Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Notes to "Most people know little about it, aside from the fact that a great deal of dancing took place."

*My brother had to leave midway through the game, just after he’d taken over the entire eastern hemisphere. As my forces had been decimated through a pincer attack by my brother-in-law and my nephew, he put me in charge of his army . . . and within three turns I’d lost it all. He was not impressed. Clearly, I’m no Napoleon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Notes to Oh, the weather outside is--good god--frightful!

* Which three categories, I think we can agree, are ultimately the same, no? Perhaps in their Platonic forms, at least?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Notes to Machiavelli, as he will, offers advice

* Machivalli's preemptive dismissal of Vettori's claim that the Italians, if pressed, will band together to defeat the Swiss will amuse anyone who finds stories of Italian politics and government ridiculous to the point of disbelief--yet at the same time impossible to turn away from:
As to union of the Italians, you make me laugh, first, because there never will be union here to do anything good.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Notes to To Boldly Go Where No Blogger Has Gone Before!, or, Four years in

* On our phones. What Alexander Graham Bell meant to say, before he was cut off, was "Watson, come quickly, I need you so to help me out here so that some day people can read romance novels on the subway without anyone around them knowing." Or something like that.

** Another constant: in the twenty-first century, men will still attempt to use poetry as a means of seduction; what worked for Lord Byron comes very close to working for Helmsman Mitchell.

Which reminds me of another area in which, sadly, it seems our descendants will devolve: twenty-third-century gender roles are frustratingly reminiscent of mid-twentieth-century gender roles. Helmsman Mitchell thinks nothing of calling Dr. Dehner frigid, then trying to put the moves on her right there in sickbay after softening up her defenses with a little verse; for her part, she seems not to feel that either action is particularly inappropriate.

Fortunately, by the twenty-fourth century the situation has improved at least a bit, though the uniform worn by Counselor Troi on the NCC-1701D does make one wonder if there isn't still some distance to go.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Notes to "Those rather hit-or-miss days," or, Wodehouse in spats and letters

* According to McCrum, Wodehouse wrote at the time that Orwell "struck him as 'one of those warped birds who have never recovered from an unhappy childhood and a miserable school life,' but school was precisely what they shared and the two men got on very well."

** In a 1962 letter, however--also collected in The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh--Mitford writes, of a trip to Venice,
Short of a book I bought the Code of the Woosters & have been shrieking but the selection of Penguins is deplorable, in all the shops they are the same: The Day of the Triffids what can that be & Ldy Cly [Lady Chatterly's Lover], in literal hundreds. Someone has blundered.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Notes to "It seemed to be always 3 o'clock," or, Ye Olde Time Sunday Feeling

* Forgetting, it seems, the whole "David danced before the Lord" part, and the whole bit in Ecclesiastes where "I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun." Ah, the legacy of the Puritans, it liveth on and on!

** But, Hughes explains, "If the preacher grew fierce I looked at the statue of Samveli Johnson, whom I vaguely connected with Sam Weller." It's hard to imagine a less appropriate fictional analogue for Dr. Johnson--or a less appropriate reason to turn to him. Imagine how he might have thundered at someone who was turning to him in order to avoid contemplating their eternal fate!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Notes to "And I thought, Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet?", or, P. G. Wodehouse on Jeeves

{George Grossmith, as seen in the Idler, February 1893}

* From a review of Murphy's book in the National Review, I learned that Murphy contends that George Grossmith (author of the wonderful Diary of a Nobody) was the primary model for Bertie Wooster--and, more strikingly, that
Furthermore, his grandfather had helped found the Savage Club, the model for Dickens's Pickwick Club, and had been the original Mr. Pickwick. So we seem to owe to the Grossmith family half of two of English literature's most celebrated master-servant comedy teams, Pickwick and Sam Weller, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.
That is a legacy in which a family could justly take pride.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Notes to "Avoid naming it straight," or, Reading Henry James

