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Archive for the ‘2022 Books’ Category

The Wayward Bus

I read this over the past couple of days – yes I know I said I would be reading George Eliot, but I’ve decided I want to get a print copy, so that’s on hold until it gets here. The one copy the library had is checked out. Who are you, fellow-Eliot-reader-in-Birmingham?)

Oh, where was I?

Yes, for some reason, this drifted into view, so I started it, didn’t hate it, and then finished it.

I’m not a huge Steinbeck fan. My favorite of his are The Pearl and Of Mice and Men. I don’t like Grapes of Wrath. I did read Tortilla Flats – somehow in conjunction with our trip to Monterey many moons ago – but I don’t remember what I thought of it. He can be a beautiful stylist, and his descriptions of California are rightfully iconic, but ultimately, it seems, the storytelling falls short.

That said, The Wayward Bus was not a bad way to spend 3-4 hours of my time (I know how long it was because I borrowed the book via the Internet Archive, and you could only borrow it for one hour at a time….), and far better than some waste of a Netflix binge.

I’m not going to go into great detail here, but I’ll try to use this as a starting point to think about some things out loud.

The Wayward Bus is of the genre in which a bunch of people are brought together, face a crisis, and through that crisis, we learn about them, and maybe a couple of them learn about themselves, and maybe some of us learn bigger lessons about life, and everyone’s humanity is explored. Think every disaster movie ever made, think Stagecoach, think The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Here’s what I enjoyed:

Steinbeck’s description of the landscape. When I think about California, I think about the current hellscape, and I think, who would want to live there…and then I go there (it’s been a while, but still) or I read someone like Steinbeck and…I get it.

It was a nice compact grouping of buildings, functional and pleasant. The Rebel Corners of the Blankens’ time had been a miserable, dirty, and suspicious place, but the Chicoys flourished here. There was money in the bank and a degree of security and happiness.

This island covered by the huge trees could be seen for miles. No one ever had to look for road signs to find Rebel Corners and the road to San Juan de la Cruz. In the great valley the grain fields flattened away toward the east, to the foothills and to the high mountains, and toward the west they ended nearer in the rounded hills where the live oaks sat in black splotches. In the summer the yellow heat shimmered and burned and glared on the baking hills, and the shade of the great trees over the Corners was a thing to look forward to and to remember. In the winter when the heavy rains fell, the restaurant was a warm place of coffee and chili beans and pie.

In the deep spring when the grass was green on fields and foothills, when the lupines and poppies made a splendid blue and gold earth, when the great trees awakened in yellow-green young leaves, then there was no more lovely place in the world. It was no beauty you could ignore by being used to it. It caught you in the throat in the morning and made a pain of pleasure in the pit of your stomach when the sun went down over it. The sweet smell of the lupines and of the grass set you breathing nervously, set you panting almost sexually. And it was in this season of flowering and growth, though it was still before daylight, that Juan Chicoy came out to the bus carrying an electric lantern. Pimples Carson, his apprentice-mechanic, stumbled sleepily behind him.

The lunchroom windows were still dark. Against the eastern hills not even a grayness had begun to form. It was so much night that the owls were still shrieking over the fields. Juan Chicoy came near to the bus which stood in front of the garage. It looked, in the light of the lantern, like a large, silver-windowed balloon. Pimples Carson, still not really awake, stood with his hands in his pockets, shivering, not because it was cold but because he was very sleepy.

A little wind blew in over the fields and brought the smell of lupine and the smell of a quickening earth, frantic with production.

The glimpse into the period and the lives of the characters in that period: lower middle-class, working class, businessmen, women who are independent or seeking to be so, Hispanics. It’s illuminating.

This paragraph, describing the thoughts of a family of three (parents and adult daughter) on the bus on their way to catch a plane for a vacation to Mexico:

Her body and her mind were sluggish and lazy, and deep down she fought a tired envy of the people who, so she thought, experienced good things while she went through life a gray cloud in a gray room. Having few actual perceptions, she lived by rules. Education is good. Self-control is necessary. Everything in its time and place. Travel is broadening. And it was this last axiom which had forced her finally on the vacation to Mexico.

How she reached her conclusions not even she knew. It was a long, slow process built up of hints, suggestions, accidents, thousands of them, until finally, in their numbers, they forced the issue. The truth was that she didn’t want to go to Mexico. She just wanted to come back to her friends having been to Mexico. Her husband didn’t want to go at all. He was doing it for his family and because he hoped it would do him good in a cultural way. And Mildred wanted to go, but not with her parents. She wanted to meet new and strange people and through such contacts to become new and strange herself. Mildred felt that she had great covered wells of emotion in her, and she probably had. Nearly everyone has.

