Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, April 2014

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut
There were rustling sounds as the musicians put the music on their stands. In the pregnant silence that followed their readiness, Helmholtz glanced at Jim Donnini, who sat on the last seat of the worst trumpet section of the worst band in school.
"Think of it this way," said Helmholtz. "Our aim is to make the world more beautiful than it was when we came into it. It can be done. You can do it."
A small cry of despair came from Jim Donnini. It was meant to be private, but it pierced every ear with its poignancy. "How?" said Jim.
"Love yourself," said Helmholtz, "and make your instrument sing about it. A-one, a-two, a-three." Down came his baton.

Vonnegut is at his best when he's being brief. He does it in his novels, with the occasional digression summarizing a plot by his character Kilgore Trout, or a brief chapter about the eventual fate of a minor character who encounters the main protagonist briefly and is never part of the main plot again. Welcome to the Monkey House
is full of short jewels like this.

Never mind the main stories. The title story originally appeared in Playboy, and a potentially interesting dystopian vision of an overpopulated world where suicide is encouraged and sex all but illegal is irretrievably spoiled by a scene in which the roguish rebel we're supposed to like reveals that he 'cures' women of their drug-induced sexual inertia by raping them into awakening. WTF was Vonnegut thinking?

Then there's "Harrison Bergeron", famous because those high school social studies textbooks that bother to discuss equal rights for women and people of color at all always include it as an opposing viewpoint, confounding political equality with a world in which human talent is hobbled to the lowest common denominator and professional dancers are required to wear counterweights during their performances so that they're not any better at it than anyone else is. the story doesn't mention what this society does about minimal competence at the sort of jobs where mistakes can kill, or how the bosses are paid relative to the workers; nevertheless, the dumber libertarians out there love to use it as an excuse to claim that socialism means hobbling the dancers. Also, the main rebel in this story is a white Mary Sue of godlike size, strength, beauty and IQ, (born genetic gifts, not developed talents, you'll notice), who naturally thinks that he deserves to be king of the world, and so also naturally, the Ayn Rand fans who love the story all identify with him, whereas in reality, they would probably be the ones in that society who required the fewest hobbles.

Those are the famous stories. The good stories aren't even real science fiction, but stories set in what looks like actual Middle America in the Middle 20th Century. And they all deal with misfits. "Who Am I This Time?" "More Stately Mansions". "The Foster Portfolio". "Miss Temptation." "The Kid Nobody Could Handle" (from which the quoted part above is taken). These and others all involve a central character who is psychologically damaged in some way--sometimes the true nature of it, or the coping mechanism, is the big reveal--and the only speculative element is the magic of the human mind and heart. Then there is another category of stories in which the damaged one is the inventor of some new technology--the "Barnhouse effect", the "Euphio Question", a way for souls to leave their bodies behind while still living in the here and now, the antisex drugs in "Welcome to the Monkey House"--that is intended to create utopia, and predictably makes a mess instead due to the overwhelming human capacity to fuck shit up.

I cried inside. I smiled sometimes, but I didn't laugh, not once, although Vonnegut is supposed to be funny.

The Group, by Mary McCarthy
"You and your social friends," he continued, "have a finer functional adaptation. Full, low-slung breasts"--he stared about the room--"fashioned to carry pearls and boucle sweaters and faggoting and tucked crepe de Chine blouses. Narrow waists. Tapering legs. As a man of the last decade, I prefer the boyish figure myself: a girl in a bathing cap poised to jackknife on a diving board. Marblehead summer memories; Betty is a marvelous swimmer. Thin women are more sensual; scientific fact--the nerve ends are closer to the surface." His grey eyes narrowed, heavy lidded, as though he were drifting off to sleep. "I like the fat one, though," he said abruptly, singling out Pokey Prothero. "She has a thermal look. Nacreous skin, plumped with oysters. Yum, yum, yum. Money, money, money. My sexual problems are economic. I loathe under-privileged women, but my own outlook is bohemian. Impossible combination."

For my money, this one has achieved Great American Novel status, and is a prime exhibit in the case for reading outside one's target market. The story of the lives of eight Vassar graduates after their young life together in the fishbowl fascinated me on many levels. The title is misleading; the first chapter takes place with the eight of them together during a wedding, and the last with them similarly together during a funeral, but the bulk of the book in between is primarily about their individual stories, with never more than two or three of them in a single chapter at one time. In fact, there's very little that's cohesive about them. But don't let that stop you.

