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.

Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest

While Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest was not exactly the biography I was looking for, it is an entertaining, educational read that has much to offer both fans of the artist and general readers.

Several years ago I picked up a copy of Becoming Judy Chicago more or less on a whim to discover one of my favorite reads of 2007.  Turns out I enjoy reading critical biographies of artists.  (Finding a new sub-genre you enjoy is one benefit of reading outside your box.)

Ms. Secrest’s book on Modigliani is not really a critical biography.  My loose definition of a critical biography is a book that looks at an artist’s work in an attempt to illuminate how it came to be, to examine how it works, and to evaluate its overall quality.  Of course, much of the artists personal life will be covered but it is not the focus of a critical biography.  Ms. Secrest covers all of Modigiliani’s life which is her main focus.  She does spend plenty of time discussing how he came to be an artist and explaining both how is art works as well as why it is significant, but the life of the man takes precedence.  Hence the title, I suppose.
It’s an interesting life.  If you were one of the many people participating in the recent Paris in July by day-dreaming about being an artist in Paris during the heyday of Monet or Picasso, you will find plenty to enjoy in Modigliani: A Life.   Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris from Italy, in the early days of the 20th century.  He lived among the major artists of his day, became friends with Pablo Picasso, was the center of attention in avant-garde social sets, and lived la vie Boheme on nothing a year.   He struggled as a sculptor for years until he found his signature style as a painter.  While he never became rich or famous during his lifetime, he did live to enjoy some success before dying  at the age of 36 from tubercular meningitis.   In Modigliani: A Life you’ll find a rich story of struggles with art, family, women, and day to day existence in Paris of the early 20th century, when the art scene left Montmarte for cheaper quarters in Montparnasse.

Ms. Secrest attempts to correct several aspects of Modigliani’s reputation, namely that he helped bring about his own early death through excessive drink and the use of narcotics.  She builds a strong case.  What struck me most is the idea that he drank as a means to control the symptoms of tuberculosis which he kept secret until just before his death.  His fear that he would have been ostracized by just about everyone if his condition became known was probably correct.

If, like me, you’re looking for information about his paintings, you’ll find it towards the end of Ms. Secrest’s book.  Modigliani was at the height of his skill during the final year of his life.  He had been painting portraits of friends for several years, he worked with anyone who would sit for him without pay because he had no money to hire models, but these did not sell.  In Modigliani’s day, if the sitter didn’t buy the portrait, no one did.  Once he moved on to painting nudes, his work began to sell, and he painted what many argue are his best works.
Like Picasso and many other artists living in Paris at the time, Modigliani was heavily and clearly influenced by the African masks which were beginning to appear on the art market in Europe.  Ms. Secrest writes about the mask like faces in Modigliani’s work:
“The more he (Modigliani) paints individuals the more their particular features fade into the background, and the more faces seem encased in a smooth shell as hard as a carapace.  As Pierre Daix observed, the comparison between Picasso’s revised portrait of Gertude Stein and Modigliani’s mature style is apt.  Modigliani, however, never took his experiments with features further than that. Unlike Picasso, who has already turned his women’s faces into beak-like appendages by the time he is working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Modigliani’s noses stay where they were put, the mouths fall beneath them, there are no double profiles or eyes placed in the middle of foreheads. Picasso’s interest is schematic, to see how far he can rearrange facial features and still have them be recognizable.  Modigliani’s interest is otherwise. He is trying to simplify and reduce to the irreducible minimum the essence of a personality without actually losing it altogether.  The masks of the commedia dell’arte wore, as Pierre Louis wrote in The Italian Comedy, “an indefinable expression as full of possibilities as of impossibilities, like the Mona Lisa, which every generation interprets differently.” Modigliani’s self-imposed challenge, to see how far he could venture into abstraction without ending in either anonymity or caricature, must be one of the most difficult any artist since the Renaissance has attempted.”

So why is Modigliani not held in the high esteem less able painters like Picasso are or recognized alongside the great painters of his generation like Matisse?  Ms. Secrest blames three major culprits.  The first is the author’s own personal reputation.  Modigliani’s private life was one of near complete chaos which gave him a lasting bad reputation deserved or not.  Second, because his work is so easy to fake and because he did not keep accurate records of the work he did, he became one of the  most frequently counterfeited artists of the 20th century.  For a long time, there was really no way to be sure you were buying a Modigliani.  Finally, his artwork itself worked against a lasting reputation.  Because Modigliani worked to create his own signature style, he was not included in the early narrative of 20th century art.  He is neither a cubist nor an abstract painter nor does he fit within any other school of art.  His work stands outside the rest and was often left out of the early histories of 20th century art as a result.