She just wanted to come back to her friends having been to Mexico. Perfect.

Glimpses of religious faith. There’s not much, but par for the course, what there is – is Catholic.

And another. It was evening and a shining horse was rubbing his lovely neck on a fence and the quail were calling and there was a sound of dropping water somewhere. His breath came short with excitement just remembering it.

And another. He rode in an old cart with a girl cousin. She was older than he–he couldn’t remember what she looked like. The horse shied at a piece of paper and she fell against him, and to right herself she put out her hand and touched his leg, and delight bloomed in his stomach and his brain ached with delight.

And another. Standing at midnight in a great, dim cathedral with a sharp, barbaric smell of copal smarting his nose. He held a skinny little candle with a white silk bow tied about it halfway up. And like a dream, the sweet murmur of the mass came from far away at the high altar and the drowsy loveliness drew down over him.

Juan’s muscles relaxed and he slept in the straw of the deserted barn. And the timid mice sensed his sleep and came out from under the straw and played busily and the rain whispered quietly on the barn roof.

Finally.

They made a movie of The Wayward Bus. I took a quick look via the Internet Archive. It stars, among others, Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield. It did not get good reviews and my quick run-through confirms it’s mostly terrible.

Shocking, I know, considering the poster.

But it prompted me to think, one more time, about the difference between print and film.

How many times have you read a book and then felt, Oh, I’d love to see these characters brought to life….and then…

…sometimes been pleased and satisfied…

…been disappointed?

It seems as if the print-to-film bridge is more successful with children’s literature than adult’s. Well, at least non-genre adults.

I wasn’t expecting to find a film adaptation of The Wayward Bus to meet any expectations, but it was startling to see how far off it was and how the plot and character dynamics were changed with, even just with my quick look, the result being a flattening and draining of nuance.

The point?

The imaginative reach of a very good writer doing middling work is, for me, more powerful than almost any screen adaptation.

The Wayward Bus wasn’t great literature, but even with its shortcomings, it was absorbing, and in the midst of the words, I had the freedom to imagine and to engage, and the images, sounds and human tensions Steinbeck’s words brought to life in my brain were far more expansive and interesting than the flat and formulaic images and situations in the film, the caricatures that weren’t even close to being real people.

I suppose that is why, when it comes to film and television, I respond far more strongly that original concepts that aren’t based on literature.

For me, books have always been a gift of freedom. The freedom to imagine, to engage, to explore.

But then, I have to say, even as a child, there was a desire to see these characters and situations “in real life.” I recall at times wondering if that could possibly be a part of the afterlife: you’d be there, your friends and family would be there, but then so would the Borrowers and Fawn, Charlotte and Wilbur, and Stuart Little and Harriet the Spy?

So no, I don’t condemn the attempt to translate page to screen, to see beloved or reviled fictional characters in the flesh, but the truth seems to be that with some exceptions, the less tied the film adaptation is to the original source, the better it is as a discrete work.

I say that, based on nothing, mind you.

The Costumes of Gone With the Wind: Scarlett O'Hara's Curtain Dress
Scarlett says “Fiddle-dee-dee” to my ramblings.

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My Mortal Enemy

Willa Cather is so interesting. Baptized and confirmed an Episcopalian, nonetheless, when religion featured in her novels, it always seems to be Roman Catholicism. And I’m not even just talking about Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. It seems as if every Cather work I read has a Catholic element woven into it, and usually as a positive force.

I read this piece from Ralph McInerny, but it really didn’t help explain. Yes, Cather grew up knowing Catholic immigrants, whose faith evidently impressed her, and maintained important friendships with Catholics, including clerics, through her life.

In the case of Death Comes for the Archbishop, we have a bit of an explanation in a letter Cather wrote to Commonweal, which you can read here. She begins, it seems, with a place and an experience – and in the many years spent in her beloved Southwest, as she says, the stories of the missions had a profound impact.

Catholicism is not the center of My Mortal Enemy, but then, perhaps it is.

It’s the story of a whirlwind romance, a forbidden marriage, disillusionment, disappointment and reality. It’s very focused, told from the perspective of, at the beginning, a teenaged girl who lived in the town in which this marriage began, heard the legends, and then got to know the protagonists during a holiday in New York City and much later in life, in San Francisco.