Primarily, the book is an exploration of privilege and lack of privilege, in the same people. On one hand, the members of "The Group" are smart, sophisticated, totally happening members of high society, most of them born into wealthy families. In today's era, we would be calling them "fabulous". On the other hand, they are women thrust into a world from which the environment of Mad Men was the next step UP. And during the Great Depression at that.

Everything they learned at Vassar is turned on its head and even used against them--their very strengths, which in men would be praised as education, sophistication, assertiveness, are scorned as snootiness and elitism. Their accomplishments are devalued, and what is valued are things they don't have. Most of the men in their lives--possessive, feckless, even abusive husbands, employers, and wealthy fathers putting strings on the financial assistance they offer--are duds. If you're a man reading this, resist the temptation to get defensive and complain about the unfairness of not including decent men like yourself in this one plot; you know damn well (or maybe you don't, in which case you need to read The Group all the more) that these guys are so common, even in this day and age, as to be archetypes and cliches. Just like the female cliches in most of the other books.

It seems that every day I have to adjust my perception as I learn more about the crap women have been putting up with since forever, and that the more I learn about it, the more able I am to form satisfying relationships with women, in large part because I know the warning signals and the endless psychological paper cuts and can strive not to be That Guy. The ones who just complain about being symbolically cast--um, in a bad light, risk never growing up, and thus cheating themselves of having fully human experiences.

If you're a woman reading it, you of course ARE the target market, and will probably like it even more.

If you're young, think of your parents and grandparents. My mother and my aunt went to a similar college, albeit a few years later than The Group, and may well have had similar experiences, a thought that I found haunting. Also, unfortunately, I came to the book fresh from doing song-related research into the My Little Pony universe, and so in the early chapter, I found myself unconsciously associating the sporty one, the neurotic one, the country girl, the upper crusty one, etc., into pony archetypes. Later on, this became really, really disturbing as the characters went out into the world and started having sex.

The Group is a modern American classic that comes with my highest recommendations--for all readers.

The Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari
Leonardo then did a Last Supper in Milan for the Dominican friars at Santa Maria delle Grazie, a most beautiful and wondrous work in which he depicted the heads of the Apostles with such majesty and beauty that he left the head of Christ unfinished, believing that he was incapable of achieving the celestial divinity the image of Christ required. This work, left as it was, has always been held in the greatest veneration by the Milanese and by foreigners as well, for Leonardo had imagined and succeeded in expressing the suspicion the Apostles experienced when they sought to discover who would betray their master. As a result, all their faces show their love, fear and indignation, or rather, sorrow, over being unable to grasp Christ's meaning. And this is no less a source of wonder than the recognition of the contrasting stubbornness, hatred, and treachery in Judas, without even mentioning the fact that every small detail in the work reflects incredible care and diligence. Even the fabric of the tablecloth is reproduced so well that Rheims linen would not appear more real.

Vasari attempted to do for the Renaissance artists what Plutarch had done for the Greek and Roman generals and aristocrats. He succeeded in as much as he reveals their distinct personalities and moral qualities, discusses their greatest works, and provides a wealth of amusing anecdotes, such as Giotto painting a fly on the nose of another artist's head portrait, that the fooled artist tried to shoo away.

Where the book loses, it is due to so much of the work describing the brilliant details of works of art that the reader does not see. I have the same difficulty with Will Durant's history of the Renaissance, which is not limited to visual art and which at least has some glossy pages showing some paintings, drawings and sculpture, albeit reduced in size, and in black-and-white. My edition of Vasari has no such illustrations, and so his endless praise of certain qualities excites curiosity but does not satisfy it.

Curtains for the Cardinal, by Elizabeth Eyre; The Weaver's Tale, by Kate Sedley; The Clerk's Tale and The Bastard's Tale, by Margaret Frazer; The Eye of god, by C.L. Grace

The Prince's sword violently swept, dividing the chain of rubies from the cloud of gold hair. A lady who had sunk to the ground in terrified curtsey at the sight of the Prince received the boy's head in her lap and, screaming, jerked it to the floor; it rolled until it lay staring as if in surprise at the man it had called father.
The body dropped. Blood had rained everywhere, its smell mingling with the incense and the candle wax.
--from Curtains for the Cardinal

It was never words by themselves that made trouble, Master Gruesby had found. It was people who made trouble and used words to do it. That was why he preferred words to people. Words stayed where they were. He liked things to stay what they were. That was why his secret hope was that Master Christopher would have place for him, so that he could stay with the familiar. That had been what had made Master Montfort endurable. He had been the same year in, year out, never giving anything Master Gruesby's way except orders, yes, but never wanting anything back either, except Master Gruesby's work. He had wanted no talk, no thought, no trouble, just Master Gruesby to go on steadily writing. Being with him had been simple. There was never doubt about him.
--from The Clerk's Tale

