Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, January 2017

2017 is my tenth year of writing monthly book posts, and my seventh in going through Great Books Through History. This year will focus on the first part of the 19th century, with literature by Jane austen, the Brontes and Balzac; the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Hegel (both out-consumed by hume); the history of Guizot and Tocqueville; science by Faraday and Lobachevsky (the greatest who ever got chalk on his coat); economics of Ricardo and Saint-Simon; and enrichment in the form of period whodunnits by Barbara Hambly, Emily Brightwell and Anne Perry, and other historical novels by Patrick O'Brien and George MacDonald Fraser. It's the year the Durants finally peter out as historical guides and the Harvard Classics and Great Books sets start to thin out.

This is also the year I realize I'm going to be at this project beyond 2020. The books agreed on by scholars as "great" may diminish, but the volume of output just keeps growing with every year covered. I figure it will take me three more years to get to around 1920, and at least three more before I'm close enough to the end of the 20th Century to have crossed the line from "historical books" into just "reading books". Are Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood considered "historical"? I'll figure that out l;ater...anyhow, here are the books for January 2017.

Dancing with the Devil: Faust, Part 1, by JW von Goethe
’Tis writ, “In the beginning was the Word!”
I pause, perplex’d! Who now will help afford?
I cannot the mere Word so highly prize;
I must translate it otherwise,
If by the spirit guided as I read.
“In the beginning was the Sense!” Take heed,
The import of this primal sentence weigh,
Lest thy too hasty pen be led astray!
Is force creative then of Sense the dower?
“In the beginning was the Power!”
Thus should it stand: yet, while the line I trace,
A something warns me, once more to efface.
The spirit aids! from anxious scruples freed,
I write, “In the beginning was the Deed!”

Each year since 2013, my reading plan has begun with a volume that some scholar claims "ushered in the modern era" (Machiavelli, Descartes, Swift and now Goethe). I've passed through many plays without even including them in the book posts, but Faust seems more like a stand-alone work of dramatic poetry than a "play"; Part 2, at least, seems impossible to produce for the stage.
Part One is relatively tame: Faust, the scholar-magician, has sought the meaning of life in theology, philosophy, science, sorcery and etc;, to no avail. Mephistopholes, having received Bok-of-Job permission from God, offers pleasure and knowledge in return for Faust's soul; Faust agrees that his soul is forfeit if the devil can produce anything so wonderful that Faust would ask for time to stop so that he can enjoy it longer.

Every time I've read this, it has seemed to me that the Devil is the bigger fool to make this bargain, as Faust is so old and jaded that clearly nothing really excites him any more, if it ever did. He is a hermit, shut up with books all his life; the fool who would lose to the devil would be a sensualist youth. And sure enough, Faust follows along with a "yeah, so?" attitude towards everything that follows, from tavern debauchery to a love affair in which he treats the woman shabbily by any standard, to views of the cosmos.

I've had trouble reconciling Faust's lack of excitement with the apparently central message that the meaning of life is not in knowing or having, but in constantly being in a state of flux, doing and working toward a goal that is never fully attained, but there we are.

Truth Universally Acknowledged: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
"How despicably I have acted!" she cried.--"I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself."

Passing directly from 18th Century books (including the ones by her predecessors Fanny Burney and Ann Radcliffe) to Jane Austen, one realizes that she wrote in a way that hadn't been done before. Today, our palates have been coarsened, and it is easy to dismiss Austen as fluffy, the way one might fail to appreciate a perfectly broiled, unseasoned fish if one had been accustomed to have it heavily laden with condiments. People today speak of someone as "a regular Mr. Darcy" when they mean a dashing, handsome romantic mysterious gentleman and heartthrob to younger ladies, and never mind that the impression of the actual Mr. Darcy for most of the book is one of an impolite, insufferably supercilious iceberg.

I was in the right mood for it this time around. Austen fans have long since known this, but if you're new to her, I envy you because you're going to have a ball. The conversation, if you open up to it, is wonderfully funny, the lessons in manners pointed, the verbal duelling between Elizabeth and Darcy expert and thrilling. Supporting characters--the hideous Lady Catherine; the boorish Collins; the imperturable Mr. Bennett-- people who seem at first like caricatures of humanity--seem much more human on a closer look, or maybe with experience. Very high recommendations.

Threes Rev. 4898: The Science of Logic, by Georg WTF Hegel
Logic is easy, because its facts are nothing but our own thought and its familiar forms or terms; and these are the acme of simplicity, the A B C of everything else. They are also what we are best acquainted with, such as "is", and "is niot", quality and magnitude; being potential and being actual; one, many, and so on. But such an acquaintance only adds to the difficulties of the study, for while on the one hand we naturally think it is not worth our trouble to occupy ourselves any longer with things so familiar, on the other hand, the problem is to become acquainted with them in a new way, quite opposite to that in which we know them already.

