Week’s End Notes (26)


I feel like I’ve had serious blogging block of late. I’ve thought about posting—even started a now out-of-date draft of this very post in October—but I just haven’t been able to do so. And I’ve three books I’d like to write about.

Part of this is time, of course. When time is limited, choices must be made, and it is far easier to choose to read a book or watch a movie than to put word to screen. But part is…a weariness of continuing, I suppose. Or maybe just a weariness of writing. No, the weariness of always trying to catch up to a target that is continually moving forward. I considered, seriously, that perhaps it was enough to read. That with all the other things I want to do—to knit, to bake, to learn—perhaps the blogging is just too much.

But perhaps it was just the weariness of damp, dreary late autumn days talking, and now that the hope and light of the Christmas Season is near upon us, and that the temptations of reading “challenges” again begin to raise their alluring heads, I find myself rejuvenated. Not just to read all the books and blog about them, but to take part in some challenges, to write about books—and perhaps some other things, to make plans I might possibly keep.

I’m not sure yet which challenges I will participate in. I’ve my eye on a few that I might try. The excitement of both group participation and knocking some books of my list!

One thing I DO know—while I still plan to host a version of the Children’s Classics Literature Event I’ve held the past few Januarys, it will not be until the spring. This is for a reason most practical—I often lose several hours of reading per week in the winter months due to commutes made lengthier by snow, so last winter I decided that any future such events would be better later in the year. I’m thinking April. (Of course, thanks to el Niño, it now looks like we’ll have a mild winter locally, but who can tell?) At some point early next year, I’ll ask for either recommendations or votes on a readalong title and post other pertinent information.

In the meantime, my current reading. I’ve a library hold I need to pick up (The Martian by Andy Weir—all the publicity for the movie finally prompted me to request it), another that will hopefully come in soon (White Nights, the second of the Shetland Island Series of mysteries by Ann Cleeves), and most excitingly, I’m joining in on a readalong of Emma (Jane Austen), hosted at Dolce Bellezza over December. I’ve been thinking of rereading it since I re-watched the 2009 TV adaptation (staring Romola Garai) over the summer. The timing could have been more perfect. There’s also still a few books hanging on that I just can’t seem to finish. I’ve nothing against either Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez) or Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott), other than I just can’t seem to remember to read them. It’d be nice to finish them off before the end of the year. (Especially the Márquez—I’ve been working on that since July!) But it’s probably a little overoptimistic to think I’ll finish everything! Especially with all the usual holiday busyness. One can only try, though….

Happy Reading!

Thanksgiving Snapdragons

Snapdragons from my mom’s garden – fresh picked for the Thanksgiving table!

Completed: The Piazza Tales

Cover: Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, Sailor (The Library of America)The Piazza Tales
Herman Melville
1856*, U.S.

I have been fighting with Herman Melville, off and on, since the spring. He’s won, of course.

One of my Classics Club titles, I started The Piazza Tales as part of a “spin” back in April. The Tales are a collection of short stories and novellas, only a few hundred pages in total length, and didn’t seem too intimidating at first glance. But I wasn’t through the first story before it was readily apparent to me that I’m very out-of-practice at reading 19th century American lit. Or maybe more specifically, American Romanticism. (Come to think of it, I’ve previously struggled with Romanticism in literature…) Melville proved far more of a challenge than I had expected, reminding me how much I still have to learn and to struggle with in my reading of well-regarded texts.

It’s been a while since I read some of these—my reading spread from April until just two weeks ago—so I’m largely relying on my notes for this post.

“The Piazza”

And beauty is like piety–you cannot run and read it; tranquility and constancy, with, now-a-days, an easy chair, are needed.

