London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd:
There were also card clubs for gamesters and cock and hen clubs for youths and prostitutes. There was a No-Nose Club, and a Farting Club in Cripplegate where the members “meet once a week to poyson the neighbourhood, and with their Noisy Crepitations attempt to out-fart one another.” C.W. Heckethorn, in London Souvenirs, intones a litany of other clubs: a Surly Club at a tavern near Billingsgate, filled with the tradesmen of the quarter who met to sharpen “the practice of contradiction and of foul language”; a Spit-Farthing Club, which met weekly at the Queen’s Head in Bishopsgate, and was “composed chiefly of misers and skinflints”; and the Club of Broken Shopkeepers, which met at Tumble Down Dick in Southwark and comprised bankrupts and others unfortunate in trade. The Mock Heroes Club met in an alehouse in Baldwin’s gardens, where each member would assume the name of a “defunct hero”, while the Lying Club congregated at the Bell Tavern in Westminster where “no true word” was to be uttered during its proceedings. A Man-Killing Club which met at a tavern in a back alley adjoining St. Clement Danes admitted to membership no one “who had not killed his man”; but there was also a Humdrum Club “composed of gentlemen of peaceable dispositions, who were satisfied to meet at a tavern, smoke their pipes and say nothing till midnight” when they went homeward. An Everlasting Club was so called “because its hundred members divided the twenty four hours of day and night among themselves in such a manner that the club was always sitting, no person presuming to rise until he was relieved by his appointed successor.”
My God, this is the best single work of nonfiction I have read in a decade! It contains every quirky fact about London ever gathered by a man who has apparently spent a lifetime exploring every borough, street and alley in one of the most beautiful, terrible, civilized, barbaric, whimsical, dark, exotic, dreary, cultured, radiant, stinking corners of the world. Instead of a straightforward history dating from the Druids through the worlds of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fielding, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, John Osborne and John Mortimer, the magnificent work offers multitudes of cross-sections of every era all at once, on just about every subject you care to name, with equal attention to the joyous exaltation and the dark diseased anatomy of the city. This book is a delightful romp and a funeral procession all at once.
There are individual chapters devoted to clubs and pubs through history, to beggars and lunatics, to architecture, churches and governments, to prostitutes, cuisines, flowers, noises and stenches, to fires and plagues, roads, monuments, to theaters and buskers. Chapters about every neighborhood in London, and another one devoted to the spaces between them. A chapter about the Thames and a chapter about the fog. A chapter about the darkness and ones about sunrise and sunset. Eight chapters about crime and punishment, from the law courts to Newgate Prison to the sensational murders to the gentlemen outlaws whose escapades made them more loved by the people than the most upright members of Parliament. A chapter comparing the Great Fire of the 17th century with the blitz of WWII. This book is about everything.
Since so much of the book consists of small chapters that explore one specific subject from medieval times to the 21st century, I would frequently conclude an interesting account of tavern life, or sanitation and lack thereof, or the treatment of the homeless, or the treatment of women, and suddenly realize that, by the end of the chapter, he was describing conditions and attitudes that exist right now, while my mind was still in “how quaint and different things were in those days” mode.
I want to take this book with me to London and carry it in front of me like a map as I visit every spot mentioned. Anyone want to come with me? You can come with me to historical neighborhoods and watch me ooh and awe over faded placques commemorating events long ago forgotten by the natives. And when you get bored with that, we can go to the fascinating neighborhoods and get mugged! C’mon, any volunteers? It’ll be a hoot! Ackroyd said so!
The Private Journal of Henri Frederic Amiel:
This evening, I had an experience that may be summed up thus: in a kiss, can one steal away a soul? I snatched a kiss, and as the blood flowed back to my heart I felt, I saw in advance how such a trifle might be a betrayal or might decide a destiny. The impulse, as a matter of fact, was spontaneous and irresistible. Sympathy, a feeling of pity and tenderness and attraction, and the thing was done, the cheek pressed against my lips, and the cheek had given itself. The kiss, almost brotherly at the beginning, had, in the act, almost turned to passion. The swift rapture, the transformation of feeling under the influence of sex, the power and the intoxication of a kiss, a woman’s astonishing capacity for dissimulation, the promptness of regret, all this struck me with the rapidity of thought at the contact with the satiny skin, or rather, in the second afterwards. And all this without any bitterness, for I feel that I really did no harm. What I felt was the harm that I might have done, if the circumstances or the characters had been different.
You think his peers called him “The Make-Out King” behind his back? I can’t think why not!