Hegel was put on earth so that we might appreciate the light Cartesian readability of Immanuel Kant. Pity anyone who tries to include works of philosophy in a study of the early 19th century--Kant not only took away philosophy from the conversational Brits and French, but he spawned a legion of horrible Germans who vied with each other to produce the heaviest, densest, least readable thought one could ever hope to avoid. Hegel, by acclamation, won the prize.

Hegel is the last philosopher included in the original Great Books set (the second edition added more, and some philosophers, like Marx and James, are slotted in other categories), and the Logic was not included in that volume. It stands on its own, like a mountain, telling philosophers that they have been bad and require punishment.

He's very into trinities: Thesis, antithesis, synthesis; Abstract, dialectical, and speculative stages of thought; Being, essence, and idea. I would be lying if I told you I understood it all on a casual reading; it is not meant to be understood and, it seems to me, not worth the trouble. The best I can manage is the thesis-antithesis-synthesis progression of a dialectic, in which truth consists of a proposition ("Do not eat poison"), contrasted with its opposite ("DO eat poison! It clears the sinuses!") and then joined together into a proposition that has more real truth than the first two parts ("You should eat only moderate amounts of poison, preferably mixed with good wholesome food so that it does not harm you"). Hegel did not discuss poison; he applied the dialectic to more debatable concepts, such as whether the Universe is one or many, or whether it is bounded or infinite, but I lost interest long before he even got really going.

In the first ("abstract") stage of thought, all thoughts are considered separately; in the dialectic, one considers that nothing really exists separately (it doesn't?) but in relation to other things (I see this with comparative terms like size and quantity; but not with mere things existing not in comparison); and speculation is the part where you're supposed to learn to love opposites unified in their opposition.

Just shoot me.

The Regency Murders: A Free Man of Color, by Barbara Hambly; Mrs Jeffries Learns the Trade, by Emily Brightwell; The Face of a Stranger, by Anne Perry

Paris had been bad enough, knowing that he was a fully qualified surgeon who would never have his own practice--or never a paying one--sheerly because of the color of his skin. Even as a musician his size and color had made him something of a curiosity, but at least people on the streets of Paris did not treat him like an idiot or a potentially dangerous savage. At least he didn't have to alter his manner and his speech in the interests of making a living, of not running afoul of the Black Code. At least he could look any man in the eyes. In the few months he had been back, he had found himself keeping almost exclusively to the French town, among the Creoles, who had not been brought up with the assumption that all those not of pure European descent were or should be slaves.
--from A Free Man of Color

The butler's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Are you from Scotland Yard too? Never heard of a woman peeler before. What do you want? Are you a neighbor? Some nosy parker that thinks she knows something? "
"No, no, no," Mrs Jeffries said quickly. She leaned closer and caught the distinct smell of brandy on the man's breath. Holding up the pocket watch she said, "I've only come to return the inspector's watch. I'm his housekeeper. He left this morning without it, and if I don't give it to him, he'll miss some very important appointments."
--from Mrs Jeffries Learns the Trade

"You make far too many assumptions, madame. You are arrogant, domineering, ill-tempered and condescending. And you leap to conclusions for which you have no foundation. God! I hate clever women!"
She froze for an instant before the reply aws on her lips. "I love clever men!" Her eyes raked him up and down. "It seems we are both to be disappointed."
--from The Face of a Stranger

This year's set of mysteries set during the period I'm studying is weighted towards the middle of the century. There is apparently a glut of Victorian-era crime novels and not very much from the Napoleonic and regency period. I don't mind. I'll read ahead to the earlier Victorian era works and will still have plenty to keep me occupied next year and the year after that.

Barbara Hambly's hero Benjamin January is the "free man of color" referenced in the title of the first in her series set in and around New Orleans during the time when shitty white Americans were flocking to Louisiana and displacing the moderate racism (if you can call racism "moderate") of the French with the absolute horror that came to define the American south and which continues among Trump people to this day. January was born here, lived for much of his adulthood in Paris, and has returned, educated, cultured and in his 40s, to a land where he is considered less of a human than the dirtiest, smelliest, most ignorant and most morally bankrupt white river trash one can imagine. Hambly has to devote a whole lot of ink to defining New Orleans as "home" just to explain why any self-respecting person who looks like January would choose to remain there when it is possible to leave, and further ink describing the tension between blacks, white Americans and the mixed-race Creoles. In the midst of this is a "murder at the masked ball" plot that fooled me. CW for frequent, probably unavoidable, use of period racial slurs and casual dehumanizing violence.