I wasn’t more than a page in when I was bowled over by the amount of allusions Melville packed into this short little sketch. I call it a “sketch” as that seems more apt than “story.” (True also for “The Encantadas.”) There is little in way of plot—the narrator sees a glimmering on the mountain, searches it out, and is disappointed in what he finds. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. (An indication here, how much I have grown to rely on plot.) It seems one of those mopey sorts of stories that feel obligated to remind us that what we imagine things to be is always more magical than what they are. Darn reality.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener”
I’d some indication before starting this what to expect—Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” seems to pop up regularly in the bookish internet. But it is an odd story, narrated by the lawyer who has hired Bartleby as a scrivener, and is increasingly perplexed by Bartleby’s unusual and stubborn behavior. I have in my notes the phrase “non-confrontation to an extreme” in reference to the lawyer, but Bartleby himself seems to be an extreme. I only read it once, but I think it one I should revisit.

“Benito Cereno”

In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery.

Although this novella seemed to start slowly, it soon turned into a suspense story, perhaps even a 19th century thriller. The level of suspense depends on the reader’s ability to recognize what the American captain Amasa Delano does not—that he is being deceived, and perhaps not by whom he is most likely to suspect. Apparently, “Benito Cereno” is based on a real story, but whether the historical Delano was as easily deceived as Melville’s, I do not know. The Benito Cereno of the title is the captain of a Spanish ship, carrying cargo of slaves from one port to another, and his tale of woe is extreme. Though the American captain does not feel entirely at ease ever, he is so good natured that he is unwilling to entertain suspicions for long, always shoving them aside in favor of other, seemingly more “rational” explanations. The reader is propelled forward, not for uncertainly as to what has happened, but rather for the urgency of knowing what will happen.

Reading “Benito Cerano” from a 2015 perspective, one does sometimes squirm at the portrayal of the slaves. We see them through Delano’s eyes, and he sees what we might call stereotypes, racist portrayals. But Melville gives them a leader of great intelligence, able to outwit the naïve Delano. Perhaps Melville’s 19th century readers were as uncomfortable as we are, but he never says precisely what he intends. It is left open for interpretation.

“The Lightning-Rod Man”
I don’t know quite what to make of this one. A lightning-rod salesman—a pushy one at that—shows up in the middle of a storm. It seems it might be an allegory? But if so, I don’t know for what. It is really quite beyond me.

“The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles”
I suppose these ten sketches must be fiction, but they seem non-fiction narratives. Sketches of what the “Encantadas,” which I understand to be the Galapagos, were like. Reading them, I often forgot that they weren’t essays. (I think!) I was slightly worried to read “The Encantadas”, as I was afraid Melville’s descriptive phrases (such as in “The Piazza”) might get the better of me, but they ended up as among my favorite of the tales.

  • Sketch First: The Isles at Large: Describes the general character of the Isles.
  • Sketch Second: Two Sides to a Tortoise: Describes the Isles’ gargantuan and ancient namesake residents. And that they became soup. (It is amazing to consider the difference between 1850 when eating such creatures was commonplace and today when we gasp in horror that we might so endanger an ancient beast.)
  • Sketch Third: Rock Redondo: Describes the view from the water of the rock tower and all the various waterfowl thereon.
  • Sketch Fourth: A Pisgah View from the Rock: Describes the islands visible from the rock, and those un-visible but with a relation to it.
  • Sketch Fifth: The Frigate, and Ship Flyaway: Tells of the ship Essex and its relationship to the isles.
  • Sketch Sixth: Barrington Isle and the Buccaneers: Describes the use of Barrington Isle as a buccaneers’ (pirates’) resting/restocking place
  • Sketch Seventh: Charles’ Isle and the Dog-King: Tells of a Creole who made himself king and the revolt of his citizens.
  • Sketch Eighth: Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow: The story of Hunilla, found alone on the island (with her dogs) after her husband and brother both died in a fishing accident.
  • Sketch Ninth: Hood’s Isle and the Hermit Oberlus: Tells of a hermit, Oberlus, of the criminal rather than religious nature, and some of his ill deeds
  • Sketch Tenth: Runaways, Castaways, Solitaries, Grave-stones, etc.: A round-up of the sorts of “humanity” found on the isles. It reminds me that, in that era before easy communication, how often must families have said goodbye to their men, not knowing if they would ever see them again, or even know their fate.

