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October Book Post

My Antonia, by Willa Cather:
I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down along the ploughed ground. There, in the sheltered drawbottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

This is my fifth Willa Cather novel of the year and, at last, one that surpasses the pastoral power of O Pioneers. Antonia (rhymes with “Mama Mia”) is cut from the same cloth as Alexandra Bergson, a strong, self-reliant heroine whose strength comes from the Earth itself, and who is so busy being in tune with the soil and the air that she has little use for the trappings of civilization. The male narrator, whom I’m told is a stand in for Cather herself, is smitten with Antonia, and so am I. In neither case would it ever work out—Cather, and Burden, and myself are too tied to the towns and out of touch with the land to ever be worthy of her, but at least we can admire her from a distance.

There’s no plot to this book, so much as a series of vignettes that illustrate the character of Antonia, of Burden, and of old Nebraska society. Readers of stories will be frustrated; admirers of great visual art will find the words compelling.

Resolution, by Robert B. Parker :
The Weasel sauntered out, followed, maybe less jauntily, by the rest of his party. The silence hung for a minute in the room, the sounds of the saloon reemerged. Wolfson came down the bar and stopped by my chair.
“That went well”, he said.
I nodded.
“Who’s he?”, I said.
“Name’s Wickman, works for O’Malley out at the mine.”
“He’s not a miner,” I said.
“No, gun hand. Got kind of a reputation around her,” Wolfson said. “He won’t like that you backed him down.”
“Don’t blame him,” I said.
“He’ll likely come at you again,” Wolfson said.
“Likely,” I said.
“What’ll you do then?” Wolfson said.
“Kill him,” I said.

This is a sequel to Appaloosa, a western by the writer of the Spenser novels. Parker increasingly likes to explore notions of honor and masculinity and codes of conduct among strong men who try to be sheepdogs rather than wolves, and his ways of communicating it are interesting, considering how the protagonists are so often strong, silent men who don’t talk about their codes of honor. In some cases, they don’t even consciously formulate such codes. They just know, and act. To them, words are a waste. Thus the stark, minimalist dialogue.

This book, in particular, explores how that code of conduct comes into play when a man whose handshake is a binding contract makes an agreement of honor with someone who turns out to be on the wrong side of what honor demands. Short, but fascinating reading, with more food for thought than I usually expect from Robert Parker.

The Hour of Our Death, by Philippe Aries :
Anatole LeBraz tells us that after five years the bones of the last occupant were taken to the charnel to make room for new ones. The gravedigger of Penvenan had “worked over the length of the cemetary six times”, meaning that over the years he had buried up to six bodies in the same hole. He was doing his job like all his predecessors, the gravediggers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whose contracts with the parochial church councils have been preserved in notarial archives. On October 27, 1527, the gravedigger of Saint-Maclou, in rouen, received three francs “for tidying the cemetery and storing the bones of the dead in the gallery.”
“It would be difficult to find a more expert gravedigger,” Le Braz goes on. “He could see right through the ground into the graves that he had filled in. To his eyes, the damp earth of the cemetery was as transparent as water.” One day the rector asked him to bury one of his parishoners, or rather, “To dig a hole for him in the place where big Ropertz was buried five years ago.” But the gravedigger knew his cemetery and its inhabitants too well for that. “Over there, you know, the bodies last a long time. I know old Ropertz. By now, the worms have barely begun to work on his guts.”

Aries is obsessed with death the way Peter Ackroyd is obsessed with London; he writes about every aspect he can find. I kept waiting for a chapter on “The Kiss of Death”, which would have at least combined his favorite subject with mine. No such luck. His focus is mainly on religious and personal attitudes toward death over time, from cemeteries to extreme unction to what people write in their wills and why. Not much about non Christian ceremonies, nor about near-death experiences, though there is a nifty discussion about the phobia on premature burial that was common in Poe’s day, and a downright funny section entitled “The Age of the Beautiful Death” that pokes at the more maudlin Victorian sentiments, from the Bronte sisters to that emo Grangerford daughter from Huckleberry Finn.

This book reminded me of how annoyed I used to be playing Civilization II, at having to invent ceremonial burial and religion in order for my citizens to be happy. Airies didn’t do much to convince me that such a requirement was historically accurate.

King Solomon’s mines, by H. Rider Haggard:
”We are strangers, and come in peace,” I answered, speaking very slow so that he might understand me. “And this man is our servant”
“Ye lie”, he answered, “no strangers can cross the mountains where all things die. But what do your lies matter, if ye are strangers then ye must die, for no strangers may live in the land of the Kukuanas. It is the king’s law. Prepare then to die, O strangers!”
I was slightly staggered at this, more especially as I saw the hands of some of the party of men steal down to their sides, where hung on each what looked to me like a large and heavy knife.
“What does the beggar say?” asked Good.
“He says we are going to be scragged”, I answered grimly.

What would happen if Indiana Jones, Hemingway, Steve Irwin and the Hardy Boys were all involved in the same deepest Africa quest for Biblical-era treasure? King Solomon’s Mines is an approximation.

It’s brain candy. So dated as to be racially offensive at times, with heroic white Englishmen in safari outfits bringing along faithful colored guides for cannon fodder and successfully impersonating Gods before the astonished natives with the great magic of firearms, matches and –yes!—taking advantage of the conveniently timed solar eclipse to pretend to put out the sun. There are improbable identity coincidences, skeletons and savage beasts that leap out at suspenseful moments, treks through the desert, booby trapped treasure chambers, and even more improbable last minute rescues. Great fun, but nothing I’m going to have stuffed and mounted beside the works of Tolstoi and Gibbon over my fireplace.

Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster :
”I believe in personal responsibility, don’t you? And in personal everything. I hate—I suppose I oughtn’t to say that—but the Wilcoxes are on the wrong tack surely. Or perhaps it isn’t their fault. Perhaps the little thing that says, “I” is missing out of the middle of their heads, and then it’s a waste of time to blame them. There’s a nightmare of a theory that says a special race is being born which will rule the rest of us in the future just because it lacks the little thing that says “I”. Had you heard that?”
“I get no time for reading”.
“Had you thought it, then? That there are two kinds of people—our kind, who live straight from the middle of their heads, and the other kind, who can’t, because their heads have no middle? They can’t say “I”. They aren’t in fact, and so they’re supermen. Pierpont Morgan has never said “I” in his life.”
Leonard roused himself. If his benefactress wanted intellectual conversation, she mus thave it. She was more important than his ruined past. “I never got on to Nietzche”, he said. “But I always understood that those supermen were what you may call egoists.”
“Oh no, that’s wrong,” replied Helen. “No superman ever said “I want”, because “I want” must lead to the question “Who am I?” and so to Pity and to Justice. He only says “want”. “Want Europe” if he’s Napoleon; “want wives”, if he’s Bluebeard; “want Botticelli” if he’s Pierpont Morgan. Never the “I”; and if you could pierce through him, you’d find panic and emptiness in the middle.”
Leonard was silent for a moment. Then he said, “May I take it, Miss Schlegel, that you and I are both the sort that say, “I”?”

An Edwardian English conversation novel, a lot of which went right over my head, or more accurately, made my eyes glaze over. The theme is class struggle, which normally intrigues me; it was Forster’s style that left me unsatisfied, not the subject matter. This was also true of A Passage to India, which was even more surprisingly soporific, as it dealt with a false sexual assault charge by a white woman against a dark-skinned, foreign defendant. It would take a lot to make such a plot uninteresting, but Forster pulled it off.
Howard’s End has three main characters representing the strata of Edwardian England: Henry Wilcox of the upright, uptight, thoughtless aristocracy; Margaret Schlegel of the literary bourgeouise; and Leonard Bast of the downtrodden near-proletariat. Predictably, Wilcox is a repressive asshole, Bast is stomped on without let-up, and Schlegel wrings her hands and worries about how people just don’t ever see beyond their own corner of the Universe. For about 400 pages.

For a much livelier and more interesting treatment of this subject matter, I recommend Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, discussed in a previous month’s book post.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque :
He fell in October, 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long. His face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad that the end had come.

War is Bad.
Very Bad.
No, no, you don’t understand—worse than that. It’s BAD.
Think of the worst thing you can think of.
War is 3.14 times as Bad as that.
When You are In a War
You Die
And then You Don’t get to Live Anymore.

This book is further evidence of my thesis (further supported by other recent reads such as Lord of the Flies and Ethan Frome) that the books they most often give to American students for high school English are selected more for brevity than for quality. This is supposed to be one of the best “War is Bad” books ever, and yet there’s nothing in it. The narrator has no character. The supporting characters are one dimensional, except for one of them (Kat). One soldier is “the one interested in girls”; another is “the poet”; etc. They are all too young to die. And then they all get killed before you really get to know them. The movie Full Metal Jacket comes closest to the plot, and was one of at least a dozen war stories that got the message across much better.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish, by James Hadley Chase :

[Gangster, running from the cops, breaks into a strange woman’s apartment, waves gun, tells her not to scream or he’ll kill her; she cooperates while he hides]

After a long pause, the girl said, “It was just like a movie. All that shooting....if you hadn’t held my hand, I would have screamed.”
Eddie looked at her with a growing interest.
“I’ll hold it again any time you like.”
She gave a nervous giggle.
“I don’t feel like screaming now.”
He got up and looked out of the window. The crowded street was now deserted. The last of the police cars were moving away.
“Well, I guess I can go. Looks like the show is over.” He came over to the bed and smiled at the girl. “Thanks a lot, baby. You were swell.”
She half sat up in the bed.
“Are you sure it’s safe to go?”
“Yeah. I can’t stay here all night.”
She settled down in the bed.
“Can’t you?” She spoke so softly he scarcely heard what she said, but he did hear. He suddenly grinned.
“Well, there’s no law against it, is there. Do you want me to stay?”
“Now you’re making me blush,” the girl said and hid her face. “What a question to ask a lady.”

Wow. Not my idea of a pickup technique, and now I’m married and it’s too late to try it out. Damn.

When I read, I see the action in my head like a movie. This is one of the few books where the movie I saw was in black and white. It’s a 1930s era pulpy story, full of gangsters with tommy guns and slouch hats and Packards, who are always saying “Shaddap!” and “You know too much!” and “Why, I oughta...”. Although the book jacket has one of the most pompous self promotional blurbs I’ve ever seen, the dialogue and atmosphere are so cliched that it distances the reader from the tale and softens the impact of the violent plot. Quentin Tarantino was probably influenced by stories like this, which alternate between stock character brain candy and violence so shocking that it lays bare something about life and human nature and the awareness of our own mortality that most people keep hidden. Very gripping. Very high recommendations. However, as with King Solomon’s Mines, be prepared to be offended if you’re politically correct. This was written before modern notions of polite culture, and (as Miss Demeanor often complains) a whole lot of outlaws were unnecessarily impolite to begin with.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 30th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
Great fun, but nothing I’m going to have stuffed and mounted beside the works of Tolstoi and Gibbon over my fireplace.
- ha!
Oct. 30th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
No joke! It was HARD WORK bringing down those savage tomes without being trampled!

My Sherpa guide says i may be ready to tackle Proust, but the very thought makes me break out in a cold sweat at the realization of my own mortality! Have you seen the thoughts that man was capable of remembering? Crikey! one bite on a madeline, and it's all over!!!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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