Emily Brightwell will keep me busy for most of the year with about 40 Murder She Wrote episodes, at least the first several of which are three-in-one volumes about a woman maneuvering behind the scenes to solve crimes such that a dumb man can get the credit, and working twice as hard as necessary just to make sure the dumb man doesn't realize she's helping. (I checked; this series began in the 1990s. It reads like something from much earlier, and not just because it's set in the 19th century). Imagine Inspector Lestrade has Angela Lansbury for a housekeeper, hiding his glasses so that she has to read coroners' reports to him; hiding his watch to have an excuse to visit crime scenes to return it to him; steering him to certain lines of inquiry with statements beginning, "I'm sure you've already thought of this, but..." and so on. And so goes the doctor murder, the lost-brooch murder, and the seance murder, each of which can be read in under two hours, is easily solvable by the reader, and is quickly forgotten except for the gimmick of the servants (because Mrs. Jeffries naturally sends the footman on errands and consults the cook for social gossip) keeping things running in spite of the bungling masters.

Finally, Anne Perry has the other long series for this period, and after going through The Face of a Stranger, I don't know the where the series is going, but I definitely want more. This is GOOD stuff. The book begins with a man recovering in a hospital after a severe head injury that has wiped out his memory; discovering that he is Scotland Yard inspector William Monk; discovering further that his previous personality had been horrible; and being assigned to investigate a murder that happened (telegraph, telegraph), oh, right about the time he had been injured, several weeks ago. Oh, and the rest of the force, including his superior, hate him and want him to either fail or have to arrest someone in high society who can end his career for causing a scandal. Very suspenseful, very well-written, and very highly recommended.

Trading Spouses: Couples, by John Updike
The adventure was easy to imagine. Ruth, feeling that her pet needed more room for running, suspecting cruelty in the endless strenuousness of the wheel, not believing with her growing mind that any creature might have wits too dim to resent such captivity, had improvised around his tiny cage a larger cage of window screens she had found stacked in the attic waiting for summer. She had tied the frames together with string, and Piet had never kept his promise to make her a stronger cage. Several times the hamster had nosed his way out and had gone exploring in her room. Last night he had made it downstairs, discovering in the moon-soaked darkness undreamed-of continents, forests of furniture legs, vast rugs heaving with oceanic odors; toward morning an innocent giant in a nightgown had admitted a lion with a mildewed eye. The hamster had never been given cause for fear and must have felt none until claws sprang from a sudden heaven fragrant with the just-discovered odors of cat and cow and dew.

So...this is my introduction to Updike. The Rabbit books are an undertaking for some other year.

Couples is, as far as I know, a stand-alone book, and weird. The depiction of a circle of middle class, educated friends in a small New England town in 1963 (we know what year it is because the Kennedy assassination and the Profumo scandal are discussed by characters who, e.g., are bummed out that the President's death will cast a pall over the delightful cocktail party they'd planned, with the booze already paid for!) is simultaneously archaic, close enough to the middle class, educated adults I knew when I was a kid (full of parlor games and discussions of scholarly subjects), and extremely distant from said friends (their casual sexual affairs and neurotic Protestant guilt about them, plus steamy discussions about one another's bodies---at least I HOPE that's not what was going on with the grownups in my life when I'd gone to bed and stuff). The effect is at once comfortable and jarring.

The characters are jaded. They are in Paradise and are bored by it. Their promiscuousness is both shocking and meaningless to them, and everybody else is doing it, and they all know it even though they keep it hush-hush. I don't get these people, except when I do (yes, except then), and I envy their opportunities that my generation didn't get, and pity the waste they made out of them.

It seemed to me like a straightforward novel about neurotic people, but maybe I shouldn't have taken it at face value. After I'd read it, i saw that the cover blurb described the couples as a "magic circle" that included a "priest" (the dentist character) and a "scapegoat" (the cynical builder). If they say so, I guess.

Sturm und Emo: The Sorrows of Young Werther, by JW von Goethe

And why should I be ashamed in the terrible moment when my entire being trembles between being and nothingness, since the past flashes like lightning above the dark abyss of the future and everything around me is swallowed up , and the world perishes with me? Is that not the voice of the creature thrown back on itself, failing, trapped, lost, and inexorably tumbling downward, the voice groaning in the inner depths of its vainly upwards-struggling energies: My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me? And if I should be ashamed of the expression, should I be afraid when facing that moment, since it did not escape Him who rolls up heaven like a carpet?