“The Bell-Tower”
I read this before I read “The Encantadas,” actually, as, in searching out interpretation of “The Lightning-rod Man” online (unsuccessfully), I read the opinion that this is the weakest of all the “Piazza Tales.” That might be true—it certainly seemed less like the others, less “Melville,” I suppose. But it is not unreadable, just with little enough to say about it. It is a bit of a Gothic horror tale, actually, telling of a great artist who overreaches in his aims.

Although on finishing these stories, I think that I have started to learn how to “read” Melville, and that subsequent visits will be smoother, I feel as if I would have been better to have a guide to lead me through these. Whether in the form of annotations or background material, or even a lecturer. So much of my reading is easy on me; I do not have to work at it. Melville challenges that and reminds me that the greatest rewards come with the greatest work.

* All but “The Piazza” originally published in Putnam’s Monthly between 1853-56.

Completed Pioneer Girl

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
Laura Ingalls Wilder
2014 (posthumous), written c. 1929-30, U.S.
Pamela Smith Hill, ed.

I realized that I had seen and lived it all–all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman then the pioneer, then the farmers and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Detroit Book Fair Speech, p. 2

PioneerGirlI’ve been putting it off long enough, but if I don’t simply sit down now and scribble out some thoughts about Pioneer Girl, it’s never going to happen. Well, that is, unless I read it again some time—which I suppose is possible, but not likely in the near future.

Pioneer Girl is the unedited—even the misspellings are left—first draft of a memoir by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and in a sense is the first draft of what would become her well-known Little House children’s novels. Written in the early 1930s, she had hoped to publish it for an adult audience, recognizing that her experiences growing up in the American pioneer west were an important element of U.S. history. No publisher bit; however, and instead she was encouraged to transform it into what would become a beloved children’s series.

The children’s novels were fictionalized accounts of her childhood and youth, but reading Pioneer Girl and its copious annotations, one becomes aware of just how much fact there really was in the fiction. Yes, multiple characters may have been compressed into one, events omitted or simplified, but the core of the story was real. These events happened to Wilder and her family—the moving, the droughts, the locusts, the illnesses, the wildfires, the blizzards, the railroads, the town-building. Looking back on these, not with the innocence of a child reading “adventures” but the awareness of an adult—plus the added insights provided by the annotations—it is abundantly clear that the pioneers (in a long tradition of immigrants and migrants the world over) faced odds and difficulties that would be unimaginable to most of us today, in our comfortable Western lifestyles.

Interestingly—and despite this—I felt that the style of Pioneer Girl was actually more akin to a children’s book than the adult story it was initially peddled as. True, Wilder included anecdotes that did not make the pages of her fictionalized children’s series—divorces, affairs, alcoholism—but the tone was not unlike that of her novels. I wonder if perhaps this was behind her difficulty in seeing it published? Or was the style par for the course at the time? I am not well-enough versed in the literature and magazine writing of the late 1920s/early 1930s to know.

In truth though, reading Pioneer Girl seems to mostly be an exercise in reading an artifact. It is a draft, and Wilder has not yet polished the prose or the timelines. A number of the annotations deal with the edits made by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in the process of submitting for publication, edits which I’m not always convinced improve on the original. But reading about the process—the annotations often include quotes from letters between the two authors—is interesting, a window into the workings between an author and editor. It is all the more interesting given the debate as to how much of the Little House books is Wilder and how much is Lane.

The other important aspect of Pioneer Girl is that the annotations allow the reader to better contextualize the times Wilder grew up (and was writing) in. For instance, although I’ve always felt that Wilder’s treatment of Native American characters was more nuanced than some 21st century readers give her credit for, looking at her writing from a 2015 perspective can sometimes give pause—is she endorsing a stereotype? The annotations lead us to ask rather, what formed her worldview, and limited her from seeing something in the same way we see it today, and what limits our worldview so we don’t see something with the same eyes she saw it?

For fans of the Little House books, Pioneer Girl is mostly familiar, sometimes surprising, and always a reminder that history is lived by ordinary people, not just great ones. Little could Wilder have imagined when she first put pencil to paper how her legacy would still have a hold, well over 100 years after the events she described.