Billed as an autobiography, this one is really a book of pensees, like Marcus Aurelius or Pascal, only not quite so top-tier in importance. In fact, if I hadn’t read the foreword, I still wouldn’t have much of an idea of who Amiel was and what he did with his life. Every entry is about some claim to philosophical insight, or about how his back is killing him, or about the pain inherent in the human condition, served up with a helping of angst worthy of the cast of Buffy.
I can’t say I liked it, either as pleasure or as enlightenment. It seems to me the purpose of philosophy is to either help you enjoy life or to help you understand it. Amiel did neither. He can’t even kiss a hot passionate woman without brooding about it during the kiss. And he appears to have spent most of his writing life in pain. Many times, I desperately wanted to reach into the book and give him a Swedish gymnast and a bottle of Tanqueray.
What he did do for me was serve as a warning. There’s just enough in me of the too-serious, too-bookish overintellectual fuddy duddy that I was able to see and empathize with what went wrong. I could end up like Amiel in my old age, if I forget to stop thinking and actually live my life in a carefree sort of way once in a while, counting my blessings and letting myself get lost in kisses instead of the other way around. For that reason alone, I’m as glad to have shared this man’s dusty journal as I am to put it down again.
Gosta Berling’s Saga, by Selma Lagerlof:
Sintram was the name of the wicked proprietor of Fors; he, with the clumsy body of an ape, with long arms, bald head, and ugly grimacing face; he, whose whole delight it was to devise evil. Sintram was the name of him who chose vagabonds and brawlers as workmen, and had only quarreling and lying serving-girls about him, who maddened the dogs by thrusting pins in their noses and lived happily amid hateful people and furious animals. Sintram was the name of the man whose greatest pleasure was to masquerade as The Evil One in horns and hoofs and tail and hairy hide, and, suddenly appearing out of the dusky corners, from behind the oven or the woodbox, frighten timid women and children. Sintram was he who rejoiced to exchange old friendship for new enmity, and to poison the heart with lies.
Sintram was his name---and once he came to Ekeby.
Selma Lagerlof was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and I’m told that this is still one of the most popular works in Scandinavian literature. It’s different from anything else I’ve read to date, almost as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez had written a book set among somber farmers and ironworkers along the fjords. Or maybe if Winesburg, Ohio had been a magic realism book. The story has to do with a defrocked country parson who becomes one of a dozen rowdy “cavaliers” who together make a pact with the man described above, believing him to be the devil. Tragicomic mayhem ensues, involving the central plot of Gosta the parson, and several interlocking stories involving the other men and the various other people in the area. Many times, it is hard to tell whether something supernatural has just happened, or whether it has not. The overarching theme is one of ironic outcomes, in which people set out to do evil and end up doing good, or set out to do good and cause disasters. Well worth the read, but very, very puzzling.
The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton :
He came from a family of cranks, in which the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else. His father cultivated art and self-realization; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene. Hence, the child, during his tender years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinthe and Ovaltine, of both of which he had a healthy dislike. The more his mother preached a more than puritan abstinence, the more did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism. Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left---sanity.
This is either a very short novel or a very long parable, depending on how you look at it. Chesterton and CS Lewis are two of the few theological writers who consistently have me coming back for more instead of tossing their books aside as idiotic superstition. Even the Father Brown mysteries are in fact better lessons on the human condition than most nonfiction. The plot dissolves into utter nonsense frequently, especially when there’s a chase going on, but the allegory was enough to keep me turning the pages.
Don’t Ask, by Donald E. Westlake:
The speaker, who looked mostly like a hillside brought to life by claymation, was a man monster—or monster man—named Tiny Bulcher by someone with a grim sense of humor, or fast legs, or both. In the company of human beings of normal size and shape, Tiny Bulcher looked...different. He reminded most people of the thing they used to believe lived in the bedroom closet at night. When they were very very small, and they would wake up, and it would be really dark in the whole house, and they would lie in bed and know just how small they were, and the closet door was the only thing in the entire vast universe they could see, and they just knew that inside that closet right now, reaching for the doorknob on the inside there, was...Tiny.
“Hello, Dortmunder,” said Tiny, with a voice like a seaplane engine with gasket trouble. He chuckled, with a sound like small bones being crushed...
To those of you who have not yet discovered Dortmunder: You have no idea. Just go out to your library right now and pick up The Hot Rock, the first in the series, and prepare to laugh your head off. If you’d rather, you can go find the movie version with Robert Redford as Dortmunder, the leader of the quirky band of crooks who commit the most improbable crimes with the most improbable plot twists and comic mayhem I’ve ever seen. The only rules are: the Dortmunder gang never gets away with the ultimate jackpot, and they never get caught and go to prison. Other than that, anything goes. I mean anything. Including the need to steal the same object multiple times; frame-ups and counter frame-ups, and a lot of running gags that end with, ”Shut up”, explained Tiny.
