“It is therefore only right that we should all turn out to make our farewells.” – Rhian Roberts
A World of Great Stories, eds. Hiram Haydn and John Cournos (image courtesy Goodreads)
I haven’t mentioned my reading in the last couple of essays. That isn’t because I haven’t been reading (don’t be silly), but because I’m dividing my time between a couple of works. One of these is a crime fiction novel by an author I have reviewed before, William Mark (my review of his latest, Crossing the Blue Line, will appear sometime next week.
The other, whose cover is pictured at right, is called A World of Great Stories and contains 115 “stories” (more on why the quotation marks used shortly) by authors from around the world. So far I’ve finished the American/British section (which includes not just the U.S. and England but Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and am into the section on Europe which starts, quite naturally, with the French who are after all right across the Channel.
The Welsh representative is the Rhian of this essay’s title. Her name is Rhian Roberts and if there were ever a writer with whom one’s acquaintance is going to be slender, it would be she.
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” – Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Another in the series I began last week about writers who have become neglected. This week’s choice is one whose literary reputation has been as high, as low, and as controversial as any writer in the history of literature. Rudyard Kipling has been revered – and reviled – by authors as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges, R.K. Narayan, and George Orwell – who noted that Kipling:
…sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.
For those who know Kipling – and that’s almost everyone – only for “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” or The Jungle Book or Kim – Kipling is a dimly remembered writer of exciting stories for young readers. But he was a complicated figure who produced a wide range of work with interesting themes. Continue reading →
Brexit will decrease the standard of living and increase the gap between rich and poor.
Okay, let’s dispense with all the “respect the decision of the people” nonsense. Brexit is stupid. It’s a stupid decision that will hurt Britain in both the short and long term. And the people who voted for it are stupid. Not only ignorant, not only frightened, not uninformed. Stupid. Continue reading →
‘Everything I know about the world has changed. Things are going to get very dark and very ugly. There will be fear and suspicion and it will not end.’
I remember where I was on 11 September 2001. I remember how it felt. I remember what I thought.
There were a group of us gathered in the boardroom at Deloitte in Cape Town. It was the first meeting of the newly-established board that would govern the non-profit organisation I ran, Business Beat.
I remember ANC member of parliament Ben Turok emphatically telling me that I shouldn’t ‘dabble’, but should take things seriously. It was an odd, and oddly uninformed, rebuke considering that even by that date, I’d spent eight years working in South Africa’s townships to help undo the economic damage caused by Apartheid.
A secretary interrupted and had a brief, nervous conversation with our chair. He immediately, softly, said, ‘An airplane has just flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. I think we should cancel today’s meeting.’ Continue reading →
First, remember that the non-binding referendum is non-binding. The United Kingdom, unequaled in terms of global power and influence, unparalleled in her commitment to justice, and unbound to this referendum, which diminishes her majesty in hideous fashion, remains loyal to the European Union. For all the bleach blond rhetoric, for all the false promises to fund the National Health with nonexistent dues paid to the European Union, a non-binding referendum REMAINS non-binding. Continue reading →
The world’s most prestigious football league might be unwilling to speculate, but I’m not. England’s vote to leave the European Union has many uncertain about what it means for the Prem, but nobody sees it as a good thing. Lots of uncertainty. Lots of breath-holding. And for some, probably a good bit of prayer.
From where I sit, Brexit looks to be an unmitigated disaster for the Premier League. Continue reading →
How strange and changeful is life! How small a thing is needed to make or ruin us! – Guy de Maupassant, “The Necklace”
There must have been something in the water.
Guy de Maupassant (image courtesy Wikimedia)
If one considers some of the great short story writers of the late 19th-early 20th century – Chekhov, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, better known by his pen name Saki, and Maupassant, one must note two things: they gave us some of the most remarkable short fiction ever written (Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” Saki’s “The Open Window,” O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf,” Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog“) and they all died in their forties. If one adds in the brilliant American Stephen Crane, who died at 29 and who gave us “The Open Boat,” the average lifespan for a master of short fiction in this era works out to be roughly 40. That’s the lifespan of a medieval knight.
