courtroom drama
An Officer and a Spy - Robert Harris

I knew the basics of the Dreyfus Affair, but what I didn't know is that the most interesting parts of the story happen when Captain Albert Dreyfus is offstage. First off, I should say that although this book is classified as fiction, author Robert Harris tells us that his goal is to use the techniques of a novel to retell the true story of the Dreyfus Affair. The characters and the events are real.

The central figure in this very dramatic story is Colonel Georges Picquart. As someone who had become acquainted with Dreyfus some years earlier when Dreyfus was a young officer training at the military college where Picquart taught. Picquart was present at Dreyfus's arrest by the army on charges of passing secret military information to German agents. Picquart had no trouble believing in Dreyfus's guilt, in part because Picquart was an anti-Semite, as most soldiers were.

Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in terrible conditions on Devil's Island, 8,000 miles from France. He left behind a young wife, two small children and other family members who were determined to use the family's considerable wealth to exonerate Dreyfus.

None of this was of any particular interest to Picquart, until he was assigned, shortly after Dreyfus's conviction, to become the chief of the military's secret intelligence bureau, called the "Statistical Section." Almost by accident, Picquart soon discovered that the evidence against Dreyfus was almost nonexistent, but that there was good evidence that the real traitor was a womanizer, gambler and cheat, Major Walsin Esterhazy.

This is the set-up to what becomes a story that would be too unbelievable as an original piece of fiction. But it's only too plausible today, when we've become jaded by seeing how, all over the world, political, military, religious forces and their associates often place their own institutional interests above quaint concepts like truth, honor and justice. Dreyfus, Picquart and other individuals were just pawns in a chess game for the various institutions' visions of the future of France and its military. But chess game is putting it too politely. This was a game of double-dealing, dirty tricks and possibly even murder.

The late 19th century was a time of ferment in France. The French Republic was in its infancy and besieged by monarchists, the Catholic Church and the military on one side, and socialists and anti-clericalists on the other. The Army, having suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, was rigid, hidebound and reactionary. The warring sides seized on the Dreyfus Affair to carry their messages, inciting a press war, whipping up the populace to riotous demonstrations and bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

Robert Harris, probably best known for his masterful novel of alternate history, Fatherland, has brought history vividly to life here. He slowly and deliberately establishes his story, but by about halfway through, events are rolling forward like a steam engine at peak running speed. Even if you already know exactly how the historical events unfolded, I think you'll find it as hard as I did to put the book down.

Harris's character portrait of Picquart paints him as more attractive than he probably was in real life. Harris doesn't make him an out-and-out hero, but he underplays Picquart's anti-Semitism as much as possible. He emphasizes that Picquart is an anti-clerical. I'm not at all sure there is much evidence for Picquart's anti-clericalism, but it helps illustrate the larger forces at work behind the Dreyfus case. And, although we don't get inside Picquart's heart and mind deeply, Harris so well describes the effect of him on the endless inquiries, trials and re-trials: "I am the founder of the school of Dreyfus studies: its leading scholar, its star professor--there is nothing I can be asked about my specialist field that I do now know: every letter and telegram, every personality, every forgery, every lie."

Harris also makes several of the Army officers almost comic-opera villains, especially Major Armand Mercier du Paty de Clam. Who knows, though; that may be accurate. Mercier du Paty de Clam (amazing name, isn't it?) was the officer principally responsible for identifying the officer who was passing secrets to the Germans. His choice of Dreyfus as the culprit seems to have been motivated by little more than Mercier du Paty de Clam's rabid anti-Semitism. And the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Mercier du Paty de Clam's son, Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam became Commissioner General for Jewish Affairs in the Nazi collaborationist Vichy government during World War II.

I wish Harris could have worked in more detail about the political ferment behind the events described in the book, but I recognize what a challenge that would have been. Despite not having that stronger historical foundation, and some possible oversimplification of the characters, this was a completely riveting read. It's the kind of book that will stay in my mind for hours or days to come.

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