Fans of Modigliani, like myself, can hope that as more and more people begin to see how inferior Picasso’s work is to that of Matisse, that other excellent painters like Modigliani will be given their due.  Ms. Secrest’s book is a step in the right direction.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I remain a fan of Modigliani, but I’ve become a devote of Henri Matisse.  Fortunately, we don’t have to pick one or the other, we can enjoy them all.

Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr–Chapter I: Prophetic Patterns 1786-1850

This doesn’t count as a resolution, but on New Year’s Day I finally embarked on reading Kevin Starr’s history of California which currently stands at six volumes, last time I checked.

A few years ago I read his single volume history California and loved it.  Entertaining and informative, a clear eye-ed history of the state written by a man who’s been in love with the place for years.  Kind of like me.

I admit it, I’m a chauvinist.  I love it here.  On my first trip to Europe, the first time I spent the night outside of the United States, a woman selling tourist maps in Dresden asked me if I was from America.  I reflexively corrected her, “I’m from California.” She laughed and pointed at the gray, drizzly sky above.  Why would you leave California for here?

However, like most people in California, I didn’t really know much about the state’s history until I dedicated part of my reading to it.  Quite a few books later, I’m more of an expert than I need to be at least until I retire, move to the gold country and start giving historical walking tours to tourists.  All of which I plan to do someday.

Meantime, I’ve many volumes of Kevin Starr’s history of the state to peruse.  He keeps on writing them, too.

This first chapter is focused on the period when California was part of Mexico. Basically post Mission Period to the Gold Rush. During this time some of the missions were still operating but they were all in their final days.

Some key things I learned:

What the Americans admired about California was also what they condemned about it. During this time there are about 1500 “Europeans” living in California. The Mexican government was never able to convince large numbers of people to immigrate here due to its distance and isolation.  The Californians lived an easy outdoor life according to the written accounts.  There was little work to do since agriculture was so easy. People spent most of their day outdoors, living a largely communal lifestyle.  Wedding parties and other celebrations went on for days.  Races intermingled freely. Class lines were fairly easy to cross.  One Black man, a sailor known only as Bob, jumped ship of the coast,  changed his name to Juan Cristobal, became Catholic, married a local woman and spent out his days as a prosperous land owner.

All of this was both admired and condemned by the Americans who visited California in the first half of the 19th century.  Condemned as a land full of lazy racial mongrels who did not have the enterprize necessary to make California as prosperous as it could be.  They lived comfortable lives along the coast, never bothering to settle the interior which was just waiting for New England farmers with a solid Puritan work ethic to move in and get to work.

Though this was only a brief period of time, a single lifespan is all you need to see the founding of the missions through to their closing, it remains a foundational part of the California mythos.  An agricultural paradise where the living is easy, the people friendly, and the celebrations last for days.

Very early on California figures in the ambitions of the young nation. Secure it and you’ll have a base for trade with Asia making the nation a continental power. Spain, France, Russia and Mexico are all interested as well, attempting to gain a foothold in California’s many harbors.

It’s America with its ethos of Manifest Destiny and its unending stream of migrants heading west that will win out.  The smart money would have bet on it even before gold was discovered.  The Bidwell party arrives in 1841, the first group to make the trip overland.  The Bidwell’s do very well, by the way, even without find gold.

Of course, we should ask about the Native American population.  What happened to the indigenous people is not one of Mr. Starr’s concerns here.  Perhaps this is because the book was first published in 1973, but that’s three years after Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published. Perhaps this is because Mr. Starr’s book is cultural history based on written accounts and other cultural documents which tend to exclude the Native American point of view.  I suspect if he were writing this book today, more space would be devoted to this issue.  He does address pre-contact California in his more recent history California. 

He does point out that while the Mission period was far from an ideal one for Indigenous People, the Americans were the ones who openly put a bounty on Indian lives as a matter of government policy.  A mark of shame on our state and our country.

Top Ten Favorite Reads for 2016.

Clovis sitting on my reading sofa.