It’s as if short fiction genius comes with the price of a short life. It’s a literary artist’s version of Achilles’ choice: faced with the prospect of a long but uneventful life and dying forgotten or doing work that would bring them immortality but a brief temporal existence, they all chose option B.
I have long been divided about whether I thought Chekhov or Crane the greatest of short fictioneers, to borrow a term from my friend the gifted short fiction writer Teresa Milbrodt. Having recently finished reading The Tales of Guy de Maupassant, I find myself needing to consider adding a third contender to my deliberations. Continue reading →
“Time gives every human being his true value.” – Ernest Meissonier
The Judgment of Paris by Ross King (image courtesy Goodreads)
Unless you are a student of art history, you have probably never heard of the author of the quote above, Ernest Meissonier. At the time of Ross King’s history of the rise of Impressionism, The Judgment of Paris, Meissonierwas the most famous painter in the world. Now, 150 years later, Meissonier is forgotten and his rival who spent the decade being ridiculed, Edouard Manet, is one of art history’s titans. King’s book explores one of the most famous and volatile periods of art history, Paris in the 1860’s, the decade that saw the peak of Meissonier’s career, the decline and fall of the 2nd Empire, and the rise of a group of artists, a group King calls the “generation of 1863”- Manet, Whistler, Henri Fantin-Latour – and their younger contemporaries – Renoir, Degas, Monet.
By comparing the far different struggles of Meissonier and Manet, King is able to illuminate one of history’s continuing problems: the resistance of the established power structure to new ideas. Continue reading →
Brexit could be a model for what nations should do if the political leadership was there. But it isn’t.
I imagine when British Prime Minister David Cameron secured an agreement with European political leaders last winter on immigration and other issues relating to continued UK membership in the European Union, he thought he had dealt with this. He seemed pretty confident at the time that this would persuade British voters with concerns about immigration and EU membership in general that their concerns had been addressed. Now, even though I dislike Cameron and his politics, I used to think that he had pretty good political instincts—he has led the Conservatives to two election victories, after all, the past one giving him a majority in Parliament. I was wrong—Cameron’s political instincts appear to be as muddled as the Republican leadership in the US who thought that Trump would fold after every outlandish statement. It turns out that this is the year of outlandish. This is not Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. Continue reading →
In January, 1987 I graduated from Lehigh University with a B.A. in journalism. By the first week of March I was in Tokyo, Japan to start my first real adult job and the rest of my life. I was 23 years and two months old, and had decided I wanted adventure instead of an entry-level stateside newspaper job. So through some business contacts of my father’s I secured an entry-level marketing position with an American information services company in Tokyo.
What I present to you here are poems and photographs I created while living and working in Tokyo in 1987 and 1988. All the images are of Tokyo drunks and homeless people because, at the time, I was naïve and couldn’t believe this aspect of Japanese society existed. I felt I had to document it.
Poverty and homelessness still persist in Japan, of course, and through some strange twists of fate I resumed documenting Tokyo street life four years ago. This has resulted in a book I’m trying to get published called “Tokyo Panic Stories.” You can see samples my recent Tokyo work here and here.
So please enjoy this 28 year-old folio of words and images. And keep in mind that while I make no apologies for the quality of the poetry (I am actually still pleased with some of it), the poems were written by a man less than half his current age of 52 years. Also note that each photo is paired with the text right beneath it, and click any image to see it full-size.
As much as I hate boxes and labels, I think I’ve finally figured out where my political inclinations actually lean. I’m labor, but we have no party that I’d currently be comfortable with.
Basically, I think the workers should benefit equally with capital, and I’ll work with my own loosey-goosey definitions so I don’t get bogged down by not speaking fluent socialist or capitalist, and trust that a better-read reader will get the gist of what I’m saying. I’m open to correction, but it’s the point, not how I say it that matters. Now, if my gist is wrong, I need to know that for sure. Otherwise, this is what I’m going with.