'Robert Herepath was hanged for your father's murder?' I asked, sitting bolt upright and frowning. 'But---But---surely you have told me more than once that Master Woodward died just before Christmas, here, in this cottage.'
Margaret nodded slowly, her eyes fixed on the heart of the fire. 'That is so. For, you see, two months after the hanging, on the Day of the Assumption of Our Lady, Father walked back into Bristol, alive, though far from well.'
--from The Weaver's Tale

Arteys' stomach clenched hard with plain fear, even before Viscount Beaumont stopped with only the table between him and Gloucester and, facing him, declared in a voice to be heard throughout the hall, his words deliberate as hammer strokes. "Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, in the king's name I arrest you here on charges of high treason against his grace Henry the Sixth of England, France and Ireland. Submit you..."
Without turning his head, Sir Roger said, low under the shouting beginning to break out from one end of the hall to the other, "Arteys, get out of here."
--from The Bastard's Tale

Colum pointed to the footprints. "Webster's. There's no sign of any other person being here on the tower top with Webster." He stared around, wiping the sand from his hands. "Mistress, are you sure webster was knocked on the back of the head? For if he was, then it's a real mystery. Here is a man who climbs to the top of the tower and bolts the trapdoor behind him. He stays here for some while, the sentries vouch for that. The sand shows no one was hiding here; moreover, there's no place of concealment. So how did the murderer come through a locked trapdoor, walk across sand without leaving an imprint, seize the Constable wiothout a struggle, knock him on the head and toss him over the battlements, all undetected by the guards? then leave the tower, somehow managing to bolt it from the inside?"
--from The Eye of God

The historical mysteries I find to supplement my classical reading are overwhelmingly set in England. One would think the Italian Renaissance would be an ideal setting for whodunnits, with the constant duels, fiery tempers and treachery as a way of life, but so far Elizabeth Eyre is the only one I've found to tackle the era. Well---she'll do. Curtains for the Cardinal, which begins with a nobleman going mad and attempting to murder his children for possibly being illegitimate, and continues with a girl's dangerous flight to a remote villa, aided by the enigmatic protagonist Sigismondo, and segues further into more intrigues and murders, is pretty much what you'd expect from a Rennaissance thriller. I found it quite satisfying, if understandably bloody.

Frazer's Dame Frevisse mysteries just barely have the element of Whodunnit about them. The main point is telling a story. The Clerk's Tale is nominally about the death of crowner Montfort, who has been the hostile, incompetent Lestrade of the series so far, and whose death causes little mourning. In reality, the book uses the circumstances of a murder investigation to tell a story about a family inheritance squabble with an eye toward asking a moral question about the things really worth having, and toward giving a fascinating portrait of the depths that run beneath the still waters of the deceased's clerk, the man everyone overlooks. The murderer is revealed earlier than usual, so stop reading by chapter 18 if you want to puzzle it out for yourself. The Bastard's Tale isn't even a whodunnit mystery so much as a thriller, a dramatization of the historical struggle between Suffolk and Gloucester which, if you know your history or your Henry VI, Part II, you know how it comes out. What's new and different is the focus on the point of view of Gloucester's bastard son, who has some colorable claim to be heir to the throne.

Kate Sedley's Roger Chapman series has the most bite-sized stories, suitable for an episode of a crime drama. The Weaver's Tale is a pretty much self-contained adventure in a village where, the previous year, a supposed murder victim turned up, wounded and amnesiac, after another man was wrongly executed for murdering him. The supposed victim's story doesn't fit the facts, and a poor widow and her daughter ask Chapman to find the truth. The usual clandestine attempts on Chapman's life ensue, and the reader's main task, aside from just being entertained, is to figure out whether the clues all pointing to one particular suspect are all there is to it, or whether there's a hidden motive and clue somewhere else.

Grace's Kathryn Swinbrooke enchanted me with the first installment of a female 15th Century physician/healer and her sidekick the buttkicking Irish soldier Colum Murtagh. They have a Hepburn/Bogart African Queen thing going in an England that looks a lot like Westeros at the height of multi-faction civil wars. The Eye of God is a formulaic but well-plotted second installment involving a search for a missing valuable pendant, and impossible murder from a tower, an attempted double-poisoning and an assassin from overseas.

