Sunday Ramble: Travels, Art and Jane Austen Challenge

C.J. and I visited Los Angeles this past week to see the James Kerry Marshall retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the same show we saw last summer in Chicago.  We’ve become big fans of Mr. Marshall’s work.

It was a mad-cap three-day trip–drive down, day in L.A. and drive home–but we managed to visit three bookstores while we were there.  We stayed in West Hollywood, just a few blocks from the Sunset Strip area which is all very nice now, very high-end and very young. We walked down to Melrose Place for breakfast coffee at Alfred’s, which serves beautiful people beautiful lattes.  Lots of window shopping at high end antique stores afterwards on the way back to our very cheap motel.

Up on Sunset, near Book Soup, we found our new favorite bookstore, Mystery Pier Books Inc. which sells only first editions.  It’s a small store in a small building behind the main buildings.  You have to walk down a very narrow alley, the kind typically used as a service entrance, to get to the store which means very few customers find it.  There were just four of us in the store Wednesday afternoon.  The clerks are friendly and helpful, the selection is wide and fascinating, and the prices are high.  I can’t say if they are too high since I have no idea what a mint condition first edition of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show is worth.  It was more than I could afford in any case.

My latte at Alfred’s Coffee on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.

We made it out of Book Soup without going over 100 dollars which is nearly a miracle.  My standard for quality bookstores is based on how many titles they carry that I’ve never seen before but have to have. There were many at Book Soup.  C.J. found several, too.  I’ve already started The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski which, turns out, has been on the market for nearly two years now though this is the first I’ve heard of it.  25 dollars and the first of four volumes, all four were on the shelf at Book Soup. I resisted and resisted, but gave in in the end.  I loved The House of Leaves which I highly, highly recommend.

 

The next night we went to The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. since the museum is just a ten minute walk away and C.J. had never been there.  The space is wonderful, inside an old bank.  The galleries and studios on the mezzanine are lots of fun, but if I stick to my standards, I have to admit that it’s not that great of a bookstore.  And I feel their prices are always one or two dollars too high. We left glad to have visited but empty-handed.

Mr. Marshall’s artwork, which we drove down to see, shall speak for itself.

In Chicago we spent our time trying to figure out what all of the images in each painting meant, what their history was, what they had to say socially and politically.   This time we were able to appreciated them as beautiful paintings. If you get a chance to see the show, see it.

Finally, on what is a rainy Easter morning in the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking about hosting a reading challenge.  I’ve been collecting Jane Austen novels, I’ve only Mansfield Park to go before I have all six of them, for a couple of months now.  I’m not hunting for them, just checking for them when I’m at a used book sale, looking for very cheap copies of each or for the Vintage Classics edition because I like the cover art. My plan is to read them all in order once I have them, one book a month.

Is that something people would like to join in.

Maybe call it The Jane Austen Read All-along?

It would start in July with Sense and Sensibility and end in December with Persuasion.  

I think it would be fun to do the same thing with Elizabeth Gaskell in 2018, though it will be harder to find cheap copies of hers here in America.  She’s much more popular in U.K

I may set something up later this month if people are interested.

Meanwhile, I’m reading away though I’m not finishing much lately.  I did read one of from the Brilliant but Short list, Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation which was excellent though it has started to blend with the main plot of Danielewski’s The Familiar in my memory.  I’ll have to get a review up soon.  Besides that I’m still working through the first volume of Kevin Starr’s history of California.  Add to that the Danielewski book which is too large and heavy to read anywhere but on the dining room table and the essays in the James Kerry Marshall catalogue which I bought at great expense–art books come at a premium.  Also I’m reading Chan H0-kei’s The Borrowed in chunks since it’s made up of five separate stories featuring the same characters.

And it’s back to work tomorrow now that spring break has come to a close.

38 school days left, but who’s counting.

 

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I’m going to assume you have read this book.

Probably in high school.