I’m going to stick to my guns here, enforce my long time rule for selecting the top ten list which is “Do I want to read this book again someday?”  The answer must be yes to qualify. Which means there are many books that I loved reading that will not make the list. Lots of books are great books, great reads, but not something I’ll ever read again.  Plot driven books, the sort that rely on surprise to keep your interest. Once you know how it all turns out, you know how it all turns out.  There’s no need to read it again.

To make this list, a book has to offer something more than a terrific first read.  It’s tough standard which means some good stuff, a few bits of great stuff, will be cut, but that’s my rule.

Here in no particular order are my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Lang A wonderful non-fiction meditation on living alone in the big city, Chicago and New York. Ms. Lang provides fascinating biographical information on the artists she writes about, men who lived and worked largely alone, but it’s the lyrical writing that won me over.  The Lonely City contains some of the best writing I read all year.
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles I loved this account of an old man trying to take a seven-year-old girl, raised by Indians, home to her white family across several hundred miles of post Civil War Texas.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino A catalogue of the cities Marco Polo visited as an ambassador for the great Khan. I loved it and will definitely be come back to it again.  And since it was so much fun, I now have several more by Italo Calvino in my TBR stack.
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin   I have been somewhat haunted by this story of a South Korean family looking for their vanished mother since I read it last summer. While there is an element of suspense in the story, it’s really the tale an entire society masked as the tale of one particular family.
  • The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks I am very late to the party here.  The story of how a small town bush crash affects both the town overall and the lives of a few key people.  Told from multiple points of view in a way that works to make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski  A very small book by a very small press The Cupboard.  you’ll have to visit their website if you’d like to get a copy.  The is a fictional collection of source material the Brothers Grimm decided not to use in their collected tales.  I loved it.  And I love the cover.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante I may not be sticking to my rules here. This is the third book a series of four.  The chances that I will one day re-read them all are slight, I realize. But, in a way, read through to book three should count for something, so I’m listing the third book here.  I intended to start book four today, but found that I don’t have a copy.  Guess I’ll have to go to the book store tomorrow.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Seven Places of the Mind by Joan Didion Classic non-fiction, mostly about California in the 1960’s.  I find quite a bit of non-fiction on my top ten list his year.  The best writing I read in 2016 was found in non-fiction.  This was a surprise, frankly.  If you’ve never read Joan Didion before, this is the one to read. I loved it.  More please.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson I just finish Ms. Woodson’s new novel Another Brooklyn which is very good, but not as good as Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ll be teaching it to my 7th grades late this year.  Wish me luck
  • The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher M.F.K. Fisher invented writing about food.  Maybe not, maybe someone did it before she did, but no one every loved food as much as she did.  Not even me. The opening section on her first oyster is not to be missed. More excellent non-fiction writing.

I’ve already started 2017 with two contenders for the top ten list: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon which I loved and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge which is holding up pretty well. this is the third time I’ve read it.

Since I’m not running the TBR Dare anymore, I was planning on joining in The Tournament of Books this year but The Dare has been resurrected by Annabel and Lizzaysiddal.  They have even given it its own website here.  I admit, I was both flattered and happy to see it continue so I immediately signed up.  However, according to the rules, which are still as loose as ever thank you, I could put all the tournament books on hold now so I can still join in.

You can see why I have never 300 books in my TBR stack.

Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe by William Rosen

Some things I learned from reading William Rosen’s book Justinian’s Flea:

  • Justinian I was as unlikely to become emperor as Theodora was to become empress.
  • Theodora really did work in a brothel, most likely, but she had retired prior to meeting Justinian in her early twenties. That bit about covering herself in seed and letting a small flock of geese peck it all off was probably just a rumor, though.
  • Justinian I and Theodora really were in profound love with each other though he was old enough to be her father.  The two were the ultimate power couple, acting as co-rulers much of the time.
  • Justinian outlived Theodora by many years, Neither died of the plague.
  • The plague outbreak can be blamed for the ultimate decline of the Roman Empire.
  • The flea has evolved into hundreds, maybe thousands of different species, many of the specialized and specific to a single animal.  Dog fleas are not rat fleas.
  • Rabbit fleas do not lay eggs unless their host is pregnant.  They leap to the newborn rabbits once everyone is born.
  • Though they may prefer one species, fleas will leap to another if no other host is available.
  • What the Bible calls “leprosy” is almost certainly not Hansen’s disease.  It’s probably psoriasis or eczema.
  • While what the Bubonic Plague does to humans is terrible, what it does to the fleas that carry the Yersina Pestis virus is even more horrifying.