The History of Italy, by Francesco Guicciardini
The very day in which the uprising occurred in Florence, Charles being at that time in the city of Pisa, the Pisans flocked to him en masse demanding their liberty, and complaining bitterly of the harm which they said the Florentines had done them; several of the King's courtiers who were present, affirmed this to be a just demand, for the Florentines ruled them harshly. The King, failing to consider what such a request implied, and how contrary it was to the agreement made at Serezana, replied immediately that he was well disposed; at this response the Pisan people took up arms, and tearing down the insignia of the Florentines from public places, casting them to the ground, they eagerly reasserted their freedom. Nevertheless, the King contradicting himself, and not realizing what he had conceded, wanted the Florentine officials to remain there to exercise their usual jurisdiction. At the same time, he left the old citadel in the hands of the Pisans, keeping the new one, which was much more important, for himself.

The blurb on my copy of Guicciardini proudly holds him up as "The greatest historian between Tacitus and Voltaire", a period of roughly 1600 years and no mean feat (see my similar comment about Froissart in my January 2014 Book Post, with the acknowledgement of it as faint praise and further acknowledgment of Froissart as a chronicler rather than a true historian). As usual, i choose to fault the translation for my lack of satisfaction.

The title is misleading. The "history of Italy" merely covers the years 1492 through the start of 1534. Not that I'm complaining. The book is certainly long enough. And by Italy, Guicciardini means a loose collection of Papal lands and small kingdoms reminiscent of what we call the myriad nations that make up pre-Bismarck "Germany". The major players besides Rome are Florence, Venice, Naples and Milan, in about that order, but the neighboring French and German Empires, Spain, Switzerland and England get a good deal of play as well, as do the Turks.

Overall, I found it very very dull. If it crosses from mere chronicling of events into actual interpretive history, it does so in that Guicciardini is a latter-day Cato who hates everyone and sees corruption everywhere. Given the period we're talking about, it is indeed everywhere to be seen, but that didn't stop at least some Italians from letting their spirits soar with the age. One gets the feeling Guicciardini wishes the Inquisition and George R.R. Martin would come along and have the entire population killed.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
I was filled with profound misgiving. In cold print 20,000 feet doesn't seem very much. Every year more and more expeditions climb peaks of 25,000 feet and over. In the Himalayas a mountain of this size is regarded as an absolute pimple, unworthy of serious consideration. But I had never climbed anything. It was true that I had done some hill walking and a certain amount of scrambling in the Dolomites with my wife, but nowhere had we failed to encounter ladies twice our age armed with umbrellas. I had never been anywhere that a rope had been remotely necessary. It was useless to dissemble any longer. I wrote a letter protesting in the strongest possible terms and received by return a list of equipment that I was to purchase. Many of the objects I had never even heard of.

"A short walk" is ironic. This is about a serious mountaineering expedition. The tone is jubilant, witty, and reads like a grand everyman adventure with the laugh track going wild (think Buster Keaton hanging from that clock tower), but I found it perversely depressing.

I live in an age where the exploration news alternates between 15-year-old girls seeking to break the record for swimming unaided across the Pacific Ocean, and rescue teams deployed to save the lives of Simpson families who thought it might be fun to tackle Mount Hood without any cell phones, jackets or water. No doubt, there are situations in between, but they don't make the news.

1956 wasn't too long ago, but A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush unintentionally makes a convincing case that people were a different and superior class of people back then. Newby writes as if he's a hapless twit about to fall off a cliff at any moment because he doesn't know which end of a piton goes into the rock, but that's merely entertaining writing. Underneath the self-effacing, humorously dopey exterior is a man who really could leave a fashion agency on a whim to learn mountaineering in a few weeks of training in Wales ant tackle unexplored Himalayan terrain "because it's there". One imagines he has a formidable Aunt Agatha who two decades prior was potting at Bengal tigers with a blunderbuss from the back of an elephant. And he writes engagingly too. None of the endless passages about foreign officials and passports and how dreary it is to travel in trains and the other staples that drearify similar travel journals by other writers. At a time when I'm reading a surfeit of books from or about the Renaissance, Newby seems to personify the ideal of the Renaissance Man while pretending to be a bumbling everyman. Very high recommendations.

The Essays of Montaigne, Book One
These nations seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human intervention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not yet as much vitiated with any mixture of ours, but 'tis in such purity that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when we were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them, for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself, so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato, that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority, no use of service, riches, or poverty; no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine, the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon never heard of.