* Munro gives that answer in response to a question about whether, like Proust, she ever revised something after it had already been published (and thus, in theory, finished). She goes on to confess that she has:
Actually I’ve done it recently. The story “Carried Away” was included in Best American Short Stories 1991. I read it again in the anthology, because I wanted to see what it was like and I found a paragraph that I thought was really soggy. It was a very important little paragraph, maybe two sentences. I just took a pen and rewrote it up in the margin of the anthology so that I’d have it there to refer to when I published the story in book form. I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive. So I’m not too sure about this sort of thing. The answer may be that one should stop this behavior. There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.
That interview, well worth reading in full (if for no other reason than for such lines as "An editor who thought nothing happened in William Maxwell's stories, for example, would be of no use to me"), is in the second volume of The Paris Review Interviews, of which the fourth volume (featuring P. G. Wodehouse! And Haruki Murakami!) has just been published. Christmas lists, take note!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Notes to Notes! On Agatha Christie and Nero Wolfe!

The premise of both The ABC Murders and "The Slaughtered Santas" is that the best way to hide one murder is in a batch of seemingly random murders: in the Christie, it's an alphabetic scheme, with a person whose last name starts with A murdered first in a town whose name starts with A, followed by B and B, C and C; in the Nero Wolfe story, it's street-corner Santas.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Notes to "It was only during the age of candlelight that the race of ghosts really flourished," or, Edmund Wilson as uncanny anthologist

* Which is worth reading in its entirety if only so that you can compare the incredible number and type of ads in that May 25th, 1944 issue of the New Yorker to what appears in today's New Yorker. In a review that stretched across ten pages, there were six full pages of ads, the majority of them advertising liquor: Philadelphia Blended Whiskey, Hennessy, G&D American Vermouth, Aqua Velva, Kentucky Tavern Whiskey, Harvey's Old World Wines, Ronrico ("the best rum bar none"), Abbot's Bitters, Fox Head "400" Beer and Ale, Carstairs White Seal Whiskey ("every drop is coming from our limited pre-war reserves"), Valliant burgundy ("Meet the challenge of rationing with this smooth full-bodied burgundy."). Throw in the Chris-Craft ad, which urges you to put a Chris-Craft at the top of your list for after Victory--and until then to buy war bonds with the money you might have spent--and you've got dual pictures of very different personal and corporate worlds than those suggested by the contemporary New Yorker, for all its undeniable virtues.

**Elsewhere in the interview, which is collected in The Paris Review Interviews II, King says that his sort of story,
should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn't eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific!
And thus Wilson and King part ways . . .

*** Of whose The Turn of the Screw he writes, "It is probably that James, like Kipling, was unconscious of having raised something more frightening than the ghosts he contemplated."

**** In as stark a reminder of the distance between 1944 and now as I've come across in a long time (along with the aforementioned ads, that is), Wilson (and, one presumes, his editor) feels that he needs to explain that The Metamorphosis
deals with a young traveling salesman who suddenly wakes up one morning to find that he is an enormous cockroach, to the great horror of his parents, with whom he has been living and who have been counting on him to pay off their debts.
It's hard to even imagine a world in which this story isn't yet universally familiar to readers with any sort of claim to literary knowledge--to say nothing of the ensuing decades of parody, homage, and riffs on its central metaphor, all instantly familiar to the serious reading public.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Notes to "Tis like enough, that all Monasteries had Dungeons too; for they have the power of Life and Death within themselves," or, More John Aubrey

* And maybe also from another book that Britten mentions in his preface to the Aubrey, T. J. Pettigrew's "little volume," On the Superstitions connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery (London, 1844)--for someone as squeamish as I am about medical matters, what better book could there be?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"The faintest restless rustling ran all through them," or, Frost hears a ghost story

* Actually, Powers misquotes the line slightly, having his character remember it as "The dead are holding something back." It's unclear whether the mistake is intentional, a reminder that this is the character is drawing from memory rather the author drawing from his bookshelves, but the resulting alteration definitely weakens the line.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Loving H. P. Lovecraft

* This post is bringing to mind a guy I knew casually more than a decade ago who, being fairly unpleasant, had nothing I can recall to recommend him except an appreciation of Lovecraft. Which makes me wonder: is a love of Lovecraft, in the absence of any other apparent good qualities, actually a bad quality? A red flag?

