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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Book Seventeen

The seventeenth book we almost read this year was The Greatest Book in the World and Other Papers, by A. Edward Newton. We took this book through the interlibrary loan system because Newton is a famed book collector and writer about books. In the past, we have enjoyed other books written by him. The title comes from the first essay, and the book so designated is the Bible. Newton describes in much detail the printing history of the Bible. Then follows the Other Papers, which have almost nothing to do with books. As with these older literary titles, there is a great deal of information that has been otherwise lost or forgotten in the grand scope of history. We read the next nine essays and finally gave up the rest of the book. Unfortunately, the final few essays were about books, though upon skimming them nothing of keen interest was obvious. And we ran out of time on our loan.

So to the next book that we read completely: Vermeer: A View of Delft, by Anthony Bailey. Yes, our interests run beyond books, to other arts like painting (Vermeer and Modigliani), and music (Texas and Beatles), and photography (Steiglitz and Cameron), and sculpture (Claudel and Rodin). Mr. Bailey has an extensive background in Dutch history, and he uses it to flesh out this biography of a man of whom so little is known.

Many details about the life of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) that have come down to us today are from business records. His activities can be traced through the history of the Guild of St. Luke, recorded births and deaths, and a great deal of financial transactions. About the inner man, though, almost no evidence has been found beyond the thirty-five paintings attributed to him. Though the quantity of his work is small for a master, his achievements raise him in stature. As this is not a book about painting, the examinations of his works are mostly limited to what they might tell us about the artist.

In Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time, Albertine is asked whether or not she saw the Vermeers when she was in The Hague. She thinks they are a family, and replies that she did not. Though our two dear readers may not know it, you likely have seen some of the Vermeers, without ever having visited The Hague. Have you played the classic Parker art auction game Masterpiece? Have you seen or read any of the recent film and fiction treatments by Peter Webber or Tracy Chevalier, among others? Have you drank Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur? We had seen some of his work without really knowing, and our first explicit introduction to the artist came from the 1990 Jon Jost film All the Vermeers in New York.

The Girl With a Pearl Earring is our favorite. Mr. Webber used Scarlett Johansson to reproduce this painting marvelously. Along with Study of a Young Woman, these are the only portraits Vermeer made, the subject extracted from the scenes Vermeer executed so well, and this the superior of the two. His control of light is suggested here with the back of the dress fading away, as well as the highlights on the earring, eyes, and lips. The blue, red, and gold are his standard colors. To single out one painting above all is difficult, though, for Vermeer achieves greatness in so many of his details: the reflections in A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window, and The Music Lesson; the milk and bread of The Milkmaid; the delicacy of the Woman Holding a Balance; the accuracy of the maps and the lustre of the lion's head finials; the threads of The Lacemaker; the Delft tiles.

Another of our favorites is The Art of Painting, which may give us all the information we need about how Vermeer worked. Hitler "liberated" this painting during the war and stored it away with the rest of his ill-gotten collection in a salt mine near Salzburg. One of his final orders from the Berlin bunker was to destroy the repository of paintings, which, thankfully, was disobeyed.

We enjoyed this book, and it opens the way for further examinations of the painter and his paintings. We will share other books on the subject in the future. A wonderful and amazingly detailed reference on Vermeer and his work can be found at Essential Vermeer.

The last trip Marcel Proust made out of his apartment was to see three Vermeers on display at a museum in the Tuileries. In his early years he also traveled to Delft and saw View of Delft. Though we are never told any details about the essay on Vermeer that Charles Swann is ocassionally writing, likely it would have included the epiphany described by the narrator and incorporated with Proust's own experiences in the sixth part of his novel. As in Mr. Jost's film, we quote in conclusion a passage from Proust that sends shivers down our spine:
All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

"Rare Books and Manuscripts"

Here is a short film we found via Textual Tangents. Romance in the stacks. What a wonderful little story! What we wouldn't give to spend our days researching and courting in the Reading Room. View it here and then come back to tell us what you think.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In a world where punctuation barely survives...