Even if your English teacher was not the best teacher you ever had, you probably got most of what there is to get in Animal Farm.  It’s a straightforward book;  Mr. Orwell makes sure that everyone understands  his point.  While the communist revolution may have started well, may have even brought peace, prosperity and equality for a while, Stalin soon seized power and destroyed all that was good about it.

I’m a firm believer that Mr. Orwell’s best work can be found in his non-fiction; there’s nothing in Animal Farm to compare with Homage to Catalonia or essays like “Shooting an Elephant”, but the story is still a good one, the critique of Stalinism is still a damning indictment and, unfortunately, Animal Farm still has a message relevant to our time. Even for those of us who never lived under Stalin.

Consider three examples:

1.  In Animal Farm there is a pig named Squealer who has, as his sole function, the job of convincing all the other animals that what their leader, Napoleon, the evil pig who represents Stalin, is doing is the right thing to do.  Squealer must face the animals and lie to them, cajole them, convince them that what they saw with their own eyes or lived through themselves, is not what really happened.  Squealer is Napoleon’s spin-meister, the media pig who corrects the story and tells everyone what “really” is true.  This keeps the animals from questioning their society, keeps them working from day to day without raising objection to how they are treated by those above them.  Squealer is the agent who convinces everyone not to question the status quo.  He must make everyone believe that the pigs should eat better food while working much less than they do.

2.  The dedicated, devoted worker Boxer, a draft horse, gives his all for the cause.  Whenever anything goes wrong, Boxer takes it upon himself to work harder, to get up earlier than before, work later, do more than his fare share, all he is capable of doing, to make sure that the job gets done and done as well as it can be.  Boxer never complains about the effort he puts into his work, never holds anyone else’s lack of effort against them, never questions those in charge.  He has faith that his work will be rewarded one day with retirement to the pasture set aside for him and for others where he can peacefully live out his old age.   Instead, when he has worked himself so hard he can no longer do much of anything, he finds the retirement pasture  has been given over to growing wheat for the production of beer drunk only by the pigs in charge and he is sold to a glue factory.

3.  By the novel’s end a few pigs are  living the high life while the rest of the animals gain nothing from their labor.  They are told that they are better off than they were before under the oppressive farmer, and many of them still believe it, but the readers know this is not so.  The pigs are better off, surely, but the rest of the animals suffer to make this possible.

Sound familiar?

Darn that George Orwell.

 

 

I first ran this review on my old blog back in September of 2011.  Lately, there has been an uptick in sales of Orwell’s 1984 which I’m sure you’ve heard about.  I think this is a mistake.  I think Animal Farm is really the book we should be reading now, if we should be reading Orwell.  Reading my review above, I’ve come to conclude that we’re not dealing with another Big Brother but with a Napoleon, a greedy, egocentric pig who will sell us all out to make himself and those like him even fatter than they already are. 

Okay, that’s a little cynical, and I do try to avoid politics here, but that’s what I think.

Sunday Ramble and Two Books I Didn’t Like. Sorry.

Visited the local Friends of the Library book sale yesterday, in the rain, where C.J. and I managed to spend much more than we intended.  He got several art books and a couple of books full of house plans while I nearly completed my Jane Austen collection. Can you name the book I still have to find.

I’ve decided it’s a good time to re-read all of Jane Austen’s six novels in order.  So, I’m looking for good second-hand copies of each.  I’d like to have all in the newish Vintage Classics paperback editions.  The top middle book is a Vintage Classics edition. I like them for the cover art.

Apparently, true Janeites re-read all six novels every year or so I read somewhere.  I’m not that big a fan, but I am a big fan.  Once I find Mansfield Park I’ll be ready to begin.