Goethe's first masterpiece is a novella that pained and bored me; it was designed for me to have read when I was much younger. Then again, maybe it's best I didn't read it then; I'm told there were a significant number of tragic young romantics in Goethe's day who read it and romantically followed the title character's example into tragic romantic suicide. Oops, SPOILER.

I'm old enough and cynical enough to be inspired to make fun of Stupid Emo Kids--but it isn't fair. I remember being a silly young Romeo myself, certain that the world either revolved around my all-important feelings or was criminally indifferent to my suffering when it did not; obsessing over things that I could not have, because I could not have them, and swooning with melancholy pain at the results. In retrospect, I feel like I fucked up my life needlessly, that I caused pain to others, and I take some comfort in persuading myself that everyone was stupid Drama Royalty when they were teenagers. Maybe I'm still fooling myself.

In woo-woo books about the enneagram and "personality types", Werther and the past self I try to hide from are the "four", and are said to be at their best when seeking reform; at their worst when they waste themselves trying to help others (who, in their case, probably resent them and want more space, and end up sending the "four" into a shame spiral or resentment). Werther takes a government job and hates it for its mundanity; falls in love with a married woman, mopes, writes emo letters, threatens suicide for the last third of the book (Oh woe! I go to see the forests and the fields for the last time! Woe!), and eventually does it. Not a dry eye on the page. Except mine. I just felt really, really uncomfortable and wondered, if I had been there, whether I would have patiently, nurturingly tried to talk him out of it, or just slapped him and told him to get off the cross 'cuz we need the wood.

Seems to me, as we grow up, we lose something valuable in the tendency to feel intense emotions, but we get something that is necessary for sanity too. What do YOU think?

If i's nae Scottish, i's CRAP! Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott

"O Lud! On what a strand you are wrecked!" replied the young lady. "A poor forlorn and ignorant stranger, unacquainted with the Alcoran of the savage tribe whom you are come to reside among--never to have heard of Markham, the most celebrated author on farriery! Then I fear you are equally a stranger to the more modern names of Gibson and Bartlett?"
"I am indeed, Miss Vernon."
"And do you not blush to own it?" said Miss Vernon. "Why, we must forswear your alliance. Then, I suppose, you can neither give a ball nor a mash nor a horn?"
"I confess I trust all these matters to an ostler, or to my groom."
"Incredible carelessness!"

I probably should have read Scott's novels last year, when I was deep into the 18th Century. Rob Roy takes place much earlier than the Bonnie Prince Charlie rebellion central to the Waverly novels and the Outlander plot, when the Hanoverian Kings were just established and the son of James II appeared to have a better claim to the throne. All of which is mere background to a coming of age novel.

The plot is similar to that of Waverly. A sensitive, cultured London youth heads north and experiences culture shock at the gruff, sturdy, less book learning but more noble savage manliness manners of Clan McHearty, where they say things to the effect of "Och, ye have a woman's hand! I'll wager ye never once ploughed a stony frozen field full of thistles with your fingers!" (at least I assume that's what they say; after a year of Robbie Burns poetry, you'd think I'd have a knack for Scots dialect writing, but it's different when most of the text is in English, except for Scottish characters whose indecipherable brogue is suddenly set down jarringly on the page. The effect is especially unfortunate in the narrator=protagonist's conversations with a rustic Scot servant who is supposed to be comic but whose jokes are utterly spoiled by the language barrier with an English-speaking reader. Any comic timing is lost, and (as with a modern reader tackling a Shakespeare text for the first time) by the time one figures out what the character has said, the opportunity to be amused by it has long passed)...the protagonist eventually discovers his own latent Scot manliness, performs a few tentative acts of heroism, wins the respect, approval, and eventually the love of the Scottish love interest (the courtship of whom offensively resembles the challenge of breaking a wild horse) and goes back to confound scoundrels and take charge of his life in England. I give it a hall pass for being an early novel that was original at the time, though it seems cliche-ridden today.

The title character, the historical outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor, has only a peripheral role in the novel, showing up obligingly from time to time as Rogue Ex Machina to extricate the protagonist from a tight spot. His presence is the only thing the book has in common with the Lism Neeson movie, which tells a completely different story.

Irish Twits: The Absentee, by Maria Edgeworth

In Dublin, there is positively good company, and positively bad, but not, as in London, many degrees of comparison; not innumerable luminaries of the polite world moving in different orbits of fashion, but all the bright planets of note and name move and revolve in the same narrow limits. Lord Colambre did not find that either his father's or his mother's representations of society resembled the reality which he now beheld. Lady Clonbrony had, in terms of detestation, described Dublin as it had appeared to her soon after the Union; Lord Clonbrony had painted it with convivial enthusiasm, such as he saw it long before the Union, when first he drank claret at the fashionable clubs.