Montaigne was in the top ten of my 100 Books that Rocked my World list, and was my father's second favorite book of all time (his first was the Oxford English Dictionary, so take his vote of confidence as you wish). The size, breadth and readability of the whole three-volume collection of Essays make it an excellent answer for those "what if you have to take only ONE work with you as you to spend years on an island alone" conundrums. Then again, so might the OED, if your goal was to stave off boredom as much as possible.

Montaigne pretty much invented the brief written statement of exposition, opinion or argument that we call the "essay" because he defined his writings as "attempts". Montaigne was humble that way. Maybe the single most important innovation in his essays was the concept that the author is asserting an opinion as opposed to The Truth, and that other reasonable minds may well differ. In today's age of comments sections full of assholes who KNOW they are right and that everyone who says otherwise is a fool or a bad person, Montaigne is a good role model. I have a habit, in internet arguments, of inserting "seems to me" or words to that effect, whenever I'm asserting something that is not a historical or scientific fact. It just seems to me polite that way, though people who interpret it as weakness are often sadder but wiser persons later on. On returning to Montaigne after a long hiatus, I realized I got that habit from him.

The first volume is the shortest series of essays, about 57 over the course of 300 pages. Enough to tell you if you're going to like his style for the longer ones that follow. I particularly recommend "On Cannibals", "On Pedantry", "On the Education of Children", and "That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die", though the titles are succinct and any topic that strikes your fancy is likely to give you food for thought.

If Montaigne has a flaw, it is that he relies excessively on authority. Most of what he says, he bolsters with a quote from Plutarch, or Cicero, or Plato, or Augustine, or Herodotus, always in the original Greek or Latin, and it can be distracting to continually have to pause and look down at the footnotes for translation. I own two different editions of Montaigne, and they both translate Montaigne himself, but leave his sources to be translated in footnotes. Perhaps they're emphasizing the degree to which Montaigne quotes others, but it might be better to have the whole essay in the one language. The editor's fault, not the author's.

Devils, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
"I am good."
"With that I agree", Stavgorin muttered frowningly.
"He who teaches that all are good, will end the world."
"He who taught it was crucified."
"He will come, and his name is the man-god."
"The God-Man?"
"The man-god--that's the whole difference."
"Can it be you who lights the icon lamp?"
"Yes, I lit it."
"You've become a believer?"
"The old woman likes the icon lamp...she's busy today," Krillov muttered.
"But you don't pray yet?"
"I pray to everything. See, there's a spider crawling on the wall. I look,and am thankful to it for crawling."

Dostoevsky is devastating in his descriptions of criminal psychology, portraying the enemies of civilization in what seems to be the best possible light, and leaving the reader appalled at the criminals nonetheless. The antiheroes of Devils (also translated as Demons or The Possessed; those titles are all the same book) are a sorry lot indeed, comparable to middle class Occupy protesters as seen by the Tea Party, except given to violence--or perhaps young Teahadists, if they were riled up over a leftist cause. Either way. They talk a lot about principles without actually having any, and feel justified in hurting the innocent because their own psyches are in so much turmoil that they can't process as fast as they act.

The book didn't click for me until I made the connection with modern young crusaders. While not as bad as the Constance Garnet translations of Russian literature, the Pevear/Volokhonsky version I read is still somewhat stilted. It's confusing that the characters all have three names, such that the same person is alternately called Skandalovoska and Gritorin Nastikhuch...and it's the same with every character in the book!. Finally, in all books of this kind, I continually have to fight the subconscious urge to stereotype all pre-20th Century Russians as if they were all fur-hatted, burlap-clad peasants with enormous black beards, all living in thatched huts surrounded by endless snow. Replace that with the "Hey man, is that Freedom Rock?" guy, and it all begins to make more sense.

In typical Dostoevsky fashion, the main characters have several heated philosophical dialogues purporting to expose great ideas, but which in reality are used to justify acts of uncontrolled viciousness. Trigger warnings are appropriate--in the course of bumbling through their lives, one main character molests a young girl; another murders a brand new father. Because politics, that's why. And why not? One character manages to hire a hitman to kill his wife, without realizing that he is actually doing this. Other characters form a revolutionary society dedicated to killing the elites of Russia; instead, they kill some of their own members while allowing other members to be arrested. Fail all around. Apparently based on an incident that really happened in 19th Century Russia, this book is noteworthy in that it accurately (in part) predicts some of the events leading to the Russian Revolution many years later.

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Tags: review list: monthly

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