And if so, are there any other interesting authors of whom the same could be said? Vonnegut, maybe? Heinlein--to the extent that we might think he qualifies as good? Anyone else?

** Whose wonderful blog, Pinakothek, he writes--in seasonally appropriate fashion--"like a vampire, is not wholly dead, but neither is it entirely alive." May Pinakothek forever succeed in frustrating the knavish tricks of all modern-day Van Helsings.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Notes to An inner sanctum of sorts

* Though it was apparently successful enough in its day to have its title adopted as the name of a literary group in Chicago. The Wikipedia entry for early twentieth-century Chicago writer Bert Leston Taylor notes that he belonged to a literary circle called The Little Room, after the story:
The group mimicked the story in that it disappeared and reappeared on Friday afternoons at such places as Chicago’s Auditorium Hotel (now occupied by Roosevelt University) and Fine Arts Building. The group was comprised of an eclectic range of distingued members including reformer Jane Addams, sculptor Lorado Taft, architects Allen Bartlit Pond and Irving Kane Pond, dramatist Anna Morgan, painter Ralph Clarkson, and poet Harriet Monroe.

** I first encountered "The Hour after Westerly" in the anthology Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, edited by Ray Bradbury, on the advice of James Hynes last fall. To my surprise, when I returned to that book tonight to check the story's date, I discovered that its first publication was in the New Yorker--a far cry from the bland realism that at is, for the most part accurately, thought of as the typical New Yorker story these days!

*** Is it not appropriate to pause and appreciate Google Book Search for a moment? The book's been out of print for more than a hundred years and is in the collection of a mere handful of libraries--yet I was able to print and read it within seconds of discovering its existence. And--if I understand the Espresso Book Machine correctly--in a few select bookstores I could, rather than reading a loose stack of printed pages, have ordered the book itself, and by the time I'd finished browsing have had a bound copy in hand. There are plenty of questions about where Google's going with their book scanning project, but oh, the benefits!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Notes to Man is wolf to man

* Another bit that I wanted to share but couldn't find a use for is this observation from Cromwell, the ever-watchful:
Possibly it's something women do: spend time imagining what it's like to be each other.

One can learn from that, he thinks.
Like all of Mantel's work, Wolf Hall pays particular attention to the difficulties faced by women in a world dominated by men. Her portrait of Anne Boleyn is stunning: she is as intelligent and perceptive as she is ruthless; at the conclusion of a hurried meeting of her family and supporters in the wake of a crisis, Cromwell--who fears her even as he supports her--notes,
They think they are fixing her tactics, but she is her own best tactician, and able to think back and judge what has gone wrong; he admires anyone who can learn from mistakes.
But Mantel's portrait of Anne's sister, Mary, is if anything more impressive: Mary suffers the king's attention but gains none of his favor, and her plight makes her as clear-eyed as anyone in the whole book outside of Cromwell, to whom early on she issues this chilling warning:
"One day," she says, "Anne will want to talk to you. She'll send for you and you'll be flattered. She'll have a little job for you, or she'll want some advice. So before that happens, you can have my advice. Turn around and walk the other way."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Notes to Woolf the torero, or, on The Story about the Story

* Like this, from Virginia Woolf:
A writer will always be chary of dialogue because dialogue puts the most violent pressure upon the reader's attention.
Or this, from Sven Birkerts:
I believe that when we read a poem we absorb and process a great deal more than we are consciously aware of, and that it is precisely those cues that we pick up at the threshold--that we hear and feel but do not overtly take note of--that combine to give us the aesthetic surge.
Or this, from Randall Jarrell:
Miss Moore's forms have the lacy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions in fairy tales; but they work as those work--disregard them and everything goes to pieces.
Or this, from E. B. White:
I think it is of some advantage to encounter [Walden] at a period in one's life when the normal anxieties and enthusiasms and rebellions of youth closely resemble those of Thoreau in that spring of 1845 when he borrowed an ax, went out to the woods, and began to whack down some trees for timber. Received at such a juncture, the book is like an invitation to life's dance, assuring the troubled recipient that no matter what befalls him in the way of success or failure he will always be welcome at the party--that the music is played for him, too, if he will but listen and move his feet.
And oh, how this note could go on . . .