My Mortal Enemy is an interesting, even absorbing read, and, as I said, it’s a novella, so depending on your reading speed, you could gulp it down in anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.

It’s essentially about appearances and reality, fantasy and truth. And a sober corrective to the myth of happily ever after I suppose.

Here’s a really interesting article on the possible, perhaps even probable origins of the story in the lives of people Cather knew. Interesting, not for the events themselves, but for insight in how Cather turned the facts of other people’s lives into fiction.

But what I want to focus on is the Catholic part.

Myra, the woman who married against her great-uncle’s will, had a somewhat Catholic background, and in fact upon her elopement, her great-uncle disinherited her and directed what would have been hers to a Catholic religious order, and his mansion was turned over to them after his death as well.

When I was older I used to walk around the Driscoll place alone very often, especially on spring days, after school, and watch the nuns pacing so mildly and measuredly among the blossoming trees where Myra used to give garden-parties and have the band to play for her. I thought of the place as being under a spell, like the Sleeping Beauty’s palace; it had been in a trance, or lain in its flowers like a beautiful corpse, ever since that winter night when Love went out of the gates and gave the dare to Fate. Since then, chanting and devotions and discipline, and the tinkle of little bells that seemed forever calling the Sisters in to prayers.

I knew that this was not literally true; old John Driscoll had lived on there for many years after the flight of his niece. I myself could remember his funeral–remember it very vividly–though I was not more than six years old when it happened. I sat with my parents in the front of the gallery, at the back of the church that the old man had enlarged and enriched during the latter days of his life. The high altar blazed with hundreds of candles, the choir was entirely filled by the masses of flowers. The bishop was there, and a flock of priests in gorgeous vestments. When the pall-bearers arrived, Driscoll did not come to the church; the church went to him. The bishop and clergy went down the nave and met that great black coffin at the door, preceded by the cross and boys swinging cloudy censers, followed by the choir chanting to the organ. They surrounded, they received, they seemed to assimilate into the body of the church, the body of old John Driscoll. They bore it up to the high altar on a river of colour and incense and organ-tone; they claimed it and enclosed it.

In after years, when I went to other funerals, stark and grim enough, I thought of John Driscoll as having escaped the end of all flesh; it was as if he had been translated, with no dark conclusion to the pageant, no “night of the grave” about which our Protestant preachers talked. From the freshness of roses and lilies, from the glory of the high altar, he had gone straight to the greater glory, through smoking censers and candles and stars.

Myra turns her back on all of this until the end of her life, when our protagonist encounters her again out west. Still married, but not exactly happily, and in terrible health, Myra is essentially an invalid. In that state, she has turned back to the Church.

Father Fay came to see her almost daily now. His visits were long, and she looked forward to them. I was, of course, not in her room when he was there, but if he met me in the corridor he stopped to speak to me, and once he walked down the street with me talking of her. He was a young man, with a fresh face and pleasant eyes, and he was deeply interested in Myra. “She’s a most unusual woman, Mrs. Henshawe,” he said when he was walking down the street beside me.

Then he added, smiling quite boyishly: “I wonder whether some of the saints of the early Church weren’t a good deal like her. She’s not at all modern in her make-up, is she?”

During those days and nights when she talked so little, one felt that Myra’s mind was busy all the while–that it was even abnormally active, and occasionally one got a clue to what occupied it. One night when I was giving her her codeine she asked me a question.

“Why is it, do you suppose, Nellie, that candles are in themselves religious? Not when they are covered by shades, of course–I mean the flame of a candle. Is it because the Church began in the catacombs, perhaps?”

At another time, when she had been lying like a marble figure for a long while, she said in a gentle, reasonable voice:

“Ah, Father Fay, that isn’t the reason! Religion is different from everything else; because in religion seeking is finding.”

She accented the word “seeking” very strongly, very deeply. She seemed to say that in other searchings it might be the object of the quest that brought satisfaction, or it might be something incidental that one got on the way; but in religion, desire was fulfilment, it was the seeking itself that rewarded.

Isn’t it interesting what we can find in old books, in words written so long ago. We say “it was a different world.” But was it, really?

Last point, and this means nothing to those of you who haven’t read it, which I assume is all of you.

The title of the book is My Mortal Enemy – and it’s generally understood, it seems to me, to refer to Myra’s husband (who seems to have cheated on her in the past, but is a faithful support to her in her last days.) – as she exclaims….