Completed: Northanger Abbey

Cover - Northanger Abbey, An Annotated EditionNorthanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition
Jane Austen
1818 (posthumous), England
Susan J. Wolfson, ed. (2014)

“And what are you reading Miss——?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language. (Vol I, Ch. 5)

Here I am, sneaking in at the very last minute a post for “Austen in August.”

This isn’t because I’ve been avoiding Austen, or a lack of enjoyment, no, the tardiness is entirely of the busyness type; I barely had time to read this month, alas, and so only finished my reread of Northanger Abbey late yesterday. And enjoy it I did. It has been years—at least ten!—since I’ve read the entirety of an Austen (longer for one of the “big six”), and my memory of how delightful they can be didn’t fail me, though I admit to a bit of surprise at how quickly and easily the reading moved along. Which makes the following seem a bit of an odd statement: rereading Northanger Abbey made me feel, as I have so often of late, that I am still not that good of a reader. But this is perhaps not so unexpected once it is known that I read an annotated edition, which was only too happy to point out all the tricks and twists of language that I surely would have missed otherwise. The play of the words “fortunate” or “misfortune” to hint at the high importance of a fortune to so many of the characters. The shifts of meaning in words such as “awful” from the 18th to 19th to 21st centuries. It was obvious, indeed, that Henry Tilney is a pedant, too-overly precise in choice of word or phrase, but the annotations began to make me feel as naïve and ignorant as Catherine Moreland!

But here I’ve run on ahead, tossing out names without so much as a one-line plot summary.

Northanger Abbey is perhaps best known as a parody of the Gothic romances which were greatly popular at the time of its writing (c. 1798-99). Many such are mentioned (including Castle of Wolfenbach, which I confess I only read for its connection to the Austen), and the late-mid section of the novel provides the most direct satirization, in the form of Miss Catherine Moreland, our heroine, letting her overfed-by-Gothic-romances imagination run quite away with her. Yet, setting this section aside, the novel is not unlike any of the other of Austen’s primary novels: more realistic than not, with much of the focus on romances and relationships and characters. As alluded to above in mentioning the wordplay on “fortune,” the marriage market is of utmost importance. While Catherine may be content to let her fancy run free–whether in a Gothic novel or a more mundane romance–many of the surrounding cast are laser focused on marriage as investment and profit-making venture. What chance has a naïve country girl? And indeed, though this is Austen and we may know what to expect of the ending, we discover that the extremes of the Gothic romance Austen so fondly teases may have found appeal in the very real dangers that could befall an unprotected–or unmoneyed–young woman.

Even had I read this without annotations (which despite my inferiority complex, were actually quite helpful), I would have concluded much the same as I recently did with Beowulf: I don’t know enough of the context. I’ve only read two of the Gothic novels Austen might have known, the aforementioned Wolfenbach, and The Castle of Otranto. I think perhaps a wider reading–especially of Ann Radcliffe–would give me a better context. For that matter, reading more of Austen’s near-contemporaries–Richardson, Burney–must surely be helpful as well. As I’m finding so often of late, every book I read seems to pull me into a more complex web, with many strands leading to and from it. But surely, these are the best books to read, the ones that intertwine so that the richness of the experience can only grow the deeper we venture.

Week’s End Notes (25)

