Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Deephaven by Sarah Orne Jewett (1877)

I think I first read something by Sarah Orne Jewett in college - 20 years ago or so - but what that something was I can't remember. I have to admit, I was actually sort of hesitant to read this book; for some reason, it seemed intimidating (related, perhaps, to that long ago college experience). What a pleasant surprise I had - Deephaven was delightful. I checked out a Library of America version of this very short novel that also included many others of Sarah Orne Jewett's works, which I'm definitely going to return to sometime in the future. The story, about two twentysomething Boston girls spending the summer in a small Maine town, is told from Helen's point of view. I thought it was a bit odd that two unmarried girls in 1877 would spend the summer unchaperoned in Maine, but as I read more about Sarah Orne Jewett's personal life, I started filling in more of the blanks. Sarah Orne Jewett was a lesbian; she spent 30 years in a "Boston marriage" with another (older) woman. And while "scholars" may speculate on the exact nature of this relationship, I want to roll my eyes and say "Come on." Of course the relationship was sexual as well; it's silly (and quite frankly sexist) to think it wasn't. But whatever; there are always going to be some scholars that go out of their way to prove these old authors weren't gay. It sounds like Sarah wasn't even all that closeted about their marriage.

So if you paint that veneer over this story, the fact that two women spend the summer alone together in Maine makes more sense - they were in love. Here is this beautiful scene:

"When we came down from the lighthouse and it grew late, we would beg for an hour or two longer on the water, and row away in the twilight far out from land, where, with our faces turned from the Light, it seemed as if we were alone, and the sea shoreless; and as the darkness closed round us softly, we watched the stars come out, and were always glad to see Kate's star and my star, which we had chosen when we were children. I used long ago to be sure of one thing,—that, however far away heaven might be, it could not be out of sight of the stars. Sometimes in the evening we waited out at sea for the moonrise, and then we would take the oars again and go slowly in, once in a while singing or talking, but oftenest silent."

Okay, I think this is heartbreakingly romantic - they chose stars together. They sit and talk and sing. If that isn't something lovers do, I don't know what is. They also spend the novel doing things respectable females (at least in other Victorian books) don't do - fish, tramp through the woods in old clothes, visit and talk with various old men along the seafront. They are far from the society that knows them (and condemns them, lets not forget, in ways both subtle and specific). In Deephaven, they can be themselves, and they can be a couple.

Exceptionally well written, vivid lovely descriptions, regionally romantic - Jewett made me want to visit Maine -- a Maine that was even then vanishing (the whole point of this set of related stories). Nostalgic, and more than a little sad.

The most beautiful story was "Miss Chauncey" about the crazy woman whose house is falling around her.

Something I wanted to note is that this book was written at approximately the same time as Mark Twain's The Gilded Age.  I remember Twain and Warner's bet with their wives about writing a novel, and the reason they wanted to do so  - that so much of what was being published at that particular time was feminine in nature.  Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe were two examples; Sarah Orne Jewett was another. This book might be lovely, but it's definitely from a more feminine point of view, and it's night and day away different from The Gilded Age in everything except that core issue of change.  Twain and Warner were capturing a change in society, in which old things were being replaced by something new; I think Jewett even more obviously was writing about this as well.

Another thing I liked - Willa Cather was inspired by Sarah Orne Jewett.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1997)

I think I've read this book before - the premise was certainly a familiar one; the chapters on domestication of animals was also very familiar. I vaguely remember starting the book, and then having to return it to the library because the spine was broken - and then never finishing it.

Jared Diamond is an excellent writer, very clear and precise, very readable. His treatise, premise is plainly written without hyperbole or jaw-crackery -- and he carefully and successfully avoids any pitfalls. I guess when you work in the field he does and are writing about "civilization" and "society" you learn to be very careful to remain balanced at all times so as to not come across as racist or bigoted.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rubicon by Steven Saylor (1999)

Saylor's historical research and descriptive phrases of the ancient world are superb. Rubicon really captures the urgency and fear involved with all wars and invasions. The mystery itself seemed to be slightly ho-hum - set against a magnificent backdrop of war and intrigue. But then Saylor went all Hercule Poirot on us - there is definitely nothing ho-hum about the whodunnit. Great, great fun (fun magnus).

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chester Alan Arthur by Zachary Karabell (2004)

I like the Guilded Age for it's repressed sexuality and shifty politics. The political life of Chester Arthur was filled to the brim with shifty politics; as for repressed sexuality, we'll never know - the Athur papers were all burned at his death, leaving us with an unfinished portrait of who Arthur really was.

In a succession of likable yet forgettable presidents who pretty much did and said (0r didn't do and say) the same things, Arthur is mostly memorable as a guy who didn't want to vice president, who ended up becoming president because of an assassin's bullet. I liked the author's quote from Thomas Wolfe, which pretty much sums up Gilded Age presidents:"Their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together in the sea-depth of a past, intangible, immeasurable, and unknowable... and they were lost. For who was Garfield, martyred man, and who had seen him in the streets of life? Who could believe that his footfalls ever sounded on a lonely pavement? Who had heard the casual familiar tones of Chester Arthur? And where was Harrison? Where was Hayes? Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides; which was which?" (this from a short story I found sort of dull). Amazingly, this was written in a time when people were alive who actually could remember the Arthur administration, yet was still considered lost... Arthur, by the way, had the burnsides.