Like this episode, for instance, which could also be called “The Bone of Contention” or “The Revenge of Diddums”. In this one, the Dortmunder Gang is hired by the government of a breakaway Balkan Republic to steal a holy relic from the embassy of a different breakaway Republic (”They both primarily export rocks.” “But our rocks iss better! Dests prove!”) because the country that has the relic will get the seat at the UN. The embassy is a converted tramp steamer in the East River. Success will mean the undying thanks of a nation of dozens. Failure will mean being shanghaied to Tsergovia (or perhaps Votsojek) and subjected to the medical experiments of the insidious Doctor Zorn...
O Pioneers, by Willa Cather:
She was a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly and resolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what she was going to do next. She wore a man’s long ulster (not as if it were an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belonged to her; carried it like a young soldier) and a round plush cap, tied down with a thick veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face, and her clear, deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance, without seeming to see anything, as if she were in trouble.
I was instantly smitten with Alexandra Bergson, the practical, capable frontier woman right away, and read her story over the course of an afternoon. This is Cather’s first major work, and it brings to life the Big Sky country with its tilled soil and fresh air, as well as a deep respect for the people who set up home in the middle of nowhere and were able to make something out of it.
A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James DeMille :
Among so strange a people it seemed singular to me what offenses could possibly be committed which could be regarded and punished as crimes. These, however, I soon found out. Instead of robbers, the Kosekin punish the secret bestowers of wealth on others. This is regarded as a very grave offense. Analogous to our crime of piracy is the forcible arrest of ships at sea and the transfer to them of valuables. Sometimes the Kosekin pirates give themselves up as slaves. Kidnapping, assault, highway robbery, and crimes of violence have their parallel here in cases where a strong man, meeting a weaker, forces himself upon him as his slave or compels him to take his purse. If the weaker refuses, the assailant threatens to kill himself, which act would lay the other under obligations to receive punishment from the state in the shape of gifts and honors, or at least subject him to unpleasant inquiries. Murder has its counterpart among the Kosekins in cases where one man meets another, forces money on him, and kills himself. Forgery occurs where one uses another’s name so as to confer money on him.
The library is a great place for impulse purchases. The title of this one jumped out at me, and so I snapped it up without knowing a thing about it or the author. It turns out DeMille’s picture could pass for a late 19th century President with a huge beard, and his work is about what you’d expect if Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift had collaborated to write the tale of a man who rides a raft down a waterfall to discover a strange world of odd people, strange and opposite customs and weird creatures deep inside the earth. I wondered if the makers of Land of the Lost had read this. The plot shifts between the story of the man who wrote the manuscript, and the philosophical and scientific discussions among the people who find it years later.
As with Gulliver’s Travels and Erewhon, most of the humor and satire comes from describing cultures whose behavior is the opposite of what we take for granted in our own civilization, in a way that points out the ridiculous side of our own beliefs.
Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen:
Mrs. Jennings was a widow with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached; and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance. She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments, and had enjoyed the advantage of raising the blushes and the vanity of many a young lady by insinuations of her power over such a young man; and this kind of discernment enabled her soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to pronounce that Col. Brandon was very much in love with Marianne Dashwood.
I was inspired to read this by [Bad username: catsittingstill/]’s book posts about Jane Austen It took me a while to get into this one, but at some point I realized what the title meant. “Sense” means what I would call sensibility, the attribute of being practical, earthy and, well, sensible. “Sensibility” the way Austen means it is more like “sensitivity” and it means the attribute of being a drama queen. Hence the tale of the two Dashwood sisters, one of whom stoically plans ahead and doesn’t run after a carriage or a man; while the other continually gets the vapors and injures herself as a cry for help. In those days, I suppose, spraining one’s ankle so that a handsome gallant would assist you home, was the equivalent of self-mutilation, and long letters left lying about for the local gossip to find were the equivalent of MySpace accounts.
Of course, the really interesting characters are there in the supporting roles: the silly matchmaker, the handsome suitor with the feet of clay, the worried mother and the wise elder sitting above it all. As usual, everyone gets sorted out and properly paired off by the end. Some things, you can always count on. The final sentence could serve as an aspirational maxim for my family:
among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.
So what's on your bedside table or armchair lately?