Without labor, nothing happens. Our labor has worth. Push that idea far enough so that labor takes predominance and one lands somewhere in socialism or communism or some such -ism. But I’m not so quick to condemn the management and financial classes as I believe my comrades on the far left are wont to do. Continue reading →
Don’t you think it’s magnificent? A kind of splendid behavior really. A trusting of the future, a daring kind of love. Isn’t it, in a way, splendid? – Catherine Heath
Behaving Badly by Catherine Heath (image courtesy Library Thing)
Catherine Heath is a novelist I stumbled upon through my wife Lea’s interest in and admiration for the actress Judi Dench. In looking around for a present for her (anniversary, Christmas, I forget), I came across a British miniseries called Behaving Badly starring the aformentioned Ms. Dench.
As we watched the miniseries I became interested in finding out more about the author, a British novelist of the 1970’s and 80’s who only developed her career as a novelist in early middle age and who died relatively young (66) of cancer. So I found and bought a copy of the novel Behaving Badly, the work upon which the television show was based.
Having read Heath’s novel, I can offer a couple of observations about which I will elaborate later. The first is that Heath, like most British writers, is deft, witty, and thoughtful. The second is that like any number of fine British writers she may be ignored for long periods. The second of these may actually be a hidden boon to her long term literary reputation. Continue reading →
I just had a chance to read this op/ed from last year’s NYT: What makes a woman? The subject is still timely, especially thanks to hijinks like those coming out of North Carolina’s statehouse. And I’ve riffed on it before, if with more vitriol. I was a meaner person back then. Now I can just rest on the laurels of my cis-gendered white male privilege, look at this modern debate and all those hoity-toity post-modern nonsensilists and be snide. It’s an important debate, exactly because it’s in the courts and involves human safety, but dammit people, bring your A-game. Continue reading →
“So it’s futile to regret a good deed… for the good you have done cannot be taken back; even if all the mountains should fall, it would still stand.” – Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross (image courtesy Goodreads)
The final volume of Sigrid Undset’s three part saga of medieval Norway, KristinLavransdatter, known by its individual title, The Cross, completes the story of its eponymous heroine and ends with her death during the bubonic plague pandemic of what Barbara Tuchman called “the calamitous 14th century.” Having lost her husband, Erland, her friend, brother-in-law, and secret admirer Simon Andresson, and four of her eight beloved sons already, one would expect that she is worn out by life’s heartbreak and suffering. But that is not the case. Kristin’s death comes as a result of her caring for the body of a plague victim after having saved the woman’s child from human sacrifice – an attempt by villagers near the convent where Kristin has become a nun to appease the evil spirit that they believe has brought the pestilence upon them.
Kristin remains to the end, then, Kristin: vibrant, tormented, beautiful, troubled, striving, frustrated.
H. E. Bates writes about war, romance and that delightful thing we know as English eccentricity with equal facility and with skill that makes one understand what is meant by the term “fine writing.”
H.E. Bates (image courtesy Wikimedia)
As I have made clear, I am a great fan of the writing of Somerset Maugham. He represents a school of English – and American – literature that daintily dances along the line dividing deliciously readable middle brow fiction of the sort I’ve written about here and here. Whether he’s detailing the muddle between high brow and middle brow literature or skewering a self-proclaimed “magic man,” Maugham delivers eminently readable, often profound observations on the human condition. He also inspired a number of younger writers to follow in his footsteps.
One of the best of these “sons of Maugham” is H.E. Bates. Best known to the American audience, perhaps, because of Masterpiece Theater’s broadcasts of London Weekend Television’s adaptation of his novel Love for Lydia, an adaptation well known for helping launch the careers of actors such as Jeremy Irons and Peter Davison, among others.