View through the screen porch

  • So. It’s officially the first day of summer today. Though by the weather, it’s seemed it for a while. It’s been warm–though outside of a few days, not particularly hot–and very humid much of the past few weeks. And rain. Lots of rain. Everywhere I go in Northeast Ohio, everything is lush and verdant. I’ve had reason recently to travel parts of NEO I don’t normally visit, and several times now–avoiding interstate congestion–I’ve travelled through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Driving alongside the old Ohio & Erie Canal and Towpath Trail (well used by bicyclists), past old farmsteads and canal locks and all the lovely forested scenery is so relaxing, I’ve found I don’t mind taking a few or more extra minutes at all. And it’s lovely that it’s free to enter–I actually didn’t realize until recently that most U.S. National Parks charge entrance fees–though I don’t know, really, how they could as there are so many roads that pass through the park. (Ohio state parks are also all free.)
  • The weather’s not only been perfect for enjoying all the green around us, it’s been perfect for reading. Lovely weekend mornings on the back porch, lemonade and book in hand–perfect. Which is perhaps why I’ve gotten a little carried away with my to-read-soon list, especially regarding my library selections. I did decide that I will put on hold reading Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf or his essay “Beowulf and the Critics” until I’m ready to do a bit of Icelandic or other similar reading as well. But I’m in the middle of three other books, and my ambitions for the rest of the summer are perhaps a tad unrealistic.
  • First, the current reads. I’m still working my way through The Piazza Tales (included in the Library of America volume, black cover, in the image below), and I’m finding that I’m becoming more comfortable with Melville as I’ve been reading. There’s still about 100 pages to go, but I WILL finish this summer! Anne of Avonlea is a slow reread, one I pick up on occasion in evenings to read a bit from before I fall asleep. I know these books so well, and it’s such a nice bedtime read that I don’t care how long it takes me  to finish.
  • The most exciting current read, however, is Pioneer Girl, the unedited original manuscript of the memoir Laura Ingalls Wilder would later modify into The Little House books. It’s a lovely annotated edition, full of lots of historical tidbits and explanations. I’m almost through the section that corresponds with By the Shores of Silver Lake and hope to finish by the end of June. Although I’m reading a library copy, I am planning to order my own copy soon. And it’s prompting me to contemplate some Little House rereads. Maybe not the whole series, but if nothing else, I don’t remember some of the middle books that well, so perhaps those.

June 2015 Current Reads

  • And then the hope-to-read-soon pile. (Including a Little House book as mentioned above.) Realistically, this could probably take me to the end of the year, although if I were to make that pile, I’d include my next Sherlock Holmes (The Valley of Fear) for fall reading, and perhaps a few others. But for now, these are the books I think I’d most like to get to soon.
  • Actually, I may or may not read Off With Their Heads!, which is a nonfiction book about fairy tales and the way we use and read them. I’d originally planned to read it this spring, but never quite got to it. I think I’m down to my last renewal, so it probably won’t happen.
  • There are two titles that are definitely planned for July, as Stu and Richard are again planning a Spanish Lit Month. (Yay!) I went the “what’s on my shelf that I haven’t read yet” route for this one, which leads me to Love in the Time of Cholera and The Book of Imaginary Beings, which I keep misnaming in my head as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (J.K. Rowling). Completely different authors! But both the Borges and the Rowling are in the tradition of the Medieval Bestiary. (And did you ever imagine a mention of Borges and Rowling in the same sentence?)

Summer-Fall 2015 Plans

  • The other “dedicated” read is Northanger Abbey, for Adam’s Austen in August. I started to reread it early this past spring, but didn’t get far before I was distracted by other things. An Austen event seemed the perfect time to actually make some headway.
  • Out of Africa is at the suggestion of several other bloggers (plus my mom) from a few posts back. And the other books–Enter Jeeves, The Farm, The Bluest Eye, A Wrinkle in Time–are all books that for some reason or other, I’m drawn to read soon. At my current reading rate, I should make it through all these by next June! Guess I need to work on that.
  • Of course, I did manage to read two books (Beowulf and The Scorpio Races) for Carl’s 9th Once Upon a Time reading event, ending today. That was one better than I had planned. So perhaps I’m not too ambitious after all?
  • Happy reading!
  • Enter your e-mail address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.

  • Reading England 2015

  • The Classics Club

    March 2012 to March 2017

  • Reading Ohio

  • Cinematic Treasures

  • Listening to Masterworks

  • Recent Posts

  • Currently Reading

  • Upcoming

  • Recent Tweets

  • Archives

  • Classic Children’s Literature

  • The Adventures of Pinocchio RAL

  • Copyright © 2010-2015.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 277 other followers