The actual plague makes up only a small portion of Justinian’s Flea, which was a bit disappointing for me since that was my main interest in picking up the book.  Mr. Rosen spends most of his book on the life and work of Justinian.  It’s an interesting life, to say the least and his work is darn impressive too.  While there were a few chapters that I skimmed, I’m not all the interested in the details of Justinian’s Code for example, I enjoyed most of the book quite a bit.

And learned a lot from reading it, too.


Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine was all the rage at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs national conference in Los Angeles last spring.  Her keynote address was sold out, the extra room where you could watch it all on video projection was sold out.  She was huge.

I had never heard of her, so I didn’t go.

Probably a mistake, in retrospect.

It’s difficult for me to pin down just exactly what sort of writer Ms. Rankine is.  I’ve heard her called a poet, but Citizen didn’t really strike me as poetry, not exactly.  It’s non-fictio, but it’s not really reportage, nor is it really an essay in any traditional sense of the word.

This lack of firm genre may be one thing her readers like about her.

It is non-fiction. She does tell true stories in Citizen and she does build a case towards a clear point she wants to prove, in a way, but the various sections of the book read a little like a disparate collection of writings rather than as a wholly cohesive argument.

It’s hard to describe.

While I enjoyed it, if one can say one enjoys a book that basically makes you mad more than anything, I felt like I was reading a script for a performance piece.  I kept having the feeling that this would probably work much better if it were read aloud by the author, read with a series of powerful images projected on the wall behind her.  The book is well illustrated with excellent photography by the way.

Citizen is about what it’s like to experience America today as a black woman.  Its main focus, and I think its usefulness, is on the small but fairly constant racism black people experience that white people are not even aware of.  The kind of thing that happens in passing at a check out counter so quickly that it’s over before most people are aware it happened. I found much of Citizen quite eye-opening in this sense.

Much of it was about sports.  Much of was about tennis champion Serena Williams. I don’t follow sports at all so I enter Citizen knowing very little about Serena Williams.  I wonder if this made Ms. Rankine’s accounts of the racism and the sexism Serena Williams faced on and off of the court more shocking.  Actually, I’m not going to go with ‘shocking,’ it was shameful.  Those involved should be ashamed of themselves.

But as interesting as the parts about more famous people were, I found the accounts of more day-to-day racism much more profound, much more unsettling.  They are not fatal blows, but they add up to a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

It’s not something that’s really easy to understand, that effect of so much constant low-level, nearly under the radar racism.  Citizen goes a long way towards making the problem clear, a necessary step towards solving it.

On Being Blue: a Philosophical Inquiry by William H. Gass

This is a book for people who love language.

Ideas, too.  William H. Gass has plenty of ideas, but, for me, this book was about language.  Reading William H. Gass was spending times in the hands of a master, a master who is having a very good time.

I had a good time, too.

On Being Blue is the most thorough look at the word ‘blue’ and all things blue you’re likely to ever find.  It may be the only book about the subject.

I enjoyed it all, but my favorite section is on the idea that ‘blue’ equates with sex.  Blue language is language about sexuality.  Sex is notoriously difficult to write about outside of seriously blue erotic, maybe not even there.  Mr. Gass is largely against it.  Here’s a long quote, that I loved, and that I largely agree with by the way.

An author is responsible for everything that appears in his books. If he claims that reality requires his depiction of the sexual, in addition to having a misguided aesthetic, he is a liar, since we shall surely see how few of his precious passages are devoted to chewing cabbage, hand-washing, sneezing, sitting on the stool, or, if you prefer, filling out forms, washing floors, cheering teams.

Futhermore, the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form, there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost; sentences like After the battle of Waterloo, I tied my show, appear; a sudden, absurd and otherwise inexplicable magnification occurs, with the shattering of previous wholes into countless parts and endless steps; articles of undercloghin crawl away like injured worms and things which were formerly perceived and named as nouns cook down into their adjectives.  What a page before was a woman is suddenly a breast, and then a nipple, then a little ring of risen flesh, a pacifier, water bottle, rubber cushion. Without plan or purpose we slide from substance, fact to feeling, all out becomes an in, and we hear only exclamations of suspicious satisfaction: the ums, the ohs, the ahs.

Mr. Gass loves using language, and talking about how to use language.

I had a great time with On Being Blue.