“We know your hearts are good, but even with good hearts you have done a bad thing.” – Leo Quetawke, Head Councilman in charge of law and order for the Zuni people
Cultural appropriation is a difficult concept to understand for those of us who belong to the majority culture. We see the world as one unified whole. We measure the sun by Greenwich Mean Time, the seasons by the calendar of Pope Gregory XIII. For us, an African mask in a shop is a decoration, divorced of cultural significance. We congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment and modernity because we can recognize its beauty.
This state of affairs does not make us bad people. It does not make us responsible for colonialism or slavery, any more than African American or Indigenous American genes make their owners victims or losers. On the contrary, it presents us with an opportunity to rise above our past, to forge a new global fellowship built on trust and open communication. As with any educational pursuit, this requires hard work. Continue reading →
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” – Dr. Samuel Johnson
I was going to write today about Hilary Masters’ novel Cooper which I finished a couple of days ago, but I started another book and the introduction to that book has been rattling around in my head since I read it, so I think I’ll write about that. You may ask, what could deter this disciplined professorial writer of literary fiction from his appointed rounds?
Well, the guy to the right of this text can. I had picked up a copy of H.E. Bates’s A Month by the Lake and Other Stories in the New Directions edition. The introduction to Bates’s collection is by Anthony Burgess, a name known to most people in association with his most famous novel, the brilliant and nightmarish A Clockwork Orange. The theme of Burgess’s introduction, which is both a wonderful appreciation of Bates and a screed of sorts against the literary world, is worth, I think, some consideration. Continue reading →
George Martin working that magic…(image courtesy Rockcellar Magazine)
“He enabled their ideas to pour forth, providing the electronic effects, the string quartets, the cor anglaise, the trumpets and piccolos, that helped the Beatles transcend the limitations of pop and create music of sublime originality. He allowed them to give expression to their genius, and provided a model for all pop music thereafter.” – Mick Brown, The Telegraph
When the news began to filter out this morning that Sir George Martin, pop music’s most legendary producer, Dutch uncle and studio wizard who helped The Beatles become – well, The Beatles – had died, tributes immediately began pouring in. Artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Noel Gallagher, and Jose Carreras expressed sorrow at Martin’s passing and heaped praise on him for his brilliant production work and his gentlemanly demeanor.
Martin’s body of work covered the range of music – classical, jazz, pop – and included comedy (one of the reasons he clicked with The Beatles is that he produced the records of comedy troupe The Goons, favorites of The Fabs whose surreal humor anticipates Monty Python). Continue reading →
I’m about three-quarters of the way through Hilary Masters’ interesting novel Cooper, and so I don’t have a book to write about this week. For a guy who writes about books, one would think that would be a problem, but for a literature guy like me it’s merely a chance to talk about writers rather than about books.
I’ve just ordered a book of stories, Miss Grief and OtherStories, by the writer pictured to the right, one Constance Fenimore Woolson. The grand niece of James Fenimore Cooper, Woolson had a highly successful career as a novelist and short story writer in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
She was also a close friend of American writer Henry James, and a spate of magazine articles in places like The Nation and The New Republic are currently exploring that relationship and its effects on Woolson’s career and life in light of two new books published recently. Continue reading →
In part two of her saga of medieval Norway, Sigrid Undset explores the nexus of private and public life…
Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife by Sigrid Undset (Image courtesy Goodreads)
Sigrid Undset’s epic saga of medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, moves at the pace of medieval life. The slowness of that pace serves two useful and powerful purposes. The first of these is that this measured pace, slow as it might feel to contemporary readers, allows Undset to develop characters of great depth, characters whom the reader is able to get to know intimately. This deliberate pace also allows Undset to offer descriptions of living conditions in 14th century Norway that give Kristin Lavransdatter II the believability of history even as it offers the drama of fiction.
The story picks up just after the events of the first novel (known as The Wreath) end. Kristin, against her father’s preference and, having broken the heart of her betrothed, Simon Andresson, marries her lover Erland Niklausson. Continue reading →