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Joined: 22 Nov 2008
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Location: Lancashire

PostPosted: Thu Mar 02, 2017 1:15 pm    Post subject: March Murmurings  Reply with quote

I dug out an anthology of Victorian Narrative Verse and read Thackeray's THE KING OF BRENTFORD'S TESTAMENT,

I posted this trivial bit of information just to get March postings started,

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Joe McWilliams

Joined: 10 Feb 2012
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Location: Canada

PostPosted: Thu Mar 02, 2017 11:24 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Moving the discussion about Dostoyevsky over here because it is, after all, March.
I'm not surprised to find a bit of perspective (courtesy of the Dostoyevsky thread in the 'Individual Authors' section of this forum) helps me appreciate what I'm reading. I recommend it.

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Joe McWilliams

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2017 7:37 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Brothers Karamazov - it deserves more respect than I gave it earlier. It does come into focus and become a lot more interesting and, frankly, tolerable, as a story when a certain dastardly act takes place. A lot of what passed previously comes into perspective and make sense.
No one will accuse Mr. D of being too reserved in his examination of or depiction of acts of passion and their consequences.

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 10, 2017 12:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I've had two previous attempts to read Emil Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS and failed both times to finish it, being unable to cope with its rather clumsy narrative structure, however, having recently seen the film version with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, I gave it another go, finished it, and enjoyed it.  The film cheats its audience rather, by dramatising just the first third of the novel, relating the passionate relationship of Cathy & Heathcliff, and ending with the death of Cathy after her marriage to Edgar Linton. The book carries on into the next generation with the story of Cathy's daughter and Linton, the son of Heathcliff and Isabella Linton. What a strange book it is. Never straying beyond the moorland settings of Wuthering Heights itself and Thrushcross Grange.  The characters, apart from the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, are at the mercy of their emotions, almost as wild as the moorland winds that blow through the story. The structure certainly tries the reader's patience, straying haphazardly from one narrator to another. But there's no denying the brilliance of Emily Bronte's storytelling abilities and powerful characterisation. Heathcliff and Cathy have entered the popular imagination. Potent symbols of doomed, romantic love. It's certainly a unique and powerful piece of work.  Even if - occasionally - its romantic excesses seem - to me - a trifle absurd. The final paragraph made me cry.

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Joe McWilliams

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Location: Canada

PostPosted: Sat Mar 11, 2017 2:58 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm reading As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee. Robert Macfarlane speaks highly of it in his 'The Old Ways,' which I read recently. Lee set off tramping at age 19 from his Gloucestershire home, with little money and no purpose in particular, except to see the world. This is his memoir, written (or at least published) 30 years later.

Now I came down through Wiltshire, burning my roots behind me and slowly getting my second wind; taking it easy, idling through towns and villages, and knowing what it was like not to have to go to work. Four years as a junior in that gaslit office in Stroud had kept me pretty closely tied. Now I was tasting the extravagant quality of being free on a weekday, say at eleven o'clock in the morning, able to scuff down a side-road and watch a man herding sheep, or a stalking cat in the grass, or to beg a screw of tea from a housewife and carry it into a wood and spend and hour boiling a can of spring water.
As for this pocket of England through which I found myself walking, it seemed to me immense. A motor-car, of course, could have crossed it in a couple of hours, but it took me the best part of a week, treading it slowly, smelling its different soils, spending a whole morning working round a hill. I was lucky, I know, to have been setting out at that time, in a landscape not yet bulldozed for speed. Many of the country roads still followed their original tracks, drawn by packhorse or lumbering cartwheel, hugging the curve of a valley or yielding to a promontory like the wandering of a stream. It was not, after all, so very long ago, but no one could make that journey today. Most of the old roads have gone, and the motor-car, since then, has begun to cut the landscape to pieces, through which the hunched-up traveller races at gutter height, seeing less than a dog in a ditch.

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Location: Cambridge, UK

PostPosted: Sat Mar 11, 2017 3:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Everyone British ought to read Laurie Lee, especially everyone who grew up in rural England (as I did, in Somerset, a few miles from the Wiltshire border). I really must get around to it.