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Notes to Wish fulfillment

* No, really: I hated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Having read a pre-publication rave review, I ordered it from the UK way back in December of 2007, then waited two impatient weeks for it to be published. When it arrived, I dove right in . . . and from the very first page I hated everything about it. I hated its awkward prose. I hated the clunky construction of its plot. I hated the odd smugness of Mikael, the male lead. I hated the undifferentiated secondary characters. And, oh, I hated the prose. By the time I was 350 or so pages in, I gave up, resorting to skimming through the final 200 pages in hopes that I would find something that would explain the book's appeal. Alas, even that wasn't worth my time.

But I really do seem to be alone. Everyone else I know who's read the book, including rocketlass, really enjoyed it. Rarely have I felt so out of synch with other readers--and that's in a lifetime of feeling somewhat out of synch with the majority of readers!

So if it's been recommended to you, by all means don't let me stop you--but if you find it as bad as I did, send me a note so I'll know that if I'm nuts, at least I've got some company.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Notes to Things I Learned from Donald E. Westlake . . .

* And then there's this, which would fall into the category of Things I Would Have Suspected Had I Bothered to Think About Them, but Good God, Why Would I Ever Have Put Myself Through That?

On arriving in Vegas for his heist, Dortmunder is pegged as a crook of some sort by a cabbie, a hotel clerk, a waitress, and two security guards, all within approximately an hour after touchdown. They all politely suggest he ply his trade elsewhere--except the guards, who intimate something similar by silently flanking him as he circles the casino's Battle-Lake (where faux pirate ships wage daily battles). So his long-time associate Andy Kelp takes him clothes shopping, outfitting him in the baggy shorts and grotesquely printed shirts that signify American leisure. Dortmunder, as is his wont, is not pleased:
"I don't know about this," Dortmunder said. "I don't know about those knees, to begin with."

"You brought those knees in with you, John," Kelp reminded him. "Look at the clothes."

It was very hard to look at the clothes, with those knees glowering back at him from the discount-store mirror like sullen twin hobos pulled in on a bum rap.
Now that's a simile!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Notes to Fanny Burney tells me to put down the laptop and take up a pen right this minute!

* The notes to the Penguin Classics edition explain that "Gip" was Alex's servant at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

** Penguin's notes identify the former as the Reverend Benedict Chapman, Alex's tutor--and it also points out that the boy was used to such threats from his mother. Penguin's editor doesn't gloss Dr. Davy, but from context it seems Burney must have meant not a medical doctor--so much for her feigned worries about Alex's health!--but the Reverend Martin Davy, head of Gonville and Caius. Given that Alex was twenty-two at the time, I doubt fear of that pair carried a lot of weight.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Notes to "He recited his favourite poetry at inordinate length," or, Byron and Boswell at table

* The New Yorker closed its generally supportive "Briefly Noted" review of Byron in Love with,
Out of O’Brien’s kinetic recounting of scandal after scandal, a sense of the poet’s pathos emerges: Byron did, at times, love deeply. But by eliding his literary personality O’Brien risks voyeurism.
--which seems to border on the ridiculous: what else is one to do with Byron's life--at least in a short book--but gape?

** As O'Brien explains,
[T]he "bonnie lad" was still at the Albany alone as he said with his menagerie of birds; his morning routine a bout of sparring his boxing master, then posing in Albanian costume for Thomas Philips, the portrait painter, his only female companion being [his firelighter] Mrs. Mule. He omitted to mention the visits of Miss Eliza Francis, another putative author who believed that an audience with Byron would inspire her. She herself left a record of those trysts, all was sunshine, except for rats scurrying about.
Annabella, meanwhile, told Byron that his
delays are becoming "too like a dream" and she compares him to the procrastinating Hamlet.