I had two near DNF’s this week, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Repetition  and Ray  by Barry Hannah.  While I am a fan of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Repetition did not hit the spot for me.  All of his work, the two other novels I’ve read so far at least, is experimental in ways I find interesting once I figure out just what is going on.  Repetition concerns an agent sent on a mission to Germany during the Cold War, I think.  The book opens with him on the train trying to get through to the other side when he enters a compartment to find himself already sitting there. The man, who looks just like him except he is not wearing a fake mustache, appears to be a better version of himself.  Also an agent on a mission, this doppelgänger is one step ahead of the novel’s hero so much so that at times they appear to switch places in the narrative. I’m not sure. I was confused.

I was confused with the other two Robbe-Grillet novels I read, but I enjoyed trying to figure things out. Confusion is a part of reading as far as I am concerned.  But this time,  because I couldn’t quite make out what was going on, I began to lose patience with the whole thing. Additionally, while the other Robbe-Grillet novels I read struck me as inventive and original, this one seemed like a re-tread of ideas Paul Auster has already done in his New York trilogy.

The other book I didn’t really like was Ray by Barry Hannah. Ray was on one of the Brilliant Novels You Can Read in a Day lists that I found a few weeks ago.  I’ve got a little TBR list of them on one of the tabs at the top of this blog.  The other one’s I’ve read so far have been knock outs so I had high hopes.

Ray  is a long rant about the title character’s life, his loves and the people he knows.  A former pilot who flew fighter planes in Vietnam, Ray is a southerner, through and through.  Which, I’ll be honest, was part of the problem for me. I know there are people, not just in the south, who use racist language freely.  I know depicting this is an honest way to depict them. I understand the argument that “realistic” language gives fiction authenticity.  I know, I know, I know.

But I just don’t have patience for it anymore.  If I never read another book with racist, homophobic or sexist language in it as long as I live, I’m okay with that.

So parts of Ray were very tough going.

It’s supposed to be funny, the way Flannery O’Connor is funny.  I like Flannery O’Connor a lot. While I do find her funny, she’s not laugh-out-loud funny for me the way Eudora Welty is.  All the little blurbs on the back mention how funny Barry Hannah is, how he’s the best southern writer since Flannery O’Connor, etc., etc. None of them mention Eudora Welty whom I think is better than Flannery O’Connor.

But I just didn’t see it.

I’m going to keep both books, though, just in case.  Maybe a future re-reading will reveal things I missed the first time around.  While I didn’t really like either one, I do recognize both are well-written books.

Maybe next time….

Meanwhile, I’m still making my way through Kevin Starr’s Eight volume history of California. I’m nearing the end of the first book Americans and the California Dream which covers 1850 to 1915.  I’ve mentioned before how C.J. and I plan on retiring to the Gold Country where we’ll give  walking tours for the local historical society of whatever town we end up in.  So we’re both reading up on California history.  We’re big fans of the stuff.

And I’m reading an import from China called The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei.  The cover promised a modern noir tale covering 50 years of Hong Kong history, but so far it’s a very old-fashioned story. The opening section, set in modern-day Hong Kong, featured what is usually the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel.  All of the suspects were gathered in a single room while the chief detective reviewed the case hoping one of the suspects would crack and reveal too much.  I completely enjoyed it.  It was a fresh take on this old trope to avoid all the business about gathering clues for three-fourths of the book. Why not just skip to final chapters where all the good stuff is.  That a surprise murderer was revealed came as no surprise really. That he turned out not to be the real killer did.  That he turned out to be someone else’s killer did, too.

Each part that follows is set back in time about ten years or so, with the same set of detectives, just in their younger days.

It looks promising.

 

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu Translated by D.C. Lau

51oyteatncl-_sx323_bo1204203200_For many years now, I have taught Daoism as part of my 7th grade history unit on China.  I wish I could call back my previous classes and correct all the mistakes and misrepresentations I have made over the years.  Fortunately, what 7th graders take away from a lesson on Daoism isn’t all that deep, so I probably haven’t done much damage.

Still.  It’s symptomatic of the general practice in American schools to provide lots of professional development on pedagogy but none at all on content knowledge. I’m probably one of a handful of teachers in California, probably the country, who has taken the trouble to read Lao Tzu, beyond what’s in the text book, if they even have a text book anymore.