PG Wodehouse was one of the first writers for "grown-ups" that I ever read. I found them hilarious at the time, and only much later realized that there was a dark side to a society in which twittish drones of leisure wot-wotted their way through wealthy society, doing nothing useful, displaying no character development and learning nothing new for novel after novel while their hypercompetent butlers wiped their asses for them and women of strength and intelligence were depicted as horrors, romances with whom the male must be extricated from quickly, lest she ruin his life of pleasure by insisting he make something of himself.

I mention this in the context of Maria Edgeworth, who predates Wodehouse by over a century, because I am quite familiar with the conditions of the Irish under English lords who were given Irish land grants like American frontier people were "given" land that had been cleared of the pesky, not-considered-people natives who had been there first, and so the "amusing" story of the dopey absentee landlord and his wife, trying to make it in London society without manners is no longer the slightest bit amusing to me. Not at the expense of the oppressed Irish, and not when America has a trashy rich twit in chief trying to win over DC society without morals or manners.

There are scenes in Ireland where the downtrodden peasants exist, in a spirit later copied by Dances With Wolves and Avatar, to give the white, privileged son and heir a learning experience about how they are people too. The kid has a lot of bad upbringing to overcome, and I'd have felt more sympathetic to him if he didn't abandon the woman he loves upon hearing the news that she was (gasp!) born out of wedlock, and therefore an unsuitable match for one such as he. This dilemma is resolved at the end by the revelation that she is in fact not only "legitimate" but a heiress, and instead of booting him down the stairs, she gives herself straight to him. Without a butler to extricate him, they are married and live in a lifestyle and mindset foreign to me ever after.

Poldark: Warleggan and The Black Moon, by Winston Graham
Ross had always been one step more than a husband to her. From the moment when, a little over nine years ago, he had taken her into his kitchen as a starving miner's brat, he had represented a kind of nobility, not of birth but of character, a person whose standards of behaviour were always, and would always be, slightly better, surer than her own. Often she argued with him, lightly, flippantly, disagreeing with his views and his judgments, but underneath and on fundamental matters she gave him best.

Warleggan and The Black moon are volumes 4 and 5 in the Poldark saga. This far into the series, it is difficult to discuss the plot (which is very suspenseful and full of twists, including the deaths of major characters) without spoiling it for people who have not read the earlier books.

I will say that the series continues to have my highest recommendations, both for character development and for historical details, in which period mining, smuggling, medicine, the conflict between Methodism and the church of England, and the French wars on the continent and the English peasantry's attitude thereto (including a daring raid on a prisoner of war camp near Brest), are discussed in detail without taking from the story. I continue to be affected by the major characters: the stubborn Ross, the scheming Warleggan, the feckless Elizabeth, the self-sacrificing Dr. Enys, the spirited Caroline (who gets faulted for thinking for herself and whose horrible father and uncle say she needs a stern male hand to control her (*cough* MikePence *cough*), a new focus on Aunt Agatha, and Demelza's brothers.

CW: There are rapes, one by a supposedly "good guy", the wrongness of which is completely glossed over by the author.

Gothic Awful: The Albigenses, by Charles Robert Maturin
"Blasphemer--wizard--sacrilegious!" uttered a thousand voices, and a hundred lances were raised against the offender. One of these chanced to raise the thick veil that covered the figure; it fell back, and discovered the form of a woman. The uproar increased. "A female, and within cloistered walls! A female! Shame for thy sex and insult to these walls!" cried the ecclesiastics, "What makest thou here?" The military followers soon caught the example of indignity and outrage, and the wretched female was hurried to the gate----Breaking from them she exclaimed, in a voice that made the rudest pause:--"A woman! Yes, did not a woman bear ye? Did not a woman nurse ye? Did not a woman love ye? Ay, or ye had never grown to that pitch of lustihood, and manly and grateful use ye make of it, to thrust and throng a woman thus!"

UGH! This book is way too long and way too clunky--an attempt to do to The Faerie Queene what Sir Walter Scott did for the Jacobite risings and for Medieval legend. It's one of those works that tries to combine heavy duty Christian doctrine with folk legends about faeries and werewolves and knights on quests. There are endless factions of religious orders fleeing persecution from different religious orders, and alternately sheltering or being abducted into a series of gloomy Gormenghastish Gothic castles indistinguishable from one another due to the presence of so many dungeons.

It's as dense as Spenser without the poetry, and lacks the characterization and wit of Scott. Even the scenes with fights and abductions and werewolf attacks are boring. Not recommended.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:

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