The sixteenth book we have read this year is Cormac McCarthy's The Road. We chose to read this because it was the next selection for the Literary Salon book club at our shop, not because it was one of Oprah's selections. We otherwise probably would never have picked it up.

The front wrapper of our Vintage trade edition offers this quote from the San Francisco Chronicle:
His tale of survival and the miracle of goodness only adds to McCarthy's stature as a living master. It's gripping, frightening and, ultimately, beautiful. It might very well be the best book of the year, period.
So, let us first take note that, according to the praise of the Chronicle, this book does no other thing except add to Mr. McCarthy's stature--it does not entertain, it does not enlighten, it does not sadden, it does not brighten. There is no mention of any literary merits. It is all about the glory of the author. If Joe the Unpublished Genius submitted this manuscript to Knopf, would they have accepted it for publication? I can't imagine so.

We have heard other readers wonder what befell civilization? For us, it didn't matter. We give Mr. McCarthy credit for not trying to explain too much, for leaving the past to the imagination of the reader. What should be interesting, after all, is not what happened, but what happens. Here, though, nothing much happens. A man and his son wander around just surviving. What are they trying to accomplish? Apparently just survival. The boy is smart enough to say he doesn't know what they are doing, and to realise without something to do, they might as well not survive. Papa, however, insists that his son go on, because they must "carry the fire." It seems evident, though, that they don't have the fire.

Does this novel show the miracle of goodness? Papa is intent on protecting his son from the "bad guys," and shoots one man dead and forces another to an inevitable death, yet neither men show evidence of threat. Such behavior is not a miracle of goodness. Telling his son to leave him to die is not a miracle of goodness. And if in an apocalyptic world such distinctions are no longer valid, then goodness doesn't exist. Survival is not goodness. Papa seems to have developed a messiah complex. Without giving away the end, Mr. McCarthy seems to suggest that Papa has all along stood in the way of his and his son's quest to find the other "good guys" still alive in the world.

The worst thing about this novel is the writing. If Mr. McCarthy is a living master, he ought to have been able to write evocatively, lushly, triumphantly. Instead the novel reads as if he merely transcribed his scribbled thoughts:
He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.
There are no chapters, and there are rather few complete scenes. This excerpt, which flourishes with two complete sentences, is one unit among many others just like it. We would expect a living master to take these thoughts about the events, or the emotion, or whatever the scene is meant to convey, and show it, develop it, use his skills to write several sentences into a paragraph, and then string several of those together in logical succession to form a scene or a chapter. Bedrock, this? Lazy, that.

Should anyone think Mr. McCarthy has limited range, he stretches himself to the other extreme of run-on sentences, as if he had sudden bouts of diarhhea of the ands. He also has a limited supply of apostrophes, which might be expected of a Grub Street hack, but an experienced bestselling author ought to have a larger stash, or be able to get a hold of a few more should he need them. We could have lent him some. Or perhaps he has imagined this world in which only a few humans survive as a place where only a few apostrophes have survived as well. If one intends to rekindle civilization, one ought to value communication, use apostrophes when one ought to, and avoid empty verbs like "got" which communicates nothing. Or maybe this is all just part of what the New York Times Book Review called Mr. McCarthy's consistently brilliant imagining of the posthumous condition of nature and civilization. But when one writes about nothing, and conveys nothingness is one's writing, what is there for the reader to experience and to take with her? Nothing.