Polished off recently: The Lauras by Sara Taylor. Can't remember where I first read about it (I suspect the Guardian), but I added it to the TBR and have now read it. Taylor is a Virginian, and her novel begins in Virginia with 13-year-old Alex, the book's genderless narrator, pulled out of bed by their mother following one marital squabble too many, to embark on a road trip that takes in many states (I mentally traced the itinerary as I read – it goes south from Virginia to Florida, then west to California, and eventually north to Canada, forming a somewhat lopsided smile across North America) over the course of two and a bit years. It's a rites-of-passage novel of sorts, though the rites are performed as much by Alex's mother as they are by Alex, who takes the opportunity of settling old scores (there's a small amount of gun-pointing, light abduction and the like – it'd make a super film) and laying ghosts to rest along the way.

I felt tremendously warmly towards this book and its characters. The matter of Alex's gender is treated with sensitivity and sympathy. It just feels absolutely right and believable. On arrival at a new school in Florida:

Whether it was my unremarkableness or their apathy, I didn't seem to register on
anyone's radar, teacher or student. No one called me out for being new, or gave
me a hard time about my loose, plain clothes, or tried to trap me into admitting
whether I was a boy or a girl. I suppose I was forgettable, came across still as
whichever gender a person expected to see, and I was thankful for it even as I
worried that this was the last year I'd be able to skate by so easily, that eventually
someone would make an issue of my careful androgyny and I'd have to choose my
side in the war, make up my mind as to where my allegiance lay, whether I
identified more with my mother or my father. Because in my mind that's what they
were asking: do you want to grow up to be like your mom or your dad, Alex? And I
still wanted to know why I couldn't be both, why it was an either/or situation.

Alex's mother knows and accepts Alex's gender, and perhaps her own experience of being out of place as the child of immigrants gives her a special understanding of what it means to be other.

She learned to blend in, to fade into the foreground, killed her accent so that she
didn't stick out, but every new English word took her farther from her parents and
the country where she had been born. She wedged herself into an in-between
space: not American, despite the social security number they gave her in her late
teens; not Sicilian, despite her green card; but eternally other, so that she could
only be comfortable when no one expected her to belong.

The Lauras of the title are various girls and women of Alex's mother's past, about whom she tells occasional stories. By the end, it seems the Lauras are an amalgam, emblematic somehow of the universality of human experience. It works, anyway. What impresses most may be the relationship between the two protagonists, sharing character traits, yearning for independence and yet bound tightly together. The depiction of the passing of time, the changing of the seasons, the changing of Alex's feelings for their absent father, to whom they send the occasional postcard or letter, is beautifully done.

I thought at the end everything would come crashing down, that the act of running away would inevitably mean some payment had to be exacted in the final reckoning, but that doesn't happen, and what does feels appropriate and satisfying. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes stories about human relationships.

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Joe McWilliams

Joined: 10 Feb 2012
Posts: 689

Location: Canada

PostPosted: Sun Mar 12, 2017 1:16 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

More from As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, by Laurie Lee. Young Laurie has arrived in Toledo, feverish after two days' hiking through the brutal heat from Madrid. After recovering, he goes out to earn a few pesetas with his fiddle.

That evening I was back on the job, playing to the open-air cafés in the Plaza de Zocodover – a sloping square of uneven cobbles which was also the town’s main centre. No traffic, no radios – only the sundown crowds quietly sitting and watching each other, the waiters mostly idle or flicking at flies with slow caressive movements.

I’d not been there long when a special party arrived and made their way to a nearby table – a curiously striking group and immediately noticeable in the ponderous summer twilight. There were four of them: a woman in dazzling white, a tall man wearing a broad black hat, a jaunty young girl with a rose in her hair, followed by a pretty lacy child.
They were clearly not Spanish, yet they had a Spanish air. I thought they might possibly have been Portuguese. The man sat at the table with a distinguished stoop, while his companions arranged themselves gracefully beside him, spreading their shawls on the chairs and beaming round the darkening square as though in a box at the opera. I finished my last tune and began to take a collection, which brought me at last to their table. The woman asked me in French if I was German, and I replied in Spanish that I was English. ‘Ah,’ she smiled. ‘And so am I.’ And she invited me to join them.