I'm not sure what more can be said about this semi-milquetoast president. He presided over a time of peace and prosperity, without much to do. There weren't any wars, and Guiteau wasn't part of a bigger plot or intrigue; he was just mentally ill. Our enemies were few and far between. We still kept mostly to ourselves in the world. The Gild was coming off the Gilded Age, but just beginning.

There were parallels between then and now. A quote: "The Republican factions in Chicago were divided by personalities, not by beliefs, and the Democrats did not offer a dramatically different version." Sounds very, very familiar. Chester Arthur, rich, well dressed ,well connected, well lived, surrounded by similar types. The modern Republican party, sans Christians, would feel right at home. Obama = Cleveland (maybe; that will be my next book in the series) ?

Chet Arthur was incredibly well dressed, loved to eat good food, loved stylish comfort. Tiffany redecorated the White House during his administration, personally hired by the president himself. He "was the closest thing to Jacqueline Kennedy that Washington would see until Jacqueline Kennedy. He set trends for stylish living emulated by thousands who could afford it and envied by millions who could not." That quip was worth the whole book, and proof of Karabell's great writing skills. A book about a - let's face it - boring president was made incredibly interesting by good, good writing.

"For those who bemoan the growth of government in our day, the Pendleton Act" -- which created our modern civil service based on merit rather than patronage -- "might be seen as a step down the road to perdition. After all, it facilitated the vast expansion of the federal bureaucracy. Even those who don't like government, however, can probably appreicate that insofar as some government is a necessary evil, it's better for society that it be administered in a professional manner. Competenance is desirable as well, but corruption is not a recipe for a stable society." A gentle chide to libertarians to remember our history.

I think the last paragraphs deserve special note, and an example of Karabell's fine writing. "In everything he did, Chester Alan Arthur was a gentleman, and that is rare and precious. It reminds us that adversaries can be treated with respectt, that democracy can survive differences, and that leadership isn't just great words and deeds. Arthur manged to be a decent man and a decent president in an eara when decency was in short supply.

"For those who want presidents to be heroes, and, failing that, villains, for those who expect them to be larger-than-life figures, Arthur's tenure in office isn't satisfying. The nature of our expectations would have to change dramatically for Arthur to be reevaluated as one of this country's best presidents. And yet, in spite of what Shakespeare wrote, some men are neither born great, nor achieve greatness, nor have it thrust upon them. Some people just do the best they can in a difficult situation and sometimes that turns out just fine."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (2008)

Thoroughly enjoyed this work of historical fiction. Madam Lockton is definitely one of those evil characters from literature who is very memorable; Anderson does a great job of at least making her a little bit sympathetic. In fact, the personal morals and societal mores of Chains isn't black and white but shifting and ambiguous. Madam Lockton violently abuses her slaves, is petulant, probably mad, and has the morals of a hyena. But she's also scared for her life and fortune, violently abused by her husband, and living in a society with strictly enforced hierarchy. The Americans mouth freedom, but they aren't especially interested in destroying the existing code. The British are willing to free the slaves of rebels, but not those of loyalists. It's this ambiguity that makes for a terrific story and adds to the struggle poor Isabel must face on a daily basis.

I'm excited to read Forge, and find out what happens to Isabel and Curzon, and if they find little Ruth or not...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Candide by Voltaire (1759)

The best of all possible worlds, eh? Not for Candide and company. Reams and reams have been written about Voltaire's famous satire, and I don't think I'm able to add anything amusing, compelling or even a bit interesting to the mix. From a personal viewpoint, it's long (amazingly for such a short book) and episodic, and people kept appearing and disappearing at random, which I suppose is kind of funny but also kind of annoying. Why or how this was turned into musical theater is a bit beyond me (I've never actually seen it live, and only seen a bit of it on television). I don't remember Cunegonda ever saying "Glitter and Be Gay." For something written in the 18th century, it was kind of risque; those French. Martin is probably my favorite character - the precursor to Eeyore.

I did think Pangloss represented that crazy kind of fantatic that no matter what the world (God, the fates, Zeus) may throw at him to get them to move, they still remained stuck in one spot, mind closed forever to anything but black and white. So I guess I have at least one take away.

Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? by Harry Campbell (2007)

A bathroom book, pretty standard, well written but nothing amazingly interesting.

The First Century: Emperors, Gods and Everyman by William K. Klingaman (1990)

Completely and utterly disappointing. It's a pretty big topic to tackle anyway - but this just felt so unconnected. The subtitle hit and miss the narrative. There were chapters about emperors, some about gods (Jesus), and a few about everyman. With China thrown in for good measure, I guess. If you are going to throw in China, why not also include Japan, Africa, India, the Americas... I kept hoping the chapters on Rome would tie in someway at the end to the chapters on China, but no dice. This felt like (at least) three books that were cut apart and then reassembled as one book - but without any transition between the three. To add insult to injury, for whatever reason, Klingaman completely cut out most of the sexy gossip (Tiberias the pedophile with his little fishes, for example).

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