For several years now, I’ve been enamored of Lao Tzu’s idea that one should be like water.  Water takes no action, resists nothing, simply goes where it is easiest to go, yet water exacts terrific change on the world in spite of this.  Be the water, is a mantra that gets me through many a staff meeting lately.

This year, for some reason, I decided to get a copy of Lao Tzu’s book so I could read it for myself.

I read it like my mother used to read Guidepost magazine, just a little daily meditation to think about. Much of the Tao Te Ching strikes me as very wise, though I’m not sure how one could truly follow The Way in 2017 America.  Much of it confused me to no end.

I’m going to have to read it again.

The book is a set of 81 writings, some poetic in form some expository.  If they come together in a single argument, it escaped me.  Rather, each describes one general idea about what Lao Tzu called “The Way”.  Some apply to the individual, some to the empire, some to both. The Way is the way of heaven, I’m not sure I can define it nor that I would know it if I saw it.  But I like this idea from LXXVII:

Is not the way of heaven like the stretching of a bow?

The high it presses down,

The low it lifts up:

The excessive it takes from,

The deficient it gives to

It is the way of heaven to take from what has in excess in order to make good what is deficient. The way of man is otherwise  It takes from those who are in want in order to offer this to those who already have more than enough.

Lao Tzu wrote this in the fourth century BCE, but it’s still profound advice both for individuals and for governments.

According to legend, Lao Tzu grew tired of China because the government and the people refused to take his teachings to heart, so he decided to retire to the south. On his journey, he encountered a border guard who refused him passage until he wrote down all of his teachings.  The 5000 character document he gave to the guards before he vanished from history became the Tao Te Ching.

Whether or not Lao Tzu was actually a real person is a subject for debate.

Whether or not he still has something to say about how to live is up to individual readers.  I’ve been focused on the final page for several days now:

Truthful words are not beautiful; beautiful words are not truthful. Good words are not persuasive; persuasive words are not good.  He who knows has no wide learning, he who has wide learning does not know.

The sage does not hoard.

Having bestowed all he has on others, he has yet more.

Having given all he as to others, he is richer still.

The way of heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is bountiful and does not contend

It’s a bit like a puzzle, yes.  Just when I think I understand, I realize there is more to it than first met the eye.  Compare it with John Keats who wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all. Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

While I admire Keats, while I think Ode on a Grecian Urn is terrific, Lao Tzu strikes me much closer to the bone.  Truthful words are not beautiful, beautiful words are not truthful.  In a time when manipulation of language is so prevalent in public and in private life, Lao Tzu’s ideas could prove very useful.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

91cr7sy43slSometimes it’s very hard to pin down why you love a book.

Denis Johnson’s very short novella, I found it on a list of brilliant books you can read in a day, tells the story of an abbreviated life.  Robert Grainier is a day laborer in the American West circa 1910.  He never amounts to much.  There isn’t much to tell about his life.  He works very hard, he marries a woman he loves and has a daughter only to lose both in a wildfire.  Afterwards, he retreats into a smaller and smaller world becoming, by the end of his life, the hermit in the woods.

Through his life he is haunted. He is haunted by the memory of the Chinese man whose near murder he participated in, though he was just passing by at the time.  Why he so willingly joined in with the mob of men who were attempting to throw the Chinese laborer off of a bridge and what became of the young man who managed to escape with his life become obsessions that bother Grainier even during the short time he is a happily married father.

After the fire destroys his life, Grainer returns to the site of his cabin searching for the remains of his family.  Though the fire destroyed the area completely, he decides to stay on his small piece of land where he builds a shelter though never anything as nice as the cabin he lost.  A stray dog appears and keeps him company until another dog takes over a few years later but he has very little human company.

It’s a very simple story, really.  The focus is entirely on the character of Robert Grainier who is not a complex man.  While he is haunted by memories of his past, he basically lives by living without much time for self-reflection.