The man shifted and coughed. He had a long scorched face and the eyes of a burnt-out eagle. He offered me a strong but shaky hand. ‘Roy Campbell,’ he said. ‘South African poet. Er – reasonably well known in your country.’
His voice was musically hoarse, yet broken and interrupted as though being transmitted on faulty wires, and it seemed to quaver between bursts of sudden belligerence and the most humble of hesitations. In a series of stuttering phrases he rapidly let it be known that he hated England, that all his friends were English, that English literature was an unburied corpse, that he was in Spain because England had no manhood anymore; and was I broke and could he help me at all?

The diatribe was short, all over in a moment, like a quick shuffling of totem masks. Then with affectionate dignity he introduced his companions, inclining his long broad back to each: Mary, his wife, his small daughter Anna and their Catalan friend Amelia.

I'd never heard of Roy Campbell. Got his own Wikipedia article and all.

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 13, 2017 7:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Latest book down: When in French: Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins. Lauren (I can't call her Collins here, probably because she's so present in the book that I feel obliged to be familiar) is a native of North Carolina and a staff writer for the New Yorker, and the book is about language relationships. Finding the language barrier was creating a communication problem with her boyfriend Olivier, Lauren set about learning how to speak French, and learnt more than simply a bunch of new words.

To begin with, I didn't like the book. It felt like an extended magazine article. There were several paragraphs of this sort of thing:

The entryway is shaded by a metal canopy, which bears a pistachio-colored
neon sign in the sort of fusty font that a New York restaurateur would die for.
Inside, a canteen offers hot meals, eaten on damp trays. Sleepy-eyed
students take their coffee at tables of teal linoleum. Smoking is no longer
allowed, but its accretions remain, adding to the sensation of having enrolled
in a Laundromat in 1970.

Very smartly observed, but inescapably journalistic. I don't know why I should be down on journalism. I write journalism myself occasionally, and I know others here do too. Meretricious! that's the word. (And a Happy New Year.) Showy, but not much substance. Eventually, though, it won me over by being interesting and likeable. I'd gone into it hoping for David Sedaris-esque language-school comedy. There's a bit of that, and the middle section where Lauren learns French as part of a group of immigrants from many countries was probably the part that engrossed me most. There are jokes throughout the book:

'J'ai fait accouchement de la cafetière,' I typed, having checked and double-
checked each word in my English-French dictionary.

Months went by before I learned that, by my account, I'd given birth to – as in,
physically delivered, through the vagina – a coffee machine.

It's called When in French rather than When in France because firstly it's about the language and not the country, and secondly it's set mainly in Switzerland. What an odd place it sounds, with its four official languages, three of them widely spoken but none with overall supremacy. (Perhaps it's like that living in parts of Wales too.)

It's interesting, but not surprising perhaps, that English and French are not merely interchangeable languages, that each has its own characteristics, and that one behaves differently according to which language one is speaking. It's not merely a cultural difference, it's something that seems to be ingrained in the language. In English, she becomes aware, Lauren expresses love for things at the slightest provocation, says (for instance) This is the best lemon tart ever; in France, or at any rate within Olivier's French family, love is expressed more cautiously. Some kind of reassessment is required.

English and French are opposing systems as much as they are languages –
the former global, convenient, and casual; the latter particular, hierarchical,
and painstaking. I have no way of foreseeing that French will reshape the
contours of my relationships, that I won't always consider people intimates
until proven not to be.

Another bit. I've certainly found myself, when trying to speak other languages, being franker about my feelings than I would be in English, gossiping irresponsibly, even lying, all of which are probably part of the phenomenon documented here.

People are more likely to say they'd push a man off a bridge – in order to save
five other people, about to be hit by a train – when the dilemma is presented in
their second language. Scientists call this the emancipatory detachment effect.