Almost the entire book is written in third person omniscient point of view. At times we are inside the boy's head, at other times the man's. There are maybe three of those little units that mentions a "me," and one about a third of the way through which has a few sentences concerning "I." So who exactly is this first person who only briefly appears? Perhaps God? There are also apparent flashbacks now and again. And the final bit of confusion would be the shunning of all quotation marks. Again we have to wonder, did whatever fires that left the rest of the world in ashes also burn away all critical punctuation marks? Does Mr. McCarthy mean to suggest that these are the weakest of the punctuation marks, and were not even fit enough to survive the world's destruction like the other more robust question mark, or period? No, we do not think there is a set rule that a writer must make use of these marks. They are, however, all meant to improve comprehension and understanding, so why leave them out? I happened to flip through another of Mr. McCarthy's books and noticed a similar lack of quotation marks, so one is left to conclude either he is above them, or it is the one key that is broken on his typewriter. Or perhaps the missing punctuation explains everything: earth was hit by a giant meteor from space with brought about the near-total extinction of punctuation, and only a few stragglers hang on, and the good guys don't bother with it any more because they realise it is hardly essential to their survival, but the bad guys are punctuation bullies who demand that all surviving punctuation be put on the endangered species list, and who force others to use punctuation in unnatural ways.

After putting down our thoughts about the book, we spent some time reading the thoughts of others. The worst review we could find was from a woman who complained that there was little female involvement in the story. With every review we read, our bafflement turned to frustration, and that quickly hardened into anger. The most glaring habit of the worshipful reviewers was reading into the book more than was written in it. We will follow with a few quotes, and our observations.

"We follow our unnamed protagonist and his son on their journey through a post-apocalyptic Appalachia, hunted by butchers."
--This statement is a perfect example of how so many reviews read things into this novel. And yet this same reviewer later claims that Mr. McCarthy has written everything necessary to understanding the novel. Though Papa knows of butchers and roadagents, and perhaps has even witnessed their acts or the evidence of them, we know the "bad guys" that Papa and son encounter are bad because Papa claims they are. In other words, we don't know for sure. Nothing but pap's paranoia indicates they are being hunted. Papa sees everyone else as the "bad guys" because he sees in others what is inside himself. The end of the book bears witness to this: Papa and son don't meet any of the "good guys" until after Papa dies, because the other "good guys" know he is a "bad guy" who they are avoiding. You take Papa at his word and your life will be filled with loneliness and mistrust.

"Theirs is a burden to carry the fire, that essential goodness of our common humanity, so easy to maintain in the day-to-day, but which finds itself tested when other avenues offer simpler means to live another hour."
--Essential goodness is not at all easy to maintain in the day-to-day. People constantly take the simpler means to live. Just turn on the six o'clock news for fresh proof. The miracle is that people ever choose essential goodness.

"The freshness he brings to this end-of-the-world narrative is quite stunning."
--There seems little freshness here. We have seen this world and these behaviors from other writers before. One reviewer hailed the novel as an accomplished pastiche. Another reviewer noted with pleasure that Mr. McCarthy had returned to his own familiar subjects of cannibals and dead babies. What is stunning is how anyone can think rehashing one's own work is fresh.

"I have no doubt that Oprah's audience is going to have a violently negative reaction to The Road."
--We will be surprised if this is the case. We suspect her audience might feel a little uncomfortable, but still heap high praise upon the novel and claim revelations after reading it.

Reading all these reviews drove home for us just how much a reader brings to a novel. Either we are lacking something essential for understanding The Road, or others are reading into it far more than is there. And so many of these reviews are better written and more evocative than the novel itself. For a well-written review that (no surprise) praises the novel, read Michael Chabon's "After the Apocalypse".

This is not a bad novel. With the short chunks of writing, it was quick to read. Like with much other modern fiction, we weren't gripped, and we weren't frightened. We certainly believe it could have been better. In this post-apocalyptic world we are shown the utter meaninglessness of every day events, and when the book contains little else, we are left with a meaningless book. We are willing to accept the possibility that we missed something in our reading, a critical element that would make sense of all the liberties taken by the author, something which his target audience--the Chronicle, Oprah--obviously grasps. But... winner of the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life? We are not willing to accept the judgement that this novel is worthy above all others for such an award. This is a signal that there is something seriously wrong with the literary community as a whole, from authors who presume to write poorly, to publishers who think such writing is worthy of publication over more well-written and original manuscripts, to critics who heap praise with nary a dissenting voice, and to readers who lap up any tripe that is set before them. Modern American fiction is in a sad state, and Oprah's judgement is once again proven erroneous.