The sick woman began to talk to herself, scarcely above a whisper, but with perfect distinctness; a voice that was hardly more than a soft, passionate breath. I seemed to hear a soul talking.

“I could bear to suffer . . . so many have suffered. But why must it be like this? I have not deserved it. I have been true in friendship; I have faithfully nursed others in sickness. . . . Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?”

Oswald was sitting on the sofa, his face shaded by his hand. I looked at him in affright, but he did not move or shudder. I felt my hands grow cold and my forehead grow moist with dread. I had never heard a human voice utter such a terrible judgment upon all one hopes for. As I sat on through the night, after Oswald had gone to catch a few hours of sleep, I grew calmer; I began to understand a little what she meant, to sense how it was with her. Violent natures like hers sometimes turn against themselves . . . against themselves and all their idolatries.

As I said, the assumption is that she’s talking about her husband, but I wonder. My instinct hinted that “my mortal enemy” is not Oswald, but herself, even on a subconscious level – that this is Cather’s intention. Myra can’t let go of her accusatory stance towards her husband, but under that, there’s an intuition that her worst enemy – the one who had the most power to kill her spirit all along has been no one but herself.

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I read this book over the last couple of days.

One hates to use the word “enjoy” for a book like this because of the topic, but somehow “appreciate” doesn’t quite get there either.

It’s an excellent deep dive into the role of female slaveholders in the South. I learned a lot. Summary:

Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, this book makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery. Historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers draws on a variety of sources to show that slave‑owning women were sophisticated economic actors who directly engaged in and benefited from the South’s slave market. Because women typically inherited more slaves than land, enslaved people were often their primary source of wealth. Not only did white women often refuse to cede ownership of their slaves to their husbands, they employed management techniques that were as effective and brutal as those used by slave‑owning men. White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment. By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave‑owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.

General backstory:

First and second-wave feminism, both popular and academic, has generally positioned women as victims and as morally superior to patriarchy, etc. More recent academic trends push back against that, mostly because of the work of people of color who look back at history and see, for example, deep racism and anti-immigrant motivations in the 19th century American women’s movement.

This is the context here: the image of southern white women as somehow fundamentally disengaged from and not responsible for the slave economy or gentle souls who smoothed out the rough edges of their men’s treatment of enslaved people.

Jones-Rogers is here to challenge that, and she does so very ably, and in the process points out the complexities of history and the past.

So, for example, we can look at the antebellum South and see “progress” in the economic position of women as we see women fighting to maintain their economic independence, even in the context of marriage, as they do their utmost, including going to court, to maintain the control of the property they’ve brought into a marriage or inherited from their own families.

Go! Ladies! Claim those rights!

But…that property was quite often, and predominantly human chattel.

Oh.

I point this out as a reminder that the ties that bind us socially, economically and politically are anything but simple and are always, always, morally nuanced and more often than not impure and compromised.

Past and present.

None of us are saints. None of our movements are pure. None of our “progress” comes without someone else, somewhere, paying a price.

I appreciated Jones-Rogers’ work here – and am interested that her next project focuses on women’s involvement in the slave trade – because I am up for anything that shakes the mythos that women are inherently kinder and more fair than men, and that “if women ran the world…..”

Yeah.

Watch Yellowjackets and contemplate its popularity to see how much people actually buy that claptrap.

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“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move.”

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I spent a few hours reading Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence.

There’s a “copy” on Gutenburg here which reproduces the illustrations from the original edition, and they are marvelous. I’d pay good money for those, I’ll tell you what.

Summary:

Sea and Sardinia is a travel book by the English writer D. H. Lawrence. It describes a brief excursion undertaken in January 1921 by Lawrence and his wife Frieda, a. k. a. Queen Bee, from Taormina in Sicily to the interior of Sardinia. They visited Cagliari, Mandas, Sorgono, and Nuoro. His visit to Nuoro was a kind of homage to Grazia Deledda but involved no personal encounter. Despite the brevity of his visit, Lawrence distils an essence of the island and its people that is still recognisable today. Extracts were originally printed in The Dial during October and November 1921 and the book was first published in New York, USA in 1921 by Thomas Seltzer, with illustrations by Jan Juta.

“Brief” is right – I could go back and count, but it seems to me they spent about four days – most of them in transit, either by boat, train or bus.