At the end Lauren returns to America for a holiday. What a culture shock! It's impressive the extent to which talking and thinking in French has affected her attitude to everything.

Afterthought: the USA and England are often described as two countries divided by a common language. I certainly felt the cultural divide in the passage where Lauren describes a cartoon, which she believes is a satirical comment on the inaccurately stated fact that Eskimos have x words for snow:

A cartoon, mocking our credulity, features two Eskimos. One asks the other,
'Did you know that in Hampstead' – a neighborhood in North London – 'they
have twenty words for bread.'

To me, such a cartoon has nothing to do with satirising conceptions of Eskimos and everything to do with satirising the people of Hampstead.

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 14, 2017 10:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yesterday and today I read a collection of poems I was given for Christmas, Anybody by Ari Banias, who is a Greek-American writer. I don't recall how he came on my radar, but I may have read about him on the Lambda Literary website.

If anyone can recommend a book that tells me how to understand various types of modern poetry, that would be lovely. I struggle with Donne (for example), but I feel as though I've got the tools somewhere to work out what he's getting at; with some of this book I was wholly at sea. That's not to say I didn't love the boldness of the poetry or the beauty of the way the words were arranged at times, and (unlike many modern poetry collections) I fully intend to return to this one in a bit and have another go.

The back cover mentioned Frank O'Hara, and I certainly picked up similarities with some of the O'Hara poems I know – the way the unpunctuatedness forces you to read backwards and then forwards again to parse accurately the sentences phrases cells that the poems are made out of. Some favourite poems: 'The Feeling' ('And the tree is a television / where the president appears in the form of a finch'), 'Authentic City', a marvellous depiction of small events occurring, a collage of a place, 'Find Love in Brooklyn Now!', a comically inept sexual fantasy (mentioning Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, which makes me nostalgic). And this one:


I told you to write a poem about pockets
but you already wrote a paper on pockets in Dickens
and I have read almost no Dickens to be honest but pockets
what a staple of intimate transport both private and exposed
functional and decorative some faux ones even printed on
others in women's clothes hold nearly nothing
intrigue me deeply they have so many ways of being
prominent or discreet or altogether hidden
buttoned snapped zippered flapped but then also those
on fine suit jackets one has to slit the first time with a blade
the care of that and how sexual it is but this isn't what's
important about pockets pockets are dreams of negative
space and possibilities potentials secret inside-outside places a pocket
of thinking a pocket of resistance theoretical and cultural
writings on pockets exist but as with Dickens I neglect them
when it comes to pockets I prefer to think on my own
I still at times imagine my thoughts
in a small enclosure it helps me think better
when actually I have a mind full of holes they breathe
there's something sweet and forlorn about a pocket
breached a torn pocket a pocket that can't
hold what's important its one job a keeper
and through the compromised place things escape
down a pant leg or into the lining of a coat if it's cold out
one can feel a warm coin pass along the leg against the skin maybe
hear metal strike the ground but not always, not always coins, maybe keys,
if dropped on carpet or in a loud place not heard, or not a hole
but a pickpocket, wind, carelessness, somewhere crowded
when going through their contents in a hurry
more and more of mine have holes as I get older
I'm too lazy to repair or only notice when wearing this parka,
these pants, and picture when I get home
the needle and thread in the drawer and then get home
where my pockets no longer exist their relevance declines I forget
today I saw an old friend in a strange yet handsome dark wool coat that struck me
I couldn't say why, its eerie beauty
and I told him so, he said there are no pockets it's a prisoner's coat

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 14, 2017 10:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I don't always have the patience to read poetry, though I enjoy many of them - especially the more straightforward ones.  (And I did like Donne at university, though his poetry isn't very accessible.)

This one, despite the lack of punctuation, I found quite readable and understandable though I may not have quite understood its depths.  It is great to read something like this that goes into detail about an ordinary item, and finds meaning in it.  I really liked this, though I didn't read it very thoroughly - why is it that I can read a whole novel but a poem of just a few lines I skim over?

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