UPDATE: By coincidence, last night we watched the 1998 film Six-String Samurai, in which a man and boy travel along a road in a post-apocalyptic America. Though it riffs off other films (Wizard of Oz, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Mad Max)--or perhaps spoofs them--it is also full of creativity. Mr. McCarthy could use a Spinach Monster in his book.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book Fifteen

The fifteenth novel we have read is Saints and Sinners: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers and Their Families, with Their Friends and Foes; and an Account of Their Posthumous Wanderings in Limbo, Their Final Resurrection and Rise to Glory, and the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock, written by George Findlay Willison in 1945 to a reception of wide praise from critics and historians. During his research for another work, he discovered that much of what he thought he knew about the Pilgrims was in fact not true, so this book was borne of the desire to know them as they truly were. The title of the book comes from the names by which the Pilgrims referred to themselves: the Saints being those who had left England early to seek religious freedom in Leyden in the Netherlands; the Strangers being those hired by English merchants and fortune seekers to establish a fishing colony in the new world.

The majority of the account is taken directly from the first-hand writings of William Bradford and Edward Winslow, along with a host of personal letters of others. Mr. Willison organises the events and offers a much broader perspective than the participants ever could have had, but much of the story is given in their own words, as they lived and recorded it. Mr. Willison begins at Plymouth Rock with an overview of the history, and ends with the interesting history of the legendary Rock itself. In between, we get to know the Forefathers in ways that time and myth has otherwise clouded over.

There were many surprises for us. Back in the seventeenth century, colleges used to be conservative bastions of the status quo. During the reigns of Elizabeth and Charles I, any one who missed orthodox service for more than a month, who persuaded others to do the same, or who participated in any meetings of other religions faced imprisonement, banishment, and execution. The Pilgrims escaped this oppression and enjoyed religious freedom in Holland for twelve years, but, oddly enough, upon establishing their Old Colony at Plymouth, they enacted the same kind of regulations. The decision to leave Leyden came not in seeking religious freedom, but first, fearful of being absorbed by the Dutch, in maintaining their English identity, and second, burdened by extreme poverty, in finding a place where they could live comfortably. After several negotiations with different colonial companies, both English and Dutch, a group of about seventy London merchants, seeking quick and easy profits, offered free passage to the group if they would help establish a town in the new world. The experience was frought with difficulty through its entirety, and the Pilgrims probably suffered more hardship than had they remained in Leyden.

The fanciful rendering of the landing by Henry Sargent is far from reality. First landfall occured at the cape, and women were not brought ashore until the site at Plymouth was secured. The Indians were evidently present but remained hidden, and from the start the Pilgrims were wary of those whose lands they were invading. Though the Saints went through the motions of friendship, they remained distrustful and soon became belligerent to the people who generally tried to help them, or at the least leave them alone. One trader later commented, "I have found the Massachusetts Indians more full of humanitie than the Christians." Certainly the Indians seemed to give greater support and assistance to the colonials than did the merchants in London who were financing the venture, and to whom the Pilgrims regularly petitioned unsuccessfully for aid.

The Pilgrims and Puritans have often been confused, but they were distinct groups. Though the Saints were far less strict than the Puritans, they still regularly sinned against the basic concepts of their faith. More than ten years passed before Roger Williams, a "teacher" at Plymouth, declared that no one in England or New England could validly dispose by patent, charter, or sale, lands that belonged to the Indians, for which he was banished. Many townsfolk spent time in the stocks for fornication. Even the Reverend John Cotton, Jr. had a fondness for women parishioners and committed "Notorious" adulteries among his flock. Indian leaders often had their heads displayed on pikes above the town as a friendly welcome. Despite their personal pasts, and contrary to popular opinion, the Saints were nearly as intolerant of others (of race or religion) as the Puritans, Queen Elizabeth, and King Charles I.