Should this make for a moving read?  Is there enough there to make the reader feel for Robert Grainer? I think the honest answer to both questions is no, but I was moved, I felt for Robert Grainer.

Just past the halfway mark, Grainer goes to a county fair where he takes a ride in an early bi-plane.  Almost no one else at the fair has the nerve to go for a ride in this contraption, but Grainer takes it in stride, with little thought for any dangers involved.  The plane climbs higher than Grainer has ever been before then begins

 to plummet like a hawk, steeper and steeper, its engine almost silent, and Grainier’s organs pushed back against his spine. He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their cabin on a summer’s night, then another cabin he’d never remembered before, the places of his hidden childhood, a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, and a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered.

This plane ride is the most momentous thing that has happened to Grainer in many years and the most momentous thing that will happen to him in the years he has left.  The memories it summons for him are simple moments, still moments recalled through stupendous movement: sitting quietly sharing a soda with his small family; hearing his mother’s voice comforting him as she holds him in her arms.

I think that sums up why I loved this little book. Most people would have expected that first plane ride to be the big event, but it was ultimately that soda on a hot evening that haunted Robert Grainier’s memories.

So, I’m looking forward to the next book on my list of brilliant books you can read in a day and I’m going to be looking for more by Denis Johnson.

A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

If you’re a reader but not an English major, or just anyone who’d like to fill in the holes in your knowledge of the subject, you could do worse than John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature.

 Divided into 40 short chapters, Mr. Sutherland’s book covers all the greatest hits from Beowulf to Borges and most of the main topics covered in graduate schools from What is Literature to Literature and Race. This is a book aiming to introduce readers to the topics covered, so you’ll get a solid grounding in each issue along with all the cannonical authors. If you’re looking for something more advanced, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Mr. Sutherland’s style is brief and breezy.  He never wades so far into any topic that he risks becoming lost in controversy or risks going over anyone’s head in analysis.  He’s like a very knowledgeable grandpa explaining carpentry to his grand children in terms they can understand.  He’s not talking down to his audience at all, he’s just showing us how to build a basic bird house, not how to construct a full set of dresser drawers.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Sutherland since graduate school when some professor recommended we all get a copy of his The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.  It’s a must have if you’re a fan or a student of the genre.  In the years I’ve had it, nearly two decades now, it has never failed me. No matter how obscure the reference I come across, it’s in Sutherland’s book be it obscure household magazine or novelist lost to time.  They’re all there.

So I was primed to enjoy A Little History of Literature and enjoy it I did.  I can’t say that I learned anything new, but I had good time none-the-less.  Mr. Sutherland loves his topic, reads everything, references everything from children’s literature, to Ray Bradbury, to Dan Brown, to Mrs. Gaskell, to Mrs. Dalloway.  Though it probably should be titled A Little History of Literature in English he does cover a wide swath of the non-English speaking world enough to satisfy most, though not all, readers.

The end paper biography refers to The Lives of Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives which sounds like something I simply must have.

The Devil’s Disciple by Shiro Hamao

Two very entertaining thriller/mysteries by an author you’ve probably never heard of translated here by J. Keith Vincent.

Both stories, “The Devil’s Disciple” and the novella length “Did He Kill Them” are really psychological studies as much as noir detective thrillers. In both, the “killer” has already been caught so there’s not that much of investigating to be done.  However, in each the confession is highly suspect. There is much more going on than first meets the eye.

They are each interesting as mystery/thrillers and for the portrait they present of 1930’s Japan when they were written. They are not a happy, fantasy, Japan; there is murder in both stories so we are entering dark territory not suitable for tourists, but the look inside the Japanese justice system of the day and the glimpse of Japanese society’s more sensationalist side made for interesting reading.

I enjoyed both stories, in fact I hope to find more of Shiro Hamao’s 17 novellas and three novels translated into English.