If you want a wonderfully-written take on the book, go to this NYTimes piece by Richard Cohen, in which he describes his and his wife’s attempt to retrace the Lawrence’s steps.

After a few days, there being “little to see” in Cagliari, the Lawrences moved north to Mandas on the interior railway, the Trenino Verde, a toylike affair that “pelts up hill and down dale … like a panting, small dog.” Alas, that train no longer operates in the off-season, so we rented a car, a betrayal of Lawrentian values — namely hunger, bad light, and sharing space with people who annoy you.

As I said, most of the Lawrence’s time on this trip is spent traveling. And yes, annoyed. They spend all day on a train or a bus, arrive at nightfall to a new place that seems, from afar, to be enticing and picturesque, but which they (at least DHL) find to be dreary with only horrendous food on the offer. (I was entertained by the fact that Lawrence describes each dreadful meal in detail, but the one good meal he has, he doesn’t tell us about, except to say it was excellent. It seems to me there’s a personality trait embedded there.)

Get up the next morning, find the next train.

So in that sense, it’s an odd travel book.  But because it’s Lawrence, it’s also quite fine. No, he won’t be telling me about the history and specifics of various sites, but he will have keenly observed every person on the train or in the dim dining room, and he scorns seeing the sites anyway. He is riding about, experiencing things, watching people, absorbing the landscape, and in the context of the crowded bus or raucous Epiphany celebration, working out other ideas, mostly here, about England, masculinity and modernity.

A hundred years ago, Lawrence was ill at ease with the homogenization of modernity. What he would say about the contemporary homogeneity-masquerading-as-diversity of the present day, I couldn’t imagine. And yes, it’s romanticized, even as he comes up against the harshness of life in Sardinia and Sicily. But I’ll end this post with a few relevant quotes and follow it up with a post bouncing something Lawrence says up against (surprise) liturgy.

The khaki to which he refers is the military issue from World War I that, of course, still formed a foundation of the now-civilian wardrobe.

Sometimes, in the distance one sees a black-and-white peasant riding lonely across a more open place, a tiny vivid figure. I like so much the proud instinct which makes a living creature distinguish itself from its background. I hate the rabbity khaki protection-colouration. A black-and-white peasant on his pony, only a dot in the distance beyond the foliage, still flashes and dominates the landscape. Ha-ha! proud mankind! There you ride! But alas, most of the men are still khaki-muffled, rabbit-indistinguishable, ignominious. The Italians look curiously rabbity in the grey-green uniform: just as our sand-colored khaki men look doggy. They seem to scuffle rather abased, ignominious on the earth. Give us back the scarlet and gold, and devil take the hindmost.


They talk and are very lively. And they have mediaeval faces, rusé, never really abandoning their defences for a moment, as a badger or a pole-cat never abandons its defences. There is none of the brotherliness and civilised simplicity. Each man knows he must guard himself and his own: each man knows the devil is behind the next bush. They have never known the post-Renaissance Jesus. Which is rather an eye-opener.

Not that they are suspicious or uneasy. On the contrary, noisy, assertive, vigorous presences. But with none of that implicit belief that everybody will be and ought to be good to them, which is the mark of our era. They don’t expect people to be good to them: they don’t want it. They remind me of half-wild dogs that will love and obey, but which won’t be handled. They won’t have their heads touched. And they won’t be fondled. One can almost hear the half-savage growl.


For myself, I am glad. I am glad that the era of love and oneness is over: hateful homogeneous world-oneness. I am glad that Russia flies back into savage Russianism, Scythism, savagely self-pivoting. I am glad that America is doing the same. I shall be glad when men hate their common, world-alike clothes, when they tear them up and clothe themselves fiercely for distinction, savage distinction, savage distinction against the rest of the creeping world: when America kicks the billy-cock and the collar-and-tie into limbo, and takes to her own national costume: when men fiercely react against looking all alike and being all alike, and betake themselves into vivid clan or nation-distinctions.

The era of love and oneness is over. The era of world-alike should be at an end. The other tide has set in. Men will set their bonnets at one another now, and fight themselves into separation and sharp distinction. The day of peace and oneness is over, the day of the great fight into multifariousness is at hand. Hasten the day, and save us from proletarian homogeneity and khaki all-alikeness.


I love my indomitable coarse men from mountain Sardinia, for their stocking-caps and their splendid, animal-bright stupidity. If only the last wave of all-alikeness won’t wash those superb crests, those caps, away.

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