The editor of the book calls the Pilgrims an inept group of immigrants. Of the 359 Mr. Willison accounts as Pilgrims, only 104 were Saints, the remainder being Strangers, hired hands, and servants. They were not the first colonials to settle the new world--the Dutch already had established New Amsterdam--nor were they the most successful--the Puritans in Boston and Salem eventually gained a charter which included New Plimoth and made them the dominant group in America for a long time to come. The Old Colony lasted only seventy-three years and was survived by two members of the original Mayflower group. The Pilgrims can be credited with establishing the town meeting. Also, the Mayflower Compact perhaps was the first document of self-government ever enacted, promising equal laws for all, though it was meant essentially to insure the rule of the minority elders among the Saints. Thankfully, some of the names they gave to their children--Remember, Love, Wrestling, Mehitable, Fear, Patience--are no longer popular.

Mr. Willison includes biographical sketches of the members of the Pilgrim Company, as well as the officers of their church, a summary chart that categorizes the group in various ways, extensive notes, bibliographical references, and an index. He does a good job of ordering the historical events and ellucidating them with the actual words of the participants, in all their varied spellings and odd phrasings. Any one interested in this early colonial history should enjoy this book for all its information and revelations. Any one pleased with the tidy, hopeful myths that accompany the Pilgrims today would probably rather leave this book on the shelf.

We give it four (out of five) pipefuls.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Decision 2007

Well, the votes have been tallied. Though the election judges feel there may have been some tampering with the results from Florida, and one dead blogger from Chicago cast a vote, the results would appear to be unaffacted. So we are pleased to announce the next book up for discussion is The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. Do whatever you can to acquire it, read it, and be ready to post your thoughts on Thursday 31 May. You will find additional links and information at Slaves of Golconda.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Next book of the Slaves

If either of my two devoted readers would like to join the Slaves of Golconda for the next book, here is your chance to make yourself heard. For the next couple days we will be accepting votes on books from a list of nominees posted here. Leave a comment with your preference, and the official selection will be announced before the start of next week. Come join the fun!

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Book Fourteen

The fourteenth book we have read this year is the 1873 classic, A History of Booksellers, the Old and the New, by Henry Curwen.

Chances are one won't find this book lying around in a dollar bin. We found it at another library, and had our friendly librarian order it for us. We have obtained access by inter-library loan to numerous books otherwise beyond our reach. It is sort of a manual version of using the internet to access information on the other side of the world.

Mr. Curwen was a publisher, translator, author of several novels, short stories, and poems, and a newspaper editor. This book is a wide-ranging multiple biography of the leading figures of bookselling in England during the nineteenth century, when they held a dual role as publisher. The introduction tells us that this book is a valuable follow-up (chronologically) to The Earlier History of English Bookselling, by W. Roberts. Below is the frontispiece.

There is a lot of information about a lot of people that have mostly been forgotten. The writing isn't particularly entertaining, and the reading gets rather trying as the pages add up. Every story sounds the same, with only the particulars changing. Mr. Curwen gives a brief background of each publisher/bookseller and then follows his career until death. The first part of the book focuses on individual men during the formative years of the business; the second part of the book focuses on various families who led the business into the twentieth century. There are a few anecdotes scattered about, but not enough to keep this account interesting. In the preface, Mr. Curwen notes that
No work of the kind has ever previously been attempted, and this fact must be an apology for some, at least, of our shortcomings.
If one is interested in writing a Wikipedia article, this book could probably provide one with a lot of information that is not easily found elsewhere. We were surprised to learn just how popular literary periodicals were in those days. Almost every bookseller/publisher had at least one periodical that they started, and many of them regularly sold well. The quantities of certain books sold was also often impressive. Quite a few pages involve Walter Scott and his rise to become the most popular novelist of his day. Copyrights were also bought and sold regularly, as well as shares in them, much as men might purchase a stake in a new company today. The background and formation of lending libraries is also covered.

Mr. Curwen was at pains to parse and focus his material into a cheap and popular form. While it is not poorly conceived or written, it is dry. For information that has probably been otherwise lost or forgotten, this book is the reference one wants. For entertainment, this book is noteworthy for its monotony.

We give it two (out of five) pipefuls.